Earlier this month I was offered the privilege of attending the Sackler Colloquium at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. The event—organized around the theme of collaboration between the arts and sciences—was in two parts: a student symposium [pdf link] during which about 50 Sackler Fellows presented projects that they are undertaking at their universities, followed by two days of talks related (some vaguely) to the 50th anniversary of “Cybernetic Serendipity”, the London exhibition of cybernetic art. Jasia Reichardt, the original curator of the 1968 show spoke, which was a real treat—it was wonderful to hear of the obstacles and absurdities that she had to overcome to put the show on at a time when neither cybernetics nor experimental art were really at the fore of public consciousness. Unfortunately, Reichardt’s talk was one of very few highlights of the two day colloquium. The day-long student symposium, however, was an extremely fruitful event.
It was quite a feat of coordinating prowess displayed by the organizers of the student symposium to somehow fit 50+ student researchers, artists, developers, and more into a full day’s program. Through a variety of presentation formats (15-minute talks, 6-minute “pecha kuchas”, poster sessions), we learned about technologies that are enabling new kinds of art and vice versa. Some of the work presented uses technology to advance an artistic practice: Drumhenge is a set of 16 drums played by electromagnets receiving instructions from networked microcontrollers. Other presentations demonstrated research which will lead to technological advancements in the name of humanist concerns. Iliza Butera’s work in neuroscience, for instance, has helped her determine the properties of music that those with cochlear implants can best enjoy.
Most exciting to me was hearing from artists who are incorporating technology in the service of their art—work which is driven by critical theory and social justice. Maria Michalis works with local school-children in the Albany, NY area to build remote controlled rovers carrying monitors for air quality. Over the past few years, the project has helped collect data for scientists and residents concerned about the pollution from the increase of traffic via oil trains at the Port of Albany and diesel trucks through the community.
In the space I have here, I’m only able to highlight three of the speakers, which is disappointing. I thought the student symposium was superb—I learned a lot about the great work being done by students at other institutions to really break through the STEM-heavy emphasis of funding and support structures. Meeting and interacting with those colleagues will be valuable to me for a very long time to come. The organizers of the student symposium did a superb job making sure the speakers were diverse—across disciplines, certainly, but also gender, culture, and race lines.
I wish I could say the same about the larger colloquium event that took place in the days following the symposium, during which most of the talks were given by old-guard friends of the organizers without really adding much to any sort of discussion (there was little to no time for Q&A allotted, anyway). After the organizers made multiple excuses for the Sackler family’s recent bad press, the speakers reified the problems with institutional emphasis on STEM: predicated on job-creation before self-enrichment, jettisoning any sort of practice that is not directly valuable to capital, science, tech, or inevitable combination of the three. (You can see my reaction to a panel on information design written up here.)
We were “treated” to a demonstration of a 20-year old CD-ROM program about the stars, a major name in the “design thinking” field telling us artists to go get an MBA so we can find money somewhere, and even a prominent scientist claiming that “minorities and women are visual learners” and that’s why we need artists helping scientists. In general, it felt as though the stage was filled with prominent STEM academics reassuring the “creative types” in the audience that we had value, too—particularly for the sake of science.
Again, I applaud the organizers of the student symposium for compiling an ambitious, diverse, and inclusive event. I wish days two and three had been remotely similarly compiled.