Lexicon

Forensic Futures | Susan Schuppli

Listen to Kurt Waldheim’s greeting to the universe.

In 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 began their journey towards the outer regions of our solar system. Aside from its onboard computers, scientific instruments, radio transmitter, and booster rockets, each spacecraft was unusually equipped with a gold-coated copper phonograph record fastened to its exterior hull; an intergalactic time capsule and ‘greeting to the universe’. These two disks were incised with images and audio files intended to communicate man’s collective achievements on Earth to possible extraterrestrial civilizations. Each disk consists of 118 photographs, schematic drawings, music, ambient sound, messages as well as detailed location maps and diagrams pinpointing the earth’s position within our galaxy. In addition, the records contain greetings spoken in more than 60 languages, including the high-pitched sonic communication of whales. The disks are also encrypted with a pictograph of a man extending his arm in what is apparently a gesture of welcome, encouraging alien visitation to our solar system and planet. Conceived as an interstellar salutation to the universe, these golden emissaries have now passed the remote planet of Uranus (1986), have left our solar system and are moving into deep-space where another 60,000 years will lapse before either of the Voyager spacecraft will come close to another star. Given the relatively slow rate of movement by these two Voyager spacecraft, the organization and exact location of stars in our solar vicinity will have shifted, making it difficult to chart a course towards any point some 60,000+ years into the future. Unimpeded in their journey, there is a ‘near certainty that neither Voyager will ever plunge into the planet-rich interior of another solar system’. The Voyagers’ scientific missions have now been completed, and the one last firing of their onboard rocket propulsion system has successfully redirected the spacecraft towards their encounter with destiny. Long after their transmitters have died, far beyond the heliopause, in the far distant future these two phonograph records will continue to move through space, propelled by the gravitational forces of passing matter and energetic force fields.

As project manager, astronomer and writer Carl Sagan, assembled a team of scientists, astronomers, engineers as well as musicologists and artists to develop the Voyager time capsules. He likened the Voyager records to a message in a bottle, thrown into the slipstream of the universe to be retrieved by some beachcombing cosmonaut thousands of years hence. Although the desire to tele-communicate through time and space has a long history that can be traced back to the Greek oracles and the tradition of remote-controlled speech, the notion of other-worldly communiqués is also an ontological question of how one might conceive of materiality in a far distant future that is scripted almost entirely within the speculative register of the scientific imaginary.

In 2035, the US Department of Energy will seal it first radioactive waste site, a hole burrowed deep within the desert landscape of New Mexico, which since 1999 it has been filling with nuclear waste. Given the 10,000 yearlong shelf life of radioactive waste, a problem arises: how to alert future inhabitants to the implicit dangers of the physical site. Unlike the invitation offered by Voyager to come and visit, the nuclear waste site must refuse any overtures to hospitality. In her video “O Superman” (1979), performance artist Laurie Anderson raises her hand in a waving motion that refers to the image of the hand raised in greeting that was etched onto the plaques of the Pioneer spacecrafts (a precursor to the Voyageur discs). Anderson used this image to signify the ambiguity of communication: “in our country, good-bye looks just like hello.” What informatic system will maintain its legibility through an extended time-scale so that a communiqué sent in 2035 will still maintain its material integrity and semiotic coherency 10,000 years into the future? What storage format will these images and messages take to ensure their longevity? What machines or technologies will be necessary to decrypt these images and signs? These are questions that are implicitly raised by the Voyager records but which resonate much more urgently in relationship to a discussion of the storage of nuclear waste. Peter C. Van Wyck in his text detailing the attempts to develop a universal system of signage for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico makes the important point that: “It is a singular meeting of the material and semiotic. And it is an enormous wager that hinges upon making the waste safe—through burial—then making it dangerous again through signification.”[1]

Van Wyck contends that the sign pointing to the dangers of the nuclear cavity marks a history of the “not yet”, a primal accident lying in subterranean wait, but it is in fact a history of a material past that has already happened. The greater calamity is that of its toxic materiality merely slipping into the discursive domain of the semiotic. Likewise, what if years of cosmic bombardment have by now irrevocably damaged the Voyager record, have incised new grooves into its surface and scripted other narrative trajectories? The two Voyager records are not static missives channelled from the past to the future, but are rather contingent archives chronicling the passing of time. They are archives of the future-past whose decryption requires, not a forensics of recovery by an investigator who can reverse engineer the history etched within its golden grooves, but an intergalactic DJ whose forensic spinning acknowledges the material forces — the pummelling of micrometeorites or comet debris — that have already  radically remixed our history.

Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures


[1] Van Wyck, Peter C. Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma, and Nuclear Threat. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. xvi.