<nettime> Zero gravity theater
To: “Nettime” <nettime-l {AT} Desk.nl>
Subject: <nettime> Zero gravity theater
From: michael benson
Date: Wed, 22 Dec 1999 14:48:42 +0000
A week ago today, what has to be one of the most radical
theater exepriments of the 20th century — and it just barely made it
— took place in the skies above Moscow. Slovenian director Dragan
Zivadinov’s Noordung Zero Gravity Biomechanical theater unfolded in
a Russian cosmonaut training aircraft owned and operated by the Yuri
Gagarin Cosmonaut Training facility, which is based in Star City,
just outside Moscow. I managed to film the thing, and recently
cranked out the following text about it — which I thought might be
of interest. It has an intro from the future, but I wrote the second
half over last weekend.  (There’s a website, but I don’t have the
address; I’ll forward it when I get it.) Cheers, MB


Nowadays, of course, it’s difficult to even remember the opening
experiments in the zero gravity arts. It almost seems as if
everything’s been written – all the elaborated critical theories, the
vast textbooks of microgravity choreographies, that entire lexicon of
discourses which resulted from all the work that has taken place in
the four Earth orbiting theaters, and of course the smaller, but even
more spectacular, Lunar Orbital Theater. (And here I have to admit,
with a certain modest pride, that the film material I shot way back in
the last days of the 20th Century – of that by-now-familiar landmark
Noordung Biomechanical Zero-Gravity theater performance – was
projected at the inaugural performance of the LOT. And there was quite
a party afterwards, directly above that spectacular crater named for
Tycho Brahe. But I digress…)

So much progress has been made in the zero-gravity arts, in fact, that
it’s actually quite difficult to remember a time when Earth-bound
artists, choreographers and actors were trying, with varying degrees
of success, to break the tyranny of the horizontal horizon, and the
vertical figure, and all the conventionalities imposed by Earth-bound
existence. Nowadays gravity-limited dance, to take one example, is an
obscure art practiced by small groups of  admirable, but underfunded,
experts, and they perform for ever-diminishing audiences. While they
deserve to be supported, they inevitably appear more and more obscure;
how can they compete with the increasingly bold and lyrical flights
and improvisations which weightlessness affords? I don’t think I’m
going too far when I say that much of the research into the
evolutionary changes which take place in the human body in zero
gravity happened first and foremost in the arts. The growing
inter-linkage of art and science (something which, back in the 20th
century, would have seemed a startling concept – the two fields were
so far apart then) first became apparent specifically in
weightlessness studies. Who can forget that first partnership of
choreographers and biomechanicians during the training phases of the
first interstellar expedition? The fact that we won’t know the results
of that trip for another three hundred years doesn’t take away from
the historical importance of the collaboration. Not since the
Renaissance have the hard sciences and the arts been so intimately
linked. But of course many people have written about this, and in much
more sophisticated ways than I am capable of.

I have to admit, though, that the breakthrough in bio-extensional
technologies which allows me to still be alive at the ripe old age of
120 – and in good shape, I might add! — wouldn’t have been possible
without the breakthroughs that zero-G research made possible. The
reason why there are seven people still alive who remember that first
zero-G performance (which, as we all know, took place on a cosmonaut
training aircraft flying near Moscow, even as the 20th century expired
outside its frozen windows) is exactly because of medical research
stemming from biomechanics studies in Earth orbit. Suddenly, after
this opening work of weightless theater, a whole new horizon of
artistic, but also of scientific, possibility appeared – a curved
horizon, under the ink-black reaches of a cosmos before which the
human race stands in the same relationship as, for example, a
centuries-old African ant-colony does to New Manhattan.

All of which is my long-winded introduction (well, what do you expect
from a 120-year old man?) to the text I wrote just after returning
from Russia, on December 17, 1999. While today I wince a bit at what
might appear as the most banal and commonplace observations about
weightlessness – who, after all, isn’t by now familiar with the
sensation of losing one’s camera during that immaculate free float? —
I haven’t changed a word, and I’d like to remind the reader that when
this text first appeared, almost none of what I wrote about was common
knowledge. It simply was unknown, because none of the missions during
the preceding four decades of space-flight had included artists,
actors, or filmmakers. So, without further chit-chat, let me conclude
this introduction by thanking WebArts editors Gizmo Bajramovic and
Tycho Henderson for inviting me to contribute to the webart Zap-Book
retrospective edition which floats weightlessly in front of you even
as you read these words. Remember: even something as simple as a
negative-G Zap-Book was unknown when I wrote this text!


The Earth is the cradle of mankind.
But mankind can’t forever remain in the cradle.
–Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

How to write weightlessness? It’s impossible. All the preconceived
ideas and notions about the placement of the body in space – the
orientation of the self and everyone else – are suddenly rendered
moot. It’s as if a magic wand is waved, and the most fundamental
physical rules are suspended. What was up becomes something “over
there”. What was down becomes the place you once were – a place equal
in every way to what used to be the ceiling, and the walls. The
camera, which just now weighed twice as much as it does on Earth (and
I’ll explain why in a minute), suddenly weighs nothing at all, and
leaps from the hand like a bird, though it flies away without any
bird-like sense of effort at all. Chasing it, you collide with a kind
of angelic cloud of twisting, laughing bodies, human bodies that also
weigh nothing at all, and which have therefore somehow gotten all
tangled up together in the ether, in the veritable oxygen, and then
somehow disassemble, and spin off, all untangled and in all
directions, laughing. The camera, meanwhile, has migrated – not up, or
down, but away, over there – where it’s recording the bizarre scene
all by itself, like a slowly-spinning autonomous satellite without any
need of ground control. You chase it over to a corner of what was once
the ceiling, and grab it just in time, and just as your “trainer” – a
likable Russian paratrooper by the name of Vladimir Kalentyev – grabs
you, and the three of you, who just now were floating in pursuit of
each other, now drift down like autumn leaves to the aircraft floor,
which has again become a floor. You are laughing, you are breathless,
and immediately after this drifting landing, gravity increases again
to two times what it is on earth, and you are mashed into the rubber
mats that cover that surface along with a splayed-out, flattened pile
of other people who once constituted the angelic cloud floating in the
middle of this paragraph (you know the one I mean; you can also see it
in innumerable Renaissance oil paintings, for example Domenichino’s
The Assumption of Mary Magdalen into Heaven). What had been
three-dimensional, and kinetic, and weightless is now being pushed
down like sculptors’ clay on the floor, immobilized, denting that
foam-rubber in an overpowering roar of turbo-jet engines (as the
immense Ilyushin cargo plane again climbs up towards the vertiginous
top of its parabolic flight; from which virtual precipice it produces
yet another 30-second episode of free-fall, and another scene of this
amazing zero-gravity theater).

How, then, to write about weightlessness – let alone a theater piece
that takes place in that state? Or film production in weightlessness
(the reason I was in that plane in the first place)? I repeat: it’s
impossible. Still, weightlessness itself might have once seemed
impossible – something reserved for those on their way to heaven. But
now I can say with gut-level conviction: it is possible. In fact, I’ve
experienced it. And yet I’ve returned to earth. Not so long ago a
woman I am close to told me, breathlessly, about her friend who is
interested in Indian religions and who has been trying to levitate. I
said something scornful: levitation is impossible. It’s a great idea,
and Andrei Tarkovsky actually managed to depict it quite well in his
films, but to actually try it in real life, I said, is a waste of
time. Interesting how one’s statements of utter conviction can come
back around with a different spin. Yesterday, as I was excitedly
describing my zero-gravity experiences to her – eleven parabolas of
thirty seconds each – she interrupted, and reminded me of that
skeptical comment. I paused for a minute. “I was wrong”, I told her.

But the reader probably needs the earth-bound tyranny of who what
where and when. On December 15 1999, a massive high-winged Ilyushin-76
aircraft, which normally serves as a training plane for the Russian
cosmonauts, took off from the Star City airfield with a cargo of
fourteen Slovenians, myself, and about the same number of Russian
trainers and crew members. At the back end of the plane an intricately
designed set had been constructed – one component of what director
Dragan Zivadinov calls an “inhabited sculpture”. On each wall of the
aircraft four strangely designed seats – more like slings with
back-rests and strange padded folding tables which double as
seat-belts – were provided for the audience of eight, which mostly
consisted of people from Ljubljana capable of recording or writing
about the event. In the back of the plane seven actors, all wearing
the bizarre, brightly colored Russian constructivist-style
flight-suits designed for the occasion, prepared for the onset of zero
gravity. The audience also were wearing costumes, in this case yellow
flight-jackets, and each also had a kind enveloping wrap-around piece
of head wear that can’t really be called a hat – it was something more
like what cosmonauts or astronauts wear under the fishbowl helmet,
complete with a chin strap and velcro attachers to keep a pair of
headphones glued down on the head during the upcoming zero-gravity

Dominating this electrifying scene, a bald-headed and intensely
nervous (but equally focused) theater director by the name of Dragan
Zivadinov strode around on the bouncy foam-rubber mats, ensuring that
everyone was prepared, strapped in, out of the way, in the way,
standing, sitting, praying with the right words, doing the right
thing, and in whatever other way preparing for launch. He was
augmented in this by a group of similarly focused Russian airforce
cosmonaut trainers, who among other things had strapped parachutes
onto everybody just before takeoff, and instructed us very briskly on
how to clip the static line onto a cable running along the length of
the fuselage in the back of the plane (the cable ran towards a
collapsible wall standing in front of the rear cargo door of the
aircraft). The audience, crew, and actors, it was explained with
in-your-face shouts – the sound level inside the plane was deafening –
would have to jump, on command, if there should be technical trouble.
Another, very un-rehearsed kind of zero-gravity experience, in other
words. The kind that comes when you jump out of an airplane falling
from the skies over the frozen countryside around Moscow in millennial
December. Not the kind I had signed up for, but on the other hand, not
very likely either. And at least we had the chutes!

So this, then, was the scene in a theater where the air was pulsing
not just with the shriek of high-performance turbojets but also with
palpable excitement and nervousness. I myself was aware of a pounding
heart, as I scrambled around the aircraft with my TV Slovenia
colleague, cameraman Andrei Lupinc, plugging in and checking equipment
(two digital video cameras, one my own hand-held one and another
strapped to a railing near the ceiling; two film cameras, both
attached to tripods locked to the ground – although one would be under
Lupinc’s control; and a DAT sound recorder). Behind the imposing
control-board structure at the front end of the padded audience area,
flanked by hulking uniformed Russian military types, directly opposite
the set and “stage”, a headphones-wearing Marko Peljhan adjusted sound
levels. Peljhan and his Atol project served as co-producers of the
performance, and he also performed several acts of last-minute
financial wizardry in pulling large sums of money out of the air in
order to allow two expensive flights of the huge, gas-guzzling
aircraft. (Clearly, the Noordung Zero Gravity Theater wouldn’t have
been possible without Marko’s energy and organizational ability – let
alone his sound designs and control of the complex of electronic
components to the performance.) At the other end of the plane, the
actors and audience were instructed to sit down with their backs to
the fuselage walls. When this entire assembly started bouncing and
jolting towards the runway, I realized that this was, without a doubt,
the most electrifying start to any theater event I’d ever experienced
(not to mention any day of film production). It was the takeoff roll
to the first zero gravity theater event in history.

We didn’t have to wait very long before the theatrical event itself
started up: multiple figures assembled in front of the set, preparing
to float free of the ground. But the fascinating thing about this
theater is that a century of striving to break down the experiential
barrier between audience and spectator – attempts made in multiple
ways, and in multiple media – was validated so effectively, at one
stroke, when the zero-G kicked in. This shared feeling was so strong
that the sensation of weightlessness itself took precedence, during
the dramaturgy of the eleven parabolas flown, over the actions of the
actors. My memories of the zero gravity theater only allow a real
focus on what the performers were doing during two thirds of the
scenes of the performance – in other words, during the two-G part and
the normal gravity part. When it comes to the zero gravity “scenes”,
my “identification” with the situation of the actors was so total that
I became an incontrovertible part of the piece of art myself, in the
sense that I lost a good part of my ability to follow what they were
doing. (I should say, though, that unlike the audience, I was
free-floating with my camera. So I was in the privileged position of
being able to move around. The audience itself was only released from
its seats for the last three parabolas.)

At this point it’s necessary to describe, a bit, why these three
gravitational modes – zero-G, two G’s, and normal gravity – exist in
the first place. In order to create zero gravity conditions, it’s
necessary for the aircraft to fly in a parabolic arc not dissimilar to
the trajectory a rocket makes as it escapes Earth gravity. With a
rocket launch, however, the arc extends to the point where the rocket
ends up falling around, rather than back to, the Earth. In this case,
the aircraft makes a much smaller parabolic form, which has to be
arrested at its low point with another burst of power from the
engines. During the first part of its upward trajectory, gravity is
effectively doubled; the sensation must be similar to a rocket launch
(thus the reason behind my camera weighing twice as much as it does on
Earth during those twenty seconds). During the 25-to-30-second
traverse across the upper shape of the arc, weightlessness prevails;
and as the plane recovers at the bottom of the arc and roars up the
invisible slope of the next one, two gravities are again experienced
by the people inside. There is also a two to three minute period where
relatively normal gravity reigns; this occurs just before the next,
and just after the preceding, two-G episode.

During this three part regimen, the attention directed by the audience
towards the actors – and here I can speak about my own subjective
experience, though I know it was one shared by some others in the
plane – varies from something approximating that of a “normal”
audience watching avant-garde theater to, again, total identification
with the event and situation created in that theater. When I flew up
to join the spinning, kinetic, angelic cloud of turning, shifting
people, there was no question of difference; it was pure shared
experience. (No doubt this effect of  overwhelming surprise, and as I
said therefore of shared experience, will play less of a factor in
projected future theatrical or dance works in zero-G. This is because
presumably they will take place in Earth orbit, where the zero gravity
isn’t episodic but constant, and the audience will have had more time
to adjust to its effects.)

When it comes to the experience of filming this theater – an
experiment unto itself – my most vivid image is of holding a camera
up, letting go, and watching it float. The autonomy of the camera in
these circumstances comes from the fact that it can move through its
own trajectory. At one point I lost my grip on the camera and watched
it float into a mass of airborne actors. Dragan Zivadinov caught it,
floated towards me, and returned it, even as we both slowly collapsed,
laughing, on the floor just before the two-G part of the parabola.
(Laughter was an integral part of this performance – a kind of
awestruck laughter.) Clearly, it’s impossible to imagine a similar
circumstance happening in Earth-bound film production. You could
almost say that the camera itself also sought to become an actor. An
autonomous astronaut.

In connection with filming, it also needs to be said that during zero
gravity an untethered cameraman would do well simply to “park” the
camera at the right angle and let it go; if no momentum is imparted,
it will stay where it is placed and record the scene. On the other
hand, if any degree of kinetic energy is imparted, it will fly off.
And if it’s hand-held during weightlessness, and if the camera-person
is moving and spinning in space, the footage can be chaotic and hard
to follow for the earth-bound observer watching the results later.  So
the overwhelming experience of weightlessness is not necessarily
conveyed best by a camera attached to an untethered human operator.
(Still, this text is written too soon after the event of December 15
to know how the footage of the two fixed film cameras looks. My
supposition is that the experience of the weightless participants in
this theater experiment will be conveyed better by cameras fixed on a

I once heard from a particularly cynical person (whose task in life
was to teach dramatic form in narrative cinema) that when he hears
about “experimental” film, his reaction is always: what’s the
experiment? And the same could probably be said about experimental
theater. In this case, however, the experiment is clear: how to move
the actors’ bodies into a space of three dimensions – a space where up
and down lose the meanings they’ve always had, and physical rules that
we take so much for granted that they are practically chipped into the
granite of our foreheads are miraculously suspended. The amazing thing
about Dragan Zivadinov’s theater experiment this week was that it was
also a fully-formed, completely realized work of art. Maybe this
should come as no surprise: the man has been researching the situation
of the body in weightlessness for years now. It’s just that,
previously, he had to be content with trying to simulate zero-G on
Earth with dancers, or with complex spinning sets, or various other
transparent devices. It should be stated clearly that Zivadinov’s
Biomechanical Zero Gravity Theater, while experimental, was also an
outstandingly successful experiment. The man has finally out-done
himself. With this work, Zivadinov goes so far beyond Baptism Under
Triglav, which previously could be said to have been his (and all of
NSK’s) masterpiece, that in retrospect the latter is almost
diminished. Baptism could be accused of being reliant on Robert
Wilson’s vocabulary – though of course this doesn’t take away from its
achievement as an outstanding work of theater. Zivadinov’s zero
gravity work, on the other hand, suspended between four roaring
Russian military turbojet engines, created a completely new theatrical
vocabulary. It’s entirely original.

Candidate cosmonaut Dragan Zivadinov, one of a handful of people
contending seriously to be the first artist launched into space
(Zivadinov went through the full training program in Russia) likes to
talk about Meyerhold, and he lists other 20th Century directors who
sought to break through the barriers erected by traditional theatrical
forms. His accomplishment this week was to take these many experiments
and ideas, synthesize them, reflect, retool – and come up with an art
so radical that it lights the way towards a future we couldn’t imagine
possible until this work came along to illuminate it. He did so at the
very last moment when it was still possible within the same century as
Meyerhold and company. And yet Zivadinov’s ethereal parabolic arcs
also span the turn of the millennium, and they do so with the force of
an unprecedented artistic breakthrough. This work doesn’t just render
two decades of Slovenian theatrical experimentation comprehensible –
it also retroactively gives the NSK art movement a dramaturgical
structure leading to an impossibly lyrical, free-floating climax.

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