NASA & Art

Susan Mc Ateer

Kim Keever’s abstract artworks make me feel a bit like I’m tripping out, but in an ethereal way where Enya might be playing in the background. This chilled ambience is disrupted when I find out how Keever achieves these pooling wafts of colour against obscured landscape backgrounds; it is all staged in a fish tank which the artist injects with streams of ink and paint before photographing the whole scene. Like many artists Keever started with more traditional subjects, particularly landscapes, and gradually experimented with more abstract ideas. This stylistic progression and shift of subjects is often associated with painters’ developments, but Keever has created intriguing images by using his own methods of experimentation. This is partly informed by his background as an engineer for NASA. Citing his engineering background, Keever states that it helped him develop and build things for his experimentation, and that research on fractals is applied to how he develops clouds. Obviously I apply fractals to pretty much everything I do, but for those not up on their fractals,  Keever describes them as ‘small systems in nature or math mimic large systems or vice versa.’ But you knew that. 

Kim Keever's studio 

Kim Keever's studio 

The aesthetic aspect of Keever’s work is really compelling, but looking at the artist’s background as an engineer it takes on another layer, as different disciplines and sectors collide and inform each other. NASA is one of those words that still makes me raise an eyebrow (two actually, I’ve never nailed the one eyebrow raise, meaning I look more dumbfounded rather than subtly impressed) and think, ‘rocket science eh’, but once you start looking further into the connection between NASA and art, a history of collaboration and exchange of ideas emerges.  

In 2002 NASA launched its artist in residence programme with Laurie Anderson, artist, musician, composer, and according to David Bowie - mind-reader, as the first artist to take part in the programme. Receiving an unexpected call from NASA, Anderson asked what it means for a space programme to have an artist in residence, to which they responded, what does it mean to you? This is where the common thread between science and art really comes to the fore - both sides are are driven by asking questions, so why not work together and come up with some new answers. Anderson stayed at the NASA site in Pasadena California for a year and concluded her time with ‘The End of the Moon’, a solo performance which combines storytelling and music, and is the second in a trilogy of performances which she views as an epic poem creating an image of contemporary America. Working in 2002 the artist felt that America was an interrupted, sad place to be, but that NASA was exciting. A surprising source of artistic inspiration that it might be, NASA presented possibility in a time that felt devoid of excitement and possibilities. 

Unfortunately Laurie Anderson was NASA’s first and last artist in residence. The measure of success in the arts is often harshly judged, and some fought to prohibit federal funding being used to fund the artist in residence programme - what’s art ever done for anyone right? While not directly funding or hosting a similar programme these days, NASA are still engaged in working with artists in their support for SETI Institute’s (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) artist in residence programme. Collaborating with Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment, the Montalvo Arts Center, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program and with New Museum Los Gatos, SETI are expanding their mission ‘to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe’. SETI are confident that artists will provide a new and essential perspective to broaden progress and awareness of their work. 

Different perspectives and methods of engagement are key to understanding pretty much anything, and the recognition of organisations such as NASA and SETI of the relevance of the perspective of artists is exciting, and something that hopefully becomes more embedded. Looking for more images of Keever’s work I came across his collaboration with Joanna Newsom. Keever created artwork for her album ‘Divers’ and created the music video landscape for the song of the same name. If I thought that Enya was my accompaniment to Keever’s work, I was happily mistaken when I realised it was Newsom’s ethereal tones which completed my dazed sense. Art, science, music, it all blurs, and it kind of all trips me out.