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The Power of Merging Engineering, Biology and Art: An Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko

This Worldchanging Interview with Natalie Jeremijenko was conducted by Emily Gertz in October of 2004. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

njenk.jpgFrom releasing packs of Feral Robot Dogs that sniff out chemical contamination, to teaching Yale engineering students socially responsible design, from creating pollution-detecting Clear Skies Masks for bicycle riders, to co-authoring Biotech Hobbyist Magazine, Natalie Jeremijenko’s work merges engineering, biology and art to explore socio-political hot spots along the fault line where design meets information meets society.

As reported in the technogeek press in August, Jeremijenko was one of several artist-engineers developing and deploying protest technology during the Republican National Convention in New York City. She collaborated with activists to devise a number of devices that were both media-savvy and functional, designed to undercut surveillance, create accurate crowd counts, and protect activists--gestures that highlighted the growing technological arsenal being aimed on political speech and action.

I interviewed Jeremijenko for Worldchanging last month, over a vegan takeout dinner in her West Village apartment in New York City. We began by discussing her Republican National Convention protest tech.

Natalie Jeremijenko: The statement I’m going for is about illegitimate use of force, the militarization of the police force around legal political protest.

Can you imagine if they militarized around lobbyists visiting Washington?

One side is going on as if there is this tremendous political threat; they’re in an arms race with their Kevlar flack jackets. And on the other side are little grannies waving cardboard placards, and kids with dreadlocks. This is a political process, written into the Constitution. It is not a military emergency. It is not a reason for arms.

[At the Democratic and Republican conventions this past summer], the police threatened to deploy a sound weapon that concentrates sound energy on particular people and makes them tremendously nauseous.

Of course they say they’d use it to bring down ‘problem people’, i.e. direct action leaders. Also, to deliver messages, but what kind of messages? “Cease and desist”? “We’re going to kill you”?

So what we did was create these parabolic reflectors, to deflect sound energy and protect particular key people. I wanted to make a very visible thing…

Jeremijenko picks up what looks like a large silver metal bowl from amidst some other materials, and holds it up in different positions around her torso.

The various affinity groups that used this, they got to come here and play with things. Who’s the guy in the James Bond movies, who gets to design equipment?

Emily Gertz: Q.

NJ: I got to play Q to these various people, and they got to deploy the devices. Devices like these become a kind of accessory of non-violent defense.

EG: Was there a cause and effect between the protest action and the police reaction?

NJ: The police were concerned with things like people throwing bottles of hydrochloric acid. It’s the police who invent these kinds of things. Try and track where they’re from: they’re from police discussions, they’re not from Indymedia or Direct Action Network or my Yale students talking online about D4PA—Design for Political Action.

EG: Is that a conscious play on DARPA, by the way?

NJ: Actually it wasn’t. Because there is “Design for Development.” But I like it – the DARPA of dissent—that’s what Wired called it. Imagine if there was a DARPA of dissent!

There are Italian and Spanish direct action groups, very well trained in direct action. They’re doing marvelous actions using blow up pool toys, big happy smiley faces on the strike zones [parts of the body would be likely to be hit by police] so they can protect themselves. Putting pockets into these bright clownish costumes they wear, both mediagenic and highly visual, but also with room for putting in an empty two-liter soda container, with their tops on. These make good protection in the strike zone.

Nonviolent defense is a long tradition. Profoundly misplaced, but necessary. I wish our energies could be better spent. Nonetheless, their threat has to be answered. And systematically, we have to answer every threat of this abuse power, of criminalizing political process, the political right to gather with a nonviolent method.

I wouldn’t take my kids to these marches. They’re not safe. That’s only happened in the last couple of years, under the Bush administration. That’s a real tragedy—this militarization of civil society, of our political processes.

EG: How do your technologies right the balance?

NJ: While obviously the scale of deployment is off, we can demonstrate, at least in the media, that we will answer any violent technologisation or militarization. That anything they come up with, the open community of people who believe in this political process will come up with responses.

We have the power of diversity on our side. They have organized, hierarchical systems. We have open source. We’re vaguely anarchist. It’s not about escalating.

EG: Is this also art? Is it art at the same time that it’s defense and technology?

NJ: It’s communicative. It’s meant to be mediagenic. You can do fun things with a parabolic reflector. Like any political technology, it carries messages.

To ask if it’s art is to say, has it entered the art market? Do people exhibit it in galleries?

EG: Your earlier work, with Bureau of Information Technology and even up to OneTrees, crosses over very coherently and consciously between being technologist and technology, and being something that can be exhibited in an art setting.

NJ: It’s not art because it’s brought into the museums. It’s in the museums after the fact, if it’s had any kind of effectiveness, any kind of cultural zeitgeist that it’s actually worked with.

Another form of direct action is the Anti-Terror Line, which people can record on using cell phones as microphones, putting their observations into a public database. The collective evidence that is posted to the anti-terror line is open, and highly creative people use it -- in ambient tracks, documentary videos, radio journalism.

Anyone who uploads is putting it into an information commons, wanting this to be documented, wanting to make sense of it, in a collective sense-making process.

A lot of what’s on the anti-terrorism database is how this excuse of terrorism is being used people to tear at the very fundamental social fabric of trust, and report “suspicious acts,” but not be accountable. One very colorful and lovely, very funny story is from this raving queen who went to get on this plane, and had to put up with these guys going through all his leather and harnesses and gay porn! He asked, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to me?” He was held for a day and a half.

His boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend had called up and said, [whispery voice] “oh, he’s a terrorist!”

This use of power is a pervasive systemic issue—it’s about requiring each one of us to be not trusting, not to live in an open society, to be suspicious.

How do you build a civil society? The anti-terrorism line is about that.

EG: You’re using the same technology for the Kurtz Shoutout Line, in support of artist Steve Kurtz, who’s been charged with bioterrorism. What is the latest?

NJ: It’s very sad. He’s such a sweet man. He’s waiting for a trial. It’s Robert Ferrell and Steve Kurtz. Robert Ferrell is a professor of genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. He sent Steve these cultures, a bacteria. These two people were charged originally with bioterrorism, and now it’s mail fraud.

I’ve committed that crime almost every week of my professional life, and I’m not unusual. This is the basis of normal science, the exchange of materials between graduate students and between scientists. This is criminalizing academic inquiry.

This persecution is very, very disturbing, as a measure of just how few civil liberties may be left. How anti-terrorism legislation, designed to protect, has corroded the open society.

EG: One thing that is frightening right now is that devices like your Clear Skies Masks may soon be the only way that citizens can gather data about environmental contamination, because vast amounts of information are being classified with the excuse of having to fight terrorism. Packs of feral dogs are going to become a primary way for citizen activists to gather information about chemical contamination.

NJ: Even if not, it’s necessary to have such devices to ground the information in something comprehensible, because the EPA, satellite images, GIS, they’re not publicly legible. Even though they’re publicly accessible, they’re not an active part of public discourse by any means.

Once you’ve got a face mask, you might know nothing about diesel fumes or particulate types, and whether they’re moving sources, or whether they’re associated with reactive airways, what air quality is measured in—you don’t know and you don’t care. You just had a friend once who had really bad asthma.

Just having your own evidence allows you to enter into and contest a discussion about what this means, to enter into political engagement in the real world.

What I’m most interested in is: how do we characterize systems of which we know very little, and have very poor information? Knowledge is very partial, very incomplete, and yet decisions are made. So, I specifically try to design information systems that measure urban environmental interactions.

For instance, I put a camera in Fresh Kills landfill, just a little networked web cam. It went on whenever the background radiation flipped above the so-called safe level.

What was interesting was that Staten Island has a hospital on it, which was also measuring environmental radiation. Medical facilities are required to do that. So they had their dosimeter, I had my dosimeter. We’re both gathering the same data and it’s not that different.

But mine’s triggering a web cam. So instead of presenting me with information so that it looks like science, like a little graph, it’s clips. Every time the background radiation fluctuates above a certain level, you get two seconds of video.

When you look at that, you start to see things you were not looking for. Seagulls are always going past when this is being triggered. Something happens at sundown, there’s a truck going past. That becomes interesting.

This issue of radioactive seagulls—there’s only one other paper on it. I wasn’t looking for radioactive seagulls. I had no idea about radioactive seagulls, or the concentration of radioactive diets that go on within the gullet of a seagull. It has actually been partially documented by some Greenpeace science groups in England, in Sellafield. But there are no publications on it here.

So, I was seeing something I wasn’t expecting to see. That’s discovery. That’s what I call data mining. Not taking corporate databases, and going through people’s social security numbers, classic data mining. What is interesting is having open systems that can tell you something. You learn something.

An open system is the definition of a learning system. A closed system is a system that doesn’t learn. And so, if you’re studying urban environmental interactions, they’re dynamic systems, constantly changing, always evolving. So you have to design open monitoring systems.

These are things that you can’t tell a priori, and that’s what so interesting about working with material in open urban environmental systems, as opposed to working with closed technological systems, where they’re bounded in many different ways, a Sim City version of urban environmental interactions.

EG: Usually science demands that you set up an experiment with very well-defined parameters and look for a particular thing. Your method leaves you open to discover the significant thing you didn’t know, that might not have made itself apparent in the traditional method.

NJ: It also leaves me open to a lot of criticism!

In the new Ben Franklin biography, what he bases his constitutional impulse on is not, “We hold these things to be true,” not an appeal to God, not to be holy, not to be morally right, some higher moral, religious or political truth, but just to be self-evident. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” You or me or any Joe can figure it out.

That’s the kind of impulse that I’m really interested in. Not the super-specialized elitism of science. Although there are a lot of scientists doing some great work, it’s not just scientists who are responsible for understanding urban environmental interactions. It’s the larger political body that needs to figure this out.

If we want to make effective political change when it comes to urban environmental interactions, we need to change how evidence is gathered. As much as I love the EPA’s toxic inventory, we also have to have the things we hold to be self-evident.

EG: Tell me about some of your current projects.

NJ: The goose stuff is lots of fun—this OOZ project, trying to find a reciprocal interface for interaction with non-humans. The idea of being able to have an interactive, engaged relationship with the natural, not seeing it as outside or over there, but here.

I’ve been doing experiments that appear in Biotech Hobbyist Magazine, redefining what is the lab.

Animal models are used in labs. Ninety five per cent of all our medicine is tested on animals before we do human tests. And only on mice and rats, before being tested on humans.

Lab mice are actually all from four or five strains that were donated to Harvard by a fancy mouse breeder at the turn of the last century. A hundred and something years later, all the mice that you buy as products are actually mice from those strains. Their pedigree has to be known. So what you have is a whole population, several hundred generations that were bred in lab conditions, for testing on human medications. These animal models are the basis of our medicine.

[Like OncoMouse®--Ed.]

They’re very peculiar!

What’s the difference between the feral mice in Manhattan, and their reaction to Zoloft, or your favorite anti-depressant, and this particular strain of lab mice? Because frankly, if I’m going to ingest any kind of medication, I’m much more interested in how the mice in my walls, that are dealing with the same levels of asbestos, the same levels of VOCs and hydrocarbons and other environmental stressors, that are in my environment. I’m not really interested in some mouse in some lab in Idaho.

EG: An idealized mouse in an idealized setting.

NJ: Right. So Biotech Hobbyist Magazine explodes the lab.

I’ve set up these little experiments on the mice freeways, along the edge of the wall. Little spoons that trigger sounds, that trigger web cams. Will they stop and will they eat? Will they nibble on black jellybeans or do they prefer muscle relaxants, Prozac or Zoloft?

EG: It’s a whole pharmacopeia. They’ll be very well-adjusted mice.

NJ: Or, poorly adjusted! What’s interesting is that they will self-administer anti-depressants.

If you’re interested in complex urban environmental interactions, it means that you can’t stay in a lab, where you’re looking at a priori, known parameters.

The lab is everywhere that you are. It’s garage biotech.

EG: It’s very much in the history of science in the western world, where you have these kooky Englishmen with too much time on their hands wandering off, studying botany and chemical reactions, inventing photography. And then in the last century, you have men in their basements with their little engineering projects. They didn’t think of them as engineering projects, but they were essentially conducting science.

NJ: Right. It’s a tremendously productive area. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs—what were they doing in their garages? They weren’t doing degrees in computer science, they were actually specifically dropping out of them and they were building stuff in their labs.

That kind of open-ended, creative work that was done outside of institutions is not a threat to the progress of ideas, it’s the basis of it, it’s absolutely fundamental.

That’s what this book tries to establish, even as it’s being criminalized, called bioterrorism.

Jeremijenko's pet rescued lab rabbit, Sally, noses about for spent edamame pods.

Photos: Emily Gertz

Natalie Jeremijenko: The WorldChanging Interview is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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