Some artists work in clay, some in oils, and some in bits. Forest Stearns works in satellites.
The artist and illustrator recently served as the first artist-in-residence (he is now the company’s art director) at Planet Labs, a San Francisco startup that is launching the largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites in history and is presenting today at TED.
PlanetLab’s satellites, or "Doves," as the company calls them, are each the size of a shoebox—and every one is covered in Stearns’s artwork. Twenty-eight Doves were recently released into orbit from the International Space Station. Together, this "flock" will take a composite picture of most of planet Earth, at a three to five meter per pixel resolution, every couple of weeks. The company hopes this rapid imagery will transform everything from precision agriculture to environmental monitoring.
Stearns’s path to the company was serendipitous: he met one of the co-founders of PlanetLabs (who, full disclosure, I sometimes advise), Robbie Schingler, at Innovation Endeavor’s "Curiosity Camp," and was captivated by Schingler’s vision of using space to serve humanity. Stearns suggested that the company’s satellites should carry some kind of visual iconography on them, and Schingler quickly agreed—as long as it reflected the company’s values and aspirations.
Stearns agreed to join the company to bring that vision to life. After several rounds of exploration, he settled on a theme of migratory animals, fellow travelers on an ever-changing planet Earth.
I asked Stearns about his process, his subject matter, and the importance of creating artist-in-residence programs at technology companies:
Andrew Zolli: Why have art in space at all? What does it say about us as a species?
Forest Stearns: Symbolic mark-making has always been an important part of the human experience. From caves to canvases to satellites, we all have an ambition to tell our story. And as we migrate upwards and outwards with space technology, we felt it was important to take this expressive instinct with us.
This artistic effort also connects us to the historical dialog between creativity and science. Sagan's golden disks are now traveling beyond our solar system, telling any audience of their human makers. We are putting orbiting art in space to tell the human audience about the world that made them.
What do you want people to take away from these pieces specifically?
We wanted to celebrate all the life that is moving around the world with us humans. We wanted to remind ourselves that we need to be aware, respectful, and responsible stewards of the life on Earth that is watching our every move. And so, the collective of migrating animals now look back at us, from space.
The flags that the Apollo astronauts put on the moon have famously turned white due to radiation. How do you make art that can actually survive in space?
Actually getting art into space is of course a big hurdle; making art that will survive solar radiation and huge swings in temperature is just as challenging. Traditional media like paint, glue, ink, and the other things I regularly reach for in my studio will not last up there. I am not a chemist, but I was told that my first choices of art supplies would boil or evaporate and then stick to the satellite, risking the delicate optics.
So instead of using traditional media, we did the reverse—subtracting rather than adding media. The artworks are painted on large canvasses, four by six feet across, and then are translated onto the surface of the Dove with a laser etching machine, which captures every detail of the original. The art is literally carved into the body of the satellite.
How have you been influenced by the Planet Labs engineers, and vice-versa?
We meet in the middle of uncomfortable and awesome. Every day, I get to listen to the hyper-intelligent banter of engineers solving complex problems—conversations filled with all of the advanced science stuff you see in the movies. It can sound as impenetrable as a bunch of artists discussing conceptual art—but really it’s just another language for creative problem solving.
As we’ve learned to decode each other, I’ve tried to incorporate the engineers’ ideas into my artwork. For example, on the Dove’s deployed solar panels I used liquid photo imaging to print an artistic pattern of radio waves, which are symbolic of both the technology and the way people in the company think.
It’s rare—to say the least—to have an artist-in-residence program at any company. Why should other companies follow in Planet Labs’ footsteps?
The artists and the engineers improve each other's game, expand each other’s thinking, and make the end-product more meaningful.
In my case, I was inspired to produce work that lived up to the quality of the product my peers are launching into space. They, in turn, were encouraged by the artwork to push their boundaries and take creative chances. The outcome is an amazingly engineered and beautifully presented spacecraft, more valuable to the maker and the client because of the creative synergy.
Every company that wants those kinds of outcomes should consider doing this.