40 years after the first human left his foot print on the moon, space exploration is still the subject of enthusiasm, but also of debate about its justification. Scientific expeditions, satellite launches, and the emergence of space tourism are pushing us to reconsider our relationship with the planet.
While in Montreal for the Elektra festival, i went to the Canadian Center for Architecture to discover architects Greg Lynn, Michael Maltzan, and Alessandro Pol's views on space exploration and its impact on terrestrial realities. I'm still not sure why the 3 architects were brought together under the same roof but the diversity of their vision certainly made for an exciting ride.
In the exhibition Other Space Odysseys, Lynn, Maltzan, and Poli takes us on a journey, real and virtual, that will ultimately make us see life on our little blue planet under a different light. As CCA Director Mirko Zardini explained, "Other Space Odysseys has nothing to do with Space Architecture or architecture in outer space. It is not a celebration of high-tech architecture and imagery or extreme physical and mental conditions. Instead, this exhibition proposes a letting go of architecture understood as the production of material goods in favour of architecture as the production of ideas."
Alessandro Poli's vision of the Earth was changed radically by the 1969 moon landing. Suddenly the environment that man knew had to be described and reflected upon in broader terms. The earth was not the sole reference anymore. The most impressive, solid, the largest architecture man had ever conceived almost vanished compared to the scale of the universe
His projects in the exhibition explore different proposals for connecting the earth to the new reality of outer space. The film Architettura interplanetaria (1972) as well as the related collages and sketches, which he created as a member of the radical Italian architecture group Superstudio, imagine architecture at an interplanetary scale, with a highway that links the earth to the moon, family holidays in lunar landscapes and hybrid scenery featuring moon rocks and soccer fields.
Another of Poli and Superstudio's research projects challenged the optimism and technological dependence of space exploration through the personality of a Tuscan peasant called Zeno. Unlike the astronauts of the Apollo missions, who required sophisticated capsules and suits to survive in their new environments, Zeno used and reused the same objects to become completely self-sufficient. I didn't understand whether Zeno was a fictitious character or not but i doubt he ever met Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in Riparbella as Poli's 2008 collage would have it.
Greg Lynn's projects present a very different approach to architectural prospects offered by space exploration.
Animated movies and digitally fabricated models present New City, a parallel virtual reality in which all of the earth's inhabitants reside in a single, interconnected and manifolds city.
Also on view are models and documentation of N.O.A.H. (New Outer Atmospheric Habitat), four planets developed for the science fiction film Divide, as well as drawings and animation of space colonies that explore the notion of 'ground' in the absence of gravity.
Michael Maltzan's proposed new building for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California. His designs attempt to reflect the dichotomy between earthbound scientists and their work at the scale of outer space.
Other Space Odysseys is curated by CCA Curator of Contemporary Architecture Giovanna Borasi and CCA Director Mirko Zardini, in active collaboration with the architects.
Other Space Odysseys: Greg Lynn, Michael Maltzan, Alessandro Poli, on view at the Canadian Center for Architecture through September 19, 2010.
Finally kicking off my reports on the last edition of Transmediale. Starting by taking the side door, the one that opens on an exhibition and performance which were part of the 'off' programme of the festival. Both focus on one of the latest artistic enterprises of Agnes Meyer-Brandis. Most of you know by now that there's as much fantasy as science in Agnes' works. This time she played the role of Alice in wonderclouds for a series of experiments in weightlessness.
In September 2007, on occasion of the tenth parabolic flight campaign of the DLR (German Aerospace Center), Agnes Meyer-Brandis was invited to participate in one of its zero-gravity flights, which are primarily reserved for scientific purposes, and to work under conditions of temporary weightlessness on her art project Cloud Core Scanner. I don't think i'd have the nerve for the experience. Nor the stomach. The aircraft used for zero gravity flights are given the delightful nickname of Vomit Comet, you see.
Here's what happens during one of these parabolic flights: The aircraft lifts its nose towards the sky at an angle of 45 degrees. The plane is 'pushed over' the top to reach the zero-gravity segment of the parabolas. The crew then experience about 25 seconds of weightlessness. At approximately 30 degrees 'nose low' a gentle pull-out is started which brings back everyone and everything on the aircraft floor. Finally, the g-force is increased smoothly to about 1.8 g's until the aircraft reaches a flight altitude of 24,000 feet. The roller-coaster experience is obviously repeated dozens of time.
The objective of Agnes was to study what she calls "cloud cores" in a state of weightlessness. These small particles suspended in the air form the basis for the formation of clouds. The water in the air condensates around these particles/cores. This accumulation of water becomes a drop and many drops generate a cloud. The artist developed probes capable of observing the otherwise elusive cloud cores.
Agnes took two instruments on board with her. The first one, the CCS, is the first ever picture generating instrument for examining the behaviour of the smallest particles in the clouds' interior - the famous cloud cores- during the zero gravity flight. The second apparatus is the ADM-Filmbox (ADM = Animation Durch Mikrogravitation, in english Animation Through Microgravitation) which she used to capture in images even the fastest among the tiniest cloud cores.
The world of Cloud Core can be observed inside what looks like little snow globes:
Last month, Agnes shared her discoveries in Berlin through an exhibitions and two evenings of performances.
The exhibition explored the formation of clouds and the fusion of art and science during zero gravity.
As the press blurb said: The Material, generated under unearthly conditions, mixes and raises the issue of communication structures of contemporary art with some quite surreal forms of science (nanotechnology, Fluid-dynamic research, meteorology). As central metaphor as well as the main focus of the filmed procedures serves the theory of cloud formation.
The accompanying performance "Making Clouds, or On the Absence Of Weight - A Contemporary Traveling Movie Show" combined the performance itself with lectures, both by Agnes and by a scientist expert in nephology, screenings of movies, experiments in science and cloud formation.
I'm not entirely sure that i understood everything that was going on that evening but i'd be ready to forget about vertigo and put my head inside the clouds if that's half as exciting an experience as the one we caught a glimpse of during Agnes' performance.
Tomas Saraceno's Galaxies Forming along Filaments, like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider's Web was the ultimate photo-magnet at this year's Venice Biennale. No doubt the work he's exhibiting at ReThink: Contemporary Art and Climate Change in Copenhagen is meeting with the same fascination from the audience. I've seen his artworks in numerous group exhibition. They are always striking of course but i never really took the time to sit down and watch his work with enough attention.
MUDAM gave me a great opportunity to do just that. The Luxembourg museum is currently dedicating one of its exhibitions to the Argentinian artist with videos, sketches, photo documentation of his experiments, prototypes of inflatable structures anchored to the floor of the galleries, etc.
The artist's suspended gardens and nomadic architecture follow the steps of the structures conceived by Peter Cook, Yona Friedman, Buckminster Fuller and the members of Ant Farm. Saraceno's vehicles are "lighter than air", they are powered by solar energy and made with materials such as aerogel, an extremely low-density solid derived from a gel in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas.
His Air-Port-City is an ongoing experiment that interconnects various living areas floating in the air through a system of modules. Saraceno's architecture is ethereal and delicate, it is poetical and utopian but because they are ruled by regulations similar to airport ones, his cities also challenge existing political, social, cultural and military boundaries. They are truly international. Inhabitants will survive eating the produces of the "Flying Gardens" made of plants that can survive the constant changes in spatial and temporal conditions. There will be 'airplants' for example. These plants, from the genus Tillandsia, feed on rain, dust, insect matter, dew and whatever nutrients the air brings to them.
Previously at MUDAM: Mudam, the Museum of Modern Art in Luxembourg (part 1) and Mudam (part 2): RRRIPP!! Paper Fashion.
The Maison Européenne de la Photographiein Paris is currently hosting the 10th edition of the Festival @rt Outsiders. (Un)Inhabitable? - Art of Extreme Environments explores the meaning of living in extreme environments.
These environments are either those that were, until recently, uninhabited by human beings and that contemporary science and technology is turning into "inhabitable" places (Antarctica, underwater world, outer space, deserts); or they are those that the consequences of man's actions have ruined and made "uninhabitable" for himself but also for other species.
It seems that every single European city is coming up with its own global warming-infused exhibition. @rt Outsiders was smart enough to narrow the focus of its show and to present a couple of artworks that stand out for their complexity, beauty and sense of involvement with the subject.
One of them is Sounds from Dangerous Places, Chernobyl, by sound artist Peter Cusack. Since the nuclear catastrophe of April 26, 1986 nature at Chernobyl seems to be thriving. As humans were evacuated from the exclusion zone around the nuclear power station over 20 years ago, animals moved in. Existing populations multiplied and species not seen for decades began to return (although not every scientist agrees with the statement that the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweigh the risks of low-level radiation.)
Sounds from Dangerous Places, Chernobyl is part of a broader project by Cusack to collect sounds from sites which have sustained major environmental damage. Impressed by the natural sounds of springtime in the Ukrainian city --dawn chorus, nighttime concert as well as frogs and nightingales-- the artist coupled photographs taken at and around Chernobyl with sound recordings. The sound of birds singing, the view of lovely old houses and wild flowers contrast with the sinister image we have of dilapidated buildings and the invisible radioactivity crackling through Geiger counters. This is one of the most striking works in the show as it's one of the rare artworks that explores Chernobyl without stopping at its potential for spectacularity and drama. As Cusack writes:
There is, often, an extreme dichotomy between an aesthetic response and knowledge of the 'danger', whether it is pollution, social injustice, military or geopolitical. The project asks, "What can we learn by listening to the sounds of dangerous places?"
The project also provides us with a further opportunity to reflect on some governments and industry suggestion that nuclear power is one of the greenest fuels available right now and that it would allow us to cut carbon dioxide emissions and keep climate change at a tolerable level.
Audios of Chernobyl Dawn and Chernobyl Frogs.
Howard Boland & Laura Cinti presented a new version of The Martian Rose, an experiment about life on Mars. A series of roses were exposed to Martian conditions using a planetary simulation chamber specifically built for Mars.
The fragile floweres were placed inside a biochamber that simulates most of the extreme conditions found on Mars. The low pressure, the hard penetrating UV-light and the chilling temperature.
The roses emerged, dark red, frozen, their shape intact. The project reminds us that no matter how many spaceships we build and launch into outerspace, no matter how much we want to adapt and explore new planets, space is still a pretty unhospitable place for men.
EPO4 Dewey's Forest, by Shiro Matsui, was inspired by Silent Running, a sci-fi movie that depicts a future in which all plant life on Earth has been made extinct, except for a few specimens preserved in a fleet of space-borne freight ships. The artist designed a garden for weightlessness. An experiment of the garden should be sent to the International Space Station during the Autumn 2009, in collaboration with JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency. The garden looked fit and healthy when i visited the show. I'd be curious to see what the plants look like in a month or two.
Plants are locked in a rotating machine, behind a porthole and thus unreachable, allowing the vegetation to grow in all directions, like in weightlessness. A camera is filming the garden from inside, capturing the audience looking at it. Visitors cannot enter the garden anymore that astronauts can go outside.
If a garden can thrive in space? How about art?
In 2003, while he was an artist in residence at the Australian Antarctic Base of Davis, Stephen Eastaugh created a sculpture garden between the meteorology building, a usually-frozen sea and a public mostly made of penguins. The sculptures look like small totems. Inspired by a wooden head planted in a pile of rocks years ago by an unknown explorer, they compete with the antennas, flagpoles and windsocks distributed around the station.
The 10th edition of the Festival @rt Outsiders, curated by Annick Bureaud and Jean-Luc Soret, runs until October 11, 2009 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. If you're in Paris on Wednesday don't miss the conference and debate that will focus on the economic and political challenges in the Arctic territories, an area coveted for its reserves of oil, gas and other materials buried deep under the
I'm not going to write down Agnes Meyer-Brandis's presentation at Biorama 2 as her talks are performances that i would only dumb down by trying to blog them. Instead, i'll just post this witty short video that documents the Moon Goose Experiment.
The artist set up a space expedition on a sand island in the Siberian river Ob and observed the effect of the total eclipse of the Sun (1st August, 2008) on the behaviour of the moon geese. Watch the space carriage take off!
The Moon Goose Experiment (MGE) is based on an excerpt from a book which is often regarded as the first science fiction short story in English. In The Man in the Moone, Francis Godwin described weightlessness for the first time ever (1603) - long before Newton's theory of gravity. The protagonist in the book flies to the moon in a chariot towed by geese. These special moon geese migrate every year from the earth to the Moon.
Previously: Interview with Ulla Taipale from Capsula.
Simon Faithfull's exhibition Gravity Sucks and his recent talk at the British Film Institute focuses largely around his examination of that most elementary of forces we experience. What Wikipedia calls a "consequence of the curvature of spacetime which governs the motion of inertial objects" and what we call gravity.
In what has come to be sometimes called Gravity Art, there is actually a couple of artists who have chosen to use it as their medium, often in somewhat beautiful yet futile actions, "heroic failures". Among these however, there's different directions of movement, namely down (submission) and up (escape).
The most relevant of the down-camp would probably be the late Dutch-Californian artist Bas Jan Ader whose body of work only contains a few pieces but who has significantly gained in importance as people have been re-discovering him over the last few years. Ader's gravity-related work focuses on the "The artist's body [and the way that] gravity makes itself its master" as he put it when his films Fall I (Los Angeles) and Fall II (Amsterdam) were being shown in Düsseldorf in 1971. He used the most basic elements - an omnipresent force and his own body.
His work, however, as his friend Rene Daalder's documentary Here Is Always Somewhere Else convincingly shows, is seeded with references to his family history and his personal confusion that might have resulted from that and which peaked in his mysterious disappearance at sea during his final piece In Search of the Miraculous in 1975. In Fall 1 (Los Angeles) we see him on the roof of the house he and his wife were living in, sitting on a chair. Like in another performance, which refers to the night when Nazi soldiers forced his family out of their house in the Netherlands, a piece of the domestic environment becomes part of the performance. Ader leans over, loses balance, tumbles across the roof and crashes into the bushes in front of the porch while the chair comes to a halt still on the roof.
Chairs it seems, have a special significance in relation to Gravity Art, possibly because they are a device which in a way suspends us in mid-fall, in a pose we call sitting. They also represent a highly familiar artifact and thus create a link between the universal force of gravity and the utterly domestic.
In the work of Simon Faithfull, who perfectly represents the opposite direction of movement, they play an even more obvious role as he explicitly uses them as a means for both him and the audience to project themselves into what he calls Escape Vehicles. He says the vehicles allow "[to] imagine occupancy of the seat while at the same time acknowledging that it is incapable of the pronouncement made within its title." He has built a series of them since the mid-1990s, the most recent being no.6 which was commissioned by Arts Catalyst in 2004.
This latest one, which the accompanying text to the exhibition at the BFI calls an "alarming" success, partly takes its inspiration from the famous flight of Lawnchair Larry. In the summer of 1982, because "a man can't just sit around", Walters attached a great number of weather balloons to a chair and - somewhat accidentally - shot off to an altitude of 11,000 feet and into the controlled airspace of LAX. (Don't miss the original NBC news coverage) Equipped with a pellet gun, sandwiches, beer and having dropped his glasses. His often-ridiculed trip could well be called the ultimate combination of the everyday and the heroic aspiration to "lose the shackles of gravity".
In the case of Escape Vehicle no.6, the chair is empty, but the experiment is not any less successful, it rose to an altitude of 30 kilometers - the edge of space. The setup consisted of a weather balloon, and a jigsaw-like structure which had the chair on one side and a camera, a transmitter (built by an expert in ham video) and a GPS unit which submitted the vehicle's position using the video's audio track. One mainly sees the chair as it quickly gains altitude until the curvature of the Earth is clearly visible and the metal parts of the chair reflect brilliant sunlight. The temperature is -60º Celsius or lower and there is no air.
Faithfull says "the chilling nature of the film is that the empty chair invites the audience to imagine taking a journey to an uninhabitable realm where it is impossible to breathe". Suddenly the balloon bursts because of the low pressure which caused the air inside to vastly expand and everything attached starts a violent descent to the ground. The chair gets tangled up and bangs against parts of the structure, a leg comes off, then the backrest.
A few minutes into the descent, the transmission ends and the chair of course was never recovered. According to the GPS data, somewhere over Kent, gravity won.
Gravity Sucks, until September 20th at the British Film Institute South Bank Gallery, London SE1 8XT
Related chair in space: Nelly Ben Hayoun's Soyouz Chair