As discussed in lecture, remote sensing is the science, technology, and art of obtaining data and gathering information about an object, area, or phenomenon from a device that does not make direct contact with the investigated entity. Artist, geographer, and researcher Trevor Paglen has constructed projects inspired by this research method. His project Nonfunctional Satellites is a series of nonfunctional satellite sculptures that call attention to the non-military potential of technology as well as the geographical spaces hidden by state and military classification. Other than remote sensing, this series developed from Paglen’s fascination with covert military operations, celestial mechanics, and the relationship between science and art. In a previous project dealing with military secrecy, he learned a lot about the workings of satellite orbits and celestial mechanics. He then began to contemplate about what the opposite of a secret satellite would look like and from there formed the idea for this series.
One of the sculptures titled Protocinema comprises of a four-meter tall reflective sphere designed for low-earth orbit. Created in collaboration with aerospace engineers, Protocinema questions the conventional notions of aerospace engineering due to its presence as a sculptural art piece rather than a functioning satellite. Designed to be seen it juxtaposes the “invisible”, classified spacecraft that secretly exist in earth’s orbit. When sent into space, the orb floated for several months before combusting in the atmosphere. Not only does the functioning of this project raise discourse about “art for arts sake”, but it also considers “aerospace engineering for aerospace engineering’s sake”. Through this artwork, Paglen visualizes an aerospace engineering industry detached from corporate and military interests, which currently fund all space excursions.
Opponents of Paglen’s work, and more broadly space art, argue that space sculptures can problematically generate more space debris. According to Arthur Woods who Stephen Wilson quotes in his book Information Arts, critics of space art consider it as “anecdotal to mainstream art” rather than “serious” art (263). Despite the controversy space art produces, projects like Paglen’s Protocinema urge the world to perceive the technologies normally associated with militarism and surveillance differently by viewing them in their opposite state. This can in turn alter the way people observe and quantify earth’s objects and patterns (which is one of the purposes of remote sensing). Though this category of art might possess some repercussions, it ultimately allows us to balance our understanding about the world we live in.