Aleksandra Mir

Tate Modern Talk

By Aleksandra Mir
at Art, Space & the Future, a panel discussion with Dimitri Ozerkov and Maria Chehonadskih
staged in conjunction with the opening of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov exhibition
Tate Modern, London, 18 October 2017

An artist and a scientist are sitting on a train

There is no such thing as an objective reality, says the artist

Of course there is, replies the scientist, I have measured it

How can you be so sure that you measured it correctly, says the artist

Because I measured it several times and got the exact same result. And anything that can be verified under different conditions, is the very definition of truth. So for example, we can measure mass and velocity and prove to you that if a feather traveling at the speed of light would hit Tate Modern it would cause a ground explosion so big it would take out St. Paul’s as well.

OK, that is very useful to know. But your actual research now, searching for alien life, isn’t it all a bit fantastical? Fantasy, that used to be my domain!

But it is not a fantasy any more. We have mapped and measured the universe enough to know certain facts about it. We know that there are basic conditions for life on other planets, and we know that these planets exist.

So why don’t they get in touch? Why do we always have to make the first move?

I think that in the space and time of the Universe, the likelihood of us evolving concomitantly and managing to have the technology to contact each other is not going to happen. But isn’t it arrogant to assume that we are the only creatures in the universe to evolve?

So what level of evolution in those aliens are you looking at?

The molecular level, the life I am searching for could be in the form of a gas.

I guess the search is as infinite as the possibilities are, but your own lifetime is limited, so how much time will this need, and how far are you looking?

Say if our galaxy was a pizza, I look at about a pepperoni's worth of its region. Because I am looking at tiny molecules on a tiny sliver of an atmosphere, on a tiny planet around an alien star, our local neighborhood is as far as I can currently look without the sources of noise overwhelming the data.

I am hungry now.

As for the scale of the problem that my research focuses on: In our galaxy alone there are 300 billion stars. We know that almost every star has at least one planet, but it could be closer to an average of 10. So that’s 3000 billion planets for us to study - and within them trillions of possible species, releasing approximately 15 thousand different molecules into their atmosphere. It took me 4 years to figure out how to detect a single one of these molecules (my PhD), so the rest of my career will be figuring out the other 14999. With enough people and with IT developing the tools to detect any alien life in our local area, we may do it in our lifetime. What are your plans?

Oh, I have a solo museum show coming up….and I am also doing some writing, bits of teaching, and this talk at the Tate….

Cool.

Tell me something, what is the actual shape of the universe? I have been thinking of making a sculpture of the universe, but I just can’t picture the shape of it.

It is kind of shaped like a donut, a donut you can be inside and outside of at once.

OK, a donut is a fairly manageable shape, but how do I treat the edge of it?

I think you need to step away from a traditional notion of an edge. If the edge is expanding at the speed of light, and it started doing so before light could get to it, then light can never catch up with it. And if light never reaches it, then we cannot see it, or perceive it, so how do you consider it at all?

That is a philosophical question, an existentialist idea, that if you can’t perceive something, how do you know it exists?

Of course, and that is beyond my area of expertise, but if you think of an edge, you are presuming something on the other side. But on the other side of the Universe's edge there isn't empty space. There is nothing.

Yeah, I don’t understand this absolute Nothing concept. I can deal with Negative space, but I mean, what is the Universe in?

In nothing. There is not even vacuum. A vacuum is a space that has nothing in it - it is empty but it exists. Beyond the edge of the Universe there isn't even anything to fill, it is the end of existence itself, like the Big Bang was the beginning.

How do you know it was the beginning?

We measured that too, we went back and looked at the very frequency of it and recorded the sound!

What does the Big bang sound like?

Like this: grooowwwwwllllll

Oh, I thought it would sound more like: BANG!

No.

Did you record it from the very start?

We have recorded it 0,04 seconds from the start.

You missed the beginning!?

Come on, give us some credit, we are looking back 13.8 billions of years and we have a recording of it. And anyway, if the Big Bang was a song and you missed the first 0,04 seconds, would you even care?

So you don’t know what is on the other side of start?

There is nothing on the other side.

How can you be so sure?

I don’t have any answer for it so I have to believe it.

So science at the end of day is a belief system, just like art. I have to believe in the art I am making, my peers and my industry have to endow it with this great status. I mean how does something go from being made, to being revered to being worth $28 million?

Anything worth $28 million is obscene. That could fund my whole research program.

It could fund a lot of art programs as well. But believing in something, having a set of values that drive our work, I think these are all things that we share. Does that ultimately mean that you believe in God?

God. That wasn’t very helpful, was it? Now you made all these people conjure up an image of an old man with a beard. God as you imagine it is of not much use to either one of us.

But you do believe in a God?

Yes. But my God is that which I don’t know. God is the unanswered question.

*

This was a mash-up of conversations I have had with various space scientists over the past 3 years. The bulk of this conversation took place on a 3h train journey between the opening of my recent show at Tate Liverpool on June 22 and the opening of the second part of the show at Modern Art Oxford on June 23. The work titled Space Tapestry is a graphic novel of monumental proportions, so demanded two institutions to be shown. I had insisted that my guests who attended both dinners travel together as although I had met them all 1:1 while doing my research, they had not met each other, and I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to further the conversation between science and art.

A conversation between art and science should in theory not be possible today, because the paradigms of our extreme specializations rarely overlap, but they can overlap in the social context, over dinner or when trapped on a train, between people willing to engage and stretch themselves over their respective paradigms because they find the challenge nurturing and enjoyable and because there is no real agenda in that moment.

The conversation on the train was mainly carried between Clara Sousa-Silva, a Quantum Astrophysicist at MIT, Chris Welch, Programme Director at the International Space University in Strasbourg, and Paul Hobson, Director of Modern Art Oxford, all now good friends of mine who brilliantly articulated many of the ideas I myself had not yet arrived to formulating. So in many ways, my project has been a collective journey.

I attended my first Space conference in 2014. ‘Reinventing Space’ as it was called, was organized by the British Interplanetary Society and took place at the Royal Society here in London. It felt like my first day at school. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t expect such advanced level of discussions about space technology and space policy would be available to me as an artist. I simply went because I had to.

Who doesn't have a relationship to Space? Who hasn’t looked at the moon and the stars and applied themselves to whatever pop-cultural knowledge they have about them? My family watched the first moon landing on a black and white TV in Poland in 1969. We were behind the iron curtain but received the exact same images from space as everyone else. As a 2 year old, I remember vividly the images on the screen and my father jumping up and down in excitement.

Over the years this faint memory rewrote itself over and over again in my mind until it became a monument to global and humanist achievement. True to being a technological feat of astronautics, the moon landing was also major cultural event, one that has generated an enormous amount of residual cultural production in its wake.

For us who work in the Culture Industry today - including art, design, film, media - we are still romantically, nostalgically and critically fixated to an early phase of Space exploration. We seem unable to let go of our obsession with Astronauts as pioneering heroes and Barbarella like femme fatales to match. Not to mention our overusing of SILVER, a signifier that automatically connotes Space, but that we use lazily and without scrutiny, and which sadly, renders us dated.

Sergei Korolev, the designer of Sputnik, the first satellite launched in 1957 wanted it to look beautiful. He knew it would be in pictures for all times so insisted on it being polished and shiny. Since then there has been little aesthetic consideration as satellite designers today are primarily concerned with weight reduction and cost effectiveness while in competition for contracts. The satellite design which is leading the democratization in space (a university department can now afford one) is a dull looking cube, hardly a jewel or a formal inspiration, so we continue to draw references from the past.

Today’s Astronauts do very little pioneering but mainly perform maintenance functions on board the International Space Station, a tin can circling the earth. The ISS is mainly a science lab and I have even met a scientist who casually refers to astronauts as ‘glorified lab technicians’. There is no doubt that astronauts endure great pressures and take enormous risks, but their cultural status is so reduced, that they now also need to perform ridiculous stunts, running marathons and covering pop songs, to even hold the public’s attention.

And for the image of the female in space, all women who have gone up in space have worn pants, yet, I am the first to acknowledge, that when I staged the First woman on the Moon, I chose to wear a short skirt. It was practical on the beach, but it was also a clear nod to the 60s and recently, a student pointed that out to me, and I had to admit, that maybe in my quest for equality and liberation, and that within my rebellion, I had also cast myself in a traditional hetero normative role, that of Neil Armstrong’s bride.

First Woman on the Moon remains poetically valid as it points to gender inequality throughout all ages and may even come across as futuristic in it’s anticipation of a yet to be realized moment in time when it makes its simple demand for an equal opportunity in the work place. Yet, thanks to this one student’s input, I also became painfully aware of a sliding dissonance between the past and the present within my own professional realm so I decided to update and revise my own set of references. I wanted to know where things were at today, 60 years since the first shiny silver satellite, 50 years since the moon landing, in a moment when advanced medical science is making gender transitioning available to more and more people, and popular opinion is ready to accept fluidity, introducing whole new catalogues of options for radical change. I wanted to hear the contemporary experts speak about their present achievements and the immediately projectable future.

The fact that cultural production is so easily conflated with science-fiction does not make it any easier to stay grounded in the problems of here and now. I’d never been interested in science-fiction but as a visual artist I have to constantly fend off the association, since ‘fantasy’ is so readily available to me and assumed to be my natural domain. Oh, you’re an artist, well you can take us into the future just by imagining it!

Well, no. I wanted to investigate my reality and contemporary relationship to Space, more as an anthropologist than a fantasy artist. I wanted to know how various societies function in regards to their diverse access and investments in Space, how general consciousness is shaped by scientific advances and what options there are for living with all this information available to us today. I am not too bothered with the future, as the future is simply inevitable as a consequence of the choices we make in our present.

Today there are 2,000 satellites in space and 70 space faring nations world-wide who participate in Space with vastly different resources and objectives. The Space industry has developed rapidly and invisibly around us, and many actions of contemporary life, from bank transactions to telecommunications are wired through it. I wanted to become more aware of the role Space plays in our lives and how all these Space activities reflects life on Earth, so for the past 3 years, I attended gatherings, talks and discussions that dealt with the Militarization, Commercialization and Democratization of Space.

I gained a good understanding of technological and political thresholds that are being wrestled with right now and that are shaping our futures as we speak. I got access to some top industry experts who invited me on their high security sites to watch the fabrication of some of the most advanced technologies today. I learned from affiliated professionals such as medics and ecologists how Space informs and affects their work.

In the process, I made friends with a lot of incredibly open and generous people who took an interest in my own work, who invited me as a speaker at the UK Space Conference in Liverpool in 2015, visited my studio, engaged with me in dynamic one-on-one debates, and who eventually attended the openings of my shows where they saw the information they had shared with me embedded into the art.

Exhibitions are only locally available though, and they come and go, The Tate Liverpool show just closed, so I am very grateful that this book companion We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future remains a long lasting record not only of my artwork and of my interviews with 16 space industry professionals, but also of this moment in time.

I didn’t show you any images from the recent shows on purpose, as I would like to end this talk by plugging the book which contains everything I have touched upon and which has been an enormous collective labor of love. The book was put out by a small brave publisher here in London, Strange Attractor Press. I would almost like to call them Pioneers. Thank you.