Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration
Fast forward to 2013. ARTSblock is to present the first contemporary art exhibition in the U.S. to present an international array of artists and organizations who are exploring the potential democratization of space exploration and the intersection between artistic production and civilian space travel. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities—which are controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia—towards a private enterprise model.
It is a desire, the curators emphasize, that has grown more viable in recent decades, as the prospect of space travel evolves from a monopolistic state-sponsored operation, an assertion of national identity, into a field of private enterprise. In the last four years alone — the time it has taken to bring the exhibition to fruition — the world’s first commercial spaceport, Spaceport America, was built in southern New Mexico; its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, has accumulated more than 500 reservations for its projected suborbital passenger flights (at $200,000 a pop); and Hawthorne-based SpaceX became the first privately held company to fly a cargo payload to the International Space Station. “Free Enterprise,” through May 18, is the first contemporary art exhibition in the U.S. to address the role of the artist in this new era.
Kitsou Dubois performance during zero gravity on parabolic flight
“It is important to ensure that as access opens up it isn’t available only to for-profit companies who want to go to the moon and mine minerals, for example,” says Stallings. “By including culture at the beginning you ask the bigger ethical, moral and philosophical questions. At this point no one owns the moon, no one owns space, but those questions are going to begin to come up. They bring up issues of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, the idea that you just push forward and deal with policy later. The title ‘Free Enterprise’ is meant to capture all that ambivalence.”
With 25 artists, cooperatives and initiatives from the U.S. and Europe, the show presents a strikingly broad array of approaches. There’s the playful (San Francisco-based artist Frank Pietronigro’s attempt to create an abstract expressionist painting without a canvas, while suspended in a clear plastic sack in a microgravity environment aboard a NASA KC-135 turbojet), the conceptual (the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s appropriation of Google Earth satellite images of an otherwise restricted testing ground for military aerial photography on Edwards Air Force Base) and the industrial (low-cost commercial spacesuit technology by Final Frontier Design or a two-passenger suborbital spacecraft by the Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace Inc.).
Several of the projects involve discrete objects intended to be launched directly into space. Richard Clar, who lives in L.A. and Paris, built a dolphin-shaped satellite equipped to issue dolphin signals as a potential invitation to extraterrestrial communication. The project was conceived in 1982 through a NASA program that was subsequently discontinued, so it was never launched, though Clar continues to investigate alternative avenues.
Other projects involve the creation of more comprehensive initiatives. Peljhan has been particularly active in this regard. In the late 1990s, frustrated with the absence of space research in Slovenia, he and several other artists took matters into their own hands. “The only way to do space research is to have a space agency,” he says, “otherwise you’re not on the map. So if nobody’s going to do it, let’s do a space agency! We started the initiative for the Slovenian Space Agency. Artists!” He also organized a series of artist-driven parabolic flights — flights in which an aircraft undertakes particular maneuvers to simulate microgravity for periods of 20 to 25 seconds — to allow artists to experiment in weightless conditions.
One artist who’s made extensive use of this environment is theater director and fellow Slovenian Dragan ¿ivadinov, documentation of whose work “Noordung 1995::2045” occupies a whole room of the exhibition. In a walk-through just before the show’s opening, ¿ivadinov makes a grand case for the project, with a booming voice, a brusque accent and a cheerfully ironic twinkle in his eye.
“What we are doing here is post-gravity art,” he announces. “Noordung 1995::2045” is a theater performance with 14 actors, seven men and seven women, held on a parabolic flight. It premiered in 1995, with repeat performances to occur every 10 years for the next 50 years. “If anybody die in interval, we change their body for remote control sign. If woman die, we install in her replica a melody, and if man die, we integrate a rhythm. In 2045, all the actors will be dead, on stage will just be floating substitutions. I won’t die. I am theater director.” He laughs.
Young Brooklyn-based artist Bradley Pitts is another to have taken advantage of Peljhan’s parabolic flight program. His “Singular Oscillations: Playback” is a multichannel video installation documenting a flight in which he moved through the variable gravity environment naked while blocking his eyes and ears to lose any sense of orientation and experience a completely free floating, unencumbered bodily existence.
Pitts, who was trained as an aerospace engineer and worked for a time at NASA, later recounted the experience to a former astronaut and asked him if he had ever floated naked himself. The astronaut was defensive at first but later admitted, in a letter that is included in the installation, that he had and that the experience had been remarkable.
“I took this as a kind of confession,” Pitts recounts, “that things like this are happening and have been happening in the space program — because we’re sending humans! — but they always get marginalized and pushed off to the side. That’s what I think is exciting about the development of space tours and things like this: The true humanity of the endeavor can rise to the surface and become the mission rather than being a byproduct that is glossed over to get to the data.”
On a more poetic note, Germany’s Agnes Meyer-Brandis established the Moon Goose Colony, a quasi-scientific experiment, presented here in the form of a film, in which she raised a flock of geese with the intention of teaching them to fly to the moon. (The premise is an allusion to “The Man in the Moone,” an early 17th century book by the English bishop Francis Godwin.)
Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration
Opens Jan. 19 and runs through May 18 at UCR ARTSblock, located in the 3800 block of Main Street in downtown Riverside.
A panel discussion on the exhibit is scheduled Saturday, Jan. 19, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., with an opening reception to follow from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.
Free Enterprise” is comprised of 25 artists, collectives, organizations, and initiatives, which includes several commissions for the exhibition and additions to the permanent collections at UCR ARTSblock. A variety of media will be represented: drawing, photography, video, sculpture, painting, and artifacts by: The Arts Catalyst (London, U.K.), Lowry Burgess (Pittsburgh, PA), Center for Land Use Interpretation (Culver City, CA), Richard Clar (Paris/Los Angeles), Skeith De Wine (Santa Ana, CA), Kitsou Dubois (Paris), eteam (New York), European Space Agency Topical Team Arts and Science (international participants), Final Frontier Design (New York), Cultural Center of European Space Technologies / KSEVT (Vitanje, Slovenia), Agnes Meyer-Brandis (Berlin), MIR – Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research (international participants), Forrest Myers (New York), Trieste Constructivist Cabinet (Italy/Slovenia), Nejc Trošt (Slovenia/Houston, TX), Trevor Paglen (New York), Carrie Paterson (Los Angeles), Frank Pietronigro (San Francisco), Bradley Pitts (New York), Cosmokinetial Kabinet Noordung – Postgravityart (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Projekt Atol Flight Operations (Santa Barbara, CA and Ljubljana, Slovenia), Connie Samaras (Los Angeles), Christian Waldvogel (Zurich, Switzerland), Arthur Woods (Zurich, Switzerland), and XCOR Aerospace, Inc. (Mojave, CA).
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