Interview With Michael Najjar: The First Artist In Space

Artist, adventurer and future astronaut, Michael Najjar focuses on the cutting-edge technologies influencing and shaping our modern society. Born in 1966 in Landau, Germany, Najjar attended the Bildo Academy for Arts in Berlin, where he was trained in the practices of conceptional and interdisciplinary art. Widely-known as a visual futurist, he transmutes science, art and technology into visions and utopias of emerging future social structures. Najjar re-examines the potential of the technical image, which he defines "hybrid photography", through a constant reconstruction of time and space using different techniques. In 2011, the artist starts his "outers space" series that deals with the latest developments in space exploration and the way they will shape our future life on Earth. To document his photographs and videos, he has travelled to the world's most important spaceports and has met with numerous scientists, engineers and astronauts. One fundamental characteristic of Najjar's work is the performative aspect that will culminate in his own flight into space. As one of the pioneer astronauts of Virgin Galactic, he will be embarking on SpaceShipTwo on one of its future spaceflights where he will be the first artist to travel in space.

For Kant “true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging subject” and rendering the sublime is the task of Art. How did you understand that photography would be the right medium to best express your vision?

I was fascinated by the medium of photography since a little boy, when I got my first Polaroid camera. During the time at the art school, in the early nineties, in Berlin, the transformation of photography from analog to digital led to a completely new form of photographic expression, which seemed to be the perfect tool for my artistic visions. Photography was no longer about showing reality, but about construction of reality.

Your art concept is the result of an accurate research in art history, science and philosophy. Which personalities/events had most influenced your artistic aesthetic?

At the academy, I was trained in the practices of conceptual and interdisciplinary art. During this time I immersed myself in the visionary theories of media philosophers, such as Vilém Flusser, Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard, which have markedly influenced my later work.

Fusing realistic and fictive elements, you bring the imagery to a next level, where the boundaries between analog and digital, natural and supernatural become blurry. Could you describe the technical process behind a photograph manipulation?

My work constantly interrogates the relationship between reality and representation in the technical image. I am interested in a constant reconstruction of time and space for which I deploy a broad array of image processing techniques, including the montage of multiple image sources and elements. I call this technique Hybrid Photography. At the beginning every artwork is a theoretical idea. From there I move forward into the photographic execution and then comes the digital composition. This process of digital post production is not merely a process of technical enhancement it is above all part of the creation process for me.

A focal concern of your work deals with a futuristic society driven and controlled by computers. Nowadays technology innovation is accelerating in an impressive way, instead the human brain is rather slow to conform and people find themselves in a kind of a trap. How should we implement the technology to evolve in a faster and constructive way?

I think the next logical step will be the implementation of Hard- & Software into our neuronal structures, means into our brain. We will technically enhance our brain´s capacity. This will allow us to process information on a much more complex level and a lot faster than today.

The ‘bionic angel’ series takes as its starting point the future transformation and technological control of human evolution. To what extent could a biological evolution be controlled and manipulated without losing the awareness of what means to be human?

If human evolution will be accelerated or even controlled by technical advancements in the fields of bio genetics, neuroscience, robotics, nanotechnology, we will need to redefine what it means to be human. The rise of humanoid organisms, with a significant level of technical enhancement (cyborgs), will raise a fundamental discussion about the relationship between natural biological humans and technically modified organisms.

What is your opinion about ‘artificial intelligence’?

AI is a logical and inevitable step in human evolution. The next level will be the creation of life, which will be separated from an organic body. If technology will allow us to modify the human brain and consciousness, a completely new process will start with results we can´t even think about today. Don´t forget that we are already surrounded by myriads of invisible AI applications in our digital lives.

Having control on a process that could imply unpredictable consequences could reveal itself rather risky.  Do you find it possible that in the future ‘artificial intelligence’ could take control on mankind?

That is an absolutely realistic scenario, especially because we are not fully aware anymore of the real influence of AI technologies in our lives. It´s not about intelligent robotics, it is about the software hidden in our digital devices surrounding us like our laptops, iPhones, cars, planes and the communication tools we use every day. If more and more nanotechnology will invade our body and will connect the body with these devices and data flows things, it will become even more complex. Brains could be hacked, viruses could invade our neuronal structures.

As one of the pioneer astronauts of Virgin Galactic, you will be the first artist to travel in space. Tell us more about this experience and the training you are conducting?

It is of course an incredible privilege to be one of Virgin Galactic´s Pioneer Astronauts and to be part of an entirely new sector of space exploration. To prepare for this flight, I have conducted several space training sessions in the USA, Germany and Russia, including spacewalk trainings in a huge hydrolab, zero-g training and centrifuge training. The hardest experience was certainly the stratosphere flight with a Russian MIG-29 jet fighter. During the manoeuvres, with almost twice the speed of sound, I had to cope with 7G forces on my body. I lost color vision and almost consciousness twice.

The ‘outer space’ series includes an assembly of contemporary visions of future life and work in space. Since 2011, you have collaborated with many scientists and space agencies, having the access to locations that are unseen by the public. What was the most thrilling moment?

I was really overwhelmed by the European Spaceport in French Guiana. It is located in the middle of a tropical rainforest and when you see an Ariane 5 rocket launching from the jungle directly into space it is really a magic moment. The jungle is where we come from and now the human species is on the verge to colonize space.

On February 22, 2017, NASA announced the discover of TRAPPIST-1, a new solar system at 40 light years from Earth. How do you read this news for the next generations?

These news are not really impressing me so much, we found thousands of exoplanets in the last decade. But as these exoplanets are simply too far away for humanity, colonizing our own solar system is the challenge for our future generations.

Is it rational searching for another planets to exile instead of finding solutions to protect our habitat on Earth?

That is the question many people ask, but it neglects the fact that earth is already in space as part of the solar system, and humanity´s innate wish of exploration. The human species is facing growing threats on planet Earth including overpopulation, climate change, diminishing resources, shortages in the energy, food and water supply. Despite the fact we need to protect our home planet, colonization of our solar system might be the ultimate solution to guarantee survival of our species. Yet a range of technical innovations are needed before we can implant and sustain life away from Earth. All previous colonial and frontier experiments of the human species have occurred within the biosphere of Earth, so leaving the blue planet presents a host of major challenges of which supply chain management, logistics, communication and sustainability are only a few. Astronauts will not only have to grow their own food and filter their water, but generate power and build structures on distant planets and moons using only indigenous materials. Innovations in space travel will engineer sustainable technologies that will help us better maintain our own Spaceship Earth. We need to extend our existential framework of reference from one that is purely Earth-bound to one which includes Earth orbits and outer space in general.

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Artist: Michael Najjar

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Editor: Dana Dimitras