Other Worlds, Other Stories Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) January 9 - February 20, 2016
In the first half of the twentieth century, when scientists fantasized about traveling into space, they took their cues from literature and art. Russian aeronautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, for example, credited Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, with inspiring his earliest designs for multi-stage rockets and space stations. Wernher von Braun took science fiction seriously, too. “It filled me with a romantic urge,” he wrote. “Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to!” Von Braun went on to write his own sci-fi novels; he also collaborated with space artist Chesley Bonestell on articles for Collier’s magazine that described future missions to Mars in vivid detail. Art begat science; science begat art—and together, artists, authors, and scientists changed how humanity viewed its place in the cosmos.
Other Worlds, Other Stories features the work of ten artists drawn to this heady give-and-take between scientific futurism and artistic fantasy. The exhibition includes traditional painted images of distant worlds; works of historical fiction illustrated with digital photography and collage; and an interactive performance in a test kitchen for astronauts. Many of these artists use the trope of space exploration like a funhouse mirror—in which American dreams of escape, conquest, and adventure cast unfamiliar reflections. Together, they all demonstrate how difficult it is to visualize life untethered from the Earth.
Fort Worth, Texas-based artist Adam Fung’s representational and abstract paintings offer intuitive treatments of the sublime and the unseen, and stem from his extensive travels around Texas and New Mexico—talking to astronomers and visiting sites including observatories, Dark Sky Parks, Marfa, and Spaceport America.
Baltimore artist Felipe Goncalves creates slick, illustrational artworks that often depict detritus from American culture—from Disney, to underground comix, to pornography—floating in the void of space, waiting to be discovered and interpreted by alien explorers. For Other Worlds, Other Stories, Goncalves will create a starscape mural directly on the walls of the new WPA gallery.
Baltimore artist Gray Lamb’s New Institute of Cosmological Exploration (N.I.H.C.E.) project documents the history of a non-existent space program via faux artifacts, collaged images, and heavily redacted documents describing fictional landings on unnamed asteroids. The project asks playful questions about the authority of museum displays and didactics.
Annapolis, MD-based artist Casey Johnson’s Oculus is a spectacular object out of time: the massive wooden exterior looks like a space capsule from a Jules Verne or H.G. Welles novel—yet the inside contains a shimmering LED starscape, viewable from a small peephole on the far side of the sculpture.
New York artists Heidi Neilson and Douglas Paulson run the Menu for Mars Supper Club, meeting with chefs, gardeners, scientists, culinary anthropologists, and nutritionists to learn what future Mars colonists might be able to grow, cook, and eat. Their work will be represented at WPA with food samples, test kitchen equipment, and a February performance dinner in the gallery.
Philadelphia artist Roxana Pérez-Méndez uses video and Pepper’s Ghost holograms—a mirror-based form of optical illusion developed in the 1860s—to imagine a future Puerto Rican space program. In her New Espacio project, a tiny hologram of the artist clad in a space suit wanders across a barren, rocky world, planting Puerto Rican flags in an act of reverse colonization.
In his videos, objects, and performances, multidisciplinary Chicago artist Jefferson Pinder explores Afrofuturism: the mixing of science fiction, fantasy, and Afro-centric imagery in order to interrogate the African Diaspora. Pinder will be creating a new work for the WPA show depicting the corona of a super-massive black hole.
Montreal, Canada-based artist Michael A. Robinson creates chilly, austere works that conflate cosomology with the noise and hyper-stimulation of contemporary life. Robinson’s graphic works, looking a bit like abstracted star charts or diagrams, are based on his understanding of Baudrillard’s description of the media as a “Black Hole” that absorbs all meaning.
DC area artist Steve Strawn has created a new series of photographs for WPA depicting astronauts during their downtime on a newly colonized Mars. Strawn’s astronauts are prisoners of their technology, and lead banal lives in relative isolation—having brought the boredom of traditional suburban American culture with them to the red planet.
Idaho artist Lucy West is a member of the International Association of Astronomical artists, and has created meticulously rendered painted and digitally composited works for astronauts, astronomers, and scientists. Her works have been exhibited at NASA's Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center, and The House of Representatives in Washington D.C.
Menu for Mars Test Kitchen February 13, 2016
The Banality of Glory
“…these thoroughly conventional and middle-class and essentially dull people, who would make such nice neighbors and such unlikely friends—could these be the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce? One cannot but be struck that not only is evil often banal but glory also.”
Victor Ferkiss “Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality”
On July 20, 1969, CBS new anchor Walter Cronkite and astronaut Wally Schirra struggled to fill dead air and make some sort of meaningful statement as the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. “Wally, say something, I’m speechless,” Cronkite said, after removing his glasses and rubbing his face. “I’m just trying to hold onto my breath,” Schirra unhelpfully replied. “That is really something.”
Cronkite and Schirra were not alone: The moon landing left many Americans unsure of what to say. Sure, it signaled a decisive victory in the space race, the competition with the Soviet Union for technological superiority and dominance off-world. In 1957, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite; by 1961, they had made cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first man to travel to outer space—prompting President Kennedy to commit the country to a moon landing by the decade’s end. Cronkite and Schirra watched Apollo 11 fulfill that promise in real time, on national television. Yet both the victory itself and the men who made it possible seemed not to belong to the national mood at the end of the sixties.
Like Schirra, the other astronauts of the Apollo program had trouble putting together words to inspire the American people. Mostly, they retreated into jargon—impenetrable-sounding techno-babble that Norman Mailer bemoaned in his 1969 account of the Apollo 11 mission, Of a Fire on the Moon. In the common tongue of the astronauts, “‘Other choices’ became ‘peripheral secondary objectives,’” Mailer noted. “‘Doing our best’ was ‘obtaining maximum advantage possible’…it was as if the more natural forms of English had not been built for the computer: Latin, maybe, but not simple Anglo-Saxon.” (Mailer, p. 39)
Mailer was struck by the contradiction between the robotic sameness of the astronauts and their speech, and the mind-bending off-world experiences for which they had been groomed. These men, Mailer, wrote, “…had come to live with adventures in space so vast one thought of the infinities of a dream, yet their time on the ground was conventional, practical, technical, hardworking, and in the center of the suburban middle class.” (Mailer, p. 46) The technocrats of the Apollo Program were an affront to Mailer’s sensibilities and stood in stark contrast with some of their contemporaries—say, the student activists fighting against the Vietnam War, or the visionary leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
NASA facilities, of course, were located in the American South. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations saw NASA as potentially a tool to help end segregation; this futuristic agency, they reasoned, could draw the South out of the past. Yet NASA was dependent on established communities and local customs. As a result, for most of the decade, NASA had the worst record in the federal government for hiring African Americans. As Richard Paul and Steven Moss note in their book about race relations and the space race, We Could Not Fail: “The Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama had only 52 African American employees out of 7,335 in 1963…the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston had twenty-one African –American workers; Kennedy Space Center had five.” (Paul, p. 120)
NASA was futuristic, but not necessarily progressive, and many Americans noticed. On the day Apollo 11 launched, there were protestors on the launch pad: Ralph Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led a group of three hundred or so activists to Cape Canaveral. Abernathy saw the Apollo missions as evidence of misplaced priorities. As he put it on the eve of the moon launch, “…a society that can resolve to conquer space…deserves acclaim for achievement and contempt for bizarre social values. For though it has its ability to meet extraordinary challenges, it has failed to use its ability to rid itself of the scourges of racism, poverty, and war…” (DeGroot, p. 234)
The space program’s resonance with a majority of the American public seems largely to be a recent phenomenon. In a paper from 2003, the National Air and Space Museum’s Roger Launius demonstrated that throughout the 1960s, anywhere from 45 to 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the money being spent on the Apollo missions. In polls from across that decade, Launius notes: “Most Americans seemingly preferred doing something about air and water pollution, job training for unskilled workers, national beautiﬁcation, and poverty before spending federal funds on human spaceﬂight.” (Launius, p. 166)
The Apollo program was not just out of tune with the American people’s priorities; it seemed to exist outside of political ideology, too. The cold war was supposed to be a contest between capitalism and socialism, demonstrating the strengths or weaknesses of each system of government. Yet throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the U.S. increasingly embraced state-sponsored research and development. As Walter A. McDougall explains in his 1985 book, The Heavens and the Earth, “…the fundamental question—whether a society shaped by state planning and spending was consonant with American freedoms—got lost…the debate revolved around the purposes to which the technocratic tool ought to be put, not the political or moral costs of brandishing the tool in the first place.” (McDougall, p. 403) Traditional concepts of limited government, it would seem, could not stand up to dreams of conquering outer space.
The U.S. space program married impossible dreaming with specialized, cloistered labor. Space travel was a concept that existed outside of lived experience and the day-to-day realities of most Americans; the scientists and theorists who dared to imagine spaceflight in the first place were inspired by science fiction. But the technocrats who brought those dreams to fruition were mostly concerned with efficiency and progress for its own sake. That engineers and test pilots, huddled together in labs and launch facilities, were unable to make profound utterances about their day jobs should not surprise anyone. As writer and critic Paul Goodman once put it, “There is nothing ironical in the fact that we can land on the moon but can’t make traffic move or feed the hungry…NASA can’t make an epigram or a metaphor, either…all these take different kinds of soul.” (Tribbe, p. 40)
“For a long time, I thought of the rocket just as everybody else did—just as a means of diversion and of petty everyday uses. Probably the first seeds of the idea [of space travel] were first sown by that great fantastic author Jules Verne—he directed my thought along certain channels, then came a desire, and after that, the work of the mind.” Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
“[Science fiction] filled me with a romantic urge. Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to! Not just to stare through a telescope at the Moon and the planets but to soar through the heavens and actually explore the mysterious universe! I knew how Columbus had felt.” Wernher von Braun
“The Rocket Team harbored a hidden agenda, of course: spaceflight—the Gestapo even arrested [Wehrner von Braun] in February 1944 on the charge that he was not really interested in the military needs of the Fatherland…indeed, von Braun’s team indulged their dreams of larger versions of the V-2 with the potential for orbital flight.” Walter A. McDougall “The Heavens and the Earth”
“…much of [space artist Chesley Bonestell’s] work was scientifically unsound at the time he created it—he was still indicating canals on Mars as late as the 1950s, to say nothing of natural bridges on Phobos and volcanoes on Jupiter. Nevertheless, so persuasive was his art that when Lunar Orbiter and the Apollo astronauts returned photographs that showed that lunar mountains were not the precipitous peaks that Bonestell and his myriad impersonators had depicted, it truly seemed as though it were the Moon’s fault and not the artist’s.” Ron Miller “The Art of Space”
“Chesley [Bonestell] is the original Kilroy—he’s been there ahead of them all. Neil Armstrong? Well, tranquility base was established over Bonestell’s tracks and discarded squeezed-out paint tubes. The man not only moves across space, but also time.” Arthur C. Clarke
“By highlighting everything from the real-world technologies depicted in ‘The Martian’ to explaining the science behind Martian dust storms to calling on young women to take after the fictional Ares III mission commander, Melissa Lewis, NASA’s hoping to turn moviegoers into the nation’s next generation of scientists, technologists and the other all-around bad-ass eggheads celebrated in the film. In the run-up to the movie's release, NASA even made a major announcement about the discovery of liquid water on Mars that some believed was simply too conveniently timed to be a coincidence.” Brian Fung The Washington Post (“‘The Martian,’ NASA and the rise of a science-entertainment complex”)
“We have spent $33 billion on space so far. We should have spent it on cleaning up our filthy colonies here on Earth.” Kurt Vonnegut
“…these thoroughly conventional and middle-class and essentially dull people, who would make such nice neighbors and such unlikely friends—could these be the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce? One cannot but be struck that not only is evil often banal but glory also.” Victor Ferkiss “Technological Man: The Myth and the Reality”
“The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man—the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.” Hannah Arendt “Has Man’s Conquest of Space Increased or Diminished His Stature?”
“A society that can resolve to conquer space…deserves acclaim for achievement and contempt for bizarre social values. For though it has had the capacity to meet extraordinary challenges, it has failed to use its ability to rid itself of the scourges of racism, poverty, and war, all of which were brutally scarring the nation even as it mobilized for the assault on the solar system…Why is it less exciting to the human spirit to enlarge man by making him brother to his fellow man? There is more distance between the races of man than between the moon and the earth.” Ralph Abernathy
“It could have been an elevating and eventually a self-revealing week in the history of man’s lurching attempts to understand his world and himself. But no one had the time or the inclination to approach the material in a fresh way, to seriously consider, for example, the proposition: ‘We go to the moon because we want to; we don’t fix the urban mess because we don’t want to.’” Edwin Diamond “The Dark Side of the Moon Coverage”
“First Law: Nobody and nothing under natural laws of this universe impose any limitations on man except man himself.
Second Law: Not only the Earth, but the entire solar system, and as much of the universe as he can reach under the laws of nature, are man’s rightful field of activity.
Third Law: By expanding through the universe, man fulfills his destiny as an element of life, endowed with the power of reason and the wisdom of mortal law within himself.” Krafft Ehricke “The Anthropology of Astronautics”
“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now they are truly brothers.” Archibald MacLeish New York Times (Christmas Day, 1968)
"That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. …There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” Carl Sagan “Pale Blue Dot”