Annick Bureaud – Space Art and Beyond – 1997

Art critic and curator

First published for the Leonardo Space and the Arts workshop The Artists as Space Explorers, 1997

Space has fascinated because it was (and still is) an “alien” environment. The vocabulary is significant in this respect (especially in English) : “alien”, “outer” space, designating something which is “outside” the known world, different from our civilization. Space has been a Terra Incognita, external to our lives. And what was fascinating was precisely the exploration of this difference, endless source of wonder and discoveries.

In this late 20th Century, we are facing the reduction of the difference, the blur of the boarder between the “in” and the “out” and the definition and appropriation of a new territory that starts to becoming “ours”. This, again, is perceptible in the language, concepts and representations used :

– In our new perception, the frontier of the Earth is no longer the atmosphere. We start using the concept and term of “Greater Earth” which is defined by the sphere of gravitation of our planet, the boundaries are now at 3 millions kilometres away from the surface.
We have the awareness and consciousness that Earth and ourselves are part of a larger eco-system that we can call, after Frank White, the “Overview Effect”.

– The term “Space weather” seems normal and is a field of studies (and we acknowledge its influence on our terrestrian lives). The “Martian weather” has been broadcast on TV during the Sojourner Mars mission as commonly as the beaches weather is during Summer time in France.

– In 1997, Andreï Ujica released his film Out of the Present. To our knowledge, this is the first feature film about space that is not a science-fiction movie nor strictly speaking a documentary but which is entirely based on footages made by the cosmonauts in and around the MIR Space Station. Taking place during the collapse of USSR, it shows the daily lives of the cosmonauts, away from their country during those important events. Among the strong moments of the film, is the docking with a Space Station that is “real” —and not a model cooked with special effects— shown for the first time to a large audience.

We have started mapping the Terra Incognita. In this paper we shall argue that the space artworks have contributed to helping the definition and appropriation of this new territory.

Space Art - Land Art

A distinction between “land art” and art that uses the land, the landscape and the natural environment has to be made.

Strictly speaking land art is a movement born at the end of the 60’s and which grew in the 70’s in reaction to the museums system and the art market. It was a social, ecological and aesthetical statement of leaving the -artificial and spoiled- cultural institutions to go back to nature, to some kind of “primitive” and “genuine” culture in a reappropriation of nature and landscape. It was also the acknowledgement of our modelling of nature. But, “going back to nature” is a highly cultural process. And, from our point of view, there is a difference between this movement and an “original” and genuine “marking” of the territory (because anyway there is no cultural institutions) like in “primitive” art or, as we shall see, in space art.

Two space art works can be considered as land art with its current understanding as an intervention in the landscape. The first one is Eye on Earth by Tom van Sant (1986) and Signature Terre by Pierre Comte (1989). Both were huge drawings, made with reflecting material on Earth (an eye for Sant and the symbol of Earth for Comte) that were photographed by satellite. They could be “readable” only from high above. A plane could have been enough but the fact that satellites were used inscribed them in the space imagery of the Earth and therefore as the Planet taken from the “outside”.

"Marking" the territory and defining a new Limes

Each time human groups have moved to a new territory (or through territories) their first symbolic gesture (sometimes just to be used as navigation tools) has been to raise a “monument” ÷be it just some stones on top of the other or a line drawn on the surface of a rock÷ to tell that they “were there”. These have been the first forms of artworks, the “marking” of the territory, therefore defining an extension of the living environment.

Three space artworks can be considered to belong to this tradition. Two are projects and one has been achieved.

In 1982, the sculptor Ezra Orion proposed NASA to achieve a sculpture on Mars that would be one rock put on top of another one, using a tele-robot.

More recently, Jean-Marc Philippe developped also a project of a sculpture for Mars, The Sphere of Mars. This state-of-the-art technological artifact is made of a shape-memory alloy and is highly symbolic in its form (a flower) and components (among which samples of water, air, granit, soil). Although it is meant by the artist to be a “gift” from Planet Earth to Planet Mars, it also, first and foremost, incorporates the “we-have-been-there” statement and the fact that our horizon has been enlarged. The Sphere of Mars should fly in a forthcoming NASA Mars mission.

The third example is The Moon Museum, a small ceramic tile left by Apollo 12 in 1969 with drawings by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Wharhol, Claus Oldenberg, John Chamberlain, Forrest Myers and David Novros.

The Moon and Mars have now become part of our natural environment, “within” the Limes of the civilization.

"Appropriation" of the territory - Living in a new environment

After the pionniers and explorers comes the time of the settlers. It is the time of artworks created for and about this new environment.

Artworks created for the environment

In this category we can define two types of artworks : art for the Earth neighborhood and art in zero gravity.

Art for the Earth neighborhood has whitnessed many projects, none of them having been achieved. Among them are The Ring of Light by Jean-Marc Philippe at the begining of the ’80s wich consisted in lights attached to geostationary satellites that could be activated on special occasions, creating a ring of light visible from the ground. The Spaceflight Dolphin (1982) by Richard Clar, was a wire frame sculpture in the shape of a dolphin designed to be deployed during a Space Shuttle flight. Though not visible from the Earth, a radio transmitter would have sent dolphin sounds to various sites. OURS 2000 (1986) by Arthur Woods —the Orbiting Unification Ring Satellite— designed to celebrate the new millennium is a one kilometer in diameter inflatable ring sculpture that would have been visible as a circle in the sky. After some time in orbit it would have deployed a solar sail to leave orbit and fly away from sight.

All those works were incorporating the near Earth as part of the landscape and can be considered as new forms of art for “public” environment.

Art in zero gravity has been more successful. It is practices that deal on the one hand with new living conditions and constraints and explore them in the art field and, on the other hand, create works specifically for a new kind of habitat (namely space stations). The best example of this latest trend is the Cosmic Dancer, a sculpture done by Arthur Woods in 1993, still currently aboard MIR ; another one is the Sculpture Gravité Zéro by Pierre Comte, a small articulated sculpture looking like a mobile which flew in 1998 in the CNES micro-gravity plane. The dancer and choreographer Kitsou Dubois, who flew several times aboard the CNES plane, has developped, and is pursuing, a whole scientific and aesthetic research about body movements in weightlessness. She created her first choreography “on the ground”, Gravité Zéro, in 1994. Two other visual artists have experienced zero gravity : Charles Wilp in 1995 with the ESA plane and Franck Pietronigro in 1998 with the NASA plane.

Artworks created about the enviroment

Two art works are remarquable in this category and it is interesting to note that both of them are virtual works. The first one is Collision (1995) by Richard Clar, a virtual sculpture built from a selection of the orbital debris tracked by the US Space Command. The second one is Sensorium (started in 1996/97) by Shin’ichi Takemura and his group. Sensorium is a web site/work with different projects related to space, the Earth, cyberspace and us as conscious living organisms. Among the projects, Breathing Earth is a symbolic visualization of the monitoring of earthquakes ; Star Place is the representation of the speed of the Earth’s revolution within the solar system.

These two works, that make sensible what normaly is not to our nude perceptions, are not dealing any more with the “heroic times” or an “alien” or “outer” environment but are raising ecological issues, how to take care, to protect the Earth within its larger eco-system. They are raising issues about the new civilization we are building. In an interesting way, Sensorium is also combining space, cyberspace and biology in a common framework of perceptions.

"Integration" of territories : Space and Cyberspace

Beyond Sensorium, it is interesting to witness new creations that incorporate space and cyberspace as natural environments.

One is Intima : “Is there anybody our there ?” launched in 1998 by Igor Stromajer. This net.artwork deals with loneliness and communication and associates the loneliness that one can experience in cyberspace, behind one’s computer window and space loneliness through the emblematic figures of Gagarin and Terechkova, being the only human “there” at a time, with no one to share the extraordinary moments they were living. In Stromajer’s view, the two cosmonauts are the Adam and Eve of our new era. In this work, Gagarin and Terechkova become kinds of icons, part of a saga and of real history. Through them and their symbolic value, space has become part of history, of our life, something “usual”.

The second is the work done by the AAA/Association of Autonomous Astronauts. This loose groups with “chapters” and members all over the world started in England in 1995. They are provocative, strongly against the governmental space agencies and more strongly against NASA. They believe that the future is in space and that space should be given to the people and not trusted by governments. They combine freely space, cyberspace, raves, esoteric things, techno-music, etc. depending on the people and the chapters’s interests. Their creation can be in the physical world but it tends to be more and more online with various web sites linked together. It is particularly interesting to see how they recycle the space activities key images (the MIR Space Station, the astronauts on the Moon, etc.) that they mixed with science-fiction (and specially Star Trek) buzz-words or images.

It might just be a question of generation, but both show a total appropriation of space those figures, key dates, key images are both used as sacred icons and the subject of iconoclastic treatments. Both consider space and cyberspace as part of the same world, of the same environment to inhabit, to deal with, to cope with.

Space art has contributed, through its symbolic function, to the marking of a new territory, to the emergence of a new civilization through its appropriation. In doing so, new art forms have emerged that cannot be evaluated with our terrestrian classical criteria. Space art needs a “space-mind” point of view, and to date very few of us have left the Earth … and they were not specially trained in art criticism or aesthetics.

© Annick Bureaud & Leonardo/Olats, 1998 / republished 2023