An Art Not of this Earth: Eduardo Kac at Sector 2337
Earth has been feeling especially small and dark lately.
Perhaps it’s just the days getting shorter. Or maybe it’s the politics getting more partisan, the hurricanes more destructive, the healthcare more expensive, the gap between very rich and everybody else more immense. But knowing that a work of art was created in outer space floods me with lightness and possibility.
“Inner Telescope” was conceived on earth by Eduardo Kac, an American artist, and fashioned aboard the International Space Station in 2017 by Thomas Pesquet, a French astronaut. It consists of two pieces of paper that together form both a simple spyglass and the letters M-O-I, which means “me” in French. One sheet of paper is cut into the shape of an M; the second paper is rolled and inserted through a hole in the M, thus forming both an O and an I. This completely rinky-dink object, sophomoric in its play on words and forms, banal in its construction, is yet utterly unprecedented and breathtaking. I do not even want to stop thinking about the intergalactic extension of culture that it proposes.
To say that “Inner Telescope,” like many site-specific artworks, can’t be experienced in person is something of an understatement. Instead there have been exhibitions in conventional earthbound galleries in Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv and, most recently, at Sector 2337 in Chicago. Kac filled the Logan Square storefront with a number of ancillary artworks—kaleidoscopic photocollages, colorful machine-knit paintings, a trio of limited-edition artist books—but the humming heart of the presentation was a 12-minute video projected huge inside an open-ended black-box room. Indeed, it quite literally hummed, silent but for the constant atmospheric noise of the ISS.
Fortunately Pesquet recorded the process of snipping paper in a micro-gravity environment. Stray bits don’t fall to the ground, they hover then slowly float away, and the astronaut must reach out and pluck them from the air. There’s no sweeping up in outer space. Sculpture complete, he simply lets go, and it somersaults and spins, then wanders off. Drifting through the corridors of the ISS, bumping into endless banks of wires and monitors, a silly thing amid so much purpose, it never stops moving. Does air do this on earth without our noticing, tethered to the ground as we and our things mostly are? Finally it reaches the cupola, with its dome of windows to the endless stars. Pesquet reaches into the frame, repositions his little sculpture a few times and presto! There is our luminous, ever-rotating Earth, framed as if by a child’s toy.
Artworks have on rare occasion been sent into space—Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, with its selection of humanity’s greatest hits, was packed aboard the Voyager probes in 1977, and more recently Russian cosmonauts have brought Christian icons onto the ISS—but never before has one been made out there in the big beyond. It isn’t often that an entirely novel thing comes into existence, but here it does, and being the first of one’s kind, though sure to invite a certain amount of misunderstanding and disbelief, sure beats being the last. Kac calls it “Space Poetry” and has coined the term “antigravitropism” to describe its creation of new forms that, unlike all artworks created on earth, are not dictated by gravity. Could there be a truer fact more taken for granted?
Extreme innovation, the kind that requires neologisms, is something that Kac might be said to specialize in. He is also the namer of holoart, transgenic art, bioart and the plantimal, a plant infused with human genes. Born in Brazil, the artist, who moved to Chicago in 1989 and has been a professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute since 1997, experimented in the pre-Web days with telecommunication systems like the Minitel, a phone line service through which he animated poems out of letters, colors and lines. He has had himself implanted with a microchip containing a digital time capsule; has translated a sentence from Genesis into DNA and then incorporated it into changeable bacteria; and, in the early aughts, gained infamy for Alba, a glow-in-the-dark green bunny generated in a laboratory by inserting a jellyfish gene into a rabbit.
Kac first tried out weightless poetry in the early 80s, when he fashioned holographic texts that used light beams to write words in three-dimensional space. Much has changed since then, and not just in the art and science worlds through whose intersection the artist drives. In the world of space travel, the traditional government monopolies in place since the dawn of the Space Age have begun to dissolve, with private entrepreneurs taking over where NASA left off, promising a near future in which space travel and perhaps even habitation will be as ordinary as airplane travel today. Kac imagines those alien environments will need art and poetry. Where go humans, goes culture. Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that “Inner Telescope” required years of collaboration between the artist and CNES, the French space agency, and that Pesquet’s mission to the ISS was run by ESA, the European space agency. Or perhaps it makes perfect sense, given the lack of federal funding for individual artists in the United States.
That economic situation not only limits the kinds of artwork done within the boundaries of the US, pushing what gets made ever further in the direction of a stratospherically inflated art market. It also impacts the artist-run and not-for-profit spaces that try so hard to support alternatives. They need money, and when they can’t raise it, they close—as Sector 2337 will do at the end of this year. Founded nearly a decade and a half ago as an apartment gallery and press by Caroline Picard, who called it the Green Lantern in a nod to her superhero alter-ego, Sector 2337 has in recent years become a model for how to run an uncompromising, ambitious, cutting-edge space without being a big institution. While the Green Lantern Press will continue to publish art and poetry books, Picard and her partner Devin King are no longer able to maintain their suavely renovated gallery and bookshop.
Here’s hoping there’s a storefront for rent on the International Space Station.