As part of my solo exhibition in February, No Place Like Space, I wrote a piece about the inspiration behind the work, and curator extraordinaire Sophia Cai wrote an essay about private spheres, isolation and artefacts. These are in the No Place Like Space zine, but I want to share them here too.
Towards the Frontier
by Ashley Ronning
Hamilton Base, named after Margaret Hamilton the Apollo software engineer, is just over five years old. There are 20 residents within, all working on understanding the planet and expanding its liveability. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted, the first crops being harvested and new ground is covered every day. Each crew member has private living quarters, room to exercise, free time and they are able to send and receive video messages with family members and friends. New eating rituals are forming. The menu available includes powdered insects, edible weeds, pickled and canned food, freeze-dried coffee and fresh greens from the new crops. Spices and citric acid flavour bland food and mask the ever-present peroxide smells. Residents have recently hung paper mobiles around the base to mimic the sound of rustling leaves, in an effort to ward off home-sickness. A walk around the surrounds of the base is viable, after a lengthy struggle into a space suit.
The residents of the Hamilton Base were among a pool of applicants from around the world, and chosen based on their skill sets in relation to the mission outcome of establishing a permanent colony. From the beginning applicants were informed that a return trip to Earth was not yet possible, and may not be within their life time.
Within this exhibition, I’ve taken a step backwards into the 1970s. America was bathing in the afterglow of Apollo 11; NASA and Carl Sagan launched the Voyager 1 and 2 probes into the unknown depths of space and we see the first photographs of the surface of Venus and Mars. We also experienced a boom in science-fiction; Star Wars, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Planet Of The Apes, Dr Who, The Forever War, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and Dune. Wonder and speculation hung in the air and people were excited about the possibilities and new ideas unfolding in front of them.
The High Frontier: Human Colonies In Space by Gerard K O’Neill became my main reference point throughout the creation of this exhibition. O’Neill published the first feasible designs for a space colony in 1976; the O’Neill cylinder, the Bernal sphere and the Stanford torus, satellite colonies orbiting between Earth and our moon. He described the habitats that could exist within, using agriculture, harnessing energy from solar arrays, collecting building material from the moon and he even made suggestions for cultural activities. But aside from these fantastic concepts, he wrote in the most wonderfully approachable way, and clearly conveyed his incredible excitement for the possibilities of space travel. He even envisioned that we would be living on Island One by the 1990s.
“As we explore these possibilities we must remember that they are just that–not predictions or prophecies. The time scale may be longer than the fifteen to twenty-five years I estimate to be an achieveable minimum; or I may be too cautious and events may dictate a still faster scale. The “when” is not science but a complicated, unpredictable interplay of current events, politics, individual personalities, technology, and chance.”
— Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier
It was this passion and optimism that led me to a 1970s perspective of a future space colony. Since this time, political and economic factors have meant that space colonisation is almost impossible through government funding. While there are notable proposals by private organisations to begin a settlement such as Mars One and Space X, there are no completely solid plans as of yet. Stepping backwards 40 years allows me to harness this energy of endless possibility.
It can feel easy to assume that the grand pursuit of colonising other planets may be an abandonment of our own, and a reason to give up on taking care of it. This isn’t the case. While Sagan and O’Neill devoted their lives to the dream of reaching further into the galaxy, they both had a strong sense of stewardship for their home planet. Sagan implored us to see the wonder of our universe, and in doing so, appreciate the beauty of our own unique home planet and protect its fragile environment. In creating his plan of an orbiting space colony, O’Neill saw a future of ‘energy independence’ in which we can more effectively harness solar power closer to the sun, thus ending harmful mining and drilling practices, stopping nuclear proliferation, and providing low-cost clean energy to all inhabitants of earth.
“Clearly our first task is to use the material wealth of space to solve the urgent problems we now face on Earth: to bring the poverty-stricken segments of the world up to a decent living standard, without recourse to war or punitive action against those already in material comfort; to provide for a maturing civilization the basic energy vital to its survival.”
— Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier
Aside from the bigger picture of space travel, I wanted to examine what it would mean to be someone who is chosen to be among the first inhabitants of the early colonies. What would it be like to leave the only planet humans have ever truly known and set off for another world with no live communication, and no guarantee of return? I represented this visually within the work, as the federal blue risograph ink line-work is indicative of incredible vastness of space, and technological advancement. These images would possibly be used to advertise space living to future residents.
Teal risograph ink line work was used for private moments, such as pondering what a small museum of Earth may contain, and quiet moments in private quarters.
I have wondered how many personal items an early colony candidate might be allowed to bring. In the past is seemed to differ from mission to mission, a few kilos usually. Astronauts on the International Space Station and shuttle missions have been reported to bring hometown souvenirs, sports team paraphernalia, musical instruments, children’s drawings, favourite sweaters and token items on behalf of organisations. Could this be different if you may not make a return trip?
As an exploration into the concept of and meaning behind personal items, I asked friends to send me a photo of their bedside table as is, with no further prompt. To me, the bedside table feels like a subconscious hub of necessities and psychological requirements. In these photos I spotted medication, books, mugs, pens, eye glasses, nail polish, clocks, lamps, tissues, sex toys, photographs, deodorant, radios, flowers, hair brushes and heat packs. I think these items are a revealing insight into human need and may represent it better than any speculative list could.
Unfortunately O’Neill did not live to see a space colony within his lifetime, and presently we are facing more political hurdles than ever. However, his legacy and the legacy of his peers Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Drake and Freeman Dyson inspire new people every day to push against convention and seek the path to the High Frontier.
Looking Back to Look Forward
by Sophia Cai
No Place Like Space is the second solo exhibition by Melbourne-based emerging artist and designer Ashley Ronning. Ronning has been long fascinated by space and our long-standing efforts to understand and make sense of it through science, exploration and the arts. Using a colourful palette achieved through risograph printing methods, her latest series of work is an ambitious step and creative exploration that imagines what a space colony could look like, and more importantly, feel like for its inhabitants.
One of the most enduring metaphors in our popular understanding of space is between its vastness and our alienation. Our insignificance in the face of the enormity of the universe can lead to a sense of despair, but also wonderment at a force much larger than us; something we can only understand and experience in the most minuscule fashion. It is an experience in perspective.
With this in mind, is it unsurprising that popular culture and the arts continue to situate us against the loneliness of space? Recent films including Moon (2009), Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015) depict their lead actors against the hostility and alienation of their surroundings. Space travel and habitation continues to be a point of intrigue as we come to consider the limits of human perception and experience.
Despite the current proliferation of space-themed popular media, Ronning’s biggest visual and emotional influence is another science-fiction film from 1972 Soviet Russia titled Solaris. At once grandly ambitious yet also slow-paced and quiet, this film is at its heart a love story. Pitched against an unknowable force, the protagonists of Solaris ask us to consider what we would do for love and what we are willing to sacrifice.
In a similar fashion to her previous exhibition Deep Space House Plant, Ronning’s new series of work focuses on personal lives and moments with a notable absence of human figures. The artist speaks of a ‘feeling of isolation’ that runs throughout the exhibition, a mood that is strongly felt through the personal artefacts and objects that form the core of Ronning’s subject matter. We see signs of human life and interactions in her work, but never a figure or any indication of who these people may be.
Despite this absence of bodies, the intimacy and emotional register of her subjects is maintained through Ronning’s focus on personal artefacts. From a bedroom scene to a flat spread of personal possessions, as audiences we are offered a glimpse into this private sphere. As archaeological and anthropological studies can attest to, this focus on material culture as a way to narrate human experience is not new, but in Ronning’s hands there is a deeply felt personal attachment that is highly individualised.
Rather than merely considering the practicalities of space travel, Ronning conducted extensive research for the project by asking her friends to send her pictures of their bed-side tables. At once banal and ordinary, these glimpses into an unfiltered personal life offered Ronning a means to consider what our personal treasures are without the expectations imposed by monetary value, necessity or mere pragmatism.
Although derived and inspired from contemporary examples, Ronning’s works operate in a mode of ‘retrofuturism’—a look back into the high days of space exploration and excitement of the 1970s through contemporary eyes. The artist cites the landmark modernist design of the Eames House, as well as the design of the space station in Solaris as key visual inspirations that informed her own design of Hamilton Base. We also see further visual cues to a recent past, such as in presence of a cassette tape and a yo-yo, items that were once commonplace but today are no longer.
This nostalgic re-imagining of a recent past is particularly well suited to the artist’s preferred medium of risograph printing. A digital printing method initially developed in the 1980s in Japan, risograph printing has been championed in recent years by artists and designers for producing unique and at times unpredictable print results that differ vastly from the glossy pages of commercial printing and xerographic photocopying. Riso printing can achieve a depth of colour and rich tonality that belie its digital means of production.
Using her favoured colour palette of blue, teal, pink and orange, the resulting prints of No Place Like Space are an inviting glimpse into the private world of the artist’s imagined space colony, Hamilton Base. Space exploration may not be a feasible option for most of us in our lifetime, but Ronning’s work invites us to dream and imagine.
You can find out all about Sophia's work at her website.