Trevor Paglen creates the most public art in the universe.
Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4), 2013
Frieze Art Fair, London, October 2013
This time last year artist, photographer, and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen launched a small, gold-plated disc into space with the help of New York-based public arts body Creative Time, and the communications satellite EchoStar XVI. The piece, aptly titled The Last Pictures, was a collection of one hundred photographs micro-etched onto an ultra-archival disc. The Last Pictures is currently swirling above our heads and will remain in outer space, slowly revolving around the globe ad infinitum.
Prowler (Stealthy Geosynchronous Satellite Interceptor; Deployed from STS-38), 2012
Back to the present, on earth the Frieze Art Fair in London has just played host to Paglen's latest project, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite. Brought over from San Francisco and represented by the Altman Siegel Gallery, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite is a (currently) 80% space-worthy prototype of a unique design by Paglen that could see the world's first public art satellite orbit the earth. The idea of the piece is to put the technology normally employed by the military to artistic use, subverting traditional engineering for creative reasons.
Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010
The further reaches (both physically and metaphorically) of the military are a familiar topic for Paglen, and the broad subject of a number of books written by him, including Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World.
Paglen aims to use art to free science and engineering from its current governmental mores. The almost philanthropic gestures of The Last Pictures and Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite stands testament to the emphasis that Paglen places on holistic vision.
The mission of intent for the Nonfunctional Satellite is to orbit the earth where it will open up and twinkle as it shuttles through the sky, the Mylar reflective exterior enabling the satellite to reflect the beams of the sun. The piece will be visible from earth and resemble something of a "constantly shimmering star." This romantic vision of setting free technology from the grips of human tyranny is almost irresistible.
At the Frieze Art Fair, the prototype was available to buy for $75,000. It's a just a model so it's not actually ready to go into space, but with each reiteration Paglen hopes to work out some of the kinks and, the gallery assures, is moving further in the direction of actually launching a satellite.
Also at the fair, perhaps by way of some kind of context and explanation of Paglen as a photographer, sits one of the series from The Other Night Sky, a project that tracked classified American satellites and obscure objects through space. But it's the satellite dangling overhead that draws in the audience.
Trevor Paglen at the Altman Siegel booth, Frieze Art Fair, 2013
How long until the satellite has to change its name because of an impending launch?
Well it's a question of both years and finances. Paglen is currently working through some of the technical obstacles, but the real problem is finding funding because buying space as a secondary payload is quite expensive. Frieze Art Fair was seen by the gallery as an awareness-raising exercise. When asked about the success of this, they said that one US and one UK institution had expressed real interest.
How much money would the gallery like to have? What would it take to get this thing going? The gallery says that preliminary budgeting is around $1.4 million, not an unapproachable figure considering the neighboring Jeff Koons pieces were selling for $6 million. Asking about what would eventually happen to this "twinkling" art project and the concern that it might just end up as space junk brought the reassurance that the piece won't go into a high enough orbit, and earth's gravity will eventually pull it back down, burning it up on re-entry. A sort of yin to The Last Picture's yang. Paglen's artwork seems to be so consumed with these gestures they could easily be seen as symbolic, like much of the work at Frieze Art Fair, but instead they are real. The impression is that Paglen won't be satisfied until the piece moves from the gallery to the edges of our world, so perhaps one day soon we'll be watching the night skies for the most public art in the universe?