“When We Talk About Space Activities, We Are Talking About The Future Of Humanity."
As the first artist to launch an interactive artwork in outer space, Nahum founded KOSMICA to bring a socio-political and artistic lens to space exploration.
Throughout history, humankind has shared a common trait: an unrelenting fascination with the cosmos.
From the Mayans who built pyramids in harmony with the Sun to the Egyptians who traced the seasons by the movement of the stars. For thousands of years our species has studied the night sky and asked: what else is out there? It’s a fascination rooted in our primordial hunger to believe in something bigger than us, to understand and conquer the great unknown.
We are no longer just looking at the stars but reaching for them, with huge advances in astronautical engineering over the last fifty years making public space travel a not-so-distant reality. With billionaires bankrolling space missions, private companies profiting from asteroid mining and discussions about ‘colonies’ on Mars, the question some are asking is not ‘how’ we get to space, but why? Are we learning from our mistakes on Earth, or simply transferring our culture of extraction to new territories?
For artist and academic Nahum, who in 2018 was the first artist to launch an interactive artwork in outer space, the way we interact with space today is deeply rooted in culture. Having graduated from the Space Studies Program at the International Space University in Israel, in 2011 Nahum founded KOSMICA, a global institute bringing this cultural and political lens to space exploration.
Space agencies are employing the latest technologies and science, but their cultural approach relies on frameworks that are 500 years old.
Raised in Mexico-city, Nahum was the first artist to be recognised as a Young Space Leader by the International Astronautical Federation. Today his artwork, The Contour of Presence, is currently floating 400km above the earth’s surface aboard the International Space Station.
To Nahum, the logistics of space travel opens up a much deeper set of questions about who we are, and who we want to become as a species. In this interview, journalist Rosamund Brennan speaks with Nahum from his studio in Berlin about asteroid mining, his mission to ‘decolonise space exploration’ and the role of art and narrative in building an expansive, imaginative blueprint for the future of humanity.
Rosamund: ‘Decolonising space exploration’ is obviously quite a foreign concept to most people. Could you explain what it means within the context of your work?
Nahum: Yes, of course. Firstly when we talk about space activities, we are talking about the future of humanity. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what we are able to do as humans. When you look into what's been written about space exploration you'll find one word written over and over again: colonisation. Colonising Mars, having colonies on the Moon and so on. I find it incredible that when we are thinking about the future of humanity, we are still using that word. Space agencies are employing the latest technologies and science, but their cultural approach relies on frameworks that are 500 years old.
In my work as an artist and activist I like to use this point to provoke a discussion. You know, how and why are we still using that word? Colonising is something very specific. It’s going to a foreign territory and claiming it as ours, imposing our culture and exploiting resources. And most people will say “oh, there's no life in these places, on the Moon, on Mars.” But if we think carefully, it's not about how we deal only with life, but it's also how we deal with non-human entities. A lot of the problems that we're seeing on Earth today are because we have mistreated non-human entities—the atmosphere, minerals, the deep ocean, for example. So, for me it’s very important that we innovate in the field of ideas and culture as well.
We are exporting the logic of mass extraction to outer space, when the stars don't belong to any one culture or tradition.
Rosamund: Yeah, absolutely. So, it seems that space exploration is a deeply political exercise. In your understanding, who holds the power? Who is at the helm of these organisations and what influences are they dealing with?
Nahum: This is a very interesting point. It is highly political but none of the space agencies want to admit that it is. This is largely because, space agencies depend on budgets, and therefore, on politicians to give them the funding for activities. And of course, space activities are expensive and time consuming, so they really have to convince politicians to give them enough funding for all these developments. So, space agencies tend to be very conservative when it comes to being politically outspoken.
They will never talk in political terms, even though we have to sometimes, like the last SpaceX launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May this year. Of course it was a great achievement for a privately owned space company to use public funding to make that happen, but what we saw on that day was a patriarchal, nationalistic show. It was a celebration of one country, and I really think space can do better than that.
So I would say that politicians still exert a lot of power over the sector. Although now it is changing to private space companies and that brings another set of challenges. Internationally speaking, the United Nations has a committee for supervising the space treaties, but most space treaties are very old. They were written in the 60s and 70s, so they're not updated for a contemporary global context.
Rosamund: What are some of the more troubling or unethical space practices you’ve come across?
Nahum: In the international space treaty I just mentioned, it says that no countries or individuals should claim ownership of celestial bodies. However, a few years ago, the US passed a law that allows private companies to profit from celestial bodies. So the question is: is profiting from something a way of owning it? Surely, you have to own it to profit from it, otherwise you're stealing. In April this year, Trump signed an executive order to support the mining of natural resources on the Moon and asteroids. This goes against international law. It’s also problematic because we are exporting the Western logic of mass extraction to outer space, when the stars don't belong to any one culture or tradition. It tells us that toxic capitalism is still lurking in our future.
The Mexicas had such a profound understanding of our connection to the universe that carried through all aspects of their life.
Rosamund: So how is it that the US can dictate these things when there are international treaties?
Nahum: Well this is the discussion that has to take place in the United Nations. My assumption is that the international community that gathers in the United Nations are sometimes not very willing to discuss the space treaties in depth because of all the military implications. Some people say that discussing this would be like opening Pandora’s box.
Rosamund: I mean it's fascinating because it's this intangible area of the law that no one outside of space circles really knows much about, and yet these unethical practices are happening under our nose.
Nahum: Yes absolutely. But also, even within the space community the kinds of discourses that we have on the table are varying. No one is really talking about the role of Indigenous cultures in space, for example, not in any substantial way. And I think it’s time we learned new ways of engaging with the world and universe—this means Indigenous cultures, this means women, queer and people with different skin colour. What we're learning is that we've been dominating humanity’s activities with only one view.
Rosamund: Yes, integrating marginalised voices is obviously a huge part of the equation. What can space institutions learn from Indigenous cultures and their understanding of the universe?
Nahum: This is a huge conversation as Indigenous knowledge is not just one way of thinking, it is extremely varied. But what stands out for me is their awareness of non-human entities and how they connect with them. For example, I come from a valley which is today called Mexico City. That's my motherland. And in that place we had a few civilisations, including the Mexicas, who were known to plan entire cities in relation to the stars and the universe. In Western societies we might think of this as surface level or decorative—but it is so much more than that. The Mexicas had such a profound understanding of our connection to the universe that carried through all aspects of their life.
To Western sensibilities this is too poetic, but to Indigenous peoples these are facts, this is a natural and cosmic reality.
Human beings forget that we evolved in this planet attuned to the stars, to the light of the Sun, to its brightness and its warmth. The composition of our bodies literally has ingredients that were formed in supernovas, but today we are seeing so much pain and suffering because of the apparent differences between humans. It’s so important to look beyond, and to realise that we all have the same ingredients that are found in the universe. To Western sensibilities this is too poetic, but to indigenous peoples these are facts, this is a natural and cosmic reality. I really believe that we need to feel or to listen more to these ways of understanding ourselves within a cosmic dimension.
Rosamund: When I was researching this piece I discovered that a Professor at the University of Toronto tried to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the astronomy course, and was met with huge push back by other academics. Why do you think there is such a resistance from Western science?
Nahum: I think it comes down to different ways of understanding the world. Science is a body of knowledge that is acquired a by very specific method. Of course the scientific method is great because it allows you to verify information using systematic observation and measurement. But at the same time it has its limitations and there are many criticisms about how reductionist and hierarchical it is.
Indigenous knowledge operates in a different way. Normally it tends to be more associated with more spiritual practices and exploring ambiguities. For example, they have spiritual intermediaries like Shamans — profoundly wise and enlightened people who work as an interface between human and non-human entities. Because of the way Western brains have been programmed, and because of our cultural bias, we immediately dismiss this kind of thinking and don’t put it on an equal footing with science.
Rosamund: So in your view what would be some tangible steps towards making space exploration more inclusive of these views?
Nahum: Firstly I think we need to create opportunities for marginalised peoples to have a voice in space institutions. Right now, we have three countries in the world that are really strong in terms of space activities: The USA, Russia and China. It’s not that these countries don’t have diversity within them, but there is economic inequality within them that excludes certain segments of the population from participating. It’s global political conversation, and I think many of the systems we need to address this simply don’t exist yet.
Social justice is a slow process but the next generation have much better tools to address it.
Rosamund: Yeah, for sure. And I guess another strategy is to ensure that the education systems offer a diverse coursework that kind of includes all of these perspectives.
Nahum: Yes, that is exactly right. In fact I’ve been working on designing the Humanities department for one of the programmes at the International Space University to consider the broader cultural and philosophical considerations of space, including feminism, Indigenous cultures and decolonisation.
Rosamund: Do you feel that the next generation of space professionals are more open to that way of thinking?
Nahum: I would like to think so. I’m in touch with many young professionals and they're much more aware of artists and cultural ideas. They are more aware of growth, of the problems that we have on Earth, and what the space community can do for social movements. Of course, social justice is a slow process but the next generation have much better tools to address it.
Rosamund: How are you addressing these ideas in your art practice and your work with KOSMICA Institute?
Nahum: At KOSMICA we run a number of activities that bridge the arts and humanities, the space sector and the wider society. We've already been working for a long time in space feminism and we’re also working on a project on Indigenous knowledge called ‘First Skies’. This will include some public programmes and also a series of books—each one dedicated to one of these critical conversations. We’re looking to find publishers at the moment, we have to find one who is brave enough. My plan is that everyone who is working in space agencies will know about these books. I’m also writing a lyrical book about our relationship with the universe. It contains poetry and stories of experiences I’ve had with outer space that have really moved me.
One of the great things about being an artist is to have the freedom to talk about issues that some other people can't.
In terms of my art practice, I’m working on an art project called ‘Conjuring Time’, which will interrogate our experience of time through ‘long jumps’ from the edge of the planet back to Earth to and experience of the flow of time differently. We don’t have any organs that sense time, it is an entirely human construct. Apparently during long jumps our experience of time is distorted. Right now I’m exploring the possibilities (and the dangers) of making this happen.
Rosamund: Fantastic, I can’t wait to see this come to fruition. Tell me, what is it like being a Latin American artist in these predominantly white, conservative institutions? Are your viewpoints encouraged and accepted?
Nahum: One of the great things about being an artist is to have the freedom to talk about issues that some other people can't because they are in paid roles and very political contexts. When I was speaking at the International Astronautical Congress a man from the European Space Agency sitting next to me handed me a piece of paper asking me to speak about military satellites, a very controversial area of space activities which he didn’t have the freedom to address. So I got up there and I asked the question. I think these people really appreciate my presence as someone who can be provocative and interrogate old modes of thinking. They wish they can could address these things, but instead they just ask an artist. We are free.
Rosamund: Yes and that's why we need the voices of artists, they are critical thinkers who ask the question why. It’s been interesting here in Australia to see artists get side-lined as a ‘non-essential’ profession during the pandemic. It begs the question, what is the real motivation for trying to silence them?
Nahum: Yes we do need them, perhaps now more than ever. And it is often the same political agendas that think science is not that important who also think art is not important. I think it’s very telling indeed.
Rosamund: Do you think politicians should go to space?
Nahum: I think they should be the first ones, whatever we can do to make them see beyond borders and gain an understanding of how we are all part of the same planet.
Rosamund: Would you like to go to space?
Nahum: I'm often asked this question. My answer is that we are already in space, we are actually already on one of the most wonderful planets in the whole universe.
Words by Rosamund Brennan
Writing at the nexus of social justice, politics, culture and identity, Rosamund Brennan is a freelance journalist based in Fremantle, Western Australia, on the traditional tribal territory of the Whadjuk people.
Linus Muellerschoen is a Berlin-based photographer.