'Giant Steps' Wants to Put Art on the Moon, But Should We?

Well, we definitely shouldn't put a giant inflatable Ritz cracker up there.

The idea of putting art on the moon invites critique before one even suggests a specific concept. The moon is essential to life as we know it, and requires an enormous expenditure of resources to reach. Is it not a sort of prideful defacement to leave a personal mark on it? If space travel becomes more accessible to a wealthy elite, could they litter the moon with tacky, egoic monuments? Would one be opening an aesthetic Pandora’s box by proposing such a project? It’s not impossible.

But that’s just one small part of imagining what is possible. Late last year, local artist, entrepreneur, and restaurateur Greg Lundgren launched his project Giant Steps, which asked people what they’d do if they had 48 hours on the moon to create art. The proposals needed to be achievable, and Lundgren set specific guidelines, including a maximum payload of 60 kg, one assisting astronaut, and a budget of $500,000 for materials. To encourage participation, Lundgren did not require an entry fee, and made it a competition for a $10,000 prize, funded by donations from local businesses and ticket sales for the exhibition’s opening celebration. Submissions came from near and far—from the Ballard High School Astrophysics Club to a French plein air painter.

Just looking around the exhibition space, the presentations from the 50 finalists can feel a little scattered and inconsistent. It looks a bit like a gallery and a science fair had a funny-looking baby, but there is something to ponder in each. The proposals include films, performances, absurdist monuments, personal gestures, and interactive works that promote continued communication with us earthlings. The grand-prize-winning submission, Wave Signs by Carrie Bodle and Amaranth Borsuk, falls in that last category, imagining a lunar radio-wave relay station that would receive focused transmissions from earth, archive them, and repeat them back over those hundreds of thousands of miles in a matter of seconds, slightly distorted by the loop.

Like some other finalists, Bodle and Borsuk refer in their documentation to past hypothetical moon-based projects proposed by governments and the military. Considered alongside these strategic plans, the proposed artworks allude to a larger question: What ethics should guide our applications of arts and sciences as a whole?

The question is more complicated than ever, partly because the pace of technological advancement exceeds our ability to consider the ramifications of new technologies, but also because the arts and sciences have become more segregated. Some ideological camps even privilege one over the other. Both may be historically understood as advancing understanding, but there are no authoritative timelines, no assured trajectory, no inherent teleology to bear this out. In practice, arts and sciences are the means by which we order and understand our world and its visible and invisible elements, yet each discovery yields greater complexity and ambiguity.

Arts and sciences do benefit each other. Improved technology has allowed new forms and concepts to be addressed in the arts, which in turn have revealed new applications of theories and technologies that were unimaginable in a purely analytical mode. As science expands material possibilities, art widens the field of interpretations. All this should foster humility, empathy, and still more curiosity, which should be the real measure of progress in an individual, a culture, or a species—an ethos that values these traits over a primal, ignorant, and fearful egoism.

By that definition, one can’t argue that much real progress has been made in the past 100 years or so. We as a species are more effective at destroying each other and our planet. Do we really need to go marking up the moon, too?

One submission by artist Christian French points this out. In his proposal for The Scar on the Face of the Moon, the artist suggests placing a giant, straight line of reflective material on it. Such a line does not occur naturally on the moon’s face, clearly stating to any observer that it was intentional. Of the submissions that sought to put a visible message or design into the face of the moon—of which there were many—this one was the most universal, humble, and apt.

No doubt the exhibit’s most enjoyable experience is Illuminous Analemma, presented in VR through Oculus Rift headsets by Brandon Aleson and Reilly Donovan. The two propose a complex of monumental pyramids built by small but sophisticated robots out of lunar regolith, the loose stone covering the moon’s bedrock. At present, the project’s logistics make it rather unfeasible under Lundgren’s original guidelines, but it is not hard to imagine. The VR experience is beautifully crafted and a small science lesson in itself.

Even works that feel uninspired by comparison offer scientific tidbits. For instance, Jeff Reiquam’s eyeroll-inducing American Cheese proposes mining the high levels of Helium-3 in lunar regolith to inflate giant sculptures of Ritz crackers and a cheese knife. Thanks to the show’s experimentalist framing, one can’t dismiss any proposal entirely. Not everything works out as hoped in art and science, but one never knows where it will lead.

Giant Steps is, thus, a success and a positive display of how the arts and sciences can never be parted, even if certain partisans insist otherwise. I don’t know the criteria by which the eight panelists selected their grand-prize winner, but I wouldn’t dispute it. Though I have a soft spot for the many submissions that put an explicitly human form (or body part) in space, using the moon to reconnect us with ourselves across the gulf of space is the most human gesture of all. For what is all our science and art worth if we do not seek to connect with something outside ourselves, whether it’s done with a whisper or a radio wave?

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