Dedalus

A text by Marcel.li Antúnez Roca about his Dedalus spatial art project developed in the context of MIR - Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research.

Dedalus is a spatial art project, based on experiences at zero gravity. Dedalus studies life in microgravity and experiments its possibilities. The experiment involves three elements: the soft robot (softbot), the body movement simulator (bodybot) and the creation of an extraterrestrial iconography. The experiment’s logistics are based on a number of interactive systems recently developed by the author, namely the robot Requiem (bdybot) and the exoskeleton body interface (dresskeleton), both adapted to this project. The calendar evolves in two phases, the first consisting in twenty-five micro performances at zero gravity carried out during two parabolic flights, on the 10th and 11th April, 2003, the second a two-format expository post-production involving performances and installations. The results of the second phase will be presented from June 2003 onwards.

The experiment for the first phase was carried out aboard the GCTC (Yuri Gagarin Cosmonautic Training Centre) Tupolev plane, in which two PC’s, a robotic control system, a projector, a retro projection screen (3 x 2.30 metres), a softbot, the exoskeleton wireless interface and the robot Requiem were all installed.

Given that gravitational attraction conditions practically all aspects of our existence, a lack of gravity creates an important challenge. The shape of our body, the arrangement of our organs, muscular mass, and bone structure, the shape of the brain and our perception of the world, to mention just a few examples, are all directly influenced by earth’s gravity. It is one of the most significant factors in our lives.

Since the late fifties microgravity is related to the conquest of space; to man’s demanding efforts to leave the earth and colonise other worlds. And in general terms, it involves the long-standing and tenacious desire to discover, and settle in and populate new territories with autopoyetic systems we call life and which we form part of. Certain extremophile organisms bear out this idea in a radical way by inhabiting environments that are hostile to man, such as the interior of nuclear reactors or next to deep-sea fumaroles at over 80 degrees centigrade. The colonisation of the cosmos is a situation for extremophiles and should not be seen as a gesture to be carried out exclusively by the military and scientists. This is a vast and complex task in which man should be accompanied by other biological organisms and other cultural strategies, such as art, for example.

We consider floatability the predominant factor in the parabolic flights. Each parabola begins with half a minute at double gravity, which leads to a brief period of gravity zero, lasting from twenty-five to thirty seconds, then returns to another half minute at double gravity. And to emphasise floatability we built a contraption with malleable parts that we call softbot (soft robot). The mechanism consists of a rectangular aluminium body containing electrovalves, and four connected flexible plastic tube arms which pressure-drive the air, with balloons on three extremities, and a horn on the forth. The softbot is connected by cable to a mechatronic system and controlled from the exoskeleton by radio modem. The ringed switches on my index and middle fingers open and close the air to the balloons, to blow them up, and to the horn, to sound it. The softbot, a handful of cables, acquires its wide dynamic final shape in microgravity. This softbot is the first prototype of a generation of creative robots designed for zero gravity.

The softbot is not the only interactive devise. The movements of the dresskeleton, which I wore in nineteen of the twenty-five parabolas, also appeared in three interactive films specifically produced. In those case interaction was not based on voluntary acts, as happens in my performances. Our lack of knowledge of the instrument made us consider the possibility of producing arbitrary movements and therefore involuntary interaction. The involuntary movements of elbow, shoulder blades and knees activated the films by means of potentiometers in the dresskeleton’s circuit. The graphic contents of the films are based on three themes: biochemistry/microbiology, higher transgenic organisms and bio robots. I think these three factors could be, among others, starting points towards the construction of an exobiological iconography.

After the first flight we discovered that with the absence of weight and therefore of anchoring to the ground, synchrony between body movements and locomotion alters. The extremities float about in a dimension of their own, and  the body, independent of the action of arms and legs, floats in another dimension. Vectors multiply. In programming terms, the body’s extremities act as an application with its own variables which is contained within another application, the body in space, which obeys its own parameters of floatability. In view of which we required the help of one of the GCTC instructors for the second flight. He controlled the choreography of my floating body, while I interacted with the robot and/or the films. And to emphasise these movements in some of the parabolas, the images in the film were replaced by the retro- supplied image of the camera that was filming.

The films projected onto the screen during the flight function as virtual landscapes. Constructed with imagined iconographies, they place us in the order of the microscopic scale of biochemistry, in a gallery of fantastic transgenic creatures, and in a world inhabited by mechanical organisms. This last film was the nexus uniting virtual representations and a real devise, the bodybot Requiem, the mechanism instructing the body. Produced for the exposition Epiphany in 1999 as a mechanical sarcophagus that one day would move my corpse, this “deadbodybot” was adopted for Dedalus. We installed it suspended from the structure of the ceiling of the Tupolev. Requiem floated around in zero gravity with my body inside it. The previously PLC programmed pistons simulated sequences of body movements. In one of its interpretations, the prototype Requiem could be used for very long interplanetary trips, to show or to remind man how the body moves in earth gravity. In this way Requiem, with its interactive sequences, becomes an expressive memory of the movements of humans on earth.

Dedalus is a project forming part of a larger structure that includes other operative modules.

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