Feminist Astropolitics with Prathima Muniyappa
Updated: Oct 11
As told to Kirthi Jayakumar
Prathima Muniyappa is a Designer, Conservator and a research assistant for the Space Enabled research group. She is a PHD candidate 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.
Prathima is pictured in front of an artistic rendition of the Pillars of Creation, a photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of elephant trunks of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, in the Serpens constellation. (Photo Credits: Profile picture - Prathima Muniyappa | Artwork - Kirthi Jayakumar)
What got you interested in the field of space policy?
A happy accident, I arrived here from the fringes. I studied design and begun my professional life as a museum designer, which evolved to contain heritage and the discipline of conservation. Traditionally heritage conservation is still a discipline that concerns itself with material and centres on the artefact; the object, the building the site, rather than memory, methodology and the softer architecture that is the mythos. Gradually my work led me to remote landscapes, cloud forests to vast arid deserts to live and learn with indigenous tribes. Such cosmologies and practices have become the inspiration for my work as a designer and conservationist. A traditional design practice offered me familiarity with some tools: brick and mortar, ink and stone, pigment and paper. Deep listening however to indigenous world ways led me to develop other skills through collaborations with communities and culture, mycelium and microbes, coral and sculpture, elephants and ecosystems.
To learn how nature designs with life and then to co-design with communities to enable their mutual conservation through softer architectures like ritual and culture. To ‘wake up wearing nature’s face’ demands the lightest most graceful touch, to intervene in evolutionary time necessitates a reverent humble nudge. My master’s degree at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, expanded on my liberal arts background with a focus on anthropology and critical conservation. During that time, I was able to extract my design practice out of the binary of dialectics such as nature/culture, indigenous/scientific, material/memory and develop a methodology of intervention that aspired towards a non-dualistic agenda.
When I applied to the Media Lab, I applied to work with the Mediated matter group, where I was promptly rejected. My PhD Advisor, Dr. Danielle Wood with her visionary brilliance invited me to be part of her group, Space Enabled, whose mission is to advance justice in Earth's complex systems using designs enabled by space. It seemed a strange fit to me at the time and I spent my fair of time invoking the imposter syndrome, but it turned out to be a most meaningful accident. It was during a most luminous conference about space and space exploration called Beyond the Cradle, hosted at the Media Lab where I heard the provocation that every discipline needs to turn their attention to space that I began to wonder at the Venn diagrams before me. I have always struggled to be audacious in imagining the scope of my impact, but I did offer myself the gift of some unfettered audacity as a Dalit woman in turning my own gaze skyward.
I began work in a familiar domain, the historic preservation of space and heritage in outer space, and eventually after frequenting space conferences, I tired of standard model of the narratives around space exploration colonial, riddled with a manifest destiny based western ontology and deeply hegemonic narratives that are still heavily influenced by the military industrial complex and formed in the backdrop of paranoia of the Cold War.
In the deluge of this singular, technocratic and techno-optimistic monoculture of space narrative, I found myself yearning for an orientation towards the cosmos that was softer, gentler, and more ecologically attuned. I turned then to the wisdom of indigenous cosmologies, civilisations have had their eyes turned skyward long before there was the nation state or the corporation and my work emerged from that. Even a perfunctory glance at these alternative cosmologies, bereft as they are from the baggage of extraction, territoralization, industrialization and colonization that accompanies a majority of western narratives of space and its exploration, allow us to better ‘see’ and examine the ideological dimensions of the mythology that legitimizes space exploration in the present day.
You look at addressing social justice, democratic access for historically marginalized communities, and enabling indigenous agency. Can you share a bit about indigenous engagements with outer space and what has led to the systemic exclusion of indigenous communities in outer space.
That is a complex question and at the risk of answering simplistically, no matter how you regard the hyper object, space exploration always confronts the questions the issue of access. Whether it is political, historic, ecological, resource based, financial, legal, colonial, racial, physical, patriarchal it is impossible to ignore the issue of access. Consider this, in the history of space travel there have been less than 600 people who have left the earth’s atmosphere. Of the 536, three people have completed only a sub-orbital flight, there have been 533 people who reached the Earth’s orbit, 24 who journeyed beyond low Earth orbit and only 12 have walked on the Moon. With an overwhelming majority of these being white, male, and Caucasian, space travellers boast a poverty of diversity in racial, social and cultural heterogeneity. With only 14 African Americans, 11 muslims and only 1 Native American to have ever left the earth’s orbit, there is a prevailing pattern of homogeneity reflected in the bodies and identities of the average space traveller. Even a casual glance at this demographic brings up questions of access to resources and therefore participation. Whose stories we take to space and whose cultures are afforded a voice.
While our work at Space Enabled, and the Media lab’s technological prowess brings hard science, engineering and design to address hard issues of access and democratisation, there is also room for softer ways of engaging with the notion of access, necessitating a shift of scale, a register that affects the paradigm. By working with myths, rituals, and cosmologies, my research explores indigenous ontologies around access to space. They have always been explorers of the cosmos through their rituals, cosmologies and other softer virtual technologies. Through these engagements, they rewrite and resituate our perception of access. They have never been written out of the story. They have always had this access. It is a failing of modernity that we foreground notions of access as technology and my research demonstrates that that indigenous people have always been masters of a really advanced techne that has always enabled them ritual access to the cosmos. In some epistemologies, they journey through inner and outer space, through techne that acts as an umbilical cord. from the earth to sky and from cosmos to consciousness.
Your research explores the potential of alternative cosmologies and cultural ontologies in contributing to emerging discourse on techno-imaginaries in the realm of space exploration. What have some of your key findings in this space been?
I'd like to tell you this as a story, because stories are the gathering baskets, technological devices used by indigenous communities. One of the communities that we had the privilege to work with is the Likan Antay people of the Atacama in Chile. Their relationship to the cosmos is so incredible. Much like the Milky Way snakes across the sky in a winding path, the River Loa, winds about desert, forming a perfect mirror between the sky and earth. As the river curls and carves up the earth, it nestles tiny pools in its folds. This is their observatory. Unlike most communities who believe constellations to be a grouping of stars.
The Andean cosmovision, believes that the negative spaces are the true constellations. They imagine the Milky Way as as a celestial river, Mayu and the negative spaces, their constellations are the animals that come to drink at the river Yacana, the llama still tethered to her child through her umbilical cord, Mach’acuay- the serpent, Hanp’atu the Toad, Atoq the fox and Yutu- the ground partridge– so you see their silhouettes in the river. Their observatory, the river Loa, and the pools reflect exactly their corresponding constellation in the sky. The sky itself is a canvas that speaks to the geography of the land, and their cosmology is abundant with many stories of these creatures and their cosmologic.
Our guide, Dr. José Berenguer, showing us a nearby site of rock art filled with depictions of camelid paintings all over the stones said that the Likan Antay made this art in order to script the passage of the sun into a storied foretelling, when a shaft of sunlight pierces the stomach of a particular llama it signalled a time of the year when the herd would be pregnant. It is this kind of orientation towards the cosmos that we need desperately in the present day, a way to loom skyward that mirrors our gaze to the earth and it it’s diminishing cycles of fecundity. It is imperative to foreground these cosmologies at a time where our yearning to become extra-planetary is a reactionary response to histories of resource extraction, climate change and colonization. It becomes imperative then to consider the big questions, what does it mean to be a good steward, a honourable ancestor, a companion species.
Consider the Maasai cosmology, at the center of which is the cow. Among the Maasai, the cow and the herd is considered a primary unit of value. In their stories of space, the human species never left the earth never went to space, but rather the extraplanterary wanderers were the cows, who came from from the moon. A most interesting story that upends human centrality and dominance within narratives of space exploration and necessities a non human mastery in space based journeying. It evokes a plethora of questions the least of which is a space exploration that does not center humans as primary actors within the narratives.
Many of these epistemologies allude to different ways of orienting ourself to the cosmos and to the exploration of space. Space is a enterprise that is seeded with the magical, the recent launch of Chandrayaan-3 has been utterly inspiring, but it also demands careful attention to see what becomes a vehicle to export fundamental nationalistic agendas to pause and consider what cultures we export to space and how? Is using Sanskrit nomenclature truly inclusive of the diversity of relationships different communities have to space? It offers us an opportunity to pause and reflect. If we are going to export cultures to outer space, what are those cultures? Whose culture is voiced and whose silenced? How do we choose?
What can we learn from indigenous spacefaring approaches to shift away from militarist, capitalistic, and violent uses of outer space?
When the race was underway to decode the human genome, there was so much fear and confusion in the air about potential reality of bioprospecting and patenting the human genome, that a consortium of scientists actually got together and put a moratorium on the research to set up the legal infrastructure to safeguard humanity’s right to itself going forward. Recently, I was invited to speak about people buying land on the moon, a trend that has recently gained some notoriety. It is legally impossible to buy land on the moon, but that doesn’t stop companies that sell pieces of paper purporting to be deeds and making millions in the process. My knowledge of this is limited, but I will hazard a guess that we just don't have the legal infrastructure yet in place yet to address nuanced issues of real estate and mining as they emerge in outer space.
In March 2023, The UK Space Agency has announced £2.9m of new funding for the project, which will deliver an initial demonstration of a UK lunar modular nuclear reactor, when I first heard this, my stomach collapsed to my ankles, a nuclear reactor on the moon! My practice has always held space for these moments of visceral reaction, to use the body and its intuition as a barometer of brokenness, to know when to pause and stay with the trouble.
There is merit to admitting to the presences of these confusing, conflicting realities. We are, as humans, composed of these simultaneous dualities. My research and work, hopes to hold space here. If we are going to desecrate land, what are rituals that we can do to decolonize the land first? If we are going to enable practices of extraction, is there room before that desecration happens, to stop and make sacred the land, to acknowledge its right to not be desecrated. What would that look like? In between these opposing forces, the act of performing an entity’s value of stating its constitutive right to resist our hand before the transgress of desecrating it can go a very long way. I think there's something important in performing both the sacredness and the un-sacredness. These rituals carve out space to see what emerges from our own inner spaces in outer space – what might policy that emerges from this spaces look like? If we just hold open the window between these two spaces long enough, I wonder what can art, science, engineering, design, law and policy do from this lens.
In my work with indigenous communities, I perceive my role as a designer to just be about creating a conduit for indigenous knowledge and wisdom to meet scientists and science and technology, to look at what emerges when these two forces and ontologies meet. I don't necessarily have the answers, but it's a question of stepping back and staying with the trouble to some extent. In working with indigenous relationships to space, it is imperative to consider that there is no monolith here, it is composed of a multiplicity of views, the Navajo stories describe veteran voyaging, they have been traveling to the moon for millennia now but the dispute with the Wākea around the thirty-meter telescope at Maunakea tells of another relationship towards sacredness altogether. There are many disparities and nuances. It is important to make room for these nuances within oneself, too.
What does a decolonial approach to outer space look like? Is one possible given that we've only even thinking in terms of extractivism and settlement?
This is a question of implication: What are the kind of historical forces you can implicate when you think about space exploration? Space exploration has a colonial provenance, and inextricability implicates climate change. A shift of register of mindset is a step towards decolonization. Accommodating different voices from various disciplines, to build bigger tables rather than higher fences. I work with art and ritual, fringe tools but there is some merit to being in the fringe. Engaging artists and people whose lived experiences that radically shape how we engage with outer space. For example: Deana Weibel’s fascinating work exhorted the engagement of Sherpas in space exploration, while making a lucid argument about their skills as native guides and the cross pollination of expertise in the space environment, similarly I can see how shamans also can serve as guides for these journeys. It will be a welcome relief to see beings with an appetite for ambiguity and softness in this discipline.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, what is exciting me most is not even the seed of an idea, but it's something that came to mind when I recently visited Central Asia. I had a chance to go to the edges of Semipalatinsk, an ex nuclear testing site whose lingering radiation haunts the DNA signatures of the local ecology and its constituents, An extremely toxic landscape. I had the opportunity to visit the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest sea in the world. Now, I don’t even know how a whole sea goes missing, the scale boggles the mind– but that is what happened, in one of the worst man made environmental disasters of the century. It was a very, very difficult encounter. In bodies, the loss endures through riverine flows, in arteries, across generations. Blood samples from pregnant women and umbilical cords show high amounts of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDE), hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH) found in breast milk. Leaky land, leaky bodies, effluvia of blood, water, milk, salt, sand. Measured in milliliters now these downstream flows of a missing sea. Plagued by toxic sandstorms both within and without, the locals still endure. Soon I will be going to a Mars Analog residency in Utah, and it occurs to me that so much of the science and research that happens on analog sites is prospective, it is necessarily Ahuman. Enacted on a land unpeopled – the way we expect life on Mars to be, on a land without life. I wonder what a mars analog residency would look like on a landscape that is post human, post ecological disaster, post life. What kind of science, policy or art will emerge in response?
This interview series was supported by The Maypole Fund.