Fluid Expressions

When imagining life off-planet, how do we express our humanity and creativity in an alien environment? Can the art we make both reflect the unique qualities of space and keep us connected to home?

If you had the chance to make art in space,
what would you bring?
what would you create?

Personal Log Entry 01 | T-362 Days

I have an opportunity to do something I never considered possible. To travel to low Earth orbit as an artist-in-residence. I won’t be the first person to make art in space, of course — art, music, and craft have all found their way off-planet since the beginning of our presence in LEO — but my job, my purpose for being up there will be to make art. A commander, a pilot, a few mission specialists, and me… an unusual crew we'll make.

The most emphatic piece of advice I’ve received is to be present, to experience the sensation of weightlessness and commit it to memory. But how can I convey what I feel in that moment through what I create? How do I capture that memory so that I can share it with others?

I guess I have a year to figure it out.

Personal Log Entry 02 | T-321 Days

The way water moves has always fascinated me, from water droplets to turbulent flow. But from what I’ve seen, the fluidity of water is replaced with a kind of “stickiness” in space — clinging to surfaces, wriggling when "pushed", forming a perfect sphere when undisturbed.

Can water convey the sensation of free-falling toward around Earth at nearly 5 miles a second?

Personal Log Entry 03 | T-286 Days

I’ve decided to focus on building something that holds and remembers water in microgravity — a memory capsule that documents my movements and choices as I experience them.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for “messages-in-a-bottle.” Wax-sealed scrolls, pneumatic tubes, and time capsules all provide a sense of satisfaction and significance, both when sealing and opening the message contained. Perhaps I should take a cue from voyagers past and cast my message-in-a-bottle out into the black… but that’s space littering, isn’t it? Better to not add to the debris encircling the Earth in the name of hubris, I think.

Personal Log Entry 04 | T-249 Days

Finding the right language has been a tricky business with this project. In my flight manifest, I call my work a series of “experimental setups” to examine fluid properties in microgravity. To designers and engineers, I present the object I’m creating, a “traveler’s painting kit for space.” With artists, I describe the “pieces” I’ll be producing, and the “performance” of creating them in weightlessness. All of these terms have meaning, but the code-switching has been jarring. Perhaps that's true of all work at the intersection of science and art.

All that is to say, I’ve developed a plan to produce three setups (pieces? experiments? designs?) while on-orbit — a dry-on-wet setup, a wet-on-dry with brush, and a setup where moving the container itself acts as “brush.”

Personal Log Entry 05 | T-202 Days

I’ve been thinking a lot about canvas and brushes recently. My memory capsule will have paper snuggly fit within its cylindrical interior, to capture the full volume of the container when painting. For brushes, I was inspired by astronaut Nicole Stott’s description of what watercolor painting was like for her in space. The “pulling, pushing, and dragging” of water she describes suggests that a standard-issue Earth paintbrush may not actually be what I want to use on-orbit.

Maybe bristles aren’t needed at all on a space brush. Or perhaps moving the container around the paint gives just enough control to the painter to produce something unique.

Personal Log Entry 06 | T-185 Days

We’ve just begun a simulation mission, living and working in a replica of the station. It’s been helpful in understanding the layout of the space, and in getting a feel for the mission (well, as much as we can while still on Earth). What I hadn’t realized was just how much plastic and aluminum makes up the environment.

Everything here feels rigorous and engineered, which I’m sure I’ll be grateful for when it’s what’s keeping me alive in a few months. But because of this, I’ve decided to incorporate as many handmade elements as I can into my memory capsule. Something to give this object a warmth and connection to Earth. Let’s see what I can do (and what I can get away with from our mission Payload Developer’s perspective)...

Personal Log Entry 07 | T-112 Days

Building, building, building. Testing, testing, testing.

I will never sand that much wood by hand ever again. But, I think the lids have come out well. I’ve fitted a go-pro and light into one lid, so that I can film the painting process from the interior of the container. The other lid has a valve (it’s actually a fermentation lid used for homemade pickling!) to keep liquid in but still allow pressure equalization between the inside and outside of the capsule. The wood and leather feel nice to hold.

Including some process shots here for posterity’s sake. Given how much of my life is mediated through computers, it has been so nice to make something by hand.

Personal Log Entry 08 | T-61 Days

Truthfully, today I feel homesick. It’s not an overwhelming feeling, but it’s worth acknowledging. Training has been rigorous at the simulation site, and my family and friends are far away. The people I work with are wonderful, but I don’t think I’d thought through what prolonged separation from the places and people I care about would feel like. I suppose the isolation itself is good preparation for the realities of time off-planet.

I’ve been spending time on adding a little touch of home to my memory capsule, something I can bring that feels familiar in an otherwise alien environment.

Personal Log Entry 09 | T-01 Days

The last two months have flown by. Tomorrow’s the big day. I hope I’m ready.