Life on other planets is a concern that people have had for many years now, even more so since the “space exploration age” started in the 1960s. Aliens have fascinated people because they are the ultimate mystery: extraterrestrials can be imagined in any way, shape or form, given that they are one of the big unknowns of life. Recent revisionist semi-conspiracy theorists have claimed that aliens were even represented in medieval paintings.
However, in recent decades aliens have been on trend and off trend, depending very much on the happenings in global culture and, more than that, on the developments of technology.
Back at the end of the 1980, during the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, one could see a plethora of stories of UFO sightings, alien kidnappings and alien meetings. Extraterrestrials were in fiction (the X-Files), in magazines and even in many prime-time documentaries. People were filming UFOs with their VHS cameras and others gave in-depth testimonies of how they had been in contact with gray or green creatures with big eyes from other worlds.
In a way, from a science-culture point of view, this boom is explainable. As more and more people owned VHS or beta video recorders, they were able to record more and more and, of course, besides birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, people also want to record the mysterious. Bigfoot was another big trend during those decades, but seeing Bigfoot is not as accessible as spotting aliens is: you need to be in a cold, mountainous area and preferably to have a night vision cam to capture him. The fact that people gained more and more access to advanced technologies during the late 1990s and 2000s made nature more exotic and strange – this is how the Bigfoot phenomenon could be explained but also movies featuring aliens that were coming to destroy the world as which was in opposition to how aliens were often portrayed before in films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” from 1982, where aliens were making friends with people.
Also, the testimonies about alien life forms people gave were in tandem with the freak show trend that Western television was experiencing at that time. Overall the aesthetic of the 80s and 90s was one of hidden things, of shadows and the underground. For example, looking at music videos from the time, one will notice that almost all of them are placed in a dark setting: a club with glowing neon lights here and there, an alley or some sort of undefined place. These come in high contrast to what followed, in the 2000s, when it was all about public living, the suburbs and public openness.
But back to the UFOs, these almost disappeared from the mainstream collective mindset in the mid-2000s or a bit earlier. They were replaced by historical conspiracies and secret truths, which had nothing to do with extraterrestrial life. This, of course, can also be explained on from a science-cultural point of view. The new communication avenues – mobile phones and especially the Internet – made it possible for people to not only read about things that they then connect them in any way they want, but also to have access to imagery that supports a culture that claims to connect things that might not be connected. This idea is also visible in the high arts, as collages were very much in fashion in the late 2000s and especially in the lower arts, where whole “documentary” movies were made from archive footage and pictures from many sources and where the “cut and glued together” aesthetic dominated everything from advertisements to book covers.
The rise of digital equipments and technological possibilities – namely the fact that anyone had access to a digital camera and software such as Photoshop; made the alien culture disappear from the mainstream. Consumers quickly understood that not only can anyone photoshop a picture to make it seem that there is a UFO in it, but given that anyone had digital cameras, people understood how easily it is to fake a picture, sometimes even unintentionally. For example, if you toss a coin in the air and photograph it with a flash you get an instant mysterious sky sighting. These could be only one explanation why extraterrestrial beings and machines disappeared. Another could be that UFOs and aliens were generally depicted as highly advanced, yet the technologies described by abductees quickly became upstaged by the technologies that were available to anyone in the industrialized world. For example, cell phones, sensor-operated doors, video communication are just some examples.
Also, in the context that there were no government-confirmed alien encounters during the 1980s and 90s, it was pretty expected for these cultural productions to fad.
Recently however, just as it appeared that UFOs had disappeared from the global cultural and entertainment horizon, one can notice that we’re seeing a new rise in the presence of these concepts in our culture. Now, we don’t see much of people claiming to be kidnapped by aliens – again, the science-culture aspect explains it – if you go on camera on a documentary and claim to have been kidnapped by aliens becomes your biography and identity. And today, biographies are created online, on social media websites, so once somebody goes on camera claiming to have been abducted by aliens, they can become a meme, which will be more than their ID. Of course, these mediums also allow people to discredit and attack the testifier in casue, making the act of exposing yourself more risky than it was in the 1980s and 90s. Wanting to avoid this or to be considered crazy by a potential future boss who searches for you online makes people be hesitant to sharing their alien stories with the masses. There is also the possibility that many of the alien stories told during the 1980s and 1990s are in a way self-induced, the cultural climate combined with some sort of physiological experience can generate an involuntary imagination process, taken by the body for real. Of course, this opens the discussion of what is “real” – is reality based on the outside reality or on your own individual perception of it? This is a discussion that philosophers have always had.
Today’s aliens are quite different than those from the 20th century: they are more mysterious, obviously, but they are also more abstract (no IBM chip-shaped crop circles anymore and very little to no AI). If you look at how aliens are presented today, you will notice that they are seen as transhuman beings. They have surpassed their original, biological state through technology – some of them come from the future, others come from other dimensions. It is possible the next wave of aliens will be one that has a more anthroposophical approach, meaning that the aliens are spiritual beings. However, this will be connected to technology in a way, like a transhumanist 2.0 version.
Interestingly enough, the discourse about aliens itself is more prominent today than the visual aspect. The web is full of so-called “leaked” videos, but nobody seems to care that much altogether. Many people have accustomed their minds to automatically dismiss this type of information, especially when, as most of them do, come from an “unreliable” source.
The concept of “aliens” in recent visual culture is a very complicated one. Between the extremely high number of ideas, voices and thoughts, there’s a lot to think of.
One more thing that is noteworthy when it comes to aliens is the way in which these are portrayed in the blockbusters of today. In Avatar 1, we can see how the aliens, reached through some transhumanist processes, connect their bodies to plants and other natural elements. In the recent “Alien Covenant” film, the plot involves a merger between plants and animals. Obviously, these are a reflection of the ecological, biotechnical and technical advances made today.
There are many contradictions when it comes to aliens, space and science in the arts and in other cultural products. Are there secret alien bases on the moon or have we not even landed there yet? This contradiction, however, is part of the reflection of today’s society: for any statement made, there seems to be a contrary statement. It’s maybe part of that “post-truth” we hear so often about.
And that raises the question again: what is reality? Is it what we perceive, is it the exterior world or is it a combination – can it be? The truth of the matter is that until there is no credibility attached to aliens and UFOs, the field will remain open.