If SpaceX’s latest ambitions become a reality, a spaceship carrying one Japanese billionaire and six to eight artists will blast off from Earth and head for a trip around the moon sometime around 2023. As they approach, and the desolate gray of the moon’s cratered surface fills up their windows, they will make history as the first private astronauts to fly to Earth’s rocky companion.
But the billionaire’s guests will be partaking in a long-standing tradition: patrons inviting artists to experience a completely new environment and let inspiration run wild.
For decades, various organizations have welcomed artists onto their premises to work under new and exciting conditions, providing studio space and some financial assistance, for weeks or months at a time. According to the Alliance of Artists Communities, about 30,000 artists participate in such programs each year around the world. Yusaku Maezawa, SpaceX’s billionaire customer, is offering artists the same experience, and he’s doing it all for free: Maezawa said he has purchased every seat on the BFR, the spaceship-and-rocket combo that SpaceX intends to build to make the trip.
The journey, if successful, would make SpaceX the host of the ultimate artist-in-residence experience.
Maezawa, who made his fortune as the founder of Zozotown, Japan’s largest online fashion mall, is a longtime art lover who purchased a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for a whopping $110 million last year, the sixth-most-expensive work ever sold at Sotheby’s auction house.
Maezawa said he would choose the lucky passengers from a pool of painters, photographers, musicians, film directors, fashion designers, and architects from around the world. It’s not clear whether he will solicit proposals, as typical artist residencies do, and he may already have a few participants in mind. And it doesn’t seem like Maezawa expects the chosen artists to produce work that is directly related to the historic journey, but rather to let the experience inform their creative process.
“If Pablo Picasso had been able to see the moon up-close, what kind of paintings would he have drawn?” the website for the moon expedition asks. “If John Lennon could have seen the curvature of the Earth, what kind of songs would he have written?”
These questions are at the heart of artist-in-residence programs on Earth, particularly those set in far-flung and extreme natural environments that most people never get the chance to see. In the United States, both federal and private organizations send artists to remote areas each year, from the frozen landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic to the parched terrain of the American desert. Participants go off the grid—or as far off the grid as one can these days—and enter environments they can’t truly imagine until they get there.
These places certainly aren’t as remote as, you know, the moon, but they’re about as otherworldly as you can get without escaping Earth’s gravity.
Many nature-focused residencies emerged as public outreach, says Valentine Kass, the program officer at the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which dates back to the late 1950s. Participants receive round-trip airfare money and six weeks to live and work at the South Pole, either solo or with the scientists stationed there.
“It was felt that it was really important that the work of the scientists that was being done there was brought back to the general public in ways that they could understand and relate to,” Kass says. “Werner Herzog made a film, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book, Eliot Porter took fabulous photographs. Not everyone who goes are big names like those, but we expect them to produce whatever they propose to produce.”
Such extreme environments can dramatically influence an artist’s perspective. “It’s like a shock to the system,” says James Berg, the co-founder of an artist residency in the dusty desert of Joshua Tree, California. The program, established in 2007, provides six to seven weeks of accommodation and financial support to painters, photographers, filmmakers, writers, and others.
“We have many artists that come from New York and the boroughs where they look out the window and they see other brick buildings, and then they have to take a subway ride to another building where their studio is,” Berg says. “They come out to the desert and they can see for miles. It just affects the brain and their sight line in a different way.”
The experience of spaceflight may have a similar effect. Nicole Stott, an artist and retired NASA astronaut who flew to the International Space Station twice during the space-shuttle program, brought a small watercolor kit with her and painted in microgravity. “It was an awe-inspiring perspective that really does provide you with a different appreciation of all of it,” Stott has said of seeing the Earth from above.
Alan Bean, an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon, became an artist after being in space and produced dozens of dreamy paintings of moonscapes. “Apollo is the greatest adventure of all humankind, and it needs to be recorded in every way possible for future generations in books, in movies, and on television,” explained Bean, who died earlier this year, in 1997. “I’m an artist. That’s the way I care about things.”
If the beauty of an extreme landscape doesn’t make artists woozy, the actual environment can. In the Joshua Tree program, some participants find they have to adjust to the high elevation.“We always tell the artists it’s going to take at least one to two weeks just to acclimate to the environment itself, so be gentle to yourself in terms of your process,” says Frederick Fulmer, Berg’s fellow founder. “I would imagine that’s probably something that the artists going up to the moon are going to experience in a big way.”
Indeed, the human body was not built for space, and so space does very little to accommodate it. Maezawa’s artists will need to undergo astronaut-level training to prepare for the violent shakes and piercing sounds of a rocket launch. And they shouldn’t expect to feel great as their bodies attempt to process the surreal experience of weightlessness; their eyes will tell their brains that they’re right side up, everything’s fine, but their inner ears will scream that they’re tumbling around, producing waves of nausea. The BFR will have to come equipped with barf bags.
For this reason, Maezawa’s pool of candidates may thin out considerably. Not everyone is willing to endure potentially dangerous conditions in pursuit of their work, says DaleLynn Gardner, a National Park Service ranger and coordinator of the artist-in-residence program at the Gates of the Arctic National Park, located in the northern-Alaskan wilderness.
This program requires roughing it: Writers, musicians, and other artists spend two weeks trudging around with park rangers, carrying 50 pounds of equipment across uneven terrain and watching for predators like bears and moose, “who can be as troublesome as bears,” Gardner warns. There’s no cell service, and help, if it is needed, is hundreds of miles away in Anchorage.
As for the actual creative process, conventional wisdom suggests that artists require long bouts of solitude to successfully produce their work. Under this assumption, SpaceX’s moon trip seems like the antithesis of a fruitful artistic experience. Aaron O’Connor, who runs a program for artists and scientists at the North Pole, disagrees. For the past 10 years, the Arctic Circle has sent participants on three-week sailing expeditions in the Arctic waters near Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago. They don’t get much time alone on the ship, and that’s kind of the point.
“Tight quarters, sharing space and equipment, is part of everyday life while at sea. So it is less about solitude and more about the sharing of ideas,” O’Connor says. “To cram a bunch of thinkers into a BFR is a great idea.”
O’Connor said the Arctic Circle has been in touch with SpaceX, as well as other commercial-spaceflight companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, about someday transporting artists to the edge of space and beyond. O’Connor said the organization plans to reach out to Maezawa to learn more about his plans.
While not all of these programs expect their participants to complete a piece of work soon after they leave, organizers do hope that artists depart with a sense of appreciation for the natural world, and maybe even use their experience to educate others. Gardner, the coordinator of the National Park Service in the Arctic, asks participants to present lectures and programs for the public about the importance of conservation. Gardner knows how powerful such outreach can be.
“We actually have national parks because of artists,” she says. In the years after the Civil War, American artists began to travel west to document the natural beauty of untouched forests, mountains, valleys, and canyons. When they returned to the East, their paintings were hung in the halls of Congress, where they helped influence legislation that would eventually mandate the protection and preservation of vast amounts of American land.
Perhaps Maezawa’s artists will produce work that spurs those who remained on the ground to protect the natural world—not on the moon, but on Earth, which will appear to them as a delicate blue-and-white marble suspended against the darkness of the universe. Many astronauts, faced with this view of the planet, have returned to Earth with profound appreciation for our little corner in the cosmos, and an intense concern about its future, particularly in the face of climate change.
Kass, who runs the program in Antarctica, remembers her first visit to the icy continent in 1998. She was struck by the beauty and starkness of the smooth and empty landscape. When she left, she never thought of the planet in the same way again.
“It sort of changed my DNA,” she says. “And I can’t imagine going around the moon. I think it would be like that in spades.”