Annick Bureaud – Space Art: Defining a New Territory – 1998

Art critic and curator

First published for the Leonardo Space and the Arts workshop Space Art – Earth Art, 1998

July 69 :
A man put his feet on the Moon.

July 97 :
Sojourner : “Six wheels on soil” titled the JPL people.

At the same time the cosmonauts on the MIR Space Station were trying to fix power supply problems while the army and the people in Poland and east part of Germany were trying to fix water flood problems.

This same July, a new American serie started on French TV with Cape Carnaveral and the Shuttle as a background instead of the usual police station.

These are interesting coincidences. On the one hand, Space Age is not over : Sojourner is a new step in the space exploration, a new milestone in the Space Myth of the Conquest of the Galaxy, a new dream for a new generation of kids who will become tomorrow’s scientists, ingeniers and space explorers and workers.

On the other hand, outer space has become part of our everyday life : there is a hole in MIR and holes in the dams, both have to be blocked up. Both were reported the same way on TV as catastrophies that humans have to deal with.

“The Heroes of Cape Carnaveral” serie belongs also to this new triviality of space. To my knowledge it is the first non-science-fiction one and more important it is broadcasted in France, a country which does not have the same “space imaginery and culture” as the United States.

This reveals a new situation where exploration and settlement coexist. In this context, where is, what is and what space art can be ?

In his 87 book “The Overview Effect” (1), Frank White wrote : “At the moment, space exploration is supporting the creation of a planetary overview system composed of the physical system of the planet Earth, the living system that has evolved on Earth popularly known as Gaia, the global human social system known as humanity and a worldwide technology system.” As early as in 87, White was acknowledging the relationship between space activities and what has since been called cyberspace.

Cyberspace is becoming a new powerful environment for the mind, social relations and constructions, collective intelligence. Metaphors from outer space are sometimes used by artists and theorists dealing with this world : for instance, the disorientation that one can experience in today’s Internet Web is compared with the disorientation felt by the astronauts in weightlessness where there is no ups and downs. Furthermore, research in cyber (or liquid) architecture, in network design brings in ideas and thoughts that are of the same nature as the ones discussed in the space arena. But, up to now, it seems that there are very little relationships between those two communities.

Bio and nano-technologies are also of tremendous importance for the evolution of life, of human beings. And this is also one of the key issue among space artists. But here too, there seems to have little connections among the different groups.

How does space art relate to electronic art, to the cyber and nano worlds ? Where is space art within contemporary art ?

These issues have to be addressed for a future of space art which might otherwise remain confined to a sort of “techie-artie” activity, miss the main-road for a dead-end street and therefore miss its own place and role in defining and shaping today’s culture and aesthetic acts.

This might be one of the tasks and responsabilities of the Leonardo Space and the Arts Project.

In this context, some of the debates could be :

1 - Can an artistic genre be defined by its subject ?

This had already been the case, with seascape for instance. But seascape is now taken into account mainly for its historical testimony, not as a major art expression. Space art could easily encounter the same destiny.

It might be time to approach space art with a different angle and to focus on the means, the “materials”, the forms and nature of the artworks, the aesthetic and conceptual questions that are dealt with by the works.

2 - Can be considered as space art only works by artists calling themselves space artists ?

Moon is the oldest TV” by Nam June Paik presents, using several monitors, the phases of the moon. This very simple, black and white video installation created in 1976, raises emotions, a sense of quietness, but also questions our relations with our natural satellite and with technology (at that time, television).

Is it space art ?

Beside that, a new generation of artists who grew up within the space age and the techno-scientific age is now on the stage. Can we consider their work to belong to space art even if they don’t claim this membership ?

Joachim Sauter created, with ART + COM in Berlin, an interactive networked installation called “T-Vision” (or Terravision). On a large screen, an image of the Earth seen from outerspace is projected, mapped with 2D satellite images and 3D altitude data. You can zoom in and visualize a more and more detailled Earth, up to streets and buildings in a city. The interface to the installation is a huge trackball, resembling the globes of geographers of the past, except that it is totally white as the images are on the projected representation of the Earth. The datas which can be explored are coming from cyberspace.

Is this space art ?

It might be time to open up the “club” to artists who don’t even know that space art exist as a category but who are obviously dealing with space, the space era and the “Overview Effect” in their works.

3 - According to what aesthetic criteria do we evaluate space art ?

A painting dealing with space is not interesting and valuable per se, because of its subject. We should criticize, judge it, also, and may be primarily, in regard of the evolution of contemporary painting in general.

But art itself has evolved. New concepts, theories and works, new aesthetic and artistic criteria are discussed and elaborated in such events as Ars Electronica or ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Arts) and in various publications among which Leonardo.
Pierre Comte defines space art as “not the real or supposed representations of extra-terrestrial landscapes but as proposals, relying on the emerging space technology, for aesthetics acts” (2). This resonates with Roy Ascott’s thought that art is no longer an act of representation and appearance but of emergence and apparition, of coming into being (3).

It might be time to confront space art with those thinking.

4 - What is the role of space art today ?

A crude periodisation can define two ages : the precursors and the pionniers, roughly before and after 1957 to give a symbolic date.

Beyond the pionnier era which, to some extend, has come to an end, where is the future of space art ? May be in leaving behind, at least partly, the “militancy for space programs” state-of-mind. Giving shapes and designing metaphors for this new consciousness of our new environment are the burning issues.

In his article “Live from Mars” about Sojourner rolling on the Red Planet, Eduardo Kac writes “While the aesthetic dimension of this experience will go unnoticed by most directly involved in the project and telespectators alike, it is precisely this aspect of the media event I witnessed today that I find particularly significant. Some of the aesthetics features unique to this telepresence event are the relativity of space and time ; the nature of the human-machine interface ; remote space negociation and navigation ; teleoperation (…) and the impact of this telepresence event on the collective consciousness. All this, I suggest, has paramount aesthetic value — aesthetic, not artistic” (4).

If we agree with Eduardo Kac that Sojourner provided an aesthetic experience (and a feeling of sublime (5)), we would like to suggest that this might also come from the artistic experiences of telepresence and teleconsciousness that artists, like Kac himself (6), have offered us previously. In other words, we are ready to consider Sojourner as an aesthetic event because artists have already shaped our mind.

Where does what we usually call space art lay in this respect ?

It might be time to accept to have space art aesthetic and artistic qualities discussed within a larger framework.

And there is a future for space art as there is one for the space programs… we put our wheels on Mars.


(1) – WHITE Frank, The Overview Effect, Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

(2) – Text from the workshop “The artists as space explorer”, held in Paris, April 13th 1997.

(3) – ASCOTT Roy, From Appearance to Apparition : Communication and Counsciousness in the Cybersphere, Leonardo Electronic Almanac, vol.1, n°2, October 1993.

(4) KAC Eduardo, Live from Mars, text initially released on his web site (http://www.ekac.org) and published in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, vol 5, n°7, July 1997.

(5) – As defined by Kant. But here we agree with Mario Costa that the notion of sublime can be applied to human-created experiences and not only to Nature phenomena. See Mario Costa, Le Sublime Technologique, Lausanne, Iderive, 1994. Original text in Italian.

(6) – A documentation about Kac’s work is available on his web site

© Annick Bureaud & Leonardo/Olats, 1997 / republished 2023