Environmental Education Using Music and Earth’s Beauty
By Neila Columbo
June 25, 2012
NEW YORK — Classically-trained violinist and award-winning director Kenji Williams recently spoke with Sierra Club Green Home about his inspiration for creating BELLA GAIA (Beautiful Earth), a live, panoramic theater presentation featuring musical performances set against large-screen projections of Earth from space. These images which illuminate the stunning beauty of our planet as viewed from the perspective of NASA astronauts.
1) What inspired BELLA GAIA?
In 2005 I was invited to attend the launch of the Russian Soyuz rocket in Kazakhstan, on its way up to the International Space Station. While there I met American astronaut Mike Fincke, who had lived on the International Space Station for six months. He was preparing to return to space, and I asked him what had changed for him when he first went to space. He explained that before he went to space his favorite planets were Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, but when he first looked down from the space station and saw the Earth, he had a profound transformation, and Earth became his favorite planet. This experience led to his realization of how special our planet is in its ability to support life. This is a common experience shared by astronauts who are transformed by seeing Earth from space, known as the “overview effect.”
Talking with Mike inspired me to think about how we could all share in this transformative experience, and the creative process began to germinate to create this experience for all of us who cannot travel to space.
2) How did you begin collaborating with NASA?
I was invited to present my idea at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I met Valerie Casasanto, a passionate educator and really amazing champion at NASA. She became a great advocate on my behalf of the project. She introduced me to NASA scientists, who began sharing their data visualizations of their scientific research, and over a period of time we explored how to present complex scientific data in a visually inspiring way that could truly engage and educate others. From that point, BELLA GAIA evolved.
3) When did you first perform the show for an audience?
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science hosted the very first performance in 2007, and we received feedback from the audience. We then began conducting workshops as part of the project’s education platform for young audiences. The workshops have been funded by NASA for three years now. This experience has reaffirmed my belief that we do not all have to be in powerful positions to make a difference.
4) BELLA GAIA is described as a “Living atlas multimedia journey of the world.” Can you share some details about the content of the show and performance?
The performances of each show are designed to be an exploration of the relationship between humans, nature, and Earth using live performance and data visualizations. The Scientific content incorporated into the show is continually evolving as NASA collects new data from satellites every day. Between six and eight performers from different countries around the world are featured in the presentation, from Egypt, New York City, India and Japan.
We also have an amazing Native American Science Educator, Jim Rock, who takes part in the education initiative. He has brought an important perspective to the program. For example, indigenous cultures around the world have always had traditions and rituals which help humans relate to nature, and we have lost this in our modern lives.
The interactive data visualizations include the ebb and flow of the Arctic, a visualization of air traffic over a 24-hour period, carbon emissions over time, and the burning forests in the Amazon. We try to present this data in a visually aesthetic way.
The show is reaching people of all ages, particularly families, and by presenting the show as a concert in arts theaters, we are able to connect with a broad, mainstream audience. 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.
5) What has been the most meaningful part of performing and the tour thus far?
It is most meaningful that we may have inspired others to feel greater concern about the planet on a deeper and more profound level that translates into real action. To be able to work with these extraordinarily dedicated NASA scientists is truly a privilege. They are so passionate about their work and truly believe if more people could see the data they are reviewing, it would facilitate greater understanding of the current changes occurring on a global level.
At times, it seems as though 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. I think the environmental community can perhaps learn from this experience. This mode of communication is not just reaching people on a cognitive, cerebral level, it is also reaching people on an emotional level: it is a “right-brain-and-whole-brain” vs. “left-brain-only” approach.
I think scientists at NASA feel great value in the performance, and in better communicating their data to the public. Audiences are more open and receptive to the immersive, subtle approach, given the stunning images NASA has shared for the project. I am inspired by the many people who share with me how striking the beauty of the visualizations is to them. I have even had one person skeptical of climate change express to me after the show that he had changed his mind, and that he had a new perspective on the effects of global warming on Earth. I feel as though I am truly transforming people through the performance yet, remarkably, I do not speak a single word.
6) What is your vision for BELLA GAIA after the end of the three-year education initiative?
I see BELLA GAIA as a living, evolving movement, and I hope to expand the project globally. We are producing a film for planetariums, and hope to expand the live platform for a touring symphony performance and a Broadway theater show.
The project has blossomed beyond what I could have ever imagined, and we are currently ramping up fundraising efforts, seeking management leaders, major corporate sponsors, foundation grants, and investors whose ideas resonate with our mission. It has certainly been a dream to be able to connect with others through this audio-visual performance, inspiring others to see our world in a new, beautiful way.
For related articles, see:
Trashy Art: San Francisco Artists Get Creative at the Dump
Environmentally Friendly Music Technology
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