When we first heard the Orbital Reflector project, we thought it might be satire or some kind of performance art joke.
The project by Berlin-based conceptual artist Trevor Paglen involves an art object being launched into outer space and remaining there for about eight weeks. The object will have no practical function – that is, no commercial, military or scientific purpose. And the price tag is $1.3 million.
It turns out it’s real. A rocket carrying the art will be launched sometime in early-to-mid 2018. A lot of people are involved in making this happen – prominently the Reno-based Nevada Museum of Art.
Have you heard people express disbelief?
Paglen – it really is an ambitious project and I’ve noticed I find myself explaining the project to people I look at myself from a third person and I think I sound like a crazy person.
But, it’s very real.
This is something that has been happening in space flight really over the last decade or so is that it’s becoming accessible to more and more people. And the reason for that primarily has to do with the ability to launch very small satellites at a tiny fraction of the price of deploying a much larger one.
What makes you think of an idea like this?
The inspiration for the project came from talking to amateur astronomers who were around in the 1950s, and 1960s. There is a big NASA satellite in the 1960s called Echo, which was a giant reflective sphere in the sky and it was a communication satellite for early telephones. You would bounce telephone signal up to this sphere and it would bounce the signal down to Europe or wherever you wanted to talk to.
But it had this side effect of creating this star that made a huge impression on the people who saw it. That’s really interesting that there was a visible thing in the sky that made such an impression on so many people.
What does the object look like?
It’s a small satellite about the size of a brick. It weighs very little. It weighs about three or four kilograms. What happens is it piggybacks on the rocket and into space. It is basically sitting behind a much larger satellite, who actually bought the rocket.
We kind of get carried along and once we get into orbit we get shot off the side. And we have our little brick in space. Our brick opens up and inside is a giant, inflatable diamond shape that begins to unfurl. You inflate the diamond with a little bit of carbon dioxide.
And it grows to be about 100 feet long and about five feet on each side – five and a half feet. That diamond is treated with very, very bright titanium oxide – very bright white. So when sunlight catches it. It lights up. It reflects an enormous amount of light.
If you’re on the top of a mountain and you’re looking down on the valley below and the sun is setting. You’ll notice the sun will set for you – on the top of the mountain – a few minutes later than it will for the people in the valley. The reason for that has to do with the shadows of the earth.
If you go into space, the higher and higher you go the longer and longer it remains daylight in space than it does on earth. And so, what this giant diamond shape does is that as it passes over the earth, it will be night time or twilight down below, it will be in the sunlight so it will catch the sunlight, reflect that sunlight down to people on the ground. Because it is night time on the ground you’ll be able to see the reflection of that sunlight on the object.
What have scientist said about this project?
I think anything you do in the world you will have people who support it and people who criticize it.
There is literally nothing in the world that you can do that doesn’t have those properties. I think there is a huge range of opinions that people have about it.
On one hand, this is certainly my motivation is to get people interested in looking at the sky. To get people interested in thinking about what is the relationship between us and the cosmos. What is the relationship between us and the kind of infrastructure we build in the sky?
And to me, those questions are worth asking and if we can create an object that gives people an opportunity to see in that way and to have those conversations that seems worth it to me.
What does this project mean to you?
I’ve been working on this project for a long time. I’ve been working on it for about a decade. I think that going into a project like this…. A big part of any kind of project like this is developing a constituency for it, developing a support network for it. Developing an audience for it. And for me, those are very much a part of the project.
It’s not just that you’re putting something in space or you’re making this sculpture but you’re bringing a whole lot of people together from a whole lot of different disciplines to do something unlikely together and for me, that’s a really important part of these kinds projects.
What is the Nevada Art Museum’s connection to the Orbital Reflector?
Walker - We have a history of working with artists who have a history of working with artists who have ambitious ideas. We produced “Seven Magic Mountains” in Las Vegas that opened last year. These are projects that are not typically the kinds of projects that museums do in the United States.
We have embraced this. Part of what we do here at the museum is constantly work with people and tell stories through exhibitions and publications to place Nevada within a bigger context. In this case, we’ve been working with Trevor on a weekly basis since 2015.
This is a high-risk proposition. We’re raising a $1.3 million for a project that could explode when the rocket launches. The cube sat that holds the satellite might not open but these are risks worth taking. They’re risks that reflect the optimism and the willingness to experiment that we have as a state here in Nevada.
Do you see this a marketing coup for the museum?
You get respect when you try things that are different and pioneering and pushing the boundaries. So, in that respect, yeah, that’s fantastic. We see about 25 percent of our annual operating budget come from outside of the state of Nevada and that’s a good sign. That means we’re being applauded for trying things that others are not.
We’re very interested in continuing to get behind artists who want to engage a larger public because I think that reflects well on the museum. I tell you what – it really is fun for me and the curators here at the Nevada Museum of Art to work with artists that have big ideas because they’re messy. It’s not a clear pathway forward. There’s a lot of bumps in the road. Problems that need to be solved, but at the end of the day when you hit the success point, the milestone – it’s a great feeling. It’s why we come to work every day.
(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired October 2017)
Trevor Paglen, Artist; David Walker, Executive Director of the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno
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