Guy Laliberté has had many lives — he's gone from fire-breathing street performer to poker shark to the multimillionaire head of Cirque du Soleil. In his latest incarnation, he's become a “space clown” and philanthropist. He headed into space in 2009 on the Soyuz spacecraft as a tourist on a mission to raise people's consciousness about global water use for his charity, One Drop.
So far, so good. What happened in space, however, was a little more unexpected. Laliberté was on TV shows, talking to people back on Earth, and videoconferenced into a giant event held in 14 cities for his charity — all according to plan. However, he didn't expect the pictures that he was snapping quietly on the side to amount to anything apart from tourist snapshots. Instead, he found himself with thousands of beautiful, abstract prints on his return.
Now, he is publishing his pictures with Assouline press in Gaia, a luxury art book whose profits will go to support his water charity, One Drop. While you can't really fault Laliberté's philanthropic ambitions, his particularly high-scale, high-handed way of raising funds is certainly odd, and in many ways, speaks more to his own privileges than to the water scarcity he's trying to address. At any rate, we're still left with a pretty cool book.
Yesterday, LA Weekly sat down to talk to him about his adventures in space, and his plans for the future.
Since when have you been taking pictures? Did taking pictures in space require any special preparation?
I always have traveled with a camera throughout my life, but I always had my old 35mm film camera, When I was training to go into space, the only equipment there was a digital camera. I went through a fast-track class on earth. It actually was fun, though I'm basically a dinosaur with computers.
It's very easy to manage the camera because you're in weightlessness. Then you have to adjust. As soon as you make a move, your body reacts to it, so it took me about two days to find the right position. Not only that, the subject passed by — it's like ephemeral art in motion. What you see, you might not see again, so you have to see your subject coming with one eye, frame it with your camera, and click with the right framing. The particularity of the book is that pretty much all of the framing here is the framing I took.
How did you initially decide to go into space?
As soon as I knew that there was a possibility for people to go there privately, I started to look into it. This was back in 2000. Then there were a couple of other people who went up there. Basically, I signed up for my seat in 2007, but for family reasons I had to cancel. In 2009, there was another possibility, so I jumped at it.
How does takeoff feel?
Takeoff is more emotional and spiritual. You review your life, you go up there, you know there's some risk that something may happen to you, so you just want to be at peace with yourself before you go. Then, the rest was more physical, more playful. Coming down was more of an adrenaline-kicker. It was the biggest theme park ride I ever experienced in my life.
How was your experience with being weightless? What do you think would be a good acrobatic trick to try in space?
Actually, I'm glad we don't have weightlessness on Earth, because I think my show would be worthless! Basically, in that environment, whenever you move, it's a new acrobatic trick. I was more like a little kid in a candy store. I tried to enjoy every aspect on every different level.
I was doing my poetic social mission, so I had something very serious to do there. I wanted to take pictures, take time for my own personal time, but also be playful. I wanted to know who I was with out there — there were eight other astronauts who were professionals. I wanted to know who they were and why they were there. I was doing things all the time, just napping once in a while, not sleeping much. I told myself I could sleep when I was back on Earth, for 24 hours.
And did you?
Actually, no. Once you are in quarantine, I just wanted to get out of quarantine and go party in Moscow for a week, so I didn't want to sleep at all.
Did you plan on taking these pictures and publishing them before you went on your trip?
Actually, those were my personal souvenirs. Everything else was for my biography, a documentary in process, my blog. But the pictures were personal. When I came back on Earth, I shared them with my friends and family, saw their reaction, and a friend who was a professional photographer told me, “Listen, you might have something interesting there.” Then, we validated the technical aspect of the pictures there, and they were all top-notch. Then I searched for an editor.
For me, it was a great experience, because as a creative person, it was great to live through the entire sequence of creating a book and going through the creative process. I know this book will touch people by the beauty of the pictures of Earth, and hopefully through the texts that were written by bigger and greater people than me. If we touch them, they will be more Earth-loving than they were today, and this will help as a fundraising tool for my foundation, One Drop.
Though all of your photographs are quite conceptual and abstract, some are still more recognizable as places than others. Were there any particular countries that appear more “imaginative” from outer space, where you can really project your imagination onto their appearance?
No, I had no choice. In eleven days in orbit, you are very limited. It takes, theoretically, 45 days in orbit to cover the surface of the Earth, not considering nighttime and clouds — and trust me, there are a lot of clouds out there. In eleven days there, with the orbit, you can't cover the whole earth, not considering nighttime and clouds. This is the only regret I have, I wish I could have stayed there a month or two.
Did you have a particular source of inspiration in taking the pictures?
I was just like a little kid, lying down on the grass, looking at clouds. You see all these shapes and characters and stuff. I looked at Earth from the reverse angle. Really for me, the heart of the work is always related to all these characters, organic shapes, things that look more like paintings.
What do you think that an artistic or poetic space mission can achieve as opposed to a scientific one?
That was the other part of my trip in space. We coordinated from space in 14 different cities, reading a poem inspired by the water situation, and that was the mission I gave myself. The goals were to create an artistic event worldwide, communicating about the situation of water, and positioning One Drop as a new player in the water field.
Lastly, could you talk about your new show, Iris? What kind of reception do you expect in Los Angeles?
Iris is another great challenging project. We have always had a lot of success in Los Angeles. Hopefully, this will be in the line of that great relationship we've been having with the city of Los Angeles and its population. Creating a show about a subject which is at the heart of the city — cinema — is very challenging. We're very confident — but at the end, we live or die by our public.
Gaia is available for purchase at Assouline stores and www.assouline.com
Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts.