Seeing Chandrayaan: Large-Scale Technology and Critical Intimacy

Joanna Griffin

Abstract: The paper concerns an artist-led, participative project called Moon Vehicle (2008) that took place in India as a cultural response to the launch of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. It delineates the particularity of the space of the project’s intervention, which is characterised as intimate. This contrasts with more habitual imaginaries of large-scale space technology and publics. The project consisted of a mixed community from the arts and sciences and developed through a long-term process of devising co-produced creative learning workshops and events from which common goals emerged within a network of participants. The grassroots activities of the project, devised in part by mission scientists, re-imagined the purpose of the Moon mission in ways that challenged the official mission objective to serve institutional science. The process revealed a spectrum of disaffection with shortcomings in the social remit of the space program. By outlining motivations of participants and issues of transference between technology and state, the paper indicates why an artistic intervention emerged in this context and what it achieved.

The concerns of this paper are the social consequences of space technology, which became apparent during an artist-led, participative project called Moon Vehicle that took place in Bengaluru (Bangalore), India.[1] The project was initiated in 2008 as a cultural response to the launch in that year of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft on a scientific mission to map minerals on the Moon. It was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), assembled in Bengaluru and launched from Sriharikota on the eastern seaboard of India in the nose cone of an indigenously built Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Five of its instruments were designed by ISRO science teams, but like many scientific research initiatives it was opened to international participation and involved scientists from the United States, France, Bulgaria, Ireland, Poland, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Besides the science communities, the launch was also of great interest to an international community of arts and humanities practitioners and scholars who gathered in the year prior to the launch to hold a cross-disciplinary symposium to discuss space, arts, and culture.[2] Although space agency scientists and officials attended and presented at the symposium alongside artists, theorists and philosophers, the idea that the Chandrayaan mission could open up cross-disciplinary as well as non-disciplinary, ‘cultural’ dialogues was not pursued further by ISRO. When the organisers of the symposium approached ISRO to discuss formalising collaborations, the suggestion was summarily rejected. Undeterred, the organisers sought funding for an artist-led project they named Moon Vehicle, and I was appointed artist-in-residence at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru to be its ‘mentor.'[3]

This paper focuses on two entwined aspects that were revealed through the Moon Vehicle project. One concerns the complex subjectivities towards space technology and more generally towards large-scale projects of science and technology that were brought to the surface by the event of the launch of Chandrayaan and its accompanying nemesis, Moon Vehicle. The other concerns the work of art, or the work of thinking, revealing, constructing, foregrounding and backgrounding that is uniquely achieved through artist-originated methods, concerns and perspectives. I led the Moon Vehicle project as artist-mentor and in many ways as an ‘invisible’ leader, translating the visual alacrity I learnt in picture-making into orchestrations of dialogue, sociability, and an altered landscape of participation with the Chandrayaan mission. What I write about here are the productive revelations of that period of creative and critical intimacy with the Moon and this spacecraft.

Reflective writing is itself an important modality of practice, resisting the evanescence of experience and the limitations of opportunities to engage. Previously I have written about the productive convergence of art and science perspectives generated through the creative activities of Moon Vehicle that took place over roughly two and a half years.[4] An episode that was particularly pioneering in terms of shifting patterns of participation was a two-week workshop involving scientists from the Chandrayaan mission and children from an urban slum living near to the space agency. It is illustrative of the methods and aspirations of Moon Vehicle. During the workshop the children went on fieldwork excursions to visit the scientists and technological artefacts of the Chandrayaan mission. Here they interviewed and made drawings of technicians and technology, later devising a series of performance sketches from their experiences. In one of these sketches, the children transformed themselves into the characters of Chandrayaan, the Moon, the huge dish-shaped tracking antenna and even the telemetry dancing between all three. In another, the children acted as the military security guards who had brusquely lined the children up before allowing them into the space agency, telling them “no phones, no cameras, no USB sticks!” The sketches were sometimes satirical, but in many the children anthropomorphised the technology in order to tell stories about their own hopes and fears. The space scientists, who the children had interviewed and drawn, made their own fieldwork excursions to visit the children and watched these performances, listened to the children talk about their drawings, and admired their homemade satellites. These interactions were a stark inversion of the usual mode of science communication in which, typically, scientists told children what to think and not the other way around. Grasping the significance of this shift requires familiarity with both the status afforded scientists in India and the styles of learning embedded in the state education system, amongst other factors. The encounters that took place in the course of the Moon Vehicle project were revealing of an affective context that was palpable within these interactions but lost at larger scales.

The paper begins by expanding the terms used in the title, ‘large-scale technology’ and ‘critical intimacy,’ in order to delineate the particularity of the space of Moon Vehicle‘s intervention. Critical discourse on technology is brought in to indicate how the creative and aesthetic intervention has been identified in other contexts as corresponding with disaffection. This indicates that the emergence of a creatively oriented project, to counter and investigate elusive forms of disaffection associated with space technology and aggravated by the launch of Chandrayaan, was not unprecedented. The specifics of the disaffection associated with the space program are then unravelled by looking at the motivations that led to Moon Vehicle and this draws out a range of issues connected with the practice of science in India, the remit of the Indian space program to be ‘societal’ and the transferences between technological materiality and state ideology. The link to modalities of seeing is made throughout the discussion in order to foreground how it is the relation of visuality to the experience of disaffection, combined with its remedy through the orchestration of the visual, that bring methods, concerns and values from artistic domains into a correspondence with large-scale technology.


fig 1. Drawing and notes by Prasanth D, student at the Drishya Learning Centre, Bengaluru, 2009. Photograph by the author.


The notion of critical intimacy summons a proximal focal point that counters the impressively large-scale architectures of space. It is testing to imagine this proximal focal point within the same image as the architectures of space technology. Starkly lit images of spacecraft set against empty black space are dislocated from our lived experiences in the diffused light of Earth. Nonetheless, it is arguably this difficulty in imagining the intimacy of space technology that is the starting point for artistic intervention: the friction from which an aesthetic line of inquiry can build. The concern for critical intimacy, as it is used here, can be likened to the act of translation, another kind of friction, of which the translator and postcolonial scholar Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak has written from her own experience that “Translation is the most intimate act of reading.”[5] Intimacy is a culturally coded variable, but just as Spivak invokes intimacy to describe the deep comprehension required for translation, so too, creative production merges artist with subject in potentially deeply thoughtful and provocatively critical ways. But where Spivak describes the translator’s intimacy as a “surrender,” the critical and creative intimacy of artist with subject is signified by authorship: an interpretive, signatory inflection. The intimacy, or exchange, bound into artistic authorship signals a viewpoint that articulates to some degree the terms of one’s own inclusion in the picture. The image of intimacy in relation to space technology is problematic though. The scales and distances of space architectures obfuscate intimacy as do the science and technology practices from which space technologies emerge, and yet, strong attachments exist between spacecraft and their mission teams and the lure of the direct experience of being in space remains iconic and tantalising.

Critical intimacy seemed to be at the heart of the Moon Vehicle project and to describe both the purpose of creative practices and the mobilisation of participants across the city of Bengaluru to locations and persons who might bring a closeness to the spacecraft orbiting the Moon. The forays of the Moon Vehicle team (usually myself and a core of highly motivated design students from Srishti) responded to the friction of closeness and distance, access and restriction that is shot through the production, operation and instrumental use of space technology. In the first few weeks of the Moon Vehicle project, for example, four students visited the ISRO Satellite Centre where they saw Chandrayaan being assembled in the ‘clean room’ workshop that only white-coated technicians are allowed to enter. Through the glass of the visitor’s gallery the students saw a black shape that they surmised was the spacecraft, but it was difficult to know what was spacecraft and what was mounting and, paradoxically, they left with little sense of having really seen Chandrayaan. They felt that as design students, with no apparent connection to the mission, they were disadvantaged and less able to see Chandrayaan than the ISRO employees making the spacecraft. There was a privilege the space agency workers had over the design students because of their specialist knowledge and this appeared to be a barrier to the experience of the Moon which the mission so tantalizingly offered. It seemed that to get closer to Chandrayaan, and thereby the Moon, we needed to get closer not to the material of the spacecraft but to the experiences and viewpoints of the mission teams.

In the process of planning a series of Moon Vehicle events and forums in the city, we arranged meetings with ISRO scientists and those visiting from other countries. Within the conversations with mission scientists lay access to the landscapes of the Moon as the lunar scientists, some of whom had been researching for twenty years or more, talked with familiarity about events from its past. One such event related in these conversations was that during a phase in the Moon’s history there had been giant fountains of glass. As the liquid cooled and oxidized, on its slow projectile to the ground, it formed beads of orange glass that fell in radial strings across the Moon’s surface. It became evident from these informal conversations with Chandrayaan’s mission scientists that the surface of the Moon – its topography, geology and landscape history – was carried in the imaginations of these particular networks of scientists. This insight into the landscape of the Moon, through the testimony of the lunar scientists from the Chandrayaan mission, made it evident that the Moon was held in a collectively constructed imaginary in which the spacecraft and its instrumentation had a formational role. Moreover, it became evident that through conversations the surface of the Moon could be accessed and re-distributed, like data from archives. The detailed accounts of landscapes and geology related by lunar scientists revealed their enviable closeness to the Moon built up through research careers and held as imaginative constructs.

Seeing the Moon by listening to the testimony of these scientists was compelling, especially because their own particular landscape views of the Moon came via instrumentation that they themselves had built and through data they had synthesized. The scientists spoke as witnesses to the histories of the Moon, subsuming the technology that they had constructed and displacing the spacecraft and its data with accounts that were compelling because they seemed experiential. The scientists appeared to have access to an experience of the Moon. This way of looking at the Moon through images conjured by the scientists’ oral accounts in effect provided a view of what the spacecraft saw. In comparison to looking at the spacecraft in the clean room these conversations accessed, not the spacecraft, but its viewpoint. It was this mode of seeing via anecdotes and reports that brought the Moon Vehicle group closer to Chandrayaan and its imagined experience of orbiting the Moon.

The Moon Vehicle project as a method of enquiry operated through a multivalent visuality. The process of seeing Chandrayaan consisted of such things as encounters with personnel, visits to ISRO sites and glimpses of instrumentation and data, which brought a sense of closeness to the actual journey of the spacecraft and to its cognitive spaces of scientific analytics, technical complexity, as well as local and global politics. Through creative learning projects, devised for children by Srishti students, these encounters were extended using publicly available media such as videos, books, and exhibits in the Space Gallery at the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum. The children transformed their first-hand encounters with space technologists, together with the mediated sources of images and commentary, into performances, drawings, and installations. They dressed up as clean room technicians and constructed satellites, re-enacted the history of the solar system, and made drawings in which direct observation and media representations of the space mission collided and remixed. Views of actual places and things such as the clean room and the tracking station as well as insights into what others saw such as the perspectives of mission teams and local children, were part of a visuality that, not accidentally, was made more visible and accessible through the artistic intervention and its modalities of visual production.

Moon Vehicle events were imaginatively visual. For one event we worked with the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum to devise a way to project the full Moon in the night sky via a telescope, digital camera, and projector onto the Museum rooftop. Audience participants from a range of backgrounds, including missions scientists and their families, gathered in a circle around the Moon image and exchanged stories, songs, and science. The ‘seeing,’ the ‘picturing,’ and the non-habitual activity that accompanies artistic intervention had the effect of foregrounding social interactions and imagined landscapes and of placing in the background the mediating architectures of space technology. Moon Vehicle as an artwork consisted of a tactical re-shaping of interactions with Chandrayaan. Placing value on the experiences of the mission teams was part of this re-shaping, another part was creating evidence of an expansive field of viewpoints through the production of visual artifacts. As an authorial work merging artist with subject, Moon Vehicle was a medium by which to put ourselves into the picture and to show ourselves to be watching.


fig 2. Photograph of the Indian Deep Space Network antenna taken from inside the school bus on field trip in 2009 as part of a Moon Vehicle workshop with students from the Drishya Learning Centre. Photograph by Alisha Panjwani.

Encounters with scientists, for instance, were not only ways to access vicariously their experiences and viewpoints, but were also encounters through which the mission scientists could glimpse our own viewpoints. Encounters held the possibility of exchange. The meetings with scientists, in which we sat on sofas in hotel lobbies or met around tables in cafes, embodied and demonstrated the extension of the Chandrayaan mission beyond the science teams and, more significantly, an extension of the mission on terms of inclusion beyond the expectations of the space agency. The official aims and objectives published on the ISRO website were to test technological capability and to produce scientific data for scientists.[6] This was a mission aimed at the high status work of science institutions. Through the interruptions of the Moon Vehicle project, however, two slight shifts began to take place. One was that the open forums, such as the full Moon rooftop event mentioned previously, included a range of participants – and this meant that the Chandrayaan mission and its scientific perspective became situated as just one perspective among many others. Secondly, the series of meetings with mission scientists that were part of the planning and research for events were deliberately engineered encounters in which to present directly to mission teams new terms of participation and new kinds of participants.

For myself, these encounters with mission scientists were significant opportunities in which to present the stakes of participation in space enterprises, as I saw them. At that time, I wanted to bring to light the injustice by which decisions about the future of the Moon and the terms of human interactions with its environment were led by a technocracy. The scientific emphasis, as I saw it, excluded a wider conversation about ethical, environmental, and postcolonial questions of exploration and diminished existing cultural associations.[7] The Moon offers a common heritage, but the ostensibly scientific missions to map minerals and locate water framed the Moon as a resource. This dangerously exploitative framing was being determined by scientific disciplines away from the critical scrutiny of other cultural contexts. In attempting to intervene into this technocracy, I and other Moon Vehicle participants were experiencing first hand both the impossibly narrow opening through which to question the ideological trajectories of space technology, and the delicate process of being critical while maintaining closeness.

Large-scale technology

The creative intervention of Moon Vehicle marked a critical position that was pivotal in terms of the agencies, affect, and disaffection that it articulated and which converged at an intimate scale of activity within the large architecture and organization of space technology. This can be elaborated by addressing a crucial aspect of that convergence: the coincident emergence of disaffection and aesthetic intervention.

The historian of technology, Rosalind Williams, has written about the role of aesthetic intervention in large technological systems.[8] Noting that many large-scale technological development projects are ideologically attached to Enlightenment philosophies of liberty and progress, she shows that technological infrastructures multiplied as the imperative to dissipate new thinking, predominantly about science, took hold. While she points out the validity of such aspirations, Williams shows how the top-down application of principles caused damage by undermining the local and the particular. As a countermeasure, Williams brings in the notion of “cognitive mapping” through walking,[9] because in the simple act of walking is the possibility of bringing the large-scale system close. Direct experience produces a cognitive map or a tangible connection with the otherwise invisible and intimidating system. Williams writes of the distressing gap between systems and people and of the redundancy of participation in large-scale technological systems. Her insights strongly resonate with the concerns that surfaced in the Moon Vehicle project’s response to Chandrayaan. Significantly, she notes that in the face of limited opportunity to participate “imaginative capacities” take on real significance and that when the capacity to change the technological system is withheld that “The central form of protest is no longer political but aesthetic – the capacity to apprehend differently, to create a different cognitive map.”[10] Aesthetic interpretation and intervention, in William’s assessment, is significant because it is perhaps the only kind of intervention that can be made when the scope for participation is delimited. In my own experience of Moon Vehicle and other art/science projects I have led, the aesthetic intervention has not been directed in any obvious way at the political or material aspects of the technology. Nonetheless, the intention of reaching these domains by reshaping imaginaries that construct the political and technological is implicit in the notion of intervention.

More recently, the cultural media theorist Lisa Parks has echoed these concerns for the critical point of aesthetic intervention in an article that considers access to satellite infrastructure available via the satellite dish.[11] Questioning the accessibility of satellite networks by focusing on the accessible and ubiquitous domestic satellite dish, she writes, “As I try to demonstrate, this seemingly most banal of objects is tethered to the most serious kind of social and political struggles.”[12] The satellite dish, bought at a shop and mounted on the side of a house is the only indicator of the larger system and also the only point at which users of the system can have any control or agency. Parks notices that the dish is used in various ways at these peripheral points of the system, both materially and through association. Satellite dishes are decorated with stickers, cause controversy in certain residential zones and provide a palpable connection with the invisible orbits of satellites. The satellite dish is the only indicator of a much larger system to which there is no possibility of access and it becomes a locus of attention and intervention in ways that reflect a malaise with the technological system. In studying how large-scale infrastructure is apprehended, Parks notices how “creative practices may flourish in proportion to the level of detachment and alienation that most people feel when faced with satellite television’s technicalities.”[13] The conclusions of Williams and Parks point to a correspondence between the position of disaffection and creative intervention, and moreover they indicate that creative and aesthetic interventions can be the only means of gaining the agency to express dissent towards large scale technological infrastructures that offer limited scope for participation.

While Parks targets the neo-liberal infrastructure of satellite television, Williams is concerned with development: technological structures emerging from state ideologies aimed at modernizing populations through the spread or imposition of scientific rationality. In the Indian context the position of disaffection in relation to large-scale technologies of development has a particularly troubled history and this is strongly linked to the state project of developing a scientific and rational population. As a mark of the position of science in relation to society it is notable that the Indian constitution lists inculcating the scientific temper as a duty of the citizen.[14] Yet, the instrumental use of science and technology by the state has been vehemently criticized as a cause not only of disaffection, but also of violence towards citizens. Activist writers such as Arundhati Roy have catalogued the displacement of people against their will through massive development projects such as the construction of dams. She writes “Patrolling the borders of our liberty is the only way we can guard against the snatching away of our freedoms” and catalogues other erasure of liberties that take place in less visible ways such as through the hidden infrastructure of media ownership and reportage.[15]

In the late 1980s cultural critic Ashis Nandy and colleagues based around the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, in Delhi, mounted a searing attack on the use of science as an instrumental form of state power that bypassed democratic process. Nandy criticized the political use of “spectacular technology” and “theatrical science” such as spaceflight, dams, and nuclear technology that allowed no opportunity for public dissent or for scientists to voice concerns.[16] Shiv Vishvanathan, another contributor to the group’s anthology of essays published in 1988 with the title Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, calls science a “vivisectionist” instrument of a state experimenting on its population.[17] Their criticisms echo the insights of Johan Galtung presented twenty years before that circulated in India amongst scholars of science and technology of the “structural violence” that accompanies technological development projects.[18] On the surface these industrial technologies appear benevolent and progressive but less evidently they shape cognitive reception in debilitating ways. Galtung describes the surreptitious normalization of state control that is able to take place through technological development without the awareness of citizens because it lacks an image. The structural violence of technology, he writes, unlike other forms of violence that cause visible distress, cannot be seen: “Structural violence is silent, it does not show – it is essentially static, it is the tranquil waters.”[19] These insights help to frame a less obvious motivation of the Moon Vehicle project, which was to find ways to image barely perceptible consequences of space technology. Through the aesthetic, and not obviously political use of spectacle, artistic practices wove new kinds of picturing back into the social fabric of space technology in similarly imperceptible ways.


The looking, seeing, and watching implicit in the visually-oriented, artist-led approach was a way of patrolling the border of a large-scale technological organization, but also a way of patrolling governance. The space agency ISRO was effectively part of the state, operating under the auspices of the Department of Space, and so Chandrayaan was entwined as image and imaginary with the state apparatus and its values. An intervention into that image and imaginary was thereby a way into the construction of a larger ideological framework operating from state-level. Moon Vehicle participants both merged with and resisted the pact between spacecraft and state, motivated by a desire to disrupt the emerging technocracy.

The activities of Moon Vehicle constitute an aesthetic intervention that indicated a disaffection with the Indian space program. Why this reached a critical point with the launch of the Chandrayaan spacecraft becomes clearer by looking at motivations of participants. From the spectrum of motivations held by participants, two overarching drives can be discerned coming from the actions on the one hand of the science (or ISRO/astronomy) community and on the other from the arts (or Srishti) community. In coming together in the co-production of events and workshops of Moon Vehicle, both communities shared a common need to demonstrate in fresh terms how science and technology become authored by citizens.


fig 3. A rehearsal at Drishya Learning Centre, Bengaluru after visiting the Indian Deep Space Network in which pupils re-enact the movement of the antenna. Photograph by Alisha Panjwani.

To recall the two-week children’s workshop described in the introduction to this paper, several scientists from ISRO and from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics were invited and persuaded to participate. They hosted field trips, became the subjects of drawings and performances, visited the children’s learning centre and attended their final presentation. After the workshop, however, the situation reversed. Scientists from ISRO and the Institute of Astrophysics put forward the idea of staging a joint venture between the science institutes and Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. They proposed a ten-day public festival of astronomy the like of which had never taken place in Bengaluru or elsewhere in India – and the scientists persuaded Moon Vehicle, together with the design expertise of Srishti, to create and conceptualize the festival.[20] This reversal was of huge significance considering the summary rejection that Srishti and the organizers of the space, arts and culture symposium had received two years before. It was also an affirmation of the grassroots nature of the enterprise as it was the small-scale and organic development of the project that enabled the gradual emergence of a deep understanding of each others goals and methods. The scientists who initiated the idea of the festival refer to their participation in the Moon Vehicle workshop as a catalyst. They saw in the children’s transformations and sense of ownership of the mission – expressed in scientific, personal, and cultural terms through their creative interpretations and transformations – both a type of engagement with science and the Moon mission they had not seen enacted before, and in addition, a solution of sorts to instances of disaffection they themselves felt within the institutional practice of science that they were a part of.

Paradoxically, individual scientists working for the space agency and other science institutions also felt they had been marginalized within their institutions. In these predominantly Brahmin-led science institutes,[21] non-Brahmins, non-Hindus, and women could all feel their own identities and abilities circumscribed by a dominant group they felt excluded from.[22] Opening up the constitution of science to more pluralistic viewpoints was also in the interests of many scientists. Employees of science institutes like any contracted worker are limited by the culture of their organisations as to how far they can express their own views or determine the nature of the projects they work on. The limitations imposed on mission scientists and technicians motivated their collaboration in the artist-led project because, conversely, there were ways that those outside the space agency had more agency than those inside.

As gradually became evident over the course of the Moon Vehicle project, the scientists who collaborated were anxious that their own intentions to share the science of the mission, which was primarily the science of multiwavelength astronomy, was being interrupted by the official authoring of Chandrayaan firstly as a national symbol and secondly as a scientific mission rather than a societal mission. To elaborate on the second point, this elusive conundrum of being scientific and societal requires an explanation of the social remit ISRO had set itself and the widespread and long standing commitment in India to the social function of science. Ironically, it was ISRO’s desire to close its ‘societal’ phase and for Chandrayaan to augur a new ‘scientific’ phase of interplanetary missions that mitigated against the scientists making their work more public and participatory.

To put this in context, the Moon mission in many ways signaled a disavowal of the original remit ISRO had set itself to be ‘societal.’ The formational philosophy of the space program is often linked to a speech in 1966 given by Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of what was by then called the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Referring to the Apollo Moon missions Sarabhai made the memorable statement, “We do not expect to send a man to the moon or put elephants, white, pink, or black, into orbit around the earth”[23] and he pledged that India would not be drawn into such spectacular displays of Moon missions. Instead, the Indian space agency developed innovative applications for space technology focused on the Earth and directed at enhancing the livelihoods of Indian nationals. In public speeches by ISRO officials the success of the societal program or as it is also called, the ‘applications’ program, is consistently reinforced.[24] Space technology, it is asserted, provides direct benefits to many including farmers and fishing communities by providing data such as weather predictions and information on fishing catches. Through satellite communications networks high quality urban professionals are beamed into rural villages via satellite telemetry to give advice and information that improves healthcare, education, and agricultural yields.[25] It is clear that India created a uniquely people-centered satellite infrastructure. At the same time, however, official reports on the success of the societal program are fraught with inconsistencies. The real ways that people use space technology applications remain unclear, and a comprehensive critical evaluation is largely absent.[26]

Commentaries on television and elsewhere at the time of Chandrayaan’s launch separate the spacecraft from the societal program. Instead, the mission augurs a new ‘scientific’ phase, which, it is claimed, confirms the success of the previous applications phase.  Speaking on the day of the launch, the astronaut Rakesh Sharma summed up the critical position of Chandrayaan, saying:

Certainly it announces to the world that ISRO has kind of ‘come of age’ and is now ready to take on science and exploration in a big way, having already translated the wishes of Sarabhai, to have science work for the common man, so after a successful applications program, here ISRO is really investing in the future and I see no reason why they are not going to achieve the same level of success as they achieved in the first phase of their program.[27]

The ways that the spacecraft’s purpose is described indicates a disjuncture between the societal applications program and the Chandrayaan mission. Doing science, however, is not necessarily in opposition to being societal in the logic of the state. In many ways this would be an untenable assertion given that the Indian constitution outlines that it is the duty of every citizen to inculcate scientific temper. Moreover, in India there is a long-standing motivation to make sure that science is socially accountable which is put into action through the work of networked, grassroots organizations of the People’s Science Movement.[28] The deep pact between science and society in India has a far richer lineage than in many other countries. Moon Vehicle participants, both from the sciences and arts, in some ways therefore were bringing Chandrayaan back into the societal and inclusive framework that characterized ISRO’s formational philosophy and reflected strongly held commitments to the shared ideals of science that exists in India.

The motivations of the arts community overlapped with those of the scientists in that the initiators of the Moon Vehicle project at Srishti School of Art, and Design and Technology were also deeply concerned by the failure of ISRO to fully realize its objective to be societal. Furthermore, the integration of ISRO with the state contrasted with the art and design school’s independent status. Srishti is a self-funded private college, with a self-styled and innovative curriculum that includes an educational vision deeply antagonistic to the prescriptive, text-based version of education promoted in the national curriculum. The closeness of the science and technology institute to government and the distance from state policy alignment of the creative arts institution also indicated the exclusion of certain ways of thinking at state level, reflected perhaps inevitably in the design of its space missions. Chandrayaan, the scientific mission, reflected the state’s fixation with science as a pathway to modernity, and at the same time became symbolic of that policy.[29] Equally, ISRO’s launch in 2004 of a satellite called EduSat, reflected the state policy of ‘education for all’ and the satellite beam’s imagined capacity to provide coverage and thereby educational facilities for the entire country gave evidence of the state’s success.[30] The satellite was mostly used to facilitate distance learning such as broadcasting television programs or university lectures. Hailed as a success, largely through commentaries emanating from the state,[31] serious problems with the way the technological intervention undermined local knowledge and rural teacher’s capability, besides detracting from experiential or pupil-led forms of learning, remain largely unvoiced.[32] The organization of voice itself via satellite technology presents a depressing reenactment of established hierarchies and communication to schools is generally one-way. From the perspective of Srishti, the uncritical application of space technology to education caused anxiety because it established information-led education as a norm. Moon Vehicle functioned as a demonstration to ISRO of what a spectrum of modes of participation with space technology in learning contexts looked like when the productive critical intimacy of technological systems was brought to the foreground.


fig 5. A conversation between a Chandrayaan mission scientist and pupils at Drishya Learning Centre. Photograph by Alisha Panjwani.

The motivations of Moon Vehicle participants point to elusive forms of transference between technology, state, and social domains. While never clearly articulated, in the transference from a practice of individual scientists to an ideological reason of state the meaning of science imperceptibly changed. At the same time, the authorship of individual scientists was replaced by the intangible authorship of governance. The transfer between state ideology and technological systems, which became more defined by the mission of Chandrayaan, surfaced as a set of anxieties rather than clear objections. The material link between the mission and its appropriation as an instrument of the state was difficult to follow exactly, but was evident on an intuitive level. There was no distinctive event or consequence to object to, however, it gradually appeared that Moon Vehicle, as a heuristic medium, was iteratively visualizing and demonstrating that which was being diminished by the framing of the mission. At the same time, the intervention of Moon Vehicle was also a means to infiltrate this process of transference and curb the emergence of a technocracy. It did this by interrupting the transference of values and norms from the work processes used to produce space technology onto the ideologies that shape governance and thereafter into domains to which such ways of knowing were inappropriate or even destructive. This was a conversation through the medium of space technology in which practitioners from the arts and sciences sought influence at state-level. It is here, in the way the issue of transference has a relation to what is seen and not seen – the exhibitionism of space technology and the imperceptible emergence of its consequences – that the artist-led participative project Moon Vehicle took on a robust role. Its intervention produced a new image of the participative potential of space technology.



[1] Many cities in India have changed their anglicized names back to pre-colonial city names. Bengaluru came into effect as the official name of the city in 2006, somewhat later than other cities such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay) or Chennai (formerly Madras). The name Bangalore is still widely used. In this paper I use Bengaluru unless referring to a title in which ‘Bangalore’ is specifically used.
[2] The Bangalore Space and Culture Symposium was held in November 2007 in parallel with the major annual space conference the 58th International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad. The symposium was held at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bengaluru, an interdisciplinary research institute located within the Indian Institute of Science, which at the time was under the Directorship of former ISRO Chairman Kasturirangan. It was co-organised with the Centre for Experimental Media Arts at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, the international art and science journal Leonardo, the UK based art/science agency The Arts Catalyst and NIAS.
[3] My appointment was connected to my previous work as an artist (see that included an International Arts Council of England Fellowship at the Space Science Lab, UC Berkeley, a commission to devise a new work for the Mullard Space Science Lab, University College London to devise a new work, and my work with schools in London including the Universe Gallery at Mulberry Girls School, produced by The Arts Catalyst. At Mullard Space Science Lab I devised a guided walk called ‘Satellite Stories’ led by Lab personnel in which they related personal stories of the spacecraft they had worked with.
[4] These publications are: “Moon Vehicle: Reflections from an Artist’s-Led Children’s Workshop on the Chandrayaan-1 Spacecraft’s Mission to the Moon.” Leonardo, no. 3 (2012), and “Hitchhiking to the Moon.” Manifesto for a Republic of the Moon. Ed. Rob La Frenais (London: The Arts Catalyst, 2014).
[5] “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “The Politics of Translation.” Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993) 180.
[6] The ISRO website ( lists two ‘science objectives’ and two ‘mission objectives’ concerned with technology.
[7] I addressed such questions in a paper entitled “Hitchhiking to the Moon” that I presented at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress, Naples, Italy in 2012 within the Small Satellite Symposium.
[8] Rosalind Williams, “Cultural Origins and Environmental Implications of Large Technological Systems,” Science in Context 9, No. 2 (1993) 377-403.
[9] While Williams credits the construction of cognitive maps through walking to cultural geographers, walking has been a medium artists have used. Walking, as an artistic medium, marked an important shift in twentieth century artistic practice expanding the site, duration, and the matrix of the artwork.
[10] Williams, “Cultural Origins,” 400.
[11] Lisa Parks, “Technostruggles and the Satellite Dish: A Populist Approach to Infrastructure,” Cultural Technologies. Ed. Goran Bolin (New York, Routledge, 2012) 64-86.
[12] Parks, “Technostruggles,” 65.
[13] Ibid. 81
[14] Durga Das Basu, Introduction to the Constitution of India. 18th edition (New Delhi: Prentice-Hall of India, 1998).
[15] Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005) 108.
[16] Ashis Nandy, “Introduction: Science as a Reason of State,” in Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, ed. Ashis Nandy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988) 1-23.
[17] Shiv Vishvanath, “On the Annals of the Laboratory State,” in Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, ed. Ashis Nandy  (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988) 257-288.
[18] Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research, no. 3 (1969). Reference can also be made here to Michel Foucault’s concept of “govermentality” ([1978] 1991) and to Jody Berland’s development of Foucault’s framing of the surreptitious tactics used by government to control populations via large spatial technologies. Berland makes specific reference to the use of satellite imagery in constructing definitions of the border between Canada and the United States through apparently benign televised weather reports (2009, Chapter 8).
[19] Galtung, “Violence,” 173, italics in original.
[20] The festival was called Kalpaneya Yatre: Journey of Imaginations and took place between 26 November-5 December 2010 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Bengaluru. It was organized by a joint committee from The Planetarium, Srishti School of Art, Ddesign and Technology, the Indian Institute of Astronomy, the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum.
[21] Brahmin is the high caste in Hindu society associated with the priest caste that traditionally held knowledge. The predominance of Brahmins in science institutions is widely acknowledged. Women scientists also experience multiple forms of discrimination in the work place. An event called “She is an Astronomer” held at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics on 17 June 2009, as part of the International Year of Astronomy, indicates how scientists address such issues in their institutions.
[22] Many of these subjectivities came to light slowly during the course of the project, but were aired publicly during the Kalpaneya Yatre astronomy festival at a symposium held on 5 December 2010 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Benagluruthe final day. The symposium was calledtitled Public Ownership of Astronomy.
[23] Vikram Sarabhai, “Sources of Man’s Knowledge.” Resonance, no. 12 (1966, 2001),
[24] See K. Kasturirangan, “Application of Space Technology.” In Science, Technology and Society, ed. B.V. Sreekantan. (Beangaluruore: National Institute of Advanced Studies, 2009), 37-58 and U.R.Rao, “Space Technology for Sustainable Development in Asia.” In The first ten K R Narayanan Orations: Essays by Eminent Persons on the Rapidly Transforming Indian Economy, ed. Raghbendra Jha (Canberra: ANU E press, The Australian National University, 2006).
[25] See S.K. Das, Touching Lives: The Little Known Triumphs of the India Space Programme (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007). Das is a Department of Space bureaucrat and the book is an official publication. This science paper also gives an overview of how the applications program is commonly described: Ranganath R. Navalgund & Raghavendra P. Singh, “The Evolution of the Earth Observation System in India.” Journal of the Indian Institute of Science, 90, no. 4 (2010): 471-88.
[26] See forthcoming the Doctoral thesis of Muthatha Ramanathan “Repoliticizing Development: Tracing Spatial Technology in the Rural Development Landscape of South India” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2013) that gives an excellent critical discussion informed by real issues faced by an NGO applying ISRO satellite data. See also the strong critique of ISRO by R. Ramachandran, “Sensing Deficiency.” Frontline, no. 10 (2011). Both reference the Comptroller and Auditor General report which found an under-utilization of ISRO’s satellite capability.
[27] Rakesh Sharma speaking on Newscast CNN/IBN television 22 October 2008, available on YouTube “Rakesh Sharma About Chandrayaan-1.”, accessed 3 November 2014). In 1982 Rakesh Sharma flew in a Soviet Soyuz craft.
[28] The People’s Science Movement originated in the Marxist-leaning state of Kerala as the KSSP (Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad translating as the Kerala Forum for Science Literature and has the tagline on its website “Science for social revolution”). The operational methods of the KSSP, which is to cascade train and teach science through grassroots networks has since been replicated throughout the other states as the BGVS ( Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti translating as Indian Organization for Learning and Science). I attended the 13th People’s Science Network conference in Thrissur, Kerala in December 2010 at the invitation of scientist colleagues from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
[29] In addition, ISRO Directors frequently make transitions into government with the former ISRO Director and later President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam being the most well-known. The former ISRO Chairman, Kasturirangan, became a member of the influential government Planning Commission and not long ago headed a controversial report into the development of forests in the fragile and unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats mountain range.
[30] See U.R. Rao, “Space Technology for Revitalising the Education System.” In Science in India Past and Present, ed. by B. V. Subbarayappa (Mumbai: Nehru Centre, 2007): 428-57 and Kasturirangan, “Application of Space Technology”, 2009.
[31] Das, Touching Lives, 2007.
[32] A report by the National Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) on the original pilot of EduSat highlights many shortcomings (Sengupta et al. 2005). A copy of the report is in the NIAS library but is marked ‘for limited circulation.’


*Acknowledgements: I would like to thank to participants of the Moon Vehicle project, especially Geetha Narayanan, Babita Belliappa, Vidya Prakash, Anitha Santhanam, Alisha Panjwani, participating scientists from ISRO and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the children from Drishya Learning Centre and students from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. Thanks also to the peer reviewers for their excellent suggestions for improvements.

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