Life on Mars?

Eva Díaz on MPA’s Orbit and Assembly at the Whitney Museum

MPA with Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg, Orbit, 2017. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 15, 2017. MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg. Photo: Paula Court.

ON FEBRUARY 19 MPA, an artist based in Joshua Tree, California, completed (along with colleagues Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg) an ersatz ten-day residency at the Whitney Museum titled Orbit. For that period, the three women lived sequestered in a thirty-six-foot-long by three-foot-wide sliver of the Museum’s theater facing the Hudson River. They resided like zoological specimens in this glass-enclosed box, isolated from yet completely exposed to the public during museum open hours. Dressed in red outfits that accessorized the vermillion infrastructure of their capsule, they lived on supplies sheltered with them, while dry composing, recycling their grey water, and bottling their urine for the length of their seclusion.

Orbit was meant to emulate, in metaphoric fashion, conditions that might occur on future human-occupied colonies on Mars. On the final evening of the project, the artists, in front of an audience of about 150 spectators, premiered Assembly, an hour-and-a-half-long event that culminated their mission. As audience members entered the theater and took their seats facing each other across a central runway, the three women were seen in their crimson cage, laying about on a platform while slowly massaging one another to recorded audio of orgasmic moans. Eventually the women stood with their backs to the audience, facing the river and the lights of New Jersey, rhythmically swaying under intense red light. When the house lights came up, the women began a bucket brigade, moving grey water in five gallon jugs, dozens of mason jars of urine, sealed five gallon pails of what was later revealed to be composted feces, and other waste products along the narrow corridor of their capsule to an “offstage” storage area located behind the door of the cabin.

The women then emerged from a door on the audience’s side of the glass, thus ending their period in “orbit.” Moving in trancelike fashion down the runway, they walked to the back of the room. MPA, a tall blonde woman in her thirties, addressed the audience from the rear of the theater, intoning a few disconnected words about space, the future, and Mars. At moments, her speech was interrupted by spastic body contortions and gruntlike vocalizations, signaling that not all was right in her reintegration process.

The three women reconvened at a front stage that had been set up for a panel discussion. They seated themselves on stools before the site of their former detention. Marcus-Sonenberg secured two wooden clothespins to the front of a red crochet parejo she had donned, while adjusting the red heels and red fishnet tights she had also quickly put on. MPA threw on a dress, literally—a red sequin floor-length gown still on its hanger hung around her neck. Jay Sanders, curator of the show, grabbed a mic and began to emcee questions from previously selected members of the audience like artists Martha Wilson, Malik Gaines, and A. L. Steiner. The artists debriefed the audience about the ten-day experience, speaking on their isolation, the boredom of ten days without electronic media, the exhibitionism of the project, the pitfalls of collective living, providing explicit details about their shit-management protocols. Yet when questions were solicited from the wider audience the Q&A began to get a little bizarre, with audio distortions affecting MPA’s answers. As the other two women stood up to leave the panel, she began writhing atop the chairs with her dress hiked up around her, her red sports bra visible along with a wireless mic receiver tightly taped around her waist like a bondage device. As she stumbled away the three women returned, calmly hauling all the urine jars and waste buckets onto the stage, forming an orderly and quite substantial stack of refuse.

MPA with Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg, Orbit, 2017. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 13, 2017. MPA. Photo: Paula Court.

And then all hell broke loose.

As the track of sex sounds once again became audible, the women began simulating masturbation—MPA silently humping the wall stage right, Prada gyrating her hips and loudly groaning as she faced the audience, Marcus-Sonenberg back in the capsule contorting her body as though in mid-coitus. MPA’s thrusts became masochistic to the point of hysterical violence, and she began to beat her hips in a kind of frenzied self-brutalization. Marcus-Sonenberg writhed and shook her limbs like an upturned beetle. Prada bounced like a pogo stick, her onanistic grunts becoming a ferocious screeching as she moved down the runway to the theater’s rear, the rhythmic cries initially comic and then terrifying in their guttural power. Eventually, finding herself in the center of the audience, for several minutes Prada channeled what seemed to be the excruciating pain of childbirth, the orgasmic feeling of sex having pickled into a fairly accurate expression of the hideous pain of labor, and as she squatted and screamed it was hard not to feel one too was squeezing out a huge ass baby cranium. The sights and sounds of three women performing sex to the point of demented pain for ten minutes was agonizing to witness.

And indeed the audience sat in stunned silence for a minute after the “climax” as the three women silently filed out of the theater and the house lights again brightened. The exhibitionism of their ten-day fishbowl existence, a performance of the totally administered life of the astronaut who is scrutinized and monitored while completely dependent on preplanned resources and technology to breathe, eat, and shit, had erupted in an id-like expression of sexual longing, self-harm, violence, hysteria, and madness. Where Orbit gave us the mundane reality of daily life in capsule form, in Assembly MPA and company desublimated the paddock-like constraint on the body and mind inflicted by the isolation in the spaceship. They made a persuasive case for staying the fuck out of outer space.

Orbit ran February 9 through 19 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.