By Evan Senn
This year, companies like XCOR Aerospace, Inc., Space X, and Virgin Atlantic will make ground-breaking history: private citizens will be allowed to travel to outer space. The Lynx, XCOR’s premier commercial reusable launch vehicle (RLV), will be able to take humans and payloads on a half-hour suborbital flight, later landing safely on a runway based in Mojave. XCOR is one of several companies to jump on this auspicious new movement in privatizing and commercializing space travel tourism.
The company’s plans call for the Lynx vehicle to be fully operational and finalized later this year, and XCOR has over 200 Lynx flights already preordered to the tune of $95,000 each trip.
It is against this backdrop that UC Riverside’s ARTSblock launched “Free Enterprise,” the first contemporary art exhibition in the U.S. to explore multiple viewpoints of the looming democratization of space exploration and the relationship between art and space travel. The global issue of citizen space travel has been debated for years, and now it has finally been pushed away from state-sponsored space travel and leads us to its privatized version.
The Sight of Stars
Walking into the UCR’s ARTSblock, your gaze is immediately drawn to the large spacecraft sitting inside the giant Culver Center for the Arts. The craft somewhat resembles a private plane with extra rocket boosters attached, but hints at accessibility, and visually emulates the very notion of the new climate of the privatized space travel market. The Sweeney Gallery, one of many gallery spaces located within the ARTSblock, highlights historical works that have made an impact on space travel tourism over the years, including a re-production of what was supposed to be the first sculpture to go into space, imagined by Richard Clar in the 1980s, but fabricated into life by ARTSblock’s current senior preparator, S.A. Hawkins. In the UCR/California Museum of Photography—another ARTSblock space just next door to Culver—contemporary art takes the main stage.
With relics from parabolic flight art experiments with Frank Pietronigro, suburban visits to Moon and Mars with eteam, anti-gravity dances with Kitsou Dubois, celestial photography with Trevor Paglen, trained Moon Geese and Agnes Meyer-Brandis preparing for space travel; with Christian Waldvogel’s enveloping Earth Moves Without Me video and behind-the-scenes images of global capitalism and future imaginaries with Connie Samaras, there is something for everybody. For every person who has ever looked up at the bright night stars and ended up filled with awe and wonder, these are the proactive results from those creative souls who dared to engage the stars . . . and do more than just wonder. Dating back to Vincent Van Gogh, the human fascination with the celestial heavens (Starry Night) is ever present, and is now coming to fruition. “I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream,” Van Gogh once said.
“A New State of Mind”
As the largest show in UCR ARTSblock history and covering 8,600 square feet of exhibition space, this exhibit functions as a survey of this historically ground-breaking scientific trend as well as an exhibition of this thematic obsession in contemporary art. So what does art have to do with science, let alone space travel? Co-curator Tyler Stallings says it’s important to involve artists in an innovative scientific phenomenon like citizen space travel. “Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind and allow for a broader awareness of humanity on Earth and beyond,” says Stallings.
Artists and art enthusiasts alike have long embraced the concepts of space travel and scientific exploration. His status as on of the Italian Renaissance’s most renowned painters, Leonardo da Vinci was also a world-renowned scientist. In fact, da Vinci inspired Santa Ana artist Skeith De Wine for his work in “Free Enterprise.” Artist Kitsou Dubois also references da Vinci and unknown optical experiments to aid her fascination with weightlessness and space travel in her work featured in “Free Enterprise.” A performance and movement-based artist, Dubois choreographs and performed a series of anti-gravity dances during parabolic flights—the suborbital flights where passengers are temporarily rendered “weightless” during a simulated free-fall inside an aircraft. Dubois was able to play with these moments of weightlessness and recorded beautiful dance pieces on these flights. She also has taken up the challenge of recreating these weightless dances here on our gravity-friendly Earth, a feat that has proved both very difficult and stunningly impressive.
Los Angeles-based Carrie Paterson’s work is an exploration of inventive research-based experiments related to the human senses. For “Free Enterprise,” Paterson created multi-layered scientific glass perfume bottles. Outsourcing the technical fabrication to a famous scientific glassblower and organic chemist, Bob Maiden, Paterson and Maiden worked on the different structure possibilities for months before finalizing a small series of layered atom-shaped bottles. The perfume acts as an invisible sculpture, occupying space and evoking thoughts, feelings and memories through sensory experiences. Paterson thinks of herself as more of an “art researcher” than a simply an artist. She spends her days tinkering and experimenting with objects, theories and chemistry in order to create meaningful artwork and nurture her artistic soul.
The core value for Paterson in her own practice is to introduce awareness about the complexities of Earth and the cultural relevance of particular scents. In another series, Paterson focuses on the molecular makeup and the universally communicative nature of scents. In her Star Map, she charts the chemical compositions of scents in messages for extra-terrestrial intelligence and communication. Paterson has presented her experiments and information on science and scent at several conferences, and has authored and co-authored essays and articles on the subject of scent and its relationship to architecture.
Co-curator Stallings says of Paterson’s Star Map, “Paterson’s original idea is that a signal in response to an ET signal could include signatures of molecules that have a specifically recognizable scent and are meaningful to humans and other creatures: blood, sweat, plants, the ocean, iron, etc. This type of signal would convey our understanding of chemistry and the composition of the universe, as well as sending an aspect of human culture.”
Reiterating the theme of the exhibit, Paterson embraces the concept of commercialization in her “perfume bar” installation, where visitors are invited to step up to the bar and sniff samples of her perfumes; a more floral, feminine scents that soothe human senses or a more earthy/woody, masculine scent that soothes the nerves.
“You will actually be able to smell humanity,” she says.
Paterson also exhibits her Homesickness Kit, designed with scent as its main tool, with help from product designer John Datema and artist Karen Reitzel. The Homesickness Kit is designed for space travelers to ease the physiological and emotional discomfort through time-lapse scent-journeys. They have been tested to prove specific scent memory-triggers related to important plants specific to Earth. She aims to have such kits be made available during space flights, either custom-made for personalized use or mass-manufactured for the Earthling masses. Paterson’s research shows that such scent-based aids may help astronauts’ health, performance and social relationships.
Connie Samaras’ photographs explore the off-limits areas within New Mexico’s new Spaceport America, the up-and-coming commercial outer spaceport being built just outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The Spaceport isn’t operational or open to the public—so how did Samaras gain access so she could take photos of the construction taking place in and around the spaceport? The artist gained access through an authorized chaperone . . . who just happens to be named Scully. (Cue The X-Files music) Kismet, right? The photographs are clean and simple, nearly documentary in style. They are meant to prompt viewers to question the subject’s significance, and to consider the New Mexico landscape, a place where it is easy to contemplate future imaginaries.
Samaras approaches projects like her Spaceport series with a wide range of inquiries and sources, and began thinking of these places as science fiction probes; probing the what-ifs of man in space. A theorist at heart, much of Samaras’ work is conceptually based and pokes and prods at fiction but remains grounded in real imagery, yet still provoking the viewers to dream about “what could be.” She started this investigatory series with Las Vegas Casinos, a work thoughtfully provoked by the extreme secrecy and off-limits areas of Sin City. For this project, though she got much pushback from the casinos, she learned how to get past those blocks through practice, and found some interaction-based behavior quite helpful in manipulating people into letting her “in.” For Spaceport, Samaras was allotted four, chaperoned two to- three-hour time slots to capture images.
Her photographs make viewers contemplate the accessibility of space travel while also making them feeling uneasy. With a subtle focus on the vast landscape and the solitary feeling in the desert, one can imagine a life away from our Earth. Samaras aims at deflecting the viewers’ focus back to Earth, a planet full of wonder and complexity. Even as we await the cultural shift that citizen space travel brings, we mustn’t forget the incredible human innovation that led us here.
The Spaceport architecture is supposed to resemble wings in flight, but looking at the building through our imaginative human eyes, the structure seems more like a shiny glass-and-metal UFO. One of the unique points of its design is the large-scale windows that will allow passengers to view departing and arriving flights, witnesses to our own human innovation. Wide shots of barren land, where the sky seems like it goes on forever, simple structures and future dreams realized; Samaras’ photographs are simply reality, but her compositions have the power to conjure abstract and fictional possibilities.
“Free Enterprise” curators Stallings and Marko Peljhan have been planning this exhibition since 2009, and with Marko’s experience and Tyler’s drive, the show grew from an original nine artists to a show with 25 different artists. Stallings expresses excitement for the upcoming exhibit.
“Space is no longer a remote frontier,” he says. “It is now within reach to build space-faring hardware with ready-made components. Participation in space research is now accessible to people who see themselves as citizens, amateurs, and—as exemplified by “Free Enterprise”—as artists.” With the first U.S. art exhibition on citizen space travel at the height of its intrigue, UCR’s ARTSblock serves an important role in not only informing the public of this ground-breaking new movement, but also in inspiring the human race to continue its powerful innovation and creative imagination.
“Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration” at UCR ARTSblock, 3824 Main St., Riverside, (951) 827-4787; www.artsblock.ucr.edu, sites.artsblock.ucr.edu/free-enterprise. Thru May 18.