There is a 1909 Lincoln penny attached to the probe arm of Curiosity, a unit of currency, as it were, stuck to its palm. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem such a remarkable idea, but on the coin there are three inscriptions: “In God We Trust,” “Liberty,” and the date. That money should precede us in the exploration of other worlds is regrettable. That the money is endorsed by God that much more so. Whose God? Which We? Trust in what?
The space between the robot and the American Indian is five hundred years wide. It measures the time from when Europeans first set foot in the Americas to now. Europeans fortified with the same God, endorsing the same material interests. There is a consistency to that space therefore, a feeling that nothing has changed. There are no indigenous peoples on Mars, but the mindset that anticipates encounters with other-worldly life forms apparently remains the same.
Liberty is a concept associated in particular with Abraham Lincoln, the President who is acknowledged for “freeing the slaves.” Liberty had been a founding principle of The United States, and almost a hundred years later, he had allowed African Americans to include themselves in the idea. The American Civil war however, was an economic war over control of the South’s material production, particularly cotton. The Liberty of slaves was an expediency, not its essential motive. It would take another hundred years for these ‘free’ Americans to be granted the same rights as their fellow citizens. Despite Lincoln’s moniker, the sentiment on the coin is far from honest.
Immediately after the Civil War came The Indian Wars, with many of the same soldiers now reassigned to complete the process that had begun four hundred years before: the relocation and removal of the indigenous Native Americans in the interest of economic aggrandizement. In the interest of more money. It was a process that would continue into the next century.
1909 appropriately, was the year the “Lincoln” penny replaced the “Indian” penny. It was also the year Chief Red Cloud died at the age of 87 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He had outlived all the other major Sioux leaders of the Indian Wars. “They made us many promises,” he said, “more than I can remember. But they kept but one: They promised to take our land…and they took it.”
It is “They” who own the robot, Earth’s ambassador to another world. Its outstretched arm reads: “Superstition, Dishonesty and Greed.” We’re in good hands.
Curiosity is probably the most sophisticated device ever made. Given its purpose, nothing in it, or on it, can possibly be extraneous. The penny therefore, had to be considered as critically as every other component. It is described as “…a calibration object…in the tradition of placing a coin, or other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks… It gives the public a familiar object for perceiving size easily when it will be viewed by MAHLI…” (MAHLI being the onboard science lab.)
Of all the objects possible, American money is apparently the most recognizable to the “public.” But if it is so intuitively understood, why not insert a disc that equals its proportions and explain why – something that avoids any kind of parochial, religious, nationalistic sentiment? How many metal workers, sculptors or artists in the world would have jumped at the opportunity to make an object that conforms to the same physical requirements? An object that would travel to another planet? They would have paid for the privilege. If it needed to be embossed with words, then why not the simplest and most relevant?
“Curiosity” “Peace” “2012”
Nothing else is necessary. There is no image that can possibly represent every human being on the planet, certainly not that of a politician. Space exploration isn’t about “tradition,” it’s not even about what is. It’s about what might be.
The penny was a conscious decision. Either the message was deliberately intended or it was simply a lack of foresight. Obliviousness in other words. “Oblivious” is an even worse sentiment than “God” for a conquistador to wear on its sleeve.
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of last year.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.