Satellites are usually designed either to look back at Earth or look out into the universe. What if, wondered the American-born, Berlin-based artist Trevor Paglen, there was a satellite whose sole purpose was to be looked at itself?
At 10.32am on Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to blast off from Vandenberg air force base, north of Santa Barbara, California, carrying Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, a kinetic sculpture in the form of a satellite that – all being well – will orbit the Earth for a couple of months before burning up as it re-enters the atmosphere.
Orbital Reflector will, theoretically, be visible to anyone anywhere on the surface of the Earth, providing they know to look for it. A 30-meter-long polypropylene balloon, shaped like an elongated diamond, will self-inflate from a standardized “CubeSat” miniature satellite, about the size of a shoebox. Slower and brighter than an ordinary satellite, Orbital Reflector will be most visible at dusk, when the sun has dipped below the horizon and rays bounce off its mirrored surface. An astronomy app, Star Walk 2, will track its progress.
Just days before the launch, Paglen confessed to feeling “stressed out”. There were a lot of things that could go wrong – the satellite might not deploy, it might not communicate, the rocket might blow up – “but at this point, it’s out of our hands”. Paglen is not the only one who is nervous; the launch itself was postponed at the last minute from its initial date, a week ago, after SpaceX determined that “additional pre-flight inspections” were needed. Not until up to two days after the rocket launch will he and his team of engineers be able to “ping” the satellite, “and hopefully start talking to it”.
Orbital Reflector has already attracted controversy, receiving criticism from members of the astrophysicist community who objected to a satellite going into orbit for purely aesthetic and philosophical purposes. An unfortunate precedent – Humanity Star, an ornamental mirrored satellite conceived as a publicity stunt by the aerospace company Rocket Lab – provoked similar complaints when it launched in January. “Hey artists, stop putting shiny crap into space”, ran the headline of a post on the tech site Gizmodo.
Paglen claims not to have been surprised. “I feel like we have a sense of propriety around space, and I think that comes from a very healthy place. I think all of us should have a sense of propriety about the fact the we live on a shared planet, and we have shared environments and resources.” For an artist to instigate a debate about an issue through apparent transgression is, he says, “one of the oldest tricks in the book”.
The project is funded by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, which raised the $1.3m budget through private donations and a $76,000 Kickstarter campaign. The museum has a track record of facilitating such ambitious artistic endeavours. In 2016 it produced Ugo Rondinone’s desert sculpture Seven Magic Mountains, in which boulders weighing up to 25 tons each were painted in fluorescent colours and stacked in seven columns in a dry lake bed near Las Vegas.
Paglen, recently announced as the winner of the 2018 Nam June Paik Art Center prize, has long made art about the spectral and the invisible – airy subjects that materialize in his work with often unsettling frankness. He photographed so-called “choke points” where undersea fibre-optic data cables come ashore; these places are tapped by government information agencies, monitoring communications. He has photographed drones and government spy stations with telescopic lenses, the resultant pictures recalling JMW Turner’s most abstract paintings, updated to include tiny spy planes or military bases. Satellites, too, have featured in his photographs – disconcerting anomalies in otherwise romantic shots of stars moving across the night sky.
Paglen will not be the first to send an artwork into space. The history of astronautical art arguably began with Forrest Myers, who in 1969 smuggled his Moon Museum – a silicon wafer featuring drawings by Rauschenberg, Warhol, Oldenburg and others – on to the landing craft of Apollo 12. Orbital Reflector is not even Paglen’s first astronautical project; in 2012 he affixed a disc with 100 images etched into its surface to the outside of the EchoStar XVI satellite.
Inspiration for Orbital Reflector comes from Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Constructivist artist who, in the 1920s, imagined artificial planets orbiting the Earth. Paglen’s project is similarly speculative. “Can we imagine building different kinds of environments for ourselves,” he asks, “and in doing so imagine and potentially start to realize different futures than the bad future that we’re currently on track to?”
In mid-November, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art made a surprise announcement that Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, a recipient of the museum’s Art + Technology grant, will be sending a 24-karat gold canopic jar into space on the same SpaceX rocket as Orbital Reflector, commemorating Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first African American astronaut. Space art seems to be having a moment.