Features Q&A and Interviews Published 3 June 2015

A Decade With Mars

Rosemary Waugh talks to Bristol-based artists Ella Good and Nicki Kent about weather balloons, time capsules, and their ten year engagement with the Mars One project.
Rosemary Waugh

So, to start with: can you tell me a bit about why you decided to start on this project and also what you hope it will achieve?

In 2013 we were touring and so often taking long car journeys and spending a lot of our time talking. One subject that kept coming up was the Mars One project. We kept hearing tiny snippets on the radio about it when the application process had just opened. We couldn’t stop talking about it. Firstly we were just interested in who these people were that applied for this one-way trip to live on Mars. And so in the first case we just decided to try and meet some of them. When we sat down and started to think about what we were going to talk to them about we came up with lists and lists of questions. Some of them were questions about their lives, some the ethics of a one-way mission, and some more widely about the world that we live in – how the way in which we all live could be changing or needs to change.

When we started meeting some of the people we quickly realised that all of these questions made it feel too much of a big sprawling subject to condense into one work. We also didn’t want to make anything that felt like a one-off documentary or a judgement on the lives of people who had let us into their homes. So it felt natural that our relationships with them should be more sustained, and the ten-year timeline of the Mars One project felt like a good one to set ours against.

Our work together over the past eight years or so has become more and more about meeting people, creating space for conversation and working in community settings.  It has become a strong thread that runs through all our work. We’re always thinking about how we can move our work forward, and so before we met the Mars One applicants we were already thinking about how we could make those conversations bigger and about more lasting important topics. We also decided to really commit to conversation and meetings as not only contributing to the subject of the work we make, but to also start articulating that this process is the work – that the process of meeting people, of creating social spaces where conversations can happen, is as important as any other outcome. So working in this way is really what guided us to start this project and informed the way that we wanted to work with some of the Mars One applicants.

We hope that it will become a project not only about the Mars One applicants, but about the possibility of all Mars missions over the next ten years – very soon after we began the project, we started to notice that Mars was becoming a focus for a lot of space programmes, with NASA also looking at the feasibility of sending the first humans there. We’ve started to question if we are at the beginning of a new space race.  We hope the work will become more generally about the future and time – and that the work will provide spaces for questions and discussion about how we all live.

The project has several different components to it – can you explain how they are all going to link together?

We have started to think of the project as a body of work. The constant that runs through it all is our meetings with six people who applied to be part of Mars One. We’re continuing to meet them again and again over the next ten years, and so the documentation of this time with them is one big, on-going part of the project. We’ll see what changes over that time span, personally and globally.

We then plan to make several outcomes along the way that offer more public opportunity to engage with the project, and hopefully this way the project will start to gather an audience that will follow the work into the future. We’ve started a Facebook group as a way of doing this so far, so people can keep up with what we’re doing.

The main themes of all of the outcomes we will make are tied to our interactions with the Mars One applicants, and tied to the idea of re-meeting the same group over a long time – so broadly, the themes of all the outcomes we will make will be about time, community and sustainability. In a decades time we will have documentation of all of our meetings and all of these works and present them together in an exhibition, a book and a film.

What interested you in the Mars One project?

No matter what you think about the Mars One project, whether you believe it will ever happen or not, it has created some really big questions. Are people going to be standing on Mars in our lifetime? Is it going to be a private company taking them there? It is a subject that creates conversation in most people. This is partly because of the controversial nature and ethics of a one-way trip, but also because of the huge questions about why we might have to leave Earth. We’re interested in how proposing this mission might capture a point of global change – what direction are we heading in?

Do you think it is a good thing that we continue to explore space, or that humanity should instead be content with some mystery/unexplored terrain?

We think that exploration is exciting, and might help us push for new technologies that we can use here on Earth. And by going out there, space travel can give perspective on our own planet and our place in the universe. Maybe it can help inspire critical thought about how we’re living on Earth – this is something that many of the first astronauts that went to the moon have written about.

The view from near space, taken by the weather balloon.

The view from near space, taken by the weather balloon.

What does our desire to carry out space exploration say about us?

When we talk to people about this project, people often bring up Christopher Columbus and draw comparisons with the history of human exploration. Explorers have always headed off into the unknown, knowing they might never return – so in this way you can see space exploration as the next natural part of human nature; that we’re naturally drawn to wanting to see what lies beyond, to expanding our horizons. But of course there are lots of counter questions about what right we have to continually expand, explore and colonise – what right do we really have to take over other planets?

We’ve also had a lot of conversations within this project so far about over-consumption of resources – if this is what will eventually drive humans off the planet. We’re interested in thinking about models of growth, about whether there are alternative economic models that are flatter and more about sustaining rather than constantly growing in a linear way – and if these might lead us in different directions.

Would either of you have signed up to be a space tourist?

No. Neither of us want to go into space. We are happy here on Earth.

Ten years is a long time to commit to – do you have faith that the project will truly run for that length of time?

When you think about it the commitment to the project is as big or small as we make it. We have spent time getting to know the 6 applicants and have become friends with them over the last year.  So when thinking about commitment to the project, we are committing to knowing 6 people that are now our friends for the next ten years, and to documenting our meetings. When you think about it like that it doesn’t seem like a big commitment at all. We’re also committing to a process-focused way of working, and to allowing the outcomes we make to come out of that process flexibly – which is really how we want to make our work, and something we’ve already spent years thinking about and doing.

It also becomes a bit about a commitment to being an artist and keeping that going for the next ten years. We think that most artists would say they’d hope to still be an artist in ten years time, so us saying we’re doing a ten year project is also about committing, to making sure we find ways to make being an artist sustainable and integrated with our lives.

You are doing a series of weather balloon launches around the country, can you tell me a bit more about why you are doing them?

We’re launching a series of weather balloons that reach about 100,000 feet and return footage of near space from a camera that we attach to the payload. We thought that a good way to launch our ten year project about space would be to create a public launch event, where we try and get as close to space as we can. We like the idea that people who are not scientists can still get to space. Weather balloons are relatively inexpensive, and it’s something that anyone really can do, or learn how to do.

We’ve been doing them in public parks, so it creates an unusual event that brings a local community out to do something together. We’ve been spending a week in each city before the launch, during which we take time getting to know different community groups. We have a short talk that we have taken to loads of different types of groups from coffee mornings for women in their 80’s, to Astronomical Societies, to Youth Clubs, to Senior Learning Groups. We also have a workshop that we take to primary schools during the week.

Taking the work directly to communities helps us gather interest and invite people to our weather balloon launch, which then happens at the weekend. If everything happened within an arts centre it wouldn’t be the same – working like this lets us talk to people about our project that may not normally visit arts centres, who wouldn’t come into contact with the work if it didn’t happen in this way.

The weather balloon launches have all been really lovely, with lots of families coming out, and children and parents helping launch the balloon. It fits with the ideas about community that we want our work to hold, as we need these people to help do the launch for it to work.

Can you tell me more about the weather balloon launches that took place in Bristol on 18th April and London on 25th April, please?

We have done 5 launches now, Hull, Bristol and Lancaster had between 70 and 100 people coming to the event. Most of the audiences were families of the children that we met in the schools, and people from the community groups we’d visited. This is really exciting for us, and we think it’s really nice that whole families and different generations can find interest in the work.

Where are you going next?

After London we went to Leeds, then Lancaster and lastly Bath – the Bath launch is on Saturday 20th July.

The view from above Williamson Park in Lancaster

The view from above Williamson Park in Lancaster

The Blue Peter time capsule, when undone, unfortunately contained nothing but sludge – how is A Decade with Mars going to be better?

We’d hope that it would be better. I guess you’re asking if we think that there is a chance that if in ten years time we look at our project and realize that the work is just a muddy mess, that the things that we had chosen to document had little relevance in 2024.  The project does have a time capsule kind of element, but much about our work is in the act of doing in the present as well as the documentation. So at the moment we’re giving talks to community groups around the country about the project, like WI groups, Senior Learning Groups, Youth Centres. The conversations we’re having there exist in the present – they will be documented and eventually form part of the wider documentation, but they also just exist in the here and now, as well as the weather balloon launches – which are as much about people coming together to help on the day.

One of your plans is to work with schools – do you have any specific ones signed up to the project yet and what do you have planned with the children?

We’ve worked with eight primary schools across the country so far. The workshop that we are touring at the moment (that accompanies the balloon launch) is about thinking about what a decade means both in terms of space travel and the world but also personally to the children, thinking about what they might be doing in ten years time. The schools have been really pleased with the workshops and are keen to continue links with us. We want to try to follow the classes that we have met over the next ten years, and keep inviting the children to engage with the different outcomes, so that they become part of the ten year timeline too.

We understand that it will be quite hard to follow the children once they all go to different secondary schools – we want to explore working with linked primaries and secondary schools – but also just getting their parents to follow the project on Facebook to keep them involved. Some parents who have come to the balloon launches have joined the group already.

In the press release it mentions Alison Rigby, can you tell me about any of the other people who applied to be the first to colonise Mars?

We have met 6 applicants that all live in the UK. Their ages range from their early twenties to mid fifties. There’s Gillian a PhD candidate in her early 20’s researching biofuels; Melissa is a 55 year old transgender taxi driver who is passionate about promoting diversity; Ryan who is 30 and working in a factory as he trains to be an engineer; Callum is 22 and just finishing a Masters in Astrophysics at Birmingham University; Camila is in her early 40’s and works in the passport office in London, she likes to travel in her free time. Alison is in her mid thirties and works as a secondary school lab technician and is the only one still left in the Mars One competition.

It’s unusual to see such a strong science element included in a project by two artists.  Why did you decide to do this and is this something you will think of doing again in other projects?

When making something about space travel it is impossible not to have a science element. We often end up talking to scientists about the work, and in fact three of our Mars One applicants have science qualifications, to PhD level. We think there are lots of similarities between art and science – we think of them both really as research subjects, and research is always stronger when it’s cross-disciplinary. Art can be a way of looking at things, or helping us to raise questions – and so when you think of it like that, art doesn’t have to sit separately to other subjects, or to the rest of everyday life.

Will this be the only project you both work on over the next ten years and, if not, what else do you have planned in the near future?

A Decade With Mars will be our main work, but we think that the outcomes will be really varied and so allow us to explore not only different aspects, but also how we present our work. So far during this tour, we have created an outdoor event for local communities (you could even call the launch a performance), a short talk, a workshop, and we are working with a musician on a podcast, as well as continuing video documentation of the meetings with the applicants. We’re interested in multiple ways of presenting work that allows all kinds of different people to find a way in.

We also have another work that we are continuing to tour alongside, it’s called Total Eclipse of the Head – hairdressing inspired by music. It’s an interactive hair salon that we take to festivals and street parties. We pick a playlist with participants and then cut or style their hair to match. It links with the ways of working and themes about community in A Decade With Mars, as we often get whole families coming into the salon, and it’s really more about it being a social space where people can come together.


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.