Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Evaporation of Things, distilled

Ken MacLeod at the Evaporation of Things

Social science has a permanent problem of identifying its objects of study. The relationships, interactions, institutions, organizations and other aspects of society may have all sorts of things connected with them that we can see and touch, such as houses and police stations and pound coins and wedding rings, but the relationships themselves they aren't stuff you can spot on CCTV. Identifying new or hitherto unnoticed goings-on between people or in their minds or in how they relate to the world around them is always going to be tricky and contestable. Is such-and-such a one-off, a will-o-the-wisp, or is it, as the fashion columnists would say, a thing? (This usage of 'a thing' has definitely become a thing.)

Artists, at least the kind of artists who cause outrage and bafflement when their work is exhibited in the Tate, have a similar problem. You want your work to glom onto something significant and say something about it that makes sense to yourself if to no one else, and you're allowed to do that with any material at all within the law and health and safety regulations: bits of tin, wire, plaster of Paris, marble, bronze, paint, canvas, neon tubes, dust bunnies, pickled shark... If you're very clever and /or lucky, you might hit on exactly the right expression for some feeling or situation or condition that no one has quite put their finger on before. Fame, fortune, and an angry editorial in the Daily Mail await.

So there they are, social scientists and artists, looking about, antennae quivering, alert for the new. Might they sometimes help each other lock onto the same scent?

Last week I attended a symposium at Inspace, the arts venue of Edinburgh University's Informatics Department. The space is functionally divided between an auditorium and a gallery, and is so modern it aches -- literally enough after a while, as the audience sits on thin cushions scattered along steps. The event, initiated by the Genomics Forum, brought together social scientists, natural scientists, and artists. I was there to blog the event's first day; Pat Kane, currently a visiting fellow at the Forum, would cover the second. The question the symposium asks, I suppose, is: 'Is the question "Where is the thing?" becoming a thing?' Its hashtag is #eot13. Its rubric:
The symposium Evaporation of Things is intended to explore the increasingly digital interface to biological ‘things’. From the phylogenetic analysis of plants, to the data representation of the human genome project, studying the subject on a screen has replaced the study of the material artefact. For the general public, astronomy remains a question of looking at the stars in the night sky, whereas for astronomers the use of optical telescopes is a thing of the past – so the question emerges “where is the thing?”

The natural sciences have been prolific in practising not only this evaporation of things but also in reassembling innovative living entities, such as genetically modified organisms, and new creative possibilities are emerging with the advent of the enhancement of the human body with cybertechnologies. This fluidity of the living things is potentiated by interdisciplinary engagements, and entities which are in one minute the subjects of sciences become in the next the raw materials for arts.
Forum Director Steve Yearley welcomed us to the event. Then one of the organisers, Maria Grade Godinho, introduced the session. She explained how she'd trained and worked as a biologist. Encountering genes with patents had brought home to her that what she did in the lab was part of a wider social world, which she wanted to investigate further. Here, she wanted to explore the possibility that the relationship between objects and data wasn't one between matter and mind, but between two different states of matter -- hence the metaphor of evaporation.

Maria's co-organiser Chris Speed of the College of Art kicked off with a clip of the Challenger disaster, with its familiar voice-over of a man reading from the space shuttle's instruments and continuing to relay numbers for several seconds after the rest of America had watched the craft explode live on television. That shocked moment of delayed realisation when someone tapped the announcer's shoulder and pointed to the TV screen was, Chris said, what this symposium was about. He gave other examples: the debris of the later space shuttle crash, Columbia, tagged, connected by strips of tape, and spread across across a floor as a physical database; the flash crash of May 6 2010, as two duelling algorithms dumped stocks in a death spiral only interrupted by physically pulling the plugs; and one of his students' art projects, which consisted of a thick stack of A4, a printout of reports from her iPhone for one day.

The presentations that followed were intriguing, varied, and of high quality. Mike Phillips took us from the melting Wicked Witch to the unease-inducing ambiguities of how scientific imaging converts numbers to visuals. Synthetic biologist Vincent Danos took us ever deeper into the molecular structure of starch and the phenomenology of mathematical modelling. Laura Beloff charmed and delighted with her sci-art projects, starting with a portable 'space station for fruit flies'. Sociologist Gill Haddow walked us through how 'human' became in some contexts legally defined in terms of percentages of DNA.

After and over drinks in the early evening, the exhibiting artists displayed and discussed their work. I wouldn't presume to judge or compare -- take a look for yourself -- but for me by far the most memorable and disturbing of their artefacts was Ai Hasegawa's short film of a woman giving birth to a salmon, which she later eats. Sushi will never be the same.

So was the symposium a success? Did the artists, scientists, and sociologists combine their particular points of view to outline, somewhere in the room, an elephant we'd have otherwise missed? I think they did. The evaporation of things is a thing.  

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Small shrivelled up snake...

by Cameron Duguid - Documentary Filmmaker in Residence

I had a really inspiring time at The Evaporation of Things last week, especially the bring-a-thing, show and tell. Funny how things transpire, but it just so happened that I re-found my thing the night before, after sorting through boxes after moving a year and a half ago. I’m in danger of falling into the pits of innuendo here, but, as you may be able to see- my thing was a small shrivelled up snake.

I hadn't realised I had held on to it, but somehow it has survived 25yrs hidden away in ‘miscellaneous’. Quite a literal take on evaporation, it's something which I've often marvelled at. I found it when I was nine, having just moved up from London to the middle of nowhere. I’m pretty sure I also saw an adult Adder as well, one of maybe 2 or 3 occasions that I’ve seen one. One of the things that I’ve always found interesting is that, although it’s gradually dried out more over the years, to me it is still a little snake.

At the time I felt like I was constantly assessing the various states of decomposition of creatures around me, foxes over the gamekeeper’s wall, or a sheep in the burn. But with them, a transition would be made…from sheep, to sheep skeleton, then to just- a skeleton- ready to have it’s bones poked at and investigated as to what poor creature it once was.

However this snake has always still been a little snake, and I'm glad that I've finally got over the terrifying fear that it (all 1cm of it) was going to come back to life!

Outside of the Evaporation I’ve been transcribing and digesting,the interesting interviews I conducted down in Exeter. I have them on my phone, so when shuffling they often pop up, a welcome break from the few albums that I’ve over-listened to!

I’ve also had some interesting, but fairly brain-straining discussions with Colin Semple
Trying to visualize Chromatin structure and the hierarchy of DNA, quite taken by these fractal globules. As always, it’s a bit of a battle between not over-simplifying and clarity. A fun challenge with things working at hugely different molecular scales, and to try and convey with the limits of stop-motion animation. I’ve had to resort to some computer manipulation, but I’m hoping the immediate/organic nature of the cut-out animation isn’t getting lost!

Monday, 25 March 2013

Now in production…

by Lindsay Goodall - Documentary Filmmaker in Residence

Since our commissioning meeting in February I’ve been working flat out looking for contributors to be involved in my documentary about health inequalities in Glasgow. It’s been a whirlwind journey so far, taking me from Bridgeton, to Parkhead, Tollcross, Shettleston and many places in between. Along the way I’ve met some really wonderful and generous people, who are genuinely enthused about my plan to make a film in the area where they live. 

In particular I’ve had a lot of support from the fantastic people at Playbusters and Bridgeton Community Learning Campus, I’ve met lots of locals who’ve responded to posters I put up in local shops (a very big thank you to the Morrisons’ notice board!), visited the Lodging House Mission, and enjoyed many meetings over copious cups of tea at the brand new Bridgeton Library (which also houses the first ever British Film Institute Mediatheque in Scotland). And last week I was reprimanded by the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.

I’ve also had the opportunity to enjoy the wonderful architecture and history of Bridgeton while on the Bridgeton Heritage Trail (check out the heritage trails across Glasgow, they’re fab) and have spent quite a few hours dumping the jumbled mess inside my brain onto my wonderful producer Lili Sandelin who has a great knack for helping me put everything back together into a coherent whole.
As well as learning a lot about the people and place where I’ve lived for the past 7 years I was recently taught the slosh at a tea dance at the Whiterose Community Hall. Growing up in Fife, I wasn’t aware of the slosh until fairly recently, but it seems it’s quite a big thing around Glasgow. To help you picture the scene check this out:

There were fewer men and a little less swearing at the tea dance, but apart from that it was not dissimilar, and I had a really good time.

So I’m learning a lot, meeting great people and trying to piece everything together and have a finished film by May. I’m really grateful to everyone who has helped in my research and development so far, and I hope I succeed in making a film they will be proud to contribute to and enjoy watching.

www.bclc.org.uk (Bridgeton Community Learning Campus)
http://www.lhm-glasgow.org.uk (Lodging House Mission)
http://www.olympiaglasgow.org/news.html (library and mediatheque)