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Guest Boot #13 - Spaceship Earth (2020) w/ Archival Producer Brian Becker and Director Matt Wolf. The film centers on the Biosphere 2 experiment and the artists behind it.
Biosphere 2 was built from 1987 to 1991 in Oracle, Arizona. In 1984 the site was purchased by Space Biospheres Ventures and, in 1991, the first Biosphere 2 crew quarantine mission began. While it had some significant issues (a crew member had to once leave to go to the hospital, carbon dioxide levels were reaching unsafe levels and food was in short supply), the crew was able to complete their two-year stint in the odd, "bubble" environment.
Researchers originally built Biosphere 2 with the intention to create and study an artificial, self-sustaining biosphere, or the sum of all ecosystems that support life on Earth. The researchers wanted to explore and test whether they could recreate such a diverse and delicately balanced system in a closed environment. By living in it, they took this research a step further and tested whether the enclosure could support human life.
"The main objective of the experiment was to determine if an artificial biosphere could operate, increasing storages of energy and biomass, preserving a high level of biodiversity and biomes, stabilizing its waters, soils and atmosphere," Biosphere 2 inventor and research director John Allen and original Biosphere 2 crew member and ecologist Mark Nelson said in a paper they published on the experiment in 1997. They also wanted to know if the biosphere could provide "a healthy and creative life for humans working as naturalists, ecosystem scientists, and technicians," the researchers added.
The habitat, with its striking, futuristic architecture, houses a number of human-created biomes including a rainforest, coral reef, ocean and more. The "biospherians," who made up the crews who lived quarantined in the facility, even had livestock that lived as part of this unique, enclosed system.
One of the women who worked on Biosphere 2 was Kathelin Gray. As Biospherian Trainer she researched small group behavior in extreme environments and conducted workshops in group dynamics, speech and movement for the eight men and women who lived sealed inside the structure for two years. Looking back to where this whole story begins, it was in the 60’s when Gray happened to meet a charismatic engineer named John Allen in San Francisco while she was reading René Daumal’s in-search-of-the-self allegory, Mount Analogue — ending up to be serendipity at its finest. John Allen will become the inventor and Director of Research of Biosphere 2.
Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing was written by René Daumal. The novel is both bizarre and allegorical, detailing the discovery and ascent of a mountain, which can only be perceived by realizing that one has travelled further in traversing it than one would by traveling in a straight line, and can only be viewed from a particular point when the sunrays hit the earth at a certain angle.
"Its summit must be inaccessible, but its base accessible to human beings as nature made them. It must be unique and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible."
Daumal died before the novel was completed, providing an uncanny one-way quality to the journey. Father Sogol – the "Logos" spelled backwards – is the leader of the expedition—the expedition to climb the mysterious mountain that unites Heaven and Earth. The book was one of the sources of the cult film The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The novel also marks the first use of the word "peradam" in literature, an object that is revealed only to those who seek it.
Theater of All Possibilities
Kathelin Gray, John Allen and a group of other self-searchers soon formed a commune that became a traveling theater troupe called Theater of All Possibilities. The group worked with collaborators from the sciences, technology, history, and ecology, with their Institute of Ecotechnics as a partner organization on many projects.
They extended their practice into contributing to the founding of multiple ecological and cultural demonstration and performance projects. These projects included performances in the Australian Outback, the Peruvian Amazon, and the sacred forest in Osogbo, as well as traditional theater spaces.
When the SF scene began to strike them as overly commercialized, TAP relocated to a New Mexico ranch dedicated to the principle of synergy. They called the ranch Synergia. Those at the ranch conducted anti-desertification work, developed special ecologically sustainable agricultural systems, and performed research in solar and wind energy. Over a thousand trees were planted, including 450 fruit trees and organic vegetable gardens. An extensive soil-building program was established, adobe buildings and a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller were constructed, and subsequent artisan enterprises included pottery, wood, iron, clothing, and leather work.
Businessman Ed Bass was a regular visitor to the counterculture community, later becoming a director of the Institute of Ecotechnics that Allen and other Synergia Ranch members founded, and financing much of their work. Bass provided $150 million in funding for Biosphere 2, partially inspired by ideas Allen had advocated at Synergia Ranch, such as Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth". Several other former members of Synergia Ranch also joined Biosphere 2.
Those living at the ranch drew inspiration from a collage of sources: the Transcendentalists, Surrealism, the Beat poets, and Tibetan Buddhism; the works of Brecht, Artaud, Jarry, and biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky; and friends like Buckminster Fuller, Charles Mingus, ethnologist Konrad Lorenz, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, painter Gerald Wilde, and Tamil poet and publisher Tambimuttu.
The Institute of Ecotechnics
The Institute of Ecotechnics, also based at Synergia Ranch since 1973 and involving members of the Theater, was dedicated to studying the intersections of ecology and technics, or ecotechnics. Together, the Theater and the Institute share a mission: ‘to end the separation of science and art.’
One of the founding members of Theatre of All Possibilities, Kathelin Gray tells the story:
“We wanted to make contributions to ecology and to history. In the 1970s, many groups formed in Europe and the Americas, moving onto the land and into abandoned city buildings. We wanted to accomplish one daunting task that would distinguish us from the other groups; we could build a ship and sail the seven seas, we could do anything, was the idea. John had seen the picturesque traditional boats in Hong Kong’s harbour and inspired the rest of us to build a Chinese ocean-going junk rig sailing vessel, and create a contemporary version of the age-old sea culture, with a commitment to ocean ecology. Under a kerosene lamp in an unheated studio, engineering calculations and plans were drawn up.
In the summer of 1974 we drove the tour bus to Oakland, California. In eight months, 20 of us built our ship on a marina that was deserted but for an array of sculptors, hippies and wannabe boatbuilders. Others back in New Mexico ran the ranch and a construction and architecture enterprise building adobe condominiums. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was no internet or social media, there were no mobile phones. Meatspace was life. We drove our bus along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, inviting street people to get in on our self-administered course, Shipbuilding 101. “Would you like to help us build a ship today? We serve macaroni salad for lunch!”
Simultaneously, I organized performances of Metamorphics in Theatre: Brecht and Artaud, about an imaginary meeting of the two influential 20th-century theatre practitioners. We toured LA with Carneval of the Seven Sins, a black comedy we had developed through improvisation about modern existence. Old salts inhabiting the docks bet that we’d never launch the ship, and that its skeleton would join the other abandoned half-built hulks littering the marina. We made many a Sunday toast to the spirit of the ship, which, like a benevolent alien goddess, seemed to be building herself despite all odds.
Typically working 18-hour days, in eight short months we constructed the 25-metre ferrocement sailing vessel. Our target was to take advantage of a very high early spring tide. And so, just after sunrise on 22 March 1975, a tugboat pulled our new ship, christened Research Vessel Heraclitus, into the San Francisco Bay. It was a mystical experience on deck to ride her momentum into the bay, like moving through the birth canal. We unfurled a Panamanian flag. According to maritime law, we were legally in Panama, even though we were floating off the coast of California. Over the past 40 years, the ship has sailed more than 270,000 miles in 12 expeditions – the Magic Black Ship, as people all over the world have called it.
The Institute of Ecotechnics held annual conferences with scientists, adventurers and artists including Buckminster Fuller, Richard Dawkins, Thor Heyerdahl, Lynn Margulis, Sir Ghillean Prance, Antony Gormley and many others. Preventing the impending climate crises was always on our mind, and we hurried to establish our demonstration projects so they would be in place before a full-blown, irreversible disaster was reached. In 1980, we held a conference on the state of the planet with speakers including climatecrisis specialist James D Hays, William S Burroughs on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Alexander King, co-founder of the Club of Rome, which in 1972 published a landmark report warning of upcoming planetary crisis.
Biosphere 1 (B1) is life on Planet Earth. Biosphere 2 (B2) began with a dream. John’s napkin scribbles dating back to 1968 trace the designs of a small project, a futuristic ecological community. We had years of discussions among ourselves, and with scientists of all kinds, including space scientists. In one iteration, John dubbed this future project Spaceship Earth City, after Buckminster Fuller’s term for our blue home that hurtles through space, Spaceship Earth.”
Buckminster Fuller wanted the principles behind the magical mathematical models he discovered in nature, to be accessible to all of humanity. One day, he predicted, when man gave up the specious notion that he had to work to “earn a living”, he might even actually have time to read and understand it all.
Synergetic Geometry is Bucky’s magnum opus. It explains nothing less than the nature of the universe itself, and the fundamental building blocks of nature. According to those who have read and understand Bucky's concepts, they accomplish nothing less than demonstrating how nature works to create reality. It’s all about the sixty degreeness of everything, and the way triangles join together, where they grow and grow until they eventually become spheres, nature’s most efficient creations. Everything is always moving. This movement is part of the model. Thanks to 3.8 billion years honing her designs, Nature already knows how to make the maximum use out of minimum resources.
Fuller defined Synergetics as:
“A system of mensuration employing 60-degree vectorial coordination comprehensive to both physics and chemistry, and to both arithmetic and geometry, in rational whole numbers ... Synergetics explains much that has not been previously illuminated ... Synergetics follows the cosmic logic of the structural mathematics strategies of nature, which employ the paired sets of the six angular degrees of freedom, frequencies, and vectorially economical actions and their multi-alternative, equi-economical action options ... Synergetics discloses the excruciating awkwardness characterizing present-day mathematical treatment of the interrelationships of the independent scientific disciplines as originally occasioned by their mutual and separate lack of awareness of the existence of a comprehensive, rational, coordinating system inherent in nature.”
Experience with synergetics encourages a new way of approaching and solving problems. Its emphasis on visual and spatial phenomena combined with Fuller's holistic approach fosters the kind of lateral thinking which so often leads to creative breakthroughs.
The Caravan of Dreams
Caravan of Dreams was a performing arts center in the central business district of Fort Worth, Texas during the 1980s and 1990s. The venue was best known locally as a live music nightclub, though this was only one part of a larger facility. The center also included a multitrack recording studio, a 212-seat theater, two dance studios, and a rooftop garden. The center was at 312 Houston Street, and prefigured the redevelopment of Sundance Square into a dining and entertainment district. Ed Bass, whose family has participated in much of the redevelopment of downtown Fort Worth, financed the project, and Kathelin Hoffman served as its artistic director working alongside members of TAP. The facility consisted of new construction behind two facades from the 1880s. The rooftop garden featured hundreds of cacti and succulent plants, as well as a glass geodesic dome. Several years later, Biosphere 2 would incorporate geodesic domes in its structure, with the involvement of some of the same individuals behind Caravan of Dreams.
Caravan of Dreams was self-described as "...a meeting place appealing to audiences who enjoy the creation of new forms of music, theater, dance, poetry and film," designed and managed by and for artists. The name was taken from 1001 Arabian Nights, by way of Brion Gysin, who attended the opening of the venue with William S. Burroughs in 1983. The opening celebration centered around performances by Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman, both with his Prime Time ensemble in the nightclub, and with the Fort Worth Symphony at the nearby Convention Center. The event coincided with the mayoral proclamation of September 29, 1983 as "Ornette Coleman Day," when Coleman was presented with a key to the city.
Coleman recorded the concert inaugurating the Caravan of Dreams and released it as a live album called Opening the Caravan of Dreams. This grand opening also included the world premiere of the complete version of Coleman's symphony "Skies of America" and the world premiere of Coleman's string quartet "Prime Time Design/Time Design" written in honor of future-thinker Buckminster Fuller which was recorded live in the Fullerian Desert Dome of Caravan of Dreams.
"Prime Time Design/Time Design" Sleeve Note:
“When I first met Buckminster Fuller in 1982, he impressed me with a spirited demonstration of his model of the tetrahedron, a geometric figure at the basis of the structural design of the universe. He manipulated the model, turned it inside out, made it dance -- but the corners never touched. I said to myself "that's just like my music!" And at that moment I was inspired to write a piece of music based on Fuller's mathematics, dedicated to this man and his shining being, investigating the universe like an ancient child.
This piece is designed for five soloists. At different points in the piece, each musician plays in different time signatures: 2/4, 1/4, 2/3, 4/4, 7/4, 9/4 and 12/4.
The second violin introduces the theme which is then played by viola, the cello, and the first violin. After completing the theme, each musician plays his part as a solo, performed "ensemble." Each soloist will end at a different place. Second violin finishes first, then the viola, the cello and lastly the first violin.
The audience is invited to contemplate the total sound produced from multi-directional components.”
John Allen put together the operative, profound, revolutionary, non-conformist, holistic thought of Bucky and his own geodetic technique with a philosophy stemming from a far away and, in fact, politically opposed culture during the era of the USA-USSR cold war. This meld concerned the studies of Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russian scientist who achieved cosmic reasoning and who saw geological, biological, atmospheric and human phenomena as an interacting whole of forces and forms.
The word “Noösphere” emerged in Paris, in 1924, from conversations between Vernadsky and two French scholars, Teilhard de Chardin and Édouard Le Roy. In a lecture he gave in Paris in 1925, Vernadsky had already described humanity and the collective human mind as a new “geological force,” by which he seems to have meant a force comparable in scale to mountain building or the movement of continents.
In a 1945 essay, Vernadsky described the Noösphere as: “a new geological phenomenon on our planet. In it for the first time, man becomes a large-scale geological force.” As one of many signs of this profound change, he noted the sudden appearance on earth of new minerals and purified metals: “that mineralogical rarity, native iron, is now being produced by the billions of tons. Native aluminum, which never before existed on our planet, is now produced in any quantity.” Vernadsky is best known for developing the idea of a “biosphere,” a sphere of life that has shaped planet earth on geological time scales. His best-known work on the subject is The Biosphere which directly influenced John Allen’s Biosphere 2.
The sphere of mind evolved within the biosphere. All living organisms use information to tap flows of energy and resources, so in some form we can say that the “mind” has always played a role within the biosphere. But even organisms with developed neurological systems and brains foraged for energy and resources individually, in pointillesque fashion. It was their cumulative impact that accounted for the growing importance of the biosphere. Humans were different. They didn’t just forage for information; they domesticated it, just as early farmers domesticated the land, rivers, plants and animals that surrounded them. Like farming, domesticating information was a collective project. The unique precision and bandwidth of human language allowed our ancestors to share, accumulate and mobilize information at the level of the community and, eventually, of the species, and to do so at warp speed. And increasing flows of information unlocked unprecedented flows of energy and resources, until we became the first species in four billion years that could mobilize energy and resources on geological scales. “Collective learning” made us a planet-changing species.
Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine
Brion Gysin, who was a huge influence to TAP, was a painter, writer, sound poet, performance artist and inventor of experimental devices best known for his use of the cut-up technique, alongside his close friend, the novelist William S. Burroughs. Music was also a defining interest in Gysin’s works and became an intriguing aspect of his artistic output and experiments with sound, ritual and altered states. First to note was Gysin’s association with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician who worked with The Beatles, on the fabrication of the Dream Machine.
The Dream Machine was a pioneering piece of hallucinatory kinetic art, constructed out of nothing more than a turntable that rotated at 78rpm, a cantilevered light and a cylinder with rounded parallelograms cut from its surface. The idea came to Gysin as he was falling asleep on a bus in Marseille. As the sun set amongst the trees, it created a flicker effect that induced a lucid dream. Later, with Sommerville, they would learn that the revolutions of the turntable could recreate this effect and correspond to the frequency of alpha waves emitted by the brain during deep sleep. It was dubbed as the first piece of art meant to be viewed with eyes closed, and was Gysin’s (unsuccessful) intention to sell the machine to Panasonic in order to eventually replace the television.
In 1983 artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz began refining a concept for a telecollaborative network connecting informal public multimedia communications venues. The original Electronic Cafe Network was to be the artists offering as a replicable social model and proposed antidote to the approaching Orwellian year of 1984. ECI offered friends the first opportunity to get internet email accounts. Using computer networks, videophones, audio conferencing, and all sorts of devices, ECI-HQ amassed about 50 affiliated locations around the world, some were permanent, some would come online for special events only.
The 21st Century Odyssey was a series conceived by performance artist Barbara T. Smith. Barbara traveled around the world with a portable ECI system (Laptop computer, email, fax software, video phone, audio conferencer) and links up to ECI with people and artists she meets along her journey. All the link-ups were 3-way including friend Roy Walford who was among the first eight people to spend two years living inside Biosphere 2. The connections were facilitated and documented through ECI. It became the "place" where the Biospherians virtually hung-out, outside of the context of Biosphere 2. This proved to be a real asset to the mental health of the Biospherians.
“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”
Another influence on TAP was that of Bertolt Brecht, the influential German Marxist dramatist, stage director, and poet of the 20th century. In 1974, TAP organized performances of Metamorphics in Theatre: Brecht and Artaud, about an imaginary meeting of the two influential 20th-century theatre practitioners.
A write up in the Berkeley Barb reviews the performance:
“The program, called Metamorphics in Theater, presents both Brecht and Antonin Artaud. Actress Hoolihan presents a serious portrait of Artaud, using Artaud’s own words. The combination of words, movement, lighting, and makeup is, at times, superb, poetic theater. Artaud traces the history of plagues and then explains why theater is like a plague. “Not because it’s contagious, but because it’s a revolution.. .Impossible things become our normal element.. Theater, like plague, is beneficial to mankind. It reveals the lies, baseness, slackness of our world.” And then Artaud goes on to show us his “theater of cruelty,” which is the actor being cruel to himself, in the sense of having an “appetite for life.”
Another amazing thing about the evening is that, because of the artistic freedom which Theater of All Possibilities embodies, one actress can present a serious, poetic portrait of Artaud, while another presents a near-burlesque of Brecht. And they both work together perfectly on the same program. It’s hard to imagine doing such a thing. But, after it’s done, you think, “Well, why not? And why hasn’t anyone else ever done this?” Although T.A.P. has plenty of men in the company, this time they decided it was time for women to play major roles. Why, after all, should women be limited to Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth and Medea? Hoolihan and Lehmann were brilliant as Artaud and Brecht. They did what they set out to do: to entertain, to inform, and to stretch the limits of theatrical possibilities.”