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Can we make art that transcends petty terrestrial concerns? The Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon (MOCAM) has drawn together a diverse group of contemporary artists (including myself) to create work for a speculative museum that might one day exist on the moon. MOCAM was conceived in 2016 by visual artist Julio Orta in response to what he views as “the inevitable creation of human communities on the moon in the near future.” The museum purchased a plot on the moon through a website that issues deeds for property. The territory spreads over 20 acres in area D6, Quadrant Charlie, Lot Number 1/0581-0600, located 001 squares south and 001 squares east of the extreme northwest corner of what the deed terms “the recognized Lunar Chart.”
“Although governments and private entities are working on tourism and colonization of the moon, they seem to have no concern whatsoever for the arts,” states the MOCAM mission statement. MOCAM is working to address that situation, and in conjunction with the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, has begun a process “dedicated [to] displaying the most interesting, cutting edge, relevant art from the world, moon habitants, or in the case of future encounters, any other form of intelligent life we may meet.”
The inaugural show, Mystic Hyperstitians in the Heart of Empire, is being staged as a thought experiment of MOCAM on its online digital proxy, but the same works are also physically part of a bigger show, The Museum of Real and Odd, which opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary (IndyMOCA) Art early February. Mystic Hyperstitians was curated by Joey Cannizzaro, who chose to organize the show around the following prompt: “If extolling the virtues of self-expression and individual genius actually empowers capitalist ideology, then how can artists make work that is anti-conformist without promoting the values of individualism and its attendant isolation?”
After being invited to collaborate with artist Cedric Tai on his piece for the show, I took the opportunity to interview MOCAM founder Julio Orta and inaugural curator Joey Cannizzaro over email, who unpacked the inspiration, implications, and future prospects of the museum.
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Sarah Rose Sharp: What inspired you to invest in property on the moon?
Julio Orta: I’m interested in the mechanics of land ownership, especially of undeveloped territory, because ultimately the deed is just a piece of paper that makes you the official owner. The title is essentially meaningless unless you continually check market value in hopes of selling it. There are companies that sell virgin islands as well as those that sell lunar deeds, and I find that owning land on any of those tend to be similar — since you’ll probably end up just with the idea of the ownership of the island because of the difficulty of accessing it.
SRS: How much does it cost to buy property on the moon?
JO: In reality, the costs of a lunar deed aren’t exclusive; they are in an accessible price range.
SRS: Who are some other investors in the moon?
JO: There are various anecdotes regarding moon ownership: Chilean lawyer and poet Jenaro Gajardo Vera, who became famous in 1953 after he claimed ownership of the moon, because he wanted a world without jealousy, hate, vices, and violence. Martin Juergens from Germany claims that the moon has been in his family since 1756 when the Prussian King Frederick the Great conferred the moon to one of his ancestors as a symbolic gesture of gratitude for services carried out to him. James T. Mangan, a self-help author publicly claimed ownership of outer space in 1948. The following year he founded what he called the Nation of Celestial Space and registered it on Illinois. Who owns the moon is a complicated subject.
SRS: The moon is a fairly potent symbol — one that has been with man throughout the ages. Do you think accessing places like the moon compromises their symbolic potential? Or is this art show just another way of leveraging humanity’s ongoing symbolic relationship with the moon?
Joey Cannizzaro: The shiftiness of the moon as a symbol is definitely part of what drew me to the project and why I think a speculative “Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon” has a lot of potential. I’m personally more interested in the moon’s blankness than in its specificity; that is, it seems like the lack of life or activity of any sort, combined with its bare geography allows us to project onto it in a way that a more specific location or symbol would resist.
JO: I think all symbols like these start losing their mysticism once we start knowing more about them — their mysticism comes from not understanding them. But with the advance of technology and science this starts to fade. Though there are always people who keep this mysticism alive; we can see this in a lot of New Age movements.
SRS: But we happen to live in the tiny sliver of human history when the moon is physically accessible and therefore concrete, rather than mythical, remote, and therefore mysterious.
JC: The moon seems to invite this sort of speculation precisely because of the spatial relationship you bring up: it’s far away but inextricably tied to the Earth; it has been accessed but it is not actually accessible to any of us. That relationship will inevitably change once the moon is actually an accessible location for the hyper-wealthy, galactic elite, but for the present moment it still provides an exciting scaffolding for our futurist imaginary — something that is desperately needed unless we want to cede the future entirely to corporate free marketeers.
JO: By now, human colonization of the moon is inevitable. Space experts are discussing a “moon village” within the next seven years, all for the cost of 10 billion dollars — that’s cheaper than one US aircraft carrier.
SRS: A show of moon art can’t help but be a little playful, but there are still serious curatorial considerations, of course. How did you select participants? What constraints, if any, did you offer? Is this a show about the moon, or is it, in fact, still a show about Earth?
JC: I don’t mean to fall into a play/seriousness binary here. Play is political to me, and I gravitate towards other artists, curators, and critics who tend to share this view. There’s definitely some tension in this show between the playful and the political. I think a lot of us involved in art, and every other field really, are going through a moment of crisis because of the current political climate, and I do honestly feel that artists have done more to affirm the status quo as these missionaries for the cult of self-expression than to create radical change in society.
Now, a lot of the reason for this reality is structural in that artists are some of the most precarious laborers; only the administrators get paid a salary in the field of art, so there is an underlying conservatism that is honestly pretty pathetic and limiting. That’s why my goal in curating this show was to use MOCAM, an imaginary museum, as a jumping-off platform to discuss with artists what kind of anti-capitalist futures they can actually imagine — whether that is about the future of art alone or society at large. It’s funny because my own curatorial essay for the show is relatively serious, but there’s a ton of humor in the works.
SRS: Are you working from a tradition of moon art? Are there shows that set the precedent for this one?
JO: We can say with certainty that the moon has always been a center of reverence for human beings. The first depiction of the moon was discovered to be a 5,000-year-old stone carving in Knowth, Ireland. The Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon was designed to think about the real possibilities of constructing physical space on the moon, as designed by the architect Mauricio Mastropiero. He dedicated a lot of time on the project and we both discussed after extensive research what would be the most realistic options of said space. This is not the first architectonic proposal for the moon, but it may be the first one creating a venue in regards to the display of art.
MOCAM’s architectural style has been conceived of as an extension of human life and pays homage to our natural instinct for exploration. This complex proposes a lunar architecture that honors its Earthly origins and at the same time, adapts to the physical forces of our moon. Even though this museum is an art piece in itself, you can visit the exhibitions online anytime you want, with the added potential of becoming a reality in the future. Having a museum of contemporary art on the moon is not only about the future of the arts; it’s about the future of humanity.
SRS: To me, buying speculative property on the moon speaks to a kind of crossover, where things that once were science fiction are becoming “speculative” fiction — or sometimes becoming reality. By speculating with ideas that are attached to ownership and financial investment, we create multiple meanings for speculation. Is this conceptually “speculative” art, or financially speculative art? Or is all art speculative in both manners? Is there a chance — as we are very much seeing now, in terms of dystopian sci-fi and political satire — that one day this “speculative” act will manifest in reality?
JC: I think the speculative turn you’re talking about is really important to point out, and I’m glad you draw the relationship to speculative capital. The difference to me between sci-fi and speculative fiction — and I’m poorly paraphrasing Margret Atwood here — is that speculative fiction is much closer to our reality, it involves imagining plausible near futures and elaborating them, for better or for worse. I don’t think this is new at all, though it may currently be a fashionable genre. I immediately think of Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany, which plays out the ramifications of a localized apocalypse wherein all of a particular city’s organized institutions and underlying structure have collapsed. Or if we’re looking for this kind of speculation in the visual arts, maybe Constant Nieuwenhuys’s series New Babylon is worth considering as a work of speculative fiction, mapping and building out some of the theories of the situationists.
In this show, I think of works by Salome Asega and Ayodamola Okunseinde, who are the creators of the Iyapo Repository, an ongoing archive of collectively conceived Afrofuturist technology. They asked that MOCAM donate an acre of land to the group to become a permanent location in space for their repository. This way of using institutional frames in order to insert something fictitious into the real public narrative is to me a really potent strategy; it does something more than representation. They use a participatory game model to come up with these technologies, so the process and the aesthetic are really playful. But they also don’t shy away from real political trauma and injustice. For example, one of the technological innovations is a futuristic visor for law enforcement that would use VR to make everyone they encounter look the same. Now, I don’t know if this would really solve the issue of racial profiling, but putting out an idea like that, with all of its problematics, helps us come to new ways of thinking by actually imagining and playing out the results of the technology in our minds.
To touch on the connection to speculative capital, I feel strongly that there’s been such an explosion of interest in these kinds of speculative art works or imaginary framings because there’s a greater understanding of how fictitious and constructed the real world, and the rules that govern it, are. It’s also no coincidence that post-modern and post-structural theory arose in tandem with the power of finance capital, since both highlight (and/or) exploit the contingent nature of meaning. You see why this would appeal to those in the field of art whose basic activity is meaning-making. However, we’ll need to be cautious not to fall into the neoliberal grooves left by the financial class. That is to say, if we just use our ability to manipulate narrative and construct meaning as a way to gain power for ourselves and to grow our personal brands, then we’ll never be more than unwitting missionaries, doing magic tricks to dazzle the crowd.
Mystic Hyperstitians in the Heart of Empire will continue on the Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon (MOCAM) website indefinitely. The Museum of Real and Odd continues at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E South St, Indianapolis) through April 15. The ongoing work of MOCAM can be found here. At some future point, works may be staged in archived order in the moon facility.