Film

What Happened When Eight People Were Sealed Inside a Self-Contained Ecosystem

Director Matt Wolf talks to Hyperallergic about his new documentary Spaceship Earth, which reconsiders the infamous Biosphere 2 experiment.

From Spaceship Earth (all images courtesy Neon)

In the early 1990s, Biosphere 2, a series of glass domes in the Arizona desert, was famously occupied by eight residents who attempted to tend to a closed ecosystem without any resources from the outside world. The project cost $200 million and was a media sensation, albeit one depicted as an entertaining flop that allowed for voyeuristic schadenfreude at best and a fraud at worst.

In his novel Mount Analogue, about an expedition in search of an imaginary island, French mystic René Daumal wrote, “It must be unique, and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible.” Spaceship Earth, a new documentary about Biosphere 2, begins in the 1960s, with a group of dreamers inspired by Daumal. Over the course of several decades, they undertook a series of communal projects that escalated in scale — from a sustainable ranch to a massive steel sailboat to the construction of Biosphere 2, a self-contained microcosm of our planet. The three-acre terrarium was designed as a prototype for a vessel that could be sent into space were humans to exhaust the Earth’s resources, as well as a way to collect data about sustainable living while we’re here in the meantime.

Comprised of rich and abundant archival footage, Spaceship Earth is a reframing and reappraisal of the project. It’s a wild and enlightening explication of a half-century’s worth of social and political dynamics, and as such, it’s also a film about systems. Director Matt Wolf meticulously examines the reactions that occur when the forces of environmentalism, ratings-hungry commercial media, avant-garde theater, public relations, investment capital, and interpersonal relationships alchemize.

The story of Biosphere 2 is instructive. The “Biospherians” managed to build Daumal’s “visible door” in Arizona … and then, in a memorable scene, they struggle to close the actual door to Biosphere 2 behind them as their grand experiment begins. Ahead of Spaceship Earth’s digital release, we spoke to Wolf about the film over video chat.

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Hyperallergic: It’s about 45 minutes or an hour before the film brings the audience inside the Biosphere project itself.

Matt Wolf: Yeah, it’s an hour. It’s halfway through the film before you get inside. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I think so much of what’s interesting about Biosphere 2 is the ideas that led to it. I wanted to understand how this project was countercultural, even though it was certainly framed as a pop culture phenomenon in the context of ’90s television. But the group, the Synergians, they were convinced of the historical significance of what they were doing, so they documented everything. And when I became aware of the complexity of all of their projects that led to Biosphere 2, editor David Teague and I decided to make that prehistory a substantial focus of the film.

The nature of the experiment itself is fascinating, but to me, so much of the drama and saga surrounding Biosphere 2 is media spin and hype. What interests me about the actual mission is looking at Biosphere 2 as a metaphor — for a kind of model for sustainability, for intentional community and group coalescence, but also for the failure of human ambition and the limitations of that kind of idealism.

H: How do you sort out the balance between making a film that’s about big ideas — capitalism, ecology, utopia — and providing us with character specificity? That’s something I also thought about a lot with your last film, Recorder.

MW: My ultimate goal is to get people to have an emotional relationship to ideas. I think I usually make stories that are portraits, centered around individuals who become vectors for these bigger cultural histories and conceptual ideas. And this film was particularly challenging because it is a huge tapestry of characters; there isn’t a singular focus to it, and so it was important to be conscious of the particularities of those individuals. But the thing that was easier about this than most of the films I’ve made is that it had a Byzantine plot and a dramatic story with all these twists and turns.

From Spaceship Earth

H: There are two things happening simultaneously with Biosphere 2. The Biospherians are constantly trying to prove to the world that they’re scientists, because the media narrative becomes ‘Are these real scientists or are they some sort of spectacle?’ But they’re both doing real science and have their practice rooted in theater and art. You can’t decouple the art from the science.

MW: The word ‘experiment’ is very loaded in an institutional context. It has the baggage of academic protocol or governmental protocol, in terms of being goal-oriented around a hypothesis, and having a particular model of working to narrow the scope of one’s thinking to get results and tangible knowledge that builds on a body of scientific inquiry. But if you come to it from a point of view of art, it’s a much broader, kind of spirited term. And in this film, there’s a lot of experimentation.

There’s an experimental community, the kind that found expression in the back-to-land counterculture movement. There’s theatrical experimentation in avant-garde theater that their group, the Theater of All Possibilities, pursued. And then there’s the kind of experimentation that they characterized as “voyages into the unknown” or a “lifetime experiment.” I interpret that as pursuing projects and ideas that have never been pursued before.

And then when we’re inside Biosphere 2, it becomes clear that beyond a scientific experiment rooted in a different method of a closed system or total system, it is also a human experiment. That it’s as much a spectacle of environmentalism as it is of human relationships in confined spaces and under scrutiny. But that’s also part of what’s so interesting about Biosphere 2. It’s all these things that don’t usually coexist, and they did — kind of uncomfortably in this case, and in ways that were to the detriment of the project. But they were also at the core of its vision, and what’s special about it.

H: The media is so suspicious of the project. As it proceeds, it feels like they’re almost counting down to its failure. Is this kind experimentation so threatening, that we are somehow programmed to think of their ideas as pernicious?

MW: If you pursue a project that has no precedent, and you’re kind of hazy or open-ended in terms of how you define its intentions and goals, and you’re open-minded to it not going as planned, then to be held accountable to standards of success and failure is kind of irrelevant! But when you pursue a project that costs $200 million and you court the attention of the international media and engage in a kind of theatrical spectacle, you should expect that people are going to have more binary conceptions of what your project should or shouldn’t be, or how it succeeds or fails. So to me, it’s not a surprise that the project was rebuked.

It actually took me a long time to understand and define what the purpose of Biosphere 2 was from the point of view of its inventors. They’re so defensive because they were so attacked in the media. I think such defensiveness dilutes the significance of what they were doing.

H: There’s a real tension between the experimental nature of the project and capitalism. One of your subjects clarifies: ‘We weren’t a commune; we were a corporation.’ That tension is carried all the way through; ultimately, their fate lies in the hands of investment capital.

MW: Yeah, I wanted to trace neoliberalism through the film. Basically, these people weren’t hippies precisely because they identified as capitalists, even though they operated within a model of patronage. Still, they were venturing to create enterprises that could be both ecologically and economically sustainable. That was their argument for Biosphere 2: It would lead to all sorts of green technology and patents to facilitate Mars colonization in the future. It seems a little out there that that would be a viable business model, but they had a partner in Ed Bass, who was not holding them to short-term profit maximization.

One limitation of capitalism is that new ideas take a long time to work. The project operated on such a scale that its long-term mode of thinking wasn’t feasible. It wasn’t just that they were betrayed by the forces that funded them; it was that they hadn’t created something that was ecologically and economically sustainable. They had intended for their experiment to go for 100 years, and that wasn’t going to be viable.

H: I think a lot about the way radical movements, as they travel through history, often have all the radicalness ironed out of them.

MW: That’s a big interest of mine. The continuum from radical to mainstream forms part of the argument in Fred Turner’s book From Counter Culture to Cyber Culture, which is a portrait of neoliberalism through the prism of Stewart Brand. People who wanted to reinvent the world and went off the grid had this unexpected connection to technology and tools, they became architects of the neoliberal system, and these radical ideas became mainstream. In my film Bayard and Me, about Bayard Rustin, there is this idea of gay guys adopting each other to get equal rights, which was so radical at the time. But it’s actually a precursor to gay marriage, which is now a very mainstream notion of civil rights.

And part of the downfall of this project is that they had radical ideas and thrust them into the mainstream. Did the Synergists and Biospherians belong on Good Morning America? Probably not! But they were.

H: There’s such a wealth of archival material that it’s easy to forget as you’re watching how amazing it is that this breadth and scope of coverage exists.

MW: Often shot from multiple angles, or with cranes! It’s unprecedented. I’ve never had access to material like this.

From Spaceship Earth

H: You’re not asking us to keep looking at the archival material as having its own narrative, as you did in Recorder. But by the time we reach the end and you hear that all the data they collected was lost, I thought, ‘Oh, but you documented everything!’ It’s a very different kind of data, but it’s here.

MW: It is data. Actually, Mark Nelson, one of the Biospherians, says that the footage shot inside is a tremendously valuable form of data. And yeah, it wasn’t just to create a story. It was to create a comprehensive archive of what they had done.

In so many senses, all this work was in vain, as it was lost or has been discounted. But you’re right, actually it wasn’t all lost; it just hadn’t yet been reappraised and put toward meaningful research. And that is what we tried to do, look through their archive and the things they had so diligently collected to reappraise what they had done. Instead of just saying that they were interesting, we were able to show that they’re interesting.

H: Early in the film, one of the Synergists says that if you want to make a contribution to history, you have to notice these moments of opening and act. That statement really resonates with this moment we are in right now.

MW: I felt that when I was a gay teenage activist. Matthew Shepherd had been murdered, Ellen DeGeneres came out. I felt invisible and oppressed, and it was a moment to do things of real political consequence. It’s not only the domain of youth — although I think it largely is — but I do think there are moments when something is hugely significant to you, and the time and circumstances are right, in which you can actually throw yourself into that. People need to be open to that, particularly now that the world is completely destroyed.

But I also think what she’s really talking about is about relationships. You meet someone and feel a gravitational pull to them, and if you begin a relationship it will change the course of what you do. I think these people jumped into a relationship with each other, and it empowered them to react to all their circumstances. That’s totally how I want to live my life. If I gravitate toward someone to pursue a meaningful relationship, that might not just turn into a project, but also expand how I think. That does change the course of our lives, through the expansion and redefinition of community and family.

Spaceship Earth is available to stream via a variety of platforms starting May 8.

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