Saturday, 12 July 2014

Robert's Adventures in Artland?

[With apologies, and due homage, to Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"]

I have touched on my links with the arts and humanities before, all of which has been in the context of my amateur’s passion for public engagement in science. Indeed, if you’re interested, please see here, and also here. I have tended to look upon these as examples of extremely welcome accidents which have yielded fruits beyond anything I could have anticipated. However, a tweet from Alex Fleming – a fellow science enthusiast from my part of the world – caused me to reflect on my assumptions in this regard. In truth, his choice of words helped to crystallise what I realised had been fermenting in the back of my mind for a quite a while and I am grateful to him for catalysing the process of getting these thoughts to the surface. (I hope you noted the gratuitous use of scientific terms in that sentence: let me know if you’d like a primer on any of them.) This is what he said …

Alex Fleming @eastkentscience   Jun 24
@PrattJulespratt Antony Gormley and adventures by @Bob_MatPhys & few others the only egs of crossover of art & science in Kent. Any others?

Now, this was itself part of a series of tweets – yes, I am indeed something of an addict – emerging from an excellent PostgraduateResearch Festival at my University. These one-day events are held annually, although this was the first one I’d been able to participate in. I had proposed a session in which a small panel drawn from across our Faculties would introduce their ‘take’ on Public Engagement and then respond to questions from the audience. It was a fairly simple idea in itself, but the fact that I was brave, or foolhardy, enough to submit it to the organisers bares testament to the events of the past couple of years and to the wonderfully talented and creative people I've met as a result. Joining me in this panel were colleagues Nancy Gaffield (English, a poet of deserved renown), Sian Stevenson (Drama, specialising in performance) and Becky Higgitt (History, having joined us recently from the Greenwich Maritime Museum); Lynne Bennett, who oversees the University’s Public Engagement with Research programme, kindly agreed to introduce us and to chair the Q&A session. The point I really want to get across here is how it was that I came to know these lovely people. 

I met Sian under the umbrella of the Prosper stream within Canterbury Festival (see here, and here): I was a naïve scientist working with the Turner Contemporary gallery, she an accomplished member of a team experimenting with community engagement via dance. Although I had first met Nancy in the context of student support, my eyes were opened to her creative talents when I read her first published collection, Tokaido Road (now the inspiration for an opera, premiered at this year’s Cheltenham Festival – but coming to Canterbury in 2015 I am delighted to say). Despite the fact that she worked at the same University, Becky first came to my attention via Twitter and her blog posts for The Guardian (- our University is a big place, and there are rather few ways in which staff can bump into each other in the relaxed way that facilitates serendipitous interactions); having made that initial contact however, there was no turning back. Lynne was the generous talent behind the Launch Event for our new University Strategy for Public Engagement with Research – generous in part because she invited me to play a front-of-house role despite my relative inexperience. So, there we were: the panel and our chair, billed as presenting a plenary session at an event none of us had any real experience of.

Even, or perhaps especially with hindsight it is apposite that the heading I chose for my handful of image-heavy slides at this Research Festival was ‘Random Walk’. (The image to the left formed the basis of my opening slide.) This has a particular meaning for a physicist, but was also, I thought, a meaningful generic way to describe my route to the present in this context. If there was one idea I wanted to leave behind with our audience it was that they embrace the  risk in saying “yes” to at least some of the ‘wild card’ offers and opportunities that will assuredly come their way. In a way it reflects a phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt that has been on my office wall for many, many years, albeit in paraphrased form: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, even though chequered by failure, than to dwell in that perpetual twilight that knows not victory or defeat”. Is this another way of embracing the concept of a 'Random Walk'?

Any genuinely high-level success in science research positively requires the mind-set that underpins this phrase, alongside painstaking attention to detail and an eye for the unexpected buried within it, and a whole raft of other attributes. However, it’s only in the past few years that I've seen its relevance worked out in other ways – and that only as a result of external, unlooked for, changes to my professional environment. As funding for research got scarcer I sought new challenges, almost unconsciously; the realities of university life are such that this was only made practicable after taking partial retirement. Having been an active proponent of outreach into regional schools for many years, constrained in the past by the lack of available time, I now found I had the opportunity for more science communication work at about the same time as invitations emerged to take this into the world of adult lay audiences. In truth, I suspect the opportunities had been there all along, but the frenetic rush of everything else (including chasing the funds needed to keep a research team ‘on the road’, managing our projects and overseeing the dissemination of our outcomes) would have blinded me to their presence and potential. And so it was that an informal talk on glass – my pet subject – at a local Café Scientifique led to another couple of talks at the Canterbury museums (the Heritage Museum and
then the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge), which led to … you get the picture. There is still rather little ‘art’ in the mix at this stage, other than images in my slides of some rather fine examples of glass art, including the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral of course.  (In passing, my links with the glass workshop at the Cathedral also led, via conversations with a long-standing friend, author and written communications guru Martyn Barr, to a highly readable book on the Cathedral’s stained glass: yet another positive step on my ‘random walk’.)  All of this was fun in and of itself, but that very fact will, I think, have ‘softened me up’ such that I embraced the chance to help in the experiment envisioned with the Turner Contemporary – again, all of this is introduced in earlier posts. What the passage of time, and a set of subsequent experimental collaborations (see here for an example), has allowed is further reflection on what it’s all meant and on the outcomes (as distinct from the outputs).

Apart from the realisation that my entire Public Engagement world-view has been completely renewed in the space of only a couple of years, it has also dawned on me – slow learner that I am – that the driving force that has motivated all this (unpaid) work bears comparison with that which drove my research and still empowers my teaching. It really is all about the people: building and nurturing relationship with talented, creative, enthusiastic, committed people – almost irrespective of the context. Delving even further back, I’m also reminded of the pride and amazement I used to feel when watching what my dad could achieve with only rectangular bricks/blocks and some mortar to play with: he was a hugely talented bricklayer who loved getting it ‘just so’. I have a similar reaction to my wife’s work with young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. There’s a common theme emerging, evidently.  Perhaps my ‘random walk’ isn't quite so random after all, just 'unplanned' and delightfully full of serendipity. 

But what of art? After all, the tweet that started this particular hare running mentioned me alongside a talented local artist and an internationally renowned sculptor. I realise I've still not addressed the title or genesis of this post explicitly (although there is an implicit, perhaps tangential, reference via the wonderful Turner Contemporary gallery). I must make it crystal clear – another term calling out for scientific explanation, but not now – that I am not an artist. No, that's an understatement of huge proportions: when it comes to drawing, painting, modelling, ... I am close to hopeless. The drawing of me shown on the right, made in the sand at Joss Bay, North Kent, by my five-year old grandson Jacob, exemplifies a stage in ability that I have never really grown out of. Having said that, I love beautiful, challenging works by those who are indeed artists, and I am blessed with a wife who does have artistic ability and understanding (in spades!) and who has helped to open my eyes. Similarly, I am, if anything, even less musical than I am 'artistic' although I love listening to music – across a wide spectrum, and particularly when performed live. Thankfully, this lack of ability hasn't stopped me enjoying the challenge of trying to explain Chaos Theory to local communications guru and opera librettist Frank Burnet as he and his team create a new work: Butterfly. Now, up to a point, I can and do write, and I enjoy the ups and downs of the process that goes with it; were that not the case, neither this blog nor a great deal else besides would exist. However, my efforts are a long, long way from the award-winning fiction of my ex-colleague Emmi Itäranta or Nancy's captivating poetry (see links above). But that's the point surely ... that's exactly what makes my contact – no, my willing and naïve engagement with those whose talent does emerge within these areas such an adventure. Alex's tweet uncovered a truth I think. One can't help but be reminded of what J.R.R. Tolkein said through Bilbo: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door ... You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to."

Long may it remain so.

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