In 1977, the two Voyager space probes were launched. On board both craft are golden records, engraved with audio and illustrations depicting life on Earth. This visual language was developed for the benefit of any alien life forms who might come across them.
When making this, the ninth disc in the Oddityviz series, we asked ourselves: how can we tell the story of Major Tom so it could be understood by an alien?
While the other records contain data visualisation, this is more of an infographic. That is, rather than being driven by data, it’s driven by illustration and images that loosely code for text.
Valentina came up with the idea of dividing the disk into two sections. On the outside, an illustrative sequence of images illustrates Major Tom's trip. While on the inside of the record, the song’s lyrics are directly represented as a series of emojis. Each line of the song corresponds to a line of emojis, read from the middle of the record outwards.
Guess what this line says?
Space Oddity is about a trip – both literally and metaphorically, as the song’s barely-hidden drug references make clear. Protein pills, anyone? Major Tom has never really come down, although he did reappear as a junkie ‘Strung out on heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low’ in Bowie’s 1980 hit Ashes to Ashes.
Here, Major Tom’s trip is engraved into an endless cycle – an eternity of stepping and re-stepping through the door.
Valentina illustrated Major Tom’s travel from a familiar landscape to an unknown soundscape, playing with the same visual language used across the other discs (Major Tom as a circle and Ground Control as a square). The departure point recalls a cityscape – a familiar grid, manmade – while the arrival point recalls a soundscape made of fluid lines, the unknown of the universe.
Then she created an illustrative sequence that depicts the endless cycle of life, referencing the various interpretations critics have read into the song. According to Bowie, Kubrick's movie '2001: A Space Odyssey' was a primary inspiration for the song (he admitted to being 'out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it... several times'), so the sequence references images from the movie, namely the failed artificial intelligence HAL and the rounded capsule from which the main protagonist steps out and get lost.
For the inside of the record, we considered translating Space Oddity’s lyrics into a number of different visual languages, including Morse code. Finally we settled on emojis, today’s primary visual language (and one put to good use by Kyle MacLachlan on Twitter in his visual explanation of the plot of Dune).
We used a mixture of open-source and specially designed emojis for rockets, helmets, stars – and something approximating a protein pill.