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  • 01.13.17

What It’s Like To Be An Artist At A Major Space Agency

Jorge Mañes Rubio is obsessed with the moon.

Artists have long looked to the stars for inspiration. But do they deserve a seat at the table at an institution like the European Space Agency? The conceptual artist Jorge Mañes Rubio believes they should. So much so that he convinced ESA’s director to create that seat–and then install him in it in mid-2016.

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[Photo: Bret Hartman]

ESA isn’t the first scientific institution to bring artists on board. CERN, the particle physics research center in Switzerland, has its own artist residency; the European Southern Observatory in Chile has hosted artists; NASA has a long history of working with artists and even has an extensive art collection.

Rubio sees his role as the artist-in-residence at ESA as two-fold. As a conceptual artist, he’s envisioning future possibilities for space travel from a more humanistic perspective, asking difficult questions that are less concerned with scientific pursuits and more about the human dilemmas and moral quandaries inherent in colonizing space. But he’s also trying to make the agency’s aims more accessible for the average person. “People think science has to be cold and only numbers and everything’s square. I don’t really think so,” Rubio says. “I think art is a universal language that can also bring a bit more human perspective into the future of space exploration.”

Rubio works on the Advanced Concepts Team, a think tank within ESA’s research and technology center outside of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the European Space Research and Technology Centre. The Advanced Concepts Team consists of thinkers from a wide range of disciplines, from physics to medicine to architecture, whose jobs are to do research and experiments on space travel.

Basically, Rubio’s job is to talk to people–using his personal interest in space travel and colonization to help give the scientists he works with a way of thinking about the broader implications of their work. Their knowledgeable reactions to his ideas then fuel his own artistic projects.

This kind of collaboration–artists working next to scientists and technologists–is based on the idea that people from different disciplines interested in similar topics can help each other learn and produce more creative, well-informed work. In other words, it’s a way to combat groupthink.

The close contact with scientists has given Rubio’s own work a greater grounding in reality, as well. His first project for ESA, called A Temple on the Moon, draws on the more practical work of his colleagues. Last year, ESA’s general director Jan Woerner proposed a permanent settlement on the moon as the next international space project, mostly to serve as an outpost for experimentation and future space travel.

Rubio began to imagine a structure that would serve as a unifying symbol of what Woerner calls the Moon Village, drawing on the rich history of human fascination with the moon, which he says is a symbol used in every mythology and every civilization. While “temple” has religious connotations, Rubio means it more in the sense that a museum is a temple to art–a monument, and a reminder that the moon doesn’t belong to any nation or adhere to any creed. Rubio points to how nationalism made it to outer space when astronauts planted American flags there in the 1960s and ’70s, but recent surveillance has shown that the remaining flags have been bleached white by the sun’s rays, a powerful symbol of the moon’s transcendence of human politics.

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It’s a building that could only exist on paper on Earth; because the moon has one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, architecture that would be too heavy for our planet would be feasible on the moon. Drawing inspiration from the 18th-century French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée‘s utopian designs, Rubio envisions a 165-foot-tall dome with a central oculus, through which a powerful lunar telescope will look into the heavens. Three horizontal slits in the side of the dome will provide a soft light, and a second oculus will frame Earth when it rises above the moon’s horizon for 14 days at a time.

But if we were to build such a temple, where would it be situated? Working with ESA’s scientists, Rubio chose a lunar peak that’s eternally light–a place where the sun’s blinding rays never fade–on the edge of the 4,000-meter-deep Shackleton Crater on the south pole–one of the coldest places in the galaxy, a crater of perpetual darkness. The contrast appealed to Rubio’s artistic sensibilities. His temple would be built on this edge.

Because it’s so expensive to launch even one kilogram of material out of Earth’s atmosphere, the most realistic building material for this monumental structure would be lunar dust, radioactively zapped and 3D-printed to create building material. Rubio’s ideas about construction come directly from his colleagues on the Advanced Concepts Team, who recently published a journal focusing entirely on space architecture.

Rubio hopes his project will prompt thinking about how to responsibly colonize extraterrestrial bodies, from the moon to Mars and asteroids. “The history of colonization is a dark one because of powerful nations and cultures trying to impose their ideas, their religion, their lifestyle,” he says. “All I’m trying to say is that the moon is the perfect chance for a fresh start.”

More than that, he hopes scientists will remember to ask anthropological questions of space travel as well as technical ones. “By proposing this idea, what I really want to do is reflect on this future and what’s going to be important and where are we going,” he says. “By building these alternative worlds, we can imagine new future scenarios.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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