On March 6, 2020, five research payloads from the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative were sent to the International Space Station. Among them, the Sojourner 2020 project, a payload of artworks selected by SEI’s arts curator Xin Liu. Adriana Knouf’s TX-1 is one of the curated projects.
Adriana Knouf is the founding facilitator of the tranxxeno lab, a nomadic artistic research laboratory that promotes entanglements amongst entities trans and xeno. Adriana Knouf also teaches as an Assistant Professor of Art + Design at Boston’s Northeastern University. Working as an artist-scientist-writer-designer-engineer, Knouf engages with topics such as space art, satellites, radio transmission, non-human encounters, drone flight, queer and trans futurities, machine learning, the voice, papermaking, alternative network infrastructures, and surveillance.
Early March, Knouf took part in the MIT Space Exploration Initiative’s interdisciplinary payload and mission to the ISS bringing together scientists, designers, and artists to study the effects of prolonged microgravity. The SEI’s payload was launched on the SpaceX CRS-20 via the Dragon cargo ship atop of a Falcon 9 rocket, on March 6, 2020. The different payloads were integrated into the Nanoracks BlackBox: a locker-sized platform with mechanical mounting points and electrical connections for power, data, and communication capabilities. Adriana Knouf is one of the 9 curated artists of Sojourner 2020, a three-layer telescoping structure (a 1.5U size unit, 100mm x 100mm x 152.4mm) which creates three different “gravities:” zero gravity, lunar gravity, and Martian gravity.
Makery: Please, could you describe in few words your project for the ISS and how did you get the opportunity to bring it to existence?
Adriana Knouf: My project, TX-1, launched bits of my hormone replacement medications to the International Space Station, marking the first-known time that elements of the transgender experience orbit the earth. The piece consists of three resin spheres: one encasing a fragment of my spironolactone pill, a testosterone blocker; one encasing a fragment of my Vivelle Dot patch, which provides exogenous estrogen; and one encasing a miniature handmade abaca paper sculpture, included to gesture towards the absent-yet-present xenoentities of the cosmos. I see TX-1 as a symbolic exodus to an orbit high above, and the eventual return of TX-1 to Earth is also a sign of resilience, of not being disposed, of coming back to thrive once again.
TX-1 is one of 9 artistic works in the Sojourner2020 project, supported by the MIT Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). These works mark the first-known time there are an international collection of artworks in space selected through an open call. I found out about the open call last summer, submitted an initial proposal, and through multiple rounds of review, found out I was selected in early November. And then I discovered I had to deliver the work in two months! So it was a harried period refining the piece given the constraints.
About those constraints: we were given a very small volume to work with, only 10mm in diameter and anywhere from 13-18mm tall. This volume was encased in a polycarbonate structure we call the “pocket”, which is then held in place on one of three rings. A key part of the Sojourner2020 project was to enable the simulation of different gravitational fields. So one ring doesn’t rotate, and experiences microgravity; another rotates to simulate Mars gravity; and the final one, where TX-1 is located, simulates lunar gravity.
The turn-around time for this project, from when the SEI first proposed it, to launch to the ISS, was less than a year, which is incredible for a project going to space, especially one involving artists not versed in making things for the particular constraints of space and the ISS in particular.
View of the rotating ‘Sojourner2020’ payload:
You’re teaching art, but I understood you have a background in space science? Can you tell us what’s left from those years?
Ahh, I wish I had a background in space science! I took a space mission planning class for a couple of weeks when I was an undergraduate, but unfortunately had to drop it for various reasons. But I do have a scientific background, mostly in cognitive neuroscience, with a lot of coursework in physics and advanced mathematics. I worked for three years as a lab manager for Nancy Kanwisher at MIT doing face and object perception research using fMRI. But for a variety of reasons I decided to move into art and design coursework for my master’s, and new media history and theory for my PhD.
All of these aspects of my training, of my studies, of my obsessions, enfold into my projects. It wouldn’t be possible to disentangle the influences without the entire structure crashing to the ground.
You project refer is supported by your tranxxenolab and you mention xenology as a central interest, can you define for us what is xenology?
Xenology is the study, analysis, and development of the strange, alien, other. It’s a term that has its roots in studies of extraterrestrial life, both in science fiction as well as the various scientific attempts to discover extraterrestrial radio signals like SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). But I see xenology in a much more expansive sense. As capitalist processes aim to homogenize the planet under steady-state processes of accumulation, we become distanced–we become alienated–from our ability to change ourselves into something other. While capitalism requires change in order to mutate into new markets, that change is limited to narrow bands of possibility. Xenologists desire things differently. They desire disalienation from their present condition of alienation, they desire change that exceeds capitalist limits. This is termed xenomogrification: the grotesque–in the widest sense of that word–transformation into the other for purposes of disalienation. Xenologists become students of new modes of technological and scientific development, they distribute their work in an open fashion, they read and write poetry and fiction to explore different modes of expression and possibility, they aim to encounter the other on the other’s terms. Xenologists draw from the power of queer, trans, and xeno peoples the world over, enfolding past forgotten histories and future potentialities in order to xenomogrify the present moment–a moment full of uncertainty and chaos, but one that also just might augur the ability to become something other.
Space programs appear to be very heteronormative, and LGBTQI+ people have complained about discrimination in accessing astronaut positions, such as in Sylvia Casalino’s film ‘No Gravity’. And for decades the public has been told that only “normal marital relations” are supposed to be “psychologically sustainable” for long term missions. Would you say your 1,5cm3 hormonal capsule has a political message?
It’s not solely a political message, if by “political” you mean something meant to influence behavior towards a specific desired goal. Rather, I think of this as an “ethico-political” artifact, referencing here the work of Félix Guattari, who I consider to be one of the best theorists for considering the interrelationship of political, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and environmental spheres, especially in his elaboration of ecosophy. Guattari writes in Chaosmosis: “The new aesthetic paradigm has ethico-political implications because to speak of creation is to speak of the responsibility of the creative instance with regard to the thing created, inflection of the state of things, bifurcation beyond pre-established schemas, once again taking into account the fate of alterity in its extreme modalities” (page 107 in the English translation). So in the case of TX-1 I aimed for it to have these implications: a move beyond the pre-existing, an expression of unmet desires, a suggestion of new possibilities, a swerve away from the myopic worldview of the present, all of which imply the necessity for change in the status quo. Insofar as that has political implications, then the message should be clear: things need to be configured differently in how we approach space, and this needs to happen through an attention to the issues that I (as well as others) have raised.
The payload was sent on March 6 for a 30-days research mission. The month has passed, but in the meantime the COVID-19 pandemic hit the planet and half of the population has been locked-down. What happened to the mission and what does it inspire in you after a month?
As of writing, TX-1 and Sojourner2020 just departed from the ISS in the Dragon capsule for the short return journey to earth. During the past month it was above us all as well as isolated from the pandemic. The astronauts on the ISS are some of the only humans who can claim to be entirely incapable of having come into contact with SARS-CoV-2. Throughout all this there have been various “thinkpieces” about what astronaut isolation in space can “teach us” about living in isolation in our own homes. Of course our isolation here on earth does not compare to the dangers and rigors of long-duration missions in space. Yet that isolation up there allows for a different perspective on the planet down here, namely the oft-remarked lack of borders from an orbital perspective. COVID-19 has starkly shown us that in a way that no climate model or representation or tragedy has been able to. Yet governments have reacted by shutting their borders, engaging in mask piracy, and, in the worst of cases, further accelerating populist and authoritarian tendencies. How this develops in the long-duration exit from the pandemic is unknown, and my optimistic hope is that there is a coalescing around the idea that there is now an alternative, a way into the future that isn’t wedded to the failures of our past.
About halfway through the month we received video of the sculpture in action, individual layers rotating to simulate their corresponding gravities, the top layer in microgravity, with elements of one piece visibly floating. Besides the fact that it was reassuring to see that all of our projects survived launch and installation in the ISS, it was also incredibly heartening to see these alternative visions for space during a time of anxiety, worry, and loneliness here on earth. For me, and I believe also for many of the people who have followed the project with me around the world, it’s offered a beacon of what we could be doing if we configure our approaches to the world, to space, to the universe differently, based on an orientation that fundamentally celebrates and works to understand the entangled nature of things.
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And the Dragon has left the station. TX-1 and Sojourner2020 should be on board. It was a short 30 days, it was a long 30 days when the entire globe entered into a new period, an interregnum where I hope the pain that too many are suffering right now mutates into something more life-generative in the months and years to come. So TX-1 returns to a changed Earth, and we plan for the unknown next opportunity to head up there again and show how our lives in space–and thus our lives down here–can be lived more expansively.⠀ ⠀ #tx1 #tranxxenolab #sojourner2020
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How are you living during the COVID-19 lockdown? And how do you relate it to your tranxxenolab perspective?
I’m staying with queer family in the middle of the United States, over 1600 miles (2600 km) from where I usually live in Boston, MA. I live alone, and as soon as I realized that lockdowns were imminent in the US I decided to relocate for the coming months to be around someone very important to me. Here there is a lot of space and physical distancing is rather easy. While we all understand the need for staying home, I have become more and more concerned with how the lockdowns are affecting people in terms of domestic violence, anxiety and depression due to loneliness, queer and trans people who have to hide their identities around biological and/or state-recognized family, and so on. I see the lockdowns and the imperative to “stay at home” as reifying the heteronormative nuclear family. As we proceed through this forced isolation, we need to figure out how to reconfigure our living situations so as to enable the queers, the xeno, to come together in new types of arrangements that gather us under a single physical roof so that we’re ready for the next call for quarantine. Aligned with this is a need to think of how architecture and cities should be redesigned: will we need “quarantine rooms” in our dwellings? How shall we enable small-scale agriculture on a large-scale in cities? What technologies of sensation do we need to develop for future times of physical distancing? Of course these are not new desires; consider squats and co-ops, as well as calls for reconfiguring our living spaces in light of climate change. But the time is ripe to develop the means for housing new chosen families that can provide environments of caring for those of us who prefer different forms of living than traditional family structures. Perhaps this virus is our ally in accelerating the move towards other ways of existing. I recently wrote in more detail about this for the tranxxeno lab website in a text called “What We Do in the Shadows”.
More about Adriana Knouf’s TX-1 on Tranxxeno lab.
More on MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative.