Thursday, November 16, 2006

Fleshing out reflections on art + science collaborations

I doubt anyone remembers this, but my PhD actually began as an exploration of biotech, nanotech and electronic textiles. (I'm not really sure how it changed focus to pervasive urban computing; my dissertation explains it as a rather arbitrary decision based on available resources.) In any case, the hook for me has always been the critical and ethical tensions between arts, sciences and publics--and the projects discussed at Fleshing Out got me more excited than I've been about anything in a long time. Sascha Pohflepp, who participated in our workshop the second day, wrote up his thoughts on the first-day seminar for we-make-money-not-art so I'll try not to be repetitive. While I thoroughly enjoyed all the presentations, and the company was brilliant,* I want to focus right now on a few concerns surrounding collaboration that I find myself still thinking about.

Tobie Kerridge, of the Interaction Research Studio in the Department of Design at Goldsmiths College, talked about the Biojewellery project. A collaboration with jewellery designer Nikki Stott and bioengineer Ian Thompson, the project has received a great deal of public attention over the past year and it was nice to get a better understanding of the details. I was really fascinated by the ethical dimensions of the work itself: apparently getting permission to take cells from people is no small feat, even when they volunteer, although I would have loved to hear Tobie reflect a little more critically on his comment that the project actually opened up kinds of scientific research that had not been possible before. For example, he explained that the project had access to primary cells, which other researchers did not: Students normally use cancerous cells and suddenly they were able to work with healthy cells, which of course behave differently. The project researchers also received ethical permission to simply experiment or "play"--something scientific researchers do not normally get to do. While this is, no doubt, exciting on many levels, it isn't ethically neutral and deserves further attention.

Based on the success of the project so far, a team of researchers based at Goldsmiths recently scored a big EPSRC grant in order to further investigate how public engagements with science and engineering can be mediated by designers. Anyone interested in public understandings of science and the future of multi-disciplinary collaboration should pay close attention to this one, although I do think that the opportunity to understand the social and cultural stakes of this work is slightly undermined by the lack
of a specialised and reflexive ethnographic component. And while I don't have all the project details, I am quite curious as to how "the public" are being defined, and encouraged--or not--to actively participate.

This matter of exchange between artists, scientists and publics also came up in Ionat Zurr's presentation on her work with Oron Catts and others. I was terribly impressed by how the Tissue Culture and Art Project engages what it might mean to be, or create, a semi-living object. For example, Ionat talked about their Disembodied Cuisine and Victimless Leather projects, which made me realise that it may very well be worth distinguishing between work that is horrifying and work that is unethical. Nonetheless, I was fairly uncomfortable with their decision to leave Australia, and go to France, simply in order to get the necessary ethics approval. I understand the theoretical manoeuvre there, but it strikes me as a bit more difficult or dodgy in practice. Then I remembered that I would cross national borders in order to get an abortion, for example, so it's probably worth looking more closely at how this boundary-crossing is actually quite important in negotiating contextual ethics. All sorts of thoughts are still percolating in my brain about this stuff, so I'm sure I'll come back to it in the near future. And, again, I think there is perhaps a missed opportunity to better engage and include sociologists and anthropologists in these collaborations as a means of exploring not just emerging techno-science, but the cultural practices that mobilise it--and are mobilised by it--in different ways.

This brings me to the workshop component of the event, a small-scale attempt at collaboration. After V2 kindly hosted the first day in Rotterdam we moved to the offices of Virtueel Platform in Amsterdam for day two. It was only then that I began to understand how the funding of the event itself impacted the structure and content of our activities. While we had been given almost full autonomy the first day, expertly synthesised and interrogated by Anne Nigten, the second day was more strictly controlled and participants were expected to answer to business interests. While I would consider the day an overall success, I think that we actually lost sight of any critical perspective at the end, and what had previously been a rather symmetrical exchange between people became rather asymmetrical. But let me back up a bit first.

The day was ultimately organised into three workshops: one on critical intervention, one on grow-your-own biotech, and one on materials science. Kristina, Joey and I organised and led the critical intervention workshop, and while I would do a few things differently, I think it went quite well. Thirteen people signed up, and we spent a couple of hours attempting to get people to engage matters of concern rather than matters of fact. Several people commented afterwards on how much they enjoyed the activity we set out for them, but I know that others found it very challenging. Each person was asked to write down one hope and one fear regarding the technologies they had heard about the previous day. Each person then had to draw one hope and fear that was not their own. In an attempt to be accountable for, and to, interests they did not necessarily share, participants were first asked to identify cultural values associated with each of these hopes and fears, as well as things people do to both support and threaten these values. As it turned out, this was quite difficult. The combination of non-native English speakers, and unfamiliarity with cultural research made the understanding of "values" rather problematic. But once we got that sorted the real challenge came: Coming up with an object or activity that would allow this other person's concerns to be addressed. It seemed to be very difficult for people to figure out what to do with, or about, divergent concerns--which is, of course, the primary challenge in all multi-disciplinary and collaborative work. It's hard, plain and simple. Nonetheless, I was terribly impressed how well everyone did! They opened their minds, and stuck with it despite the difficulties. It was good.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I'd like to say that the end of the day, in my opinion, was less successful. Each workshop group was required to get up in front of the entire room and explain what they had done. This was fine, I think, but the materials science workshop seemed to have been organised along different principles, and that surprised me. More specifically, they seemed not to have been particularly interested in the critical perspectives everyone else had engaged for two days. For example, when Angel Chang outlined the artistic vision for materials research I almost fell out of my chair. She talked about textiles that would allow people to change their outside appearance, but not the inside. Fun, huh? But she used the burqa as an example, as in if you found yourself surrounded by people wearing burqas, you too could put one on in order to fit in better. Treating the burqa as a fashion statement or accessory struck me as profoundly insensitive to cultural difference, not to mention that playing dress-up is not always appropriate. To add insult to injury, she continued to explain how artists could be inspired by military research and that social hierarchies need to be maintained, so of course there would have to be the high-tech equivalents of Prada, etc. I just sighed and felt utterly defeated.

The moderator ended by asking the business people (who had lurked more than participated until this point) what artists would need to do in order to be taken seriously by industry, to which they responded that reduction and simplification would be in order, and no one disagreed! I couldn't believe it. The problem of oversimplification was contrasted with overcomplication, and any sort of meaningful debate was effectively avoided. Ionat, at least, brought up the fact that no one had questioned why we even need these new technologies, and I agreed that the technological imperative had gone completely unexamined. In the end though, these and other critical concerns were effectively dismissed, and artists were never given the opportunity to ask anything of business in return. But as far as I know, I was one of very few who found any of this problematic, so perhaps I'm missing something.
Nonetheless I do think it's very important to distinguish between emergent conflict and organised antagonism, and the final summary and suggestions for future research seemed to pit certain interests against others, and I do not believe this is a solid foundation for any sort of critical or equitable collaboration. I got to speak very briefly with some of the organisers of Uncommon Ground, and I would have loved to hear more about their experience in these areas.

In the end though, I had a tremendous time and I can confidently say that Fleshing Out was one of the best events I've attended. I am most grateful to the event organisers for their generous invitation and superb hosting, and I also very much look forward to building relationships with the amazing people I met and spoke with. When I have more time in the next few days (after teaching and jet-lag) I'll write up my reflections on some of the interesting design processes I learned about, and as promised, I will post my annotated presentation slides. It remains a consistent problem for me that the more excited I get, the faster I speak. This poses a problem for most people, but pretty much kills non-native English speakers and I believe I owe them more than that, so I want to thank them in advance for their continued patience.

* I've never attended an event with so many women. Those of you who know me know that some women strike me as complete rubbish, so don't take this as any sort of essentialist "woman" statement on my part, but when half the organisers, almost all the presenters, and a big chunk of the audience are women it can definitely change what is possible. In this case I was surrounded by exceptional women with incisive and critical minds, not crippled by arrogance or posturing, and open to true exchange and collaboration. It was, in short, an absolute pleasure in that regard. On the other hand, the event also seemed to attract particular kinds of men that I don't normally encounter, and I can say that I enjoyed their company just as much.

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