Becoming Alien: Q&A With Conceptual Space Artist Jonathon Keats
Conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has explored space in much of his work. One project, the Local Air & Space Administration, beat NASA to an asteroid, the moon and Mars (by growing cacti in asteroid soil and potatoes in water infused with space rock bits).
Credit: Jonathon Keats courtesy of Jen Dessinger

SAN FRANCISCO — Setting foot on Mars isn't in the cards for most of us, but starting this week you can soak up the Red Planet's essence for just $45.

The Local Air & Space Administration, a shoestring operation run by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, is selling mineral water infused with bits of Martian meteorite. LASA also hawks bottled moon essence for $30, and you can get some stellar water — made with carbonaceous chondrites containing bits of nanodiamond likely forged in the cores of faraway stars — for $60. [Photo of Martian mineral water.]

LASA began selling this stuff — which Keats bottled after smashing up some space rocks with a hammer — Thursday (Oct. 21), at the opening of its "Exotourism Bureau" here at San Francisco's Modernism art gallery.

For the past several weeks, LASA has also been growing cacti in asteroid soil and potatoes in the various mineral waters, thus spawning beings that are part Earthling, part alien.

LASA isn't Keats' first foray into space-science art. He has also created paintings based on signals picked up by the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico. And in a project called Speculations, he bought and sold property in the extra dimensions of space posited by string-theory physics.

SPACE.com caught up with Keats — who is a columnist at Wired Magazine and an art critic at San Francisco Magazine, as well as a novelist — to chat about space exploration, science and what it means to be alien:

To make LASA's mineral water, you actually got your hands on some space rocks. It's not a gag — you went out and bought some of these things off the Internet, right?

Yes. And that is essential in all of the work that I do. What I do is completely absurd, perhaps, looked at from the outside. Yet for that absurdity to have any depth to it, I feel that I need to take it absolutely seriously.

So when I was dealing in real estate, I had contracts that were perfectly valid in a court of law, provided that the court of law was willing to admit to the existence of extra dimensions of space. In this case I went on the Internet, and I've been purchasing from many of the same dealers who supply the world's laboratories.

Your real estate project — people actually bought some of those extra-dimensional lots?

Yes. I did better, I think, than Coldwell or any of the big firms if you look at volume. If you look at numbers, I didn't do so well. My most expensive lot was around $15 or so. But I was offering some real estate as low as 9 cents for a unit. I sold around 65 or 70 units in the first evening of sales, and there have been more sales since then, though my pressure tactics only lasted through that initial evening.

What do you hope people who buy LASA's mineral water get out of the experience?

I hope that they are able to explore these alien realms from within. I don't know what that will entail for any given person. [Moon's Water Comes in Three Flavors]

For me, what is most interesting is not so much what is out there but what the process of incorporating those alien minerals into my system means for me as a person. The fact that this does make me alien by degree — little by little, the more that I drink, the more alien I become.

For me, the optimal way in which to experience life is to have the advantage of being a little bit of an outsider, whatever it is I encounter, whatever it is that I do, because that gives me a sort of perspective on it.

The bodies in our solar system are exchanging material all the time — there are rocks from Mars on Earth, rocks from the moon on Earth. Is part of what you're trying to say that we're all interconnected in the solar system?

I like that idea you're bringing up. I think also that interconnectedness throughout time is very interesting. So for example, in the case of the stellar mineral water — I can't really offer you an excursion to our sun. It would be too hot. The water would boil off, and there would be other problems too, which you can imagine.

But I can offer you an excursion to other stars that once were. That nanodiamond which you are absorbing as you're drinking this water comes from stars that predate us and that are the materials from which we come. So there's almost a deja vu that takes place. It's almost an encounter with our ancestors.

You've actually tasted all three mineral waters. Knowing what's in them, do you manufacture a taste in your head, or do they just taste like water?

I think it's inevitable because of the nature of the material, that it does seem to have something strange about it. I can't place a flavor. It isn't like it tastes like chicken — well, I don't think so.

I guess that the carbonaceous chondrite, if you were to eat enough of it, might taste like burned chicken. I can't help but believe that each one of them has a distinct flavor to it. [Astronauts Drink Recycled Urine...and Celebrate]

But I suspect that that is as much an act of fraudulence on my own part toward myself as the sort of low-impact fraudulence undertaken every day by mineral water companies such as Evian and others toward their customer base might happen to be. I just don't know that Evian tastes any different than Calistoga, or that Calistoga is any different than Fuji. Fuji, or Fiji I think it is. I don't even know my competition, my terrestrial competition.

Have you gotten any interest from folks wanting to buy this stuff already?

I've gotten some curiosity. It's also been interesting to find how many people have asked whether I think anyone will actually drink this stuff, and when I say that I have, have looked at me as if I really am an alien, and I mean a Martian glowing green.

It seems fascinating to me that probably every single one of us as a child ate quite a lot of dirt. And probably most of us still do, at least a little bit. Yet dirt from Mars or from the moon is somehow seen to be toxic, dangerous, and I wonder why that is. I suspect that it is in some way related to the xenophobia that comes through in terms of our treatment of illegal aliens, in terms of the sort of war that you see between people of different religions in the Middle East, for example.

I hope that in some non-literal, non-polemical way, this project might also in a sense reflect on xenophobia of all different kinds, and by encouraging others to become alien in some respect that it might help to encourage a certain empathy for people who are alien in legal terms, or in terms of having different beliefs.

Did you ever think about offering customers a full alien meal, with the potatoes and the water?

That's a good idea. But maybe in that case it would make more sense to use the water as a base for wine or something like that.

I was going to ask you about that. Did you consider booze? You could call it "Moonshine." It would probably sell.

You know, I think that you should probably pursue that. You will put us out of business, and that will allow me to start working on some new projects.

It seems like you keep coming back to space science and astronomy. Is that because you want to divine our place in the universe, or are you just interested in this stuff?

The sciences continually recur in my work. Religion is another theme that comes up again and again. So too is commerce. Those are some of the fundamentals of our world. So I continually come back to science and continually poke and prod, because I am interested in what our assumptions are about the sciences.

Why space? Certainly, I am interested in it. That's just a matter of my personality. But the second reason, very briefly, is that space is out there. And because my art is almost always about getting us outside of ourselves, space is a very convenient place to go.