It is not hard to be enthusiastic over Matt Wolfe’s new documentary. It also made me acutely aware that artistic works & investigations of biospherics or extra-terrestrial ecologies in their more outlandish, performative and experimental dimensions by Ralo Mayer might get forgotten or unduly overshadowed by the newer Spaceship Earth, big -budgeted more classical documentary formats.
This being said, I think both Mayer’s unsettlements pioneering work and Matt Wolf’s more recent accomplishment are very important stations of closing the gap btw the current rise of collapse studies, Extinction Rebellion in the Anthropocene as well as establishing a counterpoint to the current capitalistic Star Settler exiters.
Spaceship Earth is without a doubt one of the most honest and important appraisals of High Weirdness as defined by the Erik Davis in regard to our current situation, starting with the very practical things such as learning to live inside a closed system inside a closed (Earth) system and ending up sailing on a Spaceship of the Imagination while on indefinite quarantine.
Nevertheless I’ve got to mention a missing element. This powerful and complex all-American perspective ignores the earlier Soviet biospherian experiments called Bio-3 in Siberia that became an input for the new. Also very importantly, and missing from the 2020 Spaceship Earth documentary are the theoretical and popularizing work done by Soviet cosmist Vladimir Vernadsky, namely his 1926 The Biosphere book, considered by many oone of the founders of biogeochemistry, radiogeology and geochemistry, the first who defined ecology as the science of the biosphere. I completely understand the focus on West Coast/Frisco Haight-Ashbury scene, but still I miss the role played by Soviet experiments or how the closed system research and Bioregenerative Life Support studies plays out within the Soviet Space Program. I think this is to be regarded as a late-Soviet chapter of the biospherian saga, closing the strange loop of the earlier desert adobe architecture commune 70s work with the later – 80s 90s corporate, fully Bucky splendor, all via Siberia of all places.
What I deem very important, and the docu makes sure of it is the performative, bricoleur attitude and avant-garde theater dimension, the way it synergetically feeds back (to take one of the keywords of the whole endeavor) with all the communal group practices. Their lofty ideals offer them a hands on experimence with designs and materials science approach. Maybe this also a true salvagepunk school of acting and thinking, in tune with current concerns and the need for recycling and trying out disparate things, new and old, low and high tech, China and Greece with ferrometal (their vessel has sails from Chinese junks and is called Heraclitus). This also brought stronger into focus what Hannah Arendt’s said in a 1970s interview after quoting René Char – “our inheritance is not guaranteed by any testament” to which she added “we are entirely free to help ourselves wherever we can from the experiences and thoughts of the past” (and future I would also add).
Spaceship Earth does great service not only to the excommunicated founders (for the first time since Ralo Mayer work), but also to the rich brew of ideas, from the Tangiers scene of Burroughs & the desert beat generation retreat, as well to the whole gamut of such influences as René Daumal‘s Analogue Mountain(first published in 1952!), Manual for Spaceship Earth, Whole Earth Catalog etc
One can also understand the method behind it all as an Avant-Garde ecological collage, the garden of eden as Burrough cut up technique horticulture.
It is also a proof that heads and fists combine, both psychedelia and activists shared a common ground and a very applied outlook in this common space. All these iterations, incarnations and phases since the Theater of All Possibilities in 1967 up to the 70s The Synergia Ranch towards the current The Institute for Ecotechnics, the October Gallery in London are exemplary in this sense. One can question the Ed Bass family oil money connection – by all means, but this also pinpoints to the greater issue troubling current greening, greenwashing, ethanol/biofuels conundrum, as well as the fragility of this relationship with Big Business.
They had both very lofty, incredibly utopian, dreamy and long term thinking as well as very down to earth and experimental approach, the two do not exclude each other. Even the guru – John ‘Dolphin’ Allen is a creature from another era, more like a wide eyed Soviet Stakhanovite (стахановское) model worker, a strange engineer metallurgist & human potential coach. The gradual jump from adobe to boat making to geodesic architecture to cosmic ark and spacefaring civilization was one single strive for them. Also without reading his books or being able to asses his ideas (just dwl a paper on ecosphere & technosphere), I am somehow feeling my way trough a possible gnostic influence – especially when dealing with the eschaton, the ecospheric collapse etc Again the media talk about his apocalyptic vision seems to be spreading some sort of misinformation regarding his thoughts on that.
The entrepreneurial aspect is also important, they have been also pioneering this startup dimension, in a sense they were one of the first and most advanced startups with all the trappings: angel investors, CEOs, public relations, financial officers, Wall Street Goldman-Sachs intrusion and final corporate raid. At the same time they, maybe also because of the performative aspect, because of their avant-garde roots or ecological de-growth orientation, have been cut loose out of the recent tech boom or Burning Man celebrations happening nearly at the same time in California. Spaceship Earth catches also the lack of – inin a key sequence when a group black students decries the whiteness of the biospherians andand their low or near absence of multiculturalism, while all the sampling is rather just biomes, the spectacle is very white future, as white as the 60s-70s commune seems to have been. I really enjoyed the short moment of a different speculation that did not play out in the 2 years of isolation & the provocation to think future as afrofuturist theatre inside the dome and what has to be remedied in this sense.
In my view, even the spectacular – the media stunt aura actually saved them from joining a viable corporate environment, the one that gave rise to geek culture success. My thesis is thus that the sort of tekkie streamlining of stark minimalism that started to dominate both the
Steve Job dogma + all the later incarnations was at odds with the zany, colorful, pantomime that united the Biospherian extended team and gave them an undeniable flair of late Blowup street comedians or low art Esalen members mixed with dessert greening of permaculture enthusiasts. They also embodied the spirit of Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. This aspect also probably contributed to their becoming easy prey to the media, a kind of naive but subversive theater play becoming just one show on the 57 channels and nothing on – post-spectacle reality TV machine, chewing them up and spiting them out. Hard to miss out the complete absence of screens, absence of touch screens, there’s only the glass – aquarium Vivarium dimension of it all. There is a lot to be said about Biospherian handshakes, touching the other trough glass, being in touch on the other side of the Zoo screen and being inaccessible in plain sight. The Pillar Artist project in 2019 Timișoara touches the same ground, of being accessible whilst at the same time isolated, in a public (closed) space exposed but out of reach.
Somehow the peekaboo Wall Street Steve Banon boogeyman apparition coincides with the media tantrum about them being ‘fake’ or not scientific enough – all the tell tale signs of both tabloid press, climate change denial and post-truth. In fact with a high dose of cynicism one could say that once the public got over their novelty status, it became more important for the ratings to transform them into villains, fakers, cult members or plain old freaks. In a sense this shows also the limits of a Mars mission based on selling the exclusive rights to a future streaming of an on board soap opera as the means to sponsor the mission. To end on a good note, Spaceship Earth shows the all importance of dreaming as well as having a world wide experience, of nomadism as well as living under a desert dome, of actually being in touch with multiple realities around the globe or how this should inform whatever we want to achieve in outer space. Another big novum is switching the places with the researchers – now it’s fashionable in Natural History museum to watch trough a glass a bunch of paleontologists molding & casting dinosaur tracks, but Biosphere 2 was the first to allow such a direct peek into the theatre of scientific fact on a grand scale. The possibility to look at the experimenters while they did the experiments, to actually switch places, study the ones who do the studying.
Finally it also allowed for a credibly futuristic cosplay, of dressing up as your favorite Sci-fi show and getting away with it. Even when considering the incredible hardships in the midst of an eco-technosperic collapse living, it still permitted the incredible morning wake-up in the misty clouds of what comes magnificently close to an artificial atmosphere on another planet.