At the end of ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ the first extraterrestrial life comes to earth following the successful test run of a spacecraft using warp-drive, its also the first time in this fictional future that the human race come into contact with the Vulcan race.
Laura told me yesterday that the Vulcan’s policy was to only make contact with races that have developed faster than light travel, they (according to Star Trek: Enterprise) subsequently monitor earth for the next eighty years, keeping check on their technological and cultural advancements. I know comparatively little about Star Trek but I find this really interesting, that technological advancement would make a people deserving of being contacted by another, ‘species’, that having ‘warp’ capacity is somehow a yardstick of how civilised a race are and a good indicator of whether or not they should be sought out in the first place.
But what would make us deserving? Most of us realise that to view human activity as heading towards some state of perfection is naïve and that attempts at engineering this is fraught with danger.
A few weeks ago I read about the Voyager II mission, the craft, which is still potentially hurtling through the universe, was installed with 116 images intended to show alien life-forms what life on Earth is like yet the sequence that is loosely based around birth, life and death is devoid of depictions of war, poverty, disease, religion and other things we’d rather ignore.
I was reminded of this again when I went to the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize this week. Taryn Simon’s entry ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ presents a series of images, accompanied by a text documenting such diverse subject matter as selective breeding, cryogenic freezing, nuclear waste storage and plastic surgery. I’m not entirely sure why Simon’s ‘Index’ reminded me of the Voyager II probe, perhaps it’s how on first looking they simply appear as incredibly beautiful images, yet once you unpick these you realise they allude to something flawed and often very dark (yet one is intentional, the other is not). ‘White Tiger’ (that’s used on the exhibition poster) is an image of a Tiger whose colour has come about as a result of selective breeding. The caged animal looks slightly odd, there is something not quite right about it and you soon realise from the text accompanying the image that the tiger is malformed and ‘mentally retarded’ as a result of this inbreeding. What need is there for a white tiger? The image is alarming because it depicts an animal brought into existence by artificial means and despite having the desired white fur its far from being the object of attraction it was intended to be. What’s worse is that the animal’s suffering is brought about by its genetic weakness; the very material that makes it what it is.
Taryn’s entry for the photography prize is disorienting; it was hard to decipher many of the images – or rather what they signified, and this is what I liked about them. I scoured the Internet for interviews with her and with one I found she’d described the photos as being an ‘exploration, of discovering a new American landscape-politically, ethically, and religiously’.
Perhaps it’s the relationship between images of vessels used for cryogenic freezing for instance or the ominous blue glow of nuclear waste storage and our place in time that makes these so compelling; that these (alarmingly) better represent our place in history – so much more accurately than the images aboard the Voyager probe, still waiting to be picked up by whatever life is out there.
I’m not entirely sure why I started the post with Star Trek, perhaps I felt there was a relationship between the way in which the Vulcan’s are said to observe the human race following ‘first contact’ and the observational quality to ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’, I think this is very tenuous but I felt that Taryn’s images were so powerful because they captured things very much at the periphery yet at the same time alluded to proclivities, aspirations and conventions very much at the centre of our lives. If you were to show an outsider some of the more frustrating and troubling aspects of our world this might be a good place to start.