The Satellite and the Work of Art in the Age of Telecommunications

Eduardo Kac


The first satellite communications system appeared in 1945, from the imagination of the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote one of the greatest classics of the genre: 2001, A Space Odyssey. This was the year when Clarke published his visionary essay “Extraterrestrial Relays” in the October issue of Wireless World, anticipating the real launch of artificial satellites, which would take place in 1957 when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik went into orbit. Technological development and the space race have developed rapidly thereafter, so that today more than one hundred satellites are spinning around the Earth.

Ideas are intangible.  Satellites are real.  After radios, they are probably the most important communication tools of the twentieth century.  The importance of satellites is just now being felt, yet satellites remain something of a mystery even to people whose work or leisure depends on them.  Why?  For one thing, satellites are invisible. When a person makes a phone call, he or she doesn’t really care whether the conversation will be transmitted by cable, microwave, or satellite, as long as it gets through.  For another, the cost of operating a satellite is spread over so many customers that none of them seems to have any property rights in it.  Then, too, the process of designing, launching and maintaining a satellite is far beyond the resources of all but the largest corporations or public institutions; so people feel humbled by the enterprise and probably awestruck that anyone can understand it (Glatzer 1983).

Indeed, complete understanding of how a space device works is beyond the knowledge of a layperson. But it is not difficult to understand that the signals are transmitted from land stations, amplified inside the satellite, and received by another station on Earth. Satellites hover beyond gravity, some thirty-six thousand kilometers high, and release a huge amount of information over our heads every day, encompassing the whole gamut of mankind’s interests and activities. News, personal conversations, soap operas, educational programs, documents, ads, sports events, films, disasters, banking services, music, conferences, digital information, wars, shows— they all are transmitted via satlellite into a realm that is demarcated as either public or private, national or international.


Teleculture, Videophone, New Art

The problem is that the telecommunications being discussed is mainly of two types.  It is either concerned with artists’access to the  ‘ mass-media’ of cable or broadcast television (Art vs. Dallas) or a demonstration of high-tech wizardry (21st century or Buck Rogers telecomm) ‘ Art versus Dallas’ telecomm not only suffers from the one-sidedness of the contest but from the fact that the ‘ mass-media’ are not, except in the most minimal sense, communicative.  The material flows almost entirely in one direction—from program-maker to audience.  The viewer body-count of the audience survey companies being just about all that the passive television victim can put into the system.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of material gets broadcast (Art = Dallas) because the relationship between the parties remains the same.  The hierarchies are not disturbed by altering the nature of the transmitted material (Adrian X 1984).

The use of artificial satellites in art therefore deepens the issues raised by other genres of telematic art. While computer memory raises questions of access (the viewer only sees the desired works in their chosen order) and storage (hundreds of works can be stored on the smallest disc), the satellite allows the artist to create a two-way flow of signs in real time; in other words, it allows the artist to create an aesthetic event that is consumed simultaneously with the same informational charge in two distant locations as the result of exchange rather than consultation. The suppression of (physical) space in terms of (real) time sets up a transmaterial relationship between signs (signals) and simultaneous (instantaneous) perception by different audiences. Operating like a videophone (exchanging audio and video signals), the art satellite—or artsat—triggers new forms of telebehavior.

Oddly enough, technological progress sometimes seems to lead perception to extreme states, as a parallel reality, which is commonly called parapsychological. Such is the case of the phenomenon studied by Jung, for example, known as “synchronicity of events,” which finds direct correlation in a satellite interlink.

Telespace, Teletime

In electronic art, the word space loses the meaning it was given by the most radical avant-garde movements, from cubism to abstract expressionism, and even the one suggested by the new developments in sculpture. “Space” no longer refers to strict pictorial space or to the empty space within or around the matter, but rather it refers to a cosmic space in a dialogic relationship with informational space, and made present through holoiconography and the multidimensional perception this demands.

By creating the artsat, the artist works in the space of electromagnetic waves, that are virtually integrated through the process of mutual transmission and reception. These waves can neither be visualized au grand complèt nor experienced in loco by the viewer, located either in a vacuum or at one of the two connected points on the Earth’s surface. By imagining a connection between two distant regions on the planet, such as Brazil and Japan, the artist works with relative notions of time, since the different time zones must be addressed as expressive elements of the work.

From the perspective of aesthetic research, artsat expands the boundaries of sensory experience and human knowledge. The high-tech artist carries out a type of spatial investigation that is not the same as that of the scientist or that of the ufologist, but takes elements from both to form a new grammar and a new vocabulary. The work of speculation takes place in the space of the imagination, and uses a new expressive code based on two links (the signal rising and descending) whose main agent is the artificial satellite. Here we have a kind of perceptual “re-semanticization,” since the shortest distance between two points in open space is not necessarily a straight line and because notions of “above” and “below” lose their meaning as the reference points for guiding our mental processes disappear.

Our notion of distance also changes in face of the sensation of proximity we experience when looking at the moon. Knowing that the Earth is 380,000 kilometers away from this natural satellite and seeing photographs of the Earth setting on the Moon’s horizon not only replaces the romantic gaze with cosmic awareness but this also forges a new psychological scale. The solar system itself replaces Earth as our reference point, our home. The notion of distance collapses in the face of the great open question posed by the structure of the universe.

Signs in Orbit

Artists’ passion for flying machines began with the Futurists, who were lovers of adventure, speed, and heights. But it was in 1984 that the first art rocket on record, Leonardo I, was launched in California by Ginny Lloyd, artist-in-residence at the Alamogordo Space Center in New Mexico, and Mike Mages, artist and rocket technician. Terence McMahon says of Leonardo I, in his article “Suborbital Art,” “We need an artist in space—not just a traditional planet painter, but the avant-garde conceptual artist that will create unusual, oblique statements reflecting the chaotic and unified elements that make up the soul of space” (McMahon 1985).

The launch of the first art rocket led to other flights, like the one for placing a sculpture or poem (nonutilitarian artificial satellite) into Earth’s magnetic field or sending a holographic artwork to the frontiers of the universe (visible only when light falls at certain angles), to be observed by cosmonauts, settlers, or—who knows?— extraterrestrials. By reflecting light, these works would reach distant viewers as pseudo-stars. Arthur Woods, a North American artist based in Switzerland, has already developed plans for for space sculptures.
The artsat therefore directly reformulates the strict notions that structure our awareness. A Henry Moore sculpture weighs the same in any part of the world, while the weight of a body in space is not the same as it is in the Earth’s atmosphere, since its weight depends on its distance from the center of the Earth.

An artist who plans to put a cosmic sculpture or a poem into orbit needs to include in the calculations the classic formula of universal gravity, according to which two bodies attract each other with forces proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The artist has to measure the centrifugal force that the sculpture or the poem will create, since this force, produced by the spinning of the satellites, will compensate for their weight and sustain their orbit.

In order for the sculpture or poem to maintain the correct speed, the artist has to consider the height of the flight, not the mass, since satellites of different masses fly at the same speed at identical altitudes. The higher a satellite’s flight, the less speed is needed to keep it in orbit. Another aspect to be taken into consideration is that a work of space art does not need to have an aerodynamic shape: there is no air in space and consequently no friction. This is why satellites can have strange and unusual shapes. In a challenge to our visual system that associates size with weight, an artificial celestial body has little weight due to the height of its orbit and its centrifugal force, and requires only a simple metal part to connect two elements weighing more than one hundred metric tons. This kind of harmony is impossible to achieve in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Spy Who Came in from the Vacuum

The Moon is the nearest spaceport, and the stars are a cheap and lucrative energy source. In the near absence of gravity known as “microgravity,” it is possible to discover perfect crystals, metal alloys, and chemicals that are hard to find on Earth. The sky that was once the limit is now a rich vein of trade and industry. Man’s first solo flight in space with a cosmic backpack opened a new existential dimension for the species, breaking its umbilical cord with the mother planet. Not in vain has NASA planned a space station where eight people will live for one or two years, working in a satellite workshop and astronomical observatory, free of heat, pollution, and atmospheric distortions. Human life in space is slowly leaping from the drawing board to become a reality.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the natural apprehension of the senses is being replaced by intermediary systems. Nature itself has given way to a new landscape involving technoimages and new hardware, with videotext terminals and satellite dishes. In this telesociety, the artist seizes the satellite as a fundamental vehicle to create new experiences in the little-tested technospatial reality. By creating woks of satellite art, the artist broadens the boundaries of the senses and acts as a driving agent of a future world on technoscientific, sociocultural, and political and economic levels.

The creative use of the artificial satellite takes on a particular symbolic importance in the social and political spheres. The institutional control of planetary means of communication is in fact control of the collective imagination and, therefore, of social and individual awareness, since this mechanism filters the words, sounds, images, and “syntaxes” to which the general audience has access and imposes a worldview that is limited and limiting. The artist, however, uses the same media freely, releasing the imagination (of the artist and audience) in the spectrum of frequencies used by terrestrial and spatial telecommunications. By acquiring mastery of hardware and systems, the artist not only restores to art a little of the characteristic spontaneity of interpersonal conversation—in which each stimulus responds to another in a chain reaction of improvisations—but also balances it with the rational and programmatic use of technology. This harmony results in a new experience that can only really be sensed within art’s realm, which is not obliged to communicate closed messages or to use systems in a conventional way.

It’s important to note that great scientific discoveries and technological innovations are the fruit of military funding, since the satellites themselves can operate as real electronic spies, capturing signs of troop movements, of missile bases under construction, and of other secret communications circulating through the stratosphere. The threat of a global conflict hangs in the air, therefore, and the artistic use of artificial satellites reinforces their pacific use, as a signal launched into infinity in the defense of life.

Gigahertz to the Stratosphere

The artist suggests new relationships between art, hardware, and systems. The artist crates new connections and produces the “aesthetic” at the moment when the unlikely is converted into an acausal connection of possible situations. Artsat, therefore, affirms its specific and irreducible nature in relation to video, performance, and televisual arts. Appreciation of an aesthetic state does not require the apprehension of the object, since the artsat’s purpose is not the production of any kind of artifact. This appreciation takes place—unlike other non-objectual aesthetics such as “conceptual art”—in the use of the logic (syntax) of telecommunications systems, which are displaced from their social context to an individualized network that stresses its own structure.

So, just as Mozart mastered the newly-invented clarinet, the satellite artist must compose his art from the beginning suitable to physical conditions and grammar.  Satellite art in the superior sense does not merely transmit existing symphonies and operas to other lands.  It must consider how to achieve a two-way connection between opposite sides of the earth;  how to give a conversational structure to the art;  how to master differences in time;  how to play with improvisation, in-determinism, echos, feedbacks, and empty spaces in the cagean sense;  and how to instantaneously manege the differences in culture, preconceptions, and common sense that exist between various nations.  Satellite art must make the most of these elements (for they can become strengths or weaknesses), creating a multitemporal, multispatial symphony (Paik 1984).

Real art always redefines its parameters, questioning its rules and breaking down historicized barriers and assimilated codes. The creative use of the artificial satellite or artsat offers the projection of interpersonal subjectivity over the technological complex, in contrast to the objectivity that the technotronic landscape imposes on humankind and its categories of thought. The real issue is the revelation of human significance in the electronic context of a new telematized society. Thus, words, images, and actions involved in an artsat work do not simply aim for information exchange between two transmitters/receivers, but rather for the expression of this exchange. In art and in life, we are in tune with the unknown. On Earth, as it is in heaven.




Adrian X, Robert. 1984. “Die Kunst der Kommunikation / Communicating / L’art de communiquer.” In Art + Telecommunication. Western Front, Canada, and Blix, Austria.

Glatzer, Hal. 1983. The Birds of Babel: Satellites for a Human World. Indianapolis: Howard W. Sams&Co.

McMahon, Terence. 1985. “Suborbital Art.” Light Works (17), Michigan.

Paik, Nam June. 1984. “Satelliet/Kunst/Art/Satellite.” In HetLumineuzeBeeld / The Luminous Image. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.


Translation: Nick Rands



Originally written and published by the artist in 1986.
Reproduced in: Eduardo Kac. Luz & Letra. Ensaios de arte, literatura e comunicação [Light & Letter. Essays in art, literature and communication], Editora Contra Capa, Rio de Janeiro, 2004.

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