Reaching for the sky: artists conquering space

Space Art digitalarti media

Art has always been inspired by the cosmos. However, it wasn’t until well after the end of the Apollo programme that artists really started to become familiar with the stars. Space is now the key to "new boundaries" for artistic creation.

Space exploration was, for a long time, a field exclusively limited to the military and scientists. Things have changed with the arrival of digital transforming research data into potential creative material, as well as the implementation of art/science laboratories. Beginning with the CNES (National Centre for Space Studies) responsible for the Sidération Festival entirely dedicated to performances and installations influenced by space… In addition, parabolic flights are being opened to a limited public, a way of simulating weightlessness and, on this basis, extrapolating new creative avenues.

Use of scientific data and converting it into "a potential piece of art" is quite a recent phenomenon. Emblematic of this "art/science" collusion, the duo Evelina Domnitch & Dmitry Gelfand appropriate, for example, biochemical processes and physical principles and glorify them in devices. In this way, they use the phenomenon of photophoresis to animate, with bluish laser pulses, diamond dust trapped in a vacuum chamber (Photonic Wind, 2013). An illustration of what happens with "photonic wind" on a cosmic scale; this swirl of interstellar dust driven by starlight that accounted for planet formation.

Other installations by Evelina Domnitch & Dmitry Gelfand incorporate planetary phenomena (Transit Of Venus, 2004), force fields (Orbihedron, 2017), cosmic flows and lights, etc. This is also the case with Félicie d'Estienne d'Orves and her series of light sculptures Light Standard (2016), where each "light standard" is linked to an object in the solar system. The intensity varies according to the time the light takes to reach us (8 minutes from the sun, over 4 hours for Neptune).

Felicie D'estienne d'orves
Félicie d'Estienne d'Orves, EXO (2015)

She is also remembered for her audio-visual device EXO (2015), where lasers were pointed towards hundreds of celestial bodies, thus revealing an unexpected sky map.

Like new navigators, artists focus on the "residual" light of stars: through spectral installations like Cosmic Dust and 163,000 Light Years (2016), the monumental production (Galaxy Forming Along Filaments…, 2009), Tomás Saraceno alerts us to the interplanetary vastness in which we are immersed.

Tomas Saraceno
Tomás Saraceno. “Galaxies Forming along Filaments, photo © Fabian Birgfeld, PhotoTECTONICS and Studio Saraceno.

With his installation Unfold (2016), Ryoichi Kurokawa also takes us to the far reaches of the galaxy "staging" data collected by the space telescope Herschel about how stars form. From this crude star cluster, Ryoichi Kurokawa makes a geometric and acoustic ballet projected onto 3 panels uniting our field of vision.

Beyond telescopes, exploring the outer reaches of the solar system started with the Pioneer X and XI probes launched in 1972-73, then Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977. Rémi Tamburini reinterprets part of the famous pictorial message on the Pioneer probes representing humanity, a hydrogen atom, the solar system and its position in relation to pulsars that he symbolises by neon lights positioned like stars (Neon Pulsar, 2010-2011). This message is featured on the engraved golden record aboard Voyager probes. These are the most distant devices of terrestrial origin, photographed for the last time almost 15 years ago: Voyager 1 is currently at 136,63 AU (i.e. 20,43 billion km). Its twin Voyager 2 is "only" at 112,64 AU on a different ellipsis.

The artists Špela Petrič, Miha Turšič, Dunja Zupančič and Dragan Živadin have developed a series of fairly minimalist installations around Voyager; materialising the journey, the position, etc. of the probe through lights, sound and swathes of colour (Voyager/ Non-Human Agents, 2013-2014). The Berlin-based Quadrature collective also appropriated Voyager with two machines that point their robotic arms in the direction of their positions like a silent appeal (Voyager, 2015). While the probes move further and further away, on the other hand the satellites get closer, increasingly numerous in high and low earth orbit. The multiplication of these artefacts begins to be an issue.

Voyager/ 140 AU from Spela Petric 

This is what Quadrature also materialises by means of a device recalling Robotalab and the calligraphy drawn by a reconfigured industrial robot (cf. Bios [bible]). In real time, a drawing makes the multiple crossings of the satellites that orbit above our heads visible on an atlas (Satelliten, 2015). On this principle, the collective also proposes another installation in a continuation of an AV performance (Orbits, 2016). In this configuration, the orbital drifting of the satellites literally weaves lines, like multiple breadcrumb trails, that gradually grow and form an inextricable ball in which the viewer becomes completely immersed.

Satelliten - a machine tracking activities in lower earth orbit from Quadrature 

Let’s skip the numerous "spin-off creative projects", of the KEO type that the now-deceased artist/geophysicist Jean-Marc Philippe delivered. Namely sending messages by satellite to… earthlings! The return on the semantic investment guaranteed in theory 50,000 years after the launch…Let’s come back down to earth a little: Richard Clar draws our attention to the pollution and danger of space debris with his 3D multimedia installation, Collision II (2003). But it is not just telescopes, probes and satellites that spin dangerously above our heads. Men have also been in orbit since 1961.

And women. The company Full Petal Machine pays tribute to the first cosmonaut Valentina Terechkova, with a performance that combines video and scenography (Protocol V.A.L.E.N.T.I.N.A, 2017). In this domain, Aleksandra Mir has dedicated an allegory to the first (potential) woman on the moon in an intervention on a beach that verged on Land art as much as performance video (First Woman On The Moon, 1999).

First Woman on the Moon from Aleksandra Mir 

The well-named company Laïka takes it further by imagining a Love Capsule (2016-). This gesticulated conference, following a previous work in the same vein on the beginnings of the conquest of space (Si un chien l'a fait, pourquoi pas moi, (If a dog did it, why not me) 2015), involves examining the habitat and everyday life of cosmonauts, engaging in artistic speculation about sexual fantasy without gravity, with the associated logistical problems (expect a harness…); thus echoing one of the intoxicating rants by the informal network of '"artivists" known as the A.A.A. (Association of Autonomous Astronauts).

Whether models and puppets with Bertrand Dezoteux (En attendant Mars/Waiting for Mars 2017), scenography with Rémi Mort, Samy El Ghassasy & Thierry Gilotte (La hauteur d'un ciel/The Height of a Sky, 2016), Found-Footage with Laura Gozlan (A Thousand Miles Below, 2013; Farewell Settler, 2013), AV performances for Addictive TV (Space Out) and Aural Float (the chill-out series Space Night), or apps with Tom Sachs (A Space Program, 2000-2017): an aesthetic tale of the conquest of space takes shape by means of this artistic recognition.

A SPACE PROGRAM Official Trailer [Tom Sachs - Adventure Documentary]

So far, we have seen simulation, extrapolation and abstraction. Now artists just need to experience the joy of weightlessness in confined spaces. This is now possible because parabolic flights have (almost) become open-spaces. Over the course of 20 years Kitsou Dubois, "choreographer of weightlessness", has multiplied zero gravity experiences. Microgravity enables unprecedented movements in the realm of dance, bringing fluidity and bodily freedom, allows you to find other support points, vanishing lines, etc. for terrestrial performances. This "art of flying" (to resume the title of her web-documentary) is also performed by Jeanne Morel from the company Vulpès who has benefitted from a "zero gravity residency" to prepare a future performance. 

Extract from Kitsou Dubois, Trajectoire Fluide, 2000. Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

If dance is the "key product" of Zero G flights, there are other potential artistic experiences. Co-founder of the ZGAC (Zero Gravity Arts Consortium, a structure to promote art in space), Frank Pietronigro tackles painting in this environment. In terms of performing arts, the best example is the Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung project by Dragan Živadinov. This Slovenian cofounder of the very controversial collective NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst, to which the industrial group Laibach is affiliated) produced a theatrical performance, Biomechanical Noordung, aboard the Russian plane Ilyushin MDK 76 in 1999. 

Biomechanics Noordung, 1999 from postgravityart 

Covered with an "exoskeleton", Marcel.I Antunez Roca (who was involved in the La Fura del Baus venture) tested a mechatronic performance in similar conditions. Another performance that fulfils an ancient dream, levitating on a flying carpet to the sound of a mesmerising flute: Zero Genie by Jem Finer & Ansuman Biswas. Flow Motion — a duo better known as Hallucinator that signed with Chain Reaction, the founding label of the dub techno movement — recorded sounds in a Zero G plane and then remixed them in a sound creation called Kosmos In Blue.

Zero Genie (extract), Jem Finer & Ansuman Biswas, 2001 (The Arts Catalyst)

The artist Takuro Osaka was inspired by the cosmos and space for his light and sound sculptures taking the opposite stance to address the challenge of weightlessness: he uses the context of parabolic flight as an "environment" for his sculpture Sound Wave, that switches between different "behaviours" according to whether the device is subjected to gravity or not. But only the crew, technicians and assistants, as well as other guest artists can directly look at or confront his artworks or ephemeral performances. Viewers must, on the other hand, make do with a video reproduction or a derived "product". The question is: who is this space art for?

Graphic designer, film director then pioneering visual artist Pierre Comte, who was born in 1927, is a true "space art" theorist ("spatial art" or "space art", beware of the false friend) that he discovered in 1979. He attempts to respond to this question by interchanging the terms of the equation to deploy his artistic approach in three areas: "earth-space", "space-earth" and "space-space". Either proposing projects visible by satellites or by astronauts, in the same way as the Nazca Lines. Or, vice versa, projects generated by satellites or by astronauts for earthlings. And lastly projects by and for astronauts, or at least uniquely imbedded in a space context. This last proposal prefiguring, for example, Inner Telescope produced by Eduardo Kac for/with Thomas Pesquet that is currently aboard ISS.

 Thomas Pesquet
Inner Telescope floating in the International Space Station (ISS), in orbit around the Earth.


This "3D" origami, of sorts, outlines the word "MOI" according to how it drifts in weightlessness. In 1993, this funny green and yellow geometrically shaped object whirled in the modules of the MIR station. It was the first sculpture specifically designed for a micro-gravity environment, but its designer Arthur Woods preferred to call it an '"intervention". His work Cosmic Dancer disintegrated with the station, during re-entry into the atmosphere 23 March 2001.

Cosmic Dancer on the Mir Space Station - Space Art in Earth Orbit, an art-in-space intervention by Arthur Woods.

This project brings to mind Fallen Astronaut by the sculptor Paul Van Hoeydonck. The shapes are also geometrical, like a stylised voodoo doll. Measuring less than 10cm, the silvery figurine is visible on the moon: it was deposited during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. It is the only objet d'art beyond our planet.

Fallen Astronaut

Although… according to legend, there has been a small ceramic plaque, as large as a domino, catching space dust at the foot of the Apollo 12 module since November 1969. On it, you can see several sketches like you find in the toilets… Expected to bring together six American artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol (!), this chimera was spearheaded by the sculptor Forrest Myers (Moon Museum). 

But why leave it to the artists to scribble, when we are capable of creating so well ourselves…? Alexey Leonov, the first cosmonaut to have performed an extravehicular exit in perilous conditions in 1965, is also the first man to have drawn in space during this mission. He took off from Star City with a few colour pencils, attached together to prevent them from floating weightless and a sketchbook.

Alexei Leonov, Over the Black Sea, 1973 © The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

He produced the colourful sketch of a sunrise seen from the distance, above the curvature of the earth… He took it up again later, during the Apollo-Soyouz mission in 1975, when he tried his hand at portrait. To date, no artist has ventured into space. 

Lityin Malaw

Sidération Festival, les artistes face à l'espace (Artists Confronting Space), 24 to 26 March, L'Observatoire de l'Espace du CNES, Paris.