More Archaeology and Space

One of the really neat things about writing the archaeology of the contemporary world is that the field is relatively new. As a result, there are new ideas, approaches, and projects emerging constantly that add to substantively to how we think about both the emerging field and the “recent past.” 

This week, I’ve been looking through some of Justin Walsh and Alice Gorman’s work on the archaeology of the International Space Station. I got an alert that Walsh had uploaded a pair of papers to Humanities Commons and down the rabbit hole I went. I blogged earlier about Alice Gorman recent book Dr Space Junk vs The Universe (MIT 2019) which brilliantly wove together studies of the material culture of the space age and subtle Lacanian and Freudian analysis. 

Walsh and Gorman’s recent work is less post-modern and lacks the kind of sweeping culture critique, but it also feels a bit more “grounded” (if you excuse the pun) in the materiality of the ISS. For example, the a recent article in the journal Religions, titled “Eternity in Low Earth Orbit: Icons on the International Space Station” examines the role of icons aboard the Russian Zvezda module on the ISS. Wendy Salmond, Justin Walsh, and Alice Gorman reflect on the history of Soviet and Russian space flight and the role of images in Russian culture and institutional practice. The parallel placement between photographs of Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin and various icons reinforced the link between these images and cultural and national identity. The regular depiction of cosmonauts with the icons in the background, but also frontally as icons themselves provides a literal example of the tie between religious icons and a new generation of popular icons. This leans upon an understanding of Russian and Orthodox culture and the role of icons and the church in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. By commenting on the presence of Soviet heroes and, later, Russian icons in the brutally functional environment of the ISS, the authors make a little reference to Victor Buchli’s seminal early work, An Archaeology of Socialism (2000), which describes the transformation of “red corners” in Russian apartments from spaces where Soviet and communist heroes were on display to one populated by Orthodox icons and other prestige objects.

The appearance of such a domestic feature upon the ISS is a bit jarring, of course, largely because photographs of the station make it appear more similar to a laboratory or even a factory than domestic space. That being said, the defining feature of the ISS is that it is a place where humans live, often for months at a time. The blurry lines between what might constitute public and private space in the ISS offers a chilling vision of the future as we experience the collapse of the hard-fought 20th century divisions between work and life (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic).

At the same time, the study of photographs for the ISS traces a long-standing archaeological interest in domestic space. Walsh and Gorman’s ambitious, artificial-intelligence powered efforts to analyze the thousands of photographs from the ISS presents a fascinating opportunity to understand how residents of the station use and adapt their space over time. You can check out some of their dataset on Open Context. It also reveals the strange character of the ISS which is neither purely public, in the sense that NASA appears to both control the dissemination of photographs from within its modules and access to the station is restricted (if for no other reason than it is IN SPACE), nor entirely private. It reminds me a bit of the spaces imagined by Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel Red Mars which were constantly being reused, reoccupied, and inhabited without ownership or even signs of personalization. On the ISS, I would guess that living spaces, working spaces, and spaces for recreation and downtime are in constant flux and photographs of residents at work and at least some of their personal affects are subject to cataloging, photographing, and other forms of scrutiny.

The strange character of the ISS got me wonder about the ethical rules that guide both NASA and Walsh and Gorman’s work. This isn’t to suggest that they’ve done anything unethical. Instead, I wonder how one goes about constructing new sets of ethical guidelines for such new and experimental spaces. Would Walsh and Gorman need to secure the consent of the residents of the station before studying their space? Or would the public nature of the space and the work of its residents make it acceptable and ethical to subject them to critical attention? Walsh’s recent short chapter on the use of photography to study the ISS, which also appeared on his Humanities Commons page, doesn’t seem to deal with this, but I suspect it’ll have to be part of their long-term thinking about how to study these distinct environments. An article that he and Gorman wrote that seems to be scheduled to appear in Antiquity sketches out a future method for an archaeology of the ISS that hints at collaboration with residents there as well as through official channels to understand both life in the ISS as well as practices of discard, reuse, and consumption.  

I’m pondering this as I have a long-term research program focusing on about 10,000 photographs taken in the Bakken oil patch. These photographs document the exterior of various workforce housing units and provide evidence for the various choices, priorities, and public efforts to craft identity in the oil patch. This project is a pretty intensive one and probably involves more energy for analysis than I have the capability of mustering at this stage of my career. At the same time, it involves some of these same ethical issues. The exterior of workforce housing units are public in some ways the same way that the facades that constitute streetscapes are public. We talked to residents, explained our project, interviewed and photographed individuals, and have written about their experiences. At the same time, there’s something unmistakably intrusive in using photographs to zoom in on personal habits, even those that play out in public space. The ISS in some ways is a kind of workforce housing and one where privacy, personal spaces, and opportunities to present national, religious, and personal identity are scare. As the prying eye of archaeology seeks to understand these situations and spaces, I suspect we’ll excavate new ethical ground that will contribute as much to how we produce new knowledge as the typical challenges associated with access, preservation, and formation processes.  

One Comment

  1. Hi, Bill! Just seeing this now and wanted to leave a response. We absolutely have had to think hard about the ethical issues raised by our work on a contemporary, still-active site. Everyone involved had to undergo ethics training through the CITI program. We also had to draft IRB protocols and informed consent forms for our study of discard processes on ISS that involved observation and interviewing of contractors who handle items that return to Earth. We went through NASA’s Human Research Program IRB in order to gain access to previously-unpublished photos of life on ISS. The amazing part about that was that it took 10 months for them to designate us as “not human research” (despite our insistence that we are, in fact, studying humans) because we are not taking samples from the crew’s bodies — a perfect sign that NASA does not understand the social sciences. The “not human research” designation did give us access to the photos, though. Otherwise, we would have had to ask for permission from the Astronaut Office to access to each individual image.

    For the experiments we will be conducting and hope to conduct on ISS, we had to draft all-new protocols and consent documents, to cover work that could potentially cause harm to the crew involved. So it’s an ongoing process.


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