I am having a conversation with the stars. I am listening to human perceptions of otherworldliness, and drawing a map of sounds that vacillate and modulate like constellations. I am struggling to write this piece, because its focus—the brilliant site A Message From Earth—has sent me off on a thousand sonic, astronomic, cultural, and geographical tangents. If you haven’t heard of The Golden Record (or even if you have), the site will very likely do the same for you.
The Message from Earth project was created to mark the 40th anniversary of the Golden Record recordings, which took the form of two 12-inch gold-plated copper disk phonograph records “containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth,” as NASA puts it. Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. These disks were sent out aboard the Voyager I and II spacecrafts, launched in 1977. In short, the records form a beautiful, hopeful time capsule. They are both a message to extraterrestrial life and a snapshot of our world bearing everything from Bach to Chuck Berry to Bulgarian folk to Blind Willie Johnson to the sound of rainfall and cars, and spoken greetings from “Earth-people” in 55 languages.
The record also contains a collection of 116 pictures (one of which is for calibration), delineating life on Earth and beyond. Many of those images are annotated with scales of time, size, or mass, and, occasionally, chemical composition. It even included an hour-long recording of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, the creative director of the Golden Record project who would later marry Carl Sagan, who assembled it. According to Druyan—who appears on a fascinating NPR radio show discussing the project—part of what she was thinking during that meditation was about “the wonder of love, of being in love.”
There’s something enduringly captivating and rather cute about the whole project; and the sense that other life, out there, somewhere, might want to listen to the same things we on Earth can hear, to see what we sometimes see, and to be privy to the scientific data recorded in the moments where we feel most intensely.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Golden Record last year, file-sharing platform WeTransfer created the Message from Earth site in partnership with Stink Studios. “I’m yet to find anyone who isn’t fascinated by the story of the Golden Record,” says Stephen Canfield, WeTransfer’s vice president of marketing, and self-confessed vinyl junkie and space nerd. “We knew there were so many creative people who found it inspiring, so we wanted to create something that showcased work they made that was inspired by it. [A Message From Earth] was a place for them to put that passion.”
The interactive site features a huge wealth of specially commissioned music, film, art, and literature “paying tribute to the ambitious, optimistic spirit of the original,” says Stink Studios. The site boasts a dizzying number of collaborators (including Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced, Gilles Peterson, S U R V I V E , Deepak Chopra, and more).
The site was also accompanied by a print zine that published much of the written content from the Brainwaves section, as well as the glorious photography from the Images part of the site. The publication was designed by LAD Design, the studio headed up by Lawrence Azerrad, which created the designs for the re-released Voyager Golden Record. “We were really inspired around the idea of creating something that reflected a similar spirit of creativity, innovation, hope, and optimism,” says Azerrad. “We wanted to create a print element that reflected the exuberance of the Stink piece. Usually these things go in a linear direction from print to web, but we were working backwards.”
Azerrad says the studio’s thinking on the Voyager Golden Record piece was “reverent, sacred, and museum-like; the original content is such a cosmically grand idea that we didn’t want our design to get in the way of the interpretation of that.” When it came to working on the Message From Earth zine, Azerrad says “it would be impossible to give an analog version” of Stink’s designs, “so we created a mosaic that operated in the same universe but in a different, freer way.”
Sophy Hollington created the beautiful linocut illustrations throughout. “We just love her work,” says Canfield. “We wanted to find a style that felt different from what you might expect from this sort of project, and we wanted to keep that sense of wonder from the original record and build it into a web experience.”
The nature of Hollington’s process means her work has a certain stillness to it; the roughness and visibly analog nature of it all bears a certain traditional sensibility. As such, it’s a real treat to see her work animated in places on the site. Working out how to do so along with Stink Studios was a treat for Hollington, too; and saw her creating isolated panels to play with and animate. “We had conference calls to discuss what elements would be cool to move, so we didn’t have to cut loads of different frames,” Hollington says. “On a couple I cut separate panels to animate, but the overall idea was that the style would be quite rudimentary, in contrast to the high-tech stuff that other people were contributing.”
What’s so striking about the site is the vast ambition and scope of it all: aside from the interactions, content is showcased from more than 40 people (in-keeping with the 40th anniversary). Even then, though, how do you begin to evoke the sense of hope and optimism of the original, and also attempt to showcase the breadth of creativity across the entire globe? “It was a terrifying proposition,” Canfield admits. “I think the original disc acted as a time capsule more than a story of humankind; and the team was emphatic about communicating that it’s too big a task to put together a story of humankind.
“What we wanted to do above all else was to put something out there was was hopeful and optimistic. We hope other people find it inspiring, too.”