INS Interviews   

Interview with Ricky Seabra, designer

Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Date: 26/03/01
Present: Tom McCarthy, Ricky Seabra, Corin Sworn, Roman Vasseur, others

Tom McCarthy: You've said in the past that your work as a designer - or perhaps 'redesigner' or 'speculative modeller' would be a better term - has its roots in a childhood spent growing up in the city of Brasilia. How is that city different from others?

Ricky Seabra: First of all, it took four years to build. It was designed in 1956 and concluded in 1960; then Brazil's capital was transferred there from Rio. So residentially it consisted at first of public servants transferred there, to the middle of nowhere, very much against their will; Rio was probably the world's most beautiful city at the time. It's different from other cities in that you don't have sidewalks; it's a city completely designed for cars. But it's different from, say, Los Angeles - which wasn't designed for cars although cars took it over. Brasilia was designed with the ideas of cars and the future. Brazil got rid of its entire train programme around that time. They really believed in the automobile. There are no intersections in Brasilia. You can never turn left; to turn left you have to turn right, take a roundabout and come back. The street names are just numbers…

TMcC: Tell me the address of where you grew up.

RS: Northern Individual Habitational Sector, Internal Quadrant Eight, Conjunction Ten, House Twenty-seven. Northern Individual Habitational Sector simply means that you have your own house. Before that I lived in the HIGS: the Southern Germinated Individual Habitations, which meant townhouses, like the building your office is in here.

TMcC: Doesn't Brasilia have the world's highest suicide rate?

RS: I heard about that back in the eighties. I don't know how accurate the statistics are. I remember when we lost the world cup of '82, in Spain, people were hanging themselves in Brasilia. In the rest of Brazil people were depressed at the result, but in Brasilia they strung themselves up!

TMcC: You spent your teenage years redesigning the city. What type of changes did you make?

RS: Well, having grown up as a child in Washington (I spent my first eleven years there), I missed having museums, and green areas where you could walk and play Frisbee and so on. In Brasilia you had this mall with all the Ministries and the Congress building in the background, but there were no museums there. There's actually a one square kilometre area in the mall, or Esplanade, which is empty. We used to drive through it every morning on the way to school, and I always envisioned it as where the museums should be. Throughout my whole adolescence I was training myself as a designer by projecting visions onto that empty lot. Also, there were no trees when they built Brasilia. They devastated the savannah. So all the trees were small when I lived there. They tried bringing in trees from Rio to make it look like a tropical city, but the trees never grew: everything stayed contorted and small. In the eighties they realised that they had to plant native trees if they wanted them to flourish. It worked; now Brasilia is a forest. You don't see Oscar Nameyer's architecture anymore.

TMcC: One of your major projects over the last few years has been Tranquility and Alto Canaveral, 'High Canaveral', these twin cities on the moon. Tell me about that.

RS: That grew out of my dissatisfaction with the urban design of Brasilia. Those city blueprints are almost like a combination of all the cities I've lived in. I was showing my projects to a friend's mother, a psychiatrist, and she was saying: 'What does this really mean? What does it say about you? I want to know why you're building cities on the moon.' For those cities I used the architectural and structural proportions of Amsterdam. I find the proportions of Amsterdam the most humane of any city I've ever lived in. Visions of lunar architecture usually have a lunar base, or city, in a valley or inside a crater, and the artistic renditions are drawn or painted as if they're from above. They get on top of a crater or mountain top and look down on the city.

TMcC: Like in a Casper David Friedrich painting.

RS: Yes. But when you actually see a city it's not from above: you experience it from within. Terrestrial architects do that too: they choose the coolest angle, an above one, to put on the billboards round the site, but when the building's built you have to see it from below, and the view is often actually quite hideous. Also, the way they were designing these cities for the moon was like a shopping mall, where you don't have a view to the perimeter, the outside. You see inward, and they're just flat. What I proposed was to bring the city up to where the artists' visions were, i.e. up onto the mountaintop. Basically, I based it on Mediterranean cities that spill down mountaintops, like Santerini in Greece: terraced cities each of whose floors has a view to the outside. What's the point of going to the moon if you're not going to have a view of the moon? Views are very important to me. I lived in Manhattan for a number of years and worked on the thirty-eighth floor of a building, which was spectacular. So my lunar cities are about views, a relationship to the outside, to the moon, and also to Earth because I think it's important to have your home in view.

TMcC: That really struck me when I first read that project. For most people that envisage space travel the perspective is outwards and onwards, into distant galaxies. But you emphasise how important it is to be able to see the earth. So would it be fair to say that your interest in space travel is less about totally leaving the old order, the earth, behind, but rather more contemplative, about shifting points of view? About seeing a place you once stood from far away. Almost a rendering spatial of memory.

RS: Definitely. We still have five billion years to work out how to get off this planet when the sun blows up, so I'm not too worried about that. My interest in space is very much about a new point of view. That's why Mars doesn't interest me; it's too far away.

TMcC: Can you see Earth from Mars?

RS: Only as a star. That would be depressing.

TMcC: In the design statement for those cities you said that you wanted to replace a form-follows-function logic with a form-follows-emotion one. How does that work?

RS: The homesickness issue. Seeing earth gives you a sense that you can go back when you want. The reason I divided these cities into twin cities is that - well, if the first colony is two hundred people, they should be split into two groups of one hundred so that they can also see each other. So you have a sense of a place to go as well as a sense that home is in view. I'm playing into the Portuguese word 'saudade'. This means nostalgia, hejmwej in Dutch, Heimweh in German. Homesickness. I think those will be the big issues on the moon and in space colonies generally: how do you soothe these? There must be the sense of a place to go, and of a way out. That's why I keep the space port in view too. That's a thing from my childhood too: when I first got to Brasilia I had a view of the airport.

TMcC: Have you taken your plans for the twin cities to the Space Agency or any official government bodies?

RS: I took it to the International Astronautics Federation. I presented an abstract to two conferences - one in Rio de Janeiro and one at STEC, the European Space Agency's Dutch wing. They invited me, but I wasn't able to go at the time, so the in-person presentation didn't happen. There was a conference on going back to the moon in Paris just last week but I didn't go. But the moon will always be there, so there's no rush.

TMcC: Your latest project is the Isadora Module, an extended programme aimed at giving artists residencies in space. Why the name Isadora?

RS: It went through other names at first. Originally I called it 'The Upper Room', after a piece of choreography by Twyla Tharp in the eighties. I liked the idea of a room up above to do work in. But then I searched the name on the internet and got two hundred hits for a Christian magazine, and even though I'm Christian I still didn't want that association. So I dropped that, and called it 'The Art Rack'. I thought it was cool to use space terminology; modules are built as racks, with shelves within them that they slide experiments in boxes that companies will send into space, so I thought: 'The art rack'. But when I took that name to the space industry they asked: 'Is this a rack or is this a module?' It is in fact a module.

TMcC: What's the difference?

RS: A module is a cylinder, or tin, which is four and a half metres wide and eight metres long, and it fits in the payload of a space shuttle. It contains racks. The space engineers said: 'This is a module, not a rack. A rack is a rack and a module is a module,' There's no room for metaphor with space engineers. So I trashed that. Anyway, the name would have been a disaster, because it doesn't translate well; in Russian it would be Artu Racku or something. Then Isadora came up. I have a love for dance, and like the idea of using someone like Isadora…

TMcC: Isadora Duncan?

RS: Isadora Duncan, yes, who represents a paradigm shift within her field - and probably beyond. She was already a feminist at the age of eleven.

TMcC: Why did she represent a paradigm shift within the field of dance?

RS: Because before her dance step time was a slave to choreography, which rigidly told the dancer where and when to move. Isadora came up with the notion of improvisation, and not even dancing to music sometimes, and not being concerned with the athleticism of classical ballet. She liberated movement from the constraints of rigid choreography. Choreography is about constraints, and up in space there should be no constraints. There are going to be no constraints in terms of gravity, but that's just one liberation. There are a number of other constraints.

TMcC: Such as?

RS: We don't know. That's the thing. What are they? What are these relationships to earth that we're not even aware of? I don't think a space program should ask artists for a project layout of what they're going to do in space; they should just say: 'Go and figure it out.'

TMcC: But you have proposed certain forms to take up initially. There's dance, and I believe high diving too…

RS: I first thought that dance would be the one artform to benefit most, because of zero gravity. But then I realised that zero gravity's just one aspect of being in earth's orbit. There are other aspects, plus a number of existential issues that are going to crop up. Dance might even turn out to be the most gimmicky thing of them all. I think now that poets will probably do the best work; they will have the largest space within their mind within the constraints of a module which is eight metres long. But diving: I've seen a number of works done in parabolic flight by choreographers - in other words, in an aeroplane that drops out of the sky and simulates zero gravity so everyone floats inside this aeroplane while it's dropping.

TMcC: Kitsou Dubois did choreography in a parabolic flight, right?

RS: Kitsou Dubois, and Dragan Zivadinov, and a few other people. They all look quite similar: they get exuberant, and flail their arms about. I would too if I was dropping out of the sky at eight hundred kilometres an hour. On top of that, it's quite hard to control your movements: the plane is bouncing about as it comes down, so it's not true zero gravity. But I had this idea of using divers - or, rather, synchro-divers. It's a new Olympic event which consists of two divers diving off a platform at the same time; they're judged on the synchronicity of their movements. What I liked about using divers as dance material is that they are probably the only people who have the notion of creating in motion in zero g. They create in freefall, unlike extreme parachutists who jump out of planes with snowboards or whatever - they're still manipulating the air and wind to twirl. That's not the case in zero g. If you put a person in a module and just keep them still and walk away from them, and they're not touching any wall, they're just going to sit there. This is apparently a joke astronauts play on each other. I talked to one who'd had it done to her. They said: 'Come here, Ellen, right here,' then: 'Okay, bye-bye!' and she couldn't get away from the spot where she was. You can't initiate momentum with your own body. But divers could at least create in that situation. That's why I think it would be fun to take divers up first.

Kitsou Dubois in a parabolic flight

TMcC: You've also written that the Isadora Module will reveal the ironies of being in space. I wonder what you meant by that.

RS: The ironies and paradoxes, yes. Being up there, feeling a sense of the size of the universe, the depth of the blackness, but also feeling confined to a small module. Against the expansion and infiniteness around you you're going to be living in the most claustrophobic environment you've ever been in. It's full of these paradoxes. You're going to go up there and see the beauty of earth, but you're also going to witness the frightening fragility of it all. One German astronaut wrote that the first thing he experienced on seeing the earth was fear, because he realised how thin the atmosphere was. Then you're cosy, but you're supported by these mechanical systems that if they go wrong you're not going to breathe. It's full of these paradoxes.

TMcC: One of the ironies about space exploration that I myself find very poetic is precisely the lack of poetic sensibility in its protagonists. You have these military robots, these people trained and regimented so much that their very souls are virtually automatons, doing this most beautiful and free-seeming thing. You get the same paradox in sport: you get these football players scoring amazing goals that catch everyone's imagination, then they're interviewed afterwards and they turn out to be so boring: 'Yeah, well, the lads done well and the training paid off and stuff.' I think that that décalage between the performer and the act, the dancer and the dance, is itself very poetic. I sometimes wonder: Do we want to close that gap down? Is that what the Isadora Module project's about?

RS: Yes: to bring the poetics of space down to earth to us. There are a lot of forms just waiting to be inaugurated up there, things we don't even know exist, a whole language, a whole other level of beauty that can be brought back. You mention the protagonists' lack of capacity to deal with the poetry of space; I remember seeing an interview with a returning lunar astronaut who was asked what it was like, and he said: 'Well, it's kind of like being back on the farm in Kansas.' I just thought: Fuck! Is that really all you saw? And that's when I thought: It's time to send poets up there. We have to hear about space from other voices. Another example: I was thinking of calling my first moon city Armstrong. But the more I read about him, the more I thought: What a boring man. Buzz Aldrin is much more interesting. Armstrong's concern was just 'Land the ship, land the ship, land the ship.' He was a military man, he did his job, and that was it. Aldrin, though, during a point where there was no broadcast, said a prayer and took wine. He got into the ritual and the poetics of being up there…

TMcC: He performed communion…

RS: Exactly.

TMcC: That break in the broadcast has generated all sorts of conspiracy theories. I saw a website claiming to have 'the recovered transcript'. It was all: 'God! They're enormous! They're coming towards the ship!' But you know what happened to Aldrin afterwards?

RS: He went kind of wacko, didn't he?

TMcC: He went completely wacko. He hired himself out to Patty Hearst's parents to try to locate her psychically after she'd been kidnapped. He had the most remarkable trajectory through the seamier side of the American imagination.

RS: I say send him back up! Have a psychic network line broadcast from Isadora.

TMcC: You write that another function of the Isadora Module is that it should be an archive, a way of accumulating information.

RS: Yes.

TMcC: And also a 'lifestyle laboratory'.

RS: Definitely. That's one thing that came out my interviews. It was difficult to get artists to talk about what they'd do in space. It was much easier to get them to talk about how they want to live in space: that's what they just automatically started talking about. I think it's appropriate, then, to make the Isadora Module into a double-function research lab: firstly art, creating new forms, and secondly looking at how we live in space. How do we cook in space? How can we make space comfortable? What's a sofa in space going to be like? Can we make a candlelit dinner in space? These things are very important to future moon and Mars colonisation projects - specially Mars: people will have to live in these modules for a period of six months. How are they going to live? That area is being completely denied on the International Space Station. The research they're doing is all protein crystals and bio-tech and drugs. None of that has any applications to future space exploration, whereas Isadora does, much more than anything going on now - and much more than the idea of sending that millionaire into space. Tourism has no relevance to future space exploration. Of course, I love the idea of sending tourists into space. I want to go myself. But I just don't think it's the time. And it's not even a tourism market: it's just a jetsetter market. How many people have twenty million dollars to spare?

TMcC: Michael Jackson, Rupert Murdoch…

RS: John Denver was signed up to go, but he died.

TMcC: So, same question I asked about the twin cities: have you had any official contact with space agencies about Isadora?

RS: I've taken it to conferences, yes. I get a lot of smiles, a lot of people saying: 'Go for it.' I've had a few business cards. I've had contact with Diamond Chrysler Aerospace, one of their subdivisions in Bremen, Germany: they actually funded the Isadora website. NASDA, the Japanese aerospace agency, showed some interest, and Boeing a very limited amount too.

TMcC: A final question I should ask in the context of this organisation, the INS: you've talked about the idea of space and lifestyles, space and poetry, space and nostalgia - but something we haven't touched on is space and death. Do you think that the extreme dangers of space travel, its proximity to death, is part of the reason it's captured your imagination and that of many other people?

RS: I think death is a major source of all the existential issues we're going to be exploring up there. I got a lot of talk in my interviews about going up and exploring the minuteness of man in relation to the universe. What does that really mean? Minuteness means you're just a step away from being wiped out. So it's obvious that it has a relationship to death - although in my interviews death was never really addressed directly. But that will probably come up a lot when artists go into space, because fear is going to be a big issue up there. And I for one find extremely poetic the notion of creating in a place we've always called the Heavens. It doesn't necessarily mean that I'll be zooming past my dead father every hour and a half; I know that that space is much different. It's nice to say that it's the Heavens, but when I'm up there… I always think of death as occupying something much more distant. But on the way here, I was thinking about your manifesto, and mapping death as a space, and trying to give it a form, and I thought that since so many things are circular in this universe, death definitely has a circular form. We're going to unveil a few secrets up there - artists will, concerning death. What they will be, though, I don't know. People are already having their ashes sent into space.

TMcC: Like Rodenberry, the Star Trek guy, and Timothy Leary. And you sent round a mail recently, about ways of commemorating - who was it?

RS: Ishtaknikov. He was the first guy to die in space, reentering the atmosphere. He was sucked out of his own capsule. I saw an exhibit about him in Barcelona. Russia had already had a failure in Soyuz 1, in which someone died when the parachute failed and the capsule crashed. So Soyuz 2 tried to dock against Soyuz 3 but was late, and when they found it the next day the door was open. But the Soviets didn't want the embarrassment of yet another loss in space, so they blackmailed his friends not to talk about it. They declared in the press that Soyuz 2 had been an unmanned mission, and they sent his immediate family to Siberia. Can you imagine not only losing your dad but also being sent to Siberia - just because he died? This surfaced thanks to an organisation called The Sputnik Society in Moscow. I thought, when they started talking about Mir reentering: Why don't we all think about this guy? Use the trail that Mir will draw in the sky as a tombstone to this man who didn't have one, who was never commemorated? He was the first man to reenter the atmosphere. Maybe someone even saw him reenter, as a shooting star.

TMcC: He would have actually made a mark, like a marker pen?

RS: Oh yes. He would have become a minor shooting star. Maybe someone back in 1968 saw him and made a wish.

TMcC: The first time we met we talked about Constance Penley. In her book Nasa/Trek: Science and Sex in America she traces the impact on the American collective psyche of the Challenger blowing up. Loads of young adults she interviewed ten years later remember having been ins science class in school - something like sixty percent, way too many for this figure to be accurate. She looked at the timetables and worked out it wasn't possible for all of them to have been in science class: they'd rejigged their memories to incorporate that, the failing of the great myth of successful science. There was even a science teacher on the craft, I think.

RS: I don't know if she was a science teacher. She was definitely a teacher. I remember how astonishingly quickly the jokes came out after that event. I came back from class and watched the footage, and immediately the phone rang and it was my brother saying: 'What's the difference between Haley's comet and the Challenger? Haley's comet's coming back!' That was three hours later. That evening there were fifteen or so jokes being read out on this New York radio station. There was even a program called 'Waitress in Space' in which a woman with a very broad Queens accent was going: 'Yeah, that bitch, man, it should've been me up there!' You could phone your jokes in and they'd read them out. That's how death in space gets played out in America.

Go to Ricky Seabra's site: http//