There’s no business like space business

The elusive dance of art and space economics.

The Canadian Space Society put out two seemingly disparate calls this week on their website. On one side of the coin, there is a request for space art submissions for their inaugural space art exhibition Revolutions: The inexorable evolution of Art. On the flip side is a call for papers on the topic of “Canada’s Space Economy”, to be presented at the more tried-and-true annual Canadian Space Summit. On the surface, these two invitations seem to have little in common, other than the two logos having an uncanny resemblance to a certain guitar pick-shaped recent mission patch.

It would be easy to assume that the separate calls subconsciously mirror a well-worn notion that artists wouldn’t be interested (or business-savvy enough) to attend a dullsville economic event, and that economists are surely too sensible to spend their time chasing a frivolous arty dream (creative hobbies take place on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, thank you very much). The reality, however, is that nothing in the space industry is simple, including the complex relationship between Space Business and Management and Space Art.

A humble, vital position

The list of technical sessions on the CSS website page for the call for economy papers offers a small clue as to the public nature of this relationship. At the very bottom of the list, the very last phrase of the very last section reads “communication of space activities to the public”. While the humble placement of the topic may be happenstance, there is certainly nothing casual about the need for public support in the space economy arena. Public outreach and education has a vital role to play in communicating the societal value of space exploration. This in turn boosts public funding and sways votes in favour of space programs. More funding means more money for public outreach and education, and the cycle begins again. At the heart of public outreach lives the Arts.

It’s no shocker that the Arts has long been a vehicle for reeling in the public. In fact, the upcoming Revolutions exhibition, to be held in Calgary this September, does not shy away from this obvious mandate. The exhibition description states, “the purpose of the exhibition is to inspire and educate the public on space developments, and examine the impact these innovations are making via artistic expression.” The first part of this description makes excellent sense to space industry economists; it’s the latter that gives artists a room of their own in the relationship.

Golden threads and red tape

While there are a healthy number of space artists who find deep personal satisfaction in illustrating scientifically accurate concepts and conveying their love of all things space, not all artists can be expected to claim that process as their reason for being. Some artists are born with or develop a need to express the impact and face of the space industry, with or without stars in their eyes.

An illustration by Belle Mellor for a recent Economist article depicts a grimacing astronaut, tethered to the earth not by gravity, but by ribbons of red tape caught around his foot. It’s a shadow image of the “golden threads theory” of space economics, a metaphor which tethers every space object financially to a place on Earth via a “golden thread”. This pretty theory counters the argument that money spent in the space industry literally floats off into space. The red tape image is a striking alternate take on the tether metaphor. Rather than focusing on whipping up public support through portrayal of glittering value, this raw symbol of confinement conveys the annoyance of the bureaucratic challenges the blossoming space industry is now facing, including spacecraft restrictions, licensing, insurance, and certification. A person of optimism might say that this type of artwork would not dissuade public support for space programs, but act as a rallying call for creative minds to help solve such challenges.

Padding the suborbital files

A second glance at the Revolutions submission page reveals a possible entry point for such creative minds. The CSS notes that in addition to art submissions it is seeking “space professionals who would like to collaborate with professional artists on space art projects”. This type of interdisciplinary partnership is no mere fad for so-called popular “innovation.” There is a possibility that it may well feed a deeper need in the future of suborbital flight research, a pivotal part of the growing commercial space economy.

According to Sean Mahoney, chief operating officer of Masten Space Systems (as reported by Jeff Foust in a recent Space Review article), an increase in the number of applications to do research through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program could boost investor support in the suborbital market. If there is a lag of research proposals, it could be a perfect time for artists to step up hand-in-hand with scientists to help swell the application pile. It won’t necessarily be an easy sell, but if savvy space artists can leverage the buzz around the upcoming Revolutions exhibition (which promises to be a star-studded event, according to event organizer and CSS Arts and Culture Director Catherine Hazin), and carry it over to this year’s New Space entrepreneurs conference, some very creative economy-boosting ideas may transpire.

There’s a moment in the history of the Muppets when Ethel Merman soothes Fozzie Bear, who has just tanked as a comic, with a sweet and rousing rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It is equal parts camp and comfort, and serves as a reminder that while art can be about playfulness, professional artists are fundamentally very much ensconced in a particular type of business. While art and industry may look in two seemingly different directions, you can’t separate two sides of the coin. As rough as show business can be, there’s a reason performance artists sally on – the great calling to create. A calling matched equally in passion, perhaps, by the pull certain humans feel to return to the stars.


Join Renate on July 19 to learn how to launch your art into space:

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