An Exchange of Words

Collaboration with Mary Tseng and Yung-Chieh Lin

An Exchange of Words is an experiment and an investigation performed during HackteriaLab 14 in Yogyakarta, April 2014. It was an attempt to capture the essense of a discussion about the collaboration bewteen Art and Science, and more specifically, the field of Art and Science through group interview with five participants and five cameras. Each person is being filed exclusively with one camera. The final installation was installed in a semi-circle mimicing the actual round-table discussion, leaving a position for the viewer to join. Each screen representing one person.


The installation in Yogyarkarta

An Exchanged of Words - An Experiment of Mining Out What Was in the Air

Co-written by Pei-Ying Lin and Mary Tseng

Project Overview

The Art-Science Forum, or more appropriately, An Exchange of Words, is a five-monitor video installation of a “conversation” that took place amongst five organizers and participants of HackteriaLab 2014 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The five speakers were Marc Dusseiller (a Swiss artist-engineer and co-founder of Hackteria: Open Source Biological Art), Spela Petric (a Slovenian artist classically trained in Biochemistry), Andreas Siagian (an artist, civil engineer, and cofounder of LifePatch: citizen initiatives in art, science, and technology based in Yogyakarta), Pei-Wen (a Taiwanese sound-artist based in Switzerland), and finally Grace Samboh (a Yogyakarta-based curator who runs community art-space Hyphen, and also the location where the project took place). The project was initiated by Pei-Ying, a Taiwanese-based artist hailing from a collective called TWBioArt. Recruited on the project were Lin Yung-chieh, a skilled photographer and artist also from TWBioArt, and Mary Tsang, an artist-biologist and documentarian of biohacking and bioart practices.

An Exchange of Words was an attempt to capture and record a collective discussion in it temporal and spatial uniqueness. It began with Pei-Ying’s experience holding casual forum discussions in the TW BioArt community, where people across different disciplines join together to find a common ground, the murky grey area between different professions and domains. However, a discussion like this is fleeting in nature and almost impossible to recreate. An Exchange of Words was a staged experiment, and HackteriaLab14 was the perfect platform to conduct it.

The Context

The motivation for recording this abstract level of interaction originated from the dynamic events of HackteriaLab14, where ideas and collaborations coalesced so spontaneously. HackteriaLab14 itself was a unique occurrence where over forty-five international participants from varying fields gathered together for a two-week event without firm structure, but rather, organic happenings. The themes that HackteriaLab14 focused on - art-science, collaboration, hacking, citizen science, and community - were rather contemporary, interdisciplinary, and at the same time obscure. It was obscure in the sense that such a ‘field’ addressing by HackteriaLab14 was neither established nor well-defined, which was the critical element that made it so flexible and open-minded. As a result of this huge confluence of artists, scientists, and engineers were critical, creative, and impactful projects. In between the projects, like byproducts in a chemical reaction, were lively discussions where people’s ideas, interests, and philosophies intersected. An Exchange of Words was an attempt to stage and capture one of these byproducts.

How can this be manifested?

To begin, a discussion consists of 1) the language of the discussion, 2) the individuals of the discussion, 3) physical interactions, 4) tension and flow of emotions, 5) interchange of ideas and the progression of an idea. Unlike the interview format where the answer presupposes the question, in a discussion all the participants exchange ideas, influencing each other in real time, and re-shaping the understanding of the world through each individual’s mind as a dynamic process. It is a collaborative form of exploring and redefining something new.

On the night Pei-Ying and Mary set out to formulate the questions, they surprisingly discovered that they were coming from very different perspectives. Pei-Ying viewed the five participants as “characters in a play” all joining together for a kind of experiment. She also wanted to focus the discussion on solely art-science-based questions. Some examples include: “How are artists and scientists similar or different?” “Why do artists go into science and why do scientists go into art?” On the other hand, Mary was more wary about expecting a deep, philosophical debate about the intersection of art and science, and wanted to be more realistic about the context of the project. After all, the participants were situated in this wild, unpredictable environment of hacking and collaborating, located in this foreign city of Yogyakarta, the “Berlin of Southeast Asia.” More so, this edition of HackteriaLab had such a strong emphasis on local community engagement, and challenged the participants to break out of the "Hackteria bubble." Mary wanted to frame the questions around this context and discuss how the intersection of art and science could help facilitate (or not?) this process of reaching “the public.”

The Execution

Pei-Ying, Yung-chieh, and Mary arrived at the Hyphen house three hours prior to the “experiment", erasing memory cards, hooking up sound equipment, and carefully positioning five cameras on their tripods. The five participants later arrived sweaty, hungry, and agitated. “Does anyone have a lighter!” “I want to smoke!” “Can someone make me coffee!” Each participant then sat in one of five chairs that formed a circle, positioning themselves in front of a camera and wearing lavaliere microphones to record a separate track of audio. Yung-chieh held a sixth camera, capturing wide shots of the discussion. The moderators were recorded only through audio, asking questions incisive enough to stir conflicts between the “characters," and thus mining out the underlying cruciality of ideas.

The discussion began with basic questions like, “who are you?” “why are you here at HackteriaLab?” Without even mentioning the notion of “community,” already the participants were engaging in that very topic. Grace mentioned her goal as a curator to communicate artworks to the public; Andreas talks about his shift from being a civil engineer to working with communities; etc. It seemed clear by the time the “art-science” questions were asked that the context of community work framed every person’s answers, and the participants were no longer interested in having a theory-based debate on what art-science means.

For example, Marc found it difficult to answer the question of “what is the difference between an artist and scientist,” saying that it forces the assumption that all individuals under the label “artist” are all the same, and vice versa with scientists. The question disregards the inherent variability of individuals within each group, and confines them in a kind of black box. It seemed like the more interesting comparison was between "the specialized" and "the cross-disciplinary.” Pei disagrees with the notion of specialization, referencing the post-Industrial era where “people were unnaturally fitted like a screw.” The participants also agreed that if certain societal pressures to become an expert didn’t exist, then more people would explore the grey area between disciplines. This practice that HackteriaLab represents no doubt “hacks the system” and erases the labels that segregate “artists,” “scientists,” etc.

On discussing the role of labels in society, each participant contributed their unique perspective based on their countries’ cultural values as well as personal experiences. Marc noted the proliferation of the art-science field in Europe, disappointed that it has become “an institution in itself.” Slovenian artist Spela, who has a long history in academia, explained that labels are necessary for communicating in more conservative environments, and that people naturally crave structure. Yogyakarta-based curator Grace, on the other hand, explained that the purpose of labels for Indonesians is to communicate with foreigners, and that local infrastructure is lacking too much to create a defined culture of expertise. Andreas, member of Yogyakarta’s LifePatch also added the tendency for Indonesians to lose interest in what they formally studied in school, and that the open nonjudgmental culture of Yogyakarta makes labels quite unnecessary for everyday communication. This same culture is also the reason Yogyakarta was an ideal environment for HackteriaLab14.

The workshops between participants and for the general public were undoubtedly a huge part of the two-week interdisciplinary event. They were a way of encouraging somewhat specialized people to engage in a subject not their own, and of course, for them to proclaim “we are proud amateurs!” By engaging in another discipline, you automatically choose to become the novice and beginner. Pei added that the “horizontal mode of learning” during workshops diminished the role of an expert and created a more inclusive and inviting atmosphere for learning new skills. This is especially true in Indonesia, as Andreas explained, where a country in transition is in strong need of new forms of open learning and engagement. The workshops held during HackteriaLab and regularly by LifePatch represent alternative forms of education that challenge (or rebel against) the pre-existing models.

Of the participants, Spela perhaps summarized the whole discussion in the most concise way. She explained that choosing to be interdisciplinary is a form resistance to society, and that in the practices represented by HackteriaLab, “rather than democratizing, we are also culturalizing science."

A Reflection

Looking back, the session of An Exchange of Words was an performance itself. While each of the participants were invited into the forum as the contributor, at the same time they were the test subject. Humans are hard to play with. One cannot see a session as one session but the extension of the moment before, and the moment after. People bring their moods and tempers to the space, and the environment, sounds, voices, and filming equipment all influence the happening of such an event. Despite already knowing each other very well, the participants were nervous due to the installation of lavaliere microphones and the presence of cameras in front of their faces. There were a few moments when the discussion stirred up, but very likely due to the presence of cameras, the participants hesitated to speak up or over each other.

The irony of this project is that its inspiration was to “capture” a conversation in its organic, unique moment in time. Yet, the Art-Science Forum was entirely staged, questions formulated to achieve a certain range of answers and cameras positioned to resemble an imaginary round-table. As a result, the final product evolved to look nothing like its inspirational origin. In fact, it was totally fine that “art-science” wasn’t the primarily focus of the discussion like we had originally set out to do — this only reinforces the inherent nature of a multi-person conversation as an unpredictable, untamable process. Probably, if we were to ask the participants totally irrelevant questions like “what is your favorite food,” they still would have found a way to return back to the subject of community involvement and HackteriaLab14. The context and environment of HackteriaLab14 was too dominating. It’s also no surprise that the participants were rather unified in their discussion of Art and Science, that there shouldn’t be a clear border between the two, but rather allow playfulness and tinkering to connect both together.

An Exchange of Words was an experiment of the unknown, just like any other HackteriaLab14 projects and workshops that had taken place. But, unlike the other HackteriaLab14 projects that were focused on the hacking and making, An Exchange of Words was much more conceptual, and played within the realm of ideas, philosophies, and personal experiences. The most important part of this experiment is that the participants dedicated their time for the discussion, and allowed for full recordings that later displayed in the installation. The audience is able to get a glimpse of what was happening during this very short but intense event. An Exchange of Words was a very different trajectory towards exploring the possibilities of Art and Science, and provided a window into the participants' minds that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed or asked for.