Why Artists Are the New Astronauts
published during a waxing crescent moon.
11/02/2016

The south pole of the Moon lies in perpetual shadow. Shackleton, a 13-mile wide crater named after the resilient Antarctic explorer, enshrouds it completely. Scientists refer to Shackleton as a crater of eternal darkness: because of its low altitude and the low tilt of the Moon’s axis, Shackleton’s depths have never felt the rays of the sun. Blinding sunlight instead strikes peaks around the crater’s rim, nearly year-round. Scientists call them peaks of eternal light.

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Shackleton, a crater on the Lunar south pole, is the proposed site of artist Jorge Mañes Rubio’s Peak of Eternal Light, a temple to be 3-D printed from moon dust. Credit: NASA

NASA has short-listed Shackleton’s rim as a future potential Moon base. The rim’s constant exposure to sunlight makes it a highly attractive home for a solar panel array that could endlessly fuel vehicles and equipment for lunar expeditions. But NASA is not alone in eyeing Shackleton’s sunny real estate. It’s here that Jorge Mañes Rubio, an Amsterdam-based artist sponsored by the European Space Agency (ESA), wants to build a temple.

Concrete, bricks, and wood are out of the question—shipping costs from the Earth are still—quite literally—astronomical. Embedded in ESA’s interdisciplinary Advanced Concepts Team (ACT), Rubio is currently working with engineers to design a construction plan for the Peak of Eternal Light temple that would 3D-print the entire structure out of regolith—the Moon’s surface layer of grayish dust.

Building a temple at Shackleton is one of Rubio’s attempts as an artist to address questions about future forms of human culture, raised by the prospect of moving off world. “What are going to be the motivations and needs of this new space civilization?” Rubio asks. “What sort of rituals, aesthetics, and new cultural artifacts will be created by it? When somebody dies on the Moon, what sort of burial ritual is he or she going to receive?”

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MASSES (Motors and Stones Searching Equilibrium State) by artist collective Quadrature. A visit to the ALMA radio telescope inspired the group to create an artwork forced to endlessly re-calibrate. Credit: Quadrature

The Moon, unlike Earth, has no divisions, no boundaries, no nations.

From ancient Mayan observatories to imaginative excesses of French neoclassicism, Rubio has absorbed architectural influences for a structure informed by many cultures but beholden to none. The surface of the moon will act as a clean slate to build a new kind of temple—one without the binds of religion. Aware that defining his work as a “temple” might be provocative within certain scientific circles, Rubio is keen to make clear that Peak of Eternal Light is not about appealing to religious tradition or dogma, but about celebrating a universal experience.

“The Moon, unlike Earth, has no divisions, no boundaries, no nations. Kind of like the same way astronauts feel when they see Earth from space. This is a powerful symbol of unity. The temple celebrates that universal and mythical idea. It’s very exciting to see this future as a tabula rasa for our civilization.”

Since 1958, NASA has sponsored artists to create works about space exploration. It has funded artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, and Norman Rockwell to create visual works that often embraced the romantic grandeur typically found in popular representations of space exploration. The game changed in 2003 when Laurie Anderson became NASA’s first official artist-in-residence. Titled The End of the Moon, Anderson’s ninety-minute residency piece, the kind of conceptual monolog on which she has built much of her artistic practice, explored the daunting dimensions of our place in the universe, and expressed tinges of melancholy and ambivalence that made a lineage of heroic astronaut paintings suddenly feel dated.

Anderson’s residency lasted until 2005. The position was abolished in 2006, when Chris Chocola, a Republican U.S. Representative from Indiana, lambasted the program and presented the amendment that killed it, making Anderson NASA’s first and last artist-in-residence. It seemed that neither Chocola nor his colleagues found a satisfactory answer to their most pressing question: what were artists and space agencies doing together in the first place?

In the years that followed, a new crop of space agency-sponsored artists, including Rubio, have gone to great lengths to offer a better answer. Unlike their predecessors, however, these artists aren’t interested in painting the universe—they want to explore it. Charles Lindsay, artist and program director for SETI A.I.R., SETI’s artist-in-residency program, believes that art has the potential to explore ideas on a grander scale than science ordinarily has time for.

“Science has provided vast territories for artists to explore,” says Lindsay. “Artists can approach the huge philosophical implications of what we now know scientifically – which is literally mind-bending – in ways that scientists may never have considered.”

In Lindsay’s own work, often in the form of interdisciplinary installations, art’s path towards approaching the philosophical implications in scientific research is rarely a straight one. Instead, the path of art from science to philosophy is sometimes bent, or curved, capable of folding back on itself in a U-turn or in a hairpin turn, or of warping space, plunging through a wormhole to connect two points that might otherwise seem only distantly related.

During his second SETI artist residency, Lindsay’s practice let him move much faster than the speed of science, connecting the worlds of space exploration and marine biology. Lindsay’s passport between these two worlds was language. The piece, entitled CODE Humpback, took Lindsay from the blue depths of the ocean to the black depths of outer space.

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CODE Humpback, an installation by artist and SETI AIR program director Charles Lindsay, uses whale songs as a springboard to explore encrypted signals and communication with alien life forms. Credit: Charles Lindsay

The first stop on Lindsay’s creative itinerary was the work of SETI Institute scientist Dr. Laurance Doyle, who along with colleagues from UC Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation used information theory to unlock the language of humpback whales. Doyle’s conclusion was that these whales’ ethereal vocalizations follow rule-structure complexity, otherwise known as grammar. This meant that, like humans, humpback whales speak to one another by embedding smaller ideas into larger ones–placing words into clauses, for example, and clauses into sentences.

How might extraterrestrial life communicate with us?

Working closely with Doyle, Lindsay peered into the minutiae of non-human linguistics and saw a new avenue for space exploration. In CODE Humpback, biomorphic metal sculptures, inspired by the air vents of early twentieth-century ocean liners, project audio and visual messages: whale songs merge with Morse code messages, which drive samples of field recordings, and videos of wave interference patterns on the Pacific ocean. By reconfiguring such diverse source material, CODE Humpback uses Doyle’s whale research as the springboard for provocative questions: in the natural world, where order and chaos constantly intermingle, where does language begin and end? How might extraterrestrial life communicate with us? Are there are signals all around us that we cannot, or choose not to hear?

In other corners of this new artistic cosmos, theory and philosophy aid the creation of metaphors. “As artists, we have the big advantage that we don’t have to find a generally valid truth,” says Juliane Götz, a member of Quadrature, a Berlin-based artist collective dedicated to exploring scientific themes. “We are free to choose and concentrate on details, to create metaphors and emotional images. Their noise will be our signal.” Quadrature’s efforts to excavate artistic potential within scientific processes echo the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s well-known conception of art as “purposeful, but without purpose,” allowing for the production of artworks inspired by science but liberated from its goals.

Under the aegis of the European Digital Art & Science Network, Quadrature recently completed a residency in Chile’s northern Atacama Desert, touring the region’s numerous telescope arrays, seeking out noises amongst the science that might catalyze their artistic practice. During a visit to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Quadrature was impressed by the observatory team’s relentless dedication to precision. As ALMA endeavors to perceive faint traces of cosmic radiation from across incredible distances, the array’s instruments are obsessively calibrated, cleaned, replaced, and in the case of its incredibly powerful antenna receptors, kept at four degrees above absolute zero—so that they don’t start detecting particles radiated by their own heat.

MASSES in motion. As motorized wires tug on volcanic stones, the shifting weight provokes a steel plate to continuously re-balance itself. Credit: Quadrature

Given the long German tradition of precision, it is fitting that Quadrature would be inspired by ALMA’s calibration techniques. Their recent work MASSES—“Motors and Stones Searching Equilibrium State”—consists of a square steel plate that constantly attempts to find balance, with Sisyphean persistence. The plate, which can tilt freely in any direction, bears two volcanic stones wired to motors. The constant movement of the stones provokes the plate to constantly re-calibrate in search of equilibrium—which can be achieved for a fleeting moment until the system swings back into disorder. The drama at the heart of a billion-dollar scientific project–distilled into a steel plate and two stones.