LUCY SHEERMAN: Essentially Grey

‘Contact Light’

(first words spoken on the moon)

 The Apollo missions to the moon present an environment in which the constraints of language are brought into relation with the sublime. Missions which were conceived as propaganda and a race for technological supremacy left a lasting legacy of longing by others to understand the experience, and a need for the moonwalkers to describe it. Armstrong and Aldrin spent only about three hours on the moon. Forty four years later Google automatically completes the question ‘How did it feel to walk on the moon?’. Of course it is impossible to answer the question to the satisfaction of apparently limitless questioners, creating a kind of meaning vertigo. Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 lunar module pilot, was so traumatised by his inability to respond adequately to the question that he had regressive hypnotherapy. On the Apollo 12 mission Alan Bean, also a lunar module pilot, pointed the film camera directly into the sun, destroying it, which meant that there were no live film transmissions from the moon during that mission. He subsequently became a painter, painstakingly recreating scenes of the moon walks with titles such as ‘That’s How It Felt To Walk On The Moon’. The focus on creating a sense of authenticity in his practice has led Bean to grind up the dust impregnated gloves which he wore on the moon and mix them into his paints, so that the work contains literal fragments of moon dust. He also explores colour effects in his work despite the fact that the lunar terrain had very little breadth of colour palette compared to the earth which they could see in the distance.

In Moon Dust, the biography of the nine surviving men who walked on the moon, Andrew Smith describes Buzz Aldrin leaving a symposium in tears having been asked the question ‘How did it feel to walk on the moon?’ and subsequently punching the moon landing denier Bart Sibrel when he asked him to swear on the bible that he actually went. Aldrin tells Smith that he does not write at all, that it causes a kind of phobia. (Although while Armstrong refused all requests for autographs, Aldrin’s can be worth as much as £750.) It seems that the fascination which people have with their experience is also tied to a suspicion that it might not have happened at all. One Apollo wife states ‘I’d look up at the moon and even though intellectually I knew he was up there, I couldn’t believe it’. The limits of language are tested and stretched by attempts to describe or reflect something so outside the normal.

Neil Armstrong’s descriptions of the moon are poetic in their adherence to his actual experience of the environment, the terrain, the detail of the mission. It lingers in his enduring embarrassment over the loss of ‘a’ in the famous misquoted statement, ‘one small step for [a] man’. The accounts transmitted from the moon tend to be technical and rooted in the particularity of detail. While they are often filled with wonder, there is little reliance on rhetorical effect in the descriptions made during the missions, although this tends to creep in to their later accounts. The language used to describe their experiences at the time is constrained in interesting ways. Astronauts tend to use technical language, in part because they emerged from the rigid formalities of test pilot training. However their language was more completely limited because of the limitations of the radio signals linking the Apollo spacecraft to Earth. An entirely new language was developed consisting of sequences of numbers followed by a ‘verb’ or ‘noun’ button which resulted in restricted and highly compressed words and phrases able to communicate limited factual sets of information about the mission. They are operating within intense constraints of time, space and technology. Later, the unreliability of memory and the limiting effects of language create a process of attrition in the endlessly repeated accounts. The astronauts’ descriptions morph into testaments which forefront the impossibility of ever fully sharing the experience. This adds an interesting layer to the issues of authenticity which surround their descriptions.

moonThe text I used for the film ‘Essentially Grey’ is drawn from the early Apollo Missions in which astronauts were tasked with describing the colours they perceived on the moon. It is combined with descriptions of science fiction films made before the moon landings in which women inhabit the moon as natives or  visit as space explorers. Working with a sound engineer I distorted a recording of my voice to replicate the Apollo 11 transmissions between Armstrong, Aldrin and NASA. We included the static and radio beeps and eerie gaps between transmissions and these erased several sections of the reading.  The duration of the recording then determined the complete erasure of the text. Having filled an outline moon with the poem I obliterated it during the time it took to play the recording.

  ’3,2,1 Ignition’

(last words spoken on the moon)

 The film was produced during a week long technology residency at Metal Peterborough which was funded by the Arts Council. As a Metal Associate Artist I am currently developing a project relating to the moon with the artist Bettina Furnee. It has the working title, ‘Absence of the Normal’.

TO SEE THE VIDEO, CLICK HERE: ESSENTIALLY GREY

 

Lucy Sheerman lives in Cambridge. Oystercatcher Press published rarefied: falling without landing in 2012. She was recently commissioned by Menagerie to write a short play What did it feel like to go to the Moon? based on a collaboration with the Apollo 15 astronaut and poet Al Worden and is currently working on a short film and installation with the visual artist Bettina Furnee as part of a Metal associate artist residency. A fan fiction version of Rebecca is included in Long Poem Magazine, Issue 10.

 

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