Saturday, March 19, 2011

Panelist Siddharth Ramakrishnan: Community and Collaboration

Siddharth Ramakrishnan was a panelist for our March DASER event and has contribute the post below to prompt our discussion furhter.  Siddharth is a Neuroscientist currently working in the field of Bioelectronics at Columbia University in New York. He works on designing microchips to record from brain cells and using proteins to generate electricity. As a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA (2006-2009) he studied the development and physiology of reproductive neurons in the zebrafish brain. His PhD dissertation (UIC, 2005) addressed pattern generating networks in snails and how they were modulated to elicit various behaviors.

He co-teaches the Hybrid Worlds: Nano_biotech + Art course with Victoria Vesna and is interested in relating scientific concepts to the larger public. His collaborations with artists and architects have led to exhibitions and documentaries that blend the worlds of art and science. Currently he has been appointed Fellow of the UCLA Art|Science center.

Siddharth contributed following reflection for our DASER community with the hope of continuing our discussion here in the ether.  

Siddharth wrote:

Daser Dialog (March 16, 2011)
From listening to the speakers and the audience questions, I felt that two main points arose – Community and Collaboration. All the works discussed fostered a sense of community and engaged a wide range of people – from Jennifer’s coral reefs to Andrew’s interaction with the ecology faculty.

A couple of interesting questions arose with regards to such collaborations and being part of the Art|Science community –
Is the sense of collaboration different between artists and scientists? How do they work together? This question arises in my work constantly. In creating exhibitions with Prof. Victoria Vesna (my collaborator), we go through a series of iterations of the artistic design. At every step, it is important to check that for the sake of aesthetics, the core scientific principle behind the project is not lost. In some ways it is a constant battle, an important one and also a battle that is better executed if there is true camaraderie between the collaborators.

It is in that vein that events such as DASER gain more importance. It is not easy for an artist to walk into a science lab and say, “Hey, I want to work on that!” Nor is it easy for the scientist to immediately recognize the power of the artist’s voice. But at social events such as DASER (perhaps with enough wine lubrication), the channels are created and dialog begins.
Building a community and engaging them in the endeavor is harder, but ultimately be it the active engagement in Jennifer’s work or a subtler one of an audience interacting in an art installation or reading a book, it happens.

With regards to my lecture:
I would be curious to know what people think about what happens in brains. What the concept of neurons are – there is a certain level of cartoonish information we get on the brain from books, but how is their perception altered when they see a movie of neurons moving inside a fish head. Is it conceivable for them to imagine themselves like that in an embryo?
I am hoping this leads to a project/discussion called “My black box” – which is what our brain is to us. Each of us has this, we carry it around, we use it and grow with it. What is your Black Box? What does it look like? Is it black? Is it a box? When did you feel you had a black box? Is there a moment when it is all clear and transparent? Is the brain more of a black box to you or your heart?  


  1. re the collaboration topîc= one of the fundamental ideas i think is the idea of "partial buy in" which comes from strategic alliance vocabulary in the business world, but the basic idea is that when two people, or organisations, collaborate
    a) you need to make explicit the goals of each partner= and how measure success
    b) for a succesful collaboration, you dont need that both partners have identical goals, but rather that there is a subset of shared goals that would define a successful collaboration
    in many art science collaborations i see often deep misunderstandings between the partners
    roger malina

  2. Sid
    rewould be curious to know what people think about what happens in brains. What the concept of neurons are – there is a certain level of cartoonish information we get on the brain from books, but how is their perception altered when they see a movie of neurons moving inside a fish head. Is it conceivable for them to imagine themselves like that in an embryo?

    i think one of the basic discussons that one needs to articulate is

    a) whether bottom up ideas of how the brain functions based on undestanding neurons can ever succeed= or rather whether a systems/complex network approach is fundamental
    b)whether it makes to talk of a brain, independent of its connections to the world= would a brain with no stimulus of any kind from birth develop consciousness for instance? i doubt it= is there data on this ?

    if so one needs to talk about "interfacial intelligence" as coined by jim gimzewski and not consider neurons indendent of their connections to the world ( inner and outer)= you question about how the brain is modified by the viewing of a movie goes in that direction

    roger malina

  3. I think this is true. In some ways the goal of the partnership should be defined. The Scientist often goes into a collaboration with the artist, expecting the art to serve as a mouthpiece or just a conduit for the science. But for the artist it is much more than that, there is a visualization, there is an interpretation and the final product is more than just a "translation".

    That equality should be recognized, that each has a vision, and while the product may not be a simple sum of the parts, it definitely is a different beast.

  4. I agree with Roger's comment. Even amongst like-minded artists in a collective such as the one I worked with--whose common goal was well defined (i.e., a piece where aesthetics, not politics or didacticism weighs most)--it wasn't until we developed a standard of collaboration for situations where a solution's fit wasn't manifest to a majority. That arbitration process was based on a handful of principles: the weight given a member's aesthetic argument was proportional to the member's primary discipline(s), a defense of thesis with debate, and, finally, majority vote). My principal problem in collaborations with some scientists has been avoiding overly-didactic work.

  5. @roger malina:Re: Brains..

    There is always a problem associated with a reductionist approach to neuroscience (Any science?) or perhaps I should say 'just' a reductionist approach, without context of the overall connections/influences.

    In that the interfacial intelligence has a lot of bearing.

    I showed a movie of neurons moving in the brain. However, it is to be noted that while we are seeing the fascinating movement, what we cannot see - i.e. the chemical attractants/repellants , the scaffolding neurons and thus the environment in the brain (albeit a micro-environment) are also as important/essential.

    Funnily enough, that brings back to the question of Hox genes (the concept underlying an Art|Science project with Prof. Victoria Vesna). Hox genes define brain regions and ensure proper development and functionalization of different areas of the brain - they shape what becomes your cerebellum, forebrain etc. This is done through a gradient of different chemicals/regulatory factors that shape the growing brain environment.

    Which adds a totally new level to what you mentioned - the context of the environment (both outside and inside)

  6. Raising the question as a 'black box' will probably lead in the direction of a colony of homunculi, with a heresiarch at the top, in the front. What happens when the 'box' is abandoned, and each being is viewed a a foci of interaction? The constraints on the focii defined as rules governing interactions without concern to the boundries of the being or it's substantial organization.