Interview: Exploring Mars In the High Desert of Utah

Image courtesy of Cassandra Klos.

It’s an unusual job, but someone’s gotta do it. Cassandra Klos is the latest Mars Desert Research Station artist-in-residence.

Klos’ project ‘Mars On Earth’ documents engineers as they reestablish The GreenHab, a greenhouse-like Mars simulator. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Klos about her work.

Emily von Hoffmann: Can you share some themes you hope to explore with this project?
Cassandra Klos: Mars On Earth is about our innate need for exploration, in particular space exploration. It’s an examination of Mars research and what we’re doing on Earth right now to better equip ourselves to reach these far off places. I’m not only interested with our scientific efforts to leave Earth, but the facade we create to test these scientific endeavors. This usually comes in the form of terrestrial analog sites and simulations, but there are also many other venues that I plan to explore to fill in the gaps of the narrative.

Road to Earth, 2015. Image courtesy of Cassandra Klos.

CK: By using our planet as a sort of “stage” to play “pretend Mars” on, it kind of creates a dual reality — one where we’re off in deep space, and one where we’re still on Earth surrounded by all the comforts we know. When the Curiosity rover has an issue on Mars, there is a duplicate rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to troubleshoot it. When a person is invested in a Mars analog, there is that suspension of disbelief that they are actually on Mars. It’s a trick of the mind, and I’m very fascinated in that experience!

EvH: What exactly is a terrestrial analog site?
CK: A terrestrial analog site is a landscape on Earth that is geological similar to one on another planet, moon, or any other celestial body. Usually these places are the extremes of our planet, either their really cold, or really dry, or really uninhabitable areas such as volcanoes, or probably a combination. These parts of the Earth tend to give us the best understand of how our planet was created.

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EvH: How did you become interested in telling a story about space?
CK: As a kid I was always interested in space and astronomy, but I was (and still am) terrible at math. For a long time I was torn between going in the science direction and going in an art direction. I ended up sticking with art. By being a photographer, though, I feel like my camera allows me to explore anything I find interest in. My childhood ambitions started to funnel back into my work soon after.

EvH: During your time at the HI-SEAS analog site in Hawaii, you interviewed a team just after they’d had an eight month simulation. Can you share any favorite stories or impressions from those interviews?
CK: When they were first allowed to come out of the Hab after eight months, several crew members remarked about how they felt unsure about coming out without their space suits and helmets. Of course all of us standing outside in sweatshirts and jeans laughed at the thought — but really, after eight months of not feeling fresh air and pretending that the environment around me would kill me, I think I would have a similar paranoia!

EvH: Can you tell us about your previous project, The Abductees, and how your style has grown or changed for your approach to the Mars project? (Using a camera to create a different reality, vs. exploring an attitude towards space, for instance?)
CK: The Abductees is a photography project surrounding the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction case. This story happened in my home-state of New Hampshire, so I was very close to the locations and history involved. For highly-reputable citizens Betty and Barney, the publicity of this event ruined them in many ways. Many believed they were crazy, and were shunned in their community because of what they believed, despite a plethora of documents, validating reports and sightings, and even a US Air Force report. I wanted to create the imagery that the Hills’ had no proof of. I wanted to weave a narrative that nobody could dispute.

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Much of the time constructing The Abductees felt like following a movie script and executing scenes that would push the story forward. When it comes to Mars on Earth, there is a lot more freedom and allowances for spontaneity. It’s much more a of a collaboration between scientists and artists. It allows for multiple stories and perspectives. I guess I really like the lack of rigidity there is to the project right now.

EvH: Do you have a lot of thoughts about The Martian movie and the recent glut of space epics? Have they (and the sort of Kubrickian ~space chill~ they have in common) affected your aesthetic at all?
CK: Oh, I have loved all the space epics lately. I just saw The Martian last weekend I thoroughly enjoyed it (scientific inconsistencies aside). And I wept during Interstellar. Just the magnitude of imagery and excitement that these movies create about future space travel is really inspiring. I don’t think they have really affected my personal aesthetic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re all pulling from the same iconography.

EvH: You are the new artist-in-residence for the Mars Desert Research station in Utah, which sounds like a pretty unique job. Can you share any plans you have for your time there?
CK: I’m really excited for the opportunity at the Mars Desert Research Station! There’s only been 5–6 artists-in-residence… so yeah, I’m honored to be added to that group. My crew is a bunch of engineers, so we’ll be doing a lot of maintenance on the site. We will also be reestablishing the GreenHab (the Mars greenhouse).

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Image courtesy of Cassandra Klos.

I hope to explore the observatory, interview my crew members, photograph a TON, cook meals with freeze-dried ingredients, map the surrounding terrain, sketch and reflect, and be as helpful as I can be. I want to absorb as many experiences as I possibly can.

EvH: Can you share any storytellers or artists in any medium who inspire you, or whom you’re particularly enjoying right now?
CK: I am inspired by contemporary artists such as Joan Fontcuberta, Trevor Paglen, Richard Mosse, An-My Le, Laura McPhee, Sophie Calle, Claire Beckett, Todd Hido, and Angela Strassheim.

Lately, I have also been looking at the photographs of the Antarctica explorer Frank Hurley. And you know, another inspiration lately has been the Apollo Archive Project Flickr account devoted to newly released film scans from the Apollo space missions!

Note: The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr.