PROXIMA B: UPGRADE INTERSTELLAR

The Innovation Lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, CA.

Julia Christensen is currently working with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to develop artwork for an interstellar spacecraft that will travel to Proxima B, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, 4.2 lightyears from the planet Earth. The spacecraft is envisioned to launch in 2069, and it will take the spacecraft 40 years to reach its interstellar destination once it launches. This project is about time, long-term scientific research, speculation, and obsolescence. The spacecraft will necessarily need to upgrade itself autonomously to survive the journey, due to mechanical and environmental conditions. But it will also need to upgrade itself to remain relevant to life on Earth over the course of decades. This collaboration was initiated through Christensen’s fellowship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art + Tech Lab,

Christensen’s work considers certain technical questions about how issues of obsolescence will impact the spacecraft’s data findings when it arrives on Proxima B: Will a .jpg (or other common file types) even exist in 80 years? How will our updated communication systems interpret transmissions from the spacecraft when it arrives at its destination, decades from now?

But Christensen’s work is more concerned with the cultural questions: Who will receive the data that this interstellar explorer sends back to us? Will NASA exist in 100 years? Will the nation-state even exist then, as we know it? In designing this ship, and this artwork, Christensen’s work asks: how can we speculate about what scientific research will be relevant to us in 2109, what will we need to know then? If we were to send a message to ourselves decades from now, what would it say? And if we were to send a message to yet-unknown cosmic neighbors who might come across this interstellar explorer, what would we want them to know about us?

As the ship physically transforms itself throughout its journey, how can discarded or discharged materials be re-contextualized as artwork, a series of active sculptures in outer space? How will we implicitly embed our own story in the design of this ship? Can we frame the entire ship as an artwork, instead of attempting to tell a story through an artistic document, like NASA did with the Golden Records project aboard the Voyager spacecraft? How can our Proxima b spaceship be created in the image of an artwork, a veritable Golden Record in and of itself?

In September 2018, JPL is hosting an Advanced Architectural Studies (A-Team) conference at JPL to begin in-depth research into the development of this work.  This work is facilitated by the LACMA Art + Tech Lab; presentation of the work-in-progress through LACMA is forthcoming. Christensen’s book about this project, and her long-term investigation into upgrade culture, is forthcoming from Dancing Foxes Press. Additional support for this project comes from the Guggenheim Foundation and Creative Capital.