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The space between us

By: | May 29, 2013

Lessons from the 4th International Space Arts Workshop.

Renate Pohl
Breathing Space features inhalations and exhalations on the space industry from a humanities perspective.

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There’s art, and then there’s artsy-art. The divide between pleasant folksy illustrations and the super-stimulating conceptual art world can seem as wide as the Grand Canyon to artists living out their truth. As I write, I am flying right over that canyon, headed to join seventy artists, curators, researchers and academics descending on ISAW4: The 4th International Space Arts Workshop. I am going there to learn about the latest space art projects, to present my own concept work, and to finally meet the people whose work I have been following for several years online.

The workshop is being held at Singularity University, a high-tech superhero incubator located in the sprawling landscape of NASA Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, California. The school’s logo bears an uncanny resemblance to the man of steel himself.

As I enter the small but vibrant lobby, I wonder about presenting my work to this array of high-achieving established and emerging artists. Will my stained glass space project seem too artsy? Not artsy enough? I breathe to pull back into myself, and add a packet of flimsy flyers to the piles of space art literature already spread out on the reception table, claiming my place. Nerves of steel start with small actions.

A star-studded event

In the main hall, there is a comfortable and chilled-out buzz of expectation. It’s a thin crowd. Artists live in their own time dimension, and I’m one of the early ones, being only a few minutes late. As the mic is passed around for informal introductions, I realize that everything is being documented by the formidable Rev. Celestine Star, a woman who has the appearance of leaving stardust in her wake. She notes the practical importance of her video camera in archiving the emergence of humanity into space.

Along with Celestine, the workshop is headed up by 21st century “artronaut” Frank Pietronigro, co-founder of the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium (ZCAC) and Lowry Burgess, internationally renowned space artist and distinguished fellow in the Carnegie Mellon STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. Frank is constantly in excited motion, even when standing still, contrasting Lowry’s happy gravitas. They introduce a fourth leader, a widely smiling and waving Dr. Adarsh Deepak, president of Taksha University, the umbrella organization of Taksha Institute for Space Art (TISA), the workshop sponsor. Though comically different in demeanour, the four of them together are as dazzling as Orion’s trapezium cluster of stars.

Skeletons and Pods

The bevvy of workshop participants includes experts and amateurs in virtually every strain of arts and science. There are artists, historians, critics and students with an interest in physics, chemistry, economics, geology, cosmology, mythology, metaphysics, biology, ecology, and nanotechnology. All share one burning passion – a desire to express themselves via-à-vis their relationship with the universe. As with any tremendous endeavour, the greatest success reveals the greatest challenge. Everyone has something intelligent and burning to express. Unfortunately, everyone wants to express it. There isn’t enough time. As the presentations get split into haphazard streams and swim back together again, with nearly everyone running over their time limit, the harried organizers reveal yet another lesson that art can take from science – the rigour and discipline of structure. We rely too desperately on the overworked technicians to hold the framework of workshop together. Artists need discipline if we want to serve the space industry as our best selves. Nevertheless, the relaxed skeleton comes with a benefit: everyone is given the freedom to share their work, on an equal platform with genuinely equal respect shown for all. Everything is documented, because it is all important, all a moment of the human experience pushing forward. The need to share this is perhaps the real definition of art.

The second day of the workshop brings with it a stricter architecture, as we are filtered off into eight “Pods” for group discussions on topics ranging from how to fund suborbital space art projects, to defining new models of artist residencies in extreme environments (like microgravity). I choose to partake in the “infinity” pod, a discussion of the health benefits of yoga, mindfulness and creativity in space. Our pod group is deep, relaxed and spiritually-minded. I marvel at how easily this small ad-hoc group with participants from India, Iran, Japan, Canada and America can weave together concepts of space science, art and the soul. It is as though we have all come home for a moment, just to forget ourselves and channel the future.

The Big Question

The journey into space is fundamentally about exploring our relationship with ourselves, the universe, and others. Although we can use robust tech and the crisp guidelines of science to vessel and steer us on this journey, it is the intangible but wholly profound face-to-face contact with others that brings the passion and life within us into sharp focus. If we are willing to cross the gap that is our outer form of art or science, we find that we have a shared life, a shared pure understanding that the universe is in us all as we exist in it. Whether we slather paint on canvas like a child, use precision etching on a nano scale, or choose to express through robots, we are simply all urging towards the same question: who are we?

The answer on the third day rings true the same as the first: as space artists, we are a community that wants to serve in peace, and to live an adventure into nothing less than the deepest part of the universe and ourselves.

As I leave the workshop behind me, I stop just inside the main gate of NASA Ames Research Park, and linger with other space artists underneath a magnolia tree. One young and brave artist-scientist tries scrambling up the trunk, but falls to earth, unperturbed. Scattered on the ground beneath the broad leaves are a handful of lightly lemon-scented white petals as big as dust masks. I cannot resist scooping one up and fitting it over my face. I imagine it as a kind of futuristic olfactory heightened bio-mask for space travellers. In that imagined space, for a moment, it takes form. In this gathered place, leaping over the divide between our work, anything is possible.

Renate would like to thank the Canada Council of the Arts for providing her with an Inter-Arts Travel grant.

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