Ground Control: How to Create an Opera in Space

  • Nelly Ben Hayoun

I've always been fascinated by complex bureaucracies and I enjoy figuring out and experimenting with group dynamics, communities and make things happen. After realizing the need for a new and innovative approach to space education and outreach, one connecting emotional and experiential systems, I developed the world first orchestra made of space scientists. In this complex geopolitical production, I will not take no for an answer.

I am passionate about space, and I understand that, if you want people to engage with space science, you cannot do that with a poster. You need action, and so the International Space Orchestra was born.
I was fortunate enough to study my MA in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art a course set up by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. It was the most unique experience and all the things I learned before Design Interactions came together while I was studying at the RCA a totally magical time – I was free to experiment and test out how to best tell stories and perform. This is where I started to think that design could work hand-in-hand with theatrical methodology and that designing experiences also meant thinking in terms of script, performance, installation and architecture. That freedom of learning has meant that, I understand my own practice and resultantly design ‘extreme’ experiences for the public to access the surreal and fantastical in science. That means I design dark energy in your kitchen sink, while a volcano erupts on your couch and you are travelling in Space on board your Soyuz chair while being bombarded with sonic booms and neutrinos in your bedroom.
"Ideas are everywhere, that is the most human skills we have: imagination. It’s also a ‘muscle’, all of us have ideas; the most difficult part is to make them a reality — to filter them, to edit them, to transfer them and then to deliver them. That’s where the ‘creative’ starts for me. Having ideas is not complex, making them happen is the hard bit. The first step is to start, with the International Space Orchestra, it was firing off 100’s of emails, building relationships and moving forward, from there".
Everything is always a challenge, that’s the way I roll. I get bored otherwise. I like complexity and huge difficult productions. As I mentioned before, nothing is impossible, it’s simply a question of organisation. When taking on a project, I’ll go into someone’s office and try to find a way to challenge the interviewee. If you’re an expert in your discipline, you’ll get annoyed when a designer questions or challenges your research and the creativity comes from that conflict. I think the biggest barrier is the notion of ‘polite’ collaboration. There is a connect between art and science and design but they are not merging. The innovation comes from conflict between these disciplines, rather than working politely harmoniously together, that in itself is an extremely fine line to walk along, and a constant challenge to negotiate.
I think you don’t get to do these projects unless you have the right team and the right credentials, or even the right package to prove that you can achieve. I could list off literally 100’s of people that have helped me on my way. The members of the Orchestra, and my team at NBH Studios being top of the list! I also believe that amongst my skill set, one particularly stands out in these situations: REAL INTENSE PASSION for the subject matter. Persistence too, I never ever, ever give up. That guarantees my team and myself will get the work done.
Funding does not come from one source, and on all the projects we run within the International Space Orchestra, we have a huge variety of people that are willing to pitch in and help, with skill and financials. The phrase, ‘we begged, stole and borrowed’ definitely applies here. When I started the International Space Orchestra, I did not expect that we would still be here today. The International Space Orchestra is the world’s first orchestra of space scientists. Blending space exploration and bassoons; planet-poking and bluegrass-playing spacecraft operators – the International Space Orchestra’s members are individuals drawn from NASA Ames Research Center, SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Singularity University and the International Space University.
The International Space Orchestra, is an experiential and hybrid research laboratory, where space scientists are implementing, deconstructing, performing, singing, mixing, modifying, and designing musical acts. It is a provocation to action: a call to imagine and disrupt future human relations to space science; to adapt space science to our creative needs. We have performed with Beck, Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack, Savages, The Prodigy, Penguin Café, Japanese composer Maywa Denki and more… The experience of directing this orchestra, is a constant surprise and challenge and one in which the objectives are always changing and developing. For now, I still see the challenge and creativity in this project, and look forward to completing our next performance !!!! 

The International Space Orchestra is not stopping anytime soon!!! Blending space science, planet-poking and bluegrass-playing spacecraft operators, we came together on April 19th of this year to perform two songs Adore Life and Mechanics with rock band Savages at The Fillmore Theatre in San Francisco. This was a moment of pure joy for all involved, to be standing on the stage that launched the careers of Jimi Hendrix, BB King and many more, alongside Savages a band who are truly alive on stage, such an inspiring moment, I was walking on air for weeks afterward. Looking to the future, we have just performed in front of 17500 people at the Hollywood Bowl In LA as supporting act of Sigur Ros. Since taking that first step, and sending close to thousands of emails demonstrating my commitment to the cause, the ISO and I have enjoyed fruitful collaborations ever since. 
Photograph Credits In Order: Nelly Ben Hayoun in NASA Ames Research centre, Photograph by Neil Berett, Nelly Ben Hayoun and the International Space Orchestra in front of the worlds largest wind-tunnel, Photograph by Neil Berrett, Nelly Ben Hayoun, Director of the International Space Orchestra, Photograph by Nick Ballon, The International Space Orchestra, Photography by Neil Berrett, Nelly Ben Hayoun Barbie Doll, Thanks to Mattel, Photograph taken by Jet.