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NASA Artemis I illustration
NASA’s Artemis I mission helped carry Lunar Codex poetry to the moon and backIllustration courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center/NASA/Liam Yanulis

The Lunar Codex: why are humans sending art to the moon?

The work of over 30,000 creatives, from Ocean Vuong to Yayoi Kusama, is set to land on the lunar surface for alien archaeologists to decode – here, mastermind Samuel Peralta explains what it’s all about

Humanity is already prepping to leave Earth in various ways, from building the blueprints for permanent moonbases, to simulating life on Mars. With the looming threat of AI-based extinction, the worsening climate crisis, and the possibility of new horrors emerging from deep hibernation, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. But how will we establish a record of life on Earth when we do finally blast off for the stars? And how will we want to be remembered?

Burying time capsules under the ground is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years, preserving contemporary objects and information to be dug up by future historians. Unfortunately, these artefacts aren’t going to last long in the event of nuclear war or complete climate collapse. That’s why Samuel Peralta is sending the work of more than 30,000 artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians to the moon. “The world today is on fire,” he says, “and if [it] ceases to exist, the moon is one place safe from all these, where a time capsule may survive.”

The physicist, entrepreneur, and author calls this project the Lunar Codex. “The Lunar Codex,” he says, “speaks to the idea that, despite wars and pandemics and environmental upheaval, humankind found time to dream, time to create art.” It’s an optimistic vision of humanity – if you ignore the fact that the project’s relevance hinges on our ultimate demise – and evokes the romantic notion that we all see the same moon when we look up into the night sky. Originally, though, it emerged from a dark time: the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Galleries couldn’t hold exhibits, restaurants were shut, concert halls and theatres were closed,” recalls Peralta. “There was an air of despondency everywhere, including many artists and musicians and filmmakers that I knew.” At the same time, NASA’s Artemis mission – which aims to return humans to the moon by 2024 – was getting underway, while space companies like Astrobotic were opening up space on their lunar landers to private individuals, who could also hitch a ride on SpaceX rockets. For Peralta, everything started to come together.

Not everyone is eligible to submit to the Lunar Codex directly, but the artworks scheduled to be blasted off to Earth’s natural satellite represent a consciously diverse and global mix (including much of Peralta’s own writing, as well as one poetry collection created in collaboration with AI). Comprising visual art, novels and poetry, film and theatre, music, and more, the work currently spans 158 countries and territories, condensed down into storage devices that can last tens of thousands of years. The poetry alone contains names ranging from Louise Glück to Ocean Vuong, while the art collection features Yayoi Kusama’s 2013 Infinity Mirror skateboard deck.

If you’re thinking this sounds like some kind of scam or flashy money-making scheme (which definitely isn’t unheard of in the emerging industries of space tourism and digital art), it’s worth noting that Peralta says he doesn’t make any money from the project. Neither does Incandence, the company that owns the physical time capsules and archival technology, and related trademarks. “The cost is zero for included creatives,” he explains. “I’ve been inspired by creatives all my life, and I am paying it forward.”

Whether it’s actually worth getting your work together and blasting it off into space alongside the vital payloads of NASA or SpaceX is still up for debate, of course. Below, Peralta explains how he intends to send art to the moon, the likelihood it will outlive humanity, and why aliens should have no problems decoding our art.

The moon is already a symbol of hope and unity for humanity – why do you think we need to add actual, human creativity into the mix?

Samuel Peralta: The moon is an inspiration for human creativity, for poets, artists, writers, musicians – but it isn’t a symbol of hope and unity per se. Humans have read into the moon a myriad of things, werewolves and goddesses, things sinister and benevolent.

By putting their individual works of culture on the moon, we directly engage and inspire the artists of the Lunar Codex to continue to pursue their artistic vision, and to inspire the artists they themselves mentor, and the audience who sees their work. By making the project as globe-spanning as we can, we inspire nations – even those who have no lunar program of their own – that they too are part of this great adventure that is humanity venturing out beyond our planet.

How did the Lunar Codex actually come together, in a practical sense?

Samuel Peralta: Besides being a physicist, I’ve spent many years as an anthologist, editor, art curator and collector, composer and lyricist, and film producer – I’ve been commercially successful in some of the above, and I’ve won awards for all of the above. That gives me some personal credentials to curate material for the Codex.

More importantly it gives me a rolodex of other professional editors, curators, and gallerists who can provide or suggest works for inclusion – and the credibility to knock on doors of those I don’t know. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of doors slammed in my face, especially in music and film, which is why the collection there is not as deep. But enough doors opened in art, in writing.

“Humans have read into the moon a myriad of things, werewolves and goddesses, things sinister and benevolent” – Samuel Peralta

How are the artworks stored, and how will they make it to the moon?

Samuel Peralta: All of the works are saved on either shielded memory cards, one to two terabytes, or on NanoFiche. NanoFiche can be laser-etched to form an image that’s around 300,000 dpi, about 1,000 times more high-resolution than regular images today. It is environmentally resilient and impervious to radiation, and can last tens of thousands of years.

Depending on the lunar lander, a Lunar Codex time capsule is either only on memory cards, only on NanoFiche, or a sandwich of both, no bigger than your thumbnail. It’s put in a shielded box and bolted to the structure of the lunar lander, which stays on the moon’s surface as a landmark of the time capsule’s existence.

You’ve decided to include AI art in the project – what prompted that decision?

Samuel Peralta: On the contrary, we have decided to not include AI art in the project. There is only one AI-associated piece in the Lunar Codex, and there will be no more. Even that work is specific. It’s a full-length poetry book in an experiment exploring human-AI collaboration – in this case, between the poet Semaphore (myself) and OSUN, an OpenAI GPT-2 345M machine poet.

OSUN was self-contained on a local computer, and based on the then-cutting-edge GPT-2 (not GPT-3 or GPT-4). This is important, and the key to why we’re including no further AI-related work onboard: we had full control over the training database, didn’t let it loose to scrape the Internet, and so OSUN was trained to sound very much like me. To my knowledge, it is the only AI-related work onboard the Lunar Codex, and there will be no others.

How do you feel about the vast response from creatives who want their work on the moon?

Samuel Peralta: Overwhelmed. Exhausted. In the early years, no one had heard of the Lunar Codex, and it was tough to convince folks that I was serious, especially about there being no catch. As awareness of the Codex began to take hold, more people and institutions stepped forward. Now, it’s a deluge. 

However, through the exhaustion, I recognize that the interest is a validation of all the ideas that make the Lunar Codex what it is. It's impossible not to be awed by the talent the Lunar Codex has gathered, whether they are household names or not.

Is it possible that the Codex will outlive humanity? How?

Samuel Peralta: The significant parts of the Lunar Codex that are archived in analog form can resist extremes of temperature, humidity, and radiation, and last over 10,000 years. Possibly over 100,000 years. Homo sapiens emerged on this Earth 300,000 years ago. Modern Homo sapiens appeared about 160,000 years ago. Civilization as we know it is roughly 6,000 years old. The industrial age only began in the 1800s.

Humanity today is faced with many challenges – economic, climatic, territorial, medical – any one of which may lead to a drastic change in civilisation as we know it. The Lunar Codex – or parts of it, anyway – will still be there.

What do you think aliens or future archaeologists could take away from the Codex, if they found it? Would they be able to decipher it?

Samuel Peralta: The time capsule is meant to be found by future human travellers to the Moon. Whoever finds them – alien or human – will likely be smart enough to figure them out, just as we can still decipher Babylonian, even when the writing has been eroded down to the tablet surface. Humans have begun to decipher the calls of whales, the dances of bees, creatures whose minds are alien to us, and yet we can find meaning in them. Perhaps not a perfect translation – but meaning.

My father is an archeologist and anthropologist, who’s spent time with UNESCO helping designate and protect sites around the world of intangible cultural heritage. I like to think I’m walking in his shoes. I like to think of someone like him coming upon our time capsules, thousand of years from now, and knowing that this must be significant, like a Rosetta Stone to our culture, and putting [it] under a microscope. To be there when that future archeologist does that – it would be a wonder!

Colonising space is a very controversial topic. Are you personally optimistic about the spreading of human consciousness – including all our forms of creativity – throughout the universe?

Samuel Peralta: On the launching of the Golden Record with Voyager, Carl Sagan said: “The spacecraft will be encountered, and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space; but the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

I’m with Sagan.

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