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Posts from the ‘Art’ Category

Graveyard of Lost Species: a monument for a changing estuary

Boat with engraved letter on its hull on a marsh.

Graveyard of Lost Species, 2016. Photo: Simon Fowler

A few weeks ago, Arts Catalyst launched the Graveyard of Lost Species, a public monument by artists YoHa (Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji) and Critical Art Ensemble in partnership with Arts Catalyst.

Graveyard of Lost Species is an outcome from an ambitious 3-year collaborative inquiry with people of Leigh-on-Sea and Southend on the Thames Estuary. Created from a Thames bawley fishing boat, rescued from the estuary mud by the partners, the names of lost species gathered through research with local people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend, including fishermen, amateur ecologists, divers, walkers, artists, sailors and others, have been laser cut onto its hull and decks. These lost species include not just wildlife and fauna but also – recognising the inter-connections of ecology, industry, society and culture – traditional industries and occupations that have declined or disappeared, as well as objects, words and phrases associated with these. The artwork is dedicated to the people of Leigh and Southend-on-Sea.

The trigger for the collaborative project (its overall title being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone) was YoHa artist Graham Harwood’s observations of the vast industrial infrastructures being constructed along the Thames estuary, where he lives in Leigh-on-Sea, their impact on local people, traditional industries and the estuary’s ecology, and the lack of local voices in these processes.

Traditional marine based industries (such as fishing, cockling and boat building) have for centuries provided employment for communities along the estuary. However, this heritage is rapidly declining. The government and large corporations have devised new schemes for the area, including the London Gateway, the largest deepwater port in the UK, which was under construction when we began the project. Such rapidly changing situations and intense economic interests in the area greatly concern people in local communities, but they feel they have had little or no say. Harwood, Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble) and I, drawing on their artistic practices and my curatorial interest in developing collaborative inquiries that combine art and citizen science, decided to initiate a new project. We wanted to explore whether, by using art as a critical and investigatory tool and working with a growing group of local people, we might be able to make a difference to how people think about the estuary and how it might survive the pressures that face it.

Interior of boat with carved words visible

Graveyard of Lost Species (interior).

From 2013, we have led a set of enquiries with people in Leigh-on-Sea and Southend to gather local knowledge of and expertise about what is being lost or is disappearing and what changes are taking places in the area. These began with consultation workshop to ask local people what their concerns were in respect to the new wave of industrialisation of the estuary and the impact on local culture and estuarine ecology. Much of the discussion focused on local concerns about the impact of the super port dredging activity on fish stocks, diversity and the cockle beds, and potential impact of the port’s activity on estuary wildlife, including migrating birds. Another area of discussion was the nature reserve of Two Tree Island, where many local people walk their dogs and forage for blackberries, which is built on a former landfill site that has no records of what was dumped there (as there were no regulations in force at the time).

Two main strands for our inquiry emerged. One was to uncover and highlight local knowledge about the changing ecology, society and industry of the Thames estuary by collecting stories of lost and declining species, and then to create an appropriate public monument to Leigh’s past and future. Kurtz asks: “How do you make a monument that, rather than creating a smooth ideological space in which all people are expected to feel and believe in the same way, instead accounts for difference and allows for the contradictions and conflict of history, that lets all the different voices speak out? It might be a community but there is not unity of story – there are vastly indifferent interpretations of what’s going on.” The artists’ answer was to create an ‘anti-monument’, one that would come apart, like the memories it marked, over time, and return back into the mud.

A second strand of inquiry was to investigate Two Tree Island to try to build up a picture of what might lie under the nature reserve and how toxic it might be, through speaking with people who worked there and by running citizen science workshops, and to develop creative responses to the relationship between people, soil, water and what grows in a polluted environment.

Boat on marsh

Graveyard of Lost Species in situ. Photo: Steve Barnes.

During 2014, with little funding confirmed, the team decided to run some public activities and workshops for local people to get things going, raise awareness of the project and attract participants and contributors. We set up an event at Leigh on Sea Marine Festival at which YoHa and Claudia Lastra with artists Andy Freeman and Fran Gallardo invited visitors to “eat, small and taste the Thames estuary”: tasting estuary vapours through e-cigs, smelling distilled oils from local fauna, and eating delicacies made from foraged and prepared foods from Two Tree Island. Alongside this, Freeman presented several proposed citizen science and monitoring initiatives. Following this event, we offered a series of free public exploratory workshops focused on Two Tree Island. These included a mud walk led by local amateur biologist Paul Huxster, studying eelgrass and cordgrass spatial fluctuations across the tidelands, a digital mapping workshop led by Freeman, introducing participants to a range of citizen science tools and techniques, and a wild eating and foraging workshop led by YoHa and Gallardo, guiding participants through the potential hazards of eating wild herbs, plants and fruits on this former landfill site.

Man sniffing something in the hand of smiling woman

Wrecked team at the Leigh Maritime Festival, 2014

With some funding secured from Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust, activities and investigations were able to unfold in a more structured way in 2015. We invited Critical Art Ensemble to the UK for a month-long residency. Two local artists – Warren Harper and Stuart Bowditch – joined the team as researchers, conducting research with local people, connecting stories and examples of the ‘species’ that once flourished in the Estuary and are now disappearing. Harwood identified a local wreck – the ‘Souvenir’, a 40ft 12-ton Thames bawley grounded on the estuary mudflats. Over the summer, Harwood and Stuart Mchardy cleaned and reconfigured the boat. They sailed it ashore, siting it for its preparation and engraving in a prominent public setting by the shore on Belton Way, the main thoroughfare between Leigh station and the old town, with a large noticeboard outlining the nature of the project and the monument to lost species. The Souvenir attracted the attention of hundreds of interested passers-by, many of whom stopped to share their memories and stories with the artists and researchers.

Gallardo, YoHa, Freeman and Arts Catalyst, supported by the expertise of environmental chemist and food scientist Mark Scrimshaw, led the Two Tree inquiry. We organised a series of public events involving local foods, their source, preparation and consumption, to explore environmental change. Alongside these tastings, citizen science workshops further investigated the traces of waste disposal on Two Tree Island.

This intertwining of contemporary art practice, expert scientific knowledge, citizen science techniques and various forms of local situated knowledge has co-produced, and continues to generate, a significant new knowledge archive about the estuary, as well as generating a public conversation around the many changes to the ecology and community of Leigh on Sea. We are collecting the knowledge archive on a website –, which includes transcripts of interviews, photographs and short films.

This collective knowledge is now also taking physical and visual form, giving voice to the contributors and giving back to the community, through the public monument Graveyard to Lost Species and a soon-to-be published ecopolitical book of recipes from the local area, co-authored by Gallardo and Claudia Lastra. As the project moves forward, we are looking at other ways in which local views can be creatively expressed and heard in the governance of the estuary.

This summer, with planning permission granted from Southend Council and Natural England for its siting and installation, the Graveyard to Lost Species was sailed back onto Leigh Marshes to become part of the local landscape. With the names of many lost species carved into the boat’s hull, decks and interior, the artwork is visible to the public from the shore, and publicly accessible by foot at low tide, so that visitors can read the text on and inside the boat. It will gradually decay over many years back into the mud.

I hope that you will feel inspired to visit the monument, which is sited a short walk from the road as you enter Two Tree Island coming from Leigh-on-Sea station. Ordnance survey grid reference is TQ 82738 85478.

Further outputs, writing and discourse will continue to unfold over the coming year.


Critical art and outer space: examining space as a global commons

Illuminated globe outline with two people visible behind

Joanna Griffin & Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration

The ‘Critical Issues in Outer Space’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ huge Annual Meeting in San Francisco last week was scheduled in the daunting 8am slot on the final day. Nonetheless, a good audience gathered, perhaps indicating the rising interest in the topic of outer space within geography.

Julie Klinger, convener of the session, gave a stimulating presentation on the new challenges to international outer space treaties (that designate outer space as a common heritage of all humankind) from state and private sector interests in off-Earth mining *, particularly looking at mining interests on the Moon.

Danny Bednar’s paper considered the complex landscape of actors and interests involved in today’s outer space activities – from use of orbits, exploration of the solar system, to proposed colonization and exploitation. He proposed that concepts of ‘governance’ from the social sciences, which emphasize the shift in the processes of politics away from purely state actors to numerous private interests, can make a useful contribution to understanding current space issues.

My paper – which you can listen to below – discussed some of the critical strategies employed by curators and artists to engage with the political and spatial nature of outer space as a global commons, including Marko Peljhan’s Makrolab, Joanna Griffin’s Satellite Stories and, in collaboration with Alejo Duque, Bogota Declaration, my own work with the European Space Agency and International Astronautical Federation and the ITACCUS committee, and Arts Catalyst’s exhibition ‘Republic of the Moon’. I argued that critical artistic and curatorial practices can contribute to our understanding of outer space as a dynamic and socially constructed space, and help to shape the social imaginary of the region around our planet as an important global commons.

(apologies for poor audio quality)

The session included by a Skype presentation by James Ormrod, presenting the book that he has co-edited with Peter Dickens ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space’, a strong collection of texts from many disciplines, showing the compelling contribution being made to our understanding of outer space issues by the social sciences, arts and humanities. I’ll try to review this book in a later blog post, but in the meantime I’m thoroughly enjoying read the essays in it. I should add the proviso that art is represented in the book by a chapter that I have written, in which I chart the construction of a ‘space imaginary’ through the visual arts.

* Four months ago, the US Senate passed the Space Act of 2015, which grants U.S. citizens or corporations the right to legally claim non-living natural resources — including water and minerals — mined in outer space. This law directly conflicts with international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the US is a signatory, states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Legally, the US cannot give rights to claim off-planet resources to which it does not have ownership.


Acronyms, bat caves and sentient architecture: February update from Washington DC


Dense mass of bats within a passageway in Carlsbad Cavern using thermal imaging camera (c) Nickolay Hristov / Louise Allen

So here I am, back in Washington DC on Super Tuesday (writing this the day before I post), observing a racist litigious pathological liar, serial bankrupt and (it almost goes without saying) climate change denier head towards the Republican nomination. Anyhoo, I’d better get this blog updated on my February DC art-science activities before House of Cards Season 4 starts on Friday, because that’s going to wipe out this weekend.

February started strategically with a meeting of SEAD (The Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design) Working Group hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. The group shared and discussed trends that have emerged in the last few years since the network’s White Papers initiative in 2012, the outcome of which was published by MIT Press as ‘Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation‘. I was asked to present to the meeting on the international context for art, science and technology – a wide brief for a fifteen minute presentation! Luis Girao from the EU was also present for part of the day and spoke about the EU’s STARTS initiative.  The meeting follows the recent National Academies launch of the planning phase of a project to examine the value of incorporating curricula and experiences in the arts and humanities into college and university STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and workforce training programs, as well as integrating more STEM into the academic programs of students who are majoring in the humanities, arts and related disciplines.

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

Fields to Freedom, Desert Art Lab (c) Desert Art Lab

From strategy to academia, I dived straight into the massive College Art Association annual conference, this year in Washington DC, which included a panel discussion on ‘Cultivating an Ecology of Networked Knowledge & Innovation thru Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts & Design’, moderated by Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina. Malina noted that the current enthusiasm for “STEAM” – the introduction of art into science and technology teaching – is driven and shaped by the desire to attract and retain more scientists and engineers, rather than for having more science/technology-informed artists. I would say this is true on both sides of the Atlantic. Panel member Nettrice Gaskins gave an inspiring presentation on the art/science programme she runs at the Boston Arts Academy, and noted that she had found it easier to get artists to engage with science, than to get scientists to engage with the arts. There was also a great talk by biologist Nickolay Hristov about his work at the Center for Design Innovation (CDI) in North Carolina, where he studies bats and develops new techniques for filming and visualising bats.

In the overwhelming number of sessions, panels and talks at the CAA conference, one of my standouts was the ‘Ecologies of Creative Activism’ session, organised by the New Media Caucus, where I found much potential fodder for the Arte Util archive, including the work of ecoarttech – a delightful project on goat keeping and Desert Art Lab‘s community cactus gardens.

Amazing to catch up with some wonderful artists from different parts of the world converged on DC for the CAA meet, including Jane Prophet, Marta de Menezes and Armin Medosch. Fantastic conversations.

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

Sentient Chamber, Philip Beesley (c) The Artist

During the month, I also enjoyed the latest edition of DASER (DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous), again at the National Academy of Science, which had some cracking talks, including Richard Foster’s illuminating reflections on creativity, a subject which usually makes me nod off, and architect Philip Beesley’s talk on his fascination with non-repeating geometries and living architecture: his idea of a new approach to shelter that is gentle and responsive to nature, rather than rigidly repelling natural forces. Video of the talks here.

Beesley’s Sentient Chamber,  created by a group of architects, engineers, scientists, and artists in his Living Architecture Systems Group at the University of Waterloo, Canada, was installed upstairs from the DASER salon as a site-specific interactive work in the National Academy of Sciences’ spectacular building on Constitution Avenue. This experimental and delightful work incorporates new lightweight structures, interactive robotics, and ideas from synthetic biology to pursue an architecture as close to being alive. In form, the artwork is a suspended translucent artificial forest that reacts to your presence with changing light and murmuring sounds.

Both the exhibition and the DASER series are organized by CPNAS – the National Academy of Sciences’ Cultural Program – which is led and championed by curator JD Talasek, who attracts my huge admiration for the quality, breadth and boldness of the contemporary art program that he has introduced and sustained at the NAS for several years.

Trust and the taste of flesh: the ethics of Martin O’Brien’s zombie performance

Naked man on a chain leans towards laughing woman as if to bit her

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The first three articles from the Trust Me, I’m an Artist project (funded by Creative Europe) have just been published online, which gives me an excuse to reflect back on the subject of all three texts – Martin O’Brien’s Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, which Arts Catalyst commissioned earlier this year, curated by Jareh Das.

The series Trust Me I’m an Artist seeks to address the isolation of artistic activities from the regulatory frameworks that both contain science, medicine and biotechnology but also provide guidance and clarity for activities in those fields. The conventions and understanding that scientists bring to their work concerning safe or ethical practices are formed during their training and research within institutional settings over years. Artists who engage with the methods, materials and technologies of science are generally unlikely to share these norms and rules because of their different training, knowledge and culture.

A pilot series of Trust Me I’m an Artist events, which included Neal White’s The Void at Arts Catalyst, placed artists in front of an ‘ethics committees’ to present their proposals and allow the committee to discuss them, which could then approve or reject the proposal, or – in the case of White’s The Void – decide that their remit did not enable them to reach a decision. In the Creative Europe funded series, the format is more flexible, enabling broader questions to be raised around issues of risk and audience consent, the interplay of fiction and factual accuracy in relation to science, the responsibility of the curator (to artist and audience), and the different institutional frameworks and cultures of art and science, as discussed in an introductory text to the project by artist Anna Dumitriu, biomedical ethicist Professor Bobbie Farsides and curator Annick Bureaud.

Main in straightjacket and rubber mask smears green paint with his head while people look on

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

Martin O’Brien’s performance emerged, as does much of his work, from his experience of living with cystic fibrosis, the impact of the medical interventions he receives and the reactions from others towards his illness and symptoms. In this new durational live art work, he turned his attention to the fear of contamination associated with the sick body, playing with depictions of the zombie in popular culture and highlighting recent public anxiety around the risk of infection, which O’Brien discusses beautifully in his text Flesh-Eaters: Notes Towards a Zombie Methodology

The three-hour durational performance took place at the White Building, London. The staging was reminiscent of an emergency medical tent or quarantine centre. Clear plastic was stretched over a wooden frame creating a room within a room. As people arrived, they were briefed on the nature of the performances, and invited to put on protective wear for their clothes. Upon entering the performance area, one met small groups of people huddled in the corners of the space. All watched intently as the artist, wearing a straitjacket and mask, chained to a pole in the centre of the space, struggled on his hands and knees to dip his head in a bowl of green paint and then arduously paint a spiral around the enclosure. As the length of chain increased, the spiral enlarged moving the artist further from the centre and closer to the audience and eventually forcing them to move away to avoid being painted. Over the course of the next four hours, Martin undertook a series of actions which explored interaction and changing power relationships between performer and audience, focusing on the idea of contagion, all the time chained to the pole and semi-naked, often circling the room, making people move around to avoid him and the moving chain. These actions included coughing up mucus and blowing bubbles from the mucus in people’s faces, piercing his lips with a needle drawing blood, and biting members of the audience (with their complicity, as it was easy to move away) and inviting the audience to bite him in return. Over the course of the performance, the audience’s reactions moved from discomfort, disgust, pain, concern and awkwardness to laughter, participation and relaxation, and back again.

Chained man bites laughing woman

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

The Arts Catalyst team conducted exit interviews with audience members. Many of the responses centred on the act of watching and participating in the performance, and commented on the shift of mood during the performance, from seriousness and unease to laughter, empathy and connection, even a sense of camaraderie. Several spoke of their feeling of the artist’s generosity in sharing and enduring pain or hardship.

The performance was following by a discussion event, which featured a specially convened ethics committee of Professor Karen Lowton, Dr Gianna Bouchard, and Lois Keidan, director of the Live Art Development Agency, chaired by Professor Bobbie Farsides. Issues discussed included audience consent, particularly around the biting, the power of the performer in this situation and how this related to the participation of the audience.

As a commissioner of the work, as well as obvious health and safety issues that had to be addressed before the performance – from paint fumes in an enclosed space to a whirling chain, to the risks of the artist letting blood and potentially being in contact with audience members (1) – there were many other issues of concern for me in terms of both the artist and the audience’s safety and well-being. While I felt a lot of trust in the artist as a highly experienced performer, he was placing himself in a position of both vulnerability and power during the performance. Given the actions, in particular the act of biting, I was concerned about the impact on and reaction from audience members. In her text, the curator of the work Jareh Das reflects on the ethics of extreme live art, addressing the limits of ‘watchability’, ‘bearability’ and what ‘informed consent’ means in terms of audience members and how much information can and should be given to them in advance.

In the past, I have shied away from commissioning live art performances in which the artist hurts or causes injury to themselves (piercing, etc), not from any sense of disapproval or lack of interest in the artform, but because of the ethical dilemma – for me – of commissioning (i.e. paying) someone to commit these acts on themselves. I have also learned that, in the act of performance, the frameworks and restrictions that you have put in place may not work, or may sometimes be transgressed, and then the question of whether or not to intervene.

With the long tradition of live art, these are not new ethical considerations and dilemmas and they have been extensively discussed in that arena. However, it is useful to situate what are often represented as ‘new’ ethical dilemmas of emerging art practices (i.e. those engaging with science and medicine) within art historical contexts that have long addressed complex ethical and social issues and learn from them.

Trust Me I’m an Artist is an ongoing series of projects aimed at investigating the new ethical issues arising from art and science collaboration and consider the roles and responsibilities of the artists, scientists and institutions. involved. Institutional partners are: Waag Society Amsterdam, Arts Catalyst London, Capsula Helsinki, Ciant Prague, Kapelica Gallery Ljubliana, Leonardo Olats Paris and Medical Museion Copenhagen.


  1. We were careful to alert people to this aspect of the performance, so that those with compromised immune systems or who had cystic fibrosis did not come into the performance, however there remained an element of risk.


Man paints spiral of green paint with his head in enclosed performance space

Martin O’Brien, Taste of Flesh / Bite Me, I’m Yours, London, April 2015 (c) Martin O’Brien. Photo: Arts Catalyst

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.

Tomás Saraceno’s artistic project Aerocene is a series of sculptures that will float in the longest 0-fossil fuel journey around the world, becoming buoyant only by the heat of the Sun and infrared radiation from the surface of Earth. For COP21 Paris, December 2015, Saraceno presents Aerocene in a sculptural installation at Grand Palais.

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.

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

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)

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