Anglo-Mexican photographer Monica Alcazar-Duarte’s new book, The New Colonists, explores the latest stage in humanity’s quest for discovery – the race to reach Mars. As well as focusing on this high-cost, high-stakes and high-tech endeavour, the book is also about the everyday, as embodied by the town of Mars, Pennsylvania.
By examining these two seemingly opposite subjects, Alcazar-Duarte renders "normal" life strange and extraordinary, and the rarified world of science accessible and fallible. The book's third layer is an "augmented reality portal" – an app designed to allow readers to discover information about space hidden in its pages.
I caught up with her to get a handle on it all.
VICE: First off, for those who haven’t seen the book, can you break down how you approached it and the nature of its three-part structure?
Monica Alcazar-Duarte: I would say that The New Colonists, instead of having three parts, is composed of three layers. The layer of life on Earth via images of a small town called Mars in the US; the layer of scientific achievement and the scientists who want to journey beyond Earth, specifically to Mars the planet; and the [third] layer is a subject of a much more abstract nature, space law and space ethics. My hope is that when these layers are seen together they can highlight the human complexity behind a subject that usually is presented purely from its scientific and technological side.
When and how did you come to be working on the project, and how did the book’s structure develop over time?
My interest started with candidates for an unusual initiative based in The Netherlands, which proposes sending people on a one-way trip to colonise Mars. I gradually began to widen my interest in the "new space race", as I like to call it, as a result of feeling that a future that once I thought of as distant was happening now. I felt a compelling need to research from as many perspectives as possible, a form of finding my way into the work. During this research, a theme kept resonating in which space was the next frontier, a new horizon to look forward to, and even in some cases a new home for humanity. This inherently brought my imagination to our current home, and so that is how I found Mars, PA, and decided to photograph it.
Mixed in with that somewhat mundane – or at least typical-looking – American town of Mars are images from the edge of scientific progress: robotic rovers, labs, fake Mars terrains. These contrasting sets of images highlight the strangeness of what we see as normal, and maybe normalise the rarefied world of science. It renders both extremes very much human.
You have got it right. That was one of my intentions. I am interested in the human side of technology and science, the fact that [scientists] don’t have all the answers. I find the struggle and imperfection of science as interesting as the glamorous successes. It also reveals something about the underlying human impulse to overcome and "improve" ourselves. I also think that the mundane details of everyday life sometimes inform scientific inquiry. Why does rain fall down? Why does a swing go back and forth?
One of the drives to make the work is to communicate with an audience. When making an installation, a book or a film, I am always thinking about the audience’s experience and relationship to the work. Maybe because of this it has been a difficult early lesson to learn – how to let the work go and accept the many possible readings a project will have independently of its initial intentions.
How do you see the hyper-normality of Mars, PA, as illuminating or informing humankind’s efforts to reach Mars?
I was very focused on these people wanting to go to Mars, and then read a book by Frank White called The Overview Effect, which discusses the cognitive shift that some astronauts experience when seeing the Earth from afar. They often feel an overwhelming sense of connection with the Earth and all of its inhabitants as a single life force. I also recalled the character of Ulysses in Homer's The Odyssey, who goes on an epic journey that lasts ten years. During this journey he lives through extraordinary events, but underlying it all is an unexpected realisation of a longing to get back home. Mars, Pennsylvania is a symbol for that place we call "home" – a place to which we look back after struggling against gravity and risking everything to venture into space. We seem to be passionate about finding a new home in space, and while we already have a “home” there lies a deeper contradiction. This contradiction refers to the impossibility of settling down within ourselves. It is this contradiction, this complexity, that interests me.
In terms of capturing the scientific work being done, the role of photography itself in space exploration comes into your work. You are applying the same photographic scrutiny to average humans, and to those involved in space exploration, that we apply to distant planets with probes and the like. How big a part of the book’s concept is that?
One could say there is a sense of scrutiny, which is developed through the depth of the exploration into this subject and the amount of time I spent photographing it from different perspectives. However, I think it's important to say I was not interested in a scientific analysis of any of these situations. My process is actually quite organic and intuitive. I try very hard not to imagine the images that I will encounter. I allow myself to be surprised and challenged by what I find. I then pull these images together into a collection that has some resonance within the context in which the work resides.
The book’s title – and its possible hint toward "colonialists" – might be seen by some to suggest a degree of condemnation for these efforts? But the book doesn’t feel at all that way on reading it. How did you come to the title?
I decided to go for The New Colonists, instead of colonialists, as the first refers to the act of going to another world and making it a home and the latter to the implementation of an ideology of annexation. I am interested in the act, in the people that push, expand, probe, test and experiment with boundaries. It only felt pertinent to use the term colonist, as it brushes slightly with the ideology of colonialism. This title seemed interesting as it led to the larger context of an ideology and its many agendas. It opened the door for other findings in my research, which discuss the important issues of space law and space ethics that inspired the implementation of 3D Animations in the book.
On that, could you explain the book’s third part – the "augmented reality portal"? How it works and why you wanted to include it in what might have otherwise been a more traditional photo book.
We use technological methods to extend our human view into space by sending spacecraft and telescopes to look further than we could physically go. I wanted to provide a reflection of this by creating a technological viewing portal as part of the book. Our human virtual life is expanding, giving us the opportunity to communicate, learn, socialise and shop virtually. I wanted to reflect this notion of virtual existence as an extra element presented as part of a physical book. The book as an object is not absolutely complete without its virtual chapter, accessed purely by technology. I like this tension. I think it reflects something of the times in which we live and our simultaneous existence in the physical and the virtual. In terms of what it adds to the rest of the book, I would like to leave it to the audience to find out.
What, for you, would be the best message a person looking at the book could take from your work?
That humanity’s renewed interest in space exploration is an extraordinary endeavour, but that we all need to take ownership of our entry into this new era of space travel and the use of space, as I believe it will have an impact on our life on Earth. This doesn’t mean on any level that we should fear the opportunities that will be present, but we will need to become well informed on how governments and corporations are planning to use the cosmos. In order to become more informed, we may well start with expanding the one-dimensional exotic image of space exploration that has prevailed.
The New Colonists by Monica Alcazar-Duarte, is published by Bemojake and The Photographers Gallery. See more photos from the book below.