British artist revisits Nasa's alien view of Earth

When Nasa dispatched the Voyager II space probe more than a quarter of a century ago, it contained dozens of photographs depicting life on Earth to educate extraterrestrials about our planet.

Starting today in a gallery in Peckham, south London, visitors can see what the aliens were offered as the artist Steve McQueen presents the same array of images in a striking artwork entitled Once Upon A Time. The sequence includes a newborn baby, mountains - as recorded by the great American photographer Ansel Adams - and supermarkets packed with food. But there is no war, poverty or disease.

The project began when McQueen, a Turner Prize winner and Britain's official war artist for the Iraq conflict, set out to track down the Nasa scientists who selected the photographs, spurred on by childhood memories of the 1977 space mission. Nearly 120 images were originally selected from sources including books on the birds of America and the history of toys by a team which included the scientist and television presenter Carl Sagan.

Working closely with William J Clancey, a Nasa researcher and adviser to the Seti (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) laboratory, McQueen was able to find and buy the rights to the entire sequence, which was still in the hands of another scientist, Frank Drake.

In 1977 they were encoded from picture form into sound to be stored on a record which was sent into space with a player and instructions on use to anyone - or anything - who seized or acquired the Voyager II probe. But more than 20 years later, the original slides were in poor condition so McQueen brought them to Britain to work on restoring the colour. He then created the installation in a curious evocation of life as the Americans wished to portray it.

Speaking at the South London Gallery yesterday, Mr McQueen, 34, said the selection had its absurdities yet seemed fundamentally "true". "For me, this isn't about aliens or extra-terrestrials or other things in space, I think the images can represent humanity. I think there's a gravity to it," he said.

Jon Lomberg, another of the scientists involved, said in 1977 they decided to omit war and poverty because: "We felt that we were making something that would survive us and our time - something that might be the only token of Earth the universe would have."

While the Americans sent whale songs and Beethoven into space, the soundtrack to McQueen's installation is of different voices "speaking in tongues" - a phenomenon known as "glossolalia" and mostly associated with evangelical Christians. The examples used by McQueen came from the archive of William J Samarin, a Canadian linguist.

The installation Steve McQueen: Once Upon A Time is at the South London Gallery in Peckham until 7 November. Entry is free

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