If you were to walk to the intersection of L and 17th Streets NW in Washington, DC, you would discover a large plywood drum: eight feet in diameter and 12 feet long, with an inverted cone sticking out the end. It resides in an otherwise vacant corner of a glass-enclosed section of prime, ground floor real estate, in an office building one block north of the only street in America known for its lobbying.
The project, entitled Satellite, is the work of Peter Winant and Tom Ashcraft, professors at George Mason University operating under the umbrella of Workingman Collective, a decade-old partnership with co-founder Janis Goodman, and scores of collaborators over the years. Satellite is a replica of the first commercial communication satellite to be put into space, Intelsat 1, nicknamed Early Bird, which was launched into space 50 years ago. “We wanted to make Satellite as part of an earlier project [Early Bird] at Tysons Corner [Virginia], where the new headquarters for Intelsat has re-located,” noted Ashcraft and Winant. Intelsat is the contemporary entity that created the Intelsat 1. Unfortunately, the satellite form didn’t fit into the installation, “so we held it in our inventory for a future opportunity.”
The original satellite, currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Insitution’s Air and Space Museum, is a quarter of the size of the sculpture on L street. Apart from it’s scale, what Ashcraft and Winant also found compelling about the satellite was its handmade quality. In contrast with the sleekly designed technological gadgets of today, which look untouched by human hands, the more clunky-looking Intelsat 1 possesses a human innocence to it. “[It’s] basically like, even in form, the tin can telephones many of us made as kids,” recalled the artists. And to draw attention to that quality, the use of plywood inherently relates to an object more of the passersby might relate to.
Many of Workingman Collective’s past work have some element of social engagement, like Cooler Shake, an 8-hour video loop of artists in the collective shaking hands with the public, played in side a cabinet between a water cooler. Or, Pine, which constructed a regulation-sized ping pong table and viewing benches in a public space at James Madison University. Many of their projects have continuing undercurrents of public spaces where people gather to talk. Satellite, in some respects, is antithetical to that given its relative inaccessibility inside an enclosed glass box. However, the implications of the replica have a different spin on social interaction: it comments on the dawn of an age when you could reach out and touch someone half a world away.
At the very least, the passersby could see the sculpture as it was being constructed. Represented by Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, DC, Workingman Collective is not the first group of artists to use the corner space on L Street. After an agreement was struck with Lenkin Company—the building’s owners—painter Steve Cushner, also represented by Hemphill, transformed the space into his studio last December, covering up the windows by day, and revealing the progress of a 12’x30’ painting each evening. Conversely, Ashcraft and Winant were on display during the construction of Satellite, from mid March until April 4, when the construction was completed, two days before the 50th anniversary of the satellite’s launch into space. It deinstalls after June 27, the day before the 50th anniversary of the satellite’s activation. “it was purely happy coincidence that we were offered the space concurrent with the anniversary,” noted Ashcraft and Winant.