Imagine scientists from NASA Ames, Singularity University, International Space University, and the SETI Institute coming together to form a supergeek orchestra that broadcasts their sounds into deep space…
French artist and experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun imagined it, and she brought it to life. Currently based in Silicon Valley, Ben Hayoun has persuaded leading space scientists to create the first ever International Space Orchestra (ISO). An all-star list of collaborators joined the project, including Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, singer Bobby Womack, Penguin Café’s Arthur Jeffes, performance artist Maywa Denki, and authors Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic—all conducted by Grammy-award winning composer and arranger, Evan Price.
We spoke with Ben Hayoun to find out more about the ambitious project.
Nelly at NASA Ames Research Center in the Silicon Valley. © Nelly Ben Hayoun
The Creators Project: You define yourself as an experience designer, setting up volcanoes in your living room and creating dark matter in your kitchen sink. Have science and design always been part of your daily life?
Nelly Ben Hayoun: I am passionate about everything from a fire extinguisher to the mass of a neutrino! My enthusiasm has no limit! I guess what makes my daily life is a permanent curiosity for the everyday and ways to turn it into something extraordinary! I am passionate about design and science as a method for making thrilling experiences. I use both to confront people with reality, and to challenge it into fantasy and science fiction. My everyday life is fueled by the optimistic idea that nothing is impossible, and that you have to make things happen. There is no limit to this… Friends and family call me “the hammer,” because when I have something in mind, I will never stop until it comes to fruition. I usually go “in situ” to visit people and places of research. This is always the starting point to design a tangible experience. This is how I ended up in front of the CMS detector in Geneva in the Large Hadron Collider with Prof. Geoff Hall, one of the most surreal experiences of my life—until now at NASA Ames!
To be a physicist or space scientist nowadays you need to be able to stretch your mind as much as possible and be inventive to figure out what is the Big Bang, what is the multiverse and to be able to explain it to the public while showing that soap is like the multiverse! Designers and physicists can understand each other very well—we are working with the same passion, the same ‘faith’ and trust. Designers and artists follow their creative instinct [just] as physicists keep looking and building huge experiments to study and [research]. For me, the meeting of these two worlds makes perfect sense. We are merging into a fascination for the unknown.
NASA Astronauts Yvonne Cagle and Jonathan Knowles at International Space Orchestra rehearsal. © Nelly Ben Hayoun
Can you tell us how the Ground Control project started?
Sometimes these interviews make me realize how much my brain can function in a strange way—what seems to me as very logical appears to be miles away from the outcome.The project started to grow while I was in Chernobyl in July of 2011. I joined a multidisciplinary group of international research students, architects, artists, and writers on a trip to explore extraordinary landscapes and industrial sites. Dubbed the Unknown Fields Division, a division run by friends Liam Young and Kate Davies at the Architectural Association in London, it investigated the obscure fields between the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in Ukraine, the retreating tide of the Aral Sea, and Yuri Gagarin’s launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Nelly Ben Hayoun and the Soyuz Rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome. © Nelly Ben Hayoun
When I initially started to pitch the project back in 2011, following that field trip, Ground Control was aiming to explore the complex relationship between nuclear, space technologies, and their architectures, as well as the fantasies they allow us to access. The catastrophe and tragedy of Chernobyl is both human and technological, and the reaction to both forms a tension and a paradox that the opera seeks to explore and exploit.
You have an all-star list of collaborators—artists as well as scientists. How did you manage to bring such a talented team on board?
As I previously said, I am of the optimistic sort. I never compromise when it comes to making a project happen. I will work nights and days to manage and meet with the people I wish to work with. When someone tells me ‘no’, this [pushes] me to work even harder to turn it into a yes. I never give up and I guess we can say that I am persistent and passionate. I wrote an article on Design Fiction for Bruce Sterling previously and he always supported the work and experiences I have developed in the past few years. He found the operatic challenge of interest and got on board. I went to meet him and his marvellous activist wife Jasmina Tesanovic in Turin. I worked for Maywa Denki in the past in Japan. Luckily, I was invited to give a talk in Tokyo, so I went to meet him and told him all about the project. I was in touch with XL Recordings for two years and therefore when the project came about, it also seemed to make lot of sense to pitch it to Damon Albarn. Through other various connections, Arthur Jeffes from Penguin Café joined the crew, as well as musical director Evan Price.
On the science part, it took a year to organize the International Space Orchestra in NASA Ames Research Center. But all of this happened because of the previous four years of work with other eminent scientists. Through their recommendation, I got in touch with NASA and they responded.
Maywa Denki: International Space Orchestra’s Composer. Courtesy of the artist
How did the scientists from NASA Ames, ISU and SETI react when you asked them to perform in the International Space Orchestra?
I went to pitch the project in every single office of NASA Ames. With 2,500 researchers, you can imagine the scale of the task! Little by little, the International Space orchestra became a reality. ISO players were very conscious of the rehearsal timings, the programme, schedule, etc…. I found that they were very passionate about the idea and that, as a matter of fact, they wanted to invest themselves 600% to make the project a success. I was also lucky enough to meet with Dr. Pete Worden, the Head of NASA Ames, who was open-minded enough to take part in the adventure. He is performing the Gong in the orchestra.
Nelly with Dr. Pete Worden, the Head of NASA Ames. © Nelly Ben Hayoun
This week’s concert at the ZERO1 festival is actually only phase one of the Ground Control Project. You plan to work with scientists to broadcast a recording of the orchestra into deep space. It looks like an attempt at communication…
There are many evolutions to this project. One of them is to broadcast the recording we will do with the International Space Orchestra at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch on September 19th. This record will be sent in space afterwards. At the moment, we are concentrating on the actual concert, but in the next few months, I will be working with the SETI Institute in order to turn our concert into an Arecibo message and to send it in a satellite! We actually wish to beam it towards one of the habitable planets found by the Kepler Mission. I am not expecting any answers, but who knows?!
Super K Sonic Boooum by Nelly Ben Hayoun (2009). © Mark Waugh
We’re about to enter into the era of private space travel, fueled by commercial space companies (such as Virgin Galactic, Space X, and Google). Could travel be a future phase for the Ground Control project?
Hahaha! You mean sending us all together in space? Well, it could happen! We do have an astronaut on board—fantastic Yvonne Cagle! So I am sure we will be safe if we decide that we should be in the first mission to Mars. Most of the ISO players would be fully trained to make it to space, since they are mainly former NASA employees working in very particular fields of space science (synthetic biology, Kepler, robotics, etc.). I think we would make a great team up there!
International Space Orchestra (ISO) patches. © Nelly Ben Hayoun
There will be worldwide exhibition of the project and we are hoping to get invited to tour! The next stop is going to be Z33, House for Contemporary Arts on February 2013 in Hasselt, Belgium.
In October, after ZERO1, you will be the artist in residence at the Gaité Lyrique in Paris with your new project Moon Dust Remix, which is about the sounds of the Apollo 11 mission. This project took on another dimension with the recent passing of Neil Armstrong. Do you see it as a tribute to the space hero?
Ground Control: An Opera In Space is a tribute to Neil Armstrong. The International Space orchestra is performing the Apollo mission as lived by people on the ground in the control room. We are studying three of the [major historical] control room dramas, which happen when Neil and Buzz were in space: Data Dropouts, Alarm 202, and fuel problems. They landed with 20s left of fuel! I think its very sad to have lost him. Nobody will ever be the first man walking on the moon anymore. So we need to find another way to know what it sounded like to be there.
Moon Dust Remix is not nostalgic, it is a real attempt to figure out what the sound is like in a near vacuum. It is about sharing that experience as if we had to live on the moon, the sound will be like real matter. It is also about trying to figure out how to reproduce that effect on earth. This is a project where eminent scientists who specialize in study of the moon, at Moon Express, etc. try to figure out the sound and how to fabricate it. It is a moon chorus!
Follow the adventure at Ground Control-Opera.com.
Ground Control: An Opera in Space World Premiere
Thursday September 13th, 2012, 7pm
ZERO 1 Biennale, San Jose, California, USA
Performed by The International Space Orchestra and choir.
Matthew Linton, International Space Orchestra cello player in NASA Ames Disaster Assistance and Rescue site © Nelly Ben Hayoun
Ground Control An Opera In Space – Graphic. © Nelly Ben Hayoun