The Arts Catalyst

The Arts Catalyst commissions art that experimentally and critically engages with science. Based in London, U.K., the organization’s primary focus is commissioning new artists’ projects, presented in a range of museums, art galleries and other public spaces in the UK and internationally. In its nineteen years, The Arts Catalyst has commissioned more than 90 artists’ projects, including major new works by Tomas Saraceno, Aleksandra Mir, Critical Art Ensemble, Jan Fabre, Yuri Leiderman, Stefan Gec, Otolith Group, Beatriz da Costa, Kira O’Reilly and Marko Peljhan. The majority of exhibitions that resemble Free Enterprise have been initiated by The Arts Catalyst, which is represented in the exhibition by a compilation of video projects and documentation from their own past space arts related programs.

Their commitment as an organization is the reason that they are represented within Free Enterprise. Their past projects have included flying teams of artists and scientists into zero gravity in Russia, recreating controversial bio-warfare experiments, conducting research in remote environments, chasing eclipses and getting artists behind the scenes in closed scientific establishments. They were recently commissioned by the European Space Agency to develop a cultural policy for the orbiting International Space Station. Since 2001, they have presented a variety of projects that explore sub-orbital space, outer space, the International Space Station (ISS), and more recently, the moon. Projects began with MIR (Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research) (2000 to 2004), an ongoing project organized by The Arts Catalyst and the co-curator of Free Enterprise, Marko Peljhan.

One of the main reasons for The Arts Catalyst’s dedication to explore space and art can be attributed to a triad of like-minded individuals in Europe. It began first with Roger Malina, astrophysicist, editor of the Leonardo magazine who held salons on art and science in France, with a special interest in space art, and it was there that Marko Peljhan first presented his work and started a long term dialogue with the group of people gathered around the Malina house salons in 1998. In 1997 Peljhan, during his project Makrolab at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, started communicating with the cosmonauts of the MIR space station when the station was overflying the area. This started a radio friendship, that resulted in the setup of a video/conference Q&A performance with the cosmonauts of the MIR Kristall mission in early 1998 and in 1999, Peljhan founded a branch of his arts organization Projekt Atol Flight Operations, which worked together with the Slovenian theatre director Dragan Zivadinov on the setup of the first theatre performance in a parabolic flight in alternating gravity conditions in collaboration with the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City. He invited the art/science curator Rob La Frenais to be on the first flight with them and this sparked a longer-term collaboration between Projekt Atol and The Arts Catalyst that resulted in the organization of three more flights and the creation of the MIR consortium (Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research), together with Leonardo OLATS and V2 Rotterdam. In the meantime, Projekt Atol Flight Operations became a vehicle through which Peljhan enabled fellow artists, scientists and hybrid practitioners to access the Star City facilities in a series of complex collaborative works, last of them being the Bradley Pitts flight, described above. Connected to their collaboration on the Space Soon project, which the Arts Catalyst presented in September 2006, Peljhan and La Frenais organized a visit to Star City and the cosmonaut and space complex engineers contact with Laurie Anderson, NASA’s first, and also last, artist in residence. The visit was aimed at Anderson gaining experience and insight into Russian space operations and research.

In 2006, The Arts Catalyst presented Space Soon: Art and Human Spaceflight, a five-day event that included talks by astronaut turned-artist Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, Laurie Anderson and many other artists. A Danish group reversed into the future by engineering and building a Mars rehearsal habitation, a mini-city of domes with landing vehicles exploring the neighborhood. Below the exhibition space were the hibernaculum sleep chambers for SpaceBaby – a project in which artists examined the subject of long-term space travel and sleep.

In 2008, The Arts Catalyst presented Less Remote: The Futures of Space Exploration—An Arts and Humanities Symposium at the 59th International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow, Scotland (Free Enterprise artists and co-curator, Carrie Paterson, Agnes Meyers-Brandis, and Marko Peljhan presented). The symposium was a result of The Arts Catalyst’s work with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a cultural utilization program for the human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration division for the International Space Station (ISS). Artists, thinkers and writers contributed to the debates about going back to the Moon and on to Mars, living in space, art in zero gravity, the future of the International Space Station, and the search for life and human origins in scientific missions. More recently, in early 2010, The Arts Catalyst staff curator, Rob La Frenais, presented a salon talk at the Berlin-based Transmediale, called Destination Moon, and featured presentations by artists whose work engages with the past, present and future of the moon in terms of cultural meaning and the possible return by humans.

Most recently in 2011, The Arts Catalyst organized the exhibition, Republic of the Moon, about reimagining the future of the Moon. As the players in the new 21st century race for the Moon line up – the USA rejoining China, India and Russia and jostling with private corporations interested in exploiting the Moon’s resources – a group of artists declared a Republic of the Moon: a “micronation” for alternative visions of lunar life. Republic of the Moon challenged utilitarian plans of lunar mines and military bases with artists’ imaginings and interventions. Combining beguiling fantasies, personal encounters, and playful appropriations of space habitats and scientific technologies, Republic of the Moon reclaimed the Moon for artists, idealists, and dreamers.

 The last race to the Moon was driven by the political impulses of the Cold War, but shaped by extraordinary visions of space created by writers, filmmakers, and artists, from Jules Verne, Lucien Rudaux, and Vasily Levshin, to H.G. Wells, Stanislaw Lem and Stanley Kubrick. The underlying question behind the exhibition asked: can artists’ quixotic visions reconcile our romantic notions of the Moon with its colonized future, and help us to reimagine our relationship with our natural satellite in the new space age?

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• left: Zero Gravity project, 2005, web microsite.

Republic of the Moon project, 2011, web microsite.

Less Remote project, 2008, web microsite. All images courtesy of The Arts Catalyst.