Creativity and the Art in Space Contest: A Conversation with OK Go's Damian Kulash

The band that filmed a video in microgravity has launched a contest for students to come up with their own experiments, which will be bound for suborbital space.

The band OK Go is well-known for making complex visuals to accompany their music. This includes one particularly daring music video shot in microgravity as the band flew on about two dozen parabolic flights aboard a Russian aircraft. Last month, OK Go launched the Art in Space contest via its educational nonprofit organization, OK Go Sandbox, inviting students to "dream up your own cool experiments to send into suborbital space onboard the New Shepard spacecraft,'' a reusable Blue Origin rocket-capsule duo that flew on Jan. 23 for its 10th-ever test flight. 

Students ages 11 to 18 still have a week to submit their ideas: The deadline is May 6, 2019, at 11:59 p.m. CDT (12:59 a.m. EDT). Those who enter the contest will be notified in June if their concept has been selected. OK Go Sandbox is a collaboration between the band and the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. 

Related: The Rock Band OK Go Wants to Launch Student Art Projects Into Space So, what was the seed for the idea of the Art in Space project?

Kulash: I think [the earnest] spirit [of OK Go music videos] has meant a lot to teachers for a long time, because getting kids to drop their cynicism and enjoy something or see that it's okay to be bad at something and still enjoy it [is] how you learn. You're not born a great anything.As our videos became more elaborate and complicated in more technical, logistical ways, we got more correspondence from teachers.

We were playing with [the band] Weezer, and I remember watching them from the side of the stage and someone from another band that had played that day or something asked me, "Oh! You guys are from OK Go! My 8-year-old loves your video from" — I don't remember which video … but there's something connecting people [to us] that the rock and roll industry is not built for. That we have the same group of 35-year-old fans that most bands do, but there's also this other group of 8-year-olds, and even 68-year-olds, who are finding us online and getting something different out of it.

We found the right collaborator to do an educational project … and that was AnnMarie Thomas, who runs the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas. And we put together a survey for teachers … and we got a lot of responses.

Related: OK Go Releases First Zero-G Music Video 

OK Go musician Damian Kulash (center) performs a scene from the band's music video ''Upside Down & Inside Out,'' in which tightly choreographed segments were filmed over the course of 21 parabolic flights that produced microgravity in the plane's cabin.  (Image credit: OK Go) So, this project is a way of encouraging kids to see the full breadth of creativity?

Kulash: What we are trying to do with this is encourage students: to nourish their imagination, their creativity and their curiosity. Science is not separate from art in that respect. Because of the way we need to learn the tools for science or math, it's easy to get the misconception that math is a closed system where 1 plus 1 equals 2, and there's nothing creative about that. Math is a set of tools, just the way that playing guitar is just a set of tools, you know? Like, there's lots of ways to make sound, lots of ways to make interactions happen physically, but there are very few things in life that are actually convergent problems with only one answer. And all of our videos are about finding some kind of small arena in which we are going to go for the most exciting, most expressive, joyful set of solutions that we can. And there's no right answer.

We're not saying, "Hey, kids! You get to do a science experiment in space where you can prove what your teacher taught you in class,'' or, ''Show the band how high your level of education is.'' We're saying, ''Do something that piques your curiosity, that piques your creativity, that piques your imagination.'' 

Because, when we did our "Upside Down and Inside Out" video, there was a whole range of ... physicists, mathematicians, engineers, astrophysicists, aeronautics people, all of whom could tell you exactly what would happen if we performed X, Y or Z in [micro]gravity, right? The experiments we were doing were not cutting new scientific ground in that respect, but they were still valid experiments, because we were pushing the edge of what we knew and what we could communicate … and we're trying to be, sort of, cheerleaders for that way of thinking among students — we want them to have the same thrill and joy that we have had playing with these concepts.

We would love for people to destabilize their notions of what art, what science, what math is, and have a healthier respect for curiosity and imagination. And this is what makes it so special to be a human, and be alive. 

 An astronaut aboard the International Space Station snapped a photo of an eerie orange-colored airglow on Oct. 7, 2018. This luminescence is caused by chemical reactions high in Earth's atmosphere, according to NASA.  (Image credit: NASA) Could you expand on this idea of science's relationship to creativity?

Kulash: We think that science means ... if you want to cut new ground, you will spend, you know, decades of your life getting more and more specific about one particular thing that no one else knows about. And yes, the world needs that type of study. But it also needs generalists and curious people, because, for real progress to be made, a lot of times it takes someone who happens to be studying the supply chain for the grocery stores to realize they have just figured out a way to revolutionize the solar industry. Every great idea is a creative idea: The fact that you're using paint or you're using guitar strings or you're using equations, they're not really very different things. 

And so getting that spirit into the education process ... being curious about the world, that is a gift we would love to share. You grew up on punk rock music, right?

Kulash: I grew up in D.C., where Dischord Records … kind of reigned supreme. Their punk rock was a very DIY thing. It was just like, look, we have our own society, we make our own music, we do our own thing, we don't play by your rules. And I remember, there was a record label called Simple Machines that put out a guide to making your own record.

It was, like, if you want to do something, just do it yourself, and I think that that's certainly where our videos came from — that it just didn't occur to us that, if we had a cool idea, not to try it. And then those cool ideas just get a little bit more elaborate and difficult each time, just because we've already tried one before. It's funny to talk about, to feel like punk rock and the space program and education are all under the same [roof], but that's how it feels to me.

Related: Orbits of Jupiter Moons Transformed into Mind-Bending Optical Illusions and Music Was it the punk rocker in you that helped you to continuously perform throughout the 21 microgravity flights for the ''Upside Down and Inside Out" video? How many times, if any, did you vomit?

Kulash: I was on an anti-nausea drug called scopolamine … we were invited to take this because our advisers at NASA said that's what training astronauts do. And so, we did. And I did not puke because of it! 

It does make you act crazy after a few weeks if you take it continuously for three weeks, like I did.

We shot that [video] in Russia ... but our crewmembers couldn't get [scopolamine]. So our crewmembers puked quite a lot. Quite a lot!

For our video, the most important, the whole thing that keeps us in sync, was that every parabola [or, reduced-gravity descent] was 28 and some seconds long, and we needed to have the weightlessness perfectly coincide with those 28 seconds. So we had chopped up the song into distinct sections, and our sound guy had a little MP3 player, and right when we were about to go weightless — that was 2 seconds before the "zero-g" hit — he had to hit play.

He puked twice per flight [but] he never screwed up, not even once. He is the true hero of that video. Did Blue Origin company officials become aware of your project and then contact you, or did the band reach out to Blue Origin to partner with them for Art in Space?

Kulash: OK Go Sandbox is our educational nonprofit that is putting on this contest. [That organization is] where we reached out to all the teachers. 

Before Sandbox even existed, Blue Origin had reached out to OK Go, or rather I should say, people at Blue Origin who are fans of OK Go reached out.

[Because of] the parameters of the Blue Origin spacecraft, we can't do hundreds of trials with the Blue Origin spacecraft … it actually seems more fun and better to bring this opportunity along to students rather than use it ourselves, [because] it doesn't have to come out the other end perfect, and you don't need to release a video when this is done. You just need to have a great idea that makes us all inspired to try or to see what happens. 

I mean, that to me feels a lot like the Simple Machines pamphlet. When I got that Simple Machines pamphlet, I started a record label. And I put out six or seven records for my friends in the band. … But it was that gesture of them going like, look, if you want to do this, here's how ... and it's that type of thing that we're sort of trying to pass along. Has your definition of creativity changed as you've grown older? In your opinion, how can adults reactivate a sense of childlike awe or creativity for themselves? 

Kulash: I still very much love sitting down with a guitar and writing a song, or spending hours and hours in the studio getting it just right, or being on stage and having that thrill of connecting with another human being.

Creativity does not live in one vertical, or really one domain. Everybody who's great at their project is creative. Like, you're always looking for the solution and the connections that don't automatically flow after one another.

The advice for adults wanting that childlike awe … I think that, in myself at least, destabilizing things [helps]. ... Sometimes I have felt my least creative when working on things that other people would see as creative, like, a song or a video, realizing that I have painted myself into a corner where all I can do is follow the rules.

I think it's pretty easy to have your surroundings become the base level and normative and not moving. So you start reaching for extremes, thinking that that's where creativity is. But I think it's more of, sort of, if you can get yourself to realize that our planet is floating in the middle of nothingness, this kind of feeling, you know, like if you can give yourself the perspective that this is all extremely unlikely and extremely beautiful and that just your ability to breathe and to think are so complex and amazing, that that alone should keep your curiosity going for the rest of your life. Like that's the type of thing where I feel like, that's where creativity kind of comes from … knowing that it's so magnificent.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Doris Elin Urrutia
Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.