Friday, January 13, 2012

Skywheel Project: Technologies of Transcendence in Artists Books

College Book Arts Association Conference, January, 2012

On some level, artist’s books are invested in the idea of defining “what is a book?” As a physical object, we might say “the book” is both a container, and an agent for dissemination. But what does it contain? Ideas? In our age we would probably say, “Information.”

Today we are going to look at an older idea: the idea of books as receptacles for the power of words. In ancient times, words were considered to be very powerful things. Within the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, for instance, God is said to have literally spoken the universe into existence. In other words, the tools used to create our world were words themselves. Maybe we have too many words now; they seem to have lost some of their potency.

Since we began the Skywheel project, we have been asked many times to give a definition for ‘blessing.’ “Just what is a blessing? How would you define that?” So far though, we have never met anyone who needed a definition for ‘curse.’ People seem pretty clear on that idea, so maybe words still retain some of their old power. Blessing or curse, each is an attempt to speak our desires into existence using the power of words.

Within this ancient idea of the power of words, and books as their receptacles, every book can be seen to take on a somewhat talismanic character. But some book forms are designed from the outset to function specifically as talismans.

In order to understand talismanic book forms, it is helpful to consider the definition of talisman. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a talisman as “an object believed to confer on its bearer magical powers or protection.” But how do these objects convey this sense of power? They do it by becoming a focal point for the user. A talisman symbolizes the ideal of the transformation the user would like to achieve, and works most effectively as a catalyst to action toward that goal.

Talismanic books are talismans that use the power of words as their focal point. As books, they are not opened and “read” in a conventional way; rather, they are interacted with in a symbolic manner to remind the user of the power of the text inside.

Traditionally, talismanic books are lent authenticity through their connection to a particular spiritual tradition or mythology. The following are some examples of traditional talismanic books from different cultures.

Curse Tablets
Greco-Roman Curse Tablets were used to entreat the gods to curse an offending person. These thin lead tablets were inscribed with very specific punishments for the offense. Curse tablets were commissioned by the offended party, written by a scribe and then cast into water, left at a shrine, or buried. Due to the longevity of the materials used, curse tablets have been found that are over 2,000 years old. While popularly referred to as curse tablets, not all of these talismans were used to exact punishment. Some were intended to attract love and others were buried with the dead to protect them on their journey to the underworld.

Omamori are Japanese talismans found both in Shinto and Buddhism. Used for a variety of purposes, each Omamori contains a verse or prayer related to its purpose and the shrine from which it was produced, hand written and blessed by a monk. The outer case is also adorned with text and symbols. In both Omamori and curse tablets, the talisman is connected to a specific deity who has an affinity for fulfilling a particular request. Omamori can be carried on the person, or displayed in personal spaces, and are used for one year, then brought back to the shrine, or ritually burned.

A Mezuzah is a traditional Jewish talisman, comprised of a parchment scroll containing passages from the Torah. The text is hand written by a qualified scribe who has undergone extensive training, and contained in a small ornate vial. Hung on the doorpost at the entrance to the house, and sometimes every room, Mezuzahs are to be gazed upon when entering and exiting, as a reminder to live a life worthy of the covenant with God.

Taweez are used in some sects of Islam. Verses from the Koran are written and folded in a precise manner, specific to the purpose of the talisman, and carried in a small case. Most often taweez are used for protection, but they are also created to attract love or prosperity.

In Orthodox Jewish tradition, Torah verses are housed within tiny boxes that are strapped to the body during devotional practice. The devotee uses movement to interact with the Teffillin during this practice, augmenting the spiritual experience.

Prayer Wheel
The Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel is a cylinder containing thousands or millions of copies of one or more mantras, wound around a central axis. Practitioners believe that as the wheel is spun, the prayers inside radiate out and bless all sentient beings in the vicinity. The large number of blessings inside are released with each revolution of the wheel.

Small prayer wheels are held in the hand, larger ones are set up permanently to activate sacred spaces, like shrines and temples. As technology has evolved, so has the practice, to include water, wind, or fire driven wheels. Recent innovations include videos, internet wheels, data on spinning hard drives and motor-driven prayer wheels.

The Skywheel Project

Since 2009, we have been working on a project inspired by Tibetan prayer wheels. The mission of the Skywheel Project is to build, exhibit, and launch a multicultural prayer wheel space satellite. The satellite will contain a collection of prayers, mantras, blessings and sacred text collectively created by people from around the world, and it will radiate blessings to all the Earth as it spins and orbits the planet for over 1,000 years. 

The Skywheel will be a light, compact cylindrical satellite with a highly reflective metallic exterior, designed to be visible at twilight with the naked eye or with a low powered telescope in areas of low light pollution. Inside, a vacuumized glass tube will contain spools wound with flexible metal scrolls. These scrolls will be engraved with thousands of copies of the sacred texts contributed to the project. The vaccuumized tube will envelop and protect this text, preventing its degradation and ensuring its continued function for the duration of its lifespan.

The Skywheel will be launched by rocket as a secondary payload, allowing it to travel 
with another space mission to minimize its cost and environmental impact. It will disengage from the rocket at a lower altitude and itself become a spaceship, using small booster engines to increase its altitude to 1,000 kilometers above the Earth. It will then establish a sun synchronous orbit, allowing it to pass directly over every location on our planet in a regular cycle. Once on station, all use of electronics will be discontinued, and the Skywheel will perform its functions utilizing momentum and the Earth’s gravity. Like a traditional prayer wheel, the satellite will spin slowly clockwise as it revolves around the Earth, radiating blessings as it spins.

As a contemporary talismanic book, one is invited to believe in the manifesting of the Skywheel as a sacred object with the power to collectively bless the world. Like all talismans, the Skywheel’s power lies in its ability to serve as a focal point for positive transformation – in this case, highlighting a contemporary ideal of shared respect between cultures and beliefs, shared stewardship of the earth and a shared sense of responsibility to future generations.

While the satellite’s launch and orbit are an exciting outcome, and a powerful symbol of these ideals, every step of this conceptual work is a creative form of social activism. People’s involvement and participation are what create the project’s momentum and give it power. And the project, in turn, is a neutral ground for exploration and the exchange of ideas between people of diverse backgrounds and

Social Activism and Public Engagement

The Skywheel project as a whole engages the public in a number of ways. First, anyone can submit a blessing or prayer to the project through our website. The submissions do not need to be tied to a particular tradition, and the only criteria is that the text should not be political or a historical account. Rather, we want to include text that creates a sense of connection to something greater than one’s self, connection to one’s best self, or connection to a shared sense of responsibility and stewardship for the earth. So far, we have received entries representing over fifty spiritual traditions.

We are also inviting spiritual leaders to officially represent their traditions in the project. Our goal is to research and reach out to all the world’s spiritual cultures, with an emphasis on indigenous peoples, to invite their participation. Early on in the project, we attended the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia, the largest gathering of spiritual leaders in the world. In one event at this weeklong conference, held by Aboriginal leaders, a local man asked a question, “It’s so great to hear about the wisdom of your tradition. I’ve lived here in Melbourne for over 60 years, why have I never heard this before? To which the leader replied, “No one ever asked us before.”

His response reminded us that many indigenous groups have, until recently, been persecuted for practicing their own spiritual traditions. Native Americans, for example, could not legally practice their religions in the eyes of American law until 1978. So just inviting native peoples to participate in an art project that honors all expressions of the sacred equally can be a meaningful symbol of respect.

To help with this and other aspects of the project, including funding, we formed a non-profit organization in 2010. Through Space For Vision Projects, people can participate in internships, fundraisers and volunteer programs that help us co-create this project.


We’re also looking to current technologies to provide access and interaction with the project in as many ways as possible. Our facebook page helps people remain engaged and provides a digital sense of community. Our blog provides more detailed stories about our adventures and discoveries along the way.

As the project progresses, and the satellite goes on station, we will create an online satellite tracker to provide information on where and when the satellite will be passing overhead. And we are planning a phone app that can alert you when the satellite is overhead and send you a randomly generated blessing from the collection.

Creative Manifestations

While the culmination of this artwork will result in an artist book in space, there is quite a lot of additional artwork being produced as part of the Skywheel Project. We are in the process of creating an exhibition of work from the project, that will include artists books, journals, drawings, paintings and sculpture. The focal point of the exhibition will be a model of the Skywheel, co-produced with Microcosm Inc., the aerospace company we are partnering with to help design the satellite and plan the launch.

We have just completed an edition of 100 prints as a fundraiser to raise $10,000 for the building of the model, and have made them available for a one hundred dollar donation to the non-profit. We wanted to invite participation and interaction through the distribution of these prints, so each one is uniquely hand-colored and inscribed with one of the text selections from the satellite. We are finding that through this interaction, people are actually submitting new text to the project so that we will write it on their print!

As the project progresses and the actual satellite is built, it will replace the model as the focal point of the touring exhibition. Companion events include concerts and creative workshops. Earlier this year we collaborated with musicians to produce the first of these events, Song of the Sky, an evening of music that highlighted the thematic idea of the heavens.

We are very passionate about this project, and have a lot of fun along the way. That’s good, because we are in it for the long haul – when we first agreed to start it we projected that it would take 7 to 10 years to complete. It’s been three and we have a long way to go yet, but if other people continue to want this project to happen, we will get there step by step.


For us, the Skywheel is a trans-generational devotional project; rooted in the past, possible in the present, and acknowledging the future. It is rooted in a past of individuals, cultures, languages, myths, and symbols, each uniquely expressing their connection to the idea of sacredness. It is rooted in a time before people felt a need to distinguish between the sacred and the secular (which is a fairly recent construct). And it is rooted in a past when the sky was called the heavens, and considered the realm of the ancestors, home of the gods, and a place of infinite mystery.

The Skywheel is also dependent on this present moment in time for its very possibility. It’s the first time in history that it is possible to create a public art project in space, and to create this symbol of blessing the Earth in its entirety. It’s a world of endless possibilities of technology, but also a moment of global environmental and economic crisis, and a time when the sky is called space and looked upon as a commodity owned by corporations and governments.

And it’s a moment when people all over the world, especially artists, need to think out of the box, and come together in creative ways to address the problems we collectively face.

And happily, optimistically, and in spite of the challenges of the present moment, this is a project that looks with hope to the future. A thousand years into the future. And asks everyone who will listen the questions, “What do you hold sacred?” And “What blessing will you give?” Not just for today, but for generations to come. We believe this thinking of and acting in the interest of future generations is the key to our survival.

Our great passion with the Skywheel project is to create a work of art that is a symbol of our collective ownership of the sky as a shared sacred space, which in turn creates a metaphor for our collective stewardship of the Earth. As a talismanic book, a beacon in the sky, this is the message the Skywheel wants to broadcast.