Your Star, Skystar

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Ice Watch, 2015, image: olafureliasson.net

The big Olafur Eliasson news out of Paris last week was obviously Ice Watch, the circle of ancient Greenland glacier fragments melting and popping in front of the Pantheon.

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depiction of Your Star test flight, 2015, image: olafureliasson.net

This week Olafur is in Stockholm launching Your Star, a public art commission from the Nobel Committee. It is inspired, he explains, by the "space before an idea," the space from which an idea emerges, the moment when you first register a curiosity or change. In this case, it is the change in the night sky over Stockholm caused by an LED tethered to a balloon, which is powered by a battery charged by a solar panel that captured the energy of the summer sun. Your Star is a new star that returns the light of summer to the dark night of Stockholm in December.

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RT-LTA video still of Skystar 180 deploying from its monitoring station

But even if you're still in Paris, you can get a sense that something is different in the sky, and change is afoot on the ground. @domainawareness notes that Paris intelligence officials have leased a surveillance balloon from the Israeli defense contractor RT-LTA Systems, to monitor protestors and other members of the public during the climate talks.

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RT-LTA press photo of Skystar 180 deployed with 360-degree surveillance camera

The Skystar 180 was used in Israel's war on the Gaza Strip last year, and is deployed near contested holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as throughout East Jerusalem and Palestinian areas in the occupied West Bank.

One is art, one is policing. One you watch, one watches you. It's easy to think of differences, but Skystar and Your Star look so much alike that I have to wonder what else they have in common: they are both designed to exist in and affect public space. In his Nobel Week greeting, Olafur talked about the importance of public space:

It is where people come together, to exchange opinions, to disagree, to agree, and through doing all of this they help co-creating society. So does culture. I think it's very important to keep our public space alive, resilient, and open for change and renegotiation.
Think of that in Paris, where protestors try to influence the political negotiators, primarily by influencing media narratives--and where the looming presence of police surveillance seeks to document what it can't intimidate or silence by its presence.

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O hi. I am here, watching you.

And now think of the original public sites where these aerostats are permanently deployed: occupied neighborhoods where Palestinians and Arab Israelis under decades-long seige or contestation where renegotiation takes place with rocks, bullets, tear gas, and bulldozers.

It turns out both Skystar and Your Star function by being seen. The former as a projection of power and potential deterrent, the latter as an inspiration. This turns out to bear an uncanny resemblance to the original Project Echo satelloon, which was created to be a visible presence in the sky, an inspiring beacon of American power and progress. It was also intended to acclimate people to the presence of satellites overhead, to normalize the eventuality of being watched by surveillance satellites.

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When he originally conceived of a large inflatable satellite to win the hearts and devotion of the developing world, Werner von Braun called it an American Star.

Your Star [olafureliasson.net/yourstar]
Jerusalem - Spy Balloons Give Police New View Of Jerusalem [vosizneias, the voice of the orthodox jewish community]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: December 8, 2015.

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