Imagine an image. It’s a photograph of Earth taken from our outer solar system by the Voyager Satellite. It’s of a tiny pale blue dot. On this dot is everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being that has ever lived. The aggregate of all joy and suffering. Every human endeavour, regardless of its scale, has been an act to become a momentary master of a tiny fraction of that dot. This dot is the only world known, so far, to harbour life.
This was the thought exercise presented by the American astronomer and popular scientific polymath Carl Sagan back in 1994 as Voyager (and its snapping camera) sailed past Saturn on its journey towards interstellar space.
This image, along with Sagan’s conception (paraphrased above), both simple and profound, quickly became a popular icon for understanding our place in the universe. Cut to 2018’s raging socio-political chaos and teetering environmental catastrophe and Sagan’s underscored message – it is our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another as we all float through space together, while projecting and cherishing the ‘pale blue dot’ – seems somehow to have got lost.
This is the head-full that I have brought to my first time at BLUEDOT festival. Set against the backdrop of the Lovell Telescope, the festival – through music, immersive artworks, live science talks – quotes Sagan directly in its name and mission statement, asking us to look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. So how is it measuring up?
The festival has opened a new four-day format with a Thursday evening presentation by the Hallé Orchestra performing live to footage from BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series. A solid start as the film’s lush imagery is received by an audience ranging from good natured drunken revellers – ironically over-cheering the appearance of emperor penguins and the announcement of a flugelhorn soloist – to families with kids, nodding off in PJs.
Bluedot’s mission is on the money so far, particularly with the inherent ecological narrative and punctuation of sobering facts such as ‘If the world continues at its current rate of fishing, there will be no fish left by 2050 (32 years)’. And ‘If global warming continues at its current rate over half of the planet’s permafrost could be completely melted by 2050 (over 90 per cent by 2100)’.
Though the messaging and music is received positively, I can’t help feeling that it’s falling slightly short of its potential. The Hallé’s conductor gives multiple nods to composer George Fenton, who, through his work scoring BBC TV programmes such as Blue Planet and Planet Earth, is credited with ‘setting the tone’ for an era of documentary works. However, with Hans Zimmer usurping this position recently and illustrating a more open aesthetic approach to the sound of oceanic life – evidenced through his invitation to Radiohead to collaborate on the score for Blue Planet II – the presentation of trad and familiar orchestral arrangements, dating back to 2001, feels like a missed opportunity to break some new artistic ground.
Friday adds further dimensions to the festival as the science talks and music programme bed in. The Lovell Stage opens with the RAJASTHAN HERITAGE BRASS BAND’s musical charm offensive. In addition to their usual repertoire of souped-up Rajasthan folk songs and Bollywood hits, they’ve added in a set of sci-fi inflected tunes including Delia Derbyshire’s theme to Dr Who and the Star Wars Cantina Song. Both playing joyfully, as you would expect, with the Bluedot crowds.
The interplay between science headliners and main stage activity is an unexpected but refreshing aspect to the festival, blurring what I had assumed in advance would be clear hierarchies biased towards the music festival goers’ experience with occasional signposts to the cerebral – an ‘eat some of your vegetables and you’ll be allowed your pudding’ programming approach. This isn’t the case. In fact, on the few occasions that I’m unable to get access to something in the programme due to it being over capacity, it’s for the science headliners on the Mission Control stage.
A prime example of ‘scientist as headliner’ is astronomer, and audience favourite, TIM O’BRIEN’s regular appearances on the main stage with his now staple Bluedot Skype conversations. O’Brien in conversation with THE FLAMING LIPS’ Wayne Coyne is a particularly fine example of the festival’s success in blurring these lines. Presented in an absolutely packed tent on Friday afternoon, the conversation veers between the requirement for imagination placed on both scientists and artists, the psychological legacy of the moon landings, and myriad ways in which Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey “fucked us all up”. It is, however, in the acknowledgement that we don’t need to travel to the end of the universe to find something awe inspiring that feels most profound and ironically more in keeping with the festival’s mission. Summed up in Coyne’s parting words, “I’d rather we all worry about each other a little more, and stop worrying about someone [extra-terrestrial life] coming to save us.”
The Flaming Lips – true to form – bring this soft power philosophy along with their usual visual and sonic spectacle to their headline set on Friday evening. Songs such as Race For The Prize, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt 1, and covers of Space Oddity and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, all evoking the festival’s unique strain of themes including scientific inquiry, sci-fi spectacle and the human desire for connection as we travel through the void of space on spaceship earth.
Saturday opens with a performance by the legendary BBC RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP. Although originally one of the sound effects units set up by the BBC in late 1950s (pretty much the same year that Jodrell Bank’s Lovell Telescope was being constructed), through pioneering composers such as aforementioned Derbyshire and John Baker the project transcended their remit to create some of the most progressive electro-acoustic compositions of their day. An acquired taste perhaps, but once again landing beautifully with the Bluedot clientele. Comedian ROBIN INCE, performing on the Contact Stage, astutely nails this moment as festival-defining: “[Bluedot is] the only place where you can witness a festival crowd cheering a BBC test card from the 1970s.”
Bluedot has also commissioned new work for the festival, although this currently seems limited to their programme of visual art. For this edition they have worked with Luke Jerram who has created a new piece called Earth, a seven-metre diameter replica of planet earth in the mode of his popular touring giant Moon work. This is a huge hit with festival visitors of all ages with the wow/how response soon followed by the obligatory stream of selfies, as well as more emotional contemplative responses. This work really resonates after dark when its lighting and sound accompaniments exert an even greater presence over the surrounding woodland and festival ramblers on route to their beds. The other notable addition in this area of the programme is Hidden In Plain Sight, a new work from Addie Wagenknecht created as part of the art-science residency programme COSMOS with Abandon Normal Devices. Materially akin to a lightning storm within the structures of the Lovell telescope caught in time lapse, the work was informed and generated from data sets collected at Jodrell Bank Observatory. Spectacular as the piece is – and it is – playing out in high contrast bursts of light against all 89m of the telescope, it perhaps lacks the precision and control of similar genre-defining works by Ryoji Ikeda to be truly transcendent.
All in, much to be excited about as Bluedot continues to forge its reputation on the summer festival circuit with its unique and vital vision of a Saganian sci-fi inspired party rooted in the values of ecological responsibility, compassion and wonder. Timely and nourishing.