Faraway Missions is a series of drawings pondering the vast distances between us and other celestial bodies. It comments on our need to know if we are alone in in the Universe, and addresses the ongoing fascination with and exploration of our Solar System and beyond with the help of telescopes and probes. Paradoxically however, this outward motion is reflected in an existential need to understand our own place and purpose in the universe. We would like to know how our own planet formed and where life on Earth came from and the answers seem to be out there. Technological development and philosophical questions that are usually distant from each other overlap in this field.
Two of the most recent spectacular projects going in this directions are Gaia, a European Space Agency commissioned Space Observatory that is mapping a million stars (I have depicted it among my Probes drawings), and the Solar Orbiter, a probe that will photograph the sun from much closer than ever before. Another is NASA’s interplanetary probe New Horizons, which has been moving through space for a decade and only recently passed Pluto delivering unprecedented images and opening up a great scientific and popular debate about the status that we had previously ascribed to this object, effectively reflecting our own value systems.
The reasons for exploration are mixed. The science and the sheer quest for knowledge comes with all sorts of political implications – from colonial narratives of exploitation to the salvaging of the human race (in the case of Earth’s demise by locating life elsewhere). Several organisations are currently listening for and developing messages directed towards intelligent Alien life. Voyager, a probe sent out by NASA in the early 70s that has long left our Solar System, carries the infamous Pioneer Plaque, which is the most literal message to other civilisations about ourselves. The plaque holds a drawing with two ‘representative’ but much contested human figures. In my studio last year, as part of this project, I ran a workshop with my young assistants to rework these figures according to their present day ideas of representation. Our survey of collages challenges ethnocentricity, heteronormativity, ageism and classical ideals of beauty.
Distances in the Universe are truly vast and unfathomable to human minds. When the ‘light year’ measure was invented, we were able to slash 11 zeros from previous cumbersome measurements, but we still do not know what a light year is. We would have to be photons to fully understand what traveling at the speed of light means. To make this problem more tangible I paired the closest planets in the Solar System with specific locations in my local neighbourhood: East London. I picked eight iconic locations, which I can access by walking or cycling and matched them each with a planet, asking questions of how far a location is from its associated planet. I wanted to stimulate a sense of distance and to let others think philosophically about distances that are relevant to them or that collapse onto each other
The other element in the exhibition is the Probe series. They are the result of a dynamic group exercise in my studio: while I selected the designs, at least 3 collaborators work on the texture of each drawing. This activity mimics the teamwork key to every space mission. I have been intrigued by the seemingly unlimited variety of designs, and these are my own lyrical depictions of actual probes. I find them very romantic, our charming surrogates and messengers, modern day Cupids. We fall in love easily with these machines. Consider the public involvement with little Philae, the first probe that landed on a comet (in 2014). Or the collective sorrow that is felt when probes crash. Scientists who work on these missions can devote their whole careers to a failed project, so they will be emotionally invested, and more and more, the public is too. Is it possible, therefore, to look at these missions as love stories?