The Very First Space Programme of the Lithuanian Space Agency: A Planet Made of Human Bodies
What happens to imagination once it leaves Earth? Crossing the Karman line, the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, it becomes disoriented. After all, imagination has evolved in the Earth’s ecosystem, held by gravity and human care. Catapulted up there, imagination is confronted with the hostility of outer space, otherworldliness at its most acute. How can we attune imagination to such a departure from our terrestrial origins?
Even though the arts, science, fiction and religion – to name a few – have often been reimagined from the perspective of the cosmos (with the prefix ‘astro’ marking such a departure from terrestrial thinking), most of these domains of thinking and making suffer from a certain degree of Earth sickness. For example, faced with humanity’s survival, too often they simply search for a shelter in the cosmos that is merely a replica of Earth and is based on current human conditions or our recent history. The ground is lifted up, turned upside down, suspended in mid-air, and yet the sensual, psychological and social planes are often, if not always, left earthbound. The majority of space programmes around the world manifest such a terrestrial conservatism, often underpinned by material and (astro)ecological exploitation, colonialism and warfare. The moment of history we live in has been recently labelled as the ‘Second Space Age’, characterised by the emergence of an outer space economy, the (private) commercialisation of space, an increase in space debris, interplanetary biocontamination and the establishment of the astro-anthropocene.
Being concerned with such a crisis of cosmic imagination, I established the Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA); an astro-disciplinary initiative that aims to create a truly extraterrestrial imagination. A think tank-cum-space-logistics-company, the LSA has been researching and developing poetic logistics to establish alternative ways of being and imagining together both on and beyond Earth. Acknowledging the cosmos as the site of radical other-worldliness, the agency focuses on how we can get closer to the unearthly while also shifting the perspectives on humanity to those of an alien. However, being aware of the near, if not total, impossibility of its mission and the cold indifference of the universe, the LSA believes that the only way to access the cosmic is through our capacity to imagine cosmically, employing techniques of pretence, make-believe and simulation as vehicles to multiple cosmoses. This plural term lies at the core of the LSA’s ethos: the cosmos is a multiverse with an infinite number of realities, including some that will never be accessible to us earthlings. As such, the LSA combines knowledge and tools from a multitude of scientific or artistic disciplines, but does not limit itself to disciplinary approaches and looks into ways to unlearn terrestrial thinking.
The conceptual background of the LSA is largely based on my decade-long artistic research into what I call gravitational aesthetics. Looking into gravity’s impact upon us, our thinking and imagination, I have developed a set of gravity-defying creative tools to tap into unprecedented sensual, psychological and social domains. Embedding the tools into the combination of fields such as design choreography, vehicular poetics, amusement park engineering, performative architecture, art and sci-fi, I have designed experiences that push the body and imagination to their extremes. The most recent materialisation of this practice is the project Planet of People, a scientific and artistic feasibility study of an artificial planet made of human bodies. Planet of People is a quasi-real, multimodal fiction based on scientific feasibility studies as well as various narrative devices that combine digital animation, set design, interactive art, fiction writing, sci-fi music etc. The project has been transferred to the LSA to advance its complex intellectual grounding, which spans astro aesthetics, the eschatological imagination, the astro-anthropocene, extraterrestrial anthropocentrism and terraforming.
An extra-terrestrial strip dance or back to stardust
The LSA invites you to conduct a thought experiment: let’s forget our earthly origins and the definition of scale, consider your body as a celestial body. Strip yourself of all social, racial, cultural, sexual, political and even biological constructs. Such earthly attributes dissolve whilst suspended in space, detached from systems of judgement andclassification prevailing on Earth. Now, catapult your body into outer space. Depending on particular astrophysical circumstances, your body might meet galactic cosmic rays, solar wind particles, micrometeorite impacts, slowly disintegrating into tiny bits and coming back where they came from. All of us are made of cosmic dust after all, hence we are no different from stones, sand dunes and asteroids.
A planet from human bodies
What if we catapult more bodies, many, many more, say, the whole sextillion (1036)? Let’s consider a more concrete location in outer space: one of the Lagrange points. These are locations in space where gravitational forces and the orbital motion of two celestial bodies like Earth-Sun or Earth-Moon balance each other. Being weightless, super cold vacuums that are pitch black (some of them), these points are perhaps the closest analogues to what could be considered as nothingness. A cloud of the human bodies would float there freely until their weak gravities (any object with mass has gravitational force) pull them towards each other, slowly coalescing into a blob. This meat asteroid would start to decompose, releasing enough heat to boil and liquidise its core. Plumes of hot meat and bubbles of trapped gases would periodically rise through the asteroid crust and erupt volcanically from the surface, eventually calming and freezing human landscapes all the way through.
A human being at the scale of a planet
Would it be a dead ‘Planet of People’? The naked, unprotected human bodies would die long before meeting other floating astro-mates after all. However, such a contemplation is rather terrestrially biased – life and death in outer space are no different from each other, speculativeastrobiology would say. What ‘life’ would be for such beings is something that we can only speculate on or cannot probably comprehend until we become them. What if we consider this huge blob of human biomass as a new living being? The organic matter or what is left of it would be bombarded by space radiation and solar winds, damaging or transforming DNA, provoking mutations and extra terrestrial evolution. All which would lead to the formation of a life form the size of a planet or at least human panspermia.
A colony of astro-cyborgs
Actually, there is quite a well known cyborgian conjecture that proposes a no less radical take on the definition of life’ in outer space. Originally the term ‘cyborg’ was coined to define a modified human who could survive the hostile environment of outer space. What would a population of cyborgs suspended in the nothingness of the cosmos do there? What would their life look like? If there is no longer a need for breathing, eating, sleeping and defecating, would phenomena such as culture, art, architecture, and love exist?
An inversion of Vitruvian architecture
One of the core issues that has given birth to the field of architecture was gravity. What happens to architecture if gravity disappears? What if the other core issue – human beings – disappear as well? Architecture becomes disoriented in outer space. Even more confusing is the idea of the human becoming architecture. The fundamental spatial definitions such as ‘up’ and ‘down’, or ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ no longer make sense. What does an upright posture mean when legs lose their footing? Heads and butts become equal. The cosmos is indifferent: the human body is the same as space debris, a comet, a star, or a human brick to be used for constructing a new celestial structure.
A monument to humanity out of humanity
What could such a thought experiment mean here and now? Let’s get down, back to Earth. It feels apocalyptical. Pandemics, climate change, deadly asteroids, atomic war, aliens – those are only some of the possible scenarios. But the scenarios for saving humankind are considerably fewer: the colonisation of other planets, space stations, and cryoanabiosis (suspended animation by freezing). The black swan’ theory says that such events can happen unexpectedly and suddenly. In the worst-case scenario, if we have to come to terms with the end of our planet and history, what human legacy, apart from space debris, will we leave in the Universe? One could consider analogues, such as the golden phonograph record, on which are recorded images and sounds portraying Earth’s life and culture, sent in the space probe Voyager. However, nothing can be a substitute for a human being. If placed in certain locations of outer space, it could be frozen and preserved for millions of years. Human astrofossil. Or is it a manifestation of anthropocentrism at its finest?
An architectural fiction or an expanded notion of sci-fi
Lithuanian Space Agency: Planet of People was chosen to represent Lithuania at the Biennale Architettura in Venice in 2021.
As an interactive architectural fiction, the pavilion invited the public to become co-architects of a planet made out of human bodies. It was a sort of expanded form of architectural narrative, powered by deployablestructural engineering, kinetic furniture design, speculative material science, extraterrestrial choreography, interactive arts, astroscientific research and corporate vocabulary – all in tandem to provoke a critical form of cosmic imagination.
At the entrance to the pavilion, visitors were greeted by a printer which automatically printed a metre-long ticket featuring information about the project and a unique queuing number for the 3D human scanner. The ticket also functioned as a booklet, a sort of pocket infowall, and turned the visitor into a poster holder. In the pavilion were four major components. The whole installation anchored itself on two large reflective walls that bracketed the project within the church in which it was based – thereby referring to the quasi-fictional nature of the project – and sustaining itself physically and aesthetically without damaging the venue’s sensitive surfaces. Within this structure was a revolving table and a custom engineered 3D scanner. The table functioned as both a reception desk and an archive of the Lithuanian Space Agency, with a number scale models referring to selected projects of mine that gave birth to the establishment of the LSA. The 3D scanner, meanwhile, scanned visitors’ bodies and transposed their 3D models into an astrophysical simulation, where they could see how their bodies – in interaction with other bodies – could form a new celestial body. It invited the public to catapult themselves into a multitude of different timelines that were displayed on special screens. All of these simulations were sped up, representing different spatiotemporal circumstances. For example, on one of them visitors could see themselves being assigned an individual orbital motion, floating in the emptiness of space. Each of our bodies are unique in shape, centre of gravity and other physical characteristics – all of which make up a unique choreographic presence in space. Realising they have such an extraterrestrial presence, participants slowly started loosening up, stripping themselves from Earthly preoccupations and biases, and imagining what their body could do up there that it cannot do here on Earth. It’s a sort of mirror that shows an extraterrestrial reflection of yourself. In another – the most sped up –simulation visitors could see themselves bumping up against other bodies and connecting with them to form unique spatial configurations. The simulation provided participants with an unprecedented contact dance that is only possible in the absence of gravity. Have you ever tried huddling up with other bodies in an armpitheel- chin-chin forefinger configuration while considering the very act of connecting with other people as a means of planetary architecture?
In the space, visitors also found a number of ring-slice-shaped seats made of plastic that had been recycled thousands of times, which may be considered as a kind of plastic poo because of its deteriorated quality. Conceptually, it refers to the origins of the material (as well as that of the human) as a post-fossil. It’s also unique in its imaginary quality – it is hard to tell what it is and where it comes from – is it an unearthly brain, intestines, faeces?
To summarise, all of the elements in the exhibition – from the queue ticket, the typography based on a human skeleton, the kinetic furniture, and the astrophysical animation to the publication of the agency’s first annual report – played in tandem as an expanded form of architecture to create an evocative empathetic bridge between the public and the otherworldliness of the cosmos.
Upon leaving the space, the visitors’ sky-ward pointed heads bent downwards, realising that the cosmos is not only up there, but here within us.
Julijonas Urbonas, is an artist, designer, researcher, engineer, lecturer, and Founder of the Lithuanian Space Agency. He is the former prorector of arts at Vilnius Academy of Arts and the CEO of an amusement park in Klaipeda. For more than a decade, he has been working between critical design, amusement park engineering, performative architecture, choreography, kinetic art and sci-fi and has been developing various critical tools for negotiating gravity: from a killer roller coaster to an artificial planet made entirely of human bodies. As part of his research, he has coined the term ‘gravitational aesthetics’, which involves manipulating gravity to create experiences that push the body and imagination to the extreme. His work has been exhibited internationally and has received numerous awards, including the Award of Distinction in Interactive Art, Prix Ars Electronica 2010. His works have been acquired by private and museum collections.