In this 1996 interview, Phil Patiris speaks to James Harbison, co-author of the zine Lackluster, about what the artist himself describes as, “the world's longest work in progress…Future Shack.” Future Shack is a video whose epicenter is the Biosphere 2 project. Biosphere 2 is a structure that was built in Oracle, Arizona in the late 1980s to house a closed ecological system and serve as a prototype for space colony habitation.
Future Shack progresses to expostulate on the information age, the rise of the information class, and how the Biosphere can be extrapolated right into people's homes. Patiris is a pioneer of one of San Francisco’s foremost time-based art meccas, Artists’ Television Access. He is also the creator of the video work, “The Iraq Campaign: A Television History in Color” (1991), made during the first Gulf War.
Phil Patiris: Anyone who's been raised on Star Trek and the Space Program has encountered the idea of colonizing space, and the Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to experimentally determine whether people can live for extended periods of time in a completely sealed environment. The purpose of the Biosphere project is to build such an environment here on earth and then to put people inside for an extended length of time - the first crew was in for two years - to see if they could manage a small ecosystem.
The project is a definite brainchild of the 1970s and ‘80s. By the late ‘80s financing for such a project was obtained from Ed Bass, one of the Bass brothers. The Bass brothers, by the way, are major shareholders in the Disney Company. Ed Bass kicked in $150 million, and they built this large, glass greenhouse that they called Biosphere 2. Biosphere 1of course being the earth; and Biosphere 2 is the replica of the earth. And they built it in the Arizona desert near Tucson.
My interest beyond the general interest in space fantasy and colonization comes from the fact that I had a few friends who worked on a promotional video for the Biosphere while it was still being built. One of them actually was the stepson of somebody who worked at the University of Phoenix, which was involved in the educational aspects of the Biosphere Project, so there was a little "in" there. He happened to be a video producer and he and a couple other people went down to the Biosphere and got to roam around with their video equipment for several weeks, taping the inside of the unfinished Biosphere. Not many people got inside the place. So that was fascinating.
And what made it even more fascinating was that the main person on this (video) project, who was a devotee of the Biosphere and all that it represented, once he got in there, began to find out that all was not right in the Bio-world. He got discouraged, and so he pulled out of the video project after having collected about $103,000 already. And they took him to court. They didn't just sue him for breach of contract; they sued him with criminal racketeering charges. They basically threw the book at him. He was drawn into it of course, and my two other friends were drawn into it, and I got a real taste for how nasty the supposed progressives of the Biosphere can get when it comes down to legal and money matters and the preservation of their well-crafted image.
James Harbison: Well, do you think the investors were so nasty because it wasn't a very sound investment?
PP: They were nasty because, like most true believers, they don't have a sense of humor. They take themselves way too seriously, and couldn’t handle any kind of criticism whatsoever.
JH: But there's no scientific validity to the Biosphere at all! I mean it's all just a sham, isn't it?
PP: Actually, there could be biological validity to it. It's just that in this particular case it wasn't handled in this way, and that's why I got interested in it. Because what otherwise would be a nice little dream to have - turned out to be something else. It turned out basically to be a business; an amusement park. As I studied the Biosphere I began to see that because of their shortcomings; because of their expedience and cutting of corners, that it was less a replication of biological processes on earth and more a replication of a financial process on earth. So from that sense it was a very good model of a similar process because the economic process is a closed process of exchange just like an ecosystem is, but that's where the basis really was: investment and return on investment.
JH: Could you tell us a little bit about the way the Biosphere is set up?
PP: The Biosphere is a large glass pyramid. It's made up of seven, what they call Biomes. These are seven distinct - supposedly distinct - ecological types. They have a savannah, an indoor ocean that's supposed to replicate marine processes, they have an agricultural area, they have a small desert area, they have a rain forest area. There's what's called the human habitat, which is where people live and play on their computers and eat lentils, and I think there are a couple others I might be leaving out. I'm trying to remember all of this off the top of my head. But, there are these seven different Biomes. Of course they blend into each other, and the challenge was to try to keep them separate. But they’re all in this essentially very small area. I mean it's probably less than an acre or two, and it's very difficult to replicate the ecosystem of a world that's 25,000 miles in circumference in an acre or two, but of course this is how they have to start. Space colonies - orbiting space colonies - are going to be very small, so this what they tried to do. They imported a lot of plant life from different parts of the world. They tried to balance all of these things against each other because it's such an interrelated and complex system, and so they wanted to maintain that within the confines of the Bio. They were not entirely successful; this is the interesting thing.
I went there in the fall of 1994. The first crew went in on September 26, 1991 for a two years stint inside. They managed to survive for the two years and came out on September 26, 1993 with all kinds of fanfare and hoopla. The problem is that it wasn't an entirely successful experiment. For one thing, by the time they left after two years the atmosphere inside had become essentially a Himalayan atmosphere; there was so little oxygen in there. A number of species had died out altogether. But rather than study the problems, they went and put a second crew in. Sometime in early 1994, one of the first crew members—two of them actually, [Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo]—went and broke the air seals of the Biosphere, and called in and said: " the experiment has been ended." The reason they did that was they had just put another crew in there to stay in there for a year and the former crew members - these two in particular - felt that it was an unsound and an unsafe thing to do. Nobody would listen to them, so they took matters into their own hands.
[“What hadn’t been foreseen, as it was later to be determined, was that the concrete used inside the structures was actually bonding with, and thus bleeding off the oxygen molecules.”—Excerpt taken from Phil Patiris’ website]
That prompted me to go and take a look. When I went, there was nobody inside. There was no crew in there, the place actually seemed to be overrun with small ants. Inside, plants were dying. And I was looking around thinking, "where are the solar panels?" If this is a self-sustaining environment, then it has to be self-sustaining as far as power goes. You've got to have something to run those computers that they're linked to the outside world with. And of course, I realized that the Biosphere is on the Arizona power grid. This is a major flaw because what are they going to do? They're going to ship the Arizona power grid to Mars when they decide to colonize Mars? They can't do that. So that was a big oversight and contrary to all the hype.
JH: But it's not just power. They sucked water, and oxygen, and information…
PP: Well, information—yeah. And in fact that's an interesting thing, because the one thing they always loved to say about the Biosphere is that the only thing that gets in or out, the only thing that's allowed in to the Biosphere, or the only thing that's sustaining them from the outside, is energy and information. Now, of course, by energy they’re referring to the sun, but the fact is that they were on the Arizona power grid. And then of course there's information, which is becoming the entire basis of the American economy anyway. People will exchange money electronically as payment for the exchange of information electronically, and of course all the manufacturing is elsewhere, but this is the wave of the future. What people will do is they'll float around in space in their little hermetically sealed colonies, talking to each other, and that will be life, that will be the economy, that will be business. The information was actually an acknowledged part of it.
Of course there was lots of monitoring going on by the tech support on the outside, just to make sure that everything was working fine, and when a problem came up they had to communicate. But outside of that, they had to have some way to communicate, because the Biosphere supposedly was sealed and would not be reopened for two years for any reason. But of course it was. One of the crew members had an accident in the Biosphere, so they were allowed out to get medical help, and that was one of the controversies. When that person went back in, they went back with things they shouldn't have been bringing in, like oxygen generators, because they weren’t getting oxygen from the outside, and the oxygen was being depleted.
And they definitely were drawing energy from non-solar sources, and of course information, because that's part of the point. This is why I extrapolated into the information age and the rise of the information class. Because the way things are going right now with this new online economy, the idea is that people will be living in their own little Biospheres. And socially speaking that trend is going to be enhanced by the fact that the world is getting a lot more violent out on the streets. The trend is toward cocooning.
JH: I'm just alarmed, not necessarily by the trend in cocooning but by the lack of smart cocoon design. Was there a physical wall separating the desert environment from the jungle environment?
PP: No, no there wasn't, actually, and this is the interesting thing. I mean, you've got whole oceans and mountain ranges that can separate one ecosystem from another on this planet, and even then they are connected. I suppose the point can be made that "well, they're connected anyway." But it's a lot easier to keep them distinct when you have these vast planetary distances.
JH: Or a mountain range...
PP: Yeah, mountain ranges, rivers, valleys. Of course, they couldn't have a flowing river in there. Rivers are, of course, essential. I mean there are all kinds of things that are essential to this Biosphere 1. Thunderstorms for example, are essential. Can you generate thunderstorms artificially? Forest fires? All of these things happen on the earth that have happened for millions of years, and they're supposed to happen. Yellowstone is supposed to burn completely every few thousand years or so. That's the way nature takes care of things. So there are some things that are just so grand in scale that they can't be replicated. The earth itself, its different ecosystems, are so grand in scale that you can't possibly replicate those. There is no way - I don't believe there's any way - you can properly and structurally replicate the planet.
What people are going to be doing when they colonize outer space is they're going to be living in little tin cans; they're going to have to get supplies from the outside, and they're going to be living on hydroponic gardens. There aren't going to be Redwood forests in space. There aren't going to be rivers and oceans in space. They'll be orbiting offices, with cubicles and Ficus plants. So there's an inherent ceiling on what they can do now. You can come close to the possible ideal and I suppose to some extent the Biosphere did. I mean you build a sealed greenhouse - that can be done. But, the grand scheme you just can’t do it: you can't build a whole new planet.
JH: Could the Biosphere be a reasonably pleasant sort of physical environment?
PP: No, well, I don't know. Spending two years in one place, you know is not so bad. Submarine crews do it all the time. They do their six months submarine duty. There are people in space who can't get home - especially the Russians on the Mir space station. That's actually a better example of what it's going to be like than the Biosphere. The sunlight is different; the Biosphere still had sunlight filtered through the earth's atmosphere. When you're out in space and you're getting that sunlight it's hard, cold, sunlight; with all the radiation that it has. You're going to have to have protection from that. You don't want all that ultraviolet coming in. So, I would assume that the sun would only be useful as an energy collector but not as any source of light. You know they're going to have to have artificial light.
JH: Psychologically, what are the quality of life issues?
PP: I took place in a sociological study when I was in college. It was just a one day thing that some grad student had put together and basically, the study was to get four people—two different groups of four people each - and one group of four was placed in a very large, open room almost like an auditorium, and they were seated at different ends along the walls of that auditorium. The other group of four—which I was part of—was seated in a really small, almost like a booth, where our knees were practically touching as we sat there. And we were instructed to interact in different ways, to carry on a conversation about something or have a debate about something. And we were also given this little apparatus with buttons on it - I'm trying to remember how this worked—but the idea was that if you pushed... there were two buttons; if you pushed the blue button everybody got 30 cents. If one person pushed the red button and the rest pushed the blue button that one person got $1.50 and the rest got 10 cents. If two people pushed the red button, the two people who pushed the red button lost money, and the money would accumulate during the study. And if three people pushed the red button and only one person pushed the blue button, all three people who pushed the red button lost money.
So, it was basically a study of competitiveness in social interaction depending on the confines of space. They would ask us a question or something to prompt us to push one or the other button. And it was interesting because if we had all pushed the blue button all the time we would have all come out ahead. But there was always one person who figured "the other people will push the blue, all push the red, I'll get $1.50, you know the big prize." Well, invariably there were two people thinking that, so you never got ahead that way. The people in the larger room - on the basis of this test - were much more co-operative and came out ahead - they were pushing a lot more blue buttons - than those of us in the small room. The upshot of this convoluted explanation is that in small, confined quarters, people become competitive. It's a territorial thing; it's a psychological thing.
When you have eight people in what's essentially very small quarters, how are they going to interact? They're going to become competitive with each other. And there were conflicts; there were personal conflicts. You do develop camps and cliques; it happens all the time. It happens in office politics, where you see it a lot. And I'm sure it's something that they've studied when they're talking about space crews, like up in the shuttle. They're probably not up there long enough to really get that way, and they probably deal with that in training. But, for regular folks who are going to be out colonizing space, this is something that has to be taken into account; that human beings, as an aggressive species, are going to be competitive.
So there were conflicts within the Biosphere. They [the investors] wouldn't talk about it, though. There are so many things that they wouldn't talk about because they wanted to maintain the myth of what they're doing for the "light in their eyes" crowd—although it can go the other way, too. Two of the first crew members actually got married to each other after they got out. So you had romances, you had alignments, it's the old "stranded on the desert island" story. We've seen it a million times, and it's the same thing. It's like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. That's what was going on. You do have those psychological things to take into account, and they did come into play in the Biosphere.
JH: Who does the Biosphere 2, and its research and its achievements, belong to? Does it belong to its investors, or does it belong to the people of the information age? Are we all going to benefit?
PP: No, it belongs to Space Biosphere Ventures, which is the actual company that runs the Biosphere. Now, I haven't been keeping up on it for the past several months. A lot of things have happened since my visit in '94. For one thing, when that "sabotage" took place, there was a lot of bad, bad blood being passed around, especially by Space Biosphere Ventures towards the two Biosphereans (as they were called) who breached the seal. They basically became persona non-grata. One's named Abigail Alling, and the other is Mark Van Thillo. They're the ones who broke the seals. And I don't know if it's over yet or not - but they did go to trial. They brought a libel suit against Space Biosphere Ventures (SPV) because SPV accused them of being saboteurs and dragged their names through the mud.
But it is SPV that has proprietary right to all the results of research in the Biosphere, and of course the beauty of that is they can license it or enter into cooperative agreements. One of the places they've entered into co-operative agreements with is—or did at the time—was the University of Phoenix which, in the earliest stages, got exclusive rights to Biospheric curriculum, and teaching it, and marketing that. So there's a whole marketing and merchandising aspect to it. You'll notice that the mug that I'm using to drink my coffee is an official Biosphere 2 mug. They have their gift shop, certainly. This adds to the amusement park atmosphere of it. But no, it is not public domain, owned by humanity. It is an investment and it's expected to turn a profit. And so has all the rigidity of ownership that everything else has, you know, whatever their lofty goals are.
The mass media tended to step lightly around the whole thing. For one thing, it's a little too weird, and too eclectic for the usual middle-American audience. For another thing, who knows what the myriad financial arrangements are? I mentioned that the Bass brothers were major shareholders in Disney. Now, this wasn't true at the time but it is true now, that Disney owns ABC, and therefore owns ABC News. Now, this may not have had much to do with anything four or five years ago, but the fact is that somewhere along the way there is a connection where it's in somebody's interest not to have bad news about the Biosphere coming out. The one exception I'm aware of is the Village Voice, which started printing a number of articles about the Biosphere while it was going through its first experiment with the first crew. Since the first crew came out and the second crew’s stay was aborted, there's been all kinds of critical press coming out, including ABC News, where I learned a lot about the sabotage.
The reason I bring that up is because I have a video of the day it was first sealed up in 1991, and there was great hype about it on all the TV stations. ABC's Good Morning America sent their science reporter down there to spout enthusiastic about the whole thing, the ABC Home Show sent somebody down there, even the morning talk shows were dealing with it. So, it got its big day in the sun. After that it kind of disappeared because, y'know, what are they going to say? "It's day 121 and they're still in there, eating lentils." So, you know there's no news in it. There's only news when there's something exciting and soap-operatic going on. ‘Course the whole thing that happened after the first crew came out meant that there was going to be more news. But even now, you just don't see much about it. I've managed to find news of the libel suit online, but it's not an everyday news thing. But I don't think the press was really interested in dealing with the issues of this weird, cultish little experiment when it was going on, and they still don't give it... of course now it's been diminished so much because of what's happened since then, that now it's just not newsworthy. There's nothing going on in there, there's nobody in there now.
And SPV has actually signed over to, I think, Columbia University, which lends some credibility, I guess, but now they're letting Columbia University run the whole thing. If it's going to change, if it's going to be done right, it's going to be done in a way that's very dull and boring to the rest of the world, and especially to television. They’re going to be painstaking about it if they're doing it right, and you won't hear anything until there's an actual result. But again, what's the result going to be? I don't think it's going to add anything to anything. As I was talking about before, you're not going to be able to put a Redwood forest into space, so what's the point? They should just concentrate on making the best hermetically sealed orbiting office that they can, because that's what it's going to be: an orbiting office and laboratory.
JH: There was never an aim to improve life here on earth through their experiments?
PP: Hmmm, good question, very good question. It wasn't meant to improve life on earth. It was meant to get away from the earth. That's the basis, to colonize space; what does that mean? That’s the fundamental attitude of the Bio, and you also have to understand the roots of the Biosphere. The Biosphere has its roots in a hippie cult in the ‘70s, run by John Allen, who was pretty much along the same lines as any other cult leader. And maybe not as vile as someone like a (Charles) Manson, or a (David) Koresh, but it’s the same sort of social structure. He was a guru, and a lot of what's going on right now with this new information age comes from that strange little fringe area of society. Then they learned computer programming, and they make a little money and suddenly it becomes something like the Biosphere project. So the separateness, and the attitude of people in these little insular societies carry through, and it carried through to the Bio. In my view, the essential attitude of the Biosphere is "The rest be damned. We're gonna get out of here and we're gonna leave all this shit behind." Of course, who decides who goes up there? It's a very elitist thing. There won't be any Redwood trees in space, but if they had anything to do with it, there wouldn't be any slum areas in space either. There wouldn't be any...uh
JH: Puerto Ricans.
PP: Yeah, well that's the thing. Everybody in the first crew is white. I'm not saying it's necessarily a racist thing, but de facto, it's going to be people who are college educated and in reasonably good health, and technically adept and able to use computers, and this is a real question. When the time comes when we do colonize space, I mean first of all, is that a crutch to avoid solving things on earth, especially global warming and everything. And two, even worse, is this another separation - it's like that old Star Trek episode - the people who got to live in the city in the clouds and the workers who had to live on the much more hostile surface of the planet. It's the same sort of thing, and nobody should be naive enough to think that kind of conflict is not going to exist.
Yeah, yeah, it's an old story, and it's the same thing. The technology doesn't change the way humans are; the technology is adapted to the way humans always have been, and the same thing happens with the Bio, or with colonies in space. If you watch a show like Babylon 5 as opposed to Star Trek, the people are just as vile out in space 300 years from now as they are now, and I think that's a very realistic look. Humans don't evolve socially or psychologically that rapidly, and they certainly don't do it because they got a newer or better toy to play with. We've seen plenty of evidence of that.
JH: So maybe the Biosphere 2 is like a prototype of a shopping mall in space?
PP: That's a good way of putting it. It's Fashion Island in space.
It's been a long-standing dream of so-called futurists and one of the best exemplars of that dream if not the successful implementation of it is Epcot, which stands for the "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow." In my work to date on Future Shack, I refer to it as the "Experimental Profit Center Of Tomorrow." Epcot was supposed to be such a self-contained city. I don't know where they got the idea that this was a good thing to have these self-contained cities that nobody had to leave. But Epcot certainly was an early example of that. Of course what it ended up being was a lot of shopping malls, and some offices. That one, of course didn't pan out, but yeah there is this movement to have these hermetically sealed environments.
There are ideas on the drawing boards for building quarter mile high high-rises. The technology exists to pierce the sky, big time, with building far taller than the World Trade Center. Again the idea is that these are going to be vertical self-contained cities. You spend all your life inside riding the elevator up and down. This generation that supposedly began the environmental movement or at least ramped it up with Earth Day and all that seems to be going out of its way to avoid any contact with the natural world by building these artificial environments. People have always had shelter, but this is a little bit different. The thing is, we're going to be on this planet for a good long time, and nobody's going to prefer being out in space to being at Yosemite. So what is this thing?
And I have to think that is has as much to do with sociology and psychology and personality as it does with anything loftier. There is a lot that they could be doing without sealing people away. But, it's a trend that continues. I mean you've got your malls, your enclosed malls of course—popular in Minnesota for good reason—but why do you need one in California? And you have your walled suburban developments: security guards and the whole bit. My feeling is that we're not entering the age of the information; the age of information, what it really is, is the culmination of about 100 years of the age of recording, and now it's reached its culmination with multimedia and online; it just ties it all together. But now, with that, we are entering the age of security, or the age of surveillance. This is what it's coming down to. This is what the whole online world is, you know. And who's driving the on-line world? People like Bill Gates, and where does Bill Gates live? He lives in a place that is the 20th and 21st century equivalent of what the landed gentry had hundreds of years ago. People haven't changed in spite of the new toys; it's the same thing. So their motivations are just as human and just as non-lofty as they ever have been.
JH: What's the estimated date of completion for Future Shack?
PP: (Laughs)... The information revolution is still in its embryonic state, so possibly the latter half of '97. It’s not there yet, but eventually there will be a webpage devoted to Future Shack, with some images of the work, and discussion of some of the ideas behind it at moderntv.com.
Phil Patiris was interviewed by James Harbison for Lackluster zine by James Harbison. Edited and transcribed by Amy Balkin , Mary Bean, and James Harbison.
Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo win a $100,000 lawsuit (libel?) against Space Biosphere Ventures.
The Biosphere 2 property is sold to a residential home developer for a proposed development project including homes and a resort hotel, with plans to keep the Biosphere 2 complex open for tours. In June 2007, the University of Arizona announced plans to take over research projects at Biosphere 2. (Source: Wikipedia)