We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

On September 23-24, at Cité internationale des arts in Paris, Global Periphery symposium was exploring the contemporary imaginaries of space through examples of artistic creations and of activities from the space sector with voices from multiple continents and locations.

Global Periphery, a conference and event organised by Annick Bureaud and Marcus Neustetter, took place at the end of the International Astronautical Congress in Paris and posed the general question – ‘whose bodies are in space?’. The event culminated after many years of the Leonardo-Olats space and the arts workshop, which took place at the Malina House (a historic artist’s studio near the Bois de Boulogne), where, gathered among many archive photos including those of the Leonardo founder and space pioneer Frank Malina with Yuri Gagarin, artists trying to break through into the rarefied atmosphere of the space industry including Kitsou Dubois, the first dancer in zero gravity. I attended the first back in 1997. The last such workshop was to have been the aptly-named All Woman Crew in 2020 but this was, like many events in the last years, moved online. The congress itself was an uneasy return to normality, with lavish stands and a large Ariane rocket greeting arriving delegates. With the slogan ‘Space For All’ it was intended as a celebration of the ‘space community’ as well as being public-facing. However there were many unspoken and unstated agendas, including the paradox of earth observation being necessary to measure the extent of the climate catastrophe and the increasing exponential pollution of multiple rocket launches, which are proliferating at a vast rate. Many of the stands in the congress exhibition reflected considerable greenwashing and of course no-one mentioned the war. Roscosmos was visibly not present, ostensibly because visas were not being issued. Makery made its contribution to the climate and space debate, launching a new book ‘Space Without Rockets’ unofficially under the Ariane rocket then onwards by electric bus to the first airship hangar in the world in the forest of Meudon outside Paris. The book, edited by myself and Ewen Chardronnet, the culmination of an action created by Tomas Saraceno in White Sands Desert and in Paris for COP 21, was also launched at Global Periphery.

Global Periphery was opened by an extraordinary online simultaneous performance organised by Marcus Neustetter between Paris and South Africa as part of Imaginary Futures with the Senegalese dancer and choreographer Fatou Cissé live and interacting with performers such as dancer and musician Xolisile Bongwana in various remote locations, fading in and out as the signal and power varied. Imaginary Futures describes itself here “In the process of exploring a collective understanding of what a shared future might look like, an experimental dialogue of creative producers from different disciplines and contexts look at their shared cultural and natural resources… Through a sharing of practices and contexts, these sessions seek to develop a collective narrative and to ultimately explore the notion of a common future vision.” It was developed originally by Neustetter for the festival Afropixel (slogan ’Power To The Commons’) in Senegal in 2021, which took place in virtual space out of necessity.

We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

Imaginary Futures at Global Periphery, Fatou Cissé, Marcus Neustetter and the South African Team. © Quentin Chevrier

Challenging the Blue Marble

Opening the speaker presentations was Frédérique Aït-Touati who produces theatre productions using iconic images of space along with, among others, Bruno Latour, in a series called ‘Terrestrial Trilogy’. For example, “‘Anatomy of the Earth’, a creation project for the stage, wants to gives a ‘story of the gaze’, the dimension of an epic through a double common thread… the testament of a woman, a scientist, addressed to her little girl, for the future, to leave her the trace of this transformation of the view and of the knowledge that we have of the Earth System.” She challenges the colonial notions of space exploration, coming from, for example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

Frédérique Aït-Ouati. © Louis Hemon

Susmita Mohanty, a space industry entrepreneur from India and founder of Earth2Orbit, moderating, outlined the geopolitical aspects of the way space exploration is perceived and asked the pertinent question ‘What is the Global South’ in terms of space. She talked about NASA’s ‘megaphone’ approach to the coming Moon mission Artemis, as opposed to the less well publicised ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) missions to the Moon and ended by asking what colour the next flag on the Moon should be. She said white was suggested during the Congress, which is ironically what the famous stars and stripes planted by Neil Armstrong would now be after 50 years of exposure to the Sun.

We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

Susmita Mohanti and Fabiane Borges. © Louis Hemon

Fabiane Borges reminded us about the political situation in Brazil, where Lula is standing against Bolsonaro (in fact as I write it looks if Lula is about to win). She said that if Lula was elected again, Brazil could return to the previous golden age where cultural players were instrumental in government. Borges, who has written the essay ‘Brazil Without Rockets’ in the Space Without Rockets book went on to describe the formative Movimento dos Sem Satélites project founded by Pedro Soler and others and the ‘Arte en Órbita’ project she curated in Ecuador and spoke about the artists projects for the Brazilian national institute for space research, INPE, described in her recent Makery article: Space Art and Culture in Brazil.

Davis Cook, from South Africa, cited Ha-Joon Chang’s influential work ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’ in which developed countries are attempting to ‘kick away the ladder’ with which they have climbed to the top, thereby preventing developing counties from adopting policies and institutions that they themselves have used. He sees the big space agencies in developed countries as examples of this. He described various space initiatives in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, that are relatively unknown to the populations living there, because they associate space exploration only with NASA. He spoke of the irony of people walking around African cities in NASA T-shirts without realising Africa had space agencies like the Kenyan Space Agency, albeit run under contract with the Italian Space Agency and astronomical initiatives like the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa.

The queer feminist thinker Eleanor Armstrong, (also known for her writings on sex in space at ‘Elliethelement’) finished the day in the same vein asking ‘where is the place for space?’. She spoke of space exploration as an instrument of American soft power and how science museums around the world bend the truth, such as in the widespread theft of rocks and meteorites that indigenous populations regard as sacred. She also talked about space and colonisation in the context of France, which used to launch rockets from Algeria until it was forced to leave and now uses another colony French Guiana, where the Kourou launch site is based, which was the site of protests against conditions in the French overseas territory. Coming from the UK, she also decried the depiction of the history of British rocketry, taking place mainly on the site of the Woomera Rocket Base, also the location of one of Australia’s most notorious refugee prisons and scene of protests by Aboriginal people since the ‘70s. Armstrong also pointed out the dual use of space funding between the military and space agencies, Woomera also being used by the British for nuclear bomb testing in the 40s and 50’s.

We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

Eleanor Armstrong. © Louis Hemon

The second day of Global Periphery was opened by Ewen Chardronnet describing the More-Than-Planet Creative Europe project, which initiated this conference and many other activities such as the Space Without Rockets book. He was followed by one of the other partners, Antti Tenetz from the Northern Photographic Centre in Finland which will use one of the deepest mines in Europe. He said “Going so deep is like going into space.” They would connect the subterranean space with Earth observation through the European Space agency. He asked “What kind of culture are we going to produce in space?”.

Inner Telescope

Eduardo Kac has been a space artist since 1986. His poems were social writing systems from the bottom up – gravitropic holopoems. He pointed out no human language systems known are written this way. He originally used slow scan television produce his ‘spacescapes’ and placed an DVD artwork ‘Monogram’ on the Cassini spacecraft when it launched in 1997. It arrived 2004 on Saturn when the spacecraft dived into the planet to avoid polluting it and the artwork was burnt up. His early works for satellite were ground-based glyphs based on the ‘Lepus’ constellation, which looked rather like a bunny. This is the first presentation I have seen by Kac in which it was not necessary to mention Alba, the GFP bunny! While early versions were expensive to do, his recent glyphs on rooftops and other spaces can be accessed by Google Earth. His latest one is in a cemetery in Geneva where Jorge Luis Borges is buried. Kac was artist in residence at CNES, where he worked with astronaut Thomas Pesquet to created the origami sculpture for the ISS, ‘Inner Telescope’ in 2017. I asked him how it was to work as an artist with the astronaut on this project. “He got that my artwork was not just a fetish object in space and that the telescope was using time and space in a real way. He sent me an email from the ISS on the success of the project.” Finally he described his project ADSUM (meaning ‘Here I am’) for the moon which has been tested in the ISS. Hopefully it will go to the Moon when the Moon Gallery finally flies.

We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

Eduardo Kac & Yoko Shimizu. © Louis Hemon

Yoko Shimizu, artist in residence at the Ars Electronica Future Lab, described her ‘Beyond Earth’ all-female artist collective who has created Bio-ink, a living form of ink. She sees living systems entire ecosystems in the universe. Their latest work shows how earth, life, gravity and light works together, flying with the stratospheric balloon company Space Perspective (mentioned in the Space Without Rockets book). They were able to test Living Light, which uses biomimicry and AI creatures, created by synthetic biology company Twist Bioscience, prototyped for the artwork which was actually contained within the Neptune vehicle and went 30 km high.

Ale De La Puente spoke of ‘living in entangled times’. According to her, astronomical events such as the Transit of Venus only happen because we are standing on Earth and instead of looking at constellations we should be looking at the space between them. She mentioned the next Transit of Venus coincides with a total solar eclipse in the year far in the future, 15,000. Referring to the famous image of Montezuma when he saw the comet which foretold the ending of the Aztec civilisation when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, she decided to re-create the moment by building a ‘celestial dome’ with 500 kg of pyrotechnics on the night of the Mexican presidential election. For 40 minutes there was an unannounced comet in the sky and people thought they saw a UFO, which was reflected in following conspiracies and legends similar to that of the Virgin of Guadalupe on social media. When I asked her which was the most significant eclipse she has seen, she replied ‘the one in the future’. She is planning a new work for the Mexican total solar eclipse in 2024.

Rohini Devasher is an astronomer and self-confessed eclipse-chaser. As artist in residence at the Open Data Institute she is planning to create a digital twin of the earth. She also talked about a historical project in the Kodailkanal Solar Observatory in South India which has archives of 100 years of data on the Sun. At this observatory, observing runs in the family and there are three generations of astronomers. Finally, she described the Imperial-era conspiracy theory in which, in a strange fantasy of control, Victorian scientists tried to claim there were links between the occurrence of sunspots and famines, when in fact they were caused by the British exporting grain.

For All Moonkind

Michelle Hanlon from For All Moonkind talked about the human artefacts on the Moon which were still preserved there 50 years since we left the Moon. (I wrote about this in the article ‘Cohabiting The Moon’). She pointed out that the entire history of human technology, from early maps to the invention of glass, all eventually went into getting to the Moon. She critiqued the hubris of the Outer Space treaty as human-centred and pointed out that regolith from the Moon is now selling for millions of dollars, providing at least one commercial reason to mine the Moon. Lunar governance was necessary but did we have the moral right to go to the Moon, given that there was no indigenous voice in space policy? However the main problem would be the free-for all of businesses invading the Moon. The private space companies were taking the attitude ‘Lets get there before the laws get there!’, while the United Nations was not functioning properly as a regulatory body because of the Ukraine situation. Then there were the NASA ‘Artemis accords’ to which 22 nations have signed up to create safety zones, for example Tranquility Base and its Apollo remains, like the Moon Rover which enabled to astronauts to drive on the Moon. Unfortunately (in my opinion) these accords amount to yet more US space imperialism. As Annick Bureaud said earlier, “We are all on the periphery”.

We Are All On The Periphery (Rob La Frenais, October 2022)

Marcus Neustetter & Fatou Cissé, performance Imaginary Futures. © Quentin Chevrier

The closing performance was very moving and intense. Marcus Neustetter: “Both performances were intense but the second entered a rather more subtle and calmer intensity. What was interesting, was the layered improvisations and juxtapositions that, while partially anticipated in my direction of the individuals and the targeted questions to them, caught me by surprise and took me emotionally and cerebrally into another unexpected dimension. The format of the Imaginary Futures process has always been challenging all of our expectations but with Fatou Cissé and myself being on stage and experiencing a physicality in relation to the screen based responses brought out new personal reactions and perspectives”.

Global Periphery and the More-than-Planet initiative were a provocative artistic and creative challenge to the increasingly sterile showcase of the the International Astronautical Congress, which moves on to an actual war zone – Azerbaijan (there are border skirmishes with Armenia) – next year with a slogan ironically borrowing from the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song – ‘Give Space A Chance’.