We Can’t Stop Thinking About The Future: Artist Aleksandra Mir Speaks with the Space World
by Aleksandra Mir
Strange Attractor Press/MIT Press, 2017
paperback, 144 pp., illus.
The Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England nearly a millennium ago, is nearly 70 meters long. Aleksandra Mir, a London-based artist, found that length insufficient when choosing to depict the conquest of space. Her Space Tapestry is three meters wide and 200 meters long, with a variety of scenes on space-related topics. “The work draws out themes relating to current debates, recorded events, scientific discoveries, technological innovations and predictions of an imagined future that currently affect all our lives,” states the description of the work on her website.
The book We Can’t Stop Thinking About The Future is tied to an exhibition of the tapestry this year at two British museums (one, at Modern Art Oxford, remains open until November 12.) The book, as you might expect, includes images of parts of that tapestry, and a little bit of behind-the-scenes story of making the tapestry, which involves Mir and a team of assistants spending about 3,000 hours using markers on a synthetic canvas.
The book, though, is more than just about the artwork itself. Much of the book is a series of interviews Mir performed with scientists, engineers, and others involved in space in one capacity or another. They range from ESA Director-General Jan Wörner to scientists involved in the processing and presentation of astronomical images to engineers working on spacecraft. It’s an eclectic, but entertaining and enlightening, combination.
As an artist and an outsider to the space field, Mir brings curiosity and naiveté to her interviews, and a different way of looking at things. Recalling a 2015 British space conference where attendees were excited about astronaut Tim Peake’s upcoming space flight, she described the meeting’s atmosphere as “a mix between a Beyoncé concert and a megachurch gathering.” She then marvels at a scientist who, at that conference, called astronauts “glorified lab technicians” for carrying out experiments on the International Space Station. “It was the most radical thing I had seen in ages—and I work in the art world!”
Those interviews, though, do draw out some interesting discussions about science, technology, policy, and art as it applies to space. In one of those interviews, an astronomer describes how he intended to use the Hubble Space Telescope to observe a distant quasar. However, because of an error in the object’s coordinates, the telescope instead observed a different part of the sky, and saw nothing. The astronomer showed the resulting image, revealing only the variations in the detector itself and “the wash of very faint radiation coming from deep space.” That error delights Mir. “It is radical!” she exclaims, concluding the image “should be in a museum, next to all those other artworks that celebrate voids.”
The book, and the artwork, is certainly a different take on space, but one that offers a useful alternative perspective. (That perspective is presumably welcomed by at least some in the field: the exhibition was supported in part by the UK Space Agency and Science and Technology Facilities Council.) Spaceflight is more than just rockets and spacecraft: it’s also a mindset about how and why we want to travel into, or at least remotely study, the universe, one that goes beyond the hard science and technology. And even in failed efforts, like that mistaken Hubble image, one can find art, and insight.