Books

Aleksandra Mir Delves into the Mysteries of the Universe

Mir shares the interviews she conducted with 16 space scientists and academics, many of whom helped to inform her series of black-and-white drawings of space travel.

Installation view of Space Tapestry: Earth Observation & Human Spaceflight, Modern Art Oxford, June 24–November 12, 2017 (image courtesy Aleksandra Mir)

We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future is technically a catalogue for Aleksandra Mir’s recent exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Tate Liverpool, but it’s also much more than that, with the focus not so much on the artwork as on the people and stories behind it. Mir combines images of her most recent large-scale project, Space Tapestry, with interviews she conducted with 16 space scientists and academics, many of whom helped to inform her series of black-and-white drawings of space travel, influenced by the Bayeux Tapestry and depictions of Halley’s Comet in the Middle Ages.

Bayeux Tapestry Scene 32: Men staring at Halley’s Comet (image courtesy Myrabella, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1066, when the bright, burning light of Halley’s Comet was observed passing through the sky over England, it was seen as an omen. In October of that same year, the Norman invasion at the Battle of Hastings took the life of King Harold II, and William the Conqueror was crowned king on Christmas Day. The celestial event played such a large role in public memory that Halley’s Comet was even woven into the Bayeux Tapestry.

Like its historical predecessor, Aleksandra Mir’s Space Tapestry tells a visual story created by a team of collaborators, all of whom labored together to create the immense work by hand. In preparation for the project, Mir sought information and advice from more than a dozen scientists who specialize in all things related to space — from satellite designers to astrophysicists and even the Director General of the European Space Agency. When the project was finally completed two years later, she came back to interview them for the catalogue.

Mir’s conversations veer from discussions of her project attempting to capture the “Hubble aesthetic” to how agencies choose astronauts — scientists or pilots? Military or civilian? — the complications of planetary nomenclature, and even the democratization of space and space tourism. Often, the worlds of science and the arts collide in unexpected ways.

First TV image of Mars (image courtesy NASA/JPL/Dan Goods)

In her conversation with astronomer Marek Kukula, Mir discovers that the very first digital image of Mars was actually a crayon drawing from the 1960s. It seems the scientists couldn’t wait to find out what the landscape looked like — the computer took a long time to generate an image from numbers in what was one of the first digital imaging technologies, so they hand-colored it, like a paint-by-numbers picture. Mir and Kukula also discuss the importance of photography to astronomy, and vice versa. (In the early days of photography, while the art world fought over whether or not it was too mechanical to be art, researchers argued that it might not be mechanical enough for science.) Mir even encourages Kukula to publish a scientifically useless photo of empty space — the telescope was pointed at the wrong coordinates — as art.

Cover of We Can’t Stop Thinking About The Future: ARTIST ALEKSANDRA MIR SPEAKS WITH THE SPACE WORLD, Strange Attractor Press, London / MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (image courtesy Aleksandra Mir)

Mir talks with Jill Stuart, director of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International, about the question of colonization (“we search the universe to find ourselves,” Stuart says), and to space archaeologist Alice Gorman about translating Aboriginal cultures into space and protecting “lunar heritage” and the site of the 1969 moon landing. Stuart Eves, who is developing the concept of “Space Traffic Control,” discusses cleaning up space debris and the catalogue of 23,000 objects (excluding military technology) that often collide, creating space shrapnel. Apparently, in the old days, lens caps on cameras in outer space were designed to just pop off into the ether.

One of the most humbling conversations in terms of the limits of human knowledge is toward the end of the book, when medical doctor and space physiologist Thais Russomano ponders how familiar forces we thought we knew about (like gravity) act on the human body in outer space. “Gravity has other effects we don’t know about yet,” she says, citing a recent study that found an increased pressure on the human brain in what we always thought of as a micro-gravity environment. (There’s no such thing as true “zero gravity.”)

Some of Aleksandra Mir’s assistants pose in front of a work at Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions, Tate Liverpool, June 23–October 15, 2017 (image courtesy Aleksandra Mir)

Like much of Mir’s artwork, We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future is a collaboration, with the artist serving as a manager of sorts. The book isn’t even directly about her. Rather, the conversational interviews delving into the mysteries of the universe are littered with clues about Mir, her projects and philosophies. It’s especially refreshing to read interviews that cross disciplines. What brings all these people together is an unbridled curiosity. As Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency tells Mir, “it is in our genes to discover the unknown.”

We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future is out now from MIT Press.

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