“Radical acceptance—that’s been the theme of this project,” said Nevada Museum of Art spokesperson Amanda Horn at the Dec. 15 celebration for Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector—a giant, reflective sculpture that’s now in orbit.
The project has incurred enough glitches to earn it a catchphrase. “Space is hard,” Paglen began telling the media after the Nov. 19 launch was postponed. Then, it got even harder. A Dec. 1 launch was also postponed. A SpaceX rocket containing 64 satellites, Orbital Reflector among them, launched on Dec. 3. Those satellites now orbit the Earth, but they remain clustered, which makes them difficult to identify. And the Orbital Reflector has yet to inflate. Horn said it’s awaiting FCC approval.
The NMA is also awaiting location tracking information from the Air Force. A stargazing app, Star Walk 2, appears to display location information, but it’s not yet live or accurate.
Orbital Reflector is the latest and largest project in Paglen’s career-long effort to examine and critique government surveillance and corporate control. For more details, check out my article “Space odyssey” in the Reno News & Review.
And to learn more about how an artist deals with a project of this magnitude, read on for a Q+A with Paglen. We spoke by phone on Dec. 13.
How many prototypes of Orbital Reflector were there?
Oh, a ton. I’ve been working on the project for a long time, probably a decade. Over the course of that, I’ve built a lot of different models. … Some of those have been exhibited different places. In terms of ones that actually got built, I would say at least a dozen. [An early spherical version remains on display at the NMA through June 30, 2019.]
Did you watch the launch?
I did watch it. I watched the webcast from Newark Airport.
How did you feel when you finally saw it ?
I was just really relieved that it went off without a hitch. I was really happy to see it go. It feels like sending a kid off to college or something like that, I would imagine. … You put everything that you can into it and try to make a good project, but on the other hand, once it’s out into the world, it belongs to other people. It belongs to itself, to a certain extent. So, it’s not really up to you, what other people do with it.
Before Orbital Reflector launched, astronomers and others voiced concerns about “space junk” and the potential to interfere with astronomical observations. Since the piece was launched, have you received any specific complaints?
No. None at all. … I think that people have a sense of propriety over space, which is one of that last public spaces that we can imagine. I think that comes from a really good place, that desire to want to care for it and to be good stewards of it. I’m not sure that my project is the biggest felon in terms of that. I think it’s actually quite minor. But I think it comes from a good place—asking us to think about what is our relationship towards shared resources on a finite planet is certainly at the core of my concerns. … So, in a way, I’m really happy to invoke that, to think about, in general, what is our relationship to public space and shared resources.
The project will be in orbit for about 60 days?
We can’t entirely predict it. The orbit is affected by what the weather on the sun is going to do. We can’t totally predict that, but that’s about the design life, yeah. It’s designed to be very temporary. It’s like one of those Tibetan sand paintings, you know, where you’re doing this enormous amount of work for this very intricate thing, and then ultimately it blows away.
You’ve been awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” I’ve heard other awardees say that when they got the call from the MacArthur Foundation, it came as a total surprise, or they thought it was a joke. What was receiving that call like for you?
My jaw hit the floor. It was just really weird. I never answer the phone. I always think there’s nothing but bad news when people call you. I had seen a bunch of numbers from Chicago calling that day and just finally picked it up, and I was like “OK, what do you want?” I was bowled over. It was just very surreal. I just sat there, stunned. And then, you can’t tell anybody.
For how long?
For like six weeks.
You tend to think big. You think very expansively, and your projects are often high-budget. I wonder if either that award—or any other single occurrence in your life—was a step in thinking bigger.
It’s not so much thinking big, as being able to manage big, which is really kind of a different thing. Like with Orbital Reflector, it’s a lot of work. You have the idea, and that’s pretty simple. You can have it in an afternoon. But then you’ve got to think about how do you build the project? And how do you build the structure? How do you build milestones? Like, how do you assemble a team? How do you assemble stakeholders? How do you go from that idea to something that could become a reality? And that’s much more a combination of patience and persistence and just kind of continually working on something and chipping away at it and taking a big problem and dividing it up into a bunch of smaller problems and trying to solve those.
When did you realize Orbital Reflector was going to work, that you actually were going be able to deal with the engineering and the logistics and all that?
I figured out about five years ago that it was possible. … And that’s when I approached the Nevada Musuem of Art with the project. I had done a lot of work up until that point. I described it as “building a button.” … You can take that button to funders, and you can take it to commissioning institutions and producers. And you say, “I built this button. And it’ll cost you this much money and this many man hours to press that button. But when you press the button, all of these things happen that are already in place that get activated, that get the project rolling.”
So, when I say “building that button,” it’s like, people with aerospace engineering [experience] … getting a sense of who the consultants would be, having a sense of how the dynamics are going to be of the orbit that you need to go into, basically having a sense of what are the puzzle pieces are and who was going to assemble them.
One last question: Why did you decide to live outside of the U.S.?
Well, I don’t really live anywhere. So, my studio is in Berlin. I do a lot of projects in Europe, and this is a really fantastic art scene here—a lot of artist working. There are a lot of fabricators working. It’s a very central place. … It’s one of the few places as a city that’s really works for artists in a really strong way, so in a way it’s a little bit of a no-brainer.