Red in View
Orbit Log Observations from Ground Control
By Greta Hartenstein and Allie Tepper
Left to right: MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg in the performance Orbit (part of the exhibition RED IN VIEW ), February 9–19, 2017, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph © Paula Court
On February 9, 2017, artists MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg entered Orbit, a continuous ten-day performance staged in the narrow space between the windowpanes of the Whitney’s Susan and John Hess Family Theater overlooking the Hudson River.
The enclosed environment—which included a composting toilet, plants, a ten-day supply of food and water, basic bedding, a treadmill, instruments, and a three-camera video-surveillance system—was inspired by the simulation projects conducted by universities and space agencies to test the viability of human life on spacecrafts and on Mars. The participants’ conditions partially emulated those of astronauts orbiting Earth: they slept in scheduled rotations, received messages on a delay, exercised daily, and tracked their energy usage. They embarked on Orbit without rehearsal, with their own assignments, objectives, and visions of the future and survival.
Orbit was conceived by MPA as part of her Whitney exhibition RED IN VIEW, which considered how the potential colonization of Mars, the red planet, exists in the cultural imagination. As part of her ongoing research into the topic, she asked many people to draft written accounts of Orbit, ourselves included. We had a unique position in the project. Having organized the show with Jay Sanders, former Engell Speyer Family Curator and curator of performance, we were asked by MPA to serve as “Ground Control” for the entire trajectory. In a sense, this moniker cast us in a role we already perform at the Whitney in support of artists’ projects. We sat in the back of the theater with our red laptops every day during Museum hours, usually together, though on the weekends we took shifts. We were the tether between Orbit and our earthly institution, communicating with the artists daily. We chose to record in real time the actions that we observed, letting our two voices intermix as one, even while we sometimes wrote as “I” from singular perspectives. What follows is our data diary.
Thursday, February 9, Day 1
The Museum opens in two minutes. There’s a blizzard in New York and we don’t expect many visitors for the first day of Orbit. Yesterday it was 60 degrees. Amapola Prada is seated on the platform in the window space, looking out onto the river. She seems to be engaged in meditation. Everything before her is white, like a cloud. Somehow this feels appropriate for the first day of the journey, that the ground is nearly invisible. Directly below her, Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg is asleep.
Ground Control has one remaining delivery to make to the Orbiters before we open. We are sending in arnica gel for Elizabeth’s sprained foot. MPA in turn is sending us notebooks addressed to some staff at the Museum that she met while installing her work in the lobby gallery in the fall to invite them to write “witness accounts” of Orbit.
Amapola has begun to move. She is waking up her body by rubbing her legs and chest vigorously, generating heat.
MPA is in the “garden” tidying the space. Last night over dinner, before Orbit began, we heard the Orbiters refer to the area near the composting toilet, where the plants were placed, as the garden. It struck us at the time as new language, a sign that the space had truly started to become their home. The tidying seems to be part of this transition. The set, when lived in, is never truly set. MPA is placing crystals on a shelf in the window.
Red theater lights switch on, signaling a climax, the first of many that will occur each day.One day of Orbit was organized according to three different clocks: Universal Time (UT), which organizes one Earth day into twenty-four hours; an ISS clock, based on the sixteen sunrises and sunsets that astronauts experience aboard the International Space Station, simulated via lighting; and a “Climax Clock,” a preset daily schedule of “climaxes,” moments in which the Orbiters would act with a different level of intensity and awareness of the audience. A full schedule of climaxes was made available to the public, and as Ground Control, we tried to record as many that in occurred in Orbit as we could, which we highlighted in bold throughout our log. Lighting Designer Maria Shaplin created moody climax lighting looks to cue the Orbiters to turn on, so to speak. The Orbiters are each in their own rooms—the sides of the center platform can be raised, creating walls that delineate three private zones. Amapola gets on the treadmill and starts walking quickly, then increases her speed. MPA turns her bowl into a bell, using her spoon to ring it loudly. Elizabeth is eating and reading. MPA drops the bowl and holds the spoon up to her eyes, dangling it like a pendulum.
The action stops. MPA stares out at the audience. Amapola moves to the garden to water the plants. Using a pulley, she lowers a sprout tray and carefully sprays it with a mister.As part of the meal plan for Orbit, the Orbiters brought in sprouts that they intended to grow and eventually eat as part of a celebratory meal later in their journey. Since the windows to the theater are UV-light protected, we installed grow lamps in the space to support plant life. The plants were installed high in the window space near the lights but could be reached via a pulley system. She raises it up again and secures it at the top, then begins to lower the next tray.
A large number of visitors who had gradually congregated now file out of the room all at once, for no apparent reason. Only two viewers remain: they are Elizabeth’s mother and father.
MPA contemplates the world outside the window, looking at the blank white expanse of the blizzard. Is she on Earth or somewhere else?
Amapola checks on Elizabeth, who is under the platform resting and elevating her ankle. We heard on our morning dispatch from the Orbiters that it’s hurting her today.Ground Control received daily dispatches from the Orbiters, typically via walkie-talkie in the morning, before the Museum opened, or in the evening, after hours. Orbiters could also contact us via an iPad with parental controls activated. It granted them access to a private email address to Ground Control but nothing else, no surfing the web.
More tidying. MPA is sweeping everything and placing air plants around the space. She puts one above the platform on the blinds that face the water. Elizabeth and her mother are waving to each other, communicating through the glass.
A baby enters the theater and crawls under the bench, in his own kind of enclosure. He observes the Orbiters in the window and reaches toward them.
Amapola pulls out a pair of binoculars. She looks toward the horizon then stares for a long time back at us.
We get our first “what is this?” question from a visitor (impressed that it took this long), followed by a mention of the film The Martian.
The lights switched into the climax program thirty minutes early, so Ground Control went up to the lighting booth to reset them.
Elizabeth appears to be sleeping all day.
MPA begins what looks like a climax, seemingly cued by a light change, possibly a sunrise cue. This is too early for the 14:45 climax.
Actual climax begins: Elizabeth, still horizontal, lets out a long, sonorous, wordless call. Amapola goes to the toilet and emerges with a jar of urine. MPA sways sensuously, a slow dance with a blanket that stands in as a partner. Elizabeth grabs MPA’s ankles while MPA attempts to walk. MPA walks in place connected to Elizabeth then frees herself from the grasp and quickly moves toward the plants. She stops to commune with them.
Climax lights switch on. MPA looks in the direction of Amapola and begins banging an object percussively against the floor with short concise strikes. Elizabeth poses dramatically against the glass facing the theater, like a siren. Amapola is intently making food. Now MPA is balancing scissors on her finger, where the sharp sides come together in a V. A visitor sits down at the observation table and takes out a roll of pencils and artmaking tools. He begins to work vigorously on a piece of paper—drawing the scene before him?In the theater there was a desk where visitors could make their own witness accounts of Orbit on paper and slip them into a drawer. By the end of the ten days, the desk was overflowing with accounts. Visitors contributed drawings, messages to the Orbiters, and written reflections on the performance. The reactions varied widely. The messages were never physically delivered to the Orbiters but were taken by MPA at the conclusion of the performance and will likely become part of its archive.
Someone from Orbit’s production crew comes over to Ground Control, noting of the performance that “it’s the Elizabeth show.” None of us knew what to expect from Elizabeth. She was invited to join Orbit just two days before it began, after Malin Arnell dropped out.Malin Arnell withdrew from entering Orbit on February 5, 2017, citing her need to prioritize her physical and mental health.She’s the wild card.
Climax: MPA is on the treadmill walking quickly, trying desperately not to fall off. It was Malin’s idea to bring a portable treadmill into Orbit—and to remove its handlebar. We threw the handlebar out when we bought it, and MPA has inherited that choice. Elizabeth is moving about wildly. Amapola is eating by herself, uninterested in performing. Resisting?
MPA and Elizabeth join Amapola, and the Orbiters eat lunch together. They have lined up all their drinking vessels against the window and are now engaging in what seems to be a serious conversation, possibly reflecting on the climaxes that just occurred. MPA is gesturing animatedly, in director mode.
A young girl jumps up and down on the red dot on the theater floor. When a visitor steps on the dot, a light shines down from above and simultaneously triggers a red bulb to turn on in the window space. The red light was meant to cue the performers to stare intently at the viewer on the dot. MPA notices the red light blinking and reluctantly stands up and looks outward, making eye contact with the girl. The girl giggles, excited to have the attention turn to her. This is the first time the Orbiters have acknowledged this aspect of the installation. It’s a kind of telepathy assignment that they gave themselves prior to entering Orbit.
The sky has cleared and the window space seems a little claustrophobic now, from our point of view, without the white haze. MPA is installing a surveillance camera.An elaborate three-camera video-surveillance camera system that MPA could control was set up in the window courtesy of B&H, a local photo- and video-equipment store. All of the footage belongs to MPA, who will make it into another work, like Orbit TV or something, a kind of reality show. The private space company Mars One, which is planning to send humans to Mars on a one-way trip, said early on that it will fund the mission via a live television feed that they anticipate the whole world will be watching.
Photograph © Paula Court
Everyone whispers in the theater, including us. What is it about Orbit that makes us do this? A colleague thinks the pee is very yellow.The Orbiters urinated and defecated in public, though their toilet area had a curtain. The bathroom consisted of a five-gallon red bucket that collected their solid waste, which was covered with pine dust after each use. Urine was collected separately in mason jars (Nance Klehm, an ecological systems designer, guided us to this.) Apparently, separating liquids from solids eliminates odor, which the Museum wanted to prevent. The urine created a kind of visual clock of the Orbit ecosystem as it accumulated over the ten days. The original plan was that it would all be collected at the end and brought to a farm in the Rockaways in Queens, although at the last minute MPA decided to keep the urine. It wasn’t totally surprising that she’d value the urine as art; she did, after all, gift us before entering Orbit with pennies that she’d eaten months earlier over dinner at the Whitney Art Party.Clearly they’re not drinking enough water, he says.
MPA is lying on her side, looking out onto the river. Amapola sits and meets her, gently placing a hand on her arm.
Climax: MPA cries. Amapola breathes out heavily toward the river. MPA stares at the audience. Do they not realize it’s time for a climax, or are they intentionally subverting our expectations of what a climax is? A quiet moment can be monumental. Or, if we follow their gazes, the city and the Museum have their own climactic energy.
MPA pans the audience slowly with a surveillance camera.
David Breslin, a Whitney curator and the director of the collection, asks if the Orbiters brought any books into the space. I tell him that they have brought a few books on Tibetan Buddhism and a book on breathing, no narrative books. Narrative, he says, provides a different sense of time. They want to stay, I think, in their own bodies, their own reality—albeit altered.
The red is so beautiful. Really beautiful, a guard says, of the light.
End-of-day dispatch from MPA: She and Amapola are feeling very tired from all of the installation work leading up to Orbit, and Elizabeth from her recent travels. It was hard for them to do all of the climaxes while feeling that exhaustion. They’re trying to figure out how much they should actually look out onto the audience. They still feel very much on Earth, not quite in Orbit yet.
Total visitors: 369
Friday, February 10, Day 2
Quick check-in with MPA: She is requesting that we remove the red dot from the theater. I think the idea for the dot was introduced by Malin, who wanted to turn the gaze onto the viewer. Amapola and Elizabeth don’t think it is working; it seems like more of a device of entertainment for visitors and is a little distracting. We won’t be able to take it away until the Museum closes, though.
Many school groups this morning, including one large class of high school music students. Questions asked: Do they know each other? How much outside help are they getting? What was their first day like? How did they prepare for this before they went inside? Why do they have so many plants? Why is there so much red? What do they do for fun?
Lots of questions from visitors. Only one of us as Ground Control today. Feeling tired and a little lonely.
Amapola is listening to music, jamming out, dancing. MPA is coloring her shoes with a red marker. She is obsessed with the color red. Just remembered that we ordered her red shower shoes for Orbit but they came in pink when they were shipped. This must be that pair.
Elizabeth and a visitor become mirror images of each other, lying on the floor in fetal position, moving when the other does. It’s hard to tell who is leading and who is following.
Amapola is drawing with a red marker on the river-side window, a diagonal line, then another, making an X. She erases the markings with a red towel and moves to the next windowpane, draws two white triangles stacked atop each other, also like an X, or an hourglass.
Amapola takes a sponge bath in the garden, just outside the bathroom (there’s no shower in Orbit). MPA is making lunch for herself and Amapola. Ground Control has identified the floor area at the northernmost end of the window, under the succulents, as the kitchen. MPA pours hot water into her canteen and walks over to the garden to water the plants while her ramen soaks.According to the Orbit menu created by the collective General Sisters (Dana Bishop-Root and Ginger Brooks Takahashi), they would have been on Cycle 2 lunch: mushroom ramen with vegetable. General Sisters created five cycles of nourishment to be repeated four times (one cycle = twenty-four Earth hours). They began eating the food before entering Orbit, to adjust their bodies accordingly.
Photograph © Paula Court
Visitors are feeling comfortable in the theater today, choosing to lie on the floor to observe. Once one person lies down, others follow suit.
Elizabeth is bathing now, fully nude, behind the plants in the garden. Amapola and MPA sit cross-legged on the platform closely together. They watch as the sun sets.
Group bodywork for Amapola on the platform: MPA massages her neck/cranium and Elizabeth starts with Amapola’s feet and works her way up; now she is resting her head on Amapola’s abdomen.
MPA is looking through binoculars up toward the sky, away from earthly activities. Maybe she is searching for a nonhuman presence. Elizabeth walks over to her and abruptly snatches the binoculars away. She takes them to the garden, sits down, and peers into the theater at the audience, observing them closely. MPA stands with her hands empty for a few beats then walks away. She returns with a flashlight, which she points into the theater, onto the red vinyl flooring that separates the audience from the Orbiters’ environment.
It is completely dark inside the window. Did they turn the lights off or is this part of the Orbit light cycle?There were more than seven hundred lighting cues for Orbit. Because of the duration of the performance trajectory, we could never see the program in full before Orbit began. The lighting design unfolded anew to us each day, too. The theater, outside the window, is bathed in red light. Six viewers are present, which seems like relatively few compared to the steady flow of visitors all day.
The Orbiters pull out a laser pointer and use it first to trace each other then to explore the interior of the window and theater space beyond.
Comment from a visitor: “So it’s also a journey for themselves.” He comes to this conclusion after learning that there are no cell phones in Orbit (just one landline to be used in emergencies) and that the Orbiters have no direct connection to the outside world, except with Ground Control.
Climax: MPA drags Elizabeth off the platform ramp. She raises it, turning the ramp into a wall, and hits it aggressively, first with her hand then with a red mat. Amapola walks on the treadmill, as if toward MPA. As MPA’s aggression mounts, Amapola backs away. The full moon occurs at exactly 19:32, during the climax, though it’s not visible from the west-facing window.
The Orbiters have gathered on the platform and are conversing cross-legged, as if in a circle, though the narrow space does not allow this. Amapola and MPA are seated on the same side, across from Elizabeth. At one point, MPA stands and lets down all three blinds, but the shades get stuck flipped open. They could choose to fix them, but they don’t. It’s a signal of privacy, yet they don’t shut us out completely.
The audience tonight is lively. They are talking louder than the afternoon crowds, moving around the theater confidently, asking questions. Is the darkness of the theater, or the general mood of dusk, somehow liberating?
Climax: Largest audience we’ve had at one time. MPA takes off her pants. The other two Orbiters sit facing the audience on opposite sides of the platform. MPA quickly struts from the garden up the ramp and back down again. Her footfalls create a percussive score. Amapola stands drinking a substance, probably wine, knowing her. She’s a bit of a hedonist.
Photograph © Paula Court
They are sitting on the platform, drinking wine and talking, again in a compromised circle: Amapola and MPA on one side, Elizabeth on the other. Curious how the dynamic of three is playing out among them—is one bond stronger than the others?
The visitors have been using the red dot for selfies all day. It has become a self-indulgent stage away from Orbit, for performative gestures and Instagram.
MPA radios for a Ground Control check-in. We postpone our talk when the climax lights come on. It’s easy to lose track of the Climax Clock in Orbit.
Final climax of the day: Amapola and MPA stand looking out to the river. Elizabeth bends over, peering through her legs at the audience. MPA does a small dance with her hips that ripples up to her head. Elizabeth sways side to side.
Just received a dispatch from the Orbiters: MPA expressed that she is on the fence about removing the dot, and we explained how it is being used for visitors’ photo shoots. Amapola hates it. They agree to have it removed. Overall, they are doing well, “coming into themselves.”
Total visitors: 1,240
Saturday, February 11, Day 3
Amapola is awake and visible in the window. She’s the only Orbiter out and about this morning.
Someone stirs beneath the platform. Didn’t see her there earlier, wrapped in a mess of blankets. She must have been asleep all morning. A head emerges. It’s Elizabeth. She stands and walks out of view to the antechamber.The antechamber, hidden from view, is the theater’s greenroom. The Orbiters used the space mainly for storage of food supplies and waste but also as an additional sleeping room (and who knows what else). The antechamber is connected to the Museum’s heating and air-conditioning system and helped with airflow through the window space. The Museum would not have approved the Orbit project without its use.
Six children, all under the age of five, enter and latch onto the bungee rope in the theater. The rope runs from wall to wall several feet from the window and is meant to keep visitors from approaching too closely. The children excitedly stretch the rope up and down in unison. Family day at Orbit.
Climax: Amapola is lying face down on a red mat on the platform and MPA sits in the kitchen area, writing in a notebook. At one point, MPA stands and looks out the window toward the river, then sits back down and resumes writing.
It’s a relatively slow day for the Orbiters. They seem to be getting used to their environment. It’s becoming normalized, more status quo. Housekeeping and lounging activities today. MPA and Amapola are now working to change the water to a new container.About 150 gallons of water for drinking and bathing were brought into Orbit via thirty containers, one of which was always kept in the window space and attached with a spout.
MPA is bathing in the garden with a bowl of red water. What makes it red?In an email exchange with MPA post-Orbit, we asked her what made the water red. She responded: “You mean bathing while in Orbit—? It was the cheap washcloths—lol! Really, the dye drained from the red washcloths into the water. When this happened, it felt like a treat.”
Photograph © Paula Court
The Orbiters place all the jars of urine decoratively in a row along the edge of the platform. The jars are arranged in a gradient from lightest to darkest, most hydrated to least.
Elizabeth removes the composting bucket.
Climax: Elizabeth lies face up on the platform. Amapola hovers over her on all fours, moving along the contours of Elizabeth’s body with the tip of her nose, using it as a kind of divining rod. MPA leans against one of the metal struts that supports the windowpane, rubbing it up and down.MPA remembers saying more in this moment: "I remember talking about our–the Orbiters–thoughts for our bodies in the space, and asking 'What if one of us was differently abled, or pregnant? What would orbit be like with a child here, or a grandmother?' I remember reflecting on that our time in Orbit was showing us the role that narrative might take on for space voyagers. That out there, tethered to very little, the importance perhaps of telling themselves the 'greatness' of their story, of documenting their day, may be a part of their survival in outer space, in a space ship. That the story they tell themselves could give their floating existence a frame.
Climax: MPA falls against the glass in the kitchen and cries out in anguish, melting slowly to the floor. On the platform, Elizabeth cuts out drawings of bananas while Amapola peers at the sun through a triangle formed by her fingers.
Climax: MPA uses one of the wall struts to hold her body weight, leaning away from it, holding on with just her arms. Amapola bathes and walks offstage to the antechamber. Elizabeth sits on the platform and cuts out more drawings.
The day began with children acting freely within the space, and silence has been broken ever since. Visitors are louder, consistently asking questions and talking among themselves. This could also just be typical energy for a Saturday, when visitors are happily not at work and are spending time with loved ones and friends.
At sunset, it is suddenly quiet.
Amapola and MPA crawl slowly, glacially, across the platform. At times they freeze. It’s dark in the window space and red in the theater, still quiet. They are shadows, at times imperceptible in the night. I lost, for a moment, MPA.
Amapola faces west to the river and MPA south. They march in place.
I turn on the baby monitor; hear just the sound of their steps.Listening to the baby monitor was mainly part of Jay Sanders’s Ground Control duties. He turned it on occasionally, and tape-recorded the transmissions. You really could not hear what went on in the window space without the monitor, unless the Orbiters were being very loud, but even then we’d hear just a whisper. The window space was actually designed by the building’s architect, Renzo Piano, to help soundproof the theater. The pink grow lights for the sprouts switch on. Amapola and MPA change speeds. Amapola moves fast, breathes heavily. MPA shuffles her feet.
I adjust my laptop stand higher and get out of my chair. Suddenly I am approached less. I am somehow more part of the piece, less of the institution. Maybe it’s also the nighttime mood that keeps everyone in their space. It’s a bit of a relief. We do so much talking as Ground Control.
Rotation. MPA west, Amapola east. More marching.
MPA stares intently at the audience.
Amapola and MPA stare at each other.
Climax: Amapola and MPA march aggressively, facing east toward the audience. We can hear their steps from the theater.
MPA rotates 90 degrees. Every eight steps she bangs her foot loudly on the floor. Elizabeth thrusts her body on the floor, rubs her breasts. Literal climax? The action winds down with Amapola’s steps.
Complete darkness in the window and the theater. I wonder if there’s a problem with the lighting system that Maria Shaplin has set up. It’s my first night in the theater. I realize that darkness is built into Maria’s cues. There are only three of us in the space.
Dinner. Everyone seems to be themselves. No “performing.”
I felt far away from the Orbiters today. The way the weekend shifts went, I missed our evening and morning check-ins. I turn on the baby monitor to try to hear their conversation. They’re discussing what’s working and what’s not, brainstorming ideas. Hear a mention of how getting into a more altered state for the entirety of their time in Orbit would be valuable. They rehash the evening climax, noting that they started at the wrong time. MPA noticed it midway through and was happy she didn’t say anything to Amapola. Elizabeth: “I want to go to sleep early and wake up early, do breathing together. I like having off-hours when the Museum is closed.”
Total visitors: 1,484
Sunday, February 12, Day 4
Orbiters wake up and start moving around the space.
Elizabeth and Amapola enter seated meditation facing the river. Eyes open or closed? MPA moves around the space, cleaning and organizing. She does this every morning.
Amapola is vigorously rubbing her muscles, joints, feet, and toes, increasing the circulation and generating energy in her body. She did this yesterday as well; it seems to be an important part of her morning ritual. MPA does floor exercises and yoga on a red mat: child’s pose, cat-cow, downward dog, warrior. Amapola transitions to standing exercises on the platform, using the window struts as supports for hip and leg openers.
A big FDNY boat slowly floats past. It stops and hovers closely, just outside the window. Do they see the red? It looks like people are out on the deck, watching.
Elizabeth is using essential oils to perform bodywork on MPA. We wonder which ones she chose, and for what purpose.
Mariana Valencia, who performed as one of the Moons in Prelude, the first movement of RED IN VIEW, arrives and stays for about an hour.Prelude was a dance between Mars’s two moons, Phobos and Deimos, performed by Mariana Valencia and Lydia Okrent who orbited each other, creating a magnetic charge. It occurred on three Friday evenings, amid the Museum’s usual bustle in the lobby and MPA’s installation in the lobby gallery.
Climax: MPA sits moving a long spoon in and around her mouth. She presses it to the top of her forehead (third eye?) like a unicorn horn. Amapola walks on the treadmill, varying her speed. Elizabeth lies on her back on the platform, dancing her legs around.
Amapola draws a figure on the window with many lines that run from its head and along the spine to the ground. Reminds me of a guided visualization I once received from an acupuncturist, to clear blocked qi. As she placed needles in me, she told me to envision a river moving from the crown of my head to my sacrum.
Two new notations are added to the drawing: a line drawn out from the chest, and the lower abdomen/spinal base. It’s so difficult to know what actually goes on in another person’s body. Elaine Scarry talks about this in her book The Body in Pain. Pain she says, resists language; it is only truly known to the person who experiences it. This is true, I think, of much internal phenomenon—not just pain. And somehow this idea feels all the more amplified here, with the Orbiters behind glass. Their bodies do not approach us. We cannot feel their sweat. We can barely hear their utterances or cries.
MPA is lying down in shavasana pose. I keep thinking about internal states and nonverbal communication. Before she entered Orbit, MPA told us she was interested in speaking with invisible beings, ancestors, and spirits present at the current site of the Whitney and elsewhere. There is so much we cannot hear directly, even through the monitor. Visitors keep asking me today if they ever talk.
I start to feel very gratified by the fact that the Orbiters are not indulging the audience with words or stares. On our dispatch last night, they said that they would attempt to not look at the audience at all today. The distance between us feels greater, and somehow I think this might spark more deep listening, more inward meditation among us earthlings. So much of this ten-day journey seems to be about self-discovery.
A mention of Sex and the City by a visitor interrupts my train of thought.
Two minutes until climax. All three Orbiters are on the platform, shaking, airing out their bodies.
Climax: Elizabeth is in the bathroom gripping the sides, rattling the whole structure. Amapola and MPA are seated on the platform, facing the water. They take off their shirts and start rocking back and forth, banging their pelvises against the floor. The bathroom is shaking. Loud moans. Amapola is touching herself, screaming.
The climax is over. MPA falls over from exhaustion. The audience laughs. They identify with this feeling.
A reporter from the New York Post asks me to explain what just happened. “Root chakra activation?” I offer. “Collective masturbation?”
MPA and Amapola rest their heads on one another affectionately.
Photograph © Paula Court
End of day check-in with the Orbiters: They are in such good spirits. The first thing MPA says is that she is just for the first time breaking their vow of silence for the day. This explains why there was no talking. They need more mason jars already for their urine, which is crazy. We’d been planning to send them one delivery of supplies (the only delivery), scheduled for tomorrow night. I add this to the list. Amapola tells me that today is the first day they have a real collective energy, the first day they feel like they are really starting to grow something together.
Elizabeth says that the idea of creating “a sustainable equation,” which MPA uses to describe their mission, also relates to their performative processes and ways of being. MPA agrees, adding that there are harmonies and collisions in their personalities, different processes and identities that they’ve packed for the ship. She and Amapola have a long history of moving together but Elizabeth is new wind, and they are just learning her movement vocabulary.
Stunningly, they are not claustrophobic at all. They feel like they have prime real estate, the best apartment in New York. Elizabeth is the only one who sleeps in the window itself. MPA calls it “the dreamship.”MPA and Amapola slept in the anteroom for the entire duration. At some point, Elizabeth moved her bed there, too, to allow for a rearrangement of the window space.
I learn that the long spoon they sometimes use is just a copper spoon that MPA likes and brought on her journey. This morning they all drank cacao, which comes in a powder form and is an aphrodisiac. Amapola says they have been channeling the color red, which she associates with her heart and root chakra.
They loved the messages we sent them from the phone line last night and ask if we edited out negative ones. I said no.Visitors could leave messages for the Orbiters on The Interview, an active phone line in MPA’s lobby-gallery installation. As Ground Control, we downloaded these messages through Google Voice and beamed them to the Orbiters each night on a twenty-minute delay via email. It took some convincing for the Orbiters to receive the messages this way: they have complicated feelings about the internet, and almost wrote it out from Orbit completely. But no one can make a trip to space without it, and the conditions for Orbit were intended to partially emulate those of astronauts orbiting Earth. So we sent the emails on a delay, as astronauts would receive them, to create some distance, parameters around the way we communicated.
We discuss the inability of visitors to ever get a “total picture” of Orbit— perhaps no one can, except Ground Control? Each day in Orbit has a different feeling, texture. The Orbiters create a score for each day, but they never really know, apparently, what will happen at climax.
Total visitors: 900
Monday, February 13, Day 5
Amapola erases her drawing from the window.
MPA bathes. When she is naked, visitors stand far away, near the back wall of the theater. They don’t sit on the bench.
Group breathing exercises. Appears to be pranayama, or single-nostril breathing.
Climax: Self-massage, stretching. Tapping exercises on energetic meridians of the body.
Water is changed.
The Orbiters contact Ground Control, explaining that they created a score
for themselves in which they are each tasked with acting in a way that diverges from their normal behavior in Orbit.
MPA removes the waste bucket from the bathroom.
Photograph © Paula Court
Climax: MPA gets on a mic for the first time.There was an amp in the theater and a few microphones in the window, which the Orbiters could turn on if they chose to address the audience in a more direct way, or if they wanted to amplify ambient noise in the space. They used it on a few occasions, once accidentally. I transcribed MPA’s monologue in real time.
Feel like breaking the wall. For today’s score we assigned each other actions that were the opposite of what each of us had been doing. As the director, they restrained me for three hours from directing the space. For the most part, it was really easy, but when they started talking about the plumbing, I felt very anxious.MPA designed the entire water system for Orbit alongside technical director Jason Hughes. Up until this point, MPA oversaw the replacement of fresh water jugs and decanting of gray water, which was produced from bathing and cleaning the space, into storage containers.When the lights go on, that’s a signal to us to climax. And being on Day 5, we’ve done a lot of climaxes. Last night’s climax was kind of masturbatory, with two of us with our shirts off. We’ve received messages asking if we feel like we’re in pain. Actually, we’re all having a great time in here. And we might have the best view in New York. There’s something really expansive about it.
Elizabeth said last night that she doesn’t think we’d survive in Orbit if we weren’t performing, and you weren’t coming to see us every day. I’m thinking about humans who are engaging in these voyages to other planets. They all have this need to serve the camera, the gaze, to create a story. I think that’s what we’re doing. I think we’re trying to animate for ourselves a story.
I think I would like to do five more Orbits after this. I think I’m ready to be in Orbit for a really long time. There are things that are irritating. When you wake up in the morning and you want to take a shit, that’s a little annoying. We separate our pee from our shit. You have to pee first and hold your shit. You have to be really conscious and not unconscious in that moment. The food is really delicious but sometimes making the food isn’t as easy you might do in a non-floor kitchen. Our kitchen is on the floor.
On Day 5 we are all very aware of how tethered we are to you and to this space. We are so conscious of you, you are kind of like our gasoline or our fuel. Maybe we don’t always look at you, but we’re aware. There’s no pulling the curtain down. There’s no easy exit.
Climax: MPA is drinking straight from the red Brita water pitcher. I wonder how the other Orbiters feel about her mouth on the pitcher. Is she going to drink the whole thing? Amapola and Elizabeth are entwined on the platform. MPA is choking on the water, coughing. Now she is teething/kissing the pitcher spout.
Total visitors: 880
Tuesday, February 14, Day 6
Ground Control duties are diverted for the day. The Museum is closed on Tuesdays, which means we don’t have to tend to visitors or maintain the space with the usual diligence. The Orbiters and the production team use the day to prepare for Assembly, the finale performance of Orbit, in which the performers will exit the window space for the first time. The Orbiters participate in rehearsal from behind the glass, not wanting to break the seal, which causes some frustrations: we were restricted to communicating via microphone, and they conveyed through words alone how they would move and act within the theater space. Though they were rehearsing Assembly, they still considered themselves to be in Orbit, which complicated things.
Wednesday, February 15, Day 7
An artist visits the space, and asks if he can talk with us and record the conversation for his research. He’s doing a project about growing tea on Mars, since he anticipates that once humans are on Mars, they will need tea. He sees the potential market. We show him the recipe for General Sisters’s Love + Rage tea that the Orbiters are drinking. He likes the design of the bathroom in Orbit, thinks it would be a nice prototype for a tearoom.
Amapola and Elizabeth clean the windows. MPA bathes.
Climax: MPA is doing something with the plants, rubbing her face and hands into them. Amapola cleans the window more vigorously, making a squeaking sound on the glass that we can hear. Elizabeth sits on the floor in the crawlspace below the platform with the trapdoor removed so that her head pokes out. She assembles sticky notes on the window next to her. All day people ask me what the notes say. We know as much as they do, only what we can see: red squares.
Photograph © Paula Court
Today has been very mellow. They cleaned the space thoroughly for the first half of the day and now are napping. We wonder if they are tired from the hard and draining tech work yesterday.
Climax: Elizabeth is on the platform massaging Amapola. When the lights change, she starts singing emphatically, if unintelligibly. MPA is standing and listening. She smiles, trying not to laugh? MPA suddenly starts directing Elizabeth: “Go for it.” Elizabeth pushes against the wall at the apex of the song, then stops and crawls through one of the trapdoors to MPA.
Elizabeth and MPA look out the window and down toward the street below. They start jumping up and down, then flashing and mooning pedestrians. Based on their excitement, we assume they are communicating with a few close friends who have just left the theater. We can’t see from our vantage point but maybe their friends are outside returning the gesture?
Total visitors: 636
Thursday, February 16, Day 8
A few big school groups came in this morning. The day starts with high energy from the audience in the room.
Climax: MPA walks brazenly in a red power suit and throws a fist in the air.
She continues strutting and pumps her fist high again, then turns and faces the audience with a bold smile and raises both fists in a victory stance. She looks like a political leader drunk on power. Channeling the archetype of the colonizer? Elizabeth and Amapola are dancing and jumping on the platform, they face each other and let out cries of ecstatic release. MPA joins them and the climax concludes.
Elizabeth and MPA engage in vocalizations, a kind of spirit call or beckoning. MPA opens her arms as if to invite energy in. Her pitch is higher and her sound more sustained than Elizabeth’s, which fades in and out deeply, adding fluctuation and rhythm. Are they rehearsing for Assembly, channeling energy they feel in the space, or communicating with unseen forces?During Orbit Elizabeth made two outgoing phone calls through the landline, one to her mother to wish her a happy birthday, and one to Liv Wheeler, who practices shamanic healing work and ancestral communication. Elizabeth had a session with Liv for Kontomble voice divination, which according to Liv’s website offers an opportunity to reconnect with ancient beings known as Kontomble: “When they communicate, they sometimes communicate about our Ancestors, about our life’s path, about our families, about healing that’s needed, about journeys that need to be taken. It really is so particular to the person that I’m working with and the questions that that person is coming to us with.”
Climax: The three Orbiters stand on the platform, facing the water. They begin opening their hips, slowly circling their pelvises, then thrusting toward the water, in unison and then out of sync. Elizabeth walks over to the garden, starts marching in place, then faces the audience and bounces.
Climax: The energy from the previous climax continues, though the action morphs slightly. Amapola jumps in place, facing the window. MPA faces Amapola and jumps from one foot to the other, creating a syncopated beat, throwing her head in rhythm and pulling on a red strip of fabric tied around her waist. Elizabeth stands in near stillness, arms at her sides with her palms out flat toward the earth.
Amapola walks from the garden side up the platform as far as she can go (a ramp on the other side is up, blocking her way) then turns and walks back. Her footfalls are heavy and amplified, especially on the platform, where they resonate best. As she travels down the ramp, she gathers speed, only to have to stop herself abruptly before the space’s end at the bathroom. She can run at most three paces. She performed a similar action as part of a climax on another day in Orbit.
Climax: Amapola continues the trajectory, moving faster. On one of her passes up onto the platform, MPA, who is lying down, entangles her legs around Amapola, bringing that movement pattern to a halt. MPA hits Amapola’s butt over and over again, then they rotate, and MPA holds Amapola and places her face into her pelvis. Amapola sinks down on top of MPA, and sits in her lap facing her. They sit in the position for a minute, then Amapola climbs off.
Climax: The Museum closes and the Orbiters strip down, put on heels, and start working the window, posing and dancing on the platform to club music. This performance is specifically for the people outside watching from the street. They turn the window into a red-light district.
Feeling really exhausted at this point, on Day 8, as Ground Control. We are at capacity. Trying to understand what this climax tonight means—are they conjuring what MPA has called “Mars energy”?
Photograph © Paula Court
Orbiters say they are really fired up after the “exhibitionist striptease.”
Total visitors: 809
Friday, February 17, Day 9
The Orbiters are in seated meditation facing the river. This has become a morning routine for them.
Elizabeth lowers a sprout tray to check on it. Amapola raises the ramp on
the kitchen side, allowing access to the space to boil water and make breakfast (the ramp is designed a bit like a drawbridge: the kitchen space is only usable when it’s lifted up).
Elizabeth stands in the garden in stillness, facing Amapola, who is on the platform looking back at her. They are starting to sway and make some vocal sounds.
Climax: Amapola walks with determination from one end of the space to the other, stopping when something or someone blocks her path, then turning and walking in the other direction. She does this until MPA runs after her, grabbing her from behind at the edge of the platform, stopping her trajectory. MPA holds onto Amapola’s body, sliding down so tightly that she pulls Amapola’s pants down. MPA starts pulling one leg of the pants away, creating a kind of triangle between Amapola’s foot, the floor, and MPA’s body. Amapola walks again, then turns and walks offstage, then back again. She takes off a sock and walks until she runs into Elizabeth; they stand in an armless embrace. Elizabeth holds Amapola’s head, like a mother holding a child close to her bosom.
The first of three climaxes this afternoon is officially over, but the action continues. MPA turns on music (salsa?) and starts moving slowly, posing across the platform with her hands held together below her pelvis. Elizabeth and Amapola still stand in a kind of embrace, slowly rocking.
MPA dances solo on the platform to two songs, really getting into the music, literally feeling herself. She loosens up, dancing wildly, and calls toward Amapola and Elizabeth, summoning them over. Amapola breaks away from Elizabeth and starts running repetitively again across the platform, traveling past MPA. MPA puts a high-heeled shoe on one foot, leaving the other bare, then jumps from one foot to the other, shouting each time Amapola passes.
By the third or fourth song, Amapola starts jumping up and down on the platform, facing MPA. Elizabeth stands in the garden watching them, occasionally calling out, adding energy. A fifth, slower song starts, and they each turn their focus inward, moving to the music with their own styles: rocking, swaying, and bouncing. Amapola starts shaking her whole body, allowing her voice to vibrate as well, which we can hear through the glass. The three solos continue alongside one another. The 13:15 and 13:30 climaxes occur during this sequence of performances, each blending into the next.
I am enjoying their playful, free energy. Some might think they’re “losing it,” but it seems to me that they have finally let go of the audience’s eye, and are just wild, doing whatever they want. They are really letting their impulses take over and steer the ship instead of their minds. I think it actually took them nine days to get to this point.
Amapola and MPA sit in the garden, near the laundry that is hanging to dry in the sun, and talk. They may be talking about the performance that just concluded.
The Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, starts to play from the window space. They turn on the mics so we can hear. Amapola dances; Elizabeth lies on the floor with her hands and feet to the sky, shaking.
MPA leans her body against Elizabeth’s feet, they move together. Amapola watches Elizabeth through a window.
Nightlife. The music continues. It’s Friday night and we’re not on Mars but somewhere between Tijuana and Bangkok. Elizabeth is wearing basketball shorts and sunglasses, dancing like some goofy, slightly seedy dude at a club. Walking out of the bathroom, MPA laughs: “What are you doing? Nice drag.”
Los Mirlos, the Peruvian cumbia/Chicha group plays. Amapola dances on the platform with Elizabeth’s alter ego, laughing at her. Amapola is a masterful dancer, the music is in her blood. She seems to be herself, just more uninhibited, unleashed. MPA puts on a dress and sips wine, watching them and smiling. The mood is celebratory.
Costume change: MPA gets out a big red wigMPA had this wig made for the opening of RED IN VIEW. It’s pretty wild. It’s firefighter red and looks like an oblong, overdone pompadour hairstyle. When she wore it, she appeared to be a retrofuturistic drag queen on an interplanetary visit. and Elizabeth switches from shorts to a skirt. They all continue to dance. Amapola stomps her feet then jumps from side to side on the platform loudly. Her body becomes the beat.
A woman comes up to me and asks who the artists are. She’s wondering how they found this music. It’s super rare, she says. It’s music that her grandfather from El Salvador plays. She has no idea how we unearthed this. It’s a mix that Cay Castagnetto, the sound designer for Assembly, made upon Amapola's request. I realize the song they play the most in Orbit is “El Brujo” (the Witch Doctor) by Juaneco y su Combo, a group that formed in the 1960s in Pucallpa, a remote jungle town in eastern Peru. Juaneco y su Combo are considered the originators of Ola Amazonica, or Amazonian Wave. It sounds like a mix between psychedelic surf rock and jazz, and is completely intoxicating. I look up the band on the web and realize El Brujo was the nickname of the lead guitarist, Noe Fachin, who was influenced by indigenous folklore from the region, in particular from the Shipibo. Apparently, Noe made most of his music while under the influence of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drug that Shipibo shamans were known to take.
Climax: A mournful ballad plays. Elizabeth sings toward MPA, who moves slowly, her body curled inward, hands framing her face. Amapola, resting on her knees, watches from the other side.
MPA costume change: She takes off her wig, puts on heels and a blazer. Asks Elizabeth to change the song. “Something more energetic,” she says. “I don’t have anything!” Elizabeth shouts back. They try to find a song for several minutes then put on something with drums and sitar. Amapola and MPA stomp their feet to the music.
Someone named Tuesday asks if she could send a few songs to the Orbiters.I told Tuesday they could send songs to me, and I would try to pass them on to the Orbiters, though the message might not reach them until they left Orbit, since it was nearly over. They sent me three albums with notes: “Muscle Up” by Patrick Cowley (“Like porn itself, electronic music references reality while signaling a fantastical break from it.”); “93 Million Miles” by Africa HiTech (93 million miles = the distance between the Earth and the Sun); “Cory Arcane” by Kangding Ray (“The story of someone struggling to break through the suffocating din of technology, communication, and capitalism”). MPA and Amapola continue stomping. Elizabeth rests with her head under a blanket in the platform crawlspace, beneath their feet.
The audience leaves as the Museum closes, and the Orbiters stomp louder for their final climax, which begins officially at 22:00. They start sounding out, in a ritualistic way.
The stomping ends. “Fuck yes,” MPA says, then collapses.
Total visitors: 1,518
Saturday, February 18, Day 10
Quiet morning. The Orbiters skip their first climax and are carrying on with everyday activities, making breakfast, stretching, cleaning—no intensity. Heard from Elizabeth this morning that she thinks she sprained her knee last night. She’s been moving very slowly.
Photograph © Paula Court
MPA is eating in the kitchen, Elizabeth is stretching in the garden, and Amapola is sitting atop the platform (which today appears as a living room), looking out at the river. She’s resting one of the trapdoors of the platform on her head; the piece of wood moves up and down with her breath.
Elizabeth has been doing bodywork on Amapola for about an hour. She is a trained masseuse.
Red wig out. MPA is pacing slowly in the garden. She seems to be warming up for 15:00 climax.
Dystopia. They all look sick. Elizabeth is licking the window. MPA is on the floor holding a jar of urine pressed up against her face. She crawls slowly to the fountain to get a cup of water.
Elizabeth lets out birdlike screeches, she’s becoming animal. Today, Orbit truly feels like the zoo.
Amapola is lying on her stomach in the garden. MPA shines a crystal above her back. Amapola rests quietly, then jumps occasionally, as if she’s having a spasm.
Climax lights go on thirty minutes early. We go to the lighting booth and set them back to the correct time, but the Orbiters are already cued by the lights and have started a performance score. They are playing a track that sounds like Kundalini chanting music. On the platform, MPA starts a trancelike, ritualistic movement sequence, with frequent stomping, bouncing, abdominal flexing and contracting, writhing, and moans. She stays centered between one windowframe the whole time, facing the water. Channeling something? Elizabeth stands to her side facing her, appearing to receive and send MPA energy. Amapola walks on the treadmill.
We cue the climax lights again to get us back on track. Official climax: The performance score they began at 19:00 continues. MPA begins to fling her arms in circles, letting her head go wildly with the movement. Her hair whips around her face. Amapola walks quickly on the treadmill, facing MPA. Elizabeth sits on the edge of the platform, facing Amapola at eye level. MPA comes to a sudden stillness and almost imperceptibly sways her head from side to side, the movement still reverberating in her body. The mantra chanting continues over the speaker. Is this a ritual for their last night? I wonder what they are channeling or inviting into the space to mark the last night of the journey.
Don, a longtime Whitney guard, comes in and asks what is going on. I explain they have been living there for ten days. He says, “No way . . . so when I close up at night, and do my rounds through the building . . . they are in there? Really? You’re not joking? So each night, they are sleeping there? And no one told me?”
They are goofing off. MPA is being very silly, making noises and talking to the other two, making them laugh and laugh. This lasts for about ten minutes. I wonder if they are starting to have feelings about leaving tomorrow—are they sad to leave behind the community they’ve built?
MPA collects the urine jars from the window in the garden, where they have been accumulating in a stacked grid, and places them in boxes. They transport the boxes to the anteroom, offstage. Amapola slides down the ramp with one of the boxes.
Elizabeth brings out a tray of sprouts that have grown tall. She appears to be harvesting them, possibly for their final dinner in Orbit later that night. Everyone gathers on the platform. Elizabeth hands them each paper and other supplies that I can’t make out. They hunch over and write. Elizabeth forms some kind of tinfoil cup or bowl. They’ve created an altar with special totems that they brought with them into Orbit, including a ceramic chain and a copper teakettle. Sticky notes are arranged in a pattern on the glass wall between them and us.
Climax: They place the items they’ve created in one of the sprout trays and raise it toward the ceiling. MPA bends over to each of the plants and kisses them, as if to thank them for their presence through Orbit.
Photographer Paula Court texts from outside, where she’s shooting Orbit from across the street. “So diff from last night,” she says.
Orbiters call to Ground Control. MPA tells me they are doing a ritual for things to die and things to grow.
Total visitors: 2,465
Sunday, February 19, Day 11
Elizabeth and Amapola sit cross-legged on the platform, looking toward the river and completing their last morning meditation and breathing ritual. MPA is not in sight.
MPA sponge bathes. Elizabeth sits on the yoga ball in the kitchen.
The Orbiters sit in a semicircle in the kitchen eating breakfast and discussing the day to come. They have a performance ahead of them tonight, Assembly, the grand finale. The theater will close at 12:00 for the production team to prepare the sound, lighting, and seating.
Climax: The Orbiters sit on the platform and shake their hands above their heads, then stand facing the river and slowly roll down, folding over their legs. Elizabeth leads them in the warm up. They roll back up and circle their heads, stretching their necks. Slowly they shift their weight from side to side, then with closed fists lightly massage their heads, necks, and faces, and then move their attention down their bodies, warming up their muscles with their hands. When they finish, they stand in stillness facing the river.
We close the theater and thank the last visitors for being present. We begin to quickly transform the space for Assembly. The Orbiters have eight more hours in Orbit and start to prepare for their exit.
Total visitors: 266
Photograph © Paula Court
FAQs (answers variable)
Do they stay overnight? They’re not leaving?
What day is it? How long have they been there?
What’s in the jars? Is that urine?
Is there a bathroom? What do they do with the poop?
Where’s the shower?
Were they all friends before entering?
Are you part of the art? Are you with the artists or the Museum?
Are you documenting this? Are you controlling the sound or lights?
Why is it red?
What is their most significant discovery?