Art, critical thinking, ethnography, and STS

Here’s an AstroDime Special Report on the 4S conference ( held in San Diego October 9-12, given by AstroDimer sam smiley

My concentration here will be on art and ethnography. I’m not necessarily looking at the big “art and science” question because there are value sets in both the visual arts and in science and technology that are too large for me to break down, and to start by deconstructing those would mean that I would never get down to my personal arts, ethnography and STS detective work.

One session that proved to be important to me was the following:

The work I enjoyed from this panel was Anne Galloway’s ethnographic work with sheep farms, sheep, farmers in New Zealand..and the artwork that has come out of it. It’s truly “situated artwork” and speculative fiction. Her talk was titled “Speculating the Multispecies Internet”.

Her current links for the project are here:

and you can follow her research blog here.

Another talk from this “Critical Making” panel was on the materiality of data, and making data narratives (Yanni Loukissas and Laura Forlano). I actually found this work (a form of performing data collection in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, massachusetts) really useful both for STS connections and Qualitative Arts Based Research. They are intersted in “codesigning technoscience” and “hands on ethnography” and do ethnographic scavenger hunts and co-designing workshops. Here is a web site from their recent work in the Arnold Arboretum completed this past June of 2013

A note about the organizers of the Critical making panels: The Critical Making movement originates out of the Critical Making Lab in University of Toronto

They put out a great ‘zine called Critical Making

The first issue had an insert and parody on MAKE magazine (a sort of commodified DIY guide published by O’Reilly)

I found the concept of critical making really really interesting because it had some of the same critiques of DIY ish “Maker” culture in the U.S that I have thought about..overwhelmingly white, male, and uncritically “making”. The Critical Making group also involves craft in the concept of their work, which I appreciated.  Because when I had followed and read the original MAKE magazines, I noticed that O’Reilly split the concept of craft off from the “maker” concept..(in another magazine called “CRAFT”) effectively reinscribing the gender divide that the “democratizing” MAKEr movement was supposed to bridge. But enough of my ranting..

Back to 4S..another talk that combined the arts and STS for me was actually on another panel..but had a lot in common with the previous aforementioned presentations. It was in the “In Search of ‘lines of flights’  in/to/for/by Latin America and Elsewhere” organized by Ivan da Costa Marques.

Within the first session was a presentation by Wendy Cano (researcher) that involved a collaboration with her sister Frida Cano (artist) in looking at corn as culture, and the uses of trangenic corn.This blog site has really great documentation of the artistic cross cultural exchange on the meaning of corn that took place in Schöppingen, Germany in the spring of 2012. There is a great art book with Wendy’s writing, and also documentation of recipes from that experience. You can find examples in this blog entry:

My summary from these small samples are this: that the arts in STS can have a few models.. but the most effective models seem to work well with a collaboration of STS methods of research, and artists interested in ethnographic field work.

one model is using art to “co-design” field research such as with the work of Yanni Loukissas and Laura Forlano,

one model is doing critical public art with STS themes such as the work with Wendy and Frida Cano,

one model is somewhat like Anne Galloway’s art and ethnography work.. to create “artifacts” or fictions that result from the research and from collaboration with other artists.

I will close with a totally unrelated post. I was lucky enough to see Donna Haraway present a book Insectopedia by Hugh Raffle. First, I love the book. and I’m not really into bugs.  It has exactly the kind of esoteric bits and pieces I love to follow and file somewhere. Also Haraway’s description of a “tangled coexistence” with insects is totally creepy but real. Donna Haraway talked about digging ticks out of her skin. But somehow it was a lot more poetic.

SLSA 2013 roundup (Postnatural)

Astrodime member sam smiley attended the SLSA conference (Society for Literature, Arts and Sciences) in South Bend Indiana, October 3-6, 2013.  The theme was Postnatural.

What follows is a incomplete summary:

AstroDime is hard at work on finishing INtransit V.7: Invaders!, and we are starting research on INtransit V.8 (most likely weeds). My presentation was on weeds as boundary objects. So this conference (as well as the follow STS conference) was very valuable for the development of these ideas. I also would like to mention there was a great accompanying art exhibit too at this conference.

Since I am actually teaching a class on gaming using a program called Scratch, I  paid attention especially to the gaming tracks:

Digital humanities theorist N. Katherine Hayles worked with a team of  collaborators at Duke University (at the Greater Than Games Lab to create an alternate reality game (ARG in the lingo) based on economics and the financial crash in the U.S. in 2008.  It is called (that’s a number 1 for the name)

There was a great talk on Queer Videogame Ecologies..Edmond Chang spoke about queer subtexts in the film Wreck it Ralph. And I got myself online with Minecraft, thanks to Amanda Phillips. I think I also got a lead on another queer game artist:  Electronic Game art by Merrit Kopas

I went to the first panel of Object Oriented Feminism. (some of my notes)

And a not-to be missed panel with artists Praba Pilar and Adam Zaretsky

Thoughts I left with..and took into the following 4S conference:
If an artist gets trained in social science or visual some point (I did anyway) I became very self conscious about the ethics of representation..I was able to surmount this this…

MIT7 iCAN user survey: Question 1

Based on a user survey on the iCAN, here are the preliminary results. This survey was conducted at the MIT7 conference on Saturday May 14, 2011. This is Question 1.

QUESTION 1: If you had an iCAN (TM), how often would you use it and what would you use it for?

Only as often as necessary

I’d use it to sing to myself and test my own reaction to my lectures. I’d use it several times a day. (5 to 10 times)

At least once a day for meditating on difficult problems.

Secret meetings with myself.

During lent for confession.

I do wish I had a pipe-based trans-home communication system.
Control of personal soundscape

Often, for whispering sweet nothings at my neighbors who shout back and forth at each other across the street. (Quiet by example)

I don’t think I would use it.

Once in a while, not very often.

Looks like it has multiple uses -a quick plumbing solution -2nd communications, after all has a lot in common with plumbing.

Very frequently

Frequently unknown confidential conversation.

Testing quality, timbre or my own voice.

I mean, I can’t imagine a time during the day when I wouldn’t be using the

I’ll use it always as a necklace, and would be able to communicate all the time.

Once a week at parties.

All the time for everything.

MIT7 iCAN user survey: Question 2

Based on a user survey on the iCAN, here are the preliminary results. This survey was conducted at the MIT7 conference on Saturday May 14, 2011. This is Question 2.

QUESTION 2: What would be your preferred network for use of the iCAN (TM)?
I could build my own network.

Network for anything.

At lunch time when I could also use as A can.

My voice 4g.

Would mostly use it myself.

The network of one. (I love the battery life.)

Listening to my own voice. Museums.


Not AT&T, calls would be dropped. True story. AT&T told me my Internet was out because birds and squirrels chew wires for the electrical shocks to stay warm.

The social.

The Nashville network.

Spy network.


Around campus to have students record their feelings in real time about what they do and see around campus.


MIT7 iCAN user survey: Question 3

Based on a user survey on the iCAN, here are the preliminary results. This survey was conducted at the MIT7 conference on Saturday May 14, 2011. This is Question 3.

QUESTION 3: What accessories do you suggest would be useful for the iCAN (TM)?. What are your favorite colors?

Little boxes. Rose, blue, violet.

Blue accessories. Blue

I like black and blue colors. A recording device to record talks and thoughts for later replay.

The Ican open source CanOpener. Software hacking package.

Purple. It could have a pinhole camera.

A lanyard hook for mobile accessories. My favorite color is blue (tooth)

Metallic. More iPhone like.

A larger can or (can shaped bucket) to carry it in. a can cozy (quilted rooster shaped) A perpetual motion machine. A mobile made out of other cans that a group of people could stand under and talk into.


Blue. Clock timer.

Definitely white. (Smudges might also be a nice touch.)

Belt clip.

I would like to have some amplification capabilities. Any fashion enhancement would be good. Bright colors.

Green maybe the color of preference nowadays.

Soft grip-pod lining around the PVC piping.

Favorite color: red. But why not a device that change the color according to your humor?

Neon green. Ican covers in all colors.

Transparent and yellow.

MIT7 iCAN user survey: Question 4

Based on a user survey on the iCAN, here are the preliminary results. This survey was conducted at the MIT7 conference on Saturday May 14, 2011. This is Question 4.

QUESTION 4: Can you suggest any apps you would like to see developed for the iCAN (TM)?


Fax. Wouldn’t it be so cool to be able to sands print transmission through our phone lines.

I think I already answered.

Can I? I can! Neoprene sleeves please.

IPhone holder.

Not really. I think you tapped the main possibilities.

/recording device.


Rustproofing app. Re-canning app for packaging and transmitting preserves.

No apps! Resist application. Or apps that track my period menstrual cycle.

Net hack.

Angry birds.


An amplifier to make the sounds louder and a stress meter to measure the stress in the voice of the speaker.

AstroDime at MIT7

AstroDime Transit Authority will be taking part in MIT7: Unstable Platforms: the Promise and Peril of Transition. This is taking place May 13-15, 2011.

here’s the agenda for the Media in Transition conference:

AstroDIme will be doing some interventions and a presentation. Based on the data we have collected this spring for our iCAN, suggestions for apps and updates, we will present our data and our next prototype for the iCAN

We will be collecting more data at the Saturday reception in the TING foyer at MIT
from 7-9pm. There, we will circulate with iCANs and tin can phones and take surveys on the future of the iCAN.

Our presentation of data will be on 10:45AM sunday. in room E51-335.
Here’s the full session:

Music of the Spheres
Ananya Ghoshal, Cybernetics, the Music of John Cage and New Media
Boris Goesl, Modern Projection Planetariums as Media of Iterative Reinvention
sam smiley, The Future is Now: smartCANS in the 21st Century

moderator: Paul van den Hoven

Hope to see you there!

SHOT shakedown

SUMMARY of SHOT (Society of the History of Technology)

summary by sam smiley

This September, I had a chance to go to the Society of the History of Technology (SHOT)
to screen INtransit V.6: “scientific american”/La America Científica. The conference was in Tacoma Washington, and my sister lives in Seattle so I had an opportunity to visit her too. What follows is the summary of my experience there and some resources and links.

What I learned overall: Historians are storytellers. Maybe in their different ways.. some let the numbers tell the story, some let the artifacts tell the story, some people collect oral histories and let that add the story up. Some don’t claim to be telling a story at all. One of the editors of SHOT’s journal, Technology and Culture, John Staudenmaier SJ actually wrote a book on this subject called Technology’s Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric.

The second thing I learned: generally historians have pretty good presentations. WHy? well, many historians look at artifacts, and primary source documents. So you are much less likely to see a lot of text, flying graphics, and gratuitous google images, and more likely to see some interesting letters, images, or pictures of places.

I met some interesting people. There were a lot of people from the Smithsonian there, and one of the things my room mate did was curate space suits! I met another woman who curated uniforms. So there were historians who write, historians who curate, people interested in the history of science and technology, people who wanted jobs as historians, Rachel Maines who wrote about the history of the vibrator (later turned into an off broadway musical), people who wanted to publish their books through academic presses, and me, probably the only M.F.A in the house.

The screening of INtransit V.6: “scientific american/La America Científica was on the first Friday morning of the conference. The audience was small, but I got some very good feedback and discussion. That day I went to (appropriately enough) a panel that day called “Patent Regimes” where I saw a good talk by Cai Guise-Richardson on how the difference between the British patenting system and the U.S. patenting system eventually allowed Goodyear (the U.S. patenter) to claim to be the inventor of vulcanization of rubber (thus “Goodyear” tires). Guise-Richardson said that Hancock, a British manufactorer most likely came up with the idea first, but Goodyear ended up with the world patent. She said that it was because the U.S. patent system at the time favored the individual, and the British one favored the “good of the community” so it was harder for an individual to profit from a patent. There was a followup from Graeme Gooday about metaphors for patents in the U.K. in the 19th century which was interesting to a patent “property”? a service? a process? a product? These are interesting questions.

On the subject of patents, Ted Beatty’s talk on the next day was very interesting. He talked about patents in Mexico in the early 1900’s. Although he described Mexico at that time as primarly a “technology importer” he also talked about the importance of “adaptation” as invention in developing countries. He said it was important to understand the interactions between imported knowledge and local contexts. There is an assumption that Mexican’s didn’t play a role in technological change at that time, but his question was: How did importation stimulate local innovations in Mexico? He had an image of a great document which he later emailed me the information for..Mexico’s patent records at that time. This forms the basis for some of his research.

Book of Mexican Patents, 1903

here are two case studies/examples he used as part of his research:
a brewery (Cerveceria) in created a demand for glass bottles which were hand blown primarly by foreign glassblowers. However, by 1903 they were replaced by a machine glassblower that had been manufactored in Toledo Ohio. There was a race for a Mexican patent and by 1913, there was one that had been secured.
Beatty also talked about a cigarette manufactoror who used automatic rolling machines and the race for the Mexican patent then. Beatty spoke about patents that come in the wake of the introduction of imported inventions. he also noted from his research the amount of foreigners who had claimed Mexican patents.
This makes me curious (as per a previous AstroDime post) about the “Spanish Patent” that was advertised in the Export Edition of Scientific American in the 1800’s..and how that related.

I saw a lot of other talks, but the panel that turned out to be the most interesting was the “Consumption and technological change in 20th century Africa”. Laura Fair’s talk was called “Consuming Cinema in Colonial and Post-Colonial Tanzania”. For me it was facinating! There are a lot of assumptions that technologies come late to developing countries or countries that still bear the stamp of colonialism, but actually it turns out that film was part of the culture in Tanzania in 1904, shortly after the introduction of film in Europe. There were grand movie houses built, especially on the coast. Johny Walla built a picture palace that seated 900 patrons. Some of these are still around today. Fair built her historical reconstruction around oral histories of people who remembered seeing film, or whose parents had seen film in these communities. All in all, it was a facinating talk.
Joshua Grace followed up with public tranportation in urban Tanzania: “Riding the People’s Car in Dar es Salaam: Busses, Passengers, and the State”. He talked about the competition between the state run public transportation system and the “Thumni Thumni” busses, or illegal private ones that would adjust their rates according to the market but were often more efficient.

Finally, Bianca Murillo worked from letters written in Ghana in the 1970’s..looking at letter writing as a technology. She had several examples and they were really facinating. She did an analyis of them but also provided statistics about the amount of letter writing, specifically to the that time. She said that the 1960s was the end of colonial rule, but there was a collapse of the government. Private citizens would write to the government to report on neighbors, or store violations of the price of goods, report on the conduct of soldiers, or actually ask for a job as a soldier. her talk was called “Militarization of the Market: Scarcity and Surveillance in Ghana, 1970’s.”

I wished I could stay for the final day, but I was unable. Probably with respect to what AstroDime came out of this..I found a great journal on Environment and it has a few articles which can help lead us as we continue our call for work for Ecology/Ecología in the next journal.

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.