In space, every gram of weight, every liter of oxygen, and every movement of the body has massive consequences. Which makes it no place for art, you’d think. But as Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration, a new show at University of California–Riverside portends, space travel has proved incredibly fertile ground for artists since the 1960s. And with the advent of civilian space travel, as curator Tyler Stallings emphasizes, we’re only going to see more of it.
What distinguishes Free Enterprise is that the 25 artists represented in the sweeping, three-gallery show aren’t just making art about space. They’re actually engaging in space travel, participating in the aerospace industry, and collaborating with astronauts. Take Trevor Paglen, for example, who has spent the past six years choosing the 100 images representing humanity, soon to travel into deep space aboard a tiny gold disc. A similar but older project, the Moon Museum, has an equally sublime mission. In 1969, an artist named Forrest Meyers created a ceramic microchip containing art from Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others. He convinced a NASA engineer working on the Apollo 12 mission to slip the chip into some gold insulation blankets on the Intrepid landing module. No one really knows if the chip made it all the way to the moon’s surface, but there’s no evidence to the contrary. So began the first in a long line of artists who have—either by corporation or by force—edged their way into the highly controlled aerospace industry.
Though created four decades later than the Moon Museum, a piece called Singular Oscillations by Brooklyn artist Bradley Pitts plugs into the infrastructure of state-run space programs in much the same way. The MIT-trained Pitts (whose Yearlight calendar we’ve noted previously) began working on the project in 2008. His goal was to explore the experience of weightlessness from an emotional perspective, rather than a medical or scientific one. He traveled to Star City, the Russian equivalent of Cape Canaveral, where he undertook a series of flights aboard the IL76-MDK, also known as the "vomit comet," an aircraft that makes parabolic arcs to create short bursts of weightlessness. Pitts’s journeys—during which he floats naked, with his eyes closed and ears plugged—were recorded and cut into a video, accompanied by artifacts from the experience. Executive Producer Cheryl Kaplan explains that the project "reveals space as viable and cultural, a natural extension of our world that needn’t be taxonified or taxidermied."
One artifact of Pitts’ journey—a framed email from a retired astronaut—sums up the curatorial instinct behind Free Enterprise perfectly. While making Singular Oscillations, Pitts contacted the astronaut to ask if he’d ever floated naked while in space (and if so, what had the experience been like). He said he hadn’t. But later, the same astronaut emailed him to "confess" that, yes, he had—and the experience had been "memorable." So human emotion, culture, and art do exist in space—but they just haven’t been freely communicated. Pitts believes that commercial space travel will change how we think about space, shifting it away from a scientific paradigm and toward what he calls "one of play, which fully embraces the entire spectrum of human experience and understanding."
Ultimately, that’s what the art in Free Enterprise is all about: using space as a device, a mirror of sorts, to reflect the image of humanity back at us. Sure, this is art about space—but at its core, it’s also art about the human experience, and the struggle to comprehend that terrifying (and exciting) void that lies just a few miles overhead.
Check out Free Enterprise until March 23.