Gardner Post and Brian Kane: Go For Launch

Today is July 20, 2009, and I am writing about Gardner Post and Brian Kane’s hugely impressive video installation Go for Launch. It is forty years to the day that a manned spacecraft touched down on the surface of the moon. But nearly forty years to the day before that historic landing, Dr. Robert Goddard—the pioneer of rocket propulsion—met the aviator Charles Lindbergh and the two formed an alliance centered around belief and support for Goddard’s often ridiculed theories and experiments. Goddard had already launched himself into the history of space flight three years earlier, though, when his first liquid-fueled rocket left the ground, and an aspect of modernity went with it, never to return. A part of our modern psyche is still on its way, cruising beyond the pull of gravity, wanting to go as far into the unknown as possible.

Whether by actual or virtual means, and with the aid of emergent technologies, artists are in tandem with science, if not startlingly ahead in their improvisations, speculations, and imaginative reconfigurations. Post and Kane’s appropriation and remixing of uncut NASA documentation of various rocket ascensions, and their recontextualizing of the material into a thrilling experience, is just one example of an art/science merger that far exceeds the sum of its launches.

However, Go for Launch is not just about science writ large; the artist’s installation is actually poetry writ large—it is a feast of visual metaphor carrying the viewer away with every segment of its amazing details projected onto twelve large screens. It is the metaphor of the human imagination leaping free from constraint. And this visceral liftoff is felt as a kind of monumental ballet—a choreographed defiance of gravity on a colossal scale, a dance of the will refuting earth’s gravitational pull. And maybe it’s an equivalent of how difficult it can be to explore the depths of one’s inner space. To me, it is all the same.

I realize that Post and Kane cannot sidestep the political implications of using this raw material from NASA. We can, by inference, calculate the cost of our experimental attainments and view space as a plotted grid of future nuclear stockpiles and missile dominance. But to turn and watch one screen in particular was to step away from the terribilità of jet propulsion and participate in one of the most stunning and mind-boggling sequences of video I have ever seen.

There was the spacecraft, now free of its launch pad but not yet out of earth’s orbit, and positioned against the first stages of deep space. What we initially saw were patterns of exhaust and they assumed a flaming human form. Then the body gradually morphed into a cloud of smoke that appeared for all the world like a schematic angel with a head, tapering wings, and a long, gray robe. I wonder what the NASA physicists and engineers thought when they first experienced this accidental shock and awew—here the angle of incidence equaled the angel of reflection? Post and Kane’s brilliant evocation of big science has taken Goddard’s magnificent obsession and married it effectively to Buzz Aldrin’s sense of a magnificent desolation.

Diane Armitage