Next year, NASA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and as part of the celebration will restore the original beige and green control panels from the late 60’s Mission Control. “We want to take you back to July 20, 1969,” says director of the non-profit Space Center Houston, the official visitors center for the Johnson Space Center. “You’re going to experience the final few moments before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon for the first time.”
But the agency isn’t only looking back to half a century ago. It’s also looking forward to launching more moon expeditions—in partnership with commercial and international agencies—next year. And while those of us who aren’t astronauts or billionaires are unlikely to ever see the moon up close, Laurie Anderson, NASA’s first artist-in-residence, can transport viewers there for the cost of a ticket to Denmark.
Starting last month and running until January 2019, the country’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art features Anderson’s new moon-themed virtual reality project as part of its exhibition The Moon: From Inner Worlds to Outer Space.
Created with multimedia artist Hsin-Chien Huang—with whom Anderson collaborated on another beautiful VR experience last year—this project transports visitors to a virtual moon, where they can view constellations invented by Anderson, symbols of things that have, or that seem poised to, disappear: a dinosaur, a polar bear, democracy. “All of those things that you think are so stable are so fragile, and can be lost,” she says in the video introduction to her project above.
So, okay, it’s not the moon Armstrong and Aldrin planted their country’s flag on in 1969. It’s also populated by dinosaurs, birds, and other creatures created from a latticework of DNA molecules.
Not only did Anderson and Huang depict a thrilling fantasy VR moon, but they also created a “’hideous’ version,” reports CNN, “in which people had dumped all the radioactive material from Earth. “We did different phases of the moon,” says Anderson, “different aspects, looked not just at the romanticism of the moon but dystopias.” This isn’t her first foray into moon-themed art. As artist-in-residence at NASA since 2003, she has had some time to reflect on the agency’s mission.
After her first year with NASA, she debuted a 90-minute performance piece called “The End of the Moon,” the second in a trilogy she described as an “epic poem” about contemporary American culture. She is not the obvious choice to work for a government agency. Her work has been fiercely critical of the country’s wars and its repression on the domestic front. “Frankly, I find living in American culture at the moment really problematic,” she said back in 2004. “But when I think of NASA, it’s the one thing that feels future-oriented in a way that’s inspiring.”
Looking both backward and forward, next year’s anniversary of the moon landing will give us all reasons to think about humanity’s past and future in outer space. Will it include “unbelievable aspirations,” as Anderson mused, like “the greening of Mars,” or the dystopian dumping of radioactive waste on the Moon? Given the trash and treasure of our current relationship with the cosmos—not to mention our own planet—probably both. See more 2-D excerpts from Anderson and Huang’s piece in the scene test above, and, if you can score a ticket, enter the full VR experience at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.