Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2019
Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector
Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, April 29, 2016–May 12, 2019
Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector, installation view, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, 2016–19 (photograph © Katie Knowles)

“I need my space” proclaims the slogan on today’s ubiquitous NASA-themed T-shirts and hoodies, seen at popular stores like Target, Urban Outfitters, and Forever 21. This catchy phrase also adorns lunch boxes, coffee mugs, stickers, magnets, license plate frames, and cell phone wallpaper, collectively perpetuating the notion that NASA is a popular brand, and that it represents freedom through space exploration. While we know that space science is much more complex than that slogan suggests, there is certainly a trend in contemporary culture to romanticize space travel and to make it all seem easy. The Berlin-based American artist Trevor Paglen has introduced work over the past several years that undermines such misconceptions. His project Orbital Reflector, the subject of much news over the last year, has shown that space travel is complicated, often delayed, and less predictable than anticipated thanks to the variables of economics, weather, politics, federal policies, and public perception. The Nevada Museum of Art (NMA) in Reno coproduced Paglen’s Orbital Reflector and also hosted a recent exhibition of the project in its Center for Art + Environment gallery. This review considers the NMA’s exhibition in conjunction with the larger context and current status of Orbital Reflector.

Initiated in 2013, the project developed considerably in concept over the years. Since 2016, an early version, similar to Paglen’s Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (2013), has hung in the multistoried Donald W. Reynolds Grand Hall of the Nevada Museum of Art. Well before the exhibition Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector opened in 2018, visitors to the NMA have had the opportunity to admire this inviting fourteen-foot-diameter spherical Mylar form, take selfies in its reflective surface, and ponder the idea of what it means to create art for outer space. The installation of the prototype, exclusively sponsored by Switch, a global technology company based in Nevada, reinforced the idea that Orbital Reflector, in its final form, would “become a reflective object in the night sky—a visible ‘sculpture’ that appears on certain days and at set times, which can also be tracked via mobile device.” While this early version of the project never entered space, it reminds us of Paglen’s chief interest, according to the NMA, to “change the way humanity sees our place in the world.”

Originally scheduled to launch in November 2018, Orbital Reflector—a one-hundred-foot-long inflatable diamond-shaped sculpture made of titanium oxide–treated Mylar and housed in a CubeSat, a small box-like satellite—launched in the early morning of December 3, 2018. Sent into low Earth orbit (roughly 350 miles/575 km from Earth) by SpaceX, Orbital Reflector joined a record-setting number of sixty-four satellites from seventeen countries on the Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s live coverage of the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was exhilarating and performative as hired hosts amped the energy of the event. While Paglen’s project wasn’t mentioned by the announcers, they did reference another artwork on board the rocket, the LACMA Art + Technology Lab’s collaborative project with artist Tavares Strachan. Entitled Enoch, the 24-karat gold canopic jar commemorates Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African American astronaut selected for any national space program, who died in a training accident prior to space travel. That satellite, successfully tracked by radio just two days after the Falcon 9 launch, will circle the Earth for seven years. As for Orbital Reflector, the NMA, in partnership with the aerospace firm Global Western, was able to confirm that Paglen’s satellite successfully separated from the rocket and deployed within a cluster of similarly sized spacecraft. On December 17, the NMA provided the following mission update: “Due to the large number of satellites aboard #SSOA, the satellite tracking information is taking longer than we originally anticipated. We hope to have an ID soon!” The wait for additional information continued for several weeks. This was complicated by a federal government shutdown, which lasted from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019. In a January 24 interview with the New York Times Paglen explained that the satellite is “not designed to live indefinitely,” expressing additional concerns that continued exposure to heat and cold could damage the electronics. In the end, two unanticipated problems plagued the project: twenty-four satellites from the launch, including Paglen’s, did not receive tracking numbers. As a result, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could not approve the inflation of Paglen’s sculpture in case it damaged a neighboring satellite. Though Paglen intended the project to orbit the Earth for a period of several weeks to two months before disintegrating upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, the NMA confirmed in a press release on May 1, 2019, that communications from the satellite ceased and inflation of the sculpture “would no longer be a viable outcome.”

With all the press coverage of the launch, the museum’s Center for Art + Environment exhibition Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector was largely overshadowed. But the exhibition provided an important context for the project, including fifteen prototype drawings (2012–17) by the artist. Paglen, who received his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and PhD in geography from UC Berkeley, first experimented with an aerospace project in 2012. The Last Pictures, a small silicon disc of one hundred photographs representing a summary of human history, entered space via the EchoStar XVI, a geostationary commercial communications satellite. While this particular project wasn’t featured in the exhibition, there was a white-matte, steel-lacquered, small-scale replica of the Orbital Reflector (2018), similar in concept to the version exhibited in 2017 at the Barbican Centre in London. One main emphasis of the exhibition was to establish the historical antecedents that influenced Paglen’s project. The timeline presented was quite minimal, charting four major inspiration points for the artist: Russian modernist Kazimir Malevich’s thirty-four drawings entitled Planits (1923–24); the Soviet Union’s Sputnik (1957); French artist Yves Klein’s “air architecture project,” Pneumatic Rocket (1958); and NASA’s 1960s Echo 1 and Echo 2. Represented in photographs, the latter two one-hundred-foot-diameter early communications satellites closely resemble Paglen’s spherical prototype.

With a display case and video, the exhibition also chronicled the building materials and processes integral to transforming Orbital Reflector from mere prototype to actual aerospace-destined sculpture. The chronicle, complete with pictures and descriptions of the thermal-vacuum tests and other essential preparatory procedures, embodied the meeting of science and art. Lastly, the exhibition included a selection of large-scale C-prints from Paglen’s series The Other Night Sky. These were in some ways site specific, as one represented Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation (2009) while another presented a view of the Eastern Sierra, taken via electronic intelligence satellite in 2012. Overall, the exhibition, created prior to the SpaceX launch, was extremely informative about the history of Paglen’s Orbital Reflector. Postlaunch updates to the exhibition space would have helped to create a more dynamic discussion of how this ambitious, kinetic project continued to develop.

Orbital Reflector received criticism even before it was fully realized. A range of scientists, quoted in an article by Smithsonian magazine last summer, cited Paglen’s sculpture as “unnecessary light pollution.” Contemporary art often warrants harsh critique for a variety of reasons. The two most frequent targets of criticism involve funding and aesthetics. Orbital Reflector’s price tag of $1.5 million is the kind of funding that a state like Nevada desperately needs for education, including its often-absent public school art education curriculum. One cannot help but wonder if the money for a project like this could better serve a wider school-age public directly. Indeed, while most agree that art is transformative, that it provides opportunities to see the world in new, inspiring ways, the high price tag of contemporary art often puts at risk people’s faith and willingness to recognize that transformative power.

Perhaps due to the perceived failure of Orbital Reflector to perform its expected duties in space, the exhibition Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector closed early. Originally intended to be on view until July 5, 2020, according to the museum’s program guide from February–March 2019, the exhibition closed unceremoniously on May 12, 2019. Nevertheless, Paglen’s spherical prototype still remains in the entry hall, where it has hung for three years now as a signature entry experience to the NMA. Despite the Orbital Reflector’s early closing, there is also still evidence of that project in the gift shop, where a display of Paglen’s Limited Edition Collector’s Patch Set sells for $800, which oddly includes one that reads: “Reno, We Have a Problem, #Notmyproblem.” For a more affordable, less ambiguous option, you can purchase a single $10 Orbital Reflector patch. According to the display label, these collectibles serve as markers of Paglen’s interest in the visual language of mission patches and military culture.

A less obvious lingering element to the exhibition is the notable fact that the NMA’s Center for Art + Environment, which houses archival materials from over one thousand artists, now includes the archive of Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, which will undoubtedly serve as an important resource for artists, researchers, and students in the future. It is this archival extension of the project that will provocatively contribute to the expanding discourse of art in space. While one understands the impulse to close the exhibition early due to the outcome of the ultimately untrackable satellite, if left on view it could have served as a teachable moment to reinforce one of the mottoes of Paglen’s other commemorative patches: “Space Is Hard.” Like the science of space exploration, space art will inevitably continue to experience failures and successes, and not shying away from perceived failures is exactly the message we tell students of all ages. Despite its lack of tracking number and the likelihood that the balloon never inflated, Orbital Reflector not only generated an active discourse around the responsibility and ethics of space art, but in many ways it held to its bargain by “transforming space into place,” as originally intended.

Brett M. Van Hoesen
Associate Professor and Area Head of Art History, Department of Art, University of Nevada, Reno