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Artist Bradley Pitts Uses Space Travel As His Muse

We asked artist and sculptor Paul Myoda to investigate Pitts' unusual methods.


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved.

Artist Bradley Pitts gets his inspiration from the same source as centuries of creators before him: the heavenly bodies. However unlike his Renaissance ancestors, who could only gaze out and wonder, Pitts has actually gotten to travel above the clouds firsthand in a trip that brought him to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere.

Pitts, a New York based artist and aerospace engineer trained at MIT, NASA, and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten (NL), recently boarded a Russian parabolic-flight aircraft (IL76-MDK) to "structure his exploration into the social and political mechanisms at work in Earth/Space exploration." Hovering in the air as part of a 2-hour flight within Earth’s atmosphere, 20 maneuvers were performed by the pilot, each of which produced 25-second periods of weightlessness and double-gravity. During these periods Pitts sought to test the boundaries between art, technology, science, and philosophy.

This past summer Pitts caught our attention with his exhibit Singular Oscillations at Hotel Particulier, wherein Pitts, along with French programmer Jonathan Tanant, developed the first flight test of his developing variable-gravity flight simulator at the e-Waste Warehouse in Brooklyn. Meant to mimic the Russian parabolic-flight aircraft, the same one Pitts used for his space sojourn, Pitts and Tanant assembled the piece within the gallery walls--along with pictures and footage of Pitts’ actual flight (as seen above).

Though Pitts is currently preparing for several international space training missions, sculptor Paul Myoda was recently able to speak with the artist briefly about art, knowledge, and naked space travel.  

The Creators Project: At MIT you studied science at a very high level, but also art and design—how do you see these disciplines working together?
I majored in aerospace engineering and minored in art and architecture. What I found within engineering was that we were trained to be “genies in a lamp.” Somebody else would come with the wishes, rub the lamp, and the engineer was supposed to make it so. There was very little conversation about the context in which this work was happening, or questioning if a particular problem was the best problem to solve.


Within design and art, it seemed 80% or more of the conversation was about how we saw the problem and the context, and flushing all of that out before we even considered how we might respond to the given problem.

Recently, I saw a book about the visionary architect Cedric Price, which has a great title: “Technology is the answer but what is the question?” That title put words to many of the feelings I have about the relationship between engineering, art, and design.


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved.

TCP: In many of your works, such as The Darkness In-Between, Nested Voids, EIO, and even the Yearlight Calendar, you seem to delight in discrepancies or slippages between such dualities as the visible and the invisible, illumination and darkness, but especially objectivity and subjectivity. In your work Singular Oscillations, where you flew in a zero-gravity aircraft used to train cosmonauts, you wrote that one of your goals was to produce an “immeasurable subjective experience.” Can you talk about the role of subjectivity in your work?
First I’ll just acknowledge that you can’t send a person anywhere without producing an immeasurable subjective experience. But in space exploration, these types of experiences have been marginalized because that’s not what we as a society are willing to pay for. What activities are worth the huge expenditures required to get to space? Historically the answer has always been data. So first and foremost, astronauts are there to produce data. Of course they play in their downtime, but given the demands placed on them, whenever they talk about these experiences, they quickly remind listeners that they were sent to space for “serious” work.

I’m really interested in what happens if we celebrate the immeasurable, subjective nature of experience. This is what excites me about space tourism; it shatters the glass ceiling on the type of activities that are allowed in space. It represents a shift from sending humans into space, to bringing humanity into space. When humanity is allowed and encouraged in space we’ll start understanding what the true value and meaning of that environment might be.


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved.

In Singular Oscillations, I wanted to immerse myself in the empty, variable-gravity volume of that huge cargo aircraft and allow the space to manipulate me. To explore weightlessness in and of itself is indefinable and nonsensical in technical terms, but as an artist I was interested in an act of listening to, rather than imposing myself on, the environment. I held my eyes closed, I blocked my ears, and I was naked. Weightlessness is the only environment in which nothing needs to touch you so clothing would have just been a barrier between me and the very thing I wanted to be exposed to. My goal was to create and celebrate a highly internal experience within the data-driven context of a national space program.

But you did have extensive documentation of this, and yet in the video you removed yourself from the footage with post-production. How did these records align with your experience?
Right, although there were 11 cameras filming the flight, pointed both within and outside the plane, I would never say that these captured my experience. Reviewing the video was like looking at found footage. For example, the video shows my body tumbling around and bouncing off the walls because of turbulence. But for me, any time that I wasn’t touching anything, I felt completely stationary, with the plane tumbling around me. The relativity of motion and experience really rose to the surface.

People often equate weightlessness with complete freedom and unboundedness. But there’s also a sensation that it’s the ultimate cage. When there’s nothing to push off of it’s like you’re cast in a solid block of empty space; you can’t gain any traction. These paradoxes or dualities are all bound up in one environment. I quite like experiences that rupture binary dichotomies and create a third both/and state.


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved.

When I first heard about this piece I thought about Einstein’s famous epiphany—when he was looking out of his window at a painter on a ladder and realized that if the painter fell he would feel weightless.
The equivalence principle between acceleration and gravity is totally there, but it wasn’t part of the project to illustrate or demonstrate that. Relative motion is so unavoidable in weightlessness, it’s like the essence of what’s happening there. True to Einstein’s insight, it was impossible for me to feel the difference between floating or falling except for what felt like a slight breeze. I slowly realized this was due to my body falling through the air as the weightless periods ended.

The nickname for the zero-gravity plane also came to my mind—the vomit comet. Have your ever gotten sick?
I’m knocking on wood, but I have yet to get sick and I’ve flown 4 times now. I think there’s a big psychological component having to do with letting go. You have to realize that you’re not in control in the way you are used to.


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved. Can you talk a bit about how you would sell this piece to a collector?
I’ve come to believe that the most powerful way to document something is to share the experience with others. This is the impetus behind An Invitation for One…, a Certificate of Ownership inviting someone to repeat my experience.

And you insist that the collector not take any photos or videos during the flight. Why not?
The experience I want to share is not about souvenirs and mementos. The collector is the vessel of the experience, and they are entering into a conversation through a shared experience. In the art world context, it challenges the collector and I to reconsider the value of experience compared to material goods. There’s no material, tangible evidence of this artwork, except the Certificate, which typically functions like a receipt.


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved. So this underscores the idea of celebrating the subjective experience.
Exactly.

What I’ve arrived at recently is that my fascination with aerospace is its ability to extend the basic foundations of drawing and sculpture: line, volume, and form.  If we talk about line as flight path, and volume as atmosphere or space, then all of a sudden aerospace technologies allow us to occupy and experience a line from the line’s perspective, rather than seeing it as a distinct object on paper.

Anyone who draws knows this experience because it’s their body creating the drawing and experiencing the line. But I want to enlarge this perspective much like Einstein’s dream of riding a beam of light. I want to ride the line of a drawing, and reframe the surrounding environment from this intimate perspective.

It’s so beautiful that a flight path doesn’t leave a permanent mark. It might leave a contrail, but the contrail fades away. It’s this kind of invisibility that draws my attention. I want to share this excitement with others, but I don’t want to destroy the very invisibility that excites me. At the very least I try to point a finger at the invisible. In the process I often end up complicating existing, technical solutions, which inevitably unpacks these technical “answers.” The exciting thing about this is that unpacked answers revive questions and hit refresh on conversations that were considered “resolved.”


Courtesy Bradley Pitts Studio. © Copyright Bradley Pitts Studio, 2013. All rights reserved.

In addition to partnering with several aerospace and space tourism companies-- focusing on a new series of projects that involve visual documentation-- Bradley Pitts and his Studio are also currently working on a series of custom modifications and flight simulators of the Russian Zero Gravity aircraft. 

For more on Bradley Pitts's work you can visit his website here.


Paul Myoda
is an internationally recognized sculptor living in the woods of Chepachet, RI.  Based in NYC from 1990-2006, Myoda was represented by the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, and was co-founder of Big Room, an art production and design collective in New York City. He was also a contributor to Art in America, Flash Art and Frieze. In 2001 he participated in the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s World Views Program and had a studio on the 91st floor of WTC I. In March of 2002 he co-created the Tribute in Light in memory of the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, which has since become an annual installation.

Myoda's recent work, Glittering Machines, is a series of interactive, kinetic, illuminating sculptures that respond to the presence of viewers. He has been an assistant professor at Brown University since 2006.