Tom Mansfield, Artistic Director of Upstart, writes about responses to recent world events.
On February 14th 1990, the Voyager spacecraft took this photo of Earth from six billion kilometres away. The physicist and author Carl Sagan suggested that NASA engineers have it take the photograph as a way of giving all of us on the planet a sense of perspective – both of the uniqueness of our planet, and of its tiny scale when set against the vastness of the universe. It’s an incredible picture, and Sagan wrote about it beautifully in his book Pale Blue Dot, which has turned up as a Facebook meme repeatedly over the last few years.
I saw this video – images of Earth from space accompanied by Sagan reading an extract from his book – when it popped up on my Facebook timeline this morning. It was set between more news about Friday’s attacks in Paris, articles explaining the background to the killings, and reminders that horrible acts of violence have also been continuing in Kenya, in Lebanon and in Syria. Many of my friends’ profile pictures were overlaid with the French tricolore; others of them had posted messages about how they weren’t going to get involved in a Facebook-sponsored act of official mourning for one country’s atrocity over another’s. A newspaper posted exclusive pictures from La Belle Equipe; another published photographs of bombed-out Syrian cityscapes. Live reports of French and American air strikes on Raqqah. The university killings in Kenya. All over our little blue dot, it seemed, people are killing, maiming, suffering and dying.
There was some light, though. The National newspaper had pasted ‘Welcome to Scotland’ all over its front page as the first of 20,000 Syrian refugees (not enough, not enough…) arrived in the country. A French television channel ran an interview with a father and his young son in which the father explained that the flowers outside the Bataclan were there to ‘protect against guns’. Maybe they were only small acts of compassion in a darkened world. But somehow, they helped lift my mood. And then, in ‘related posts’, up popped the little blue dot.
As Carl Sagan reminds us, when set against the immensity of the space it’s floating in, our planet is vanishingly small. Whatever the differences we have between one another, they are insignificant compared to the difference between humanity and the infinite emptiness around us. For me, that has to remind us of the responsibilities that we all have toward one another, regardless of ideology, religion, nationality, skin colour. And on days like this, when we’re looking at the photograph of the Earth in space right next to footage of fleeing civilians on familiar streets, it reminds me of the need for us to remember that atrocities are happening across the world daily, and that the way to extinguish hatred is not through violence but through respect, friendship and peace.
Phone Home is, I guess, the action that we as artists, as European citizens and as human beings can take towards building that friendship and that piece. By listening to and telling stories of people across different cultures we can come to understand one another better, and reinforce our sense of shared humanity. It’s a small but important step that we can take towards the values that inspired the tricolore on my friends’ profile pictures – liberty, equality and fraternity.