The Aspen Space Station keeps the future in its orbit
Ajax Axe has heard the apocalypse narrative: The world is on fire. The billionaires are going to space. And the rest of us are doomed.
But what if we’re not?
“People want to take action to secure our best future and to protect the environment,” she said. “But you know, when it's all doom and gloom, and it's just such a bummer, then people — they just disengage, they check out, and so I think when we make it playful, that brings people back to the table.”
That’s the concept behind Kairos Futura, the “mothership” organization for conceptual art initiatives such as the Aspen Space Station that aim to convince people that Earth is still worth saving — and that we still stand a chance to actually save it.
Axe, an artist based in Aspen, is director of Kairos Futura, which also involves other artists, scientists and community members.
“Our goal … is making it so that it's fun and exciting to engage around often very challenging and serious issues, and that's by using play, and by using crazy narratives,” Axe said. “We have this ability to make people want to participate and to make it easier for people to pay attention to an issue that otherwise might be ignored.”
Locally, that effort looks like the Aspen Space Station project, which wraps up a second summer of art installations and live events this weekend.
Dinners, brainstorming sessions, book clubs and happy hours were part of the expanded slate of events this year.
Also featured are an NFT art show at a secret location in the woods, a party on the backside of Aspen Mountain where the theme was “Solar Punk” and a series of workshops where people carved messages for the future into clay tablets that will be buried for the next 200 years.
Axe said the plan is to register the project with the Aspen Historical Society so there’s a record when it comes time to dig them up.
The burial is happening Sunday, by invitation only, along with a full moon “future ritual” led by local artist Nori Pao.
Pao said she saw a lot of optimism and some introspection in the workshops to make the tablets, where people shared ideas they hope will resonate two centuries from now.
“I have always been able to see the joy in the moment in the future, even when things are pretty dark,” Pao said.
She recognizes that there is some darkness to the idea of our climate future, but there is also a broad sense of hope, she said.
She encouraged workshop participants to channel that hope, returning to a “feeling of childlike curiosity” and “being present and open.”
That perspective can point people toward new solutions, she says.
“Quite naturally, when people come together, they tend to have more of a positive outlook, and look at things as problem-solving and solution-oriented,” she said, “rather than when you're alone, and you feel alone, and you're just, like, ready to give up.”
The community element of the Aspen Space Station project bolsters that, Pao said.
“If you don't have the energy to keep going, but there's someone to the left of you that does,” she said, “you feed off each other's energy and kind of keep that high and that curiosity and just willingness to maybe approach things differently.”
Axe said that willingness does exist and that she sees a positive outlook as a much more effective mechanism for change than a negative one.
As the Kairos Futura project moves forward, the focus is shifting from messaging to action, she said.
“A lot of the programming we've done until now has been about building community and creating awareness around imagining the future and getting the community together to talk about challenges that we have here,” Axe said. “Now, we want to start to use the momentum we've created to catalyze action so that people are engaging in these issues in ways that are productive.”
That was evident in some of this summer’s events, where attendees were “strongly urged” to sign petitions for climate initiatives before they could get a drink.
At the solar punk party, for instance, Axe says about 50 to 60 people signed a petition for the CORE Act that aims to protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado.
The action is also manifesting in a partnership with Wilderness Workshop, a conservation nonprofit based in Carbondale that is focused on advocacy for public lands.
“We're essentially drawing attention to these really important projects that they're working on around conservation,” Axe said. “And we, as a group of artists, have the power to make these things sexy and sticky in a way that I think is more difficult without creativity.”
Sticky, as in engaging, Axe said, at a time when people can get so overwhelmed by information that they end up tuning out rather than tuning in.
“It's not that people don't know about these issues,” Axe said. “It's that they're so overwhelmed by the cascade of information and issues that they just switch off and they don't want to engage.”
According to Axe, the strategy is working.
To get into some of the Aspen Space Station events this summer, people had to take a “Future Proof” exam that asked them how they think about their future and the future of our planet.
Click the most-optimistic, solutions-focused answers, and you’ll be deemed a “Wild Futurist.”
Nearly 80% to 90% of the respondents got that result, Axe said.
“The apocalypse narrative is growing more and more uninspiring for people,” Axe said. “People are really starting to challenge the fact that the apocalypse narrative is just so cheap and so easy. And I think if we can find ways to make engagement fun and exciting, I think that that is a way to grow optimism.”
She recognizes that not every idea sticks with everyone.
The “really crazy stuff” that appeals to the “younger crowd” might not click with older participants, she said.
“Reconciling those things together is definitely an ongoing challenge,” but one worth taking on, she said. “I think bringing community together, though, in a creative way is the most amazing powerful thing.”