Brian Mackenwells – public engagement (#110)

BMackenwells
Photo Credit: Steve Cross

Brian Mackenwells spent many years working in science communication, delivering and developing science shows and workshops for school and family audiences, as well as for adults. He now supports researchers to engage the public with their work. He also writes audio drama and theatre, and can also be found on stage doing standup about pencils. He has only made two children cry in the course of his career to date.

Twitter: @mackenwells

Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

Over the last few years I’ve started to read poetry, and nowadays I read a lot of it. I’m always amazed at how a poem can open things out, and use the ambiguity of language to hit upon truth I never saw coming, or as Jack Underwood wrote “Poetry is a deliberate act of foregrounding language, smudging it, to signal possible meanings beyond the everyday, sharper constraints that words and sentences usually afford us, or rather, we afford to them”. It might just be a small truth, or a gentle truth, but they say so many true things in different ways. Being a late-comer to poetry, I’m constantly finding poems that amaze me in this way, the one that comes to mind as a recent one is “In the Morning Before Anything Bad Happens” by Molly Brodak (at the bottom of this page). That first stanza “The sky is open/all the way.” – what a wonderful thing. 7 words, I can see it in front of me, and feel it in a way that ‘plainer’, non-poetic, language wouldn’t quite capture.

 

What makes something wonderful?

I think it has to make you stop and want to hold it up to the light.

 

Why aren’t pencils boring? What makes a good pencil?

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said ‘perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away’, and by that definition I think a good pencil can be a perfect object. It is so simple a thing, but when each aspect of it is exactly right it is a small joy. It’s about looking closely at the things we normally ignore, and giving them our full attention.

The best pencil is the one you have on you, and it’s a personal choice as to what you consider a good pencil. Generally, there’s the lead, the look, and the point to consider. Why I love them is that there’s actually a huge amount of variation in those three aspects; lead can be of different quality and grade, they have an enormous variety of design and woods, and the point you make can be shaped any number of different ways. It appear simple, but it’s complex when you look at it. Some people like a soft lead, and to be able to see the wood of the pencil (called natural pencils); others like something modern and restrained, that keeps a sharp point; others like cheap and cheerful. You can pick! I think that’s what a lot of people don’t realise – you can find a pencil you think looks cool, and writes noticeably nicer than the cheap work-store-cupboard one!

[Matt notes: Brian recently contributed to the BBC’s ‘The Boring Talks’ podcast, you can listen here.]

 

Can you tell me about your experiments with typewriter art? What is the appeal of using a typewriter? What are the frustrations?

It mostly came about because I’m a writer in my spare time, and a typewriter is the sort of thing writers like me (who like a bit of analogue) think are cool. My wife got me one for Christmas a few years ago. However, writing on a typewriter is physically much harder and slower than on my laptop, and I’d still have to retype anything digitally anyway, so I never wrote on it – this seemed like a shame, given it was a working typewriter. So I began to fiddle about with it, and maps are the sort of images that have a lot of straight-ish lines, and I liked how they looked when they were done. Drawing pictures with words isn’t new – people have been doing it since typewriters were first invented, so I thought to have a go at that with pieces like my Shakespeare piece.

The challenge of working in a typewriter is also the fun of it – you’re incredibly limited with what is physically possible on a page, so you have to think quite creatively to work with the machine. I can’t draw, really, but this is a kind of low-res drafting that is within my reach and makes producing a piece more like a puzzle to solve, so the typewriter actually helps me transcend my own drawing abilities!

 

I love the quote from the clown Anver the Eccentric “Be interested not interesting” if you want to engage an audience. Does that resonate with you?

Oh yes, absolutely. You have to have a genuine interest in what you’re talking about, or the audience can sniff that out. It can be hard to do that if this is the 1,000 time you’ve done a show, for example, but you have to find and remember the bits that interest you. People love to watch someone talk about something they love.

 

How has your theatre experience impacted your science communication?

I think it’s impacted every part of it – even if you’re doing a science show (for example) as ‘yourself’, it’s still a sort of heightened version of yourself, still a character. Acting taught me how to think about the character I was playing. It’s also about showing authentic emotion in a highly scripted and rehearsed situation, and (related to my previous answer) this can help you show that excitement/delight/surprise/wonder you felt the first time doing a demo that you might not necessarily still be feeling the thousandth time you’ve done that demo. It’s not learning how to lie or about being fake, but communicating an emotion which your audience can catch from you.

Conversely, my years of science shows hugely impacted my acting – knowing how to control the audience’s attention, thinking about your body language, physical timing, these are all things I learned first from doing a million shows.

 

Do we need to be better at telling stories?

I think it slightly depends what you mean by ‘better’ ‘telling’ ‘stories’ ‘we’ and ‘need’. I do think a lot of sci-commers could do with thinking about themselves as art creators, and embracing stuff like theatre and storytelling to be more consciously crafting stories. We happen to be making stuff about science, sure, but so what? A lot of people think we can spend an hour doing demo-explanation, demo-explanation, demo-explanation – and you can sort of get away with it, but mostly because it’s considered ‘educational’ and therefore ‘improving’. This, I reckon, is why there’s a reliance on big BANG demos, as it holds the attention in a way that slots into that model of show, and so is easier than getting to grips with telling a story. And I don’t mean it has to be like a fairy tale with demos slotted in (although they can work great!) – but there has to be some kind of reason the audience is interested in what happens next, beyond ‘there might be an explosion’. Stories are how you do that, and are how we make people feel something, which is (uh, arguably I suppose) what a lot of art is trying to do, and what we should be focused on rather than the next interesting fact. Trade your cleverness for wonder, as Rumi said.

 

One of the things that strikes me whenever I’ve heard you talk is that you are good at searching out and refining science demos. Where do you find them or how do you go about creating them? What makes a good demo?

Well, the demos I’ve found and brought to the wider sci-com community  aren’t ones I came up with from scratch – I don’t have the kit, setup, or mechanical abilities to develop brand new demos, to be honest. What I’ve done in the past is seen more complicated Scientific Demonstrations (often designed to be done at schools/Uni with lots of carefully calibrated kit), and thought “oh, that can be stripped right back”. I’ve then worked out how to replicate an effect using cheap materials – crucially, though, is that these demo versions I develop completely lose the precision of their parent Demonstration, but they work as demos. A science demo’s job is to show some surprising natural effect, so it doesn’t matter if you lose its usefulness as a scientific tool. There is, of course, a line to thread – a demo can’t cheat, it has to be a real effect of the topic you’re talking about, but you can get rid of a lot of gubbins if that’s actually all you care about.

 

Your role at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics is to support researchers in their public engagement. What are the challenges and opportunities with this?

The main challenge is time – researchers don’t have any. They are generally under a huge amount of pressure to publish, do experiments, apply for grants, and look for their next job. Public engagement is all about giving a voice to the legitimate stakeholders of that research (some particular slice of ‘the public’), either through informing, consulting, or collaborating with them, and it can genuinely make for better research – however, it’s still widely seen as an ‘add-on’ to do if you have time, in a sort of charitable manner, rather than something that will benefit the research.

However, there are some wonderful opportunities – ways creative, engaged researchers have included the public in a variety of ways. It’s really nice when you see a researcher ‘get it’!


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