the tapestry of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

The Tapestry of the Search for Terrestrial Intelligence is my piece for the show Life at the Edges, on view through September 30 at Science Gallery Dublin.

In 1977, the two Voyager space probes were launched, each carrying a golden record with music, sounds, and voices from Earth — just in case. The records also feature over a hundred digital images encoded as sounds. If an alien civilization picked up one of the Voyager probes a million years from now, what would they make of the information on the record? They probably wouldn’t think they way we do. They might try to taste the disk, or try to find meaning in the way it feels when they rub their fingers on the grooves. Or they might try to decode the ancient, degraded images onto a forty-meter-long tapestry.

It started when Man Bartlett noticed that a youtube copy of the Voyager Golden Record started with a few minutes of weird beeping sounds before the voices and music of Earth. I knew that there were images somehow encoded on the record, so I loaded the degraded, low quality sounds into photoshop as an image and got ghostly, distorted pictures. You could see that the original information was in there, but it was just out of reach. I didn’t try to apply any image correction techniques, because I thought it was beautiful in its distorted form. When Science Gallery gave me the opportunity to exhibit it, I had it woven as a tapestry on computerized looms.

Many thanks to Keira Chang and Emiko Shinozaki for their help in making the tapestry real!


This video shows the whole tapestry scrolling past, along with a sample of the original audio it was made from.

There’s a nice review of Life at the Edges in Trinity News [pdf].

Of the entire exhibit, Ranjit Bhatnagar’s tapestry is perhaps the most unusual. Stretched across the second storey, the patterns on the rug aren’t random. In 1977, the world saw the launch of the two Voyager shuttles, and with them the ‘Golden Records’. These records contained audio information intended to summarise life on Earth, everything from dolphin’s squeeking to Bach. Intending to immortalise not only humanity, but life within the cosmos, is deeply moving. What, Bhatnagar asks, would aliens make of this information? How would they know to ‘play’ these files, and not to say, interpret it as a recipe for lunch? Inspired by this, the rug is a translation of the audio information into a visual file and a brilliant example of our own human-centric folly.

an excerpt from the Trinity News review of Life at the Edges

Here’s a bit of the origin story from Greg Allen.

a piece of the tapestry along with the original data that was encoded on the record to teach the aliens about Earth arithmetic

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  1. Pingback: tapestry bonus: peter the morkie! | moonmilk

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