22 March 2010

See Further

Just quickly, it's good to see the Royal Society supporting creativity around science. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they are celebrating their 350th anniversary with ten days of science and the arts events in collaboration with the Southbank Centre. And I tell you what, See Further festival in June promises to be quite something. Ten days?! This is unprecedented!

Obviously, being the sci-pop junkie that I am, I'm most interested in the music events and lo and behold, who should be playing but They Might Be Giants! Twice! I'm there.

15 March 2010

Science and the arts (II): Passion for the project

In which I get a bit emotional about last Thursday. And lament the lack of sci comm funding for creative projects.

I've resisted posting too much about Geek Pop on this blog, because most of you who know me know that for the past year every spare minute of my life has been consumed by this project, and are probably sick to the back teeth of hearing about it. (Some of you have been suffering my absence for it too, including the man now to be my husband :) - apologies). But I do just want to post a few musings on last week's Bristol gig, from a science communication perspective. In fact, *thinking aloud*, I might as well go right ahead and make this the first post in my much belated Science and the Arts series. (Mainly belated because of Geek Pop).

As others have recently noted, it's not easy finding funding for science communication projects full stop. And what I've learned is that it's even harder to find funding for something that is a bit outside the box. Or at least, doesn't tick many of the boxes on the forms of the usual sci comm funders. So I guess this is a post less about the intersection of science and the arts, and more about the practicalities and financial hazards of intersecting them - if you get my drift.

It's at this point that I should probably explain to anyone who doesn't know: Geek Pop started out as an online-only (virtual) music festival, featuring artists inspired by science. Not exactly the boxiest thing you've ever heard of, right? Which is why in the last year we've branched out into live science-inspired music events. And as terrifying as the idea was when we first had it - or when On Rails et al had it - it's proved to be one of the most enlightening and, finally, satisfying experiences in my science communication career so far. Perhaps I shouldn't speak too soon though, because we've got another gig coming up this Thursday...

So, faced with the task of finding sponsorship for these events, I went directly to the local geek community. Actually, given the small amount of time we were able to devote to securing sponsors for these things, we've been relatively successful - and will be eternally grateful to the British Science Association and Computer Geeks for their belief and support. I did also put in an application for Awards for All funding but was informed that our project was too arts-based - which I have to admit I kind of took as a compliment.

Still, everything we've done with Geek Pop this year has been done on what can only be described as a shoestring. We've called in favours from just about everyone we could think of... as well as plenty of people we couldn't - a prime example being the girl from the music department at Oxford (dragged in to help by a friend of the crew) who was good enough to bake 50 cupcakes and decorate them, beautifully, with various geek/music symbols including tiny computers and E=MC squareds.

Our focus has always been on up-and-coming and lesser known artists, who, fortunately enough for us, are much easier to persuade to play for you for nothing but a cupcake and a train ticket. But it's something I really dislike doing. I recently had to fight my own corner to get a higher fee for a writing project I am involved with, so it feels really hypocritical to ask someone else to work for free. I was saying exactly this, in fact, to Jonny Berliner and Matt Baker in the bar after the gig. Matt's immediate response was that his is the easiest job in the world - from his point of view, he just has to rock up, get on stage for half an hour and then enjoy the rest of the show. My job as funding co-ordinator/organiser/promoter/stage manager, on the other hand, is more of an all-year-round service. Which, incidentally, I'm also providing for free. Still, I figure it's my project, so I have to take the hit.

A big focus in science communication is sustainability, so what's the long term plan here? Well, to be honest, we can't count on anything at the moment. We're due to put in a couple more large grant applications in the next month or so, but if those come off, it's a bonus. The live gigs are only just about sustainable in their own right - with a bit of help, we can afford to hire the venues, pay the travel expenses and promote them, but not much else. And they're certainly not supporting all of our online endeavours. (Countless hours spent building websites; learning to use Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator; recording and producing podcasts; Tweeting, Facebooking and MySpacing...) The ideal situation, of course, would be commercial sponsorship, and lots of it. But what we're doing is pretty niche, and still in its formative years. We probably need another successful year online and some more live events behind us before we can really go down that route.

So what it comes down to is passion. Do we love the project enough to keep plugging away at the expense of our sanity and weekends? Right after the Bristol gig I would have said emphatically "yes!", no question. Because the truth is, and I'm not exaggerating this, it was a genuine, roaring success. Everyone at that gig was transfixed. Matt and Jonny, and the rest, provided a rare kind of joy that night. I know, I know I'm biased, but it was at turns inspiring, intelligent, witty, endearing, stomach-achingly funny and heart-achingly beautiful. And it was, unashamedly, science - from the first chord of Jonny Berliner's awesome "Dark Matter" to the last lyric of Jon Chase's freestyle rap about photosynthesis... I've never felt as proud.

The high that comes with a success like that is, unsurprisingly, addictive. But once the dust settles and you realise you have to spend the whole year doing this all over again, possibly (probably, arguably) without payment, it's kind of soul-destroying. You start to wonder whether anyone really gets what you're trying to do. Sure, it's fun and it's entertaining, but there's a serious point - not one we're trying to ram down anyone's throat, but it's there all the same. This is a real, concerted attempt to embed science in culture; to show that we don't have to keep science and creativity apart, as if one might eat the other. Of course Geek Pop isn't going to single-handedly change the way we think about science, but on my thinking, some of us have got to start having a go.

I guess I'm in limbo then. On the one hand, I've got to get some perspective and realise there are more important things in my life than this project - and on the odd occasion I need reminding what those are (eating, sleeping, that sort of thing). But on the other hand, if I don't do it, who will?

9 March 2010

Woefully slow

Okay, I've been woefully slow at starting this whole science and the arts post thing. I will do it. I promise. There is, in fact, a post in progress. But for the moment, I'm sort of tied up organising a virtual science and music festival. Do check it out.