Against Space Utilization (Cultural or Otherwise)

Presented to the “Art and the Cultural Utilization of Space” Track of the 2006 International Space Development Conference
Los Angeles, May 5, 2006

u·til·ize: To put to use, especially to find a profitable or practical use for.

Synonyms: use, employ, utilize
These verbs mean to avail oneself of someone or something in order to make him, her, or it useful, functional, or beneficial. To use is to put into service or apply for a purpose: uses a hearing aid; used the press secretary as spokesperson; using a stick to stir the paint. Employ is often interchangeable with use: She employed her education to maximum advantage. It can also denote engaging or maintaining the services of another: “When men are employed, they are best contented” (Benjamin Franklin). Utilize is especially appropriate in the narrower sense of making something profitable or of finding new and practical uses for it: Waterpower was once widely utilized to generate electricity.

As artist, do we really want to sit here telling the world that we want to utilize space?

Recently I have fallen in love with Robert Irwin’s text, “The Hidden Structures of Art.” I find his first statement perfect for this conversation.

As students or artists we begin simply enough
With a blank canvas, and we don’t think to ask ourselves:
What does that mean? – Robert Irwin

Space, weightlessness and every other territory we are speaking of at this conference are blank canvasses. To jump in and start filling those canvasses with “art” is of little interest or significance.

When life presents us with an environment as alien and immense as space we must pause and inquire. We must ask ourselves who we are and what space is. What do we want to bring there? Or, what do we want to bring from there to here?

And, because we are artists we must ask, why art?
To assume that everything can and should reveal itself
In terms you are already familiar with
Is the hallmark of conventional thinking.
But to require that B reveal itself in terms of A
Is to negate the very meaning of B in itself. – Robert Irwin

Our history of space exploration has already negated the very meaning of space in itself. In our world of science and technology, utilization is the norm. Why does NASA send humans to space? Simple, “It’s about life here on earth.” NASA and other government organizations utilize space in order to discover useful results about biology, material science, the space environment, and technological spin-offs.

Because of this focus on utility nobody questions why we have never inhabited a sphere in weightlessness or why, during spacewalks, astronauts have to listen to the drone of pumps and fans rather than the silence of the void, or why, after going to such great lengths to get there, astronauts in orbit or on the moon, never actually get there because they are trapped within pockets of an earth-like atmosphere.

We have never asked these questions or pursued their answers because we have all been conditioned to not ask them. As artists, however, it is our responsibility to ask these questions and take them seriously.

Humane performance in extreme environments

As mentioned earlier space is not just a blank canvass, but the most extreme environment. Due to the vast resources that are required to get there and the narrow margins for excess, space exploration prompts the question, “what is necessary?” If we let our space venturing history be the response the answer is clear: survival and science. After all these are the only to objectives that have been assigned to those that we send there. Do you think NASA administrators before closing the hatch to the space vehicle have ever said, “Have fun!”?

Of course plenty of astronauts and cosmonauts have had fun, but this has been secondary, as a side-note to an otherwise “serious” endeavor.

No, the words we hear from the voice of NASA as the vehicle leaves the launch pad are, “God speed!” Which really means, “go do what we told you to and then get the hell out of there!”

And this is what they tell their best and brightest!

No wonder we receive strange glances when we ask an artist to be sent or to be taken along ourselves! We should. Because when we say these things, especially here in the United States, we are making highly political if not religious statements about the meaning of life. Statements which stand in the face of our entire social structure.

And if you aren’t aware of this, and you don’t believe that something needs to change, you should not be making such bold statements about art or artists in space, weightlessness, or any other territory where science, technology, and politics have the current monopoly.

Is art necessary?

The beauty of extreme environments is that they add focus to our endeavors. While questions about the necessity of art might seem rhetorical here on earth, they are absolutely serious when you speak about art in space. And the answer that you give applies equally to art here on earth.

Is art in space or weightlessness necessary? Yes.

Positivist, rational thought has become the idol of our day. As scientific investigations have proved more and more useful they have irreversibly altered our world and our societies. Due to their utility, the allure of measurement and analysis has captivated most sectors in our global community such that even design fields are tending towards the analytical and pseudo-scientific. The casualty in all of this is the individual, the subjective.

While the tools and techniques of logic and science are capable of producing practical results, they do so at the expense of personal, playful freedom. In the process of measurement and analysis, the subjective is left behind, leaving only the “objective,” the common, the dead.

Culture, especially art, does not meet today’s utilitarian metric of necessity. Without quantifiable results societies are left wondering the purpose, the “usefulness” of art. As corporations become more global there is little room for “idealistic,” philanthropic endeavors such as supporting culture and the arts. These activities are therefore becoming increasingly un-necessary in the eyes of global society.

What is urgently needed, what is absolutely necessary, is precisely the un-necessary: the “useless” celebration of the individual, the personal, and the subjective. As expressed by many before me, art is precisely dedicated to such playful modes of radical freedom and is therefore the most capable of addressing the current situation. In order to highlight and possibly restore the humanity of our quests, the systems that further this positivist, downward spiral must be employed to express intimate dreams and realities. In this way, the restricted, narrow pursuit of our global culture is flipped on its head revealing the individual, human spirit at its base.