At the 2019 Venice Biennale, whistleblowing artist Marko Peljhan’s System 317 calls attention to the rise of hypersonic weapons.
An alarming escalation of technology in the field of weapons of mass destruction is currently underway. At the core of this new arms race between the United States, Russia and China: nuclear weapons that can travel at hypersonic speed.
The principles of hypersonic flight (from 6 times the speed of sound) are not easy to grasp. But as Marko Peljhan tells us, once these technologies are applied to nuclear weapons, they evoke “an apocalyptic scenario that recalls the ‘doomsday machine’ from Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb”. Hypersonic missile technology can dodge missile defenses with atypical flight paths, unlike the parabolic trajectories of conventional ballistic missiles. This leads to globally imbalanced arguments in the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, while militarizing orbital space for early detection.
All the more reason to be concerned that this is actually the direction being taken by the world’s most powerful military nations. “Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge the existing defensive systems,” declared the Pentagon in its latest Missile Defense Review in January—just a few weeks after Vice-President Mike Pence confirmed the creation of U.S. Space Command at the Kennedy Space Center.
There are two basic types of hypersonic weapons, which travel at 5 to 25 times the speed of sound. Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV), based on Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) technology, are launched from the ground aboard rockets. Once in space, the glider separates from the rocket and glides toward its target, maneuvering to foil defenses. It can “bounce” off denser air at lower altitude, extending its range and making it even more difficult to destroy. The other type is a low-flying scramjet cruise missile, launched from an aircraft and capable of flying under or around existing missile defenses.
In the U.S., military research on hypersonic glider aircraft is part of the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) program, featuring the 2010 tests of the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), a glider or hypersonic drone capable of reaching Mach 20 (20 times the speed of sound).
More recently, in April and August 2018, Lockheed Martin signed two contracts with the U.S. Air Force to develop conventional hypersonic weapons. No doubt in response to Vladimir Putin’s announcement in March 2018 that Russia was manufacturing hypersonic Avangard gliders capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads, among other hypersonic weapons that would rival their American counterparts. Putin declared being in possession of the ultimate nuclear weapon, which could strike “like a meteorite” at Mach 20 speed.
Vladimir Putin introduces the Avangard glider:
In China, the People’s Liberation Army confirmed successful tests of the Dongfeng-ZF (DF-ZF) at Mach 10 between 2014 and 2016, followed by two tests of the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile in November 2017. This system should be operational by 2020.
Reverse conversion and high resolution
Marko Peljhan is an artist and researcher who has long worked in the fields of art, science and technology. The themes of his projects, initiatives and collaborations range from ecology to social issues and tactical media, the geopolitics of technology and the exploration of space.
“My past as a radio hobbyist before and during the war in Yugoslavia was particularly influential in my artistic journey,” Peljhan said during the opening of the Slovene Pavilion at the Venice Arsenal on May 8. Currently head of the Media Arts and Technology (MAT) department at the University of California in Santa Barbara, he is especially sensitive to aerospace issues, partly due to the university’s proximity to the Vandenberg military air base—in addition to NASA and SpaceX rockets, Vandenberg is also used to launch these hypersonic military missiles and drones, such as the HTV-2.
System 317, the project Peljhan is presenting at this year’s Venice Biennale, is part of what he calls his Resolution series, work that he has been doing for more than 20 years around “specific material solutions that can be applied to certain problems in society”, according to a methodology that he defines as “reverse conversion” (analogy of reverse engineering, converting from military to civilian). He had already applied this same methodology in his Trust-System series, which dealt with converting cruise missile technology, and later, unmanned systems for civil counter-reconnaissance (S-77CCR project in 2004).
When it comes to hypersonic missiles, Peljhan is particularly interested in the history of scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engines. Scramjet technology evolved from the ramjet engine invented in France by René Lorin in 1913, studied by the Germans, Russians and Americans in the 1930s, but only successfully tested (up to Mach 3) in the postwar years by René Leduc’s planes (between 1949 and 1955).
A ramjet operates by fuel combustion in an airflow compressed by the motion speed of the aircraft itself, as opposed to a normal reaction engine, in which the compressor section (fan blades) compresses the air. The airflow through a ramjet engine is subsonic (inferior to the speed of sound). Ramjet aircraft operate at speeds of between Mach 3 and Mach 6. A scramjet is a ramjet in which the airflow throughout the engine is supersonic (superior to the speed of sound). Scramjet-powered aircraft should be able to reach a speed of Mach 15.
For his installation (and his main sculpture) in Venice, Peljhan took inspiration from NASA’s X-43A atmospheric scramjet, which beat the world record for speed in 2004 at about Mach 9.6. “An atmospheric scramjet directly uses the oxygen in the atmosphere as fuel, so as to avoid heavy reservoirs,” Peljhan explains. Fascinated by this “holy grail” of aeronautics, i.e. using atmospheric oxygen (which reduces consumption of fossil fuels), Peljhan found images of tests and models in order to reconstruct an abstract version of the vehicle’s silhouette, adding a possible cockpit to two seats. A video showing the oxygen “jet” accompanies the sculpture.
Archival photographs collected by the artist:
The System 317 installation is thus inspired by 1:1 scale silhouette of the small X-43A (3.65m long and 1.5m wide), adding a potential lowrider cockpit for two people. According to the artist, it’s also a way of projecting the visitor into a radical escape at hyper-speed, opening a hypothetical future of aerospace pirates on personal hypersonic aircraft (like Han Solo and Chewbacca?), reaching non-human limits.
The hashtag #herewegoagain, which subtitles the exhibition, refers as much to Peljhan’s return to the Venice Biennale after presenting his Makrolab in 2003 (Makery interviewed the artist to celebrate the project’s 20th anniversary), as to the dark return to the arms race, as 2003 was also the year of military escalations in Irak, as an extension of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”.
A catalogue accompanies the System 317 exhibition, and Peljhan also initiated the publication of a special issue of Šum, a journal of theory-fiction and hard science-fiction titled Hypersonic Hyperstitions. The neologism “hyperstition” first appeared in writings by the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at the University of Warwick in the 1990s to describe the impact of ideas in culture. As Nick Land writes, hyperstitions “transmute fictions into truths”, and contrary to memes, “describe both the effects and the mechanisms of apocalyptic postmodern ‘phase out’ or ‘meltdown’ culture”. The theme recently resurfaced in Christopher Roth and Armen Avanessian’s 2016 short documentary film Hyperstition, which dealt with the influence of these concepts on the philosophy trends of accelerationism and speculative realism.
“Hyperstitions like the ‘ideology of progress’ or the religious conception of apocalypse enact their subversive influences in the cultural arena, becoming transmuted into perceived ‘truths,’ that influence the outcome of history,” wrote Delphi Carstens in 2010. According to the System 317 catalogue and Šum, the current military escalation—at hypersonic speed and with atypical flight paths—is a hyperstition translating the science-fiction of the Star Wars years into the real world of Space Force, Prompt Global Strike and orbital early detection, as the general public is submitted to contemporary post-truth global politics.
In 2017, RAND Corporation expressed its concern over the nonproliferation of hypersonic missiles:
Beyond the video and associated publications, there is little “hyperstitious” documentation on display inside the black box of the Slovene Pavilion. But is its primary intention to attract the flâneurs of the Biennale? To mock the calm contemporary art world by offering at first sight no more than the pure design perspective of a hyper-speed lowrider? Who will venture to investigate beyond this slick surface? Perhaps Peljhan’s intention was precisely to alert the public to the ambiguous seductions of design and technological innovation, which can “obfuscate” the troubling future that lies in the hangars of military research.
System 317 was created by Marko Peljhan for the Pavilion of the Republic of Slovenia at the 2019 Venice Biennale in collaboration with the architecture firms Trošt & Krapež and Projekt Atol Institute.