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
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.
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 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, 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
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
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 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, 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.
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.
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
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.