There is a strong message of hope in Pale Blue Dot, a faith in the future of humanity and its eventual triumph over the menace of oblivion, over time and the chasm of nullity in which our pale planet hangs. Indeed, could there be a more quintessential symbol of human optimism than the Voyager Golden Record project, the image with which the Dot begins its exploration of how we view ourselves as a species?
The Golden Records are literally gold-plated phonograph recordings stowed on the Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1977. They are intended as a kind of greeting card for either intelligent alien life or future humans, delivering both sounds and images summarising our collective cultural history. To strike out toward the future like that, from the depths our species' most war-torn century, seems to me an act of almost millennial faith, like an rationalistic "sacrament of praise", if such a thing is possible, by which we hope to outlive our inevitable deaths.
"The body dies; the body's beauty lives," writes the poet Wallace Stevens. "It plays / On the clear viol of her memory." This desire for eternal clarity, for undying music, for a cultural record, something to burn beyond the snuffing of the candle, forms the thematic through-line that holds this sprawling performance project together. The small ensemble, following director Tanya Gerstle's signature physical-theatre process, glide smoothly through various iterations of this optimism. From Voyager we move by way of primitive rock art, the camera obscura, the invention of photography, photo-journalism and French New Wave cinema.
Among the fragments are scenes involving Carl Sagan, director of the Golden Record project and apparently the one who insisted that Voyager's camera be turned back toward Earth for one last snap before the small craft plunged into deep space. The production quotes from his pop-science reflection on that final murky pic in which Earth appears as a single bluish pixel on a black field:
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives [...] Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
Stirring stuff, calculated to inspire an objective sense of reverence for the planet, and, ultimately, for the here and now, for the beauty which is not only eternal but immediately with us. But in this production such effusions gain a curious – even at times contrary – note of melancholy, as though the evergreen optimism of Carl Sagan, has not been fully absorbed.
It's not only that some of the material is quite dark, especially the sequences on war photography, some of which recall Gerstle's work with the 2009 VCA graduates, Invisible Stains, and also Mari Lourey's Bare Witness. Nor is it only the ominous sound design from Russel Goldsmith and gloomy lighting from Tom Willis. It is something to do with the weightlessness of the experience. As we slip effortlessly between subjects and places and modes, taking flight, escaping from scene to scene, not letting any one thought play out completely, the Dot does convey an impressive sense of freedom; but there is a sad ephemerality to that freedom. Yes, we can pick out broad themes, and the overarching message of hope, but there is no feeling of significance. Instead, the experience, even the hope, feels somewhat empty.
Perhaps if it had been broken up with some deliberately comic passages – with more wit – this project might have felt properly anchored to the here and now, to the pale blue dot. As it is, however, it remains an interesting production, though one which seems to disappear the nearer you come to examining it.