‘My work has literally brought me to the most beautiful places on Earth, but apparently nothing is as beautiful as the view of the Earth from space. Astronauts who have been lucky enough to have had that experience say it is life changing. I can’t wait to go.’ Thus supermodel Doutzen Kroes announced news of her forthcoming trip to outer space—the latest trend in luxury tourism.footnote1 So-called NewSpace exploration has burgeoned in recent years, as the enormous fortunes generated from e-commerce and social media, concentrated in the hands of tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have poured into extra-terrestrial ventures. Companies like Bezos’s Blue Origin, Musk’s SpaceX and Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot have joined Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in framing outer space as a zone of touristic exploration and capitalistic exploitation. None of these flights have actually taken place, despite the optimistic timelines. But those who can afford the $250,000 ticket have been promised the chance to snap that covetable Earthrise selfie and enjoy the experience of extra-terrestrial weightlessness.footnote2
The NewSpacers’ proposals extend beyond extra-planetary tourism to embrace space-based solar power, asteroid mining and the dream of self-sufficient colonies on moons and planets. They represent a new, more thoroughly commercialized version of an alliance forged between space enthusiasts, scientists and ecologists in the 1970s, when entrepreneur and Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand funded a space-colonization conference with particle physicist Gerard O’Neill, author of The High Frontier (1976). For this milieu, the vast resources of space could provide an exhilarating solution to Earth’s problems of energy depletion, over-population and pollution; space stations could provide a Noah’s Ark for endangered species.footnote3 In the 1990s, as the spur of Cold War competition faded, their second-generation followers—organized in bodies like the Space Frontier Foundation and National Space Society—turned to lobbying for the privatization of the us space infrastructure. They coined the term NewSpace in 2005 as a brand for their agenda. According to the ethnographer David Valentine, the NewSpace community—tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, people from nasa and the aerospace industry—gather regularly at space-investment summits and international space-development conferences, where speeches draw on libertarian and American Frontier ideals. The talk is of ‘exit strategies’: for the venture capitalists, the moment they could profitably cash out their investment; for the space enthusiasts, the dream of living off-planet to escape climate change or ‘big government’.footnote4
In this, NewSpace rhetoric echoes the fascination with technology as a substitute for social politics present in Buckminster Fuller’s metaphor of a ‘Spaceship Earth’, an important influence on Brand and his friends. Born in Massachusetts in 1895, Fuller was an inventor and designer who worked in the late 1940s at Black Mountain College, alongside émigrés from the Bauhaus, focusing at first on easy-to-assemble ‘dymaxion’ housing units.footnote5 Fuller hit gold as a military contractor in the 1950s, when the Pentagon bought into his geodesic-dome design, later scaled up for world’s fair pavilions and Disney World. In the late 1960s he was taken up as a guru by the new counter-culture. His 1969 manifesto, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, characteristically lauded technology as the solution to political disputes. To the question, ‘How are we going to resolve the impasse of world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas?’, Fuller replied: ‘I answer, it will be resolved by the computer. While no politician or political system can ever afford to yield understandably and enthusiastically to their adversaries and opposers, all politicians can and will yield enthusiastically to the computers.footnote6
Like Fuller, NewSpacers tend to view technology as independent from human agency, endowed with an almost mystical quality of political neutrality. To them the fragile nature of the human stewardship of Earth’s ecosystem demands the creation of artificial other-worlds to inhabit. Their proposals include colonizing space in capsule structures and protected cabin ecologies, familiar from the bunker logic of military architecture, which would require the human body to remain forever dependent on astro-engineering.footnote7 NewSpacers were given a huge boost in 2010 by the Obama administration’s shift toward funding private suppliers to fulfill transport missions for nasa and to service the International Space Station.footnote8 Outer space has become a de facto privatized zone, with immense personal wealth now benefiting from the once-public nature of national space programmes. The scope of these billionaires’ projects raises critical questions about the motivation of NewSpacers’ drive to exceed the envelope of Earth’s atmosphere—clothed as it is in a language of ‘freedom’ with specific political, economic and racial subtexts—but also about the legacy of the Cold War space race and the current inducements to space exploration.
These questions are also being addressed in contemporary art. Indeed, as NewSpacers embrace Fuller’s notion that ‘we are all astronauts’, visual art today does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to issues about rights to space. As Felicity Scott has pointed out, this may be because notions of life in outer space are often constructed in the domain of the image, and aesthetic interventions can make visible ‘the political underpinnings through which architecture and the media operate, to render the apparatus more legible, constructed and hence more easily subject to critique.’footnote9 Artists working on access to space are at the front line of a critical investigation about the contours of the future, both in its material form and social organization, recognizing that much of the surplus capital accumulated from the internet and tech boom is now being funneled into NewSpace projects. Where robber barons once invested in public libraries and universities, the new oligarchs are investing their fortunes in apocalyptic survivalist schemes.footnote10 Artists are opening up these doomsday projects to greater visibility.
The power of space exploration to organize earthbound desires is evidenced by the wide array of artists who address the topic. Artists such as Jane and Louise Wilson, Connie Samaras and Matthew Day Jackson employ film, photography and sculpture to explore the sites on Earth where older space programmes once thrived and document new zones where private, corporate or otherwise inaccessible space ventures are located. Other artists such as Tom Sachs and Tavares Strachan produce work prototyping conjectural objects and architectures for space travel and exploration. While critical of Fuller’s technocratic ideology, they are nonetheless drawn to his emphasis on ad hoc architectural process. Visual artists are also critically investigating the harsh material reality of space. Artists like Rachel Rose and mpa question the managed existence and scientific supervision of astronaut life and the physiological and psychological pressures that off-planet existence might hold for humans. They also flag the astonishing work of repression involved in pretending that a technologically governed capsule existence can surpass the plentitude of ecologies on Earth, or that space travel will foster freedoms, both bodily and political, when it will above all be determined by scientific instruments applied with capitalist means.footnote11
The metaphor of Fuller’s ‘Spaceship Earth’ as a hybrid ecological-architectural object is not lost on artists working to produce experimental structures and scenarios in art galleries, public installations and film. Some have undertaken projects that emphasize instead the spaceship as a ‘poor’ architecture, an alternative shelter from which to reflect on histories of inequality and deprivation, or on the role of the colonist or astronaut in modeling ideal citizenship.footnote12 Fuller was nothing if not a great showman, adept at promoting a vision of life beyond Earth—a utopia in which computers would supplant brainpower in specialized tasks, allowing humanity to turn to the higher forms of thought within the larger matrix of the universe. In his 1960 Cloud Nine plan, a collaboration with his former student and later architectural partner, Shoji Sadao, Fuller proposed that large, fully spherical geodesic habitations be heated so as to float above the Earth or other planets, thereby untethering human life from terrestrial existence. Gathering works that vector out from Fuller’s project, I hope to show how artists have opened up those visions of diy space travel to wider communities than he anticipated, questioning Fuller’s ‘we are all astronauts’ rhetoric, and taking issue with his ecology-as-technology model of ‘Spaceship Earth’.