Visual art has always been about pushing at the edges of human culture, whether that’s the boundaries of perception, the limits of technology, or the possibilities of storytelling. In that sense, avant-garde art has something in common with another human boundary, outer space—it’s always floating just outside our reach, a little bit beyond our total comprehension. Lately, we’ve been noticing a crop of art projects exploring that final frontier, with the most prominent examples being two ambitious public works by artists Tom Sachs and Trevor Paglen.
Sachs’ homemade “Space Program: Mars," recently installed at the Armory, presented a full-scale NASA armada created out of papier-mache and paint rather than steel and electronics. Paglen, on the other hand, launched a literal space mission by putting an array of photographs into Earth’s orbit. The galactic installation is meant to outlast the planet itself. Both projects offer a creative, appreciative take on the infinite possibilities of space travel but both also maintain an edge of irony or incredulity: Why are we so fixated on space? Is space travel really worth all the resources we put into it?
Anne Pasternak, director of Creative Time (the public art nonprofit that produced both Sachs and Paglen’s interplanetary projects in New York City), hypothesized that the reason artists are so fascinated by space might be because of its sheer scope. “Space is a lens in which to consider the extremes and everything in between of human civilization and accomplishments, and human error,” she said in a recent phone conversation. Paglen underlined this sentiment in an email interview. “Space is… a site of imagination,” he wrote. “When we look up at the night sky, we can’t help but project our own ideas, concepts, fantasies, and conceits onto it.”
Kim Boekbinder, a musician who has been drawn to the idea of space since she was a child and brought that to fruition in her latest single, sees our current obsession with space as an outgrowth of an interdisciplinary, DIY atmosphere. “These days I see a culture open to learning, hacking, exploring, making, breaking, taking apart,” Boekbinder said. “The walls between art and science are being constantly eroded and toppled and built back up.” Here is a group of projects that do just that.
Aleksandra Mir’s “Garden of Rockets,” 2005
Taking a photograph in front of the Kennedy Space Center’s Garden of Rockets, a museum-style display of decommissioned propulsion equipment, inspired Aleksandra Mir to make her own rockets. The artist stacked random household objects, ranging from lipstick containers to a Pringles can, on top of each other in ramshackle towers that become a representation of “a housewife’s simple distraction, her predicament and dream of breaking out,” Mir described. In 2006, Mir created “Gravity,” a 20-meter-high junk rocket that similarly functioned as a dryly-critical commentary on the futility of our ambition to conquer space.
Aleksandra Mir, “Garden of Rockets” (2005)
Thomas Ruff’s “ma.r.s.” series, 2010
German photographer Thomas Ruff pushes the boundaries of photography, transforming satellite imagery and appropriating news photos, including shots of rocket launches, into monumental prints that embrace pixelization and the undermining of the unique image in the digital era. For his “ma.r.s.” series, the artist worked with photos of Mars’ surface that he took from NASA’s website. The publicly available images became epic meditations on satellite technology and our powers of galactic surveillance. Some were even printed in 3D, with the requisite glasses provided to viewers.
Thomas Ruff, “ma.r.s. 20” (2010)
Hojun Song’s Open Source Satellite Initiative, 2010
The Korean artist Hojun Song takes DIY to a whole new level. He created his very own satellite out of totally affordable materials—things like an Arduino board, a solar cell, and a lithium-ion battery. The resulting tiny, cubic satellite communicates via blinking LED light and morse code. The artist’s design is publicly available through his website; “I wanted to lower the space program’s barrier to entry,” he has explained. The project is as much about proving that ordinary people have access to space as it is about conceptual artistic accomplishment. “Einstein and Stephen Hawking were ultimately artists and philosophers,” Song told The Creators Project in our video profile.
Hojun Song’s Open-Source Satellite
Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures,” 2012
Following Hojun Song’s DIY satellite, Trevor Paglen, an American photographer and conceptual artist, is launching a set of photographic images that seek to represent human culture into orbit. Paglen, whose work often deals with issues of secrecy, surveillance, and technology’s impact on communication, has micro-etched 100 photographs ranging from depictions of famous historical figures to artworks by Ai Weiwei onto an archival disc and surrounded it with a gold-plated shell. It will be set into orbit with the satellite EchoStar XVI this year. The artifact is designed to last beyond the Earth’s own decay and humanity’s likely end. There’s a certain amount of irony in the endeavor, Paglen admits. “By sending [the photographs] off into the vastness of the future, we are sending them to a place beyond human sense and comprehension,” he noted in an email to Creators Project.
Trevor Paglen’s Archival Disc
Kim Boekbinder’s “The Sky Is Calling,” 2012
Kim Boekbinder is The Impossible Girl, a Canadian musician whose work (plus her otherworldly sense of fashion) communicates an interest in outer space. She funded her first album, “The Impossible Girl,” through Kickstarter, and recently launched a Kickstarter for her new disc, “The Sky Is Calling.” The work is “a celebration of humans in space,” according to the announcement, and the eponymous first single is a driving electro-dance song set to a video of remixed NASA diagrams and iconography. Like science, art for Boekbinder “can only serve to advance our understanding of ourselves, our world, and the intangible places in between,” she wrote in an email to Creators Project.
Kim Boekbinder, “The Sky is Calling” (2012)
Norman Foster’s Virgin Galactic Gateway, 2011
This project, currently under construction, might have the most literal relationship to space travel. It’s a galactic airport designed by iconic architect Norman Foster for Richard Branson’s Virgin group. The curvy, organic design, highly reminiscent of a horseshoe crab, blends into its New Mexico desert site and features a low-slung profile, expansive bunker, and skylights to cut down on power usage. NASA isn’t much to look at, architecturally speaking, so Foster’s building represents one of the first attempts of architects to grapple with the idea of space travel in physical materials rather than conceptual plans. It doesn’t come cheap, though—tickets on Virgin’s commercial space airline will run $200,000 a passenger.
Norman Foster’s Virgin Galactic Gateway (2011)
Nelly Ben Hayoun’s International Space Orchestra, 2012
French artist Nelly Ben Hayoun is incredibly passionate about science and its possibilities. “My everyday life is fueled by the optimistic idea that nothing is impossible, and that you have to make things happen,” she told The Creators Project in an interview last month. For her International Space Orchestra project, she got together an ensemble of space scientists to play music created by all-star musicians like Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack with lyrics by novelist Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic. Together, they produced “Ground Control,” an immersive theater experience that saw scientists lecture on their subjects as well as show off their less orthodox talents.
Nelly Ben Hayoun’s International Space Orchestra Members