SciFest Africa 2012

I have never been to South Africa before. I have never been to a science festival before. I suppose this means that I didn’t really have any expectations.

British Airways are shit

Dr Duffy on a plane

The journey to Grahamstown was long and truncated. Our flights were cancelled at Heathrow, which meant that it was almost a miracle we were able to walk into the 1820 Settlers’ Monument on Friday morning with the two bags of kit that allowed Jon to perform The Ethics of Progress and for me to set up Space Camp. I may not have had any expectations and I may have been somewhat nervously preoccupied with the task of getting Space Camp up and running in 3 hours, but the atmosphere of SciFest was extraordinary, beyond anything I could have imagined.

There were thousands of school children, of all ages, in the neatest of uniforms, purposefully, noisily, thronging in all directions: into the building, through the labyrinth of stairs and hallways and in and out of theatres and workshops. Children and young adults swarmed around (what seemed like) hundreds of stalls, teeming with all manner of experiments: robotic, biological, physical, interactive, digital and handmade. These kids were soaking up SCIENCE everywhere. I don’t know, I suppose if I had an expectation of a science festival it was somehow a bit quieter. This was science as carnival. Wow!

Space Camp is an adventure and a series of science based games that are played as a team (as a family or school group) in order to survive a trip in the Unlimited Space Station and return safely to Earth, landing somewhere in the Kazakhstan Desert.  I’m glad to report that not one child or parent was left in space or hurtled down to Earth in a blaze of flames. But it was close sometimes. Space Camp was run with the extraordinary skill and fun of two local actors Thami and Konke.

We set up Space Camp in the basement of The Monument, which sits on the highest point and at the edge of Grahamstown. So, although we were at the lowest point in the building, even here we were high enough to see at least 5 kilometers away, to the trees on the top of the next hill where Tammi lives. I really loved sitting with that window open, on the hot days, with the wind cooling us, exchanging our ‘tales from the theatre road’…the two-shows-a-day schools tours and traveling with too many people, costumes and set in the car. But, I think my favourite moment of the whole week was on the last day, when Thami and Konke led a group of 12 children through Space Camp in both English and their language, Xhosa.

There were actually three different groups of children who didn’t have a mother tongue in common, but thanks to Thami and Konke they worked together to make: 1) a rocket that flies and hits the X marks the spot, 2) an instrument that plays the five notes that speak to Aliens by putting water into bottles, 3) built a Lego toy and vital component part of the station and 4) decode a hidden message, all at an orbit of 250 miles. They won all possible 10 stars and made their return trip in the safe escape capsule Soyez 2. Thami and Konke are remarkable.

British Airways are shit

Jon, Konke, Clare & Thami

My equally favourite part of the week, although it happened nearly everyday, so wasn’t really ‘a moment’, was listening to actual astronaut Dr Ron Thomas answering questions about actual space stations when the teams returned safely from Unlimited’s Space Station. He told them what it is like to travel around the Earth 700 times; that he had seen South Africa from 300 miles up, seen the night lights of cities like Johannesburg and even Grahamstown from space. He described the summit of Mount Kilamjaro peaking out of white clouds below. He told us that the Earth is mostly blue, that it is delicate, precious and that we all live here. Again…wow.
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On the second day The Monument was just as crazy busy. But this time I got to see Jon doing The Ethics of Progress. It’s nearly 5 years since I last saw the show, so it was a real treat. The theatre held approximately 1000 and it was fascinating to see how the mixture of ‘believe it if you dare’ science, mixed with personal story and philosophical imaginings was translated by a South African audience of school children. Although I co-wrote it, I was surprised how difficult it was, after all the years, to still keep up with some of the arguments that teleportation could one day be possible. But it still hit me how important it is, if challenging, to keep trying to keep up. Chatting to some particularly wide-eyed teenagers after the show it was clearly speaking to them too. (Jon filmed some of them on his phone and he might if I’m lucky put a link here for you to see them go for it!)
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That afternoon the question of how different audiences and different cultures receive shows from other parts of the world got a good unpacking. We facilitated a fantastic and fascinating group of artists-scientists to create in groups the first kernel of an idea that could interweave the sometimes oddly separate disciplines of art and science.

British Airways are shit

Art + Science Balloon

After each group presented their idea and also responded to the workshop as a whole we started to talk about translation of work across cultures. There were all sorts of interesting and vital questions raised. Art and science are themselves sometimes represented as separate cultures, which is being productively challenged more and more. But different communities speaking different languages and having different experiences and resources also create and need different vocabularies for their art and science. How is the vocabulary of a show from one country, perhaps on the other side of the world, translated?

British Airways are shit

Collaboration balloon - how do we do it best?

This is clearly not just about language. The vocabulary of the show might be its style, its use of technology or clowning, its direct address or its sense of humour and this might tap into what assumptions it can make, like what cultural references can convey: so who are ‘we’ all listening to and watching right now? One specific question still sticks with me from this discussion: ‘How does a young person who doesn’t always have a chair to sit on in his/her science class ‘read’ digital technology in a theatre show from the UK?’ I think Jon and I were really inspired by this session. It really (re) inspired me about collaboration. Yes, collaboration is profoundly challenging, but it also has such enormous potential to change us. I suppose most simply, but importantly, no matter how difficult collaboration is, it always makes me turn to look in another direction and if I’m lucky, to resist the general and easiest flow of things and if I’m really lucky to ‘get’ something I couldn’t before. No question though, any successful collaboration is difficult.

So, to conclude I’m going to have to skip over great opening and closing parties led by our gorgeous hosts Ms Anja Fourie, director of SciFest and her team of SciFriends and colleagues. I particularly enjoyed the dancing. Also, I have to pass quickly by the wonderful Beneath the Skin Production’s ‘entire history of the world and science’ through the eyes of a Star Gazer and a Lazy Bones, with almost no time to mention witnessing ‘Jon Spooner…pirate’ in a whodunnit exploring DNA, led by Professor Valerie Corfield. (Please Jon, let them see you and your parrot!)
British Airways are shit

So, I come to the end of this fairly brief report. Grahamstown and SciFest was a blast. It’s still in my thoughts and my hopes for the future.

Unfortuantely, South Africa also still has my luggage, so thanks to British Airways there may always be part of me that remains in South Africa.

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