The idea is simple: we’re going to take back outer space from the military industrial complex and make it available to everyone. The weapons employed in the struggle will consist of rocket engines, imagination, and a dance floor. The first step will be to create a global network of autonomous, community-based space programs. We have five years to make this happen.
These were the stipulations laid down by an unlikely group of astronauts who, 20 years ago today, had gathered in the shadow of the Copper Horse statue in Windsor Great Park to watch a weather balloon fade into the slate-colored English skies.
The group, which largely consisted of anarchists, musicians, and artists with a penchant for the absurd, had rendezvoused at Windsor on April 23, 1995 to ceremonially inaugurate what would become the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA): a non-hierarchical, non-governmental international space program committed to radically altering the way we think about life on Earth, space exploration, and the connection between the two.
Autonomous Astronaut Laura, East London 1999. Image via Ewen Chardonnet
The AAA grew at the intersection of a number of underground movements in Europe, quickly creating a vibrant transnational cyberpunk culture whose members had resolved to not let the boring, commercialized Earth culture pollute the final frontier, something which they perceived to be happening at an increasingly alarming rate—and not without warrant. This was the decade that saw the first Russian aboard a US shuttle; the first shuttle docking at the Mir station; and perhaps most significantly, the birth of the XPrize, which effectively kickstarted the commercial space race.
In contrast to the developing space industry, the AAA operated on a principle of radical inclusion. An early dispatch noted that the goal was not to form an exclusionary, “hippie dropout commune” in space—as some early detractors suggested—but rather, to ignite the idea is that space is a place for everyone, not just the military and corporate elite. Part theatre and part politics, it was the ideological precursor to later, more technically proficient amateur efforts to democratize space, such as the work currently being done by Copenhagen Suborbitals.
The AAA may have accomplished more in the way of dance parties than space exploration, and some of its former members still claim that it was more of an extended metaphor than anything else. Nonetheless, the group was committed to its message about the dangers of allowing corporate and military monopolies to move to space and all were invited to join the Autonomous Astronauts on their adventure. One needn’t be a hardline anarchist to apply—in fact, one of the most fundamental assertions of the Association was that everyone was already an astronaut.
THE EARLY YEARS: MOVING IN SEVERAL DIRECTIONS AT ONCE
The exact origins of the Association are somewhat vague, but many of the astronauts attribute its formation to the interactions occurring at Community Copy Art, a small copy center behind Kings Cross Station in London.
In the days before London’s move to “clean up” the area, Community Copy Art served as a hub for a burgeoning underground culture of artists producing their own zines. It provided a friendly space to rendezvous for small art shows, exchange ideas, or simply shoot the shit with other zine makers.
The AAA’s humble origins in a London copy shop also proved to be one of the keys to the successful dispersal of its ideas around the world, insofar as it made use of an international DIY infoshop culture to connect affiliates from Paris to Aotearoa by way of zine and cassette tape exchanges.
This was how many of the AAA members I spoke to originally discovered the organization, including Mark Servian, an active coordinator with New Zealand’s Green Party who was a prominent member of the McGillicuddy Serious Party, one of the country’s more successful satirical political parties.
“A couple of copies of [the Inner City AAA] zine showed up at a social-hub flat in Hamilton [New Zealand] in 1997 or so,” recalled Servian. “It was well timed [because] McGillicuddy was winding down and didn’t really have room in its mythology for space travel. So the AAA was a nice lateral move into a neglected area of interest and I just took to it.”
“They went all the way to the moon and decided to play golf? It’s like, can you not think of something more creative to do when you’re out in space?”
Alessandro Zanotti from AAA Bologna “Ufologic Deriving” in Bologna 1997; Image courtesy of Riccardo Balli
Importantly, the AAA also came of age at around the same time as the world wide web. The Association’s birth from the DIY zine culture made it easy to adapt to the grassroots and fringe internet cultures which dominated the webscape before the dot-com boom.
In the beginning, the AAA’s digital presence consisted solely of communiqués dispatched through Nettime, an independent mailing list largely comprised of hackers and tactical artists, but as its influence spread, several chapters began compiling documentation of the group’s activity on a handful of websites.
Today, the vast majority of these have decayed into dead Geocities links and 404 pages, which made my attempts to contact AAA members exceedingly difficult. After several days of fruitlessly posting to long-since abandoned AAA forums, I made one last desperate attempt, hoping that someone among all the .it, .fr, and .uk addresses on a lonely Yahoo board might still be listening.
To my good fortune and complete surprise, my final inquiry was responded to by Nigel Ayers, an experimental musician based out of Cornwall who was eager to help explain just what this mythical association of astronauts was all about.
Ayers wears his hair long, and at 57 it is beginning to gray, a physical manifestation of his age which is entirely out of place when matched with his seemingly limitless energy. He had originally come into contact with the Association through his involvement with Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth in the 80s, a group dedicated to tactical art and the practice of magic. Many of the other AAA members I got in touch with through Ayers had similar stories, and their affiliation with groups like the London Psychogeographical Society, College of Pataphysics, and the Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture proved to be highly influential in the development of the Association’s ideas about space travel.
The influence of these Situationist-offshoots is particularly notable in the Association’s insistence on “moving in several directions at once,” something which was intrinsic not only to its structural disorganization (the AAA is not so much a unified whole as a number of independent groups operating under a single nom de guerre), but also to its ideological development.
The idea of moving in several directions at once was first outlined in a bulletin from Inner City AAA which suggested space exploration is best conceived as a word game, meaning that normal people can challenge corporate and military space monopolies because “anyone can use words to imagine and create their own possibilities.”
For the Autonomous Astronauts, the “buffoons” that are responsible for maintaining the status quo in space exploration are “idiots” precisely because they believe that words have fixed meanings.
Anonymous Autonomous Astronaut, Bologna Intergalactic Conference 1998. Image courtesy of Riccardo Balli
With this in mind, the AAA moved in several directions at once throughout its duration as an organization, reveling in the inevitable illogic and contradictions that emerged from promoting creativity and independence, rather than adherence to rigid structures of meaning and power.
IS THE AAA A JOKE?
It is easy to simply dismiss the Association of Autonomous Astronauts as a joke or metaphor, albeit a relatively organized and sustained one. Yet such an appraisal of the group misunderstands its professed aims. As the astronauts I interviewed explained, while humor and prank were certainly integral elements of the AAA strategy, the message they sought to deliver thereby was, according to one AAA dispatch, “deadly serious.”
At a time when Americans were reveling in the post-Cold War glory days and enjoying unprecedented economic growth, there was increasing political unrest in Europe. Disillusioned by the collapse of the Soviet Union only four years prior, many leftists in France were looking for an outlet for their frustration and they eventually found one in the wave of general strikes that brought the country to a standstill beginning in October of 1995.
“Many riots were happening and we had a hardcore strike scene,” recalls Ewen Chardonnet, a member of AAA Rosko currently living in Paris. “Our ideas were somehow not sufficient and the negativism following the fall of USSR regarding leftist utopias was kind of depressing. We were quite unsatisfied with the old left so when AAA appeared as a post-Soviet movement with a sense of humor—half-prank, half-serious—we definitely enjoyed the idea.”
For the Autonomous Astronauts, humor was simply the vehicle in which they chose to convey their much more serious message critiquing the corporate and military takeover of outer space in the complex post-Cold War political climate.
Although the blatant, ramped up militarization of outer space tapered off to a significant degree following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this decade also saw the first space “tourists” (a Japanese journalist and British chemist), in addition to a steady proliferation of telecommunications and reconnaissance satellites, which suggested that the quest to dominate the final frontier for both military and economic advantage was far from over.
Autonomous Astronauts in East London, 1999. Image courtesy of Ewen Chardonnet
Depending on the AAA faction, politics played a more or less significant role in the group’s activities. In an interview with several AAA members from various factions, Riccardo Balli, of the Bologna AAA, informed the interviewees that they had been described as a “postmodern avant-garde group influenced by DaDa, situationism and mail-art,” (much like it has been in this article). The interviewees all responded with cries of “bullshit!,” claiming instead that they were the most revolutionary movement in the universe and refused to be reduced to the status of some art collective.
Despite the AAA’s inability to agree on a concrete definition or even the role of politics within the Association, one thing was for certain: outer space was being usurped by corporate and governmental powers, becoming increasingly policed and sold back to the common public at exorbitant prices. By the late 90s, a number of private enterprises were already speculating on price tags for space tourism, the XPrize for commercial spacecraft development was well established, and the militarized nature of the satellite communication network was all too apparent. It was in general resistance to these tendencies that the AAA found political solidarity in its otherwise staggering diversity of artistic expression, suggesting that the Association was not all fun and games.
DISCONAUTS ARE GO! BLISSED-OUT, GLAMMED-UP HEDONISM
For the Autonomous Astronauts, one of the most ostensible failures of the dominant space programs (and the military-industrial complex which backed them) was their lack of creativity. The powers that be had opted for an entirely cold, scientific approach to traversing the cosmos, completely ignoring the lighter facets of being a human, like the enjoyment of sex, drugs, and electronica.
“This is the thing: when the Americans pick the people they send into space, they just pick the most automotive people to do this incredible adventure. They went all the way to the moon and decided to play golf?” Ayers sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “It’s like, can you not think of something more creative to do when you’re out in space?”
Thus, in an effort to make space more human, the AAA devoted a considerable amount of effort to figuring out ways that space exploration could liberate human energies. The group planned for everything from space orgies to dance parties, which necessarily required experimenting with the best music for space exploration.
“It is clear that AAA emerged in the music scene, but rapidly it went far beyond that,” Chardonnet told me. At the time, Chardonnet was doing grindcore electronics under the pseudonym XKV8, playing alongside people like Ayers (who performed as ‘Nocturnal Emissions’) at a number of AAA free “tekno” musical festivals (conveniently known as “teknivals”) where everything from breakcore to dub was represented.
Riccardo Balli and Alessandro Zanotti at the Rave In Space, 2nd Intergalactic Conference, 1998
The heavy insistence that music would play an integral part in the reclamation of space eventually led to the formation of the Disconauts, a division of the AAA where the influence of music was the most pronounced. The Disconaut AAA was created to “explore the potential of dance cultures for autonomous space exploration,” seeking to neutralize the black holes which sucked the energy out of dance cultures (such as commercial promoters and police) by way of their “blissed-out, glammed-up disco hedonism.”
Ideologically, the Disconauts were heavily influenced by “Fred Nietzsche, the 19th century philosopher and dance enthusiast,” as revealed in the group’s announcement of the Dionysus Programme, a counterpoint to NASA’s Apollo program launched on the latter’s 30th anniversary. In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche posits two antagonistic forces in society, which he identified with the Greek deities Apollo and Dionysus. The former was associated with restraint, control and order, whereas its Dionysian counterpart is associated with music, sexuality, intoxication and chaos. Thus in direct opposition to the cold, scientific rationality of the Apollo program, the Disconauts promoted a vision of space travel where, in the words of Chardonnet, “the dance floor was the launch pad, the body was the rocket, and the drugs were the propellants.”
THE INTERGALACTIC CONFERENCE AND THE 10 DAYS THAT SHOOK THE UNIVERSE
In response to the increasing global interest in the organization, the AAA decided to host its first Intergalactic Conference in Vienna in April of 1997.
The affair was arranged by net culture organization Public NetBase in conjunction with the Vienna AAA faction, and the dozens of conference attendees spoke to the AAA’s increasingly global reach. There were delegates of all ages from the UK, Austria, and France, perhaps the youngest coming from the local Kinder Museum, which had designed a spaceship for the occasion. The pyramidal ship, named Achtung! Wir Kommen! (Watch Out! Here we Come!), was placed in the middle of the conference hall and was well received by the AAA members, who admired its psychedelic design which, according to a report from the conference, stood “in stark contrast to the interior of NASA spaceships, which are dull as fuck.”
“The dance floor was the launch pad, the body was the rocket, and the drugs were the propellants.”
The presence of youth at the event was encouraged by the AAA members, all of whom anticipated the effects that early exposure of AAA ideas to young astronauts might have in the future. After a day of music and games, the conference concluded with a number of speakers, ranging from AAA delegates from around the world to professors from Austrian universities, touching on topics from the history of the AAA to the politics and physics of space travel.
The night ended in typical AAA fashion with a “Rave in Space,” which according to reports was “just the right mixture of confusion and hedonism” and lasted until sunrise. The astronauts spent the majority of the following day recovering from their “hectic training schedule” and playing three-sided football, a reinvention of conventional football as a metaphor for class struggle which involves three teams instead of two.
Autonomous Astronauts play three-sided football. Image courtesy of Ewen Chardonnet
Due to the success of the first Intergalactic Conference, it was promptly decided that a second was in order and in 1998 delegates from the world over descended on Bologna, Italy for the occasion. Many of the astronauts stayed at a villa in the hills outside of Bologna, the alleged filming location for Pasolini’s infamous 120 Days of Sodom. While all of the nights ended with a drunken spectacle at the villa, if any of the astronauts’ reports are to be believed, they never found the opportunity to reenact some of the movie’s more memorable scenes while staying there.
The second Intergalactic Conference also saw a massive increase in attendance, attesting to the expanding influence of the AAA. Over 1,000 astronauts turned out to a former warehouse turned cyber bar called The Link in Bologna, Italy, a venue chosen not simply for its choice aesthetics, but also because it featured a crucial component for attempting to achieve flight: an enormous dance floor. The focus of this conference was consolidation, the fourth phase of the AAA’s five year plan. The result of the conference was an examination and acknowledgement of previous victories and a vigorous plan for the push into Y2K and the final phase of the AAA’s five year program.
The resulting plan revealed to the astronauts that “social interaction and a sense of humor are more important than the technical problems of constructing space ships,” and with that in mind, the group launched “Space ’99, Ten Days that Shook the Universe” in London to put these lessons into action.
While in many ways similar to its Intergalactic Conference precursors, the “10 Days” gathering was markedly more political in nature. It was at this gathering for consolidation that the Autonomous Astronauts marched on Lockheed Martin’s headquarters in London, calling for an end to the militarization of space, something which ultimately gave this whimsical group of artists a far more political veneer.
“I think the ’10 days that shook the universe’ established the AAA as a social movement, in the style of ‘Reclaim the Streets’ (another movement popular at that time in London) but addressed to astra,” Riccardo Balli of AAA Bologna told me in an email. “So for ’10 Days’ it was ‘Reclaim the Stars!'”
THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY ARE NUMBERED
The five year program established with the launch of a weather balloon at Windsor in 1995 began with a fatalistic proclamation, which noted that “the days of this society are numbered.” The fate of the Association was sealed from its birth, and the date for its formal disbanding was set for 4/23/00. True to its word, on this day a notice was sent by Raido AAA announcing that the Association was dissolving itself, following its five year plan to its logical conclusion.
Riccardo Balli at the Bologna Intergalactic Conference 1998
“The initial idea was we’ll do a five year program and then just do something else,” said Ayers. “We didn’t want to make a career of this, we just wanted to light the fuse and then get on with something else. Then we won’t become a corporation, we won’t be reviving the ideas we had when we were 20 or something.”
As a whole, Ayers considers the decision to dissolve the Association to have been the correct one. The AAA was never meant to become an institution, but was meant to exist as the spark which would provide the impetus for a prolonged social movement aimed at making space available to everyone.
Although many AAA affiliate groups followed Raido’s lead, others, in keeping with the autonomous spirit of the movement, decided of their own accord to keep the ball rolling. Among those was Riccardo Balli, who instituted a 333 day extension to the five-year plan with the Bologna faction.
“At AAA Bologna, we weren’t happy after the Five Year Plan about the level in space technology achieved from AAA groups and felt it necessary to launch an extension of the original program in order to present the software of the AAA Bologna spaceship,” Balli explained to me.
The “software” developed by the Bologna faction was known as Pimax esoteric space technology, which is described in an AAA report as largely consisting of two components, a “powerful and devastating” sound system that has two turntables and a mixer, and a Hawazz converter, which is described as “an overunity device that converts sonic waves into an electromagnetic gravity field.”
The speakers would be placed at a distance of a few meters from the converter in a spaceship, the module controlled by a “dj-pilot” who would begin by playing “harsh, fast and severe cybertronic beats,” steadily increasing the “sonic assault” until 333 bpm was reached (this is a frantic beat: check the metronome). From there, it was the responsibility of the dj-pilot to keep the bpm at 333 “in order to avoid any possible loss of altitude and the risk of crashing.”
According to Balli, the Italian AAA faction presented its Pimax system at Netmage, an audio-visual festival in Bologna, in 2000. The group was promised “large sums of money” by the festival’s organizers to fund their invention, but the money never materialized. So for now, the “research” which resulted from the AAA’s activities inhabits a developmental purgatory, caught in the twilight space between science and fiction, which seems to be a good description of the fate of the AAA as a whole.
For Chardonnet and his comrades, the AAA lives on as a “collective phantom,” and they have used using the years which have elapsed since its dissolution for self-historification. Chardonnet, like many of the other members, continue to carry out projects in the name of AAA because while the association may be gone, the Autonomous Astronauts remain.
“The AAA is not a face for accomplishment anymore. It’s a slow permeation at the moment,” Ayers told me. “The AAA is in dormant state, rather than finished and burned out.”
In addition to scheming about the possibilities of future space travel as part of an extended dreamtime mission, the AAA recognized the need for self-historicization so that it might upset the dominant narratives of space travel and allow people to believe in a future in outer space which is not entirely dictated by corporate or military interest.
The group realized that the historicization process was bound to result in distortion of the facts and inaccuracies, but according to one AAA report these “emerging contradictions from the process of historification will ensure that the AAA will not be reduced to any single mythology.” The article that you now are reading and the contradictions and inaccuracies contained herein is thus a contributing factor to the mythologizing of this association of astronauts who still dream of building their own spaceships.
Many of these exclusive images were obtained with permission of Costanza Candeloro, who is hosting “Compagnia della Menzogna,” an exhibition dedicated to the AAA and other lies as artistic processes, which will run April 24-26 at MJ Gallery in Geneva, Switzerland.