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How Art in Outer Space Allows Us to Dream of a Cosmos Freed from Surveillance and Warfare

Artist Trevor Paglen’s plan to launch a sculpture into orbit has drawn criticism from certain astronomers, but are they missing the point?

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.

Trevor Paglen, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4), 2013, mixed media. Courtesy: Altman Siegel Gallery and Metro Pictures

Trevor Paglen, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4), 2013, mixed media. Courtesy: Altman Siegel Gallery and Metro Pictures

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.

Read the rest of the essay at Frieze.

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