With thermal suits, cosmological songs and zero light pollution, Mandy McIntosh and Kaffe Matthews’ project is a stargazer’s dream
IT’S ONE of the coldest days of the winter so far, but I’m not feeling it. Not only is the sun blazing through the south-facing windows of artist Mandy McIntosh’s Glasgow studio, but I’m clad head to toe in a unique printed onesie that combines the cosiness of a sleeping bag with the aesthetics of a samurai warrior’s underwear.
In fact, as McIntosh explains, I’m clad for space travel. This is her Galloway Spacesuit. It has been designed to keep one warm for a cold night’s stargazing in Europe’s first Dark Sky Park, in the Galloway forest, where light pollution is so low that it affords the most pristine night skies in the country.
The suit is part of Yird Muin Starn (Scots for Earth Moon Star), a collaborative project with musician Kaffe Matthews, funded by Creative Scotland’s Vital Spark scheme, which has seen the pair explore the best way to help potential stargazers make the most of the extraordinary natural setting.
“It sits between cutting-edge science and primitive nature,” says McIntosh. “I wanted to provide an apparatus for the human animal to have a naked-eye relationship with the cosmos.”
What that means above all in Scotland is keeping warm. If an outfit that makes me look like a giant caterpillar in a duvet seems a bit counterintuitive for a generation raised on hi-tech fabrics, then let McIntosh explain the science.
She studied knitwear in Nottingham and worked in the Paris studio of fashion designer Kenzo before returning to her native Glasgow, and she knows her textiles. She tried working with Gore-Tex, but it was hopeless for the natural experience she was aiming for. “It’s really noisy, a modern fabric that squeaks.”
The fabric she uses is Ventile, “designed for airmen’s survival suits in the Second World War; the best grade cotton, woven really densely, it’s tough, and it doesn’t degrade.” The suits are lined with thermal insulation and contain aerotherm: “Nasa-developed thermal panels, for ‘extra-vehicular activities’. ”
McIntosh is dressed in an op art shirt of blinding monochrome dazzle, wears matt grey glasses and has her hair in bunches. On the wall are some recent weavings and an array of spacesuits, each in a textile print designed by the artist and inspired by astronomy and folklore.
She could enthuse for hours about the cosmos. She recounts her favourite description of the Big Bang – “one astronomer said it enriched the guts of the universe” – and gravity (“the architect or sculptor of the universe”). She rages against the images produced by projects like the Hubble telescope: “They are artificially coloured, arbitrarily devised, a completely artificial form of data visualisation.”
The suit has no metal studs or hooks. Nothing that might get cold or hurt the skin. If I need to eject from a fighter plane, or perform a moonwalk, I’ll be just fine, and if I want to see the stars, I should head for the White Laggan Bothy, where McIntosh and her musical collaborator, Kaffe Matthews, spent nights looking at the sky and debating how to enhance the experience.
They met local astronomy groups and arts and community organisations, some of whom will be custodians for the space suits, which will be free to borrow. And they worked closely with the Forestry Commission, for the Galloway forest is also a working landscape producing almost a sixth of the UK’s commercial timber.
So there are the suits, and two permanently installed astronomers’ chairs, based on a Victorian design, which provides the star watcher with the best angle to recline and view the heavens. And then there’s the album of music they wrote together. Matthews is a long-term collaborator, a London-based avant-garde musician who recently showed at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery. The pair met in Nottingham and while the album includes Matthew’s trademark “sonification”, scientific data converted into sounds, the overall feel is also playful and funny.
McIntosh’s tribute to the moon features a visit to Accident and Emergency, after an encounter “with a lunatic”. There’s a song about Neil Armstrong and a hilarious discussion of the image on the famous plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft. The man is anatomically correct, but the woman is missing her lady parts. “I was inspired by people like Matt McGinn and Hamish Imlach,” she explains. “By folk songs, and the bothy movement and the Jeely Piece Song, that was the first time I ever heard mention of space in a song.”
McIntosh is impossible to characterise as an artist. She has described her animation skills as “feral”, but is a much-lauded animator and filmmaker, about to begin a new commission from Channel 4.
Weightless Animals, her online project, also with Matthews, and with New York musician Zeena Parkins, won a Bafta for best interactive in 2004. Long fascinated by space, McIntosh travelled to Nasa’s headquarters to ask astronauts burning questions, such as what happens to astronauts’ hair in space? Answer: they all look like they’ve got groovy afros. What music did they listen to in orbit? A lot of classic rock.
But understanding the universe, for McIntosh, is not all about technology and space rockets. “It’s very grounding when you understand you are an animal on a rock that’s spinning round in space,” she says of her experience in Galloway. “Our planet won’t be here forever, our cars and our skyscrapers. It’s reassuring: life is actually very simple.” At least it will be if you can keep warm.
• Yird Muin Starn launches on Saturday, in association with Cat Strand, Galloway. www.yird-muin-starn.com