Commencing Countdown, Engines On
Thursday, June 21, 2007
By Leah Sandals
Since 1963, NASA has had an arts program, hiring everyone from Norman Rockwell to Laurie Anderson to make art about aeronautics. Similarly, since 2000, Kitchener artist Andrew Wright has had his own little "NASA program," using homespun spacecraft and other devices to image the sky and the planet. His work, currently on display in a show called Passages in Cambridge, Ont., includes video footage filmed from homemade rockets and photos of the sky created by turning his entire studio into a pinhole camera. Here, Leah Sandals chats by phone with Wright about God, hobby shops and Major Tom.
Q It seems like the heavens, symbolically at least, are of concern to you. Is that true?
A I'm aware of that kind of interpretation. I've talked with Father Dan Donovan, a Toronto theologian and collector, about it. He likes to see the spiritual aspect of art, but that's not my prime motivating factor. It's not about God!
Q What is it about?
A When I was photographing skies with the camera obscura [pinhole camera] it was an investigation of the constructs of photography. In some ways, it was an attempt to photograph nothing, leaving the only content as photography itself.
Q How about when you shoot rockets into the sky to make films? That seems a little less about photography, a little more about gunpowder.
A The rockets came right out of the sky-photographing process. Basically, I had been looking up to make pictures of the sky from below, and then I wanted to look down to make pictures of the ground from above. It was a simple reversal of terms.
Q So this isn't about nostalgia for building rockets as a kid or anything?
A No. Actually, I started out trying to rig up cameras on homemade hot-air balloons. That resulted in a lot of burns. Then I found a rocket in the U.K. in 2000. I walked into this little hobby shop and asked if I could use radio-controlled planes or something for photography. And the clerk just said to me, "Why don't you try the rocket?" There was actually a rocket you could order with a 110 camera inside. I managed to make it work for two shots. I soon realized the kit wasn't robust enough and didn't offer the results that I wanted. So I was actually attaching 35mm cameras to some rockets, and they would go up, like, 10 feet before coming down. I thought, I'll do video, but the transmitters were a couple thousand dollars at the time. I wasn't prepared to pay that, so I just waited, and they began to come down in price.
Q Is the equipment you use basically a webcam?
A It is like a webcam, but they call it a pinhole video camera. It's the size of a quarter and transmits a radio frequency; I can pull the signal and record it directly on to video while the rocket is flying.
Q Some people might look at your rocket films and think, "Why not just use Google Earth? Why bother?" How would you respond?
A First, the sense of Google Earth and these videos is very different. Google Earth has no sound, no roar of engines. The rocket videos are also very disorienting; looking at the video, it can be hard to tell what's going to happen next. In contrast, Google Earth tries hard to not be disorienting. It tries to familiarize everything. It makes the world into a little toy that doesn't account for its vastness as a construct and as a physical entity. Also, there's no narrative to Google Earth. I suppose, theoretically, if you're looking at Toronto and go to Waterloo the point of view backs up into the air and then flies down. So there's a sense of authorial control available, but it's only available to us because of the powers that be. You can't make Google Earth yourself, though you could make a rocket, which is basically a cardboard tube with a stick of dynamite in it. I like that rockets make seeing from above accessible in terms of cost. It means that remote surveillance is no longer the purview of NASA or higher authorities.
Q So, it is a bit like you have your own little NASA.
A Yes, I'm ground control and Major Tom is out there! [Laughs.] -
Passages runs to June 30 at Cambridge Galleries. For more information, visit www.cambridgegalleries.ca.
Andrew Wright, Untitled Rocket Launch I, 2007: stills from rocket-mounted RF camera footage.
© National Post 2007