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e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g: The History of the Universe in 45 minutes

Take one astrophysicist, one musician, two poets, a mobile planetarium dome with 360 visuals, silent disco headphones and what do you get?                                             

 e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g: The History of the Universe in 45 minutes

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By Nadia Kingsley

In March 2013 I first had the start of this idea.

In March 2014 the Arts Council England supported the development of the idea.

Together astrophysicist Trevor Ponman, musician Giancarlo Facchinetti, poets Emma Purshouse and Nadia Kingsley, and ImmersiveTheatres, brought the idea to life.

In March 2015 we did our first public performance.

 

The poet Keith Chandler has called it a “mind-expanding panoply of pleasure for the senses as well as pleasure for the intellect.” For Barbara Chapman it’s “a truly cosmic experience.” A multi-sensory combination of mini lectures, poetry, music and visual soundscapes that explain the universe in 45 minutes. It’s poetry at its most stratospheric and it’s coming to the Wenlock Poetry Festival 2015. But how did it all begin?

We asked Nadia Kingsley to give us the lowdown in 4.5 minutes:

“The idea, or at least the seed for the idea came to me in 2013, when I watched a TV programme about the Large Hadron Collider and CERN; and thought how much I would like to be poet in residence there. I knew immediately that a more well known poet would get that gig, but it made me start thinking.

Three days later I went to see Owen Sheers – and Emma Purshouse was in the audience. I have long wanted to work with Emma – so I asked her, there and then, if she would be interested in working on a science poetry project. I knew I wanted to have a scientist – one who was willing to actually perform with us. But wasn’t sure what kind of scientist at that stage.

Great friend Giancarlo Facchinetti has a lifelong interest in astronomy and I’ve been lucky enough to look through his telescope – and that started me thinking some more. Giancarlo’s ability to create music and soundscapes continually astounds me so I wanted him in on the project too. Then I did a bit of googling – and found that the University of Birmingham’s Astrophysics department has an active public outreach programme. So I approached them and by a stroke of luck Professor Trevor Ponman agreed to meet us, was enthusiastic about the idea, and even showed us a wonderful poem that he had written !

I had the idea of performing in a planetarium – and was given an email for Mario di Maggio – who it turned out – happens to have his own mobile planetarium dome, and a keen interest in artistic collaborations …

This has been the most terrifying and most exhilarating thing I have ever undertaken –

Without the support of Writing West Midlands and the Arts Council England this project would never have developed. I know that now, for although we all said we would do it with or without funding – I would have given up straight after the first time my head almost exploded with all the facts and gargantuan numbers I was cramming into it. Instead I kept on reading. I don’t know how Emma coped, as she has had no formal science training at all – but she was soon impressing Professor Ponman in our private tutorials (grrr – teacher’s pet !)

The Professor gave us headings and “mini lectures” for each stage in the history of the Universe. We all separately read, researched, and wrote. Then we came together and coldly cut out the extraneous in the hope that the story would sing through.

We all felt very confident about everyone else’s work; but we were worried about the sum being too much – we didn‘t want any head exploding in the audience. But, along with visuals which we sourced for free from NASA, Hubble Space Telescope Institute and other places; we tested it out:

It was if I was in Zero Gravity, when I heard their reactions – I was floating !

My motives for presenting poetry in this way are purely selfish.

My mind wanders off when I’m trying to listen to it – not just poetry – but the weather forecast, anything.

I want to find ways to keep the mind in the moment and listening.

Also – I had one very exciting morning in the middle of my research when I came up with two completely new (to me, anyway) theories of how the Universe began.

It doesn’t take a scientist to come up with new ideas ! Science IS for everyone.

All science is is a description of what is around us and what it is to be human.

Hmmm. Is that the definition of poetry too?

Oh. And did you know that nobody actually knows what 94% of the Universe is made up of? How crazy is that?!

I hope the audiences at Wenlock Poetry Festival enjoy the whole experience; find it funny, informative, moving and different. I hope they come out feeling tiny and important. The music is composed around actual samples of sounds from the Universe, sourced from an Australian astrophysicist. All poems have been checked by the Professor. The dome itself is really exciting. The audience wears silent disco headphones and so we play and speak directly into their ears.

Any challenges I never planned for along the way ? So many ! Not least because these clever bods around the world keep making new discoveries about the Universe !”

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Kaite O’Reilly, winner of the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for her extraordinary poem play The Persians, and who I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time at Wenlock, came to one of our performances and (very kindly) had this to say afterwards:

‘A gloriously immersive multi-sensory experience exploring time and space poetically and intellectually, with stunning visuals and a soundscape truly made from the music of the spheres. A delightful fusion of the arts and cosmology. I came out mind-expanded by our e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g universe..’

Other feedback at Wenlock Poetry Festival from audiences which ranged from probably aged eight, to definitely ninety one (with hearing aids) and which included professional poets (including Michael Rosen !):

when asked What did you think of the performance?

  • fabulous, a great experience
  • Very enjoyable, interesting, educational, mind-expanding! Really well put together – loved the new perspective and lying down and listening. Great mixture of funny and thoughtful poetry. Music was hypnotic and filled the space. Helped me understand the birth and development of the Universe, galaxies etc
  • absolutely brilliant
  • Excellent. A very different event.
  • Excellent – not only entertaining but educational
  • Original – Novel/Unique
  • Very different, immersive

All four performances were sold out. This was all our feedback – if you’ve ever been to the festival you will know that audiences are mostly in jogging shoes – and running from event to event !

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And here is the full feedback from Lisa Blower, director of Wenlock Poetry Festival 2015 :

The team behind the 2015 Wenlock Poetry Festival were looking to host events where poetry was received outside of the straightforward reading and E-X-P-A-N-D-I-N-G The Universe in 45 minutes met that brief. It is an innovative, mind-blowing assault on the senses; an immersive experience where scientific fact meets poetic interpretation as set to music and film, and it sold out all 4 of its weekend performances and attracted sponsorship. The team behind E-X-P-A-N-D-I-N-G made all this possible. Not only are they a staggeringly good collective of creative thought, but their enthusiasm and passion to explore other mediums via collaborative methods reflected in their consistency and professional delivery of 4 events at festival. They were a joy to host, a pleasure to work with; their unwavering focus upon the audience experience meant that they delivered every time. We very much look forward to news of their next project for if it is anything like E-X-P-A-N-D-I-N-G, then it’s going to be seriously good

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But I’m getting ahead of myself… Though if all of Time is happening simultaneously – how can that be?..

Our first public performances were at Birmingham Art & Science Festival

Laura Coult, their programme director had put together a fabulous programme. This festival is well worth a visit – and at its heart are the principles that drive many of my own projects – and certainly this one: that Science and Art should not be kept separate from eachother – that they aren’t separate – and only good things can come out of bringing them together.

Our three performances were sold out within a couple of hours of them being available.

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Here is the feedback from the University of Birmingham audiences, of mainly students, but also astrophysicists and lecturers and members of the public – when asked : What did you think of the performance ?

  • Engaging, informative, professional and relaxing
  • excellent
  • it was an excellent one. I did enjoy it
  • it was fantastic just took me out of the earth
  • that was really good. quite trippy and disorientating in parts which is a good thing!
  • excellent – atmospheric and stimulating
  • interesting
  • I liked it a lot Thank you !
  • I thought it was great. Very immersive experience
  • Nice and impressive
  • imaginative and varied. Good use of science and humour. Extremely relaxing
  • excellent
  • Very exciting. I enjoyed the combination of the arts and science of it. I was expecting more science but I was impressed with the merging of the two. It worked well.
  • very good
  • It was a very enjoyable experience. I was initially dubious to see that it would be live music and poetry but actually that was great. EXCELLENT!
  • Marvellous
  • Good – very different
  • Amazing – great combination of disciplines Thank you!
  • Difficult to put into words… mind expanding?
  • fantastic ! great balance of science poetry and music. V comfortable and thought-provoking
  • Amazing! Mesmerising and mind-expanding
  • Wonderful!
  • Fantastic !
  • Different. Quite relaxing
  • Great combination of science and arts. Loved the poetry – not really what I would usually go for but great all the more for it
  • Great, very consuming. And I learned a lot!
  • Awesome, very well prepared
  • fantastic performance hypnotic, very comforting
  • Very worthwhile and interesting. Made me think!
  • Excellent performance

Here is the full feedback on our performances, from Laura Coult, programme director of 2015 Birmingham Art & Science Festival:

Working with Nadia Kingsley and her team during the University of Birmingham’s Arts & Science Festival was a real pleasure. Nadia is extremely approachable, friendly and quick to respond to questions. Performance The planning of this event was a real breeze – Nadia sent through extremely comprehensive instructions in advance of the event which made planning my end incredibly straightforward. Somewhat unusual for events of this scale, there were no ‘surprises’ on the day! The mobile dome was installed quickly, with a professional set up. The performance ran three times over the course of a single day during the festival and each slot completely sold out (each with a 10-person waiting list!) well in advance of the festival, much to our delight. The performance attracted a diverse audience of staff, students and members of the public, from across colleges and staff groups. Audiences responded positively to the performance in post-event evaluation, with over 90% of audience members rating the quality of speakers as either very good or excellent. Audience comments were testament to the uniqueness of the event: “The combination of visual, music and spoken word was spot on. There was humour in some of the poetry which stood out for me. A different approach enabling a better understanding of the universe.” “Just the right length, unusual presentation, great live performers” “Really enjoyable, unique experience. Not like anything I’ve seen before!” “Thought provoking and a different media of presenting scientific information.” “It was really different and something I probably won’t get the chance to do again. The combination of visual effects and the music and poetry were really captivating”

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Laura Coult also booked our e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g poetry workshop called Under The Night Stars

Event Details

A poetry writing workshop using the night sky as inspiration.

Join poets Nadia Kingsley and Emma Purshouse as they lead you through a series of writing activities designed to get your mind wandering and your pen moving. All ages welcome.

This is an outdoor activity so wrap up warm. It will not matter if it is cloudy, raining or the light pollution is severe. These will all be adapted to, within the workshop. Bring pen and paper – and binoculars, if you have them.

Astrosoc at UNDER THE NIGHT STARS workshop

Photo by Festival Photographer Greg Milner 

The University’s ASTROSOC (astronomy society) agreed to come along with their eight inch refractor telescope – and although the Uiversity’s clock tower was creating enough light pollution for us all to go straight home, and although the evening was full of cloud – they managed to reveal an extraordinary view of Jupiter that everyone gasped at – plus their chairperson, Sophie Meredith, had prepared a slideshow of what was visible in the Night Sky that night, and gave the most extraordinarily interesting and accessible talk about it – so that even the people who had arrived at the workshop without any real knowledge of what’s out there – knew stuff by the end of the two hours – as well as writing a selection of poems each, which only had one thing in common – that they were consistently of a high standard and really showed that poetry and exact scientific knowledge can, and should be, bedfellows…(oh, that’s two things – I need to do a maths project next…)

Here is the full feedback from Laura Coult, programme director of 2015 Birmingham Art & Science Festival about the Under the Night Stars Poetry Workshop:

Under the Night Stars Poetry Workshop As with e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g, planning for this event was incredibly straightforward due to the detailed information given to me in advance of the event. Set up was really minimal – Nadia even negotiated a partnership with the University’s Astrosoc society which meant there was a telescope available for the performance. The poetry workshop sold out in advance of the event, and participants were again diverse – from across disciplines within the University. Emma Purshouse led the session and combined information giving with participatory activity that engaged attendees with the subject matter and each other. The following audience comment sums up this wonderful event: “Fun, met interesting people, and interesting talkers. Learnt a lot of good skills for expressing ideas, liked the set up of the event i.e. exercises then moving onto a more wholesome piece. Nice to be made to feel comfortable in a room full of strangers The unique focus of merging poetry and the study of nature with the support of knowledgeable practitioners.”

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Annie Ashworth, programme director of Stratford Literary Festival, writes this about e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g: The History of the Universe in 45 minutes

Under the Night Stars Poetry Workshop As with e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g, planning for this event was incredibly straightforward due to the detailed information given to me in advance of the event. Set up was really minimal – Nadia even negotiated a partnership with the University’s Astrosoc society which meant there was a telescope available for the performance. The poetry workshop sold out in advance of the event, and participants were again diverse – from across disciplines within the University. Emma Purshouse led the session and combined information giving with participatory activity that engaged attendees with the subject matter and each other. The following audience comment sums up this wonderful event: “Fun, met interesting people, and interesting talkers. Learnt a lot of good skills for expressing ideas, liked the set up of the event i.e. exercises then moving onto a more wholesome piece. Nice to be made to feel comfortable in a room full of strangers The unique focus of merging poetry and the study of nature with the support of knowledgeable practitioners.”

dome, stratford

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All three performances at Stratford-upon-Avon were sold out. Here is the feedback from the audience – who ranged from ten to seventy (thats a guess..) when asked – What did you think of the performance?

  • A most enjoyable event – a clever meld of science with art and very well performed
  • I thought it was very well put together and the poems had great detail and were very imaginative (11 yrs)
  • Unusual, but excellent. Thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Not too studious
  • Excellent – my son (11) really enjoyed how the poetry was put together and said it worked really well. I thought the dome, the music and the story were wonderful
  • Absolutely brilliant. I was sandwiched between my 10 yr old son who has global development delay and cerebral palsy; and my daughter who starts GCSEs in 2 days and predicted mostly A’s – they were both engrossed.
  • Very interesting concept – unique environment. Managed really well throughout.
  • Very good – really enjoyed the whole thing!
  • Very much enjoyed. Entertaining but sensory overload. Benefitted with a better understanding of the origins of the universe. Would need to see several times to fully appreciate all content
  • Brilliant – good way of presenting. Clearly informative.

Our Stratford performances brought a new challenge – Professor Trevor Ponman was unable to join us – so I looked for “new blood” – and found it, in Dr Christopher Berry:

More at home researching gravitational waves, and black holes; than floating words direct into people’s ears, at a choreographed moment – Christopher stepped in, thankfully. A huge ask – but he surpassed all my hopes – showing, yet again, that scientists and those working in the arts are not so different after all…

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A little bit about the e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g team:
Professor Trevor Ponman
trevor ponman

His research at the University of Birmingham has focussed on the study of hot gas within galaxies, groups and clusters.

Before we even met I knew I was going to like him as he recommended a poetry book A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson.

He’s a remarkable man to work with – he was as ‘at home’ explaining about dark matter and dark energy, as he was writing and reading his own poems

 

 

 

Astrophysicist, poet

Working at Universities – Birmingham and Harvard for over 35 years.

Speciality: study of X-rays from cosmic sources, especially from other galaxies and clusters of galaxies. This also provides a probe of dark matter and galaxy formation.

Member of Birmingham team which flew an X-ray telescope on the NASA Space Shuttle in 1985.

Have taught courses in planets, stars, galaxies, cosmology and mathematical techniques at university level, as well as having earlier experience as a Middle school teacher.

Public talks to many different groups: schools, astronomy societies, adult education groups etc.

 

Giancarlo Facchinetti

Giancarlo Facchinetti

A man of many talents – he can play any instrument he picks up by hearing the notes he wants, first, then finding them; the music he creates will not allow itself to be pinned down – they are more like sound sculpture.

He is very sensitive to the work of whoever he collaborates with.

This performance would collapse without him – not only is his music completely right, and remembered by audiences who have lost themselves in it – but he is continually giving us cues, tweaking our microphone levels, and mixing the live sound.

 

 

Musician, singer, soundscape artist, music producer and sound engineer

Plays keyboards, autoharp, accordion, acoustic/ electric guitar, tin whistles, mouth organ, Chinese halusi, other world instruments. Owns 6 inch telescope.

Projects include:

Lint – a solo, studio based project: multi instrumentation and vocal harmony

Oracle John – live and recorded self written folk songs performed with autoharp.

Go cranial – experimental music and soundscapes.

In e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g: He composed and performed the music live as well as engineering and producing the audio, live and for a CD. He sourced sounds of the Universe from an Australian astrophysicist

Sound engineer/editor: podcasts in Maligned Species project

 

Emma Purshouse

emma purshouse

Admired by every professional poet, festival programmer, and audience or workshop member I have ever come across

She hadn’t studied science, ever in her life, before this project – but soon she was Teacher’s Pet with her astute and razor sharp questions.

Her poems are brilliant in e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g: The History of the Universe in 45 minutes – comedic stories, which has the science spot on

 

 

 

Freelance writer and performance poet  

Without any scientific qualifications, she was surprised to find at the start of her research for the show, that the sun was a star!

Slam champion, performing at spoken word nights and literature festivals.  Featured artist for Apples and Snakes and Bang Said the Gun, she has also provided support for John Hegley, Hollie McNish and Polarbear.

In 2013 she worked with Dame Margaret Drabble on Black Country Stories for arts organization Multistory.  Emma performed extracts from Margaret’s short stories on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Children’s poetry book : I once knew a poem who wore a hat –   out in April 2016.

 

Nadia Kingsley (me)

nadia kingsley

It has been an absolute pleasure to work with these three.

If I am going to blow my own trumpet – then I would just like to say – I do seem to have quite a talent in bringing the right people together.

I found the writing really challenging, even more than the reading!

But I have loved every minute of it. More please !!

Poet, instigator and project manager for e-x-p-a-n-d-in-g

Trained and worked as a GP (family doctor)

Interested in bringing Science and Art together

Running MALIGNED SPECIES – ACE funded project – bringing poetry and science together

Writing poems with a scientific slant for a monthly herbalist’s blog.

Runs Fair Acre Press and published Shropshire Butterflies: a poetic and artistic guide – with 67 contributors including Gillian Clarke

Performances individually – ‘Ones to Watch’ event, curated by Jacob Sam-La Rose, Ted Hughes Festival, throughout West Midlands, Presenter/ interviewer on 13 podcasts with ecologists and poets; Radio Shropshire appearances

 

Mario di Maggio of IMMERSIVE THEATRES

Mario Di Maggio

An amazing, and generous man – completely professional. I was so lucky to find him.

Along with his colleague Zee at Immersive-Theatres, Mario is most used to spending his time at schools – which obviously goes down extraordinarily well – look at the feedback on their website, and for the full catalogue of films they have: www.immersivetheatres.com/

He isn’t a stranger to working with The Arts though. In fact he welcomes these opportunities – has worked with other artists, shows Pink Floyd albums with full 360 dome visuals, and has previously been a Judge at Dome Fest.

 

We would like to thank:

Paul Francis, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, for making his Sounds of the Universe freely available for use, and modification by our musician Giancarlo Facchinetti

NASA, Hubble Space Telescope Institute and other generous organisations for making their images and videos available for use within the dome.

Arts Council England – for their essential and much appreciated support

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