Red in View
Orbit Log Observations from Ground Control
Left to right: MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg in the performance Orbit (part of the exhibition RED IN VIEW ), February 9–19, 2017, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph © Paula Court
On February 9, 2017, artists MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg entered Orbit, a continuous ten-day performance staged in the narrow space between the windowpanes of the Whitney’s Susan and John Hess Family Theater overlooking the Hudson River.
The enclosed environment—which included a composting toilet, plants, a ten-day supply of food and water, basic bedding, a treadmill, instruments, and a three-camera video-surveillance system—was inspired by the simulation projects conducted by universities and space agencies to test the viability of human life on spacecrafts and on Mars. The participants’ conditions partially emulated those of astronauts orbiting Earth: they slept in scheduled rotations, received messages on a delay, exercised daily, and tracked their energy usage. They embarked on Orbit without rehearsal, with their own assignments, objectives, and visions of the future and survival.
Orbit was conceived by MPA as part of her Whitney exhibition RED IN VIEW, which considered how the potential colonization of Mars, the red planet, exists in the cultural imagination. As part of her ongoing research into the topic, she asked many people to draft written accounts of Orbit, ourselves included. We had a unique position in the project. Having organized the show with Jay Sanders, former Engell Speyer Family Curator and curator of performance, we were asked by MPA to serve as “Ground Control” for the entire trajectory. In a sense, this moniker cast us in a role we already perform at the Whitney in support of artists’ projects. We sat in the back of the theater with our red laptops every day during Museum hours, usually together, though on the weekends we took shifts. We were the tether between Orbit and our earthly institution, communicating with the artists daily. We chose to record in real time the actions that we observed, letting our two voices intermix as one, even while we sometimes wrote as “I” from singular perspectives. What follows is our data diary.
Thursday, February 9, Day 1
The Museum opens in two minutes. There’s a blizzard in New York and we don’t expect many visitors for the first day of Orbit. Yesterday it was 60 degrees. Amapola Prada is seated on the platform in the window space, looking out onto the river. She seems to be engaged in meditation. Everything before her is white, like a cloud. Somehow this feels appropriate for the first day of the journey, that the ground is nearly invisible. Directly below her, Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg is asleep.
Ground Control has one remaining delivery to make to the Orbiters before we open. We are sending in arnica gel for Elizabeth’s sprained foot. MPA in turn is sending us notebooks addressed to some staff at the Museum that she met while installing her work in the lobby gallery in the fall to invite them to write “witness accounts” of Orbit.
Amapola has begun to move. She is waking up her body by rubbing her legs and chest vigorously, generating heat.
MPA is in the “garden” tidying the space. Last night over dinner, before Orbit began, we heard the Orbiters refer to the area near the composting toilet, where the plants were placed, as the garden. It struck us at the time as new language, a sign that the space had truly started to become their home. The tidying seems to be part of this transition. The set, when lived in, is never truly set. MPA is placing crystals on a shelf in the window.
Red theater lights switch on, signaling a climax, the first of many that will occur each day.One day of Orbit was organized according to three different clocks: Universal Time (UT), which organizes one Earth day into twenty-four hours; an ISS clock, based on the sixteen sunrises and sunsets that astronauts experience aboard the International Space Station, simulated via lighting; and a “Climax Clock,” a preset daily schedule of “climaxes,” moments in which the Orbiters would act with a different level of intensity and awareness of the audience. A full schedule of climaxes was made available to the public, and as Ground Control, we tried to record as many that in occurred in Orbit as we could, which we highlighted in bold throughout our log. Lighting Designer Maria Shaplin created moody climax lighting looks to cue the Orbiters to turn on, so to speak. The Orbiters are each in their own rooms—the sides of the center platform can be raised, creating walls that delineate three private zones. Amapola gets on the treadmill and starts walking quickly, then increases her speed. MPA turns her bowl into a bell, using her spoon to ring it loudly. Elizabeth is eating and reading. MPA drops the bowl and holds the spoon up to her eyes, dangling it like a pendulum.
The action stops. MPA stares out at the audience. Amapola moves to the garden to water the plants. Using a pulley, she lowers a sprout tray and carefully sprays it with a mister.As part of the meal plan for Orbit, the Orbiters brought in sprouts that they intended to grow and eventually eat as part of a celebratory meal later in their journey. Since the windows to the theater are UV-light protected, we installed grow lamps in the space to support plant life. The plants were installed high in the window space near the lights but could be reached via a pulley system. She raises it up again and secures it at the top, then begins to lower the next tray.