October 19, 2005

Inter-galactic travels

Category: Research,Travel — @ 9:38 am

Flying across the country during a nearly nation-wide cloudless day is nothing but striking. The first coast, for me being the east coast, is packed with human presence, nestled in green and this past weekend, was drenched in water. Then much of the country in the middle is sparse and the dramatic landscapes—the jutting Rockies covered in white, the hollow but topographically reddish-brownish Grand Canyon—makes them selves heard, and loudly. By the time you reach the other coast (if you fly into Los Angeles, like I did at least), human signs are in full swing again, notably in the form of concrete. Flying into LAX has its own peculiarities. If one did not know that wafting brown translucent film was pollution, one might think it was some natural and pleasant outgrowth of the brown hills that edge the city.

I left CA 2.5 years ago and went for my first visit this past weekend. I went to give a talk at the BioArt and Public Sphere Conference at UC Irvine. First I stopped in LA for a weekend of family fun since I had not seen my brother and his children in way too many years.

In the last year I have been on a self-imposed conference hiatus. Being they entail signigicant prep work, travel, and once there a lot of attention, they can act as a string of interruptions that last year I could not afford as I had to finish my dissertation. But now, I am back on the conference circuit, in part to present finished work and in part to present emergent, embryonic work in need of some serious shaping up.

So I felt particularly lucky to be invited to speak on my new project on psychiatric survivors as it really forced me, in the last weeks, to jump in to a whole set of new materials. The project went from a formless entity, residing primarily in the deep and inaccessible (even to me) recesses of my brain, into a formed substance that will hopefully, over time, become something more substantial.

The conference was one organized around one my favorite formats: an intimate one day affair and I would say incredibly unique in its inter-disciplinary nature. Ok, so most conferences fancy themselves interdisciplinary and, to some degree, they are: in attendance are sociologists, anthropologists, historians, crit lit folks and so on but we tend to reside in more or less the same galaxy, located perhaps on different planets. At this conference, being there were artists, engineers, biologists, activists, and the social sciency types, interdisciplinary functioned more along the lines of inter-galactic. It is not always an easy conversation to have because the distances between galaxies are much longer than between planets, but, lets face it: inter-galactice travel is a blast.

If you are interested in any of the talks, I think that the organizers are soon going to put up an archive of photos, video, and audio.

There were too many fascinating and important topics raised to discuss but here are some of the projects/talks that I found particularly interesting because I perhaps knew nothing about them until this weekend. First, if you don’t know about SymbioticA, well then learn a little about them as this project/lab/concept is probably one of the only fixed places with significant resources (as in a lab) where the intersection between bio-science and art is being created and sustained. Before this conference, there was another week long event BioTech Art Workshop Conducted by Symbiotica

One of the conference goals was to examone how to create a more participatory sphere between experts and non-experts in science via the avenue of art. Claire Pentecost, an artist based out of Chicago, raised this question pointedly. She explored the structural similarities between science and art in relation to the public (they are somewhat esoteric, inaccessible, etc) to problematize the idea that art is easily equipped to act a bridge that gets us toward greater accessibility. In other words, it is not just science that is esoteric, often, so is art. Along with raising that very difficult question that should be asked if such a bridge can ever be crossed, she also presented with the most vivaciousness and flair, which is I so appreciate since we sit for a full day of listening.

Sujatha Byravan also talked about The Council for Responsible Genetics, which has done some amazing work in its 20 + year existence. I was very happy to find out about their work and think that as bio-genetics and similar fields have a routine but perhaps unseen impact on our lives, their work becomes even more important.

Finally, Rachel Mayeri, a video artist and professor at Harvey Mudd, showed her video Stories from the Genome. Here is an excerpt from her website about it:

Part cloning experiment, part documentary, Stories from the Genome follows an unnamed CEO-geneticist whose company sequenced the Human Genome in 2003 – a genome that secretly was his own. Not satisfied with this feat, the scientist self-replicates, producing a colony of clone-scientists to save himself from Alzheimer’s. The animated video switches between misadventures in cloning, and a history of equally improbable theories of human development.

Stories from the Genome is based on the true life story of Craig Venter, who was the CEO of Celera Genomics in a race with an international consortium of scientists to decode the human genome. He did in fact use his own genetic material for the Human Genome Project, completed in 2001, despite much fanfare about the “diversity” of human populations it would represent. The video is intended to comment upon the dangers of short-sighted, self-interest in contemporary biotechnology and its appropriation for profit of human genetic information.

The video was stunning, in part because it was, peraps in some respects, an answer to the question that Claire raised. This video was not so esoteric, but incredibly accessible, however, not because it was simple or simplified the issue. It was accessible because it was a fun and funny interestinng story that could captivate, and thus take you along a short ride to explore the complicated issues and implications of genetic technologies. Combining weirdness, wonder, and humor, with a great dose of special effects, this video is well worth watching if you can get your hands on a copy.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML ( You can use these tags):
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> .