1 June 2011

Einstein's Gardener

As readers of this blog will know, I'm a sucker for anything combining science and the arts, and especially the musical arts. So when I was asked to manage the Solar Stage in Einstein's Garden at the amazing Green Man Festival, I jumped at the chance. My task, basically: to populate a festival programme with nerds. And mostly singing ones.

Well, initially, I admit, my minor successes at... erm... nerd-herding (oh, happy rhyming accident!) at Geek Pop might have made me a bit complacent - "Nerds you say? Ha! I know all of the nerds, all of them I tell you!" The ensuing panic hit just prior to my wedding at the start of this month, when I realised I was about to leave the office for nearly a month - strictly no internet permitted - without having herded all the relevant nerds into my neatly ordered and beautifully colour-coded Excel spreadsheet.

Luckily, other Einstein's Gardeners were on hand to man the spreadsheets while I drank gin cocktails in Sardinia and, following a Bank Holiday Skype-athon and some serious jigsaw puzzling of the schedule, it appears we've pretty much cracked it. And now I think about it... it looks freaking awesome!

Helen and Olly: Answer Me This
Not only have we succeeded in dragging half the nerd population of London to Wales for a (probably wet) weekend, we've managed to persuade a Sony Award-winning podcast team (Answer Me This*) and some hotly-tipped young bands (Marthas and Arthurs, With Love From Humans!) to perform on a barely waterproof stage powered by a distinctly dubious source (the Sun**). That, plus the fact that I've managed to team up Jonny Berliner, Helen Arney and Rishi Nag in the ultimate musical geek-off... all on miniature guitars... And I'm practically salivating. By jove, we've created the hippest nerdfest the world has ever seen!

Anyway, that's my publicity drive over with and now I want to explain why this is important. Because you might not think that I'd consider a muddy field in Wales the pinnacle of my science communication career to date, but let me tell you why I think it *is* - with reference to a conversation I had last week that I've been thinking about a LOT.

The essence of this conversation, which started over a post-honeymoon cup of tea with Julianna from StoryCog (and I'm sure she won't mind me repeating it here), was that in trying to bridge the gap between art and science, science communication (or the science communicator) often seems to creates more barriers than bridges. And I think Einstein's Garden does a good job of avoiding that particular pitfall.

Sometimes, you see, it just seems like we're going about this interdisciplinary stuff all the wrong way. So often, the focus for science communication is on getting scientists to create art from their research, or on providing a kind of scientific consultancy service to artists. As if scientific accuracy lends some kind of greater legitimacy to a piece of art. But does it?

I get where science communication is coming from. Evidence-based is best, right? Right... If you're a scientist. Because if you're a scientist, you deal in Theories and Experiments and Facts, so it seems logical that art about science should be based - like journal papers - on Theories and Experiments and Facts. But artists don't work like that. I mean, I'm probably not the best person to ask what artists base their work on but I'm also a writer and I've written some short stories in my time, and if you asked me what they were based on I'd say sudden wafts of familiar smells; words that fit a rhythm rather than a formula; feelings of nostalgia or déjà vu or sleep deprivation; that sort of thing. It's more about taking the germ of an idea and running with it.

So in my mind, there are two problems with the scientific approach to making art. One is that it ignores all those talented artists who are happily and legitimately making art about science in their usual lovely, haphazard, non-evidence based way. And the other is that if we reduce science-inspired art to handing scientists a paintbrush or a microphone, it's as if we're saying artists aren't capable of understanding science in the "correct" way, or of representing it accurately or fairly. But that's just the point! Who said art is supposed to be an accurate representation? Isn't one of the reasons we make art to provide completely new perspectives? What a bore if it was just frighteningly realistic still lifes and landscapes...

So without getting too deep (yes, sorry about that - I'll stop soon), it's for these reasons that I think it's more interesting to mix up the artists and scientists in one big arty, sciencey jumble and let them get on with it. Who knows? They might learn something from each other.

The non-existent pie chart
Now, the neat thing about Einstein's Garden is that it's grown from grassroots and it's (mostly) funded by people paying to see arts performances, so in general there's no one making a pie chart of the proportion of scientists vs non-scientists performing on my stage. Which in this instance, I think, is good. Don't get me wrong, I've programmed a lot of scientists. But only coincidentally, if you see what I mean. I won't discriminate against a band due to a lack of PhDs - I'm only concerned that they have something to say about the environment, or genetics or robots. Because science is our theme; finding out about it is part of a wider cultural interest, not just an educational aim. And because Einstein's Garden is part of a larger music festival and we're competing for the attentions of those who may have absolutely no prior interest in the subject, the motivation is to programme high quality performances - whether those be music, comedy, theatre, storytelling, poetry or a craft workshop - rather than science projects with some "art" tagged on.

So do science-themed Q&A sessions and some funny songs about particles performed in a field constitute science communication? It depends what you call science communication. If you think science communication always has to involve actual scientists or science communicators or has to teach someone how the Large Hadron Collider works, then probably not. But if you want people to consider science a part of culture in the same way they would politics or music or cookery, then perhaps this is the sort of science communication that is really worth doing.

P.S. Am I being purposefully provocative? Yes. Someone should probably argue with me.
P.P.S. Am I biased? Definitely. I love this project.
P.P.P.S. Here's a MixCloud list of musicians playing Einstein's Garden this year. Have a listen. It's good.

*Although I gather certain members of the Answer Me This team will agree to pretty much anything for half a kilo of Flying Saucers...
**The Sun, as in the celestial object, not The Sun as in the newspaper - that really would be a dubious source.

1 comment:

thesoftanonymous.com said...

Hmm...I'm not gonna argue with you. Science and art have never been, and probably never will be, very comfortable bedfellows. As you nicely explained, one comes from the head, the other comes from the heart. Combining the two isn't easy...!

On the other hand, I guess artists and scientists aren't completely different species...both try to understand more about the world we live in, just in different ways.

So I'm all for projects like yours which put artists and scientists together into one glorious mishmash – projects which bounce ideas around and see what sticks. Your approach for Einstein's Garden seems much more natural than billing it as a purely 'educational event', which could seem a bit forced at a music festival.

On a side note, the 'Out of this World' exhib at the British Library is well worth a visit if you get chance. A good place to see/read about lots of art-science interactions!