Spiritual Expedition to the Orbit

authors Miha Turšič, Dragan Živadinov
interviewed by Damir Sekulić

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Interviewed in Zagreb 9 December 2013


Kulturno središče evropskih vesoljskih tehnologij (KSEVT), that is, the Cultural Center of European Space Technologies, an institution with an interesting name, has a special place in the cultural, artistic and scientific context of Europe and the world. Dedicated to the idea of culturizing space, KSEVT arose from, among other artistic traditions, the work of Herman Potočnik Noordung, the pioneer of astronautics. Located in Vitanje, a picturesque Slovenian town in Styria, KSEVT and its architecturally fascinating building designed by architects Bevk Perović, Dekleva Gregorič, OFIS Arhitekti and Sadar + Vuga, has been drawing attention of visitors and the general public since 2012. With scientific and artistic approach to work complementing each other, the Center explores new practices and concepts regarding human sojourn in space, developing cultural applications for the space program, and collaborating with many international institutions. During their stay in Zagreb, we interviewed the director of KSEVT, designer Miho Turšič, and the President of the Management Board, Slovenian film director and artist Dragan Živadinov, both of whom initiated the idea to create this young, and extremely interesting institution.


ORIS: KSEVT has been in operation for seven years now. Tell us something about the idea to create KSEVT, and the people who participated in the realization of the project, about the times before the move to Vitanje and the construction of the remarkable Center building.


Miha Turšič: We could begin with 1927, but let us begin with 2006, when Dragan and I arrived to Vitanje where the officials wished to revive the story of Herman Potočnik Noordung. We came up with the idea of a memorial room which was realized in 2006. We had an exhibition in Brussels in the same year, where we presented Noordung’s work, as well as our art which drew attention of European officials. The exhibition told our story of the culturalization of space, on what happens with a man in space. They saw potential for the creation of a European center for young, new Europe in our concept, so they told us to do more. We returned home, gathered the architects, and began the project.


ORIS: Let us go back to Noordung. He and his work are extremely important in the Slovenian and in the European context; today he is an integral part of space exploration and space architecture. To which extent did that provide impetus for the founding of KSEVT and for networking with other European and international institutions?


Miha Turšič: Noordung was born in Pula on December 22, 1892. He grew up in Maribor, was educated in Graz, Vienna, Fischau, and in Hranice in the Czech Republic. He came from a military family and was educated to be a military engineer, having acquired extensive knowledge of the engineering profession of the day. He fought in World War I. He wrote the first book about space travel. This was not only a technical book, with the technical and physical details, but also the first book that gave a vision of life in space. Therefore, he was the first to answer the question how to employ technical knowledge to facilitate life in space. He did not concern himself with rockets much, as he did with people in space, which makes this the first book on space architecture. The aeronautics historians regard Noordung as the first space architect.


ORIS: Yes, his book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums – der Raketen-Motor (On the Problem of Space Flight: The Rocket Motor), published in 1928, today a fundamental work about a space station and the geostationary orbit, was only gradually being translated into other languages, among them Slovenian, yet not before 1986.


Miha Turšič: Some parts of the book were translated into English already in 1929, some parts into Russian in 1935. The book was translated into Slovenian in 1986, and was published by Slovenska matica. The English translation was completed in 1995, the Croatian in 2004. The first complete translation into Russian has been published this year, so that we are slowly preparing the book in all world languages.


ORIS: We mentioned the term culturalization of space which stands as the backbone of KSEVT’s work, yet it is also a link to Noordung. Could we clarify the term, and perhaps uncover the essence of its meaning?


Miha Turšič: Culturalization is the focus of KSEVT’s work, but it is not something specific to us. Collaborations between artists and scientists are well known; for example those between Fritz Lang and Hermann Oberth, or Walt Disney and Werner von Braun. The whole space story began with the issue of men in space, of God in space; not with rockets, but with cosmism in the second half of the 19th century. At the time when technical focus is dominant in space exploration, we introduce an aspect of art and humanism into the space frame. Technical sciences deal with the stars, energy, technology and time; we deal with a man in space.


ORIS: There is a high-level initiative on the Slovenian side for the collaboration with the Russian Federation in order to send the first artist to space. How does this contribute to the promotion of the work done by KSEVT, as well as of the idea of culturalization of space in the international context?


Miha Turšič: Slovenia has tradition and continuity. Tradition means Noordung and the constructivist circle of Trieste, with artists such as Edvard Stepančič, Avgust Černigoj and George Carmelich, who were the first to thematize the form in weightlessness. They have shifted the form outside the canvas, and the media. We continuously collaborate with scientists who work on space research programs, in Europe and the United States, for example with Dr. Anton Mavretič, the world’s expert for sun plasma, who constructed some of the key instruments for Voyager 1 and 2 space drones. On the other hand, we have pioneers of computer art from the end of the sixties, such as Edvard Zajec, and computer art is one of the most important features required for the understanding of art in space. In space there are computers; satellites are computers. If we wish to make an artwork in space, this may only be done through satellites. We can make an art satellite, but this has to do with the computer work methodology. This raises the question of the digital and the artificial, which are methodological issues to be dealt with in relation to art away from Earth.


ORIS: Several thousand people visit KSEVT every year. You were once asked why such a complicated name for KSEVT, and you replied by saying that you are not about popularization, but explanation of complex relationships. How do you, as an institution, balance between popularization of the Center’s activity, and the research segment, the residences, and generally, your operation as an institution?


Miha Turšič: As mentioned previously, the focus is on the culturalization of space, and the convergence of arts and sciences. This intertwining of arts and sciences is crucial for KSEVT, for the things that can happen in space. Considering that the relations are complex, the understanding of both segments is necessary; diplomatic relations of sorts between the two poles. The end result is either art in space, or science in space. However, in order to reach the end result, both are necessary. Let me illustrate this: we have recently began work on the annual topic, that is, the platform of conferences and forums titled Out of the Cradle – How to think away from Earth. The program deals with one topic for a whole year. This year the topic is the observer, namely, the observer in art, physics, science, the humanities, and in space. This means employing four different methodologies, four different practices, four different results, but one and the same question. When you work so extensively, a question structure can be developed whereby a result comprehensible to all can be reached. Thus, for example, we could formulate a center for training cosmonauts where they would be assisted by artists or philosophers dealing with the issue of man in space. The basic issue we deal with is: man or robot. All of the people who went to space are under control. And yet, the satellites and equipment implemented in space are becoming increasingly independent, artificial intelligence is being developed. If the independence of thought is a humanistic trait, where are we to draw the line between humanity and artificiality? These are the questions of emancipation, of the body and consciousness in space, and this is the methodology we use. In practice this means that exhibitions, films and publications present a story, not from one specter, but from many. When an engineer can understand the engineering work from the humanistic perspective, we create additional value. The popularization of the culturalization of space, I would say, is an oversimplification. However, neither scientists nor artists want oversimplification. Instead, they desire added value to their work, achievable by an interaction of different fields. This creates culture around sciences and art; this is the culturalization, the essence.


Dragan Živadinov: The culturalization of space has two key elements. The first is the issue of morphology and the understanding of the 20th century. The focus of our projection and our understanding is the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. This is the point we observe, and the projection is heterotopy. How to manifest that – how to be a human being in space? If some other intelligence were to come, how would we explain to them what makes us human? These morphological questions result from the historical strongholds, one of them being, as Miha said, constructivism and suprematism. Why those two? Because in Slovenia we have a rich tradition. This direct link between Fyodorov, Tsiolkovski and the cosmism, which we follow, results from the philosophical dilemma that Fyodorov formulated thus: We, as a humanity, have a problem because one half claims that God exists, while the other half denies it. This is the origin of the conflict; because there is a large group of people which claims that God exists, and the other one which denies his existence. With regard to the issue, cosmism claims that we should stop dealing with the issue of God’s existence, and instead simply observe. How? In space, using different equipment. This is the germ of the idea of space science and the beginning of the 20th century. Simultaneously we have the struggle for anti-mimesis, the struggle for the essential. There is a new morphological structure; on the side of, let us say, constructivism of Černigoj and Kosovel, and on the other, that of Herman Potočnik Noordung. Historical and traditional accumulation related to the issue has resulted for me in the new morphology. When asked about my profession, I say I am a morphologist, at least in the last five to ten years. Miha connects this with the understanding of the digital environment. We should mention Dunja Zupančič here who is engaged in post-gravitational art, and the three of us form the core of our operation.


ORIS: How were the aforesaid concepts materialized or transferred to the architecture of the KSEVT building, and how did the collaboration of, perhaps, four most renowned architectural studios in Slovenia come about? Tell us something about that.


Dragan Živadinov:  We presented the architects with the three already mentioned elements, namely, the historical background, the morphology, and the post-gravitational art, as well as the sum of those. Regarding the collaboration between the four studios, Miha once said that if the Russians and the Americans can collaborate, there is no reason why four Slovenian studios could not. Our contribution was, more or less, our knowledge of the three basic corpora of our work. There was also a direction motif, which is Potočnik’s geostationary space station project. With the contribution to those our input ended, and the excellence of the eight architects took over. The only prerequisite was to imbue the work with the spirit of fin de siècle, where the post-gravitational art does not represent a stylistic direction, but the conditions in which art was realized, created in the 20th century. Let us remember Edvard Zajec, the pineer of digital art. The turn of the 20th into the 21st century is characterized by the term supramodernism, since postmodernism ended in 1995, as we in KSEVT understand it – as a stylistic period spanning from 1970 to 1995. Supramodernism is an auxiliary term characterizing the highest point reachable socially and artistically following the 20th-century renaissance. It is characterized by the ingenuity of the conceptualization of modernity, the celebration of modernity, and the fact that whatever modernism is on our planet, when it is transposed to the low, middle, high, or even equatorial orbit, it has to be above modernism. The link with what is, for example, a geostationary station, is a link with the cockpit, the communication engine for the spiritual expedition to the orbit. We call it orbitalization. There was the dictate of Potočnik’s motives, plus the orbitalization, supramation and construction. The architects already had all this inside them, because it is what we, as a generation, met with and inherited. The result of their work in any case, we deem to be brilliant. Why? Because it was not competitive, but co-productive and complementary.


ORIS: We should refer to the context, as well. How did people in Vitanje react to the construction of KSEVT, how did they accept it, and what is the KSEVT’s contribution to the town and the inhabitants of Vitanje?


Miha Turšič: Firstly, it needs to be said that Vitanje is not a small village. Vitanje is a town with a 700-year-old tradition of free trade, with two fortresses, five churches, and only the fact that a hundred years ago the railway took a different route, resulted in the loss of a significant portion of trade. Namely, Vitanje was famous for its manufacturing of blue glass for the Viennese, as well as other European courts. Having lost certain urban features dating back to the period of the 16th through the 19th century, the people have developed a capacity to understand a larger story, they were familiar with Noordung and his work, and were able to recognize positive influences in their small town. With such a capacity for understanding we also had both, peace and the support to build KSEVT, something that was quite impossible to achieve in larger towns, such as Ljubljana and Maribor, due to the current economic conditions. The pathology of recession prevents the building of anything new. We have not built anything new in Slovenia, with the exception of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana. Vitanje now has new tourist potential: from 5 guests a year we arrived at 30 000, and this potential has been realized slowly, because it takes several years for tourist positioning: unless it is some hyper-hotel we are dealing with, which is here not case. Instead it is a smart nano-tourist endeavor with a local story and local energy. I believe that is the case anywhere in the world, not just in Slovenia. Vitanje with KSEVT has also become a regional cultural center. We had concerts, guest theatre performances, for example, Slovensko narodno gledališče performed their play of the year in KSEVT.


ORIS: We have mentioned recession. How does recession, and perhaps, a general stagnation in space exploration for a number of years now, as well as reduction of investment into science, influence the implementation of your work, the aspect of culturalization in the context of space exploration?


Dragan Živadinov:  Some 500 people went to space so far; they were mostly men. Was there an anthropologist or a sociologist among them? No. When we in KSEVT use the term science, we do not refer to the natural sciences, but humanities. Through the corpus of arts and humanities, or, more precisely, the resultant cultural patterns, we are creating a selection structure for programs and people to go to the international space station, and to all the subsequent space station in the near future. We already know who is going to go into space in the next five to ten years, and one of the astronaut/cosmonaut or, as the Chinese say – taiconout, training programs is in contemporary art. Contemporary art is important to us; we also have the continuity of experimental art, the so-called, developmental art. Developmental art covers the field of collaboration, as Miha said earlier, of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the natural sciences. I have met many contemporary artists who understand the processes in contemporary science, but very few scientists who understand the processes in contemporary art. This is rather traumatic. When an artist is introduced to a scientific context, he becomes a guest, when a scientist enters the field of art, he is always perceived as an amateur. A doctor playing a violin is not an artist, he acts according to cultural patterns; however, we are not interested in culture, it already exists in space. We are interested in art; the culturalization is progressing toward a creation of a cultural space program, more precisely, of the European cultural space program. ¶ Miha Turšič — This does not exist anywhere yet. Basically, so far the issue of using and understanding space was being pursued, while nobody tried to understand human existence in space, and how to bring this experience back to Earth.


Dragan Živadinov:  There is a tradition in Slovenia that was introduced via Zagreb, through Virgil Poljanski. He came to Ljubljana in 1921, and founded Svetokret, a magazine for the spiritual expedition to the North Pole. In any case, if Sputnik was a suprematist act, with its unified radio signal available to radio amateurs, Mir and the International Space Station are an act of pure construction, the use value of construction. They do not fall within the category of beauty, as we cannot perceive the beauty of construction through constructivism.


ORIS: What can be gained through the culturalization of space as an added value for the Earth context, that is, could you elaborate on the introduction of new artistic traditions in the contemporary context, and their testing in the space context?


Miha Turšič: Two traditions can be traced in the exploration of space – the astronauts, and the cosmonauts. Astronauts belong to the western hemisphere, the West-European and American cultural circle, while cosmonauts are Russian. The former set out from Europe to conquer America, and then the Moon, then Mars, rock by rock, whiles the latter set out to explore open space. Here the issue of the third, fourth or fifth tradition can be raised. We wish to explore new traditions and practices. It can only be done by humans, how to think new traditions, why go to space, and how? Why take the body to space? Where is the body and where is the mind in space? These are methodological and philosophical questions inherent to the process of humanity’s space conquest.


Dragan Živadinov:  I would like to add information that builds upon Kazimir Malevich’s architectones. In any case, Miha is a managing director, and will have remained in KSEVT for ten years, while I belong to the post-gravitational art, our point of contact with Dunja Zupančič. My projection is a projection of a developmental structure which I have been calling the Umboots in my fifty-year-long theatre play. Umboot comes from the cosmistic tradition of robots – the rabotnik and the mind – art. People think art is about intuition, while architects, in particular, know that art is, first and foremost, an architecton – a hyper-construction, and only then a construction. We are primarily interested in supra-architectons (as well call them), observable in Kazimir Malevich’s work, where everybody sees the image without realizing it is a blueprint, literally a plan. Thus, in order to avoid confusion, we follow secular cosmism, because cosmism has its theological implications, as well. Even the materialistic cosmists, I would say, the highest level of the matter for us, as Dalibor Martinis would say, is the digital signal.


ORIS: You have mentioned the fifty-year-long theatre play on Noordung, which premiered in 1995, and will have reruns every ten years until 2045. At the beginning Miha talked about role switching, and the fact that computers are becoming more autonomous, while humans are more controlled. The actors who die in the meantime will be replaced in the play – men with rhythm, and women with melody. Their DNA data, their gestures and their miming will be stored as data. Can you please elaborate?


Dragan Živadinov: Certainly. Two years ago the first actress died, and in the third rerun, in 2014, she will be substituted. Miha and the bio-artist Špela Petrič made the first model which helps us deal with the issue of what is alive in space, and why we refer to things as non-living. I would not like to go into details now, although we are currently in the process of facial triangulation, storing DNA and so on. What is important is that KSEVT is a product which will have a life of its own, and it is going to expand and develop. It will depart from the post-gravitational art in order to converge again, and this will go on until 2045. Those are two parallel flows; it is a conceptual trick, because people always tend to simplify art.


In the competition organized by the Ministry of Culture of Slovenia, KSEVT, in collaboration with DESSA Institute, and the Architects Society of Ljubljana – participated with Miha Turšić and Dragan Živadinov’s project The Issue of Space Travel – the Three Engines, and was selected to represent Slovenia at this year’s 14th Venice Biennale. The authors have divided the project into three component parts.