Dance and Debate

A short report on the rest of my weekend at Shift Time in the Quarry Park.

The Tortoise Project exhibition was a disappointment. There were seven or eight wickerwork tortoises, some undecorated, others decorated by young children with various bits of scrap. A couple had been decorated with some care, but overall it looked like a project that hadn’t quite got off the ground.

Dance 2

Over at the other side of the site, with a neat metal rig, three members of Blue Eyed Soul Dance Company were getting off the ground in fine style. Using ropes and flying harnesses, the dancers gave us a most engaging performance. Part dance, part rope-work, part mountaineering (they were climbing up onto the scaffolding in long Victorian costumes). They succeeded in integrating the aerial work into the dance with suprising grace and naturalness. Clearly a lot of hard work and experiment has gone into discovering the possibilities offered by the ropes and the rig. The natural result was achieved by careful planning, and the smooth grace we saw was the result of strenous effort and intense practice. All credit to them. The gentle, descriptive narrative that ran alongside the music and action added an extra dimension to the piece. It was a very fine performance, and fortunately the rain held off until it was over.

Repairs in the rain

In the rain, a few minutes later, Theo Jansen and his team were busy making running-repairs to a very dejected-looking Umerus, which was suffering from a broken crankshaft. Perhaps it knows that it is soon to be declared extinct and replaced by an improved machine with new capabilities?

Inside a very small, domed tent, the University of Wolverhampton’s Shift-Life team were demonstrating an interactive computer ecology, designed as a teaching tool for small children. The bright, colourful creatures and plants were projected down onto a cloth-covered ‘sandpit’ with watering cans to add water or acidity, a lamp to add extra light — and an ‘earthquake button’.Shift-Life The project is still in development and had a few teething troubles: by the time I saw it, visitors had overdone the watering, so the sensors were not responding, and the earthquake had worn out completely. But the display was vey engaging. The ‘liquorish allsorts with legs’ that were the system’s carnivores were a bit hit with the children.

Sunday’s main event was a three-hour-long series of presentations called Darwin Blast-Off. Five speakers given twenty minutes each to present an argument, with questions from the audience between. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, as I find there is often a distressing tendency to dumb-down and/or dress-up the scientific content of things when ‘Arts’ get involved in the proceedings. Forbit it that the audience should need to think rather than ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ — sorry, a rant coming on there. A subject I am sure to get back to again later.

Back to the actual event. What saved this one was the audience, which was not fooled by weak science and asked the deep and awkward questions the speakers were gliding over with their Powerpoint presentations. The three most obvious book-pushers got the shortest shrift, particularly James LeFanu. The final speaker, Sam Roberts, doing a research project into social networks and how they affect the number and depths of friendships, was the one who got the audience asking interested questions rather than awkward ones. A positive way to end an interesting afternoon. Rather a shame that the event didn’t provide the setting that a science fiction convention usually provides: audience and speakers meeting informally in the bar afterwards, to continue the discussion and spark further conversations. (Some loos nearer the venue than the far side of the park would have been welcome, too, Shropshire Council.)

All in all, a good weekend. More next Saturday — Theo Jansen’s talk in St Mary’s Church and then the performance of The Weather Man. More of that nearer the time. Meanwhile back to real life and all the other jobs I’ve put on hold for Shift Time.

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