On The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite



Here is a draft review for comment of

The Rehearsal of Space and The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite

by Edgar Martins

Roger Malina


Reflections on the Space Age and Space Culture in reaction to Edgar Martin’s project : The Rehearsal of Space and The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite.

Roger F Malina


The Rehearsal of Space and The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite

Edgar Martins , May 2014, ISBN 978-84-15691-68-6, 184 pages. Essays by Leonor Nazare, John Gribbin, João Seixas, Sérgio Mah. La Fabrica publisher. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Madrid.



Portuguese born, London based, photographer and artist Edgar Martins  (http://www.edgarmartins.com/ ) presents in this book a series of photographs taken at facilities of the European Space Agency over the past few years  from Holland, France, Germany, Spain, to Russia, Kazakhstan, and French Guiana .In 2014 The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation/Modern Art Centre hosted the official launch of “The Rehearsal of Space & The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite”, a project developed in partnership with ESA.


The project has been documented through a number of venues on line, in galleries and in this excellently produced book, which forms the basis for this review. As we celebrate a series  of fiftieth anniversaries for key events in the birth of the ‘space age”, this book is a great example of cultural appropriating and re contextualisation. I have argued that we are now not only in the anthropocene, but also in what will be seen as the start of the age of a ‘space age” as distinctive as the stone, bronze, or iron ages. My argument is that today’s civilisation depends critically on space data, space systems and space technology to such an extent that if you stopped launching rockets today, our civilisation would regress irreversibly. From disaster relief, to communications, to GPS navigation, we have built space technologies in many of the key infrastuctures that allow our modern societies to function.


The opening essay by Leonor Nazare begins with a discussion of the Mayan civilisation and their astronical calendar achievements. This perpective grounds the book in an interesting question; if four thousand years from now ( after the collapse of our current civilisation and the loss of all archives stored on line and in the cloud) how would we interpret the space age from the artifacts and objects ( like this book) which might still survive ? How to interpret the space age in the same way as we interpret the stone, bronze and iron ages or the Mayans ?


Among other things, we would discover that access to space facilities was as restricted as in our time access was to the Mayan temples and many of the key technical artifacts have vanished, as have the Mayan ones. She notes “ ..in front of the helmet of a SCAPE suit and the astronaut’s wardrobe; they are containers which are empty but highly indexical”.  We are provoked to read Edgar Martin’s photographs as index entries to the space age; why the choice of particular colours in space facilities (pastel and primary colours – often blue or yellow), the use of highly simplified geometrical shapes ( eg the sound baffles in an anechoic chamber), the obsession with cleanliness (clean rooms where the major source of contamination is exfoliation from human skin). We see no humans just as we see no Mayans, just space suits and space habitats and fragments of objects; we would interpret these in terms of the human values they embody.


In the second essay curator Sergio Mah notes that it was in 1967, in the midsts of key events of the birth of the space age, that Michel Foucault developed his concept of ‘heteropias’ or places that function as counter-sites or realised utopias; these spaces have more layers of meaning or define or trigger relations to other places. Space facilities, with their restricted access, function as heteropias and Martin’s photographs ‘seem to exist in a gap, in a space-time that is as real as it is virtual and mental” and through their suggestive ambiguity function ‘like a space in which somthing is about to happen” connecting back to Martin’s term of ‘rehearsal spaces’.


In the third essay science writer John Gribbin, describing himself as a child of the space age, talks about the translation of science fiction to science fact in his own lifetime. He notes that less than 100 years since Einstein’s development of special and general relativity we now routinely use those calculations to use our smartphones. He describes our current understanding of cosmology and the search for extra-terrestial planets and life. In the essay he develops the idea that simulation has now become an integral component of modern science whether simulating the history of the milky way galaxy or the training facilities for astronauts. He notes that “by the time an astronaut gets into space, he or she is literally able to find their way around the actual spacecraft blindfold’. And of course many of Martin’s photographs document the incredible variety of simulated environments the European Space Agency builds on earth that mimic space conditions, to test and prove technological ideas for space travel and space activities. We can then read the photographs as documents of theatrical performances, again in in reference to  rehearsal spaces in Martin’s words, that play out the human story in an unknown cosmic environment, in much the same way that Mayan priests enacted their own relations to the cosmos.


In the fourth essay, physicist Joao Seixas ( a member of a CERN Large Hadron Collider consortium) writes a fascinating discussion of how scientists manipulate, and bound, concepts of infinity to explore the nature of the world. He states “ Most of this has changed over the past 100 years, for we have discovered that in many ways what we have considered infinite was only due to an illusion resulting from our limited knowledge of Nature” leading to ‘ the beginning of a bounded vision of nature’. He describes how the Michelson-Morley experiments led to Einstein’s insight that the velocity of light is not infinite ( and thus velocities are not additive). He explains how within theromodynamics the hard boundary of ‘absolute zero’  and ‘zero point energy” were discovered leading to a temperature scale bounded from below ( and that this lower limit was unattainable). In quantum mechanics it was discovered that it is not possible to measure infinitely precisely because of the uncertainty principle. The big bang model tells us that time does not go back infinitely into the past. Through quantum mechanics also we know that the vacuum cannot be infinitely empty and describes the physics of the last fifty years as “ the ultimate study of the properties of the vacuum”, with the current discoveries of dark energy and dark matter as ultimate puzzles. He argues that we face the same kind of scientific uncertainty as a hundred years ago when relativity and quantum mechanics bounded some infinities in revolutionary ways. he quotes Lord Kelvin who stated “ we see the clouds  gathering on the horizon but we still have still have no idea which storm they bring’. Seixas argues  that ‘infinity is in fact the one and only motivation for discovery’.


Seixas interprets Martin’s photographs as ‘bearing witness to the landmarks we leave on the road to the infinite’. Edgar Martin’s project is subtitled “The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite” and forces the question whether there are limits to the extra-terrestial environments that humans can inhabit. Maybe four thousand years from now,  these photographs will be interpreted as documentation of human exploration of the limits of  human colonisation of space. Just as Mayan civilisation was finely tuned to their own environmental and social context, so human life is finely tuned to the near earth environment from our genetic history and social nature. The endless debate between human and robotic colonisation of space may take several centuries to explore, but still I am convinced that we are irreversibly a ‘space culture’ and that our civilisation is now a space age vitally dependent on space data, space systems and space technology. As argued by proponents of  the ‘Space Option”

( http://www.leoalmanac.org/the-space-option-by-arthur-woods/ and http://thespaceoption.com/the_space_option_a_precis.php  ) ,

space activities are essential to a sustainable human civilisation on earth. But there may be limits to how far off the surface of the earth humans can sustainably live. Edgar Martin’s project “The rehearsal of space and the poetic impossibility to manage the infinite” is a fascinating cultural document on these fundamentally cultural, not scientific or technical, questions.