Photo courtesy of Nahum Studios
Photo courtesy of Nahum Studios

Otherworldly Journeys

Photo courtesy of Nahum Studios
Photo courtesy of Nahum Studios

As you are holding this text and listening to the sound of my voice, you start feeling relaxed. Take three deep breaths… Breathe in… hold it for a second… now breathe out and as you do allow all your tension to flow out of your body, and again. Breathe in… hold it for a second… now breathe out and as that warm breath leaves your mouth you can feel the tension flowing away from you. Let’s do it once more. Breathe in… hold it for a second… now breathe out allowing your shoulders to drop as you do. I want you to draw your attention to your eyes, feel how your eyelids are getting heavier and heavier. Relax your jaw and allow your mouth to fall freely and comfortably open. As you relax the tiny muscles around your mouth, you can feel your whole face more and more relaxed. Now, visualise this feeling of relaxation slowly spreading all over your face and head. Slowly, this bubble of relaxation starts covering your neck, your chest, your arms… As you experience these sensations you allow yourself to go into a trance…

Now gently wake up and open your eyes.

Unfortunately, I am not going to hypnotise you this time. I use these words to begin an intimate and personal journey. With these words I have hypnotised over a thousand people around the world in countries as diverse as Brazil, Japan, Sweden, Canada, Mexico, amongst others. In these hypnosis sessions I introduce false memories in the minds of an audience. Once they wake up, they remember something new: walking on the Moon.

Once I got on to the Moon I started to drift and boundaries between dream and memory are very fuzzy for me.

On 16 July 1969, the world witnessed the landing of man on the Moon. In the coming years, 12 men walked on the lunar surface. Armstrong famously uttered ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ And indeed, he was talking about men as not a single woman was given the opportunity to be part of the Apollo missions. Today we know this wasn’t because of a shortage of well prepared and qualified women that were ready to undertake such challenge, but instead because of what seems to have been an actual NASA policy, as the letter overleaf reveals.

Instead, NASA sent a group of well trained fighter jet pilots that came back to Earth as philosophers. As a thought experiment, let’s imagine what it would have been like to have a different crew? What impact would have been made by a woman astronaut walking on the Moon back in the early 1970s? How many people would have been empowered by such an image? What other ways of seeing the Moon have we missed?

The sky was just a vivid hazy blue, such an intense blue. As it touched the horizon it was sort of a pinkish yellow but as it rose up it was just the most intense beautiful crystalline blue that I have ever seen.

Today we can argue that while things have changed in the space sector, those changes are still not sufficient. Today, only about 10% of astronauts are women and the space sector still remains largely conservative. Let’s remember that the history of space exploration is dominated by affluent and industrialised nations, often tied to military and economic imperatives. In turn, space activities and their narratives have further cemented the imperial and economic dominance of these superpowers, reinforcing existing belief systems, gender politics, racial and colonial orders. This legacy leaves little room for cultural diversity in space activities. By examining the origins of these norms we can explain why this sector struggles to create an inclusive environment that can reflect the diversity that exists here on our planetary home.

With the growth of the commercialisation of space by private companies, also called New Space, the space sector is moving in new directions. These companies are often led by billionaires, who claim to be guiding humanity into a better future (while avoiding paying their fair share of taxes), bringing a new layer of exclusivity to space travel. Space will now be accessible to those that can afford it. This alienates the public image of space travel as a luxury leisure pursuit available to only the most wealthy individuals. Certainly, seeing the richest people of Earth floating and smiling in tiny capsules undermines and vilifies the intrinsic value of space exploration. These companies seek to have launches as often as possible to become profitable. With the current space technology, propulsion systems and rocket fuel, daily space travel seems more of a threat to the planet than a benefit. According to a NASA study back in 2011, the consequences of having 1000 rocket launches per year could raise the polar surface temperatures by 1 degree centigrade.

Many of us have been deeply influenced by the ‘overview effect’; a noble concept coined by space philosopher Frank White. It refers to a cognitive shift experienced by some astronauts during space flight while viewing Earth from afar. In this new awareness astronauts experience a sense of wholeness, fragility and a profound appreciation of the beauty of Earth. Today this type of clarity is used as a punchline to promote space travel for all, but until new alternatives to rockets and fuels are developed, it is problematic as a prospect. After all, we are already in space! How incredible would it be to develop something like a ‘roundview effect’. A regained sense of wonder by looking at the horizon and experiencing the daily dance of the Sun from side to side, the feeling of our feet being pushed towards the core of the planet and the realisation that we inhabit one of the most beautiful and intriguing places in the universe.

And when I was looking at Earth, I wanted to embrace it.

But perhaps, the greatest failure in this new era of space exploration is the lack of bold new visions (going to Mars doesn’t count) that would enable us to fantasise and expand our wonder about the cosmos. Let’s remember that first and foremost, space exploration has its origins in the visions of artists. Before space travel was possible, artists from different disciplines were already imagining humanity beyond Earth’s orbit with paintings, music, films and otherworldly stories. These cultural works inspired both scientists and engineers that made space travel possible. Today, as the space sector grows, the importance of imagination and creativity become even more evident. Artists can directly contribute to shape the new technologies that will revolutionise space exploration.

When envisioning the future of our societies, space becomes a critical territory that must be inhabited artistically as well as scientifically. Artists have not stopped envisioning a myriad of models for exploring the universe in both critical and poetic ways. These imaginaries conjured by artists have the potential to make an enormous impact on the future of space exploration, from exploring space without rockets to new models for planetary personhood.

I saw two kinds of gods dressed in white and wearing Indian clothes. They were giants and I thought I was projecting myself as the goddess of man and woman.

using hypnosis in theatres around the world. In recent years I have been performing these journeys with various groups of space professionals and these sessions have been equally revealing to me. I recall a couple of years ago the case of a space mission designer from the European Space Agency. While he was in the trance state nothing seemed out of place. He looked like most people do when they are under hypnosis, calm and unexpressive. There were 20 other scientists and engineers in the room, which was a sterile white space with low ceilings inside a science facility in Strasbourg – very different from the flamboyant and classy theatres I like to perform in. After relaxing the group and focusing their attention on the sound of my voice, I asked them to search for their first memory that connected them to space. Afterwards, they had to imagine a speculative mission around this memory. Then, they came out of the trance state and started writing a fantastical space mission that they were to perform in a theatrical way in front of everyone. At some point, it was the turn of the ESA space mission designer. He was a hardcore engineer with postdocs, published papers and a good reputation in the space sector. From the brief conversation I had with him he seemed secular and scientific. But at this moment something was different. He switched off the lights in the room and took his iPad out which displayed a fullscreen photo of himself. In the darkness we saw his face floating around the room while he was talking about Jupiter. His voice started to crack and he confessed that when he was a kid he experienced a kind of astral-travel to this planet. He said that it was real and that he still remembers the exact point he visited on Jupiter. Since then he has been determined to go back to this place and is committed to spending the rest of his life working towards that goal. He had never shared this experience with anyone before and felt exposed for revealing such a magical event that had guided his entire scientific life.

I was like ah! I have to go back to Earth, damn! It’s really nice up here and I was enjoying the beauty.

For the last decade I have attended every single one of the annual International Astronautical Congress; the big gathering for space professionals across the world. As well as attending the plenaries and chairing the sessions about culture and art in space, I make sure to take some time to simply observe the thousands of people that gather there. I perceive them as a bunch of dreamers – they work for space and they dream about space. Yes, they come from STEM education backgrounds but they could be designing coffee machines, and instead they want to do things away from this planet. Many of them have forgotten how incredible and magical their job is due to spreadsheets, politics and just everyday life. Hopefully, artists will continue to fuel visions for a kinder and bolder space exploration sector, but also remind us how much we need to acknowledge and embrace fantasy today.

I feel I must have been sleeping in some moments, I am not sure.

Nahum’s oeuvre goes deep into the human experience by challenging our perceptions through unusual perspectives. Navigating between the real and the imaginary, his work produces events that reframe the way we understand the world: ‘I am interested in that point where reality touches the impossible.’ He often employs outer space technologies, illusionism, hypnosis and music to guide audiences into otherworldly journeys to raise critical dialogues about the politics of existence. Nahum’s multidisciplinary work orchestrates a wide range of media including performance, installation, video, music, drawing and storytelling.

Nahum is the Founding Director of KOSMICA, a global institute founded in 2011 with the mission to establish a platform for critical, cultural and poetic discourse on our relationship with outer space and the impact of space activities here on Earth. The Institute develops initiatives that bridge art and humanities, the space sector and wider society.

Nahum served as the Chair for the Committee for the Cultural Utilisation of Space (ITACCUS), at the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) in Paris. In 2014, he was the first artist to be awarded the Young Space Leader and Karman Fellowship in 2021 for his unique cultural contributions to astronautics and space exploration. Born in Mexico City, he lives and works in Berlin.

This article appears in full in COSMOS AS A JOURNAL, NO. 2.