Astronomers hate it. Curators love it.Here’s why the NMA-sponsored sculpture—now in orbit—exists in the first place.
On Dec. 3, artist Trevor Paglen’s giant sculpture, Orbital Reflector, launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried it into orbit in a brick-sized package. The artwork—an elongated diamond shape made of a lightweight material similar to Mylar—exited the rocket and inflated to its full size, 100 feet long.
The sculpture now orbits the Earth every hour and a half. On a clear night, it should be visible from Reno and look about as bright as a bright star—but the nights here have been overcast since the launch.
The project is among a handful of ambitious outdoor works that the Nevada Museum of Art has helped to bring to fruition. The goal is to build a reputation for studying and producing land-art pieces—and now a space-art piece. To date, the largest project in this vein has been the $3.5 million “Seven Magic Mountains,” a set of three-story, Day-Glo-painted limestone cairns stacked outside of Las Vegas.
The Orbital Reflector, though it’s been criticized for being opulent, is a comparative bargain at $1.3 million, all contributed by private donors.
Orbital Reflector was in the development stages for two years, which gave it plenty of time to rack up a list of complaints. Some in space-related fields have described it as “space junk,” “graffiti” or “a disingenuous gimmick.”
Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, told the popular science blog IFLScience, “Really, I fear it’s the tip of the iceberg. Today it’s a well-meaning artist, but tomorrow it might be Coca-Cola deciding to ‘inspire humanity’ with an orbiting advert for the latest soft drink.”
Others have expressed concerns that the art piece might obscure the view of natural celestial objects—though Dr. Thomas Herring from the Jack C. Davis Observatory at Western Nevada College told KUNR, “I don’t think it’s going to interfere with anything. And, of course, in low earth orbit, it’ll go across the sky in a few minutes at most.”
Spying on spying
Paglen has an MFA in art and a Ph.D in geography. He won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017 and the prestigious Nam June Paik Art Center Prize, with a $45,000 award, in 2018. He has shown at The Met, The Tate and a long list of international museums. His mid-career survey is on exhibition at the Smithsonian through January.
He often summarizes his approach to making art with the phrase: “I’m interested in art that helps us see the cultural moment that we live in.” To get telling glimpses of the cultural moment, Paglen strives to find vantage points outside of our usual spheres of experience.
Bill Fox, director the NMA’s Center for Art + Environment, put it another way in a phone interview last week: “Flannery O’Connor, the writer, was once asked, ‘Why do you write about such eccentric characters?’ And she said, ‘You can’t see the center unless you’re looking in from the outside.’ … So in a sense, that’s what we’re doing [with Orbital Reflector]. We’re taking something outside the planet, off the planet, and that’s making us think about what’s on the planet. Trevor talks about that a lot.”
Paglen is interested in things that affect us but that we cannot see—especially things that are part of large-scale systems of control. Which satellites are up in space? Which ones does the government keep secret? How often are we under surveillance—and by whom? Do the selfies we love to take actually just serve as data for large corporations? Do our personal posts and pictures benefit Facebook and Google more than they benefit us? And what really makes up “the internet” anyway?
For past projects, Paglen has spent months or even years probing some of these questions. A piece called “The Other Night Sky,” began when he noticed that, although satellites are tracked by the government and their purposes are mostly made public, amateur astronomers had identified 189 that weren’t known to the public. Paglen spent two years working with computer scientists and engineers to develop what his website calls “a software model to describe the orbital motion of classified spacecraft.” He calculated their positions and photographed them.
For another piece, he examined and mapped the physical infrastructure that makes up the internet. Turns out it’s not actually a magic “cloud.” It’s a network of over a half a million miles of undersea cables. Paglen took up scuba diving and descended into the ocean to photograph them.
He’s also mapped, in one way or another, things like CIA flights and the covert kidnappings of suspected terrorists. He’s spied on facilities that spy on us. He’s used lenses meant for astronomical observations to zoom in on secret bases. He’s rented a helicopter to document the photo-shy National Security Agency from overhead.
Paglen is always looking for new angles from which to examine privacy, surveillance and information, always asking who controls it all? Who makes the rules about that?
With Orbital Reflector, the questions are along the lines of: Who does outer space belong to? Does outer space count as public space? If humans colonize a planet, what will the rules be?
There are actually some formal ground rules in place for some of this. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 specifies that no country may claim a planet or moon as its own territory. It also prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space. (Conventional weapons are fair game, though.)
Wait, what? Exploring outer space could have been all about enormous weapons, not about Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” or Canadian astronaut/guitarist Chris Hadfield’s endearing, informative YouTube videos?
“It’s naïve to think that space was ever about much more than creating planetary weapons systems,” Paglen wrote in an August blog post. “The first spacefaring vehicles—Nazi V-2 rockets—were designed for mass murder. After the war, the US and Soviet Union famously imported German rocket scientists to develop their own generation of rockets. The launch vehicles that put the first satellites in orbit weren’t designed to explore the universe; they were designed to deliver nuclear weapons. In a very real sense, spaceflight is a byproduct of global war.”
The NMA’s Bill Fox pointed out that it’s plausible, as we prepare to send humans farther into space, that we’ll stir up a lot of the same issues that arose as we explored and colonized the Earth.
“We walk into a place and call it our own,” Fox said. “We tell stories about it. We establish habitat in it. So, if we’re contemplating sending humans back to the moon, and to Mars, and to the moons of Mars, if we’re talking about those kinds of missions, what we’re doing is we’re changing space into place. … You’re dealing with the environments of that place and the interactions of humans with it.”
Orbital Reflector is only scheduled to last in orbit for 60 days. If all goes according to plan, it will burn up and leave no trace. But Fox predicts that its legacy will last indefinitely.
“I suspect that people are going to write about it, study it,” he said. “I think the art historians are going to have a ball with it.”