Off The Golden Record


I was stoked to see [thanks to Paul's link from the Walker's Off Center] that Trevor Paglen included Murmurs of Earth on the reading list he shared with art21. The book is the authoritative account of the making of the Golden Record, the galactic greeting devised by a committee led by Carl Sagan and attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes launched in 1977.

Designed to last a billion years in the vacuum of space, the gold-plated copper records each contain messages and information about life on Earth for whomever might come across the spaceships, which left the solar system in 2008. The disc includes messages from President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim; greetings recorded in 55 languages; nature sounds; and 90 minutes of music [plus one unauthorized, scrawled greeting from the recording tech]. It also includes 116 images, in both black and white and color. The cover includes a map to Earth and instructions for playing the disc. It also includes a stylus.

Which is all great. But what I love most, beside the disc itself, which is gorgeous, is the fact that the images are all recorded in analogue. The upper right quadrant of the cover explains how to decode the rasterized data, one line at a time, into a 512-line image. Color images are encoded three times, in RGB, for reassembly.


The images themselves are mostly information, science, nature, not art, except in the largest sense, that the entire, inspiring folly, a golden object made in a bid for connecting across time, is an artistic project. Or as Carter put it:

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.
And there are a few images which aspire for aesthetic distinction, like Wayne Miller's photo of his own child being born [above], which was included in Family of Man, the landmark photo exhibition Miller curated with Edward Steichen at MoMA.

For my money, though, you can't beat the idea itself; I wonder how these objects, and how this content would be received. As objects, machines, sounds, images. I want to output the images from the disk and see what they turn out like. Maybe make some prints, even. Truth be told, I want a Golden Record of my own.

So far, I haven't found one. You have to imagine that NASA didn't take delivery of all the copies, did they? Aren't there a few hanging around in the libraries or attics of Sagan's committee members? Has there ever been a facsimile edition? [I think not.] Don't you think there should be? [Yes.]

Copyright holders for recordings and images on the disc had originally only given permission for playback outside the solar system [seriously]. But after many years of negotiation, Sagan also managed to clear all the music and all but one image for a CD-ROM, which accompanied a 1992 reissue of Murmurs of Earth.

And so it goes that the US intellectual property industry somehow managed to outcrazy the idea of communicating with extraterrestrials by sending records into outer space. Nice hustle, fellas.

Inspired Reading | Trevor Paglen []
Voyager Golden Record [wikipedia]
"Please note that these images are copyright protected. Reproduction without permission of the copyright holder is prohibited." []
Buy Murmurs of Earth in some format [amazon] shows all 116 images []

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: September 27, 2011.

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