Improv and music inspired by science: Innovative Sci-Art events taking National Science Week by storm

Today marks the start of National Science week, with USyd presenting novel events that bridge the gap between art and science.

As part of National Science week, improvisational performers, musicians, and scientists will join forces to explore new artistic collaborations in the events Live from the Lab and Lines of Best Fit held at Manning Bar. The events will investigate ways to immerse the crowd in not only the educational, but the magical and emotional aspects of science. 

Live from the Lab is a project where musicians are paired with scientists and have a 90-minute conversation to discuss the scientist’s research, which the musician uses as inspiration to create a piece of music. This project was created and nurtured by Associate Professor Alice Motion and the Nanosonic Stories Team, which is a group of academics from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, the Faculty of Science, and from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Motion and her team of academics are exploring the ways in which music can be used to share science to the world — prime for National Science Week. 

“We have kind of two streams to the project,” said Motion, “one is a more educational based project… So we’re trying to explain concepts using sound and music… in place of visual diagrams. And then the other parts of the project are more artistic, creative, freer. And this is what Live from the Lab emerged from.”

The creative and collaborative process begins when the pairs of scientists and musicians are introduced to one another a little over a month before Science Week. They discuss the scientist’s research via Zoom, with Motion as a facilitator. The conversation is recorded for the musicians to rewatch if there’s anything they want to revise in terms of understanding the science.

“And then really the scientists and musicians don’t really speak again until National Science Week,” said Motion. “If they’ve got any particular questions, they can reach out.”

Dr Caitlin Cowan, a psychologist and Research Fellow at USyd, collaborated with Sydney-based multidisciplinary hip hop, R&B, and pop artist MUNGMUNG.

As part of another Science Week event, long time improv performer Olivia McRae decided to explore the collaboration of improvisation and scientific communication in a PhD project and comedy show called Lines of Best Fit. In the performance, scientists present talks about their fields of study, from which the improvisers and audience create improvisational skits.

“So they’ll take premises from those science talks,” said McRae, “and it kind of varies, whether we reenact like the inanimate objects that were in the science talk, like we’re a cell or atoms or something, or whether we’re like more reenacting some aspect of the process of the science, like in a lab or that kind of thing.”

The magic of these events come from their live, unpredictable spontaneity.

“The scientists do not hear their track until it’s played live on air, on FBi radio. So we, the listener, hear it at the same time as the scientists — and we hear their reaction, which is part of the joy of the project,” said Motion.

The improvisers also go into Lines of Best Fit blind, as they are not provided information regarding the scientific talks before the show begins.

“It’s mostly a fairly spontaneous collaboration moment,” said McRae, “we try not to give too many details about what the scientist is talking about.” 

One might find it difficult to believe that science can be inspirational enough to create art from, but after talking to one of the musicians involved, MUNGMUNG, I understood why that is not the case.

MUNGMUNG was paired with psychologist, Dr Caitlin Cowan, whose research focuses on the relationship between our microbiome, such as our gut bacteria, and our mental health.

MUNGMUNG expressed that she was inspired by Dr Cowan’s research because “with music or anything creative, you can just get inspired from anything like movies, a conversation, or when you’re walking around and just thinking to yourself. So her [Dr Cowan’s] words just really stuck with me.”

“She said this really, really wonderful analogy and it really stuck with me… ‘we should treat our body like a garden’ and all the different bacteria… you need to keep adding to your garden, planting new plants in there. To make sure that it’s one healthy, happy ecosystem… And, I just ended up writing this song…”

It would be easy to think, based on traditional scientific events and talks, that science communication is simply about learning through visual diagrams in lectures. Events like Live from the Lab and Lines of Best Fit remind us that sometimes, we forget about the emotional quality of science — the magic and the inspiration.

“Just because you didn’t think you were good at science at school, or you didn’t connect, then it doesn’t mean that science isn’t for you,” said Motion. “It still belongs to everyone.” 

Similarly, McRae believes improv shows are a way to make science more accessible to general audiences. For her comedy show she will be collecting data — including audience comments and performers’ reflections asking why they wanted to come, what their interest and value of science is, and what they took away from the event.

“I think sometimes as academics, we’re very used to giving talks: ‘I’m gonna give a lecture now. And here are my slides and I am gonna talk about it and I have 40 minutes or whatever to talk to you about my work,’” said McRae. “I think it’s good to see things happen in a different way. I’m just hoping that they [the audience] have a good time. And I hope that [the scientists] have a good time and enjoy seeing their work being interpreted in a different way.”

Overall, these events are able to give recognition to the scientists who work to produce new research and information which is able to improve our lives and medical systems. “There are people really working hard out there to better our quality of life,” said MUNGMUNG. “They’re people really hustling and trying to see what they can do to help… It’s just good to give them their recognition and their flowers.”

If you want to watch and listen to the scientists’ live reactions to the songs, Live from the Lab will be releasing the songs on 15 – 16 August on FBi Radio. On Wednesday 17 August at Seymour Centre from 7pm – 8:30pm, the scientists and musicians will be sharing personal stories from the collaboration and their own careers. Then on Thursday 18 August from 7pm – 10pm, there will be a live gig which will feature songs from Live from the Lab and the artists’ individual work. Register for your free tickets from the link here.

If you want to catch the spontaneity of the improv show, you can grab free tickets to Lines of Best Fit which will be performed on 15 – 16 August from 6:15pm – 7:30pm at Charles Perkins Centre, Camperdown.