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This Performance Artist Is Also a Candidate for Space Travel

Brooke Boland

Artist Astronaut Sarah Jane Pell explains why every space program needs a creative perspective.

When we first think of space exploration we imagine the scientific development that makes it possible. The mathematical calculations for launch and re-entry, the practical question of food production, the space suits and oxygen levels that sustain life in space. The subject of creative practice—of performance or artistic endeavour—rarely comes to front of mind. Yet space programs continue to benefit from the creativity of artistic practice. And Australia's first female spaceflight candidate Dr. Sarah Jane Pell is, in fact, a performance artist.

Pell explores the symbiosis of creative practice and scientific discovery as an "Artist Astronaut". Both the artistic and astronautics components of her work have equal weight. In other words, the art isn't supplementary. "Calling art supplementary is like calling it decoration," Pell tells Creators.

"The capacity of an artist is deeper, more complex and culturally significant: stemming from a philosophy of aesthetics and poetics from the sublime to the beautiful and grotesque and everything in between. It is an act, action and activism, a way of being in the world that translates curiosities, insights and provocations about our being in time. It can be invention, experimentation, improvisation, expression, and calculated methodical gesture and mark. Art may manifest in music, movement, the material arts and letters. Art knows no bounds, and therein lays the capacity for new discovery."

"2020 Olympiad" (2013) Film still. Performed & produced by Sarah Jane Pell. Photographer Lucy McRae. (Filmed at the Design Hub)

Pell's performance practice didn't begin in space, but in water. After completing a PhD that explored performance under water, she received a scholarship to attend the International Space University where she started working on a lunar habitat project. Within ten years she qualified as a civilian astronaut candidate and began training for the Project PoSSUM sub-orbital mission in 2016. As a result of these years of training, the trajectory of her work is one that moves between performance, deep-sea diving, and astronautics. "Everything I learned under water completely translated to space. I needed to use the same breathing apparatus, I had to make the same consideration for how I managed life support right through to how I communicated that to an audience. That was my entree into astronautics," she says.

As a trained astronaut, Pell participates in undersea missions that test the limits of the human body in high-risk environments. She has been selected as Prime Crew for the 2018 Project Poseidon 100day Undersea Habitat Mission, where she will undertake six days of arts-led research and participate as a research subject for a 14-day clinical study of long-duration crew relations. She is the outlier, the one who performs differently. But her work is no less exploratory and uses creative expression as a playful mode of discovery.

"Mars SIM" (2013) Sarah Jane Pell on "Mars". Photographer Richard Bryne.
(Filmed at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre Mars Simulation)

The combination of astronautics and performing arts practice provides an opportunity to perform the impact of space travel on the human body and mind, and embody how this environment changes the rhythms and movement of humans through performance. In many ways, this is a communicative process while also an exploratory one with embodiment at the centre. As Pell explains, the often-intangible qualities of experiencing microgravity can be represented through performance in a way that communicates the experience and inhabitation of new worlds. In this way, performance creates a new embodied language that can explore the different rhythms of these environments.

This work is a new frontier of space exploration, which isn't to say astronauts haven't already performed or made objects in space. Pell is quick to point out the creative work of others in her field, such as CSA Astronaut Col. Christopher Hadfield's rendition of David Bowies "Space Odyssey", and NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg, who sewed a star-inspired quilt during her mission in space. As well as those with formal artistic training, such as Alan Bean, Alexi Leonov, and Richard Garriott de Cayeux.

D"Self Portraits" (2016) Dr. Sarah Jane Pell, PoSSUM Artist-Astronaut Candidate.

"Astronauts have a very clear understanding of why space programs need artists," says Pell. "Not necessarily because they understand contemporary arts practices and rationales—but rather that through the experience of human spaceflight, they develop first-hand appreciation for the value of creative expression, personal expression, communication, outreach and human factors. In fact, it is often not until they are in space, that astronauts realise the significance of art. Art is a mechanism for deepening the microgravity experience and orbital perspective. Artistic skills are relatively unspoken requirements of performing and adjusting well to the in-flight environment instead terms like 'creative, inventive, experimental, innovative, or adaptable'." Even after astronauts touch back down, post-flight conditions and the expectation to communicate and educate us more earthbound humans makes art an avenue for shared insight into the experience of space travel.

Pell's work as an Artist Astronaut points to the significance of introducing creative methodologies in scientific fields.

"When art and science come together," she explains, "we no longer focus on narrow disciplinary assumptions, references, languages, or the traditional constraints of methodologies, tools, peer or periodical expectation, and instead we branch out to play, perform and experiment freely, guided by the pursuit of finding or answering a question, with the ability to access all resources available to us, and an informed openness to discovery, bewilderment and transformation."

You can find out more about Sarah Jane Pell's work here.

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