Utopias and Realities: The New Space Race
The seeming remoteness of Outer Space has enabled Earth-bound humans to view the expanse of the off-Earth space as terra nullius – no-one’s land or empty. This leads to a spectrum of socio-technical utopias about multi-planetary futures, with human settlements on the Moon, Mars and extraction of minerals form asteroids, to name but a few. However, such narratives, that are steeped in frontier thinking of expanding territorial conquest, foster resurgence of past approaches to places deemed un-occupied merely by the virtue of not belonging to the legal framework applied by the explorers/invaders. The increasing privatisation of access to Outer Space and its resources is framed with a sense of such “entrepreneurs” (Vidmar, 2019) unquestioned entitlement to yet “un-occupied” places, reaffirming the capitalist ideology of growth through expansionist, mercantilist and colonial means.
Under this pressure, several asymmetrical challenges have emerged:
1. New spacefaring nations, including China’s growing unilateral prominence, gave rise to a spectrum of potential and attempted non-compliance, contestation and controversies in civil and military sphere.
2. Smaller nations with established Space Industry, such as Luxembourg, are attempting to remain competitive by attracting the private sector bent on commercial exploitation of Outer Space resources.
3. The growing appreciation of the space sector’s importance for sustainable development resulted in a new generation initiatives in the global South, including the emerging African Space Agency.
4. Major existing space powers such as the US, have led deregulation through the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 (SPACE Act) and Artemis Accords (NASA 2020). Combined, these allow US citizens to possess, own, transport, use and sell resources extracted from Outer Space. Such privileges are also extended to citizens of all signatory states, including Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.
5. Signing of the Artemis Accords has supported the idea that future governance in space should be regulated through bilateral agreements that can advance the ability to extract and utilise resources on the Moon, Asteroids, and Mars.
At the same time, there is rising consensus amongst legal scholars that international space law based around the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is no longer fit for purpose. Though it has always sought to safeguard space and its resources for peaceful benefit of all humankind, the current technological advances and proliferation of actors in this arena seem to have been unforeseeable at the peak of the Cold-war era tensions between nation-states. A prominent feature in the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies (the Moon Agreement) is a utopian vision for fair and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the development (Art 7(b)) or use (Art 7(c)) of the natural resources on the Moon amongst developed and developing nations. However, this Agreement was never ratified and only eighteen countries have signed it. But despite this failure, the general cooperative spirit of international space law is clearly stated in the preamble of the Outer Space Treaty that the progress of exploration and use of Outer Space is for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development. In contrast, the commercial space sector actors now lobby for exclusionary private ownership of space resources, first at national level and then through bilateral agreements.
The proliferation of New Space actors is also leading to a growing interdependence between military, civil, and commercial space institutions. The lack of enforceable regulation and outdated international norms are creating a dangerous mix of growing counter-space military capabilities (e.g. satellite deorbiting) and aggressive space policies (e.g. creation of space branches of military). Moreover, there is a growing threat to continuous space access and operation in the form of the rapid expansion of space waste (thousands of disused satellites and upper stages of rockets) and space debris (tens of thousands of small fragments of the above) “occupying” orbits around the Earth. Added to the mix are emerging mega-constellations – formations of thousands of small satellites creating new networks in space – which can interfere with both terrestrial (astronomy) and space activities (environmental monitoring, telecommunications, navigation). Such challenges gave rise to more interdisciplinary and holistic, (eco)systemic, inquiries and perspectives onto Outer Space (Vidmar, 2020), since new governance and legal frameworks are clearly required, to not only to manage human-made objects and provide (fair) space traffic management, but also for planetary protection against biological (cross)contamination, if material and resources are moved across different bodies.
From Astrocolonialism to Africanfuturism: Use of Critical Art for Exploration
Directly addressing these emerging concerns within the legal uncertainty and ambiguous language around resource ownership in the ratified Outer Space Treaty, the 2022 EXTR-Activism exhibition presents an artistic and activist reflection on Euro-American positivist law. The exhibition adopts an Africanfuturist perspective, which is a philosophical, historiographical and aesthetic movement exploring the African point of view (for more details on Africanfuturism see Vermeylen and Njere 2022). Often deploying multi-dimensional speculative fiction and design practice, critical Africanfuturist art can be used as a source of experiential knowledge making – exploring both the subject-matter and the knowledge making practice itself by imagining a possible future through a black cultural lens (for more details about the relationship between space art and space law and definitions about Africanfuturism see Vermeylen 2021a, 2021b, Vermeylen and Njere 2022).
Cutting across issues related primarily to settling and mineral mining across time and space, the EXTR-Activism exhibition becomes a place to visualise and reflect upon the connection between the existing colonial extractivism (for a more details on the history of the term extractivism see e.g. Burchardt and Dietz 2014)on Earth and the emerging colonial extractivism in Outer Space. Launching in Vienna, the exhibition also provides a critical reflection on the relationship between capital and private interests and the United Nations, as Vienna hosts the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and thus opens a space for artistic practices to interrogate the fairness and equity of international space law which promises that space exploration and the use of Outer Space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries and shall be the province of humankind (see Art I of the Outer Space Treaty). However, as is widely commented upon, space travel has excluded many countries and peoples from benefiting from space exploration (Vermeylen 2021a, 2021b)
The artworks from the global North and South explore extractivism and (neo-)colonialism of the New Space era against the background of African countries developing their own space programme (most notably South Africa and Nigeria). Hence, it seems that this new chapter in the Space Race fails to decolonise the Euro-American-centric perspective – the dominant political and economic narrative is set to displace extractivist activities into Outer Space without ever properly reflecting, let alone agreeing, on how and why Western socio-economic approach has made such a mess on planet Earth. This is a particularly stark juxtaposition – toying with the precipice between the renewed interest in colonisation of Moon and Mars by the private entrepreneurs and corporations vis-a-vis the rapid widening of the communities of space protagonists. Can we govern (in) Outer Space more inclusively?
The exhibition is curated as an immersive performance (led by Vermeylen) wherein the decolonial body plays a central role moving around the exhibition space. Applying Mignolo’s (2011) idea of decoloniality to art curating, the driving objective is to (re)inscribe hidden and silenced voices and histories in space exploration, extractivism and space law. Following the tradition of African storytelling, the praying mantis, which is simultaneously the creator deity and cunning trickster for the San peoples in Southern Africa, takes us on a journey that mocks and ridicules – as tricksters do – the deeply rooted colonial epistemologies and ontologies that have informed current space explorations and laws.
Through interactive art installations which bring together artists, academics, performers, musicians, writers and storytellers, the exhibition challenges Eurocentric categories of aesthetics and law making and retells the story of extractivism and space travel from the perspective of African astronauts – Afronauts. The forgotten socio-technical histories, contested legacies and repressed memories are explored through a plethora of art practices that blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. This blurring allows us to imagine how Outer Space extractivism would look like if and as we do not learn from our past and current ecocides and genocides. Through the curatorial and arts practices, the exhibition exposes how our earthly extractive practices have already been propelled into Outer Space. Raw materials, such as platinum are already congesting space. And space debris floating in space is implicated into gross human rights abuses in extractive industries. The Marikana massacre in 2012 in South Africa, which killed 34 miners, acts as the anchoring point, and has provoked an activist and aesthetic call and response between the Widows of the Marikana and other South African artists. EXTR-Activism is, therefore, also a response to the many environmental and human massacres committed by extractive industries.
By their journey, Afronauts rewrite the past and future of space exploration and frame a living artwork, All-space Treaty, which stops the exploitation of humans, non-humans and more-than-humans. During a performative and immersive exploration in the exhibition space after the opening of the show, participating artists reflected on the need that in order to challenge and transform current shortcomings of the Outer Space Treaty it was important to acknowledge first and foremost the entanglements of earth with space and what is needed is a space treaty that does not draw boundaries between earth and Outer Space, and humans and non-humans (the latter a category that is almost completely silenced in the current Outer Space Treaty). What the exhibition explores is a counterfactual history of the Space Race – exploring the future through an alternative past. The film Afronauts (2014) by the Ghanaian-born filmmaker Nuotama Bodomo has set the tone for the exhibition and retells the story of the Zambian space program during the Cold War. In her film, Bodomo refers to the Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkloso and his space program but gives it a speculative spin and offers a perspective for a better future by critiquing and deconstructing perceived ideas about Africa both in the past and present. A similar questioning is at the heart of the exhibition. If the first person on the Moon was a Maasai woman or cyborg (Vermeylen and Njere 2022), how would space law have evolved? What would governance of Outer Space resources look like, if it reflected and engaged with lessons from terrestrial extractivism?
Tentative Steps Towards a Parliament of Everyone
The exhibition’s staging, set to the soundtrack by “intergalactic DJ” Crater Digger, has been inspired by the work of the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, who has offered a strong critique of the commercial space race through appropriating colonial and neocolonial epistemology. Shonibare opens two parallel discourses. He questions the history of Outer Space exploration through the lens of the Western desire to conquer new spaces. But he also suggests in his arts practice that an African Space Program is viable by layering the iconic white spacesuit with batik fabric steeped in colonial atrocities. Shonibare’s utopian Afronauts have an empowering quality – they are on a journey of rejection of current legal discourses and establishment of a different kind of Outer Space.
Stops on the Afronauts EXTR-Activism Journey…*
The exhibition starts with an immersive soundscape by the South African musician Guy Buttery, representing the lift-off of a pan-African spaceship on a mission to rescue Mars from overexploitation. On the space ship are Afronauts who face the dangers of so much space junk that the Afronauts fear for their lives as their spaceship can be fatally hit by debris that earthlings have sent into Outer Space.
Journey through Space Junk
The history of space travel is retold through iconic events but with a twist. All art installations that are displayed during the journey are African-centric. The hegemony of the Euro-American centric space history is exposed through a post-colonial and decolonial aesthetic immersion.
The official archive of space travel portrays history as a factual progression of known events, using the frontier as the main trope to justify the thinking that space is empty. It is a myth that is used to justify the replication of settler-colonial practices of homesteading, planting flags, and making roots. Earth’s history may repeat itself on Mars unless we can halt it. The artworks in this part of the exhibition question the techniques that have been used to colonise other people’s land. But land is never terra nullius or empty. Although we like to think that Mars is empty, so we can justify space settlements on Mars, the idea that Mars is empty is a very anthropocentric understanding of what life on Mars may look like. Furthermore, on our way to Mars we have already littered space with our debris, and left already an imprint through rovers on Mars that may have already disturbed microorganisms. History is already repeating itself before the first Martians have left their footprint on the red surface.
The Space Junk Graveyard
This section of the exhibition shows the trauma, exploitation, and pollution of extractivism. The installations exposing the genocide and ecocide of mining are staged as if these massacres have happened on Mars or on other extra-terrestrial bodies. The centre piece of this section is the Body Maps of the Widows of Marikana in dialogue and conversation with other pieces that reflect upon the massacre.
In this section of the exhibition the Afronauts fight extractivism and propertisation of Outer Space by proposing other ways of living and governing Outer Space. Inspired and in dialogue with the Occupy movements, alternative visions of space exploration are emerging that contest extractivism and mining in Outer Space but also propose a decolonised space programme that is beneficial for human,non-human and more-than-human kind. In order to fulfil the promise of international space law that space exploration and use of space and its resources should be for the benefit of humankind, we first need to acknowledge that space exploration has been part of a colonialist vision that space is the next frontier in our long history of capitalist and extractivist practices. This includes the exploitation of both humans and nature in order to support a wealth maximisation paradigm. Decolonising space shows how current property regimes and laws are only benefiting the privileged classes at the expanse of those who are exploited which includes both humans and non-humans.
New Space Manifesto
The last space capsule embodies hope and an alternative future. It is also a space which allows visitors to redesign space law, reflecting on their immersive space travel experience.
*From the exhibition catalogue (link).
Right at the end of the EXTR-Acrivism exhibition journey, the Parliament of Every/No|where/one explores an evolutionary perspective of governance as could be seen from outside the Euro-American legal system. Reflecting on how the architectural structures of the infrastructure for and of talking – parliaments – changed through time leads to a reflection on the perpetual (re-)emergence of hierarchies of governance and attempts for their dissolution. Outer Space in particular, through its existential criticality may become (or may already be) a place for renewal of collective and communal decision-making (Vidmar, forthcoming), including the regulation of extractivism. However, controlling hierarchies may re-assert themselves in the future. As such, the piece looks at how ecological expansion into Outer Space provides an opportunity for reflection on the Earthly practices, alongside offering new constraints and affordances that constitute opportunities for reconnection and renewal within the expanded ecosystem (Vidmar, forthcoming). Situating the first installation of this exhibition, and its performative All-Space Treaty, in Vienna is an important political-activist statement because of the presence of United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in the city. Furthermore, the exhibition, and its strong focus on African storytelling as a pedagogical method to decolonise the curatorial practice, also contributes to opening up academic writing practices to African worldviews and ways of knowing, including through this piece in EASST Review.
The work specifically explores the intersection of visual language, social and physical architecture, and the core activity of (democratic) governance: speaking (parler). Charting its way from prototype communal assemblies towards highly sophisticated and complex institutions, the Parliament of Every/No|where/one explores the “evolution” of representation and its inclusivity. Mapping onto historical contexts of exploration, occupation and exploitation of “new” territories, this interactive work asks if we are ready on an individual and collective level to develop and sustain a framework of governance which would be distributed everywhere (in Outer Space?) and include everyone.
Through five visual metaphors and a short accompanying essay, the Parliament of Every/No|where/one reflects on the critical contribution of the exhibition: the necessary and critical expansion of the voices expressed and listened to in the context of Outer Space governance. As such, this piece is also concluding the Afronauts’ journey, namely arriving at Parliament of Everyone, Everywhere to formulate and articulate an All-Space Treaty, a manifesto for fair and equitable distribution of benefits of activities across all space(s), on and off Earth. This trans-planetary intervention thus re-establishes the ecological interconnectedness of all living things, even those not known or not recognised as “living”. As we all meet in Vienna, the praying mantis trickster lets us believe this is not a utopia, but the future.
Parliament of Every/No|where/one
Matjaz Vidmar, 2022, mixed-media essay/installation, www.parliament.gallery
The earliest vestiges of community organisation are thought to literally circle around one common shared asset – fire. Even now, social groups operating off the grid – whether they be religious groups, camping expeditions or pasturalist communities – meet in round circles to talk about past experiences, future challenges and the strategies to persevere. Consensual leadership is often a feature of such groupings – where capabilities of individuals are mutually recognised and most efficient distribution of responsibility is sought. This common form of a talking circle – a sort of proto-parliament – is known everywhere and notionally open to everyone.
For much of the last 2022 years, the structure of governance involved primarily being talked at. In this case, formal representation is about subservience and downward exertion of control from the leader(ship). As the talking circles broke up due to the expansion of populace, so did the capability-based system of contribution to decision-making. Claiming spiritual investiture everywhere, the hereditary leader needs representation from no-one. Is a silent parliament better or worse than having no parliament at all?
With further population growth strictly hierarchical structures are tested as devolved decision-making is necessary in order to manage large-scale provision of resources and community organisation. Cultural norms may hold social order together, but every time (social) power erodes, dialectic frameworks of governance (re)emerge. This is especially the case in oppositional politics, where argumentative discussion marks the alternation of political dominance. Though noisy, many such parliaments have a largely performative role, whereby a “winner-takes-all” power dynamics favours agreeing with no-one and leading nowhere.
Some forms of dialogue-based decision-making have emerged, largely at the two opposing ends of the spectrum: in small communities and in the really large ones. Examples are local authorities, regional governments, small nation states as well as supranational frameworks such as the European Union or United Nations. At these levels, where it is hard to predict political outcomes, the guiding principles and practical reality tend to favour consensus making and forming of interest coalitions. In theory, this should lead to a more inclusive representation of everyone, but is often so complex it looks like decisions appear from nowhere and with little accountability.
Expansion into new spatial domains, such as Outer Space, is an opportunity for redefinition of governance structures as new ecological reality forces new communal responses. Due to size and remoteness, it is easy to see the old proto-parliaments returning, but the question remains if these forms could be made more stable and sustainable, and pave the way for a new way of collective decision-making. The laws of the sea made the ships of (colonial) explorers into such capsules of egalitarianism, but the governance approach taken when they reached the new shores was devastating to indigenous people and their environment. So, as we emerge into a new era of exploration, everyone everywhere needs to be able express their position and respectfully listen to those around them…
Burchardt, H.-J. and Dietz, K. (2014) ‘(Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America.’ Third World Quarterly 35, no. 3: 468-486
Mignolo, W.D. (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press
Vermeylen, S. and Njere, J. (forthcoming Summer 2022) ‘African Space Art as a New Perspective on Space Law.’ In: J Schwartz, L Billings, and E. Nesvold (eds.) Reclaiming Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vermeylen, S. (2021a) ‘Space as a source of inspiration, identity and the arts’ In Schrogl, K.-U., Giannopapa, C., Antoni, N. (eds.) Research Agenda for Space Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 219-234.
Vermeylen, S (2021b) ‘Space Art as a Critique of Space Law.’ Leonardo 54(1), pp. 115-124
Vidmar, M. (2019). On the Practices of Risk Re-Normalisation: “Knowing” the Known Unknowns in Public Discourse on Outer Space Exploration. Teorija in Praksa, 56(3), pp. 814–835.
Vidmar, M. (2020) ‘Transpanetary Ecologies: A new Chapter in Social Studies of Outer Space?’ EASST Review, 57, pp. 57-60
Vidmar, M. (forthcoming 2022), ‘On Libertarian Communities in/around Outer Space: Is ecology an antithesis to liberty?’. In: Cockell, C. (ed.) The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.