On Saturday 18 February, Thomas Pesquet achieved a feat on the International Space Station by producing the first work of art in space. Works had already been taken up towards the stars but never had an astronaut created one. Conceived by Eduardo Kac, who has been fascinated with science since the start of his career, Inner Telescope is a reflection on man’s place in space. Thomas Pesquet made it using simple materials that contrast strongly with the complexity of its setting. It was composed of two sheets of paper. The first was cut into the shape of the letter “M”, which then had a circle cut in it to form an “O”. A rolled sheet of paper, suggesting the letter “I”, was then slid through the hole. The resulting “MOI” (French for “Me”) was then able to float before Pesquet.
“Eduardo proposed an extremely simple yet meaningful work of art in the highly technical setting of the Space Station”, explained the director of the Observatoire de l’Espace and astrophysician Gérard Azoulay. “It is an object that makes it possible to observe oneself in space and which only exists in a weightless environment”. In order for this small moment of poetry to take place, the performance had to be treated as a space project. He had to obtain Thomas Pesquet’s agreement, write a script, create a file….
An anthropological approach to space
Since the early 2000s, the Observatoire de l’Espace has regularly forged links between art and space, between poets, visual artists, authors, sculptors and scientists. How might an artist tackle Yuri Gagarin’s visit to Ivry in 1963? What would he propose on discovering the images of a simulation of a mission to Mars that never left Earth? The approach that Gérard Azoulay has taken since the creation of the Observatoire de l’Espace is to think of space from the standpoint of human stories like these.
The French Space Agency’s art and science laboratory (Observatoire de l’Espace) has two programs: first the “Cultural History of Space”, which, as Gérard Azoulay explains, “reveals the little-known documentary elements that allow the space adventure to be appreciated in a different manner”, through the work of doctoral students and researchers. The second is “Creation, space and imagination”, which is inspired by the first. It invites artists, writers and musicians to work on the basis of residencies and calls for projects. Each year, at the time of the Nuit Blanche, the Observatoire offers artists a theme around which they can take a more anthropological approach to space, very different from the images made popular by science-fiction films. “We avoid well-known facts so as to encourage new directions”, continues the Observatoire’s director.
A Utopian festival
The artists all choose a different manner to approach the adventure of space. Bertrand Dezoteux, who was the resident artist and won the Audi Talents Prize in 2015, recounted the Mars 500 program using puppets. Visual artist Bertrand Rigaux focused on the color blue for his project Ciel and had a camera installed on a CNES balloon. “Space offers an approach to all aspects of our world”, Gérard Azoulay explains. “The fact of going into space has altered our way of thinking about the world and the scope of our imaginations”.
For the time being, the Observatoire de l’Espace is preparing the festival “Sidération”, which will take place at CNES from 24-26 March and focus this year on Utopias. The festival offers a window on the many activities taking place in the department and the chance to discover a documentary about Inner Telescope directed by Virgile Novarina, the film of the performance, as well as new works by Eduardo Kac, Bertrand Dezoteux, Nicolas Montgermont and Romain Sein, among others. It is at this festival that the artists meet the scientists of the CNES. “The festival project is about experimentation. Everyone has to try something different”, says Gérard Azoulay. So make the appointment at the CNES over the weekend of 24-26 March to see space in a new light.