feature: Living Outside the Body Constraint A Report from The 59th International Astronautical Congress
written by Carrie Paterson
Last October I was invited to present examples of recent multi-sensory artwork at an arts and humanities symposium happening in conjunction with the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow, Scotland. "Less Remote: The Futures of Space Exploration" offered many hypothetical and actual scenarios about the "cultural uses of outer space" over two days of papers, performances, and documented experiments.
The event was organized by Flis Holland, an artist with a joint degree in aeronautical engineering, and The Arts Catalyst, which is a ground-breaking UK-based organization that "promotes dual discourse projects" between the arts and sciences, including new work with the International Astronautical Federation related to peaceful uses of outer space systems and technologies. The idea is that a self-reflexive space culture will not only counter-balance military and commercial uses of space, but is an inevitable and positive result of humans continuing to experiment with leaving the planet.
From the conference it is clear that the culture, technology, and research in space travel will owe future articulations to the counter-discourse and resistive models being forwarded by artists, scientists, and ethicists. A surprising number of works related to performance art highlighted this fact — presumably because performance lends itself to the exploration of the limits of the human body, as well as human psychology and sensorial abilities. This triad forms the crux of the new constraints of near-earth orbital and outer space living.
The question of who performs within the context of "outer space" is skewed by the optically-dependent, Cartesian systems of Western culture and philosophy. However, here a new kind of interrogation of universality can occur, one that recognizes cultural, racial and gender difference as they are ultimately enacted within spectacle/spectator relationships. In this context, such notions as the autonomy and power suggested by the aerial view are challenged by the fact of humans' dependence - as a species - on our anatomy, Earth-based life support systems, social structures, and evolutionary potential.
The ocean is an analog to space. In many ways it is equally inaccessible, especially because in places it is harder to image, with pressures that are technically challenging to cope with at the deeper extremes. Artist and diver Sarah Jane Pell has fashioned what she calls "a studio practice underwater," working with scientists to measure biorhythms in different states of immersion, and becoming accustomed to what most people would consider intensely claustrophobic experiences. Pell has a slight but tall frame that she remarkably compresses into diving bells, and aquarium tanks during land-based performances. She will be one of the inhabitants of the Leviathan Habitat, submerged off the coast of Florida as part of the Atlantica project, a 90-day undersea durational mission with relevant applications to eventual space colonies.
Pell began her explorations with choreography intended for use in altered gravity conditions. For a project spanning 2007-2012, she has engaged in designing and using wearable aqueous architecture. The body can become accustomed to the difficulties and poetics of motion in extra-terrestrial environments through training in the ubiquitous watery environment of our home planet.
An experiment by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, suggests that water might be the key to successful reproduction in space. Dr. Rachael Armstrong, a medical doctor and science fiction writer who has advised Stelarc and Orlan, walked the audience through various animal reproductive experiments performed in micro-gravity. In space, says Armstrong, the development of the cytoskeleton (cellular structure) is adversely affected, as well as neural tube closure in developing embryos, a critical process in forming the central nervous system. High rates of mutation and embryo death also often occur. But strangely, JAXA reported that the tiny Madaka, or Zebra fish had no problem. Is water the key not just to life, but to birth?
The female reproductive organs are vulnerable to the high levels of radiation in space. Thus leaving the planet without major physiological changes in the human body seems unlikely. In Armstrong's feminist-informed version of biological transgression, this fact may ultimately be the factor that destroys patrilineal concepts and liberates the female body from being the primary vehicle for human survival. Watch for upcoming papers by Armstrong on "horizontal evolution" involving viral rather than parental DNA transmission.
At least speculatively, there is some urgency for female artists to engage with space exploration discourse by imagining how bodies without reproductive constraints may perform.
Working with the European Space Incubator Initiative, Anna Hill, an artist/innovator and founder and CEO of Space Synapse Ltd., is bringing some of the experiences of space travel "down to Earth" through an interactive space-based architectural node called the Symbiotic Sphere. While not specifically linked to reproduction, the satellite "space probe" will have the capacity to replicate the challenges of G-force, acceleration and weightless through haptic corollaries, as well as the peace and tranquility of space travel through immersive environments. There is implied political purpose to the demonstrative aspect of Hill's entrepreneurial venture. She sees the company operating at the intersection of "finance, power, and gender" and generated the idea out of study of the basis for quantum-consciousness. This mind/matter relationship ascribes power to conscious thought, and by extension, conceptualization of issues facing mind, body and society.
Enabling the democratic contemplation and experience of space opens a discourse about it as an extension of culture and our bodies. Hill points out that to date only 500+ people have traveled there. What the public will demand of the commercial and government-sponsored space enterprises in the future will be determined by their imaginations, possibly facilitated by new mediation instruments in public distribution sites like planetariums and museums.
An experimental workshop led by Geetha Narayanan and Joanna Griffin from Srishti School of Art in Bangalore demonstrated practical applications of space technology envisioned by the next generation of space-users. With the support of Microsoft, students created "The Bombat-Sat," a demonstration project for schools about how to build and use satellites. The small wireless devices could be built-up from everyday materials and used to communicate via networks of such satellites distributed throughout a school. Piggybacking onto the country's enthusiasm about Chandrayaan-1, India's first moon lander launched October 22, 2008, the project teaches both science and cooperation in a way that reflects the new global community. The school-based satellites, metaphors for "student bodies," became a peer-to-peer education model. Applications for this non-hierarchical system in the future articulations of India as a post-colonial, space-faring nation are yet to be determined.
Narayanan and Griffin's presentation fit well within the humanitarian goals of the 59th International Astronautical Congress. In one session, space agency representatives from Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, and South Africa spoke alongside the UK space agency with some urgency about forming satellite constellations to gather and assess meteorological data. Considering the bulk of the worst climate-change scenarios will likely occur in equatorial regions, satellite technologies are one hope that countries will be able to forecast natural disasters, and manage rescue and recovery efforts expediently themselves. Brazil's contribution will be open source software available to the global community that interpolates high-resolution data from standard satellite imagery to rival that which is gathered and classified by the U.S. and Germany. The software is a clear counter-response to the Humanitarian New World Order, which subjects developing nations' crises to a new logic of colonial interventions.
Artists Melody Burke + Frank Hoppe of Satellite Art Works are developing a space-based disaster warning system that would utilize colored powders, mirrored screens, and airborne indicator "swarms" to reach remote areas rapidly as pre- and post-disaster communication. These new "perceptual organs" would serve as extensions of existent technologies and as kinds of Beuysian social sculpture responding to political and environmental conditions. While traveling the globe to talk with private corporations and governmental agencies, Burke + Hoppe seem to have been tagged as potential spies, or mercenaries, and followed through Moscow, on the U-Bahn in Berlin, to yoga classes, and then finally, to Less Remote. Their latest admirer was from the U.S. State Dept's "Weapons of Mass Destruction Task Force" in the "Foreign Consequence Management" department.
The arts occupy the border regions of space culture partly because they employ ideas born of technology to different ends.
Lee Mackinnon's talk "The Self as Technology" used the example of the frescoed sky inside the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi to reflect on the way the mathematics of "realism" have influenced individual human agency. The medieval person would have understood the fresco as an imperative to worship, the body being an impediment to the transmigration of the soul. Mackinnon compared this example with Hubble imagery available in the public domain. These sky images similarly allow the 21st century person free passage to the heavens, but the contract we implicitly make for this transcendental opportunity is with the ever-increasing speed of new technologies. We pay homage to our universe through media facilitated by capitalism, underwritten by a balance of power that favors Cartesian space and science.
Chris Speed, from the Architecture School at Edinburgh College of Art, mapped the legacy of Cartesian thought in the development of Google Earth and the social relations implied by the zoom, the linear narrative of GPS locators, and what he calls "social time" — the absence of time within web navigational spaces. Speed proposes space/satellite networks as potentially ethically and socially activating, but only if people are introduced as actors and social coordinates that make up the network both materially and relationally.
Frank Pietronigro, beaming in live via videolink from San Francisco, detailed how notions of power in space might be disrupted. From his ported alter-space he noted the construction of gender and desire are critical components to human life that have so-far received short shrift in scientific study and practical application in space. He forwarded a manifesto about what the queer community is poised to contribute to new space-faring identities.
Bioethicist Andy Miah proposed that the new bio-political contexts of space exploration, biosynthesis, human testing and cloning will necessitate a triad of philosopher/science-engineering/artist to deal with the complexities of identity in the 21st century and beyond. Only in cooperation will these fields be able to ethically support and sustain human, emergent, and extraterrestrial life forms.
However, according to Roger Malina, editor of art/science journal Leonardo and son of JPL founder Frank Malina, there is still a significant branch of astrophysics that argues humans have no business in space. The best data may very well be collected by advanced instrumentation, with human exploration only needlessly wasting lives and resources.
Clearly the dream/nightmare of living and evolving off-planet would impact what we now know and define as "human." The final night's performance event by the Australian collaboration Yelling at Stars, led by Nicky Forster + Willoh Weiland, created an interstellar message both subtle and delicate: the poetics indigenous to Earth-based life comes clearly from our dependence on language as our bodies' primary vehicle. Here the artist and the artist's most essential instrument — the body — play key roles in articulating what humanity might wish for our collective futures and specific communities, how our fear about death and extinction is a powerfully driving force behind technology, innovation, and social structures, and what the place might be for critical thinkers and interventionists in exposing the drive to expand our sensory perceptions.