Space Art

AE Interviews Roger Malina
March 23, 2005

During the last few years, Leonardo, one of the major international organizations for science, technology and art, has been producing seminars, exhibitions, and other events dealing with "space art". But what is it? We asked astrophysicist Roger Malina, president of Leonardo ...

AE What is space art?

RM The space arts are defined as all kinds of artistic expression that involve the science or engineering of space exploration and astronomy. This includes a very broad range of cultural expression in all forms and media, visual, sound and performing arts.

AE What are the different types of space art?

RM Well, first, a number of artists have actually realised art works aboard orbiting space stations. These include Arthur Woods' Cosmic Dancer sculpture which was carried by the MIR Space station. And more recently works by Pierre Comte in France. Some artists have experienced zero gravity on the astronaut and cosmonaut training aeroplanes and created work for that context; among these works, for example, are those of choreographer Kitsou Dubois.

Then there is a very long tradition of earth works, art works that can only be seen from above. These kinds of works began in paleolithic times, but more recently artists have created patterns on the earth that could be viewed from space. Tom Van Sant, for instance, built an array of mirrors that reflected the sun back to space and were deployed in the shape of a huge eye. The eye pattern was then photographed by an orbiting satellite.

Also, a number of artists have used space technology to create the context for their work. Austrian artist Richard Kriesche carried out interactive musical performances using ground instruments triggered by the passage overhead of an orbiting spacecraft. Even before the space age, artists and musicians created work inspired by space themes. Jules Verne is credited with the aphorism: "What one man can imagine, another can build." And indeed there has been a close coupling between artists imagination and the work of space engineers that followed. Jules Verne's work is a case in point, but Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 is also a very influential film in the space community.

There are even applied space arts, since architects and designers have worked on the design of space structures and furniture. Perhaps some of the pieces of space art that have had the largest impact are the photographs taken from space looking back to earth, such as the earthrise photographed by the Apollo landing capsule on the moon. Frank White, in his book The Overview Effect, credits this photograph as a key work that altered human perception of our own species and our place in the universe, a transformation that is part of the process of a globalisation that we are living.

AE Do you include time capsules as a form of space art?

RM Yes. In fact, artist Jean-Marc Philippe is working now with a team building a satellite that will be launched into space into a high orbit in 2006, an orbit that will slowly decay so that the satellite will re-enter the earth's atmosphere in fifty thousand years. Inside the satellite, Philippe is trying to include messages from over a billion human beings. The contents of this art project would be a form of communication with our descendants.

AE Are there any other organizations involved with this?

RM There is a dedicated organisation for artists involved with astronomy, called the International Association of Astronomical Artists, that develops these kinds of works in-depth. Space artists dream of creating new artforms that can be performed or experienced only in space by space travellers.

AE What is Leonardo's goal in this field?

RM The Leonardo network seeks to encourage collaborations between artists, scientists and engineers.

AE Why is Leonardo pursuing this?

RM Many of the changes that are going on in our society are driven by scientific discovery and new technologies. Our position is that artists must appropriate this science and technology for artistic purposes, to enable new kinds of artistic expression that is resonant with our times.

AE How do the sciences affect the arts? And vice versa?

RM The way that ideas flow between the arts and sciences are multiple and complex. Sometimes by collaboration, sometimes through appropriation of new metaphors or ideas. In fact, today some artists are sufficiently well versed in science and technology to contribute to the future direction of science and technology. For instance, recently the European Space Agency carried out a comprehensive survey of technology ideas in science fiction and apparently some of these ideas led to new engineering studies.

Artists in all ages have always appropriated everything around them for their purposes. It is only when science and engineering research is carried out in insulated organisations that it is difficult for artists to get their hands on space science and engineering. But today, organisations such as NASA have large programs to make space science accessible to the public, and since it is the public that pays for this work, this is only right. See, for instance, the work of the Space Sciences Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. They have recently announced two fellowships for artists that will be resident in the research lab, funded by the Arts Council of England and co-sponsored by Leonardo.

AE What has Leonardo done so far in this direction?

RM We have published the work of space artists in Leonardo, our journal, and more recently in our book series at MIT Press. The recent book Information Arts, by Steve Wilson, documents the work of space artists as one example of artists' use of appropriation of many fields of contemporary science and technology.

In another major project, in collaboration with The OURS Foundation and with funding from the European Space Agency, we have started a multilingual database of documentation of the work of space artists. You will find documentation on the work of some two hundred space artists on this website:

SpaceArts Info

And for the last ten years we have been holding annual space arts workshops. This year there are three space arts workshops co-sponsored by Leonardo. One was held at the NASA Ames Research Center, one is being held in Budapest this March, and a third workshop, titled 'Planetary Consciousness and the Arts', will take place in May in Yverdon, Switzerland.

AE What are your plans along these lines for the future?

RM Leonardo is a member of the MIR consortium, led by the arts organisation Arts Catalyst in England. Two important projects are under way. The first is the International Space Station culturalisation study, funded by the European Space Agency. This study will look at all the possible impacts of the arts and culture on the possible uses of the space station. Secondly, the year 2006 will see numerous activities dealing with space culture, such as exhibitions and workshops.

Leonardo plans to keep documenting the work of space artists and inspiring new kinds of space art by creating the contexts where artists, space scientists, and engineers can come into contact.