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Posts tagged ‘outer space’

Aerocene – flight without borders

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Rubin Center for the Visual Arts


In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.

Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.

Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.

Black balloon lying in desert

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, air heating as the sun rises, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.

Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.

Black balloon, white desert, blue sky, person suspended

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.

On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.

We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.

The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).

The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.

As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.

black balloon, person suspended, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno flies his Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015.

Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.

His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.

But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.

Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Nicola Triscott flies Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Exploring the border of art and space: the “territory of the imagination”

A projection in a cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation – cave)

I have spent the last few days with a very special group of people in El Paso, Texas, on the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and in White Sands, New Mexico, a region where the space program had its beginnings and that is now home to a high number of emerging commercial space programs.

The occasion was the opening of Territory of the Imagination: At the Border of Art and Space’ at the Rubin Center of the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, curated by Kerry Doyle, a program of exhibitions, workshops and events highlighting the work of artists engaged in disruptive, alternative, and collective interactions with space and space technology, particularly artists from Latin America and the US-Mexico border region.

The program has been such a rich and thought-provoking experience that I want to blog about it in two parts, the first addressing the exhibition and the issues raised in it, the second focusing on Tomas Saraceno’s project Aerocene and the ‘Space Without Rockets’ conference, programmed by Rob La Frenais.

The four elements of the exhibition are the Astrovandalistas’ Imaginario Inverso, Matters of Gravity, Arte en Orbita and Tomas Saraceno’s Aerosolar.

Astrovandalistas is an artist collective interested in the effects of the industrialisation of our social imaginary in contexts where corporate and government interests supersede the individual and collective concerns of citizens. For Territory of the Imagination, they are running a series of workshops with communities in El Paso and Juarez and preparing a laser communication system to enable the creation of futuristic narratives about the border region. They are using lasers, in a reinterpretation of NASA’s laser communication technology for terrestrial purposes, both to transmit and engrave these narratives into stones. At the opening event, their preliminary research could be viewed both in the gallery and in a cave on the hillside.

Man shows device in cave

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso, laser device in cave installation

Engraved rocks in front of projected film with mountain

Astrovandalistas, Imaginario Inverso (installation)

Matters of Gravity (La Gravedad de los Asuntos) presents the artistic outputs of a two-year programme of research (advised by The Arts Catalyst) by a group of Mexican artists, organised by Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente, into the nature of gravity and zero gravity, including a zero gravity flight at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia.

Woman flies an ancient contraption in a zero gravity flight

Tania Candiani, Machine for flying, Besnier 1673, Matters of Gravity

Picture of a giant hourglass with sand floating inside

Ale de la Puente, An Infinity Without Destiny, Matters of Gravity

Arte En Orbita was a selection of films from an Ecuadorian exhibition of the same name, curated by Pedro Soler and Fabiane Borges, featuring a number of contemporary postcolonial space agencies – from Latin America, Africa and Palestine – that have appropriated technologies and imaginaries of space for their own use.

Person in crude silver spacesuit

Kongo Astronauts, Arte En Orbita

Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene (which will be the subject of a separate blog post) shows his work developing an alternative system for transport in the sky and potentially in space through solar balloons. The exhibition of photographs and videos ‘Becoming Aerosolar’ sets the context for furthering his research and discourse in the conference ‘Space Without Rockets’, curated by Rob La Frenais, and the attempted launch of his prototype solar balloon Aerocene in the White Sands desert (see my next blog post!).

A giant balloon made of old carrier bags floats in the air

Tomas Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2009

The projects in Territory of the Imagination connect the sociopolitics of space technology with issues of the territorialisation of space. Whilst the drive to explore space and visit other celestial bodies is visionary and open-minded, the space industry tends to replicate and propagate existing habits of thinking and ideologies from earth, such as American concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘frontier’, transferred from American historical narratives into the discourse of the space industry.

Since the 1960s, social imaginaries of space became largely synonymous with the national and international projects of Apollo, the ISS, space probes, Mars landers and Hubble. With the emergence of commercial space programmes – and New Mexico is where much of this is taking place – this imaginary is changing. A new ideological framework for space endeavours is emerging in which private enterprise is seen as the determining factor: space has become a place to be exploited for commercial ends. Is this the outer space of our own imaginings, those of us affected by space activities and, argues the United Nations’ space treaties, collective custodians of space as a ‘global commons’ but uninvolved in its industries?

It seems important that we question the ideologies shaping the new space age. Developing alternative social imaginaries of space is a critical part of this questioning. The space programme was historically shaped by the visions of artists and writers, and the same process could apply today. Artists, such as those in Territory of the Imagination, who engage in tactical, interrogatory or playful interactions with space themes, or who appropriate the images and technologies of space in ways that connect people to new bodies of knowledge, are developing alternative poetic and progressive imaginaries of space, and contributing to a vital societal and cultural dialogue, in which people from many cultures and across disciplines can take part.

A personal update – seeking the view from Stateside

Neal White with Tina O'Connell, 1x1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012

Neal White and Tina O’Connell, 1×1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012. Photo: Tear – Tidal Basin (c) the artists *

I’m excited to let you know that, for the next 12 months, I’ll be based in Washington D.C., from where I’ll be exploring opportunities for the Arts Catalyst in the US, as well as – after 21 years leading the organisation – taking a semi-sabbatical to extend my own research and writing.

One exciting initiative that I’m involved in is as a member of the Steering Committee for the US National Academies’ Keck Futures Initiative ‘Art and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation & Realization’. The conference at the heart of this initiative takes place next week in Irvine, California, and brings together a diverse group of participants (selected from an open international call) to explore how arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can stimulate a renaissance of innovation to solve real-world problems, and create concrete projects that can lead to educational, cultural, social and scientific impacts. As a steering committee member, I’ll be mentoring a couple of the ‘seed idea’ groups that I’ve been involved in putting together: Developing Programs to Engage and Empower Communities to Address Threats to Ecosystems, and Creating Open Data Culture.

Another couple of conferences I’ll be participating in during the year are Aerosolar: Space Without Rockets at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, Texas, this week, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais, where I’ll be talking about the peaceful uses of outer space and attending an experimental balloon launch by artist Tomas Saraceno at White Sands, and the Association of American Geographers (AAG)’s annual meeting in San Francisco, on a panel about Geographies of Outer Space, convened by Julie Klinger and Dan Bednar of Western University in Canada, in March 2016. Also on the space-related side of my work, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of a book to which I’ve contributed a chapter, The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space, a vital collection of texts from a broad range of disciplines that examine outer space as a dynamic and contested field, edited by Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod. Whilst on the pricey side for most of us, I’m sure many institutions will order a copy for their libraries and I’ll ensure that the Arts Catalyst has a copy in its reference library. We’re also thinking about holding a seminar or event in London next year to explore and open up some of the book’s key themes and ideas.

During the coming year, I’ll continue to oversee the Arts Catalyst’s artistic programme whilst handing over most executive leadership to an interim Managing Director. I’m therefore delighted to announce that we’ve appointed Gary Sangster as Arts Catalyst’s Interim Managing Director. Gary has an exceptional international track record as a museum director, curator, educator and writer, and brings his vast wealth of knowledge and experience to the company. This all comes at a very exciting time for Arts Catalyst. Following our highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology opens in Cromer Street, King’s Cross in January 2016 (I’ll be back in the UK for the opening). Our opening project at the centre will be ‘Notes From the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’ – details upcoming.

You can follow my work both in the USA and the UK (and anywhere else I get invited to!) via this blog and my twitter.

* Image: Neal White and Tina O’Connell’s 1×1, as part of 5×5, comprised 1,000 small vials of “tears” – water collected in Japan after the earthquake and Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant disaster (my small role in this project was in facilitating the collection of the water from Japan). Visitors were encouraged to pour the water on a cherry tree bringing about a symbolic rebirth, drawing on the specific historical connection to the gift of the Cherry Trees to Washington DC one hundred years ago. 1×1 reflected upon the range of experience and responses to the Tsunami and Fukushima Diaichi catastrophe in Japan a year before the project.

2014 at The Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst's 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Mixed reviews of 2014 as a year in the media. The Arts Catalyst meanwhile has had a pretty darned good 2014 – our 20th anniversary year – which is remarkable considering the difficult political and economic climate in which the non-profit arts sector is situated. Our projects continued our ongoing artistic and cultural investigations into space exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, ecology, polar studies, and ‘epic’ residencies for artists.

We launched our year in January, in the wake of China landing a probe on the Moon triggering fears of mining operations on the Moon, by declaring an artists’ ‘Republic of the Moon’ and transforming the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into the lunar republic’s Earth-based embassy. The exhibition was a popular and critical success. It included works by Agnes Meyer Brandis, Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Katie Paterson, and Joanna Griffin and the Moon Vehicle Group, and an evolving installation and residency by artists We Colonised the Moon (Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser). We animated the exhibition with performances, workshops, music, talks, a pop-up moon shop by super/collider and playful protests against lunar exploitation.

Republic of the Moon at the Bargehouse, 2014

Lunar protest, We Colonised the Moon in Republic of the Moon

We Colonised the Moon’s lunar protest, in Republic of the Moon

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

In June, we brought the spectacular artist road-rail vehicle SEFT-1 to London. SEFT-1 was created by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene to explore the abandoned and ruined passenger railway networks of Mexico and Ecuador. Arts Catalyst, in partnership Furtherfield commissioned a new exhibition about their journeys, with video, photographs, objects, and a scale-model diorama of a viaduct ruin in Mexico, which the artists had explored on their travels. The exhibition reflected on how the ideology of progress is imprinted onto historic landscapes through the modern ruin.

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

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

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


Model of the Metlac Viaduct, 2014

July saw us visit Japan with a group of artists to explore the artistic, societal and political responses to nuclear energy post-Fukushima. In partnership with S-AIR in Sapporo, and curated by Arts Catalyst’s associate curator Ele Carpenter, we organized the Actinium exhibition, which included works by James Acord, Shuji Akagi, Chim↑Pom, Crowe & Rawlinson, Karen Kramer, Cécile Massart, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Thomson & Craighead, which formed part of the Sapporo International Art Festival Collaborative Program and acted as a base for discussions, screenings and field trips to nuclear facilities around Hokkaido, and further afield to Eastern Japan around Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Meanwhile, our curated exhibition Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, commissioned by the British Council, and featuring some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, toured from MOSI (Manchester Museum of Science & Industry) to New Zealand’s IceFest in Christchurch and then to Otago Museum, New Zealand.

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

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, “Zero emission” polar research station, Ice Lab

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

As part of our ongoing investigatory project with YoHa, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, we organized workshops in Leigh-on-Sea over the summer months to involve local people and artists in exploring and mapping the changing ecology of the Thames estuary. Wrecked is setting up a network of local people, artists and technologists to explore how local “situated” knowledge of the estuary can be combined with artistic investigations and citizen science techniques to explore and respond to a changing, contested estuary.


Thames Estuary, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone. Photo: Fran Galardo

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked on the intertidal zone public workshop

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked public workshop. Photo: YoHa

Yours truly, stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea, Wrecked

Yours truly stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea (the reality of being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone). Photo: Jo Fells

The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party in October was delightfully celebrated with many friends, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, a moon landing darts game organized by We Colonised the Moon, a whisky tornado by Bompas & Parr, and music by Teleplasmiste and the Pond Scum Light Orchestra.

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: We Colonised the Moon’s moon landing darts. Photo: Marek Kukula

Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Kosmica Mexico moved into its third festival in Mexico City in November in partnership with Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Centro Cultura Digitale, programmed by Nahum Mantra. Artists, scientists, performers, scholars, space explorers, workshop leaders and musicians from Mexico, UK, France, Canada and USA came together to explore the cultural and artistic aspects of space exploration, including Bompas and Parr and super/collider’s recreation and extension of their intoxicating and wildly popular event ‘A brief history of drinking in space’ from Republic of the Moon’ as well as topics such as sex and sexuality in space, and nostalgia for the Earth.

Bompas & Parr's Whiskey Tornado at Kosmica Mexico

Marie-Pier Boucher, Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente try out Bompas & Parr’s Whisky Soda Vaporisation Chamber in ‘A Brief History of Drinking in Space’ at Kosmica Mexico 2014

In a series of international “epic residencies” throughout the year, we enabled artist Alistair McClymont to spend several weeks at the Central Laser Facility in Didcot with some of the most powerful lasers in the world, facilitated visits and field trips for six artists and curators to Japan (Revital Cohen, Tuur Van Balen, Ele Carpenter, Jon Thomson, Alison Craighead, Karen Kramer and Susan Schuppli), and supported Kuai Shen’s research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. We also advised and supported the Mexican project La Gravedad de los Asuntos, led by Nahum Mantra, which – inspired by The Arts Catalyst’s zero gravity programme (2000-2005) – saw a group of Mexican artists and scientists, including Ivan Puig, Ale de la Puente, Arcángel Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Iván Puig, Juan José Díaz Infante, Marcela Armas, Miguel Alcubierre, Tania Candiani and Nahum, go to Star City Russia and undertake artistic research in zero gravity.

All that and a new website, our first e-reader, and a map of the Arts Catalyst’s two decades of experimental, trail-blazing projects.

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

And, towards the end of the year, we said ‘au revoir’ to curator Rob La Frenais, off to undertake new freelance projects (although he will be working with Arts Catalyst on one-off projects in the future) …

HAPPY 2015!!!

HAPPY 2015!!!

Related reading material – for those who want:
Republic of the Moon manifesto
Railways, ruins & modernity blog post (on SEFT-1)
Nuclear Culture blog (Actinium)
and my blog posts on nuclear culture in Japan – Part 1 Part 2
Ice Lab book
Alistair McClymont’s blog (Beam Time residency)
Arts Catalyst Reader Volume 1
A Brief History of The Arts Catalyst (20th anniversary booklet)

Dispatches from the Republic of the Moon


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 …

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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