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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

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. nicola=great report= mayhe indeed what will change the equation is citizen space ! roger malina

    June 10, 2012

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