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Posts tagged ‘outer space’

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.

War at the speed of light: artists and drone warfare

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet Is the Best, 2011, digital film stills © Omer Fast

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.”
– quote from Omer Fast’s 5000 Is the Best, 2011.

Paul Virilio, in his 1998 book ‘The Vision Machine’, predicted a machine that “will be capable of seeing and perceiving in our place”. A key concept in Virilio’s writing is dromology, or the logic of speed. The one and simple rule of technology development has been that of ever-increasing speed, and this rule seems to define fundamental aspects of warfare and society. Real space has been supplanted by real time because we can receive information from everywhere on the globe in real-time, reducing human perception to a kind of ‘polar inertia’.

Last week, US immigration officials’ detention and interrogation of Pakistan politician Imran Kahn – a vehement critic of US drone attacks in Pakistan – as he boarded a flight from Canada to New York, threw a spotlight on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare. UAVs, or drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. They basically fall into two categories: those used for reconnaissance and surveillance, and those armed with missiles and bombs. Although British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from a USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens. Armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, but their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera, LowDrone

Contemporary artists have increasingly vigorously engaged with the subject of war and its consequences over the last decade, since the commencement of Bush’s global “war on terror” and the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, there have been a string of recent artists’ project exploring the rapidly escalating use and impact of drones in surveillance and warfare, such as Angel Nevarez and Alex Rivera’s remote-controlled “low-rider” spy drone, positioned at the United States-Mexico border and controllable by anyone with an Internet connection, and photojournalist Noor Behram’s brave documentation of the human toll of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Trevor Paglen, Reaper Drone (Indian Springs, NV Distance – 2 miles), 2012

Two artists’ exhibitions in the recent Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme was ‘Agents of Change’, address the subject of remote warfare and surveillance through works that at the same time unpick the role of the photograph or video in the propagation of ideas, and question the assumption of the documentary as truth-telling.

Trevor Paglen is known for his meticulously researched documentation of “black sites” of secret government activity, which he photographs using specialized equipment. His show at Lighthouse, Brighton, featured photographic works drawn from two series: Limit Telephotography, in which the artist adapted astronomy telescopes to reveal classified, covert US military installations, including drone bases, in remote parts of south-west USA, and The Other Night Sky, his photographs of classified American surveillance satellites. Paglen’s photographs are an uneasy blend of abstract allure, art-historical references, and disquieting subject matter. They draw our attention not only to the geography of covert operations – the remote sites, and the militarisation of sky and space – but also to the mechanisation of vision and its implications in a global arena of political tension and warfare. His distant photographs of partially visible airplane hangers, drone aircraft and strange installations are blurred, the images of spy satellites use long exposure to show the bright arcs of satellite paths. The exhibition also includes Paglen’s 2010 video work Drone Vision, a stream of unencrypted video intercepted by an amateur satellite hacker.

Trevor Paglen, Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 186), 2008

Omer Fast’s latest chilling narrative film work 5000 Feet Is the Best explores remote warfare and its psychological impact on a drone pilot. Fast’s unsettling video-works construct contemporary stories through a masterly grasp of storytelling, reworking time, facts and personal perspective, exposing of the problematic assumptions of objectivity and truth. He often presents his films in a looped structure, with no obvious start or end point, and challenges our absorption in the tale by revealing its construction – showing the actor auditioning for a part, for example, or repeating a section but altering it.

5000 Feet Is the Best is based on conversations that the artist had with a former Predator drone aerial unmanned vehicle operator with post traumatic stress disorder, now working as a Las Vegas casino security guard. As I enter the space, the film shows an overhead shot of a boy on a bike cycling across an arid landscape towards a settlement. The voiceover is of an interview with a former drone operator explaining the detail that he could see when the drone is at 5000 feet or above: “the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture”.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

The film interweaves and blurs reality and fiction. It is structured around three dramatized sequences. Each starts in the same way, in dark hotel room, the pilot (an actor) sitting on the bed facing his interviewer, presumably Fast. Each time Fast asks: “What’s the difference between you and someone actually in an airplane?”, and the pilot answers, “Nothing, we’re doing the same thing”, to which Fast replies “But you’re not a real pilot”, provoking each time a different outburst from the drone operator, who then falls into telling a story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which we watch dramatised unfold on the screen. One story is about a man who poses as a train driver, operates the train smoothly for an entire day, but is arrested that night breaking into his own home (having left his keys in his borrowed uniform). The interviewer asks: “Was the man in this story someone in your unit?” The drone pilot replies shortly: “No. It’s a metaphor.” A second story is of a couple in a casino who engage in a seduction scam to rob casino customers. The last story is of a family – personified as a white, American family – who abandon their home to avoid some unknown trouble, only to meet a tragedy on the road. “Mom, Dad, Johnny, and little Zoe” pack their belongings into a station wagon. On a lonely dirt road, they see a group of men planting an improvised explosive device. The image cuts to the view from a drone. The family’s car drives slowly towards the men. There is a humming noise from the sky …

The stories are interspersed with the audio of the interview, where the drone pilot talks of his work and of his psychological trauma over his responsibility for killing: “You see a lot of death … doing this. You had to think there is so much loss of life that is a direct result of me.”

Remote warfare aims to distance the public, as well as the operators of the drones, from the people “over there”. Paglen’s work exposes the covertness and mechanics of such warfare technologies, while Fast attempts to remake the perceptual connections between “us and them” to show that, despite Virilio’s prediction that such technologies will lead to the ‘automation of perception’, killing is still a personal and human experience, even when mediated by speed-of-light telepresence.

Omer Fast, 5000 Feet is the Best, screen shot, 2011

Is there any poetic meaning in Baumgartner’s fall to Earth?

The feet of Felix Baumgartner, just before jumping. 14 October 2012

Yesterday, nearly 8 million of us watched another human being jump off a narrow ledge 24 miles above the Earth.

As Felix Baumgartner’s capsule rose into the air, attached to an astonishing piece of balloon engineering, viewing figures rose, those watching communicating the tension and excitement to others. Baumgartner’s face, perhaps, added to the tension. A professional daredevil, his greatest difficulty with the project was his claustrophobia within the spacesuit. Humans are so good at reading other humans’ faces that perhaps we picked up on this, without realizing its underlying cause. But as we watched Baumgartner ascend, go through his pre-jump checks, open the door, and tentatively step onto the narrow ledge above the void, the thrill that we experienced was rather a collective act of imagination: a perception of danger and uncertainty, embodied by Baumgartner, which triggered our brains to release a flood of stress hormones and emotion, despite ourselves being on solid ground.

It has been said that the Red Bull promotion – its endless logo display, the glossy animated video of the jump – removed any poetry from the occasion and any role for the imagination. But clearly our imaginations did kick in, and it is our ability to imagine, and for our bodies to react powerfully to the products of our imagination, that forms one part of the intense experience of art.

Simon Faithfull, Escape Vehicle No. 6, video still (2004)

When the Arts Catalyst commissioned Simon Faithfull’s Escape Vehicle No. 6, we had a demonstration of a similar act of imagination at work in the audience’s experience. Originally a live event in the first Artists’ Airshow, the audience witnessed the launch of a vast weather balloon with an office chair dangling beneath it. Once the apparatus had disappeared into the sky, they rushed indoors to watch, on a giant screen, a live video relay from the weather balloon as it journeyed from the ground to the edge of space (30km up). Watching the film of the chair rushing away from the fields, roads and buildings, it is impossible not to imagine yourself carried by it as it ascends through the clouds, twitching vulnerably, until it finally arrives in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the curved horizon of the planet can be seen and the sky turns into the blackness of space, oxygen runs out and the temperature drops to minus 60 degrees. Suddenly there’s a violent spasm, a leg hurtles off into the void, and the chair disintegrates:

One could argue that it is modern telecommunications media – the ability to relay images from the event, whether Faithfull’s chair, Baumgartner’s capsule, or before this Joe Kittinger’s jump from space in 1960 or Neal Armstrong stepping onto the Moon – that is a requirement in this experience, that the medium is the essential component. But artists have for centuries sought to convey the aesthetic, emotion and meaning of the fall through more conventional media and means. This can be traced as far back as representations of myths of flying in ancient cultures, which almost always incorporated the fall, as a warning to those who aspired to join the gods (humanity’s place was on the earth).

Contemporary artists have often explored and expressed humankind’s dream of levitation, and its nemesis, falling. Yves Klein’s iconic photograph Saut dans le vide (Leap into the void) (1960) apparently shows him hurling himself off a high wall, arms outstretched, towards the pavement. This was the same year as Joe Kittinger’s original space jump, more than fifty years ago but just 25,000 feet lower than Baumgartner’s.

Yves Klein, Le Saut dans Le Vide (1960)

Joe Kittinger jumps from 103000 feet in 1960

As the space age dawned, artists joined the space dream. In 1959, the artist Takis organised an event in Paris entitled L’Impossible, Un Homme Dans L’Espace (The Impossible, A Man in Space). Wearing a ‘space suit’ designed by Takis, a man was “launched” across a gallery into a safety net.

Today, post ‘space age’, with its triumphs but also its disasters such as Columbia and Challenger, and post 9/11, the image of a falling person takes on new meanings and cultural resonances. Photographer Denis Darzacq’s 2006 series La Chute (The Fall) features impassive 20-year-olds seemingly about to hit the ground at high speed. It was in part a response to the horror of the twin towers attack, but mostly a depiction of the alienation of a generation of French young people. Darzacq felt that France was a place where someone could tumble from the sky and no one would bat an eyelid.

Denis Darzacq, La Chute N° 15 (2006)

For the Chinese artist Xu Zhen, his performance/installation In just a blink of an eye is a “manifestation” of the globalized market where Chinese workers are symbolically and literally suspended in a state of falling: frozen in a fragment of time. The models are recruited from the local Chinese population of the city in which the work is shown.

Xu Zhen, In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005-07)

Perhaps there is little poetry in Baumgartner’s action, although the team is keen to point out its potential usefulness for developing emergency escape procedures for returning astronauts, but it adds to the store of meaning that we construct around the falling body, and to our perceptions of space, fragility and risk.

The view of the Earth from above is familiar these days, from cameras sent up on satellites, balloons and other aerial vehicles. But the image of Baumgartner’s feet suspended above the Earth’s surface embodied for us the feelings expressed by Apollo astronauts when they looked back at their home planet from the Moon. As Baumgartner stood on his ledge, 128000 feet above the Earth, he recounted afterwards: “You don’t think about records any more, you don’t think about gaining scientific data, the only thing is you want to come back alive”. His last words before stepping into the vacuum were “I’m coming home”.

Spaced out … the relationship between art and space agencies

A chair floats above the Earth against the blackness of space

Simon Faithfull, Film still from Escape Vehicle No. 6 (2004). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

I was in Paris earlier this month at the International Astronautical Federation (IAF)’s spring meeting, chairing a meeting of the IAF’s technical activities committee on “cultural utilization of space” (ITACCUS), a stimulating cross-disciplinary committee of individuals who act as liaisons for different space agencies, space bodies and cultural organisations.

ITACCUS members believe that the future of space exploration requires an ongoing societal and cultural dialogue, in which the arts can play a vibrant and vital role.  The aim of the committee is to promote, develop and raise the profile and quality of artistic and cultural activities that engage with space exploration, space science and space activities. I am the co-chair alongside the astronomer and editor Roger Malina, currently Distinguished Professor of Art and Technology at the University of Texas, Dallas. You can read more about ITACCUS on the IAF’s site or on Arts Catalyst’s.

A woman floats, apparently asleep, in mid air

The Otolith Group. Film still from Otolith I, 2003. Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst & MIR consortium

We set up the committee in 2008, under the auspices of the International Astronautical Federation, after several years of working to develop artistic projects with the space world – an endeavor that met with mixed success. One of the problems has been that the European Space Agency (ESA) in particular has not appeared to understand the arts as a profession and discipline. In contrast to the cutting edge, peer-reviewed scientific research selected by the space programmes, art projects that ESA has commissioned have tended to come about through personal interests and contacts of individual space agency personnel, rather than through an institutionally-recognised professional engagement with art experts. Of course, this is not a unique problem. Ariane Koek, cultural specialist at CERN, directly and forcefully addressed this problem in an article she wrote in CERN’s international journal when setting up its new artist residency programme.

A man stalks a crescent moon with a gun

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon, 2011.

There have been some positive initiatives by other space agencies to engage with the arts world. In 1962, NASA established an Art Program to commission artists to commemorate its missions. Some interesting works of art have been produced, some of which were shown last year in the exhibition NASA | Art : 50 Years of Exploration at the Smithsonian. There have been fewer examples of more direct engagement with space facilities and technologies, although in 1986 NASA commissioned a survey of arts organisations to gauge interest in the artistic utilisation of the proposed space station, and in 2004, it appointed Laurie Anderson as official NASA artist in residence, which resulted in the artist’s musical performance ‘The End of the Moon’ (perhaps not quite the outcome NASA had hoped for).

Ahead of the field, Japan’s space agency JAXA has a pioneering official arts and humanities strand to its International Space Station programme, and aims to produce a number of artistic projects on its Kibo module.

In Russia, The Arts Catalyst with the MIR consortium has undertaken several successful projects with the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, including projects by the Otolith Group, Stefan Gec, Yuri Leiderman, Andrew Kotting, Kitsou Dubois, and Marcel.li Antunez Roca. (We’ve also commissioned more “DIY” approaches to space, such as Simon Faithfull’s launch of a chair to the edge of space in 2004, as well as many projects based more in the imagination of space than space itself.)

Stefan Gec, Celestial Vault (installation), 2003. Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst & MIR consortium

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been less engaged with the arts than NASA or JAXA, although in 2005, it attempted to develop a professional relationship with the cultural world by announcing an open tender for a contract to develop a cultural utilisation policy and proposed programme for the International Space Station, which The Arts Catalyst won with a small consortium of organisations it brought together. After a workshop at ESA with space personnel, artists, curators, astronauts and scientists, and other consultations with artists and curators across Europe, Arts Catalyst produced a report with a series of recommendations and some proposed pilot projects. Some of these projects were given preliminary feasibility assessments, and the organisation was given a second contract to begin to realise them. We were also commissioned by ESA to curate an exhibition in Berlin as part of ESA’s International Space Exploration Conference in 2008, in which we showed works by Tomas Saraceno, Marko Peljhan, Kitsou Dubois, Simon Faithfull, Tim Otto Roth and Agnes Meyer-Brandis. But after a change of ESA personnel in 2007, the cultural utilisation project stalled, although technically we still hold this contract.

Transparent globe containing small plant

Kirsten Johannsen, Nomadic Nature Kit, 2010.

Five years later, a separate team, the “ESA Topical Team Arts & Sciences” (ETTAS) – although with some overlapping members to the original team – has produced another excellent and thorough report, with a very similar set of recommendations to ours. Let us hope this report meets with a more sustained response by ESA.

In the meantime, ITACCUS will continue to endorse and promote strong, innovative artistic projects that engage with space themes and the space programme. Excitingly, this appears to be developing into a genuinely international initiative. At this month’s meeting, we had proposals for projects for ITACCUS endorsement from France, the USA, India, Mexico and Poland.

Artists will always be interested in why humans are predisposed to look to the heavens for personal meaning. But the question is: Is promoting culture and the arts within the international space community worth the time and effort, and how best should we go about it?

A dancer in a red dress on a Russian parabolic (zero gravity) flight

Morag Wightman, Film still from Gravity – A Love Story, 2001. Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

2012: autonomous infrastructures, uneasy energies, and the machine wilderness …

Yahoo. 2012! What’s coming up this year in the art/science world? Here’s a highly subjective list of things I’m looking forward to.

Melanie Jackson, still from new work (in progress), 2012

Arts Catalyst’s Republic of the Moon exhibition is currently running at FACT, Liverpool, to 26 February, and there’ll also be a Kosmica event at FACT at the end of the month. In March, Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ Moon Goose Analogue tours to the Great North Museum, Newcastle, as part of AV Festival.

Later this month, we’ll announce a call for an exciting artist’s fellowship at a major science facility in Europe (details to come). We’ll also be launching a new series of workshops and commissions in our Autonomous Artists’ Infrastructures strand, following on from the Planetary Breakdown event at BALTIC, including new work by Hehe.

We’ll be busy all year round in our Clerkenwell space in London with a new series of Kosmicas and other events, exhibitions and workshops, beginning with ‘Trust Me, I’m an Artist’, exploring the ethics of art/science collaborations. Later this Spring, I’m greatly looking forward to showing our new commission from Melanie Jackson, a new essay film that takes us from the botanical garden to the synthetic biology laboratory in the artist’s ongoing investigation into the impulse for form, informed by her participation in our Synthesis workshop last year.

Throughout the year, we’ll unveil a number of other artists’ projects currently in development at different venues across the UK. I’m also planning to trail Alec Finlay when I can around the northernmost parts of Scotland for his investigations into small-scale wind power. And we’ll continue our involvement in the Arctic Perspective Initiative.

Illustration from E. W. Golding's The Generation of Electricity by Wind Power (1955). From Alec Finlay’s http://skying-blog.blogspot.com/

Beyond Arts Catalyst, Berlin’s wintry transmediale is always a good get-together for people inhabiting the art-tech-politics end of the art and science spectrum. This year, the festival takes the theme of ‘in/compatible’. Its exhibition ‘Dark Drives – Uneasy Energies in technological times’ promises “works of art and artefacts of everyday culture that direct our attention to the dark side of our technologised lives”, including a series of photographs by environmental scientists Vibek Raj Maurya and Jack Caravanos of the overwhelming amounts of electronic waste deposited in developing world.

Vibek Raj Maurya, e-waste series, Accra, Ghana

In June, back to Germany as documenta finally rolls around again. Will there be much engagement with science in this 5-yearly massive survey of contemporary art?  How could there not be, if it plans at all to consider art in relationship to contemporary existence, given the currency of environmental issues and 2011’s scientific excitements, which have included glimpses of the Higg’s boson, Einstein-defying neutrinos, and the discovery of Earth’s “twin”? We know, at least, that Amy Balkin’s ongoing Public Smog project will be part of documenta (13), relocating her park in the atmosphere and intelligent discourse over governance of the skies to Kassel.

Amy Balkin, Public Smog (2004 ongoing). Part of documenta (13)

Of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad offerings this year, I’m keen to see Owl Project’s FLOW, an environmentally sustainable watermill on the River Tyne, come to fruition after all their hard work, and I’d like to hop onto Alex Hartley’s Arctic nowhereisland, navigating the South-West of England coast. Meanwhile, Film and Video Umbrella is commissioning a series of moving image artworks that reflect that transient period when an athlete attains a heightened state of performance, generated by four artist-scientist partnerships: Dryden Goodwin and Elsa Bradley; Cornford and Cross and Dr Richard Ramsey; Susan Pui San, Tali Sharot and Nicky Clayton; and Roderick Buchanan and Dr David Shearer. All four new works will be shown at De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, in summer 2012.

Come Autumn/Fall, I’m already very excited about ISEA 2012, taking place this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, and glorying in the title ‘Machine Wilderness’. The themes are very much up our street: The Cosmos, Wildlife, Transportation, Power. New Mexico: it’s got deserts, it’s got mountains, it’s got art, and it’s even got a dropzone. What’s not to love?

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1, Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, Manned Railway Exploration Probe. Showing at ISEA 2012.

Back from ISEA in September, I may pay a visit to the small market town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, birthplace of Isaac Newton, where they’re planning a “major art and science festival”. (It’s also the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher, but let’s not go there)

What have I left out? Let me know your art and science highlights for 2012, particularly in other parts of the globe.

Lunar dreamers: occupy the moon!

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon

In Tony White’s new short story, Occupy the Moon, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst to mark the opening of our latest exhibition, Republic of the Moon, at FACT in Liverpool, the author contemplates a remonstration against privatisation of the moon, and reflects on “the importance of wit and play in exploration”.

For Republic of the Moon, we invited a number of international artists to create and show works reimagining our relationship with the moon in a new era of aspirations to return humans to the moon.

Liliane Lijn, Moonmeme

Liliane Lijn’s Moonmeme tracks the moon’s phase, with the letters S-H-E projected on its surface. During the run of the show, as the moon’s phase changes, the word will transform according to the relative motions of Moon, Earth and Sun. Lijn’s work references the many female lunar deities through history, and reminds us that it was twelve men who walked on the moon (our forthcoming Kosmica in Liverpool has all-female line-up).

Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Moon Goose Analogue, 2011

In a major new commission, Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ ambitious, enchanting Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Birds Migration Facility connects us to eleven future astronauts: Neil, Svetlana, Gonzales, Valentina, Friede, Juri, Buzz, Kaguya-Anousheh, Irena, Rakesh and Konstantin-Hermann. These are specially trained “moon geese”, destined to fly to the moon. We meet them via a large complex, control room live-linked to cameras in the geese’s “moon analogue”, a mock lunar landscape and lunar capsule control room set up on the farm in Italy where the birds live. Through captivating film, photographs and installations, the birds’ life story and mission unfolds.

Meyer-Brandis’ piece is inspired by a science fiction story by the 17th century English bishop Francis Godwin, “The Man in the Moone”, about a man who flew to the moon on a chariot pulled by trained geese. Can this tale be real and can it be made in the present day?, wondered Meyer-Brandis. She sourced the eggs of a rare breed of geese from a specialist breeder, incubated them, and imprinted herself on the eleven goslings that hatched as their ‘mother’ and devoted herself completely to them, living with them day and night (even a trip to the toilet by their “mum” triggered much distressed honking), and training them to walk, swim and fly, as well as giving them lessons on space travel. The healthy, well-bonded geese now live in their moon facility in Pollinaria, Italy, awaiting their mission to the moon – or at least expanding their colony. There is an interview with the artist about this work in the Liverpool Daily Post.

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon

Leonid Tishkov’s charming and luminous photographs, poetry and video work are from his ongoing Private Moon project, a visual poem that tells the story of a man who met the Moon and stayed with her for the rest of his life. Tishkov and his glowing moon have travelled his native Russia and the world together for almost ten years and he dreams of flying with her to the Moon:

“In the upper world, in the attic of his house, he saw the Moon which had fallen from the sky. At first she was hiding from the sun in a dark, damp tunnel and was constantly frightened by the passing trains. Then she came to the house of the man. Wrapping the moon in a thick blanket, he gives her autumn apples and drinks tea with her. When she finally recovers he puts her on a boat and carries her across a dark river to a high bank, where moon pine-trees grow. He descends to the lower world wearing the clothes of his deceased father and then returns, illuminating the way with his private moon. Transcending the borders between worlds via narrow bridges, sinking into sleep, taking care of the heavenly body, man turns into a mythological being living in the real world like in a fantastic fairy-tale.” – Tishkov

The artist keeps his own Private Moon blog which he updates with poetry and images about his travels with his moon.

In Sharon Houkema’s installation M3, the artist uses a simple overhead projector and a bucket of water to conjure a shimmering moon, as if seen through water or hazy cloud.

Andy Gracie, The Quest for Drosophila Titanus

Andy Gracie’s ambitious DIY-astrobiology experiment, an attempt to breed a strain of fruit fly that could survive on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is documented in The Quest for Drosophila Titanus. Gracie discussed his process with New Scientist, and the broader ideas he is exploring in the work. He explained his aim to set up “a metaphorical, speculative artistic project by following a completely rigorously scientific process”. As well, his experiment raises questions about what we will consider to be the “right stuff” for future star travellers.

We Colonised the Moon, Enter at Own Risk. Photo: Drew Hemment

Artist duo We Colonised the Moon’s work Enter At Own Risk is an installation and performance piece, with a slightly sinister Apollo astronaut working away spraying rocks with a specially synthesised smell of the moon, commissioned by the artists Hagen Betzwieser and Sue Corke from industrial chemists. Astronaut Charlie Duke likened the smell of the moon to gunpowder (although I prefer cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s description of the smell of space which he said “smelled like two stones being struck together”).

At the artists’ breakfast event yesterday morning, attended by all the artists (with the sole exception of Houkema), American-born Lijn and Russian-born Tishkov called for the artists to issue a manifesto on the future of the moon, reclaiming it from the aspirations of privatisers or the military, since the major space-faring nations – including the US, UK, EU, Russia, China, Japan and India – have so far refused to sign up to the UN’s protective Moon Treaty.

This may be a ‘romantic’ exhibition, as a member of audience said, but as all the artists said without hesitation that they would travel to the moon given the opportunity, this is a romantic imaginary that embraces space technology and exploration.

‘Republic of the Moon’ runs until 26 February at FACT, Liverpool. Commissioned and curated by The Arts Catalyst and FACT.

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