Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Facilitator // Sam Illingworth

I’m sat opposite what Manchester City Council have deigned to call Circle Square, and I wonder if I need to get myself a philosopher or theoretical physicist to help me to understand the concept. A man gets impatient as he tries to squeeze between the window I’m sat by and the slow tread of students ambling by the roadworks. A couple waiting at the bus stop opposite laugh and I thought I heard it. Sam slides in the doorway and catches my eye half hesitantly, half expectantly. Slightly delayed by a meeting the value of which is shrugged aside, we avoid the small talk to make the most of the allotted time.

I have a structure, and it comes from Sam’s webpage. Sam Illingworth is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, as I figured this was as good a place as any to get into the circles of scientists that still seem so distinct from my arty peer group. And it’s a concern for him as well. Although he has a background in climate science, his current passion is finding the bridges, the links for people between scientists and artists. Or maybe he’d prefer to help people realise that these are artificial distinctions, that professional scientists also have an artistic aspect, that artists have valuable and essential things to say about science.

“I spent two years in Japan, some of which was spent studying with Yukio Ninagawa, who’s famous for his Shakespeare adaptations, thinking about how you can use theatrical techniques to improve communication and encourage creativity.” When he returned to the UK this became an interest in the potential for theatre to facilitate the conversation between the expert and the non-expert. We look at each other with an acknowledgement of how loaded those terms are today. “I’m interested in the co-creation of knowledge, working with non-scientists, have them ask what they can do, what will benefit, what can they provide.” Sam confesses that theatre is no longer the driving force of his work at the moment, that “poetry has taken over,” but there is a project envisaged, tentatively, using the techniques of forum theatre to explore co-governance and community involvement, which he sees as “a powerful tool for allowing people to play out scenarios. Especially with science subjects that people think they’ve nothing to contribute to.” Sam has a way of leaning forward and pinning a point with his fingers when he feels it’s important, and the position of the audience in relation to science subjects is one of those points, where he wants to subvert the idea of a lay-audience. “You may be a lay-audience in relation to bio-medicine, but if you’ve suffered from an illness for twenty or thirty years, you’re not really a lay audience in health care.”

Sam believes there have been a number of very good theatrical projects around science, but largely traditional, not breaking the fourth wall. “But scientific transparency is very important,” so the idea becomes bringing together audience with scientists, bring in a dramaturg. Yet Sam has his reservations even about this sense of public engagement, for by picking the scientists in some sense you’ve already set the boundaries of the conversation.

I’m slightly worried that asking Sam whether he is looking to process over product might be a loaded question, but he catches on to it. “Process definitely, process as much.” It brings to his mind a module that he teaches on Sciart, where the conversations between the students is so interesting to him. There’s a common concern with the role of the teacher, the expert. “The traditional lecture room, with one person stood at the front reading from a textbook, that’s not changed from medieval times, when they only had one copy of the textbook, it’s not changed. I might have more knowledge in one area, but everyone brings knowledge, that everyone can benefit from.” It seems to me he’d love to find the process that would utilise the best process for the specific audience, the appropriate methodology for each different community that produces the most useful outcomes.

“What I’ve struggled with most is that role, that stood at the front I’m still thought the most knowledgeable; I don’t know if it’s modesty or Britishness, I don’t think of myself as much more of an expert, and certainly some of my students are smarter than I am, certainly. But it’s dangerous to have too much of a sense of modesty. Actually, a dramaturg isn’t a bad analogy; ultimately I encourage the student to utilise their skills.” Sam talks of his practise in three strands, of research, teaching, and public engagement, which are symbiotic (a scientific term physicalized with intertwined fingers). “Encouraging people who already have the innate skill set, give them the confidence. That’s why interdisciplinary work is so important.”

“I’ve always had a personal interest in poetry, I’ve written plays, there’s a similarity, a searching for questions, there’s a natural flip between, many of the most creative people I know are scientists.” It’s partly an aspect of contemporary culture that Sam feels passionately is “really divisive,” and it’s what he’s driving against. “People are unsure of where they fit. A scientist might not visit an art gallery; an artist might not contribute to a scientific discussion. We should be exploring similarities rather than differences.” This mission of both art and science are, as Sam describes them, “futile attempts to describe the place we live;” futile because they will always be partial, both incomplete and biased. “People are not artists or scientists but human beings.”

Not that Sam finds much resistance to these ideas. People generally seem very open to new ways of working and “are willing to push boundaries,” and Sam has a project pairing artists and scientists, particularly poets. He’s worked with London-based poet Dan Simpson, creating experimental works enabling scientists and poets to communicate to a wider audience. “Ultimately I want to work to something truly interdisciplinary.” We can avoid CP Snow no longer, whose idea that scientists should be able to quote Shakespeare has for so long been de-contextualised and misconstrued, and Sam wants to hold on to his idea that “the only way to solve inter-disciplinary problems is to use inter-disciplinary solutions. That’s my whole raison d’etre, to help people see the world through other people’s eyes.”

As a concrete example of a project that Sam is working on to demonstrate exactly the sort of cross-pollination he proposes he tells me about his blog The Poetry of Science, in which “every week I read a new piece of science research and try and write a poem.” But it’s more than that, it’s using the structures of the science to inform the artistic choices, to have the artistic choices affirm the research. “So a piece in dementia, I choose the pantoum structure, which I felt plays with the concept of memory. Another idea was to see if we could replace that traditional abstract with a poem, where we gave a group of scientists an abstract and a poem based on the abstract. Not surprisingly they preferred the abstract, but their analysis of the poems were fairly accurate.”

“I’m incredibly lucky. I’m passionate about what I do and I love doing it.” You can see it and despite our tight time-slot it feels like it’s going to be difficult to draw this conversation to a close, especially as Sam is determined to tell me about a current project he’s engaged on to make Manchester a carbon neutral city by 2050. “The challenge here is that both of these terms are esoteric, so we’ve gone out into the community, to find out what’s important to them and now we’re working with people to implement a better climate change strategy. Mainly using poetry so far, but also art and music, to try and communicate and get responses. You have to be careful about that, to remember that art has its own intrinsic value, but it can also be a facilitative tool. That’s easier because of my background. I’m very proud of that project; it’s of benefit to the community, it feels ahead of the curve.”

There’s students negotiating the spaces between the crowds, a couple laughing at the bus stop, a man with a blue paisley bow-tie rushing from meeting to meeting to meeting. I can’t tell if they’re artists or scientists. Perhaps one day Sam will be able to get us all round the table to facilitate the discussion.
conversation with Sam Illingworth took place at Costa Coffee, Oxford Road on Tuesday 7 February 2017 from 4:10pm // @samillingworth  //


Thursday, 9 February 2017

While Playing With Radiators // Paul Morrice

The Jam Street Café occupies an interesting place in Manchester’s psyche. Nearly everyone I mention it to has heard of it; ‘Why have I heard of it?’, more than expected know it well, surprising numbers know someone who knows someone who works there or owns it. It’s not a surprising or pre-possessing place; with posters and Banksy on the wall it is the typical Northern Quarter, Chalk Farm, Prospect Park or Venice Beach type vibe. The only other drinker is focussed on his pint and crossword. They apologise for only having demerara sugar.

I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to the Cynthia’s Periscope playlist on Soundcloud. It’s a mix of the playful and angry, frustration pent up in the playpen. In the interview Paul talks about how he keeps things acoustic with samples of knocking things around the house, scraping radiators and the like, which “can make it feel more real and tangible.” It’s unusual, unfamiliar and unexpected, and it feels individual. This is an artist collaborating with himself, and there’s always a story there.

I’ve come to think of Cynthia’s Periscope as elusive. I’ve just missed the set at the first Cute Owl festival, a wonderful night of truly alternative work at Gullivers. While the acts weren’t experimental (as I understand the term), the event felt like a bit of an experiment which I hope to see repeated (see update below). Friends have mentioned Cynthia’s Periscope to me, in that way when someone knows your taste – ‘I think you’d like them.’ Other than the music there’s not much online; a couple of arty gig photos and a very few words. When I message the band Facebook page I’m still not sure whether it’s a group or a solo artist with collaborators, or a fictional void out of which I’ll never hear back.

I hear back almost immediately, the arrangements to meet are sorted inside of the evening, and we agree to meet early the following week. It’s never this easy. But it is. Sorted. A quick confirmation message and I take a stroll out to Jam Street for the appointed time. It turns out Cynthia’s Periscope is Paul Morrice, chirpy and tausselled, diffident yet eager. After a quick call to confirm, Paul arrives with a bounce and once he’s perched on the sofa opposite me and we’ve laid out the ground rules, we set off.

The Cute Owl gig came about through networking. “I saw Tangerine Cat perform, I gave them my CD, they gave me theirs, we messaged, and they asked me to play the festival. It was one of the better gigs. I stopped playing live for a while, I was in a more alternative band Young Mountains but stopped for about a year.” It feels like audience reception has something to do with this, and he remembers being called ‘wilfully provocative’ after a gig at Fuel, It’s not something to shy away from; his attitude is that whatever he could do on stage “there’s always some who’s been more extreme. I could be offensive or violent, but I still want to be playful.” Back at Fuel for an electronic open-mic organised by Martin Christie very soon, could be an interesting experience. “I don’t know how that’s going to work, as an open-mic. That’s the thing with electronic music, there’s a lot of equipment.”

“In 2011 I wrote Turtles, playing with Ableton, it was the first song that felt like a Cynthia’s Periscope song but it wasn’t called that at the time. I wrote other songs I could record at home, 2014 I had my first gig at Antwerp Mansion, four songs.” Emerging into the world of a solo artist from the collaborative world of bands throws up an interesting perspective. “The last band was a three-piece, where you’re writing for a set line up.” Perversely this doesn’t offer more possibilities but rather Paul tells me it’s “a bit frustrating with the limitations.” Working on Cynthia’s Periscope songs enables him to be more exploratory, maybe kicking off by simply running a drum machine through an effects pedal, so perhaps “only fifty percent of the songs I perform live. I try and keep things as live as possible, but sometimes it’s me with a backing track.” It speaks to the range of Paul’s approaches to writing that there is no standard path to the song, which could come through long perseverance with an idea that seems to go nowhere, and “some of them turn out to be the best. If something is very heavily improvised I usually don’t perform it.”

When the space between the recorded track and the live act becomes a topic of discussion, there’s no sense that Paul’s ambition is to ensure the spirit of the recording is reproduced on the stage. But the different journeys he can take from idea to recording to song to track are just as many and various. A song may start out as a track recorded at two in the morning in his bedroom, yet it may not get what some might call an official release until it’s been played live a number of times. “I’ve already picked the songs for the new EP, the advantage is they’re road-tested.” So who is this all for? Playing on the fringe of the alternative scene in Manchester necessitates a small selection of venues with a select audience on a circuit that can seem cliquey. The EPs are a calling card, an ambition to reach beyond and play more gigs outside Manchester. “And it would be nice to have a full album.”

Paul is of that generation where, while being able to fully embrace the potential of the online world, the CD album still has a powerful attraction. “I still listen to full albums on CD in the car,” he says as if it’s some sort of confession and it’s clear he feels greater satisfaction from listening to a whole album, even from the bands he loved growing up but whose musical work is no longer his. Even fond memories of Alice in Chains is grist to the mill for a musical experiment as eclectic as Cynthia’s Periscope.

The continual dark reflection of childhood keeps cropping up in the conversation as much as it does in the songs. Cynthia was the name of Paul’s childminder, and while on a first listen Cynthia’s Periscope songs can seem quite technical, Paul is sure that “reduce it to melodies, you could probably teach a seven-year-old.” He talks about there being a “blend of hedonism, carefree sex and drug abuse, and doing those things because you’re not genuinely happy.” He’s talking about Arab Strap, but not only them. “It’s innocent things from childhood related to adulthood.”

“I used to write a lot but just over a year ago I got a new job, it’s more demanding. One thing I find, some songs I’ve written, recorded and uploaded in a day, I like that, it has a charm, a bit scrappy.” While a combination of events have curtailed the time Paul can devote to music for the last year, he now has a new impetus. Editing old tracks, writing new work, gigging more. Recent songs like Corneal Scratch and Pillar of Salt come from midnight sessions, “throw stuff at the wall, wake up with a hangover and edit it.” And lyrically? “Essentially pop songs. I’m conscious of trying not to be edgy on purpose. A lot are about real-life,” and here Paul has a sudden brief inward look as if he wonders whether to go there. “One I was assaulted and my jaw broken, there’s dysfunctional relationships (not my current one). Often on stage I’m in drag and I get offensive things on the street.” It’s a look I suspect speaks to his approach to his songs, he wants to write pop songs where darkness can still intrude. “I don’t want to write political songs,” and a lyric squares up to the conversation; “How much longer will you wait to hear a piece of your mind has been bought.” We are in a world of tensions and ambiguity.

With all this lack of time Paul worries that he should listen to more music, yet he still buys a couple of albums a month and when he has time at the weekend he may do a trawl of youTube, picking a genre and following the links. “It’s a consumer culture, consume and forget. A CD I’ve listened to for eight years means more, I’ve given it the time. I still have a preference for the full length, forty-five minutes. That’s why I think I should write an album, I’ve written a lot of disparate things.” We chat of a shared passion for Radio 3 and I encourage his discovery of Late Junction; “a thousand years of music, I still only know five pieces of music.” We don’t listen to 6music much, which is clearly “Radio 2 for people who went on CND marches.”

Unsurprisingly for someone who launches tracks online with the compulsion of a hamster with a catapult, the internet is “overall a positive. It’s devalued things a bit, taken away from the album which can be more moving. Another temptation, you can pull it down very easily if you’re not happy with it.” This is not something Paul approves of, preferring I think to keep his path through his music literally recorded. He reminds me that the live act is vital as well, and taking work to new audiences. Paul talks about having a setup he can pack in a suitcase with a simplified set list, pop on a budget flight to the continent, play and return.

Paul has a vision for the future. He uses that very word. It’s a passion to keep exploring, to tug away at the edges of what’s possible and what sounds exciting to him, and find more direction for his musical journey. He starts studying audio engineering at Salford University later in the year. He has a project to work with Tacit Music over the summer, and he has a concept for a music video. “Between now and then, tie up loose ends, perform outside Manchester, away from supporting indie bands, look through my old files, start afresh.”

UPDATE: And at the next Cute Owl festival on 13 May at The Star and Garter.

conversation with Paul Morrice took place at Jam Street Café on Tuesday 31 January 2017 from 7:00pm // @CynthiasPerisco  //