Roger Malina – Contextualizing Zero Gravity Art – 2003

Astronomer, President Leonardo/Olats, Marseille, France

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.

There are a number of contexts within which zero gravity can be discussed. At one extreme we can try and develop the arguments for continuity with previous human and cultural exploration, or we can emphasise the discontinuity and the potentially revolutionary nature of such work. It is only through the growing body of work by artists in zero gravity that a theoretical frame can be elaborated.

It is straightforward to connect zero gravity art to a number of artistic movements or tendencies which build not only on art theory and practice over the last hundred and fifty years but also on the work of a number of “outsider’ artistic figures whose work has never been seen as central to a history of modern art.

Zero gravity art can be seen within the framework of the cultural appropriate of public and private spaces to create site specific art that in some way invests these spaces with alternate, or deepened, meanings than those normally associated with them. In this case the artists must attempt to understand the specificities of the space, both physical and ideological, and use them to create an “actual art” that could not be realized in some other space or time. These explorations then both explore the continuities of the space with spaces already invested with cultural meaning, and the discontinuities that make possible original experiences.

On the ideological level it is striking that artists access to zero gravity spaces has accelerated with the end of the cold war and the search for a new political and economic rationale for space activities. This evolving political and economic rationale for space has re opened links between space activities and various space utopias such as cosmism or the ‘space option’. These cultural arguments dominated much earlieer thinking about space, both in science fiction literature and artistic expression before the space age opened with Sputnik, Gagarin flight and Armstrong’s first human steps on the moon. But the cold war context put such cultural arguments in the background as military, political and economic competitiveness arguments dominated until the 1990s. However as political support for space activities has weakened, the utopian cultural framework re emerges in the foreground. It is unlikely that a sustained human presence in space can be sustained without a much deeper grounding in the cultural imaginary. [1]

Zero gravity art is also naturally contextualized within the history of art avant-guards, and exploration of experiential or social novelty, we can find natural links with the way that artists have steadily acculturated other technologies into the artistic vocabulary ( photography, radio, computers, the web) but also artistic exploration of novel or extreme human perceptual and conscious experience (hallucinogenic drugs, meditation, extreme environments). Zero gravity then enters as one of variety of possible human experiences as a possible trigger to specific or amplified meaning.

In some of the Utopian literature, human presence in space is viewed in continuity with the history of human migration from the human origins in the African continent. In the argument of the ‘space option’ this migration is argued as not only to responding to an innate human propensity for exploration, but also to provide economic and social solutions that both allow for sustainable development on earth but to provide a locus for future growth and survival on timescales longer than the earth can provide as a homestead.

This context of human migration however minimizes the very real discontinuity in the nature of the physical environment. Human migration to other terrestrial continents required adaptation (architecture, clothing, diet) to climates and conditions significantly different from those where the human animal evolved, however even in the most extreme environments such as the Antarctic or high altitude this could be accomplished using technologies and methods that did not change significantly human metabolism or development or drive evolution of the human genome significantly. Today’s humans are not very different that those that first migrated out of Africa.

However outer space is not an environment that can be viewed as a smooth continuation of existing, or even extreme, environments on earth. The conditions of zero gravity, disconnection from diurnal cycles, the vacuum and radiation are incompatible with human existence except through the elaboration of complex exoskeleton systems and changes in human metabolism and anatomic development. In the long term it seem illusory to imagine long term human existence in extra-terrestial environments without discussing driving evolution of the human genome itself.

Today we know of some two dozen artists that have created artistic work in zero gravity environments. The total accumulated lapsed time of all these artists experiences of only a few hours at most. This is the situation that computer artists found themselves in during the 1960s. Since then artists have acculturated the computer into powerful and flexible tool and medium for human expression. Perhaps fifty years from now zero gravity artists will find themselves also in this situation. But this will only occur if human presence in space develops rapidly with a sustained political and economic support that does not exist today. If the discontinuous nature of zero gravity prevails, then in a thousand year history of human culture zero gravity will appear as a footnote in a history of “information arts [2] just as the “linoleum art institutes’ of the nineteenth century are now relegated to mere footnotes in the history of art and technology.

Since the 1960s the Leonardo network and its associated publications and workshops [3] have provide a forum where space art could be presented and advocated as a necessary part of the culture of the future. Through the MIR Consortium, Leonardo is seeking to help open space to artistic experimentation as one way of helping re connect space activities to the cultural imaginary; I remain convinced that without this fundamental re-connection the Space Age will come to an end in our lifetime and our political institutions will ‘burn the space ships’ just as in an earlier time a Chinese Emperor burned his fleet and prevented Chinese circumnavigation of the globe. There is nothing inevitable about the future, and zero gravity artists in their way are helping us imagine other futures.

Notes and references

[1] – Since the late 1980s, the International Academy of Astronautics (https://iaaspace.org/) has through it’s Space Activities and Society Commission, and earlier with its Art and Literature committee, provided venues where artist’s rationales and involvement in space could be advocated.

[2] – S. Wilson, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2002. Wilson elaborates at length the variety of new technologies and scientific environments that artist have explored and invested.

[3] – The Leonardo Journal has published over fifty articles by space artists, see the space arts bibliography and access to the Leonardo publications at www.leonardo.info. And through the Space Arts Workshops, Leonardo/OLATS (https://www.olats.org), Leonardo has provided a venue were space artists, scientists and engineers could meet and initiate collaborations.

© Roger Malina & Leonardo/Olats, October 2003, republished 2023