With as much land as Africa, the moon is a new frontier. Lured by its natural resources, China sent the Jade Rabbit rover there last month. Meanwhile, Google is sponsoring a competition to spur private companies into landing similar vehicles by 31 December 2015. Yet the question of who owns the moon and its exploitation rights is a vexed one.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty of celestial objects, but is unclear on whether this ban extends to private companies. That makes the Google initiative more than harmless space fun. In law, there may be nothing to stop the competitors from claiming the moon, or at least part of it, for their own commercial exploitation. It could be the start of corporate imperialism in space. With nations hamstrung from competing, this would inevitably lead to private companies holding power over national governments.
This situation has emboldened a group of artists to trump everyone and claim the moon for themselves. On Friday, the Arts Catalyst opens The Republic of the Moon, an exhibition in London’s Bargehouse. The exhibition is their Earthbound embassy and the artworks are their celebration of this new territory. The pieces have been commissioned from artists across the world and draw on the cultural significance of the moon through history.
German installation artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis was inspired by a 17th-century novel in which Anglican bishop Francis Godwin describes a flight to the moon using a spaceship pulled by geese. Her work features 11 live geese, which will live in a “moonbase” at the exhibition. Russian artist Leonid Tishkov plays with the notion of moonlight in his Private Moon compositions, which are all nightscapes featuring an illuminated crescent moon.
The exhibition will also hold events, such as a fake demonstration against lunar colonisation, to provoke a debate about who is allowed to do what in space. “I am concerned about what happens to the moon in the future,” says Nicola Triscott, director of the Arts Catalyst and co-chair of the International Astronautical Federation‘s committee on the cultural uses of space.
The Outer Space Treaty clearly treats the moon as the common heritage of mankind, a “global commons” rather like the oceans or Antarctica, whose resources should be shared for the good of all. Indeed, this was echoed in the plaque on America’s first spacecraft to land on the moon, Apollo 11, in 1969. It read: “We came in peace for all mankind.” However, when the United Nations tried to reinforce this point with 1979′s Moon Treaty, only five countries signed up. The US and Russia, who were the only players in lunar exploration at the time, refused to embrace the treaty, rendering it meaningless.
“Artists can frame difficult concepts in ways that can then be placed in front of people,” says Triscott. Certainly, there is no more difficult concept than who owns the moon.
• The Republic of the Moon opens on 10 January at London’s Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, with special events throughout the month.
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Image: The Arts Catalyst