Richard Clar

Richard Clar, a Los Angeles/Paris new media interdisciplinary artist, founded Art Technologies in 1987 as a liaison between the worlds of art and technology. His philosophically oriented artwork turned towards art-in-space in 1982 with a NASA-approved art payload for the U.S. Space Shuttle, Space Flight Dolphin. Richard Clar’s current work encompasses site-specific environmental issues ranging from orbital debris to water-management on Earth; war and peace; and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Collaborating with such partners as the Naval Research Laboratory, Boeing, and the Aerospace Corporation, Clar’s unique artistic vision generates high-visibility projects that transform state-of-the-art technology and highly engineered materials into evocative contemporary art.

Clar conceived Space Flight Dolphin (SFD) in 1982. Approved by NASA, SFD is an interdisciplinary art-in-space SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to be deployed in low-Earth orbit from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle. The dolphin sculpture/satellite will transmit a signal modulated by dolphin “voices” that may be detected or sensed by an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbits the Earth, the dolphin voices will be monitored in various museums around the World and on the Internet, providing a link between different peoples and cultures on our own planet. Space Flight Dolphin adds to the history of human beings communicating through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture.

The impetus for the project came from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Get-Away Special (GAS) payload program. NASA’s GAS program was part of the space shuttle’s Space Transportation System (STS). On each shuttle flight, one or more “primary payloads” were to be carried in the payload bay. On some flights, these payloads would not occupy the total volume and weight available, and the balance could be devoted to GAS payloads. The GAS program presented relatively low cost access to space, with launch services for each 5-cu-ft, 20~1b GAS canister starting at $10,000. For Space Flight Dolphin, the canister would have been fitted with a full-diameter, motorized door assembly and an ejection mechanism that would deploy the sculpture/satellite.

In order to have qualified for the GAS program, the payload had to be justified in terms of human/technical benefit. An art payload had to satisfy this NASA requirement. To do this for Space Flight Dolphin, Clar created an experiment based on communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI). He used much of NASA’s own research in the area of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as a basis for this requirement. He received a letter, dated 18 April 1986, approving the concept of the project from Clarke Prouty, Acting Manager of the GAS program at NASA headquarters. Unfortunately, the Challenger shuttle program put the GAS program on hold and so Clar could not realize the project.

The approximately life-sized dolphin sculpture/satellite would have been constructed with 55-Nitinol wire, a memory alloy. Nitinol is a nickel-titanium alloy developed by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, White Oak, Maryland. This alloy has a “shape memory” that allows it to be bent, twisted or compressed plastically out-of shape at room temperature. Upon heating to 150° (which can be achieved with sunlight in space), the deformed Nitinol springs back to its original shape. There is a poetry in this metamorphic quality of Nitinol that makes it appealing for art in space. Space Flight Dolphin would have been like a symbol waiting to be discovered on the wall of a cave, but now in outer space.

Exhibition Designers Seth Allan Hawkins and Jeff Cain of UCR ARTSblock, in consultation with Clar, fabricated the model of the Space Flight Dolphin. They constructed and engineered the wire-frame dolphin, the satellite, and the audio component of the dolphin voice.

• left: Space Flight Dolphin, 1982, rendering of deployed satellite/sculpture in low earth orbit, 1982. Originally planned for deployment in the 1980s, the dolphin was to be constructed from Nitinol, a “shape memory” alloy that is activated by sunlight in space. It was to be deployed via NASA’s Get-Away-Special program before it was put on hold after the Challenger explosion in 1986. Illustration by Edgar Duncan.

Space Flight Dolphin, diagram and drawing of spring-activated ejection system used to deploy small satellite from Get-Away-Special (GAS) canister. Drawings provided by NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center and Edgar Duncan.

ALMA da AGUA, proposed 1999, a collaboration between Richard Clar and Dinis Afonso Ribeiro of Portugal. A payload project in which water from the eight Portuguese speaking countries are mixed in space. It would also yield useful calibration data and provide a proof of concept for a number of technical innovations, and commemorate a future Portuguese Space Agency. Photo courtesy of Dinis Afonso Ribeiro.

COLLISION II, proposed 2003, is a dynamic site-specific orbital debris sculpture in Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 450 to 900 kilometers above Earth. COLLISION II was created in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory and French composer Marc Battier in 2003. Photo courtesy of the artist and The Naval Research Laboratory.