The challenges of organising a grassroots science festival

STATE festival for open science, art and society

STATE is a Berlin-based grassroots science and art festival, started in 2014, and run by a small, tight-knit organisational crew. Our festival lives by the motto: “a festival for open science, art and society”. ‘Open’ is the keyword here. My aim, in founding this festival, is to complement and broaden traditional models of knowledge-sharing and community-building within the science community by offering an event capable of being more agile, multi-modal and responsive, an event that responds to how we, as scientists, artists, makers and media, actually live, create and think.

Scientific exploration, at its core, is about risk and questioning assumptions. In seeking out alternative models to communicate scientific expertise and build community, I looked to non-traditional, ‘disruptive’ event models such as music festivals and science hackathons. These hands-on ‘Maker’ models question the status-quo, the ‘sit-and-listen’ format where research and perspectives are delivered from one expert to a group of experts in a dry conference space.

To broaden the fields of expertise allowed into traditional science spaces, I wanted to build an event with multi-modal collaboration and playfulness in its DNA. I wanted this event to reflect the lives and wider interests of the people I was meeting and talking with at science conferences, interests that were often not represented in symposia and open days. I wanted science to operate like live musical improvisation - fun, friendly, low-key and expert.

If I’d known the incredible trajectory of learning and stress creating the first STATE Festival in 2014 would launch me on, I may have second-guessed my mission. I called in a lot of favours, wrote a lot of sponsorship and partner proposals, and enlisted a team of gun festival and event operatives who also worked at innovative, exciting Berlin-based festivals like re:publica, CTM and transmediale.

The energy and success of Berlin’s art, tech and culture festivals inspired me to create a model for a science event that may be quite new to Germany. Berlin’s immersive club nights and music festivals, run by collectives such as Kater, Wilde Renate and Bachstelzen, made me wonder how to bring such experimental, collaborative vigour to the sometimes rather dry world of science communication. This year, I had the pleasure of attending fantastic C2, Montreal’s cutting-edge ‘Commerce and Creativity’ conference. Fantastic how a hands-on, innovative and fun environment is fostered there without sacrificing the principle of expertise shared, the gravitas of showcasing important ideas from radical researchers and thinkers.

The mission for STATE Festival is set: to create a vibrant platform for the common exploration of science; a festival that speaks especially to and with a young, creative and interdisciplinary crowd of curious minds, engaging them with the latest developments and ideas in science and research; a festival that brings together different disciplines, actors and institutions from both an academic as well as independent background. When we rely so much on scientific development to save our souls, what else is there to do than make sure that we, the ones who will actually live by its results, have our say on which route we are taking? Having worked in academic research as a Physicist myself, I know that this is not automatically the case. And yes, despite the pressing relevance, this can be a lot of fun.

Of course, such a festival does not come together easily or without help. It requires personal, financial, logistical and creative support, a hefty dose of bravery from everyone involved, a love of the highwire, eyes everywhere, and a high tolerance for both risk and lack of sleep.

Our organisation’s operations are much more like a arts festival than a science symposium - somehow chaotic but conjuring a functioning festival program from only determination and hard work, and with less of a budget than we’d like. “If only,” we say. “If only.”

There's a great photo of the night we stayed up until early morning adding our program and particpants to the website. Passion and coffee drives a team where each covers multiple jobs and works punishing hours. The deadlines shift and rear up suddenly, the budget swells and contracts, and a hundred people need answers from us yesterday just as we needed answers from them yesterday.

I have the responsibility to ensure the team brings together something really worth seeing and I must reassure all the stakeholders, large and small, that this is a festival, an idea, worth backing and that, as they say in show business, “everything will be alright on the night.”

I am fortunate to have such a team, and to have backers that make this possible. We are grateful to be sponsored by three of Germany’s highest-profile and prestigious industry names: Bayer Kultur, Schering Stiftung and Futurium, plus to receive support from Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Helmholtz Gemeinschaft, Hertie-Stiftung and Robert Bosch Stiftung. Their willingness to trust us and take a risk on a non-traditional model of scientific engagement makes STATE festival possible.

For more information on STATE 2016's theme, click here. For the program, click here. For information on our sponsors, click the links above.