SLSA 09 shakedown: Decodings

On to the next conference: SLSA (Society for Literature, Arts and the Sciences). The theme this year was Decodings. I presented AstroDime’s work on the Transatlantic Cable of 1858 on a panel called Decoding Technologies of Mediation. My co-panelists were N. Katherine Hayles, who gave a great talk on telegraph codebooks from 1850-1950, and is working on an online telegraph codebook database. I was also presenting with Robert Rosenberger who was doing work on media literacy and television.

On the way to SLSA hotel

Generally, I think I have less patience with the esoterics of literary analysis vs. of that of qualitative research. Since 4s and SLSA were back to back, this gave me a chance to reflect on that. Having said that, there was a lot of great art and literature presentations at SLSA.

Quick summary: Wendy Wheeler gave an interesting talk (although too late at night for me to be really alert) on the idea of biosemiotics. She is working with biologists to develope this idea. She went on to speculate about the semiotics of a species. From there I started speculation about dogs..and what the semiotics of smell might be for dogs. my mind drifted from there..into the next session, Friday AM.

Notes from Wendy Wheeler's talk

I saw a presentation by my roomate for SLSA Clarissa Lee (science and texts as free play) and John Bruni (a history of popular science in the United States)
From there I went to what was perhaps my favorite panel of the conference: Performance: A method of Decoding/Decoding: a method of performance. This panel talked about Performance Studies as a methodology, which I thought was excellent. Performance artist Katherine Behar talked about her work with BDSM and cybernetics in the context of consumer electronics..take a look at her web site. Frenchy Lunning talked about the concept of KOS-play, drag, and the performance of abjection. Jon Cates did a great presentation on his project OUR080R05, work with sound, video, noise, and performance. All and all a really interesting study of performance as methodology, in a few different contexts.

For the keynote speech on Friday, Ian Bogst talked about Alien Phenomenology. I think my favorite part of his presentation was the metatext created by his numerous slides next to his talk. Interestingly, one of his many ideas was about practice as theory in the context of craftsmenship, which links a bit to some of the ideas discussed in 4S.

Karaoke til 3AM Saturday nite at this spot. Go figure!

Another interesting panel was Visual Decodings I.
Both Drew Ayers and Maria Aline Ferreira talked about DNA portraiture, but from different angles, I thought the talks complemented each other well. Ayers talked about believablity and authenticity and why these images mean so much to people. Ferreira gave an excellent presentation on a number of artists who work with biology and identity. She talked about the idea of “Genetic Determinism” surplanting the idea of Biological Determinism..which is a scary thought. To get a sense of what DNA portraits are go to
Isabel Wunshe talked about how the images of crystals around the turn of the 20th century potentially influenced Cubist painters, which I thought was interesting.
Christina Nguyen Hung showed her own work..she is a painter, but colaborates with biologists to create tiny images out of proteins as an art medium. She works with researchers in bioengieering department. She has used neuron cells from chick embryos, and gets images of them through a process of microlithography. She works in microscopic environments, essentially. All in all this was another awesome panel which worked together well.

I saw a talk given by Suzanne Black “Giant Molecules through the decades: a content analysis of figures in biochemistry books”... Her talk was great, she was looking at the development of representations of molecules through textbooks in the 1930’s to now. She looked at both figures and tables. I thought it was facinating, and since her background was in biochemistry, she had learned on some of those books. She actually brought the books with her which was amazing considering how heavy they are. This is the beginning of her study but I hope she continues..I love her methods of visual analysis.

There was much more to this..but this is a quick summary. Overall, met some great people and got some good leads for our “Scientific American” INtransit issue.

-sam smiley

Awesome lunch here after SLSA was done.

4S part II. Where the arts fit in.

I’ll now note the various other events that interested me at 4s from the perspective of an artist/researcher.

One amazing event (and almost overlooked on my part) was the “Living Darwin” project. It was amazing for me because it represented the confluence of many of my turned out to be an Augusto Boal-ian inspired questioning of Darwin through drama. And some of my colleagues from Lesley were there! I think this is a great link between the arts (plural) and STS. for more info go to the Theater Workshop in Science, Technology, and Society (TWISTS) out of Virgina Tech. It’s at

Another 2-session track which was REALLY  interesting was Intra Animate! Get Your Theories Up and Running with Lively Machines! This was duo session was a great mix of qualitative research in STS, visual art, and performance. It talked about “theory making as a craft practice” thus addressing the idea (and rather low status) of both craft in the visual arts world, and applied science and technology in the sciences. In the first session, anthropologist Natasha Myers talked about “Intra-Animacy and the Lively Machines of Theory” For more info about her work, check out  I found Kelly Dobson’s work “Found, Lost, Made, Broken” really interesting..she talked about how she got permission to sing with machines, specifically the machines working in the tunnels of the Big Dig in Boston. Her web site is at
Check it out!

I had to leave a little after that, and visited again IntraAnimate II. This session had a presentation  by Orit Halpern “Schitzoid Screens and Desiring Machines” (I just caught the end of it) but Halpern talked about histories of control in cybernetics, and the idea of neural nets, as a logical calculus of ideas immanent in nervous activity. Much of this talk came out of ideas of cognitive science and cybernetics. Heather Varnick talked about the thumb and talkes of manueverablity in the digital age..the thumb images she presented looking unquestionably like penises. she referenced autopoesis and cognition (Varela) and also Brian Massumi’s work.
Sha Xin Wei introduced the Topological Media Lab in Montreal (he is the director there)
and Joe Dumit talked about STS as equipment for literature, which is an interesting transition to arts and literature from STS.

The last panel I went to that I thought was awesome was one called Making Things: Artisanship, Representation, and Formalisms at the Convergence of Science and Craft. (or How Craft is Overlapping into Science Practice.) This was really interesting on a lot of levels. First was Michale Rossi’s “Catching Color: Chromatic REform in the United States 1890-1920). I found this really interesting from the perspective of how teaching color has affected art education (K-12) in the United States. He talked about how in art education in that time period,with Munsel’s system of color,  color perception was tied to social order (what colors were considered “savage”) and how for him, art education wasn’t about just making pictures, it was (through its methods) making people. SOme of his palette is still used for the colors in Reeses Pieces. Rossi also talked about “Froebel’s gifts” and his methods of teaching color.

Erin O’Connor gave a talk on “The Constituitive Body: Embodiment and the Organization of work in Glassblowing” which was a really interesting participatory research project on the collaborative work of glassblowing, which used STS ideas around actor/network theory. She went a little bit too much into technical details of glassblowing, but overall this was interesting. Sophia Roosth gave a talk of “Of Forms and Formalisms:Molecular Gastronomy, Scientific Expertise, and Craft Practice”. Here’s a link to Molecular Gastronomy for more effort to preserve the expertise of French haut cuisine..or passing fad?

My favorite talk was Examples, Models, Witnessing, and the Mathematical Imagination by Michael Barony. He is interested in part in the gestural part of the teaching of geometry and is working with teachers in Britain. he will be taking pictures of blackboards that math teachers use as part of his research. One person in the audience mentioned a book I might look up: The Mathematician’s Lament. I’d love to see his work develop.

In summary..a really interesting and unselfconscious mix of the arts and STS in the latter part of the conference.

4s in Washington D.C. Part 1: Latin American STS

Well it’s a long time coming, but a lot happened at I can be excused from my lateness in posting about that and also (in the following message) SLSA.

As AstroDime is currently working on Scientific American/La America Científica, I was out scoping for some ideas and conversation on both ideas. What follows is not a summation of the whole conference of 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science), but my biased account. 4S took place in Washington DC from October 28-30, 2009 in Crystal City Virginia (a few trainstops from D.C.
-sam smiley

Train in D.C. to 4s


I was lucky enough to spend a night with my friends Alberto Roblest and Christine Macdonald. Alberto is a video/media artist and Christine is a writer. In the evening I went to the reception for 4S. The first evening reception at 4S was a huge event, but I met up with some folks from RPI for a great ethiopian dinner.
This first section is devoted to the development of the Latin American STS track at the 4S conference.

Thurs morning, I decided to focus my energies on the Latin American/post-colonial track organized in part by Rick Duque. The session was called Environment, Technology and Society Interactions in Latin America. I greatly enjoyed a session presented by Erick Castellanos of Ramapo Unversity called “The Mexican and Transnational Lives of Corn: Technological, Political, Edible Object” (Co-written by Sara Bergstresser?). Part of the focus of the presentation was on the overproduction of corn in the U.S. for corn syrup and ethanol. He talked about corn genetics and the social issues between the US and Mexico, and public protests against bio-engineered corn in Mexico.

Another interesting talk was by a science writer from Brazil on P-MAPA, a drug which boosts the immune system and is helpful in the treatment of AIDS and also to deter various cancer cells and tumors. The talk was called “Across Borders: the Discovery and Development of the compound P-MAPA in Brazil”, and I THINK the presenter was Carlos Henrique Fioravanti. He talked about the history of the development of the drug, and how it hasn’t been mainstreamed in its use in the US despite its effectiveness and low cost. A link to P-MAPA is at

The next session I went to was called Technology, Biology, and Medicine in Latin America. This was really interesting. Sandra Patricia Gonzales-Santos presented a talk (and later in the conference joined me for my presentation, much to my delight). Her talk was called “Negotiating Authority in the Mexican Assisted Human Reproduction Scenario” and it was a really interesting cultural studies analysis of the representation of assisted reproduction in Mexico. She did an in-depth study of mass media in mexico, both headlines, bylines, and images/represtnation. She also did an analysis on the vocabularies used to describe this.

One interesting comment by a group presenting on cloning in Argentina and Brazil (Juan Mariano Fressoli and Hernan Eduardo Thomas) talked the “social construction of the periphery” in Latin American STS. That was very intriguing food for thought.

Finally, following the Latin American STS thread, the last panel on this topic I went to was Theories and Methods in Latin American STS. Again, my coverage of this will be by no means comprehesive, these are what interested me.

Ivan de Costa Marques’s talk was “A Latin American Food for the Children Program and Limits of Relativism”. He described this food product which is sold as a food supplement in Brazil called “multimistura” and how it is being discredited as “scientific” as nutrition by scientists, but is still embraced by a lot of people. It was developed by Clara Brandao. A web site in English describing it is

Rodrigo Ribiero gave his talk “The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge in High School”. I thought this was really amazing. He is fortunate enough to be able to introduce 2 different schools, one public, and one private to STS, and is doing a followup study (I think he quoted Sara Delamont’s work from the education side). He talked about the issues and problems (the idea of science delivering certainty in an uncertain world being challenged, relations with science teachers in the high school) but since sociology is required in Brazilian high schools, the 2nd year followup for these high schools is STS. I think (and i will note this later) that the STS split from the K-12 setting, as an academic discipline only is problematic, and this talk really was interesting as a bridge between the worlds of K-12 education and higher ed (a split that is by no means confined to STS). He also shared a detailed syllabus/Unit which I thought was very generous.

this ends my report (albeit) incomplete on the Latin American STS track at 4S. However, I do want to add an important note (which also connects to the last paragraph I wrote). There is an uneasy relationship of STS to K-12 education. I believe this is in part because of the enormous gulf (at least in the United States) between higher ed and K-12. As an example: when I was first applying for teaching jobs in higher ed, I was told NOT to put any teaching experience I would have had with K-12, because it would not help my chances of getting a job, and might hurt it. A colleague of mine, who had taught high school media and was applying for a new media position at a university was told the same thing.
I can certainly understand that there are differences in pedagogy between k-12 and higher ed. However, I think that it is important to note that some people trained in STS have in fact gone on to work, either in a research capacity or teaching capacity in the K-12 area. (Since I work at Lesley University, I know a few of them). At the Friday evening Presidential Plenary Discussion (Trends and Futures of STS), Sheila Jasanoff was asked about involvement of STS with K-12 settings. In her reply she talked about participant observation or doing ethnographys in schools, thus describing the K-12 setting as a research site only. I disagree with this..I think there are a number ways STS graduates and scholars could be involved in introducing critical thinking about science in the K-12 setting. How about STS in high schools, like in Robert Ribiero’s talk? Also..what is STS’s relationship to STEM (an integrated program called Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics currently part of a K-12 dialogue)?? where does it fit in? Does STS relate to that at all? How about K-12 teachers as researchers rather than objects of study? I think STS can fit into the K-12 area, there does not have to be an artificial separation. As the audience member asked about STS in the K-12 setting, there was spontaneous applause in the crowd. And that in and of itself was interesting.

-my two or more cents (sam smiley)

Ottawa Animation Fest

This is the first of a series of articles i am writing on different conferences/festivals i went to this part to research for Scientific American/La America Cientifica. These are not “reviews” or at all comprensive..just my observations with regard to what what might interesting in the realms of art and technoscience.

The first fest was the Ottawa Animation festival in Ontario. My partner, Gina Kamentsky and I went from Friday Oct 16 to Sunday Oct. 18, 2009. For me, it was an opportunity to experience a LOT of animation and to familiarize myself with the language of animation.

picnic in Ottawa between films

A quick summary..we primarily went to see the shorts. it was amazing to see so many different forms in such a short time. With respect to science and art, here are a few I enjoyed (Somerville, MA) animator Karen Aqua’s animation called Twist of Fate. I also enjoyed The Machine by Rob Shaw. I loved Pears or Aliens by Ray Lei (from China). Melissa Graziano’s Love on the Line, currently included in our video journal INtransit SE: Can You Hear Me Now was awesome. There was another film, Q and A by the Rauche brothers . The audio was a recording of a conversation between a mother and her son who has Asbergers. The conversation was then animated.I love this strategy actually..using conversations and animating over them. Then there was Please Say Something by David O’Reilly, a really neat lo bit ideosycratic piece about a cat and a mouse. And the neo techno culture futuristic distopic superhero piece The Man in the Blue Gordini by Jean Christophe Lie is outstanding.

For my pans however, I have to site Ian Miller’s piece for getting the “most exploitive use of a recorded conversation.” his animation True Confessions was really lame. its description is ” A true confession from a drug addict”. It should be “a conversation I found/recorded/whatever that I thought I could exploit, and by the way I think drug addicts are really funny and pathetic.” He also made another one that trashed transwomen. And it won a prize at this festival. I wish he would use his animation skills to ..actually be funny. My other pan was this Pixar piece that I have already forgetten the name of, but it involved cute stork jokes. Yawn.

I saw the Stereolab at the National Film Board: Exploring the 3 dimensions and have to commend the film board for putting together a pretty interesting compilation of 3-D animation. Another stand-out event for me was the panel on independent game development called Mechanics and Metaphor: Designing independent games. On this panel was Erin Robinson, the creator of Nanobots and Nathan Villa who showed his game-in-developement Critter Crunch.

This last event was a great exposure to the world of independent games-creation for me. The whole experience of Ottawa was an animation-thon well worth attending.

-sam smiley

Still from the Man in the Blue Gordini