Time machines, false memory, earthly landscape, moon rock gardening, flying saucers, lunacy, galactic adventures and the occasional rabbit. That's the world sketched by Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser. Roughly speaking, Sue is a printmaker and Hagen is a 'New New Media' artist but together they are more than the sum of their parts, they are We Colonised the Moon.
The work of WCTM is clever and nonsensical, dreamy and rooted in techno-scientific experiments. It is driven by its own logic. I'm not sure that the interview below is going to lift the whole mystery behind their work but i certainly had a lot of fun in the attempt.
Hello Sue and Hagen! I discovered your work a year ago, when you were showing '101 Harmless Scientific Experiments To Try At Home' at the Acme Project Space in London but you've obviously worked on many ideas and projects right after that. What are you up to this Summer?
Sue: This summer we have had two shows running, at EB&Flow in London and Villa Rosenthal in Germany. The shows are both mostly dealing with work we have done together over the last couple of years. Most recently we have been working on ideas about astronaut training and space maintenance, shooting a lot of videos and building moon rocks out of authentic moon dust simulant.
Hagen: This is definitely the direction we are focusing on now. Installation, video projection, artefacts, movement and performance. We started more 2D for sure because we came together through making graphic work, we continue to make prints but most of the time we're working on installations now.
You come from different backgrounds. Sue is involved in printmaking and illustration while Hagen used to work mostly with video and conceptual art. How did you two get to work together?
Sue: Pure accident. We literally bumped into each other at a bus stop in Norway. Hagen was in a residency programme at the Nordic Artists' Center in Dale (NDK) and I was visiting to make a short illustration project about forests and star constellations there.
Hagen: It all started a bit like RUN DMC and Aerosmith working together as studio neighbours.
Sue: Dale is surrounded by the most amazing Norwegian mountain and fjord landscapes. We made an expedition to Sognefjellet, a Photoshop perfect wilderness, and had endless discussions about how reality is constructed. In the process we discovered some shared interests. We both had backgrounds in science and media. My parents were chemists. Hagen was a junior astronomer in an observatory close to Heidelberg in Germany. I worked for a spell in advertising and multimedia. Hagen had been an art director for a design agency.
Hagen: Through endless hikes and talks about The Clangers, YPS, Blue Peter, Particles, Heinz von Foerster, Constructivist epistemology and so on somehow we came to the point where we thought it could be an interesting idea to work on a project together.
Sue: The ideas we generated during this trip were so fun that I definitely wanted to work like this more. And it was obvious Hagen had absolutely no idea about printmaking!
Hagen: True. I thought only about my little A4 laser jet. Oh boy :) But she convinced me the quick cartoon style sketches I make for my works would work really well as silkscreens. So this is how a nature encounter, theory, two different illustration styles, childhood interests, professional skills and ink became the starting point for our collaboration ... and even our name WE COLONISED THE MOON is made in Norway. Out of this small joint illustration / print project it became now an ongoing and growing collaboration since 2008.
You've '(re-)created' the smell of the moon in at least two exhibitions. How did you do that? How much of the result is the fruit of your imagination? Is this a pleasant smell?
Sue: Astronaut Charlie Duke, the tenth man to walk on the moon, said it was not unpleasant. The Apollo astronauts were drawn from the military. I think they knew what they were talking about when they likened the smell to gunpowder. Naturally this is their frame of reference but that's how we all interpret sensory information. I like the smell of burnt matches myself.
Hagen: No one can smell the moon directly of course. The vacuum in space prohibits this. But this gritty tacky meteor bombarded dust on the surface gets on to their spacesuits and back into the LEM. Then there is this massive reaction with oxygen and moisture. The loose molecules go off like firecrackers and generate the smell they experienced.
Sue: So, we had the smell synthesised by Steve Pearce, a chemist who is an international aroma expert in the UK. He makes flavours and smells commercially for his own company and had been approached by NASA some years ago to work on the smell of space for astronaut training.
Hagen: What's attractive to us about this phenomena is the strong link between smell and memory and the association with place, whether it's real or imagined is actually the crux the work we make hangs on.
Sue: Curator Caro Verbeek from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam knew we were working on the idea of space aromas and asked us to make a piece for her for the event "Do It Smell It" on olfactory art in 2010. We came up with the idea of a scratch and sniff postcard from the moon. A momento from a place most people will never go. A fictional memory.
Hagen: Then in 2011 for a commission from The Arts Catalyst and FACT Liverpool we created an installation for the exhibition Republic of the Moon. Visitors could enter (on own risk) a film-set like test chamber. Periodically an astronaut resprayed an array of "authentic" moon rocks with synthesised lunar aroma. As longer you stayed in the environment as more you got pollinated with moon smell. After you left, the smell travelled for several hours with you on your clothes out into the city.
Sue: At the moment we are also doing a lot of "Live Moon Smellings" using helium balloons and pins! We have enough smell left to pollinate an area twice the size of the Olympic stadium.
What's behind the name We Colonised the Moon?
Sue: I guess it's really a kind of band name. A comment one of us made when we saw how lunar the glacier region we visited in Norway looked. It just stuck.
Hagen: The truth is the name comes from an encounter with an electricity pylon. Surrounded by this pristine wilderness the pylon looked like the first man made structure on a virgin planet -- which more or less then created the idea that this might be what it looks like when we start to colonise the moon.
Sue: So no, we're not necessarily all about science or space or pylons. We just started there.
By the way, Hagen can you tell us what are the scope, objectives and functions of the Institute of General Theory?
The Institute of General Theory is a project of indeterminate duration, for anything. It operates in an undefined area, in the grey zone where there is no distinction between fiction and science, art and craft, independent work and self exploitation; between game, experiment and paid work, between experimental and studio space, or between museum and university.
After I graduated in 2001 at Merz Akademie Stuttgart, the Institute of General Theory became, besides my daily agency design job, my independent playground for experimental projects. Then, when I became a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2005 the Institute turned into my full time artistic career. It's my operational format and combines pretty much everything I am interested in since early childhood until today in a professional dilettante way.
I have another question for you, Hagen, your short bio says that your "artistic practice is exploring the gaps and connections between art and science to create New New Media." I sometimes write about the connections between art and science so i'm interested in your mentioning of the gaps between them? What are the most interesting/fascinating gaps between art and science? And should they remain gaps or should they somehow be made to disappear?
Hagen: Working with scientists is mostly fun and generates often interesting results for both sides. But academic artistic research makes me grumpy! There is a lot of art-science-art, science-art-science that takes itself way too serious that even tumbleweed would stop to roll. New New Media is Post Artistic Research, liberated from University fantasies about how things should be done according to the most recently developed textbooks.
Sue: I grew up with the Clangers and Blue Peter and a DIY attitude to life. What I like about the way Hagen operates is I can walk right in and join in without worrying if we do it right. Misunderstanding is actually even productive.
Hagen: In the last couple of years there is so much sophisticated theory that it is sometime hard to see the art behind it. I am not saying my own work is not based on mountains of theory but I like to offer the observer first an enjoyable view and if he wants he can go and discover as much more as he wants in my landscape and not the other way around.
Sue: This suits me too. I think theory like technology should not be the thing you notice first.
Last summer, you were showing 101 (Almost) Harmless (Mostly) Scientific Experiments to Try at Home in London. Could you share some of them with us?
Hagen: Haha! The biggest experiment was definitely being holed up together for two months in ACME Project Space, a studio in Bethnal Green. Two options, homicide or art.
Sue: Indeed! Normally we work together on and off for say a couple of weeks max at a time and in between the work goes on online. This was altogether a different experience.
Hagen: The project was inspired actually by a children's book on science from the 1950s I think. You know the kind of thing. Make Your Own Atomic Bomb in 5 Easy Lessons.
Sue: What people want to get up to in the privacy of their own homes is their business. Mostly I guess it does not involve black holes but I think amateur science is a great tradition which should be encouraged. So we decided to tackle anti-gravity with an electric hoist, built our own design for a future satellite disguised as an asteroid and began a campaign against cosmic rays.
Hagen: From what I learnt the Scottish Enlightenment seems to have taken place mostly in the pubs of Leith. I have no problem with that. Dilettantism was always a powerful driving force for progress and only in recent times has it become this negative aftertaste. I am very happy to be a professional Dilettante!
Any upcoming projects, exhibition, residency, public presentation you could share with us?
Sue: The next thing we are definitely participating in this year is a special three day "Kosmica" festival at Laboratorio Arte Alameda with curator Nahum Mantra in Mexico City. "Republic of the Moon" will also travel on from Liverpool too and some more actions are in the pipeline.
Hagen: Also in September my latest work as the Institute of General Theory, "A Bucket full of Particles" will be part of On Dilettantism a wonderful show curated by Frank Motz at Halle 14, at Spinnerei in Leipzig, Germany.
... and of course ... (say it loud now!) ... NO COSMIC RAYS!
Thanks Sue and Hagen!
Authentic Goods from a Realistic Future is at EB&Flow, London until 1st September, 2012
It's hard to believe that the first tourist flight into space might already be planned for next year. But Joseph Popper is probably not very impressed by the prospect because he came up with an idea so bold even Richard Branson would think twice before funding it. The designer believes that there aren't many unknown territories for men to explore, really. One of the very few thrilling adventures left to mankind would be to send one person on a voyage into deep space from where they will not return.
And that's exactly what The One-Way Ticket proposes to do.
He obviously didn't test the idea himself but designed film-making props, contraptions and sets that follow the dogma 'zero gravity, zero budget'. The final short film comprises a collection of episodes transmitted from the spacecraft.
I need to repeat the idea: Send. One. Person. In. Space. Without. The. Prospect. Of. Ever. Coming. Back. And so i asked all the silly questions for you. Because that's what i'm here for.
Hi Joseph! Your project proposes to send one person on a voyage into deep space from where they will not return. Who would want to go on such journey?
I believe a person willing to go would not be so hard to find. The project emerged from an observation that we are running out of unknown frontiers to explore in the expedition sense - certainly on our own planet and it's near surroundings. Mount Everest, Antarctica and even the Moon have all transformed in our imagination from mythical bastions of discovery into touted destinations for extreme tourism. I am interested in this predicament, particularly surrounding ideas of space travel.
I propose a one-way journey as one of "the last adventures". This is how skydiver Felix Baumgartner described his attempt to break the record for the highest, fastest jump from the edge of Earth's atmosphere - so maybe he would want to go?
Is there a panic button? An emergency exit for the lonely traveler? Or is there really no way they can ever get back to earth? Is his or her wellbeing onboard ever monitored or catered for?
In my mind there is no panic button, no emergency exit, no return. The wellbeing for the astronaut is certainly catered for in order for them to complete the mission. In the project I focused more on different aspects of the astronaut's experience inside the space capsule, rather than the external workings of the mission architecture.
Do you have an idea of how far away in space the spaceship would be able to go? Or would it just rotate around the Earth?
What about communication with the Earth? Is there any?
The issue of communication with Earth has certainly been an important part of my research. The further we travel away from Earth we are subject to longer and longer delays in our communication with it: when you reach Mars it takes about 27 minutes for any sort of transmission from your spacecraft to reach home. It is therefore impossible to hold a normal conversation between two distant planets, and this factor contributes to psychological issues that include isolation, loneliness and also boredom.
But is it technically possible? How would the rocket or spaceship be powered for such a long period of time? And does the spaceship ever return to earth or does it become space junk?
In designing the mission scenario I have tried to abide by existing space mission principles and hardware. Archived mission plans that were never realised have also been important starting points for deciding on the trajectory of the spacecraft and time frame of the voyage. So yes, I will say it is technically possible to send someone beyond Mars with the technology we have today.
The text accompanying the work in the exhibition says "the exhibited works are a response to research into a range of human factors particular to the mission that also underline its extraordinary nature." Could you tell us what these human factors are? Are they physical? Emotional? and what the lone trip has to do with them?
The human factors range across many different issues - from the physical to the psychological and philosophical. Many of these directly relate to existing concerns and research around actual long duration space missions, and also to living in more hostile environments like Antarctica or on the International Space Station. However, when you simply take "coming back" out of the equation many of the questions are thrown wide open again.
These hint at some of the various questions I explored in my research, leading to some very interesting debates and conversations with different experts. We can find many examples in space mission analogues that simulate certain aspects of a one-way voyage. However what struck me most is that, as we are talking about something completely unprecedented, we can only ever really speculate on what such a voyage would be like until someone actually goes.
All images courtesy Joseph Popper.
In order of appearance: Joseph Popper proposes to send one person on a journey into deep space from where they will never return, Neil Usher designed a robot that finds human faces in the clouds, Shing Tat Chung looks at what would happen if traders and estate agents gave free reign to superstition and Tobias Revell talks about the timeline that charts the history of power up to the early 22nd century and how that 24/7 banking ship fits into the picture.
The radio show is broadcast tomorrow Monday 2nd July at 16.30 (GMT.) There will be a repeat on Thursday at 22.30. You can catch it online if you don't live in London. And of course we have podcasts (i just need to find a good place for them on the blog.)
I hope you like it!
There's an exhibition featuring sci-fi, history, video games, sexuality, soap operas, censorship and a powerful sense of humour at Cornerhouse in Manchester right now. The show is called Subversion and it questions and knocks around whatever assumption you might have about an homogenous 'Arab world', whatever image politicians and the media might have given you about its culture and identity.
Curator Omar Kholeif explained in an interview with Film International: I worked with artists [...] who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition. Together they reference a deep culture of subversion that traces back to the 1940s and 50s with the work of the Egyptian trickster, Ismail Yassin, whose slapstick film performances poked fun at the roles that many Arabs had to play under a militarised social condition. With Subversion we bring this narrative up to date for the good of our artists and our audiences.
The show opens on the video of a Palestinian astronaut landing on the moon. Given the fact that the Nakba has been going on for 64 years now, one wouldn't be surprised to hear that one day, the empty celestial body might become yet another place of refuge for the uprooted population. Larissa Sansour's A Space Exodus propels a Palestinian astronaut into an adaptation of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Referencing Neil Armstrong's moon landing, a voice can be heard saying that this was 'a small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind'.
Meanwhile, small Palestinauts are quietly invading the exhibition floor....
Upstairs, Sansour is showing another project, the preview of The Nation Estate, a work conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. The Nation Estate gained fame after Lacoste attempted to censor it by withdrawing its sponsorship for a photo prize to which the young artist had been shortlisted.
In this sci-fi photo series (which will later be accompanied by a video), Palestinians have finally been conceded their own state in the form of a single skyscraper. Erected outside the city of Jerusalem and unsurprisingly surrounded by concrete walls, the building of 'the Nation Estate' houses the entire Palestinian population. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem is on the third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor; Bethleem, fifth floor; Nablus, sixth floor; Gaza, seventh floor, etc. Intercity trips previously hindered by checkpoints and soldiers are now made by elevator.
Tarzan and Arab live in Gaza (i was going to write 'come from' but that would suppose that they are allowed to get freely in and out of the territory), a region that has not had a functioning cinema since the 1980s. The artists didn't go to a film school either. Everything they learnt about cinema, they learnt through practice and by watching movies on satellite TV and illegal DVD copies. In 2003, they founded a media production company: Gazawood. Since then, their works have won awards, been banned by Hamas and shown in Europe and the U.S.
Cornerhouse is showing Colourful Journey, a short film set in a bombed-out Gaza building, and a series of posters that pastiche the Hollywood war movie genre. The title of each film sounds as action movie as it is possible: Summer Rain, Autumn Clouds, Defensive Shield, Sea Breeze, Cast Lead, etc. The cruel irony is that each of them is also the name of a Israeli military operation against Palestinians.
Wafaa Bilal is showing a video documenting the furore that surrounded the exhibition of Virtual Jihadi. The video is mounted on the wall of a rundown internet café where visitors are also invited to sit down and play the game.
Wafaa is from Iraq and, as is sometimes the case in his work, he plays with the way Western media portrays people from his home country.
Virtual Jihadi can be traced back to a military computer game called The Quest for Saddam that involved players fighting stereotypical Iraqi enemies and trying to kill the ex-Iraqi leader. The game in turn inspired an al-Qaida-produced spin-off called The Night of Bush Capturing with the ex- U.S. president as the target. For his piece, Bilal hacked into the al-Qaida game and inserted himself as a converted suicide bomber, who joins al-Qaida after learning that his brother has been murdered by US forces.
Bilal's version brings the attention to the personal sories and dilemmas experienced by civilians caught in a conflict zone. It also demonstrates that games of this kind, no matter who is writing them, leave little space for moral choices and subtlety. In fact, both were made to teach hate.
In March 2008, as he had just released Virtual Jihadi, Bilal gave a talk at the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (the video is available online) and an exhibition of Virtual Jihadi opened the same night... to be closed the day after.
Wafaa Bilal's installation re-opened a few days later in another gallery. Unfortunately, one day after the second opening the City of Troy censored the work again and closed the gallery due to "code volition."
In I've heard stories - part 1, Marwa Arsanios attempts to piece together rumors surrounding the now demolished Hotel Carlton. The hotel was a popular meeting place for gay men living in Beirut, Lebanon where homosexual acts are considered illegal. In its time (1973 to 1993), the hotel was also the setting of three murders that might or might not have been related to the sexual encounters. Among the victim of these (probably) passionate crimes was Lebanese politician and businessman Henri Pharaoun. The nature of the murders went unreported and Arsanios' reconstruction of the event blends drawings and videos, gossips and facts, in an effort to give the crime a place in the history of the city.
Subversion is on show in Galleries 1, 2 & 3 until Tue 5 June.
Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal.
There's only one week left to head to Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough and visit AV Festival, a biennial of contemporary art, music and film which main theme this year is As Slow As Possible.
One of the works on show is the extremely long-term project that sees Agnes Meyer-Brandis training a flock of young geese to fly to the moon. The whole training started last Spring and according to her schedule, the birds will go on their first unmanned flight to the satellite in 2024. However, the artist plans to accompany them on a later flight, most probably in 2027.
Meyer-Brandis' scientific experiment is inspired by The Man in the Moone, a story written in the early 17th century by English bishop Francis Godwin, a believer in the Copernican heliocentric system and of the latest theories in magnetism and astronomy. The book tells how Domingo Gonsales flies to the moon and gets to meet an advanced lunar civilization. The adventurer managed to escape the 'magnetic attraction of the earth' by harnessing a flock of birds called gansas, specifically trained for the purpose. Some critics regard the story as the first work of science fiction in English.
Since it has become so difficult to locate moon geese, Meyer-Brandis breeds her own moon geese. She acquired the eggs last April, named each of them after an astronaut, placed them in an incubator, watched over them, witnessed the hatching and imprinted herself on to them as their stand-in mother, just like Konrad Lorenz did with greylag geese.
The surrogate mother had to spend the weeks following the hatching in close contact with the eleven geese. The astronaut training started almost immediately, the young birds were encouraged to walk in a V-shape --the formation used to tow Godwin's chariot-- taken on expeditions into the mountains for high altitude training, taught how to use morse code devices for improved interspecies communication, and given lectures about astronomy and navigation.
The birds are currently continuing their training at Pollinaria (Italy), in an analogue that simulates the conditions of the Moon. Visitors of the show The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility in Newcastle can see a scaled model of the remote analogue site, admire the portraits of the astronauts, watch a documentary of the experiment and follow the birds daily life through the screens in the control room at the back of the gallery.
Documentation of the project and installation The Moon Goose Analogue:
Agnes Meyer-Brandis: The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility is part of the AV Festival and you can see the film and installation at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle through 31 March, 2012.
Also on view at the AV Festival: Slow Motion Car Crash.
Sorry i've been a bit slow coming up with the last chapter of Estación experimental [Experimental Station]. Opened a few weeks ago at Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, the exhibition looks at the way artists are inspired by scientific research.
The Lost in Space section of the exhibition explores the outer space, that part of the universe that excites the imagination of scientists and artists alike. Because of its high percentage of science fiction, enigma and political undertones, that was the part of the show i liked the best.
Kiluanji Kia Henda's project Icarus13 documents with photos, a model and a text the preparation for the first ever expedition to the sun led by the Angola government. The photos of the space station buildings and astronomy center are pretty impressive:
Only bummer is that everything about the Angolan sun mission is fiction and irony. The technical experts we see getting the Icarus 13 machinery ready for take off are in fact construction workers in Luanda that the artist photographed during raids work. And most of the buildings that look so perfect for a space mission are in fact vestiges from Angola's colonial history: Icarus 13 is an unfinished mausoleum left by the Russians in Angola. "The Centre for Astronomy" is a cinema that decolonization left unfinished. The images showing the lights on the departure of the ship were taken during the celebrations of the trip Angolan Black Antelopes' to the World Cup 2006, etc.
The name of the mission himself, Icarus 13, dooms any enterprise of the kind to failure: Icarus was after all that young man who, in Greek mythology, fell to his death while flying too close to the sun.
Maybe Jan Tichy's mysterious astronomic observatory is also planning an outer space trip.
Installation No. 4 (Towers) is part video, part architecture where light and darkness very slowly move over the models as if they were submitted to the rotation of the planets. However no one knows whether the buildings really belong to an astronomic observatory, or what the source of the light is. In fact, i suspect their purpose is a dark and disquieting one. What are these towers controlling, communicating or monitoring? We watch the whole subtle and slow transition from light to darkness, punctuated by clouds with troubling shades but we are nowhere near understanding what what is at stake in the work.
In his work, Tichy has often explored architecture and its political impact. This installation evokes a power that we see at work but have no means of stopping or influencing.
Lyn Hagan is the only artist in the show who physically engaged with space, more precisely with zero gravity. She took a cat and a mouse with her at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Moscow and filmed the way the animals experienced 10 parabolas of weightless (23 seconds each of zero gravity). The aim of the artist was to confirm whether the feline instinct remains in the absence of gravity. The slow motion film shows that the cat is too busy swinging around to pursue its prey. According to the catalogue (which you can download in PDF form), Hagan is currently working on the possibility of producing and filming a choreography that would be carried out by a robot on the surface of Mars.
Paloma Polo's The Path of Totality is a slide show of images of the bizarre eclipse observatories built from the mid-19th to the early 20th century in the USA, France, Germany and Italy, countries that invested in astrophysical research.
The catalogue grew through the artist's exchange with experts in astrophysics, who guided her search through libraries and archives at observatories and astronomical institutes.
The structures are precarious, erected in places strategically chosen for optimum observation of the phenomenon. Their only aim was to provide the best possible shelter for the instruments to study the astrophysical phenomenon.
The resulting catalogued archive of specific structures reflects the race for political and economic power by the countries that were vying against each other to prove their progress - also in the field of scientific research. All of them had extensive colonial territories spread throughout the planet, although, curiously, Spain was left out because, like Portugal, it had already fallen behind.
But Polo actually uses these images to lead us into the slippery subject of science instrumentalised by power, a recurring debate throughout history that repeatedly crops up in both art and science.
Image on the homepage: Lyn Hagan, Cat in zero gravity, 2008.