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In April 1998 Juleigh and Neil Disconaut took part in the second Intergalactic Conference of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts in Bologna, the only city we've visited with a street named after Yuri Gagarin.
The conference provided an opportunity for us to consolidate our programme of community-based space exploration. A report of the events has already been produced by Raido AAA (published in Ad Astra). Here we want to offer some more impressionistic reflections on the whole experience.
The conference began for us with a journey involving four trains and an aeroplane. It was a journey that provided us with some useful material for consideration of travel by other means to further destinations.
Our presentation at the conference ,"We are not alone", was to review the recent explosion of interest in space in popular culture. Our thesis that the dreams of autonomous astronauts risked being recuperated by commercial interests was confirmed soon after we had passed under the River Thames from South London. On an underground train at Whitechapel an advertisement promised "with AOL the person seated next to you can also travel to the surface of Mars". The small print clarified that access to Mars was via an internet connection with the NASA website (AOL is an internet service provider).
Into the sky
The launchpad for our flight to Milan was Stanstead Airport. A few weeks after returning from Bologna we came across a book called "Norman Foster and the Architecture of Flight" extolling the supposed wonders of the beloved cathedral of light that is Stanstead and its principal architect. A live rendering of Brian Enos Music for Airports was performed there around the same time.
To us it just felt like just another sterile place to wait and spend - a shopping mall with a runway attached. This "architecture of flight" is light years away from the launchpads we have in mind for autonomous spaceflight. It is in fact an architecture of control, restricting who has access to flight, restricting the movement of people and things, channelling all travellers into the field of vision of cops, customs officers and immigration officials.
On the plane a found object proved useful. We had prepared a series of A4 panels for the conference illustrating "Means of Flight - an alphabet for autonomous astronauts". This outlined a range of approaches people have tried to experience the sensation of flight, including ballet, characterised according to one dance historian by "the dancer's appearance of lightness and the seeming effortlessness with which they launched themselves through the air, as if gravity were nothing but a minor inconvenience to the dancing body".
In mid-flight we came across a bilingual (Italian/English) magazine cum design catalogue called Slamp. Included in it was a striking photo of Rudolf Nureyev suspended in mid-air (performing in Lucifer, New York, 1975) and an accompanying article stressing the human body's ability "to defy the force of gravity, as was actually scientifically observed in the case of mythical Russian dancers, Nijinski and Nureyev". This picture was swiftly torn out and added to our display.
There were further connections in the same publication: a "Sun Ra Collection" of designer lamps (more commercial recuperation?) and a picture of an alarmingly phallic "Chronomorphic spaceship" with the caption: "The spaceship is prepared for the journey it must face like an ammunition clip which consumes itself flowing slowly, changing its shape on the basis of the time travelled during the journey. Thus the length of the spaceship is not measured in spatial units but in temporal units".
The act of translating "Means of Flight" also proved instructive. We had argued that it is no coincidence that so many fairground rides feature rockets and spaceships because fairgrounds are the astronaut training centres of the working class, a place where we get to experiment with gravity and its effects on the body. Our thesis was dramatically confirmed by our Italian/English dictionary. The Italian for fairground: Luna Park.
Shelley in Bologna
Our hotel was in Via Rizzoli, opposite the leaning brick towers described by Percy Shelley on his visit to Bologna in 1818: "There are two towers here, one 400 foot high, ugly things built out of brick which lean both different ways, and with the delusion of moonlight shadows you almost fancy the city is rocked by an earthquake". In his poetry, Shelley anticipated some of the themes explored 180 years later by the AAA, combining a passion for radical politics and human self-determination with an interest in astronomy. His Queen Mab features a chariot flight to the stars from where the fairy queen denounces the rule of kings, priests and commerce.
Shelley believed that poets had a clairvoyant function as "the mirrors of gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present". It is possible that what Shelley sensed in Bologna was not a trick of the light but an echo of the future earthquakes that would shake the city: the social earthquake of 1977, when the city was the centre of conflicts between the subversive movement and the old order, or possibly the city being shaken to its foundations by a AAA rocket exiting gravity from the Bologna launchpad early in the 21st century.
The venue for the conference was the Link in Via Fioravanti, a former warehouse described in the Rough Guide to Italy as a "centro sociale" with "a cyber style bar upstairs and an enormous dancefloor downstairs. Avant garde performance art... with ambient or techno sounds later". We pondered whether we were to be served up as performance art for a curious audience.
The main session of the conference featured presentations from AAA groups based in various earth sectors including England, France, Italy and Austria. There were some very interesting contributions, although for future conferences we would like to move away from the format of a platform of speakers addressing the audience from the front - in space there is no front or back.
After a meal in the Links café, the party kicked off. The Link is obviously a top night out for the Bologna massive. Coldcut and On U Sound are recent visitors, and sometime Portishead DJ Andy Smith has listed the Link as his favourite place to DJ (Mixmag, July 1998). As well as three separate dance spaces, there is a bar, a café and a bookshop. Most of the 1000+ people there hadn't been at the day conference, although the AAA presence was strongly represented at the party with AAA DJs at the controls in two of the rooms and the AAA logo flashing on video monitors throughout.
"Raves in Space" are a central feature of the AAA programme, but there is an ongoing debate about what the future sounds of outer space should be. While we strongly defend blissed out glammed up disco hedonism, others feel that this is too commercial and that only more experimental electronica is appropriate.
In our view it is the relations formed between people in a sonic situation that determines its liberatory potential, not how formally radical the music itself is. Thus a mixed gay/ straight/ black/ white/ male/ female crowd dancing at a free party to house music takes us further out of this world than, say, ten boys stroking their goatees to techno at the ICA.
Nevertheless, our experience of the distorted beats and sonic terrorism played in the "Rave in Space" and "Anti Ambient" areas in Bologna convinced us that this has a specific role to play in astronaut training. Dancing to unpredictable rhythms simulates the impact of take off, with the body pulled in different directions by sudden changes in gravitational effects. The experience was intensified through severe strobe lighting, disrupting the use of visual coordinates to navigate by.
With 4:4 beats on the other hand the body can settle into automatic motion. This can, however, free the imagination to take flight, itself a very useful faculty for would-be astronauts.
Reclaiming the stars
Patric OBrien (East London AAA) gave a conference presentation on Reclaim the Stars, an event to be held in East London on the summer solstice, drawing on the work of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was burnt in Rome by the Inquisition for his heretical views, including his support for Copernicus' understanding that the earth moves around the sun rather than the other way round.
Bruno's fate is symptomatic of an age in which the question of our relationship to the stars was a matter of life and death. Evidence of the importance of this relationship was furnished on our Sunday morning wander around the city. We spent some time in San Petriono, a 14th century cathedral featuring an astronomical clock - a long brass meridian line set at an angle across the floor, with a hole left in the roof for the sun to shine through onto the right spot. The signs of the zodiac were marked along the line, as was the winter solstice.
Reclaiming the stars will involve regaining this sense of an intimate connection between human beings and the wider cosmos, while freeing it from much of the traditional baggage of the kind of astrology used by kings and priests to maintain their power in Bologna and elsewhere.
Feeling gravity's pull
Sunday afternoon was set aside for a AAA training day in the Giardini Margherita, a fine park on the outskirts of the city. Unfortunately rain had stopped play in the three-sided football game by the time we got there. We were however able to undertake some astronaut training of our own, experimenting with gravity on the parks trampolines.
While one Disconaut displayed a very primitive technique, another managed to execute a 180 degree turn in mid air. In every trampoline jump there comes a moment of near weightlessness, that split second when the body slows down and seems to freeze in mid-air before being pulled back to earth. By concentrating on this moment it is possible to stretch it, in imaginative time at least, and to get a clear sense of the workings of gravity on the body.
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