Andy Franzkowiak and Mary Jane Edwards run an organisation called Shrinking Space. Shrinking Space curate and produce science and art projects; they like to make and profile work that encourages collaboration between science and the creative arts, championing the respective sectors’ imagination, creativity and innovation.
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein
This Einstein quote (while often over-used) still brilliantly illustrates the importance of using the gifts of our creativity, inventiveness and ingenuity to understand and dream against the world! Humans love to categorise, demarcate and delineate but historically, science and art have not been defined as separate entities - everyone was a polymath until the 1820’s. Each discipline covers such far-reaching curiosities we think scientists and artists should be united in their creative quest to make new discoveries, and share them as widely as possible.
The arts have also always been at the forefront of adopting new technologies, wrestling with how we comprehend humanity and interact with the world, so it seems only natural that this creative exploration should be entwined with real science and scientific discoveries. We’re interested in how science can be better communicated and understood by diverse audiences through art, and are endlessly inspired by how art helps us get to grips with changing the technological, scientific and cultural landscape.
Whilst we curate and produce our own projects we’re also committed to supporting and profiling science/art collaborations in the UK. We’ve produced a range projects and have shared below some tips about what we’ve found works, the potential pitfalls and a few thoughts on what could be done to help further such collaborations below.
- Put the science first
- This sounds obvious, but we approach all scientists with a germ of an idea first and never a full-blown proposal. The scientists are never simply consultants, we work collaboratively to co-curate projects from initial themes. This type of relationship is crucial especially when tackling complex themes. For example, New Atlantis, an immersive theatre project that Andy produced, worked with scientists and engineers across a range of fields to show audiences how science researches, questions and seeks answers to the most pressing of issues relating to Climate Change. The scientists were able to understand how their work relates to the general public, and hold in depth conversations with audiences, who had a range of science literacy levels – people have taken up MSc’s on the back of these shows!
- Conversely, this might be controversial (and also applicable in an art context), but we’ve found that not putting scientific vocabulary in the title or a word that is overtly scientific – i.e. laboratory, attracts a wider and more diverse audience, and not only those already open to science communication. Obviously the creative output is driven by scientific inquiry and methodology but we use imaginative stories, playful imagery and more abstract titles to ensure that a project is more intriguing and more malleable to personal interpretation.
- What do scientists really get out of working with artists?
- We’ve had a few conversations in the past, which question whether artists tend to be the primary beneficiaries of collaborations with scientists. To date, this hasn’t been our experience; quite often the scientists we engage with are surprised at type of questions we ask, or parts of research we think audiences might be interested in. What may seem obvious and mundane in their day-to-day work can be fascinating to an outsider and begin to assume new meanings in different cultural contexts.
- Artist-in-residence schemes within scientific institutions have been widely available for some time, but we’re always motivated by how open and ambitious organisations such as Rutherford Appleton Labs are with their aims for such partnerships.
- Artistic projects can also offer a great forum to approach controversy or misinformation and some of the bigger moral and ethical questions in science. For example, Stem Cell researchers from Heriot Watt used Deadinburgh, an immersive theatre project that Andy produced, as a forum to discuss the polemics surrounding their work. Post the event researchers reflected that the ability to express personal aims for working in this revolutionary medical advancement was a huge success for being part of the project.
- Over the past decade science communication has become progressively competitive, with some of the more traditional educational ‘show and tell’ formats becoming quickly out-dated. Cultural institutions like Ars Electronica in Austria, The Barbican in London, FACT in Liverpool and ArtScience Museum - Marina Bay Sands in Singapore have set the benchmark high for new forms of creative science communication and ambitious cross-disciplinary programmes inspired by challenging scientific themes.
- Design practical experiences to reach new audiences
- The Arts can take science anywhere. This is in part helped because it is expected for art to exist in any given environment from high streets, to housing estates, to sandy beaches and train stations.
- In this context we’re intrigued by how public spaces and buildings will be transformed by new applications of technology, notably IoT and data driven social physics. We’re currently collaborating with beacon technology experts, Dot3 to prototype an app to work alongside our audio installation Mind’s Eye – which illuminates the work of scientists and engineers working on the active missions in the solar system. And working with Hammerhead VR, the Environmental Research Group and Cape Farewell on a Virtual Reality experience, Energy Renaissance - examining climate change and pollution on the streets of London.
- However, even when utilising new technology it can often be forgotten that an audience members’ experience starts the moment they engage with any creative materials relating to a project be that – a flyer in a café or the front desk so we always aim to make sure that the tone and style of a project is unified and doesn’t get lost or diluted at any stage in the audience’s journey.
- Research also shows practical experience allows for more meaningful experiences. Good storytellers and design can help audiences craft their own narratives which fosters scientific literary and add new unexpected questions, layer and themes to projects. In terms of practical, hands on experiences we’ve been really inspired by the reinvigorated maker movement over the past five years, especially venues like Makerversity which celebrate design-led practices and cross sector collaborations. We’re also seeing a few more dedicated arts and technology funds and ‘labs’ emerge but we can’t help feeling like science often gets missed of the list. We’re hoping to help to rectify this and are currently developing a few proposals to enable art and science to collide on UK high streets!
- How to turn unrealised potential into a positive
- There is a great array of people and organisations making the case for more collaboration between science and the creative arts sector, notably renowned institutions such as The British Science Association and The Wellcome Trust leading the charge, but we think there’s always more that can be done.
- We’ve found over the last six years there has been a growing interest in ‘sciart’ from both a funding and commissioning point of view. That said, sometimes projects can get stuck between the ‘it’s too new and untested’ and ‘you’ve made it happen already, so why do you need our help?’ phases in funding applications. A few more dedicated funds to test new ideas and partnerships, and further develop cross industry projects would (obviously) be welcome! We’d also like to see longer-term funding agreements for partnerships, which incentivise longitudinal studies so we can gain a greater understanding of, and collect better evidence of the impact of collaborations between the arts and sciences.
- We hope that the changes to the way universities’ public impact is measured will bring about more opportunities for artistic and creative public engagement within departments. Especially considering you can now even take a Masters in Art and Science! It’s a great time to rethink how engagement efforts can be tailored to the needs of local communities and foster deeper relationships, and not solely used as a broadcasting outlet for academic research.
- We’d also love to see more intermediary organisations and membership bodies like NCCPE, champion artistic collaborations and support scientists, communication practitioners and artists to share best practice and help dispel the myth of the uncreative scientist and unscientific artist!
Lastly, we’re also about to launch a new regular art/science meet up event to share and profile collaborative projects, please do get in touch if this might be of interest to you as we’re always open to new partnerships across the country.
Current projects – Paths to Utopia, Utopia 2016, Somerset House, www.utopia2016.com