Rob La Frenais – An Artist in Space – an Achievable Goal? – 2003

Curator Arts Catalyst, London, UK

First publication symposium Visibility – Legibility of Space Art. Art and Zero G. : the experience of parabolic flights, in collaboration with the @rt Outsiders festival, Paris, 2003.

How possible would it be to actually send an artist into orbital space? The question leads to a number of debates, both practical and theoretical.

The success of the last two space tourists flying with the Russian Space Agency to the ISS, Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, leads those of us involved in promoting greater contact between the cultural area and space agencies to ask the question – if an arts organisation could raise that amount of money could they train and launch the first artist-cosmonaut in the same way, that is on a paid third seat on the Soyuz craft, and if so, would it be desirable?

The questions that jump out on anyone entering this arena are quite obvious but need to be answered:

Why, when it is so hard to do science in space already, with cutbacks on the ISS and the Columbus disaster already putting pressure on the existing operations, should the seeming luxury of sending an artist take priority?

How much would it cost, and wouldn’t it be a terrible waste of money?

Assuming the money could be raised, who would go? What would be the artform, age, sex, race, nationality of the successful artist-cosmonaut and how would we select her or him?

My paper will attempt to bring some rational discussion of these issues to the conference.

The first point would be raised by the scientific community and echoes initial concerns about artists using parabolic flights for the work. The hard fact is, as The Beagle Mars lander team demonstrated in their some what staged ‘collaboration’ with the UK artist Damien Hirst, that culture is good publicity for the space industry. Artists and cultural figures have some kind of influence on the public consciousness and the political will to invest in space travel can be affected by this. Not only this, but artists may have something to contribute to the direct experience of living in space, as Kitsou Dubois has shown in her dance training work with CNRS and ESA.

How much? Well, the exact figure that was paid by the last two space tourists to the Russian Space Agency is not known but it is thought that around 18-20 million dollars changed hands for Mark Shuttleworth’s flight. He claims, on his website that this is less than most countries would pay for their own astronaut to go (presumably excluding Russia) Over, say a five to ten year period, this is the kind of money that middle-scale arts organisations might raise for a building project, applying to corporate trusts, holding benefits, art sales, national lotteries – even some kind of public funding on a transnational basis. That said, it’s a lot of money to burn over a 10 day mission. One possibility might be to use cultural contacts with the Russian government to try and lower the price, but this would need to be done well in advance of the mission, and would require strong political support. The unfortunate pop star Lance Bass found himself thrown out of Star City when his funders tried to bargain with the Russians mid-training.

Who would go? It is clear that the artist chosen would have to take the work of other people, whether that would be in the form of a physical project or a performance or a conceptual experiment. She or he would have to be in good health, not too old (but this is become less important). They would need to be DETERMINED to go, and probably backed up by a team of other trained artist-cosmonauts ready to take their place, as happens in regular launch training. So there would have to be committees of experts, and perhaps voting and of course all interests would want to be represented, which is one of the less interesting aspects of this line of thought-experiment. The Arts Catalyst, member of the MIR European network and organiser, with Projekt Atol, of three Russian zero-gravity campaigns, has had the idea of commissioning new projects to be done or taken by the artist-cosmonaut, to be exhibited in the Roundhouse in London 2005. This could lead to a 5 year campaign to raise funds to send the projects in 2010 or later.

The aim of this would be to spread a kind virus of an idea around the world, at least, that the aim of an artist in space is possible. If they decide to go ahead with this, the call for proposals will be in spring of 2004.

© Rob La Frenais & Leonardo/Olats, October 2003, republished 2023