The Allure of the Automatons Gaze

by Chris Raney

Looking at early satellite photos of the moon leaves a viewer with a disembody­ing effect, one that does not recall YuirGagarin or Neil Armstrong, but a sense of dead space transmitted by cathode rays and TV cameras in the midst of an uneasy era battered by race riots and Vietnam. Not only do the photos skirt the bound­aries between history, technology and art, but leave the viewer asking, "Where is the human hand at work?"

In the 19TH century, photographers developed a vocabulary that fit poetic needs. But the poetry of these photo­graphs, with titles as neutral as U.S. Surveyor VI Mission, spring from the binary logic of now outdated pieces of space debris.

Recently, we have been inundated with John Glenn's rather prosaic return to space and the equally tepid exploits of Mir clunking around the outer horizon, events that have little consequence on the adventuring spirits of 12-year-olds mes­merized by the updated version of Game Boy. Even as adults, we are indifferent to the gray lunar body that arcs above us nightly, as if looking for the man in the moon is an infantile act and the high-wire acts of past strong-jawed and fiercelyAmerican astronauts are the flotsam and jetsam of lowbrow cultural concerns.

It is okay to muse about Picasso's Guernica or the installations of Barbara Kruger, but to muse on the moon is akin to taking crystal therapy and biofeedback sessions. It is foolish stuff. But as Borges once said, "historical truth is not whattook place, it is what we think took place." A selective memory is natural to us; we distill and recreate our past almost every day. These moon photos, however, are naked reminders. Though the moon is passe and Mars hangs above us as a highly sought space terminus, we were once obsessed by the immense gray disc of the moon and the idea of landing in its dust.

What humans cannot do themselves, they build an apparatus to do it for them.

By the 17th century, astronomers like Galileo, with the help of telescopes, could map the surface of the moon with aston­ishing accuracy, even by today's standards. But years later, as photography took root in the sciences with the help of people like William Bond and John Adams Whipple, it became a preferred way of knowing the moon's idiom of landscapes— huge deadlocked craters, dry ominous moun­tains and whole valleys of night. Photog­raphy and science beget an idealism, a geometry of dreams that would yield filmmaker George Melies' 1902 comedic exploit, A Trip to the Moon. This idealism eventually propelled the development of the moon's first explorers, the Soviet Lunar satellites that extended the shelf life of communism into space.

The 1965 Soviet Luna Missions photo­graphs, made using specially heat-resistant designed 35mm cameras and convertedto electronic signals that were later trans­ferred to photographic recorders on earth, are the most primitive pieces in the show. The images are as rough and grainy as shoddy photocopies and are instantly gripping because they don't provide con­crete answers. The moon is shapeless, confounding and mutating. It is all enig­ma. Nothing is really clarified. The close-ups reveal a moon that resembles cells beneath a microscope. The gaze of the Soviet automaton unlocks new intrigues, a ground zero for guesswork and puzzles.

In contrast, by the time the U.S. Lunar Orbiter Missions were paving the way for the Apollo crews, American scientists had developed an in-house developing system that allowed the photos to be fully processed deep in space. The pictures werescanned, then transmitted back and first recorded on magnetic tape, from which negatives were later made. The result is a supreme, but not highly stylized, crispness that reveals every pore of the moon, as if the satellites were traversing the outer rim of a person's face.

Gathered and plotted using a strict adherence to a grid, the photos, especially those of the U.S. Surveyor I, V, VI and VII Missions, are arranged in a rough mosaic that creates a staggered but emergent con­tinuity. The moon is broken into biomor-phic shapes printed on a deck of picture cards and spread in an uneasy pattern. Actually, it is not the moon that is neces­sarily documented but the fragile crash course between the moon and the satel­lites themselves, as if the machines are autonomous stand-ins for a human experience that is painstakingly recon­structed. In contrast, the Lunar Orbiter Mission series capture a moon that is unencumbered, and surrounded by a radiant, impermeable blackness. It is less an energy field or delayed pendulum of light than a monochromatic desert.

Eventually, over a period of five mis­sions, 97 percent of the moon was mapped in this manner. But the allure of these photos is not their archival or tech­nical importance. After viewing the works, one sees the moon as a different kind ofpoetic refuge, one filtered through the halls of NASA and one with the shadow of machinery cast over it. The show nei­ther recalls Neoclassical gardens or in­dulges the prefab fetishes of channel surfers, but documents the moon as distressed surface and icon, and laments already forgotten distances. •

David Ensminger writes for Thirsty Ear, a music publication, and is a college instructor in Houston,