Zero Gravity

Lecture by Michael Benson during Wiretap 6.11 (2000).

First of all, I want to thank Andreas Broeckmann and Nat Muller for the invitation to be here today, and I also want to thank Marko Peljhan and of course Dragan Zivadinov for the opportunity to participate in the first theatrical performance in front of an audience in zero gravity conditions, ever in human history.


Speaking of history, I'm going to take a risk here. Art history is littered with the bones of people who made huge grandiose pronouncements predicting that this that or the other emerging moment, or movement, was going to change art history, or for that matter capital "H" history. Still, occasionally some of those people are right, and just for the purposes of argument I'm going to humbly put myself in that category. I believe that the collective efforts in weightlessness of Slovenia's Noordung theater and the work of Kitsou Dubois' to begin charting the potential of dance movement in zero gravity, together mark the opening of a new and very important chapter in the history of art. I think that these two very different projects will be looked back on by future generations as surprisingly accomplished, effective and important first steps - or rather, giant leaps, let's say - in the establishment of an entirely new genre. Among other characteristics of this genre will be a total abandonment of what you might call the tyranny of the horizontal horizon, and the vertical figure, and the ordered world that even the most avant garde work of the past has taken as a kind of touch-stone or reference point before it moved to try discard that rule book, and sometimes with questionable success. As a replacement, this work will substitute the subjective point of view of the free-floating individual within the three-dimensional space characteristic of weightlessness. In place of the horizon, and the ordering of reality all in relation to what you might call the stalagmite-stalactite imperatives of terrestrial life - that is, life within a one-gravity environment - the free placement of the individual, and the camera, anywhere within three dimensional space will substitute a radically exploded, open sense of perspective. It turns Renaissance perspective on its ear, then on its head. This open sense will be intimately connected to the subjective perceptions of the individual artist within the weightless realm, and by extension the perceptions of his or her audience. Assuming that a real space age finally does arrive, at some point later in the 21st century as new technologies make it cheaper to achieve escape velocity, it will also start to rely heavily on a familiarity on the part of the audience with weightlessness. The more people grow familiar with the radically altered sense of space and time that weightlessness can bring, the more they'll also be ready intuitively to understand the imperatives behind the expanded view-points onto reality that the zero gravity arts will create.

I'm going to show you some footage now that was shot on super 16 mm film during the Noordung Theater's two flights on December 15th, 1999. They're very roughly cut together - I only had about an hour at TV Slovenia"s straight cut Beta-Beta editing machinery to link up some of the most compelling shots - so I make not great claims for them but I think they give at least some sense of the nature of the event. I should say that my intention is to make the first feature length film documentary recording the opening works of zero gravity art. I believe that it's very important that the first artistic experiments in weightlessness be recorded to professional standards and on film, not video. Despite all the DV cameras proliferating everywhere, a film frame still holds far more information than a video frame. Plus film, not video, is an archival medium. Video tape, even digital video tape, breaks down after about ten years, though I suppose the DVD and other non-magnetic solutions will have a better track record. Of course the nature of post-production these days means that what I'll show you has been transferred to video, but it will eventually be seen as a film.

[show film]

Ok, well as you can see this was kind of the ultimate millennial techno rave experience, and had some of the feel of a party to close out the first century of space flight.

Let me get back to some of the points I was trying to make earlier by telling you something about our experience filming in these conditions. From the beginning, I had the idea that the best way to record this would be to anchor the two film cameras, while the digital video cameras could be used for some experimentation with camera movement in weightlessness. This conservatism regarding the celluloid film technology ended up being pretty much justified. All the material you just saw came from the two film cameras, one with a fish-eye lens positioned directly in front of the area of the plane that was more or less exclusive to the actors, the second on a tripod behind the six-person audience and operated by TV Slovenia camera-man Andrej Lupinc. My reasoning was that if you added chaotic camera movement on top of the weird sight of actors levitating, it might be a bridge too far in the perceptions of an audience entirely unfamiliar with the imperatives of weightlessness. It might be too much of a good thing. I should say that I myself had of course not experienced weightlessness when I was planning the shoot in that way. But I also wanted to experiment, and we had a number of digital video cameras running during the flight, including one that I was hand-holding. In fact, I had a very privileged situation during the flight, because I was the only one, apart from Dragan and his actors, who could float freely during the entirety of each of the thirteen parabolas. Cameraman Lupinc was tethered to his tripod, but I got to fly around each time. One of my most vivid memories of documenting that first flight on December 15th was of becoming mesmerized with the fact that I could reach out my arm, let go of my running DV camera, and watch it spin, in place, in space. In fact, I got so carried away with this that much of the footage I shot ends up being useless… But I knew it might be, and wanted to experiment anyway and see what came of it. And in fact a lot of it will be useful in the final film. If you don't experiment you never find things out, and anyway we had enough built in redundancy in the coverage that nothing was lost.

Another vivid memory I had was of chasing this same camera all over the plane, as it suddenly had a mind of its own and shot off on its own trajectories within the plane, like a kind of microcosmic space probe. If you looked closely at the material I just showed, you would have seen that camera flying into a mass of tangled actors and floating audience members, closely followed by myself, while Dragan Zivadinov caught it for me, returned it in mid-air, and then we all collapsed on the foam rubber mats on the floor for the double-gravity phase of the parabola. Just as I had thought, the material the DV camera shot during that episode is less compelling than the material shot by the fixed camera, simply by virtue of the fact that an earth-bound audience is far more able to understand what's happening in the "anchored" camera material. Seeing a camera float through space, in other words, can sometimes say more than seeing what that floating camera is recording.

And that brings me back to the assertion I made at the beginning of this presentation - that an important genre of art is being born by people who are sitting in this room, and that its hallmark will be the rejection and supplantation of previously accepted principles of composition and body placement. I wouldn't go too far in saying that those principles haven't been broken many many times, in many ways and in multiple media, before. But when it comes to film, something about the realism of film footage combined with the commercial pressures brought about by the expense of shooting it has combined to make those experiments relatively rare and quite low budget and under-distributed.

I would say that, despite the inherent conservatism of my own film camera placement ideas for this first flight - even though they will be supplemented by some more radical hand-held DV camera and what you might call "satellite-camera" work - I do believe that a new filmic language will also be born as more and more people experience the profoundly different circumstances of weightlessness. We should remember that, while more than a hundred people have actually been to orbit, a grand total of zero of them have been artists of any sort. So, no writers, no filmmakers, no actors, no directors of theater, and no painters. Here I make an exception for Andrej Ujica, whose amazing film Out of the Present is currently playing over at the photo institute, who somehow managed to sneak a 35 mm camera into orbit with the MIR cosmonauts. But on the whole what this means is that the experience hasn't been adequately conveyed - in fact it's tempting to blame public indifference to space-flight partly on that fact. This also means that the glimpses into the alternate reality of zero gravity which we can see in the work of the Noordung group and Kitsou Dubois have to be examined for meanings that will expand: seeds that will sprout. This is true even if we factor in that we weren't literally in space -- just momentary in conditions indistinguishable from that experienced by those in space. When it comes to film, as it moves into orbit it will also loose what I called the tyranny of the horizon and the vertical figure, the stalagmite-stalactite imperatives of gravity, and substitute the subjective point of view of the individual within the three-dimensional and kinetic world of weightlessness. As I said, apart from experimental filmmaking, which by and large reached fairly small audiences, film has only rarely tried to visit the exploded, free-floating spaces opened up by the visual artists of the second quarter of the last century, people like Kazimir Malevich and Kandinsky. Peter Greenaway has made the point that every genre of art has three phases: the people who set up the basic vocabulary of the medium - for example, Griffith or Eisenstein, the people who have refined it, like Welles or Bergman, and the people who have in effect destroyed its precepts, like Godard. Godard, as most people know, brought the jump-cut to narrative cinema, and his experiments in non-linear narrative strategies were revolutionary, even if they finally led to the indistinguishable hyper-edited interplay of interchangeable advertisements and videos on MTV. But even when Godard felt free to simply remove large sections of scenes from Breathless simply because he didn't feel like they were working - his framing was almost always relatively conventional. In other words, his framing, like almost all film framing, was determined by the cruciform shape of the horizon and figure. So his innovations took place largely in time, not space. And it's exactly the treatment of space which will be radically disrupted as film enters the realm of weightlessness.

One thing that has always mystified me was how, when the cosmonauts on Mir or astronauts on the shuttle have a TV press conference, they always seem to orient themselves as if they were sitting for a group photograph on earth. It's as if they'd come to a collective decision that it would be too upsetting for the people on the ground if one or more of them was "upside down", or for that matter sideways. We could argue that in the process they are removing whatever small element of novelty still remains from watching astronauts go about their rounds, literally, in low earth orbit, and that this is bad P.R. But what I'd like to say is that as artists continue with the work started by Noordung and Dubois, and as filmmakers and other visual artists experience the sudden paradigm shift that weightlessness brings, it's exactly that conservatism that will fly out the window, so to speak. The horizon for a person in weightlessness is defined by the position of his or her head - and that's all.

As for my own work, I believe that when I'm able to film a few more of these experiments, and use some of the insights I've had as a result of filming on December 15th last year, I may be able to proceed some distance towards realizing these zero gravity film aesthetics myself. I'm not clear yet if I'll manage to raise the money and get the support to film more of these flights; if not the material I shot last year will provide the bulk of the material of the film I'm currently calling Zero. But either way I will of course try to illustrate some of what I've been saying here. Thanks.

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