Art has insightfully contributed to shaping the future throughout modern history and beyond; if not always forging reality itself, feeding our prospective imagination. In regard to literature, suffice to mention the visionary minds behind the novels From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne; 1984 by George Orwell; or Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson, to name but a few. As for cinema, so that we keep it as close as possible to the imminent dystopian reality, one could recall Outbreak, by Wolfgang Petersen, or Contagion, by Steven Soderbergh. Yet, there is another film we could call into play in order to foster images and ideas that may offer us a devious perspective on intimacy in an era of space missions to Mars, HIV, COVID–19 and other pandemics alike.
High Life, a feature by French director Claire Denis, takes place on a spaceship launched into the cosmos bearing a crew of expatriates whose diverse biographies have accomplished a vast array of crimes and misdemeanours – they all had been sentenced to death prior to their departure from planet Earth. This manned mission is destined to reach the outskirts of the universe, to source energy from a black hole and to conceive human life through artificial insemination in outer space. Here, instead of the most "apt and healthy" (as envisaged by NASA missions, for example), a vessel is filled with outcasts.
The onboard scientist played by Juliette Binoche, condemned for having killed her very own baby in the earthly past, switches between scientific commitment and nymphomania. Notwithstanding, she uses her criminal peers as guinea pigs to give birth to a child in this increasingly hostile environment. And since sexual intercourse is prohibited in the spacecraft, in order to get sexually aroused, ejaculate and survive the deprivation of pleasure, they all make use of a special device called The Box: a dedicated S&M room of sorts, equipped with an ergonomic technology designed to fit the human sexual needs, deeds and desires.
Within this volatile context, the crew is invested with deep, obscure purposes. Repressed sexual drive affects each and every passenger in this hermetic and remote capsule of life, producing the spark of madness that eventually unbalances that highly combustible atmosphere, unfolding an uncontrollable stream of violence and death.
On a different note, consider another type of vessel, one that is not floating about the universe but instead rooted in a rather mundane, if not decadent environment, also designed for pleasure: a sauna.
Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão has been obsessed painting steaming rooms for over 20 years now. Devoid of human presence, her grid-tiled canvases appear as both physical and mental spaces onto which one can project its most secretive imagination; those are rooms of utmost intimacy where fantasies and desires acquire shape.
The human body, although absent in Varejão's saunas, remains an ever present ghost emanating frailty, sex, pain and pleasure – from time to time, the artist maculates her pristine surfaces with blood, or a wad of hair, remains of a fluid and perishable human nature. Those paintings transpire a residue of life: the stillness of an action that has just evaporated from earth. A moment suspended in time, or a moment of death, perhaps?
Now, imagine not a spaceship but a sauna drifting in deep space, in the vacuum of time. No one is inside, just the interior covered in tiles, producing a steamy & misty atmosphere charged with the latency of human desire, impregnated by the vestiges of human dreams. This vessel might be carrying microbes, bacteria, illnesses elsewhere, nobody will ever know.
Above all, this flying sauna encapsulates everything that once was human and is no more; this inhospitable room no longer serves any purpose as there is no man or woman to inhabit the ever-floating cocoon of imagination, sex, desire and struggle to breathe.
Sex in space remains a tacit taboo. No one talks about it – and presumably no one has ever had sex in outer space.
NASA has never revealed any research on the well known odds of attempting to engage in sexual contact in a zero gravity room, although speculation allows us to imagine that synchronising the movements would be a difficult, if not impossible task – not to mention the amount of sweat produced by the human body under such conditions. Apparently, there would be bulky drips of sweat floating around, splashes of human sticky secretions all over the room, besides the thick layers of grease covering the lover's skins.
Much has been said about cosmic sex between astronauts in space missions, although nothing has been confirmed yet. In the year 2000, an article in The Guardian, by Jon Henly, referred to a book published by a French science, space and astronomy writer called Pierre Kohler, who claimed that both US and Russian astronauts had enjoyed sex during separate important research programmes into how humans might survive for several years in orbit.
According to Kohler's book, "there existed a confidential Nasa report, to which he had gained access, detailing a space shuttle mission in 1996 during which a project codenamed STS-XX was to explore precisely which sexual positions were possible in a weightless atmosphere; two guinea pigs had reportedly tested the 10 positions deemed most suitable for a spot of the old zero-gravity how's-your-father." The report, again according to Kohler's book, concluded that "only four positions were in fact possible in space without 'mechanical assistance' (the missionary position was not one of them). It added, tantalisingly, that a videotape, albeit censored, existed of the experiment."
These claims ended up deemed as pure hoax by the space agencies of both nations. Who knows?