Frank Pietronigro

Frank Pietronigro, based in San Francisco, is an interdisciplinary artist, educator and author. He is the first American painter to create “drift paintings” where his body floated within a three-dimensional painting that he created, as scientific research, in zero gravity aboard NASA’s KC135 turbojet. He is Co-Founder and Project Director of the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium and former Associate Fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University.  He served the space arts community as one of the coordinators for Yuri’s Night Bay Area 2007-08 held at NASA Ames Research Center. In 2006, he was Co-Chair of the Space Art Track of the 25th International Space Development Conference, co-sponsored by the National Space Society and the Planetary Society.

Pietronigro’s project, Research Project Number 33: Investigating the Creative Process in a Microgravity Environment (RP33) was an interdisciplinary action that bridged the sensibility of the artist with the technology of space flight. RP33 was created as a performance collaboration produced, by the artist, as a part of the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program, a program of the Texas Space Grant Consortium created in collaboration with the California Space Grant Consortium and the San Francisco Art Institute, the first fine arts institute affiliated with the National Space Grant program.  On 4 April 1998, the artist flew aboard a NASA KC135 turbojet over the Gulf of Mexico from Houston’s Johnson Space Center and experienced the awe-inspiring sensation of creating art in a microgravity environment. (The KC135 approximates zero gravity; true zero-g is attainable only in outer space). The KC135 flew 42 parabolas, diving between 34,000 and 24,000 feet, resulting in 18–25 seconds of weightlessness followed by 40–50 seconds of 2g force (twice the normal gravitational force of the earth).

His intention was simple: to eliminate the structural support—the canvas—while creating paintings in mid-air, with his body included as part of the composition. He intended for technology and microgravity to contribute to the organic development of these kinetic “drift paintings” with spontaneity and serendipity orchestrating the results. His original objectives were: (1) to revive modernist conventions (namely, abstract expressionism) as an aesthetic of historical effect influencing the social relations among artists and space scientists and engineers, (2) to identify new practices for painting in weightlessness, (3) to instigate dialogue regarding the integration of fine-art processes into the daily life of space travelers, (4) to propose that such integration will stimulate right-brain functionality, as a refreshing counterpoint to left-brain activities, helping reduce stress, decreasing boredom and offer other social benefits during long term space missions (5) to acknowledge spatial confusion in microgravity and, finally, (6) to take the risk of weaving my body into such a space.

While he was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute (1994–1998), the faculty exposed him to the concepts of pluralism, Situationist theory, the role of the artist in public spaces, post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the politics of representation. He intended to weave his understanding of these concepts into his quest to gain access to NASA space-flight technology as he sculpted institutional relationships by appropriating business conventions and scientific research methodologies.

Artifacts from Research Project Number 33: Investigating the Creative Process in a Microgravity Environment are presented in Free Enterprise. Additionally, artifacts from another project, Playing the Fans also known as Fan Dance, are presented.

The artist is a member of San Francisco’s LGBT community and he has flown twice in microgravity, on a parabolic flight, where he engaged in “flagging,” a dance convention that originates within the LGBT community. This action was intentionally employed within the site of space exploration, as a way for the artist to demonstrate that queer cultural production can be enjoyed as alternative leisure time activities during space exploration. By offering this position, the artist advocates that, as a species moving off their home planet, we strive our best to ensure that sexism, racism, homophobia, and others forms of bias and prejudice are left behind as we move beyond our planet to explore our solar system with the hope that if and when we meet other universal species we are able to greet the other species with a spirit of openness, hospitality and generosity.

• Images 1-4: Documentation of Research Project Number 33: Investigating the Creative Process in a Microgravity Environment, 1998. The artist aboard a NASA experiencing microgravity on a parabolic flight and executing his work. Photos courtesy of the artist and NASA.

Astronaut Steffany, 2008, Photograph, 30 x 20 inches. An altered image of an astronaut that explores issues around “queers in space.” Photo courtesy of the artist.