Let’s say you’re the first artist sent to space. You have a $500,000 budget, up to 60 kilograms of supplies, and 12 hours on the surface of the Moon to execute your vision, with the help of one astronaut assistant. What mark will you make on behalf of humanity?
Dozens of answers from artists in Seattle and beyond are on display beginning Thursday at a thought-provoking new exhibition, Giant Steps, Artist Residency on the Moon. Artists submitted conceptual narratives describing what they would do with such an opportunity. Entries selected for the show include visual, audio, sculptural, and virtual reality manifestations of the artists’ concepts.
Seattle has recently taken notice of its growing cadre of rocket scientists, aspiring asteroid miners, satellite communications experts, and local billionaire space explorers. The excitement surrounding this new era of commercial space exploration should extend to artists as well as technologists and entrepreneurs, says Greg Lundgren, an artist and curator who conceived of and produced Giant Steps.
“We see so many science fiction movies and stories about why we need to go there to colonize, or for our own survival,” Lundgren says. But art is oddly absent from most depictions of our future in space, which leaves behind a vital part of our humanity.
“I think a big part of our identities as humans is our culture,” he says. “It follows us wherever we go.”
Works in the exhibition range from the deadly serious—a skeleton crawling through Moon dust, an arm outstretched toward Earth—to the whimsical—a giant inflatable cheese knife and stack of Ritz crackers. Most of the works give at least some thought to the feasibility of the artist’s vision, and in doing so, sometimes cross over into the terrain of space entrepreneurs.
The knife and crackers would be inflated with helium mined from the Moon’s surface, while locally based commercial space company Planetary Resources aims to mine asteroids. Another piece contemplates creating sculptures by fusing Moon dust with a Fresnel lens and returning these objects to Earth, where they would be auctioned off to raise funds for continuing a lunar artists residency.
To create realistic constraints on the artists, Lundgren consulted with Roger Myers, Redmond, WA-based executive director of advanced in-space programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “We had an actual rocket scientist to make sure that this was within the realm of possibility,” says Lundgren, who pursued an aerospace engineering degree before turning his attention to art.
I asked Myers whether he envisions a time when a small payload and crew seat on a mission to the Moon would be devoted to purely creative endeavors, as Giant Steps imagines.
“Right now, the space community is thinking of returning to the lunar surface robotically within the next few years,” Myers says via email. (Indeed, Seattle-based Spaceflight’s 2017 “Sun Synch Express” mission is scheduled to carry an entry from SpaceIL in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $30 million competition to land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon.)
“There are advocates for human missions to the lunar surface within 10-15 years,” Myers continues. “Art and other cultural endeavors aren’t likely to happen until there is a regular cadence of missions to the lunar surface—another 10 -15 years? However, astronauts have been known to ‘multi-task,’ and I imagine some of them will have some artistic skills, so I don’t discount the possibility that a collaboration could form between an astronaut with key mission responsibilities and an artist that stays on Earth. This could pull the timeline forward for really inspirational ideas.”
Giant Steps has several, including Blossom, which aims to “propagate the Overview Effect”—the experience astronauts have upon seeing Earth floating in the void—by transmitting a live view of Earth from the Moon down to kiosks around the world. “Our hope is that the awe of seeing our planet as it is, in real time, will fuel a groundswell of global unity and perspective,” write artists Mary Ann Peters and Kate Thompson.
Eric Muhs, a Ballard High School physics teacher whose student team proposes autonomous robotic rovers “drawing harmonic patterns in lunar regolith,” says the project pushed his boundaries and those of his students.
“It was a great challenge to find an expression that was remotely worthy of the (nearly) pristine, timeless beauty of the Moon,” he says via email.
Myers, who has been in the space industry as public interest has waxed and waned over the decades, sees Giant Steps—an art exhibit unique in his experience—as a vehicle to broaden the passion for space.
“The space business is very challenging and exciting because it is changing rapidly,” Myers says. “Bringing together diverse communities—stimulating new conversations—makes the Giant Steps exhibit a fascinating opportunity.”
Myers is part of a 10-member jury selecting a Grand Prize winner to be awarded $10,000.
A note about the exhibition space:
Giant Steps is housed in the recently restored third floor of King Street Station. Seattle’s passenger rail terminal—as a point of embarkation—makes a fitting venue for this collection of original artwork, which contemplates greater human journeys.
Until recently, the third floor was “a bit of a haunted house,” Lundgren says. The Northern Pacific Railroad had offices here until around 1960. Then the space was forgotten.
“I’m a Seattle native and there’s a lot of people that live and work in Pioneer Square that don’t even know this existed, so you come up here and you’re like, this is a brilliant space in a brilliant building and it’s off of everybody’s radar,” he says.
It took some work, as part of a recently completed seismic upgrade and refurbishment of the train station, to bring the third floor back to habitable condition. “There were windows broken and seagulls living in the rafters and squatters in here for years and years and years,” Lundgren says. “Soggy, moldy, run-down desks and deteriorating walls and drop ceiling that was falling apart.”
He became the first temporary tenant last June, building walls and track lighting to transform the restored shell into a gallery space. Giant Steps is the second exhibition he’s curated at King Street Station, and there may be more, as he plans to stay until 2017, when the city’s Office of Arts and Culture will move its offices to the north portion of the third floor, retaining most of the space for cultural programming, Lundgren says.
The launch party tonight will feature cocktails served in Mylar bags, the astronaut drink Tang, a moon made of Beecher’s Cheese, and a musician dressed as an astronaut crooning from a catwalk to a full moon hung near the peak of the station’s roof. Sounds like fun, if any of the $25 tickets are still left.
The exhibition continues through at least March 27, open to the public Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is a $10 suggested donation, and free for people under 13 and over 65.