Today we’re celebrating World Space Week. In this post artist Aleksandra Mir tracks her journey into the contemporary Space Industry via 16 Interviews she made with various Space academics and professionals during the production of her monumental scale artwork Space Tapestry, currently on view at Modern Art Oxford and Tate Liverpool.
I attended my first Space conference in 2014. ‘Reinventing Space’, organized by the British Interplanetary Society took place at the Royal Society here in London and it felt like my first day in school. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t expect the advanced level of discussions about space technology and space policy would be available to me as an artist. I simply went because I had to.
Who doesn’t have a relationship to Space? Who hasn’t looked at the moon and the stars and applied themselves to whatever pop-cultural knowledge they have about them? My family watched the first moon landing on a black and white TV in Poland in 1969. As a two-year-old, I remember vividly the images on the screen and my father jumping up and down in excitement.
Over the years this faint memory rewrote itself over and over again in my mind until it became a monument to global, human and humanistic achievement. True to being a technological feat of astronautics, the moon landing was also major cultural event, one that has generated an enormous amount of residual cultural production in its wake.
For us who work in the Culture Industry today – including art, design, film, media – we are still romantically, nostalgically and critically fixated to the early phase of Space exploration. We seem unable to let go of our obsession with Astronauts as pioneering heroes and Barbarella like femme fatales to match. Not to mention our overusing of SILVER, a signifier that automatically connotes Space, but that we use lazily and without scrutiny, and which sadly, renders us dated.
I was becoming painfully aware of this problem of dissonance between the past and the present within my own professional realm and decided to update my knowledge and revise my own set of references. I wanted to know where things were at today, 60 years since the first shiny silver satellite, 50 years since the moon landing. I wanted to hear the contemporary experts speak about their present achievements and the immediately projectable future.
The fact that cultural production is so easily conflated with science-fiction does not make it any easier to stay grounded in the problems of here and now. I’d never been interested in science-fiction but as a visual artist I have to constantly fend off the association, since ‘fantasy’ is so readily available to me and assumed to be my natural domain. Oh, you’re an artist, well you can take us into the future just by imagining it!
Well, no. I wanted to investigate my reality and contemporary relationship to Space, more as an anthropologist than a fantasy artist. I wanted to know how various societies function in regards to their diverse access and investments in Space, how general consciousness is shaped by scientific advances and what options there are for living with all this information available to us today. The future is simply inevitable as a consequence of our present.
Today there are 70 space faring nations world-wide who participate in Space with vastly different resources and objectives. The Space industry has developed rapidly and invisibly around us, and many actions of contemporary life, from bank transactions to telecommunications are wired through it. I wanted to become more aware of the role Space plays in our lives and how evolution in Space reflects life on Earth, so I attended talks and discussions that dealt with the Militarization, Commercialization and Democratization of Space. I gained a good understanding of technologial and political thresholds that are being wrestled with right now and that are shaping our futures as we speak. I got access to some top industry experts who invited me on their high security sites to watch the fabrication of some of the most advanced technologies today. I learned from affiliated professionals such as medics and ecologists how Space informs and affects their work.
In the process, I made friends with a lot of incredibly open and generous people who took an interest in my own work, who invited me as a speaker at the UK Space Conference in Liverpool in 2015, visited my studio, engaged with me in dynamic one-on-one debates, and who eventually attended the openings of my shows where they saw the information they had shared with me embedded into the art.
Exhibitions are only locally available though, and they come and go, so I am very grateful that the book companion We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future will be available throughout the world and remain a long lasting record not only of my artwork and of my interviews with 16 space industry professionals, but also of this moment in time.
I would like to thank the participants for their generosity and their willingness to lend their time and extend themselves far beyond their own disciplines to engage with my relentless questioning and curiosity:
Rebecca Charnock, Biologist, Aberystwyth University
Stuart Eves, Lead Mission Concepts Engineer, Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd
Jayanne English, Astronomy Imaging Expert, University of Manitoba / Hubble Heritage Project
Helen Fraser, Astrochemist, Open University
Delia Di Filippantonio, Design Thinker, Satellite Applications Catapult
Alice Gorman, Space Archeologist, Flinders University
Sanjeev Gupta, Geologist, Imperial College London / Strategic Planner, NASA Mars Rover Mission
Andrew Kuh, Technical Regulations Manager, UK Space Agency
Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich
Andrea Moretti, Network Control Centre Manager, Inmarsat
Thais Russomano, Medical Doctor, MicroG Centre / PUCRS University
Clara Sousa-Silva, Astrochemist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jill Stuart, Space Law Expert, London School of Economics / METI International
Matthew Stuttard, Advanced Systems Architect, Airbus Defence and Space
Jan Woerner, Director General of the European Space Agency
Chris Welch, Space Engineer, International Space University
All photos (c) Aleksandra Mir, Space Tapestry, 2015 – 2017