From the first 747-boosted test flights in the late 1970s to the final shuttle mission in July 2011, the space shuttle program represented a pinnacle of scientific and technical achievement (it’d be remiss not to mention the Canadarm here) as well as the perennial human desire to reach for the stars. These were also massive media events that were often televised live—indeed, one could argue that, in this respect, the space shuttle could be seen as the ultimate propaganda vehicle for the American ideal of manifest destiny on Earth and in space.
Yet there were tragedies, too, and it’s impossible to visualize the image of a space shuttle rocketing into the upper atmosphere without recalling the 1986 Challenger explosion or the re-entry disintegration of Columbia in 2003.
California-based artist McLean Fahnestock gathers these moments of awe and anxiety in “Space Agency,” an exhibition of works based on the space-shuttle legacy currently on view at Harcourt House in Edmonton. The centrepiece for the show is Fahnestock’s 2010 videoGrand Finale, featuring near-identical television footage and control-tower audio from all 135 launches projected as a grid on a gallery wall. From launch-pad countdowns to the explosive flash and boom of rocket ignitions to fading long-range images of the shuttles leaving Earth’s atmosphere (watch for the Challenger explosion tucked in among them), the work amounts to a cacophony of space-age spectacle.
There is something else to the work’s serial consistency, though. Seen as a gridded whole, the power of individual shuttle launches seems to have been neutralized, as if to call into question the meaning behind the images: How do we take stock of the shuttle program from start to finish? How do we measure its overall transmission of history? And, considering that Grand Finale was a finalist for a Vimeo Award this year, what does it mean to an audience less invested in the experience of history than in the remixing of imagistic spectacle?
Other works in the show follow up on this line of critical inquiry. Selections from Fahnestock’s Rocketless Launch photo series capture shuttle blast-offs minus the image of the orbiter (which has been digitally erased). These are depictions of massive power without clear purpose.
And in the video projection St. Clare of Burbank, Fahnestock grounds her shuttle study with broadcast footage of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing projected in the image of a vintage television set. As astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldridge bounce around the lunar surface, audio from ground control acknowledges that the transmission is clear and that the Stars and Stripes are flying. Experiencing the grainy footage from more than four decades on, the irony of another territory claimed amid the Cold War–driven space race is hard to miss: As Armstrong famously put it, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”