On October 4, 1957, a converted ballistic missile was launched from a secret test range 200 kilometres east of the Aral Sea in what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan.
The launch took place at 22:28:34 Moscow Standard Time but the engineers who witnessed the event watched the craft, nervously, for a further 98 minutes – the time it took for the rocket’s payload to complete its elliptical orbit around the Earth – before finally informing their political masters of the news.
The team, led by the 50-year-old aeronautical engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, had succeeded in sending a highly-polished metal sphere the size of a beach ball into a near-Earth orbit.
They referred to the device as Elementary Satellite-1 but we now know it as the Sputnik and as the satellite sped through the heavens its simple onboard radio transmitter emitted a signal, described by the Associated Press as the “deep beep-beep”, that even amateur shortwave radio enthusiasts could hear.
Broadcasting on the night of the launch, an NBC radio journalist captured the resonance of the Sputnik’s signal with a simple instruction: “Listen now for the sound that forevermore separates the old from the new.”
Thanks to a combination of ideological antagonism, personal ambition and nationalism, a new chapter in the history of human ingenuity – the Space Age – had finally begun; the Soviet Union had claimed first honours in the race for the heavens; and the Sputnik Crisis, an unprecedented wave of international political tension and paranoia, was unleashed upon the world.
As the historian Daniel J Boorstin later explained in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Americans: The Democratic Experience: “Never before had so small and so harmless an object created such consternation.”
For the majority of people who will visit Invisible Threads: Technology and its Discontents, the new show at the Art Gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi which opens this Thursday, the Cold War will be little more than a matter of historical record; but among those who can remember the threat of mutually assured destruction, the show’s opening sculpture is likely to produce a profound and visceral response.
An exact replica of an object that no longer exists, Michael Joaquin Grey’s sculpture My Sputnik (1990) not only symbolises the dawn of our current Information Age but also epitomises Invisible Threads’ stance on the link between art and science, encapsulating as it does the paranoia-inducing dualities of utopianism and determinism, privacy and surveillance, emancipation and control.
“Launching Sputnik was a great technological feat that created a lot of excitement for one part of the globe and lot of anxiety for the other,” explains Bana Kattan, the show’s co-curator who is also assistant curator at the Art Gallery at NYUAD.
“And that’s really what this exhibition is about, the anxiety that we feel when we interact with technology,”
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