Kenji Williams:
Bella Gaia

Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Suzanne Thorpe

This summer, while many of us were sleeping under the stars, others were witnessing Bella Gaia, a poetic vision of Earth from space, live at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the NASA Galaxy Stage. Bella Gaia is the latest of composer Kenji Williams' multi-media productions. An immersive adventure of sound and image that takes place in domed theaters, Bella Gaia is a dramatic realization of a view of Earth from space. Billed by Williams not as a performance or concert but as an experience, Bella Gaia offers audiences the opportunity to embody the sensation of an outer-space perspective on Earth. Why is this happening an experience? How did it come about?

Williams tells all:

Bella Gaia, or Beautiful Earth, is a project that started in Star City, Russia, where space travelers from around the world prepare for their journey into orbit. In 2005, just after finishing up my last project, Worldspirit, with world renowned artist Alex Grey, a very generous fan sponsored a trip to Russia for me, to view the launch of the Soyuz rocket on its way to the International Space Station.

On that trip, I met NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who lived on the ISS for 6 months. Excitedly I asked him what was it that changed him when he went into space. He said that he had a transformative experience when he saw the Earth as a unified interconnected whole, and he fell in love with our home planet in a completely new way.

The Bella Gaia experience

Many of those lucky enough to view the Earth from space have described a sense of wonder and delight that can hold life-changing power, as Mike Fincke described first hand. Known as the Overview Effect, a concept developed by space philosopher Frank White, the experience is characterized by a dramatic cognitive shift in which the significance of man-made boundaries is eclipsed by a deep awareness that life on Earth operates as a border-less, interconnected whole. The striking clarity of this realization often triggers a keen sense of stewardship that seeks community beyond the limits of nationality and religion. The strength of this conservation instinct tends to grow even after the return to Earth, driving those who share this experience to reach out, and become highly active participants in the preservation of our common heritage. I was inspired by Mike's story, and wanted to bring this experience to people on Earth.

Kenji Williams performing Bella Gaia

I want to bring the power of art, technology, space science, and real scientific data visualizations together, into a context that is both entertaining and educational, fused with a common goal of raising the awareness and appreciation of our home planet. Bella Gaia can actually visually display how we are affecting the planet, and how each element affects the other, allowing the audience to easily understand the delicate interconnected balance of our planet. The mission is to make it clear, both intellectually and emotionally, how the once separate ideas of human activity and nature are actually vitally interconnected, and present it within a context of how miraculous and beautiful our Planet Earth is. Bella Gaia is not just about using art to optimize and enhance the learning experience, it is also refocusing the educational message onto sustainability, global perspectives, and multicultural understanding. We must maintain, preserve, and protect the Earth, as if the Earth itself is a world heritage site.

Bella Gaia has been performed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Gates Planetarium, Denver, Colarado, NASA Goddard in Washington D.C., the Adler Planetarium, during the International Planetarium Society Conference, Chicago, Illinois, and at the Smithsonian Folklife festival /NASA's 50th Anniversary Celebration in Washington D.C.

During a Bella Gaia performance, the ideal effect is produced by the highest quality image and sound. Bella Gaia delivers an experience that evolves our perspective of, and connection to, our home planet. Inspired by astronauts who spoke of the life changing experience of viewing the Earth from Space, Bella Gaia includes NASA/MODIS satellite imagery and stunning high definition projections of orbiting visualizations of Earth from space, plus earthbound imagery to explore our cultural heritage through sight and sound. Accompanied by a live performance of violin-electronica music, the intention is to experience the beauty and miracle of planet Earth in a whole new way.

The show is scalable, and we have plans to expand it to include live, world-music musicians, as we did at Smithsonian Folklife. This inclusion grants audiences a journey around the globe, celebrating our cultural heritage within the context of experiencing the beauty of the Earth from space.