Cosmic Art: It's dance Jim, but not as we know it

Imagine an infinite gallery, where your work could float forever, huge, silent and weightless... Space is the final frontier for artists and performers, and it's catching on fast.
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On 18 March 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space. After 10 minutes' "extra-vehicular-activity" he climbed back into his spacecraft Voskhod 2, and made another giant step for mankind. Taking out his sketchbook and a set of coloured pencils, Leonov made the first eyewitness drawings of Earth from space.

While successive generations of cosmonauts have continued to turn their hand to painting, Earth's artists have been slow off the launchpad when it comes to exploiting the artistic possibilities of the space industry. The space programme may have launched a million imaginations in film, fiction and song, but only a handful of artists have ever sought to take their work out into the cosmos. The few projects that have succeeded remain strangely unpublicised - the ceramic tile entitled The Moon Museum, for example, taken up with Apollo 12 in 1969, on which Andy Warhol had drawn a penis, Robert Rauschenberg drew a straight line and Claus Oldenberg drew Mickey Mouse.

"It's vital that the space industry establishes a dialogue with artists," says astronomer Roger Malina, Director of Nasa's Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer Observatory, and editor of the art/science journal Leonardo. "It's not so we can get them to decorate our spacecraft, or design space furniture, but because we need a way of engaging the visionaries in our society."

Next week, science and art visionaries from across the world will be gathering at the Royal Institution in London to establish just such a dialogue, during a two-day public conference, "Eye of the Storm". Jake and Dinos Chapman, creators of those ambiguously sexed child sculptures, talk to Dolly the Sheep's progenitors from the Roslin Institute; while painters, sculptors and performance artists meet like-minded folk from the fields of physics, embryology and artificial intelligence.

Joining them will be Kitsou Dubois, a French dancer, who is one of a few art pioneers already actively engaged in space research. Kitsou had always been interested in choreographing for unusual environments: she had danced in factories and under water, and even, like Spiderman, down the face of the Pompidou Centre. Then she met an astronaut at a party, and their conversation sent her in a new direction. Fascinated by the idea of movement in weightlessness, she contacted the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) to persuade them to give her access to their microgravity training. "These scientists weren't very interested in art," explains Kitsou, "but I was sure I could find something that would interest them. I soon realised that if I was to get anywhere with this I'd have to learn to communicate in scientific language."

To prepare her research proposal, Kitsou travelled to Nasa and read every study ever conducted on weightlessness. Eventually, she came up with a highly detailed protocol, which CNES agreed to let her test. Based on her conviction that dancers would be better adapted to weightlessness than astronauts, she set out to understand how bodies moved in zero gravity. Her plan then was to develop a training programme to improve astronauts' physical awareness, and thereby lessen their experience of space sickness, which would improve their productivity on space missions.

Although the idea of weightlessness sounds cute and floaty, the only known way to escape gravity on earth is in a falling aeroplane. Space authorities use an old passenger jet, stripped of its seats, to get the required effect, flying on a rollercoaster trajectory, nosediving in and out of steep parabola from 30,000 feet. Moments in weightlessness are brief, only 25 seconds of zero gravity before the plane levels off. It's no surprise that US astronauts have dubbed the plane the "vomit comet".

CNES anticipated the dancer throwing up then throwing in the towel; instead, she kept her breakfast down while trainee astronauts lurched and puked. "The weirdest thing was how strongly you felt the interior of your body," Kitsou remembers. "Your liver and all your other organs begin to shift position without gravity to hold them down. Anyone stressed would be sick, but I just accepted and appreciated the feeling."

So impressed were CNES that they took Kitsou on nine flights in three years. She amassed valuable movement data and training suggestions for CNES, while discovering for herself strange new choreography ideas to take back to the dance studio.

Although mutually beneficial, the space-art relationship was never an equal one. "I was fascinated by how bodies interacted together in zero- g - the notion of feeling someone's mass but not their weight," explains Kitsou, "but this was vetoed. They said astronauts don't need to touch each other, therefore any such research was pointless."

Kitsou's eyes are now set on winning a place for further research on the new International Space Station. After the Challenger shuttle disaster, space opportunities for civilians all but evaporated, but Roger Malina believes the climate could soon change. "Most scientists are against having any humans in space. It's so expensive and frankly they'd rather have the money to build bigger telescopes. But Kitsou's research seems perfectly valid. She asks things a little bit differently and has helped clarify a number of questions."

"Artists have always helped scientists visualise their ideas," says Arthur Woods, artist and chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Art & Literature Subcommittee, "Jules Verne, for example ... but when artists say they want to make art on their own terms the scientists turn round and say no, you're a waste of time - space is too important for you."

The British artist Cornelia Parker got a taste of this truth earlier this month, when Nasa turned down her proposal to launch a meteorite back into space. "It's a very pure gesture, a poetic idea really, putting back a falling star, but Nasa say I'd be adding to space debris. That's pretty ridiculous since a meteorite is indigenous - it's not like throwing a Coke can in he desert, more like dropping a grain of sand."

Although Parker has had a great deal of support from the Natural History Museum, which is ready to record her meteorite's fate in its official log, other scientists have been swift to criticise. In 1996 Parker created public meteorite showers by customising fireworks with fragments of meteorite bought from geological dealers for about pounds 300 each. "Scientists were appalled by the idea, yet hundreds have been destroyed in the name of science," says Parker. Perhaps her residency at the Science Museum this September will introduce her to new contacts and opportunities. "I know it's going to be a long project," she says gamely, "but I want to do it, and I will find a way."

Arthur Woods proved that persistence can pay off. In May 1993 he succeeded in sending his geometrical sculpture Cosmic Dancer up to the Mir Space Station. "It wasn't easy," he says. "It took 10 years of constant work and cost me $100,000." A twisting aluminium tube, painted green so that it wouldn't get lost amidst the clutter on Mir, Cosmic Dancer is designed to have numerous viewing perspectives as it floats in weightlessness. "Every sculpture made before has had to deal with gravity," Woods enthuses. "A lot of 3-D art deserves to be floating - it looks far better."

Woods's real dream lies in huge-scale space-sculptures such as the Orbiting Unification Ring Satellite which would be visible from earth as a circle in the sky approximately an eighth the size of the moon. But the main problem remains funding. To construct and deploy a 30m Cosmic Dancer in space would cost, Woods estimate, around $5m.

Although Pepsi managed to float an inflatable Cola can from Mir, the US senate has thankfully passed legislation preventing advertising in space that would be visible to earth without the aid of a telescope. As yet, however, there is no planning department for space to watch over the erection of unsightly space-sculptures. When there is, do we want a room full of astrophysicists making those aesthetic judgements?

`The Eye of the Storm, Artists in the Maelstrom of Science' takes place at The Royal Institution, London, 19-20 February (0171-375 3690).

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