Some nice end of the month blog post quota filling going on here.
On November 6 I went to a lecture/discussion called “Art on Mars”, which was part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. The marquee in my mind was staggering: Two rocket scientists and a contemporary artist talking about the red planet and the convergence of art and science. Moderated by Lawrence Weschler, author of one of my favorite books. The bill added up to the most highly anticipated academic/cultural event I’ve attended in a long time (unless the FEST counts). It didn’t quite live up to the promises I had made myself on its behalf, but it was still pretty neat.
A summary: Weschler’s pretty involved with the CHF so that’s why he was there. I’m sure it sounded interesting to him so he volunteered to sit there while the other dudes talked. New Yorker Tom Sachs has been making “daring” and “progressive” artwork about consumerism and global culture for a while. Having made enough counterfeit Chanel guillotines and Tiffany handguns he decided to fake his own moon landing. It was as much about the poetry of the gesture (shooting the moon) as it was about the final product (art object/installation/performance/video), which is purposefully loose and fun. Sachs’ motto seems to be, “If I can’t have the real thing, I’ll make my own.” An important tension in the work is Sachs’ simultaneous attention to detail (as when prepping the astronauts very carefully for “launch”) and complete disregard for it (the “moon” in the sky is a ball of duct tape).
The whole thing was a success so like many artists who find something that works Sachs set out to replicate his triumphs. Gregg Vane of NASA/JPL happened to be in the neighborhood one day while Tom was working on a second version of the moon landing project. After touring Tom’s studio and chatting for a while, Gregg suggested Tom think bigger. Conversations continued and fellow NASA/JPL rocket man Adam Steltzner was soon included. The outcome is another Sachs space “mission,” this time to Mars, and this one a bit more detailed and researched. With the help of Vane and Steltzner, Sachs has been working on a replication (or, maybe here, a prediction) of the Curiosity rover’s 2012 arrival on Mars. (Tongues remain in DIY cheeks to some degree: Mars is a red ball of duct tape.)
This unlikely collaboration is pretty much what they talked about, offering plenty of asides and visual aids (such as excerpts from the above video, which stole the show). Weschler managed to come off like a total jerk despite saying very little. The only thing he brought to the table (literally and figuratively) was a notebook of “pertinent” quotations. He peppered these in wherever he could, saying things like, “I believe it was Socrates who said, ‘Only man knows the true limits of his inner and outer self.’” I’m paraphrasing and misquoting (twice) but you get the idea.
Meanwhile it was pretty clear that Sachs and the scientists were having lots of fun together with this collaboration but I couldn’t help but feel like, as it is now, it’s a wasted opportunity. Essentially the NASA guys are just helping Sachs produce something that looks like a Mars landing. I agree that it is cool to fantasize and pretend, but we have a simulation video of that already (complete with a bunch of “reality TV” shaky-cam shots so you really feel like you’re there). I think part of what makes the idea behind his moon landing interesting is that he did it and figured it all out himself. For Mars it’s like his dad is making his diorama for him. Instead of meeting in the middle to show off Science Lite in an Art Gallery, I suggest these guys look beyond what they know in search of something that might amplify rather than dilute their respective fields.
At least the guys were a bit more lively than Weschler and it was definitely fun to see the scientists out-weird and out-profound the artsy guys. I fully agree with Steltzner’s comparison of the rover to an art installation. You know what kind of art I would make with 2.5 billion dollars? That’s right, I’d shoot a robot into space too.