Science, art and naked mole rats

4 August 2014

This is an old post, so may include broken links and/or out-of-date information

I recently joined around 600 arts marketers at the annual AMA (Arts Marketing Association) Conference, this year held across joint venues Colston Hall and Watershed in Bristol.

There was a lot to take in over the two days, but one of the more intriguing sessions was Lessons From The Science Side: Innovation and Engagement. I went along to find out what it was all about and discovered a panel of experts from the science world discussing how they work with, and engage, audiences …

Peter Linett of audience research agency Slover Linett discussed how our traditional 20th century view of stuffy museums and 'men in white coats' science is being transformed into a more subjective, democratic presentation of the subject. In particular he highlighted Zooniverse who actively use their audience as part of their research, allowing thousands of people to contribute data; "We make citizen science websites so that everyone can be part of real research online."

Image: Guerilla Science

Jen Wong from Guerilla Science spoke about bringing science to festivals, and other surprisingly non-scientific places, showing that it's a part of culture rather than separate from it. And their projects do feel more like performance art; disrupting the norm and catching people unawares with a bit of science when they're not expecting it.

Finally Steve Cross, who day-to-day is Head of Public Engagement at University College London, talked through his extra-curricular role hosting and promoting Science Showoff – a regular stand-up night which encourages anybody and everybody to make jokes at the expense of science.

This 'loosening-up' isn't new or science-specific – along with science we’ve seen growing democratisation of other sectors such as business, journalism and politics. This ability for people to not only observe and learn, but to increasingly participate in and share undoubtedly owes some thanks to the internet and social media.

But a hundred years ago the art world had post-modernism which, in many ways, I think this openness and playfulness mirrors – it also allowed the audience in. Things like poetry slams, flash mobs and Instagram are continuing to blur that line between the audience and the stage.

The marketing of arts, however, may have a bit of catching up to do – it was suggested that the promotion of the art doesn't always accurately reflect the art itself. For example, if your performance involves the audience, perhaps your marketing should too? If you’re an exciting, off-the-wall organisation, shouldn't your approach to marketing reflect that and be just as edgy; risky even? Using the work itself as an integral part of marketing may sound conventional to those who work in visual arts, but it could produce some really special results for art forms more focused on performance, for example. If science can do it, the arts can do it … maybe even better?

Steve Cross made the point that, as far as he's concerned, marketing and product can be the same thing – using the Twitter account @TehNakedMoleRat as an example of an entity that promotes itself by simply doing its thing. Although this won't be true for everyone it's an interesting thought; and ties-in with several other discussions throughout the week. The sense that roles and boundaries are becoming less and less defined was a recurring theme; suggesting there are plenty of interesting and unexpected opportunities which arts marketing can seize.

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