We may not always realize it, but art helps us change the way we see ourselves. That is why when artist Trevor Paglen imagined launching a reflective, nonfunctional satellite into low Earth orbit, the Nevada Museum of Art knew that his artistic gesture could help to change the way we see our place in the world.
As the twenty-first century unfolds and gives rise to unsettled global tensions, Orbital Reflector encourages all of us to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder, to consider our place in the universe, and to reimagine how we live together on this planet.
Picture a rocket launching into space. Inside of it is a reflective, inflatable sculpture affixed to a small satellite that, once ejected, will orbit the earth for several weeks before disintegrating upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. While most of us realize that everyday satellites link telecommunications systems, financial and transportation infrastructure, and military functions around the globe, it is sometimes easy to forget these all-but-invisible activities. After all, they happen up there in outer space — out of sight, out of mind.
Orbital Reflector changes this by transforming “space” into “place.” It makes visible the invisible, thereby rekindling our imaginations and fueling potential for the future.
Artists and scientists are both engaged in inquiry. For centuries, artists have accompanied explorers and scientists on their journeys to help visualize places for those who have not travelled there. But the exploration extends far beyond fieldwork, into the realm of imagination and new possibility.
Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich was the first artist to imagine art in space. Others followed, designing self-propelled rockets that were never launched. While Malevich’s artistic vision was never realized, the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 — the first artificial Earth satellite — into orbit in 1957. NASA followed with Explorer 1 in 1958 and Echo in 1960. The midcentury Space Race was on, with the threat of Cold War conflict always lingering in its shadows.
Today, we again find an artist — Trevor Paglen — at the center of our global conversations about what space exploration and discovery could mean for our future.
Nevada is situated in North America’s largest deserts. The state has seen atomic tests, military installations, and large-scale mining operations, but also experimental communities like Burning Man and the largest land-based artworks in the world. This extreme environment is also home to the Nevada Museum of Art. Risk is in our DNA.
So it comes as no surprise that artist Trevor Paglen approached the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art to imagine the unimaginable. Together we embark upon an exploration of the most extreme environment of them all: outer space.
Orbital Reflector is a sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar. It is housed in a small box-like infrastructure known as a CubeSat and launched into space aboard a rocket. Once in low Earth orbit at a distance of about 350 miles (575 kilometers) from Earth, the CubeSat opens and releases the sculpture, which self-inflates like a balloon. Sunlight reflects onto the sculpture making it visible from Earth with the naked eye — like a slowly moving artificial star as bright as a star in the Big Dipper.
Global Western is an aerospace firm working with Trevor Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art to design and manufacture Orbital Reflector. Spaceflight Industries will arrange for the launch of Orbital Reflector on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX has recently completed successful missions in collaboration with NASA and the International Space Station.
Work began on this multi-year endeavor in 2015. An early model for Orbital Reflector currently hangs in the Nevada Museum of Art, Donald W. Reynolds Grand Hall. The Museum will officially announce the Orbital Reflector project at its 2017 Art + Environment Conference, where artist Trevor Paglen will be a keynote presenter.
In summer 2018, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC will organize a major, mid-career retrospective exhibition of Trevor Paglen’s work. The launch of Orbital Reflector is anticipated to coincide with the Smithsonian exhibition.
It is not enough to launch a rocket into space; we must also think critically about why we wish to do so and consider the implications and symbolism of our actions. Many people value science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as foundational disciplines that help power the future. But creative and innovative societies demand more than this.
This is why visual arts and design thinking matters. Imagine a classroom of students deeply immersed in mathematical algorithms and scientific equations, but who rarely look up to see the world unfolding around them. This is where STEAM education comes into play. STEAM advocates for the arts to be integrated into an interdisciplinary learning platform that encourages guided inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking.
Orbital Reflector is uniquely poised to bring art and design-based thinking to the forefront of STEAM Education. In the near future, this website will contain lesson plans aligned with National Core Arts Standards for students in grades 9-12. Through these learning opportunities, students can explore, contextualize and make meaning from this innovative and interdisciplinary project. Does this sound like the future? It is.
Trevor Paglen is an American artist. His work deliberately blurs lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world. He is best known for his documentation and critique of surveillance in the twenty-first century. Paglen’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art; Berkeley Art Museum; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Nevada Museum of Art. In 2017, Paglen received the prestigious Deutsche Börse Foundation Photography Prize. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley.
The Nevada Museum of Art is the only art museum in Nevada accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). A private, nonprofit organization founded in 1931, the Reno-based institution is supported by its membership as well as sponsorships, gifts and grants. Through its permanent collections, original exhibitions and programming, and E.L. Cord Museum School, the Nevada Museum of Art provides the opportunity for people to engage with a range of art and education experiences.
The Museum’s Center for Art + Environment is an internationally-recognized research center dedicated to supporting the practice, study, and awareness of creative interactions between people and their environments. The Center houses unique archive materials from more than 1,000 artists working on all seven continents, including Cape Farewell, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Lita Albuquerque, Burning Man, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Ugo Rondinone, and Trevor Paglen.
Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector, co-produced and presented by the Nevada Museum of Art, will cost $1.3 million over the project’s three-year span. Committed sponsors to date include:
Louise A. Tarble Foundation
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation
I. Heidi Loeb Hegerich