Interview with Guerilla Science on Revolutionising how audiences experience science

I wish I knew how many times per week I get pitched opportunities to "interview" brave, unconventional, innovative "scientists" on my blog. Too many to count, most weeks. The pseudoscience PR whirlpool is vast and slippery. But there's also the legitimate "Hey, somebody at my university just published this thing, maybe you want to talk to them" pitch. While often interesting, that's not really what I do on this blog. I don't really do science explainers.

But once in a while, a pitch resonates. And such is the case with the pitch I got from Guerilla Science a few weeks ago. I'd heard of them but didn't really have a clear idea of who or what they were. So I poked around their website. And was seriously impressed.

Who and what are they, you ask? I'll let them explain for themselves.

Guerilla Science create events and installations for festivals, museums, galleries, and other cultural partners. We are committed to connecting people with science in new ways, and producing live experiences that entertain, inspire, challenge and amaze.

Based in London and New York, we work with a diverse set of clients, from Glastonbury Festival and the Barbican to Kensington Palace and the Wellcome Collection. All of our projects involve collaborations with practising scientists, who we work with to develop everything from games and workshops to dining events and theatre.

So, I thought to myself, why not. Resurrect my long-dormant interview series and send off a bunch of questions and see what the Gueurills Scientists have to say for themselves.

The interview questions below were actually answered by KyleMarian Viterbo of Guerilla Science. Enjoy!



1. Tell us a little about the Guerilla Science team and how you all got started on this adventure.

The Guerilla Science team is a diverse group of people with a passion for creating unconventional science-inspired events for adults. Our team members have experience working across a wide range of science disciplines and creative fields -- from researching, to teaching, to producing events and even performing shows. Our team is split between the US and the UK, and we produce events at music festivals and in cities throughout the year.

Guerilla Science originated in a UK music festival called Secret Garden Party (SGP) way back in 2008. It started out, in its beta-format, as a TED-like science tent that offered talks, workshops, and activities at SGP. It happened because 5 science graduates -- who had a deep love for the playfulness and culture-focus of music festivals -- decided to pitch it as an "Action Camp" idea (areas of fun activities for SGP festival goers). If the organizers liked the idea, they gave you a platform to explore and deliver it further. Lucky for us, they did, and it turned out to be wildly successful. It seemed that people at a music festival were not expecting to stumble across a tent discussing things like String Theory and Black Holes, or smelting metals or handling small animals. Eight years ago, what we brought to the music festival scene was totally unexpected and we’ve continued to grow ever since.


2. Why "guerilla?" An interesting choice of metaphor, to be sure, but it also conjures a bit of spy novel and a bit of Rambo.

The "Guerilla" in our name was both a product of necessity (we wanted to make "Science Tent" a bit sexier), but also an integral aspect of our team’s approach to how we create events and who we bring them to. Why infiltrate a music festival scene when you can get science at science festivals and science museums? Spaces for fun, informal science events already existed with audience members who seek it out and know exactly what they’re going to get, so why bother? -- but it’s not quite the same as creating spaces for science and play specifically for adults.

When we were starting out, there weren’t really the same kinds of informal science and play spaces specifically for adults. They often targeted families and children and the ethos was that what works for them should work fine for adults, too. We hooked on to the "guerilla" ideology of subversiveness, disguise, and revolution because we’re infiltrating cultural spaces and challenging people’s expectations of where science events are found and who they’re for. "Guerilla" was just a great fit for us.


3. When reading all the science-themed graphic novels around, the thing that always pops up in my mind is that so many of them are trying to use a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Sometimes it works brilliantly, sometimes in just the same old dry and boring text but with a few funny pictures. What’s been the most successful campaign you’ve done so far? What’s fallen a bit short.

We don’t really do campaigns, but our most successful projects are ones where the science is an integral part of the story and the audience experience -- where we don’t feel like we’re "Sci-Splaining" nature and the universe. Just like any outstanding science-themed work and storytelling, the best ones are when you feel there’s a purpose to all of its components and they’ve been used properly, not just dressing it up. Part of our mission is to facilitate moments where the audience enjoys themselves while also connecting with the science embedded in the experience because we don’t just want to dress up a lecture.

For us, the audience and their perspective is at the heart of our events and we’ve figured out exactly how the science narrative matches up with the creative component. In the UK, for example, we created a "Decontamination Chamber" in the middle of a very wet Glastonbury Festival where festival goers walked into a beaming, white tent in a sea of mud, then proceeded through a physical and psychological decontamination. It pushed our limits in terms of what we could pull off creatively and experientially, but also in terms of bringing lab-based scientists to spaces they rarely find themselves in with their work. We felt it was a huge success because the science we highlighted fit so well with the environment, the event’s narrative, and the mentality of our audience participants. (Check out the video here.)

Where we feel we have fallen short are in managing participant’s expectations. In pushing boundaries and doing undermining the norm, there’s bound to be disappointment. For example, Sensory Speed Date (where audience members get sensual with strangers while blindfolded in order to explore the science behind attraction) works incredibly well within the playful spaces of music festivals, but we’re still working on the best way to both market and reformat SSD as a stand-alone city-event where the words "Speed-Dating" carry a specific meaning. Some people coming to the event have been disappointed it wasn’t a more traditional speed dating event they’re used to attending. People still walk away enjoying the night, but we’re continuing to explore how best to merge the science with the creative experience.


4. Music, theatre, comedy, party planning, installations, and more. Definitely not your mother/father’s journal article. What are the challenges is conceptualizing scientific ideas in these non-scientific article formats.

We work closely with scientists, artists, freelancers, designers of all sorts. To make any creative collaboration successful, participants need to understand each other and each others’ goals very well. The challenge for us isn’t necessarily the conceptualizing part. Sometimes it’s facilitating idea exchange so it’s fruitful and efficient.

Managing collaborator expectations can also be a challenge. There’s the normal hurdles of collaborating with a bunch of people who have very different expertise, but sometimes it’s also helping researchers understand the difference between "dumbing down" information and providing access to it. It’s essential when you’re working within the time limits of a given event or show. Like I said before, at the core of the Guerilla Science event is our audience experience, so that can be a bigger conceptual challenge for collaborators than translating scientific ideas from article to stage.


5. Stephon Alexander’s new book The Jazz of Physics draws a parallel between the kind of improvisation that jazz musicians do with the kind of mathematical and physical creative imagination that theoretical physicists need in their research. Is that something you’re aiming at?

There’s a lot to be said about the art of improvisation as both performance and communication. I’m guessing though that what you’re actually pertaining to is an aspect of Alexander’s writing where he discusses how both musician and theoretical physicist know the end note/hypothesis, but can have a million ways to get there?

On a philosophical end, I guess you can say it’s somewhat similar. Much like any other informal science organization out there, we want to show everyone a different way of appreciating science and research -- far beyond what you normally get in textbooks, classrooms, lecture halls, or even science shows. But our mission and vision for creating the kinds of events we make and bringing it to the kinds of audiences we seek out go beyond that.

We don’t just want to be another "science-is-cool-so-go-home-and-spread-the-good-word" organization. Our focus is less on the performer interpreting what’s in their minds -- for the jazz musician, it’s music; for scientists, it’s their body of knowledge. Our purpose is to create environments where our audience can experience those moments and realizations for themselves. Then they can walk away thinking, "Man, that was fun!" and that’s that. Or maybe they walk away having connected with the scientific content on a deeper level. It’s what some of the best pieces of art do, and we take a lot of inspiration from that.


6. Where to from here? What are the next steps in your campaign of world science promotion supremacy?

We don’t see ourselves as a science PR organization at all, but we do want people to experience science as a cultural phenomenon. In an ideal world we want get to a point where the Sciences are fully integrated in our culture, just as much as the Arts are -- so in fulfilling our vision, we’re going to continue creating events that empower other people to mix science with their favorite creative discipline, be it art, music, or performance. To do that, we’re looking forward to bringing our experiences to the Symbiosis Gathering at the end of September, but also to more and more spaces and communities elsewhere. And later this year we’re hoping to launch an open residency to get more of the community involved in the act.

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