Interview with NBH for House Seven

December 2012

Interview by  Skye Sherwin for House Seven

No matter how brain-bending the science, few places are off-limits to Nelly Ben Hayoun. In the past three years this designer’s work has taken her inside the Large Hadron Collider, Chernobyl’s reactors, and most recently, the NASA Ames Research Centre.

Nelly’s projects include an armchair that reproduces the three stages of the Soyuz rocket launch and making dark energy in the kitchen sink. Her latest creation, the International Space Orchestra and their performance and film, Ground Control: An Opera in Space, is the most impressive yet: an orchestra of NASA Ames Research Center top space scientists and astronauts, playing an opera based on the Apollo 11 mission, with a libretto by sci-fi legend Bruce Sterling and music by the likes of Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack.

What do you think needs to be challenged in our current relationship to science?

I am interested in how science can answer our creative needs. The Large Hadron Collider, for example, is bombarding protons at the speed of light and scientists have just found signs of Higgs Boson. That is marvelous and incredible technically. But what interests me much more is that we can recreate the first second of the Big Bang. What does it feel like to be inside the LHC when the machine is on? What sort of thrill do you feel ‘in front’ of the Big Bang? This is ultimately the type of experience I wish to design for the public.

What’s it actually like in there?

It’s like a James Bond set. You go 100 metres underground, you’ve got scientists explaining the security. They bombard you with science of course. You get your iris checked, and then the gates opens.

You did another research trip to Chernobyl…

In July 2012, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Unknown Fields Division, lead by Liam Young and Kate Davies at the Architectural Association, in a road trip_ ‘toxic tourism’ from Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, through the Ukraine and the oil fields of Azerbaijan to rocket launch pad of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrone. Often referred as a technological and human tragedy, Chernobyl embraces paradoxical responses. Similarly, Baikonur Cosmodrome hides in its basement failed rocket engines and other secrets while being lauded by the outside world for its technological successes. The complex relationship and paradoxes involved in such nuclear, space technologies and their architectures, as well as the impact they had on our lives seemed to me as if they follow the rules of Tragedy as defined by the ancient Greeks. When you visit these sites, you can’t stop but feeling as if you were in a play, a theatrical piece.There’re gas masks everywhere but also books where visitors write what they feel.
All the drama of Chernobyl is ingrained inside Chernobyl reactor 4’s control room, where this 23-year-old engineer made a mistake in the procedure. You realise, as much as these experiments can be automatised and computerised, it’s still human beings behind it, that really question how individuals respond to intense decision making pressure in the ‘control rooms’ and therefore got me to question power structure and hierarchy in scientifically built environment.

People have so many fantasies about space travel. What are yours?

Now it’s more difficult [to say] because I touched the dream! I am just back from NASA Ames Research Center, where I had the chance to direct the International Space Orchestra. Blending space science, planet-poking and bluegrass-playing spacecraft operators, the world’s first orchestra composed of space scientists (featuring, Lewis Braxton, the Deputy Director of NASA Ames, playing the gong and astronaut Yvonne Cagle playing percussion) the International Space Orchestra – came together to perform Ground Control: An Opera in Space.

Inspired by our desire to understand the universe, and to rocket-propel our souls to further galaxies, Ground Control: An Opera in Space was performed by the International Space Orchestra, an assembly of star-spangled space scientists from NASA Ames, Singularity University, International Space University and the SETI Institute. It featured original music by Arthur Jeffes of Penguin Café and music written by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), singer Bobby Womack and producer Richard Russell; and Japanese superstar and Otamatone inventor, Maywa Denki. With lyrics by science fiction author Bruce Sterling and writer Jasmina Tesanovic.

In this tangential reality, the Flight Controller conducted arias and the Payload Officer worked a baritone sax, while the Capsule Communicator played the triangle. Merging science, technology, design and opera, Ground-Control: An Opera in Space, really reached the final frontier!

The International Space Orchestra is built as an experiential and hybrid research laboratory, where I have invited space scientists to implement, deconstruct, perform, sing, mix, modify, and design musical acts in control rooms. It is a provocation to action: a call to imagine and disrupt future human relations to science; to adapt science to our creative need.

So yes, potentially it is completely surreal. It often looks like if I have lived a complete fantasy.

Nelly Ben Hayoun’s International Space Orchestra project is exhibited at Z33, House for Contemporary Art, Belgium in February 2013