When rock band OK Go makes a music video, it’s always an event. Blueprints are drawn. Stunts are carefully coordinated. Huge messes are made. And time and time again, somehow, the band tops its previous efforts. The highest the band has soared physically (so far) was in 2016’s legendary zero-gravity video, “Upside Down Inside Out.” They shot the clip, 27 weightless seconds at a time, on a Russian plane used to train cosmonauts, tossing off aerial acrobatics and paint balloons in equal measure along the way.
Whereas that video only simulated an out-of-this-world experience, though, OK Go‘s Art in Space contest is actually going to launch two student teams’ art-making ideas into orbit. The band is officially announcing the contest winners today, putting those students one step closer to liftoff. Far out.
Building the sandbox
The contest marks the most ambitious effort yet from the band’s nonprofit venture, OK Go Sandbox. Sponsored by Google, Morton Salt, and Cognizant Technology Solutions, OK Go Sandbox is a partnership between the band and University of St. Thomas’s Playful Learning Lab, an organization that works with educators in the K-12 system to find unusual ways of engaging students. Sandbox’s focus—providing online resources to teach STEAM lessons using OK Go videos—is not quite as unusual as it sounds: Teachers have been showing the band’s videos in classrooms for years.
The seeds for OK Go Sandbox were sowed in early 2017 when the band met Playful Learning Lab’s AnnMarie Thomas on line for coffee at a TED conference at which they were speaking. Pretty soon, both sides decided to join forces to see how they could help rock and roll-addled academics wring the most teachable moments from the band’s videos.
“We put out a survey in the summer of 2017 on social, and within two weeks we had almost 800 teachers who replied, which is not how that normally works in education,” Thomas says. “These were long responses from really excited teachers, and we found that 85% of them were already using the videos. From preschool teachers all the way up to college professors—physics and philosophy professors, STEM teachers, music teachers. English teachers will use the videos as writing prompts, and some teachers have done pretty elaborate art projects based on them.”
After creating web content including curriculum guides and new videos designed for classrooms, the team decided it was time to encourage young fans to build an elaborate art project on an OK Go scale. Out of that idea came Art in Space, a contest funded by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, with the help of Cognizant and the University of St. Thomas, which will put two student teams’ art experiments aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. The contest gives students a chance to approach an assignment the same way OK Go develops its videos: brainstorming, collaborating, experimenting, and improvising.
“This is the first project that feels like what Sandbox should really be here for,” says OK Go frontman Damian Kulash. “Sending your art project into space is precisely the opportunity that OK Go gets that people think, ‘How did that happen?’ And being able to offer that to kids, and let them play with it and work with it and learn from it as we do. Instead of being told, ‘Here’s what you’re going to learn about physics or gravity,’ we want to frame it as an opportunity to go as far as your creativity and imagination and curiosity take you. That’s how we make stuff. We’re not following the homework assignment.”
Meet the winners
Submitting to Art in Space required each team describe in detail their proposed project, necessary materials, and methodology, accompanied by illustrations. The two winning teams, which the band has just announced, hail from New York (Annie and Gracie Clark, and Alexandra Slabakis) and Utah (Blake and Kellen Hullinger and Cameron Trueblood), and are all between 11 and 16 years old.
The New York team’s submission, Dark Origin, is a kinetic art project where differently sized bits of “space debris” will rise in waves and gradually envelop a magnetized wire art sculpture. The group plans to harness anti-gravity to mix the debris and mimic the conditions of Earth’s humble beginnings. (Hence the title.)
“We had a million ideas. It was definitely a long process to kind of pick and choose exactly what we thought would work,” says Alexandra Slabakis, the only member of the team not away at summer camp at the time of this writing. “It took a lot of brainstorming, but we figured this would be our best bet for the project.”
The Utah team, on the other hand, went all in on one idea from the beginning—for space itself to write a song using cosmic radiation—and continued fine-tuning it throughout the submission process.
“I wanted to tie in the fact that in space there isn’t any hindrance of this radiation,” says Kellen Hullinger from the Utah team. “It was really just one idea that started to flower and grow and that’s what went forward. Now we’re starting to pull the idea apart and figure out how strings are going to work in space and whether we should use different instruments.”
Every single entry in the contest was reviewed by at least three members of faculty or staff at the University of Saint Thomas in the engineering and art history departments, with some machinists helping out as well. These reviewers worked to narrow down the entries, and then the band eventually made the final decision.
Making art for space
Now that the winners have been announced, the next step is for the teams to meet with engineers from the Playful Learning Lab over a series of video chats to figure out how to get fully operational. The engineers, along with some aerospace experts and members of the St. Thomas art faculty, will serve mainly in an advisory role, leaving the students plenty of room to experiment with and evolve their ideas. The actual launch is projected for sometime in 2020, pending a final review from the team at Blue Origin.
Of course, the students will also have more video chats with the band along the way, after meeting for the first time over video recently to learn that their submissions had been accepted. (The resulting footage, included below, is predictably adorable.)
Is this entire project part of a stealth Willy Wonka-style search for new blood to take over the OK Go mantle of stratospheric video projects when the band retires? Probably not. But it is a sign of their faith in the next generation.
“When I try to think what I would do in this project, I come up with ideas and I go, ‘You know, I bet they’ll do better than that,'” Damian Kulash says. “Because I feel like my ideas would end up being repeats of what we did in our videos. I suspect the blank canvas of their minds will do better than mine.”