Beyond Aesthetics: Artists as Visionaries of Space Explorationby@monimissioncontrol
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Beyond Aesthetics: Artists as Visionaries of Space Exploration

by Monica HernandezNovember 13th, 2021
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Artists approach their craft from different perspectives. Their goals and mediums differ. But, they often converge on the importance of art as a driver of culture. In the space industry, a long-term mindset and generational thinking are essential. The public’s acceptance of space science and engineering as part of the broader cultural conversation will take time. I believe that a critical mass will be reached when we can amplify different artistic visions alongside the scientific milestones, which clarify far and wide the importance of being multi-planetary.

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Artists approach their craft from different perspectives. Their goals and mediums differ. But, they often converge on the importance of art as a driver of culture. In the space industry, a long-term mindset and generational thinking are essential.

The fabrication and deployment of space hardware, for example, cannot be rushed. Similarly, the public’s acceptance of space science and engineering as part of the broader cultural conversation will take time.

I believe that a critical mass will be reached when we can amplify different artistic visions alongside the scientific milestones, which clarify far and wide the importance of being multi-planetary.

This article is both a homage and a reminder of the importance of artists in our spacefaring era. This goes beyond an appreciation of aesthetics. Instead, I tune in to the individuals making space exploration more accessible to broader audiences and challenging old paradigms. 

Nomadic Duo: Taking Settlements to a Visionary Sophistication

I came across Zhuoneng Wang and Wai Ching (Inness) Cheng’s film Nomadic Cloud at the National Science Museum in Miami. It was one of those hellish summer days in South Florida, with humidity levels above 75%. Surprisingly empty, the museum provided a joyously cool habitat away from the scorching sun. 

I toured my favorite museum spots until I came across a small TV screen in one of the wings. It played space films on loop. I sat alone - in a trancelike state - on one of the benches facing the screen directly. In less than 5 minutes, the film showed a compelling storyline: the possibility of building a lightweight habitat structure for a crew of four on Mars using in-situ resources and materials. 

Film Nomadic Cloud. October 2018.

Later on, in my conversation with Inness and Zhouneng, I found out that they met while undertaking the master’s degree program in architecture at UCLA’s Architecture & Urban Design (AUD) Department in Los Angeles, California.

While in L.A., Zhouneng and Inness responded to an open call from the Project Mars International Film and Art Competition among college students and early-career professionals. As a result, their film earned 2nd place in the Futurist Film Award.

Zhouneng Wang and Wai Ching (Inness) Cheng connected with me from Beiking and Hong Kong. 2021. 

Zhuoneng is an artist and developer. For the past few years, he’s worked in different tech arenas as an architectural designer and virtual reality (VR) specialist. Spending more than five years in Los Angeles, California, he now works as augmented reality/3D product manager in Beijing.

“I’ve always been very interested in space. I’m more inspired by the unknown, the beauty of the different planets, and exploring new frontiers in the universe” said Zhuoneng. “So Inness and I started developing the series of images and stories and imagining our future related to space. This makes me happy and what drives me the most.”

Hong Kong-based Inness is also a photographer and a LEED Green Associate, which champions sustainable building and environmentally friendly design.

“I really love the space field,” explained Inness. “And as an architectural designer, I’m always looking at how to design better on Earth. How can we adapt a certain methodology and design differently by using local materials? For example, when we’re designing for Mars, we're discovering new tools that can work for Earth. At the same time, by exploring new areas and new constraints, we can advance our knowledge of how to design in reduced spaces and extreme temperatures."

Nomadic Cloud takes audiences on a rich and sophisticated journey of using the technologies and materials needed to survive on Mars. Every time I watch it, I’m reminded early on that art can as quickly represent, inspire, and drive the hard sciences in as much as it can address the elusive questions about our emotions and existence. I’ve seen firsthand, for example, how graphic designers and concept artists work side-by-side with space scientists and engineers.

Inness and Zhouneng continue to advocate in their home countries for immersive art experiences to educate the public about the challenges in space.    

Zhouneng said, “we’re lucky to be living in this era. However, the public’s understanding and education about what’s needed to survive in space might still be hard to grasp. We need to promote that everything needs to be designed. This is why we wanted to create something easy to understand. And that’s why I focus on comprehensive and immersive experiences that integrate different technologies beyond just audio, visual, or AR into one entity to inspire the public’s imagination about space. We need to educate the public to get more people working in the industry and starting to work on this. We need more exposure to this topic.”

Stills from “Nomadic Cloud.” (Image credits: Zhouneng Wang and Inness Cheng)

Inness agreed. “There are some realities in space habitats that present us with real challenges as architects and designers, extreme temperatures, for example. We need to learn how to design a closed-loop survival system. Second, all of these details are important to pass on to the larger audience and create those experiences for others to imagine that scenario as part of their reality.”

Nahum: Building Synergies for Introspection 

I met Nahum after reading an article about “The Contour of Presence.” With mirrors, lights, and motors, this interactive kaleidoscopic sculpture was controlled from Earth and launched onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. I was struck by the unique approach blending technologies and space payloads. The sculpture reached the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of June 2018 and was installed by the European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst. Performances were synchronized in real-time between the sculpture in-orbit and audiences pioneering the concepts of exhibiting in space for Earth. Since then, the sculpture has remained onboard the ESA Columbus science at the ISS. 

Control Centre of The Contour of Presence and ICE Cubes facility. (Photo credits: Space Application Services)

Kal. (Artwork credits: Nahum Studios)

Nahum lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Founder and Owner of his creative practice - Nahum studios - Nahum is also the Founding Director of KOSMICA, an international institute for critical, cultural, and poetic discourses about space and the impact of space activities on Earth. With an interdisciplinary background in computer science and multidisciplinary arts, Nahum is also a graduate of the International Space University and served as the Chair for the Committee for the Cultural Utilisation of Space (ITACCUS), at the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) in Paris.

Nahum connected with me from Berlin. 2021. 

Nahum has worked with numerous scientists in the last 12 years at CERN, space agencies, research institutions, and universities. He believes that one of the most important things that artists can do when sitting side-by-side with scientists and engineers is making sense of what makes us human and what space is. 

“My interest in space started as a young boy in Mexico City when my father bought Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It went straight into my subconscious. However, I never really had an agenda to work in this field. It happened by a fortuitous encounter when I was directing a theater in London some time ago. It started first with wonder and curiosity, then it morphed into a very critical point for me,” said Nahum.

Among his many endeavors, Nahum and his team at KOSMICA are working on projects about planetary awareness. One such project involves processing four decades of satellite data on Earth's atmosphere and oceans using the latest advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The team aims to come up with a narrative about Earth's experience over time. 

“The ultimate reality is that we are in space, and exploring the limits on the borders and contours is a way of understanding ourselves at deeper levels. However, there’s nothing more dangerous or toxic than a culture that doesn’t question itself. This is one of the most interesting parts of what artists can do in space exploration: going to the table and being that agent of self-reflection. Of course, when it comes to space activities, we’re all immediately carried away by the excitement. Because what happens in this field is that we are dealing with frontiers. The frontier of what is possible to do in pretty much everything that we do.”

Nahum spoke about how there are no certainties in space exploration. And each of the trajectories of different professional artists across the world can help us advance our understanding and imagine our future in space.

“The space frontier pushes the boundaries of the law, food, and our bodies. It pushes, network, telecommunications, everything, but also, it should be expanding the frontier of culture. And that’s something that is not necessarily happening in the intensity that it should. We cannot divorce an enterprise like space exploration from culture. It started with culture, and it has to have culture. But the way that I see it right now is that there’s an imbalance. There is not a single way of understanding. There are many ways of understanding, knowing, and experiencing the world,” said Nahum. 

The Glitch in Space: Understanding Relevance

I met Domenico Barra when preparing other articles. Domenico is a self-taught glitch and digital artist born, raised, and based in Naples. Glitch art is an increasingly popular aesthetic that leverages imperfections and malfunctions. Digital or analog errors in software or music are styled instead of being avoided. For glitch artists, the glitch is the medium, and “errors are a starting point”

Domenico Barra connected with me from Campania, Italy. 2021

Domenico has exhibited and taught about glitch and avant-garde digital art across the globe. He raises profound questions about ethics through glitching. Artistic examples include Deus Ex Machina (2019) and Symbiosis (2019-2020), video compositions featuring AI-generated animations. An early adopter of crypto art, Domenico exhibits often about contemporary topics.

Keeping his roots front and center in our conversation about space art, Domenico explained:

“I come from a city by the sea, and I have great respect for the ecology of the sea. We should approach space with the same mindset. We have to be very respectful of what we are going to do in space. What are we going to use and not abuse? It must have humanist and ethical considerations and values.” 

Domenico often discussed how the combination of art and science communicates developments better and makes them crystallize into the culture. This is especially relevant for the space industry, where new information and breakthroughs are more accessible than ever before. 

“What we can do through art is bring the imagination and fantasy that can make space exploration more accessible. One of the best fields to experiment with a new technology is art, especially glitch art because you’re trying to understand how things work,” explained Domenico. “When we think about space, we are influenced by the cinematography of 15-20 years ago with extreme militarism or commercialism. The same happens with artificial intelligence. These older pictures and frames strongly influence society, and we need to change the usual perspectives. I am tired and worried about the dystopian scenarios, where everything is seen through the lens of a conqueror. Space travel is becoming closer to our reality. Artists could make that near possibility more accessible, easier to understand, and bring a different perspective.”  

Artistic Visions for Sustainability 

I have surrounded myself with professional artists a significant majority of my life. Trained early on in visual and performing arts since I was five years old, I have witnessed how many professional artists are comfortable exploring the unknown and pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones. I am always amazed by the human creativity to refurbish the old into something new or create something unexpected. 

For many professionals, art serves as a rich canvas to explore the rigors of scientific and engineering disciplines in tandem with the cultural and human dimensions of space exploration. Inness, Zhouneng, Nahum, and Domenico work as professional artists in different parts of the world. Their approach and mediums span a range of technologies and themes using immersive tools such as AR/VR to increasingly sophisticated AI.

However, they all converge on the premise that art reminds us of humanist ethics and values. This humanist vision is critical if we want to live sustainably on Earth and in space. 

New Space Music. 2019.

New Space Music (2019) was made by the Seoul-based artist and visual director Ihsu Yoon. With more than a decade of experience, Ihsu has a background in architecture, which makes his artistic approach to film and audiovisuals rich and textured.

I was especially interested in the combination of Greek mythology and metaphors in this particular artwork with music. This aesthetic reminded me of the incredible story behind Voyager’s golden record (1977) and its significance for SETI as it continues to travel beyond our Solar System.

“We still don’t know the universe well enough. That fact is enough to be the goal of a challenging adventure. And the infinite sense of loneliness that the universe gives me is a wonderful calm. Seoul, the capital of Korea, is a very densely populated city. Yet, paradoxically, I can feel a pleasant sense of loneliness here. For example, when I walk down the road, I like to imagine that I am a voyager and people are a planet or a flying star.”


update. 11.20.21. Since you’ve enjoyed this article, allow me to invite you to my new space blog - recently launched! It’s designed to be ad-free, independently published, and, more importantly, showcasing original research and artwork. Be inspired by the possibilities of our future in space. Continue reading and subscribe to: