OSLO FORM LAB 2018

2018: A Space Sculpture

By Eirik Zeiner-Henriksen.



If you are fortunate enough to find yourself at a place where the sky is not lit up by the lights of the city, what do you see? You might spot a couple familiar patterns of stars and some flashing lights in motion that is most likely an airplane. Perhaps there will be some unfamiliar entities which might be a star or an airplane, but that moves too fast or too slow to be such. If you´re lucky you’ll see a meteor, or a storm of them, making a spectacle as they are burning up. How big is the moon at this moment? Is it totally dark, or are there any colours left? Are there any planets visible? These are the things we are accustomed to look for in the night sky.


Stuff in Space, a real-time 3D-tracker of almost all the human-made objects that is orbiting in space shows that there is more out there than we think [1]. A minute ago, a remote-sensing chinese satellite called Yaogan 24 was passing about 655 kilometres over me at a speed of 7,53 km per second. I wonder what kind of reconnaissance it is doing, but I feel slightly observed for a moment. Now, a part of the rocket Thor-Agena-B is orbiting past Oslo somewhere far up there. Launched by the American military in 1962, many of its parts is now scattered around in the atmosphere. Had I been able to look up there, I would see a piece of space-junk on it’s way around the earth, a fossil of the space race many decades ago. In November you might also see the very first sculpture in space up there as well. Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector is an inflatable sculpture that by reflecting the rays of the sun can be seen from the earth for about two months, like an artificial star. His idea is to give us an excuse to look up in the night sky, to explore it in order to see space and ourselves differently. The Orbital Reflector is an aesthetic intervention into a space that is dominated by military activities, mass communication, nuclear missile targeting, warfare, surveillance, and in short, the geopolitics of the heavens, but it also might help us see the material aspects of these technologies [2].

A central concept in the anthropocene-discourse is Donna Haraway’s term naturecultures, describing the entanglement of nature and culture, where human activity is everywhere on the planet. The Finnish media theorist Jussi Parikka builds on this concept to expand the understanding of materiality in the study of media. He poses the term medianatures to argue that media technologies cannot be separated from the world of natural materials and energies. Media is here seen in relation to the deep time of the earth, all the way from being composed of materials that are millions of years old, to its remains as dead-media waste in the future. By understanding media as composed by materials that are outliving its operational lifespan, he connects media to climate change and environmental issues [3]. This concept resonates with many aspects of Trevor Paglen’s works. Having both an Ph.D. in geography and a master’s in fine arts, his works center around questions of invisibility and how to visualize parts of the world that are outside of the visual sphere. His main occupation has been to discover the visible traces of secret state operations, but implisit in these projects is an exploration of the material basis of the technologies that connects the global networked society. Some aspects of his works can therefore be seen as a visual equivalent to Parikka’s interest in the very physical sides of technology that can be seen, that demands vast energy consumption and that in the end creates heaps of electronic waste [4].


The networks of the internet, of our mobile phones and of other telecommunication systems is something we often think of in abstracted ways, as seamlessly connecting the world. Concepts such as “the cloud” obscures the material reality of our everyday technologies. As Benjamin Bratton notes, there is nothing immaterial about massless information that demands such energy from the Earth [5]. In 2015, Paglen learnt to scuba dive in order to document fiber-optic cables under the sea, the material infrastructures of telecommunication that transmits nearly all the data in the world. In his series The Other Night Sky he photographed classified American satellites in the atmosphere with telescopes and large-format cameras by calculating their positioning [6].

Paglen, Trevor. Keyhole Improved Crystal from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 224). C-Print. 30 x 43 inches. 2011.

Both these projects and the Orbital Reflector incorporates ideas similar to Parikkas medianatures. By thinking about, and learning how to see into outer space and the atmosphere of our planet, we can get a glimpse of how much it is pervaded by human activity and the materials we have left out there. Also, we could form a different connection to our planets sense of time and the consequences of our material configurations. As Paglen often mentions, there is about 20 000 human-made objects orbiting the Earth, a sort of ring similar to that of Saturn, but consisting of old satellites and other space-debris [7]. The Orbital Reflector might give us a more realistic understanding of space and technology at a time where our future thinking is so captivated by technological optimism. Projects such as Elon Musk's SpaceX fascinates with their ideas of space tourism and the colonization of mars after we have made the earth uninhabitable. The Orbital Reflector might remind us that even space are full of human-made stuff and trash, and that in times of climate disaster, mass extinction of animals and global warming, we perhaps should put our energy into saving our own planet. It is an opportunity to think about our position at the Earth. Bring some friends!

Notes


[1] Yoder, “Stuff in Space”.

[2] Paglen. “Let’s Get Pissed Off About Orbital Reflector…”

[3] Richterich, “A Geology Of Media And A New Materialism”, 214-216.

[4] Parikka, A Geology of Media, 2-4.

[5] Bratton, The Stack, 29.

[6] Paglen, “The Other Night Sky”.

[7]Cascone, “Trevor Paglen Responds to Astronomers Who Criticize Space-Based Art”.


References


Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016.


Cascone, Sarah. “Trevor Paglen Responds to Astronomers Who Criticize Space-Based Art—and Has a Few Pointed Questions for Them, Too.” Artnet News. 23.08.2018.

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/trevor-paglen-responds-to-angry-astronomers-1337462


Paglen, Trevor. “Let’s Get Pissed Off About Orbital Reflector…” Medium. 30.08.2018.

https://medium.com/@trevor.paglen_21030/lets-get-pissed-off-about-orbital-reflector-44ef70feb9bc


Paglen, Trevor. “The Other Night Sky”. Trevor Paglen. Accessed: 08.10.2018.

http://www.paglen.com/?l=work&s=othernightsky&i=5


Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.


Richterich, Annika. “A Geology Of Media And A New Materialism: Jussi Parikka in Conversation with Annika Richterich”. Digital Culture & Society. 01 (2015): 213-226.


Yoder, James. “Stuff in Space”, Stuff in Space. Accessed 08.10.2018. http://stuffin.space/