Chairs in Space: a comparison between Escape Vehicle no.6, Space Chair, and the internet legend of a chair in space

@SpacePorn's garbled description of a chair in space.

@SpacePorn’s garbled description of a chair in space.

I think I found it, my favourite thing in all of space: Escape Vehicle no.6.

Or maybe simply the idea of Escape Vehicle no.6.

I was thrilled to see the above tweet retweeted into my Twitter feed earlier today. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘That’s amazing and surreal and glorious – oh please let it be true!’

It was. Sort of.

@SpacePorn’s tweet reads:

There’s a kitchen chair floating in space. It’s referred to as “Escape Vehicle No. 6” by astronauts

And below that is an image of a browny-orange armchair hovering above the Earth. But SpacePorn’s account isn’t quite right.

The picture used in the tweet is actually of Toshiba’s Space Chair, which was based on, but not the same as, Escape Vehicle no.6. Neither chair actually achieved orbit and the name, Escape Vehicle No. 6, was not assigned by astronauts. But the chairs are real.

In 2004, artist Simon Faithfull launched a kitchen chair to the edge of space via weather balloon. The chair was part of a series, titled Gravity Sucks, in which Faithfull sought to defy gravity via various ‘escape vehicles’. The name, Escape Vehicle no.6, is not a cute nickname given by astronauts, it’s the name of a work of art. The artwork consists not simply in the chair, but rather existed as a live video relay which was watched by an audience at the Artists’ Airshow 2004, and exists now as a non-live work that you can watch online.

Space Chair is by Toshiba and is based on Faithfull’s work (although more on the exact nature of the ‘collaboration’ below). They recreated it in high-definition to advertise their technology. In contrast to Faithfull’s more scrappy concept, Toshiba’s work cost £3,000,000 and set the rather specific record of ‘Highest High-Definition Television Commercial’. Both chairs reached approximately 30km, and you can watch the advert, entitled The Toshiba Space Chair Project, online.

What I find interesting is how each work differs, and how SpacePorn’s garbled reframing of Escape Vehicle no.6 presents a new work that is different again.

The original piece evokes a sense of loneliness and fragility, as the cheap and insubstantial-looking kitchen chair is hoisted jerkily and at unnerving speed towards its fate, before finally being torn apart on the edge of space. Simon Faithfull’s website provides the following interpretation:

The chilling nature of the film is that the empty chair invites the audience to imagine taking a journey to an uninhabitable realm where it is impossible to breathe, the temperature is minus 60 below and the sky now resembles the blackness of space.

 – from the Simon Faithfull website page ‘Escape Vehicle no.6

The overall thematic purpose of the series, Gravity Sucks, is a confrontation with human limitation, failure, and a sense that our dreams and ambitions overreach our capacities:

Gravity Sucks is a body of work that mourns the human condition of being a three-dimensional object that is stuck to a two-dimensional surface.

– from the Simon Faithful website page ‘Gravity Sucks

By contrast, the lux, high-defintion Toshiba project with its comfortable looking armchair is not an admission of limitation or failure, but a boast – this is what humans can achieve! And in particular: this is what Toshiba has achieved!

Both films end with the destruction of the chair at the edge of space, but the take away from the Toshiba film  is certainly not one of human limitation. I feel like they loved the idea of sending a chair to space, and of being patrons of the arts, but I don’t feel like they quite understood this artwork. We can look at it as a reinterpretation, straightforwardly rejecting the pessimism of the original piece, but then one has to wonder why they didn’t simply end on the image of the chair hanging in space. You can also look at it as them helping an artist realise his dream… but Simon Faithfull had already done that, and done it with funding from Arts Catalyst, and it’s clear that his original piece is more cohesive with his broader work.

It’s a perplexing and interesting tension, but one that I feel ultimately reflects a corporate body not really understanding the artwork they are celebrating. What’s more, although Simon Faithfull did meet with Toshiba once to discuss the project, this article suggests he was not aware the film had been made until it was on YouTube, suggesting he may not have had much creative input and very likely was not paid for the use of his idea. So any notion of celebrating creative innovators falls even flatter.

Then there’s what SpacePorn has done. Which is perplexing in its own way.

Given that correct information about both Space Chair and Escape Vehicle no.6 is very easy to find, one can’t help but wonder just how little research SpacePorn did before they posted that tweet. Or were they deliberately obfuscating the issue to create a new myth, one that was more captivating and humourous?

And it is, you know – captivating and humourous. I love the idea that a chair is up in space right now for reasons of pure sureality. Although, as responding tweets were quick to point out, the sheer cost of putting anything in orbit made it highly unlikely that any space organisation had shot the chair up there just to amuse the astronauts.

I’m even more intrigued by how the meaning of the name changes in SpacePorn’s version. An escape vehicle named by someone shooting it up into the sky is obviously expressive of a wish to escape the Earth. But a whole different light is cast on the matter if it’s an object thats already in space that the astronauts have decided to dub ‘Escape Vehicle No. 6’ – like if something went wrong on the ISS an astronaut might attempt to escape by scooting along through space in an armchair.

On the one hand, I love this image. On the other, I’m irritated that yet another internet denizen is presenting lies as facts, and that they are obscuring the work of artists in order to create their own content. At the same time I’m fascinated by the philosophical issues raised by these cases: of the importance of originality, of what it is for something to be fake, of duality and duplication.

I’d say that all three represent works of art.

Toshiba’s is not very good art. It’s such a cliché to say a large corporation took something with originality and spark and smothered it with branding, but I think it’s hard to deny that that’s what’s happened here. It’s not a ‘fake’ per se, but they have copied the idea and, because they didn’t understand it to begin with, they managed to spend £3,000,000 on making an inferior version.

Part of me really wants to go against the obvious and encourage you to consider this not as a copy, but as a work in its own right, trying to do something different to the original. We can evaluate it as an advert: is it memorable? Does it demonstrate the product’s features? Does it create positive connotations for the brand?

Well, it’s fairly memorable and it does demonstrate the technology positively, but I don’t know that that makes it good, even as an advert. By sticking so closely to the original without understanding its themes the advert they’ve created ends oddly, uncomfortable with itself.

I don’t think SpacePorn’s version was necessarily intended as art, and yet it was a crafted work that evoked an interesting and pleasing concept. A concept that makes me wish that SpacePorn’s version was the truth. I like the version where we do witty things in space more than the version where we shoot for the stars and are doomed to fail. I’m actually even amused by just how confused their account of Escape Vehicle no.6 was – to the extent that this is a work of art that works because it presents another work of art as though it were not a work of art. I have to admit that I am madly curious about how much of this was deliberate. But at the same time I’m narked by the fact that they present themselves as an authority and yet they spouted such nonsense. The truth was pretty awesome, but not awesome enough for this twitter account, apparently.

Mostly I’m just intrigued by how much one can be driven to think about when presented by the thought of a chair in space. I end on no resolute conclusions, as what has tickled me most are the questions and the uncertainly of their answers.

Also? Two chairs definitely went to the edge of space. Humans did that. Because art. Enjoy.