Speculative designer Martina Zheng seeks to critically analyse the implications of outer space exploration in relation to migration, communication geography, nationhood, and power structures.

Is This Earth. Is This Mars. This is an Emergency” is a speculative design project devised by multi-disciplinary designer Martina Zheng, with the purpose to raise awareness on the current refugee crisis.

Guided forward by José Luis de Vicente’s take on the infamous Jameson/Fisher axiom, (“It is easier to imagine space tourism and extra-terrestrial extractivism than the end of capitalism”), Zheng criticises the contemporary immigration discourses through the lens of Mars—or, more broadly—of inter-planetary colonisation.

Martina Zheng, Is This Earth. Is This Mars. This is an Emergency, Spacesuit

We increasingly hear about a possible human settlement from private aerospace companies, such as SpaceX or Blue Origin, that are investing their capital into manufacturing infrastructures that would make space travel open to anyone. The recent crewed space launch is the first to be operated by a commercial company and marks a new era opening new scenarios on the rights, economics, and tourism of space. 

The colonisation of Mars is becoming a reality. In its new state of being, the colonisation of Mars is also becoming the property of capitalism, with yet to come consequences that are nevertheless well known to us—those who are aware of the colonising capabilities of capitalism: resource exploitation, economic instability, repression, climate change, land degradation. A world where Earth is the present and Mars is the future is being created. While we are actually facing climate calamities on Earth, the red planet is seen as a solution that could save the human species from extinction. If that is the case, we are all going to be refugees at some point. 

Zheng’s intention is to create empathy through fiction, to put the viewer as protagonist of this makeshift narrative and ask themselves: what if this was me? The spacesuit—made of objects handed out to refugees today (tents, life jackets, emergency blankets, and water)—is a reminder that the refugee crisis is happening now and that it concerns everyone. This is a call to end the strict and severe immigration policies that are affecting millions of refugees and a call to recognise climate refugees.

Along the same lines of speculative exercise, Martina Zheng’s “Martian Republic Union Passport” tackles the bureaucratic dimension of inter-planetary capitalism.

This fictitious form of identification exists in a parallel world, where Mars is the present and Earth is the future. As a piece of speculative design, the passport is in fact an invitation to reconsider the privileges of someone who is in the possession of something so banal such a passport. Zheng aims therefore to re-centre the dominant discourse on those who are not in possession of such bureaucratic platitudes, and to reflect upon the contemporary meanings of borders and border-crossings.

Martina Zheng, Martian Republic Union Passport

We are used to picture geographical boundaries as lines on a map, as walls and fences in real life. While these are indeed material manifestations of borders, Zheng reminds us that, in its most essential form, the border remains an obstacle that has become so normalised and widely-accepted that it can also be present in less violent forms and shapes. The foremost obstacle of moving from one nation to another often starts with passports and visas. With bureaucratic hurdles that are of a vicious kind of symbolic violence.

Martina Zheng, Martian Republic Union Passport, Visa application form

Passports, therefore, do not only act as a document of identification, or as official records that grant the right to move from one place to another; a passport is also an object that makes up a state in its most basic, conceptual dimension. What kind of nation-state would Mars be, if it were to be one? Although worlds might be reversed in the foreseeable future, the stake remains the same:

How is colonising Earth different from colonising Mars?

Who benefits from the colonisation of Earth?

Who gets to go to Earth?

By reversing the questions and analysing them from this perspective, we become increasingly aware of how romanticised the discourse pertaining to the colonisation of Mars has always been. As subjects who critically tackle normative understandings, we come to the realisation that planetary exploration needs to be approached with a pluralistic as well as critical methodology. Finally, onto this conceptual background, can we then reimagine our present systems and practices through fiction and world building? 

Martina Zheng, Martian Republic Union Passport

Martina Zheng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in London. Her work critically engages with social, cultural, and political issues. She is currently analysing the implications of outer space exploration in relation to communication geography, nationhood, and power structures. Martina employs speculative design as a mean to imagine alternative presents.