Season 2, Episode 2


Deidre  0:06  
Good evening, everybody. So, I am one of those individuals for whom it’s the first time ever being up here in front of all of you. So thank you so much for being here tonight. So I’m Deidre and I am a professional dancer, and when I say that probably right now some things are running through your head. I get a couple stereotypical responses to ‘professional dancer’. A response I get commonly is “oh, a professional dancer, do something!”. Yeah? And at this point I’m thinking, well am I supposed to do a triple pirouette? What do you want to see? What are your expectations? And I also find it funny because if I worked in another line of work, like if I was an accountant, you know, you wouldn’t say “do something”, right? “Do some math, right now, really fast!” Another thing, which I quite like, is “Oh, you’re a professional dancer. That’s so awesome. So am I. When I was five, I took a ballet class, for like four months”. And I think, that’s awesome, that’s so awesome. But it’d be like if you’re a doctor, and I said, “Yeah, when I was a kid, I was so good at operation. We’re like the same.”

Jessamyn  1:29  
Welcome to You’re Up Next, a podcast by Bright Club Ireland that explores what scientists can learn from stand up comedy. I’m your host, Jessamyn Fairfield, and I’m a physicist, comedian, and chronic interdisciplinary collaborator. In this second season of You’re Up Next, we’re exploring some important topics through the lenses of science and humor. And today we’re talking about art. I’ll be speaking with Natasha T. Miller from Science Gallery Detroit, and Kate Murray, who works with me on Bright Club Ireland. Is it more important to look for truth in the world, or to look for meaning? Is there a difference? Can you have one without the other? That seems like a hard question, so let’s save it for later. But something I find interesting about looking for truth and meaning is that we use similar processes for each. Learn what is already known, experiment, be willing and even eager to break with tradition, think outside the confines of what is expected, and finally, discover something new which has importance for everyone. When we’re searching for truth, we might call it the scientific method. And when we’re searching for meaning, we might call it the artist’s way. The current pandemic provides a compelling example of this. We need a cure to the disease, we need strategies for reducing it spread, and fundamentally, we need to save lives and get through this as a society. Science is helping us figure out how the virus works, the truth of this situation, and providing ideas supported by evidence on how to hold out until vaccination is widespread. And art is helping us to get by, stay connected, and understand the meaning of this shared traumatic experience. Both have had missteps for sure. We talked in our last episode about the messiness of the scientific process, the fact that stepping outside the bounds of knowledge means inevitable failures and mistakes along the path to knowing something new. And of course, the same is true of art. As new art is being made in this singular period, inevitably some will fall flat and some will shine lights on things we had never considered before. Pointing out similarities between science and art as practices is often a precursor to talking about why science-art initiatives are so great/ You know, “breaking down silos of knowledge and bringing people together in new ways”. And they are great. I mean, Bright Club is a science-art initiative, combining research and stand-up comedy. And obviously, since this podcast is made by Bright Club, you can guess all the positive things I have to say about that. There’s even a term for it, STEAM, which takes the traditional stem acronym science, technology, engineering, math, and it adds an A for art. You know, the metaphors just right themselves: “STEAM engines powering a transdisciplinary future”. I am 100% sure that someone has started a STEAM initiative called STEAM Punk. And if they haven’t, you could do it yourself, I give you my blessing. But let me ask you this: Are we really putting science and art on an equal footing here, if four of the letters in STEAM are about technical disciplines and art is just given one letter? Would it be better if it were STEAMING? Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics, Illustration, Music, Photography! Okay, I’ve bungled the acronym a bit, now [laughs]. It’s a steaming pile of something all right. But my point is this: very often, STEAM initiatives treat art as a servant rather than a partner. A tool to gussy up boring technical subjects, rather than an equal in the search for understanding. Even the fact that science-art initiatives are so much more common than art-science initiatives tells you who thinks they’re in charge. So why is it like this? I would argue that it has to do with elitism mostly, which can be found in both art and science, but is exacerbated by the fact that we as a society pay more into science than we do into art, even as we invariably turn to art to make sense of our darkest moments. So how do we go about making true art-science partnerships, and how can that bring people together in both truth and meaning? Our first guest is Natasha T. Miller from Science Gallery Detroit.

Natasha  5:32  
I am from Detroit, Michigan – a Detroit native. I am the Science Gallery Detroit Community Engagement Manager, so I’m responsible for a lot of our community partnerships. In my spare time, I’m also a professional poet. So I tour the world, I perform poems, and write books. But outside of that, my main goal is just community engagement, community activism, and advocate for LGBTQ rights. And that’s what I’m here for.

Jessamyn  6:05  
That’s awesome. I guess maybe the first thing I might ask you is just about kind of your poetic practice, like what led you to that, but then also, how it informs, you know, you coming into the Science Gallery, science engagement world, but like, as a performer with such a strong and awesome arts background.

Natasha  6:24  
I jumped into poetry, I think it was one of those things that was just very natural, it was just in me. So, growing up, I played basketball. I played basketball at elementary, middle school, high school, and I remember in my middle school graduation, we were getting our awards from our coach. And on our awards, you know, he would come up with these slogans or these sayings that kind of fit who the player was. And he gave me this award, I was one of the best three point shooters, and he called me The Natural. That’s what he put on it. And he was like, “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this movie, it’s called The Natural”, and it’s about this baseball player, I guess who just naturally knew how to play baseball. And I was like, in fifth grade, I had never seen this movie. But that kind of stuck with me, right? I didn’t really have much training in basketball. And I think that transition into poetry. I went to the military for a brief stint, I went to the Air National Guard, Air Force. And after a while, I just wanted to be kind of in control of my own destiny, I used it as a form of like discipline. But then I was like, there has to be something else. I was always like, into politics and I was also into talking. But I didn’t know where the medium was for me as a career, right. And then one night, I honestly wrote a poem. I wrote that poem. And my friend said, “oh, you should go out and perform it”. And I went to an open mic, and I performed it, and it was received well. And I always tell people is was the worst poem I’ve ever written, I hope that it never shows up on YouTube. I’m happy YouTube wasn’t around, because I would have been canceled if the poem would have ever been released on YouTube, right. So, but people received it well for the time, and I just kept performing, and I started to do slam poetry. Then I started to connect with other poets from around the world, travel and perform at their venues. They will come to travel and perform at my venues, colleges, etc. and it kind of went up from there. But I say all that to say, as I was traveling, as I was performing as a poet, I was building community. I was building an audience, but I was also building a community of people who could also create these activist projects to give back to their communities, and also the community of Detroit. So I didn’t really have, I would say, a formal background in community engagement. But I knew how to create community, I knew how to get people to rally behind something. I just knew that it was something that I was passionate about, it was something that I was good at, it was something that I was going to learn and grow in. And then I found myself from poetry in this world of science, in this world of community engagement, that all kind of works together, because I bring all of the networks and all of the people that I have, you know, gathered from around the world from the years that I’ve been performing. And now I’m able to use those resources and bring them into the world of Science Gallery and the world of science.

Jessamyn  8:55  
I have strong feelings about how science and art come together in those spaces, but I wonder if you could tell me some of how it’s been for you, like bringing artistic practice into a science space and trying to build those kind of engagements.

Natasha  9:07  
Yeah, I think the example that I like to use is, I perform at a lot of econ festivals, and I’m friends with a lot of economists from around the world. And what they do is – they had never really had poetry in these spaces, where they would have all of these large economic conferences. And then one of my friends, Robert Johnson, who’s an economist, he started to bring me to perform at the conferences. And every time that we would leave the conference, like he would write me and be like “people were blown away by the poetry”, to the point where he tells the story of one day, some of these bigwigs he brought in to talk about economics, they had to follow me doing poetry, and he said that they were really pissed off at him because after I did my poem, people started to leave and not listen to the actual panelists, right? And he had to say to them, like, you know, like, “I didn’t do it on purpose, you know, she was here to enhance the festival”. And I think what I learned in that space, that I’ve carried over to the science and art world, is that economics was the data, it was the numbers, it was people saying, you know, here goes the numbers, here goes the facts, it’s very black and white, but you never get to talk to the people that the data is for and that the data is about. So I always felt like I came to and I humanized those practices, and I humanized those conferences and saying that, you know, these are not just the abstract, like, we are people that make up all of this data that they’re talking about. And I feel like when it came to the science and art fusion, it was the same way, you know. Science can be very abstract for a lot of people, you know, no matter what type of science it is, you know, especially in inner cities, and in the communities that I grew up in. You know, we don’t have a lot of sciences, we don’t have a lot of, you know, neurology, we don’t have people who are just invested- and because of the resources, obviously, right, and the lack of the pathways to those types of careers. But I felt like we do have a lot of artists. And when it comes to science, there is a science to a lot of the art that people are doing. But also when it comes to science, where you got hard up scientists who are just like, “this is my work, these are my findings, this is what it is”, I feel like art kind of humbled them in that space, in that fusion of art and science. And also I feel like, with this fusion of art and science, it has made a lot of artists, especially who we bring into Science Gallery, look at their work differently – look at their work sometimes in a more mature light, look at their work in a more advanced light, and just think about- we’re creatives, and we think that we’re just creating, and I go back to being natural, and we’re creating naturally we’re just going and going and going, but not giving ourselves the credit of like, “no, we’re scientists too”. If you think about the science and the detail that goes into writing and reworking the poem, or maybe just being something like a hairstylist, or maybe just being a painter, or whatever it is, like wherever medium your art is, there’s a science to it. So I feel like it’s a great relationship, because we’re helping to humble and humanize the scientists, and I feel like the scientists are helping us to mature and recognize how advanced we actually are in our practices. And we don’t give ourselves much credit for that. So it is a, it is a perfect marriage to me, and I have learned a lot, you know, obviously about science that I just never, I never saw myself in that space. And to never see yourself in a space, to actually loving the space, and enjoying the space, to me shows that it actually is a natural fusion, and it is something that we should- that should be at the forefront of a lot of communities. And for me very specifically, my work as a community engagement manager.

Jessamyn  12:26  
Yeah, well, and I think it’s so true what you said that like the best science-art initiatives like have this kind of two way exchange where like people are learning in both directions, and kind of getting something out of the different lenses, or different ways of looking at, you know, two different types of creative work effectively, which is really cool.

Natasha  12:44  
I did a program recently, it’s called Grief During a Time of Joy. And what I did was, I connected to two different doctors that are at Michigan State University. And these doctors were to come in and they felt like their job on the panel was to basically discuss, you know, the science, the data. Like, what factually like in your brain happens when you’re depressed? And what, you know, just answer those types of questions. But the panel turned out to be something very different, because the doctors, one of them had lost her five year old son, and she was in pediatrics. And another one, another doctor, I think he was a neurologist, and he talked about how he had a suicide attempt a few years ago. And they felt like that was the most human panel they had ever been on because they were providing all of this data, all of these statistics, all of these numbers about like, “okay, this is the reason that you feel the way that you feel, you’re not imagining it”, but then they provided this human experience, which is an art within itself – just the human experience of like, “no, I dealt with this too, I am like you”, and since we had that program here, Science Gallery Detroit, both of those doctors want to do more work with us. They’re like, “we’ve never done anything like this before”, you know, and the people who were joining the panel, I mean as the audience, they also thought like, “we’re about to talk to these doctors, there’s about to be this jargon we really don’t understand, but we’re very interested in the subject matter, right? So we do want to hear it. But is it all going to go over our head?” And then the feedback was like, “no, we got the best of both worlds – we got this validation that what I feel scientifically is real, I’m not imagining it – but also, these people have really dealt with the thing that I’m dealing with”. And I always think, you know, going back to science and art, that is a perfect, you know, marriage that is a meaningful relationship.

Jessamyn  14:32  
Yeah, I mean, I think that’s such a great example, too, because like I know, in the public engagement stuff I’ve been involved with, a lot of times scientists will talk about how like, they don’t feel like they’re allowed to be their full selves in other contexts. And then, you know, like, yeah, coming into an event like what you described, I can just imagine that being so rewarding for people who are kind of experts, but they’re also human beings who have experiences…

Natasha  14:52  
Where artists feel like we have to only be human. We have to only be a mess, right? Like you expect us to be messy, versus that other side of “no, no, no, I’m not just- it’s not just feelings”, you know. Art is like you, when you look in between the lines of the poems and you read one of your favorite artist’s work, you know, we’re throwing some science and some data and some facts in there as well, you just might- and of course, maybe you will catch it the first time around. But you don’t know the work that like as poets, like the research that we do. So I’m not just giving you my feelings, we’re also educating you, you know, as well. So I do feel like that’s what it is – they think the artist is just this messy human being, who has just been going through all this trauma their whole life, and then you know, the scientist is just “we’re not human at all, we’re just here to kind of spit these facts out”,  and when you bring those those two together, and we’re both, you know, allowed to be ourselves and each other. I think that that’s something wonderful to witness.

Jessamyn  15:42  
Yeah, absolutely. I think too, I want to go back to something you were saying before about, like, art as kind of, I mean, partly like humanizing science, but also like, including people that might not have traditionally been included in science spaces, right? And like, I mean, I know for both art and science, it’s an issue of like accessibility and like, who gets to be involved in those conversations? But do you feel like when they’re combined that like, there’s, there’s an improvement in inclusion and accessibility or like that it’s able to bring in more people than have traditionally been part of those conversations? 

Natasha  16:12  
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I wouldn’t give it too much credit. But I think there is a little more accessibility in those departments. But I think that no matter what the subject matter is, you know, whether it be science, whether it be art, whether it be refrigerators – it doesn’t matter what it is, when it comes to accessibility, it depends on the team that you have that’s creating those accessible pathways, right? I don’t care what what you what you merge together, you know, you have to make sure that you have a plan to introduce people to it, to educate people on it. But when it comes to accessibility, some people already know the things that- not what they need to know to get involved in the actual, let’s say, fields. But there’s so many people that if you just went and talked to them, you would find out they really just need more resources, and they can educate other people and themselves. So I don’t really know if it’s the art and science fusion, as much as it is listening to people going into communities where they don’t have just the resources, because here in Detroit, you know, we’re doing an upcoming exhibition on surveillance. And I have been telling people at Science Gallery Detroit since we came here, we don’t have to do it on our own. The people of Detroit are already doing work around surveillance. They’re already doing work around water, they’re already doing like work on- some some people on global levels. We just need to provide them with more resources, so their platforms can be elevated. When those people in the community when those platforms are elevated, then they’re able to reach more people in their communities who now know, “oh, there’s a pathway to me becoming this type of thing, and we’re just using science and art, again, as the mediums”. But it’s really that accessibility can only come from the team that you hire, the team to work with, and you intentionally in every project and every single thing that you do, say, “I’m going to go out to these communities that we exist in, and I’m going to provide them with the resources, not look at them as if they don’t know anything about science, or they don’t know anything about art”, because they do. They just need the resources to learn more, educate themselves better, and educate other people in their community and say, “here are all the pathways that this can lead you to”, right? Like in science, you know, there’s not one type of science, there’s all of these different sciences that you can involve yourself in, right? Now, that’s what I mean, when you go into schools and it’s like, you know, I don’t know, I could be a social scientist or a political scientist, or, you know. People just think, “it’s just science”. You know, it’s like, I can be an astrophysicist or they think is all of that, and it’s like “no, there’s all these different ways you’re already involved in science, I just got to kind of narrow it down and further define it for you, and the same thing with art”.

Jessamyn  18:55  
Yeah, amazing, and like so well said. I think- sorry, I feel like this whole conversation is just me being like, “that was great, I agree” [laughs]. But I guess one thing I wanted to ask too, is like, I feel like you put that so well, in terms of, you know, providing resources for people and not assuming that they don’t know stuff. How does that tie into, like advocacy in this space for you?

Natasha  19:19  
Yeah, I mean, the answer I think is in the question. You know, like, I go into these different communities, and I assume that people do know stuff. I assume that you know what your problems are, right? Like, as somebody who’s Black, who’s, you know, queer, who’s a part of that community. I don’t need somebody who’s white, who’s cisgender, you know, telling me what my problems are and telling me what their fixes are. Okay, I don’t need to do that. Like, my advocacy is going into these spaces, assuming that you know exactly what’s wrong with you. I could maybe help you find the language to explain it, then help you to define it, but you know what it feels like, and I can be humble enough to take that and figure out what that language for it is. But then also, again, provide you the resources to advocate for yourself. But me, I can advocate for Black women, I can advocate for queer Black women. I can’t advocate for trans Black women, right? I can provide those resources for them – and when I say advocate, I mean, I can be an ally, right? Of course, I’m on your side. I’m saying that I’m trying to give you everything that you need to be successful, or to just be alive. But I can just hand you the mic, and you can advocate for yourself, because you know what it is that you are dealing with. So my best form of advocacy is saying, I’m in these corporate spaces, but when we close the doors, I don’t need to be telling these people what trans people are dealing with. I need to tell them that I know some trans people who need to be behind closed doors, and they tell you exactly what they’re dealing with. And they tell you exactly what they need. And what I do is I support and say, “if they say that’s what they need, that’s what they need, and we need to make it happen”. So I feel like that’s a lot of the work that I do here with Science Gallery Detroit. I’m not giving people a voice – people already have voices, right? And they’re probably already using those voices, It’s just not enough people listen. So maybe my advocacy looks more like, if I’m behind closed doors with the people who have the finances, with the people who have the ability to make the changes, then I need to make sure they are listening – because these people are already talking, they just need these people to be listening. And I think that’s my work as an advocate for, you know, anything that I do.

Jessamyn  21:36  
We also spoke to Kate Murray, who works in theatre and comedy, including on Bright Club Ireland.

Kate  21:42  
I am a theatre practitioner. I work with Fregoli Theatre Company, and I also work for Bright Club Ireland as the production coordinator.

Jessamyn  21:52  
That’s great, those both sound like great jobs [laughs]. Maybe let’s start out by talking about your theater work, and like how you got into that. But I know as well you do a lot of theater as outreach, or theater as ways of connecting with less connected groups. So would you like to tell us about some of that work,

Kate  22:13  
I’m really interested in people, and I’m really interested in stories, and the way in which we can connect with one another and communicate. So that’s what my work is about, both as a theatre practitioner, and with Break Club. And I suppose when I started to work with Fregoli, I was very much about acting and performance, and that’s what I wanted to do. And I kind of had a single minded focus on that, and it was great for a few years learning and getting that experience of acting. And I was very grateful for that, and I learned a lot during that time. But as time went on, and I got a little bit older, and also, at that same time, Maria happened to be just finishing off her studies in her social work masters. And she was also working in a youth center at the time, and we both began to have discussions, and it became clear to us that we’re both interested – as well as the general performance and interacting with an audience with the stories we’re telling – we’re both interested in maybe considering what we could do with the theater and the work that we were doing, how it could communicate with the community more actively, how it could spark conversation, or maybe how it could engage and, you know, put out our hand to other people in the community and bring them along with us and create something. So it kind of for us became maybe a little bit less about the shows and the style and what theatre festivals we were getting into, and maybe over time, and to an extent unconsciously a little bit more about the impact of our work, and what we can say with our work, and who we can engage with with our work.

Jessamyn  24:02  
That’s great. And you said something too about art having the power to connect people, which I think is wonderful, and I agree [laughs]. Do you want to just talk a little bit about that?

Kate  24:15  
Yeah. I mean, I always come back to this one idea, which is that everyone – no matter what you are or what you do – everyone is interested in stories. And everyone has a story to tell. And ultimately stories I think are what connect people, and so everyone is also looking for connection all the time. So I just think that art, in any form, it is always offering you the opportunity for connection, and therefore it’s always offering you an opportunity to engage, to learn something new.

Jessamyn  24:53  
Yeah, that’s fantastic, and just so well said as well. I wonder, because I know obviously through Bright Club, you’ve worked at the interface between kind of art and science and social science. Like do you think that- well firstly, do you think that that’s a valuable kind of interface? But also do you think that art that takes on some of the trappings of science, or science that takes on some of the trappings of art, like what do you think about those kind of initiatives? And do you think that if they’re done well or poorly- you don’t have to say that Bright Club is great on this, it’s not a [laughs], this isn’t just a plug. I’m interested to hear sort of your thoughts, especially as an artistic practitioner. 

Kate  25:36  
Well firstly, about working- like the, kind of my experience of the science and the art coming together, I mean, that’s been just something that offers me the opportunity to listen and to learn from people that I don’t necessarily, most of the time, share a similar background or – technically, on paper, we don’t have a lot in common, but actually, we have so much in common, because we’re all human. And that’s what, I suppose Bright Club does, is it strips away some of the the titles, and the the terminology, and the things that can often sometimes act as barriers between people communicating and really engaging – and it kind of takes those away, and it allows people to just meet each other where they are. And so for me, that’s just been enjoyable, and also, I think it’s really important. In terms of science and art – I think that just for me, science and art just go absolutely hand in hand together, because they’re both kind of like wondrous. And I think science is like- it’s kind of magical, like it’s… some people can find it kind of just amazing. Like sometimes when I hear the jobs that people have from Bright Club, and what their area of research is, I’m genuinely like- I’m just fascinated, because I did not even know that that was something you could research or like, how far they’ve gone in their research with it. So for me, there’s something kind of wondrous, kind of magical, and the two things kind of go hand in hand. What I don’t sometimes like is- I just find sometimes there’s a danger of art becoming subservient to science and, you know, for me they’re both important, and it should just be they become a one, and it’s not one working to help the other or, you know, vice versa. It’s more holistic than that.

Jessamyn  27:19  
Yeah, absolutely though. I think that’s such a good point, that it isn’t – you know, like you said, you don’t have one subservient to the other, and it’s not about like appropriating the techniques of one thing to promote something else. 

Jessamyn  27:35  
It sounds really simple. Listen to what people already know, and help provide resources for them to create something. Honestly, that describes community outreach just as well as it describes truly collaborative partnerships between artists and scientists. And that’s because listening, and helping, and creating are not unique to art or science. They are human activities, and they’re the very things we use to search for truth and meaning. So thanks for listening, and go out and help create something.

Jessamyn  28:10  
This episode is made possible by support from the Community Knowledge Initiative, the CÚRAM Medical Device Research Centre, the research office at NUI Galway, and Science Foundation Ireland. We’re grateful to our guests, our host, which is me, Jessamyn Fairfield, our producers Maurice and Shaun, and to you, our listeners and our Bright Club Ireland community. A transcript of this episode is available at, where you can also find more information about what we do at Bright Club Ireland.