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By Richard Evans on

The making of Sentinel

Richard Evans, the creator of two events at this year's Manchester Science Festival - Sentinel and Aeon: Patient X - talks about how he created his evocative performance piece. 

The Sentinel concept emerged from the back story to Aeon: Miracle, a smartphone app I co-produced last year, which tells the story of a viral outbreak.

During the writing process, one of the research areas was how the Spanish Flu spread so effectively at the end of World War 1. The mass return of soldiers  from the battlefront created the mechanism to carry the disease around the world, killing an estimated 50 million people.

For Aeon: Miracle, understanding how a new virus might spread worldwide meant creating a believable scenario of mass population movements. Envisioning such an outbreak soon grew beyond science fiction, via daily headlines of sea level rises, record-breaking global temperatures, collapsing ice shelves, droughts and floods, all linked to human-caused climate change that could cause unprecedented levels of mass migration.

A rocket launches against the backdrop of a blue sky
The satellite Sentinel-1B is launched into space. Image: ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2016

The Sentinel performance (named after a fleet of European Space Agency satellites which monitor environmental data, pictured above) aims to explore these issues in a creative way. Throughout the research phase, forecasts from respected scientists and science organisations became more alarming, the warnings more urgent. All at a time when political changes at home and abroad have given prominence to administrations which have chosen to de-prioritise environmental policies and focus instead on border security and economic development.

The show will be performed by myself on keyboards and computer, and with Olympia Hetherington as guest vocalist. It’s a soundtrack of classic synths and drum machines alongside live and sampled vocals that are ethereal, choral and synthetic. To create an immersive audio experience, a surround sound system will highlight those elements which are more sound design than song – you’ll hear thunder storms and howling winds, ocean buoys and Mission Control chatter.

A moment from the Sentinel performance

The music accompanies a light show made up of data visualisations – abstract patterns depicting ocean temperatures, sea level rises, atomic tests, migrant journeys, viral outbreaks and much more – projected, with video content, onto screens suspended over the stage area.  Some of these visualisations will also appear via lasers projected onto smoke hazes, giving a 3D effect to add to the immersive experience.

Each of Sentinel’s compositions reflects on a different aspect of climate change and environmental themes – from Cold War atomic testing to ocean pollution, from the concept of the Sixth Extinction to a migrant crisis, from record-breaking temperatures to the fluctuations of global stock markets. And each piece also connects thematically back to Aeon, following the journey of Dari, a refugee who is cast from laboratory to refugee camp to futuristic mega-city.

Sentinel aims to both entertain and to ask questions. The performance, running to about 50 minutes, is followed by a discussion of its scientific themes, hosted by Ric Michael. Immunologist Dr Jo Pennock and virologist Professor David Robertson of the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, along with Dr Ed Hawkins, Principal Research Scientist at the University of Reading’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science, will explore the real-world science behind the performance, look at the role of migration in our evolution and answer audience questions about our changing environment.

Sentinel is at the Waterside Art Centre, Sale, on Thursday 19 October 2017 between 8pm and 10pm as part of the Manchester Science Festival. Click here to see the full programme for this year’s festival, which runs from 19 October to 29 October at venues across Greater Manchester. 

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