Trevor Paglen launches into his critics

Artist comes out fighting against astronomers who claim launch of his Orbital Reflector just means more space junk
Trevor Paglen
Trevor Paglen

Artist Trevor Paglen is hitting back at critics who’ve criticized his upcoming plan to send an artwork into space. Paglen, plans to send Orbital Reflector, a diamond-shaped polyethylene balloon with a shiny titanium dioxide coating approximately the length of two buses, into space as part of his show at Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art later this autumn. 

Circumnavigating 360 miles from earth, and described as a piece of land art in the sky, the artwork will reflect sunrays visible even during night time. After its scheduled launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, it will stay in space for three months, with a full orbit lasting for just over an hour and a half. Paglen crowd funded the venture himself to the tune of $76,000.


 Trevor Paglen, Orbital Reflector, rendering. Courtesy of Trevor Paglen and Nevada Museum of Art
Trevor Paglen, Orbital Reflector, rendering. Courtesy of Trevor Paglen and Nevada Museum of Art

However, a handful of tech websites (possibly driven by the quiet news cycle of the summer) have criticised the launch, and astronomers have described the piece as “visually bright with no purpose” and compared its launch to that of “a neon billboard”.


Understandably, Paglen - who as readers of our new Contemporary Artist Series book will know has made it his life long work to both map the heavens and provoke discussion around what is actually up there looking down on us, is not taking the criticism lightly. 

In a withering riposte sent to Artnet, he wrote: “I definitely understand how some people might feel vaguely morally offended by the project.” And he went on to pose a number of questions, pertinent to his practice.

“Why are we offended by a sculpture in space, but not by nuclear missile targeting devices or mass surveillance devices, or satellites with nuclear engines that have a potential to fall to earth and scatter radioactive waste all over the place?” Given the Orbital Reflector’s ephemeral orbit, he was also sceptical about claims his artwork will obstruct telescopic research.


Trevor Paglen  prototype of Orbital Reflector. Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art
Trevor Paglen prototype of Orbital Reflector. Photo courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

"How - specifically - would Orbital Reflector interfere with the astronomer’s work?" Paglen asked. ‘Are they worried about satellites moving through fields of views of telescopes?’

The artist even disputed the idea that astronomers still use telescopes, calling their use outmoded given the advances in space research technology. He also thought it "incredibly unlikely that Orbital Reflector would move through the field-of-view of a telescope right in the middle of an important observation and therefore ruin an observation." If so, he argued, “they must really have a problem with military satellites, communications satellites, discarded rocket engines, and the like (especially military ones whose orbits aren’t even published).”


Our Trevor Paglen Contemporary Artist Series book
Our Trevor Paglen Contemporary Artist Series book

Want to find out what lies behind this story and get a better understanding of Paglen’s practice so you can set stargazers straight? Read our many Trevor Paglen stories, check out all our Paglen Instagram posts and buy our Trevor Paglen book, which, like all our Contemporary Artist Series books, was made in close collaboration with the artist.

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