Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on some of the Creative Intersections work that’s beginning here at the RSA, in collaboration with Kings College London. The last session I took part in involved artists forming self-selecting relationships with academic specialists, with a view to future collaboration. One thing was immediately obvious (and quite interesting): the overwhelming majority of academics who elected to take part were scientists – in popular imagination, virtually as remote a discipline from art as you could imagine. The call-out had crossed all academic disciplines, but it was clearly scientists who saw a strong benefit in taking part – and scientists of all kinds, from healthcare to physics.
Why would this happen? There’s an obvious answer: Scientists, who sometimes find it hard to reach beyond the academic environment, are excited about the idea of working with someone who seeks, above all, to communicate, and whose traditional audience can be radically different from their own. Parallel to that, many artists see a benefit in this radical difference in discipline – they’re fascinated by new ways to explore and find meaning in the world around them, and jump at the chance to spend time with people who are at the cutting-edge of knowledge about what that world actually is. The Wellcome Trust’s Arts Awards aim to capture these mutual benefits in the sphere of biomedical science, and Ignite! use creative practice to facilitate science education in much the same spirit.
What really fascinates me, though, is the idea that collaboration between artists and scientists might move to the level where it actually affects working practice. Scientific breakthroughs radically overhauling art are everywhere (the effect of photographic film on painting is a good example), but this relationship is largely seen as a one-way street. Imagine, instead, a scientific breakthrough that happened because of art. This might sound silly to some people, but I’d like to elaborate with a personal experience:
I was taught that science and religion were fundamentally at odds – that science was no more compatible with religion than it was with the idea that Uri Geller could bend spoons with the power of his mind, or a belief in flying spaghetti monsters. These were all just wacky ideas, and fundamentally incompatible with scientific reason. I don’t want to get into that debate (I’ve heard a rumour that discussing the benefits of science vs. religion on the internet is unwise) but it contains a (perhaps unexpected) hidden premise: that ‘wacky ideas’ have no place in science too.
This is plainly wrong. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been told by scientists, with a straight face, that “the universe is actually shaped like a huge doughnut”, or “all points in time co-exist” or “space is like a balloon where all surface points are in contact”, or something equally, to any sane person, ludicrous. This sort of creative thinking is essential, and not just in order to convey theories to non-scientists like myself. When faced with a seemingly intractable problem, and an impenetrable dataset, starting from any wacky premise is a reasonable problem-solving strategy. It’s also what’s commonly referred to as ‘thinking outside the box’ – strategies that mitigate the kind of epistemological path dependency that increasingly complex scientific fields suffer from. The scientist who told me that the universe was “sort of shaped like a doughnut” did so because a few years ago, faced with a complex space-time conundrum, a scientist thought “what if it was shaped… you know, like… a doughnut?”, modelled it, and realised it (sort of) worked. It was a case of creative experimentation, and fitting the figures to the model ex post.
Kuhn and Feyerabend both deal with this, in different ways. But whilst these creative paradigm shifts are easy to understand in hindsight, I for one know very little about how that sort of creative space might be carved out within a typical science environment. Standing in the RSA’s Romney Room and seeing some eminent leaders in their field explaining how their field of study was ‘sort of’ like an object they’d brought in from home, and then afterwards talking excitedly about how they ‘never get to think like that’, I felt like I was on the road to finding out.
There’s not much time for real, far-out, blue-skies creative thinking in science these days, partly because the benefits are so little understood, and partly because the costs (a day spent not doing ‘proper’ research, say) are significant. But if we can tie this sort of thinking up with some of the more tangible, easily-understood benefits of arts-science collaboration, and make space for a bit of research within that, then there’s a good chance we can make the case. The benefits seem almost impossible to measure (how can we show a breakthrough in ten years’ time began in a workshop now?), but they’re certainly felt by scientists. The difficulty isn’t showing that the arts can benefit science – the difficulty is showing how.
I’m in the middle of evaluating the Arts and Social Change strand of Citizen Power Peterborough. I don’t want to get into the details of the programme itself – read here if you’d like a primer – but rather, to talk about a few interesting problems that the evaluation has thrown up.
Evaluating something like Arts and Social Change isn’t about measuring ‘success vs. failure’ – if everything in the project was a ‘success’ in that narrow definition, then there would be no learning and the project as a whole would have failed. Citizen Power Peterborough has above all been an experiment – and nowhere more so than in Arts and Social Change. The goal is to find out what impact, if any, the arts can have on positive social change, and this has been pursued through a number of targeted arts-based interventions in Peterborough. Some projects have been hugely successful in terms of impact, others partly so (with important findings), and all have been able to adapt as they progressed, reflecting on-the-ground realities, new ideas and preliminary results.
The Arts and Social Change programme has run according to a set of principles; one of those principles is emergence. To paraphrase broadly, this is the idea that interventions in complex structures (like the communities of Peterborough) will lead to multiple, complex outcomes – the kind that can’t easily be predicted at the outset. These kinds of findings are extremely valuable, because they can only be brought to light through hands-on experimentation.
So, to recap: a huge experiment in a complex structure, where accurate prediction is all but impossible, where there are high levels of reflexivity, and where only the broadest of goals (increasing attachment, participation and innovation) were known at the start. How do you evaluate an experiment like the above?
One tactic is to do what many people would do when faced with a big problem: break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable problems. Arts and Social Change ran as a series of interconnected strands, linking with other parts of the Citizen Power programme: these strands were much smaller and more responsive, with fewer participants from all sides. They had more specific goals (such as ‘increasing community cohesion’) and tentative measures for their individual success or failure. Evaluating the strands themselves in this way will certainly be part of the final evaluation, and it’s incredibly exciting and positive to get to delve into the programme at that kind of level.
It would be missing a trick, though, to evaluate the whole programme by the success of its parts. Talking to people involved, one of the programme’s real (and if we’re not careful, hidden) successes has been its impact upon the ‘bigger picture’. To give an example: one of the first documents I came across whilst researching, was a letter to the Evening Telegraph (Peterborough’s local paper) from a resident, describing an intervention that had been quite strongly criticised by the paper: “…I found it one of the most enlightening and thought-provoking activities that I have ever taken part in. I still find it hard to believe that the city council had the courage to help fund this, but I am very glad that they did.” Read her words carefully once more, and try to recall the last time a Council-funded programme made you feel that way. How do you measure enlightenment? Was it ‘good value for money’? The author measures the cost favourably against some other council spending (and she makes a convincing case), but could you price the “most enlightening and thought-provoking” events in your life? I know I couldn’t. Impacts like this, if they can be nailed down and cogently articulated, give the lie to those who see the arts as an ‘optional extra’ – a luxury to be cut when money’s tight.
Consider this: I like knowing my neighbours, but I have enough social capital that I don’t rely on them – if I have personal or professional difficulties, I have plenty of places to turn to. I like where I live, but if I had to move, I’m pretty certain I’d be fine. It’s not like that for everyone. We’re talking about real interventions in places where community ties, family bonds and professional networks are all under incredible strain, and where without support, a space for dialogue and the ability to explore together, things are unlikely to improve. Art can make that happen, in a way that little else can, and Arts and Social Change is in a unique position to show how. I’ve heard neighbourhood managers talk about how an intervention has fundamentally altered how they see their work, civil society leaders tell of a re-invigorated sense of collective self-belief, and residents describe moving from isolation, to feeling that they are involved in a shared project – a shared life – with those around them.
But how to capture all that? We’re all going to face some extraordinary pressures over the next few months and years, and Peterborough will face as many of them as anywhere. If we can articulate the many things that have been learned by Peterborough’s residents, then we can share them, and play a part in handing powerful tools (for free!) to communities who need them most.