Why bother colonizing existing planets when we can make our own? We’ve sure made a mess of things down here, so why look only to transpose terrestrial limitations onto these new worlds? By imagining more cosmically, argues Lithuanian Space Agency founder Julijonas Urbonas, we have the means within ourselves to recontextualize the earthbound constructs that define us: societal norms, race, sexual orientation, politics. The current economies of exploration are limiting and outdated—we need a radical otherworldliness.

Installation view of the Lithuanian Space Agency's laboratory by Julijonas Urbonas at the Biennale Architettura 2021, Venice; Photography Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

What happens to imagination once it leaves Earth? It becomes disoriented after crossing the Kármán line, the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space. After all, imagination has evolved in the earth’s ecosystem, where it is held by gravity and human care. Catapulted up there, it is confronted by the hostility of outer space, otherworldliness at its most acute. How can we align imagination with such a departure from its terrestrial origins?

Although art, science, literature, and religion––to name a few––have often been reimagined from the perspective of the cosmos (with the prefix “astro” denoting the departure from terrestrial thinking), most of these domains of thinking and making suffer from a certain degree of earth-bound bias. When considering humanity’s long-term survival, these disciplines often simply search for a cosmic replica that is structured around known, and experienced, human constructs. While the physical space may change, the sensual, psychological, and social concepts often remain earthbound. The majority of the world’s space programmes manifest such a terrestrial conservatism, taking their sustenance from material and (astro-)ecological exploitation, colonialism, and warfare. Our current moment, recently labelled the “Second Space Age,” is characterised by the emergence of an outer space economy, the (private) commercialisation of space, an increase in space debris, interplanetary biocontamination, and the establishment of the astro-Anthropocene.

My concern with what I perceive to be a crisis of cosmic imagination led me to establish the Lithuanian Space Agency (LSA), an astro-disciplinary initiative that aims to create a truly extraterrestrial imagination. A think tank-cum-space logistics company, the LSA works to develop the poetic mechanics of establishing alternative ways of being and imagining together, on and beyond Earth. Accepting the cosmos as the site of radical otherworldliness, the agency focuses on how we can get closer to the unearthly by shifting our perspectives on humanity to those of an alien. Being aware of the near, if not total, impossibility of its mission and the cold indifference of the universe, the LSA believes that the only way to access the cosmic mindset is through our capacity to imagine cosmically: employing techniques of pretence, make-believe, and simulation as vehicles to multiple cosmoses. This plural term lies at the core of the LSA’s ethos: the cosmos is a multiverse with an infinite number of realities, including some that will never be accessible to earthlings. As such, the LSA combines knowledge and tools gleaned from a multitude of scientific or artistic domains but does not limit itself to disciplinary paths. We are examining methods to unlearn terrestrial thinking.

Installation view of the Lithuanian Space Agency's laboratory by Julijonas Urbonas at the Biennale Architettura 2021, Venice; Photography Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

Installation view of the Lithuanian Space Agency's laboratory by Julijonas Urbonas at the Biennale Architettura 2021, Venice; Photography Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

The conceptual background of the LSA is based largely on my decade-long research into what I call gravitational aesthetics. By examining gravity’s impact on our thinking and imagination, I have developed a set of gravity-defying creative tools that are meant to tap into unprecedented sensual, psychological, and social domains. By embedding these tools into a diversity of fields that include design choreography, vehicular poetics, amusement park engineering, performative architecture, art, and sci-fi, I am able to design experiences that push the human body, and its capacity for imagination, to its extremes. Planet of People, a scientific and artistic feasibility study of an artificial planet made of human bodies, is the most recent materialisation of these quests. It is a quasi-real, multimodal fiction based on a variety of narrative devices. The project has been transferred to the LSA to advance its complex intellectual grounding, which spans astro-aesthetics, the eschatological imagination, the astro-Anthropocene, extraterrestrial anthropocentrism, and terraforming.

The LSA invites you to conduct a thought experiment. Forgetting our human earthly origins and the terrestrial definition of scale, try to consider your body as a celestial being. Strip yourself from all social, racial, cultural, sexual, political, and biological constructs. Such attributes, you will find, dissolve whilst suspended in space once they are detached from the regulatory systems of judgement and classification on Earth. Now, let’s catapult this body into outer space. Depending on particular astrophysical circumstances, as your body meets galactic cosmic rays, solar wind particles, and micrometeorites, it slowly disintegrates into minute elemental particles. We are, after all, made from cosmic dust no different from minerals, sand dunes, and asteroids. What if we catapult more bodies—many, many more, say, the whole sextillion (1036 )? Let’s.

Installation view of the Lithuanian Space Agency's laboratory by Julijonas Urbonas at the Biennale Architettura 2021, Venice; Photography Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

Next, let us consider a concrete location in outer space: one of the Lagrange points perhaps. These are locations in space where the gravitational forces of two adjacent celestial bodies, such as a planet and its star, balance each other. These points are weightless and cold; they are vacuums and (some) are pitch black. They are, perhaps, the closest analogues to nothingness. In our scenario, a cloud of human bodies floats freely within one of these points until their individual gravitational forces pull them towards each other, slowly coalescing the entities into one mass. The fleshy asteroid begins to decompose, releasing enough heat to boil and liquify its core. Plumes of hot meat and trapped gases periodically rise through the asteroid crust and volcanically erupt, eventually calming and freezing human landscapes all the way through.

The result? Would it be a dead Planet of People? The unprotected human bodies would die long before meeting other floating astro-mates after all. Such a premise is, however, terrestrially biased as, according to speculative astrobiology, life and death in outer space are one and the same. What, then, if we consider this extraordinary blob of human biomass as a new living being? The organic matter—or what left of it—would have been bombarded by space radiation and solar winds, damaging or transforming DNA, provoking mutations and extraterrestrial evolution. All which would, continuing this metaphor, lead to the formation of a planet-sized organism, a human panspermia.

Guided tour at the Lithuanian Space Agency's laboratory by Julijonas Urbonas at the Biennale Architettura 2021, Venice; Photo: Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius

Actually, there is a well-known cyborgian conjecture that proposes a no less radical take on the definition of life in outer space. The term “cyborg” was originally coined to define a modified human who could survive the hostile environment of outer space. But what would a population of such cyborgs suspended in the nothingness of cosmos do? What would their lives look like? If there is no longer need for breathing, eating, sleeping, or defecating, would such phenomena as culture, art, architecture, or love exist?

Let’s get down, back to Earth. It feels apocalyptical here: pandemics, climate change, deadly asteroids, atomic war, aliens. But the scenarios for saving humankind—with the colonization of other planets, the erection of space stations, and the development of cryoanabiosis (suspended animation by freezing)—are considerably fewer. In the worst-case scenario, if we must come to terms with the end of our planet and its history, what human legacy, apart from space debris, will we leave to the Universe? We could consider analogues along the lines of the Golden Records, sent into space on Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977, containing images and sounds of Earth’s life and culture. However, nothing can be a substitute for a human being. Placed in specific outer space locations, these could be frozen and preserved for millions of years. Human astro-fossils, or anthropocentrism at its purest?

Airtime (2016). © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

Cumspin (2015). © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

The Barany Chair (198? – 2014). © Courtesy of the Lithuanian Space Agency

In order to facilitate the temporal diversity of its projects, the Lithuanian Space Agency has been developing various time travelling assists—a sort of cerebral lubrication for the mental time machinery. One the most prominent and successful projects is a custom engineered 3D scanner that scans human bodies and transposes their 3D models into an astrophysical simulation. In this format, the volunteers can see how their bodies interact with others, forming a new celestial body. Part of the Planet of People exhibit, this 3D simulation invites the public to catapult themselves into a multitude of different timelines that are displayed on screens, the recordings sped up in order to represent different spatiotemporal circumstances. Each of our bodies is unique in its shape, centre of gravity, and ways of moving—all of which make up a unique choreographic presence in space. Once participants realise their extraterrestrial presence, they begin to loosen control of their movements, slowly stripping themselves of earthly preoccupations and biases, embracing their space-time potentials.

In another simulation, participants can visualize themselves colliding with other bodies in space, connecting in unique spatial configurations, an unprecedented contact dance that is only possible in the absence of gravity. Smashed up against other bodies in an armpit-heel-chin-elbow-forefinger contortion, these acts of connection become newfound expression of interplanetary architecture.

LSA’s Planet of People exhibition seeks to create an interactive architectural fiction, inviting its visitors to become a coarchitects of a planet made out of human bodies. Powered by deployable structural engineering, kinetic furniture design, speculative material science, extraterrestrial choreography, interactive arts, astro-scientific research, and corporate vocabulary—these forces work in tandem to provoke a critical form of cosmic imagination, helping to form an empathetic bridge between the earthbound and the otherworldly.

Guided tour at the Lithuanian Space Agency's laboratory by Julijonas Urbonas at the Biennale Architettura 2021, Venice; Photo: Aistė Valiūtė & Daumantas Plechavičius

Julijonas Urbonas’s The Lithuanian Space Agency presents: Planet of People, curated by Jan Boelen, is on view at the International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale through 21 November.

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