Participatory Science at FIGMENT
July 7, 2015 by Mark
This guest blog post is from Zach Kopciak, theatrical performer and longtime Guerilla Science collaborator. Zach worked with us to produce a diverse programme of events for Figment Festival, held on Governor’s Island in New York in June 2015.
As a theatre artist working with scientists, I am often asked if the experience is very different than when I work on more traditional shows. The answer is honestly and always: no. My goal is to affect the audience—to invite or provoke them into another state of experience.
In theatre, this often takes the form of a release of built up emotions due to the resolution of the plot, or catharsis. The audience moves from hope to joy or sorrow, from expectation to knowing. Seen in this way, the aims of art and science are not so different. Both strive to help us make sense of a universe that often seems utterly incomprehensible, even if both end up asking more questions than finding answers.
The performance artist Allan Kaprow believed that art didn’t have to tell its audience what to think, but could allow them to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions through participation with the art work. At the GS Headquarters on Governors Island for the FIGMENT arts festival, we offered people an opportunity to get their hands dirty (often literally) with the raw materials of science and art.
During our Anatomical Life Drawing classes, Paul Smereka drew internal organs on the outside of a model’s skin as he explained how different parts of the human body fit and work together. Artist Brian Brooks simultaneously gave a lesson on how to capture the human form on paper. The art and science informed one another as participants actively explored through their own drawings the material Paul and Brian presented.
With Flavour Feast, participants sampled various smells and tastes. Neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall demonstrated that tiny genetic differences between individuals can have a big effect on the smells we perceive. After taking a whiff of an unmarked vial, many people smelled absolutely nothing. Others described it as “the worst seven-day-old gym sock smell” they had ever encountered. Chemist Kent Kirshenbaum similarly showed how our senses are more fallible then we think. After chewing the leaf of the “sugar destroyer” Gymnema sylvestre, chocolate tastes like bitter carbon and honey has no taste at all. Munch on the miracle berry Synsepalum dulcificum, however, and lemons become as sweet as candy, and people will eat them as voraciously as you’d eat a watermelon on a hot day. If the ways we perceive reality can be so variable, what other personal truths might change under new contexts?
Sound artist Zach Walker invited participants to engage with his interactive sculpture, Visualizing Vibrations. Audience members used their fingers and voices to manipulate liquids on a speaker, creating complex and visually stunning patterns. As Zach explained, “Every particle in every atom vibrates, together creating the pattern we recognize as the world around us.” Visualizing Vibrations allows people to probe the point of intersection between art and science. It provides a space to actively meditate on deeply philosophical notions of individuality and oneness, and to consciously participate with the vibrations that bind us all together.