guest post: Edgar Martins
in this exclusive post, photographer Edgar Martins selects his favourite images from – and writes about – his vast photographic documentary project, which captures the craft, materials and facilities behind the European Space Agency
I was not a child of the space race. I was born in the late 70s, yet I was as enthralled by the Apollo missions as those that lived through it. Like many other kids in the 60s and 70s I too wanted to become as astronaut (not an easy accomplishment for a European growing up in communist China). As a teenager I remember having dreams about space. In fact, in my lifetime, I have only ever had two recurring dreams.
One is a strange nightmare of different, ill fitting geometrical shapes falling from the sky, which snowball into larger, even more esoteric forms, like a badly conceived game of Tetris. But that's a conversation for another day, almost certainly with a psychiatrist. The other dream is a tad more tangible but just as disconcerting and I often find myself waking up tearful or gasping for air.
In this dream I am propelled into space (though I can never remember how), and when I get into Earth's orbit, floating in Zero-G, I look down at the planet for the first time, from afar, and become overwhelmed with the experience. Then all of a sudden a profound sense of calm and awareness takes over, as though I have finally understood all the planet's secrets and the solution to its problems. Its the sort of moment where you are confronted with your dialectic impetus and you come out on top. Then I wake up.
I have recently had the opportunity to get to know and speak to a few astronauts who have shared with me that seeing the Earth from space, for the first time, is quite a moving experience. The Apollo program astronauts talk of a transcendental, spiritual experience – and it's common knowledge that the much celebrated Earthrise photograph that was taken during the Apollo years was responsible for inspiring a whole generation of people, namely the green movement.
To cut a long story short, space and all the mysticism and technological marvel that surrounds it, have an immeasurable resonance on our social and individual consciousness. I've always been acutely aware of this and that is why space has been a reacurring theme in my work. It's a topic that constantly throws me (us) into the antinomies of perception and existence, towards the exploration of boundaries and unstable geometries.
So in 2012, whilst researching this project, I came across an interesting article written by one of the European Space Agency's directors explaining why the organisation should make a more concerted effort to open up to the public. This seemed too great an opportunity, too serendipitous an occasion to pass up. On that same day I wrote ESA a long letter.
In this letter I presented the European Space Agency a very ambitious proposal: to produce the most comprehensive survey ever assembled about a leading scientific and space exploration organisation and its programs. I explained my intention to critically engage with ESA and its partner’s programs, such as the telecommunication, navigation, integrated biological life support system for space applications, microgravity, human spaceflight, lunar and Mars exploration programs, whilst also reflecting on the new politics of space exploration as well as the impact of this kind of technological application on our social, cultural and existential consciousness.
Overall, I had hoped this project would promote a dialogue between space exploration, science, contemporary photographic art and the wider public. Having worked at the frontiers of social research and technological investigation and application and in hard-to-access environments, I am interested in the unique responses of artistic expression these engagements can activate, and in the dialogue that these projects and environments can provoke.
So I was extremely pleased (and a little surprised, I might add) when ESA agreed to support my endeavour and welcomed that I bring with me a critical perspective. It is the first time in the history of the organisation that they have granted an artist exclusive access to all of its facilities, staff, programs, technology, etc. ESA's facilities are inexorably heterogenous, places where there is a convergence, overlapping and blurring of meanings, functions and temporalities – so my main challenge was to develop an approach that was simultaneously descriptive and speculative, documenting but also deconstructing the spaces and objects, and thus revealing their poetic derivations and cultural and ideological resonances.
Working on the theme at hand for a period of almost two years reasserted my belief that space exploration is of the utmost importance to the development of a variety of programs at all levels of life. These have vital economic benefits, often inspiring novel, spin-off technologies. Although the framework of space exploration has traditionally been tied with national security and the political aspirations of states, today, budget cuts in an era of worldwide economic woes has opened the doors to the commercialisation and privatisation of space.
Today, the commercial satellite industry has grown to an impressive degree. Groups of earth observation satellites help both local governments and private enterprise develop a myriad os tasks. However, I'm pleased to have witnessed, first hand, that there is a continued focus on more exploratory programs, allowing us to peer further into deep space and, correlatively, to better understand our surroundings and origins.
We are slowly getting a new picture of the Universe that is pushing the limits of our understanding of current cosmological theories, making the confluence of the infinitely large and the infinitely small an ever more viable proposition. I have no doubt that we are entering a new golden era of space exploration.
But perhaps the most interesting realisation for me, throughout this process, was coming to terms with two simple ideas: . the void and vacuum of space has become the busiest concept known to mankind; . for all the advancements in technology and robotics, space exploration is still inherently dependent on the individual.
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The Rehearsal of Space & the Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite (2014) is at The Wapping Project in London until 29 May 2014. Edgar Martins was born in Évora but grew up in Macau. in 1996 he moved to the UK, where he completed a BA in Photography at the London College of Printing & Distributive Trades, as well as an MA in Photography and Fine Art at the Royal College of Art (London). his work is represented internationally in several high-profile collections, such as those of the V&A (London), the National Media Museum (Bradford, UK), RIBA (London), the Dallas Museum of Art (USA); Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (Lisbon), Fundação EDP (Lisbon), Fondation Carmignac (Paris), amongst others