Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration. Tyler Stallings & Marko Peljhan

18 Jan

Fly Me To the Moon will soon not be a figurative request. Tickets are already available from XCOR Aerospace in Mohave, CA for flights into a microgravity environment 338,000 feet above sea level. The flights, aboard XCOR’s Lynx Suborbital Spacecraft, are scheduled to begin in 2014. The cost for boldly going as a tourist: $95,000. Current ticket-holders include a Victoria’s Secret model and a trance DJ.

XCOR Aerospace is one of nine groups represented in Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration opening January 19 at UC Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery. Curated by Sweeney director Tyler Stallings and UCSB professor of Media Arts and Technology, Marko Peljhan, Free Enterprise calls on both artists and engineers to explore the implications of the contemporary shift away from space travel as a highly restricted government monopoly and toward a privatized, free-market model.

Outer space exerts a liberating effect on emotional as well as physical gravity—as the exhibition makes clear. Like jolts of canned oxygen, the combination of sober crew cut technicians in the undignified postures of weightlessness has long propelled observers into an uncertain atmosphere where documentation and fantasy—or earnestness and satire—share a weirdly similar molecular structure.

For the Manhattan and Mannheim based duo, eteam, the uncertainty turns playful as they explore virtual landlordism and the possibilities of acquiring lunar real estate. Connie Samaras, who has examined ambition-filled landscapes from Antarctica to Dubai, tracks the actual construction of Spaceport America, a new space-tourist facility. In her large scale color photographs, the exuberant parabolas of the passenger terminal rise science-fiction-like out of the blank sands of the New Mexico desert.

For all the imminence of personal space travel, a paradox remains. The wide open regions of the new frontier can only be sampled via a cramped capsule or a clumsy suit. Images of space travelers have so far been similarly confined to the militarized and mostly male. Carrie Paterson’s scent carriers are intended as an antidote to orbital claustrophobia and homesickness, while inducing a less-specifically visual—and therefore, she hopes, less gendered and media-determined image of outer space.

Although California’s historic ties to the space industry helped inspire the exhibit, current rocket science, like the current economy, is global and as Free Enterprise shows, surprisingly multi-disciplinary. Danish artist Simone Aaberg Kaern is working with nonprofit spacecraft developers, Copenhagen Suborbitals to expand her video examinations of women’s attempts to claim their share of sky-space. Agnes Meyer-Brandis  whose previous works Moon Goose Analogue and Cloud Core Scanner interweave imagined narrative with laboratory data , extends the latter project’s contemplation of the physical state of weightlessness and the fantasies it engenders.

US artist and aerospace engineer Bradley Pitts has been collaborating with the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia, where Peljhan also coordinates microgravity and space-art experiments. Using a parabolic-flight aircraft capable of producing brief periods of weightlessness, Pitts records the experience within the cleared cabin. His photographs of himself floating naked, curled, and vulnerable transform the fluorescent-lit capsule into the womb of the future.

Collaboration and privatization does not equal government transparency. Trevor Paglen’s large-format photographs show classified US space objects streaking through the night sky. They were obtained with the help of amateur satellite observers, sophisticated new software, and old fashioned camping-in-the-desert. Paglen compares the covert reconnaissance satellites (189, so far)  to Jupiter’s hidden moons, which before Kepler and Galileo were both there and officially, emphatically not.

Uncovering the shapes of hidden data is also the mission of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Since 1999 CLUI has documented, so far as possible, the 5000 square miles of the Air Force’s restricted Nellis Range complex in Nevada. In one of the recurrent ironies of the American West, the military’s high-tech reservation has unintentionally preserved a vanishing desert landscape: home to wild horses, ancient rock art and sun baked miner’s cabins.

It’s possible to imagine a similar constellation on the moon: glittering tools, abandoned hopes, undeciphered messages, and groups of introduced beings well adapted to challenging conditions. The proportions of each, Free Enterprise suggests, are ours to determine.


Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

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