ISADORA as Studio
(Designing for a Paradigm Shift)


Brazilian dancer Cinara Schettini in interview about the ISADORA Module

Many issues that artists talked about in the interviews have impact on ISADORA as a stage or a studio. Among these were existential issues, a desire for windows, a desire for peace and quiet but also a desire for challenge. Other issues involved technical requirements, and the conflicting desire of having a place with corners and straight edges versus a place with no subjective vertical (or no up or down). These existential issues lead us to some very technical aspects for ISADORA. As I said before, the lounge and collaboration concepts that came up for the module will be discussed in the following chapters. So, on to ISADORA as a Studio…

Existential Issues

The existential issues that artists want to explore are, of course, as varied as the artists themselves and range from microscopic inner feelings to the macroscopic and their relationship to the universe. Concepts that revolved around existential issues were unanimous. "The fact that it is already in orbit would bring about reflections on the position of man in relation to the universe and the significance of that, or the lack of significance of it", said choreographer Rob Bunzl. Choreographer Donald Fleming also brought up a similar issue: "I guess I would really think about focusing on how wonderful human beings think they are because they got to space… I would look at the value of that: Was that another wonderful thing that human beings did? And is it so wonderful?" He also spoke of exploring man as a "combination of chemicals, protons and neutrons versus this mysterious and magical being." Cinara added: I don't think I could explore anything other than the significance of being a human… the significance of having a limited body in this new type of life in space." Alida speaks of exploring what in French is called "le monde de l'au de la", or "the world on the other side". Her exploration would be more spiritual of this "whatever world it is we don't see". These ideas have a meditative quality and a studio module will have to "feel" conducive to this kind of thought process.


"The dancer's costume is to wear the universe." 26

- Kazuo Ono

The exploration of existential matters is inextricably linked to the existence of windows on ISADORA. Even when windows weren't mentioned in the interviews comments about the enormity of space imply that there should be windows in ISADORA. Sculptor and painter Maui Reple, for example, wanted to feel the amplitude of space. Designer Roel-Jan Elsinga talked about wanting to feel, naked, total freedom and no borders while dancer Cinara Schettini wanted to feel the absoluteness of it all, the grandiosity. Rob Bunzl would like to explore the contrast between intimacy of human presence and monumental space. Therefore, in order to experience the grandiosity that all these artists are talking about, the module must have lots of windows. Or a big one like the cupola which will be installed in "Unity", a module of the International Space Station.

Some artists went far enough to suggest that the module should be transparent. Two of the interviewees talked about a completely transparent module like the one suggested by New York designer Kalil (see chapter T minus 8 page x). I know that technically we are not there yet to make a transparent module that will allow the artist "wear the universe" as butoh dancer Kazuo Ono put it. But the Zvezda module does have 6 windows. And I would expect ISADORA to have at least that amount.

A window on the MIR station 27 Space modules must be heavily shielded from micrometeoroids, space debris and high radiation levels in low earth orbit. Technologically we are still somewhat far from offereing artists a completely transparent module.


Artist rendering of the cupola on the Unity module 28


Another technical aspect influenced by the fact that artists want to explore existential issues is that of silence. Interviewee Cinara Schettini spoke of peace and quiet with "no machines noises". When I asked theatre director Alida Neslo what she would expect from ISADORA psychologically or emotionally she said "one of the most precious things would be silence." To the layman sound might seem like a non-issue for space stations. Sound does not travel in the vacuum outside the space station but the truth is it exists in abundance within the confines of the ISS. The cacophony of pumps, gurgling cooling lines, fans, ventilation ducts and electronic devices make noise levels too high in certain modules. Specifications call for noise levels not to exceed an average of 55 decibels in a 24-hour period. That falls between the noise of a typical house and a conversation. Currently, What is somewhat disappointing about the ISS is that NASA's General Accounting Office (GAO) reports noise levels in the 62- to 64-decibel range, a decrease from 65 to 74 decibels before modifications were made on Zarya for example.29 So astronauts often have to sleep and even work with earplugs. Since an ISADORA module will be dealing with research in the fields of existentiality and well-being (as I will talk about in the next chapter) the current decibel requirements will have to be improved for ISADORA.

The Kitchen Principle

Then there was a unanimous desire for basic audio-visual requirements; video-cams, computers and music. But the desires also revealed the need for a wider range of basic art supplies that spans as many disciplines as possible. The selection of these basic supplies must be carefully thought out to give ISADORA the same readiness that a cook would experience in a kitchen; a place where a wide range of concoctions are possible depending on which main ingredients are brought in. When I asked people what it should contain, for example, in Alida Neslo's case, she answered watercolors. I was quick to group this answer up with things to take but then I realized that the implications of her answer were much greater. She didn't want to take watercolors… she expected ISADORA to already contain watercolors. David Lakein expected it to already contain what he called "gravity controlled objects" like a chair. Sculptor Maui Reple expects supplies like stone for making sculpture to already be there. The implications here are great in that ISADORA must be ready, not only with generic hardware like computers, recording devices, but there should be a set of basic supplies in the module. I call this the "Kitchen Principle". Given the fact that you can't go back to Earth to pick up whatever you need, ISADORA should be equipped for readiness.

In this kitchen metaphor I would call the pots and pans the hardware and the basics like onion, garlic, cooking oils, vinegar, spices, table wine, etc I would compare to supplies like watercolors, pencils, paper, pastels, computer software. The main ingredients, however, the ones you would not normally find in a kitchen like fresh fish or steak would have to be part of an artists very limited luggage for whatever performance or art project he or she would carry out. So the artist will have to have an idea of what he or she might create in space. But upon arrival it will probably turn out to be an entirely different story and one may not even use what was brought. Artists will simply have to guess, make an approximation of what they will do, and if their ideas change, the artists will have to be, as David Lakein put it, "good improvisers".


And speaking of equipment: The sharing of art and performances through broadcasts is essential. Broadcasting and recording will enable the art project to be shared with the rest of the world. Space still draws an audience. The Mars Pathfinder’s website, for example, got 720 million hits in one year.30 Depending on the choice of who goes up, there may well be a large audience for art in space. "You cannot just talk about it or write about it to your peers in academia," said anthropologist Fernando Rosa Ribeiro. "It would be ridiculous in my opinion. You'd need a much wider public. You owe it to a much wider public". Cinara adds that it is "a unique opportunity that bears a great responsibility. It is necessary. Whatever is done must be transmitted to the world." But broadcasting also includes interactive theatre performance; "interactive theatre forms where you involve the public" as David Lakein put it, "you could involve the distant public, in certain ways if you think of web-based virtual performance". This was a big deal in Jurgen Mueller's interview and is an integral part of the work of theatre company Fura dels Baus in Barcelona for which he is creative director.


Still within this subject of sharing, David Lakein brought up an interesting question: how to give an Earth audience the experience of being weightless. This can be the subject for a whole other research but in my opinion the experience can be best shared through IMAX 3-D. (No, I don't get any funding from IMAX Corporation. Wish I did though.) Astronaut Susan Helms has said that one of the main reasons why she became an astronaut was because of the IMAX film "The Dream is Alive".31 Also, the first director of the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, former Apollo astronaut Mike Collins said in 1976, after seeing an IMAX film for the first time, that the IMAX camera simply must fly in space. "It 's the only thing I've seen that comes close to really showing the the general public what we few astronauts experience".32 The first time I myself saw an IMAX film I too felt it was the closest I would get to being in space. The definition was stupendous. Seeing the curvature of the Earth and entire nations sliding by on a screen 5 stories high was breathtaking. I had seen the first "featurette" of IMAX 3-D called "Wings of Courage" directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud starring Val Kilmer.33 In my opinion, the grandiose spaces of the Andes in this film didn't come across so great in IMAX. It was clear to me that intimate spaces are more impressive in IMAX. A movie like Wim Wender's Paris-Texas wouldn't look so good in IMAX. Babette's Feast or Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman would be incredible in IMAX due to the amount of intimate scenes around the dinner table, for example. And in this year of 2001 at the ISS Forum in Berlin, President of IMAX Toni Myers showed us a sneak preview of uncut, unedited, raw and silent footage fresh out of the can of the feature film "Space Station". Just out-takes of a film being shot on the ISS. The shots were fascinating yet intimate. So this medium works well when a viewer is tempted to reach out and touch something within close range. And since the spaces on the ISS are intimate, a 3-D IMAX cam should be part of ISADORA's permanent hardware.

Corners vs. No Corners

Finally, the issue of whether or not to have corners came up. Space modules are designed with ceilings and floors and instruments on the walls to the left and right so that astronauts can best orient themselves. Even with these imposed verticals and horizontals astronauts can have their orientation confused constantly. For example: One astronaut recounts letting go of a pen in the air (the equivalent of putting a pen down on a table here on Earth). He placed it in the air to float while he did something else. Without realizing it the angle of his body in relation to the module shifted 45 degrees. Less than a minute later when looking for the pen it was completely lost to him when in fact it was floating very nearby. A sense of disorientation can happen very suddenly in orbit. Floating into a module and all of a sudden seeing everyone upside down can also be very disorienting for example. But in the case of artists it appears that the desire to have both verticals/horizontals and a round module with no ups or downs is the same. Even though designer Michael Kalil spoke of a Diverse Neutral Atria (rooms with no up or down) he still added corners and right angles to the interior of his glass module. Donald Fleming insisted that he himself "needed his corners". Alida Neslo also wanted a black box type venue. A larger survey of artists may show a 50-50 division of people wanting corners and something completely organic with no up or down references.



email from Jeffrey, USA

I would want a flexible environment first and foremost. It should be the equivalent of a science artist's lab, with as little preconceived ideas brought to it as possible...each new artist in residence will get the opportunity to 'create' a new environment... which is I think the basic crux of what artists will do up there.  They'll create a world around them, be it through sound, painting, words, or performance…


But in the context of the studio do artists want a notion of up or down imposed on them? This is the sort of design principle which is important to establish because, in this case, giving artists an up and a down may deny them a crucial creative possibility. But Cinara Schettini's argument for having no corners is quite compelling because it deals with confronting the unknown. She says: it would be a waste to establish a performance space with a front and a specific angle from which an audience would watch. "That would be a shame", she says, "It should be a place in which you would be IN space… with no corners… with nothing pre-determined". This idea of "nothing predetermined" or "no preconceived ideas" as mentioned in the email above will give artists a chance to re-interpret the notions of up and down in space. Therefore, I suggest that the studio be designed without a subjective vertical so that the paradigm shift of being in orbit is experienced to its fullest. A room with no references or ups or downs, no lefts or rights, one that is completely different from anything we have experienced here on Earth would be more appropriate for a venue for creative exploration in space and far more conducive to innovation.

Artists, however, also mentioned malleability and would like to have the option of having a subjective vertical. This I will leave to discuss in the next chapter.

These are early drawings/renderings of the ISADORA Module. In these I removed the sound studio equipment but kept an audience area. The notion of separation between performer and audience, however, is one of the preconceived ideas that will probably be rejected by the artist as shown in my interviews. A separate area for audience would hinder what filmmaker Michael Benson called "pure shared experience".



Finally, a small discussion about aesthetics: When asked about color or aesthetics, answers pointed to neutrality. When asked about the studio and what they would prefer: a black box studio like The Kitchen in NYC or the Palau de Música Catalana, (which I refer to in T minus 7) I get middle-of-the-road answers. But how designed ISADORA should be didn't seem to carry much relevancy.

Alida Neslo said, "Since I'm a person of the body, I don't like things that dominate the body. I think the nicest building, the nicest cathedral is the body. So I prefer a black box but of the proportions of the Catalan theatre. I prefer this big black thing, almost no decor. No objects." Roel-Jan said that "the hull should be malleable and neutral, quiet, open with a few very exciting accents. Very weird strange artefacts, paintings, art objects." He continues, "In compositions I always like when (it doesn't matter if it's a graphic composition or a music composition) when there is one flower in a desert. I would like the module to be a desert with a few very weird, strange flowers. These flowers can be the inspiring points; where you can dream away and associate things." David Lakein reworded Roel-Jan's idea by discussing neutrality vs. the specific: "How neutral is it that it can be filled or how filled is it so you can respond to it. What if you can even eliminate that choice? What if you could have both? What if you could design it so that you could make it the metaphorical or equivalent of the black box theatre but you could also very quickly produce this fabulous Catalan Theatre. That would be the most interesting if you could do both. If you had to choose: I would choose more neutral because artists do not have experience in space. But somehow in these very baby step embryonic explorations it is enough that you are weightless. On the other hand you could argue because it is so new you're lost and you need something to hold on to, something homier … more specific."

Therefore the design of ISADORA should evoke the mystery of being alive, be peaceful, neutral, and designed to offer its occupants a paradigm shift. This conflict of familiarity vs. neutral is what I decided to separate. As you will see in the next chapter a lot of home issues came up for ISADORA too. In T minus 4, I will discuss how I dealt with this duality.


Proceed to T minus 4

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