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Posts tagged ‘Russia’

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

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.

A history of forgetting

Pavel Medvedev, On the Third Planet from the Sun (still)

Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff is regarded as a leading light in the field of science and technology studies. Her calls for ‘technologies of humility’ in policy-making in science and her careful analyses of the role of political culture in policy-making in the field of biotechnology are hugely important, yet have not had the impact they should. Yesterday, in her keynote lecture at Transmediale, she gently challenged the festival’s rhetoric of the need for a paradigm shift of thinking in relation to climate change and more general talk of discontinuities in this respect, and outlined her skepticism of claims that the world has been changed forever. In an eloquent, clear and engaging talk, structured around a number of stories and images to highlight the role of social and cultural imagination in how our present understanding has been shaped, Jasanoff made a powerful plea for history. How we deal with our current situation depends on our ability to learn, not from disaster, but by building on what is to what is to come. We must not forget all we have learned before. She suggested that the resources that can help us to learn are the scientific spirit itself, common law and human history. All provide incremental approaches to learning, rather than radical paradigm shifts or discontinuities. The heart of science, Jasanoff reminded us – if left to its own devices – is incremental, provisional and skeptical.

Media artist Atteqa Malik from the Karachi collective Mauj had, the day before, pointed out that most people in Pakistan will not respond to calls for action for a notion of ‘climate change’ when what they are experiencing are more immediate problems of water shortages. Whether these are partly linked or not  – and in many parts of the world water shortages are as much to do with political and commercial structures and misguided decisions around technological systems – the point she was making is that we have to look at what people’s life concerns are. The way to engage people, as Jasanoff said, is not by talk about survival but by talking about life and living.

Other highlights of my visit to Transmediale were Petko Dourmana‘s Post Global Warming Survival Kit, which entailed entering a pitch-black room with a handheld night vision device, at first thinking the room is occupied only by an old caravan and then gradually discovering the landscape around, in fact a rather optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic vision, because clearly we are still living; and the film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Russian film-maker Pavel Medvedev, which followed people living in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia 45 years after the test of the hydrogen bomb there, who live hard but cheerful lives, recycling the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base. Middle-aged men scavenge for space junk in the swamps, and teenagers gather debris and turn it into disco balls and strobe lights for their parties. Third Planet is a striking visual exploration of environmental destruction and the rebirth of a community.

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