How we created and managed I:DNA
Having an idea, getting a team together, and finding funding
Felicity had some experience of translating research into an art exhibit through a previous project with artist Esther Appleyard-Fox (Pandora's box) and she decided to create a larger exhibit, that could reach as many people as possible by touring to different locations.
Felicity won a ‘Wellcome Trust Research Enrichment – Public Engagement Grant’, linked to her Wellcome funding for the Imagining Futures Research Programme, to translate the research into a touring multi-media art installation (details of the costs can be found below).
Felicity and Esther created the initial concept and then STAMP CIC joined to further develop the idea and provide links with artists, groups and organisations who assisted with delivery. STAMP (Theatre and Media Productions CIC) have experience in developing innovative creative art events inspired by research and they were tasked with leading the creative side of the build and delivery of the tour. Corinna joined the 'research' side of the team during the early stages of the development phase.
To read more about the team members please click here.
Translating our research into an art installation
Our research encompasses several highly emotive topic areas and have the potential to produce strong reactions as well as distress (e.g. health and disability, experiences of healthcare, prenatal testing and pregnancy termination, bereavement (including pregnancy and child loss), social discrimination and stigma, the boundaries between quality of life and suffering, and the various ways that a ‘life worth living’ is understood).
Members of the public are typically unfamiliar with the concept of genomic medicine and how it relates to them, despite these themes of health, disability and quality of life being universal across society.
Our first challenge was to decide how best to create a relatable and accessible experience for audience members, whilst not oversimplifying or trivialising the issues. We spent several months, meeting regularly, to discuss and decide on how how best to achieve this.
At the outset, we agreed that the words of the research participants themselves, should be at the core of the installation, with a limited amount of additional factual/scientific explanation to add context. We also wanted the installation to be visually stimulating and it was decided that there would be several elements to this, which would include the use of sculpture and film.
Sound and video-scape
The research data was gathered from many people with wide ranging experiences and viewpoints and we wanted to be sensitive to this, but we also needed to balance providing the right level of information, and in such a way that the viewer to contextualise the relevance to themselves.
To ensure that we met the various aims of accessibility and authenticity, the I:DNA team (creative collaborators and researchers) spent a considerable amount of time discussing and debating which excerpts to use from the research interview transcripts. The depth and variety of experience of the team was vital to this - some team members have genetic conditions themselves, and Felicity has many years of experience advocating for people with disabilities and rare genetic conditions, other team members had no specialist knowledge and were able to approach this as proxy members of the public.
In the soundscape some of the stories were voiced by actors and others were sung by choirs. Music can elicit positive and negative emotions to the listener and the positioning of singing created an interesting – and at times jarring – juxtaposition between the information being conveyed and its presentation.
To accompany the soundscape, we created a film of 'faces' to represent the diversity of people affected by genetic conditions and genetic decision-making. At intervals, statistics about the frequency of genetic conditions were displayed to remind/inform audiences that, although individually rare, genetic conditions collectively can – and do – affect a significant number of us, and that we are all likely to be the ‘carrier’ of at least one genetic mutation. The video & soundscape can be viewed here.
Challenges of arts-science collaborations
There was a delicate balance between the creative art side of I:DNA and the research and engagement (from an educational perspective) side. Our priority was to engage the public with the research and empower them to reflect on the various perspectives surrounding genomic medicine highlighted, and to accurately represent the powerful words of the research participants. The focus of the creative members of the teams (STAMP CIC) was primarily on creating a thought-provoking and artistically credible installation.
There were points of disagreement and compromise during the process (for more information see our WIE case study) but ultimately, we were all working towards the same goal, that of engaging the public with a complex ethical debate. It is vital not to underestimate the importance of this working relationship and fostering a truly collaborative environment of open and respectful communication.
Choosing our audience
Initially our remit was quite wide – to access as many people as possible from a diverse range of backgrounds, who would not ordinarily encounter, or engage with, the social and ethical implications of genomic technologies.
We considered using highly used public locations (e.g. shopping centres) and/or attending science festivals across the country. After investigating the feasibility of these, we discounted the former because of the cost and health and safety implications, and the latter because of the costs and because it would narrow our audience.
We instead, decided to focus on a diverse range of local and regional opportunities. We took part in several science/social science festivals, including exhibiting I:DNA at Coventry Cathedral, and we secured a residency at Leamington Spa Gallery & Museum.
Each location exposed I:DNA to a new audience, for example, most of the visitors to I:DNA in the Cathedral were tourists, who were not expecting to see an art installation. There were a wide range of visitors to Leamington Art Gallery, including locals and tourists, and at this location I:DNA was viewed by visitors as a contemporary artwork rather than a science-based educational piece. The differing expectations of visitors was reflected in their feedback on the exhibit at the contrasting locations, for example, visitors to the Cathedral referred to it as spiritual and ethereal.
Children's craft workshop
We created several, fringe events (poetry, theatre, artwork), during the tour in an effort to broaden our audience. We had a particular interest in engaging children and young people, as younger generations will increasingly be faced with ethical dilemmas around ‘genetic decision making’ (as adults), with the increasing incorporation of genetics into standard healthcare. Due to its challenging themes, I:DNA was marketed for those 14 years and older, and so to reach younger children we created materials around one of the themes more suited to a younger audience, that of identity. A workshop was created whereby children would listen to a talk by a geneticist, then spend time creating artwork representing their identity on cards, which could then be slotted together (by local artist Tammy Woodrow) to form a sculptural artwork, which was exhibited in the Gallery alongside I:DNA.
Poetry workshop and performance
We also ran participatory poetry workshops, open to anyone with an interest in written/spoken creative arts. Our creative collaborators, STAMP CIC, and local poet (Nigel Hutchinson) ran two workshops at the Leamington Spa Gallery, where participants spent time viewing the I:DNA installation before creating their own poetry. These workshops were followed by an evening performance showcasing some of the contributions from our participants at Warwick Arts Centre.
Various methods for evaluation were embedded throughout the development and implementation of I:DNA, including: feedback postcards, online feedback forms, email, in-person interviews, informal discussions at events, and ad hoc collection of visitor comments by the research assistant and the curators at Leamington Spa Art Gallery. For a detailed description please see our I:DNA WIE page on evaluation.
We found having a research assistant present at venues was the most effective and successful way to obtain visitor feedback.
Some barriers to the collection of evaluation data were a result of the Covid pandemic. For example, we moved more of our content online when we could not physically open to the public and, while our online events were well attended, we found getting feedback was challenging. Once we returned to being a physical exhibit, at Leamington Spa Art Gallery, we were no longer allowed to use feedback cards because of health and safety concerns and our alternative method of obtaining feedback, using a QR code linked to a feedback page, was not well used.
We used the outcome of our evaluations in a number of ways. Constant critical reflection within the team and with collaborators directly impacted on plans for the rest of the tour, e.g., by identifying that young people and children were under-represented within our audiences, and so we devised an engagement activity specifically targeted at them. Evaluation data also impacted the practical display of the installation, for example, the volume of the soundscape.
We compiled the various sources of evaluation and creative outputs (including children’s artworks, poetry) and conducted a thematic analysis for our publication, where we demonstrate evidence of impact in three key areas of PE impact - changing views, inspiring behaviour change, and supporting capacity for future PE activity.
There are various practical issues to consider when organising our tour (a more detailed description can be found on our I:DNA Case Study pages for WIE).
Deciding on locations
There are various online resources which list festivals held in the UK (e.g. British Science Association, British Arts Festivals Association) and you can sign up for alerts for these, bearing in mind that many finalise their programmes a year in advance. Similarly, many art galleries plan their exhibits some years in advance which can make exhibiting in these locations difficult for time limited projects. We also considered local venues that we could hire to show the installation independently, or as part local festivals (e.g. Coventry Cathedral for ESRC FoSS, Fargo Village for BSF). This process is labour intensive, involving searching online and calling venues to assess suitability, feasibility, and cost.
An important consideration when choosing a venue is how the physical location will alter the way that visitors experience exhibitions. The nature of our visitor feedback of the experience differed with things such as the size of the room and the surroundings (religious venue, art gallery).
Venue and event accessibility
As our installation concerned social and ethical debates around health and disability it was particularly important for us that all aspects of it were accessible to visitors. We therefore ensured that our venues had lifts (if I:DNA was not displayed on the ground floor), that there was room to comfortably navigate the installation using a wheelchair, and ensured that there were no trip hazards for people with mobility or vision impairment. Our soundscape had subtitles for anyone with a hearing impairment.
Once the tour resumed after the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, we were keen to ensure that our activities were as accessible as possible to those clinically vulnerable and those who were unable – or did not yet feel comfortable – to attend in-person events. Our poetry and children’s craft workshops were hybrid events, as was the poetry and spoken word event.
Practicalities, health & safety, insurance
There were many practical considerations related to moving and assembling the physical I:DNA installation (e.g. lift size and capacity, door width). Some venues required very specific measurements of the sculpture, including weight, so that they could check it did not exceed the capacity for the venue floor. We used our first event, at the Chaplaincy in the University, to pilot all aspects of installing, curating, and dismantling the installation.
A health and safety assessment was required for every event and location. We produced a standard health and safety template – with the help of our department Health and Safety Advisor and with reference to the hazard grid – which could be used to populate event forms or as a standalone document where a venue did not have their own proforma. Hazards relate to all aspects of the installation when open to the public, but also when potentially accessible by the public. For example, due to health and safety concerns over people climbing the sculpture, I:DNA was always curated when open to the public. When not open to the public, it had to be in a restricted access location, for example, a locked room, or have safety barriers around it and be supervised by venue staff (e.g., Cathedral, Millennium Point).
Many festivals have their own insurance, especially if you are using their venue, but if this is not the case then it is important to ensure adequate insurance is in place.
Ensuring that all of the practical aspects were considered was a time intensive exercise and made the tour both resource intensive and logistically challenging. Planning a tour of this kind requires organisation and communication skills. The project management of the tour was conducted by one of the researchers, but the whole team had regular project meetings (in-person and via MS Teams), where minutes were taken and circulated afterwards to ensure that everyone was aware of who was conducting which task and by what date. Open and regular communication was key.
Our main collaborator, STAMP CIC, was already an approved supplier with the University, but we nevertheless needed a sub-contract to be drawn up with them to enable them to work with us, and this proved to be a lengthy process.
Digital skills for engagement
Our online presence has been a key part of our engagement activities. Our webpages were central to this, and were updated regularly with information about the tour. They also contain highly visible links to the research pages for the ‘Imagining Futures’ research programme as well as links to our creative collaborators. We provided numerous ways for visitors to contact the team (online feedback forms, email, and Twitter).
The video display and soundscape that were part of the installation can be accessed via the webpages and we have a QR code displayed next the sculpture (currently housed in the atrium of IBRB) linking directly to our page, so that visitors to the sculpture can experience these simultaneously.
To ensure accessibility, the numerous films related to I:DNA (including the installation video/soundscape) are displayed with subtitles and some have downloadable transcripts. The pictures on our webpages have ‘alt text’ descriptions.
We also used the number of visits to the webpages as a method of evaluation to assess how many people had accessed information about the installation and its associated events.
The use of digital media became even more important during the Covid-19 restrictions, when all our engagement activity had to be moved into virtual spaces. Our main collaborator, STAMP CIC, are media professionals and so together we were able to produce several high-quality video resources. One of these films details the personal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on several of our original research participants and was exhibited with the installation in Leamington Spa Art Gallery.
As our research participants included some of the most clinically vulnerable to Covid-19, we felt it was important to not only document their experiences, but to make these resources easily accessible for those who were unable to visit public spaces. When restrictions began to ease, we continued to use a hybrid approach to our engagement, for example, the poetry and craft workshops could be attended in-person or be accessed online, and similarly, the poetry performance was as a hybrid online/in-person event.
Funding and costs
The majority of the funding was assigned to pay for the time of our artistic collaborators and contributors and the material costs of creating the installation. We also had to factor in transportation and assembly costs at each venue (including a small team of qualified personnel to erect and dismantle the installation at each site). Other signficant costs included paying for film crews and editing. We also had launch events at each new site and these incurred costs for marketing and catering.
Some venues and festivals charge for exhibiting, and the cost of this can vary widely. It is worth investigating whether any events will offer a discounted rate (e.g., if your event/exhibit fits one of their main themes), or if they can offer any other sources of funding or support. Some festivals will pay all or some of the cost of the venue hire and many offer other financial support (e.g., ticketing, marketing),
We employed a research assistant to curate the installation at the science and arts festivals, and at Millennium Point. Having the RA - who engaged with the public, answered questions about the research, and collate feedback for evaluation - improved our feedback rate, and was also a health and safety requirement for several venues. We were grateful for the help of several unpaid volunteers during the creation and touring of I:DNA who took part because they wanted experience of public engagement, because they supported the project and wanted to help us achieve our aims, or simply out of curiosity. Even though we did not pay for our volunteer’s time, we did allocate funds for some of their expenses (e.g., travel).
Additional funding was secured to top up fund so that we could produce some of our associated events (e.g. ESRC Festival of Social Science).
For a more detailed breakdown of costs see our I:DNA WIE case study.