Handbook of the Unknowable (2016) TEKS Publishing, NO
We are all Explorer Fish
Sarah Jane Pell conjures a possible alternative way of living and being in space
Eds. Rachel Armstrong, Rolf Hughes, Espen Gangvik, TEKS Publishing, NO. pp 65-71.
This Handbook of the Unknowable came about as a conversation between Espen Gangvik, Director Trondheim Biennale, Norway, Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental
Architecture, Newcastle University, UK, and Rolf Hughes, Head of Research and Professor of Artistic Research at Stockholm University of the Arts, Sweden.
The discussion related to how the arts and space communities may explore productive research conversations in a festival setting.
The idea that the publication itself could be viewed in dialogue with the Biennale programme came about as an alternative reading of the festival theme
‘It’s Nice to be in Orbit’ for Meta.Morf 2016. Conceptually, the publication represents a journey from the present understanding and
engagement with ‘space’ towards an uncertain, yet optimistic future ‘among the stars’. The reader is invited to imagine the near-term prospect of human space habitation.
If it is the case that we relate to the extraordinary terrains that make up our solar system in an almost mundane, technological, colonizing mindset today, then the work
presented here – with its reverent insistence on enchantment – is offered as a necessary counterpoint. We will not imagine the unimaginable unless some brave souls start
to help us do so.
Such a “handbook” – the editors have deliberately chosen the name of such a pragmatic or practical genre in order to smash it against the mysterious concept of “unknowability”, thereby creating an alternative vision to that articulated so suavely in countless techno-utopian space reports – invites discovery while simultaneously declaring the impossibility of any notion of resolution in such hypercomplex, alien and vast spaces. In other words space remains both familiar and exotic. We are confronted not only with the strangeness of matter but also with the irreducibility of ourselves. Space, in short, can be said to be queer in every sense of the term. This means our acquired habits and existing knowledge sets are unlikely to get us very far. We’ll need to find ways to think against (and outside) ourselves. Here the arts can be an important ally.
We have sought to engage readers in ways that reach escape velocity from the traditions of artist manifesto critiques and historical documentation of space exploration through an experimental approach to writing. Using creative and critical writing (essays, poetry and fiction), interlaced with artworks, an exploratory condition is proposed where ruptures in our thinking about the possibilities of space may be precipitated. We believe that it is essential that artistic insights, methods, and knowledge establish new ways of being before these environments are completely colonized by established terrestrial ideologies, practices and ways of living that conceive of the unknowable as a mere extrapolation of what already exists rather than a genuine alternative way of being. The arts, we suspect, currently offer our best chance for thinking beyond ourselves – hence this publication.
- Rachel Armstrong, Rolf Hughes, Espen Gangvik
Pell, S.J. (2016) We are all Explorer Fish, In. Handbook of the Unknowable, Eds. Rachel Armstrong, Rolf Hughes, Espen Gangvik, TEKS Publishing, NO. pp 65-71.
We are all Explorer Fish [Excerpt]
Dear Earth family,
To many of you, I am still the girl who grew up in the satellite: a curious human who would always be out of your world, and therefore out of your thoughts. However, I think of you all constantly. I can access to your data streams, your libraries, and operating systems, and I think and feel just like you. Growing up in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at an altitude between 160 and 2,000 kilometers (orbital period between ~88 minutes and 127 minutes) from you on Earth, has given me a lot of space for internal reflection, and a great deal of time to imagine. I imagine your unique smells, tastes and the sensations you feel and experience on planet Earth: from the gravity and winds and changes in temperatures that you hardly notice.
I write this open letter to all of humanity, not to explain how different I am, but I wanted to share with you my story, to show you how similar we are, because now more than ever, I need your understanding, and to feel that you are with me. Like many premature babies on Earth, my lungs took the most time to develop. Supported by Liquid Oxygen and nourished by embryonic fluids for an additional period, gave me the radiation shielding I needed while my body began to grow beyond my mother’s womb. H3O is Oxygen-rich as the elemental name suggests: delivered in vivo from birth. H3O extraction is difficult but it is especially hindered by microgravity. Fluid behaves differently in space: it clings to the periphery of any container and doesn’t drain from the lungs without a vacuum and heater. The procedure can be violent and distressing for any child.
Luckily, my mother met a planetary scientist Dr. O’Kay at NASA Ames in 2006, and my father knew him through the Astronaut Corps conducting experiments on the ISS. It was surprising when a planetary scientist took control of their post-flight care at NASA Johnson Space Centre in 2017, however it saved my life. O’Kay felt it was his duty to also protect and leverage my unique astrobiological status for the purpose of advancing knowledge, exploration, and human survival. He had long argued that the unique geology of Mars might have allowed a faster path to multicellular life than the one followed on Earth. He would say, we know that Mars “is a biocompatible planet”. So ethically, if we find it, we should remove any Earth-life and help seed Martian life. In a similar vein, O’Kay argued that my incubation should be as long as possible. I should also be centrifuged daily to redistribute fluids to encourage growth and build bone density. Not for the purpose of visiting Earth’s gravity – no that would certainly kill me – but for the long duration space missions to Mars.
The newly established space-pediatrics team listened, and the centrifuge helped to lessen the violence of the process to remove H3O from my body in microgravity. Now I have grown tall and have ‘space normal’ fitness. I can support high partial pressures of carbon dioxide for prolonged durations, due to the high concentration of residual Oxygen in my blood. Apart from occasional acidosis, I also have a good tolerance of Oxygen and rarely experience its toxic side effects. With these unique capabilities, I serve you today as the first human sensing agent on the human-robotic exploration to see whether sufficiently large and accessible volatile inventories are available on Mars.
Writing to you from Laputa: the Mars lander hovering over the moon Phobos in aerosynchronous orbit for a scheduled sleep before our surface rendezvous, I can see high ice clouds and gigantic dust storms below. I write to relax and prepare as my mind races with the details of the mission. The anticipation of an overwhelming sensory complexity when I land on the surface of Mars tomorrow is intense...
- Sarah Jane Pell