BELLA GAIA: Communicating Science Through Art

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Synopsis

Art sometimes does what mere data does not. Bella Gaia combines satellite visualizations with live music and dance so people see and feel Earth's beauty and frailty.

Happy Earth Day!  

Here are some facts:

•       The earth is warming.  Since 1880, the 20 warmest years were all after 1981, and 10 of them were after 2001.

•       The glaciers are melting.  Greenland, for example, lost 150-250 cubic kilometers of ice every year between 2002 and 2006.

•       The water is rising.  The global sea level rose twice as quickly in the last decade as it did in the last century.

92% of climate scientists agree that these alarming changes are due to human conduct, and in particular to carbon emissions caused by our consumption of fossil fuels.

But sometimes science isn't enough.  There are people in power who say they aren’t persuaded.  And those of us who are often act as if we’re not, carrying on with the same old habits of overconsumption and waste (I know I've been guilty of that myself!). So what could move people when data does not?

Art.

That's the lesson I came away with after I saw the award-winning, spellbinding, live multimedia performance called Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth).  It doesn't just speak to your intellect with numbers and figures.  It immerses your senses in a vibrant experience.  With stunning NASA visualizations it reveals the whole spinning globe as something moving and living, an organism with cardiovascular rhythms: circulating oceans, breathing winds.  You see its interconnectedness and beauty.  But you also see its frailty – the atmosphere thickening, ice caps receding, forests vanishing – and all of this is accompanied by moving orchestrations and dance from around the world so that the condition of Earth is no longer an abstract idea.  It's something you feel.  

That is the magic of art.

Bella Gaia founder and producer, Kenji Williams, is an accomplished composer, violinist, filmmaker, and theatrical director.  He kindly agreed to answer some questions ...

 


 

1.     What inspired you to start BELLA GAIA?

A few years ago, I was invited to witness the launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket on its way to the International Space Station:

I met the American astronaut Mike Fincke, who had lived on the International Space Station for six months. I asked him what had changed for him when he went into space, and he told me about his profound transformation seeing the Earth from space, his realization of how unique and special our home planet really is. His appreciation for our planet grew from this experience – called the “Overview Effect” – an experience shared by countless astronauts.  I was really inspired by this story, which got me thinking: how can I bring this transformative experience to those of us who can’t go to space?

Thus began my journey of creating BELLA GAIA. BELLA GAIA has grown in an organic way – now exploring much more than just space. The show celebrates human culture and our complex relationship with nature, through live performance and cutting edge data visualizations. It is an exploration of how humans and our ecosystem are interconnected, sharing the same destiny as we enter the Anthropocene – the current geological epoch, in which humans represent the driving force of change to the Earth’s ecosystem. Our new video trailer can be seen here:

2.     What were you doing before you started BELLA GAIA?

I trained as a classical violinist from the age of 6, and I developed my skills as a composer writing soundtracks in film school. I played in various Dub Reggae/Hip Hop bands, and also toured with a techno band called Medicine Drum. I graduated from film school, and have been a film/video producer/director ever since. I also ran my own music label, producing, releasing, and performing dance and ambient music around the world under my own name. One of the tracks became part of John Digweed’s first Bedrock compilation. Some of my work before BELLA GAIA is viewable on my personal site: http://www.kenjiwilliams.com. And the last multimedia project I directed before BELLA GAIA was WORLDSPIRIT, with the painter/artist Alex Grey.

 3.     Have you always been an environmentalist?

I think I have always felt that humans were locked into a difficult conflict with our ecosystem, that things needed to change, and I have a deep love for nature and the design of the living universe. However I have also been frustrated by the lack of communication and moral motivation within the environmental movement itself. My approach to the relationship between humans and nature comes from a spiritual, cultural place; it is more than simply 'taking care of the Earth because we have to.' I believe that stewardship of the Earth happens when a culture has a healthy relationship to nature, with rituals which remind us of this connection.

I had a life-changing experience watching Lakota Sundances in South Dakota and on the west coast. Tribe members made great sacrifices through great hardship, dancing without food or water for 4 days and nights, shedding their own blood to give back to Mother Nature and continuing the life cycle. Life experiences like these have inspired me to create a *culture* of ecology, rather than inspiring me to become an environmental activist. You can see these themes in a documentary I produced called Moment Utopia, about rave culture, ritual, and celebration. We don’t have to ‘shed blood’, but we do need a global ritual that connects us to nature. On that scale, we have the Olympics, but it is nationalistic and about sports. We have “Earth day” but it is superficial and forgotten after the day. BELLA GAIA is a seed for such a needed ritual, a communal transformational experience that welcomes all belief systems, and allows us to commune with and understand holistic natural systems, and foster a healthier relationship with our home planet.

4.     What role do you think the arts can play in advancing positive changes in society?

Art is the medium for a culture's expression and identity; it has the power to mold people's world view and perspective. However, I think that art for art's sake is less interesting; it only reinforces the current modern culture, divorced from nature -- which has produced our global systems crisis. Art with intention, creating change through inspiration, and what the philosopher Ken Wilber calls "integral art," is what I feel is needed. If art serves a greater purpose through transformation, it can have a huge impact on change in society.

Here’s an example: I walked into NASA to present my ideas in front of a group of top-ranking Earth scientists. I performed a small sample of BELLA GAIA, combining their scientific data visualizations with my music. What surprised me was the level of enthusiasm I received from the scientists in that room, as they experienced their own data in a new and engaging way through the BELLA GAIA experience.

For these scientists and the environmental community at large, at times it seems as if no one is listening, yet I have found that when presenting complex, scientific information in an artistic way, it can have a very different effect. This mode of communication is not just reaching people on a cognitive, cerebral level, it also touches them on an emotional level, a “right brain/ whole brain” vs. “left brain only” level. The neuroscientists Damasio and Yang have found that the human brain needs "emotional thought" in order to even open the door to learning. This is the role that art should play, helping society learn and evolve.

5.     Is BELLA GAIA already making an impact?

Yes. I have had climate change skeptics admit to me after the performance that they’d changed their minds, seeing the effects of our actions on Earth. BELLA GAIA is transforming people, yet remarkably, I do not speak a single word during the performance. Facts and figures often don’t affect human psychology; the only way to reach people is through their hearts AND minds.

I have received emails and drawings from children saying BELLA GAIA gave them a new vision of our planet, that they will start recycling or caring for the planet more. High school kids have come up to me saying that they saw the BP oil spill disaster on the news, but they "never thought it was like this." BELLA GAIA has a powerful way of touching people’s hearts, in a world inundated with left-brain information and politics. Ultimately I believe humans learn and act on how they feel, not how they think – and this has been a missing piece in the conversation about global environmental issues.

BELLA GAIA doesn’t take a political position; we hope the presentation will inspire others to reflect upon their own relationships with the natural world, and to draw their own conclusions. BELLA GAIA’s take-home message is very simple: Your actions affect other things. If this message is deeply felt, it will become part of all the choices we make in our lives, from decisions on what to buy, to career and relationship decisions.

6.     Where do you find creative inspiration?

I find inspiration in human and natural expressions of the living universe, radical beauty and art forms without many words. Live music in the subway, dance, the sound of crickets, waterfalls, birds, movies like Baraka, technology, occasional books and authors such as Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Ken Wilber, personal challenges and global challenges.

7.     Who are your favorite musical artists?

Classical: St. Saens, Debussy

Electronica/Ambient: Brian Eno, The Orb, Orbital, Massive Attack, Speedy J, Richie Hawtin, Emit, Future sound of London, Underworld, Detroit techno and minimal house, Steve Roach, Sphongle, Vir Unis, Telefon Tel Aviv, Enya

World: Nitin Sawhney, Zakhir Hussain, Indian & Arabic music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hamsa el Din, Balinese gamelan

Pop: U2, Eminem, MC Solaar

Jazz: Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane

Reggae: The police, skatalites, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Aswad Dub, dance hall reggae, English beat

8.     Do you ever feel creatively blocked? If so, how do you overcome it?

Yes, sometimes I do feel creatively blocked. It helps to take a step back and clear the mind with meditation, going for a walk, or simply taking time away from a focused creative head space. Seeing and experiencing other inspiring creativity is always helpful. Cross-fertilizing seemingly unrelated experiences and ideas from my travels and life events into the creative process brings new life, ideas, and inspiration into my work.

Tags: earth day, environment, nasa, science

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