Apollo 16’s Readymade in Flux

Curious to wrest emotion from corporate soft sell. Further, to discover NASA funded conceptual art.

In October, astronauts Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford and Charlie Duke attended a promo event for Omega watches at Crystals, Las Vegas’s very high-end mall in CityCenter. Does it ever feel normal to write astronaut? The event was well run, like the rest of Crystals. The video and audio were excellent. Former CNN correspondent Miles O’Brien never pandered to the guests or the audience and even ventured into hardcore space-geek land. O’Brien was always a passionate and intelligent advocate on CNN and has kept that spirit rolling. Even so, this could have been a simple celebrity divertisment. It was not.

At some point I became shocked at a personal disconnect during the matter of fact telling of these men’s actions. And the actions of their colleagues. The tales were wedged up against the images of these men in space. And on the moon. Why it was not obvious to me on arrival, I can’t say. Here was an event to sell a wristwatch. And here was an event that escalated to become profoundly moving. The Right Stuff-now such a dumb cliche. But it was right there. 50 foot in front of me. They went to the moon. And video taped it. And they just told me how they did it. That man right there.

In the midst of the talk, O’Brien brought up the story of photograph taken by Charlie Duke. He carried a photograph of his family up into space, laid it on the moon’s surface and snapped a photo.

Here’s video of him explaining how it all went down. Starts at 4:32 in. Thanks to the video uploader.

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I think this image is more powerful than any looking back on earth. That’s me. It’s extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. It seems so obvious a picture, but it’s such a non sequitur. It fights NASA slide rule culture. It’s sentimental. It’s a throwaway. But it’s also more alien and unreal than many surrealist automatic dream-scapes.

Once taken, the photograph immediately entered a state of flux. The heat on the moon mutated it and kept it moving. Which it infinitesimally probably still is. A blow up shows just after placing it down, it had started its turn.

An art installation lasting less than a few seconds.

There are a number of crops of this image. The one used in Michael Light’s Full Moon I assume is the full scale. I think the lunar tracks lessen the poignancy.

Gene Cernan in an effort to explain the pseudo rustic tech of their ventures, referenced the cell phone of everyone in the audience. How they contain more computer power than was evident on all the Apollo missions. So this is my cell phone, taking a photo of the astronaut, who took a photo on the moon and flew there and back with less computing power than it took to make this image as blurry as an old instamatic.

First thing that popped into my head on hearing this photograph had rapidly decayed to nothing, was William Gibson’s Agrippa. Here’s the wikipedia entry.

Agrippa (a book of the dead) is a work of art created by speculative fiction novelist William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaugh and publisher Kevin Begos Jr. in 1992. The work consists of a 300-line semi-autobiographical electronic poem by Gibson, embedded in an artist’s book by Ashbaugh. Gibson’s text focused on the ethereal nature of memories (the title is taken from a photo album). Its principal notoriety arose from the fact that the poem, stored on a 3.5″ floppy disk, was programmed to erase itself after a single use; similarly, the pages of the artist’s book were treated with photosensitive chemicals, effecting the gradual fading of the words and images from the book’s first exposure to light.

“The shutter falls
Forever
Dividing that from this.”

In 1992 I saw poet Robert Ashley read Agrippa at the Kitchen in New York. The poem scrolled towards oblivion. Only a rare breed was thinking this work could be bootlegged or cataloged on the nascent net. I looked away at one point and Ashley fired the pistol. It startled me, although I knew it was coming and I knew it was there. The poem ended and the program died. It was all gone, but I have that moment. Sometimes that’s enough.

A coda. Jeus Diaz over at Gizmodo cleverly remembered an echo of this image in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And now we know what happens to the photograph Dr Manhattan and Janey Slater.

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