Obsolete

Satellites is going to make use of technology. And when I say technology, I don’t mean AI, or AR, or VR, or live streaming. I mean slide projectors, cassettes and vinyl.

During my time at the Tom Gehrels archive in Arizona, I found that the last 10 or so boxes of the catalog were filled with floppy disks, VHS tapes and Beta Maxes. The librarian took a look at the box of floppy disks and frowned. “Maybe I could get you a floppy disk drive from….somewhere,” she said, flummoxed. We never did find one, so it is likely that all the information stored in those boxes has been lost in the thresher of the digital age.

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In my blog post about those days in the archive, I asked questions about what would be left behind when people of my generation died. We won’t leave boxes of papers or cassettes. The data of our lives will be stored in binary code in some gigantic data centre in the middle of nowhere. And when it’s deleted…? Well, that’s you gone.

Although the show is being made in the 2010s, the vast majority of the action of Satellites happens in the period between the 1920s and 1990s. Even in the storyline of Pioneer’s journey through space, the protagonist is a craft from the 1970s that now would probably be more recognisable as a kitchen utensil than a spaceship.

In our initial discussions about how the show would look, we were hoping to work with a video projection designer to create 360 digital projections of outer space and the wide open landscapes of the piece.

However, so much of the content of Satellites is unknown. There are so many gaps in the story, even now, and the main characters live a kind of half-life, not quite dead during the hour they’ll be revived. So much is intangible, that to use technology like slides and cassettes, things you can touch and feel, feels reassuringly concrete, something that we can be sure exists in the theatrical space.

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There are distinct challenges to using this kind of tech, predominantly that it’s basically impossible to find the components you need for them if something goes wrong. If anyone knows where to get a 500w lamp for a projector from the 70s, or a box of vintage 35mm slides, let me know! Most of my requests have been met with raised eyebrows, even in an electrical wholesalers on the outskirts of Norwich.

Most of all, it works because there is something childlike about the nature of this piece- the performer recreating people and stories from childhood in a way that is charmingly naive. This equipment holds that sort of charm. There was a time when a cassette was the height of tech, and there will be a time when someone will look at today’s Artificial Intelligence and laugh at it’s obsolescence. These objects are stuck in a certain period of time, just like the characters in the story.

Research and Development Day 4

Today was a mind-bender as we created a few new storyboards and looked over the ones we did on Day 3.

We looked at each of our characters as tapes in separate decks, that we pressed ‘play’ on at different times: once their story is playing, it cannot be changed, but it can weave in and out of other people’s. By doing this we created what we called a “staggered chronological” timeline, where the events fit broadly chronologically in their own narratives, but different important things are revealed at different moments.

The end product of the day was the Master Storyboard for the final piece- this is what we had been setting out to achieve by the end of the week, so now we have an extra day to flesh it out and talk through the events a bit more.

It begins with the Pioneer 10 spacecraft arriving at the Orange Giant star of Aldebaran in 2 million years’ time, and zips back to 1930, where two brothers are gazing up at the skies in rural Holland. Pioneer’s story then plays in reverse, while the stories of the humans plays forwards. We travel through continents and centuries, through solar and star systems and arrive, we hope, at a place of reconciliation and hope.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”- Carl Sagan

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We also starting playing around with some new, more appropriate titles for what the piece has started to turn into: watch this space!

Research and Development Day 2

Today we continued dissecting the big ideas and themes behind the piece, and finding connections between them by unspooling wool out across the floor.

Three big questions and ideas are starting to surface:

  • How do you measure the immeasurable? What is the depth, width and length of joy, fear, reconciliation, grief?

  • What do we leave behind when we go? Does it matter?

  • Is there only ever one funeral for someone? Or are there many hundreds, spanning across time?

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Research and Development Day 1

Today I started working with director and theatre maker Nicholas Barton-Wines at Colchester Arts Centre to develop the masses of research that has gone into Satellites so far, and to refine it into some kind of coherent piece of storytelling.

As always with R&D, more questions arose than answers. We asked questions like:

  • How do we choose what history to focus on, personally, politically and within families? Do we prefer history that makes us the hero of our own story?

  • What history do we choose to leave behind, and can we ever pick it up where we left off?

  • Is part of the nature of growing up being given access to certain stories about who you are?

  • Why do certain early memories embed themselves in our brains in place of others?

  • Who or what defines your culture and your identity?

  • How do we share our history, both in families and as a culture?

  • What are the markers, the touchstones, that form the centre of our worlds?

  • Who and what do we leave behind when we go?

We also drew a Venn diagram of an astronaut and a duck. But that’s a story for another day.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses to these questions- comment below or get in touch and start a conversation!

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The Register

Tomorrow I will fly to Leipzig, where I will arrive late and check into a hotel. The next morning, I will drive 130km to Mittelbau-Dora Camp, which lies to the north of the town of Nordhausen, and is the last recorded destination of my uncle Cor on his long brutal journey through Europe in World War Two. I feel a little nervous, for reasons I am unsure about. 

Every place in Europe is a graveyard if you dig deep enough. Millenia of history unearth brutalities that it is hard for us to imagine in this time of relative peace. The camps are the freshest wounds of that brutality. The scars left by these places, for many, have not yet healed. They have occupied my imagination for a long time, floating on the periphery, as testament to what human beings are capable of when the centre cannot hold. 

Unlike most places, the camps were designed as absorbers- many things went in, but nothing was supposed to come out. 

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy remains constant- its form can be changed, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Whatever energy goes in, the same amount must come out. 

What came out of Dora, apart from weapons? What contains the same energy as 20,000 lives? Grief? Rage? Or hope for reconciliation, and a better future?

I wrote in a previous blog post that Tom never found out exactly where his brother died. Months ago, I checked the online record of the Dora death register, and was unable to find Cor’s name- further proof that he had vanished without a trace, lost in the thresher of the chaotic final days of the war, when the primary objective was to obliterate. This online record was incomplete, and is constantly being amended and expanded when people come forward with information or records of relatives.

Today, I checked again- and almost by serendipity, now, there he was. Gehrels, Cornelis. Born Haarlemmermeer, 20.07.1906. Date of death, 23.03.1945- just a few weeks before Liberation. Place of death- Dora. So he did die in the sick barracks, as we suspected. Inmate number- 112822.

The first thing I did was to email the archivist, to ask if it would be possible to view the entry in the memorial book. In her swift response, she told me she would withdraw the documents (plural) pertaining to Cor and have them ready for me in the Reading Room on Thursday.

Documents? More than one? 

Just a few hours ago, I didn’t even know where he had died for sure. Now I have documents on his incarceration waiting for me in the German mountains.

Na / After

One of the key influences of Satellites came unexpectedly one summer several years ago, in Amsterdam.

My aunt Margriet Gehrels, a painter, had told me about an exhibition happening in the Oude Kerk (Old Church), by an artist called Christian Boltanski, called Na (After). He has been a big influence on her work, which is made up of memories, or the imaginations of memories. The themes she described- existence, erasure, light and shadow, transience- resonated with the work I was trying to make, so I decided to go to the city for the afternoon and see what it was all about.

The Oude Kerk is a church dating from 1213, set in the heart of the infamous Red Light District. I went inside not knowing what to expect.

The first thing that struck me was the sound- a gentle rustling, and somewhere in the distance, the tinkling of tiny bells.

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Boltanski had split the interior of the church into sections using large boxes which were covered in black plastic. As you meandered through the alleyways they created, you saw snatches of the building revealing itself- part of a window here, a doorway there. Occasionally you saw another person, and then in an instant they were gone. 

Coathangers stood with empty coats hanging on them. As you moved closer, you heard whispers coming from the folds of the fabric.

In a wide open space in the middle was a series of coats lying empty on the ground, as if the wearers had simply vanished into the sky without a trace. The chandeliers had been lowered close down to the stone.

An alcove was decorated with fairy lights, and one was programmed to go out on each day of the exhibition. At an altar, there was an offering of dried roses.

At the end of the installation was a confession-style booth. I stepped inside, where there was a chair and a small desk with a large book on it, and a microphone. The artist had invited each visitor to contribute to the work- to sit down at the microphone and record, whispering, some of the names of the many thousands of people who were buried underneath this historic church, as listed in the book. When you were done, you mark where you’ve got to in the list ready for the next person to take over. Your recordings are then added to the sounds which are piped out from inside the coats- eventually, the name of every person, back to 1213, would have been spoken aloud, and for a moment, if you believe in those sorts of things, brought back to life.

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Image courtesy of artsy.net

As I stepped out into the sunlight and the tottering groups of drunk tourists heading to the nearest pub, I was filled with peace. The way Boltanski had managed to communicate so many complex ideas about death in just a few objects arranged in a specific way was amazing to me. The exhibition has stayed with me and been a huge influence on what Satellites has started to become.

Find out more about Na at the Oude Kerk.

Read about another large-scale Boltanski piece, “Personnes” at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Image courtesy of artsy.net

The Ghosts

I read the chapters in Tom’s book that described the Resistance and the war in a flurry of excitement. I had heard vague mentions of Resistance activity amongst family before, but I had never known the extent to which we had been involved. 

Growing up in Britain we have a very different understanding of World War Two- it is a triumph to be celebrated, even gloated about. Stories of back garden pig farms, digging for victory, Tommy and women in overalls is glossed with a hazy sheen of nostalgia, as if it was a better time- a time when people worked together for a common goal. The fear and the fascism that bubbled under the surface is rarely talked about, even less portrayed in media. The Dutch understanding of the war is very different- it is sober, sombre, something quiet to be remembered with a heavy heart, not a triumph.

Tom searched for Cornelis for many years. He knew from a man who had come to see him, named Henk Van Hoeve, that Cor had been working in Nordhausen and one day, he was dropped at Camp Dora, a sub camp of Buchenwald, and never came back to work. 

We don’t know for sure that he died there. The Nazis did not keep a good record of political prisoners in the same way they did the Jews- their deaths were a distraction from the war effort, an inconvenience, rather than something to be strived for, documented and celebrated. 

We don’t know that he died there, but we know he never came back to Griet and their remaining children. He may have died sick and emaciated at Dora. He may have been burned to death in Gardlegen. He may have been shot at Buchenwald, and been one of the skeletal bodies flung into mass graves by the Allied soldiers who had the horrific job of cleaning up the camps after the Nazis had fled. 

Tom went to Dora a number of times and tried to find some evidence of his brother’s existence there. But it was like a footprint in the sand- there for a moment, and swiftly erased. In Tom’s archive was a large folder of research, maps, letters, photographs; a dossier of information to try and lay his brother’s ghost to rest. Cor was never found, and never will be found, along with so many other millions of Europeans whose “blood cries out but their voices are silent and unheard”.

On the Dreef in Haarlem, near my Oma’s house, is a dark iron statue of a young man standing tall with his head bowed. It is life-size- you could stand next to it and feel it was a real person. Every year on Dodenherdenking- the day of remembrance of the dead- the townspeople gather in complete silence to remember all those that died. Some take a walk from there to the Resistance graveyard in the nearby sand dunes, 5 kilometres away. There are no brass brands, no singing of upbeat wartime songs, no towering gleaming white statues of men with swords or guns raised. It is a prayer of humility and of gratitude- an offering to the ghosts.

Cor with half of his children before the war

Cor with half of his children before the war

The Battle

On the 10th May 1940, the Netherlands was invaded by Germany. The Dutch had been planning to halt the Nazis’ progress using their incredible knowledge of water and their defensive canal line to flood the land where they would make their advance. Unbeknownst to them, the German military had made secret missions to check out the defences long before the planned invasion, and by the time they began to bring the line back into use, the invasion had already started. The four-day Battle of the Netherlands was a David and Goliath situation which ended quite differently. The intense bombing of Rotterdam destroyed the vast majority of the city’s medieval architecture and killed 900 people, leaving 85,000 homeless. The Dutch Resistance was fatally weakened and on the 14th May, surrender was signed and the occupation formally began. The government and the royal family were evacuated to London to govern in absentia.

In his book, Tom wrote of the two choices that everyone faced in that period of time- to collaborate, or resist. It’s a stark choice, and perhaps tinged with the certainty of adolescence. As we age it becomes clear that nothing is so simple. None of us knows what we would do in the same situation- only what we might like to be remembered as having done.

Tom’s first act of resistance at the age of 14 was to bury a selection of saucepans in the garden- the Nazis were raiding homes for iron they could melt to make bombs. The second was to join the underground newspaper that was being printed at his school- one of many such efforts that took place at a hyper-local level.

Tom’s brother and my great-uncle, Cornelis Gehrels, was born in 1906 and died in 1945. At the outbreak of war, having served in the merchant navy, Cornelis was working in the Phillips radio factory in Eindhoven, which was commandeered by the Nazis to manufacture military radios. In private, he began working on a Phillips project called “Operation Free Netherlands”- the setting up of a radio station prepared to broadcast bulletins to the country immediately after liberation.

He took his knowledge of radio technology home, where he lived with his wife Grie and their eight children. He started crafting makeshift radios in the attic to pick up British frequencies. At the Resistance museum in Amsterdam you can see examples of rudimentary radios made by all manner of people, the how-to knowledge passed verbally from house to house. They were clustered around, these ramshackle devices that look like little spaceships, ears pressed close in crawlspaces, cupboards, cellars; dials constantly twiddled to pick up a whisper, a murmur, from London, from Churchill, from Queen Wilhelmina, from anyone who could provide some good news, some hope.

Cor’s other major Resistance activity was the informally named “Gehrels Organisation”, which fundraised among Phillips employees for families whose sons had been commandeered by the Allies or disappeared by the Nazis and thus had no way of supporting themselves. As well as his radios, he smuggled downed Allied pilots out of the Netherlands on midnight boats, delivering Resistance pamphlets and papers and helped to find hiding places for Jews. 

He was arrested in July 1943 and incarcerated. Sometime in September 1944 he was transported.

Cor Gehrels

The Boxes

The first chapter of the “Satellites” project is a 5-day residency at the Special Collections Library at the University of Arizona in Tucson, to visit the non-digitised Tom Gehrels archive held there. I discovered the archive by chance on a Google search about a year ago. The online listing features only titles of the folders- titles such as ‘Correspondence with Carl Sagan’, ‘Asteroids are Dangerous’ and ‘The Physics and Identity of Dark Energy’- I knew I had to come and see for myself what was beyond these intriguing labels.

On day one, the librarians bring the first 6 of 39 boxes out to me. Little did I know that inside each large crate would be reams and reams of paper- letters, photographs, hastily written notes, manuscripts, diagrams. Lifting the first lid was the beginning of a journey I had hoped to make for quite some time- it took me half a day to trawl through the first half of Box 1. 

It is a strange thing, to hold a box full of thoughts. Initially, it made me feel sad- how could a full, long life so packed with amazing experiences and people be shrunk down to 39 boxes?

What will be left of us, of my generation, when we go? There will be none of this- these carbon copies of typed letters, no printed photographs, no VHS tapes of interviews or recordings from a dictaphone. You can’t store an Instagram story in a vault. All it is is code, series of numbers on a drive somewhere in the Nevada desert- and all could be deleted with the press of a button one day, at the beginning of the Digital Dark Age. 

What are the signs that we did, indeed, exist? What will they dig up of us, hundreds of years from now? And what will they say about us then?

The further I sifted through everything, the more I got the sense that we are who, not what, we leave behind. Every letter spoke of a relationship that was meaningful, professionally, personally or in passing. Every diagram and chart tells of an idea, whether it was seen to its logical conclusion or not. Every photograph was a moment in time, remembered or faded. These boxes are a footprint made in concrete. And in that sense, 39 boxes is not a bad haul, all things considered.

Box 1 of 39, the Tom Gehrels Papers.

Box 1 of 39, the Tom Gehrels Papers.

The Sentinels

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Kitt Peak National Observatory lies at the top of a mountain range an hour and a half outside of Tucson, on the ancestral land of the Tohono O’Odham. The observatory domes sit atop the ridge like little spacecraft of their own. Some are better maintained than others. There are over 20 of them up there, and 2 of them were designed and instigated by Tom. 

We drove through the desert, past churches and fast food chains of every denomination and variety, past billboard adverts for the upcoming gun show (We Have Ammo!!!!) and slowly through border control in tense silence. The saguaro cacti stand like ancient witnesses along the road, and as you climb higher, the clouds cast shadows on the earth.

The air is naturally very still at that altitude, crucial to observe the stars (any movement will distort the images needed by the astronomers). Birds and crickets wander about and there are signs to warn visitors of bears and snakes. The O’Odham believe this peak is the summer home of I’itoi, their mischievous creator god, and the land is very sacred- you won’t find a Taco Bell up here. Astronomers visit here for a few days, observing through the night and sleeping in one of the dormitories during the day, so you have to keep your voice down.

We go inside one of the scopes with its hulking heavy machinery, and, of course, visit the gift shop. Then we take a walk around a gently curving road, past the never-used basketball court installed for the astronomers (not the most athletic breed- there is grass growing through the cracks in the concrete), keeping one eye on the bank of black cloud lurking over the desert that threatens to unleash on us at any moment. 

Jo-Ann, Tom’s daughter, is carrying a bottle of wine and some plastic cups in her bag, and we take it to the steps of the Spacewatch telescope that Tom fundraised for and designed. From the outside, the telescope is unassuming- it is not as large or gleaming or as grand as others on the mountain, but Spacewatch’s primary mission is to observe the skies for near-earth asteroids, like two sentinels on guard on the peak. We take a toast to Tom (or ‘Pops’ as he is more widely known here), and spill a little of the wine in the ground as an offering. 

In Tom’s obituary, when he was asked what he would do if he discovered an asteroid hurtling towards the earth, he replied, “Well I’d go outside and take a look, of course!”

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The Empty Chair

We never talked about our history. I knew fragments, from my grandparents’ generation, but nothing beyond that. I know my father and his siblings grew up on a farm near Amsterdam, where they grew potatoes and sugar beet. I know that farm was sold in the 1980s, so they could build the motorway to Schiphol airport. I know my grandfather, who invented the most bizarre mechanic contraptions for irrigation on that farm, died before I was born, of leukaemia, and that he was missed. Aside from that, there was not much discussion. It was a mystery to me- a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

In uncle Tom’s autobiography, he said, were stories that were important for me, because they would help me understand my place in the world. It was not until after he died that I started to read it, and my own hidden history unspooled before me.

It started familiarly enough. He wrote of the flat miles of boggy farmland where he grew up in north Holland, in a place called Baarn, near Hilversum. I have never been there but I know what it will be like- iron grey skies, emerald grass, grazing cows, criss-cross canals with little bridges and low-roofed houses with big windows. 

He wrote of singing old folk songs, of riding his horse, of stargazing, and of being forced to attend the Sunday services at the Calvinist red brick church- most likely with a square steeple, that his father (my great-great-grandfather) revered, because it ‘points our way to heaven’.

He wrote of his older brother Cornelis, who he idolised, who had bright blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes, and rode his motorbike at breakneck speed along the canalside; Cornelis who would die emaciated, feverish and broken, in a camp in Germany- we think- just a few days before the end of World War Two.

Someone had mentioned him before, at a family meal several years previously. It was the night before my aunt’s wedding, and the conversation moved to the people who could not be sat around my Oma’s table that night. We talked about Opa of course, and each of us was given a button from his military uniform to wear on our person at the ceremony. Someone spoke of “Cor”, who “died in the camp”, and moved swiftly on. There was an empty chair at the table, and it’s emptiness was bright and shining. 

The Book

Some time during our postal correspondence, what I received through the letterbox was significantly bulkier. Still the same air mail stickers and stamps, still the same spidery handwriting that all our Dutch relatives seem to have adopted. 

Tom had sent me a book- hardback, with a glossy dust jacket. The photograph on the front was of a lunar-like landscape, all rocky promontories and craters and dust. The book was titled “On The Glassy Sea: An Astronomer’s Journey”, and it was written by him- his autobiography. 

In the accompanying letter he told me that I was probably too young to read this book, because there was a lot of complicated science in it that I wouldn’t be interested in. But he urged me to read it one day, because there were stories in it about our family that I should know. I put it up on the shelf, and for a while I marvelled at the Gehrels name sandwiched up there between Salman Rushdie and George Orwell (we’re not big into alphabetising in our house), but over time it became just another part of the room, and faded into the background.

I’ve had something of a complicated relationship with my Dutch heritage. I didn’t grow up with my father, but thanks to my Oma (grandmother), I have always known my family and visited them regularly. I did not learn the language- something I am now trying to remedy- but to my shame they spoke English with beautiful precision. I hated cycling and am only now forcing myself to overcome my fears of it- they can cycle through a busy intersection while sending a text and eating a sandwich, as if it’s an extended part of their body. When I am in Holland, I never feel fully Dutch; but when I am in the UK, I never feel fully British either.

Oral history is an important component of being part of a family. Being an intermittent visitor to the Netherlands, I missed out on the familial storytelling that makes up a huge part of who we are and how we see ourselves in the world. I knew the histories of the immediate family, but even my grandmother’s past was something of a mystery to me until very recently.

After hearing that Tom had passed away, we were moving house. One of my jobs was to box up the books, and send the ones we were unlikely to ever read to charity. Into my hands fell Tom’s book, and there among the boxes, I started to read.

The Letters

When I was eight years old, I was obsessed with space. The first thing I ever I wanted to be was an astronaut (I still do, deep down). Well actually the first thing I ever wanted to be was a duck, but being an astronaut seemed to be more feasible in the immediate future.

I had glow-in-the-dark star stickers on my ceiling. I would lie in bed in those nights which seemed very very dark, and gaze up at them. If you focused your eyes on one, it would seem to disappear, and the others clustered around it would come into sharp relief. Flick your eyes across, and the whole configuration would change, until your eyelids became heavy and you drifted off to a star-studded sleep.

One of the best days I ever had was a visit to the London Planetarium, a little girl in a big chair cosied down in the warm dark, neck craned up to take in the lights flickering across the magnificent dome.

What was it about space that held such an appeal? As an only child, I was used to my own company, so the loneliness did not dissuade me- if anything, it was part of the excitement of it. Floating alone in the endless blackness, relying on nothing but your wits (or so I thought at that age, before I learned about the extensive support system that keeps space missions afloat). Something in the sound of the whirring instruments and bleeping machines created an atmosphere of profound immensity that I wanted to experience.

One day, I was speaking to my Oma in Holland, and she told me I had a great-uncle who was an astronomer. He lived over in America, in the desert, in Arizona. His name was Tom- I later found out my father was named after him. She gave me his address and I wrote him a letter.

I wrote lots of letters as a child, to anyone I admired or wanted to talk to. A particular family memory is of writing precociously to then Prime Minister Tony Blair with my concerns about my grandma being poor in her old age. In his hand-signed reply he assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, and explained in very child-friendly terms why. I wrote to writers that I loved, and more often than not I got a response.

Two weeks later or thereabouts, I received a letter in a battered air-mail envelope, bordered with blue and red dashes, covered in stamps and postmarks I had never seen before. Inside was a letter from great-uncle Tom, answering the questions I had written to him.

Over the following year, we wrote back and forth to each other, and he became something of a pen-pal across the ocean. He seemed to me like one of the most interesting people in the world- I could understand nothing about his life of observing the stars in gigantic telescopes perched atop mountains. I no longer remember what I wrote to him about, but it must have been trivial set against the asteroids, comets and stars that occupied his attention. Nonetheless he always responded, and always seemed interested, and always asked questions back.

Eventually, the frequency of our letters dwindled, and our correspondence ended. We never met. I always meant to write to him again, but I never did. In 2011, I heard through my Oma that he had died.

So, in a way, this is what this project is about- writing the letters I never made the time to when he was alive. Sending something out into the ether, in the hope that it might reach someone, somewhere, in some time.