Prathima Muniyappa speaks at AstroAssembly 2019

NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

October 5, 2019
3:45pm — 4:30pm ET

We Have Always Had Our Eyes Turned Skyward - Art, Culture, and Inclusion in the Democratization of Space

Well before Quintus Ennius in 169 BC said, "No one regards what is before his feet; we all gaze at the stars," civilizations scattered across the Earth had their eyes turned skyward, inscribing the journey of wandering comets on clay tablets , scripting shadows through stone calendars to transcribe the passage of sun, invoking a cultural cosmology by mapping the heavens and negotiating the surface of Earth with celestial navigation. The blanket expanse of deep space has enchanted the cultural imaginaries of nearly every civilization on earth, its vast scale becoming the fountainhead of creation mythology for sky-bound minds inhabiting Earthbound cultures. Indeed, it is the notion of shared provenance that legitimizes every culture’s equal right over to the exploration of space.

The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons, but the horizon is no monolithic constant. It remains a jagged line as it wrestles with issues of democratization of space exploration and access. For some countries and corporations the frontier of space is a territory familiar with significant resources and infrastructure to have become veteran voyagers, others take nascent steps developing strategies to strengthen their space programs and yet others remain feet planted firmly, gazing at the horizon that never moved, exploring the deep expanse of the cosmos through myth, language, ritual, and dreamscape. Indigenous people across the globe remain explorers of the incredible mystery that animate our skies through rich cultural cosmologies evolved over millennia of observation. Their knowledge represents diverse ontologies that offer insight into radically different relationships that humans have evolved about space and its exploration and is a fount of intangible heritage that rarely makes an appearance in the mainstream discourses on space exploration.

As humans become prominent actors in extraterrestrial realms, it stirs in its wake complex questions of identity politics. Whose identity becomes a blueprint for "humanity"? What cultures are represented? What others are silenced by deliberate obscuration or worse by ignorance and apathy? To suggest a response to the issue presented by monolithic identities and monocultures of mind, the talk explores the storied cultural heritage preserved in some Indigenous Communities to present alternative cultural ontologies relating to the stars, the cosmos and other dimensions, and extended voyages that can shape the discourse for a more inclusive and diverse mythology of future space exploration. It also discusses an ongoing artistic collaboration with communities in the Atacama Desert towards the democratization of space exploration.

The late Babylonian texts in the British Museum are shown to contain probable observations of Halley's comet at both its 164 BC and 87 BC apparitions. The very first almanacs based on the movement of the sun and the moon, these texts have important bearing on the orbital motion of the comet in the ancient past.

The circular stone stricture on the Nabta Playa in Egypt is said to be giant calendar, which was used to determine the summer solstice. It is similar to Stonehenge, only 1,000 years older, however there is still ongoing debate regarding its purpose.

Indian astronomy has a powerful spiritual and cultural undertone. Astronomy is a sub-branch of Jyotisha, traditional Hindu astrology. Mayan, Incan, Arabic, Persian, and native American astronomy are all seeded with specific cultural archetypes over and above its mathematical precision.

The Wayfinders of Polynesia navigate through song, memory, and truth. Scripted into lyric are vast constellations maps, the cosmos is coaxed open by rhythm. Navigational instruction is scribed into song as lyric, and they sing their way across the ocean. They sing of previous journeys made as their forefathers crisscrossed the Atlantic. The Wayfinders believe that the hull of the boat is fixed in space, and that the whole earth rotates to help them arrive at their destination, if they are true in their ability to navigate by remembering. The song is their astrolabe, the representational tool that allows them to travel through time to move across space, and access the ancestral memory that wove the star maps.

Prathima Muniyappa is a designer, conservator, and a research assistant for the Space Enabled research group. She is a masters student in the Media Arts and Sciences at the Media Lab. She is interested in addressing issues of social justice, democratic access for historically marginalized communities, and enabling indigenous agency. Her research investigates alternative cosmologies and cultural ontologies for their potential to contribute to emerging discourse on techno-imaginaries in the realm of space exploration, synthetic biology, and extended intelligence. Prior to coming to MIT, she completed a Masters in Design Studies in Critical Conservation at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard under a Fulbright Scholarship. In investigating traditional indigenous knowledge, practices, and folkways for conservation, her design research on Sacred groves and alternative forest practices assumes complete synergy between the constructed categories of "nature" and "culture," and leverages the philosophy of non-duality as an operational paradigm. It achieves this synergy by investigating cultural identity as an ecological manifestation

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