Here’s a bit from us about the TEDxCanberra talk. Questions by David (currently overseas), to Jack and Michael.
First of all, here’s the video of the talk:
The full production script from the talk can be downloaded here.
David: How did this talk come about?
Michael: We’d also like to thank Dr David Newth and Dr John Finnigan from the CSIRO Centre for Marine and Atmospheric Research for their help in getting us focused in the early stages of scripting.
D: What was the approach to producing this work?
J: The first thing we looked at was areas where TED talks and our usual work met. We had to be careful to ensure that what we were doing was a performance rather than a talk, and that the focus was on interpretation rather than explanation. None of the research itself is ours – and most of it had to be ludicrously simplified to keep each section down to a minute – so the task was to identify a good progression of simple ideas which led to the conclusion – that ignoring complex systems will basically kill us all. Then we set to thinking about ways we could get creative in communicating those ideas.
M: In the future, Boho is looking at presenting more of our work in lecture theatres and conference halls, so part of the aim was to test out as many ideas as possible to see how they worked in that environment. Most of the mechanisms we’d used in some form or another in the past in a theatrical setting, but not in the same way they were employed at TEDxCanberra. We decided that a primer on Game Theory and Complex Systems would be a topic that would suit the TED style, while being a good stand-alone manifesto for the company. In the end, though, we approached it like we usually approach performances. The format, content and interactive styles were all tackled at once to hopefully make the final result for the audience a more concrete experience.
D: 18 one-minute talks produce a bit of a grab-bag of ideas and formats. Which of the short talks would you like to be taking forward?
M: The types of ideas that would benefit from further development are the ones that engage the audience quickly and intuitively, either non-verbally or through limited on-screen information. The Mexican wave was great for this – it’s easy to engage with while allowing the audience to develop a participatory understanding of the concept being presented. One bit that required a little more prompting, but that also could be interesting in the future, was the use of audience members in their seats as a grid, resulting in a model through cellular automata. I’d love to get a top-down view of this going onscreen in the future, and it’d be great to add some more complicated rules into the mix. And then there was the balloons.
J: We’d done the balloons sequence previously in True Logic of the Future, but with us throwing the balloons into the crowd, whereas at TEDxCanberra the spread and escalation was entirely audience driven following a feedback model. To be honest it took off quicker than we thought it would – we didn’t have three hundred people to playtest with so it was a gamble and we wanted to err on the side of lots and lots of balloons for effect – but between that and the epidemic spreading model there were some really interesting uses of the whole audience as a system, and I want to do more with that in the future. The Mexican wave, funnily enough, was probably the big stress for the performance – we’re control freaks when it comes to the bounds in which a show can operate and while we were pretty sure people would be into doing a wave with us, if it hadn’t worked there wasn’t a lot we could do to force it. But the audience were a very supportive lot, and it did work, so the result was nice and real.
M: With larger crowds it’s hard to give everyone the interactive experience – you can give one person a controller and they have a great time but everyone else is a spectator, or you can put things to a vote but then nobody gets to make a real decision – so with big crowds I think the focus should be on giving people a view of the micro, by letting them be a small part of the system, and the macro, by letting them watch how the scene as a whole unfolds.
J: Besides all that I liked the puppet show, I’m a fan of the ludicrous and it’s nice how well it worked as a kind of palette-cleanser mid-show.
D: Which sections did you feel were most effective, and why?
J: One of the TED Commandments we were very aware of was not to sell from the stage, but we wanted to give a little introduction to who were were and why we were up there talking complex systems, and that was a contradiction for us. Scene 2 was I think an elegant way of dealing with this – playing some archival footage on screen but putting a controller in an audience member’s hand, so the promo reel was an interactive experience, I think that was a neat solution to it.
M: It was nice being able to give an intro to our background but with the focus being that ‘if we can understand it anyone can’, I think that was a good outcome from that section too. And the distributed monologue bit was surprisingly painful to learn and probably broke more often than it worked in rehearsal, but it paid off on the day.
D: Why is it important that Complex Systems ideas are more widely understood?
M: Policy-makers need to understand the wider impacts of their actions, and the greater public need to be aware of the potential overall gains before discounting policies (and governments) that are on the nose in the short term.
J: Where complexity is involved, I think there’s a failure to connect the dots when it comes to what is observed versus what that implies. Whether you’re talking climate change, disease spread or the preservation of endangered species and ecosystems; people accept that the damage is being done on the local level, but there is a difficult leap in intuition required to appreciate the impact the consequences of that damage at the system level. There are some recurring concepts in complex systems that can be applied to a lot of these situations in a really helpful way – unintended consequences, feedback loops, convergence and divergence – and getting into this mindset is useful when trying to tackle just about any of those wicked-type problems.
D: What is the appeal of performing in a lecture theatre rather than traditional space?
J: Firstly, there are lots of them to perform in. They’re a stripped-back venue, very outcome oriented, and they’re all a kind of ‘default’ space – each is going to have a screen, audio, and not much else, but the stage is close to the audience and everyone has a good view. There’s a simplicity there that if you can work with and use to your advantage I think there’s a huge depth of effective work you can do. We all saw Version 1.0’s The Bougainville Photoplay Project at the Old Fitzroy in 2009 and that was pretty instructive in the power of storytelling as a way of putting the play outside the limitations of the space you’re in.
M: We want to perform to a larger audience. Frankly, it’s getting frustrating spending thousands of hours working on something that – because of the limitations we’ve worked into the script – only a few people get to see. Bigger crowds is a nice challenge when considering ways that interactivity can enhance a performance. And if this lecture/theatre business works, hopefully there will be chances to tour more extensively with limited requirements in terms of hauling a set around with us.
D: Lastly; how can the arts fight for science?
M: It must be incredibly frustrating for climate scientists, and others in similarly controversy-plagued fields, to be forever stymied by the rigour required in acknowledging the constraints of their observations, the ever-present grey-area of confidence intervals, while still somehow expressing the gravity and inevitability of the situation they know that we are all facing, but refuse to see. At the same time, the bastards picking over your studies can do whatever the hell they like. As a few artists who aren’t quite so vulnerable to being held to ransom on technicalities, we have no such restraints, so we have an opportunity to do what we can to balance the scales by helping to realise these worst-case scenarios onstage.
J: We can fight for science by being cool with the idea that it’s not our jobs to be an encyclopaedia, and it’s not our job to present a balanced view. Artists are supposed to be intuitive and feeling, so they should be encouraged to find things that make them feel strong emotions and try to channel that without worrying about coming across as biased or filtering it through a rational mindset. The instinct to qualify what you’re saying is characteristic of scientists, and those sections of the media with any integrity, because they don’t want to be proven wrong. But most media outlets have financial interests outside of presenting an even or scientific view, so impartiality isn’t on the cards – it’s up to the arts to do what it can to balance that out. The arts has always been the best way to communicate the beauty and the terror of science, so we just need to play to people’s emotions on topics we feel strongly about. And we do that by yelling as loud as we can.