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Interview: Life on Mars, Art on the Moon?

10/10/2016

Sónar+D talks to Bernard Foing from the European Space Agency about what role artists can play in an off-world community.

78,340,000 KM. That’s the average distance between Earth and Mars. While it might still seem like a long way, last week it got conceptually shorter with SpaceX‘s announcement of the Interplanetary Transport System, (or our preferred name for the project, the Big Fucking Spaceship). In a presentation at the International Astronautical Conference, Elon Musk set out his company’s plan to take the first step towards a permanent settlement on the red planet in as little as ten years time And while this doesn’t mean we should all be planning what to pack for a -55º summer, It has raised serious questions about what form an off world civilization could take: After all, a permanent ‘self sustaining’ human colony, would bring with it not just scientific challenges, but also cultural ones: reconfiguring our identity as a species, and also calling for responses to new experiences. As the question of ‘how will we get there?’ starts to be answered, the next question begs; ‘Once there, How will we adapt?’.

Someone who has pondered these questions in detail is Bernard Foing. A noted astrophysist at the European Space Agency, and executive director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group; Foing’s current focus is the creation of a permanent base on the moon. This ‘moonvillage’, is envisioned both as a replacement for the International Space station (due to be decommissioned in 2018, but possibly extended until 2024), and as potential stepping stone for exploring further into space, including to Mars. Elements of the moonvillage were explored at this years’ TodaysArt Festival in The Hague, with an interactive exhibition, as well as a panel discussion, presented by Sónar+D and hosted by Foing titled ‘Art, Astrophysics and Moonmars’, where the artistic, as well as the scientific implications of off-world settlements were explored. Earlier this week, we interviewed Bernard for his insights into off world exploration, and to find out if art can exist in the vacuum of space.

Hi Bernard, do you think we’re living through a particular highpoint of public interest in Space?
Yeah well you know every time we launch a mission to the moon or to mars it makes the news, and this happens every year. So I think that the public has always been interested and engaged. What’s changed is that up until now these have been robotic missions, and now that the terrain is prepared for human missions, it’s appealing to a broader category of people.

How does the moonvillage fit into all this?
The vision is for a permanent human presence and activity on the surface of the moon. This will be for multiple users from a number of countries, and created with an open architecture. The community will be focused on science, but also technology and economic development within a peaceful political project. Philosophically speaking I guess it will be like a new renaissance, happening off the ground.

Will there be a direct role for artists in this settlement?
I see there being a role both for professional artists, and the artist as citizen. I believe we should all be a part time scientist but also a part time artist. The human mind has the ability to perform all these activities from art to science to philosophy, so we should not be put into boxes. All artists, professional and part time, can be helpful to reprocess the data we get from exploration, and to give it a human face for society. They can also go beyond the data, finding new meanings, as well as to create a narrative for exploration. But I also believe an artist is not just a messenger, but also an actor. They can also participate, preserving the aspects of humanity that we want to preserve as we move into this future of space exploration.

Obviously this is still a little way off. How are artists involved in the project at this stage?
We work with a small number of individual artists who are really engaged with the project in various ways. For example, commissioning artwork to be flown into space. But we’ve also been working in the field, organizing workshops such as Bright Collisions at TodaysArt. This is a workshop where you have artists, designers and engineers with different vocabularies, that can enrich each other through working on this theme of space exploration.

Moving forward, what kind of work would artists be doing on Mars?

We’ve actually tested this, in moon mars simulations where we isolated a group in an extreme environment, communicating only through radio signals. We always try to include a ‘humanist’ in these crews, and this can be an artist, an anthropologist or a journalist for example. On one hand, they contribute to the tasks like the other crew members, but they also provide a humanistic view of the campaign. Of course it depends on the artist following the rules – not deciding to leave the habitat and die as an artistic statement for instance. The best kind of artists for such a mission would be those who can create, while also taking part in the wider work required of them.

Finally, do you think that due to technological developments, today science is influencing art, rather than the other way round?
I think it depends on the type of art, for instance film still has the ability to influence the public imagination to an incredible degree. But it is true that today scientists are discovering worlds that are richer and more complex than anything we had imagined before.

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