Dr Rox Middleton: Communicating beauty
Posted: 3 January 2023
Dr Rox Middleton, a physicist from the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, is collaborating with us on the beauty project; a research project that seeks to expand an evidence base for cultural value by looking at ways to understand and articulate the value of beauty. In September 2022, Rox came up to Manchester to experience 12 Last Songs, to find beauty, and share her reflections.
I was a little apprehensive arriving at the venue, but everyone was very nice to me. I arrived early and spent an hour or so sitting, meeting people and drinking a coffee. I didn’t know what people would be doing, but the ones I could see were chatting, moisturising their hands and doing things like putting up lights and speakers, like you might expect.
People were politely asking me questions about myself, and especially my job. I found it quite weird to be there, with a lot of people who are about to put on a show, “as a scientist”. It was weird in particular because the show is 12 Last Songs (12LS), in which the people (Quarantine), invite people ‘from all walks of life’ to come and get asked questions about their life and do their job, insofar as they can, in front of an audience. ‘All walks of life’ makes it sound random and slapdash which it isn’t. It’s a carefully planned and executed assembly of people, with interesting jobs, many of which can either be done on stage, or immediately tend to provoke questions. Although the show is entirely unrehearsed, it is nevertheless extremely choreographed. From working with Sarah, Kate and Renny and Richard, I’d caught a glimpse of how much effort went into making the show as they had envisaged it.
So, with my job title hanging over me, there was a hint of professionalism in the friendly questions from the 12LS show team. I don’t really appreciate until I see the show, the dominance of the question-script and the questioner-performer-hosts in mediating the relationship between the workers and the audience. 12LS is presented as a raw and direct, unfiltered view of a cross-section of Mancunians, “just living their lives”. The performers that ask them questions have a strangely artificial air in comparison with the unrehearsed answers of the workers. Understanding what the artists’ work here is, is observing all the pains they go to present this view of ‘authentic’, ‘unfiltered’ real people. I imagine they won’t be offended by this. As a scientist I know the lengths that we go to, to bring “our audiences” as close as we can to the face of reality: the measurable, reproducible, observable, obvious, exterior world. The edifice required to produce the construction of self-evident ‘truth’ and ‘hard facts’ is science. (The thing is that everyone is telling layered stories. The construction of a ‘real world’ from Manchester is placed alongside the demands of a visually interesting show.
So here I am (scientist), coming to observe a group of people (artists), who have gathered a group of people (performers) to interview other people (workers), to be observed by another group of people (audience). To complete the loop, in the beauty project, we want to observe this last group to understand their experience of beauty in this moment. It’s quite meta! What perspective belongs to me ‘as a scientist’? What do I add? What can I take from it? I don’t know.
The show is mesmerising, I stayed for the whole 12 hours, not counting about an hour at around 5pm when I went to the bar and had a beer with friends that I had invited although I’d not seen them for a long time. For the first four hours I didn’t move, I just sat in the same place and watched. Later there was another uninterrupted four-hour stint. The only thing I’ve ever sat still for a comparable amount of time for is, as for many other people, my job. Specifically, in fact, the part of my job that requires hours of concentrated experimental observation. In that part of the work, long-duration concentration, and structured meditative watching is an important and distinctive feature of the scientific work I do.
I kept a few notes, when things struck me as beautiful in the show. Looking back at the notes, several of the things I noted as beautiful I had forgotten, or even still can’t remember. The things I do remember include a few of the things I noted, especially ones that I have focused on in memory exercises since 12LS, and also several other things, some beautiful, and some confusing, interesting, momentarily stressful or angst-inducing.
When I try to go further into the memory of some parts of the show that I wouldn’t otherwise have remembered and try to explore the memory, the most striking thing is the way people are imprinted on my mind. I didn’t note down the looks or the way of speaking or standing, or the attitude and general feeling for the life of any of the workers, but that is still there very clearly in my memory. Those details are definitely beautiful to think about, I don’t know why. I guess the privilege that it was to be able to see strangers be so honest, direct and forthcoming about their lives. The sheer length of time that each person was around for, and the repeated returning to them with different questions gave a feeling of encountering someone from different perspectives and a sense of a holistic view of them. The participation of each of the workers in the show was itself over a serious length of time, it wasn’t just the show itself that was durational.
After watching 12LS, it feels like the magic of feeling someone’s presence, and actually many people’s presence, was in the dramatically expansive, almost languid approach to the experience of observing. Rather than focusing on distillation into a tiny space of time, tiny plot, idea, or icon, it feels like they’re trying to draw us all out into a part encounter with long, unspooling experience using performance and reconstruction. The artifice of the curation does succeed in bringing us directly to the reality of the people they question, and feeling the resonance of their rich life experience. The route to each of the people is through their job, but depending on the person, that feels like everything from entirely central to somewhat incidental to their life.
I found 12LS powerful and as a show I did also find it beautiful. There were also moments in it that I found beautiful. I could write much more about many of the other perplexing and interesting things about it.
In contemplating for the collaborative beauty project how it resonates with my work, the most important thing feels like the concept and craft of the show. The part of my work that is particularly relevant in the beauty project is in the motivating (deciding what should be studied and why) and communicating (summarising, explaining, disseminating the findings). Although it’s not always obvious to non-scientists, these activities aren’t peripheral to science but central to it, and always have been. Thankfully, there has been an increase in interest in teaching and theorising the communication element. Although there is a general feeling that this is a recent phenomenon, it’s always been a part of what scientists teach each other to do. What is perhaps in danger of being missed, however, in the monopolising of the ‘new’ field of ‘science storytelling’ (the contemporary tendency in science communication education) is the idea that communication can take multiple forms. Some communicative experiences, in fact, might require specialist forms of representation and demonstration.
In my experience, many science communication education programs start from a number of implicit premises: That scientists are not natural communicators, that science is not intrinsically interesting and its audiences are not intrinsically interested, that communication should focus on ever-shorter time periods (in order to ‘grab’ the naturally bored listener) and that the holy grail is the microfact, a nugget of information that is the listener will take away. The classic advice to distil information to something that can be written on a t-shirt. I think 12LS suggests that all of these assumptions might be getting in the way of other ways of understanding.
Image: Chris Payne