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Railways, ruins and modernity: artists’ explore Mexico’s abandoned rail network

 

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Our latest exhibition, Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s ‘SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe – Modern Ruins 1:220‘ has already been featured in several blogs around the world. Even Jonathan Jones at the Guardian wrote a very nice piece about it. However, there is still much to say about this remarkable project, not to mention the stunning pictures and video. The exhibition, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and presented in partnership with Furtherfield Gallery, at the heart of Finsbury Park in London – ends next weekend (27 July). Do catch it if you haven’t yet.

I’ll start with a video which nicely captures the concept of this ambitious and delightful project, in which the artists designed and built their own silver road-rail exploration probe SEFT-1 (which they call a “spaceship”) and set out to travel the forgotten passenger railways of Mexico and visit the communities isolated when Mexico abruptly discontinued its passenger services after privatisation in 1995.

For five years (between 2006 and 2011), Puig and Domene travelled in the SEFT-1 (Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada or Manned Railway Exploration Probe), recording the landscapes and infrastructure between cities, interviewing people they met, taking photographs and videos, and sharing their findings online, at www.seft1.com (more pictures at the bottom of this page).

On their journeys, they encountered hundreds of “modern ruins” – places and systems deserted quite recently, not because they weren’t functional, but because political and economical priorities changed. Their photographs show remote, derelict stretches of track slowly decaying back into forest or desert landscapes, presenting an eerie image of the past that is also a dystopian vision of an abandoned future.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 with Citlaltépetl in the background

As Professor Malcolm Miles noted in his talk at the opening of the exhibition, ruins hold an allure for us, provoking a different emotional response from the pristine. In the case of modern ruins, they may make us to dwell on the waste and decay of industrial economies; if we look around, such ruins are everywhere in our urban environment. Power leaks, declines and becomes derelict, noted Miles, a notion encapsulated in Shelley’s famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, but, he felt, in an age of climate change it is easy just to dismiss industry as well as modernity, and perhaps ruins can tell us also about survival. Modernism and industry, he argued, brought us many benefits. It’s hard to look back at that idea now, as it predicted where we are, even if this isn’t the world we wanted.

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Railways are an icon of modern industrialisation, part of our identity in the UK. It was British companies who partnered with the Mexican government in the second half of the 19th century to build the iconic railway line that connected Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean, a line that now lies in ruins. In the UK, in 1963, Beeching closed many tracks, and since then the rail network has continued to suffer from disinvestment and prioritisation of road transport by successive governments.

Recognising the historical links between Britain and Mexico’s railways, for this new exhibition, the artists invited British expert model railway constructor Neville Reid to collaborate by creating a scale diorama and model of the ruined viaduct spanning the Metlac gorge in Mexico. One gallery has become a space for the process of model ruin construction. All details – down to the vegetation – have been meticulously researched and reconstructed.

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The SEFT-1 exploration probe  and exhibition are still open this weekend and next (11am-6pm): 18–20 July and 25–27 July 2014.

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 in La Loma station, Durango

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 interior of cabinIvan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 under the stars of Taviche

SEFT-1 in Mars

Science at the edge of the world

The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

South Pole telescope and BICEP2 telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. | REUTERS

Antarctica science has been major news recently, with the apparent discovery of gravitational waves by the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) telescope, sited at the South Pole. If confirmed, this discovery is of huge significance to our understanding of how the universe began, as it supports the inflationary theory of how the universe formed, which proposes that there was a sudden stupendous enlargement of the universe in the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after the big bang. This inflation would have created ripples in space-time (gravitational waves), according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Astrophysicists have been searching for signs of these waves in cosmic microwave radiation – the afterglow of the Big Bang – which fills the entire cosmos. However, it was known that such waves would be miniscule and incredibly difficult to detect, but if they could be detected, it would help to prove that inflation had happened.

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

Staff at Halley VI launch a weather balloon to take samples from the atmosphere, British Antarctic Survey

It is the dryness of Antarctica that makes it ideal for astronomical research, as atmospheric water vapour absorbs millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths, making it difficult to observe cosmic microwave background in most places on Earth. The combination of altitude – 11,000 feet – and cold (temperature averages -49° Celsius) in Antarctica makes for a very dry atmosphere. As an added bonus for astronomical research, nighttime lasts for six months. These conditions allow for optimum observation of very deep space.

As well as astronomical research, much other important scientific research also takes place in Antarctica. Scientists come to the continent from around the world to study climate, astrophysics, marine biology, geology, ecology, and more. The Antarctic ice sheet plays a vital role in the functioning of the global ecosystem. It stores 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, and the seasonal changes in Antarctica’s sea ice have a profound influence on atmospheric and water temperatures and weather patterns.

As laid out in the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, Antarctica is a continent solely dedicated to science. But the extreme conditions of cold and dark in Antarctica make human life, habitation – and therefore scientific research – highly challenging. To undertake any scientific research in Antarctica depends not only on the quality and commitment of the scientists, but also on the nature of the scientific stations, facilities and equipment.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen - Belare 2008-2009

Ice Lab – Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first “Zero emission” polar research station (c) René Robert – International Polar Foundation

At the Arts Catalyst, we’re excited that our curated exhibition, ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’, initiated and commissioned by the British Council, will tour to New Zealand’s IceFest in Autumn 2014, where it will show at the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, from 26 Sept – 12 Oct 2014. ‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ presents some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, which enables scientists to do ground-breaking research in extreme conditions, as well as showcasing some of the science that takes place there.

‘Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctic’ features architectural projects that not only utilise cutting-edge technology and engineering, but have equally considered aesthetics, sustainability and human needs in their ground-breaking designs for scientific research stations. The exhibition features four international projects: Halley VI, UK (Hugh Broughton Architects), Princess Elizabeth, Belgium (International Polar Foundation), Bharati, India (bof architekten/IMS), Jang Bogo, South Korea (Space Group), and the Iceberg Living Station (MAP Architects) – a speculative design for a future research station to be entirely made from compacted snow. The featured stations are each architecturally pioneering – from Halley VI, the first fully relocatable polar research station, to Bharati, a striking modernist structure made from prefabricated shipping containers, to the Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica’s first zero-emission station, which seamlessly integrates renewables wind and solar energy, water treatment facilities, passive building technologies and a smart grid for maximizing energy efficiency.

Installation view of the Antarctica station models.

Ice Lab exhibition. Installation view of the Antarctica station models. Photo: McAteer Photography

Ice Lab, previously shown at Lighthouse, Glasgow, and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, includes original drawings, models, photographs and films of the stations, and highlights the diverse science that takes place in Antarctica – from collecting 4.5 billion year old meteorites that illuminate how the solar system formed, to drilling ice cores whose bubbles of ancient air reveal the earth’s climate history. As part of the exhibition, artist Torsten Lauschmann was commissioned to create two new artworks, ‘Whistler’ and ‘Ice Diamond’.

A person sitting on a rock reading the Ice Lab book surrounded by snow and one penguin.

Ice Lab book being read in Antarctica. Photo: Clare Thorpe

Accompanying the Ice Lab exhibition, there is a publication – available in print form and as a free downloadable e-book – with essays by Dr David Walton (British Antarctic Survey) and Sam Jacob (co-founder of FAT architects).

The Ice Lab exhibition builds on Arts Catalyst’s previous work on Antarctic issues, including Simon Faithfull’s 2006 Ice Blink exhibition of artwork resulting from his trip to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, and the 2007 POLAR: Fieldwork & Archive Fever series, with Kathryn Yusoff and the British Library, which incorporated a symposium, public talks, a publication Bipolar, and two new artists’ commissions from Anne Brodie and Weather Permitting.

Announcing 3 funded PhD studentships, Northumbria University/BALTIC

Image of scientist in clean room looking down microscope

Cultural Negotiation of Science. Image credit: Dr. Juergen Schmoll. Centre for Advanced Instrumentation, Durham University

I don’t often paste announcements here, but is such an exciting opportunity it needs to be circulated as widely as possible.

Northumbria University and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, UK, have announced three funded PhD studentships, relating to the Cultural Negotiation of Science research group that has continued to develop from a symposium at BALTIC last year in which the Arts Catalyst took part. This is a practice-led research group in which questions of cultural production are addressed across the spectrum of biomedical and fundamental science, medical genetics and physical geography. The studentships are all based within the innovative BxNU Institute of Contemporary Art partnership between Northumbria University and BALTIC.

Imaging & Imagining Fundamental Science
Principal Supervisor: Fiona Crisp, Reader in Fine Art.
http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=53641

This practice-led Fine Art Studentship will broadly address how inter-disciplinary research might evolve the cultural tools of interpretation, imagination and visualisation to negotiate shifts in Fundamental Science in both historical and contemporary sphere.

‘Meeting Place’ Practice performed across the disciplines
Principal Supervisor: Christine Borland, BALTIC Professor.
http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=53639

The proposed project will investigate, through practice-based research, the reciprocal relationship between the life sciences/medicine and contemporary visual/performing arts as it is constructed, perceived, negotiated or performed at the nexus of physical and conceptual human bodies.

Abstract Geology – Critically Engaged Fine Art Practices of the post human within a new geologic era
Principal Supervisor: Dr Rona Lee, Professor of Fine Art.
http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=53644

This practice led Fine Art studentship is offered in the context of transdisciplinary engagement with the Anthropocene (or proposition that the impact of humanity upon the Earth’s ecosystems has triggered a new terrestrial epoch) and the ‘geological turn’ within contemporary thought that this has prompted. 

Deadline for applications is 14th April 2014.

The studentships are open to Home/EU and International students. The studentship includes a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (in 2014/15 this is 13,863 pa) and Home/EU fees. Overseas candidates are also eligible to apply. (Essentially, this means that International students might – but not necessarily – have to take a lower stipend to cover the additional cost of international tuition fees.

20 years of The Arts Catalyst

Speaking at the inaugural London LASER event at the University of Westminster about some of Arts Catalyst’s seminal projects over the past 20 years:

Dispatches from the Republic of the Moon

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Leonid Tiskov, Private Moon

An artist hand-rears a flock of moon geese as future astronauts; a man meets the moon and stays with her for the rest of his life; the word SHE mysteriously floats across the lunar surface; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata bounces off the moon in morse code; artists organise a protest against moon colonisation …

REPUBLIC OF THE MOON
Agnes Meyer-Brandis | Katie Paterson | Liliane Lijn | Leonid Tishkov | WE COLONISED THE MOON | Moon Vehicle

Opening: Thursday 9 January 2014, 6:30-8:30pm
Exhibition: 10 January-2 February 2014, open daily 11am-6pm
Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London SE1 9PH
Events, including Kosmica Full Moon Party and family workshops, throughout the run. Book now!

Today, China claimed success in landing its ‘Jade Rabbit’ robotic rover on the Moon, the first soft landing there for 37 years. Now China wants to send a human to the Moon. Does this and India’s Mars plans herald the start of a new Asian space race? Back in 2006, NASA announced it would establish a base on the Moon, but this plan was shelved when Obama took over from Bush. Japan and Russia also announced similar plans at the same time.

But why send humans back to the Moon? One argument is that it would be valuable for science, enabling us to study the geology and other conditions of our natural satellite. It’s also been suggested that the Moon could be a valuable base for studying the universe, providing a site for astronomy. Another argument is that the Moon can help to provide the Earth with solar and nuclear power: developing large areas of the Moon into solar farms might enable energy to be beamed back to Earth, or Helium-3 could be mined to use in nuclear fusion. But most arguments for returning to the Moon hinge on its potential use as a ‘launch’ site for expeditions to Mars and beyond, ultimately providing the potential for humankind to leave an endangered Earth.

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Moon Vehicle workshops, Bangalore, India

Many have waded into the debate for and against colonising the Moon, but what have artists to say on the matter? From earliest times, artists and writers have imagined journeying to the Moon, although the topic did not become popular until the 17th century with the invention of the telescope. One of the earliest of these stories is by the English science fiction writer Francis Godwin, whose The Man in the Moone (1638) imagines a man flying to the Moon using a contraption pulled by geese. But it was Jules Verne’s visions in his novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel Around the Moon (1870) that directly inspired the Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the American Robert Goddard who created and built the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket.

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Agnes Meyer Brandis, Moon Goose Colony (2011)

Now that a new space age is dawning, with a new geopolitical dimension, The Arts Catalyst is bringing together a group of artists to re-imagine our relationship with the Moon.

The exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’, which launches The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary year, will transform the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into a lunar embassy on Earth, filled with artists’ fantastical imaginings  and playful protests against lunar exploitation. With works by artists from across the globe including Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Agnes Meyer Brandis, Katie Paterson, and WE COLONISED THE MOON, and contributions by artists, scientists and space experts, the exhibition mingles personal encounters, DIY space plans, imaginary expeditions, and new myths for the next space age.

Declaring a temporary autonomous zone of the Moon in a small part of London, the Arts Catalyst invites people to come and reflect on the future of the Moon and our relationship with this celestial body that has, for 45 years, held a dual role in our imagination – both as a romantic silvery disc and site of dreams, and as a place of rocks and dust and strategic and scientific possibility. Animating the exhibition and enabling interaction, there will be talks, debates, workshops, a Kosmica full moon party, a pop-up moon shop, and playful protests against lunar exploitation. Hope to see you there.

The first version of Republic of the Moon was co-commissioned and presented by The Arts Catalyst and FACT, Liverpool, in 2011.

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Sue Corke and Hagen Betzweiser (We Colonised The Moon): Back in 5 Minutes (2009)

Peace and outer space: the role of artists and developing countries

Acción Sonora. Mexican Space Collective. Kosmica México 2013 © Isela Vera Islas

Acción Sonora. Mexican Space Collective.
Kosmica México 2013 © Isela Vera Islas

I’ve just returned from the enormously successful KOSMICA Mexico 2013 in Mexico City, organised by Nahum Mantra, Laboratorio Arte Alameda and The Arts Catalyst – three nights with more than 400 people every night (mostly in their 20s) packing into a huge gallery to listen to art and science lectures and performances on space topics for four or five hours at a stretch!

While I reflect further on the extraordinary level of interest and excitement shown for this event, I thought I’d pop up a version of the talk I gave there, as it reflects on some of the reasons why I feel it is important to do such events outside Europe and the USA .

Cultural activities and the space programme

As an organisation commissioning artists’ projects that focus on science and technology as shaping forces in society and culture, outer space has been a place of particular investigation for The Arts Catalyst. Our work in the field of space activities has been wide-ranging: from launching artist-designed rockets to ‘space stations on earth’, artists’ residencies in astrophysics labs, and art and science experiments in zero gravity.

Kirsten Johanssen, Nomadic Nature Kit, proposed for ESA International Space Station cultural utilisation

Kirsten Johanssen, Nomadic Nature Kit, proposed for ESA International Space Station cultural utilisation

Although Arts Catalyst is more comfortable with an autonomous or DIY approach to space activities, technologies and domains, we have worked with some of the major space agencies to try to introduce a cultural component to their programmes. Between 2005 and 2008, the European Space Agency (ESA) contracted The Arts Catalyst to advise it on a cultural policy for cultural utilisation of the International Space Station, and to develop and undertake preliminary feasibility studies for a series of pilot artistic projects. This we did, producing a comprehensive report, an executive summary, and a selection of proposed projects checked by space technology specialists for feasibility.

ITACCUS

Following this interesting yet ultimately rather frustrating experience, in partnership with Roger Malina of the Leonardo Institute The Arts Catalyst co-founded – and I currently co-chair with Malina – the International Astronautical Federation’s Technical Activities Committee for the Cultural Utilization of Space (ITACCUS), which seeks “to promote and facilitate the innovative utilization of space and ground segments of space projects and systems, and space applications systems by professionals and organizations in the cultural sectors of society internationally, including all areas of the arts and humanities”.

The ITACCUS membership comprises individuals who act as liaisons to their organisations, and we currently have members from most of the major space agencies around the world as well as several cultural organisations. We continually seek liaison points from unrepresented countries. ITACCUS committee members believe that artistic and cultural activities should be directly included within the space agencies’ fields of activity, so that the wider meaning of space exploration can be considered and opened up.

As a committee of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), ITACCUS contributes to the IAF’s annual report to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on which the IAF has observer status. In my role as co-chair of ITACCUS, I was invited a few years ago to address the about the activities and goals of ITACCUS to this UN committee, at a time when COPUOS was chaired by the Columbian diplomat Ciro Arévalo Yepes (also a member of ITACCUS).

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was set up to review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space. In presenting the activities of ITACCUS to the many country representatives on the UN Committee, I argued for the importance of cultural activities in space activities, and the direct involvement of artists and cultural practitioners in space programmes.

Global commons

To understand the role of the UN COPUOS, I want briefly to introduce the concepts of global commons and space governance.

“Global commons” is a term typically used to describe international and supranational domains (those that lie – or should lie – outside the political reach of any one nation state), particularly in which the earth’s natural resources are found, and which are considered the common heritage of humankind. Global commons, according to the United Nations, include the deep oceans, Antarctica, the atmosphere, and outer space. Over the past few decades, there have been various attempts to legislate to protect these commons, to differing levels of success.

The operator of a Russian minisubmarine plants the Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007

The operator of a Russian minisubmarine plants the Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007

The Law of the Sea is a body of public international law which governs relationships between nations in respect to navigational rights, mineral rights, and jurisdiction over coastal waters. There is also maritime law. However, these bodies of law do little to nothing to protect deep oceans from human threats.

antarctic_satellite

Currently, the Antarctic Treaty regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica. The treaty entered into force in 1961 and currently has 50 signatory nations. It sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity on that continent.

Amy Balkin, Public Smog

Amy Balkin, Public Smog, 2004+

Since 2004, the artist Amy Balkin has campaigned to include the world’s atmosphere – that narrow band of air surrounding our planet on which all life depends – on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. However, most likely due to political pressures involved in what would essentially ban the increase of harmful chemicals in the atmosphere, most UNESCO-participating countries will not agree that the earth’s protective layer makes the list. For the visual component to what is largely a research and activist based project, Balkin assembles various letters and petitions that she has sent to country-based representatives of UNESCO as well as their responses.

Space law: who owns the Moon?

"The Owner of the Moon", magazine cover with interview of Jenaro Garjardo Vera

“The Owner of the Moon”, magazine cover with interview of Jenaro Garjardo Vera

Many, including the UN, consider outer space to be a global commons. It is often asked: Who owns outer space? Or, as someone at Kosmica Mexico asked more specifically: Who owns the Moon? Did the US or Russia stake their claims by putting flags or national symbols on the Moon?

In fact, before the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Chilean musician, poet and lawyer Jenaro Gajardo Vera became famous between 1953 until his death in 1998, as the legitimate owner of the Moon.

Jenaro_Gajardo

This is his claim, which appeared to be legitimate, according to Chilean law at the time. It says:

“Jenaro Gajardo Vera, es dueño, desde antes del año 1857, uniendo su posesión a la de sus antecesores, del astro, satélite único de la Tierra, de un diámetro de 3.475.00 kilómetros, denominada LUNA, y cuyos deslindes por ser esferoidal son: Norte, Sur, Oriente y Poniente, espacio sideral.”

“Jenaro Gajardo Vera, is the owner, since before year 1857, joining to his possessions the one of his ancestors the celestial body, only satellite of the Earth, with a diameter of 3,475.99 kilometers, under the name of Moon, whose boundaries are, due to being an spheroidal body: North, South, East and West: outer space.”

According to Gajardo, his goals were:

- To make a “poetic protest taking part of the selection of potential inhabitants of the satellite,” because he wanted a world without jealousy, hate, vices nor violence.

- To acquire the moon in order “to join the Social Club of Talca, which had a membership requirement of having a property”

Such a benign motive for space ownership was a topic of interest to the media, but nothing to worry about, but in the 1960s, as the “space race” built momentum, the issue of space ownership became real and pressing. In 1967, United Nations sponsored the “Outer Space Treaty”, which established all of outer space as a global commons. The treaty reserves space for the good of mankind, and effectively prohibits private ownership of arbitrary parcels of empty space. It has been ratified by 102 countries, including all the major space-faring nations. The International Moon Treaty was finalised in 1979 and entered into force in 1984. It forbids private ownership of lunar real estate. However, to date only 15 states have ratified the agreement, and none of these are major space-faring nations.

So, in answer to the question ‘Who owns the Moon’, the answer is: probably no one. The United States and Russia (the Soviet Union’s primary successor state) own the equipment left on the Moon, but – according to the Outer Space and Moon treaties – they have no claim to the territories on which they are located. Antarctic bases have similar status.

However, governments which have not signed the relevant treaties may dispute the UN’s authority in this matter. Similarly corporations and individuals have tried – and continue to try – to challenge this. There are significant commercial and military interests in space, even if the Moon’s military and industrial benefits to are still speculative.

Lower Earth orbit

Image: European Space Agency

Image: European Space Agency

Rather than “Who owns space?”, perhaps the question should be “Who controls space? Who is responsible for it and how shall we be held accountable?”

Of course, space includes all the cosmos, our solar system and the Moon, but I want to focus on the space in which most of our space activities actually take place – Lower Earth Orbit. Despite the fantasies of the first space age, and the excitement generated by the recent achievements of Hubble, the Mars probes and Cassini-Huygens, our space age today for the most part now extends no more than 300 miles or so above our heads to the zone of satellites and space stations.

Near earth space has become ordinary, no longer remote, actively contested, and polluted. Space is in every part of our everyday lives. GPS, weather forecasting and satellite telecommunications bring space into work, education, leisure and healthcare. Commercially and militarily, there is a vast amount at stake in terms of access to and control over Earth orbit.

If all that were not enough of a challenge, the orbits of debris that space activities have left around our Earth and the prospect of a nuclear future in space are also issues that need to be constantly addressed.

The Bogotá Declaration, 1976

A space ownership issue of current practical importance is the allocation of slots for satellites in geostationary orbit. A geostationary orbit is where satellites orbit the earth above the equator, such that they appear stationary from the earth. The geostationary orbit is itself made up mainly of communications satellites, which have revolutionized communications and which, of course, have important defense and intelligence applications.

Naturally, early on the United States and the Soviet Union occupied the most valuable and coveted spots in geostationary orbit, leaving latecomers to bear the cost of less favourable positions. In 1976, eight equatorial countries – Brazil, Colombia, Congo, Equador, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zaire – claimed sovereignty over the geostationary orbit, in the Bogotá Declaration, drawing attention to the inequity of orbital allocations and attempting to assert sovereignty over those portions of the geosynchronous orbit that continuously lie over the signatory nation’s territory.

The issue has never been ratified, though it has been debated on several occasions since within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The Bogota Declaration, image by Joanna Griffin & students from Srishti School of Art & Design, Bangalore, India

The Bogota Declaration, image by Joanna Griffin & students from Srishti School of Art & Design, Bangalore, India

The Bogotá Declaration was the subject of a project by artists Alejo Duque and Joanna Griffin exploring the poetics of the declaration as well as the “inequalities in technological power, the physics of orbit and its contested spaces”.

The artists’ intention was to develop a new manifesto based on the Bogota Declaration. They wanted to try to discover what the geostationary orbit can mean to us and define our own protests, rituals and love songs in relation to it. The artists suggest that geostationary orbit, if it is thought of as an architecture, as a part of the human-made built environment, can be likened to the compelling circles of prehistory, such as Stonehenge in UK and those in Senegambia. They were struck by the poetry of the Bogota Declaration: its fervour in challenging the great powers, and at the same time its description of the extraordinary architecture of this necklace-like ring of satellites encircling the Earth.

Duque and Griffin’s project was collaborative and open to participation through the network of a wiki and the networks that emerged through the acts of making work. The aim was to build up a common voice and stand that could raise awareness of this orbit, its political complexities and its poetics. The project comprised writing, drawing, experimental music and events, exchanged online, on the ground and through space.

Listening from space

Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon

Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010

Artist Trevor Paglen uses specialized equipment to document carefully researched sites of secret government activity, and in two series of works he has drawn attention to military intelligence activities in lower Earth orbit. In his photographic series Limit-Telephotography, he uses high-powered astronomical telescopes to capture classified military bases and installations that are sited in some of the remotest parts of the United States andbuffered by dozens of miles of restricted land.

His photograph They Watch the Moon is of Sugar Grove, an NSA “listening station” in West Virginia. Sugar Grove listening station is part of the ECHELON classified and automated network of ground stations, developed to intercept and relay data communications. The station is located at the centre of the “National Radio Quiet Zone” in West Virginia and Maryland, within which radio transmissions are severely restricted. The listening station was designed in part to take advantage of a phenomenon called “moonbounce.” Moonbounce involves capturing communications and telemetry signals from around the world as they escape into space, hit the moon, and bounce back towards Earth.

revor Paglen, KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaisance Satellite, USA 186), 2008

Trevor Paglen, KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaisance Satellite, USA 186), 2008

 In The Other Night Sky, Paglen employed sophisticated telescopic equipment to track and photograph nearly two hundred classified American spacecraft orbiting the earth, using long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths.  The artist used data compiled by amateur astronomer Ted Molczan to predict where a given “black satellite” will be in the sky, and was assisted by a global network of amateur satellite watchers. While the US government continues to espouse the virtues of secrecy, it isn’t able to prevent amateur astronomers from calculating the orbital paths of spy satellites or artists from drawing our attention to the space-based tools of military intelligence.

Artists’ satellites

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, 2012

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, 2012

Paglen is also part of a new wave of artists attempting to place art into lower Earth orbit. Commissioned by Creative Time, Paglen’s The Last Pictures is a project to mark a satellite with a record of our historical moment. For nearly five years, Paglen interviewed scientists, artists, anthropologists and philosophers to consider what such a cultural mark should be. He worked with MIT materials scientists to develop an archival disk of images capable of lasting in space for billions of years. Last year, the television satellite EchoStar XVI took off from Kazakhstan with the disc attached, and entered a geostationary orbit. When it nears the end of its useful life – in about 15 years – it will use the last of its fuel to enter a slightly higher graveyard orbit, where it will power down and die. The Last Pictures will continue to circle Earth until the Earth is no more.

This year, an artist-built satellite was also launched, again from Baikonaur Cosmodrome. Korean artist Hojun Song’s OSSI (Open Source Satellite Initiative) is intended to show how individuals and amateur groups can make their own connection with space in a direct and practical sense, and provide open source tools to do so.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Space Collective – a group of artists based in Mexico City and working with the Laboratorio Arte Alameda – are also planning their own satellite, to be launched from Tonga Spaceport.

Constructing our own space future

We Colonised the Moon, photograph taken at the Teotihuacan Pyramids for Kosmica Mexico 2012

We Colonised the Moon, photograph taken at the Teotihuacan Pyramids for Kosmica Mexico 2012

If space ‘belongs’ to all humanity (albeit not in the property sense), how do we all take ‘ownership’ – and hence responsibility – for it? How do we make our own space futures, that are not entirely dependent upon and controlled by the existing international and national space agencies and major corporations and governments?

In particular, how do those countries that are not already represented in a significant way in space, take their place as the shared beneficiaries (culturally, technologically and economically) and trustees of this global commons?

A new collaborative programme between the University of Texas (El Paso and Dallas), The Arts Catalyst and Laboratorio Arte Alameda intends to address these questions. It sets out to ask how the space imaginary – which has become synonymous with the ‘great’ national and international projects of Apollo, the ISS, space probes, Mars Landers and Hubble, and the images produced by the major space agencies – become rather an expansion of our contemporary social imaginary?

Through this programme, we want to work with artists who engage in disruptive, alternative and collective interactions with space and space technology, who create technological and imaginative alternatives for space occupation, and who reappropriate the technologies of space and the data from space, in a way that connects people to new bodies of knowledge and new ways of relating. We are particularly interested in drawing on projects by artists and collectives from Latin America, and ultimately from the countries of Africa and other non-traditional space nations, that respond to the imperative to develop and reflect an alternative poetic and political relationship with space.

In my presentation to the UN COPUOS, I suggested that a new philosophy and vision for space was perhaps overdue, one relevant for the 21st century and a changing world of power relations and environmental and economic challenges. At this time in human civilisation, when we are so dependent on science and technology, and at the same time when our technologised and industrial world presents many challenges for a sustainable future, I believe activities and developments in outer space should be considered from different cultural perspectives – not only those of the established space powers, and not just those of scientists and politicians. The future of space needs a societal and cultural dialogue, in which people from many countries and many disciplines can take part.

Fracking futures – HeHe’s experimental drilling cuts out the middle man

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT

As David Koch – the wealthy industrialist whose company is responsible for the dumping of a three-storey high city block sized pile of petroleum coke (a byproduct of oil sands refining) in Detroit’s Assumption Park – funds a new plaza at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m prompted to wonder what we in the UK arts sector will get up to in response to Government calls for reductions in public subsidy to be replaced with corporate and personal philanthropy, as per the American model.

Viewing the ongoing hubbub around BP’s ongoing sponsorship of our major institutions, Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House, how can we finance our work without sparking quite such a furor? And anyway, how much do we want to benefit a multinational?

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

Petcoke piles along the Detroit river. Byproduct of tar sands oil refinement at the Marathon refinery in Detroit Michigan. Photo: James Fassinger

In The Arts Catalyst latest commission with FACT, Liverpool, artist group HeHe (Heiko Hansen and Helen Evans) propose a radical solution: cut out the middle man, let’s extract our own fossil fuels.

In FACT’s ground floor Gallery 1, HeHe have begun initial exploratory tests to extract shale gas through an innovative process known as fracking, turning the space into an experimental drilling site. Fracking is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’: pumping a highly pressurised mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. The process opens fissures in subterranean rocks, releasing the gas trapped several miles beneath the earth’s surface. HeHe’s initial explorations have already discovered that the area directly beneath FACT consists of Holywell shale and might hold at least 20 trillion cubic feet of gas. This energy will be used to ensure the future operation of FACT and the energy created will be exported directly to the local community.

Whilst fracking is a controversial procedure which has caused mass public debate in the US and currently in Britain – and certainly there will be some unquantifiable subterranean noise and minor ground tremors in the gallery, as well as probable minor explosions and effluent discharge – it’s all being done with public safety and public benefit as a priority.

HeHe’s Fracking Futures ties into a long history of mining and extraction in northwest England, and looks to the contemporary context wherein sites around Blackpool, Manchester and Southport have been, or are currently, in the process of being approved for fracking. This artists’ installation aims to draw attention to current debates surrounding the process, both economic and environmental.

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HeHe, Fracking Futures (2013). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and FACT for ‘Turning FACT Inside Out’

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