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Nelly Ben Hayoun There is a creative instinct that's been in us since Neanderthal times

When Nelly Ben Hayoun announces a new project, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s going to be unlike anything you have ever heard before. Whether it’s assembling NASA scientists into her International Space Orchestra (ISO) or making a film about how well prepared we are as a planet for an asteroid hitting us, she specialises in taking extraordinary ideas and making them a reality.

Her latest venture, Space Viking, is no different. It will take the form of an international sea voyage to explore what we can learn from some of earth’s most remote places. Nelly has assembled a crack team of experts to join her, including an anthropologist, a deep-sea explorer, a geneticist, a storyteller and a Viking (or rather an Icelandic man who has the so-called Viking gene).

In between rehearsals for her upcoming appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, where the ISO is supporting Sigur Rós (more of whom later), we spoke to Nelly about her process, her latest adventure and the toll her creative instincts can take on her personal life…

Before we get into Space Viking, I want to ask you how you pick the kinds of projects that you are going to work on. Because they’re all so different and they’re all so kind of left-field and unexpected…

Firstly it’s curiosity, to actually pick the subjects that you think are going to merge and collide in an interesting way.

Then there is instinct. For me, there is a creative instinct we have been brought up with, that has been in us since Neanderthal times. I truly believe many of our greatest developments have come from this creative instinct, and I get drawn to and driven by certain topics.

And then there is awareness. I’m quite aware of my surroundings, so that means whenever I meet new people, I’m always aware of something that might be off. I’m always looking for the situation that is a bit off, which is not linear. Something that intrigues me, that doesn’t make sense in the normality of things.

But it’s something that happens very organically, that is totally irrational. Curiosity, instinct and awareness are not things you can fine-tune.

I would call it creative magic – how things merge, how I get obsessed by it. And the more I get obsessed, the more I know that this is something that needs to be developed.

So is it a quick process or a very slow-burning one?

Too often when I do talks I make it sound like a very easy process. But it’s actually a very traumatic one. I get into this phase where I can feel there is something there, but I don’t know what it is. Like I honestly don’t know.

So when I started to develop Space Viking, I heard about these extremophiles, these bacteria that can resist any element on earth. They kind of challenge our idea of what life is, because they don’t need photosynthesis, they don’t need light, they don’t need oxygen to survive. They can exist miles under water, in the coldest climates, even in space.

That got me really obsessed, and I just kept on researching and researching and researching. There is an incubation process for my ideas and this one was about a year.

It’s just me and lots of things feed into it – I was talking to scientists, I went to Iceland to give a talk. And then I heard an artist give a talk where he mentioned the Vikings, and that was it. At that moment I knew that was the answer, that what had been missing was a specific character. That’s when the entire project resolved itself for me.

So once you had this way in, this connection between the exploration of the future and the history of the Vikings, what is the next part of the process for you?

I sit down and I write. I go free-flow about what I expect and how I want this expedition to be, and that becomes my guide-line, my objectives. These are not guided by anyone but me – how extreme do I want to take this project?

And then I start to add the facts into it, to think about how I can make this idea tangible because I am interested in things that are extraordinary but which can live in the everyday.

So I start to think about who I want on the voyage. I don’t know anything about Vikings, so I need an an anthropologist and an ethnographer. I want someone who knows about the philosophy of the Vikings and the folklore. I wanted a storyteller because sagas are so important to Viking culture. Then I found all these other incredible experts – deep sea divers and space scientists and explorers.

But what kind of responses do you get when you first go in and see these people and say, “Ok I have this idea…” Do people get it?

Remember, it’s a vision! I don’t really believe in magic, but when I go and speak to them, I believe there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that will make them say no. Because it is so obvious that this has to happen.

I am at the psychotic stage then. So I think for me personally it is not hard. For my family, for other people that surround me, it is difficult. Because at that point in time, I know this is a project I have to do. Then things really speed up; I know that I have to make it happen and I have to make it happen fast.

There is this element of urgency and because of that I won’t sleep, I will work crazy hours, I will have no life. That is usually where my boyfriend drops me!

And are you happy to make those kind of sacrifices for your work?

Yes, because then it’s not about me. It’s about the project, and it’s beyond myself. It just has to happen.

Tell me how the collaboration with Sigur Rós came about?

I was looking into them because Jonsi, the lead singer, made his own language. So of course when I was looking into Viking sagas and I looked specifically into their music it seemed there was a connection.

I have worked with XL Recordings for a few years and they introduced me to the band. I arranged for them to come on a tour of the SETI Carl Sagan Institute and it developed from there, slowly but surely. They are really, really, supportive.

So what happens now?

Now it’s just the small matter of raising the funds to make this happen. We are talking to lots of people but I am always keen to hear from people who may be able to help as well – they can get in touch via the Space Viking website!

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