How does the new iteration of the "space race", wrapped in the false promises of endlessly available resources, depart from the existing extractivist logic of capitalism and its destructive environmental and social effects on the ground? Curated by Francelle Cane and Marija Marić, Down to Earth critically unpacks the project of space-mining through the perspective of resources and uses the lunar laboratory as a site to consider the tech industry’s narrative of space exploration. In this interview with Marija Marić, we talk about the privatisation of outer space, space-mining, lunar landscapes and what material resistance against spatial extraction can look like.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
SnT University of Luxembourg, LunaLab, training robots for space mining, Luxembourg, 2022. © Armin Linke 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Vista.
KOOZ Down to Earth critically unpacks the wild imaginaries of extraction-driven growth, such as the development of human settlements on the Moon or the asteroid mining of rare minerals and metals. What prompted the project?
MARIJA MARIĆ Our project for Luxembourg Pavilion in Venice this year starts, of course, from Luxembourg, which represents one of the most important hubs of the space-mining industry today. The reason we decided to look into this topic is that we are living in a historical moment in which radicalisation of the capitalist paradigm of extraction is taking place: mining is literally transcending the boundaries of the Earth, moving elsewhere, to asteroids, other planets, and the Moon itself, while at the same time space is being privatised — with unfolding shifts from nation states to private tech and mining companies as main stakeholders in the process of space exploration, or rather exploitation. The grounds for these processes have been set some time ago, but gained full traction during the last decade, when several countries, including the United States, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates and Japan (now followed by many others) provided legal frameworks that allowed private companies operating on their territories to freely mine the Moon and other celestial bodies. These decisions stand in contradiction with the international treaties and agreements made during the twentieth century, such as the Outer Space Treaty (1967) or the Moon Agreement (1979). These documents have clearly defined that the Moon and other celestial bodies cannot be owned, but still leave ambiguity around understanding and difference between the notions of land and soil, with space for different interpretations of possibilities to exploit extra-terrestrial resources. The current space-mining paradigm hinges on this ambiguity. Our project starts from here, asking critically how these new developments will change our understanding of land, resources, and commons.
Space is being privatised — with unfolding shifts from nation states to private tech and mining companies as main stakeholders in the process of space exploration, or rather exploitation.
In terms of a connection with Lesley Lokko's curatorial topic The Laboratory of the Future, space-mining projects — in the way tech and mining industries have been framing them — tend to present themselves as literal laboratories of the future. So the question becomes: whose and which kinds of futures does this project enable? How is the displacement of environmental destruction elsewhere departing from the present and past of capitalist extraction on Earth? Lunar laboratories become spaces of simulation, or rather stages, for the performance of the new mining technologies, which represent important elements in the speculative economies of space-mining. The laboratory as a typology has played an important role in our exhibition. Can we actually start from one such lunar laboratory, using it as a starting point to unpack the space-mining industry itself? Which other kinds of laboratories do we need in order to imagine radically different futures, both on Earth and beyond?
whose and which kinds of futures does this project enable? How is the displacement of environmental destruction elsewhere departing from the present and past of capitalist extraction on Earth?
KOOZ As an infrastructure for the testing of diverse mining technologies, lunar laboratories have emerged as a default feature of many institutions and private companies worldwide. Beyond being spaces for scientific experiment, these sites are also exploited as media studios for the production of imagery of human technologies on the Moon. To what extent does the latter serve as a marketing tool to deceptively familiarise “us” with this new phase of extractive space exploration?
MM Lunar laboratories have this double-agenda: they serve as actual sites for testing new mining technologies, but also as studios and set designs that serve as a background for the production of images of technological success. In a way, they help us translate the financial fiction of a very volatile, speculative industry into something tangible. As such, lunar laboratories are important marketing devices, but also more than that, they help legitimise and normalise extraction. Our research has been in fact really organised around this tangibility of the space-mining industry — its growth-driven, profit-oriented aspects, earthly ambitions that are in fact what constitutes dreams of colonising outer space.
Lunar laboratories are important marketing devices, but also more than that, they help legitimise and normalise extraction.
KOOZ How does the exhibition unpack the tech industry’s narratives of space exploration and unveil the backstage of the space-mining project? As an immersive installation, how does the project seek to engage with the Biennale participants?
MM When we started working on this topic, the first question we stumbled upon was: how can we work on a site which we cannot visit? Understanding that all our knowledge on the Moon is a form of mediation — whether grounded in fictions, scientific representation, or even its 'physical' appearance in the sky, which itself is mediated through a reflection of solar light — was a very important first step in our process. As we started talking to stakeholders working in the space-mining domain, we realised that lunar laboratories also operate as one such project of mediation. By simulating the conditions on the Moon, whether in terms of light, typography, gravity, soil (depending on which kind of technology is being tested), lunar laboratories do not operate only as literal spaces for scientific experimentation, but also as scenographies for the projection of human presence on the Moon, theatre stages for the performance of mining technologies. As such, lunar laboratories become the strangely material, realistic representations of financial fictions of space-mining industries. We decided to adopt this literal representation in our Pavilion, to create this familiar, immersive reality of simulation, and then to invert it: instead of featuring heroic technologies — moving rovers, mining robots — we feature the political, economic, social, and environmental backstages of the space-mining project, questioning the paradigm of never-ending growth, expansion, and crossing of new resource frontiers.
By simulating the conditions on the Moon, lunar laboratories operate as scenographies for the projection of human presence on the Moon, theatre stages for the performance of mining technologies.
KOOZ Beyond the lunar laboratory, the research has been formalised through three different projects which range from a film developed in collaboration with Armin Linke, the book Staging the Moon and a workshop called “How to: mind the Moon” which was held before the Biennale. What informed these three channels, as means through which to catalyse the urgent debate around the extraction of celestial bodies and its effect on our understandings of land, resources, and the commons?
MM Indeed, our exhibition consists of an installation of a lunar laboratory, as a stage for the performance of mining technologies, which is then subverted through three elements—the film, the book, and the workshop—each unpacking the backstage of the space-mining project.
The film Cosmic Market, developed by Armin Linke in collaboration with Francelle and myself, was the first collaboration in this project. Together with Armin, we have conducted several interviews with different stakeholders working with space, whether engineers, economists, lawyers, anthropologists, or historians. The film also features archival materials spanning different historical contexts and locations, suggesting the continuity of ideas behind establishing a “cosmic market” on the Moon, and historical embeddedness of technology into the dreams of nation-making and colonisation. The film has been edited by Giulia Bruno with sound by Giuseppe Ielasi.
The film suggests the continuity of ideas behind establishing a “cosmic market” on the Moon, and historical embeddedness of technology into the dreams of nation-making and colonisation.
The book Staging the Moon: Resource Extraction Beyond Earth explores the legal history of blurry definitions of resource ownership on the Moon, the media transition from television and photography, familiar for the 20th century nation-states led colonisation of space and heroic images of astronauts and national flags on the Moon, to advertisement as a media format of private tech and mining companies, which now sets heroic technologies to the centre-stage of our shared planetary futures, the capital's paradigm of making new resource frontiers on and beyond Earth, as well as possibilities of understanding the Moon beyond its resourcefulness and through the perspective of comradeship. With essays by Francelle and myself, and visual contributions from Armin Linke and Ronni Campana, the book was published by Spector Books and designed by OK-RM. It operates a hybrid between a self-standing publication and an exhibition catalogue: our graphic designers have developed the structure of the book around the stage-backstage dichotomy that is also at the core of our exhibition.
Finally, the workshop titled How to: Mind the Moon, developed in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Architecture and co-curated by Lev Bratishenko, looked into histories, presents, and futures of five lunar materials: regolith, lunar dust, seconal sodium, solar wind, and aluminium. Featuring contributions by Jane Mah Hutton, Anastasia Kubrak, Amelyn Ng, Bethany Rigby and Fred Scharmen, the workshop was based on a distortion of the format of a material sample and datasheet — technical documents commonly used in materials science to describe chemical and mechanical properties of materials — resulting in an installation of another kind of material library, one which goes beyond the perceived scientific neutrality of materials science.
All three elements of the exhibition were developed as collaborative projects, and we were extremely privileged to work with such fantastic contributors. The discussions and exchange, besides being a pleasure throughout our research process, were absolutely crucial for the development of this work.
What would happen if we were to zoom out, and try to look at the Moon beyond the optics of the Anthropocene?
KOOZ As one of four Global Commons—the others being the Atmosphere, the Antarctic and the deep ocean—how should we ensure that the governance of these spaces is indeed managed for the interest of mankind? To what extent is raising awareness the first step in ensuring we are able to build a global constituency to speak up for our commons?
MM This is a really great question: how shall we proceed from here? Our goal for this exhibition was to raise a discussion and challenge the ongoing project of space-mining. To do that, we have focused on the material infrastructures that enable the financial fictions of this speculative industry — laboratories, laws, media, narratives, to name just some — in order to better understand earthly ambitions behind the space-mining project. We have asked: if our knowledge of the Moon is informed by the short-sighted view, a zoomed-in picture in which we see only resources, minerals, metals, defined through their economic value, what would happen if we were to zoom out, and try to look at the Moon beyond the optics of the Anthropocene? How can we unsee its resourcefulness? What would it mean to think about the Moon not as a resource, not even as a form of commons, but as a comrade — one with whom we share the struggle against capitalist extraction?
Marija Marić is an architect, researcher and curator based in Luxembourg. She works as a postdoctoral research associate at the Master in Architecture programme, University of Luxembourg, where she also teaches. In 2020, she obtained her doctoral degree from the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich, with research examining the role of media strategists in communication, design and globalisation of urban projects. Marija’s work has been presented and published internationally. Her research is organised around the questions of resources, real estate, media, and the production of the built environment and its imaginaries in the context of global capitalism and the global flow of information.