In 1972 and 1973 two Pioneer probes were launched by NASA, each bearing a gold-anodized aluminum plaque featuring a number of pictorial representations: an outline of the male and female form, and other images providing information about the origin of each of the spacecraft.  These two objects were destined to leave the solar system after having performed specific plantetary fl-bys and become the farthest man-made objects in the universe.

Later that decade, in 1977, both of the Voyager probes had similar appendages – adding a third and fourth artifact from the human race to the number heading out into the stars – but this time a gold-plated phonograph (record) was added: each bore images, and audio sampled both from the natural world and from contemporary culture.  A stylus and a diagram showing how playback is to be performed are also included.

Interestingly, both audio and audio-visual modes of representation within the past 30 years far outpace and exhaust their underlying retention and rendering hardware technology: very few households would have the physical ability to playback the Voyager Gold Disc; yet most people can decipher one or more elements of the Pioneer plaque.

The decision by Carl Sagan and the other NASA committee members to attach a plaquecontaining pictorial representations of the fundamentals of human existence accords with the Rose (2007) reading, whereby the ocular-centrism of contemporary (and scientific) culture meant that only later would a similar audio (and visual) follow in the wake of the Pioneer probes.

This is the ‘message in a bottle’ approach to potential extra-terrestrial civilizations in the far flung future.  But – and the focus of the poem ‘Translunar Spacemarch, 1972’ by the recently-departed Scots poet, Edwin Morgan – visuality (scopic regime) is clearly evident in the interpretation of male and female form on the Pioneer plaques.

In Rose (2007, p. 7) it is the “principles of inclusion and exclusion” (Fyfe and Law cited in Rose 2007) that are engaged when considering the compositional modalities.  Reading from left to right, the male is slightly foregrounded – possibly occupying the power in this relationship – and is of a generic European ethnicity: no African American, Chinese or other ethnic traits are visible.  The woman is depicted in a slightly deferential pose – her gaze deprecating to the ‘powerful’ male to her left, hand raised in a formal ‘peaceful’ greeting.

If these plaques were discovered by intelligence(s) beyond the stars, the male-female (and other) images upon the plaques are read without any additional information about the context(s) from which the image(s) was produced: was the format of material (i.e. gold) commonly used in all forms of communication? Did this (our) species only use images in communication?

Will future deployments of artifacts favour the initial intentions of the visual-focused Pioneer committee or would an audio-visual approach be taken?

What about the other senses – should we be sending scents hermetically-sealed tasting jars? A variety of different textured materials…?


Rose, Gillian (2007) Researching visual materials: towards a critical visual methodology, chapter 1 of Visual methodologies: an introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London: Sage. pp.1-27.


7 Comments so far

  1.    Jeremy Knox on October 13, 2010 10:42 am

    Hi Hugh, some comments on your Prezi.

    I liked the contrast of tool use over time. The cave paintings and horn (and ? flutes) might have been used in conjunction for a multi-sensory experience – who says the multi-modal is something new?

    I really like the inclusion of the Voyager pioneer plaque, and the gold record, as they symbolise our culture as a sensory one. (And an interesting cross-over here with Noreen’s artefact, which discusses self perception, particularly how others to see us) The Voyager objects define us as multi-modal creatures, and of course the omission of text is very telling. Can we ‘read’ these images as a comment on the inability of language to express who we truly are? (…I think we should have sent a copy of Ulysses as well)

    It is also interesting that you have tagged the ‘textless’ Voyager images as ‘Future’. In fact, the sequence goes from images (cave paintings), to a combination if visuals and text (smart phones), and back to pure to visuals (the pioneer plaque). An interpretation might be that text occupies a fleeting moment in our history.

    On a bit tangent, was the choice to gold-plate the disc anything more than scientific? Does gold not have a tradition of being sacrificed to the gods? This would bring us full circle, back to the cave paintings!

  2.    Michael Sean Gallagher on October 13, 2010 12:00 pm

    Hello there Hugh and Jeremy,

    I, too, have been intrigued for years on the Voyager Pioneer Plaque/Record (I also love the fact that Carl Sagan constructed the message).

    The concept of this plaque holds real resonance in digital culture and offers an interesting metaphor for legacy in an ephemeral world. The fleetingness of interaction, communication online and the one constant being flux. A constant mediation between information, people, and meaning. A probe shot into space ready to interact with anything willing to interact with it. A record of our legacy in sensory form (Well put, Jeremy). An attempt to present our legacy in terms of sight and sound as opposed to merely text (the channel most idiosyncratic to our culture; least likely to be understood by others).

    The list of music runs the gamut from indigenous cultures (natural, organic) to classical (highly complex, sophisticated). It makes one think we were intentionally trying to project a comprehensive view of our culture on that record.

    On a side note, I love Steve Martin’s joke about the Voyager record: the first message from extraterrestrials was being received. Once decoded, the message stated, “Send more Chuck Berry.”

  3.    Michael Sean Gallagher on October 13, 2010 12:05 pm

    Sorry for all the posts regarding this, but this was so poignant to me regarding the creation of the Voyager record. From Wikipedia (via Nelson, Stephanie; Polansky, Larry (November 1993). “The Music of the Voyager Interstellar Record”, Journal of Applied Communication Research, p. 358–375.) :

    “In 1977 Carl Sagan and a team of researchers were tasked with collecting a representation of Earth and the human experience for sending on the Voyager probe to other life forms in the universe. They collected sounds of frogs, crickets, volcanoes, a human heartbeat, laughter, greetings in 55 languages, and 27 pieces of music on the Voyager Golden Record. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” (by Blind Willie Johnson) was included, according to Sagan, because “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.”[2] A metaphor for digital culture? Connectedness as shelter?

  4.    Hugh on October 13, 2010 9:06 pm

    Superb comments and insightful observations. Yes, as we reduce the amount of analogue signals sweeping out from Earth and towards the stars I wonder if we’ll ever send – if we have to – artefacts that augment what we did with the Pioneer and Voyager probes…

  5.    Mark Garratt on October 16, 2010 11:26 am

    As with Michael, I really enjoy the concept of our interstellar “message in a bottle”, and of how the imagery and sounds that have been enclosed would be interpreted. Underlying the whole thing, I feel, is a large amount of egocentricity on our behalf. Almost all of our representations of extra-terrestrial life follow a mammalian layout in terms of limbs, face, sensory perceptions and even problem-solving capabilities. It is as though human-kind expects that an alien life form could almost be invited to a formal dinner party – and apart from perhaps being shown which piece of cutlery is the fish knife (well, they are aliens dear) – and know the rules of etiquette.
    On a slightly narrower scale, I think that elements of this egocentricity are highlighted within some of the core readings that we have explored, in terms of the dominance of visual culture, and expected literary conventions.

    I also enjoyed your observations about the bias within the imagery, and I do wonder whether we would have been as well to include your images of the “past” within the Voyager satellite. Indeed, although the cave paintings, and carvings are less likely to have an accurate interstellar chart reference, the message would not be all that dissimilar in terms of what we look like, what we like doing, and what we can create (even the left-to-right reading convention is seemingly included within the cave painting).

  6.    Alison Johnson on October 19, 2010 9:50 am

    Hi Hugh,

    great animation – Making machines seem human was certainly a theme we encountered in our studies and the fact you tried to embed human sort of mannerism (as you discuss above) makes me think about the discussions we had over the death of HAL and the emoticons of GERTIE.

    Also for some reason made me think of those SMASH adverts – do you remember them?


  7.    Sharon Boyd on October 20, 2010 6:27 pm

    Hugh, this was great – and I too love the inclusion of the record/plaque and how our way of expressing ourselves through images/pictograms has changed little over time.

    It also ties in with Mark’s cave painting – the battle we spoke about in Group 2 seems to have a new challenger :)

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