Food for the Great Hungers. image by ‘pling

So recently, David was interviewed by Artshub’s Erin Bradshaw regarding the intersection between arts and science in Boho’s practice. The resulting article has just been published, including some interesting discussion about scientist-artists throughout history. For the sake of an interesting discussion, we’ve posted the full interview below.

ERIN: As part of your group, are you guys finding people are surprised at the combination of art and science?

DAVID: Hmm. Not exactly, but there are a set of perceptions which aren’t very useful that come with the territory. We’re a long way from being an educational theatre troupe – our process is to go in to meet with research scientists, read everything we can on the topic we’re investigating, and continue to work with scientists as consultants the whole way through. The result is that the science bleeds through in all aspects of the work, but we don’t have an educational message or a required set of concepts that we expect audiences to understand at the end of it.

The most common misconception that we’ve had to counter is audiences assuming that the work will be too academic or difficult to comprehend for them. In reality, if anything in the show is unclear or confusing, that’s our fault and not the audience’s. Unlike educational performances or lectures, our plays can be as tangled, messy and conflicting as real life – but then the science we’re dealing wth is frequently tangled, messy and conflicting as well. That’s part of the excitement of it. I guess anything really worth exploring, through art or science, is going to be tangled.

Usually the people most surprised at the combination of art and science is us. When we started doing this work back in 2006, we kept looking around for other artists doing similar stuff – we weren’t really interested in reinventing the wheel. And there are lots of other arts-science makers out there, but they’re all so different and using such different approaches. Artists and groups we’ve worked alongside – like the Masters of Space and Time, Tom Doig, the Landlords, Owen Collins – all have wildly different methods and results.

ERIN: Your tagline is “we fight dirty for science”- how did that come about? Do you think the arts can make scientific concepts and issues emotional/matter to audiences?

DAVID: I don’t know! But man it’s got to be worth a try.

Putting aside any questions of climate change and etc, the world population is increasing by 150,000 per day, which is a new Canberra every two days. The world is changing really, really fast, and science has provided some of the best tools to understand and get to grips with those changes. Sciences such as complexity theory, game theory and network theory have enabled the creation of predictive models of our world. These models can function something like flight simulators for governments and policy-makers – you can use them to test out ideas virtually before trying them in the real world.

For instance, rather than just dump thousands of tons of fertiliser on an area of farmland or dam a river system, you can use a model to test out what some of the effects and impacts might be. Governments worldwide are using these tools to help them plan and respond to situations.

For us, the theatre work we do exists as another kind of simulation – they’re what-if scenarios that we can look at and consider. Our show Food For The Great Hungers was a series of interactive scenarios leading to the creation of an alternative Australia. The audience made decisions throughout the show that resulted in a counterfactual history of the 20th century. What would have happened if Australia hadn’t fought in the world war one and experienced Gallipoli? What would have happened if we’d abandoned the White Australia policy in 1930 or 1990, rather than 1970? And the point of that show was to ask: what are the major turning points in our history? And where are the cracks where we can insert a wedge to change the future to one that we want?

These concepts aren’t hard to grasp – if they were, we wouldn’t have a chance, because we’re all interested laymen rather than qualified scientists. Rather than make these issues emotional or matter to audiences, I guess we’re just trying to say: they’re right here. Let’s talk about them.

ERIN: What has been some feedback from your audiences about your work?

DAVID: The response to the TEDx talk that Jack and Mick gave last year was pretty incredible – that was exciting.

TEDxCanberra - Balloons - Image by Gavin Tapp
TEDx Canberra – image by Gavin Tapp

Perhaps most interesting was the response to True Logic of the Future. That was a work we created in 2010 at the Belconnen Arts Centre thanks to a commission from the Powerhouse Museum and National Science Week. It took place in a hypothetical future Australia where the issues of climate and global change had continued to be volleyed back and forth between the two political parties, until a series of consequences had impacted on the country more or less simultaneously. The central question of the show was: are there situations in which we might willingly surrender our freedom to a totalitarian dictator?

The audience response to the work was really divided, and often very heated. Some people agreed that we might reach a point where a dictator would be a more effective ruler than a two-party democracy. Other people said that we should never surrender our freedom, ever. Some people were adamant that the situation would never reach the point we depicted, while other people felt it likely that it would. It was a really fascinating debate, and one which we had no firm opinions on ourselves, so we were able to take part in it as much as anyone else.

True Logic of the Future – image by ‘pling.

ERIN: How has the scientific community reacted? Have you been accepted/praised? Or have they accused you of “sugar coating” their work?

DAVID: One of our earliest and most fun gigs was performing A Prisoner’s Dilemma at the Asia-Pacific Complex Systems Science Conference at the Gold Coast in 2007, to an international audience of practicing scientists. It was great, because they’re not used to seeing their work reflected as theatre or performance, so they were quite passionate about it. Our work is interactive, and that show involved audience members using modied gaming controllers to direct performers through scenarios. Along with college students, scientists are easily the most competitive audience we’ve ever had for that work – which was a lot of fun.

Boho’s next show is exploring issues of epidemiology and disease spread, so we recently went on a research trip to the Australian Animal Health Laboratories in Geelong. We had two days of touring through the facilities, meeting all kinds of different scientists and even suiting up in Biohazard suits and going through the airlock into the virus containment facility. (We got closer to Ebola, SARS, Hendra and Nipah viruses than I ever anticipated getting.) It was an incredible experience, and it continually amazes me how generous people are with their time if you’re genuinely interested in the work they’re doing.

ERIN: You recently won a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust award to go overseas studying- where are you going and what do you want to achieve when you’re over there?

DAVID: I’m going to visit a whole raft of institutions that link together artists with scientists in the UK, the USA, Canada and Japan. I’m most excited about visiting the Resilience Centre in Stockholm – the Resilience Alliance has been a really exciting new hub of ideas over the last few years, and they’ve been extremely foresighted in how they’ve connected with artists. The study of Resilience – how systems respond and cope with change and stress – has offered some fascinating insights into all kinds of different areas, including into how Australia can manage things like the Murray-Darling River Basin. So I’m going to go get my head into all of that.

The end goal, of course, is to come back to Australia and try to formulate opportunities for more artists to do work like this. We’d love to see other artists connecting with the sciences in this way. Organisations such as Tipping Point Australia have done a great job raising awareness of some of these issues among Australian artists, but there’s room for so many more theatre and performance works to grapple with these ideas. And the more artists are out there doing it, the more chance there is of someone making something truly memorable.

ERIN: Do you think art will find a bigger place in the scientific community in the future?

DAVID: Yes, absolutely. As the climate debate has dampened down post-Copenhagen, and it’s largely vanished from public discourse even while the issue is rapidly worsening, there’s a sense that the climate deniers and the carbon lobby has won, at least for the moment. There’s been a realisation that facts, no matter how clear and how substantial, are not what is needed to shift public opinion. People don’t take their opinions from facts, they choose facts to support their opinions. That seems obvious now, but I think 15 or 20 years ago most scientists believed that all it would take was clearly explained evidence to convince and activate the public. Instead, facts have been countered by spin, and what can you do with that? Scientists are in the business of uncovering and making sense of facts. Even though many scientists have been forced through necessity to be very sophisticated public-relations experts over the last two decades, they aren’t inherently spin doctors.

Artists, on the other hand… On one level, art is spin. Artists tell stories, they make things felt, they can make things tangible and immediate in a way that a graph or a table can’t. So it’s my feeling that in the future, scientists will be increasingly using artists as an alternative interface to engage with the public.

(this is kind of an answer to where the ‘we fight dirty for science’ tagline came from as well)

Boho’s currently working on two projects. The first is a new show about epidemiology, network theory and disease spread, which will premiere next year in Canberra as part of the Australian Theatre Forum and the Centenary of Canberra. The second is a live game about systems modelling, which will be developed later this year in the UK at the Environment Institute of University College London, in collaboration with Sydney ensemble Applespiel and UK company Coney.

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