Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Facilitator // Sam Illingworth

I’m sat opposite what Manchester City Council have deigned to call Circle Square, and I wonder if I need to get myself a philosopher or theoretical physicist to help me to understand the concept. A man gets impatient as he tries to squeeze between the window I’m sat by and the slow tread of students ambling by the roadworks. A couple waiting at the bus stop opposite laugh and I thought I heard it. Sam slides in the doorway and catches my eye half hesitantly, half expectantly. Slightly delayed by a meeting the value of which is shrugged aside, we avoid the small talk to make the most of the allotted time.

I have a structure, and it comes from Sam’s webpage. Sam Illingworth is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, as I figured this was as good a place as any to get into the circles of scientists that still seem so distinct from my arty peer group. And it’s a concern for him as well. Although he has a background in climate science, his current passion is finding the bridges, the links for people between scientists and artists. Or maybe he’d prefer to help people realise that these are artificial distinctions, that professional scientists also have an artistic aspect, that artists have valuable and essential things to say about science.

“I spent two years in Japan, some of which was spent studying with Yukio Ninagawa, who’s famous for his Shakespeare adaptations, thinking about how you can use theatrical techniques to improve communication and encourage creativity.” When he returned to the UK this became an interest in the potential for theatre to facilitate the conversation between the expert and the non-expert. We look at each other with an acknowledgement of how loaded those terms are today. “I’m interested in the co-creation of knowledge, working with non-scientists, have them ask what they can do, what will benefit, what can they provide.” Sam confesses that theatre is no longer the driving force of his work at the moment, that “poetry has taken over,” but there is a project envisaged, tentatively, using the techniques of forum theatre to explore co-governance and community involvement, which he sees as “a powerful tool for allowing people to play out scenarios. Especially with science subjects that people think they’ve nothing to contribute to.” Sam has a way of leaning forward and pinning a point with his fingers when he feels it’s important, and the position of the audience in relation to science subjects is one of those points, where he wants to subvert the idea of a lay-audience. “You may be a lay-audience in relation to bio-medicine, but if you’ve suffered from an illness for twenty or thirty years, you’re not really a lay audience in health care.”

Sam believes there have been a number of very good theatrical projects around science, but largely traditional, not breaking the fourth wall. “But scientific transparency is very important,” so the idea becomes bringing together audience with scientists, bring in a dramaturg. Yet Sam has his reservations even about this sense of public engagement, for by picking the scientists in some sense you’ve already set the boundaries of the conversation.

I’m slightly worried that asking Sam whether he is looking to process over product might be a loaded question, but he catches on to it. “Process definitely, process as much.” It brings to his mind a module that he teaches on Sciart, where the conversations between the students is so interesting to him. There’s a common concern with the role of the teacher, the expert. “The traditional lecture room, with one person stood at the front reading from a textbook, that’s not changed from medieval times, when they only had one copy of the textbook, it’s not changed. I might have more knowledge in one area, but everyone brings knowledge, that everyone can benefit from.” It seems to me he’d love to find the process that would utilise the best process for the specific audience, the appropriate methodology for each different community that produces the most useful outcomes.

“What I’ve struggled with most is that role, that stood at the front I’m still thought the most knowledgeable; I don’t know if it’s modesty or Britishness, I don’t think of myself as much more of an expert, and certainly some of my students are smarter than I am, certainly. But it’s dangerous to have too much of a sense of modesty. Actually, a dramaturg isn’t a bad analogy; ultimately I encourage the student to utilise their skills.” Sam talks of his practise in three strands, of research, teaching, and public engagement, which are symbiotic (a scientific term physicalized with intertwined fingers). “Encouraging people who already have the innate skill set, give them the confidence. That’s why interdisciplinary work is so important.”

“I’ve always had a personal interest in poetry, I’ve written plays, there’s a similarity, a searching for questions, there’s a natural flip between, many of the most creative people I know are scientists.” It’s partly an aspect of contemporary culture that Sam feels passionately is “really divisive,” and it’s what he’s driving against. “People are unsure of where they fit. A scientist might not visit an art gallery; an artist might not contribute to a scientific discussion. We should be exploring similarities rather than differences.” This mission of both art and science are, as Sam describes them, “futile attempts to describe the place we live;” futile because they will always be partial, both incomplete and biased. “People are not artists or scientists but human beings.”

Not that Sam finds much resistance to these ideas. People generally seem very open to new ways of working and “are willing to push boundaries,” and Sam has a project pairing artists and scientists, particularly poets. He’s worked with London-based poet Dan Simpson, creating experimental works enabling scientists and poets to communicate to a wider audience. “Ultimately I want to work to something truly interdisciplinary.” We can avoid CP Snow no longer, whose idea that scientists should be able to quote Shakespeare has for so long been de-contextualised and misconstrued, and Sam wants to hold on to his idea that “the only way to solve inter-disciplinary problems is to use inter-disciplinary solutions. That’s my whole raison d’etre, to help people see the world through other people’s eyes.”

As a concrete example of a project that Sam is working on to demonstrate exactly the sort of cross-pollination he proposes he tells me about his blog The Poetry of Science, in which “every week I read a new piece of science research and try and write a poem.” But it’s more than that, it’s using the structures of the science to inform the artistic choices, to have the artistic choices affirm the research. “So a piece in dementia, I choose the pantoum structure, which I felt plays with the concept of memory. Another idea was to see if we could replace that traditional abstract with a poem, where we gave a group of scientists an abstract and a poem based on the abstract. Not surprisingly they preferred the abstract, but their analysis of the poems were fairly accurate.”

“I’m incredibly lucky. I’m passionate about what I do and I love doing it.” You can see it and despite our tight time-slot it feels like it’s going to be difficult to draw this conversation to a close, especially as Sam is determined to tell me about a current project he’s engaged on to make Manchester a carbon neutral city by 2050. “The challenge here is that both of these terms are esoteric, so we’ve gone out into the community, to find out what’s important to them and now we’re working with people to implement a better climate change strategy. Mainly using poetry so far, but also art and music, to try and communicate and get responses. You have to be careful about that, to remember that art has its own intrinsic value, but it can also be a facilitative tool. That’s easier because of my background. I’m very proud of that project; it’s of benefit to the community, it feels ahead of the curve.”

There’s students negotiating the spaces between the crowds, a couple laughing at the bus stop, a man with a blue paisley bow-tie rushing from meeting to meeting to meeting. I can’t tell if they’re artists or scientists. Perhaps one day Sam will be able to get us all round the table to facilitate the discussion.
conversation with Sam Illingworth took place at Costa Coffee, Oxford Road on Tuesday 7 February 2017 from 4:10pm // @samillingworth  //


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