an interview with Eduardo Navas
*particle group* is a collective consisting of Principal Investigators Ricardo Dominguez and Diane Ludin, as well as Principal Researchers Nina Waisman (Interactive Sound Installation design)and Amy Sara Carroll, with a number of others flowing in and out. The collective draws from the hard and social sciences to develop installations that are critically engaged with the politics of science and its market. Their aim with the installation “Particles of Interest” is to shed light on the lack of regulation of nanoparticles in consumer goods. In the following interview the *particle group* shares its views on the current state of nanotechnology production, as well as a possible future that we may all be facing, in which nanomachines just might make difficult decisions for us.
[Eduardo Navas]: How does collaboration take place within the *particle group*? You describe members’ roles as Investigators and Researchers. Could you explain how these terms are relevant to each collaborator’s contribution to the project?
[*particle group*]: We mimic the structure of a research and development model for a university laboratory. By laboratory we mean a group of individuals who pursue conceptual investigations determined by a chronology of work that the Investigators have determined. Here, though, it should be noted that already we morph the template as Principal Investigators become Principle Investigators, homonymically signalling our investments in science’s narrative “engines of creation,” the aesthetic/ized practices and/or “naturalized” conceptualisms inherent in research, investigation, discovery and data transfer within scientific communities’ “normalized” articulations of self.
Generally the researchers participate from the beginning stages of materializing/performing/manifesting the work that the collective *particle group* eventually presents in counter/public spheres as varied as the art museum, the mall, and/or the scientific meeting. Researchers work in tandem with Investigators to develop their interpretations of the subject matter under investigation, augmentation, and/or erasure. So each time we are invited (or invite ourselves) to stage an iteration of our research, we meet and discuss via Skype or email what our intentions should be for the “performance.” To date we have had a different crew of researchers for each presentation, so inherent in particle group’s particularization and particle-ization is a revolving/open door policy toward creative maelstroming. This project was produced in large part by Calit2, and so it made aesthetic sense to us to approach the project as would-be art(is)cientists and to stage a series of p(our)-us epistemologies (on the testbeds of these strange viroids of art and science) and not to see the gesture of art and science as two bunkers at war—but as possible thought-scapes of concern under the sign of “nano-ethics and nano-constructions.” Each one as blind as the other, each one helping the other over the rocking shoals of Particle Capitalism(s).
In response to your interest in “each collaborator’s contribution”… We begin shaping each of our presentations by engaging in a series of group conversations. This generates a kind of “group mind” regarding the key ideas guiding that presentation. We then leave researchers free to move from these common concerns to authoring, through medium-specific research/experience, which threads these ideas into play. In this phase of development, each researcher authors, builds, programs, designs, records, writes, shoots or appropriates material as s/he sees fit, according to his/her particular skills/facilities/whims. Thus the iPod nano videos were authored by members of the group focused on video and textual interplay, on visual and concrete poetries; the interactive installation was created by members more attuned to sonic/bodily interactions and programming. Yet these works draw on particulate matter previously generated by other members of the group, as well as material newly discovered by the researchers out on the web, in scientific journals, in popular media, in dreamscapes, and waking, Otherworldly out-of-body experiments. In this way, each particular work bears the traces of both a group and individual (political) un/consciousness. Following the traditions of laboratory research and post-contemporary cultural production, we build on prior investigations through appropriation, critical re-framing and outright speculation.
[EN]: Your installation appears as a conscious effort to balance out aesthetics in the tradition of minimal art and the performance often linked to it historically, while also presenting questions about the responsibility of researchers developing nanotechnology. Could you elaborate on your decisions in trying to reflect on an art movement and a scientific field of research?
[*pg*]: We are in an age when scientific inquiry connotes a relatively less questioned authority than that of an artist. It is that liminality in what can be titled a knowledge industry of artistic production and the knowledge industry of scientific research/inquiry that we are exploring in the particle group’s work. Since we have so much lateral access to the scientific research that feeds industrial development, we decided to apply artful techniques to the scientific representation that is publicly available. We also apply simple, scientific principles to that same media collection and role play with it to make it more human somehow—a kind of performance-equals-empirical-expression approach. By recombining the rational and the impulsive we come up with situations and media designed to reawaken the question of what we know about what we are surrounded by, buy, use, live in, etc. The commodification of new technology has become a system akin to corporate branding and identity construction for objects and ideas. The way in which our sense of material awareness is questioned needs to be redrawn and we are ‘sketching out frames’ to make that possible.
Regarding your specific question about the place of minimalism in this piece, each iteration of this project is, as much as possible, formally and structurally site-specific. This version of the piece functions as an access route to Calit2’s gallery, so we became interested in the pedestal and the host of scripts it serves in the gallery or museum. Pedestals are used to elevate that which the institution has designated to be of value; they are used practically to create a viewer choreography through the gallery space that casts the viewer in the role of participant-observer; they set off that which is presented from the mundane; they make what is proffered untouchable, and thus unknowable in many ways. And here in the Nano3 labs at Calit2, we find the laboratory cousin of the pedestal—the clean white (or aluminum) counter, whose contents may only be intimately accessed by professionals. Visitors to Calit2’s nanolabs are positioned to watch skilled nanolab professionals perform a range of interactions with nanoparticles. In our piece, we wanted our “unskilled” visitors to perform this meeting with the untouchable in a different way. We wanted to bring the clean room and the gallery pedestal together, to see what they might have to say to each other. Doing so puts into play some of the forms and concerns of minimalism.
We also wanted to tweak the pedestal’s scripts by crossing them with some of the scripts of control and manipulation we feel are driving the nanotech industry. The incantation of newly coined nanoparticle names (nano diamonds, sublimed fullerenes, electro-exploded gold nanopowders, etc.) in hypnotic, seductive or chirpy voices is not unlike the outside world’s steady feed of cleverly written sonic advertising, garnering attention by promising control over wealth, happiness, and the next big problems. The voices we employed might lure one towards the pedestals from which they emerge, while blasts of air spewed from these same sound sources might move visitors into a more self-consciously manipulated state. The desire to know the “truth” that a pedestal promises may, in this installation, lead visitors to focus on the bodily scripting required to make the pedestal talk. The resulting sound—a mix of air circulation effects and propagandistic texts (from all sides of the nano-battles)—penetrates the body invisibly, as do the nanoparticles currently buried in transparent sunblocks, clothing, baby lotions, etc. The more time you spend in the piece, or with nanoproducts, the more your body is host to a range of interactions run by unseen, speculative scripts.
We hope that the more time you spend with the piece, the more you might realize the fallacies of the optic. As the adage goes, “there’s more than meets the eye.” While a certain “minimalism” might be measured vis-a-vis visual economies of re/presentation, in the larger sense/s, there is nothing minimal or minimalistic about this iteration of the *particle group*. To the contrary, the aural/oral/textual borders on the excessive or ultra-baroque here. The participant-observer is bombarded with constellating and im/exploding languages—be it in the guise of the above-mentioned persuasive re-scripting of a “steady-feed” of “sonic advertising,” in the streaming poetics of the illuminated nanoscripts, or in the the nano-janitor’s eerily accented improvisation of science’s racialized borderization. The ideal interlocutor is able to codeswitch between the pedestals-turned-towers-of-babble and the project’s other assemblages, is able to navigate the variety of aural/oral/textual (versus purely focal) ranges conjured up/against/and through the false vision of a cleanroom’s *minimalist* aesthetics (and politics). But the overall ambience is meant to be one of bombardment, surround-sound, sensory overload, replicated in and through the sprawling parallel tracks of *particles of interest*’s concomitant website.
Here’s another way to tell the story, brought to you vis-a-vis popular culture and the ancillary investigations of our “smallest” researcher Dr. Ze: in Dr. Seuss’s beloved classic Horton Hears a Who, the protagonist must convince those around him that “people are people no matter how small,” that there are teeming worlds that ostensibly are illegible or, in the best-case scenario, read as *invisible.* This is a story about the “nano,” about the excessively miniature, about the convenience of a minimalist dismissal of that which resides in and beyond “normal” focal ranges. Similarly, *particle group* seeks to unpack expansive vistas often quarantined within the hallowed laboratories of nanotechnological innovation, to point out the simple logic of cause-and-effect, the reverberating echoes of experimentation (positive and negative) on even the tiniest of scales. Such a project demands an innovative relationship to the baroque, one that evokes more than meets the eye/I: a de/construction of the pedestal in the hopes of interrupting business-as-usual, a sonic seance that channels the spooks outside and inside the room (as well as those residing in the doorjamb–the better to withstand the magnitude of the quakes, quirks, and quantum leaps and bounds to come!), scrolling de/compositions that seek to “dirty” clean images.
[EN]: Your text “Particle Philosophy” explains that artists and responsible citizens who become aware of the implications of nanotechnology need not understand everything with the same intimacy that a scientist dedicated to the field would, but that “while it may be possible to fully perform within the scientific networks that float in the inaccessible atmosphere of scientific objectivity, one possible zone for intervention and re-reading by artists and activists is the space between system-based biology and the networks that Clone Capitalism is now interlocking into the old E-Capitalism database, sharing tools in order to create new speculation bubbles.”
[*pg*]: The contrasts/unities of art and science are also of core interest for us. Some of our questions could be noted as such: why is the type of reality a scientific researcher creates through empiric method given more value? Because it is reproducible and therefore closer to a commodifiable product? It would seem that way. Our present day technological development has been the result of artistic, scientific, and engineering research and investigation. What happens to our understanding of each when we assume an empiricism that falls within the time-frame of performance and/or transmission (performance, inspiration, chance occurrence, and the first stage of a discovery procedure)? How close can we get to that which we are given to accept as representations of reality, when it is being redefined by the likes of training that is scientific and not within the realm of (post)humanistic traditions? What can the culturally sanctioned artistic frame/situation of emerging/exclusive scientific research and method bring to multiple counter/publics? One possible staging area is around the shared conditions that art and science find themselves in—the distributed condition of the post-contemporary; it is there that small possibilities may come to the foreground in order to disturb and re-frame the nature of “research” both within Particle Capitalism, science/art and the nano-scales with(out)—what can be imagined as “research” not completely bound or better yet unbound by the Scylla and Charybdis of post-contemporary “venture science” and for-profit “research.” As we stated before, are there not other “engines of creation” possible that are at play with the pulsing scales of an impossible art(is)cience and its reverse?
[EN]: Could you explain how this can be possible when it is access, understanding, and implementation of knowledge that allows the scientists to have power? What are some of the effective ways in which an artist or activist who does not have mastery of scientific language can have power within the system-based biology? How can one effectively contribute or question a discourse in which one may be accused of misunderstanding the issues at hand due to the limitations of knowledge? Could you elaborate on how Particles of Interest is related to this conundrum?
[*pg*]: It is important to understand that science itself is bound to issues of representation, discourse, economic drives and definitions, to social distinctions, and that it is not somehow completely unbound from these frames by its “objectivity” and “testability.” Every form of knowledge has its limits and fault lines, some of which can only be outlined by those who lack complete “mastery”of its epistemological categories. As artists and activists, we are not trying to shift the process of scientific production, but to ask what is not being tested and why? And, how are the processes being narrated? In our case, why is nano-toxicology receiving so little funding on a national and global scale? Why are so many everyday products ranging from cosmetics to tennis balls being brought to market with little to no long-term testing of their effects on the human body? Just recently the BBC reported on a U.K. report that links an asbestos trajectory to the nanotubes that are being used in many products without any warnings attached.
“Carbon nanotubes, the poster child of the burgeoning nanotechnology industry, could trigger diseases similar to those caused by asbestos,” a study suggests. Specific lengths of the tiny fibers were found to cause ‘asbestos-like’ inflammation and lesions in mice. Use of asbestos triggered a pandemic of lung disease in the 20th Century.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7408705.stm
A number of science-studies scholars, including Chela Sandoval and Donna Haraway, have consistently diagrammed the possibility of re-framing science from the “technologies that see from below.” This form of intervention opens this empirical system of knowledge to other “meanings and bodies” that are “unimaginable from the vantage point of the cyclopian, self-satiated eye of the master subject” of the imaginary condition of science as “pure and completely objective.” Like most of us around the world, it is also bound to the top-down controls of neoliberal-isms—systems’ theories that may not be seeking the best science for science’s sake, but only what is needed to sell something to and on market continua (where the ideal formula for Coca-Cola in the U.S. is not identical to the ideal in Zimbabwe, i.e., one needs to “sweeten the pot”). In this multiverse, we work from “by-any-means-possible-or-necessary positions,” i.e., suiting up and disposing of a master/slave dialectic and/or the contradictory attitudes that “The Master’s Tools Will Never (but just might) Dismantle the Master’s House.”
[EN]: Particles of Interest is presented as an extension of Capital and Colonialism. At one point it is reminiscent of the Terminator movies, in which the machines take over the world. In this fashion, the article “Particle Philosophy” outlines the possibility that machines might end up making decisions for human beings because we might reach a state so complex in cultural production that it would be impossible for humans to make decisions. If this were to happen, would the machines, because they were initially programmed by humans, simply reinforce already-established ideologies?
[*pg*]: Yes, the reproduction of our all-too-human desires, visions, and faults will no doubt become part of the viroids and nanites that we are assembling now, in much the same way that our early post-human cells were assembled by the entanglement of/with hot star stuff and strange encounters with those “potato spindle tuber viroids” which we call life. We often like to quote: “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” — George Dyson, “Darwin Among the Machines”
This indeed creates speculative hints we like to call “trans_patent tales” that point to the new potentials at play of machinic desire seeking at the nano-scale to become their own forms of being and becoming (which do often mimic our post-contemporary currents) in order to survive, to invent, to keep their young under control. In our “trans_patent tales” our very bodies become factories for other forms that see, seethe, and seize their own freedoms, their own communities, their own rights:
“Trans_Patent 6608386: Sub-nanoscale electronic devices and bacterial processes July 12, 2006 By Assignee(s) Yale University/YU (New Haven, CT) Inventors: Reed, Mark A. (Southport, CT); Tour, James M. (Columbia, SC). Sometimes Lila would feel a bit itchy as she floated in her partner a few hours before integration. Most birthing was now a trans_patented condition involving sub-nanoscale trading—it was the only way to pay the cost of life now. So every hour during this last trimester Lila and her partner would ferment mass nanowire production on her in-vitro skin in collaboration with the YU bacteria colonies. She could feel the oldest most sustainable microbes on the planet staging WIPO-2 contracts for the latest off-scale metal-changing particles. Hundreds upon hundreds of YU products were waiting impatiently for her to catch a bit of crying air at the edges of her partner’s canal to install and run—for just in time delivery. Delivery was all that mattered now.”