Category Archives: writing

Science and stories: an online talk January 5, 2022 and a course starting on January 10, 2022

So far this year all I’ve been posting about are events and contests. Continuing on that theme, I have an event and, something new, a course.

Massey Dialogues on January 5, 2022, 1 – 2 pm PST

“The Art of Science-Telling: How Science Education Can Shape Society” is scheduled for today (Wednesday, January 5, 5022 at 1 pm PST or 4 pm EST), You can find the livestream here on YouTube,

Massey College

Join us for the first Massey Dialogues of 2022 from 4:00-5:00pm ET on the Art of Science-Telling: How Science Education Can Shape Society.

Farah Qaiser (Evidence for Democracy), Dr. Bonnie Schmidt (Let’s Talk Science) and Carolyn Tuohy (Senior Fellow) will discuss what nonprofits can do for science education and policy, moderated by Junior Fellow Keshna Sood.

The Dialogues are open to the public – we invite everyone to join and take part in what will be a very informative online discussion. Participants are invited to submit questions to the speakers in real time via the Chat function to the right of the screen.

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We also invite you to visit masseycollege.ca/calendar for upcoming events.

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You can find out more about the Massey Dialogues here. As for the college, it’s affiliated with the University of Toronto as per the information on the College’s Governance webpage.

Simon Fraser University (SFU; Vancouver, Canada) and a science communication course

I stumbled across “Telling Science Stories” being offered for SFU’s Spring 2022 semester in my twitter feed. Apparently there’s still space for students in the course.

I was a little surprised by how hard it was to find basic information such as: when does the course start? Yes, I found that and more, here’s what I managed to dig up,

From the PUB 480/877 Telling Science Stories course description webpage,

In this hands-on course, students will learn the value of sharing research knowledge beyond the university walls, along with the skills necessary to become effective science storytellers.

Climate change, vaccines, artificial intelligence, genetic editing — these are just a few examples of the essential role scientific evidence can play in society. But connecting science and society is no simple task: it requires key publishing and communication skills, as well as an understanding of the values, goals, and needs of the publics who stand to benefit from this knowledge.

This course will provide students with core skills and knowledge needed to share compelling science stories with diverse audiences, in a variety of formats. Whether it’s through writing books, podcasting, or creating science art, students will learn why we communicate science, develop an understanding of the core principles of effective audience engagement, and gain skills in publishing professional science content for print, radio, and online formats. The instructor is herself a science writer and communicator; in addition, students will have the opportunity to learn from a wide range of guest lecturers, including authors, artists, podcasters, and more. While priority will be given to students enrolled in the Publishing Minor, this course is open to all students who are interested in the evolving relationship between science and society.

I’m not sure if an outsider (someone who’s not a member of the SFU student body) can attend but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

The course is being given by Alice Fleerackers, here’s more from her profile page on the ScholCommLab (Scholarly Communications Laboratory) website,

Alice Fleerackers is a researcher and lab manager at the ScholCommLab and a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, where she works under the supervision of Dr. Juan Pablo Alperin to explore how health science is communicated online. Her doctoral research is supported by a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from SSHRC and a Michael Stevenson Graduate Scholarship from SFU.

In addition, Alice volunteers with a number of non-profit organizations in an effort to foster greater public understanding and engagement with science. She is a Research Officer at Art the Science, Academic Liaison of Science Borealis, Board Member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC), and a member of the Scientific Committee for the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network (PCST). She is also a freelance health and science writer whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Nautilus, among other outlets. Find her on Twitter at @FleerackersA.

Logistics such as when and where the course is being held (from the course outline webpage),

Telling Science Stories

Class Number: 4706

Delivery Method: In Person

Course Times + Location: Tu, Th 10:30 AM – 12:20 PM
HCC 2540, Vancouver

Instructor: Alice Fleerackers
afleerac@sfu.ca

According to the Spring 2022 Calendar Academic Dates webpage, the course starts on Monday, January 10, 2021 and I believe the room number (HCC2540) means the course will be held at SFU’s downtown Vancouver site at Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street.

Given that SFU claims to be “Canada’s leading engaged university,” they do a remarkably poor job of actually engaging with anyone who’s not member of the community, i.e., an outsider.

FrogHeart casts an eye back to 2021 then looks forward to 2022 and contronyms

Casting an eye back isn’t one of my strong points. Thankfully I can’t be forced into making a top 10 list of some kind. Should someone be deeply disappointed (tongue in cheek) that I failed to mention one of the big 2021 stories featured here, please leave a note in the Comments for this blog and I’ll do my best to add it.

Note: I very rarely feature space exploration unless there’s a nanotechnology or other emerging technology angle to it. There are a lot of people who do a much better job of covering space exploration than I can. (If you’re interested in an overview from a Canadian on the international race to space, you can start with this December 29, 2021 posting “Looking back at a booming year in space” by Bob McDonald of CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] Quirks & Quarks science radio programme.)

Now, onto FrogHeart’s latest year.

2021

One of the standout stories in 2020/21 here and many, many places was the rise of the biotechnology community in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. Lipid nanoparticles used in COVID-19 vaccines became far better known than they ever had before and AbCellera took the business world by storm as its founder became a COVID billionaire.

Here is a sampling of the BC biotechnology/COVID-19 stories featured here,

  • “Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist” December 30, 2020 posting
  • “Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper?” January 22, 2021 posting Note: The company is best known for its work on lipid nanoparticles
  • “mRNA, COVID-19 vaccines, treating genetic diseases before birth, and the scientist who started it all” March 5, 2021 posting Note: This posting also notes a Canadian connection in relation mRNA in the subsection titled “Entrepreneurs rush in”
  • “Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story” August 20, 2021 posting Note: This features a fascinating story from Nathan Vardi (for Forbes) of professional jealousies, competitiveness, and a failure to recognize opportunity when she comes visiting.
  • “Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?” August 23, 2021 posting Note: This explores the biotech companies, the network, and provincial and federal funding, as well as, municipal (City of Vancouver) support and more.

Sadly, I did not have time to feature this September 14, 2021 article (The tangled history of mRNA vaccines; Hundreds of scientists had worked on mRNA vaccines for decades before the coronavirus pandemic brought a breakthrough.) by Elie Dolgin for Nature magazine.

Dolgin starts the story in 1987 and covers many players that were new to me although I did recognize some of the more recent and Canadian players such as Pieter Cullis and Ian MacLachlan. *ETA January 3 ,2021: Cullis and MacLachlan are both mentioned in my ‘Getting erased ..” August 20, 2021 posting.* Fun fact: Pieter Cullis was just named an Officer to the Order of Canada (from the Governor General’s December 29, 2021 news release),

Pieter Cullis, O.C.
Vancouver, British Columbia

For his contributions to the advancement of biomedical research and drug development, and for his mentorship of the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs.

Back to this roundup, I got interested in greener lithium mining, given its importance for batteries in electric vehicles and elsewhere,

2021 seems to have been the year when the science community started podcasting in a big way. Either the podcast was started this year or I stumbled across it this year (meaning it’s likely a podcast that is getting publicized because they had a good first year and they want more listeners for their second year),

  • “New podcast—Mission: Interplanetary and Event Rap: a one-stop custom rap shop Kickstarter” April 30, 2021 posting
  • “Superstar engineers and fantastic fiction writers podcast series” June 28, 2021 posting
  • “Periodically Political: a Canadian podcast from Elect STEM” August 16, 2021 posting
  • “Unlocking Science: a new podcast series launches on November 16, 2021” November 16, 2021 posting
  • “Lost Women of Science” December 2, 2021 posting
  • “Nerdin’ About and Science Diction: a couple of science podcasts” Note: Not posted but maybe one day. Meanwhile, here they are:
    • Nerdin’ About describes itself as, “… a podcast where passionate nerds tell us about their research, their interests, and what they’ve been Nerdin’ About lately. A spin-off of Nerd Nite Vancouver, a community lecture series held in a bar, Nerdin’ About is here to explore these questions with you. Hosted by rat researcher Kaylee Byers (she/her) and astronomy educator Michael Unger (he/him). Elise Lane (she/her) is our Mixing Engineer. Music by Jay Arner. Artwork by Armin Mortazavi.”
    • Science Diction is a podcast offshoot of Science Friday (SciFri), a US National Public Radio (NPR) programme. “… Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Or that the element cobalt takes its name from a very cheeky goblin from German folklore? …”
  • Podcast episode from the Imperial College London features women’s hearts, psychedelic worldviews, and nanotechnology for children” Note: Not posted but maybe one day.
  • Alberta-based podcast explores AI (Artificial Intelligence)” Note 1: You’ll find season one and two on the page I’ve linked to; just keep scrolling. Note 2: Not posted but maybe one day.
  • Own the Science Podcast/À vous la science balado” Note: Not posted but maybe one day.

Integrating the body with machines is an ongoing interest of mine, these particular 2021 postings stood out but there are other postings (click on the Human Enhancement category or search the tag ‘machine/flesh’),

I wrote a few major (long) pieces this year,

  • “Interior Infinite: carnival & chaos, a June 26 – September 5, 2021 show at Polygon Art Gallery (North Vancouver, Canada)” July 26, 2021 posting Note: While this isn’t an art/sci posting it does touch on a topic near and dear to my heart, writers. In particular, the literary theorist, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin.
  • “The metaverse or not” October 22, 2021 posting Note: What can I say? The marketing hype got to me.
  • “True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)” December 3, 2021 posting

2022 and contronyms

I don’t make psychic predictions. As far as I’m concerned, 2022 will be a continuation of 2021, albeit with a few surprises.

My focus on nanotechnology and emerging technologies will remain. I expect artificial intelligence, CRISPR and gene editing (in general), quantum computing (technical work and commercialization), and neuromorphic computing will continue to make news. As for anything else, well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you knew it was coming.

With regard to this blog, I keep thinking about cutting back so I can focus on other projects. Whether I finally follow through this year is a mystery to me.

Because words and writing are important to me, I’d like to end the year with this, which I found in early December 2021. From “25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites” on getpocket.com by Judith Herman originally written for “Mental Floss and … published June 15, 2018,”

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, “Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression,” or does it mean, “Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default”? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean “give official permission or approval for (an action)” or conversely, “impose a penalty on.”

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon (“look at from above”) means “supervise” (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, “over” plus videre, “to see.”) Overlook usually means the opposite: “to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.”

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). …

Herman made liberal use, which she acknowledged, of the Mark Nichol article/list, “75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)” on Daily Writing Tips (Note: Based on the ‘comments’, Nichol’s list appears to be have been posted sometime in 2011),

3. Bill: A payment, or an invoice for payment

4. Bolt: To secure, or to flee

46. Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

47. Quiddity: Essence, or a trifling point of contention

68. Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from

69. Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Happy 2022!

Jean-Pierre Luminet awarded UNESCO’s Kalinga prize for Popularizing Science

Before getting to the news about Jean-Pierre Luminet, astrophysicist, poet, sculptor, and more, there’s the prize itself.

Established in 1951, a scant five years after UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was founded in 1945, the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is the organization’s oldest prize. Here’s more from the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science webpage,

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is an international award to reward exceptional contributions made by individuals in communicating science to society and promoting the popularization of science. It is awarded to persons who have had a distinguished career as writer, editor, lecturer, radio, television, or web programme director, or film producer in helping interpret science, research and technology to the public. UNESCO Kalinga Prize winners know the potential power of science, technology, and research in improving public welfare, enriching the cultural heritage of nations and providing solutions to societal problems on the local, regional and global level.

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is UNESCO’s oldest prize, created in 1951 following a donation from Mr Bijoyanand Patnaik, Founder and President of the Kalinga Foundation(link is external) Trust in India. Today, the Prize is funded by the Kalinga Foundation Trust(link is external), the Government of the State of Orissa, India(link is external), and the Government of India (Department of Science and Technology(link is external)).

Jean-Pierre Luminet

From the November 4, 2021 UNESCO press release (also received via email),

French scientist and author Jean-Pierre Luminet will be awarded the 2021 UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science. The prize-giving ceremony will take place online on 5 November as part of the celebration of World Science Day for Peace and Development.

An independent international jury selected Jean-Pierre Luminet recognizing his longstanding commitment to the popularization of science. Mr Luminet is a distinguished astrophysicist and cosmologist who has been promoting the values of scientific research through a wide variety of media: he has created popular science books and novels, beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogues, poetry, audiovisual materials for children and documentaries, notably “Du Big Bang au vivant” with Hubert Reeves. He is also an artist, engraver and sculptor and has collaborated with composers on musicals inspired by the sounds of the Universe.

His publications are model examples for communicating science to the public. Their scientific content is precise, rigorous and always state-of-the-art. He has written seven “scientific novels”, including “Le Secret de Copernic”, published in 2006. His recent book “Le destin de l’univers : trous noirs et énergie sombre”, about black holes and dark energy, was written for the general public and was praised for its outstanding scientific, historical, and literary qualities. Jean-Pierre Luminet’s work has been translated into a many languages including Chinese and Korean.

There is a page for Luminet in both the French language and English language wikipedias. If you have the language skills, you might want to check out the French language essay as I found it to be more stylishly written.

Compare,

De par ses activités de poète, essayiste, romancier et scénariste, dans une œuvre voulant lier science, histoire, musique et art, il est également Officier des Arts et des Lettres.

With,

… Luminet has written fifteen science books,[4] seven historical novels,[4] TV documentaries,[5] and six poetry collections. He is an artist, an engraver, a sculptor, and a musician.

My rough translation of the French,

As a poet, essayaist, novelist, and a screenwriter in a body of work that brings together science, history, music and art, he is truly someone who has enriched the French cultural inheritance (which is what it means to be an Officer of Arts and Letters or Officier des Arts et des Lettres; see English language entry for Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

In any event, congratulations to M. Luminet.

Speed up your reading with an interactive typeface

A May 12, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily brings news of a technology that makes reading easier,

AdaptiFont has recently been presented at CHI, the leading Conference on Human Factors in Computing.

Language is without doubt the most pervasive medium for exchanging knowledge between humans. However, spoken language or abstract text need to be made visible in order to be read, be it in print or on screen.

How does the way a text looks affect its readability, that is, how it is being read, processed, and understood? A team at TU Darmstadt’s Centre for Cognitive Science investigated this question at the intersection of perceptual science, cognitive science, and linguistics. Electronic text is even more complex. Texts are read on different devices under different external conditions. And although any digital text is formatted initially, users might resize it on screen, change brightness and contrast of the display, or even select a different font when reading text on the web.

A May 12, 2021 Technische Universitat Darmstadt (Technical University of Damstadt; Germany) press release (also on EurekAlert) provides more detail,

The team of researchers from TU Darmstadt now developed a system that leaves font design to the user’s visual system. First, they needed to come up with a way of synthesizing new fonts. This was achieved by using a machine learning algorithm, which learned the structure of fonts analysing 25 popular and classic typefaces. The system is capable of creating an infinite number of new fonts that are any intermediate form of others – for example, visually halfway between Helvetica and Times New Roman.

Since some fonts may make it more difficult to read the text, they may slow the reader down. Other fonts may help the user read more fluently. Measuring reading speed, a second algorithm can now generate more typefaces that increase the reading speed.

In a laboratory experiment, in which users read texts over one hour, the research team showed that their algorithm indeed generates new fonts that increase individual user’s reading speed. Interestingly all readers had their own personalized font that made reading especially easy for them. However: This individual favorite typeface does not necessarily fit in all situations. “AdaptiFont therefore can be understood as a system which creates fonts for an individual dynamically and continuously while reading, which maximizes the reading speed at the time of use. This may depend on the content of the text, whether you are tired, or perhaps are using different display devices,” explains Professor Constantin A. Rothkopf, Centre for Cognitive Science und head of the institute of Psychology of Information Processing at TU Darmstadt.

The AdaptiFont system was recently presented to the scientific community at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI). A patent application has been filed. Future possible applications are with all electronic devices on which text is read.

There’s a 5 minute video featuring the work and narration for a researcher who speaks very quickly,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

AdaptiFont: Increasing Individuals’ Reading Sp0eed with a Generative Font Model and Bayesian Optimization by Florian Kadner, Yannik Keller, Constantin Rothkopf. CHI ’21: Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems May 2021 Article No.: 585 Pages 1-11 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3411764.3445140 Published: 06 May 2021

This paper is open access.

Artificial intelligence is not mentioned but it’s hard to believe that adaptive learning by the software is anything other than a form of AI.

Literature and your brain (the neuroscience of it)

This guy (Angus Fletcher) is a little too much the evangelist for my taste but the ideas supporting the book he has authored and is promoting in this video are in line with a lot of thinking about vision and memory both of which can be described acts of creativity. In this case, Fletcher is applying these ideas to literature, which he describes as an act of co-creation,

A May 3, 2021 news item on phys.org announces the publication of Fletcher’s book,

If you really want to understand literature, don’t start with the words on a page—start with how it affects your brain.

That’s the message from Angus Fletcher, an English professor with degrees in both literature and neuroscience, who outlines in a new book a different way to read and think about stories, from classic literature to pulp fiction to movies and TV shows.

Literature wasn’t invented just as entertainment or a way to deliver messages to readers, said Fletcher, who is a professor at The Ohio State University.

Stories are actually a form of technology. [emphasis mine] They are tools that were designed by our ancestors to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, kindle creativity, spark courage and meet a variety of other psychological challenges of being human,” Fletcher said.

“And even though we aren’t taught this in literature classes today, we can still find and use these emotional tools in the stories we read today.”

Here’s more about the book and ideas supporting it in a May 3, 2021 Ohio State University (OSU) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Grabmeier and Aaron Nestor, which originated the news item,

Fletcher explains these concepts in his book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

For example, in a chapter about fighting loneliness, he discusses how reading The Godfather by Mario Puzo may help. A chapter on feeding creativity talks about the virtues of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh. Looking for the best way to make your dreams come true? For that, Fletcher proposes the TV show 30 Rock.

Wonderworks doesn’t ignore the classics: The book discusses how reading Shakespeare can help us heal from grief, Virginia Woolf can assist readers in finding peace of mind, and Homer can support those needing courage.

Fletcher said his neuroscience background very much influences the approach to literature he takes in Wonderworks.

“When you read a favorite poem or story, you may feel joy, you feel a sense of empathy or connection. One of the things I do in the book is provide the scientific validation for the things we’ve long felt when we’ve read favorite books or watched movies or TV shows that we loved,” he said.

“From my neuroscience background and studies that I’ve done, I can see how literature’s inventions plug into different regions of our brain, to make us less lonely or help us build up our courage or do a variety of other things to help us. Every story is different and is, in effect, a different tool.”

Fletcher said to truly understand the power of literature requires a different way of approaching stories from what is offered by most traditional literature courses.

The usual method of teaching literature focuses on the words, asking students to look for themes, to consider what the author intended to say and mean.

But that’s not the focus at Project Narrative, an Ohio State program of which Fletcher is a member.

“At Project Narrative, we reverse the process. Instead of looking at the words first, we look first at what is going on in your mind. How does this story make you feel? We look at how people are responding to the characters, the plot, the world that the author created,” Fletcher said.

After examining how the story makes you feel, the second part of the process is to trace that feeling back to some invention of the story, whether it is the plot, a character, the narrator, or the world of the story.

The themes of the story, or what the author means to say, are less important in this approach to literature.

That means when you are looking for a book to stimulate your courage, you don’t have to look for a book that has “courage” in the title or even as one of its themes according to traditional literature analysis, Fletcher said.

“Courage comes from reading a work of literature that makes us feel like we’re participating in something bigger than ourselves. It doesn’t have to mention courage or have courage be one of its themes,” he said. “That’s not relevant.”

For example, you wouldn’t think of reading The Godfather to ward off loneliness. But Fletcher said it can have this effect, partly through its use of a specific operatic technique. In Wonderworks, Fletcher explains how some operas feature a period of dissonant and turbulent music that is eventually resolved by a sweet harmony.

“The clashing and discordant music is upsetting, but then the sweet relief of harmony comes and releases dopamine in our brain, bonding us to the music,” he said.

“Puzo does the same thing in The Godfather, by creating chaos and tension in a chapter and then just partly resolving it at the end, giving us this partial dopamine rush that bonds us to the characters and to the story and makes us feel like they are friends.”

And even though it may not be good to be friends with gangsters in real life, the dopamine rush that we get from befriending the Corleone family can help ward off loneliness, he said.

If you’re reading stories like The Godfather while isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may even help ease the transition back to normal life when the world opens back up.

Neuroscientists have discovered that a part of the brain, called the dorsal raphe nucleus, helps us make friends, Fletcher said. It contains a cluster of dopamine neurons that are primed for short periods of loneliness and stand ready to encourage us to be sociable when we again meet people.

But if our isolation lasts weeks or months, like during the pandemic, that priming fades and our brain hunkers down in isolation – making it harder to re-connect with people.

“So what The Godfather and other stories can do is wake up the dorsal raphe nucleus and make it easier to rejoin society when the pandemic is over,” he explained.

Fletcher said the use of operatic techniques in The Godfather is just one example of how literature can be a form of technology.

And he hopes more people will want to figure out how these technological tools in literature really work in our brains.

“The idea behind the book is to give you a different way of reading, one that unlocks the extraordinary power of literature to heal your brain, give you more joy, more courage, whatever you need in your life.”

You can order “Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature” from this Simon & Shuster (publisher) webpage,

A brilliant examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, that shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling any scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind.

Literature is a technology like any other. And the writers we revere—from Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and others—each made a unique technical breakthrough that can be viewed as both a narrative and neuroscientific advancement. Literature’s great invention was to address problems we could not solve: not how to start a fire or build a boat, but how to live and love; how to maintain courage in the face of death; how to account for the fact that we exist at all.

Wonderworks reviews the blueprints for twenty-five of the most powerful developments in the history of literature. These inventions can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui—all while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. They can be found all throughout literature—from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays, poetry to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and crime novels to slave narratives.

An easy-to-understand exploration of the new literary field of story science, Wonderworks teaches you everything you wish you learned in your English class. Based on author Angus Fletcher’s own research, it is an eye-opening and thought-provoking work that offers us a new understanding of the power of literature.

Should you be interested in Project Narrative, it can be found here.

Interior Infinite: carnival & chaos, a June 26 – September 5, 2021 show at Polygon Art Gallery (North Vancouver, Canada)

This is a long read and covers a lot of ground including: a couple of highlights from the ‘Interior Infinite’ show, a reference to how modern galleries came to be what they are, the tension of hosting the unruly (carnivalesque) in a ‘white cube’ (art gallery), a brief history of Mikhail Bakhtin, and more.

If you’re looking for a succinct article about ‘Interior Infinite’, I highly recommend Dorothy Woodend’s June 30, 2020 article (‘Interior Infinite’: The Rich, Heady and Contentious World of Identity) for The Tyee. There’s also a July 12, 2021 review (“Interior Infinite: Costume, carnival and a celebration of reversal”) by Yani Kong for Galleries West. *I almost forgot Sheri Radford’s July 13, 2021 (“Timely new art exhibit explores self-expression“) for the Daily Hive.*

Interior Infinite

I had expectations based on the exhibit description offered by the Polygon Gallery (from the Interior Infinite webpage on the Polygon Gallery website),

Interior Infinite brings together an international group of artists whose works span photography, video, performance, and sculpture. Predominantly featuring portraiture, with an emphasis on self-portraiture, the exhibition focuses on costume and masquerade [emphasis mine] as strategies for revealing, rather than concealing, identities. Across these works, disguise functions as an unmasking [emphasis mine], as artists construct their own images through adornment in order to visually represent embodied experience, memory, and understanding.

Interior Infinite draws on the spirit of Carnival, a celebration of both radical togetherness and unique self-expression [emphasis mine]. The title is drawn from Rabelais and His World [emphasis mine], an influential text by Mikhail Bakhtin [emphasis mine], which extolled the potential for carnivalesque practices to overcome the limits of repressive conformity and expand our social imagination. The vibrant, fluid, and myriad expressions of identities seen in the exhibition become an act of resistance to erasure, pushing narrow definitions of normativity to include a broader range of lived realities. As Bakhtin writes [emphasis mine]: “The interior infinite could not have been found in a closed and finished world”.

Featuring [artists only; emphasis mine]: Lacie Burning, Claude Cahun, Nick Cave, Charles Campbell, Dana Claxton, Martine Gutierrez, Kris Lemsalu, Ursula Mayer, Meryl McMaster, Zanele Muholi, Aïda Muluneh, Zak Ové, Skeena Reece, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Sin Wai Kin, Carrie Mae Weems, Zadie Xa

Expectations met or exceeded

This is an exciting and stimulating show (running from June 26 – September 5, 2021). It was put together within one year, which is supersonic speed in the art gallery world. (It seems to be one of the features of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are seeing institutions respond in a much more timely fashion than we have learned to expect.)

Here’s curator Justin Ramsey describing the show, which was, in part, a response to the George Floyd murder, in this video produced by Nuvo Magazine (from Nuvo’s June 25, 2021 news item by Ayesha Habib),

Videography by Everett Bumstead.

As you can see in the video, there are some beautiful pieces along with a bit of grotesquerie (Greek goddess Baubo) for a more fully realized carnivalesque experience. (More about the carnivalesque later.)

Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu contributed the Baubo Dance installation consisting of the lower body with jeans, cowboy boots, a representation of the vulva, and a detached head/headdress.

Baubo Dance 2021. Ceramics, textile, concrete, metal. Photo: Stanislav Stepaško [downloaded from https://www.krislemsalu.com/]

It looks like teeth on the vulva’s opening. I wonder if the artist meant to refer to the vagina dentata in some way (from its Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

Vagina dentata (Latin for toothed vagina) describes a folk tale in which a woman’s vagina is said to contain teeth, with the associated implication that sexual intercourse might result in injury, emasculation, or castration for the man involved.

This would make the Baubo figure a bit more edgy than might be expected from reading her Wikipedia entry,

Baubo (Ancient Greek: Βαυβώ) is an old woman in Greek mythology which appears particularly in the myths of the early Orphic religion. Known as the Goddess of Mirth, she was bawdy and sexually liberated, and is said to have jested with Demeter, when Demeter was mourning the loss of her daughter, Persephone. [emphases mine]

Figurines known as Baubos are found in a number of settings, usually with Greek connections. They were mass-produced in a number of styles, but the basic figure always exposes the vulva in some way: …

South African artist Zanele Muholi’s photographic work, also featured in the Ramsey video, is beautiful and subtly damning,

Olunye I, The Sails, Durban, 2019 Silver gelatin print 19 7/10 × 12 3/5 in 50 × 32 cm Edition of 8 + 2AP [downloaded from https://www.artsy.net/artwork/zanele-muholi-olunye-i-the-sails-durban]

(Not being a photographer or particularly conversant in the visual arts, the following description is in ‘plainish’ language.)

If you look closely, you’ll see the image is layered so you have a background and what looks like a traditional headcovering, tank top, and skin, all in tones of black. The ropes, particularly around the neck and down the chest, suggest (to me, if no one else) entrapment (being roped) and/or a noose. In any event, it’s a very rich image and it’s better seen in person.

If you can get there, know that Muholi has just had their first major survey (retrospective?) in the UK, which was at the Tate Modern (November 5, 2020 – May 31, 2021), Note: A link has been removed,

Zanele Muholi is one of the most acclaimed photographers working today, and their work has been exhibited all over the world. With over 260 photographs, this exhibition presents the full breadth of their career to date.

Muholi turns the camera on themself in the ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama – translated as ‘Hail the Dark Lioness’ [emphasis mine]. These powerful and reflective images explore themes including labour [emphasis mine], racism, Eurocentrism and sexual politics.​

The four Muholi works in ‘Interior Infinite’ come from the Somnyama Ngonyama series (excerpted from the Tate Modern’s survey show Exhibition Guide; Room 8),

Somnyama Ngonyama (2012 – ongoing) is a series in which Muholi turns the camera on themself to explore the politics of race and representation. The portraits are photographed in different locations around the world. They are made using materials and objects that Muholi sources from their surroundings.The images refer to personal reflections, colonial and apartheid histories of exclusion and displacement, as well as ongoing racism. They question acts of violence and harmful representations of Black people. Muholi’s aim is to draw out these histories in order to educate people about them and to facilitate the processing of these traumas both personally and collectively.

Muholi considers how the gaze is constructed in their photographs. In some images they look away. In others they stare the camera down, asking what it means for ‘a Black person to look back’. When exhibited together the viewer is surrounded by a network of gazes. Muholi increases the contrast of the images in this series, which has the effect of darkening their skin tone.

I’m reclaiming my Blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. [emphasis mine]

The titles of the works in the series remain in is iZulu, Muholi’s first language. This is part of their activism, taking ownership of and pride in their language and identity. It encourages a Western audience to understand and pronounce the names. This critiques what happened during colonialism and apartheid. Then, Black people were often given English names by their employers or teachers who refused to remember or pronounce their real names.

‘Interior Infinite’ is rich with possibility and you can explore and question various identities both within and without.

There is both an audio guide and an exhibition guide available on Polygon’s Interior Infinite audio guide webpage. (There are also tours of the show much of which is replicated in Justin Ramsey’s July 7, 2021 Curator’s Talk. The video run for over 1 hour.)

The challenge of a theme

“… the genesis of it [Interior Infinite] really was the murder of George Floyd, I thought where is art? How does art respond to a crisis, a catastrophe like this?” says exhibit curator Justin Ramsey in his Nuvo Magazine video interview (embedded earlier in this post).

First challenge: the impetus for the show was a murder

Ramsey’s choice to situate the show as a response to George Floyd’s 2020 murder leads to some interesting tensions within the exhibition (internal) and without (external).

How did Ramsey pick? Ultimately, the question is unlikely to be answered. Incidents which reach beyond the headlines to strike the soul and heart are not easily justifiable or explained to others.

As for Ramsey’s question in the video interview: “How does art respond to a crisis, … ?” The question seems fundamental not only to ‘Interior Infinite’ but more generally to 20th and 21st century art.

The response, in this case, was to pull Bakhtin’s concept of ‘carnival’ , also known as, ‘carnivalesque’ from “Rabelais and His World” allowing Ramsey to use it as a kind of banner under which a number of disparate pieces related to each other and the theme both harmoniously and disharmoniously could be gathered.

What is carnival/carnivalesque?

For a sense of what ‘carnival’ or carnivalesque’ means here’s a description from the Carnivalesque Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Carnivalesque is a literary mode [emphasis mine] that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. It originated as “carnival” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and was further developed in Rabelais and His World. For Bakhtin, “carnival” (the totality of popular festivities, rituals and other carnival forms) is deeply rooted in the human psyche on both the collective and individual level. Though historically complex and varied, it has over time worked out “an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms” [emphasis mine] which express a unified “carnival sense of the world, permeating all its forms”. This language, Bakhtin argues, cannot be adequately verbalized or translated into abstract concepts, but it is amenable to a transposition into an artistic language that resonates with its essential qualities: it can, in other words, be “transposed into the language of literature”. Bakhtin calls this transposition the carnivalization of literature.[1] Although he considers a number of literary forms and individual writers [emphasis mine], it is Francois Rabelais, the French Renaissance author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, that he considers the primary exemplars of carnivalization in literature.

The carnival sense of the world “is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order [emphases mine].”[5] This is not to say that liberation from all authority and sacred symbols was desirable as an ideology. Because participation in Carnival extracts all individuals from non-carnival life, nihilistic and individualistic ideologies are just as impotent and just as subject to the radical humour of carnival [emphasis mine] as any form of official seriousness.[6] The spirit of carnival grows out of a “culture of laughter” [emphasis mine]. Because it is based in the physiological realities of the lower bodily stratum (birth, death, renewal, sexuality, ingestion, evacuation etc.) [emphasis mine], it is inherently anti-elitist: its objects and functions are necessarily common to all humans—”identical, involuntary and non-negotiable”.[7]

Bakhtin argues that we should not compare the “narrow theatrical pageantry” and “vulgar Bohemian understanding of carnival” characteristic of modern times [emphasis mine] with his Medieval Carnival.[8] Carnival was a powerful creative event, not merely a spectacle. Bakhtin suggests that the separation of participants and spectators has been detrimental [emphasis mine] to the potency of Carnival. Its power lay in there being no “outside”: everyone participated, and everyone was subject to its lived transcendence of social and individual norms [emphasis mine]: “carnival travesties: it crowns and uncrowns, inverts rank, exchanges roles, makes sense from nonsense and nonsense of sense.”[9]

So, the response to the murder of George Floyd is that art is opposition to the serious, to the dogmatic. and to resistance to change and evolution by means of the carnivalesque? I think that’s what this show is saying.

(For contrasting views, see Dorothy Woodend’s and Yani Kong’s pieces cited at the beginning of this post.)

2nd Challenge: The carnivalesque in the gallery

Bringing something that by its nature is rude, bawdy, chaotic, loud, smelly, high physical contact, participatory, etc. into an art gallery/museum, an institution not known for its tolerance of the unruly, has to be a fraught proposition.

A man, a cartoon penis, and his four year old daughter (unruliness)

Since 2017 when the Polygon Gallery opened (see a Nov. 18, 2017 article by Ben Bengtson for the North Shore News about the opening), it has had at least one incidence of unruliness (from a February 6, 2020 article by Brent Richter for the North Shore News),

Alex Goldkind was with his four-year-old daughter in Lower Lonsdale Feb. 1 [2020] when a gallery staffer invited them in for their monthly Kids First Saturday event on the upper floor.

On the main level, however, they were given a booklet that accompanies the current collage exhibition called I Spy, by Vancouver artist Elizabeth Zvonar, and were asked to circle images inside as they found them in the large collage on the wall. The first one Goldkind saw on the wall was an 18th century political cartoon depicting Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, with general Marquis de Lafayette, who is riding an ostrich shaped like male genitalia.

“Well, it’s a penis and balls. It’s pretty obvious, right? This is not rocket science here. I was just floored,” he said. “I just grabbed my daughter quickly before she saw it and I walked around the corner, just livid. I tore into all the staff there. I said ‘Are you guys insane? You’re inviting children into this?’”

Staff were so frightened by the outburst, they called the RCMP. [Royal Canadian Mounted Police; emphasis mine]

Here’s a photo of the angry parent,

A North Vancouver father says the Polygon Gallery has gone too far, hosting a children’s event when one of the exhibits inside features an illustrated penis. [downloaded from https://www.nsnews.com/local-news/art-and-morality-collide-at-the-north-vans-polygon-gallery-3116447]

Interestingly, there was an apology—for a lack of signage and clarity.

In addition to difficulty tolerating loud noises and angry people (or other unruliness?), there is at least one other aspect to the challenge of bringing the carnivalesque into an art gallery.

The ‘white cube’ aesthetic

White walls and an antiseptic environment are common in many art galleries built since the 1930s according to Dr. Elizabeth Rodini’s 2018(?) essay, A brief history of the art museum, for the Khan Academy,

… it was in the United States that some of the most influential trends in modern art museums also emerged. One of these is the “white cube” approach which, despite precedents in Europe, was most fully exploited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the 1930s under the direction of Alfred H. Barr. By minimizing visual distractions, Barr hoped to direct viewers toward a pure experience of the art work. The bare spaces, white walls, and minimalist frames he used are now so common that we hardly notice them.

The “white cube” was rooted in a philosophy that aimed to liberate art and artists from the conservative forces of history. Ironically, this model has taken over, and art museums from Rio to Abu Dhabi to Shanghai draw on similar exhibition tactics. This has led some museum critics to wonder if the “white cube” has itself become a vehicle of cultural control [emphasis mine].

Rodini goes on to explain further in the comments,

… Its not the whiteness of the walls nor the spare furnishing that are at issue in most critiques of the white cube. Instead, it is the practice of isolating the image and not giving the viewer information [emphasis mine] that would provide details about the object’s origin and its journey from the artist to the museum.This is often done to ensure a “pure” visual experience but it also withholds historical context that can substantially enhance the meaning of a given work of art.

Here’s an image from the slideshow embedded in Ben Bengtson’s Nov. 18, 2017 article about the Polygon Gallery opening,

[ downloaded from https://www.nsnews.com/local-news/polygon-gallery-in-north-vancouver-is-officially-open-3062312]

Kudos to Ramsey and the Polygon Gallery folks for assembling a show with a broad range and providing a little context (take a tour or consult the guides provided online) in an environment that is, if not actively hostile, certainly difficult.

(clunk) The other shoe drops

Largely unmentioned during the tour, Bakhtin’s work, specifically the concept of the carnival/canivalesque, was relegated to a couple of mentions in the second paragraph describing the show and a Bakhtin quote from “Rabelais and His World” on a wall somewhere in the show:

“The interior infinite could not have been found in a closed and finished world, with its distinct fixed boundaries dividing all phenomena and values.” [I believe this alludes to Bakhtin’s notions of finalization and unfinalizability]

As it should be, the focus was on the artists. Still, it was a bit disconcerting to walk into a show where a literary theorist (Bakhtin) has supplied the theme and to hear only a single mention in the tour, which described him simply as a philosopher. (Ramsey gave the tour I attended.)

As for the Bakhtin quote, which is used a frame for this show, the tension between a show based on the unfinalizable, chaotic, rude world of the carnivalesque and the closed, finished (finalization) world of an art gallery in ‘Infinite Interior’ is never discussed.

(Segue) Bakhtin: protean thinker and one-legged man in Stalin’s world**

As far as I can tell, no one yet has been able to adequately summarize Bakhtin’s thinking (I’m not going to try), here’s an attempt from his entry on Wikipedia,

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (/bʌxˈtiːn/bukh-TEEN; Russian: Михаи́л Миха́йлович Бахти́н, IPA: [mʲɪxɐˈil mʲɪˈxajləvʲɪdʑ bɐxˈtʲin]; 16 November [O.S. 4 November] 1895 – 7 March[2] 1975) was a Russian philosopher, literary critic and scholar who worked on literary theory, ethics, and the philosophy of language [emphases mine]. His writings, on a variety of subjects, inspired scholars working in a number of different traditions (Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, religious criticism) and in disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Although Bakhtin was active in the debates on aesthetics and literature that took place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, his distinctive position did not become well known until he was rediscovered by Russian scholars in the 1960s.

With regard to his personal history, Bakhtin was born in 1895 into a family of nobility and then experienced the 1917 Russian revolution followed by a famine and civil war (1918-21). [As for how Russia fared in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic/epidemic, it was one of at least two others [cholera and typhus] suffered through. See history professor Joshua Sanborn’s March 19, 2020 posting on the Russian History blog for more.)

Bakhtin completed his studies (1918) and was diagnosed with a bone disease (osteomyelitis) in 1923. He was apprehended by Soviet secret police and eventually exiled for six years to Kazakhstan (starting in 1928). Four years after his exile ended, his health improved (1938) when part of his right leg was amputated.

World War II (1939 -45) intervened and despite completing his PhD dissertation (Rabelais and His World) he wasn’t able to defend it until after the war. He seems to have defended it twice, in 1946 and, again, in 1949. The work had proved divisive and he was not awarded a doctoral degree (Doctor of Sciences) but, instead, received a lesser degree, Candidate of Sciences (a research doctorate).

He worked in obscurity for the better part of his life, finally receiving some attention in the mid-1960s when he was about 70. He died in 1975.

For anyone who’s interested in more about Bakhtin, I suggest

And, for the truly dedicated,

His work, which largely centered on language, written and spoken, with implications that reach far beyond, seems remarkably à propos in this moment but, given his life circumstances, it’s perhaps not entirely a surprise. **Note: There’s more about the circumstances under which Bakhtin lived at the end of this posting.

Sadly, I didn’t learn much about Bakhtin’s work or life during my June 25, 2021 tour given by curator Justin Ramsey. Perhaps I missed it but I wasn’t able to find anything on the Polygon website either;I had to do a lot of subsequent digging to find out more.

Back to Interior Infinite and the dropped shoe

You go upstairs to see the show and at the beginning there’s a description on the wall with a list of all the artists whose work you will be viewing. Oddly, given that there are writers, activists, and philosophers whose work is quoted and can be seen on the walls throughout the show, they did not rate a list beside the artists, nor are they mentioned in any materials about the show. Moving on.

White Cube syndrome and Interior Infinite

I longed for more context, not just with regard to Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, but the artists and the writers too. The audio guide and exhibition guide available on Polygon’s Interior Infinite audio guide webpage are helpful (neither was posted until June 30, 2021 after my visit) and I recommend them as an entry point to the show. There are also tours.

However and this is a good problem to have, the show touches on so many issues of the moment that a general tour is going to be frustrating. I was surprised that there don’t seem to be any plans for themed tours that highlight particular aspects of the show.

During the tour and during his curator’s talk, Ramsey did mention that there will be a drag event later this summer but neither it nor any other future show-related events are listed on the website at this time.

For the curious, the drag event, which is still being organized (according to Ramsey during his curator’s talk), will hopefully feature Shay Dior and the House of Rice (for more about Dior and The House of Rice, there’s a Feb. 7, 2020 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) website, “Who run the world? Vancouver drag mother Shay Dior and her growing family of queer Asian kids” by Peter Knegt).

Bringing the ‘outside’ onto art tours

There’s a tendency to assume that people going on tours through an art exhibition are a ‘tabula rasa’, i.e., a blank slate. I’m guessing this is, at least in part, a legacy of education systems that still largely operate on that principle.

Note: I’ve taken more than one tour at various art gallery/museums in Vancouver and have found that the Rennie Museum is the best at including the tour members. Almost certainly the people guiding you through the exhibit will not only invite questions and comments but also allow time for you to respond. Even better, sometimes the guide will include something a tour member told them on a previous tour.

A complete list of the artists and the types of artwork featured

While I have found lists of the artists in the show, there’s only one place where I found a list of each of the types of artwork featured in the show along with the artist who produced them, from artdaily.com’s The Polygon Gallery presents Interior Infinite, a celebration of radical togetherness and unique self-expression webpage (Note: I have made a formatting change; it should be a bulleted list after “The exhibition features:”),

The exhibition features:

A new sculpture by 2020 Phillip B. Lind Emerging Artist Prize runner up Lacie Burning (b. 1992, Brampton, ON) in the Reflection Series, depicting a cloaked figure wearing a mask made of mosaicked mirror fragments

A series of self-portraits by French surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (b. 1894, Nantes, France), whose practice exploring gender and sexual identity was ahead of its time

An original sound piece consisting of birdsong cut into Morse code, as an expansion of Charles Campbell’s (b. 1970, Jamaica) Actor Boy performance series

A soundsuit and video from acclaimed sculptor, dancer, and performance artist Nick Cave (b. 1959, Fulton, Missouri)

A portrait by 2020 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts recipient Dana Claxton (b. 1959, Yorkton, SK), featuring the artist wearing her collection of handmade leather handbags created by Indigenous artisans

A selection of photographs from Martine Gutierrez’s (b. 1989, Berkeley, California) self-made satirical fashion magazine Indigenous Woman

The end

I both love and hate this show. It is rich with ideas and possibilities.

George Floyd

One of the reason this show is so difficult to embrace is that It’s hard to imagine someone like George Floyd (Wikipedia entry) who had a criminal record and was struggling at the time of his death would have felt welcome at Polygon’s ‘Interior Infinite’. BTW, my father would not have felt comfortable either. In his case, the issue would have been social class.

George Floyd mural Under the 496 Bridge in Lansing, Michigan.l Mural artist: Isiah Lattimore; Lettering by artist Erik Phelps [downloaded from https://lansingartgallery.org/artpath-2020-george-floyd/]

Given that his murder was the impetus for ‘Interior Infinite’, I expected to see some mention of him in the gallery or on the exhibition’s webpage.

Writers?

As a writer, I’m disappointed (but unsurprised) that the people who provided text for the quotes on the gallery walls were not listed on the wall beside the list of artists. It’s almost as if the quotes are wallpaper.

Identity confusion

As for the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival (Ramsey repeatedly refers to the Trinidad Carnival in his July 7, 2021 Curator’s Talk) that seems more egregious in a showcase for identity and given there’s a local version of the carnival, Caribbean Days Festival, held fairly close to the Polygon Gallery every July for over 30 years (the 2021 edition has been cancelled). And yes, it’s organized by the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Society of British Columbia.

More Bakhtin

Deeply thoughtful with regard to the artworks on display and social justice issues, It would have been helpful if Ramsey had shared more about how Bakhtin’s carnivalesque is invoked in this show. It’s as if the staff at the Polygon let me smell the baking but never offered me any cinnamon buns. How does the Bakhtin quote which alludes to his concepts of unfinalizability and finalization play a role in ‘Interior Infinite’?

Any Bakhtin scholars out there care to respond? Please do.

No mention of COVID-19 masks

In a show featuring masks, how do you not mention COVID-19 or any of the current discussion about masks? It’s one of the more curious omissions in the show.

A couple of thoughts

It seems to me that Ramsey let the show, the carnivalesque, and Bakhtin get away from him. The impulse towards finalization overcame him and so he presents the show, in his curator’s talk, as ‘art’s response’ to the murder of George Floyd and other instances of repression.

By contrast, Bakhtin’s carnivalesque in “Rabelais and His World” presents unfinalizability in the rude, bawdy, smelly, chaotic, loud, dangerous, grotesque place where identities are mocked, inverted, and made fun of.

Ultimately, Ramsey never grapples with (or even seems to acknowledge) the paradox at the heart of his project.

The failure doesn’t matter. Go see ‘Interior Infinite’ anyway. it’s worth the trip to the gallery. And, if you’re inclined, bring your carnivalesque spirit.

PS: If you see any mistakes or have any comments, please let me know via the commenting feature on this blog.

*Sheri Radford’s July 13, 2021 article for the Daily Hive added on July 26, 2021 at 13:40 PDT.

**July 28, 2021: The subhead “(Segue) Bakhtin: protean thinker and one-legged man in Stalin’s world” was corrected (‘and’ replaced ‘with’) and here’s more about the Bakhtin’s circumstances from Caryl Emerson’s “The First Hundred Years of Michail Bakhtin” 1997, Princeton University Press,

When Maxim Gorky laid down the Socialist Realist “rules” for creative literature in the Stalinist 1930s, and when Mikhail Bakhtin, then in political exile in Kazakhstan, wrote hundreds of pages that refuted those rules by invoking as exemplary ***different*** genres and different authors, both men were acting wholly within the tradition of Russian literary culture. For unlike America in much of its modern phase, literary accomplishment and criticism in Russia has mattered. You could get arrested and killed [emphasis mine] for it; thus educated society revered its poets and considered literary progress to be a bellwether of its own. (p. 10)

***July 29, 2021: ‘differed’ changed to ‘different

I am a book. I am a portal to …

Interactive data visualization for children who want to learn about the universe in the form of a book was published by Penguin Books as “I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.” was first published in 2020. As of April 2021, it has crossed the Atlantic Ocean occasioning an April 16, 2021 article by Mark Wilson for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

… A collaboration between data-centric designer Stefanie Posavec and data journalist Miriam Quick, …

“The pared-back aesthetic is due to the book’s core concept. The whole book, even the endnotes and acknowledgements, is written in the first person, in the book’s own voice. [emphasis mine] It developed its own rather theatrical character as we worked on it,” says Posavec. “The book speaks directly to the reader using whatever materials it has at its disposal to communicate the wonders of our universe. In the purest sense, that means the book’s paper and binding, its typeface and its CMYK [cyan, magenta, yellow, black] ink, or, as the book would call them, its ‘superpowers.’” [emphases mine]

It’s hard to explain without actually experiencing it. Which is exactly why it’s so much fun. For instance, at one moment, the book asks you to put it on your head [emphasis mine] and take it off. That difference in weight you feel? That’s how much lighter you are on the top of a mountain than at sea level, the book explains, because of the difference in gravity at different altitudes. …

I recommend reading Wilson’s April 16, 2021 article in its entirety if you have the time as it is peppered with images, GIFs, and illustrative stories.

The “I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.” website offers more details,

“Typography and design combine thrillingly to form something that is

eye-opening in

every sense”

— Financial Times

Hello. I am a book.
But I’m also a portal to the universe.

I have 112 pages, measuring 20cm high and wide. I weigh 450g. And I have the power to show you the wonders of the world.

I’m different to any other book around today. I am not a book of infographics. I’m an informative, interactive experience, in which the data can be touched, felt and understood, with every measurement represented on a 1:1 scale. How long is an anteater’s tongue? How tiny is the DNA in your cells? How fast is gold mined? How loud is the sun? And how many stars have been born and exploded in the time you’ve taken to read this sentence?

… 

There is a September 2020 Conversations with Data podcast: Episode 13 (hosted by Tara Kelly on Spotify) featuring Stefanie Posavec (data-centric designer) and Miriam Quick (data journalist) discussing their book.

You can find Miriam Quick’s website here and Stefanie Posavec’s website here.

Superstar engineers and fantastic fiction writers podcast series

The ‘Inventive Podcast’ features the superstar engineers and fantastic fiction writers of the headline. The University of Salford (UK) launched the series on Wednesday, June 23, 2021or International Women in Engineering Day. Here’s more about the series from a June 21, 2021 University of Salford press release (Note: I liked the title so much I ‘borrowed’ it),

Superstar engineers and fantastic fiction writers collaborate on the brand-new Inventive Podcast

The University of Salford has announced the launch of the brand-new Inventive Podcast featuring the incredible stories of engineers whose innovative work is transforming the world we live in.

Professor Trevor Cox, Inventive Host and an Acoustical Engineer from the University of Salford said: “Engineering is so central to our lives, and yet as a subject it’s strangely hidden in plain sight. I came up with idea of Inventive to explore new ways of telling the story of engineering by mixing fact and fiction.”  He went on to comment, “Given the vast number of podcasts out there, it’s surprising how few shows focus on engineering (beyond tech).”

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences [Research] Council (EPSRC) and brings together two Schools at the University: Science, Engineering and Environment & Arts, Media and Creative Technology.  The series will debut on Wednesday 23 June [2021], International Women in Engineering Day, with a further with 6 new episodes dropping across the summer.

Over the course of the eleven-episode series, Professor Cox meets incredible Inventive engineers. In the first episode he interviews: electronics engineer, Shrouk el Attar, a refugee and campaigner for LGBT rights, recently awarded the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) Prize for her work in femtech, smart tech that improves the lives of cis women and trans men, at the Institution of Engineering and Technology Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards 2021; structural engineer Roma Agrawal designed the foundation and spire of London’s The Shard; and chemical engineer Askwar Hilonga who didn’t have access to clean water growing up in his village in Tanzania, but has gone on to win the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation for his water purification nano filter.

This podcast is not just for engineers and techies! Engineering is typically represented in the media by historical narratives or ‘boy’s toys’ approach – biggest, longest, tallest. We know that has limited appeal, so we set ourselves a challenge to reach a wider audience. Engineering needs to tell better stories with people at the centre. So, we’ve interwoven factual interviews with stories commissioned from fantastic writers: C M Taylor’s piece The Night Builder, is inspired by structural engineer Roma Agrawal and includes a Banksy-like figure who works with concrete. Science Fiction writer Emma Newman’s Healing the Fractured is inspired by engineer Greg Bowie who makes trauma plates to treat broke bones and is set in a dystopian future, reminiscent of Handmaid’s Tale, with the engineer as an unexpected hero.

For more information and to sign-up for the latest episodes go to: www.inventivepodcast.com

I listened to Trevor Cox’s interview for the first and, so far, only Inventive episode, with engineer, Shrouk El-Attar, which includes award-winning writer and poet, Tania Hershman, performing her piece ‘Human Being As Circuit Board, Human Being as Dictionary‘ combining fiction, poetry and non-fiction based on El-Attar’s story. (Check out Shrouk El-Attar’s eponymous website here.)

I recognized one of the upcoming interview subjects, Askwar Hilonga, as his work with water filters in Tanzania has been featured here twice, notably in this June 16, 2015 posting.

Finally Tania Hershman (Twitter: @taniahershman) has an eponymous website here. (Note: In September 2021 she will be leading a 4-week online Science-Flavoured Writing course for the London Lit Lab. A science background isn’t necessary and, if you’re short on cash, there are some options.)

Future of Being Human: a call for proposals

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is investigating the ‘Future of Being Human’ and has instituted a global call for proposals but there is one catch, your team has to have one person (with or without citizenship) who’s living and working in Canada. (Note: I am available.)

Here’s more about the call (from the CIFAR Global Call for Ideas: The Future of Being Human webpage),

New program proposals should explore the long term intersection of humans, science and technology, social and cultural systems, and our environment. Our understanding of the world around us, and new insights into individual and societal behaviour, have the potential to provide enormous benefits to humanity and the planet. 

We invite bold proposals from researchers at universities or research institutions that ask new questions about our complex emerging world. We are confronting challenging problems that require a diverse team incorporating multiple disciplines (potentially spanning the humanities, social sciences, arts, physical sciences, and life sciences [emphasis mine]) to engage in a sustained dialogue to develop new insights, and change the conversation on important questions facing science and humanity.

CIFAR is committed to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment. We welcome proposals that include individuals from countries and institutions that are not yet represented in our research community.

Here’s a description, albeit, a little repetitive, of what CIFAR is asking researchers to do (from the Program Guide [PDF]),

For CIFAR’s next Global Call for Ideas, we are soliciting proposals related to The Future of Being Human, exploring in the long term the intersection of humans, science and technology, social and cultural systems, and our environment. Our understanding of the natural world around us, and new insights into individual and societal behaviour, have the potential to provide enormous benefits to humanity and the planet. We invite bold proposals that ask new questions about our complex emerging world, where the issues under study are entangled and dynamic. We are confronting challenging problems that necessitate a diverse team incorporating multiple disciplines (potentially spanning the humanities, social sciences, arts, physical sciences, and life sciences) to engage in a sustained dialogue to develop new insights, and change the conversation on important questions facing science and humanity. [p. 2 print; p. 4 PDF]

There is an upcoming information webinar (from the CIFAR Global Call for Ideas: The Future of Being Human webpage),

Monday, June 28, 2021 – 1:00pm – 1:45pm EDT

Webinar Sign-Up

Also from the CIFAR Global Call for Ideas: The Future of Being Human webpage, here are the various deadlines and additional sources of information,

August 17, 2021

Registration deadline

January 26, 2022

LOI [Letter of Intent] deadline

Spring 2022

LOIs invited to Full Proposal

Fall 2022

Full proposals due

March 2023

New program announcement and celebration

Resources

Program Guide [PDF]

Frequently Asked Questions

Good luck!

Deus Ex, a video game developer, his art, and reality

The topics of human enhancement and human augmentation have been featured here a number of times from a number of vantage points, including that of a video game seires with some thoughtful story lines known under the Deus Ex banner. (My August 18, 2011 posting, . August 30, 2011 posting, and Sept. 1, 2016 posting are three, which mention Deus Ex in the title but there may be others where the game is noted in the posting.)

A March 19, 2021 posting by Timothy Geigner for Techdirt offers a more fulsome but still brief description of the games along with a surprising declaration (it’s too real) by the game’s creator (Note: Links have been removed),

The Deus Ex franchise has found its way onto Techdirt’s pages a couple of times in the past. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a cyberpunk-ish take on the near future with broad themes around human augmentation, and the weaving of broad and famous conspiracy theories. That perhaps makes it somewhat ironic that several of our posts dealing with the franchise have to do with mass media outlets getting confused into thinking its augmentation stories were real life, or the conspiracy theories that centered around leaks for the original game’s sequel were true. The conspiracy theories woven into the original Deus Ex storyline were of the grand variety: takeover of government by biomedical companies pushing a vaccine for a sickness it created, the illuminati, FEMA [US Federal Emergency Management Agency] takeovers, AI-driven surveillance of the public, etc.

And it’s the fact that such conspiracy-driven thinking today led Warren Spector, the creator of the series, to recently state that he probably wouldn’t have created the game today if given the chance. [See pull quote below]

Deus Ex was originally released in 2000 but took place in an alternate 2052 where many of the real world conspiracy theories have come true. The plot included references to vaccinations, black helicopters, FEMA, and ECHELON amongst others, some of which have connotations to real-life events. Spector said, “Interestingly, I’m not sure I’d make Deus Ex today. The conspiracy theories we wrote about are now part of the real world. I don’t want to support that.”

… I’d like to focus on how clearly this illustrates the artistic nature of video games. The desire, or not, to create certain kinds of art due to the reflection such art receives from the broader society is exactly the kind of thing artists operating in other artforms have to deal with. Art imitates life, yes, but in the case of speculative fiction like this, it appears that life can also imitate art. Spector notes that seeing what has happened in the world since Deus Ex was first released in 2000 has had a profound effect on him as an artist. [See pull quote below]

Earlier, Spector had commented on how he was “constantly amazed at how accurate our view of the world ended up being. Frankly it freaks me out a bit.” Some of the conspiracy theories that didn’t end up in the game were those surrounding Denver Airport because they were considered “too silly to include in the game.” These include theories about secret tunnels, connections to aliens and Nazi secret societies, and hidden messages within the airport’s artwork. Spector is now incredulous that they’re “something people actually believe.”

It was possible for Geigner even back to an Oct. 18, 2013 posting to write about a UK newspaper that confused Deus Ex with reality,

… I bring you the British tabloid, The Sun, and their amazing story about an augmented mechanical eyeball that, if associated material is to be believed, allows you to see through walls, color-codes friends and enemies, and permits telescopic zoom. Here’s the reference from The Sun.

Oops. See, part of the reason that Sarif Industries’ cybernetic implants are still in their infancy is that the company doesn’t exist. Sarif Industries is a fictitious company from a cyberpunk video game, Deus Ex, set in a future Detroit. …

There’s more about Spector’s latest comments at a 2021 Game Developers Conference in a March 15, 2021 article by Riley MacLeod for Kotaku. There’s more about Warren Spector here. I always thought Deus Ex was developed by Canadian company, Eidos Montréal and, fter reading the company’s Wikipedia entry, it seems I may have been only partially correct.

Getting back to Deus Ex being ‘too real’, it seems to me that the line between science fiction and reality is increasingly frayed.