Courtesy of Cameron Yong
Courtesy of Cameron Yong

Space has long been regarded as the final frontier of human travel. But once we have found our place among the stars, what happens to human culture? “Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration” seeks to answer this question through an exhibition of 25 international artists and organizations that closely examines civilian space exploration. Ranging from thought-provoking choreography to collections of some of the first art pieces set in space, Free Enterprise endeavors to meet one goal: delving into the intersection between space exploration and artistic production. And from what I observed during the exhibit’s opening panel and reception on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the UCR ArtsBlock, that goal has absolutely been met.

As art director Tyler Stallings told me during a tour of the exhibit, Free Enterprise has been in the planning stages since spring 2009, but the foundational principles of artists examining the relationship between art and space has existed for ages. The UCR/California Museum of Photography (CMP) holds one of the smallest, yet arguably most important, examples of this examination: a miniscule ceramic tile titled “Moon Museum” by Forrest Myers. Crafted in 1969, it contains the art of six influential artists, including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. One of 20 copies of the tile was hidden within the Apollo 12 lander, which touched down on the moon the same year “Moon Museum” was created. The piece marks one of the first moments in which art physically intertwined with space travel, and its seemingly innocuous appearance represents decades of artists working into zero gravity in order to explore concepts like weightlessness, nothingness and how the body can function in zero gravity.

French choreographer Kitsou Dubois explores zero gravity expression in a phenomenal way by incorporating her dance research into a series of parabolic flights. These flights involve a plane ascending to a high altitude and then free falling, which renders the body weightless for about 20 seconds and is the only way to experience zero gravity on Earth. During her brief period of weightlessness, Dubois and her team explored movement within zero gravity, and the presentation of the finished product is outstanding.

Titled “Bulle,” the installation consists of a long box suspended at eye-level. At one end, a concave bubble projects a looped video of Dubois’ choreography through which viewers can lean their heads and allow the images to fill their peripheral vision. The distorted, all-encompassing video gives the viewer an idea of the zero gravity disorientation Dubois and her team experienced, thereby physically immersing the viewer into their weightless world. Despite my initial reservations about sticking my head in a box, watching the dancers move fluidly and with unbridled curiosity through their padded space inside of the plane was a surreal and strangely beautiful experience.

For future space travelers who wish to recall a sense of home, artist Carrie Paterson has the solution. Paterson’s “Homesickness Kits” are puzzle spheres painted with images of constellations. The sphere is split into smaller, wedge-shaped compartments, each containing a small hole that can be filled with scented wax. During the exhibit’s opening reception, faux-salespeople were available to offer samples of a potential scent. It was a sampling of 20 of the most generally accessible scents on Earth—including sandalwood, birch, pine and jasmine—in a small wax ball, and it reminded me of a woodsy representation of our planet.

Like many of the artists exhibited at Free Enterprise, Paterson is taking active steps to legitimately impact the evolving field of private space exploration and the democratization of space travel; she has a patent pending on her design. From an artistic viewpoint, her product forces the viewer to consider what home will become when man is able to travel through space on a whim. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, Paterson is taking a solid step in the evolving space industry, like many others featured throughout the exhibit.

Courtesy of Cameron Yong

One such example is XCOR, a private company founded in 1999. In the middle of the Mojave desert, XCOR tests plane engines and rocket-powered vehicles as part of their ultimate goal: affordable space travel for private citizens. A few of the engines and planes are presented in the Culver Center, but the most exciting thing to see is a scale model of Lynx, a space tourism ship designed to take its passengers into space and back on a 45 minute flight.

A video presentation accompanies the exhibit in order to explain the way Lynx flights would work. Even though XCOR’s exhibit isn’t strictly art, it pairs well with the rest of Free Enterprise because one of the overarching themes is the idea of exploration. And like Paterson, Dubois and the rest of Free Enterprise’s artists, XCOR’s founders are carving a rapidly expanding niche within the space industry.

Entrepreneurial spirit is one thing, but as Stallings reminded me, the relationship between artists and space travel is incredibly important, because “artists are there to ask the big, ethical questions” without worrying about profit margins like private investors. In this spirit, one of the unique elements of Free Enterprise (aside from how absolutely cool it is) is that the artists were selected for their tangible study of art and space. “I tried to stay away from artists who work in the purely allegorical perspective,” Stallings said, and it shows.

None of the exhibits in Free Enterprise feel like ultra-lofty, undecipherable pieces of art that the viewer would need a degree and a cigarette to understand. Each exhibit harkens back to the idea that the uncharted frontier of space exploration needs to be accompanied by a close artistic eye, because without that element of culture, how can we hope to understand the humanistic element of an industry that is quickly reaching fruition?

New York-based artist Bradley Pitts brings the human element into his work by presenting “Singular Oscillations” as an inside-out experience. Pitts’ parabolic flight into zero-gravity is presented as a series of DVD monitors which play different angles of him floating through weightlessness, while three of the room’s walls show the outside sky as an external view from the plane. He removed any elements of the outside world by plugging his ears, shutting his eyes and experiencing zero gravity completely nude.

In an interview, Pitts explained that the project is about “having this highly internal experience that cannot be documented or quantified and putting those two worlds in touch with each other in order to see what happens.” The end result? “It’s very still,” Pitts said. “Anytime I wasn’t touching anything I felt completely still, and that was another powerful cultural aspect of the weightless environment because it’s completely anti-hierarchical. Everything is moving relative to each other, so in my state of having my eyes closed and my ears blocked, I become the center since I have no reference.”

I would write about Free Enterprise all day long, but for the sake of space, I’ll sum up the experience with this: go see it. It’s an incredibly well-executed study of the way art and space have interacted and how they should continue to relate to each other in the future. It’s exciting and thought provoking, and reveals just how close we are to traversing the frightening, thrilling and unknown realms of outer space within our lifetimes. Free Enterprise will be on display at the ArtsBlock until May 18.