Issue #142 Through Shadows, Darkly

Through Shadows, Darkly

Hallie Ayres

Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi, 2009. Video, color, sound, 21:50 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

Issue #142
February 2024

A couple years ago in London, I went to a screening of Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser (2021) and was shocked by the full crowd for a Sunday night screening of an experimental documentary on neocolonialism in Hawai’i. It did not take long—as the rapt audience took in the opening drone shots of skylines of financial capitals, set to the voice-over of an art dealer waxing poetic about the craft of the art market—to realize I was in the wrong theater, watching a cast of dubiously wealthy art aficionados chronicle the misadventures of Salvator Mundi (ca. 1499–1510), the painting controversially attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that sold for $450 million in 2017. Feeling unable to extricate myself, I ended up watching all of The Lost Leonardo (Andreas Koefoed, 2021) and only later managed to view Rock Bottom Riser.

While Koefoed exposes the shady undergirding of the art market’s flows of conspicuous consumption, Silva traffics in long takes of Hawai’i’s contested landscape set to contextualizing voice-overs. Despite their formal differences, the content of both films showcases how cosmological systems can be weaponized. Koefoed focuses on the economic systems behind a visage of earth’s proclaimed savior, allegedly composed by a progenitor of empiricist humanism. Silva turns his attention to the contemporary consequences of the historical abuse of certain cosmologies as forms of domination. Rather than painting Western European and Polynesian epistemologies as mutually exclusive or irreconcilable, a comparison of the films’ subject matter shows that it is precisely when the similarities between the cosmologies closely linked to those epistemologies are denied that one comes to be wielded as a domineering tool.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, Repurposed Archaic Technology vehicle or RAT Rod, 2023. Site-specific installation. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Rock Bottom Riser explores three modes—each tied to an era of Hawai’i’s political chronology—of navigating the island’s relationship with the celestial realm: the ingenuity of Polynesian wayfinding, the zeal of Christian missionaries, and the imposing domes of the W. M. Keck Observatory, which manages thirteen telescopes on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the most sacred site in Hawaiian cosmology. Since 2014, native Hawaiian activists have successfully halted the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Silva never depicts this conflict outright. We don’t see protest footage, active blockades, or law enforcement intervention, and, in lieu of the palm tree–laden sandy beaches promoted by the tourism industry, Silva’s most stunning imagery of Hawai’i comes when he lingers on telescopes while star trails dance overhead, or when he chases lava as it rips apart infrastructure.

The throughline of the film is the question of situated knowledge: How to reconcile Western scientific research and inquiry with Indigenous ways of knowing and lived experience? Silva’s observational method hints at these tensions but never offers a conclusion. Instead, he depicts a palimpsest of interpretations as layered as the volcanic rock that continuously recreates the archipelago. Pans of barren landscape accompany the most explicit reference to the Indigenous resistance, which arrives via a voice-over connecting astronomy to policing to argue that the relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge comes at the expense of the native Hawaiian population, many of whom are criminalized by a bolstered carceral apparatus. Native Hawaiian cosmology—informed by Polynesian navigators who found their way to the islands two thousand years ago by reading the stars—is a means of making sense of place and circumstance within the cosmos. In contrast, the desecration of Mauna Kea to facilitate the technological conquest of outer space follows a statist logic that upholds Western dogmatism over localized resistance. In this way, divergences between cosmologies have been transformed from differences in viewpoint, mythology, or culture into structural incompatibilities that are used to justify the imposition of juridical regimes.

My accidental viewing of The Lost Leonardo came to feel prescient of my experience of Rock Bottom Riser. Salvator Mundi embodies the early modern version of a practice that Silva shows playing out in Hawai’i in real time: in its title and iconography, the painting presumes that European Christian cosmology supersedes all others, that there is only one “savior” and only one “world.” The threat to Indigenous cosmologies posed by the neocolonial defilement of Mauna Kea—explained away by Western scientific and entrepreneurial interests who claim that it will advance our understanding of our place in the universe—mirrors the missionary zeal that fueled earlier European colonialism. Salvator Mundi was also produced amidst paradigm shifts in Western ideas of earth’s place among the stars: by 1514 Nicolaus Copernicus was distributing among close colleagues a handwritten manuscript of the outline of his heliocentric theory.

If the iconography of Salvator Mundi represents the cosmologies that underpinned early modern European social hierarchies, and if its circulation coincided with shifts in understandings of humanity’s position in the universe, then we might analyze the contexts into which it reemerged in the early twenty-first century. What epistemological paradigms are shifting at the moment when this painting has been “rediscovered” and made the subject of a documentary screened in a theater I thought would be showing another work interrogating the relationship between the imaging of the cosmos and terrestrial systems of governance?

At one point in Rock Bottom Riser, Silva interviews a scientist at the SETI Institute, the nonprofit research organization devoted to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Over a montage of landscape paintings of lava flows and volcanic eruptions in the style of European Romanticism, the scientist draws a revealing comparison: he likens SETI’s quest to find stars that could support life after earth has succumbed to climate change to that of the colonists who departed Europe to escape religious persecution or follow rumors of lands paved with gold. Setting aside this particularly generative visual parallel, the prospect of colonizing distant planets currently comprises only the speculative part of SETI’s foundational project. In practice, the institute is focused on the possibility of harnessing radio waves and lasers as a means of establishing contact with other civilizations in the cosmos.

SETI has its roots in two nearly simultaneous advances in the 1950s: Charles Townes’s invention of the laser, and Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi’s investigations into radio waves as a means of interstellar communication. Searching for detectable transmissions from extraterrestrial civilizations is only one component of SETI’s mission; the other, which is more conceptually challenging, is how and whether we transmit information about ourselves out into the cosmos. By 1974, astrophysicist Frank Drake had been appointed director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. At the time, the observatory’s thousand-foot-diameter bowl of a telescope was undergoing a renovation that expanded the range of detectable radio frequencies, making it the most powerful piece of astrophysical equipment in the world. Crowning this achievement was a radio transmitter enabling the observatory to send its own messages into the cosmos. To celebrate the completion of the renovations, Drake sent the first, and still the most powerful, message ever transmitted into space: a sequence of 1,679 binary digits assembled to convey certain crucial aspects about human civilization on earth.1

Since Drake’s message in 1974, there have been only a handful of SETI transmissions into the cosmos. In 1986, the artist Joe Davis sent a transmission of the sounds of vaginal contractions from MIT’s Millstone Radar, which continued for only a few minutes before a US Air Force colonel was made aware of the content of the broadcast and ordered it cut off. The next major transmission, in 1999, came from Ukraine’s Yevpatoria Deep Space Center and was funded by commercial space technology entrepreneur Charles Chafer and crowdfunding incentivized by the inclusion of one’s brief personal message in the broadcast. Titled “Cosmic Call,” the transmission targeted four stars between fifty and seventy light years away. In addition to the personal messages, “Cosmic Call” included information about the principles of arithmetic, geometry, and simple astronomy and chemistry, a map of the earth, and some questions posed about the recipient’s planet and civilization.

These cosmic transmissions raise many quandaries, most notably, how to represent ourselves to the cosmos. This is as much an existential question as it is diplomatic. Interstellar missives have thus far been defined by assumptions about “objective” knowledge, cultural and species bias, and the possibility that extraterrestrial communication would follow our terrestrial patterns.2 Critics of SETI have consistently argued that the program is more closely aligned with an unauthorized diplomatic project than it is with the hard sciences. While valid, a more imminent danger is that the transmissions might reveal the location of earth to extraterrestrials harboring violent intentions. Some scientists and philosophers have, therefore, raised the question of whether we should divulge anything—or at least anything truthful—within these transmissions.

Thotti, (Mo) Crossing to the End and the Beginning Again, 2023. Mixed-media installation, overall approximately 530 × 480 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Besides the assumption that the radio signals transmitted by SETI projects can reach interstellar civilizations,3 these critiques also fail to acknowledge that radio signals are already being transmitted into space as leakage from terrestrial broadcasts. If an extraterrestrial society has managed to develop an incredibly powerful antenna, then it would be privy to radio and television signals broadcast since the invention of these technologies. This would render SETI’s curated messages pointless and the argument of unauthorized diplomacy moot. The listening-in civilizations would also be well aware of the human tendency towards exploitation and war. Scientist Lancelot Thomas Hogben, who crafted a system of interstellar communication based on arithmetic, has jokingly suggested that, if contact with an extraterrestrial civilization is ever sustained, it may be in our best interest to challenge them to a game of chess to “divert some of the deplorable combativeness of our own species by recording interplanetary tournaments to keep the international news out of the headlines.”4

In the 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is listening to radio signals received at the Very Large Array, a radio observatory in New Mexico, when she notices an unusual sequence of pulses. After a frenetic effort to maintain access to the signal, she and her colleagues determine that the series of pulses constitute a beacon, communicating prime numbers from the vicinity of the nearby star Vega. Overcome by excitement, they alert their friends and families, prompting an international security flurry and the arrival of news crews at the observatory. As Department of Defense officials storm the place to warn Dr. Arroway about her potential national security breach, her team discovers that the radio signal has two interlaced frames, allowing its transformation into a television signal. An image slowly comes into focus on a laboratory computer screen: Hitler’s speech opening the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

US Army officials interpret this as a hostile act, but Dr. Arroway explains that this might have been the first broadcast strong enough to make it into space. That the inhabitants of Vega recorded it and sent it back to earth, she reasons, was their way of saying that they heard us: “Hitler and his politics have nothing to do with this.” The scene gives credence to the radio leakage concerns: Which civilization wouldn’t interpret the content of television and radio as warmongering? Either way, that humans’ first response to receiving a transmission from space is to wage war might be emblematic of certain foundational principles of SETI.

If we are to take the scientist interviewed by Silva at his word, then the SETI project is partly driven by the specter of interstellar colonialism and the desire to find a civilization beyond earth, shadowed by the unspoken desire to colonize their distant planet once we’ve ravaged our own. Indigenous studies scholar David Uahikeaikalei’ohu Maile has noted that the Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for Mauna Kea “consolidates and inspires technoscientific desire for space colonization, the conquest of extraterrestrial existents, and human settlement on planets beyond our solar system.”5 Meanwhile, he continues, “desire for nonhuman life and exoplanets with habitable conditions for human life has superseded Indigenous life, ecologies, and orientations on our planet.”6 This opposition, he shows, is steeped in rhetoric from the scientific community that not only aggrandizes their own techno-scientific positions but also formulates Indigenous land protectors as antagonists in the quest for knowledge: “Technoscientific anxiety about the backwardness of human civilization is closely connected to anxieties about finding more advanced intelligent life beyond Earth.”7

Maile details a standoff in July 2019 between Indigenous Hawaiians blockading Mauna Kea and militarized state police, after the governor of Hawai’i, David Ige, issued an emergency proclamation allowing the National Guard to forcefully remove the land protectors.8 In response, Paul Neves, one of the land protectors, filed a lawsuit against Ige for violating the state’s Emergency Management Law, which is reserved for natural disasters. Though there were two hurricanes approaching Hawai’i at the time, in Ige’s mind the primary threat were the activists. This criminalization of native populations serves to reinforce the myth of settler-colonial sovereignty. The irony here is that the telescope—framed as a means of discovering future habitats—both desecrates the land it occupies and accelerates the ecological collapse that will be borne first and foremost by land protectors. Maile summarizes:

As it attempts to shore up sovereignty in Hawai’i by sanctioning astronomy development on Mauna Kea, the state tries to cohere power by funneling both development and defense of the mountain into its juridical orbit to signify territorial authority and jurisdiction. This renders Kanaka Maoli [Indigenous Hawaiians] peculiar and anomalous in the landscape of what is being designated for telescopes, observatories, and astronomy.9

Black Quantum Futurism, Write No History, 2021. HD video, color, sound, 15:34 minutes. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Thanks to the resistance of Indigenous Hawaiians at Mauna Kea, the Thirty Meter International Telescope Corporation Observatory is contemplating moving the project to a backup site in the Canary Islands. While this has prevented further dispossession for now, the Mauna Kea episode suggests that the astronomy industry—and particularly the subset of it focused on the quest for life beyond earth—is animated by an intrinsic settler-colonial impulse. The Arecibo Telescope, from which Frank Drake sent the first SETI radio transmission, occupied a site in the US settler colony of Puerto Rico.10 The Very Large Array in New Mexico, where Dr. Arroway hears the beacon from Vega, dominates a tract of southwestern desert dispossessed from Apache, Zuni, and Pueblo tribes. The Yevpatoria Deep Space Center, from which the “Cosmic Call” was broadcast in 1999, was constructed in Soviet Ukraine and, as of Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014, has been reintegrated into Russia’s space program. The desire to establish contact with life beyond earth, then, seems intrinsically tied to the settler-colonial paradigm playing out within our terrestrial sphere.


To return to the framework offered earlier: the painting Salvator Mundi has—either side of being “lost” to art history—spanned two dramatics shift in the human orientation towards the cosmos that have complex repercussions for the histories of colonization. The advances of astronomy in the early modern period made possible the early waves of nautical European “exploration”; Salvator Mundi’s reappearance on the market in 2017 coincides with a period in which renewed attempts to move beyond the earth are used to justify neocolonial attitudes toward not only land stewarded by Indigenous populations on earth but also, implicitly, towards the residents of as-yet-undiscovered habitable planets.

If we allow the painting to pose as a beacon in its own right, could it hint at the possibility of recourse? Media theorists11 have noted that da Vinci—if it was da Vinci—painted the orb that Christ holds in Salvator Mundi in a manner inconsistent with the laws of optics: the reflected image depicted inside it should be upside down. Accordingly, one means of interpreting this is that the painter was less interested in reproducing the sphere factually than convincingly. But there is another way to read the sphere: as a non-refracting object rather than a conventional glass orb. In this scenario, the image shown in the orb may well be a shadow.

The orb, in this reading, is not a representation of the physical world as it is cradled by the Savior but a lens onto a world of shadows and a symbol of deliberate obfuscation. In such a paradigm, knowledges are situated by an understanding that some mysteries must remain out of reach, that that there might exist a means of understanding the cosmos through and among its veils, and that there is no comprehensive cosmology that invalidates all others. Whether this can ever be reconciled with a techno-scientific industry steered by the desire for empirical data accumulation is not clear. Perhaps the truths most fundamental to our existence cannot be represented directly or defined empirically.

Leonardo da Vinci (alone) or Leonardo with workshop participation, Salvator Mundi, c. 1499–1510. Oil on walnut panel. Reproduction of the painting after restoration by Dianne Dwyer Modestini. License: Public domain.



The transmission contained, among other tidbits of information: the numbers one to ten; a range of atomic numbers for various elements; information about the DNA helix; a crude pictogram of a human being; the global population in 1974; and a line of planets in the solar system, with earth slightly elevated directly above a drawing of the Arecibo dish.


The Voyager’s Golden Record, launched in 1977, is a case in point.


Any signal sent from earth (or emanating from deep within the cosmos) is subject to the inverse square law, which means that a signal originating four light years away, for example, would reach earth’s signal detectors at only one-sixteenth of its original strength, and so on. This assumes that any extraterrestrial civilization would have had the technical sophistication to build an electromagnetic transmitter, the desire to send a signal flare that would make themselves known across the cosmos, and the longevity to have made these decisions long enough ago in the past that we’d have reason to anticipate the arrival of their signals now.


Quoted in Daniel Oberhaus, Extraterrestrial Languages (MIT Press, 2019), 74.


David Uahikeaikalei’ohu Maile, “On Being Late: Cruising Mauna Kea and Unsettling Technoscientific Conquest in Hawai’i,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 45, no. 1 (2021): 109.


Maile, “On Being Late,” 109.


Maile, “On Being Late,” 110.


Maile, “On Being Late,” 113.


Maile, “On Being Late,” 114. Emphasis in original.


After a series of storms throughout the 2010s caused sustained damage to the Arecibo Telescope, the National Science Foundation announced on November 19, 2020 that Arecibo would be decommissioned. In December 2020, the governor of Puerto Rico at the time, Wanda Vázquez Garced, signed an executive order designating the area as a historic site, in addition to allocating eight million dollars for debris removal and the design of a new observatory to be built in Arecibo’s place. This reconstruction, she stated, is a “matter of public policy” .


“Bubble Vision,” lecture delivered by Hito Steyerl, Yale University School of Art, February 21, 2018.

Film, Colonialism & Imperialism, Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity
The Cosmos, Outer Space
Return to Issue #142

Hallie Ayres was on the curatorial team for the 14th Shanghai Biennale, Cosmos Cinema, and is associate director of e-flux.


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