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Award Holder: Lauren Reid
University: Freie Universität, Berlin
Title of Research: Thinking Beyond the Final Frontier: Cosmic Futures in Thailand

INTRODUCTION AND AIMS

My doctoral research focuses on how futures beyond Earth are envisioned and planned for in Thailand today. In light of the devastating effects of climate change, rapid technological development and the discovery of potentially habitable planets, various advocates are renewing the promise of space flight, exploration and settlement. Prominent space-focused communities such as Russia, China and the United States of America’s New Space cohorts, predominantly imagine space as a ‘new frontier’ to mine, inhabit and monetise. However, if space is to be the province of all humankind, as the signing of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty by 129 countries asserts, then my research aims to bring forth under-examined perspectives on potential futures beyond Earth by focusing on the cosmic aspirations, preparations and imaginaries of Thailand’s emergent space-interested communities.

It was only in 2013 that Thailand’s first astronomical institute officially opened. This, in turn, galvanised interest in the field, with specialised postgraduate programs now being offered there for the first time. As a result, knowledge and investment in astronomy and space science is rapidly developing in Thailand today. At the same time, space-interested religious groups, such as the extraterrestrial believers of UFO Kaokala, draw on a combination of Buddhist and animist belief systems, combined with influences from science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters. UFO Kaokala members train their minds based on Buddhist principles in preparation for a predicted imminent apocalypse. In doing so, they aim to communicate with extraterrestrials, transcend their attachments and ego to in turn, transcend the Earth. The concurrence of Thailand’s fledgling space science and technology sector with overarching Buddhist and animist ontologies provides fertile ground for thinking through the countless ethical and philosophical questions about what space exploration and inhabitation mean for Earth’s ecosystems, human and non-human populations, the existence of possible life in space, and the kinds of impacts we might have on the cosmos.

The aims of this research were twofold: I wanted to first understand how futures in outer space are imagined and speculated on in Thailand. Second, I sought to explore how Thailand’s emergent space-focused communities might enrich and challenge questions about human life beyond Earth. To do so, I focused on scientific, religious and artistic communities in Thailand to investigate in which key contexts outer space is discussed and visualised; how outer space and in particular our roles in space are imagined; what aspirations and concerns there are for human space exploration; and what historical, political or religious influences are found within conceptions of outer space.

METHODOLOGY

Throughout 2018 - 2019, I conducted 12 months of continuous multi-sited fieldwork in Thailand. Since entering outer space is a deeply human endeavour, involving not just technology, but culture, emotion, politics and more, it was important to me to consider the topic from a variety of perspectives. Scientists have, perhaps, the most ‘direct’ contact with outer space and are developing the technology and knowledge to ‘get us there’. However, religious cosmologies have long informed both our understanding of the universe, life, and who we are. Projecting forward, artists play an important role in creating imaginative speculations that can inspire and frighten, prophesise and warn. Therefore, I centred my research on individuals and organisations in scientific, religious and artistic fields.

To study the scientific community, I conducted semi-structured interviews with staff at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT), Geo-Informatic and Satellite Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) and Mu Space, Thailand’s first space start-up, which opened in 2017. I additionally observed the activities at space-related museums, such as the Bangkok Planetarium and Space Inspirium, a museum founded by GISTDA.

For the religious community, I observed and participated in the activities of the Buddhist extraterrestrial contactee group UFO Kaokala. After building rapport, I collaborated on a short film with members. Since film can create impossible leaps through time and space, as well as depict images, sounds and sensations that are far from everyday reality, I included filmmaking as a method through which to understand the un-Earthly experiences of the UFO Kaokala informants.

To gain further context for my field work, I investigated the history of astronomy in Thailand, and how sacred concepts split from scientific ones over time. My research took me to significant astro-historical sites and events such as Bun Bang Fai, a traditional festival in Isan and Laos where rockets are competitively launched into the heavens as an offering for a successful rainy season before planting crops.

Finally, I drew on my background as a curator and embedded myself in Bangkok and Chiang Mai’s artistic community by building rapport with artist informants, presenting a public exhibition about outer space and hosting two workshops in which participants worked together to create a short film about a fictional encounter in outer space. The second workshop brought together participants from all three of my field sites for the first time: artists, astronomers, curators, UFO Kaokala members and a Buddhist monk.

CHALLENGES IN THE FIELD

After arriving in Thailand, certain conceptual and logistical realisations led me to adapting my approach. This included shifting one of my field sites to Bangkok for five months, instead of the initially proposed Nakhon Sawan. Nakhon Sawan is home to the headquarters of UFO Kaokala, where I was to observe and participate in their activities and host collaborative filmmaking workshops. However, upon arrival, I discovered that the core group members are very dispersed and meet irregularly. Instead, I visited Nakhon Sawan for overnight trips when the group gathered together. Based on built-up rapport with two key informants in Bangkok, Ann Thongcharoen and Ploy Buranasi, the collaborative filmmaking took on a more organic form in which we worked together to write a script and film scenes about their beliefs.

During my fieldwork, I also adapted my initial proposal concept, which began with a focus on ‘conceptions and representations’ of outer space, i.e. what space ‘looked like’. After starting with a visual culture analysis of outer space in contemporary art, it became clear that this direction was too broad. I sharpened my focus to concentrate more specifically on how futures in outer space are imagined and speculated on in Thailand. Additionally, rather than concentrating on art as a subject of study unto itself, I applied it as a ‘method’ to my research. Through this approach, I gathered further data through curating an exhibition, hosting workshops and collaborating on making the aforementioned short film with UFO Kaokala members.

THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTIONS

My fieldwork led me to diverse astro-technological encounters at the tops of the Thai mountains: from observing NARIT’s cutting-edge telescope at Doi Inthanon, to receiving extraterrestrial ‘technology’ through meditation on Kaokala in Nakhon Sawan. This wide-ranging and in-depth ethnographic study of space cultures in Thailand contributes to significant discussions within cultural anthropology, particularly in relation to outer space, the posthuman turn and Thai studies.

Anthropologists of outer space strongly argue that the cosmos beyond Earth is a crucial site for examining practices of social production and imagining the future in social terms (Valentine, Olson, Battaglia 2009; Finney 1992; Maruyama, Harkins 1975; Harris 2009). Further, the aspirations of outer space as a ‘new frontier’ to colonise and monetise (for example, in cases of space tourism and asteroid mining) have been extensively critiqued by academics like Lisa Messeri (2016) and J.A. Grier (2019). Such research is incredibly important to explore how possible extraterrestrial ventures bring forth new forms of the colonial. However, much of the fieldwork is focused on the prominent players in space: NewSpacers, NASA, American UFO believers, ESA etc. A primary research focus on the dominant space organisations means that anthropology’s blossoming subfield of outer space runs the risk of, in turn, creating a blind spot to marginalised viewpoints that are not at the forefront of space exploration. Through my research, therefore, I aim to constructively open up the myriad ways of approaching cosmic futures beyond the presently limited scope by exploring the relatively peripheral perspective of Thailand.

I chose to situate my research in Thailand because on one hand, the Thai space-science community is young and in the process of establishing itself, while on the other, Thai culture is particularly marked by animist beliefs, which have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist cosmology. I began my research informed and inspired by theorists of the posthuman turn who have sought to reorient ways of inhabiting and understanding worldly ecologies as global humanity is faced with growing knowledge of the environmental consequences of anthropocentric forms of life (Descola 2005; Viveiros de Castro 2009; Tsing 2015; Haraway 2016; Kohn 2013; Latour 2014, 2015). In a similar vein, I sought to explore whether, through a Thai animist lens, outer space may be considered less as a ‘final frontier’ akin to the Wild West and more as a vibrant and alive ecosystem to exist within. During my fieldwork, however, I observed a multitude of worldviews in both the scientific and religious communities that informed extraterrestrial aspirations, preparations and imaginaries. For UFO Kaokala in particular, their beliefs are not only rooted in Buddhism and animism, but also include influences from North American conspiracy theories and Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Avengers and X-Men. The group considers the human mind as ‘technology’ that can be enhanced or ‘upgraded’ through cognitive training, existing within a larger ‘matrix’ or ‘system’ of consciousness. These ideas would not go astray among the Transhumanist and Singularitarian movements that are especially popular in Silicon Valley. This research, therefore, takes a kaleidoscopic approach through which to build new understandings about budding futures in outer space, taking into consideration influences that cross the religious and indigenous as well as the futurist and techno-political.

Within the context of Thailand, this project marks the first comprehensive study of how human futures beyond Earth are imagined and planned for there. There have been studies on the emergence of astrophysics in Thailand (Nakamura, Orchiston 2017), space science and astronomy education in Thailand (Anantasook, Yuenyong, Hume 2015 and Chinnalong 2015), analyses of the connections between culture and the cosmos in Southeast Asia (Ambrosio 2008), and a significant body of anthropological research focused on animist beliefs related to nature and spirits within it (Allerton 2009; Ingawanij 2003; Boehler 2011). There has not, however, been a concentrated research project of this kind.

During my fieldwork, it was particularly striking that outer space is used as a tool to produce cultural capital for the different informants. Fantasies of a life on Mars or a holiday on the Moon are promoted by scientific organisations like NARIT, GISTDA and MuSpace to inspire young generations of Thai people to enter into STEM careers. Further, the Thai government is implementing policies to shift the nation to an ‘innovation-led’ economy, in which space entrepreneurism plays a key role. Imaginaries of ‘far-off’ futures are, therefore, very much grounded on Earth in Thailand’s socio-political present. By examining cosmic projections across different scales - from the ‘micro’-perspectives of Thai space-interested communities, to contemporary Thailand’s socio-political trajectory, to a ‘macro’-perspective of humankind as a space-faring species - this research holds up a kind of ‘cosmic mirror’ that tells us just as much about ourselves and our present position on Earth, as it does about potential futures beyond it.

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