A time capsule of human creativity, stored in the sky

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A time capsule of human creativity, stored in the sky
Exhibition catalogs of artwork, miniaturized and etched onto nickel-based NanoFiche for a trip to the moon, at the home of Samuel Peralta, a semiretired physicist and author, in Mississauga, Ontario, July 14, 2023. Peralta created the Lunar Codex, an archive of contemporary art, poetry, magazines, music, film, podcasts and books by 30,000 artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers in 157 countries, that will be headed to the moon aboard unmanned rockets. (Brendan George Ko/The New York Times)

by J.D. Biersdorfer

NEW YORK, NY.- “Just keep telling the story,” says the director character in Wes Anderson’s latest film, “Asteroid City,” which takes a stylized look at midcentury America’s fascination with space and interstellar communications. Later this year, the Lunar Codex — a vast multimedia archive telling a story of the world’s people through creative arts — will start heading for permanent installation on the moon aboard a series of unmanned rockets.

The Lunar Codex is a digitized (or miniaturized) collection of contemporary art, poetry, magazines, music, film, podcasts and books by 30,000 artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers in 157 countries. It’s the brainchild of Samuel Peralta, a semiretired physicist and author in Canada with a love of the arts and sciences.

Prints from war-torn Ukraine and poetry from countries threatened by climate change are in the Codex, as well as more than 130 issues of PoetsArtists magazine. Among the thousands of images are “New American Gothic,” by Ayana Ross, the winner of the 2021 Bennett Prize for female artists; “Emerald Girl,” a portrait in Lego bricks by Pauline Aubey; and the aptly titled “New Moon,” a 1980 serigraph by Alex Colville. Some works were commissioned for the project, including “The Polaris Trilogy: Poems for the Moon,” a collection of poetry from every continent, including Antarctica.

An art collector and poet himself, Peralta, the executive chair of the Toronto-based media and technology company Incandence, has been reaching out to creators through gallery and publishing connections to select the works (and get archival permissions) for free inclusion in the Codex. He has also accepted works submitted by individual artists.

“This is the largest, most global project to launch cultural works into space,” Peralta said in an interview. “There isn’t anything like this anywhere.”

The Codex represents creators from a range of experiences. It includes several pieces from Connie Karleta Sales, an artist with the autoimmune disease neuromyelitis optica, who makes paintings using eye-gaze technology. “Electric Joy,” one of the works, “celebrates the color and movement of my mind,” Sales said in an email. “I might have limited use of my physical body, but my mind is limitless. It is dancing, laughing, crying and loving.”

Olesya Dzhurayeva, a Ukrainian printmaker, had evacuated Kyiv in April 2022 in the first months of the Russian attack when Peralta, who had previously purchased some of her work, contacted her with a supportive message. He also asked for her permission to archive images of several of her linocuts in the Lunar Codex, and she agreed. “This project is so life-affirming with thoughts about the future,” she wrote in an email. “This is exactly what I needed in those first months.” A collection of her pieces are represented in the Codex, including a series of woodcuts printed with black Ukrainian soil.

The moon has hosted earthly art for decades. “The Moon Museum,” a tiny ceramic tile featuring line drawings by Forrest Myers, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros and John Chamberlain, was discreetly attached to the leg of a lunar module left on the moon as part of the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. “Fallen Astronaut,” an aluminum sculpture by Belgian artist Paul van Hoeydonck, was left on the lunar surface by the Apollo 15 crew in 1971, with a plaque commemorating 14 American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who died in scientific service to their countries.

Outside the Lunar Codex project, other contemporary artists are aiming to place solo works on the moon’s surface through commercial space travel, including Jeff Koons and British artist Sacha Jafri. The Arch Mission Foundation has sent Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and millions of Lunar Library pages into space.

But the Lunar Codex has bigger storytelling ambitions. It’s divided into four time capsules, with its material copied onto digital memory cards or inscribed into nickel-based NanoFiche, a lightweight analog storage media that can hold 150,000 laser-etched microscopic pages of text or photos on one 8.5-by-11-inch sheet. The concept is “like the Golden Record,” Peralta said, referring to NASA’s own cultural time capsule of audio and images stored on a metal disc and sent into space aboard the Voyager probes in 1977. “Gold would be incredibly heavy. Nickel wafers are much, much lighter.”

Ada Limón, the current U.S. poet laureate, wrote a poem for NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft bound for Jupiter next year. She also has poetry in the Lunar Codex, which holds about 25 years’ worth of “The Poet and the Poem,” a poetry radio show/podcast founded and hosted by Grace Cavalieri — including episodes featuring Rita Dove, Louise Glück and other U.S. poet laureates. Cavalieri, a prolific poet herself, observed that sending art and poetry into space shows off civilization in a very human way. “We have the land deals, we have the treaties, but the only way we knew how people really felt, and their sensibilities, is in the poetry from the beginning of time,” she said.

Didi Menéndez, the publisher, curator and editor of PoetsArtists, has been sending digitized issues and other publications to Peralta for inclusion in the Lunar Codex. “Many of the artists work in the contemporary figurative,” she said of the moon-bound collection. “We’re talking about things that are happening in politics and socially. It’s a view of the Earth and what’s happening now from an artist’s perspective. And what’s really happening with emotions.”

Steven Alan Bennett and his wife, Elaine Melotti Schmidt, the founders of The Bennett Prize, are also supporters of the Lunar Codex and have contributed catalogs featuring the past winners and finalists. “It’s not just STEM, it’s STEAM,” Bennett said, adding “arts” to the “science, technology, engineering and math” acronym.

“For Apollo, they were all male artists,” Menéndez said, noting the moon art previously delivered by NASA crews. “These payloads Sam is putting together have a very diverse group.”

Peralta, a polymath who got his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wales, is the son of Filipino anthropologist/playwright Jesus T. Peralta and abstract artist Rosario Bitanga-Peralta. He started the Lunar Codex during the coronavirus pandemic to send his own work, including his science fiction books, to the moon before deciding to expand the scope.

He’s been compiling content for a few years, although some people he’s contacted haven’t taken him seriously. “I say, ‘I’d like to put your art on the moon,’ and they think this is some sort of a scam,” he said. His basic requirement for acceptance is that the artist or writer has been pre-curated by having work included in an exhibition, catalog or anthology.

One Codex capsule has already orbited the moon on NASA’s Orion mission last year. The Codex’s other capsules are scheduled to land and stay on the moon starting this fall through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which awards contracts to aerospace engineering companies like Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines of Houston. After the companies create the lander modules for NASA’s equipment, they can sell any extra room on board. Prices vary; Astrobotic charges $3,270 to ferry a 0.5-inch-by-1-inch “moon capsule” onboard one of its lunar landers.

Peralta is largely funding the cost of the payload space on the three landers and doesn’t have a final price yet, but he said it’s been a fraction of the cost of buying a “space tourist” ticket on a commercial rocket. (A Virgin Galactic trip costs $450,000.)

Peralta sees the Lunar Codex as “a message in the bottle for the future that during this time of war, pandemic and economic upheaval people still found time to create beauty.” And, for those who want to follow its travels, the Codex’s current launch schedule and contents of each collection can be viewed at lunarcodex.com.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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