Gökben Demir (GD) in conversation with Sam Illingworth (he/him) and Louise Arnal (she/elle) from Consilience and ConciliARTe
Consilience is an inclusive online journal that provides space for people’s exploration between art and science. While Consilience creates a bridge between poems and science, ConciliARTe (part of Consilience) builds that connection with audio and visual arts.
Gökben Demir (GD) caught up with Sam Illingworth (SI), founder of Consilience and Louise Arnal (LA), co-editor of ConciliARTe, to have a chat about how science and arts meet via Consilience and ConciliARTe.
GD: Can you tell us a little about your background, your formal education, and your link to art?
LA: I like to call myself a scientist by training and artist by heart or passion. I have been educated as a hydrologist. I did my masters in the Netherlands in hydrology and then I went on to do a PhD in hydrology as well, mainly on flood forecasting and river flow forecasting on long timescales. But then, throughout my PhD, I started weaving in some arts because I come from a family of artists. So, my mom is an artist, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and so on. So, it was kind of natural for me to do arts on the side of science and I never thought that I could bring those two together. I don’t know if the same came up with Sam, but during my PhD; I thought why don’t I just bring those two things together, and that is essentially what helped me to finish my PhD. I’m not going to lie; it is the art that kept me going, and that allowed me to persevere through the more challenging moments of my PhD. This is how I started bringing these two things together. At the end of my PhD, I did a science and art exhibition in the UK. Now I’m doing a postdoc in hydrology in Canada, but still weaving in science and arts, and that’s how I got involved with Consilience, that Sam founded about two years ago.
I wish I had found Consilience if it had existed during my PhD. Connecting with people like me who enjoy working at the intersection between both worlds, the sciences and the arts, would have been a great motivation.
SI: My background is in atmospheric physics. That was the topic of my PhD. Similar to Louise, I needed arts to get through my PhD. I was active in theatre; I was also the president of the University Theatre Society. And I did a lot of work using theatre as a medium of communication, to bring science to a diverse audience. Then I got a scholarship to live and work in Japan and look at the relationship between science and theatre. I’m really passionate about science, communication, and diversifying science, but maybe the way to that is through science rather than through theatre. Sadly, I thought I was going to be a thespian. It didn’t quite work. Then I got a tenured post quite early in my career, which was luck, really. I identified poetry as my research focus in science communication since I am a poet and a spoken word artist; I was really interested in poetry, and have always written poems. I was really interested in how to use poetry as a method for dissemination. This further on evolved into an interest in using poetry as a facilitatory medium through which to engender dialogue between different groups and to diversify science. So it’s not just done by people who look and sound like me; i.e.; white heterosexual males, based in the UK. One way in which we can do this is through art because it opens for fresh voices. Thus, we formed Consilience; it’s been almost two years now; as a way to help platform the voices of others.
GD: What exactly drove you to bring science and art together and how were Consilience and ConciliARTe born?
SI: Consilience basically arose from this idea of creating a space for science and poetry to come together. Science may do many things wrong, but one thing that it does right is peer review. Speaking as a frustrated poet, when you submit poems to a poetry journal, you’re told either that it’s perfect, or that it’s rubbish. So essentially, we’ll either publish it or we won’t, and that’s it. We wanted to do more than that. We wanted to create a space where we could peer review poetry in a really supportive way. So, people submit work to our journal. The poems go out to two independent peer reviewers who give comments and then to an independent editor who synthesizes these comments. And then this begins a dialogue with the poet as a way of helping to develop their work especially early-stage poets. The idea is to just provide a platform for different voices. We have four issues a year, each of which has a specific theme, and we don’t tend to reject anything. As long as the submission is not offensive, and it is inclusive and of course the theme, we accept it and work with poet and their work. To date, we have published the work of about 100 poets. We have an interdisciplinary team of, I think, 72 volunteers across 6 continents. I really wanted to involve Louise early in terms of maybe thinking about cover designs for the poetry. But then Louise thought it would be great extend Consilience beyond poetry into art, which is where ConciliARTe came into the picture.
LA: Sam said it very well. I think it was after maybe half a year of Consilience already running and doing poetry and science, and empowering all of these amazing writers, that I asked: Hey, why don’t we also include some science and arts? And so, with a team of people who were part of Consilience, but also liked visual art, we formed ConciliARte. We originally followed a different format to the poetry submissions because we weren’t sure how well it would work with the arts. So, we were just accepting and reviewing submissions as they came in on any theme, but it had to be related to science. Recently, we started following the same format as Consilience, where essentially a theme is announced for Consilience for each issue. We also announce it for ConciliARTe, and then we invite submissions, review them, and enter into a dialogue with the artists. I’ve learned so much from this process of talking to the artists, and I have to say it just makes my day when I get a reply from an artist saying “thank you so much for reviewing my art and these are very constructive reviews”. This is my inspiration for this work, I absolutely love it. The reason we changed the formats is because we saw that we were building momentum and many people were submitting so we thought, now that we have an audience we’ll follow a thematic format.
SI: Just to build on what Louise says, that’s absolutely my personal highlight as well: When you get emails back from poets saying that they really appreciate the comments they’ve had on their work and the opportunity to develop it. I think that people really value a space where we can work with people, where we’re not saying the art was perfect or imperfect to start with, but rather that it’s just a starting point. We’ve never had a negative comment where people are like “how dare you attack my work in this way”, which is really nice because I know personally from when I’ve submitted my own scientific manuscripts and had reviewed comments back during my PhD. I submitted my first work; I was like, “…who the hell are you to comment on this? This is a piece of perfection…”. Thankfully, I later realised that I was being an idiot, and that peer review has really helped me develop as a writer as well. So, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
GD: Can you tell us more about the review process of ConciliARTe? Which type of artwork are included in ConciliARTe and Consilience?
SI: We try to be as inclusive as possible. From my personal experience as a chief executive editor in a science journal, I think when people give negative or not very helpful reviews, they are possibly not experienced in doing reviews, especially in science. With the reviews, it’s an element of looking for fault rather than looking for things to praise people on as well. So, one option in our review form is to say “this is perfect, no further comment” and I guess that this review was by a new reviewer. People who are very experienced, on the other hand, try to do a bit of peer-to-peer learning. From the editorial standpoint, the editors probably have a bit more of a say than they would in a scientific journal. So if an editor gets a review, that’s maybe a little overzealous, then the editor can override that slightly. But we try to give training where it’s possible and just be supportive. When we share feedback with the poets, and I know it’s the same with the artists as well, suggesting some changes, we try to be away from a negative tone. We also pick out two or three things that people really liked about their work, so that the poets can have that, which hopefully builds them up as an artist or a writer.
LA: To add to this, the process is similar to what Sam described for the visual and audio submissions. One main difference is that artists who submitted work can usually not edit their work as easily as you would edit a line in a poem. I think that’s really helped us to give reviews that are meaningful, because we know we’re not going to tell the artist “just add a yellow line on this painting and that will improve it”. That’s not the way it works, so what we have to do is kind of see through the painting for example what the elements are that tie in with the theme and with science. We try to make those shine through the text that is submitted alongside the artwork, together with the artists. So, as Sam said, the review process tries to bring out the elements that the artist maybe doesn’t even know link to the theme. I’ve learned so much from reviewing pieces because you pay attention to details that you wouldn’t normally pay attention to. It’s been amazing.
GD: Do you consider extending the type of artwork Consilience & ConciliARTe publishes? Do you consider including stories in Consilience?
LA: We just started with visual arts, and we’ve expanded slowly, not only just because of our interest but also the reviewers. I’d say areas of expertise are mostly in the visual arts. Now, we have, for example, a piece of music that’s on there with some performance. We also have music without a video, and then a lot of visual artworks, both digital and actual physical paintings. It varies a lot. It just started with mainly digital artworks and paintings and now it’s branching out. I wouldn’t be surprised if I would tell you next month that we now have a theatre performance or an opera or something. It’s just whatever comes to us, and the reviewers are usually always very keen to learn more about this art form. The dialogue with the artist is essential so we embrace a lot of things that we get.
SI: This topic always comes up. We are all equal members in Consilience; we have regular editorial meetings where we try to encourage ideas and everybody has a say. People keep asking “are we gonna have short stories?” and this is great because people feel as though Consilience is a space where they can share their work. We have to do short stories eventually and flash fiction because just so many people want to do it. But as Louisa also said in her answer, we are just listening to what people want and creating a space for that. I think this is with everything in life. If you are too rigid about things, then it just stops creativity and people don’t want them to be involved. So initially with the artwork we thought, well, we’ll do the artworks. It’ll be easy. Then people were like, can we do sounds, video etc. There is no good reason to say no to that, so I think it’s going to have to be the same with short stories eventually.
GD: Do you have any quantity limits for artwork that you want to publish?
SI: I can speak briefly about poetry. We tend to just have 20 poems per issue, and we tend to operate on the first 20 that we receive. We are aware that it is not an ideal model, so we are trying to work a way around that. We now advertise the theme several months in advance so that people can prepare them. If we reach the point where someone has written something and they are number 21, it is not a problem. We are just limited by the resources that we have. If you think of 20 poems, we need 40 reviewers, and 20 editors, so it is quite a lot of work. We also limit submissions to one poem per poet per four issues. So, if you submit a poem, you’re not allowed to submit for another three issues just to try to increase the diversity of our poets. People are really understanding and supportive of this. We are basically limited by our resources. So if we were have more volunteers on the team, we could publish more poems!
LA: There is no limit on submissions for ConciliARTe as we generally get less submissions compared to poetry. We get between 3 to 10 submissions per issue. We have a team that’s large enough to review these, so we’ve never gone into the trouble of having too many pieces to review. But let’s see if that changes.
GD: How do you decide the theme of the issue? Do you have regular intervals for publishing the journals?
SI: The editorial team decide on a group of three themes, via a voting system. We have four issues a year, and in addition to these four issues, we have the opportunity for special issues. These have been really great and we typically have one or two special issues in a year. Special issues are generally on the initiative of other organisations or events. We announce these themes in advance along with the quality and the number of submissions.
LA: We also engage with people on social media to ask them the theme they would like to see and so on. Sam and the editorial team take the response on social media into account together with the pool of other ideas that have been proposed.
GD: How can people take place in the reviewer team?
SI: Basically, it is a completely open shop. If people want to be involved, just email either Louise or me or Consilience website, and we will make space. There is no barrier to entry. If people want to work on social media or want to work on marketing or want to work in diversity and equality and inclusion, Consilience is the space for whatever people want to do. So, just visit our website at Consilience and reach us via email. Also, people can join our Facebook group or connect with us on Instagram and Twitter where we’ve got brilliant social media managers who do a lot of work in engaging with the community. As I said, there is no barrier to entry. If people have no experience, but they want to learn more about combining science and art and the review process, we offer that space to start learning.
I just want to say thanks to Louise because Louise does an amazing job with this, for nothing. I just want to say thank you to everyone who is involved, and who submit work to us.
LA: There are poets or artists who submitted in the past, and said “hey, you look like an amazing team and I would like to join you as a reviewer” So, I just love it every week that there is someone new that we welcome into the team. I also wanted to say thanks to Sam for giving a space to ConciliARTe and to Edoardo Martini (Creative team/twitter) for being part of the amazing ConciliARTe team. Thanks for leading this interview. Join the Consilience and ConciliARTe family.
About Sam and Louise
Sam Illingworth (twitter) is the founder of Consilience and he is an Associate Professor, whose research involves using poetry to develop dialogue between scientists and non-scientists; in particular, he aims to give voice to audiences that are traditionally under-served and under-heard.
Louise Arnal (twitter) is a co-editor of ConciliARTe and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, based at the Coldwater Lab in Canmore, Canada, where she forecasts the water flow in North American rivers. Louise is also an artist and loves merging science and art to explore and communicate water-related topics to a wide audience.