Essay

Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration is 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 were controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia—towards a private enterprise model.

Free Enterprise has been in the planning stages since fall 2009. Its presentation in 2013 arrives at a time when several private enterprise ventures have come to fruition. They include the successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon space capsule by Space X, a company based in Hawthorne, California, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station; the soon-to-be-completed spaceport in New Mexico that will be the launch site for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, and the burgeoning efforts of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave based company represented in Free Enterprise. These developments are a clear sign that we are at a dawn of a new radical change in near-earth space exploration. Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind and allow for a broader awareness of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Background
Humankind has looked to the sky, stars, and planets for millennia. Empircal observations of celestial movements have influenced religious ceremonies, agricultural production, navigation of the oceans, and a reconsideration of Earth as the center of the solar system. Since the 1960s, humankind has explored our celestial neighborhood with landings on the Moon, Mars, Venus and Titan, walks in the vacuum of space, and habitation on the Skylab, Salyut, MIR space stations and since 1998 the International Space Station (ISS). With the Space Shuttle program and the world’s first reusable spacecraft, we have gained a new sense of easy access to the cosmos since the 1980’s.

The artists in Free Enterprise have intersected with these technological achievements. It has been their desire to go beyond the creation of metaphorical objects and events in order to be pioneering participants and citizens. Their spirit is akin to the days of the amateur, gentleman scientist, exemplified by Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin. However, since the twentieth-century, science has been led by pure research at universities and government laboratories, and by private labs that are both concerned with discovery and profit. Today this research arena has expanded even further: public participation has increased through a variety of crowdsourcing citizen science ventures made possible by broad citizen access to technology. One of the early examples is the SETI screen saver distributed computing system in which private citizens could help with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A more recent one is Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal that includes numerous projects that allow users to participate in scientific research including classifying galaxies, collating climate data, discovering exoplanets, monitoring endangered species, and mapping the human genome.

Space is no longer a remote frontier. It is now within reach to build space-faring hardware with ready-made components. Participation in space reseach is now accessible to people who see themselves as citizens, amateurs, and—as exemplied by Free Enterprise—as artists.

The exhibition’s structure of linking artists with the aerospace industry harkens back to the groundbreaking Art & Technology program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967-1971, almost the same time span as the flight years of the Apollo program. It paired artists with high technology and aerospace corporations of the time in the hope that new art forms might arise. The program was one of the milestones—with influence to this day—in probing the dense associations of art to technology and science.

Recent developments in the aerospace industry mark the dawn of a new space race. Space travel endeavors by private business and citizen initiatives represents a refocus from the cold war mentality of the 1960s in which space exploration was a grand, national assertion of collective identity, controlled by state ownership of the “final frontier.” In contrast, our government now emphasizes private development of commercial sub-orbital flight and lunar exploration, signaling a shift from space as an abstract concept for state exploration into a de-regulated realm, unconstrained, and exposed to both socialization and capitalization. International artists are already exploring these untested territories with aerospace experts, engineers, scientists, visionaries and entrepreneurs.

The center of these businesses is in the American Southwest, particularly in Southern California, with most of the research conducted at the Mojave Air and Space Port near Edwards Air Force Base, about 115 miles north of Riverside. Other ventures are nested in the defense industry cluster in El Segundo, adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport and some in Silicon Valley. But for the last half of the 20th century, Southern California has been at the center of the world aerospace industry. Now, it is poised to achieve another status in very different societal and political conditions. The location of these enterprises in the American Southwest also embody complicated, newly resurrected questions related to westward expansion, the frontier spirit, and free enterprise versus government regulation. These new realities open up a Pandora’s Box of discursive possibilities and vectors yet to be considered in the heady rush of technological/entrepreneurial adventure.

Although the private-public partnership is a somewhat novel model for space exploration, it is not new in the course of Western history. In fact, it has been the prime model for exploration and western expansion: the state sets goals and takes initial risks, followed by entrepreneurs, privateers or venture capitalists, who assume the ongoing burden of exploration. The legacy of this model is technological achievement, but one fraught with the exploitation and destruction of cultures and resources. It is exactly this schism on which Free Enterprise is focused, reflecting the current state of privately funded space exploration, and critically considering it from divergent perspectives, leaving room to explore utopian visionary roots where the arts and space collide.

Perhaps recognizing how fraught future space exploration may become, the European Space Agency (ESA) contracted in 2005 with The Arts Catalyst in London—an organization represented in Free Enteprise—to carry out a study of the “cultural utilization” of the International Space Station (ISS), which included exploring artist residencies within the Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration directorate. In the report, The Arts Catalyst wrote that “one aspect of a cultural utilisation programme for the ISS could be thematic programmes, linking art-science-education-media. The environment is always a popular theme: the ozone layer, rising sea levels, changing weather systems, erosion of environment. Other themes might include orbital debris, meteors, Earth’s magnetic field, and then more broadly solar system exploration, the ISS as a symbol of international cooperation, the nature/benefits of microgravity, the social issues of long-duration spaceflight, the nature of habitat in space, and more purely aesthetic explorations. The study team recommends that a network is developed that can link up artists with space science experiments at an early stage, soon after experiment selection. Such a network could incorporate workshops at ESA ground-based facilities, bringing together groups of artists and scientists, focused on particular areas of science.”

Perhaps the most salient point made is the creation of an art-science network at an early stage. This recommendation is akin to the same issues with public art. Usually, the most interesting and successful work occurs when an artist is brought in early while architectural plans are in their planning stages and before construction begins. Similary, the impetus for many of the artists in Free Enterprise is to be part of early integration with space exploration in order to make the best effor to keep the door open for not just private entrepreneurs, who may be more focused on a business model, but also for artists, who are focused on the larger cultural, ethical, and philosophical questions of what it means for humanity to reach beyond Earth.

Timeline of Work Represented
Free Enterprise is comprised of twenty-five artists, collectives, organizations, and initiatives, which includes several commissions for the exhibition and additions to the permanent collections at UCR ARTSblock: 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).

The art represented in Free Enterprise includes work of early artistic pioneers. Here you will find   work from the early twentieth-century: Trieste Constructivist Cabinet (Avgust Černigoj, Edvard Stepančič, Giorgio Carmelich and Josip Vlah), constructivists who envisioned an exhibition “ambient” with levitating sculptures in 1927—one of which has flown on the first arts-related parabolic flight in August 1999 and paved the way for the understanding of the meaning of non-gravitational spaces in the context of art. Another early flown space artwork is by Forrest Myers, the 1969 Moon Museum, a small, ceramic chip containing a variety of works by six artists including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, that was sent up as an unauthorized, cultural, engineering and artistic “passenger” on the Apollo 12 lander. Other artists including Lowry Burgess’ project of mixing waters of the world for a project on the Space Shuttle with Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture, Richard Clar’s interspecies satellite project Space Flight Dolphin, and Arthur Woods’ Cosmic Dancer sculptures aboard the Russian space station have been working since the early 1980s on space art projects and have flown them on the Space Transportation System (a.k.a. Space Shuttle) missions and on the MIR space station.

Also represented in Free Enterprise are the early explorations of choreography and dance in microgravity conditions by Kitsou Dubois in cooperation with the French space agency CNES and the first theatre performance with a public in a parabolic flight, the 1999 Biomehanika Noordung, which was staged by director Dragan Živadinov and his Cosmokinetic Kabinet Noordung in cooperation with Projekt Atol Flight Operations and the Star City Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center with further development under the wider context of Postgravityart. Subsequently, Projekt Atol, with artist Marko Peljhan, co-curator for Free Enterprise, and Rob La Frenais from The Arts Catalyst, together with the V2 Institute for Unstable Media, Leonardo Olats and the Multimedia Complex of Actual Arts started a series of parabolic flight campaigns under the heading of MIR (Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research) during which more than 30 artists and scientists took part in a series of flights from 2001 to 2008. Some of these are represented in Free Enterprise. Other artists in Free Enterprise who benefited from their efforts or arranged their own similar parabolic flights include Agnes Meyer-Brandis’ blend of mythology and science, and Christian Waldvogel’s success at remaining motionless above the Swiss Alps while the Earth continued spinning below.

In the U.S., artists began their own projects, inspired by the newly possible private-access to space: Frank Pietronigro has explored queer theory relative to creating diversity among future space travelers already in the late 90’s and Trevor Paglen has recently launched a project on the EchoStar XVI communications satellite that may stay in orbit for millions of years; Carrie Paterson has developed perfumes for Homesickness Kits for future space farers; and Bradley Pitts has created an immersive video installation in which he attempts to capture the missed and often subtle experiences during a low-gravity, parabolic training flight. And now there are private companies, such as XCOR Aerospace, which will initiate sub-orbital flights, and Final Frontier Design—one of whose founding members comes out of costume design—that is developing garments for space travel.

Additionally, in this same time period several artists looked at the new developments from the viewpoint of a cultural anthropologist, such as Center for Land Use Interpretation’s documentation of experimental plane sites at Edwards Air Force Base, which is adjacent to the Mojave Space and Air Port and Connie Samaras’ large-scale photographs of Spaceport America under construction in New Mexico. One of the commissioned projects for Free Enterprise is by eteam. They traveled to the towns of Moon and Mars, both in Pennsylvania, and created a video work about how each town has embraced its celestial namesake.

Artists are now creating their own institutional frameworks for cooperative interaction with the wider space and culture comunities. Two such projects and initiatives are represented in Free Enterprise. The Slovenian KSEVT (Cultural Center of European Space Technologies) from Vitanje, a unique transdisciplinary initiative and a remarkable architectural structure, brings culture and the arts to the forefront of space exploration paradigms. ETTAS (European Space Agency Topical Team Arts and Science), provides a pragmatic approach for artists and scientists connected to the European Space Agency Human Spaceflight division to open up the ESA structures to artistic and cultural collaboration, intervention and creation. And artists have begun to chronicle the new developments in private space enterprise in creative and aestheically inventive documents. The showcased book, Chase for Space, by Nejc Trošt is one recent example. Additionally, Skeith De Wine has created the California Leonardo da Vinci Discovery in an effort to create a modern day place where science, enginneering, and the arts can coexist, just as they did in Leonardo’s mind and speculative inventions, many of which included methods for human flight.

These initiatives by private citizens, rather than state agencies, aim to fuse the science of space exploration with the speculations of artists is one reason that Free Enterprise does includes an early twentieth-century constructivist conceptual work (conicidentally one elaborated by an international collective of artists in Trieste in 1927) that paved the way in the understanding of the meaning of non-gravitational spaces in the context of art; the unique conceptualization of the KSEVT Cultural Centre of European Space Technologies, the first institution devoted primarily to the connections betweeen the arts and sciences of space in the world; and the fantastic and visionary work of XCOR engineers in the same context. In essence, they all belong together as part of the same visionary paradigm.

The goal of this conceptual collaborative matrix between industry and artists is to match the enthusiasm, sense of adventure, and creative process that is shared by both the space exploration entrepreneurs and visionaries and the artists who have explored the subject for many years. Both take the risk to expend personal intellectual, immaterial and material capital, never knowing quite what the return will be on their dreams to expand the reach of humanity beyond Earth—a dream, which has to be noted, historically started in the arts, philosophy and literature, and not in the basic or applied sciences and technology. From earliest times our sense of self has been defined by our sense of presence in the universe. The heavens have been our most significant metaphor for inspiration and vastness, voyage and possibility. Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration demonstrates how artists, engineers and scientists are not only redefining that metaphor, but moving beyond metaphor by achieving innovative cultural and artistic expression.

Tyler Stallings and Marko Peljhan, co-curators

A printed catalog of the exhibition is forthcoming.

 

 

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