Art in Zero Gravity: Frank Pietronigro

By Santiago Fernández

Frank Pietronigro is an interdisciplinary artist and educator. He studied at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. During his college years, back in the seventies, he fantasised to create paintings that could float in mid-air. In 1998, on NASA´s KC135 aircraft, he fulfilled his dream with Project 33 during a parabolic flight. That year, the Spatial Agency launched the Student Reduced Gravity Flight Program, which provided access to microgravity space and allowed undergraduate students teams to propose, design, fabricate, fly and assess reduced-gravity experiments. By then, Pietronigro was based in San Francisco, studied at the Art Institute and did not hesitate to request his admission. He was 44 years old.

Pietronigro coined the term drift painting to sum up his project of painting without support. This work is at the crossroad of performance and painting. Drift painting, according to Pietronigro, is not relegate to a static two-dimensional surface like traditional paintings. The results are paintings with an infinite number of compositions happening simultaneously, each in accordance to all points of view from which the work is viewed when interpreted. Thus, he believes, this process fosters a revolutionary step in the tradition of painting as it destroys linear perspective, the fixed point of view, a convention that has been used by painters since the Renaissance. There’s also a political interpretation from the artist: “Not any one point of view should dominate the way we look at the world. There are great advantages, in our democracy, where multiple interpretations of our experience are allowed to flourish. The opportunity to constantly shift how we see things will reveal layers of meaning.”

There is a summary of the project published on YouTube by the artist on 2017. “Ok, so it took me 20 years to finally post this video. What can I say, I have been busy” writes Pietronigro on the video description. He also mentions some technical details of the project: “A 75-inch high by 48-inch wide by 52-inch deep plastic bag was tethered to the interior of the jet using bungie cords and Velcro. This ‘creativity chamber’ was to contain the floating paint while allowing for free-float body movement within the space”. He had pastry bags with acrylic gel medium, at the viscosity of toothpaste, marked with codes to identify content. These pastry bags were used rather than brushes to project paint into space. The artwork, ephemeral, only lasted the seconds experienced in zero gravity. Still, some traces of it remained on his suit and on the “walls” of the chamber. One can think about Jackson Pollock´s dripping while looking at the output. Pietronigro mentions that, during the process, the drift paintings created their own compositions, he just facilitated the situation. Microgravity was an environmental contributing factor in the development of these “drift paintings” and serendipity, not the hand of the artist, orchestrated the results.

In 2004 Pietronigro presented during the 7th Space and the Arts Workshop (co-organized, among others, by Leonardo and the European Space Research and Technology Center) his paper “Drift Painting in a Microgravity Environment and the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium”. Besides describing his project, he mentioned the importance of the work of other artists, such as Kitsou Dubois and her dancing techniques to train astronauts. He also spoke about his hypothesis that art making conducted during space flights will reduce stress, decrease boredom, increasing hand/eye coordination, and build stronger interpersonal relationships among astronauts, from different cultural backgrounds, when they collaborate together on creative projects in space.

Pietronigro is co-founder and project director of the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium (ZGAC) and currently works on several art projects.

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