For years, artist Trevor Paglen went to his apartment’s rooftop nearly every evening in order to track and photograph secret satellites. At any given time there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of so-called ‘black spacecraft’ orbiting the globe: covert satellites used for a variety of purposes, including surveillance and the stealth navigation of nuclear weapons and drones.
‘The more time you spend looking at how outer space actually works,’ Paglen wrote in a Medium post, ‘the more you come to understand that space has become the domain of the world’s most powerful militaries – a platform for surveillance and warfare.’
The Maryland-born MacArthur Fellow has a point. Since space travel was first made possible, it’s been weaponized. The Nazis had V-2 rockets. The US and the Soviet Union developed satellite-guided missiles to target one another from space during the Cold War. Throughout the 2000s, the US ramped up its military might in space, pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 under then president George W. Bush, before casting the sole ‘no’ vote on the United Nations’s Space Preservation Treaty, a proposed resolution to ban all weapons in space in 2006. With US president Donald Trump’s Space Force – which would act as a sixth branch of the military – set to launch in 2020, space seems to be on its way to being even more militarized than ever before.
And yet, while it’s largely taken for granted that space has become a place for weapons and commercialization – beaming us our television shows, giving us a global phone network, putting military satellites into orbit – for millennia, space was primarily a blank slate for existential exploration, for human possibility.
For Plato, the stars and the planets ‘set limits to and stand guard over the numbers of time,’ as he wrote in the fourth century BCE. To the 19th-century American inventor Thomas Edison, memories – even the crux of human nature – were derived mysteriously from outer space. ‘What we call man is a mechanism made up of […] uncrystallized matter […] all the colloid matter of his mechanism is concentrated in a countless number of small cells,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘These are the units of life and when they pass out into space man as we think we know him is dead, a mere machine from which the crew have left, so to speak.’
Paglen has been wondering how space might be wrested back from its clinical, militaristic, and increasingly commercialized perspective and back into the realm of grander meaning. His plan to launch a satellite into space will have absolutely no use other than as art, or, as he writes, ‘as a provocation.’ In mid-November, with the help of the aerospace firm Global Western, he will send Orbital Reflector into orbit.
Costing USD$1.3 million, with funds raised by the Nevada Museum of Art, Orbital Reflector is a shiny sculptural object made of polyethylene and coated with titanium dioxide. When it reaches a stable orbit about 580 kilometres above Earth, it will leave its box-like encasing and inflate to its full-sized, 30-metre diamond shape, whereupon it will reflect light back down towards Earth so it might be better seen. It will orbit Earth about once every hour and a half. After two or three months, it will (or at least it is designed to) fall from orbit and harmlessly disintegrate.
Paglen took inspiration from Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich’s dream of orbital artworks, which the artist called ‘sputniks.’ Best categorized as neo-minimalist, Orbital Reflector will evoke this avant-garde Russian vision, while its diamond shape will also fly more efficiently and reflect more light than a spherical shape.
Art has long been a vital part of how we’ve related to outer space. The early 20th century American illustrator Chesley Bonestell created an abiding public interest in space when he drew various scenarios in space, including his famous Saturn as Seen from Titan, for the glossy pages of Life and other mainstream magazines in the 1940s – two decades before Yuri Gagarin would become the first man in space. In 1957, the American television show Disneyland aired an episode called ‘Mars and Beyond,’ an ambitious ideal of what humanity might attain and crafted as a way to reach children and families. For its part, Soviet space art was highly influenced by the Suprematism of the 1930s, with bold, clear, propagandistic posters, almost all of which included the CCCP initials (Союз Советских Социалистических Республик, the Russian name for the Soviet Union).
In the early 1960s, in their own propagandistic way, the Americans created the NASA Art Program for which they hired artists like Robert McCall, Peter Hurd, and Mitchell Jamieson to capture the Mercury flight, in which Gordon Cooper orbited Earth 22 times, with their own artistic style. In 1965, the first piece of art was created in outer space. The cosmonaut Alexei Leonov brought along coloured pencils when he took off in the Soviet Union’s Voskhod 2 spaceship. In orbit, with the pencils tied to his wrist by threads and held together by a rubber band, he drew an orbital sunrise, the first time that man had not just depicted space based on an idea or an image but on actual sight.
Since then, outer space has continued to function as a source of artistic inspiration in certain pockets. Arts Catalyst, a London-based contemporary art organization, has taken dancers, filmmakers, and artists on zero-gravity flights. In the late-1990s, the company commissioned French choreographer Kitsou Dubois to create a dance performance during a series of parabolic flights – Dubois becoming the first artist to work in weightlessness.
Even Paglen’s Orbital Reflector is not the first satellite made for art. Humanity Star, a geodesic sphere measuring one metre in diameter, which launched in January and fell out of orbit in March, was also, according to its manufacturer, ‘a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe.’ Both Paglen and Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab, which launched Humanity Star, have amassed a variety of criticism from the astronomy community. The central complaint is that the presence of these additional satellites could disrupt astronomical observations. Others are frustrated by the perceived superfluousness of the endeavour.
‘I think that most people would appreciate a little more reverence for the natural world rather than inserting yet another artificial structure,’ Caleb Scharf, the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center, told The Atlantic. ‘Paglen is highly creative, and has clearly delved deep into this work, but for those of us who spend our lives contemplating and communicating the cosmic, this seems to miss the critical point that the unobscured night sky is an endangered beast best seen in the raw.’
‘This project brings nothing that we don’t have already,’ tweeted Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor for space and exploration at the European Space Agency. ‘We already have plenty of moving lights in the sky to engage the public with & draw them to the majesty of the night.’
These critics seem to be missing the point. There are already 1,800 active and known satellites currently in orbit, used for everything from GPS navigation to collecting weather information, not to mention the covert satellites upon which Paglen has centered his interest. Why aren’t these drawing our collective ire? Shouldn’t we be concerned that we can be constantly surveilled, constantly put at risk of weapons being sent our way – all from an invisible sky?
‘So let’s get pissed off about Orbital Reflector and then let’s get pissed off about Russia’s Object 2014–28E, the US’ X-37B, and the weaponization and privatization of space,’ Paglen wrote. ‘And then let’s look back down at earth and spend some time thinking about how to create the world we want.’
It might only be through a ‘useless’ artwork – through a pure ‘provocation’ – that we will come to see how fundamentally in use space already is.
Main image: Design concept rendering for Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector, 2017, co-produced and presented by the Nevada Museum of Art. Courtesy: Trevor Paglen and Nevada Museum of Art