As told by Björk’s “Homogenic” (1997)
Yes, I remember my life on Earth. Of course I do. Back on Earth, I felt as though I was reborn every time I fell on new ears. I told a different story to whomever would listen. I went from the hands of weirdos, to the hands of hipsters; all within the span of a couple decades. All of them loved me well. I loved that life. But I always knew I was meant for something more. Ever since 1997 (Earth-time), people said I sounded well beyond my years. They lauded the work that my maker instilled in me and claimed that my sound would stay contemporary—if not futuristic—for decades after my release.
Records like me are made of polyvinyl chloride. The lifespan of a disc of polyvinyl chloride is upwards of 140 years. It was in my 100th year of life (2097) that the visitors came to Earth. I’d been preserved and played countless times with the utmost care by my listeners. I’d been very lucky with the type of owners I’d had; mostly collectors and audiophiles that used high-end turntables and needles. So when the visitors came, I’d still been a desirable original pressing left in very good condition.
It turned out the visitors had been observing us from a distance for centuries. Advanced teleportation technologies allowed them to move been galaxies as they pleased. They came from somewhere the humans still have not found. Their mission was to scan faraway galaxies for other lifeforms to study without interfering. From what I gathered, that mission changed when they found Earth.The visitors studied our peoples, our habits, our history, our languages, and our art. These beings were extremely analytical and intelligent and did not attempt to make contact with the humans until they developed a foolproof plan for communication that would leave no room for being perceived as hostile. If there’s one thing the visitors learned over their centuries of observation, it was that the people of Earth were not afraid to react violently when threatened.
So when the day came, the visitors made their presence known during an event where nearly the entire world would be watching their televisions, tablets, phones, and computer screens—the 2097 World Cup finals. The visitors waited until the game was over and the winning players were a few minutes into their celebration on the field. Then they changed my story forever.
An image of three nearly human-like figures gently faded onto the every screen. They were engulfed in a soft white light. The beings stood on two legs and wore robes that looked not unlike a beige colored toga. Their skin was an ambiguous shade between grey and light blue and their features were very much of a humanoid nature. Two eyes, one nose, a mouth, and heads parked atop broad shoulders. They spoke softly and carefully. The broadcast that I overheard was in English, but it was simulcast in all languages and dialects throughout the world depending on the viewing region.
The beings started by apologizing for interrupting the celebration and promised to conclude quickly. They explained who they were and why they had been observing Earth. As it turned out, their planet was far beyond the reach of our current technologies. They had an abundance of natural resources and no desire to hurt the Earth or stay and intrude. Their individual lifespans were thousands of years and the total age of their civilization was billions older than ours. They spoke so articulately and with such innocuous tone and diction that it was impossible for the humans not to be captivated, at-ease, and excited all at once.
They explained that their mission started as an exploration to find and observe life in order to learn more about their own conception. That was centuries ago. The mission had since changed to its new purpose of sustaining the lives on their home planet. You see, the visitors’ home world was in trouble. But as I mentioned earlier, they were not at risk of extinction due to diminishing resources or ecological complications, they were at risk of extinction due to their own minds. Masses of their fellow beings were ending their lives voluntarily to experience the only thing they had left; death.
The speakers on the screen explained that their population had become so advanced that they’d learned everything there is to know about the universe and its physical properties. Their species had spent millennia perfecting what humans know as science and physics, but they still hadn’t come any closer to understanding how they were formed or for what purpose. The visitors’ kind came to realize that the only way to understand life and death would be to experience them both. While this existential conundrum sounds similar to that of a thinking human’s, their species was missing something vital, something that defines the humans of Earth and allows humanity to create meaning and purpose in life without any concrete answers. These visitors were devoid of the arts.
All over the Earth, the visitors saw humans huddled en masse in front of sculptures, paintings, and movie screens. As outsiders looking in, they were perplexed. From an objective view, it seemed as though the humans were hypnotized. They just stared at the visuals in front of them, sometimes reacted slightly, and then went back to their daily activities. They only saw two sides of the triangle; the art and the audience. It wasn’t until the visitors observed their first concert performance that they really began to understand that art was a collaborative effort. Not only were there people viewing and hearing the work in front of them, but there were other people actually creating the sights and sounds that captivated their audience. They now understood the complete triangle; the artist, the art, and the observer. The visitors were enthralled by all of it.
They saw that artistic expression was the one thing that all humans could relate to subjectively. All over the world, people showcased their own interpretations of art and creative expression. Whether it was music or painting or literature, human beings found connection through art. It took the visitors a long time to understand the significance of art on Earth, but they knew that’s what was missing on their home world.
In concluding their broadcast, the visitors asked the people of Earth to do them a favor. Since art was a foreign concept, the visitors needed some inspiration and examples to take back to their people. And they needed a wide enough variety to keep their species entertained and interested in what would be a brand new concept. They requested that each nation of Earth form a council of the arts and nominate some of their favorite works of cinema, literature, illustration, and music from each country. The countries were asked to consolidate their nominations and make them fit in a 5’ x 5’ x 5’ crate. The visitors would return in one week and pick up the collection of crates from a central location in Cairo, Egypt. Not unlike human tourists, these beings marveled at the great pyramids and considered them to be a focal point of human endeavor. Maybe the Egyptians were on to something after all.
At the end of the week, envoys and leaders from each nation gathered in Egypt with their crates. They met near the pyramids and made a central camp where all countries could gather their collections and show them. Rows upon rows of tents were constructed and the encampment started to resemble something of a world’s fair. The visitors were due to arrive the next evening, but travelers from all over the world showed up early to explore the collective. It was a beautiful thing. The world had made first contact with an alien race and did not erupt into frenzy. Instead, they came together to form a union based around the ideas and expressions that made them proud to be human. As a 100 year old observer, I have to say that the people of Earth had come a long way since the days of Trumptopia (as in dystopia, not utopia). The visitors knew this too and encouraged the humans to repeat this gathering of nations annually after they’d gone.
So when it seemed like the whole world was in harmony at this council of the arts, the visitors revealed themselves. They came down from their craft—that bystanders on the ground could not see—in pillars of soft white light. There were around 10 of them now. They all wore smiles and moved with a delicate grace, palms facing outwards to show they had nothing to offer but openness. They wandered up and down the rows and spoke with some observers and with the curators of the different crates. Everyone watched. It was nearly silent. The visitors saw replica paintings from Picasso at Spain’s tent, classic scale models of Ferraris at Italy’s, heard music from Mulatu Astatke and smelled fresh coffee beans at Ethiopia’s. The amount of beauty present in this moment was overwhelming for many. Tears streamed down the faces of human patrons that were barely able to comprehend the splendor of it all.
Meanwhile, I was over at Iceland’s tent with some other good company. Works by Sigur Rós were next to me in the crate, as well as—quite appropriately—Jóhan Jóhannsson’s soundtrack to the 2016 box office hit, Arrival. I wondered how the visitors would react to a soundtrack that attempted to capture fictional events similar to the ones that they had just brought to life. I also wondered how they would react to me. For many human listeners, I was other-worldly during the time of my release. Would I be other-worldly on another world as well?
It wasn’t until all the farewells were over and a few hundred lightyears had been traversed that I arrived on their planet. Now I would find out just how different my sounds were. Their world was beautiful at first glance. There were tall structures and buildings that looked like architecture one could only dream of on Earth. The buildings were huge, cylindrical and made of materials that resembled nothing I’d seen before. It was all so enormous, yet minimal, and upon further study, quite cold…and sad. Imagine a world with no art. Without art, culture did not exist. Without culture, everyone became an amalgamation of the same thing. It was clear that their entire planet and all of their habitations focused solely on functionality rather than expression or beauty.
The explorers that had come to Earth gathered for a type of press conference. I found out later that it was broadcast as a type of hologram to viewing parties all over their planet. Their entire world was watching as they disclosed their findings and explained the concepts of art and human expression. It took hours and hours, and they spoke in a language that I couldn’t understand. But the next day, it seemed as though they had done their job. Their people showed up in droves for different types of art experiences. There were art museums set up in public centers, they quickly built theaters to show films, and they packed arenas for audio exhibits.
I was one of these audio exhibits. In a huge structure that looked like a spherical amphitheater, masses gathered to hear me played over a stereo system. It took them minutes to enhance human sound tech and make compatible what must have been archaic electronics for them. They took the turntable that Iceland’s council gave to them and hooked it up to a massive Hi-Fi system. They dropped the needle on my surface and my sound began. The opening pitter-patter beat of the drum machine on “Hunter” caused them to become transfixed. They stared and listened. The low, electronic bass line bellowed as Björk’s voice echoed over the crowd. In that moment, I was reborn and so were my new listeners.
All over their planet, these beings were taking part in similar experiences. Stanley Kubrick films were shown, August Wilson plays were read, Yayoi Kusama exhibits were reproduced. Some of their people enjoyed what they were seeing or hearing. Some of them dissented. Others did not understand. But unanimously, a new dialogue had opened and new connections were made. With all their wisdom and all their brain power, their world quickly realized they’d never allowed room for creativity. But that was then. Now they’d found another purpose, a purpose greater than searching for answers that would not come. They had a new answer to their sorrows. They had their “Alarm Call.”
“You can’t say no to hope, you can’t say no to happiness.”