Interviews

A Blasted-Out Planetarium Nirvana

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Still from “A Song for Echo,” (all images courtesy the artist)

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Filmmaker Julie Nymann and composer Ricardo Donoso, along with curator Alexis Avedisian, have collaborated on a video project for the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston. The film and exhibition, titled “A Song for Echo,” is a fully immersive experience, and will be played on the entirety of the planetarium’s 57-foot dome in a one-night screening on Thursday, September 26th. We spoke recently about the project.

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Robert Moeller: I’ve always been perplexed by the power of mythology. How is it that these ancient stories still hold sway over the modern imagination?

Julie Nymann: What strikes me about mythology is the border between the myth: On the one hand, we have a more or less truthful story and on the other, pure fiction. The power of the storyteller, and the nature of the myth as the “true” story, passed on from one person to the next is what created the myths. This leaves me, as a filmmaker, with a lot of layers to sift through.

Maybe, too, the fact that these stories have traveled through time and have reached so many people has given them a kind of universality that makes them still appeal to us today.

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RM: I wonder, too, if that appeal is due to a still vibrant yearning for something to cling to as the world spins crazily forward?

Alexis Avedisian: Despite all of the advances of modern living, specifically through technology and global connectivity, there is still so much to be learned in these old tales. As a child growing up in an Armenian family with my grandparents, my grandfather would read me Greek mythology as bedtime stories. When I came across Julie’s work this spring, I was taken aback by how much of her content was nostalgic for me. While these stories are simplistic, the lessons they are constructed to teach can have profound depth, and are globally relatable, because they speak to our human nature versus our cultural heritage. Specifically in the tale of Echo: we learn that sometimes, trusting your heart can be an ultimate fate, but, alternately, the mountains would not have such a beautiful hum if it was not for the faith Echo entrusted in her passion for Narcissus.

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RM: Speaking of mythology, and this might be generational, but the idea of using a planetarium as a venue conjures up (for some) memories of laser shows and acid trips and a sort of blasted-out teenage nirvana that our parents warned us against. Is there an element of that in play here? Is the idea of using the planetarium in a way other than it was designed still subversive?

JN: I like the idea of a blasted-out teenage nirvana and have actually thought about how these associations mingle. It has kind of been in the back of my mind without saying it aloud. Using the planetarium has been a great experience and I believe it really adds to the narrative of this video. The 360’ projection makes me feel like I am a part of what is being shown. More so, the shift in horizon and the distortion that appears because of the dome is substantial. It is a very beautiful/ugly look.

AA: The format of a fulldome film is one that is still in early experimental stages, because this technology is just recently becoming available. There are new festivals budding across Europe, which are working to raise awareness about this medium- encouraging filmmakers to bring their audiences to entirely new levels of experience. Similar, an extensive archive like the Fulldome Database exists to help artists and animators learn how to create new works within this format.  When I received the opportunity to work with the planetarium this year, I knew I wanted to try to produce something fulldome. Unlike laser tricks, which certainly do make visual associations to that kind of blown out acid trip, a fulldome experience is much more realistic. You feel more at ease, because you feel as if you are a part of the film, not just experiencing a wild performance.

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RM: This really has been a collaborative project with a lot of moving parts, which includes a soundtrack by Ricardo Donoso. How difficult was it to synchronize each aspect of the work?

AA: What is unique about this exhibition is the fact that the work evolved from very different places.  Julie created the film while completing an artist residency program in Slovenia.  The natural landscapes in the film are very peaceful because of the rural countryside she was working in, and I think this gives it further archaic and mystical elements.

Ricardo began scoring aspects of the soundtrack as Julie finished certain scenes, so the audio and visual elements are very much in sync. His soundtrack climaxes with a very powerful ambient drone, and grows darker and more obscure as the film progresses–this is a testament to his incredible knowledge of sound production and ability to work with different tones, conveying very specific moods.

I liked the fact that the three of us came together for this project from different parts of the world and at different points in our careers. Once we figured out the technical aspects of producing the film, the rest fell into place very organically.

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RM: In regard to the technical aspects of working in a relatively new format, what challenges does the fulldome present to the filmmaker, and indeed, the audience?

JN: For me as an artist and photographer it has been a great challenge to work with a 8mm fisheye lens. A fisheye lens is a very wide lens, it sees everything and distorts all the lines in an image into a barrel shape. When projecting onto a dome you have to work with a round aspect ratio as apposed to a rectangular image.

AA: So much of this exhibition deals with our relationship to nature. It is about existing on a plane void of technology while discovering your identity within the context of a purely natural world, uninterrupted by contemporary hurdles. I think the contrast between the subject matter and the technical production of the film is unique, because, while being presented in such a highly technical format, there is no reference to this within the content of the film.  The soundtrack really comes into the forefront here: because it is a purely digital production, Ricardo’s work seems to slice into the natural world Julie preserved visually. This is part of the duality I had mentioned earlier.  I think the audience is going to get this sense quickly, as it will be amplified tenfold by the fulldome and the overpowering sound system.

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RM: Is showing work formatted for the planetarium’s dome a one-trick-pony? Is the technology and club-like sound system just so overwhelmingly spectacular that there is the danger that the actual content being presented is consumed by it?

JN: I believe in this context, it really adds to the experience of the work, as both the video and sound is made fore this space. From the beginning, Ricardo and I have been in close conversation even though I had been in Slovenia shooting the video. We spoke through the whole process. I’m very exited about showing this work at Boston, In particular, because this work was created for this specific technology.

AA: I certainly don’t think fulldome films will overshadow traditional films anytime soon.  I’ve sort of been equating the experience of producing this film to when I saw an IMAX film for the first time, as a child in the mid 1990’s.  Back then the only IMAX available (that we knew of in New England) was here, in Boston, and just across the hall from the planetarium at the Museum of Science.  We would make trips to the museum every summer.  Now, the technology is readily available to consumers. Standard museum productions made for the planetarium are definitely spectacular, and are no longer simple: they are high budget, fully animated productions meant to inspire and educate. The fact that we produced a film that appears lo-fi, ambient, and experimental, proves that this medium is still in flux. If anything, the format of an art video made fulldome further enriches the content.  It’s not being done very often.

“A Song for Echo” will play at the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston (1 Science Park, Boston) in a one-night screening on ThursdaySeptember 26th.

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