Visual Arts

SMoCA's Time-Capsule Exhibition Is Entertaining But Lacks Innovation

Thankfully, the spaceship created by conceptual collective New Catalogue and installed at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art isn't going into space anytime soon.

In 1977, NASA approached American astronomer, astrophysicist, author, and popular science communicator Carl Sagan with a mission: Find out what it means to be a human on Earth and we'll send it into space, so that intelligent life might one day understand. Sagan and a team of artists compiled a time capsule of 116 images, an assortment of natural sounds and musical collections, and messages spoken in 55 languages on gold-plated audio-visual discs that were attached to NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

Thirty-four years later, New Catalogue (which includes artists Luke Batten, Jonathan Sadler, Mary Vorhees Meehan, and Neil Donnelly along with composer Judd Greenstein) brought its own sounds, images, and a massive "spaceship" installation to SMoCA to revisit Sagan's mission on a large, interactive scale.

"You are about to enter a spaceship," reads the exhibition statement by curator Claire Carter. "There will be many clues in your surroundings — the design language, the constellation of stars, the greetings inscribed on the walls . . . Join them on a journey of exploration — your presence, imagination, even your physical movement, will become part of the artwork."

Next to the description that feels more like the introduction to Disneyland's Space Mountain (more on that later) than a museum statement is a quote from former President Jimmy Carter, who recorded this message in 1977 for use in Sagan's record:

"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 goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."

Lights and sounds lead toward the entrance of New Catalogue's spaceship, which is far from high-tech. Particle-board walls and insulation flooring create a long, bubble-lit space for museum guests to enter and participate. Tacked to the insides of the walls are bright TV screens with human faces, clips from popular movies, and images of nature.

Greenstein's infinite, space-inspired score In Teaching Others We Teach Ourselves plays through speakers overhead. Paint cans with fat markers and sheets of newsprint fill the majority of the space with simple prompts: What do you think of when you think of space? Which five songs would you bring to space for yourself? What are 10 things aliens would need to see/taste/touch/experience to understand life on Earth?

The answers written by participants reflect age, curiosity, and maturity: "I think of infinite possibility," "Justin Bieber," "It's a Wonderful World," and "iPhones, roast beef sandwiches, and Breakfast at Tiffany's."

What the exhibition's "many clues" hint at is unclear, and the answers provided by the audience are at once entertaining, thought-provoking, enlightening, and cringeworthy. A higher intelligence might laugh at a clip of a Hollywood movie or wince at a sound of a baby crying (both of which are included in the capsule), but after deciphering the scribbled handwriting, phallic doodles, and biblical references, they — and it turns out we — might be left wondering, "Why now?"

In the late 1960s and throughout 1970, talk of space travel, aliens, and our own communication technology was the stuff of popular culture. The United States had just put a man on the moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey had hit the silver screens, and Russia had created the first space station.

Forty years later, our focus has shifted inward. NASA's funding has been slashed, Disney has worried publicly about Space Mountain's "Tomorrowland" becoming "Yesterdayland," and the attempt to communicate with intelligent life has ended in Hollywood catastrophes, including this year's Prometheus. Our outlook on space travel has changed, and what used to be a world of wonder has become a financial drain (and, according to Earthlings at SMoCA, a place we couldn't survive without iPhones).

The exhibition's timing is confusing, and the mission of New Catalogue — beyond creating a cooltime capsule — is just as unclear.

Meehan, Donnelly, Sadler, and Batten have collaborated as a group before, though the collective is best known for work created by Sadler and Batten, who united in 1993.

The two formed New Catalogue in the early 2000s as a commentary on design, photography, and stock images. Their work focuses on creative nonfiction; the two set up models in film-like scenarios and imagine themselves stock photo agents who present a "new catalogue" that pushes the boundaries of sterile imagery. Their work has been showcased at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and at the Prague Biennale.

Batten and Sadler also have worked with Greenstein, who's written music for Carnegie Hall, the Minnesota Orchestra, and violist Nadia Sirota (who recorded Greenstein's extraterrestrial track playing inside the "spaceship" at SMoCA).

Together, the composer, two designers, and two photographers have visited Scotts­dale for installation as well as a calendar of events that included the opening and a performance by Greenstein and Sirota. Carter also has hosted a number of walk-throughs, encouraged visitors to take home a stack of newspaper with the exhibition's questions, and hosted an event held under the stars.

The exhibition — for the artists, curator Carter, and the museum — was a risk, both in the reliance on audience participation and in the subject matter. And though SMoCA had a number of curious guests during both of my visits and plenty of responses left on the papers, I left both times thinking that the exhibition lacks depth and innovation.

That's not to say the design work (seen mainly in the exhibition's use of typography) and photographs and video interviews played over the television screens aren't well executed, but it's clear the show's entertainment value trumps the subject matter. And if NASA taps SMoCA to shoot another Golden Record, which Carter hopes to release to the Earth public this summer, into space, let's hope the aliens find the old message first.