“Bold fusion?” – “Know-llage? It’s like a collage of knowledge, get it?” – “How about Design Lab? Or does that just sound like a computer program…”
No, you haven’t walked into a brand-generating session of The Apprentice, rather a name-generating session for our next Imperial Fringe event, focusing on the collaborations between art and science. And we were stuck. As with most forms of public engagement a good title is key. It has to intrigue and engage your audience to attend, whilst being absolutely clear about what it is. Somehow ‘Bold Fusion’ was sounding more like a cooking show than the art-science mixture that we had in mind.
The Imperial Fringe is a legacy of the Imperial Festival, first held in May 2012. This annual public engagement event showcases everything from Imperial’s dance, art and music, to the complex research being undertaken and it’s applications. It is a chance to celebrate Imperial’s achievements and share exciting new projects. The first festival was a resounding success, highlighting a demand for more public engagement in the same vein, and thus the Fringe was born! Each event is centred around a theme that brings together different strands of Imperial’s research and displays it in an interactive evening of surprising demonstrations. Harriet Martin, Events Officer at the helm, described her most surreal Fringe moment; when a very realistic looking Christmas dinner made entirely from cake started the evening as a decorative centrepiece linked to research on obesity and the carbon footprint of festive feasting, that no one dared touch, began disappearing so quickly that they had to guard the ‘turkey’ until a ceremonial slicing at the end of the evening.
Having a theme is an important part of each event, not just because it helps to generate a good title, but also because it draws lots of different researchers together who have a fundamental common ground. Some departments that have gone on to work together on major projects didn’t even know the other existed before the first Imperial Festival! The next Fringe on ‘Fluid Thinking’ draws in research ranging from how foam is used to extract minerals, to what fish teeth can tell us about climate change, to comets and the role of ice in space. This is what I have learnt most since joining the Imperial Fringe team, that the key to a successful event is diversity. More than just a diversity of topics, you also need diversity in the style of demonstration and what each contributes to the overall event.
Sticking with Fluid Thinking as our example, this means that amongst the more traditional table-top activities we have more artistic demonstrations such as a vascular installation of blood vessels knitted by people on the night. This artistic approach is no less beneficial scientifically, as whilst people are knitting they can chat to the demonstrators about the role of blood as a transport system, or what diseases could affect blood vessels. The playful element adds a different level of engagement to the event. Similarly we will be running tours of Imperial’s wind tunnel, allowing for a more immersive experience into real labs and their equipment. Having to sign up and wait for your slot also generates excitement and anticipation that will permeate the event. In a similar way, a ‘pop-up’ performance halfway through is a fantastic way to temporarily gather a large crowd and create a real buzz, much like with street performers. It focuses everyone’s attention, and attracts people who might just be passing through to then stay and explore afterwards. This flexible model of the Fringe is it’s greatest strength.
Definitely the most interesting part of my role is meeting different researchers and deciding together how their work could best be presented. Most recently I was working with the co-founder of Imperial’s Constructionarium, an annual week where engineering students build real structures such as small bridges and oil rigs on a special site, to encourage them to think practically as well as theoretically. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious and we dreamed up so many ideas that it was difficult picking just one to focus on for the evening. Pitching it at the right level is also important. Events like this provide a platform not only for public engagement, but also for researchers to develop their own communication skills and try out new things.
Of course the best parts are the nights themselves! I am always so impressed and genuinely interested in the displays that unfold and with each event you learn something new about what did and didn’t work. Events and shows are such an important part of science communication because it’s the human contact that generates the true engagement.
So, on to the next one! We settled on ‘Arts Experiment 2.0’ in the end.Matilda Hay is currently studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London.