Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Territorial Insecurity, a Lecture at the AIC by Felicity Scott


I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago called "Territorial Insecurity," given by Felicity Scott of Columbia University. A description of Scott's work and a precis of her lecture can be found at the AIC website.

Scott has two books coming out this year: one a compilation of past essays, and another called Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architecture of Counterinsurgency, the closing remarks of which was the starting point of her lecture at the AIC.

Outlaw Territories, available at MIT Press in 2016

And what a fascinating lecture it was! Not nearly enough does architectural discourse talk about the politics of the built environment, particularly from a perspective that examines the 1960s and 1970s' visions of space exploration and colonization with respect to geopolitical upheaval.

What interested me most about Scott's talk (although it was all fascinating) was the examination of proposals for space colonization, and its context with respect to government-imposed outlaw status and self-imposed outlaw status.

The approaches to space colonization she described are more or less in two groups:  the "Space Kibbutz" (or its corrupted version, "Space Gulag") that serves a local planet versus the "New Old West," the lawless frontier. 

Permutations of each have echoes of refugee camps and communes, the essential spectrum of territory that Scott sets up in her lecture for examination.

Simplistically, one type of space colony, championed by physicist Gerard K. O'Neill, was the utopian ideal as a satellite serving Earth (or some other inhabited planet). The best parts of earth - the coastline of the south of France; the hills of Tuscany; the Rockies - would be rebuilt in this perfect world in space. The colony would be a sort of gated community of productive members of society. This colony would be tied to Earth and send back energy and other resources from space to the planet. (One proposed idea was sending solar energy via microwaves - a chilling thought if you've ever accidentally let microwave popcorn go too long.)

The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, by Gerard K. O'Neill

Perhaps the clearest indication that these proposals were symptomatic of civil unrest and global anxieties is the imagery for these space colonies. Again, most of these are images developed for NASA (or in some cases BY NASA) to convince the government that space colonization deserved federal attention. Below are a few examples:

The Space Kibbutz.

A Bernal sphere exterior. (Photo Credit: National Space Society)

A Bernal sphere interior. (Photo Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA)

A Stanford torus exterior (Photo Credit: Don Davis/NASA)
The interior of a Stanford torus. (Photo Credit: Don Davis/NASA)

The exterior of an O'Neill cylinder. (Painting by Rick Guidice courtesy of NASA.)
Interior of O'Neill cylinder. (Painting by Rick Guidice courtesy of NASA.)

Endcap of cylinder, featuring Golden Gate Bridge from Sausilito inspiration. (Painting by Don Davis courtesy of NASA.)

Each of these is based on the notion of gravity induced by rotation, as can be seen in the curving walls and skewed perspectives. Notice the lush greenery, the lakes and rivers, the weirdly Mediterranean living spaces. These are deliberate choices: these images are representative of the "earthly paradise" that were meant to encourage the government to take the ideas seriously. And lest we forget that these are space colonies, there are views through giant windows out into space with picturesque galaxies and planets beyond the curving horizon. Agriculture plays a strong role in the self-supporting imagery of these colonies, with the bountiful sunlight and controlled environment ensuring optimized growing seasons and harvests. (Never mind that the original proposals excluded insects - no pests to bother the colonists! - and any real input from actual ecologists and biologists.)

These images, not unlike the first photograph of the earth from the Apollo missions, has defined decades of imagery of space exploration and colonization. Here's a landmark shot from a landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968:

2001: A Space Odyssey exterior space station
 And the interior of this station, and the vessel Discovery, from the same film:

Interior of Space Station 5, from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Interior of Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey

  And now take a look at this screenshot from the film Interstellar, released in 2014:

Cooper Station, from Interstellar

These are just two examples of the lasting effect these renderings of space colonies have had on science fiction.

The problems with this kind of idealized colony are almost immediately obvious, and thousands of science fiction writers have eviscerated this idea for decades. For me, it immediately calls to mind the story Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold. That story tells of "quaddies:" human workers who were genetically crafted to be the ideal laborers in space. Eventually the quaddies revolt, escape their corporate government and launch the colony itself out of planetary orbit for a distant asteroid field in some other quadrant. The space kibbutz escaping outside rule and governing itself, literally capturing its own territory and removing it from the sphere of influence of the ruling body.

Falling Free, a novel in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

The other approach to space colonization promotion in the 1960s and 1970s was a kind of "pioneer" narrative, in which those who wished to escape from Earth and explore strange new worlds could do so without government interference from Earth. This has a particularly American appeal of individualism and pioneering, which has been part of the mystique since before 1776. A bonus to this view is that alien life has not yet been found, so presumably hamfisted Earthlings can't screw anything up for other organisms in space. This would be a new Old West - but with the emphasis on scientists rather than gunslingers, one hopes. However, the likely candidates for this pioneering adventure would be limited to those who can afford to leave the planet - a select few in even the most egalitarian of times. The look and feel of Blade Runner (itself a film based on the novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K Dick) comes to mind as the result of this "pioneer" colonization - a polluted and gritty Earth populated by those who can't afford to leave for better places in the stars.

The Earthly slum.

Blade Runner street scene

Or the reverse scenario could occur: only the undesirables are sent out into space, leaving the planet happily cleansed of its problematic or underachieving people - akin to the "B" Ark from Golgafrinchan in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Or perhaps a Space Australia - like the Star Trek episode Space Seed, the plot of which directly references the real Botany Bay and the imagined 1990s genetics wars. The result of this seed culminates in The Wrath of Khan. The MacGuffin driving the plot in this film is a terraforming device capable of creating an entire planet fit for human habitation - (and also - spoilers! - resurrecting Spock) talk about pioneering the frontier!

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
When examined with this lens of upheaval in place, it becomes clear how these space colony proposals were an outgrowth of a myriad of fears centered in the 1960s and 1970s: energy crises, population explosion anxieties, deeply unpopular war, racial strife.

One wonders what a similar push for space colonization would look like in today's global climate. None of these fears have gone away (although some may have new names). Would the look and feel of these proposed colonies change much from 50-odd years ago? Imagine a space colony designed by Elon Musk, for example. Or Apple. Or Pixar.

The Cruise Ship

"Axiom" ship interior from WALL-E

Pixar's film WALL-E has one interpretation of space colonization we haven't seen: The Cruise Ship. In the film, the Axiom (with overtones of the "B" Ark from the Hitchhiker's Guide mentioned above) was launched from Earth when the planet was too polluted and defiled with trash from the products sold by the aptly-named Buy-N-Large corporation. While the garbage robots left behind on Earth cleaned up the planet, the ship (another Buy-N-Large endeavor) was meant to temporarily shelter, feed, and entertain the human population until the Earth was sufficiently cleansed again. This short 5 year cruise turned into a 700 year long journey, and the transformation in the populace is startling.

What isn't startling is the whole premise of this dystopian future - a trash-covered earth rendered uninhabitable by consumerism writ large, and a laughably feeble attempt to correct it that has disastrous effects on the human race.

Entertaining as it is to speculate on what future space colonies might look like, the bigger question is really "What purpose will they serve?" Will the human race be forced to abandon Earth entirely due to some disaster (self-inflicted or otherwise) and extend outward into space? Will the space colonies merely be temporary stop-gaps while we discover new planets/moons/asteroids to inhabit? Perhaps Earth will remain inhabited as part of a federation of planets, but become a backwater as humanity extends further and further into the cosmos? Or will our species may dramatically transform as it adapts to an entirely space-bound existence?

What new architecture and design awaits us?

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