Archives for posts with tag: Space

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It’s just a few minutes in to the film Gravity, and hurtling space debris shit is about to hit the motherf*ckin fan. Will Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) make it?

Of course they will. Do the math. The film is 90 minutes long. It’ll get bumpy, like the very worst turbulence on the very worst flight you’ve ever had, times shitzillion. But Rudy and Matt are going to make it through because you—cinema goer—have paid for 90 minutes and what else is going to happen for the next 80? It’s not like Actual LifeTM where tragedy will mercilessly cut short someone’s earthbound existence irrespective of where it is in his or her own advertised running time. Dead at 15? Sure. Struck down at four years of age? Happening all the time. Within ten minutes of being born? Sadly, yes.

However, in Gravity, where there are only two characters to start with (I’m not counting Shariff with the racist accent), we are sure that early adversity will be overcome. It has to. For the sake of the film. For the sake of your entertainment.

Question. What would a film be that stayed true to Actual LifeTM? To its contingent and brutal suddenness?

Answer 1 would be a film that doesn’t last 90 minutes, but however short the amount of time it takes for the protagonists to pass away. Ten minutes. Twenty. It would be brutish and fast, over before you’ve made yourself comfortable. House lights on. Exit to the right. What do you do with the extra 80 minutes given to you?

Answer 2 is found at the end of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1961). Alain Delon and Monica Vitti’s desultory affair anti-climaxes in a way that has never been done before in cinema—and maybe, never since. After making love for the last time, they agree to meet “at the usual place” that evening, 800pm. But their (empty) eyes tell the true story of what is (not) about to happen. Come 800pm, and the camera turns up at the rendezvous point. However, neither Delon nor Vitti appear. Instead of zooming out and fading away (what any conventional film would have done), Antonioni’s camera continues to film the non-meeting meeting. We see: a woman with a child. A man crossing the road. The flayed sides of buildings. Tarmac. Factory smoke. It goes on for some seven minutes. No flashback or forward. No voiceover. No resolved comfort. Delon and Vitti’s parting opens up this pregnant space, full their vital absence. The film continues without the characters.

Answer 2, then, is a film that fills the remaining 80 minutes with the world without its glittering protagonists—and not in some sentimentally cathartic way (depictions of bereaving family, a husband that can’t cope, Autumn leaves shedding, etc). It would show how radically same the world continues to be when someone is no longer part of it. A kind of limpid thrust forward into the near future. Newton’s Second motherf*ckin Law.

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Antonioni is summoned again in Gravity. This time, the end of Zabriskie Point seems to make a cameo appearance.

It’s the only other sustained piece of cinema I can recall that shares Gravity’s relentless anti-gravitational derangement. We are stranded with Ryan and Matt, tumbling and spinning with them, against the vast widescreen of Mother Earth. Home. Gravity is, paradoxically, bereft of its title. It is “anisotropic”—the usual axes of top, bottom, left and right, which we measure by our own perpendicularity against the surface of the earth, all this is gone. The cinema screen (and the inside of Rudy’s helmet visor) is a well of black void in which things—pens, decomposing bodies, tears—float. Most space movies get around the finnickiness of zero gravity by taking place in battle-ship sized space-ships where gravity works just fine. Space, phenomenologically speaking, is just earth further away.

In the Zabriskie Point clip here, the compositions of exploded matter become more and more unmoored. They attain the quality of gestural abstract painting, with the blue of the sky taking the place of the white of canvas. In Gravity, the sky is black; Earth is blue. The screen isn’t flat—and neither is our fear of being lost in the beyond. It’s a shame, then, that Gravity loses its nerve quickly. It succumbs to the necessity to join the dots of personal salvation. In doing so, it becomes the “ultimate problem solving” movie (says Sophia Al Maria). A vast and expensive first person POV video-game puzzle with instructions in Russian and Mandarin. Whereas 1970s “existentialist” sci-fi film would leave its characters lost in the forever emptiness of space (the way Sartre said man was banished to his/her own freedom once God vanished), Gravity ultimately needs the stable ground of narrative closure. Ryan struggles to stand up. It’s primeval mud. But she does stand. She walks.

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And that’s … ninety minutes. PING!

Image

Space, the final frontier? For artist, author, and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen, it’s just become home to his orbital project, The Last Pictures. Commissioned by New York’s Creative Time, Paglen has, courtesy of a television satellite called EchoStar XVI, sent 100 etched images to spin round the earth potentially for billions of years, or until the sun collapses. Shumon Basar asks Paglen about what it means to prepare for post-human time, the language of non-human communication and the ways we have represented ourselves, from the caves of Lascaux to Voyager, to ourselves in images.

SHUMON BASAR: So, Trevor, your Last Pictures are about to go into space. How does it feel after researching and preparing the project for so many years?

TREVOR PAGLEN: I’m in Kazakhstan right now and the launch is tonight. I’m amazed that this project has actually happened. Mostly I’m humbled by the amount of work so many people did to make The Last Pictures a reality. One of the most amazing things about this project is how many people from different fields, from anthropologists to aerospace engineers, dropped what they were doing to work non-stop nights and weekends to make it all happen.

SB: When it dawned on you that you would be sending something up that would be there for billions of years, what was your first instinctive idea?

TP: The Last Pictures imagines a distant or not-too-distant future where there are no humans left on earth and the spacecraft forming a ring around the planet are the longest-lasting traces of our presence. From the beginning of the project, it was going to be a meditation on the fact that we know full well how we are making the planet uninhabitable to ourselves, but are going ahead with it anyway. The project evolved into something more impressionistic than that, but I think that theme is still
very central.

SB: What changed?

TP: One of the main changes was the inclusion of images of people. For several years, I was convinced that there should be no images depicting human figures. The reasoning was that the project was in no way meant to be a “portrait of humanity” or anything like that. The Last Pictures was meant to tell a story about what humans did to the earth’s surface, biosphere, climate, and so on, not a grandiose representation of humankind. After looking at dozens of ideas for the collection that had no humans, I realised that no matter what you show, if you don’t include images of humans you end up with something that looks like a very clichéd apocalyptic narrative. But the decision to include humans then came with a different “rule”, which was that I wanted to locate the people depicted in each image and tell something about their specific story. Those stories are collected in the book.

SB: Carl Sagan’s Golden Record of 1974 is still careering beyond our solar system as part of Voyager’s epic voyage. Do you remember when you first heard of, or saw, this enigmatic object, and what it said to
you then?

TP: I don’t remember when I first heard about the Golden Record, but I’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying it and learning about their decision-making process. Before I really started looking closely at it, I thought the Golden Record was a saccharine piece of feel-good multiculturalism, which it is. But as I’ve looked at it more and more, I’ve come to see it as an extremely strange artefact. They had very sincere ambitions to represent specific things about humanity to an alien
audience. But images don’t make scientific or even reasonable arguments. I think there’s a lot to learn about how images do and do not function by looking at the Golden
Record’s contents.

SB: One hundred black and white images constitute The Last Pictures. Can you describe some of the categories you have ended up with, and if they portray life on earth optimistically or not?

TP: There isn’t really any effort to portray life on earth, so much as to look at some of the ways that humans have transformed what the earth itself is. Some images depict things like genetic engineering (a fruit fly that’s been genetically modified to have legs on its face instead of antennae; cloned cows), transformations to the earth’s surface (hydraulic mining, railroads), and climate change (melting glaciers, tsunamis). But the collection as a whole is much more impressionistic, I think.

SB: You have said that the cave paintings at Lascaux were crucial in the development of your own “cave paintings for the future”. In what way?

TP: My research team and I always understood that The Last Pictures would be a cultural object radically detached from history. We spent a lot of time looking at messages or images created for the distant future, like the Golden Record and various design proposals to mark nuclear waste sites for thousands of years. The art historian/theorist Yates McKee really got me thinking about cave paintings, which are images from the distant past that have become similarly torn apart from history, floating through time in much the same way that The Last Pictures will. I think cave paintings teach us a lot about what images actually are. They are incredibly slippery things. A lot of people would strongly agree with the idea that cave paintings speak to us, but it’s not at all clear what they say.

SB: How much has cinema played a role in subconsciously influencing what you have done? By this I mean outer space is somewhere none of us have ever visited but space feels less strange to us than many places on Planet Earth.

TP: Cinema influenced The Last Pictures very explicitly. Towards the beginning of the project, we imagined the object as a kind of archive, but as we worked with the materials and images more, that evolved. I started to understand The Last Pictures as a kind of silent film for eternity. An
enormous amount of effort went in to the formal relationships and montage effects from one image to the next, the rhythm of the sequencing, and the motivic
and thematic relationships throughout
the collection.

SB: Recently, you described The Last Pictures as “a meta-gesture about the failure of meta-gestures”. Throughout the whole project, it seems that you have constantly battled with the absurdity – or even futility – of what you were trying to do. At which point did you make peace with yourself and what you were conjuring, with all these different people?

TP: I’m not sure I’ve actually ever made peace about that, to tell you the truth. I think that The Last Pictures is on one hand a deeply nonsensical project, and I mean that quite literally. The Last Pictures is going to a space and time where there literally is no human sense (outer space; the distant future). At the same time, I felt an enormous responsibility to do the project in the most ethical way I could. I think that contradiction is very fundamental to what the project is.

SB: Obama has made it clear that the
frontier of space is no longer a priority for debt-ridden America, the way it once was during the anxieties of the Cold War era. Now, that race seems to be run by China, India and any other wannabe economic powerhouse. Would it be fair to say that
s/he who owns space travel owns the future down here?

TP: I think that space travel is largely symbolic, bound up with notions of “progress” and the like. There’s really no point to human spaceflight other than its symbolism. It’s enormously expensive and humans can’t do anything in space that robots can’t do better. Although human spaceflight isn’t practical in any way, it makes perfect sense that nations like China and India are pursuing it for that symbolic significance. Having said that, dominance of space is hugely important to the American military, and you don’t see much talk about cuts to the largely secret programs that are consistent with that goal.

SB: Werner Herzog, that fearless explorer of the human soul, conducted a conversation with you in New York about your project. How did he react to The Last Pictures and did you manage to convince him?

TP: Herzog is a big fan of the project, which is why he came out to New York to kick-off the project with me. But he had some quibbles with some of the images I selected. One image shows a smiling child in an American internment camp. Herzog thought that was what he called a “cheap shot”. I disagree – for me it’s an utterly horrifying image precisely because it seems to depict the normalisation of something so inhuman. Every person who set out to do a project like this would arrive at something different, which is something we agreed on. There is no “right” way to undertake such
a project.

The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, is published by University of California Press and Creative Time Books.

paglen.com