Apparently the U.S. space program is suffering budget cuts so huge that when astronauts go to Mars this June, they’ll go in a plastic excursion module sealed up with duct tape, powered for lift-off by barbecue grill gas cylinders, and stocked with cans of beans from the supermarket.
This elaborate new performance art/visual art Space Program: Mars acts out a deadpan simulation of a team of scientists preparing for a mission to Mars. The installation takes over the vast Armory hall, where the Minor Critics last saw the Streb dancers slamming from heights into floors and flinging themselves across trusses and trapezes. The kids loved that. But where that performance tried to tame the echoing canyon of the Armory, Space Program embraces the vaguely military, aeronautic look and size of the site. Sachs has installed a whole landscape of fake space equipment, cobbled together from plywood and Atari consoles and stuff from Home Depot, that looks as if MacGyver had been hired by some cheapskate version of those zillionaire guys who are always trying to get someone to fly them into space.
The Minor Critcs got more and more excited as we sat through the required “indoctrination” film that showed the astronauts preparing for their mission to Mars (push-ups, arcade game flight simulation, space suits cinched on with wing nuts). When we walked out of the screening room and into the exhibition hall, clutching clipboards for data collection, the kids ran over to the “command station” and ogled the wall of screens broadcasting shots from within the installation. I took a deep breath and faced up to my parental and aesthetic responsibility. “I just want to clarify at this point that this is not real, ok? It’s an art exhibition. Those are artists in the film, not real astronauts, and they are not actually going to Mars. None of this equipment really works. It’s sculpture.”
The disappointment was so thick you could cut it with one of the cordless hand-drills masquerading as “space tools” in the landing module. I am always interested to see how the Minor Critics deal with Major Critical problems, like the old “Is it art?” question. We grappled with it recently during a piece of conceptual performance art, and before that when they learned the definition of pornography and tried to figure out if a picture of a really, really naked guy was art or that other thing. In the case of Space Program: Mars, though, the kids weren’t even asking why it was art. They just wanted to know why it wouldn’t fly.
True to form, the kids responded to it in their respective Critical modes. The Romantic enlisted earnestly in the Space Program, examining each piece of equipment and completing her mission preparation (lots of filling out forms on her clipboard and being quizzed by mission staff). With her mission badge issued at the Indoctrination Station, she was admitted to the upper sanctum of the cockpit of the excursion craft. She smiled at the rows of vodka bottles stocked next to the beans on the module’s kitchen shelves, and laughed outright at the space toilet. But otherwise, she kept a straight face and let the art keep a straight face, too.
The Iconclast took the opposite tack. First he insisted I had somehow gotten it wrong, trying to explain to me how the quarantine module or the botany biosphere actually could work. Once he accepted the conceit, he turned against it like a betrayed suitor and started pointing out its flaws. “I don’t think those plants are even real,” he complained. “They couldn’t even eat them if they did get stranded on Mars.”
Finally, his vast imagination telescoped back down from the remote reaches of the solar system into the intimate confines of his heart. He realized his little sister, touring the excursion module, was getting something, and he wasn’t. It didn’t matter if he didn’t want to stand in line for what seemed like an hour to join the program, it still…it just…it wasn’t fair. Because we’d all like to dream that maybe somehow, maybe on a summer afternoon on the east side, we’ll get to go to Mars.