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Houston Artists' Cinematic Trip to Outer Space Yields Merch...and It's for Sale

It's a Möbius strip story about art imitating life imitating art, and it begins with a local family building a rocket ship in their backyard, as part of a commission for the Houston Airport System, City of Houston Civic Art Program. Now, we're not saying it can actually leave Earth's atmosphere, but one look at this two-and-a-half-story-tall contraption and you'll understand why neighbors were pulling a Mrs. Kravitz.

“One day I look over and there's my neighbor and her mother looking over the fence,” say Hillerbrand+Magsamen, a husband-and-wife team who finish each other's sentences. “I said, 'We're not crazy, we're artists, we're making this film.'”

That film, Higher Ground, is part of the airport commission installed at Bush Intercontinental Airport about a year and a half ago – an interdisciplinary work that involves video, sculpture and photography – where the family of four documented the deconstruction of their ranch-style home as they assembled their very own rocket ship.

Anyone familiar with the movie Apollo 13 will recognize the scene where the Mission Control engineering team had to develop a fix for the damaged service module Odyssey, using only items on board (including the flight plan cover, duct tape, hoses, socks and a bungee cord). Hillerbrand+Magsamen's film is very much like that iconic scene, only on a much grander scale.

A trash can lid becomes a hatch door, playground equipment produces walls and pilot seats, and an upended shopping cart serves as the payload system nose cone. Many, many other elements make up their Rube Goldberg machine, including sofa cushions, an air-conditioning vent, keyboards, a Barbie playhouse, a barbecue grill, a dryer vent, a plastic swimming pool and what must have been gallons and gallons of shiny silver paint.

The almost 12-minute film continues when Mary Magsamen (curator at Aurora Picture Show) and Stephan Hillerbrand (an associate professor at the University of Houston), along with their two children, don homemade space suits and ascend the precarious ladder to enter the second-story cockpit. None of this looks safe, by the way, but everybody seems to survive what plays out to be a very bumpy ride to outer space and back.

Higher Ground has since been shown in several international film festivals, and took home the win at last year's CineSpace (Houston Cinema Arts Festival's international film competition for filmmakers utilizing actual NASA imagery).

“We started off just kind of being curious. What could we do as an artist? We made a couple of flight patches; I think we made a flag; then as we started looking on eBay, we went crazy,” say Hillerbrand+Magsamen. “We have collector plates, we have cookies with photos on top, we have blankets, comforters, T-shirts, coloring books, pencils, coffee mugs, place mats. We've actually jumped off the deep end.” In a nod to the days when “the Russians were sending up dogs,” the pair even made a little space suit for their dog, and they have commemorative melamine plates with their dog's image on them.

They may have gone off the deep end, but they've also discovered that there's a universal fascination for NASA souvenirs and “space stuff” in general. At Lawndale Art Center, as one of the four March-April artist exhibitions, the pair is opening a pop-up “Gift Shop” and will display and attempt to sell some of this faux NASA merchandise. It's also an opportunity to view the Higher Ground film.

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“We've mined all this energy from this film,” say Hillerbrand+Magsamen. “So everything is for sale. We just couldn't stop, so the things are online as well; you can go online and purchase it there. I think it would be very funny for somebody to walk away with a T-shirt or coloring book or commemorative plate of our dog. I think we're going to be surprised.”

While they were working on the film, people would come up to the couple and say, “You know, I have the original Buzz Aldrin flight manual that I got from eBay.” The artists – who have bookmarked all kinds of websites that offer space ephemera – noticed that people did tend to collect manuals. They hired a local designer and printed off 2,000 sets of their own knockoff manual; those will be for sale too.

Remember "Mrs. Kravitz?" It turns out that she and her husband used to live in South Houston, where he worked for the company that made patches for all the space-bound astronauts. “[It was] an immediate connection,” say Hillerbrand+Magsamen. They feel that people connect through scrapbooks or yearbooks or on Pinterest, in different ways, but that “this idea of collecting, memorabilia” is another way to find connections. “The 'Gift Shop' is kind of a metaphor for that wonder.”

There's an artist talk at 6 p.m., followed by an opening reception from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 11. Continuing 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays, March 11 through April 16. Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main, 713-528-5858, lawndaleartcenter.org. Free.

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