Monday, August 17, 2015

Elisabetta Benassi | The Dry Salvages

Elisabetta Benassi
The Dry Salvages
Rome, Italy: NERO, 2013
1672 pp., 14 x 27 cm., softcover
Edition of 500

Last week a box of books arrived from NERO in Italy, and my favourite of the lot so far is this hefty orange volume by Elisabetta Benassi, seemingly titled after a T. S. Eliot poem.

The book, and ten thousand hand-made bricks, made up the artist’s contribution to the Bartolomeo Pietromarchi curated Italian Pavilion, at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The bricks lined the gallery floor and the book jutted out from the wall, like a Donald Judd sculpture. Each brick, and entry in the book, represents a piece of large space debris orbiting the Earth.

Many are satellites purposefully positioned within our stratosphere and still operational, but an overwhelming number of the objects documented are left behind incidentally and accidentally: space boosters, weaponry, lost or damaged equipment, etc. Unlike items in landfill, “space waste” does not rot or decay. These items will remain in orbit eternally, or until they re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

Benassi has meticulously collected and organized the largest ten thousand items from the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) Space Object Catalogue. The U.S. Strategic Command began retaining data on known orbital objects in 1957, originally to prevent heir misidentification as hostile missiles. They are also documented to avoid their actual threat - to both manned and unmanned spacecraft and, on occasion, to Earth.

Most debris burns up in the atmosphere but larger objects can sometimes reach the ground intact. NASA estimates that an average of one item from their catalogue has landed on Earth each day for the last fifty years. These have mostly caused little or no damage, but periodically the items pose a serious threat. In the late seventies there was great fear over the space station Skylab crashing into us. It's re-entry was a major international media event, with newspapers offering competing contests with prizes of up to $200 000 for the first piece of the spacecraft found. In an attempt to quell the fear, NASA released their estimations that the chances of a piece hitting a person was 1 in 152, and therefore the likelihood of it hitting a particular person was in one in 600 billion. Famously, Skylab broke up upon reentry and most of it landed in the ocean, though some pieces hit Western Australia.

More recently, a GPS satellite launched in 1993 crashed into the Saudi Arabian desert in 2001. A summary of space items that have returned to Earth can be found here, including entries as recent as last week and a SL-4 Rocket Body predicated to land today.

The 2009 edition of the NORAD Space Object Catalogue lists about 19,000 objects. The ESA Meteoroid and Space Debris Terrestrial Environment Reference from 2005 estimates that there are more than 600,000 objects larger than 1 cm orbiting the planet, and over 170 million objects larger than a millimetre.

Benassi's research is impressive, as is the heft of the book. All ten thousand items are listed with fifteen criteria: an international Designator (the unique alpha-numeric name given to any space object), Source (the agency that launched the item), Period (the time it takes, in days, for the item to orbit Earth), Inclination (the unit, in degrees, in comparison to the equator), Apogee (the greatest distance, in meters, that the object will ever be from Earth), Perigee (the shortest), Eccentric (the parameter that determines the difference between the shape of the item and a circle), Radar Cross Section (a measurement of it's detectability), Debris Size, Launch Time, Decay time, Mother Body (the name of the craft of origin), Is Decay (is the object still in orbit, marked True or False), Is Debris (is the object still debris?), and Is Rocket (is the object a Rocket component, marked True or False).

It's an incredible project, and it makes a great companion piece to Katie Paterson's All The Dead Stars, here.

For more information about The Dry Salvages please visit NERO, here.

Elisabetta Benassi
The Dry Salvages - Limited Edition
Rome, Italy: NERO, 2013
34 x 34 x 11 cm., boxed
Edition of 50 signed copies

Alongside the trade edition, NERO made available a small number of books housed in a specially made wooden box and containing of of the 10,000 bricks from the original exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale and a signed certificate.


Visual artist Bob & Roberta Smith and sound artist Chris Weaver visiting the installation in Venice.

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