Encouraging participation in the right places

I decided not to go in order with my report, because I thought that some presentations on the saturday spoke to some issue that had emerged the day after. specifically, I thought that Matt Garcia’s Eco Studio, Marc Böhlen’s WaterBank and Tom Sherman’s videos as an amateur scientist were linked together in many ways.

The Mobile Eco Studio relies on willing citizens to save the neglected and depleted land in Arizona, by distributing restorative seed mixes (mostly cacti) through a mobile installation.

Apparently, 40% of private lots in the Phoenix, Arizona were bought and then abandoned to themselves. the result is a series of empty and completely depleted lots that can only be brought back to life by the community itself


With different goals but still a strong community oriented and collaborative approach, WaterBank  is a complex project aiming to bring clean, drinkable water to the airkami (our water in Indonesia, a term defining the common water) of the population of the district of Terban, Indonesia, through the construction of a water well system. The project is quite extensive if one thinks that in order to realize it, Bohlen had to collaborate with engineers, the health authorities and the university. Importantly, the project had to respect local customs: Indonesians have water wells inside their homes and consider water a shareable item. Bohlen’s website and this scientific paper documents this herculean project.


With his video work, Tom Sherman has been documenting and consistently worked to raise awareness about the risks brought by the industrialization of the fishing industry. overfishing and pollution has produced scarcity and marine diseases, which are apparently tamed by throwing antibiotics in the water. Fishing is continuing though. apparently, the fish is approved for human consumption.


Sherman has produced a number of videos that document this phenomenon with scientific and ethnographic accuracy,  warning about the consequences of this extreme exploitation of the marine population and its ecology. The videos take on a ironic, almost speculative-fiction tones, but the topics are really serious and alarming.

Or they should. This is where corporate interests and citizen science/citizen responsibility collide: unfortunately, many of the people who should fight the fishing industry for its unsustainable and unhealthy practices are employed by that very industry: short term survival doesn’t seem to agree with long term common good. capitalist exploitation now is considered somehow more desirable even though it means destruction later. This is an element that emerged  in Waterbank too: the corporate power to be reached out to the community to turn the water well into a private enterprise that would charge for fresh, clean water. The community, however, refused to abide by this offer. In the case of Nova Scotia, where the water contamination and marine depletion is happening, the protests and oppositions to the status quo don’t seem to be particularly effective. then the question to ask is: why is this happening? is it the instrument used to raise awareness that is misplaced? are the stakes too high? is Nova Scotia not desperate enough/doesn’t see immediate negative effects?  how long before a community based move to re-populate their own territory like the one slowly growing in Arizona occurs?

Looking for directions in Participatory Practices and beyond

Recently  I have observed – with mixed feeling and a bit of disorientation– the rise of  maker culture. Among them, agitators, activists and artists are finding ways to use the latest developments in 3D printing, DIY and citizen science to produce innovative tools and ingenious artifacts for the benefit of the common good. I can feel the excitement in the air as 3D printers pop up everywhere, even in libraries and museums as the next “must know” instrument that will possibly change the future of production and distribution forever.

While I can list a number of useful projects geared towards making a difference for a group or a community, I have also experienced the buzz that this 3D revolution has generated  among people who don’t necessarily know what to do with it but are just thrilled or compelled at the idea of just making things. I am not talking about experimentation, but about a buzz, a fashion, partially dictated by the urgency to KNOW the latest technology and USE it for whatever business idea (often very bad and not really innovative) may come out, and partially coming out of some nostalgic idea that owning a 3D printer will enable the owner to bring back the toy of your childhood, or create the object of your dream, as if one could telepathically operate a 3D printer and make anything possible –and impossible. This is why I am a bit thorn about this so-called revolution, since I am not sure if it will actually produce the change that has been promised by many early adopters, or it will just contribute to bury us in more plastic and gadgets and….Yoda Heads!!!


I was amused and quite pleased when Matt Ratto (director of the Critical making Lab at U of Toronto)  took the stage with a rather critical approach to the 3D printing and making revolution. To quote his first words, a 3D printer, despite its quite imaginary reputation, is not a Star Trek Replicator, but a complex machine that needs programming and has its glitches and failures!

Despite the myths, this technology and the maker culture that has contributed to its development and popularization have been very important. However, now that we have all seen with great excitement and trepidation the Yoda head materializing layer after layer in front of our eyes, how do we move to something more substantial?

Ratto has two main concerns. First, the focus on the thing made has obscured the individual making it and all those people who worked in the background to make sure that the machine actually “make” the object. The 3D printing revolution is praised for its embracing of open source values and software and for the potential low-cost of its production. However, in this context, labor is somehow forgotten. who is getting paid for what?

A second important concern is that so far, there have been many scattered projects, sometimes very useful, sometimes botched that have produced quite a number of potentially useful and life changing products, such as Project Daniel or E-nabling the Future, both engaged in creating prosthetic limbs for children. However, Ratto argues, the maker community comprises tactics, but not a comprehensive strategy: most 3D printed projects tend to be a one time endeavor, or a lone project in a sea of disconnected and fragmented projects. everybody seems to be involved in making their own, but there is no sharing with actual technicians and professionals who may be able to fit these prosthetic limbs, may be able to help with their expertise. A paper on Information Society explores some of these issues


working with Communities: inclusion and co-production, not education

I am usually very critical when it comes with working with communities, especially when these communities are what the West or the Intelligentsia considered “disadvantaged” or resourceless. I have seen countless examples of interventions where a well equipped, educated and clearly hegemonic individual or group literally descended upon a group of kids or a marginalized community with great intentions but the unfortunate assumption that their role is to bring tools and technologies, thinking they would be adopted flawlessly and without discussion. This approach does not take into consideration that these communities are not blank, they have their traditions, habits, behavioral patterns and they are perfectly able to reflect and contribute creatively to what is being offered. Forcing non-flexible adoption and infantilizing the receiver-group is a form of colonization, and as history teaches us, it can create monsters. There have been many scholars who addressed this issue. recently, my favorite are Kavita Philip (see her article with Lilly Irani and Paul Dourish on Postcolonial Computing) and Ron Eglash

At Subtle Technologies I was pleased to see also some inspiring projects that moved away from the usual one-way approach and relied not only on the contribution, but also on the active engagement of a variety of groups to create project that would meaningfully enrich and empower them. Foad Hamidi, a PhD candidate in Computer Science and an Interaction Designer from York University started his presentation admitting that when he started as a computer science researcher, he chose to work with people. however, he soon discovered that these people were only “numbers”. His move to a more human-intensive approach came when he had a chance to interact with and learn from people with disability: in this case, in projects such as CanSpeak, it is absolutely necessary that the interaction designer understands how to address the necessities and personal difficulties of the disabled. this is only possible by working closely with those who will use the tool to be designed and to collaborate with social workers, families and institutions.

In his current project with  elementary school kids in Oaxaca, Mexico, Hamidi had to deal with a different issue: how to introduce a group of kids unexposed to electronic devices to the culture of making and to interaction design? how to grab their attention without showing them high tech that they would not be able to reproduce once left by themselves? how to introduce the use of technologies without erasing, but enriching the cultural expressions of the region? the (for now) quick solution was to help them illuminate their alebrijes drawings with simple LEDs.


A different approach that makes an excellent use of, and helps disseminate an already existing project is Zohar Kfir‘s Points of View.  The project uses videos and new submissions from the now extensive but not very well disseminated  B’tselem’s Camera Distribution Project which consists of videos shots by civilians to record human rights infringement in Israel and Palestine. Cameras are legally permitted in Israel. by distributing the camera to civilians, the B’tselem’s Project give them a chance to document abuses and eventually to use the device to protect themselves against extreme brutality.  here is a description:

The organization distributes video cameras and provides training to Palestinians living in areas in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip where tensions are high and clashes are commonplace. from http://www.btselem.org/video/cdp_background


Kfir’s interactive web documentary seeks to reveal the reality of the west bank and gaza by showing both the violence that occurs on a daily basis as well as the everyday life of a population trying to carry on with their lives despite the conflict and the consistent abuses. While the visitor can locate the videos on a map of the West Bank/ Gaza strip, local participants can upload new videos using geolocation to insert them on the map. This is an important work of dissemination, as it really gives global visibility to a relatively local initiative that previously could only be made visible  through shorts or edited documentaries (see for instance the short “Smile and the World will Smile Back” which uses such footage).


Open medicine, or becoming a Patient Expert

Open Medicine is not just about publishing or sharing information about experts, but also about empowering. Billiam James’ powerful and passionate intervention, peppered with evocative images, addressed the power relations inherent in medicine and advocated the necessity for the patient to become an expert, in order to be able to ask questions, to make informed decisions before accepting a treatment or a medication.

unfortunately, the patient is not always in the condition to actively shape her own treatment, as emotional conditions, desperation, hope that he/she will find the magic pill that will cure any disease, as well as temporary or long term incapacitation (due to mental illness, or disability, two conditions that put the patient at the mercy of the practitioner , the family and the system) may hinder or prevent any informed decision making.  James identifies a list of states that can prevent the patient from exercising his/her right to make responsible decisions on her own: when the patient is disabled, depressed, desperate, despondent, dismissed, demented, or dependent, he/she loses her ability to make decisions, not just because of a physical or psychological condition, but also because of assumptions and stigmatize the patient as un-capable of taking any independent decision.   This is the case of Teresa, a woman with down syndrome who was forced into a nursing home against her will.  her case was highlighted in a video petition that will eventually help her express her desire to live with her sister again.


Day 1, a look at Open Access publishing

When we think of open culture, open science, DIY and making are probably the first things that come to mind. However, It is often thanks to the availability of information available through open access publishing that knowledge is made increasingly shareable, as open access journals (OA) continue to emerge out of academia or other institutions. check this short video of what open access means.    


open access publishing is somehow considered secondary to the numerous groups of makers and tinkerers that make open culture. it was then very encouraging to see OA featured by two talks on the very first day of the symposium, with two talks by Corina McDonald and Carlyn Zwarenstein,  followed by a debate moderated by Science librarian John Dupuis. While the first focused on the challenge faced by the arts industry to embrace open access publishing as a viable way to disseminate work presented in a variety of media, formats, styles, the second presented the advantages and disadvantages for science to use open access publishing as opposed to closed, premium publications.

Of note here is the e-artexte digital repository, a monumental project to digitize past and present contemporary Canadian art publications using e-print, in order not to lose the vibrancy of the original formats.  Artexte is also an open access platform for contemporary Canadian art publishers (museums, artist-run centres, art galleries, etc.), authors and artists to upload digital versions of their publications (or born digital publications) for anyone to download for free.

going digital and open has not been easy for the Canadian artistic community: there was a general reluctance dictated by fear to lose the quality of the paper format, possibly prestige, as well as funding tight to production and distribution costs. This might actually be true, especially in the eye of the most conservative institutions, but this move can also be incredibly beneficial for the often-marginalized Canadian art scene.

A slightly different situation faces science. “Open Medicine“, the OA journal that Zwarenstein helped initiate in 2006, is part of a growing cluster of open access, peer reviewed, and thriving scientific journals (among which is Plos One, the most substantial repository of open science in North America). For scientific research, open access means better and faster dissemination, the ability to publish peer reviewed independent research, and autonomy from the influence and the advertising power of pharmaceutical companies. Of course, there are downsides: with the multiplying of open access publications, so are profit seeking and dishonest enterprises. However, to those who criticize OA for disseminating poor quality research, Zwarenstein replies that the problem doesn’t lie in the publishing model, but in the unchecked or unregulated peer review process.

of course, a common issue that both OA in science and in the Arts are facing is how they could become sustainable. this is an open question that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, as many of these publications are still relying on ever shrinking government grants, or on the generosity of academic institutions. currently, there are many models of Open Access ranging from reader and writer supported to university funded.

John Dupuis Open Science presentation at the Subtle Technologies Festival

In addition to more traditional journals with Open access structures, John Dupuis in a later talk on Open Science, pointed out to a diverse number of tools that not only scientists, but also other researchers and artists use to share their work. from Academia.edu, to bibliography databases such as Mandelay, or Zotero, etc.. In the spirit of sharing, In addition to an excellent entry on his blog,  Dupuis has provided the full slideshow of his presentation with related links to a variety of resources.


Subtle Technologies- Open Culture: Participatory Practices in Art & Science

It is that time of the year: Subtle Technologies Festival is back for a week-long ride to explore Open Culture in Art and Science. The theme this year is particularly timely: DIY-bio labs, hacker spaces and hacklabs, maker spaces etc… are popping up everywhere, new forms of sharing ranging from tools, to skills, to networks of solidarity to eliminate debt, to avoid eviction, or just to share a meal together are no longer rare. This year we celebrate this new movement hoping that it will become increasingly common. Only in Toronto, in one year, we have seen the flourishing of new groups and communities deeply interested in making and combining art, science and technologies. In addition to the ubiquitous maker spaces (like the tool library, the Make Lab, Maker Kids) and hacklabs, new groups that produce, experiment with and discuss the interrelation between art, science and technology are growing as I write (DIYbio Toronto, Action Potential Lab and ArtSci Salon, the latter a spinoff of Subtle Technologies are only a few examples).

As the Subtle Technologies Symposium officially takes place during the week end of May 24-25 , a number of initiatives have already started in preparation for the opening of the two exhibitions Open Culture/Urban Interventions curated by Nina Czegledy and Open Access, curated by Farah Yusuf, both taking place in the Faculty of Architecture at Ryerson University. I accompanied South African artists Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs to a subjective tour of a neighborhood of my choice. I was one among several individuals who agreed to do the same. As I was walking with the two artists showing details of the neighborhood surrounding Christie Pits and narrating its controversial historical significance, we had conversations with people and I discovered myself parts of the neighborhood that I had not noticed. Neustetter and Hobbs had never been to Toronto, but they were able to decipher parts of the city using their very own experience from South Africa. At the Urban Intervention exhibition, the two artists will present an installation based on their experience of the city filtered through the narratives that we, as the host, were able to transmit, and they, as the attentive visitors, had gathered through their personal experience.

the ironies of thinking immortality

I would like to conclude this year’s report on Subtle technologies festival with a note on  life and time.

I want to dedicate this to my good friend Arlan Londoño, a Colombian Canadian artist and curator who had given me curatorial advice on the final panel. I had  invited him to participate as discussant, but as a twist of life and irony,  he passed away two weeks before the event. At his memorial, his friends and family read excerpts from favorite books. one of them was a quote from Andrey Tarkovsky’s  Sculpting in Time.

I believe that there couldn’t be a better quote to end my contribution.

Time is a condition for the existence of our “I”. It is like a kind of
 culture medium that is destroyed when it is no longer needed, once 
the links are severed between the individual personality, and the 
conditions of existence. What is known as the moment of death is
 also the death of individual time: the life of a human being 
becomes inaccessible to the feelings of those remaining alive, dead
 for those around him.

We will be Different: Immortality in Science Fiction and Popular Culture

To conclude this fabulous round of Subtle technologies, we couldn’t omit the element that  during these days has informed and enriched with its presence our conversations: Science Fiction. Subtle technologies started with a reference to the Hitchhicker’s guide to the galaxy, mentioned many times William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Mary Shelley and countless movie references.

Conceived as a panel and then morphed into a creative roundtable where artists and the hackers’ community were invited to submit thoughts and artworks, this session was introduced by an invited talk by feminist Science Fiction scholar Veronica Hollinger who navigated us through the meanders of immortality in scifi literature. It was followed by an open discussionfeaturing Veronica, Eric Boyd and myself  and by a final ironic experiment by Colombian/Canadian artist Alejandro Tamayo that wrapped up the entire conference.
Artworks submitted were by Elaine Whittaker, Lisa Carrie Goldberg, and Eric Boyd. part of the discussion was inspired by a meeting on immortality that happened in early february at the Hacklab in Toronto.

For William Gibson  it is impossible  to “unpack” the material of the 21st century without science fiction:

I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted” (Distrust That Particular Flavor 46) –

In reality,  science fiction is an essential tool to understand, to unpack at anytime, the key desires and the struggles that characterize the way in which we try to cope with, and in turn we shape science and technologies. Hollinger defines science fiction as the expression of participatory evolution.

The use of technologies and magic (sometimes the two are conflated) to achieve immortality is one of the most prevalent themes traversing science fiction literature. As many panelists and the audience have pointed out, achieving immortality has always been a human project  intriguing and obsessing many; it has led many to the edge of madness; it has created monsters, superhumans etc…
no matter the technology of the time, there has always been someone with that project in mind. Shelley and Stoker remain among the most memorable (yet not the first) to have problematized immortality in a science fictional text, as both escape from death and as warning against its consequences. After the lecture, Eric passed me a google books Ngram viewer that shows the presence of the theme in texts from 1800 on. 
The spike in interest in immortality in the 1820s shown by the above graph appears to follow the publication of Frankenstein (1818). Shelley certainly contributed to popularize the fairly recent advancements in the study of electricity in the late 1700s. However, experiments in the Teatrum Anatomicum conducted by  Galvani and other clever public communicators of science has already evoked a great deal of excitement regarding the ability of the science and technology of electricity to defeat immortality and even bring back the dead.
  In the same way as Shelley and Stoker’s novels cope with the drive towards immortality by using science and narratives proper of their times (e.g. the use of electricity to bring back the dead), contemporary novelists have built their stories starting from the latest technologies popularized since the 1970s: cryogenics, cloning, biotechnologies bodily enhancement etc… Cyberpunk in the 1980s and the more recent wave of biopunk are exemplary. It appears that the interest in immortality has faded though. maybe we have become overconfident and think this topic is not worth being discussed anymore?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

On the one hand, the advent of cyberspace has provided a plethora of fantasies regarding the fading separation between the organic and the technological and has open up new potentials for extending life in the virtual world; on the other hand, genetic and bio-engineering, nanotechnology, developments in prosthetics has promised even more effective ways to achieve immortality. It is in this context that the materiality of the body simultaneously loses its significance as embodied subject and acquires even more importance as the subject of  philosophical contentions. Is my body in this new configuration my own body?  I am soul and body, but is this body myself?  With reflections over new technologies emerge intense political imaginations.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Some recent post-singularity stories  concerned with longevity and immortality can be found in novels and short stories by  Greg Egan, Iain M. Banks (who sadly passed away this very week end), Kim Stanley Robinson, and Paolo Bacigalupi, all contemporary authors that have provided nuanced visions of posthuman and post-scarcity realities, embodied and synthetic futures, utopian and dystopian societies.

In Uses and Abuses of Science Fiction, KARLHEINZ STEINMÜLLER quotes Fred Pohl:

A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam

we are reminded here of the “Frankenstein syndrome”: with every technology emerging, we make extrapolations and imagine the benefits that these technologies will bring, but we are somehow never able to predict or to take responsibility for their consequences.

here is a list of science fiction books that deal with immortality.

Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kiln People by David Brin
Existence by David Brin
Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan
After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley
Outnumbering the Dead by Frederik Pohl
The Prospect of Immortality by R C W Ettinger
The Methuselah Gene by Sal deStefano
The Immortalists by TM Jenkins

Unnoticed places of Immortality

So far, the symposium has explored projects and research that understand immortality as a way to bring back the past and the long gone; to restore and preserve memory; to pass human legacy to others; and to extend the ability and the perception of the human in its interrelation with the organic and the inorganic. The next two projects analyze what we rarely perceive as pertaining to the category of the immortal, yet it surrounds us, be it in the form of sound signals or in the form of undisposed human bodies.

Don Hill for instance note that there is no such thing as silence. “Sound never ages. A sonic pitch – the note C, for instance – is immutable”. But Sound produced by objects around us create different forms of affect, where the object itself shapes the sound and the sound shapes the object . In turn our relationship that common objects is always one charged with a variety of perceptions, sensations and memories. sounds does something to us.

Take for example a bell: it brings acoustic signals to people. But a bell has a different meaning for each individual listening to it and it resonates differently according the spaces where it is located; rock formations take a particular shape from the action of winds and weather. while the weather eternally shapes acoustic spaces, so is space shaping sound.
among the object that Don Hill has investigated are Memory Stones, from rock art, or painted stones that had a ritualistic significance, to naturally occurring stone formations that can “tell a lot more than you think once you get the feel for a place..”

In Trophies and Talismans, Miriam Nafte, a forensic anthropologist, is concerned with those undisposed death. For Nafte, we are in the presence of death on a daily basis, but we can only cope with it through its institutionalization. A different fate is reserved for exhumed death, archaeological material, mummified remains. When these remains are found, they are not treated  as individuals who used to be humans, but as scientific specimens that need be investigated or as trophies to be exhibited. all these dead bodies are not given burial.

Andres Serrano

Nafte mentions, among others, the remains and relics that individuals sold and traded as objects; churches expose them as trophies; the cadavers in medicine, which are part of the tradition of becoming a doctor; the human remains incorporated by artists in their artworks.

Wayne Martin Belger

This notion of immortality, as someone in the public noted, presents the cadaver as neutral, as non-gendered and no-raced. Western culture appropriates them and turn them into remains whose fate is not peace, but eternal exposure to serve other purposes: for this reason, these are all forms of immortality as the result of the narratives that we impose upon them, granting them a second life.

Amelogenesis Imperfecta and Beautox me

Trained in art and dentistry, David Khang brought to Toronto his research on the benefits and the limitation of Botox injections as well as on the result of the interaction of human subjects and other microorganisms (botox is a neurotoxin). British Columbia is the first state in Canada to allow dentists to perform botox injections. As a Dentist based in BC, he immediately jumped at the opportunity. The resulting Beautox Me explores the effects of this popular procedure on two experienced actors who gladly volunteered to perform a shakespearian piece before and after the injection. In toronto, Khang presented the two stages on a split screen with stunning results.
here is the video with  Lesley Ewen reading Marcus from Titus Andronicus and
Billy Marchenski reading the Porter from Macbeth

Billy Marchenski also “performed” during the very procedure. Interestingly, the piece he chose was from Richard III

The project produced some reaction from the actors, who sometimes felt that their range of expressions had become independent from their intentions, or, as Lesley notes in an   essay on David Khang’s project, “Mashup Destinies”  by Kóan Jeff Baysa :

My forehead doesn’t correspond to my emotional state with the same creasing and folding activity…My mask has been neutralized…Do I appear false? I’d mourn for my previous faculties of expression, for how deftly I’d cock a brow or narrow the outer corner of an eye, slowly raise my forehead and draw back the skin of my head in order to appear to grow younger right before your eyes. After years spent parsing and developing my muscles….Squirt. Poof. All  of these grace notes…gone. 

Khang’s Beautox me is part of a long term project he started developing during a residency at the Synbiotica Centre, Amelogenesis Imperfecta (how deep is the skin of teeth). The two projects were first exhibited at the grunt gallery in Vancouver . In dentistry, enamel is produced to recreate a tooth, but what about making tiny teeth as sculptures? Amelogenesis Imperfecta sought to produce enamel by harvesting in vitro epithelial and mesenchymal cells from an enamel organ of a pig. Khang didn’t succeed in producing enamel, but created some thin layers that he engraved with microscopic messages (thanks to the use of a laser tweezer and a microscope), such as “how deep is the skin of teeth?” The project became a reflection on ethical interspecies relations. In fact, the artist asks, “can we imagine brushing our teeth in the morning as an act of killing bacteria on a massive scale?”