To the slammer!
Magicians in California, a year ago.
Foreword to some weird stuff. 23rd September 2013.
Last summer I went to California and, like, got my mind blown. I think I’m a valley girl through and through – whether in Wales or California, I don’t mind. I saw some crazy things in the Elephant Room, which popped up in LA, and also went to the wonderful town of Truckee near Lake Tahoe. Truckee’s only at an altitude of 1,773m, but by the time my friend Brooke had raced us there in her SUV - stopping only when we ground to a halt on the side of the freeway to Reno, out of gas for the second time in one trip!* - I was tripping out Tahoe-style. We were swimming in a snowmelt that glistens with fool’s gold and my earthly being had evaporated. By the time I went to bed I was practically hallucinating what I would now call Shamanistic flashes of sound and vision (#Bowie). We had just eaten a pizza the size of my mum’s dining room table.
* (see below and above photos of my friend Phoebe filling up with the aid of Highway Patrol near San José)
Out of Gas #1: Highway Patrolman from Fresno
I woke up on my first morning in Truckee to see a book entitled Living with the Dead right under the Pig Pen poster that adorned my bedroom wall. Was the house haunted as suspected when I was falling asleep…?
Or maybe the whole place is? Seems reasonable, Brooke agreed, if you think about the Donner Party story, for example (see below).
I have in the past coasted lucidly at high speed through 5,000m passes in the foothills of the Himalayas (driven by a very stoned person) as others around me passed out with altitude sickness, and have lived with equanimity in a haunted house in France as others around me lost their minds - but nothing could prepare me for Truckee.
Needless to say Living with the Dead was our eminently dude-like host’s book about The Grateful Dead (feat. Pig Pen).
Valley girl, lost to the wilds of California
I went to California to write about Nelly Ben Hayoun’s International Space Orchestra for a magazine called Disegno - and look what happened. Below is a version of that article, the writer’s cut, as penned with the feeling that you could prop a ladder up in Topanga Canyon and climb to the moon, that the world is nothing but chemicals (oh to be young again! oh California!). Yesterday I saw Nelly’s film about the ISO at the V&A and I was so moved to see a document of this crazy time, as well as footage of the ISO’s music being blasted into space!
Read on below and learn more here http://www.nellyben.com/ !
Magician to Mars or What Just Happened?
On the Trail of Nelly Ben Hayoun
A private memorial service for Neil Armstrong, all-American hero astronaut, was held on 31st August 2012, just as a blue moon rose low over California – a second full moon in one earthly calendar month. On 5th August (Pacific Daylight Time), the month’s first moon had been flying high over NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles, which erupted with human joy as the Curiosity Rover touched down on the surface of Mars. Cheering the non-human, but hugely anthropomorphised Curiosity Rover from the NASA Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field, Silicon Valley, was a somewhat incongruous figure: an artist who, in record time, has successfully infiltrated an institution which, since its inception in 1958, has propagated a particular idea of America - on the Moon and now on Mars. “I call myself a designer,” Nelly Ben Hayoun tells me during a break from rehearsing her International Space Orchestra – made up largely of NASA Ames employees - in a former military ballroom on the Moffett Field site. “But when I work with scientists, I create chaos.”
I first met Nelly in July 2012 in London. She is vivacious, distinctive, deliberately French, the face of Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio (an ‘experience designer’) and, as of now, a brand - just look at her Twitter feed, her websites, the jumpsuits which she receives, in a form of sponsorship deal from Ruby Rocks, to confirm this. She told me she was planning to create an orchestra composed of astronauts and space scientists, a kind of focus group for researching a ‘mission control room opera’ she is planning to stage as an extension of her research (in the field of human geography) into high-pressure situations. The only problem was, her initial endeavours had led to political complications with her US visa application: who, Homeland Security were asking, is this woman (self-identifying as French and Armenian) reaching into the heart of America? But a few weeks later Ben Hayoun had tweeted a photo of herself – in one of her trademark jumpsuits – sharing a jovial moment with the Director of NASA Ames, Simon P. “Pete” Worden (retired Brigadier General of the US Air Force). Pete Worden is, in the picture, dressed as a Viking, fresh from a talk on the future of Mars exploration - the costume, his own. Valhalla I am coming, the picture announced, just weeks before the Curiosity Rover ‘tweeted’ “GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!” in a style more American Pie than American dream. Significantly, Ben Hayoun’s intervention at NASA Ames could be seen to have resonated somewhat more clearly with Pete Worden’s immigrant song.
By September 6th 2012, the International Space Orchestra (ISO: Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio’s trademark pending) was performing for the cameras, having spent weeks rehearsing in the shadow of Hangar One – a structure that has been stripped of its toxic coating and stands like a spider from Mars over Moffett Field. And I had received my invitation to Ground Control: An Opera in Space, “inspired by our desire to understand the universe and rocket-propel our souls to further galaxies.” The stellar list of collaborators includes Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn, Japanese performance artist Maywa Denki, composer and Penguin Café Orchestra founder Arthur Jeffes, lyrics by science fiction author Bruce Sterling in collaboration with author Jasmina Tesanovic, and musical direction by Grammy Award-winning composer Evan Price. The piece premiered in San Jose, California, as part of the city’s ZERO1 Biennial, which focuses on work at the meeting-point of art and technology.
Flying Nelly. Photo from Nelly Ben Hayoun.
“Why did I want I want to do an opera?” Ben Hayoun suddenly asks as we bomb down the freeway in a clapped-out Volvo towards Moffett Field. “Because I am a designer, or I consider myself to be a designer, and I don’t know anything about operatic forms.I am interested in the control room as a stage for opera: a place where intense decision-making takes place. Probably because I am trying to figure out what design is in some ways and how I can push it…” Speaking of her librettist, cult science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, Ben Hayoun hypothesises that – as he has never written for opera before – his obstacle-filled conversations with musical director Evan Price will break new ground: “they don’t speak the same language and yet somehow they can understand each other.” Can you hear me Major Tom? As Computer Scientist Peter I. Robinson (Bassoon, ISO) puts it, “We’re kind of the natural successors to Bowie.”
It was a first for many people. Astronaut Yvonne Cagle (Percussion, ISO) – had never played an instrument. Bobby Womack was to perform his funky new work ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ with a musical arrangement by Damon Albarn. “I just really want this to be a success for Nelly,” Barbara Navarro, Asst. Chief at the Flight Systems Implementation Branch at NASA Ames (Trumpet, ISO), told me during one of the rehearsals running on a weekday from 5pm – 7pm, just after the close of day’s work on Moffett Field. Barbara is currently working on a design for a cage that will enable scientists to send animals into space for a protracted period of time. It’s difficult to keep them from rolling around in their own shit and food in zero gravity conditions without the right equipment.Ben Hayoun galvanised these people around her – a political and, she would argue, performative feat itself. John Cumbers (Choir, ISO) even offered up his young child, for the show, in which his fictional role as ‘flight director’ was dramatised in series of dynamic movements amongst which he proposed including the symbolic act of pulling his child from the kind of sturdy box more usually employed to transport space equipment (eventually she was placed in a custom-made rocket outfit).By day John is a synthetic biologist who is working on the necessary science to create food from DNA that will facilitate sustenance for longer manned missions. NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr said, on the occasion of the rover landing, “President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid 2030s and today’s landing marks a significant step in achieving this goal”. Scientists like John are at the forefront of these efforts.
NASA Ames toilets.
When I speak one-on-one to Ben Hayoun, her persona as Director and Creator of the ISO (that deliberate Frenchness which has so charmed everyone from Pete Worden to John Cumbers’s nine-month old child) drops somewhat. I am speaking to someone who is impressively strategic about a project that has accelerated from zero to infinity in two earthly months (she is currently in talks with various parties on the Moffett Field site about broadcasting the ISO repertoire infinitely, to the ends of the universe; the vaulting ambition here is only slightly diminished by the recent broadcast from Mars of will. i. am’s song Reach For the Stars.). In certain respects, yes, Ben Hayoun is like some cat from Japan. Indeed, she was trained in the secretive art of kimono design by Japanese masters (again, achieving a unique access as a ‘foreigner’) before studying Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, London under Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (Ben Hayoun initially studied medicine for a short time). Following on from her kimono-print training, a subsequent interest in ritual led her to arrange the marriage of her whole family in the south of France. She has since emerged as a key figure in ‘experience design’.
Ben Hayoun describes her way of working as that of a ‘samurai’ - as she immerses herself in extreme situations. But hers is an antic disposition, by means of which indirections she has already found many directions out. The spectacle of the ISO laid bare the politics of the Moffett Field site, and the hierarchy that exists there. On the one hand this hierarchy is tested playfully within the ranks of the ISO as participants perform roles senior in the imagined mission control room to their actual ‘superiors’ at NASA Ames (John Cumbers plays flight director whilst the real flight director, Rusty Hunt, works the sax); on the other hand, the tested sphere of hierarchy extends to the commercial ventures such as SpaceX and Moon Express which share the site at Moffett Field.In May 2012 Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp. conducted a successful mission to the International Space Station, and Pete Worden has been consistently alert to the benefits of commercial interests to NASA Ames research: “We also hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred Year Starship Fund,” he stated at a ‘Long Conversation’ event in San Francisco earlier in 2012. “The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds. Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired.” It’s hard to imagine what this colonial aim is all about when the so-called ‘Goldilocks zone’ (where planetary conditions are neither too hot nor too cold to support life) is so unreachable. Kepler 22-b, the closest thing to another Earth that has ever been detected, is 600 light years away. Maybe it’s as Jed Mercurio writes in his space-race novel Ascent, ‘Perhaps only in sport does a man measure himself against another man in any sense that’s true.’
It has been a summer of vaulting ambition, an international celebration of superhuman achievement and America was not to be outdone. Whilst Neil Armstrong’s life was claimed for humanity, ‘for mankind’, the celebration of the Rover mission was a very American affair. A banner was raised at the entrance to Moffett Field after the landing, during the London Olympics: “NASA wins gold! They stuck the landing!!” Obama extended his presidential congratulations: “Tonight, on the planet Mars the United States of America made history. It proves that even the longest odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”Manned space flight is undergoing something of an ideological revival, maybe the hunt for a new Armstrong figure is on – we need more stars for the mighty firmament! But as the UK’s ‘astronomer royal’ recently wrote in The Guardian, ‘It is foolish to claim, as some do, that emigration into space offers a long-term escape from Earth’s problems. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest.’ And US funding for Mars missions is set to fall from $587 million in 2012 to $360.8 million, a figure comparable to the budget of the recent Disney flop John Carter ($350 million) that all but bankrupted the studio with a loss of $200 million. No one was into the story of a Confederate soldier on Mars, who would surely turn in his mock-grave at the thought that the Red Planet too had been claimed for the Union – even if this ambition must be funded by a new set of pioneers.
Moon Express, for example, was founded with the goal of exploring ‘resource utilisation’ in space (top rhetorical tip from Moffett Field: don’t speak of ‘mining’ or ‘bombing’ the moon or asteroids, which are governed by the same international laws as those governing fishing in international waters). Moon Express is amongst the competitors seeking to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for the first privately-funded team to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon. But Ben Hayoun has established her own competition: who on the Moffett Field site can recreate as a sound the kind of vibrations that emanated from Neil Armstrong’s one small step? Moon Express Project Engineer Mike Vergalla has risen to the challenge - with the aid of a vacuum chamber, an accelerometer and a vibration sensor - and was soon trying to sell Ben Hayoun the means to create such an auditory signal from one of the lander feet of the first three Moon Express missions.
“We’re the company sending stuff to the Moon, so why not work with us as a customer? We are a business.”
“Oh my God, Mike, you are so good! You are basically selling something to a very poor artist!”
Freaky Donner Lake.
In March 1846 George Donner, a successful farmer from Illinois, placed the following advertisement in the Sangamon Journal newspaper:
WESTWARD HO! FOR OREGON AND CALIFORNIA!
Who wants to go to California without costing them anything?
Come on boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.
But can anyone go to California without costing them anything?
When the eighty-nine members of ‘The Donner Party’ set off, little did they suspect that their story would become one of the most infamous in the history of the United States – which at that point were far from being defined. Over half a million emigrants crossed the plains before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, but the Donner Party’s desperate situation (they became stranded in early snows north of Lake Tahoe, and resorted, over the course of a savage winter, to cannibalism of ‘the loathsome flesh’) has been meticulously documented. Walt Whitman, also in 1846, had written in his column for the Brooklyn Eagle: “Then there is California, in the way to which lovely tract lies Santa Fe. How long a time will elapse before they shine as two new stars in our mighty firmament?” To the pioneers, stepping into the unknown hazards of the majestic West must have been like travelling to another planet.
If ‘USA’ has long been the world’s most successful brand, then it has been based on a formula: a bold claim of union that preceded political success (if there ever has been real union among these stars). The brand is a magic trick that actively pumps stars into the firmament; a sleight of hand in which pioneer spirit is pulled from undignified corpses. Native American communities, and others too, still hold the star-spangled banner upside down as a sign of ‘distress’ – an act most recently reported at the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa. The original ‘Occupy’ movement might have been in February 1973, when 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. “Right here at Wounded Knee,” Olowan Thunder Hawk Martinez was recently quoted as saying, in National Geographic: “This is where the idea of me happened.”
The idea of what it is to be American perhaps found its perfect articulation in the figure of Neil Armstrong. His modesty prevailed (“I was certainly aware that this was the culmination of the work of 300,000 to 400,000 people over a decade”), but, like it or not, he was anointed a star. Armstrong flew as a Navy fighter during the Korean war (in which the Soviets flew under a cloak of invisibility), and clocked up more than 1,000 hours as a test pilot in the world’s fastest aircraft, but – as Tom Wolfe found when it came to seeking out ‘the right stuff’ – such heroes can be lifted from military history, ‘for mankind’.
“We’re going to the moon,” says Vergalla and when Ben Hayoun asks “Who’s we?” he clarifies his position: “I say we as the, like, collective mind and sensors that is our human reach on things.” But at the same time, Vergalla wants to stick his own landing. His whole life has been a preparation for the astronaut training he hopes to undertake by his mid-thirties. I suspect that, as with Wendy Holforty, Aerospace Engineer (Guitar and Choir, ISO), the word ‘fail’ is not in Vergalla’s vocabulary. When Ben Hayoun – a chain-smoking artist who has him crawling on the ground at Moffett Field to recreate ‘the magic one’ (the sound of a footstep in a semi-vacuum) – reveals that she too plans to train as an astronaut, Vergalla’s immediate reaction is not one of incredulity, but to offer a number of variations on “I’m cool with that” and “I’m not threatened”: “Start sailing 500 mile sea races and then we’ll talk.”
For Ben Hayoun this is ‘political design’, in which, as designer, she adopts a position, which is both disruptive and revealing. On other occasions, however, she simply marvels at this situation of her own making. She says it will take her three years to go through her archive to work out what just happened and that she will write her findings up as part of that PhD in human geography: “I’ve been trained in my family to be the person who can perform, and I can see that it is totally, totally making it with this project. I can go in someone’s office and I can persuade him [to get involved] in five minutes. All of these things are just so surreal”. Indeed, Barbara Navarro’s eyes pop with delight when Ben Hayoun says that she intends to train as an astronaut and that she has already secured letters of recommendation from her champion and mentor the former head of NASA Ames Jack Boyd. “If you can get a letterhead with the Meatball on it, then that’ll be something,” Barbara half-whispers, referring to the legendary NASA logo that was only momentarily replaced by the controversial 1980s-style ‘worm’ logo (which nonetheless spawned the Nice and Safe Attitude clothing brand).
I put it to Ben Hayoun that her personal investment in this ‘political design’ project must also be a romance with space. Her previous projects include The Soyuz Chair, a chair that recreates the experience of lift-off atop the Soviet Soyuz rocket (the Russians still lead the way in rocket design, although the Americans are currently working on a rocket that may or may not be for future Mars missions, according to one source at NASA Ames). But no, she tells me. It’s about impossible situations, the way of the samurai. Her ambition to become an American astronaut would be a prime example of such an impossible situation, notably because she is not an American citizen. Perhaps Ben Hayoun’s affinity with Pete Worden and Jack Boyd is founded in their particular avant-gardism, which embraces the possibility of ridicule and failure as well as personal sacrifice in a country that seemed to back down from its ambitions in the face of the space-shuttle disasters. Worden, for example, and controversially, has mooted the possibility of ‘one way missions’ to Mars. As scientists Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies have written, ‘Explorers such as Columbus, Frobisher, Scott and Amundsen, while not embarking on their voyages with the intention of staying at their destination, nevertheless took huge personal risks to explore new lands, in the knowledge there was a significant likelihood that they would perish in the attempt.’ And didn’t Vikings discover the Americas?
Nelly Ben Hayoun and Pete Worden work with a humour that announces itself, after Beckett, more Worstward Ho, than Westward Ho, embracing the thought that there’s nothing new under the sun, from Donner Pass to Silicon Valley to Mars: ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Peter I. Robinson is delighted with this injection of avant-gardism back into the NASA ecosystem and shares with me his thoughts about the art that inspired him to join the ranks of what Ray Bradbury called ‘a truly future-oriented avant-garde’: the artists of the modern world, the space pioneers. Bradbury found Sir Edmund Hilary’s response to the question: why climb Everest? (“Because it was there.”) ‘meaningless’ – but, is this not the highest truth: that hurling objects at the moon ‘as the, like, collective mind and sensors that is our human reach on things’ is an extension of what Orwell called the ‘sporting contests [that] lead to orgies of hatred’. For Orwell, sport was war by other means. Maybe after a 500-mile sea race, Mike Vergalla should talk further to Nelly Ben Hayoun, whose intervention at NASA Ames has surely created vibrations that might sound only as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of an accelerometer and a conductor’s baton – but which echo through various dimensions, past, present and future.
A cat called Pyewacket. San Francisco.
Somehow I also ended up in Detroit.
 The Moffett Field site is owned by the US Navy (the 1,000+ acres were purchased for $1 in the 1930s) and is the home of Hangar One, the largest aircraft hangar in the world. Over its history, Moffett Field has been home to the Army Air Corps, Navy, NATS, MATS, NASA and is also now used as a landing site for the Google execs’ private jets. It’s a mixture of military, government and private commercial enterprises. http://historicproperties.arc.nasa.gov/history/history3.html
 Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt – the CEO, co-founder and executive chairman of Google – had proposed paying the full $33 million cost of rendering Hangar One fit for (totally unclear) purpose again with the condition they could use two-thirds of the floorspace to house their eight private jets. Hangar One is a structure wide enough to fit three Titanics inside - side by side. It is currently looking unlikely that Google will be permitted to lay claim to this historic and now largely symbolic structure, which is the property of the US Navy but which The White House Office of Budget and Management has stipulated should be the financial responsibility of NASA. There is significant local concern about Hangar One, as the structure is seen to represent an important part of US aviation history.
 Unfortunately Bobby Womack was prevented from performing by illness.
 ‘We climb not because Space is there, but because the gift of life, of seeing, of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching is worth survival.’ (Ray Bradbury, Introduction to In the Stream of Stars: The Soviet American Space Art Book (NY: Workman Publishing, 1990)
 Tribune, 14 December 1945, re. Anglo-Soviet relations via the visit of the football team Dynamo Moscow.