“At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there… I have been in some of them, and— well we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet— the biggest, the most blank, so to speak— that I had a hankering after.” Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’, 1902.
‘Nowhere Plains’ is a literal translation of the Latin name Utopia Planitia, which was the site of the Viking 2 probe’s landing on Mars in 1976. Utopia was chosen by NASA firstly because it was an enormous and relatively easy target, and secondly because it was considered safe and flat. ‘Nowhere Plains’ explores the value of “boring” places with “nothing” in them, of which Utopia Planitia is an almost unimaginably vast example. In each of the four (originally live) episodes, I attempted to tell and reconcile from memory as many stories as I can about manned space exploration. This includes real incidents like NASA’s Moon landings, and fictions such as Alternative 3 or The Martian Chronicles.
The original, primary meaning of the word utopia (as coined by Sir Thomas More in his eponymous book about an ideal society: see bibliography) is literally “no place”; a place that does not and cannot exist in reality. Utopia has since come to imply a more attainable and concrete state of perfection; the progressive or radical utopia is usually in the future, while conservatives often mourn an idealised historical utopia of decades or centuries past. The idea of visiting and colonising other planets is utopian in both the old and new, right wing and left wing senses of the word. You can see Utopia Planitia and visually explore the rest of the planet on Google Mars.
A video installation of all four episodes was in the exhibition Broadcast Yourself at Cornerhouse in Manchester from 13th June-10th August, 2008. The same exhibition was previously at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle during March of 2008. The exhibition looked at twentieth century and contemporary artists’ work on, in and about television, and in Newcastle was part of AV Festival 08 which took place across Newcastle, Gateshead, Middlesborough and Sunderland.
This was a utopian journey to Nowhere, culminating in me being the first human being to land on Mars, broadcast live from Utopia. It was not a recreation or a hoax; in Nowhere Plains the romance and imagined drama of a journey through space are contrasted with the prosaic reality and everyday beauty of the often rather bleak, problematic views that have rewarded explorers or pioneers throughout history— views that have often cost many lives. Environmental and social devastation has often followed for the new lands discovered and for any “aliens” already living there. Even the most idealistic thinkers have tended to realise that their perfect worlds would need to be protected from the outside world by lucky circumstances, by internal coercion and/or external ignorance if they were to survive. Hence utopias have tended to move ever further away as the sphere of (Western) human knowledge expands. I also discuss utopianism in my article for MAP magazine on genomics and art, written during my residency at the University of Edinburgh.
The UNSA—BERG mission to Utopia Planitia was sponsored by the Radiator Festival for New Technology Art in Nottingham. It was streamed lived from Radiator’s site to the internet, and to large screens at Castle Green (the city’s highest point) and Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, to Phoenix in Leicester and to Q Arts in Derby.
UNSA is an invention/extrapolation of my own, but I subsequently discovered that there really is a United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (forming the somewhat less mellifluous acronym UNOOSA). The office’s site is about as boring as you would expect a United Nations department’s internet presence to be. Of course there is also the European Space Agency, whose site is actually worth visiting if you like that kind of thing.
The British Experimental Rocket Group was an organisation headed by Professor Bernard Quatermass in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass BBC TV serials from the 1950s. B.E.R.G.’s operations were only slightly lower budget and a little more disastrously cavalier than they would be if the UK really had a space exploration program in the Fifties: the first British astronaut mutated, absorbed his crewmates like a fungus and went insane; The Professor’s plans for moon bases were hijacked by malevolent extraterrestrial slimes intent on colonising Earth; an excavation of a crashed space ship at Hobbs Lane tube station unleashed a Martian—inspired bout of violent telekinesis, homicide and mass psychosis in nearby Londoners.
Below is a (non-exhaustive) list of the works referred to or quoted in the text of ’Nowhere Plains’. There’s a lot of creative DNA from Alan Moore, Orson Welles, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard in this project, but all of the following were influential in some way, directly or otherwise:
Films, radio and television:
Ambrose, David — Alternative 3 (1977)
Baker, Roy Ward — Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Burton, Tim — Mars Attacks! (1996)
Cartier, Rudolph — The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955), Quatermass and the Pit (1958)
Haskin, Byron — The War of the Worlds (1953)
Hyams, Peter — Capricorn One (1978)
Kubrick, Stanley — 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968)
Méliès, Georges — A Trip to the Moon (1914)
Menzies, William Cameron — Invaders From Mars (1953)
Welles, Orson — The War of the Worlds (1938)
Books and stories:
Arnold, Edwin L. — Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation AKA Gullivar of Mars* (1905)
Ashcroft, Frances — Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival (2000)
Ballard, J.G. — Myths of the Near Future (1982)
Bradbury, Ray — The Martian Chronicles AKA The Silver Locusts (1951)
Burroughs, Edgar Rice — The Barsoom/John Carter* novels (1917—1948)
Calvino, Italo — Invisible Cities (1974)
Carey, John — The Faber Book of Utopias (1999)
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner* (1798)
Conrad, Joseph — Heart of Darkness* (1899)
Defoe, Daniel — Robinson Crusoe* (1719)
Dick, Philip K. — Martian Timeslip (1964), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ubik (1969)
Lewis, C.S. — Out of the Silent Planet (1948)
Lovecraft, H.P. — At the Mountains of Madness* (1939)
Lowell, Percival — Mars as the Abode of Life (1909)
Moore, Alan — Watchmen (1986)
More, Thomas — Utopia* (1551)
Morton, Oliver — Mapping Mars (2002)
Poe, Edgar Allan — The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfall* (1835)
Polo, Marco — The Travels of Marco Polo* (1298)
Smith, Andrew — Moondust (2005)
Swift, Jonathan — Gulliver’s Travels* (1735)
Wells, H.G. — The War of the Worlds* (1898)
Biographies and autobiographies of astronauts and cosmonauts too numerous to mention.
* Indicates a link to the actual text, mostly at Project Gutenberg although they’re usually also available from many other places.