What happens when you combine a collaboration of artists with cosmology? The answer is Elemental, a piece of performance art that uses music, poetry, theatre, dizzyingly accomplished animation and the vast theories of the universe, to create an experience that pushes the porous boundaries between science and imagination.
Elemental has been shown at planetariums around the world and it delves into complex scientific territory: The Big Bang, the Theory of Everything, Dark Matter and M Theory. Each of these is explored in visual, poetic, scientific and musical languages that make clever use of the planetarium’s dome-roofed auditorium, and the result is that the audience was treated to an immersive exploration of the universe as we know it, as we calculate it and as we dream of it.
Professor Chris Lintott, presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night, set the scene with an introduction that took the familiar, static, view of the night sky (well, a projected version of what we would see if the sun and the lights of London were dimmed) and made it three dimensional and fluid. Galaxies are always moving apart in our 13.8-billion-year-old universe. Cosmologists, he explained, are unique among scientists in that they can look back in time – ‘we do cosmic archaeology’.
What followed was a balletic series of visuals where light and matter clumped and flew apart. Special mention needs to made of the meticulously detailed DNA animation from Emmy Award-winning Drew Berry and the eerie, immersive music which features a specially commissioned piece from experimental musicians Nurse With Wound. The visual and audio aspects of Elemental are breathtaking.
Those without an immediate grasp of Dark Matter need not fear getting bogged down in scientific minutiae. The voice of science writer, John Gribbin, explained each theory with great character and clarity.
What was perhaps unexpected was just how seamless the transition from planets to poetry could be. But, on reflection, why should that be a surprise? As the Elemental website says, ‘For centuries, poets have looked to the skies and attempted to scribble meaning into the galaxies.’ And sometimes the conclusions scientists draw seem just as fanciful as fiction.
One aspect of String Theory explored in Elemental is that there could be multiverses in which time splits and parallel universes are created. So in this universe you could be doing the dishes; in another pedaling in your flying machine. Contrast this to one of the artists’ stories about a man in an Eden-like garden who thinks himself dead because in paradise his thoughts come true – even the bad ones. One is a theory based on physics, the other is a legend-like tale with shades of a biblical creation story that almost certainly has more followers globally than string theory’s parallel universes. If this seems a wandering thought, that’s only because one of the great achievements of Elemental, with its haunting language, its dives into narrative, its ambiguous conclusions, is creating an experience where audience members can follow their own thoughts, draw their own parallels between theories and art and this is as much part of the performance as the performers.
In one of the final segments of Elemental a narrator imagines meeting famous astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle on the road one night and driving with him into space. ‘Space isn’t distant, it’s an hour’s drive away.’ While they look out at the round Earth and the endless galaxies, Hoyle, who famously negated the Big Bang Theory (while giving it its name) ponders the seeming impossibility of the universe and the world being created in all its detail from a series of random events. Perhaps this story more than anything; an imagined car driven to the edge of space and a famous astronomer marveling at how little we know, sums up Elemental better than anything: It is a cleverly orchestrated response that opens up the questions we have about the vastness of the galaxy and humanity’s many, varied ways of trying to answer them.
Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London