Observations: The evolution of Darwin's festival

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The Independent Online

Charles Darwin ignored received wisdom when he wrote On the Origin of Species and, to mark the bicentenary of his birth, his hometown Shrewsbury is hosting a celebration that bends the conventions of the arts festival. Shift Time, which runs in the town from today until Sunday 12 July, calls itself "a festival of ideas", and is welcoming not only international artists, but scientists and renowned thinkers, too.

"The distinctions between who's a scientist, who's a creative innovator and who's an artist are blurring," says Anna Douglas, Shift Time's programme director. "We've called it a festival of ideas because it's not important who originated them – artists, scientists, designers or engineers – as long as their ideas are provocative and engaging, and make us wonder about what it is to be human in the 21st century."

What unites the festival contributors is their engagement with Darwin's ideas and history. Dutch "kinetic sculptor" Theo Jansen trained as a mathematician and engineer and, says Douglas, "is considered one of the most innovative engineers in the world, but he doesn't make useful things. He believes that he's creating new species."

Jansen's latest "species", commissioned for Shift Time, is a skeletal 13-metre moving sculpture called Animaris Umerus. Among the other innovators appearing is Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics professor at the University of Reading, who calls himself the world's first cyborg. By inserting electrodes into his arm, he has wired himself directly into a computer. "It's unusual for a scientist to experiment on himself," says Douglas. "That's the sort of thing performance artists normally do."

Meanwhile Opera North is premiering its latest work, The Weather Man, at the festival. Librettist John Binias describes the piece – based on the diaries of the Beagle's Captain FitzRoy and other found texts – as a "docu-opera", similar to the recent verbatim plays of David Hare.