Nelly Ben Hayoun is quick to correct those that call her an artist. She is a designer, but it's easy to explain the misunderstanding: her approach to the practice escapes the boundaries of mere object-making, overflowing onto performance and theater territory with propulsive determination. In fact, talking about propulsion, she's been into all things space for a while.
Her Soyuz chair, for example, is meant to reproduce the three stages of the Soyuz rocket launch — an achievement that required the collaboration of astronaut Jean Pierre Haignere — and in her Moon Dust Remix project she invited several scientists to imagine the sound of Neil Armstrong's boots on the Moon in order to create a sound track out of it. In her experiments, the French designer has reflected on people's creative relationship with science by building small-scale volcanos in living rooms and looking for dark energy in her kitchen sink.
Ben Hayoun's space obsession has recently culminated in her largest endeavour to date, the International Space Orchestra. This time, she managed to put together a whole ensemble entirely consisting of members of the NASA Ames Research Center, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Singularity University and the International Space University, later making them perform a stage opera inspired by control rooms. With the world's largest wind tunnel as a strikingly scenic backdrop, the painstakingly-choreographed performance is the apex of a documentary that premiered 25 January at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
Apart from the stellar contributions that Ben Hayoun managed to involve in the project (Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic writing the lyrics; Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack and Maywa Denki working on the music, among other notable names), the most impressive feature in the film is, of course, NASA. While the wind tunnel itself is a dramatic, other-worldly construction that inspires an appropriate awe — they test full-scale planes in there — the rest of the NASA Ames facilities appear ordinary, if not downright shabby.
Architecture aside, though, the orchestra players are an heterogeneous bunch, spanning from adorable oldies — who still sport pictures of themselves in astronaut attire on their desks — to younger and rebellious-looking characters. A lot of the footage shows the ever-smiling author mingling with the NASA staff, emphasizing performative gestures and making sure the costumes fit properly, while Grammy award-winner Evan Price oversees the actual rehearsal. The rest of the movie consists in casual interviews with the orchestra members, scientists who don't seem to think for a second — much like the viewer at the end of the screening — that space engineering and music don't mix. At the end of their adventure, scientists of all ages and shades of colour have had a fun and bonding experience, improving their musical skills considerably in the process. No more, no less.
The International Space Orchestra is a surreal achievement, a work the author admittedly realised on a journey that brought her to test boundary after boundary. It is, in Ben Hayoun's words, "a provocation to action: a call to imagine and disrupt future human relations to science; to adapt science to our creative needs." Can you get scientists to play musical instruments? As a matter of fact, many already do. Can you get them to play together? It takes some effort and an award-winning musical director, but yes. Can you sneak Russian and Japanese-infused music in a piece performed solely by US state employees? Sure thing.
No matter how much you can relate to Nelly Ben Hayoun's fascination with the US space program — personally, I have never really had much — there is something heart-warming about her movie. While control rooms are indeed, as she suggests, places of strong human drama, they also encompass ordinary feelings and relationships, a complex yet rewarding process of fine-tuning not unlike that of a musical band. If a man can walk on the Moon, there is no reason why a bunch of scientifically-trained nerds cannot get together to play some good music.
The International Space Orchestra is not the only space-oriented creative enterprise accomplished in the last months. Trevor Paglen's The Last Pictures is a similarly cross-disciplinary adventure: after interviewing hundreds of people, including many scientists, the artist made a selection of a hundred pictures printed on an ultra-archival disc that was then launched into space in late November 2012, far enough to escape Earth's gravitational pull and thus, possibly, travel beyond our solar system. Just like Ben Hayoun's opera was performed by musical amateurs, the photos that Paglen eventually chose weren't shot by professional photographers, but mostly by regular people in a variety of settings.
Regardless of the US government's interest in the exploration of other worlds — no longer a priority as before, since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011 — it's still safe to say artists and designers are as excited as ever about the vast, star-studded blackness out there. Works like Paglen's and Ben Hayoun's must, then, represent a small step for science, and a big step for art and design. Or is it the other way around? Nicola Bozzi (@schizocities)
Both The International Space Orchestra movie and project will be featured in Space Odyssey 2.0, an exhibition taking place at Z33 from 17 February to 19 May 2013 in Hasselt, Belgium.