Now Online: Aleksandra Mir, First Woman on the Moon, 1999

The next installment of our weekly moving image presentation is First Woman on the Moon, a video by Swedish-American artist Aleksandra Mir that premiered at SI in the 1999 group exhibition Empires Without States. On August 28, 1999, Mir organized a 10-hour event in which the beach of a coastal Dutch town was transformed with the help of bulldozers into a lunar landscape. At sundown, Mir climbed atop its highest peak and declared herself the first woman on the moon. Alongside the video, we are delighted to include a selection of photographs, a brief text and a chronology, written by Mir, on the work’s production and subsequent circulation.

WIJK AAN ZEE—28 August 1999. The day when heavy machinery and manpower transformed a Dutch beach into a lunar landscape of hills and craters. At sunset the labor stopped, and a live drumbeat announced the ceremony of a woman, gracing this imaginary moon with an American flag. The same evening, while the party still went on, the landscape was flattened out again, leaving no physical trace of the event behind – save the memories and a story to tell future generations.

Aleksandra Mir First Woman on the Moon

CHRONOLOGY

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Prologue

1633, June: Galileo Galilei, the Father of Modern Science, is charged with heresy and sentenced to life-long house arrest for the Copernican view that the Earth is not the centre of the universe but moves around the sun.

1961, April 12: The Soviet Union launches the first manned space vehicle, Vostok 1, which completes a single orbit of the Earth. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel in space, utters the soon to be world famous words, “The Earth is Blue.”

1961, May 5: The US launches a Mercury spacecraft, carrying astronaut Alan Shepard. Defeated by the Russians in the space race by only three weeks, President Kennedy gives a spirited speech before Congress where he dedicates the resources of this nation “… to achieving the goal before the decade is out, of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth!’ This will take billions of dollars and the invention of a new space rocket

1969, July 20: The Apollo 11 crew makes the first human landing on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility. Spacecraft commander Neil Armstrong and astronaut Buzz Aldrin spend two hours on the lunar surface setting up observation equipment and collecting rock samples. The American flag is deployed and a plaque is unveiled with the inscription: ‘Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace for All Mankind’

1969 – 1972: Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 each land two astronauts on the surface. For the rest of mankind, the landings become but a mediated reality, received through photography and television. NASA holds over 30,000 still photographs taken with Hasselblad cameras from the Apollo missions, but initially only a small fraction depicting the heroism of the missions, are released in public.

1997: The Movie Capricorn One is released with a story line that renders the moon landing a fake shot in a Hollywood film studio. A whole genre of conspiracy theories that question the authenticity of the mission flourish, pointing to a series of clues in the still photography provided by NASA. The same clues are subsequently counter-proven by scientific expertise who point to the unique atmospheric conditions on the moon, but it does not seem to faze those already convinced of a conspiracy. The space between reality and fiction remains a fertile ground for speculation.

1999: San Francisco Photographer Mike Light releases the book Full Moon. Invited by NASA to revisit their archives 30 years on, he makes a personal selection and works with the new technology of digital scanning, which allows him to tell a very different official story than the one originally told. His focus is on landscape representation rather than Cold War politics and his book even shows the unshaven and fatigued astronauts in a more human light.

Production

1999, February: Aleksandra Mir is invited by Lisette Smiths, Director of the non-profit organization Casco Projects to realize a public project in the Netherlands. The artist expresses and interest to work outdoors with the Dutch beaches which are known to her as manmade and contested territories; 17% of the country’s land area is reclaimed from natural wetlands for agricultural use, while centuries of flood defense makes for a nation experienced in wrestling with nature.

1999, March: Global media is filling up with reports in anticipation of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original moon landing. Technological progress is clear, but how far have we really come as a society? First Woman on the Moon is conceived to effectively beat JFK to his words and put a woman on the moon “… before the end of the millennium”. At this point in history, it is still clear that if a woman wants to land on the moon, she will have to build it for herself.

1999, April: Production begins. Casco’s humble office in Utrecht which holds one fax machine, one part time employee, two interns and an email account is turned into a full fledged information center from which press releases are sent worldwide, reaching other press rooms, universities and amateur clubs. The new commission budget of $2,000 is blown in the first day on a half-page ad in Artforum, “To announce the news of this historic event to the world”. With a zero-budget economy and a bold promise, everything from here on needs to be invented from scratch.

1999, May: After initial location scouting and definition of the site at the entry of the North Sea Canal, permits are cleared with the local municipalities of Belsen and Bewerwijk. Numerous field trips to the site lead to many more informal relations with the locals who are enthusiastic and who become directly involved and instrumental to the realization of the work. Bert Kisjes, the Philosopher Mayor of Wijk aan Zee and the project’s greatest fan, rallies the community to support the production team with hospitality and manpower. The bulldozers are arranged from local machine parks and from the steel factory that looms above the site. The workers who normally deal with waste management agree to turn some sand and play on the beach for a day. The project’s independent economy eventually comes to include everything from local volunteer effort to corporate sponsorship on an international scale, all of which will define the project’s aesthetic and outcome.

1999, June: The feedback from the publicity campaign starts to come in. An Australian gender studies department is cheering, “Go girls”! While another US feminist organization takes offense at the conflation of their cause with the use of the American flag, “Imperialism”! Devoted to breaking NASA’s monopoly of space travel, the Dutch anarchist organization Association Autonomous Astronauts (AAA) first shows great interest in the project, but after realizing it will not take anyone anywhere, insists on its cancellation and threatens with sabotage, of what sort is not clear since everything is to be free and open to public intervention anyway.

The interest in Dutch media mounts. Starting with a short interview given to the local newspaper, coverage quickly escalates to a full page in Amsterdam’s main daily that criticizes the art for its flirting with the media, which only results in a flurry of more media culminating in the arrival of Radio and three TV stations on site on the day of the event. Their conspicuous ‘Media” behavior and heavy equipment adds a touch of technological class and overt performativity to an otherwise mundane sand pit and construction site. TV footage is eventually sold all around the world as entertaining breakfast TV and shown in places as far as Djakarta.

1999, July: Over the summer more than 50 volunteers are tied to the project. Gertjan Cupido and Finch van de Zwet, owners of a laid back beach café located at the edge of the chosen site raise a circus like catering tent on the beach in anticipation of more guests arriving for the event from Amsterdam, while Hotel de Sonnevanck offers the crew free hotel nights. A band of drummers are picked up at the Utrecht railway station to provide a beat on the day. Back in New York costumes are created by the designer Thuy Pham of United Bamboo. He responds to the brief of creating ‘five feminine play dresses for a day on the beach, with clear reference to space travel, of couture standard and at a cost of $20 each’, with a chic bleached cotton canvas number, the same cotton canvas one would use for a stretcher and with a thin wire in the raised collar for advanced spacesuit technology. This dress will eventually make it to the Guggenheim Museum, but on the day, it seems disposable at best.

An American flags is ordered and sent to Holland. The use of this flag remains the project’s most controversial aspect. But once all other options (the Feminist flag, The Dutch flag, the European flag) are discussed and discarded for their limitations, it is clear that only a reference to the original will do the job of opening up the status quo.

1999, August: Everything but a documentary plan or budget is in place and everyone on set is crucially aware of its importance. Victor Hasselblad AB, the Swedish camera producer originally employed by NASA and with headquarters located in Aleksandra Mir’s hometown of Gothenburg, are approached for support and are delighted to be involved. With the world’s longest running ad campaign, 30 years of images of the moon, they claim, ‘The moon is ours’ and the question of this landing being a fake is not even raised.

What matters is how to create great images. The company equips two photographers with their newest cameras and adds a 35mm panoramic novelty model as product placement, to be worn by Aleksandra Mir all day, just like Neil Armstrong wore his Hasselblad camera on the moon. The company also covers all processing costs of the analogue film stills, and transfers the images to digital to provide for the widest possible distribution, images that are still requested for publication the world over. The fruitful relationship with Hasselblad and the voluntary use of their logo in the resulting photographs become an emblem of authenticity, a signature that effectively closes the link between NASA’s and the artist’s ambitions.

1999, August 28: First Woman on the Moon is realized in ten hours. During a short morning meeting with the crew, Aleksandra Mir draws a rough sketch of a crater (a mound with a hole in it) in the sand. The 300m2 full-size landscape is thereafter completely improvised by the machine operators themselves.

During the process of digging, large amount of ocean detritus and beach trash including broken glass bottles are revealed in the sand. To protect the children who play along the construction in the dunes, the team mobilizes a collection and the artists ask that all objects be exhibited on tables inside the tent, making for a spontaneous Museum of Lunar Surface Findings to which the public contributes all day. By the afternoon, the water has unexpectedly risen to fill the craters, making for numerous little lakes for the children to play in.

Everyone is taking pictures of everyone else. Mario Testino shows up with his camera and snaps away, next to the knowing Amsterdam art scene, next to the tourists who unknowingly walk in on the event, all whom contribute to tell the story from multiple points of view. And at sunset, the flag finally graces the highest hill, a champagne bottle is cracked open and the public is welcomed to join the astronauts on the moon. One person declares himself, “The First Black Man on the Moon”, followed by the, “The First Gay Man”, and “The First German.”

Legacy

1999, Early September: Post-production is set to begin. Aleksandra Mir returns to NYC and her day job as a receptionist in an East Village orthopedic doctor’s office, filing X-rays and booking appointments, while requesting the footage shot by the Dutch TV stations to be reclaimed back into the project and with a plan of making her own video. Hasselblad contributes a soundtrack. Created for their in-house corporate presentations of how the cameras were used at the original event, it includes a cheesy medley overlaid with original NASA communications and Kennedy’s famous speech, which closes the circle between the two narratives, allowing them to co-exist on one single plane.

1999, Late September: Annette Schindler, the Director of the Swiss Institute in NYC hears about the project and inquires about any residues to show in her upcoming exhibition ‘Empires without States’.

She grants the broke artist $500 to complete her planned video, a fee that is handed over to another friend, Thorgeir Gudmundsson, an Icelandic film student at Columbia University, to help with the edit. A week of overnights on the school’s new digital editing software results in a slap dash medley of footage from a wide range of sources. The artist’s own shaky mini-DV in NTSC format and animated stills from the various photographers are mixed up with the pro TV camera material retrieved in VHS PAL format, before everything is transferred to analogue Betacam, then to digital code and finally output to VHS in NTSC format, for its first gallery screening.

1999, November: On the premier at the Swiss Institute’s Broadway gallery, the video is shown on a large bulky TV and living room setting to mimic the reception of the original in millions of family homes the world over. But it will soon be screened in every imaginable setting; white cube, black cube, flat screen monitor of every shape and size, in gallery, book shop, lobby, basement, film theatre or class room projection, outdoor festival screening and online.

The Swiss Institute also hosts the special event, ‘Conspiracy Night’, which brings British conspiracy theorist Conrado Salas to New York. He explains in detail how he sees the original mission a fake and the two videos are then screened together and compared on aesthetic grounds, as in “Who Wore it Better”? He also advises the artist to send her tape to Neil Armstrong and Arthur C. Clarke, a mindboggling proposition that it will take the artist 2 years to act upon.

2000 – ongoing: The 14 minute long video documentary takes on a life of its own as it tours to venues and events around the world. It serves a German conference on women’s art, an Icelandic geography show, a curatorial conference on alternative production methods and endless exhibitions on space. Everyone is using the moon landing video for their own purposes and its continuous re-contextualization guarantees that the ball of meaning stays in the air.

2001, July: Two letters with enclosed videos are addressed to Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Neil Armstrong in Ohio. The two men who in the 20th century expanded our vision into outer space far beyond anyone’s imagination have chosen to live in the most peripheral places on Earth. Both send their replies on personal letterheads and acknowledging the work with good humor. Neil Armstrong follows up with a couple of courteous and mundane emails to Aleksandra Mir, as if they were simply two very normal people having a chat. When she asks if he would like to meet her at a staged event in a NYC Art Museum and have their picture taken together, he politely declines with the words, ‘I don’t think I am a very good fit for an Art Museum’ and goes off screen. Left with the gnawing feeling that she has blown a potential friendship on proposing its exploitation as art, she contends with the satisfaction that they have seen each other’s ‘work’ within their respective lifetimes and the conviction that both of their projects are much bigger than themselves.

2006: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Tate Modern in London acquire editions 1 and 2/6 of the video for their respective permanent collections. Seven years after its realization, the work is finally acknowledged as (art) historically valid. A standard conversation about the work’s future conservation with Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector leads the artist to sign a ‘Variable Media Agreement’ that forever unties the work from its original media and will allow future curators to show it on whatever technology will be invented, and so to guarantee the works longevity. Within the next three years, the museum abandons the analogue storage format for this piece altogether and the work migrates to newer digital media.

2006, September 9-13: Gravity, a sequel to the moon landing in the form of a 22m-high rocket that the First Woman on the Moon would have used but never been able to go anywhere in, is commissioned by Arts Catalyst and built out of recycled scrap for the exhibition ‘Space Soon’ at the Roundhouse in London. After only 5 days on display, this monumental sculpture, which takes £40,000 and 5 months to create, is scrapped at a local junkyard at a return of £40.

2008, March 19: Sir. Arthur C. Clarke dies in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

2012, August 25: Neil Armstrong dies in Cincinnati, Ohio.

2012, October 14: Felix Baumgartner jumps to Earth from an altitude of 39 km.

2013, June: 14 years after its realization and 7 years after its acquisition, Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer announces the video to finally go on an 18 month long display in the permanent collection, during which an estimated 4 million people will view it. The brief scene of a naked boy playing in the sands flags up a child nudity concern and the work is processed by the gallery’s sensitive legal team who analyzes the risk of the public taking offence and at worst case, a PR fallout. The work is cleared for the exhibition while the curatorial team marvels at its ‘poor’ vintage quality, requesting it be shown alongside the letters from Neil Armstrong and Arthur C. Clarke.

The artist in the meanwhile scrutinizes the work properly for the first time since its creation and expresses a wish to make a few revisions. The acid green sequences are not intentional or aesthetically justified, but a result of poor settings between the multiple transfers, a stressful and not fully qualified editing scenario, coupled with plain ignorance and stupidity that rendered the credit sequence atrocious, filled with omissions and misspellings, betraying a poor student approach the artist now feels she has grown out of and likes to rectify ahead of the grand show.

A debate concerning the work’s truth sees the curator’s at the end of maintaining the original with all its flaws intact and to mark the authenticity of the conditions in which it was made, while the artist argues for the right to make revisions, insisting on a differentiation between the intentional creation of poor material and the poverty of the creator, which has long been rectified and does not benefit from romantization. However, as the work no longer belongs to the artist, she has to make a formal request. The case is settled by conservator Tina Weidner at the Time-based Media Conservation department, who reviews the application and deems the changes to be justified if made under the supervision of the department.

Subsequently, the artist spends several days in Tate Modern’s lab for the preservation of (ageing) New Media with editor Tim McGill who reconstructs the title sequence frame by frame and adjusts the green colors to neutral, all at a high expense but at the Museum’s cost. 2 years later, the same department presents the job on two parallel monitors, ‘Before and After,’ at a Conference titled ‘Media in Transition’ arranged together with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Research Institute. It brings artists, curators, art historians and conservators together to discuss the impact of changing technologies on works of art that depend on fragile technological ecosystems, resulting in a broader understanding of the concept of authentication and originality.

2015, January: Fifteen years later the video continues to tour the world and is shown in wider and wider circles while Aleksandra Mir ventures outside the planet ‘Art World’ to engage with the Space World proper as a valid contributor. Dr. Chris Welch, Professor of Astronautics at the International Space University in Strasbourg invites her to lecture on art and to show the video to his future space engineers and space communicators. A workshop on failure where the students compete to build the highest rockets out of food cans, reaching the breaking point and seeing their constructions collapse, has them enthralled.

2015, July: Andrew Kuh, Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the newly formed UK Space Agency asks the artist to present her work at the UK Space Conference which brings 1000 delegates from the space industry and academia together in Liverpool to share and debate their paths of progress. She shows the 15-year-old video, not as an example of innovation, but as an unchallenged void and enduring legacy.

Epilogue

The thousands of people who every year Google the question, ‘Who was the First Woman on the Moon’ have to make do with an artist as their first hit. Aleksandra Mir’s title as the First Woman on the Moon, in fact and fiction, remains uncontested.

Aleksandra Mir First Woman on the Moon Swiss Institute

Credits

Abeko BV, Apolonija Sustersic, Audrey Marlhens, Bert Kisjes, Casco Projects, Ellen Kast, Finch van de Zwet, Gebroeders Scholten, Gertjan Cupido, Hasselblad, Hotel de Sonnevanck, Ilmond TV8, Iris Stelder, Jeroen Holleman, Joerie Numan, Karen Baldock, Kees Coster, Lanser’s Trio, Lisette Smits, Marcel Boon, Maurice Jona, Max Kwantes, Peter Viberg, Piotr Uklanski, Rob Roberti, Rob Snijders, SSH/Handep, Strandpaviljoen Timboektoe, The Municipalities of Velsen and Beverwijk, Thorgeir Gudmundsson, Thuy Pham, Ton de Reuver, United Bamboo, Wereldtelevisie