I have always loved both science and art, so in some ways it feels only natural that my interests should bleed together. I am lucky enough to have worked in both fields and feel they have much in common and much to learn from each other. I love science art and yet find some of the outputs I see in galleries to be deeply tedious. Sometimes scientists cynically seek artists to serve their research submissively in order to make it more communicable, or to elevate it to 'high' culture, reducing it to a merely more pretentious form of graphic design. In some cases, science and research are looked upon by artists as a way of bank-rolling their pet projects. With resources being cut elsewhere, I have noticed artists clamouring around science funders. I much prefer it when an art project is used as a means of opening dialogue, of forging collaboration and inviting other voices to the table. I prefer it when you gain a sense that all involved grew in some way by taking part.
I am the Public Engagement Manager of Wellcome / EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences (WEISS), a research centre focused on enabling scientists and engineers to work more closely with clinicians and so create better surgical tools, leading to better outcomes for patients. It is an inherently collaborative endeavour. We know that the other people who need to be brought into conversations about healthcare are patients and the general public. As the people who may be at the sharp end of our innovations, patients have a right to know about what is being developed and how. Furthermore, patients have valuable lived experiences that can help guide and enhance research, meaning that our work addresses what is most important to them. This holistic approach makes both the research and the researcher more impactful. My job is to find ways to help connect researchers to patients and the public in ways where all might learn and benefit from the interaction. It is a mostly joyous task but is not without its challenges. Researchers are already stretched with other duties and may not have fully-developed communications skills. Patients and publics may not feel interested in, or feel able to be involved in, research. Creativity can help bridge this gap.
A guide to support science art collaborations
Over the past three years, I have fostered and helped facilitate 15 collaborations between artists and scientists. Through this, we have honed our practice into a framework that we continue to use today. Based on this work, I have recently written a practical guide that I hope will help others in the public engagement community. You can read it here.
The mediums used for the final artistic outputs have varied wildly. We have explored 3D printing, laser-cut sculptures, cyanotyping, poetry, textiles, embroidery, zine-making, interactive games, interactive websites, photography and video art.
In most cases, the collaborations were conceived at match-making events. At these, scientists and artists meet, share their passions, and undertake fun exercises so they can get to know each other as professionals and as people. Even researchers who don’t progress further than this stage feel the benefit. As one said, “artists see things in a very different way to engineers, there's a lot of potential to learn and create new things that neither could do independently”.
Those who find each other mutually inspiring go on to form a partnership, bid for funds, and devise a project that will include an interactive arts-based workshop. Relevant patients or other members of the public are then invited to this workshop to co-create with the team. The artist, assisted by our researchers and any other relevant stakeholders, uses the learning, and, ideally, the materials generated, to create a final artistic output. The final piece is shared not just with all who have been involved in the project but a wider, more general, public too.
A beautiful process
Though the real meat of the projects has always been in the process of creation and the dialogue produced by the workshop, I am pleased to say that, to my eyes at least, the final outputs have all been thought-provoking and beautiful works. They act as a reminder for all involved of what was shared and learned through working with each other. The process allows people to be heard and to see that they have been heard. It also acts as a means of reaching beyond the core group and a legacy of which everyone involved can be proud.
The results can be transformational for all participants. A means of expression can be liberating. A patient told us, “I didn’t know I could create artworks like this.” By focusing on creating while conversing, some patients have been able to be open about traumatic experiences that they may otherwise have felt unable to discuss.
I didn’t know I could create artworks like this.
As one patient put it, “I think I learned more about myself through engaging in the session; it was very therapeutic.” Several bereaved carers remarked how the workshops formed a small part of their grieving process. The researchers too benefit from this added openness and being out of their comfort zones. One researcher remarked on how surprised they were by “how willing people were to talk about personal experiences, particularly around what must have been pretty challenging experiences in their life”.
Such experience has made the researchers involved become passionate advocates for engagement. As one researcher fed back, “to any scientist considering getting involved in something like this…this is a fantastic opportunity to meet different people, to exchange ideas, and perhaps create something that might drive that change in the world that we all need… trust me you will enjoy it”. Endorsements like this mean that though we now have a solid methodology from which to work, we can, and will, continue to experiment.
To any scientist considering getting involved in something like this…this is a fantastic opportunity to meet different people, to exchange ideas, and perhaps create something that might drive that change in the world that we all need… trust me you will enjoy it...