“There’s no such thing as a civilian space program, and there never will be,” Trevor Paglen says with a resigned laugh. It’s early October, and we’re talking in an office at New York University’s AI Now Institute, where the 44-year-old is an Artist Fellow. But lately he’s been spending time in Nevada, working on one of humankind’s first works of fine art to be displayed in the infinite gallery of space.
“When we’re looking at spaceflight,” he says, “it has everything to do with military and other attempts to exert power over the planet from that high ground, whether that’s surveillance, targeting or delivering weapons.”
Call it Orbital Realism: Space travel is inextricable from the military-industrial complex. So how can an artist hold up a mirror to such a vast and shadowy milieu? If you’re Trevor Paglen, you do just that: You design a giant reflective sculpture, and you shoot it into space.
Paglen’s extraterrestrial artwork is named Orbital Reflector. The diamond-shape, 100-foot-long inflatable object launched last December, with the goal of ripping through the night skies in low orbit for about six to eight weeks. It looks just like a slow-moving star in the Big Dipper and will complete a revolution around the world about every 90 minutes. Ultimately, it will burn to nothing in Earth’s atmosphere.
You’re provoking a conversation about who should have the rights to do what in a space—pardon my pun—that we instinctually think of as a shared resource, which it is.
“I think it’s provocative to say, ‘I’m going to make something and put it in the sky and it will be visible from Earth,’” Paglen explains. “You’re provoking a conversation about what the legitimate uses of space are. You’re provoking a conversation about who should have the rights to do what in a space—pardon my pun—that we instinctually think of as a shared resource, which it is.”
“Trevor is not advocating that artists begin shooting satellites into orbit,” says David Walker, executive director and CEO of the Nevada Museum of Art, which partnered with Paglen on the project. “What he’s doing is asking us to reconsider the preciousness of Earth.” And of course Orbital Reflector’s location gives it a simple, striking characteristic: “More people will see it and know about it than just about any artwork that’s ever been created,” Walker says.