In Berlin, Cathy Byrd meets German artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis in the control tower of Tempelhof, an abandoned airport at the edge of the city, to see the artist’s installation “Up In the Air: Control Room Tempelhof.” Agnes fuses pure science and creativity to explore the zone between fact and fiction, fantasy and technology. So far, her projects have taken Agnes to the U.S., Russia, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Argentina and Australia. The artist rarely works in typical studio or gallery setting. You’re more likely to find Agnes exploring the poetics of glaciers beneath ice skating rinks and raising moon geese.
Sound Editor: Eric Schwartz | Photos: copyright Agnes Meyer-Brandis | Episode Sound: Agnes Meyer-Brandis and Astronaut David Scott, NASA
CATHY BYRD: Today I’m in Berlin with Agnes Meyer-Brandis. She’s a German artist who explores the intersection of science and creativity in a way that fuses fantasy and technology. Agnes conducts research and presents her projects in cities and remote sites across the United States, Europe, South America and Russia. I met Agnes last week when I visited her installation in the control tower at Tempelhof, an abandoned airport at the edge of the city. Tell me about your Institute for Art and Subjective Science and Research.
AGNES MEYER-BRANDIS: In earlier days, I founded the Institute Research Raft to explore and confirm subterranean phenomenon mainly, but in the last five to six years I have also been investigating into the opposite direction. For example, I studied the subterranean icebergs below ice-skating-rinks, but in 2007, I realized an artistic experiment onboard a research flight with the German Aerospace agency where I was able to work in weightlessness to investigate cloud cores. So actually, we are exploring realities very deep down, but also very high up. Also, we are studying the parallels between insiders and outsiders. They are very interesting parallels. For example, if you look into an Antarctic iceberg hole, which can be 1200 meters deep, you can see these ice horizons. I had always associated ice with light colors. But in subterranean ice you see only a small, small area near the spot at which the probe is lighted, and all around is black. When you pull out the probe, then you see these ice horizons passing by and some of them are transparent, some of them are milky, some have frozen debris inside, and actually it looks like outer space. We have these cleaner ice horizons passing by with frozen debris inside, which could be like asteroids, and really it looks like traveling into space. So that was my first space traveling.
But let me get back to the Research Raft. The Research Raft is this small institute focusing on these hidden worlds inside the earth, outside the earth, and in between. Depending on the research focus and the project, we work together in teams. People with different backgrounds work together. So we can develop tools for research, which are really functional also. Our teams consist of experimental computer scientists, geophysicists, biologists, artists. It’s really very mixed, and depends on the project.
CB: And one project team even included geese breeders. You’ve presented your projects and done your research in a number of different settings. I’ve noted tents, islands, zero gravity planes, a conference, and a glacier.
AMB: The glacier, for example, was in Argentina, in Patagonia [Perito Moreno], which is the largest ice field apart from Antarctica. I was investigating the moving ice and cryoconite holes on the glacier, below the glacier, inside ice caves in the glacier. I brought my microscope to investigate these ice crystals, but these glacier ice crystals are so bold and so large that…
CB: There is no way you can look at them in a microscope.
AMB: They’re too big!
CB: They’re the size of your hand!
AMB: Well, I was investigating cryoconite holes, which are formed when dirt on the white glacier surfaces, which is dark, attracts more sunlight than the white ice. The dirt gets warm and then it melts slowly into those areas. When you see it from the side—the way we did inside an iceberg—it’s like a fall which takes place over several hundred meters. It’s really beautiful; you have these small islands slowly melting into the ice. There is also a theory that the genesis of life can happen inside these because you have dirt, water, and so on.
CB: Can you tell me about what it was like to produce your weightlessness project with the German Aerospace Center?
AMB: Getting the funding together for this project was a big challenge. On one side, there was the German Aerospace Center, which invited me to realize the experiment onboard the airplane. It was a scientific flight, so it was full with scientific experiments from different areas, and I realized the only artistic experiment onboard. The other part was to build the experiment, which was very expensive due to many security rules. I couldn’t just make something with hot glue, for example, because everything needed to follow so many security rules. It was incredible. Everything you wanted to build was very difficult. It was really a big challenge to get security demands, finances, and artistic demands under one umbrella.
CB: Agnes did get funded to create her aerospace project and also to launch a 2008 experiment involving Moon Geese.
AMB: The Moon Geese are a very special migratory bird, first mentioned in a book by an English Bishop, Francis Godwin, written in the early 1600s. Within this book, the main character is travelling to the moon with help of Moon Geese. Moon Geese are migratory birds who travel annually, but unlike other migratory birds who go from Spain to Africa, Moon Geese migrate annually from the earth to the moon. I stumbled upon this book when I was preparing my project in weightlessness, because Francis Godwin was the first to describe the phenomenon of weightlessness in this book (which is really interesting because it was before Newton defined gravity). I was wondering, what happened to the Moon Geese in the twenty-first century? Do they still exist? Do they still migrate to the moon or have they been stranded like many other migratory birds? Did they ever fly, and do they still fly? So I started the first experiment with Moon Geese, which took place in 2008 during the total solar eclipse in Novosibirsk, Siberia. There, we reenacted the flight setup of Francis Godwin with Moon Geese on a small island in the river up near Novosibirsk. Of course, finding Moon Geese in Siberia wasn’t easy at all, but that’s a story on its own. Anyway, we were able to realize the experiment during the total eclipse and it was really interesting. But of course, it raised a lot of questions. Since then, I have continued my observation of Moon Geese.
In 2011, I started to breed my own Moon Geese. I started this on a farm in Italy called Pollinaria. We started with eggs, which we named directly after astronauts or other space related names, and bred them in an artificial breeding machine. Thirty days later, eleven Moon Geese hatched. We started with our astronaut training three days after hatching, and it took place over a whole year. There are several training methods, such as the Mobile Moon training, or with a V formation, which is very important so the birds can save energy for travelling long distances. Anyway, there were several astronaut methods we used in training. At the end of last year, the next training step was the analog training. Analogs are places on earth or in space which contain similar characteristics. There are places or situations here on earth where astronauts train and where they can get confronted with conditions they will face when they travel to space. We built a Moon Analog for the geese. It’s like the lunar landscape and habitat, and also contains several experiments. Moon Geese have been living there since last year November. There is also a control room, which is within a gallery space we have had in Liverpool and New Castle. It’s a big control room, like the one from the Apollo Missions, and the control room is connected to the farm. You can communicate with Moon Geese. They have special communication devices. They send Morse code about their general well-being and so on.
CB: Agnes conducted research for the Laboratory of Applied Falling before she created the installation I visit at the airport. Since Tempelhof closed to commercial traffic in 2008, it has been the site of festivals, performances, art fairs, and exhibitions, but Agnes is the first artist ever allowed into the control tower.
AMB: Within my artistic work I have already developed several control rooms, like for Moon Geese, or for humans, and so for me the control room is more of a method. In Berlin, I was very interested in looking to realize my work inside a real control tower, so I was very lucky that it was
possible there. It was not easy because there are also some security rules again, about the weather radar and so on, but I am happy that it was possible to finally install my control room there.
CB: The installation was quite impressive—the console, the chairs, the array of monitors, and radar equipment, and a simulated experiment with immediate replay. Very ambitious. And I went up the spiral stairs that lead to the control room. I don’t know how you did it.
AMB: Well, we had to bring small pieces up and put them together on site.
CB: The installation displays current results from your Laboratory of Applied Falling, which I found quite interesting. You cite Apollo 15, an experiment done on the moon.
AMB: Yeah, in 1971, astronaut David R. Scott did an experiment on the moon where he dropped a hammer and a feather to prove Galileo’s thesis that all objects fall at the same speed in a vacuum. He had felt the moon would be a good place to prove Galileo, and so he brought a hammer and a feather. I really love this experiment. For me, it is like space theatre. I took the hammer and a feather, and I took it as a method to develop my own gravitational measurement tool. So I studied how a hammer and a feather fell to measure gravity situations. I also went to several places and let the hammer and feather fall to observe the place where I was. I went to several analogue places where astronauts were training and everywhere I let the hammer and feather fall. And now I built a Fall Tower, which is on display at the control tower. There, the hammer and the feather fall automatically, on an endless falling routine, to observe the gravity situation on site. The fall takes place so speedily you cannot see it, so we have also developed a special slow motion camera. With that, we can observe the fall and its specialties in detail during this slow motion.
CB: So what are your initial findings in this experiment?
AMB: So far I can say that gravity is not everywhere the same. It varies, and I am investigating these gravitational anomalies. Sometimes the feather falls more speedily than the hammer. I think there are lot of things still to discover, which are not so clear.
CB: You show video footage in the monitors of amateur rocket launches and also professional video documents of scientists who are exploring the birth of planets?
AMB: Yeah. Planet formation—
CB: How do scientists respond to your work?
AMB: In general, I have had very good experiences. For all my projects I have had a lot of contact and exchange with scientists. Of course, in the end, it’s always a human question, but in general I have had really good experiences. I was working in this laboratory for extraterrestrial physics at Braunschweig University of Technology, because they also have a drop tower there. They supported this show with their footage, and for them it has been interesting and they all plan to come to visit the show this weekend. So they will come by bus, a whole department of extraterrestrial physicists.
CB: The way that you took over the control tower for your installation is brilliant.
AMB: The control room was flexible, so it is an installation; it’s a poetic archive, a very flexible meta-installation, let’s say. I can also connect other experiments now at the control tower here in Berlin. We have already connected with Fall experiments, but it can be expanded and can grow and develop. So for me it’s a very flexible, and always changing sculptural method.
CB: What other hidden worlds are calling you?
AMB: That’s difficult because I cannot say—they are still hidden, unable to be seen!
Archival audio: The Apollo 15 Hammer-Feather Drop, Commander David Scott, live demonstration performed for television cameras, 1971: Well, in my left hand, I have a feather; in my right hand, a hammer. And I guess one of the reasons we got here today was because of a gentleman named Galileo, a long time ago, who made a rather significant discovery about falling objects in gravity field? And we thought that where would be a better place to confirm his findings than on the Moon. And so we thought we’d try it here for you. The feather happens to be, appropriately, a falcon feather for our Falcon. And I’ll drop the two of them here and, hopefully, they’ll hit the ground at the same time…how about that?