Instytut B61 in performance (Adrian Chmielewski photo)

Instytut B61 Marks Intersection of Science and Performance at STARMUS Festival

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YEREVAN — Polish contemporary art group Instytut B61 capped off Yerevan’s much touted recent STARMUS science festival with an interactive performance which invited guests to visualize the journey of a star.

Instytut B61, the brainchild of polish astronomer-turned-art curator Jan Świerkowski, turns to immersive, site-specific performances and multimedia shows combining art, science and technology to make science, and astronomy in particular, more accessible to the general public. Citing inspiration from famous “science communicators” like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the group, which met at the science faculty at Poland’s Copernicus University, felt that art offered the best way to connect humans with their place in the universe. “Astronomy deserves to be cooler than just a scientist talking on TV,” Świerkowski said in a recent interview.

The performance, which was held between September 7 and 11, took place as part of the STARMUS science and art festival organized in the Armenian capital, with some events also taking place in Lori Province (Marz).

The festival aims to, according to their website, “inspire and educate the next generation of explorers and regenerate the spirit of discovery”. Among the speakers at this year’s festival were astronaut and moon-walker Charlie Duke, former NASA boss Charles Bolden, Nobel Prize laureate Donna Strickland and the first Armenian in space, Jim Bagian. Dr. Garik Israelian, founder of the Starmus Festival, was also joined by artists including Serj Tankian and Queen Guitarist Bryan May, who is also an astrophysicist.

Building on a history of strong talent in science, mathematics and technology, the Armenian government has sought to foster what it sees as a strategic human resource. In 2021, the Armenian Government raised its science and education budget by almost $7 million, while the European Union has also offered financial support for the Armenian scientific community as part of its Research and Innovation Framework. Much emphasis has been placed on reintroducing science to the next generation after years of financial and educational neglect following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Science festivals like STARMUS have been tagged as key elements in this strategy.

“Everyone experiences the stars differently”, Świerkowski explains. His performance, entitled ‘The Evolution of the Stars’, was pegged as a unique immersive experience communicating complex scientific phenomena using accessible yet spectacular multimodal metaphors, using a variety of senses to communicate the essence of astrophysics. The event was preceded by a three-week artists in residence program in Yerevan that included extensive collaboration between artists and scientists. Among collaborators were the famous traditional Armenian band the Gurdjieff Ensemble,

Instytut B61 in performance
Photo credit: Adrian Chmielewski

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As the performance is site specific — meaning it is catered to the unique environment of a local venue, and thus no two performances are quite the same — guests had to register online and show up at a pre-arranged collection point. Once there, they would be met by performers dressed like surrealist retro-futuristic caricatures of Eastern-European scientists who introduce Instytut B61 as if it were a real-life laboratory examining stellar movements. Guests would then be asked to change the time on their phone to “Warsaw time” before being herded into an old soviet bus with all windows blacked out in order to keep their destination a secret. Once off the bus, guests walk down several floors before reaching a cavernous opening complete with soviet-era concrete support struts. There, a lab coat-wearing Świerkowski, in his imposing 6ft 8 of height, calls on participants to ponder about the origins of the universe, employing the old adage that “there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on planet Earth”. Participants are then funneled through several interactive exhibits on a journey designed to simulate each stage of the universe — and by extension, stars’ — life from creation with the Big Bang to its end through Red Dwarves and ultimately black holes. Each stop along the event includes unique artistic interpretations of cosmic creation, until guests are then pulled back up to the surface on a soviet-era freight elevator.

At this point, the group, which had been totally immersed in this performative science lab environment reemerge in the hustle and bustle of downtown Yerevan, free to reintegrate into the daily life of the Armenian capital, or continue on to other attractions around the festival.

 

 

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