Moon Missions

It was near midnight and my friend Dawn and I were heading out for a hike, despite the cold wind and horizontal drizzle. It was midsummer night, and we had made a pact to walk to the small black-sand beach just outside of town. I grabbed my camera and a bottle of Scotch (to celebrate) and we set off at a brisk pace. Soon the wind stopped and the rain faded away. We were just making our way along the narrow path to the beach when I happened to turn around and spot it: a vivid double rainbow, arching across the snow-capped mountains of the fjord. A summer-solstice midnight rainbow - Iceland, you are magical!

Midnight Rainbow, Òlafsfjörður, Iceland, Summer Solstice 2015

In fact, my entire stay in northern Iceland was magical. I spent the month of June of 2014 in Òlafsfjörður, a small fishing village of 800 inhabitants tucked away in a narrow fjord facing the North Pole. It is also the home of Listhùs Artspace where I was staying for an art residency. Òlafsfjörður was the perfect place to recharge my creative batteries: quiet, surrounded by stunning vistas, and sunlight around the clock. I came to Iceland with a specific project in mind: to create a sequel to Johannes Kepler's "Somnium" (more about the Somnium Project in my first post). A significant part of the book takes places in Iceland, and in order to develop my project further I decided to see the country first-hand.

Apollo/Iceland, 2014, digital composite

My idea was to explore Iceland as though I was a 17th century explorer (but with 21st century equipment), documenting the flora, fauna, and geography of an alien land. Northern Iceland's rugged terrain stood in for the Moon as it was imagined by Kepler and his contemporaries: a place of foaming seas and cragged mountains, of swampy marshes and vast expanses of snow. In the first week of my residency I created a large-format Moon map so I could plan the locations of the fictional narrative which was going to be told through the format of journal entries. While I was inking in the names of the topographical lunar features I noticed how lyrical the early map makers were. Check a Moon atlas and you'll find the Sea of Snakes, the Bay of Rainbows, the Peninsula of Thunder, the Lake of Dreams. These names are wonderful prompts for creative development.

Visual Research at Listhùs: ink and watercolour drawing, pencil sketches, mixed media works on paper, video still, analog photography

Soon the selenographical nomenclature and my visual research fused to create a rich fictional world. My observations and experiences also served as catalysts for my creative writing. I would regularly spend a few hours at Cafe Klara with my laptop, sipping a latte and letting my texts tread the fine line between fact and fiction.

Installation of 24 Hours exhibition, Listhùs, Òlafsfjörður, Iceland, June 26, 2015

My fellow Listhùs residents and I organized an exhibition of our projects in the residency's gallery space to be presented in the last week of June 2014. This show gave me a great opportunity to test out some of my journal ideas. I created a simple display similar to a small museum exhibit, complete with sketches, samples, and explanatory wall text. I'm glad to say that many gallery visitors were taken in by my fictional Moon Museum. It appears that my description of Nixneteo, the "Glowing Snow" which I described as an organic life form which can keep you warm at night was sufficiently convincing, and so was the Lapideales, or "Stone Bird," which can lay stone eggs that have magnetic qualities and are used by sailors as compasses. My exhibit mixed the familiar with the plausible, and literary art with visual art, bringing science fiction into the gallery environment.

Moon Museum, installation of artworks during the 24 Hours exhibition, Listhùs, Òlafsfjörður, Iceland, June 26, 2015

Moon Museum, vernissage of the 24 Hours exhibition, Listhùs, Òlafsfjörður, Iceland, June 26, 2015

However, the aim of an art residency is not to create a complete body of work, but to generate and test ideas which will be developed later, once you are back in your own studio. One of those developments was the creation of a workshop which incorporated the ideas of lunar exploration and fictional storytelling.

Moon Mission workshop, Visual Voice Lab, July 2015

I occasionally run workshops at Visual Voice Lab, the art studio which is located just behind Visual Voice Gallery. In July 2015 I lead the Moon Mission workshop, which was inspired by my research-creation work in Iceland. The workshop's brief was to imagine yourself on a lunar base, ready to explore the Moon. Your mission is to document a region of the Moon of your choice – maybe the Ocean of Storms, the Sea of Tranquility, the Peninsula of Thunder, or the Bay of Rainbows. What will you find there? What does this region look like, sound like, feel like? Does anyone – or anything – live there? The workshop started with a short lecture on the Moon, with a focus on astronomy and lunar maps. This was followed by a research and development period designed to spark ideas for a visual narrative. This narrative was then to be developed into an art piece. Rather than focusing on one medium or technique, I offered participants the use of a range of materials to develop their project idea, such as sound and video recording, mono printing, and 3D printing. After the workshop ended the artworks were displayed in the gallery space for a short exhibition.

left: Johanne Heald, "No Footprints to Follow," 2015, gallery installation, right: Jesse Collette, "Luna Project," 2015, print, 30" x 30"

The workshop participants were a mix of artists and scientists, and they produced fantastic works of art. It was interesting to note that the scientists created deeply emotional works, while the artists spent a lot of time researching astronomy and came up with concept pieces which focused on science and engineering. For example, artist Jesse Collette riffed off the idea of a scientific poster and designed a lunar habitat and space elevator, complete with production timelines and a break-down of natural resources available on the lunar surface. Meanwhile CSA systems engineer Johanne Heald produced a moving audio piece, a final mission broadcast of a lunar explorer lost somewhere in the Apennine Mountain range.

Moon Mission exhibition, Visual Voice Gallery, July - August 2015

Exploring far-away lands, be they on our own planet or out in the solar system, is part of our DNA. We can travel there in our imagination, or we can set off on daring missions and visit them in person. Either way, we need creativity and innovative thinking to get us there.

Further readings:

If you are interested in reading a more extensive account of my stay in Iceland, you may want to head over to the blog Midnight Sun Journal which I set up specifically for this residency:

Listhùs Artspace invited me to present a talk about science fiction and my Somnium project. You can view a video of the talk here:

More about Listhùs Artspace

More about Visual Voice Lab

Johanne Heald: No Footprints Left Behind
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