With recent breakthroughs in space travel -- the $10 million X-Prize, an award for flying a commercial re-entry craft into space and back, was won by SpaceShipOne in September 2004 -- imagining the role of human beings in a different world, or a new dimension, is now a serious endeavour. And in Budapest this week scientists, policy makers and artists are meeting at the first International Astronautic Academy conference to discuss what impact space, space travel, space technology and the concept of space, are having, and will have, on society at large. Space is beginning to buzz.
"Space challenges our sense of what is seen, heard or known," says artist Richard Clar, who helps organise artist-scientist workshops under the auspices of the European Space Agency and is a key figure behind the Budapest conference.
In a knowledge society our ignorance of space and what's out there presents one of the most exciting challenges to our information dense society. It's no coincidence that space travel has recently attracted some of the brightest Internet and IT entrepreneurs. According to space.com, a website for space related news, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is currently planning a launch site at his spread in Texas. X-Prize winning Monjave Aerospace is backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Space is no longer the preserve of scientists, legions of support teams and government dollars. It is emerging under the impetus given by entrepreneurs whose collective savvy created a global network of information, interaction and exchange called the World Wide Web.
The inclusion of artists in what is apparently a fundamentally technological domain might seem strange but the role of the artist in interpreting and confronting the mysteries of space has been a regular feature of space endeavour.
That's due in part to a long standing relationship between astronautic scientists and artists. Clar, an early pursuer of art in space and now a corresponding member of the International Astronautic Academy, launched his first space-art project back in the mid 1980s under a NASA program called Getaway Specials. As long as an artwork could also qualify as a scientific experiment, NASA was prepared back then to take a limited number of them on its payload. Clar's first Getaway Special was a satellite transponder that emitted Dolphin sounds into space.
Other experiments, conducted by artists like Joseph MacShane included capturing the space atmosphere in a glass ball (using the vacuum effect of space to seal the atmosphere in, and firing an electron gun at the earth's upper atmosphere to create aurora.
The most significant aspect of the current space race is that human beings have once again extended their reach and capabilities beyond the obvious boundaries set by nature. Space is set to be a mass experience. We can all, soon, get a chunk of it. That dramatic moment when a highly trained astronaut caught site of planet earth in its entirety will be available to the many. What can the artist contribute to the experience?
"Space is 92% dark matter," says Clar, "And we don't know what that is, so space is a great unknown and art has a role in revealing what we don't know."
This is the challenge for our aesthetic and intellectual senses. We are entering a dimension full of unknowns. On the practical level, the unknown of how many accidents and small disasters the popular conquest of space will leave us with. But also the bigger philosophical questions: If human beings are able to escape the earth, temporarily, what does it mean for our commitment to political problem solving? If we are out there, what else might be?
Clar's next experimental space art work is a musical composition, a dance and the dancer's skeletal form captured as a series of tiny data sets, which together comprise a future discovery for an alien life force. Why?
"It came about after a chance remark from a scientist at NASA," says Clar, "who asked, 'if we are to communicate with another culture, how can we make unambiguous statements?'" And this was the challenge that the artist took up. The project is called the New Butoh Space Dance, an experiment in inter-stellar communications (Butoh is a Japanese dance form).
The inter-stellar message shows a non-human recipient that human beings create music, respond physically to it in a rhythmic way, are skeletal in form, and have various physical capabilities and limitations.
Another Clar project is the Collision II conceptual art work, what Clar subtitles: An Orbital Debris Constellation Sculpture. Clar has selected 192 pieces of space debris from the 13,000 objects tracked by the US Space Command. Working with the US Naval Research laboratory, Clar simulated the presence of these objects against the backdrop of all space debris in earth orbit. The simulation is fleeting. The pieces, after all, are in constant movement.
That means the 192 pieces of Constellation II can only be seen when the Navy simulate their presence again, an effort that takes place every two years.
The work is so ephemeral that it encapsulates perfectly our relationship with space, previously amorphous but intermittently taking shape. The question now is how we can understand it as a concrete reality and what changes when we do.