Mars: ready to move in lifestyle
Now that space tourism seems increasingly feasible, colonising Mars no longer sounds so much like science fiction. With their ambitious, multidisciplinary and collaborative artistic project, Brits Ella Good and Nicki Kent delve into what a human home would be like on the red planet, and they question how we live on Earth.
Although at first glance it might seem like science and art are distinct and separate disciplines, Ella Good and Nicki Kent have always believed the opposite is true. These two young British artists based in Bristol try to channel their creative concerns by establishing links between different communities, from scientists to retirees, scholars to teenagers. A multidisciplinary melting pot with which they develop a discourse that talks about current society from a 360-degree perspective and which is the basis of an ambitious project that began in 2014, A Decade With Mars, and revolves around the real possibility of human life on the red planet.
“Our work is about creating a social meeting place between scientists and artists, where all types of dialogues can be held”, they say.
And so, six years after the project began and with the future opening of a real life Martian house in the M Shed museum in Bristol in 2022 —the result of a shared project between astronauts, architects and artists— Ella and Nicki explain how their discourse is not the script of a science fiction film, but an analysis of the environmental impact of humanity and the need to examine our way of living in order to carry on as a society.
Q: The idea to launch A Decade With Mars in 2014 came when you heard on the car radio about the open call for anyone who would like to be the first to travel to Mars. How did that turn into a ten-year project?
A: When we heard about the Mars One project, the idea was that anyone in the world could sign up to be the first to step on Mars. The mission was scheduled for 2024, ten years from that time. It seemed like science fiction to think that a human being could step on Mars and it was something that made us reflect a lot. We started with a very simple idea of bringing together a few people who replied to our announcement. The intention was to create something from that meeting, but after meeting six aspiring astronauts and spending time with them, talking about life, Mars and the future, and from becoming friends with them, we felt that the subject was much bigger and we couldn’t condense it into a single project. Basically, as soon as we start talking about moving to Mars, a conversation emerged about life in general, about how a new society would work there, if money would be needed, and why we would want to leave Earth. That is why we decided to follow the same time schedule as the Mars One mission and to launch a series of artistic presentations over ten years. Our aim was to document whether humans are close to being able to send a person to Mars, and to separate these more general topics into independent projects.
Q: Building a Martian house is one jobs done for series, which have so far included the launch of hot-air balloons to record Earth’s surface area from 30 metres high, a science fiction short about life on Mars and replicating the tree planting ceremony that astronauts have historically carried out before travelling. Is exploring what our lives on Mars would be like a way of questioning how we live on Earth?
A: Yes, exactly. Thinking about moving to Mars and the restrictions that this would entail gave us a very clear vision of what our life is like here right now. On Mars we would have to live with limited resources, anything would take seven months to arrive from Earth. A small community would have to be self-sufficient and cooperative. Knowing these limitations made what we would choose to take with us a very important decision. This gives rise to a more important conversation about sustainability, about whether we cannot replace things so easily and whether we need to create a culture of reuse and restoration, with a completely different focus to the one we have now. Leaving Earth changes our perspectives and allows us to look back and think about what we have.
Q: How has your work on this project changed the way you look at life here on Earth?
A: Personally, it has made me see the importance of the home. In 2018, we held workshops in which we asked people how they would design their house on Mars. I still remember many of those conversations in which we talked about celebrating where we are now, as we cannot recreate the Earth on Mars, purely for our mental health. It seems very obvious, but we can easily forget that.
Q: Do you approach this project from an artistic and social perspective, or can you envisage this house actually being built on Mars at some point?
A: We are artists, so the artistic approach is the essential axis of this project. We wanted to explore all the issues that creating a community on Mars could trigger, but also explore technologies as this is part of our lives. The project goes beyond the purely conceptual design to build it on Earth, which we find much more interesting, exciting and real for people. It provides a more tangible focus for imagining how we want to live in the future. But no, it will not be built on Mars in the near future. Nobody is doing it yet.
Q: A few days ago NASA and SpaceX announced that they were opening the door to commercial flights in space. Has this news changed the prospects of your project?
A: There are always news stories about space, and we find it very difficult to keep up with them all. This does not really affect our work, but it is a good sign that there is a public interest in space travel in general.
Q: To develop the project, you partnered with Hugh Broughton Architects, world experts in extreme architecture, responsible for the Spanish base Juan Carlos I in Antarctica and the Camogli Hospital on Tristan da Cunha Island, in the South Atlantic, the remotest inhabited island in the world, among other projects. Why did you want to make it so rigorous and feasible from a technical point of view, working with engineers, architects and scientists?
A: It is very important that the resulting work be as realistic as possible. What starts a conversation with the public are the parameters of life on Mars. If we just designed without any restrictions, it would be impossible to do anything. Realism is the most exciting thing about all this. We work with fascinating scientists, architects and engineers and collaborating with Hugh Broughton’s studio has enriched the conversation with his experience.
Q: Since you do not have backgrounds as scientists, engineers or architects, what was it like to work on the Martian house from an artistic perspective?
A: It has been very exciting to create a multidisciplinary project, with specialists from fields that are so diverse and different from our own. Normally, we wouldn’t be in a meeting discussing structural engineering, for example, but now we are, and that is a unique opportunity to see how other professionals work and also how art can be integrated into other disciplines.
Q: According to the programme parameters, the chosen few would never return to Earth. What would you miss the most if you could not return to Earth?
A: The blue sky and being outdoors.
Q: The project also has a psychological approach, as the concept of the house, for example, revolves around the idea of how design plays a key role in mental well-being. Since you began work on the project four years ago and after the situation caused by the pandemic with the lockdowns and the increase in remote work (the consequences of which have altered our relationships with the home), how has your original idea been affected?
A: A couple of years ago we held a series of workshops in which we asked participants to imagine what their life would be like on Mars, far away from their friends and family and unable to go outside. In 2018, only a few people had experienced this, soldiers or people who had participated in long-distance boat journeys. But today, we have all suddenly experienced it, so it is not difficult for us to imagine it. It has made everyone more aware of the importance of the community and the design needs of houses. In general, today we think more about how we value our lives at home and with the community.
This project aims to generate a conversation about how we want to live. The lockdowns and the pandemic have been very hard for everyone, so when we build the house in 2022 we hope to be able to look back and feel that we are more informed and prepared to imagine the future we want to live in.
Q: In the project blog you describe how “on Mars, each member of the 100 person community is responsible for a daily hour of power generation activity. Beyond that, each person is responsible for their own personal energy consumption in their own house. So if you want to have the lights on past nightfall, or have some friends over and play music, you could use human powered machines to generate extra power”. With this premise, are you imagining an idyllic future or are you trying to raise awareness about the importance of how we are exhausting Earth’s resources?
A: The blog only proposes options, not definitive answers. We propose versions of the future that are not what we expect. Beyond the automated future we seem to be heading towards, in which everything happens by pressing a button and we become less aware of our energy consumption, we wanted to open a conversation about different visions. And that’s one of them. Most importantly, they are optimistic. Often, the predictions we have about the future are apocalyptic and the only way we can avoid them is to create a change and work by focusing on imagining how we want the reality we will live in to be.
Q: One of the things that interested you most when launching the project was making it multidisciplinary and collaborative. How have you managed to involve so many people from different areas and give them a voice?
A: The project involved children, retirees, families, university students and intellectuals. We asked all these groups the same questions about design and well-being. Then we use these conversations to work with Hugh Broughton Architects and create our design concept. The life of the future should not be designed by NASA alone. In order for a human colony on Mars to succeed in the future, it must be organised around our experiences and needs as a community. This puts not only the knowledge of scientists and engineers at the heart of the conversation, but also the perceptions of the general community and creative people. By involving all these social groups, we try to discover who determines our collective imagination for the future. The project is an example of a public-led co-design that shows how the design of the future and space is not just for the experts, but something that we can all participate in.
Q: The idea is to open this conversation to the general public with the house exhibition at the M Shed museum in Bristol in 2022. What do you expect from it?
A: The project is called Building a Martian House and it is exactly what we are doing. We will not present a completed model of a Martian house, but instead we will invite the public to enter and help us build it as a community. By doing that, we will be able to imagine how a community with resources would work.