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Posts tagged ‘subterranea’

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Biopoetic investigations – Agnes Meyer Brandis

Moon Goose Colony, Agnes Meyer Brandis, 2011

The work of artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis creates new stories, at the same time fantastical and believable, through the fusion of detailed factual research and enchanting fiction. Her new work The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility has been commissioned by The Arts Catalyst for our Republic of the Moon exhibition, which opens at FACT, Liverpool, in December.

Meyer-Brandis studied mineralogy at the University of Aachen, before transferring to the Art Academy in Maastricht, Netherlands, to study sculpture and to the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. For many years, her work explored deep in the dark zone below the earth and ice, fascinated by what lay beneath her feet. In her SGM-Iceberg-Probe, she developed an elegant probe that could be lowered into a bore hole from an exploration tent into the deep layers of the Earth, revealing on a monitor and through headphones the moving images and sounds of subterranean life forms and rocks.

SGM Iceberg Probe - field test

SGM Iceberg Probe - screenshot

In 2007, she shifted her poetic-scientific investigations to include the skies, exploring birds, clouds, planets and heavenly bodies. In her project Cloud Core Scanner, she explored the phenomena of cloud cores in weightlessness with the German Space Agency.

The artist in weightlessness

One of my favourite projects was the Public Meteor Watching event that the artist organized outside the National Center For Contemporary Art (NCCA) in Ekaterinburg, Russia, at which hundreds of local people gathered to witness the occurrence and impact of a meteor, predicted from the artist’s calculations, an astonishing demonstration of imagination, organisation and sheer chutzpah.

Public Meteor Watching, Agnes Meyer Brandis

In The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, Meyer Brandis develops an ongoing narrative based on the book The Man in the Moone, written by the English bishop Francis Godwin in 1603, in which the protagonist flies to the Moon in a chariot towed by ‘moon geese’. Meyer-Brandis has actualised this concept by raising eleven moon geese from birth within her project Moon Goose Colony at Pollinaria in Italy; giving them astronauts’ names, imprinting them on herself as goose-mother, training them to fly and taking them on expeditions and housing them in a remote Moon analogue habitat.

Below stills from the project and an extract from an interview with the artist.

Moon Goose Colony

Biorama 2: troglodites to thrombolites

Peak Cavern, setting for Biorama 2

Having thoroughly decompressed from our Eye of the Storm conference at Tate in my own way, I proceeded to Huddersfield, and thence by swinging careering coach drive across the Pennines to Castleton for the marvelous Biorama 2, a media art event in a cavern, organised by the University of Huddersfield (Derek Hales) and artist Andy Gracie.

Biorama 2 took place in the vast Peak Cavern, the entrance to a 30 km cave system. The event explored the biology of the underground through the notion of ‘umwelt’ through a series of talks, discussions, workshops and expeditions into the cave system. I couldn’t make the workshops which took place in Huddersfield on the Wednesday and Friday, but I joined the group for the outing to Peak Cavern and a terrific day of presentations, performance and cave exploration.

The meeting took place inside the cave,  an AV system set up in this most unlikely setting. The speakers were artists Oron Catts, Agnes Meyer-Brandis,Antony Hall and Andy Gracie, curator Ulla Taipale, and microbiologist Paul Humphreys who started the day with a fascinating talk on extremophile bacteria.

Andy Gracie gave the rundown on some historical theories about the structure of the Earth, as well as Admiral Byrd’s speculated 1947 discovery of the entrance at the north poles into the hollow earth. He also explained Jakob von Uexkull‘s theory of ‘umwelt’, an organism’s perception of its environment, and its influence on the development of biosemiotics by Thomas Sebeok.

Agnes Meyer Brandis introduced some of her recent work. Agnes inhabits a world of enchantment, weaving tales of magic and myth from her journeys and explorations. In her Moon Goose Experiment (2008), Agnes traveled to Siberia for a total solar eclipse to recreate Francis Goodwin’s story of a man who flies to the moon attached to a flock of moon geese. She also spoke about her glacier studies in Argentina and recent meteorite watching event in Russia.

After a short trip from the chilly cave down into the village for coffee and cake and to warm our bones, Oron Catts gave a talk about SymbioticA’s latest project ‘Adaptation’, a developing programme of artist residencies and events opening up discussion around the competing interests surrounding Lake Clifton, home to the largest lake-bound thrombolite reef in the southern hemisphere. Thrombolites, or ‘living rocks’, are built by micro-organisms.

The day finished with a great sound installation by Joe Gilmore in a deep cavern, echoing frequencies bouncing off the cave walls. Left to our own devices by the people who usually police the cavern most contientiously to ensure the safety of visitors, we scrambled up the cavern sides and down tunnels, in unsuitable shoes, trying to avoid the sheer drops.

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