Interviewing Artists

Dutch theatre director Alida Neslo

So, since engineers are probably going to be the ones to design an ISADORA Module I felt it was important to fill the gap of knowledge that engineers have of artists. Often when I talk to engineers or other space scientists about the idea of ISADORA, the first thing that would come to their minds is that art is painting. I would also find myself having to say that it was inclusive of all the arts; dance, poetry, installation art, theatre. And I would find myself always adding that at most art biennials nowadays the medium one will probably least see is painting.

So how the hell to design a module for the Arts and Humanities? How do our needs as artists translate to the microgravity environment? My first sketches, like the one shown below, were rather shallow in that they were merely translations of my experience with stage and music studios into the microgravity environment.

A translation of the dance studio and recording studio to the microgravity environment


Then I decided I would have to go up into the module myself to see what would happen. So one sleepless night at four in the morning I got up and with pen and paper seated at a dining room table in Eindhoven lit only by the light of my laptop… I went up into ISADORA:

I didn't turn on any lights. I didn't experiment with bouncing off the cylindrical walls. I didn't say anything. I found myself dumbfounded before the 1.5 meter window looking out at Earth. I floated perfectly still in front of the window, so focused on the Earth, I didn't blink. I held on to nothing and floated perfectly still in front of the window. My vision became tunnelled and the walls of ISADORA faded away. I realized that I myself was orbiting Earth alone with no ISADORA Module around me, no Space Station. I held this position for as long as possible, breathing carefully so as not to tumble and touch the walls thus breaking the illusion of orbiting alone. I floated over seas and continents then into the darkest and most quiet shadow that had ever brushed over me. The blackness was specked with minuscule lightning flashes; tropical storms 450 kilometers below perceived as negative sun spots on my retina. An hour and a half later I brought on the sunrise and came back to the seas where I had begun my orbit. I even thought to myself as I returned to where I started, "Look Mom! No hands! One orbit around earth!" And because I returned to a spot relatively close to where I had started, after travelling over 40,000 kilometers, gravity seemed no longer to belong to the laws of physics... but to those laws which keep us coming back for more... the laws of fidelity, fatal attraction and unconditional love.17

I share my imaginary experience in ISADORA because of what evoking the poetic image did to me. It caused the unexpected: my refusal to even acknowledge the presence of the module I had been researching for more than a year. "I had experienced myself how unpredictable art in orbit will be…. I realized the closest I could get to predicting what artists might do in space is to tap into their imaginations and ask what they would do in space… what they would explore in space.

So I decided that the best people to interview would be artists who really demonstrated an enthusiasm to go. People whose faces lit up when I mentioned ISADORA or people who leaped at the idea with reactions like: "Take me!", "Put me on your list!", "I wanna go!" "Que ideia guapa!" Their thoughts about what art in space should be must be a bit more mature than the artist who never gave it any thought. Artists that had no such reactions didn’t get interviewed.

The group of interviewees consisted of choreographers, theatre directors, dancers, visual artists and an anthropologist. In interviews in Rio de Janeiro (over beans and rice, or coconut water and fresh pineapple) and Amsterdam cafés (over wine or hot marijuana, thank you) I sought to determine through open-ended questions which aspects of Earth's orbit artists would want to explore and what they would find useful aboard an artist's module.

The Interviewees:

I interviewed 13 people. Due to difficulties in transcribing text because of ambient sound and sometimes difficult accents I scored 8 of the interviews :

Analyzed interviews:

Name Profession Gender Nationality Age
Alida Neslo Theatre/Teacher female Surinamese 45
Ron Bunzl Choreographer male American 49
David Lakein Choreographer male American 30
Donald Fleming Choreographer male American 40
Cinara Schetinni Dance Student female Brazilian 26
Roel-Jan Elsinga Design Student male Dutch 22
Maui Reple Painter/Sculptor male Brazilian 40
Fernando Rosa Ribeiro Anthropologist male Brazilian 40

Not analyzed:

Jurgen Mueller Theatre director male German 45
Ricardo Nauemberg Filmmaker male Brazilian 40
Daniel Whitaker Artist/Designer male Brazilian 27
Meg Grant Fashion Designer female New Zealand 27
Mike Hambleton Web Designer male New Zealand 27

The objective of my interviews was four fold:

• 1: To find common aspects about being in earth’s orbit that artists would like to explore.

• 2: To find out what artists would like to take with them to aid in their artistic endeavors.

• 3: To find out what artists expect from a module for the arts in terms of contents or hardware.

•4: To find out what artists expect from a module for the arts emotionally or psychologically.

I also talked about the two types of theatrical venues. The Kitchen in New York City and the Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music), one of the world's leading concert halls in Barcelona. To me these are at the opposing ends of the spectrum in terms of theatrical interiors from an aesthetic point of view. So, at one point in the interviews I asked artists if a highly designed or neutral venue was preferred.

Above is a typical example of a Black Box theatre similar to the Kitchen in New York City, a highly neutral and malleable venue.

This is the highly ornate Palau de la Música Catalana. I call this the Carmen Miranda of theatres. It is not malleable in its functions and anything a performer would do here would probably be highly influenced by its décor. Honestly, I think it would make a great venue for drag queen shows.

During the interviews I would probe how much the artists already knew about space. It was important to get them up to speed about the ISS in case they didn't know much about it.


The Questions:

1. Tell me your name, where you are from and your profession.

2. Do you want to go into space to make art and why?

3. Please describe to me what your reaction was after I told you about the ISADORA Module Project.

4. What aspects about being in Earth's orbit would you like to explore most?

5.What would you take with you?

6. What would you expect ISADORA to already contain? Or what would you expect from ISADORA in terms of hardware?

7. What would you expect from ISADORA psychologically?

8. ISADORA would be part of the ISS. What would fascinate you about being on board the International Space Station?

9. If you had to nominate a high-profile artist to go into space, who would that person be and why?

10. There will always be 7 astronauts aboard the ISS. Technically speaking you would have a potential audience of 7. What would the possibilities of performing for 7 astronauts be? Or how would it affect your art?

11. ISADORA could have broadcast capability. What would the possibilities of performing for an audience of a billion be? Or how would it affect your art?

12. Venues are often designed to be malleable like the Kitchen in NY or any black box theatre. Or they can be designed as a complete statement as the Palau de Música Catalana in Barcelona. (I described the two venues a bit). In space, would you want a highly functional module that you could manipulate or a fabulously designed interior?

13. What color backdrop would you want?

Towards the end of the interviews I offered the interviewees a "sensation interlude", a sensory run-through, in which I told artists what the physical effects of being in Earth's orbit would be. I described the following sensations one feels when in space; sensations that are well documented in space medical literature:


Sensation Interlude:

You will see the sun rise16 times a day and you will also see the sun set 16 times a day. Your days, in other words, will be 45 minutes long. Your nights will be 45 minutes long. You will orbit the Earth every 90 minutes.

Upon arrival in space, bodily fluids go from legs to upper body. The face becomes swollen. Jugular veins look like they will pop. In the first few days of being in orbit headaches and sniffles are common. So is motion sickness in the first few days.18

Fifty percent of all astronauts experience some sort of discomfort the first few days in orbit.19

When closing your eyes even in the darkest corner of the ISS, you will see red or flashes in your retina. This is due to solar radiation going right through you.20

When you push off a wall of a module to float to the other side, the sensation you have is not that you are floating from one wall to another, but that you pushed the wall away from you and the opposite wall moves in your direction while you stay still.21

There is a degraded sense of smell and taste in orbit. The increase of fluids in the head causes stuffiness similar to a head cold. Foods take on an aura of sameness and there is a craving for spices and strong flavorings such as horse radish, mustard and taco sauce.22

Digestive gas cannot "rise" towards the mouth and is more likely to pass through the other end of the digestive tract - in the words of Skylab crewman doctor Joe Kerwin: "very effectively with great volume and frequency."23

All modules are designed with what the space industry calls a subjective vertical. This means that modules are designed with a floor, a ceiling and vertical walls, even though there is no up or down, so that astronauts can better orient themselves.

In space the vestibular organs in the ear are not detecting gravity but after a while one can get used to zero-G. However, right before relaxing and falling asleep in space the mind tends to forget that it is in space. Hence the vestibular organs do too and sometimes astronauts get a sensation of falling before falling asleep.

Also about sleep, astronauts often tie pillows to their heads in order to have the sensation of sleeping on a pillow.24

Finally, the view of Earth is a big deal. The closest you will get to it visually on earth are IMAX films that show the largest film format shot from the shuttle. IMAX screens are 5 to 8 stories high. The shots of Earth are quite breathtaking and give you a sense of what it's like.


(The sensation interlude lasted around five minutes.)


I resumed asking the final questions (which were quite repetitious). The idea here was to give interviewees a chance to go deeper into what they might explore in space:

14. Tell me what you might create or talk about up there.

15. If NASA, ESA, DASA, whoever, told you: We have invited you to go into space. But you have one aspect to explore in space. You must write a proposal or research plan about one aspect only. Which aspect would it be?

16. What would be your 2nd, 3rd, or 4rth choices? In a few words.

End of interview (I kept the tape recorder running because the thoughts that followed afterwards were helpful).


Finally, I relied a lot on complimentary data to reach my conclusions for a design for ISADORA. Part of my method has been engaging in informal conversations with artists (I casually interviewed, for example, artists that were part of an exhibit in Amsterdam called Art on a Spaceship.) I also kept in tune with the space industry, attending and presenting papers at Art in Space forums in Paris and London, space conferences like the International Astronautical Federation Conferences, the Space Technologies Applications International Forum and the ISS Forum 2000 in Berlin. But keeping up with the space industry proved to be quite difficult because of what I talked about in chapter T minus 9. It was like keeping up with a soap opera; programs dying and resurrecting like the components of the ISS or Pluto exploration programs that are being cut by President Bush. Then there were tales of anger, mistrust, pride corruption and jealousy between NASA, the US Congress and Russian space agencies and industry. So I won't be mentioning the space industry that much more in this thesis since in a few months whatever I say will probably be outdated; especially now after the attacks of September 11th. I’m sure there will be more talk of cutting manned spaceflight programs to increase budgets for a missile defense system. Pity.

But as a designer I also allowed inspiration, pure taste and my own desires to influence the design… The recommendations and guidelines that you will see in T minus 1, I believe, are based on pretty sound conclusions. Plus, the recommendations are open enough for there to be a wide range of ISADORA designs.

So by taking artists (in their imaginations) into ISADORA, asking them what they would explore, take and expect to find up there and appealing to their senses I hoped to "transport" them, more effectively into space. Thus, what I hoped to extract from these interviews and questionnaires are general space concepts that artists may want to explore aboard an art module. These concepts, in combination with artist’s hardware needs, will lay the foundation for the basic design principles for ISADORA.


Proceed to T minus 6

Back to Table of Contents