As an arts writer, I don’t often find myself writing and
thinking about space-science, particularly a real experiment
that myself and a couple of hundred other members of the
public and art world experienced first-hand, in real-time at
Sydney’s Carriageworks. Nevertheless here I am – gathered
around the Mars Gravity Simulator (MGS) – a striking cone-like
structure, painted with black-and-white arrows and sporting a
variety of rigging – as artist Adam Norton strolls onto ‘the
stage’ and begins to dress in a bright orange utility suit and
helmet. The convoy of white-coated MGS ‘technicians’ then
proceed to check the apparatus and to get Norton ‘hooked up’.
Once weighed in and given the all-clear, Norton pulls down his
orange goggles and is off – circling the central structure carrying
out an impressive range of timed and measured experiments that
analyse the effects of Mars’s gravity on varying speeds and types
of walking. Obviously this sight was hugely entertaining – as the
audience’s cheers and animated faces proved – but despite the
spectacle, what many people may not have realised was that
although the MGS was one of the artworks on display at
Performance Space’s recent exhibition Awfully Wonderful: Science
Fiction in Contemporary Art, Norton’s experiment and research was
actually unfolding in real-time and would continue to do so over
the course of the exhibition – and that’s what makes the MGS
such an engaging and multifaceted work as it continually moves
beyond the realms of art and performance to develop lines of
scientific enquiry and discovery.
Norton’s Mars Gravity Simulator is based on a scientific
apparatus and test scenario developed by NASA during the Apollo
era in the 1960s, which the artist has updated to suit conditions
on Mars. Such experiments then, and contemporary models now,
are used to measure the effects of reduced gravity on human
movement and fitness, and to test spacesuit prototypes against
these environmental strains. Norton conceived of the MGS after
visiting NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California,
the work forming part of the artist’s ongoing body of research,
the Das Marsprojekt (2009-present) – an area of interest in part
because a manned mission to Mars still remains a goal of human
space exploration today. This clever but surprisingly simple experiment that the production team at Performance Space helped
Norton to construct involves the test-subject being horizontally
rigged up to five ropes and slings suspended from a central axis
point fixed to the ceiling at one-third off the perpendicular
(approximately the gravity of Mars). In the case of the MGS, these
are attached just below Norton’s left knee, around his hip, below
the arm and helmet, and a ‘dog’s-leg’ brace is attached to the outer
right leg to allow movement. The artist then stands on the central
structure, an angled circular wooden ramp, or frustum, also at
one-third off the perpendicular, specifically constructed to
support the Mars component of the gravity. The rigging carries
the outstanding part of the test-subject’s weight, reducing the
overall body mass weight. As a result, when Norton circles the
frustum the artist’s remaining body mass behaves differently and
movements are substantially slowed down, simulating the
physical experience one would have in an environment of
reduced gravity or, as the artist refers to it, a ‘pendulum effect’.
Also in line with 1960s NASA set-ups and an aesthetic that
certainly appeals to our collective memories of sci-fi films and
grainy documentary footage, are Norton’s hand-made orange Mars
Utility Suit (2009), the ‘ground-crew’s white coats and boiler suits
bearing MGS logos, and the ‘test station’ dotted with monitors.
Norton is keen to position the MGS as an experiment rather than a performance, although one obviously cannot escape its setting, the audience’s assumptions, or the fact that he is indeed an artist. Since the late 20th century art increasingly has re-found its voice within scientific research. This is particularly true of space-science which has had a long-running relationship with art and imagination. The contemporary genre of Space Art is supported by a broad cross-section of arts practitioners and scientific bodies, including at times NASA. This shift, as with other postmodern, cross-disciplined approaches, contests the binary model and instead seeks a new, integrated role. Science like art also possesses an ‘imaginative reach’ and ‘can be profitably analysed for its subtexts, its associations to more general cultural forces, and its implications as well as its surface rationales’. Such an intermediate position is demonstrated by Norton’s approach as he expands upon previous research by creating his own body of scientific work. In an art context, Norton loosely refers to his work as ‘retro-futurism’ as he investigates and utilises past technology in an attempt to understand the present.
The test program Norton developed for the MGS was
based on his extensive research into Gait Analysis – the methodical
study of human movement – and draws upon a selection of
technical papers and NASA footage. Throughout the Awfully
Wonderful exhibition the MGS crew tested a variety of walking
styles7 that involved Norton doing laps of the fifteen-metre
central structure, at speeds ranging from 2.4kmh to 9.2kmh, over
six sixty-minute live public sessions. Rather than repeating the
test-cycle, certain movements were eliminated as the tests deemed
them unsuitable for Mars’s gravity. The ‘bunny hop’, for example,
used by astronauts on the Moon, was found too fast for Mars’s
gravity. Other approaches were introduced such as a pulse
monitored endurance test. The results were documented on a
white board, in a log-report, and were filmed – all of which were
on view at the MGS ‘test station’ in CarriageWork’s Foyer
throughout the show.
Norton’s main objective for the MGS was to share in the experience of those original astronauts by achieving reduced gravity, and to communicate this to others. As with all scientific experiments there is no definitive right or wrong; the ‘proof ’ that the MGS came within a remarkable 7% accuracy to achieving Mars’s gravity is demonstrated by Norton’s suited weight which dropped from 100kg to 44kg, the slow ‘space-like’ strides and jumps he was able to make when circling the central structure, and the number of laps he completed with relative ease. The MGS enables Norton to embody his subject through the acts of movement, gesture and repetition, and employs the inherent agency of encounter and visibility that resides in publicly presented live art. Consequently, as science is often positioned as being inaccessible, both linguistically and spatially, the MGS reframes it firmly within the public domain. Here the artwork as ‘spectacle’ evolves in response to the team’s scientific findings, combining the productive and chance elements of science, experience (both Norton’s and the audience’s), and daily routine. The MGS thus creates an ‘activated space’ by creating a framework for ‘a mode of analysis whereby knowledges and ideas could be extracted from the process of making art, thereby enabling both the maker and the viewer to tune into the sorts of thinking or approaches to the world that apprehension of art itself makes you do’.
Norton’s MGS project will continue to exist beyond its own documentation by feeding into, and potentially expanding, other research forums. The artist’s findings have attracted interest from the American Mars Society in view of its annual convention in Dallas next month. Subsequently, the MGS becomes a potential link within this historical cycle: as artist’s creations once again make ‘dreams desirable for engineers to achieve’, and in the contemporary era of paranoia and increasing humanitarian and environmental catastrophes, such expanded and integrated research may become more urgent.
1. The Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) is where NASA builds most of its unmanned
space program, which includes everything NASA has sent to Mars. They also
operate them from the JPL as well as assist tracking other nation’s probes.
2. The only major change to the apparatus itself is the central frustum which
Norton has designed ‘in the round’, to accommodate the limits of the project
and venue – the NASA models would have been flat and covered a longer
distance. The frustum as a shape also references orbiting and the connection
point of spacecraft.
3. Adam Norton, in interview with the author, April 2011.
4. Created as part of a previous project.
5. S. Will, Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology, MIT Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002, p. 3.
6. Adam Norton, in interview with the author, May 2011.
7. Specific movements tested included a slow walk, medium walk, fast walk,
running, lopping left-leg leading, lopping right-leg leading, bounding and
fastest safe run.
8. Norton would be walking on the MGS apparatus for approximately 30-60
minutes of each session.
9. Mars Gravity is 38% of Earth's Gravity, and the best figure the MGS
reached was 45% of Earth's gravity. Therefore the team was only 7% of
Earth's gravity away from Mars's Gravity, and may have been able to more
accurately reach Mars’s Gravity if not for restrictions of the venue.
10. K. Love, ‘The Experience of Art as Living Through of Language’, in G. Butt,
After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, Blackwell, London, 2005, p. 172.
11. Will, 2002: p. 262.
Awfully Wonderful: Science Fiction in Contemporary Art, curated by Bec
Dean and Lizzie Muller, was shown at Performance Space,
CarriageWorks, Sydney, 15 April to 14 May.
Adam Norton’s next exhibition is Drawing Lines in the Sand, Cockatoo Island, February 2012: www.adamnorton.net Altair Roelant is a freelance arts writer from London who relocated to Sydney in early 2010. She has been working in the visual arts for over a decade, collaborating on a variety of artist/ exhibition, community and text-based projects.
Adam Norton, Mars Gravity Simulator, 2001, installation views, Performance Space, Sydney. Images courtesy the artist and Performance Space, Sydney.