Universities are keen on doing what is second nature to museum and galleries: ‘outreach’ or ‘public engagement.’ Moving away from the ‘ivory towers’ model towards the ‘public’ researchers are encouraged to embed public engagement in our work, at every stage of research. While perhaps too late for those like me, who are in the third year of their PhD, I believe this is a refreshing change and will make academia more relevant to today’s society and communities.
Because of my near decade of working in the ‘arts’ I was keen to get involved in something of this sort after I moved to Exeter. Luckily, I was approached by Ryan Sweet, a fellow PhD student to think about this. Our research interests are similar, he works on representations of prosthetics in Victorian literature, and I had just given a paper on Victorian exercise machines. He suggested we looked at ‘the human-technology relationship.’ The result was ‘Exewhirr’ – a one day workshop bringing together artists and academics interested in the relationship between man and machine. The name was a combination of our location and ‘whirr’, to give a technology theme. Some of the other awful names we considered were TECHEXTER, WHIRR, BABBAGE BUBBLE, WIDGETS, GEEK NIGHT, BRAIN DRAIN and EX-MACHINE.
We decided the event had to take place off-campus, and chose the Bike Shed Theatre, a trendy artsy space in the centre of Exeter. The Victorian theatre and bar are full of oddities and junk which was a great setting. The afternoon consisted of two specially commissioned theatre performances, five short (ten minutes) academic talks, three poetry readings and space for discussion at the end as well as lots of tasty food and drinks. The bar area featured artwork produced through our partnership with Double Elephant print workshop.
We commissioned two theatre groups whose practice seemed in harmony with our ideas: ‘Rabblerouse’ and ‘Living Robot’. We took a bit of a risk – they were new companies and I had never worked with live arts before. But we were keen to give them artistic autonomy and let them develop their ideas without guidance from us. Trust was an important part of the process and acknowledging that we as organisers cannot be experts at everything! Rabblerouse produced Breakers, about the Luddite rebellion; while Living Robot invited us to meet a top-of-the-range robotic assistant, in their performance Can Machines Think. These performances spiced up the afternoon and were interactive, bringing a sense of freedom and improvisation to the more serious academic talks.
We approached academics who were known for being engaging and enthusiastic. They had ten minutes each to discuss an element of their research tied to the theme. Dr Matt Hayler (University of Birmingham), Professor Michael Hauskeller, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Dr Phil Wickham and Dr Jason Hall from the University of Exeter all spoke about the human-technology relationship through topics like sexbots, tattooing in the bible, optical illusions and the ‘Eureka Machine’ a Victorian device that creates poetry.
Working with printmaking organisation Double Elephant was brilliant because they could lead on the artistic elements of the project. They suggested we work with CEDA – a charity for disabled children and adults who are heavily reliant on technology. Three workshops were run with CEDA and the artwork displayed on the day. The artwork has since been displayed at the Postgraduate Medical Humanities Conference and Sidmouth Science Festival.
Reflecting on Exewhirr has been hard because it was such a large project with so much planning, while the actual event flew past in an afternoon. We need to reflect on the benefits of doing this kind of work, and what it means for academic practice.
How far was this a two-way process between artists and academics?
How can we collaborate with partners in a more balanced way that is not wholly led by funding?
Along with Making Enhanced this project that has developed my thinking around the theme of collaboration. If we are going to work in this way, we need to know how to forge relationships that bring something back to our practice, as well as being inspiring and productive. Collaboration can’t just be a tick box exercise. Stepping out of our comfort zones is hard, but it’s one of the most important and rewarding things we can do.
Thanks to my coorganiser, Ryan Sweet @RyanCSweet as well as our funders the Wellcome Trust, British Society for Literature and Science and the University of Exeter.