Let’s Light This Candle… / Stanislaw Welbel

At the beginning of the 21st Century Irish artist Gerard Byrne created a multi-media installation entitled 1984 and Beyond. Shot during 2005-2007, the work was shown at the 52nd Venice Biennale, where Byrne represented Ireland. The project takes as its starting point an article published in 1963 in Playboy magazine, which featured a discussion between twelve science fiction writers of the time: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and others. Byrne used that material as a script, staged the discussion with actors and filmed it.  One of the most striking aspects of this piece is the repetition and the re-enactment of the voices from the past. Today, one could clearly see that the writers’ predictions of the future never happened. However, it is even more unsettling to realize that the discussion was published in America in July–August 1963. That year in the history of the US was marked by impactful social and political events, among them The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic speech “I Have a Dream”. The objective of the march that took place in August 1963 was to advocate for the civil and economical rights of Black Americans. Later that year, in November, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In this context, the visions of the 1960s society and the world of the future (i.e., our current present) discussed by the twelve writers seem not only utterly naïve but also formatted to fit the imagination range of the average white male reader of the Playboy magazine.

I was inspired to revisit 1984 and Beyond by a recent event: on May 30th 2020, the US space agency NASA and SpaceX, a private aeronautic company founded in the US by Elon Musk, launched a manned spaceship Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. The astronauts nicknamed it Endeavor as an homage to retired last American Space Shuttle, which is now on exhibit in the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The event broadcasted live worldwide, was attended by the American president and was presented as a huge success and a milestone in public private partnership in space exploration. This was also an occasion for the politicians and businessmen to deliver speeches about their visions of the future, the upcoming conquest of space, the advantages and profits of space mining, plans on sending people to the Moon again, flying to Mars and building there space colonies and so on. Just before the start, Douglas Hurley, one of the two astronauts on board of Crew Dragon, quoted the words of the first American in space, Alan B. Shepard. In 1961 his phrase “Let’s light this candle…  “ became the symbol of the first American manned space flight.

The launch in May 2020, titled proudly Launch America, took place not only in the middle of the global pandemic crisis but foremost during the massive wave of nation-wide Black Live Matter protests and solidarity marches across the world, triggered by the police killing of George Floyd.

I could not stop thinking about the uncanny echoes of the 1963 situation, and the complete detachment of the presented visions of future from the reality on the ground. It was well summed up in the 1970s spoken word poem by Gil Scott-Heron – “Whitey on the Moon”, which could be an anachronistic and subversive soundtrack to the Space X, NASA event.

It was a troubling event, funded by a controversial company with a white, super ego owner, supported by the State and its white male leaders, with the white, male crew taking first steps to actually spoil and exploit even the Space and other planets in the Solar System.

This circle of repetitions of history brought me to have a closer look at some other meaningful and strange echoes and reiterations: Launch America staged as a propaganda event looks like a scene taken from a dystopian sci-fi. It might be fruitful to look at it through the prism of different films, novels and works of art, especially the ones which are critical towards the values that this event represents.

In the 1970s, Krzysztof Kiwerski, Polish artist, painter and animator created several short cartoons on space topics. His film Jasio (1979) depicts a mechanical bug’s travels through space, whose journey begins on a dump of space trash. In the cosmos inhabited by people and animated objects coming from Earth, the mechanical beetle stumbles upon a war between CocaCola and Pepsi, meets Descartes and Einstein, and passes next to the Beatles’ yellow submarine floating in space. Objects and persons are reduced from their overall aura to mere symbols from a bygone era. The brands are fighting, the philosophers are stuck in their thoughts, and space is just full of trash from Earth. The beetle can glimpse into the past and see history caught in a perpetual loop in a bleak vision of the world imprisoned in an endless repetition, undergoing processes of rebranding, according to the capitalist logic.

Awaria (1975) by the same director tells a story of space trash: part of a spaceship lands on an alien planet, where it starts to annihilate its inhabitants. The astronauts deploy several weapons in failed attempts to save the alien species. Finally, and ironically, they only manage to stop the machine by clogging it with a “Donald Duck” chewing gum, which was a popular and very desired western good in the communist Poland.

In 2002 an object was discovered on the Earth orbit by an amateur astronomer. Because of its large size, it was mistaken for an asteroid. However, the object, which got a designation J002E3, turned out to be part of the Saturn V rocket from 1971 Apollo 12 lunar mission. The element was left in space, circulated the Sun and made its way back in 2002. After one year around the globe it disappeared again. According to calculations, it will come back in the mid-2040s and could be possibly on an impact trajectory with either the Earth or the Moon.

Recently, I have seen the film Gravity by artist Aleksandra Mir, which documents her work realized in 2006 in London, a 22-meter tall construction made of junk and resembling a rocket. It took almost half a year to source the materials from different scrap yards and 30 people to work on it. After the exhibition, the materials were recycled. Mir’s piece reminded me of a long-forgotten childhood book “The Adventures of Dennis” (1961) by Soviet writer Victor Dragunsky. It is a collection of children short stories about a boy named Dennis living in late 1950s – early 1960s in Moscow. In the story “One Amazing Day”, Dennis and his friends constructed a mock-up rocket from trash. The “rocket”, named Vostok-2 after the space ship Vostok of Yury Gagarin was fueled with fireworks assembled in an old samovar. It exploded and destroyed the courtyard where the children were playing and caused quite a mess. Yet no-one worried about it as exactly on the same day the information about the successful space flight of the cosmonaut Gherman Titov on board of the real Vostok-2 was all over the news, so everyone was bursting with joy.

During the time of the lockdown I decided to catch up and watch several recent sci-fi films, mostly dystopian. What struck me was the dominant tone of disbelief and of an inevitable catastrophe. The algorithm of the Internet video services suggested me some more films. Surprisingly it associated my interest in dystopia with Mars, a 2016 TV series created by National Geographic focused on Mars exploration. The production is semi documentary and it blends fictional characters and their adventures with real interviews. It is filmed in close collaboration with both NASA and SpaceX and depicts a possible and current technology.  It almost looks like promotional material.

The algorithm choice turned out to be rather right but sarcastic as the presented vision of Mars mission is very problematic. The undertaking is focused on exploitation for the benefit of private companies rather than scientific exploration. Another driving force behind it is search for a place to escape when Earth will be damaged by pollution, climate change, nuclear disaster etc. This TV series depicts potential Mars exploration in a very realistic manner. In this way, it is similar to Gravity (2013) by Alfonso Cuarón, which was also realized after consultations with NASA experts in order to present the space exploration as accurately as possible and according to the current state of technology and knowledge. Around the same time in Russia, there were produced several films portraying the heroic times of the Soviet space program, such as Gagarin: First in Space (2013), Salut 7 (2017), The Age of Pioneers (2017). It is worth to note that those productions focus on nostalgia and the past and serve as a propaganda vehicle to bring back the national pride of the Cold War Space Race rather than critically look at history or tell currently relevant or future oriented story.

The propagandistic turn in contemporary Russian cinema glorifying the deeds of the past made me think of a film production company during the Cold War – the DEFA in Potsdam-Babelsberg in the German Democratic Republic. The studio was located in the same place as the legendary UFA, the pre-war, German film company, which produced Metropoils (1927) by Fritz Lang, among other known titles. East Germany DEFA was the biggest sci-fi movies producer in the Eastern Europe besides the Soviet Union. There was a special unit established at the studio, called defa futurum, responsible for creating future oriented and scientifically informed films. Moreover, defa futurum films were supposed to promote a positive and bright future visions of the socialist society. In order to make the movies convincing, captivating and credible, visionary but at the same time rooted in the contemporary context, the filmmakers collaborated with the space program of the USSR. They undertook several study trips to space centers in Moscow that resulted in feature movies depicting the futuristic visions in a very precise way, directly inspired by the Soviet space program. The defa futurum group realized several documentaries and four feature movies, in collaboration with the Polish film industry. The first one (known in two different versions as: The Silent Star (1960) in the Eastern Bloc, and First Spaceship on Venus in the West) was an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem novel The Astronauts (1951). It resonated with the political situation in the 1960s and promoted peace while warning about the danger of nuclear arms race. All the defa futurum productions were focused either on the Cold War problems or expressed concern about the socialist values of the future or alien societies. In this way, they were similar to pioneering works of sci-fi films such as Aelita (1924) by Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov, in which the space travelers from post-war Soviet Union bring the Revolution to the alien society of Mars.

In his book After the Future (2011), Franco Berardi claims that the 20th century was the last one to have a positive vision on the future. While looking at the recent sci-fi productions and futuristic enterprises such as space exploration, I think one can agree with that statement. The promised future never came. It is hard now to distinguish between the Flintstones and the Jetsons. If there is a future at all, then it is bleak and of a dystopian kind. It seems that we are trapped in re-enacting the pioneering, the heroic and the optimistic gestures, the images and the dreams from the times gone which serve as a fig leaf to cover the grim reality. The future glances at us from the past, while we look into the darkness. So, poyekhali[1], let’s light this candle…


[1] Poyekhali (Rus, “Let’s go!”) was a phrase of the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin during the launch of the first manned spacecraft Vostok (USSR) on April 12, 1961. It later became a symbol of a new, cosmic era of human development.