In November 2018, a new kind of satellite will be orbiting the Earth. An artistic satellite named Orbital Reflector will play in the big leagues where military, scientific and commercial satellites have rubbed shoulders for nearly 70 years. What will Trevor Paglen’s work of art look like? What is the meaning of this action? Is he really the first to have the idea?
Intense mobilization for an ephemeral project
For 10 years, artist and geographer Trevor Paglen has collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art, three aerospace companies (Space X, Spaceflight Industries and Global Western) and Zia Oboodiyat, an American space industry retiree, to design Orbital Reflector. It is a reflecting structure, designed in a light material akin to Mylar (the material used for construction of weather balloons), which is expected to reflect sunlight on its silvery surface for three short months before bowing out, exploding in the atmosphere after leaving its orbit. Practically speaking, the Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket will launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the inflatable structure on board which, once the satellite is released, will deploy to form an immense 30 metre long diamond, at 575 km above the heads of art lovers… or rather the curious! Each of us will not only be able to see this point of light as bright as the stars of the Great Bear, but also to meditate. And that’s the whole point of this project, namely for man to reflect on his place in the world and for him to marvel at the universe.
No limit for the artist
If we go back in time, we see that there have already been works of art sent into space, and sometimes for other reasons. In 1977, a golden record disc was loaded on board the Voyager space probe to exhibit to supposed extraterrestrials the life of Earthlings through photos of humans, animals, landscapes and various sounds (infant, classical music…). This concept of a silicon disc was taken up by our artist Trevor Paglen, who engraved 100 photos exhibiting different aspects of our life on Earth; his work The Last Pictures has orbited the Earth since 2012. Two years later, the Japanese space agency sent the first artistic satellite Invader to 378 km to carry out various artistic missions (transmission of synthesized voices, poems and music). At the end of the same year, in December 2014, Despatch was the first work of art to have been sent into orbit around the solar system, at a distance never equalled since, 4.7 million km from Earth. It included broadcasts of poems created by the onboard computer.
Sending these works of art into space is something to challenge us. While some people may find the idea of displaying life on Earth through a golden disk put into orbit ingenious, others might wonder what is the point of exhibiting ephemeral works of art 500 km over our heads. As long as man has not found materials that can withstand solar radiation and large temperature swings, space art will be limited to a few ephemeral achievements or subtractive processes (sculpture) and not additive.