“The artists hope aliens will love their work”: Meet the Torontonian sending over 100,000 pieces of art into space

“The artists hope aliens will love their work”: Meet the Torontonian sending over 100,000 pieces of art into space

Engineer and sci-fi anthologist Samuel Peralta is the founder of the Lunar Codex, a project that’s sending paintings, poems, music and films to live on the moon for at least 10,000 years

Samuel Peralta standing in his home, where he organizes the Lunar Codex

They say that great art transcends time, but most of it literally doesn’t. Paintings fade. Songs are forgotten. Books decompose. If only there were a way to allow art to fulfill its romantic promise of immortality. Enter the moon—and Samuel Peralta, a Toronto-based engineer, investor, science fiction anthologist and the founder of the Lunar Codex, a project dedicated to sending microscopic copies of thousands of works of art into space. There, they will live on the lunar surface for 10,000 years, awaiting visitors from decades to come or, perhaps, from a galaxy far, far away. Here, Peralta explains the logistics of interplanetary transport, how he decides which art is space-worthy and what he thinks the collection will communicate about the human race.

Let’s start with the obvious—What exactly is this project?
The Lunar Codex is a collection of creative works made by over 30,000 artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, all miniaturized and imprinted on either pieces of nickel that are about the size of a quarter or, for the films, memory cards. Basically, we send them all to the moon. They’ll last for at least 10,000 years, and anyone with a $100 microscope will be able see what’s printed on them. To be honest, I’ve stopped counting how many individual pieces of art are included, but it’s over 100,000.

How exactly do you shrink a painting down to the size of a quarter?
We use what’s called semiconductor lithographic etching—it’s the same technology that’s used to make microchips. Basically, a laser inscribes a precise design into the metal of the chip. It can engrave on nickel at a resolution of 300,000 dots per inch, 1000 times as detailed as your average computer image.

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How does one get into the business of shooting art into space?
NASA has decided that it wants to start putting people on the moon again, in what it calls the Artemis program. Right now, it’s focused on sending robots to the moon, but by 2024, it will involve astronauts spending a week on the surface. In the past, NASA made its own lunar landers, but this time it’s contracting that out to private companies under a program called CLP. These contractors started selling space onboard lunar landers so people can send things, which will then sit on the moon forever. There are already a few companies taking advantage of this—one offers to send up your DNA, another will send your ashes. I edit anthologies of poetry, and when I learned about this back in 2020, I thought, I can be the guy with books on the moon! I started buying space right away.

Going from a few books to hundreds of thousands of pieces is a pretty big leap.
When I first started out, I had 22 anthologies of short stories. That was already 264 authors. And when I told them all about my idea, they were blown away—the work they’d poured their hearts and souls into was going to be on the moon! I also curate art shows, and when I started sending up pieces from those, I got the same response. This was during the pandemic, and a lot of artists were facing both a cash crunch and deep depression. This was a way of saying, “This too shall pass, and you’ll be immortalized.” It helped them materially too. One artist told me she made a sale by telling the client that her painting was going to space.

Are artists ever skeptical when you approach them? In fairness, it may come off as a little far-fetched.
Some artists initially thought this was an NFT scam, which is a valid concern—there are some projects for sending art to the moon where they also sell NFTs of the art. We’re not associated with them, though.

What kinds of artists are participating?
So far, we have artists from 157 countries and from every continent, including Antarctica—it turns out that some of the scientists there are also poets. We have works from Henry Moore and Marc Chagall as well as several Indigenous artists, like Abraham Anghik Ruben, Ricky Jaw and Leah Marie Dorion. People are sending work in their own languages, so there are poems in Hindi, Chinese, Hebrew and more.

How do you decide whom to include?
For the poetry, we commissioned three books in what we called The Polaris Trilogy, each of which contains poetry from different areas of the world and is focused on a certain theme. I worked with Joyce Brinkman, the first poet laureate of Indiana, and she and her three senior editors decided which pieces made the cut. Apart from poetry, the focus is on contemporary creative work, from the 1960s to now, which we mostly take from anthologies and art gallery collections. Humans have sent art into space before, like the Golden Record, which was bolted onto the Voyager space probe. But, in that scenario, it had to be the very best—Beethoven and Mozart, that sort of thing. We’re not exclusively looking for things that have been deemed canonical, which means we have everything from graffiti artists to realist painters.

Do artists have to pay to get on board?
We don’t charge anybody anything. My company, Incadence, pays for the launch and covers the cost of the creating the archive.

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Wow. How much has this cost you?
I won’t say, but let me put it this way: my wife and I are art collectors, and we keep saying, “Okay, a few more years until we get that Picasso.” And the amount of years before we can afford that has been growing a lot lately. At first, we were only going to participate in one launch. Then it became two, then three, and now I’m negotiating for two more. Where does it end? Who knows.

What’s your favourite piece in the collection so far?
A painting called “Moonleaves” by my mother, Rosario Bitanga-Peralta. As for art not made by my family, I’d say the painting “Coming Storm” by Mauro Malang Santos. It was the first fine-art piece I ever collected.

Is there any kind of work you’d still trying to get?
Right now I’m focusing on Indigenous representation from around the globe. I’m pleased to announce that we just secured permission to include the painting “Androgyny” by Norval Morrisseau, an Ojibwe artist who’s recognized as one of the world’s greatest Indigenous artists.

When is launch day?
We already had one payload get launched last year, which orbited the moon and came back—so not an archive, per se. The first archival launch will be September or October of this year, then the second will be in November or December, and after that most likely November 2024.

Whom—or what—do you imagine will find these capsules, thousands of years from now?
Probably folks like you and me. Some of the artists have said that they hope aliens will love their work, but I’ve always imagined some future human archeologist finding it and saying, “Whoa, I don’t know what this is, but I think it’s important.”

What do you think they’ll learn?
That, even when the human race was in deep trouble—dealing with wars, pandemics, economic upheavals, wildfires, you name it—we still found time to create art. It’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit and, in particular, the strength of the creative people working today. It’s a way to say to those artists, “You may be working in obscurity, but someday, you never know, someone might tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I think you’re good enough. Let’s put your art in a time capsule. Let’s put you on the moon.’”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.