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Flying Falling

I'm currently undertaking a research project called Flying/Falling. It's led by the wonderful Entelechy Arts, generously funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, and has given me the opportunity to work with Vicky Amedume of Upswing, poet Simon Mole, technologist Malcolm Buchanan-Dick and a whole host of other wonderful people.

The project is multi-faceted and so there will be a lot here that is only from my own perspective; likewise there are a lot of exciting things going on of which I'm only loosely aware. The main thrust, though, is a shared interest in technology, ageing and our physical environment.

Here is Madeleine. She's in her living room in South East London. Madeleine's holding a computer, and she's watching a video of a woman aboard the International Space Station, giving her a tour. It's a cliché to point out that when Madeleine was born, no human-made object had ever entered space. To see the world, one walked down the road to a cinema and watched a black and white newsreel on 16mm film, which might have taken a week to make.

Most of the time the last thing on your mind in the presence of Madeleine is her age. She's the kind of person who invites someone like me into her home to make a film, and I hope I'm like that when I'm grown up too.

We were interested in space stations for a few related reasons. Some are a bit formal and abstracted, others are more intuitive.

My earliest conversations with David concerned the way he'd witnessed older friends moving around physical space. The way objects that would have had one meaning in a certain space (the corner of a dresser; a pile of books, a windowsill) had another when they were used as supports for moving around. It seemed poetic too. In another, institutionalised space, a walking aid might be stamped out of plastic and screwed to the wall at a government-mandated height. At home the aid could be bespoke, and could have emotional meaning – the dresser from a first marriage; the bookshelf from a third home. David's an incredible mover, and can evoke this rickety, empowering-yet-fragile environment just by walking around an office.

It got us all thinking, and discussing. A domestic space is a sustaining environment. I'd seen, as part of another project awhile ago, a lot of schematics (used by government and the military) that break down human needs into their component parts. They can look a bit scary, even when the purpose is benign. What does a human being need to survive for one day? Three days? One month? They begin simple and get complicated: Stable temperature 18-37 degrees celsius; a given quantity of fresh water; waste disposal; 2000 calories; 90g protein; stable supply of any medication; electricity supply with usable outputs; means of communication with other humans.

Where else had I heard that kind of talk? The world of social care, of course: 15 mins/day contact time; one wash; two cooked meals; one excursion/week; and so on. The aim here though, especially in an environment of cuts, seemed to be to take away rather to empower. Maybe 10 mins/day will do? One way to find out.

Anywhere else? Space travel. There is little in space to support human life (at least, not any bits we've ever reached) and so anything necessary is taken there. The difference in focus is marked: the living environment of an older person often feels as if the economic concerns dominate, whilst the subject is becoming physically frail and in more 'need' than ever. In space, the sums concerned are astronomical (haha) and the people whose environment is being maintained are some of the physically fittest humans who have ever existed. Same structure, radically different ethos.

Madeleine's kitchen contains everything she needs in a normal day, within a small floor area

Madeleine's kitchen contains everything she needs in a normal day, within a small floor area

There's another link between Madeleine on the ground and the woman she's watching in space, too. The ageing process is working fast on both of them, because of environmental factors. The absence of gravity, presence of cosmic radiation, isolation all take a huge physical and emotional toll on astronauts. Muscle wastes away; bone density weakens rapidly; constant psychological profiling is needed. These superhumans, living in space, are as needing of support and as fragile as a resident in any care home. But we think about them very differently.

Here's the tour Madeleine is watching. Take a look, even if it's just the first few minutes. I chose this one to show her (and to show you) because it focuses on the most basic physical needs. There are other videos that show how the ISS' high-powered telescope works – this one shows you where they keep the toothbrushes.

How could we evoke these ideas, links, juxtapositions? Perhaps by situating Madeleine's environment, and that of an astronaut, within the same 'space' maybe.

We arrived at Madeleine's early one morning and spent the day filming her performing repetitive domestic tasks. She was more than welcoming, and suffered the tedium of washing the dishes again and again, for seemingly no good reason. I ate a lot of cake, and it was funny to think that whilst NASA schematics can tell how much a typical adult should consume in a day, when you're dealing with small numbers it's possible to just ask. Or in Madeleine's case, just keep bringing tea and cake.

A second day was spent filming in the Albany theatre, a radical South London venue that's home to Entelechy and a great many other organisations. We built a set that would evoke the interior of the ISS, and then Vicky worked her magic and made our performer float weightless in the space. It's a pretty low-budget interpretation of space, but we're here to experiment, provoke thoughts, give a sense of what could be done, so hopefully it was enough.

Back in the studio I pored over the footage that we'd been able to get with Malcolm's custom-built, rotating camera mount. The results are working, I think. Here's a short video – it looks more like bad '90s video art at the moment, but hopefully with all of the elements in place it gives some idea of what we're making.

There's another link, I think, between Madeleine and the space station. When we think about the design of environments, we're usually thinking about the future – working out ways to make our environments more appropriate; more economical; better to live in. Space environments evoke the future by their very nature – at the moment at least, when they're something virtually no-one has actually experienced. As more of us become older, environments built for older people will become more common, and so to look at them now is to look at the future also. It would be nice to think that framing them within the environment of the space station meant that positive, futuristic glow many people feel towards space exploration might seep through into the way we view our environments here on Earth, too.

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