altitude sickness: asteroids and angels
(and the weight of the world)
actions / text
Nida, Lithuania; Himachal Pradesh, India; Berlin, Germany
2015 - present
As we plan our exit from Earth, seeking other habitable planets, our approach to knowledge mirrors this fleeing: We are in a post-media world in the sense that science seeks to transcend media – that is, physical materiality – in favor of the artifactual, towards the weightlessness of theoretical models. Yet our language remains Earthbound; on Mars, where there is no sea, we still define the average height of all the points on the planet as “sea level.” This is also true for the roundest object in the world, the Avogadro Project’s kilosphere. This 9.375cm silicon globe at BESSY laboratory in Berlin is the subject of an international project to “solve” the kilogram by counting every atom of the sphere, making the definition of a kilogram nothing more than a number - paradoxically, making it weightless. If it were the same size as the Earth, they say its highest peak would be 2.4 meters above sea level.
In our ascent towards objectivity and heights above worldly matter, are we at risk of an ontological altitude sickness?
My own encounter with the kilosphere led me to see the Earth itself as a kind of 1:1 model to be moved through. Using sea level in Lithuania as a baseline, I continued my ongoing artistic research of the collapse of the map/territory by performing maps of the coastline, tracing the fickle border between land and sea with drawing, as waves lapped onto the beach. I approached sea level at what I call “zero zoom,” the closest one can come to being inscribed in the territory, at the expense of blindness – the opposite of our view of the whole Earth, an all-consuming gaze.
“The weight that I have on Earth is the weight of the Earth.” So what happens when we leave? My
next step in this research was to walk from the bottom to the “roof of the world,” to attempt to walk to outer space. So, having started with sea-level in Lithuania as a baseline in May 2015, I traveled to the Indian Himalayas in August 2015 for four weeks to “scale” mountains, by climbing them, shrinking them into maps, making myself lighter as I ascended (as a person or object rises above sea-level, he/she/it weighs less), and carrying a rock from the Baltic coast to the mountain top to make it lighter. This cartographic experimentation is meant to further bring together ideas of aerial views and weight: Can we as mountaineers escape the weight of the world by climbing up, leaving the Earth, “getting high” as the oxygen thins and we become more and more weightless, like angels headed towards outer space? In pursuit of the pure outer-worldly gaze, are the person and the Earth erased?
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an action to make the world lighter
Nida, Lithuania; Himachal Pradesh, India
One day, I was walking along the beach at the Baltic Sea, and stones were hopping out of the water onto the land. They seemed motivated, like salmon returning to their spawning grounds. I chose one and took its measurements at sea level. I decided I would carry it up to the "roof of the world." The higher above sea level we are, the lighter we are; this is impossible to detect with our senses, but the truth of it is irrefutable. I carried the stone over a major ridge of the Himalayas, to make it, and therefore the world, lighter.
Meanwhile, the mountains crumbled all around. The main source of income for migrant workers in this region is from manually carrying stones up and down the mountain slopes, in national roadworks projects. Perpetual landslides knock out the roads, stones are brought back up as fortification, more landslides ensue, more stones are hauled up, and so on in a endless parade of human defiance against natural forces by this Sisyphusian army. My artistic gesture of carrying a stone up to the mountain peak was rendered trivial in comparison to this colosus of labor.
Confronted with the futility of fighting against gravity, I concluded that the most logical solution for making my stone an asteroid is to send it to outer space via a space cannon. I have been in contact with Mr. Richard Graf, founder of the space cannon company Starfire, and he is open to helping me attempt to send my stone into orbit, to make the whole world lighter with this offering to the skies.
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WALKING TO OUTER SPACE
an action to make myself lighter
Himachal Pradesh, India
When it comes to the physical experience of altitude sickness, there is an invisible line at 8,000 meters that marks the “death zone.” Above this, a human cannot acclimatize and risks certain death. But every individual has their own death zone, wherein they no longer get enough oxygen, and the body starts to slowly suffocate. I found out that my own personal death zone was at about 4,700 meters above sea level. By that point, I felt high, and I was vomiting and dizzy - my body violently rejecting my suggestion to leave Earth. I started to feel high and almost out of body, until the retching brought me back to my body, and to the pain.
My mission to walk up the Himalayas recalled Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, not only in the literal carrying of a stone (i.e. the future asteroid) up a mountain, but more interestingly, in the philosophical sense of suicide. Pushing up against the limits of this death zone, trying to walk to outer space, suicide is the logical end. To cross this barrier is to exit the earthly loop of the lived interval between sea level and outer space, to sacrifice existence on Earth - the weight of the world - for what lies beyond. It is the price of the view from outside. After all, it has been said that astronauts are not unlike angels.