warehouse warehouse

How to talk to aliens? and other questions on social imaginaries of now and then

by Danae Theodoridou
Photo by Y. Onisiforu

‘Greetings to you, whoever you are. We come in friendship to those who are friends.’

 

‘Greetings to our friends in the stars. May time bring us together.’

 

‘To all those who exist in the universe, greetings.’

 

‘How’s everyone? We all very much wish to meet you, if you’re free please come and visit.’

 

‘Greetings from a human being of the Earth. Please contact.’

 

‘We are sending greetings from our world, wishing you happiness, health and many years.’

 

‘Greetings to the residents of far skies.’

 

‘Greetings to the inhabitants of the universe from the third planet Earth of the star Sun.’

 

‘Greetings. The people of the Earth send their good wishes and hope you find good fortune in this life.’

 

‘Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.’

 

‘Hello to everyone. We are happy here and you be happy there.’

 

‘We strive to live in peace with the peoples of the whole world, of the whole cosmos.’

 

‘Hello from the children of planet Earth.’ 1


Fußnoten

  1. Greetings from the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space by NASA in 1977. For the complete archive, see: http://goldenrecord.org

  2. More on the Pioneer Plaque here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque

  3. All descriptions refer to the performance ‘One Small Step for a Man: Hello, Goodbye’, which premiered in March 2016 in Michael Cacoyannis Foundation in Athens.

  4. Dunne, A. and Raby, F. Speculative Everything. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013.

  5. Castoriadis, C. The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987.

  6. quotes of ‘One Small Step for a Man: Hello, Goodbye’.

In 1977 NASA launches a message from Earth into space, in case this is found by extraterrestrial beings. The Voyager Golden Record. The message includes images and sounds from life on Earth, greetings in 55 languages and a series of music pieces from all over the world.

The Voyager Interstellar Record

A statement from the president of the United States also accompanies this message:

‘This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization. We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some–perhaps many–may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.’

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

Some years earlier, the drawing of a naked man and woman, the Pioneer Plaque was also sent into space. 2

The illustration on the Pioneer plaque; Vectors by Oona Räisänen; designed by Carl Sagan & Frank Drake; artwork by Linda Salzman Sagan - Vectorized in CorelDRAW from NASA image

The creators of the Voyager Golden Record have clearly stated that there is only a tiny chance that this will ever be seen by an extraterrestrial but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function therefore is to appeal and expand the human spirit. The task pursued for the creation of Voyager Golden Record has been described as follows: ‘Describe the world – its place in space, its diverse biota, its wide-ranging cultures with their lifestyles, arts and technologies – everything or at least enough to get the idea across… Oh, there’s one stipulation: assume not only that your audience doesn’t speak your language, but that it has never even heard of the Earth or the rest of the solar system. An audience that lives, say, on a planet orbiting another star, light-years away from anything you would recognize as home.’

What if one took this task as a starting point again for the creation of a similar message from life on Earth, this time a live instead of a recorded one?

How could one describe the world in a similar way today?

How can one reproduce an imaginary of the past in order to be able to imagine in the present?

How could a past dream once more ‘appeal and expand the human spirit’, especially in relation to collective dreaming and imagining?

How can we co-imagine not in the 1970s but in the beginning of the 21st century?

How can we dream together not in the time of the great fascination of humanity with space or the time of the sexual revolution and the other social imaginaries that emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, but in 2015 when public sphere and what we have in common gradually disappears and is under constant threat?

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

Imagine the naked man and woman of NASA standing in front of you. 3 Imagine them trying to re-narrate, in their own way, the story of life on Earth as this is found in the Voyager Golden Record, a clearly Western-based linear narration of our life that departs from the planet’s place in universe and human biology to then move to animals, nature, human races, the way our social life is organized in cities, families, schools etc.

Imagine a naked man and woman as a live message from Earth today. Imagine them around a large dinner table, served with drinks, desserts and the images from Earth sent into space in 1977. Imagine them talking about how we walk, run, eat, drink, relate, as if their guests never heard of these before. Imagine them in a typical gesture of human hospitality, greeting their guests continuously by using the original archive’s greetings or by pointing to small details in the pictures on the table.

Imagine this peculiar community of naked and dressed human beings attempting to reproduce a social imaginary from a time when shared imaginaries where much more vivid and perhaps also much more irrational in order to understand how such imaginaries could possibly also emerge now.

What if NASA’s message managed to reach extraterrestrials?

What if this message was not just phonograph records but a live performance of human beings?

What if terrestrials would indeed meet (extra)terrestrials in person?

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

And then imagine this awkward encounter being interrupted repeatedly by the statement of the president of USA, a reminder of humanity’s voice still travelling in space since 1977.

How does a peculiar dinner of two naked and several dressed humans relate to critical voices of our time?

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

Dunne and Raby say that today we experience a serious crisis of imagination. 4 Our social imaginaries have been downgraded to hopes. We hope that everything will be alright, but there are no more visions. We don’t know how to dream collectively about changing things, we are just hopeful. This has been the price we had to pay especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the triumph of capitalism, the atomization of society, and the frustration that followed the decay of the great dreams of the 20st century. All these, they say, make political and social speculation today more difficult and less likely. Anything that does not align with the dominant thinking lines of neoliberal thought is dismissed as something not to be taken seriously, as ‘unreal’ or fantasy. Today the ‘real’ expanded and swallowed up whole continents of social imagination.

Frederik Jameson argues that it is now easier for us to imagine the end of Earth being hit by a comet than imagine an alternative to capitalism.

Cornelius Castoriadis reminds us that what is presented as extreme rationality in modern society is simply dominant syllogisms that borrow their content from the imaginary. 5 Today’s obsession with ‘rationality’ is only a second-order imaginary, a pseudo-rationality that arbitrarily posits itself as an end intending nothing but a formal and empty ‘rationalization’. This is visibly so, for example, when we look at the place of individuals at all the levels of the productive and economic structure. In the case of the worker, the employee or even the ‘executive’, replacing a person by an ensemble of partial features and treating a person as a thing or as a purely mechanical system and evaluating him or her in this way, as we see it often happening in the various evaluation tests used by companies today, is not less but more imaginary than claiming to see a person as an octopus for example. In fact, an octopus may resemble much more a human than a mechanical operation does, since they are both animals.

How would a city built by humans and octopuses look like?

How to (co-)imagine other ways of living together in a time that leaves no space for imagination and has often been described as the time of ‘no alternative’?

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

Photo by Y. Onisiforu

‘Greetings from the red of the shirt of a young athlete running in the Olympics in Munich 1972.’

‘Greetings from the green of the skin of a little frog.’

‘Greetings from the black of the sweater of a little student in South Korea.’

‘Greetings from the white of the teeth of a woman licking an ice-cream in America.’

‘Greetings from the dark blue of the sea around the smallest island of the Pacific Ocean.’

‘Greetings from the yellow of the bananas in a supermarket’s trolley in Denmark.’ 6

Every society, for Castoriadis, attempts to give an answer to a few fundamental questions:

Who are we as a collectivity?

What are we for one another?

What do we want?

What do we desire?

What are we lacking?

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

And it provides answers to these questions through systems of imaginary significations valuing or devaluing, structuring and hierarchizing an ensemble of objects and corresponding lacks. This means that societies, even the most ‘rational’ ones like ours, are totally dependent on their own imaginaries presented as ‘reality’. And what is essential for the creation of alternative imaginaries or ‘realities’, according to Castoriadis, is not ‘discovery’ but constituting the new. The Athenians did not ‘find’ democracy among the other wild flowers growing around the Acropolis, nor did the Parisian workers find the Commune by digging up the boulevards. Nor any of them ‘discovered’ these institutions after inspecting all previous forms of government, placed in well-ordered showcases. On the contrary, they invented something, they tried something out, which proved to be viable in particular circumstances, but which also, once it existed, changed these circumstances essentially.

Alternatives are exactly what we need Dunne and Raby also stress.

We need to imagine new trajectories for the 21st century.

OK, let’s dream.

But how can we do so in a time of no alternative?

How can we imagine a future seen not as a destination but as a medium to aid imaginative thought to speculate with, not just about the future but about today too?

And how can art open such space for imagination?

How can it move beyond neoliberal modes of production, which ask artists to fully preplan their projects, project them always to the future, present the results of projects that haven’t even started yet and prove the full value of them, preferably money value, in advance, only to then be given permission and support to simply execute them?

How can art today open space for experimentation, risk and imagination, offering social and political alternatives, as is its main role?

HOW TO TALK TO ALIENS?

Imagine again those naked man and woman, who are still eating with their guests around the large table. Imagine them struggling to alienate and unfamiliarize the banal, the known, the everyday; trying to estrange ‘reality’ and everything we take for granted, suggesting that the weirdness and imaginary quality of things we don’t even think of, like the way we speak, eat or greet, could possibly give rise to alternative understandings of what it is that we do and how, and subsequently also of how we do things differently.

Richard Kearney discusses processes of alienation that subvert our established categories and challenge us to think again by threatening the known with the unknown. Kearney, R. Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.[/footnore] For him, if something or someone becomes ‘too transcendent, they disappear off our radar screen and we lose all contact’. We thus stop seeing them or even conceiving them as this or that thing, which means that we become unable to recognize, imagine, or narrate their alterity. On the other hand, if something or someone becomes too ‘immanent, they become equally exempt from ethical relation’. In this case, they become indistinguishable from one’s own self and we are again unable to see them, recognize them, or imagine them as different. It is for this reason that one should ‘not let the foreign become too foreign or the familiar too familiar’ but constantly try out a variety of crossings between the same and the other, that is, between knowing and not knowing. By suspending our defence mechanisms against alterity, we may be able to rise to a poetics of new images and an ethics of new practices, he concludes.

By returning to a past social imaginary, as this was expressed via Voyager Golden Record; by reproducing an imaginary from a time when imaginaries were more likely; by delving deeper into an imaginative movement that today would most likely be dismissed as at least bizarre; by addressing once more every spacefaring civilization, we tried to embrace alienation – not too much, not too little – in order to approach the inevitable others with which we share life on this planet, and co-imagine with them new images and practices for our present and future; in order to indeed manage to talk to the aliens of this Earth…

Credits

Concept, Creation: Danae Theodoridou

Performed by: Manos Vavadakis, Katerina Zisoudi

Dramaturgical advice: Kate Adams

Co-produced by: workspacebrussels

Supported by: BUDA, Bains Connective, PACT Zollverein, wpZimmer, Michael Cacoyannis Foundation

Recordings and Videos by Zulu l Lens.

Danae Theodoridou is a performance maker and researcher based in Brussels. The last three years, her work has focussed on the notion of social imaginaries and the way art can contribute to the emergence of social and political alternatives. At the same time, she teaches in various university departments and art conservatoires of theatre and dance in Europe, curates practice-led research projects and presents and publishes her research work internationally. She has been the co-creator of Dramaturgy at Work (2013-2016) and the co-author of The Practice of Dramaturgy: Working on Actions in Performance (Valiz, 2017).