NASA Is Behind New York’s Newest Immersive Art Show

The federal space agency has a surprisingly long history of art collaborations.

The creation of stars, the collision of galaxies and the existence of water on faraway planets are just some of the celestial wonders captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. Now, in a new collaboration between Artechouse and NASA, those curious or passionate about space can immerse themselves in striking visualizations of the telescope’s discoveries. The exhibition, Beyond the Light, running through September 4, has been five years in the making and marks a return to NASA’s storied participation in the art world.

Woman stands in room full of projections of blue and green lines.
A new Artechouse show in collaboration with NASA will be open all summer. Artechouse

Upon entering Artechouse’s Manhattan site, located in a dark boiler room under the Chelsea Market, a series of fast-paced and immersive multimedia installations transport visitors through the human experience of light throughout time. The 25-minute journey is made up of vibrant animated projections that swirl across the building’s walls, ceilings and floor. Mike Menzel, a mission systems engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Observer he’s still trying to figure out “whether I saw loop gravity and string theory in the same [projection].”

The show also includes six supporting exhibits peppered throughout the space that delve into topics like the moon, heliophysics and the Mars rover. The visual atmosphere of the exhibition is already superlunary but is further enhanced by a celestial soundscape created from galactic data. The accompanying XR Bar is open daily until 9:30 p.m. and serves space-themed cocktails like “Cosmic Cliff” and “Dwarf Stars.”

Group of people sit in room flooded with colorful lights on walls and floor.
Onlookers at “Beyond the Light’s” immersive attraction. Artechouse

“Our collaboration with NASA was absolutely a dream come true,” Sandro Kereselidze, founder and CEO of Artechouse, told Observer. The space launched in 2015 as the nation’s first digital art gallery. Now In New York City, Miami and Washington, D.C., Artechouse has previously partnered with the Society for Neuroscience and Nobel Prize Museum. “It’s amazing to see how artists and scientists are similar—in a way, we are both always on the search for something from the future,” Kereselidze added.

While Artechouse and NASA first began discussing the idea in 2018, the exhibition as it exists today wouldn’t have been possible, he said. The James Webb Space Telescope didn’t launch until 2021, and Artechouse’s projections, which utilize the largest megapixel count of any other arts institution, have since increased from 4k resolution to 18k resolution.

What is NASA’s connection to art?

NASA has a long history of working with artists and in cultural spaces. Shortly after NASA was formed in 1958, it was given a charter by Congress to share its space program results with the widest possible audience, according to Wade Sisler, executive producer at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’ve been collaborating with artists and musicians since NASA’s inception,” he told Observer.

In 1962, James Webb, the second administrator of NASA, established an official arts program at the federal agency. The program initially selected eight artists to depict NASA facilities and activities regarding the last launch of its Mercury Program in 1963.

Renowned artists such as Robert McCall and Robert Rauschenberg participated in later iterations of the space agency’s cultural program, which commissioned artwork interpreting the Gemini Program, Apollo 11 moon landing and Space Shuttle program.

Artists were initially given $800 for their participation in NASA’s Art Program, a figure that excluded travel costs and rose to $2,500 by 2008.

Despite never being an official part of the arts program, Norman Rockwell was given special access by NASA to create works like Grissom and Young, which depicts astronauts suiting up for the Gemini program’s first flight in 1965. While NASA was hesitant to showcase the technology in its spacesuits, the agency later agreed a technician could bring a suit to Rockwell’s studio for the artist to study.

NASA also enlisted photographer Annie Leibovitz, who took portraits of astronauts such as Eileen Collins. It even commissioned a song from Patti LaBelle in 2003, resulting in the Grammy-nominated “Way Up There,” which commemorated the seven astronauts who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

The federal agency formally appointed Laurie Anderson as its “artist-in-residence” in 2002 and selected artist Justin Guariglia to embed on NASA’s Greenland missions from 2016 through 2020.

While the NASA Arts Program has been scaled back considerably in recent years, its mission to share its findings with the tax-paying public remains pertinent.

“Part of what we do as scientists is we have to sell our science to the public, because [they] pay my salary,” Stefanie Milam, a scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, told Observer. “We have to be creative with how we can solve hardcore astrophysics or nuclear physics problems and express that in a way that’s compelling to the general public.”

Artechouse, which worked with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the James Webb Space Telescope Mission Team at the Space Telescope Science Institute and the William H. Miller III Department of Physics & Astronomy at John Hopkins University, also participated in sessions with NASA astrophysicists and helio physicists in preparation for Beyond the Light.

“When we designed this thing, we were designing it to wow the scientists,” Menzel, who has been the lead engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope for more than 20 years, told Observer.

“What’s really gratifying is to see it going beyond the science community, going beyond the students, and becoming an object for art,” said Menzel. “I wouldn’t have dreamed that.”

NASA Is Behind New York’s Newest Immersive Art Show