Michael Najjar likes to push his body to the edge for art. In 2009, he climbed Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the American continent, for a photographic series. But when he looked down at the world from an altitude of close to 7,000 meters, he realized that for his next body of work, he had to aim even higher.
"I was always interested in space travel as a kid as I was raised with the moon landing, the Apollo missions, and I was a Star Trek fan," Najjar told me. "But when I was on top of Mount Aconcagua, I looked at the mountain and the sky, and I knew that I had to go higher—that I had to travel into space."
Najjar is a Berlin-based artist and adventurer who works primarily with photography and video. His oeuvre focuses on how modern society is driven and shaped by science and technology. For his current project "Outer Space," which will go on show later this week at the Galleria Studio la Città in Italy, he is investigating how the development of space technologies will affect humanity's relationship with both Earth and the Solar System in the future.
"Four years ago, I started to work on the themes of space exploration because it was obvious to me that we were facing significant shifts in this field as a lot of things were becoming privatised," said Najjar. "What used to be the privilege of national space agencies was being transferred to private companies—there were more smaller teams breaking even."
Over the last few years, the rise of private companies such as businessman Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX, has proved that innovations in space technology are no longer the premise of national governments. Realising this, Najjar said that their involvement contributed to a "technology leap" in everything from space travel, rocket engineering, satellite manufacturing, and spacecraft construction. And since 2012, Najjar has been everywhere from the Yuri Gagarin Russian cosmonaut training centre in Star City to the deserts of Atacama to document the evolving space tech that he comes across.
But aside transforming steely space structures or satellite-populated scenes into futuristic dream-like landscapes with his photography; Najjar also involves himself directly in the process of space exploration.
"When I was working on the idea of space travel, I knew that I had to go there and experience this myself—I have to go to space," said Najjar.
Supported by three of his art collectors, Najjar procured himself a ticket to fly on the Virgin Galactic's first commercial space flight. He then set about preparing himself both physically and mentally for space, asking the Russians for permission to train with cosmonauts at the Yuri Gagarin cosmonaut centre, while simultaneously documenting his progress through photography and film.
To date, Najjar has done everything from spacewalk inside a hydrolab at depths of 12 metres while decked out in astronaut's gear, experience intense g-forces in a Zero-G Centrifuge at the German Aerospace Centre DLR in Cologne, and hurtle skywards at twice the speed of sound in the MiG-29, a suborbital flight trainer. The experiences, he said, have been nothing short of intense for variant physical and psychological reasons.
While the spacewalk inside the Russian hydrolab in itself isn't hard, Najjar said that the feeling of being enclosed inside a contained space was claustrophobic. The g-forces, on the other hand, made his physical system go haywire.
"With an acceleration of almost twice the speed of sound, I flew with a MiC-w9 into the stratosphere. This is where you can see the curvature of the earth, and where you can see the sky get dark and the stars appear," said Najjar. "We flew 50 minutes of manoeuvres and the g-forces that you have to cope with are extreme: It brings your mind and your body to the edge."
Najjar recounted the importance of astronauts needing to cope with the extreme pressures that space travel exerts on the human body. But said he wasn't expecting his cardiovascular system to go into a kind of meltdown as it was subjected to constantly changing g-forces.
"All the blood goes out of your brain and then back into it. I almost blacked out twice, and I lost my colour vision temporarily," he said.
For the moment, Najjar said that he wasn't exactly sure what kind of photographs he would be taking once he got up to space. And with the Virgin Galactic crash in October 2014, he suspected that his trip as one of the Pioneer astronauts would be delayed for at least another year or two.
What Najjar's sure of, however, is that his project in space will be more about the process and the experience of going to space, as opposed to what he sees while he's up there.
"When I go to space, it's clear I will see the earth and space," said Najjar. "This will certainly be a life-changing experience, but I'm more interested in exploring what it means for a human being to be inside a technical machine (spacecraft) and to overcome gravity.
"My intention is to find a visualization that captures this process and this idea of leaving planet earth."