Sir Francis Godwin’s 17th century book The Man In The Moone is arguably the first piece of science fiction ever published in the English language. It follows the adventures of a Spaniard who, in flight from his home country after bloodying his hands in a duel, encounters a flock of geese with incredible strength on the island of St. Helena. With a growing line of debts and enemies on his tail, he tames las gansas and trains them to fly him around in a chariot--first across parts of the southern Atlantic ocean, and then to the moon.
Almost four hundred years later, we may soon see the actualization of Godwin’s tale. Inspired by the poetry, fantasy and astronomy surrounding the Spaniard’s adventures, award-winning German artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis has been fashioning a long-term experiment to make The Man In The Moone a 21st-century reality.
Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility is the name of the experiment’s main phase. The eleven geese, hatched in May of 2011, have undergone a series of physical training exercises over the past two years intended to imprint Meyer-Brandis as their “mother goose.” Now they reside at a moon analogue base (essentially a barn altered to mimic a lunar landing site) in an undisclosed area of Italy to mentally prepare for their voyage beyond our atmosphere, tentatively set for 2027.
No, seriously: geese are being trained for space travel in the Italian hinterlands as you read this.
But what seems like a far-fetched and laughable stunt is actually an intelligent, charming and self-aware conceptual art piece, aiming to break the boundaries between mythic storytelling and what we usually think of when we think of science. “Bio-poetics” is a term frequently associated with Meyer-Brandis’ imaginative brand of installation art, and it’s easy to see why. The humane aspect of her work lies in the fact that it delegates its seeming impossibility by embracing it head-on.
By claiming matter-of-factly such observations as “moon geese migrate to the moon once a year” and describing a goose’s wing material as a “lunar feather” in her short documentary (below), Meyer-Brandis is tampering with the grave seriousness so often shrouding both contemporary art and contemporary science. She’s emphasising the idea that the most ludicrous assertions in science (or art or history or whatever) have always depended on flights of the imagination, or hopes for the unattainable. This is a large reason why the eccentric project has already garnered such laurels as the KfW Audience Award of Videonale and Prix Ars Electronica 2012 Award of Distinction
In its current phase, live feeds of geese activity in Italy are relayed to the Foundation of Art and Creative Technology (FACT) Liverpool gallery via a sleek control room designated to the experiment.
Three large screens broadcast 6 camera feeds from the lunar replica, all of which are controllable through a center panel accessible by audience members. A camera set up at the control desk allows visitors to Skype with the geese while they send morse code to Liverpool (!) or stare blankly at each other or do whatever else geese do in a lunar environment simulator. Behind the control desk an accurate-to-scale model of the lunar analogue allows visitors to see a blueprint of the camera positions, the landing craft prop and other physical elements.
In addition to preparing their psyches, the lunar analogue site hosts a variety of experimental tools and devices intended to collect data and analyze what conditions need to be replicated on the moon’s surface to support the birds’ survival. Most of these are named as tongue-in-cheek tributes to the sci-fi jargon behind man-made astronautical devices. (The system’s motherboard, for example, is known as the IGM-9000, or Intergalactic Goose Machine 9000.)
A number of measurement systems are set up in the analogue to replicate real scientific experiments, as well. An antenna mast near the propped landing craft houses a magnetometer, s-band antenna, solar cells, gamma ray spectrometer, solar wind spectrometer and alpha particle spectrometer--all of which are constantly routing data to the mission control station at FACT in Liverpool.
With 14 years left until the birds breach our orbit, time will tell if Meyer-Brandis is able to see the project all the way through and return the “moon geese” back home. Judging by the photos below, they seem capable … except Friede, who has that “Event Horizon” look in his eye.
All photos via Agnes Meyer-Brandis FFUR.DE