Tag: Djerassi

Dazzling FireBall: Space Junk, UFO or AI Swarm distribution coverup


While we were in residence at Scientific Delirium Madness a large fireball was seen in the sky over Palo Alto. Actually it was seen from San Francisco down to Los Angeles at the same time and it made it to Nevada and Utah before breaking up. The standard news took a few days to debate what the slow, glowing, giant comet-mass was. Delta Aquarid Perseid Meteor Shower ice ball? Flaming commercial airliner death ball? Off track or off map space junk?

Two days afterwards, Jonathan McDowell, astronomer of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics tweeted, “Observation reports from Utah indicate the second stage from the first Chang Zheng 7 rocket, launched Jun 25, reentered at 0440 UTC.” So, officially we have an identified flying object, synopsis… Chinese space junk. It was 36 feet long, 10 cubic meters, about the size of a school bus. Yes it was a big mofo. It scared lots of folx into thinking it was armageddon, a missile attack or an alien invasion. Capt. Nick Mercurio from Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenburg Air Force Base, said “Given the size of the rocket body, some pieces of it may have survived re-entry but it’s unlikely it posed any threat to people.”

I can tell you that there was some curious followings along the trajectory of our CZ-7 Rocket booster flame out. The skies had f-19s scrambling the first day and copters with surface to air missiles the second day. They seemed to be tracking the path of the Chinese space manufacturing drizzle. Perhaps looking for covert pico-cricket robot swarms, Zika glossolaia attenuators, silicon eating 味噌 tauco 豆醬 fungal strains or rapid prototyping AI bunker camoCNC Router malevolent machine superintelligence (see http://leonardo.info/blogs/djerassi-field-notes-asa-calow/ ).

Be aware that being from Woodstock NY allows for conspiracy theory to be wide and far fetched. When presented with a school bus sized surprise space junk sky show, it is not the worst independent maneuver to free associate worst case scenarios… international subversions, government cover-ups, even wildhair, keef brained kook theory. In my humble opinion 60% of X-files style panic nutball theory turns out to be closer to the actual than baseline liar-liar mass media CNNFOX whitewash.

Track yourself as space junk:


“I Know the World is Bruised and Bleeding…”



“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”

 — Toni Morrison, The Nation, 23.3.2015

I work in an art form that eats itself up as it goes. And yes my work exists as words, but it’s also performers and audience and light and objects and other kinds of magic that get layered and created in rehearsals over time and disappear at the end, leaving sticky little traces of itself in people’s minds.

Just carving words into the relative permanence of the interwebs, all on my own, is disconcerting.

And normally I don’t.

But right now, I’m one of a dozen artists and scientists sponsored by theDjerassi Resident Artist Program and Leonardo: The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology . We get to take part in a cool thing called Scientific Delirium Madness in which we all get a month in the glorious hills south of San Francisco to work on projects that somehow shout over the imaginary ravine between art and science. And they’ve asked us to post things periodically during this month we’re here.

I was also recently awarded this other cool thing called the 2016–2017 Marion International Fellowship. And they, too, have asked me to post things periodically during the year of the fellowship.

So this is the first of these periodic posts…

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Lise Meitner, the physicist who first recognized and explained the phenomenon of nuclear fission (along with her nephew, Otto Frisch). She was brilliant and insecure; cowardly and intrepid; despairing and persistent; ascetic in her devotion to physics and a loving friend to those around her; ostracized then finally honored. Jewish in 1930’s Germany, and yet privileged by her scientific position and Austrian citizenship, she (like so many in Europe and beyond) was slow to see the depth of the government’s depravity. She waited longer than she should have in part because she was afraid to give up everything she’d established. Finally forced to leave and horrified by what Germany had become, she refused to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos even though it would have meant both helping the allies and practicing her beloved physics with every resource she lacked in exile. She could not bring herself to help create a bomb.

All the complex and difficult things that I’m reading: about those days in Germany, about the Manhattan Project, about the horrors in Europe and in the Pacific, about Hiroshima, about collaborators and people of conscience… It’s all echoing in my brain along with every piece of news I see about the continued and targeted violence of all kinds directed against African Americans in our country; about refugees fleeing one kind of hell and landing in another; about our politicians’ unwillingness to take action on gun control; about the ugliness seeping out of the cesspool of what the Republican Party has become.

How the hell are we to respond to all the complexities of our world? War in other countries, murder in our cities, levers in our voting booth, that person sitting across from us at the dinner table…

Despair seems like a logical response.

Then I read the words of Toni Morrison:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. “

So today I’m thinking about what it means to refuse to succumb to the world’s malevolence.


Chinneck Comes in Off the Roof.


Chinneck's Flying Helmet

Documentation of the Mask’s True Origins

I think I hear footsteps on the roof of the barn. Could it be Tom, the groundskeeper? Or maybe—because of some strange sequence of occurrences—it is James Chinneck in his flying helmet, having just disembarked from his alien craft.

Chinneck is the one who left mysterious “state certified fact” plaques along the trails here—marking the location of, and telling about: the rusty old sausage truck shot up with bullets; the most unstable piece of ground in America; the events leading to the dissolution of the last known elephant beetle orchestra.

I wonder if Hank is near—if so, that’s probably Tom on the roof because wherever Tom goes Hank goes. I set off to circumambulate the barn looking for one of them.

My wife is jealous about Hank—that I’m spending time with him, tossing pinecones with the old boy. She loves Australian shepherds. Tom told me that Hank—rescued by Tom’s daughter from a sack in a ditch—used to be a runner. One night in desperation Tom drove the wily dog to a busy roadside truck depot at 4 AM. Tom opened his vehicle door and nudged Hank out. Hank bolted, and cruised haphazardly around the concrete expecting Tom to chase after. Tom, aloof, didn’t pursue him, but the Mac trucks barreling by soon disoriented Hank. “Go ahead run all ya want. There’s nowhere to go…I’m all you’ve got.” This ritual took just under an hour but it cured Hank of his fits of escape.

There’s no sign of Hank or Tom outside the barn.

I do run into a man leaning a ladder against the building. I say to the back of his head: “Was that you walking on the roof?” “Yes, the shingles need work,” he replies.

They take good care things here: the land, the buildings, and the residents. However the sculptures must endure the vicissitudes. There are a multitude of sculptures on this property. The program makes no attempt to preserve the sculptures, so a creation can forfeit its legacy if it succumbs to the elements. A weak structure can live on though if its story is meaningful.

The story of this place is meaningful. Djerassi’s daughter, Pamela—a poet and painter—took her life in 1978 here on this land. Carl Djerassi—a wealthy scientist—commemorated his daughter’s life by starting this artists’ residency in which I now participate. When his wife, Diane Middlebrook—Stanford professor like her husband—died in 2007 he added more artist housing to the campus. Carl died in January of this year. This special session of the residency incorporates scientists among artists—a nod to the program’s founder.

I continue around the building, with plans to complete the circuit; I run into Karl. He is in the sun with a mask across his mouth shaking a can of spray paint. He tells me he’s painting props for an upcoming performance. He has choreographed a dance that proves the Pythagorean theorem. He’ll perform it soon in New York City.

I tell him that I dreamed of tessellation last night. I explain that though I quickly picked up the dance routine he taught me yesterday it was more on intuition than explicit understanding. However, last night in bed at 4 am I awoke and realized that the rhythm of the feet in the first half of the dance is the rhythm of the hands in the second (clap-step-clap-clap, step-clap-step-step…).

I short-circuit my tour of the building perimeter and head back in, walking through the expansive shared space of the Artists’ Barn. There are doors everywhere: entrances and exits to bedrooms, studios, workshops, a fully stocked kitchen, and the outside air. Throughout the year ad hoc tribes of a dozen humans move in and out of this place transiently.

I walk by Deborah, the primatologist who used to consult for design teams at Nissan, and Katie, the artist whom I saw earlier studying a piece of leather she had molded and coated in home-made aluminum paint. She makes art using the tools of nano-chemistry.

I live in a large and lovely room with a Mason and Hamlin grand piano, a record player, a desk, a couch, a wood burning stove, a Wurlitzer electric piano, closets of sound equipment and a lofted bedroom and bath. I was one of the first to arrive here. Alone in the Artists’ Barn that first day I ran about, inspired by the sunny mountain scene I saw through the expansive glass wall of the barn. I jumped up and down in my room and buzzed with joy. I did a few cartwheels.

That’s when I first encountered Chinneck in his flying helmet, having just been dropped off in the dry grass by the silent, weightless alien machine. He walked in my room and shrugged his shoulders in questioning judgment of my childish behavior. But then he introduced himself and took me on a tour of the grounds. He showed me all the art. He foreshadowed what Margot Knight, the program’s director, was going to tell us residents the following day. He told me she would say that we all had a job to do here at Djerassi and that the job just was “to be.” He said not to listen to her though. He said this was all some new-agey rubbish and that I better accomplish something real professional-like while I’m here.

He reminded me that Jim Crutchfield had been here the year previous and that Crutchfield was a big shot physicist. He asked me to explain my research on birds to him, but then he interrupted me with abrasive questions. When I faltered he barked louder. He asked me to play a tune on the piano for him. I began the second movement of Mozart’s piano sonata in C. “Really? he scoffed, “That’s such a basic piece.” Then he smacked the backside of my head, told me to get up and played the piece himself. “That’s how it is supposed to sound!” he gloated. All the while he was still wearing this flying helmet.

Finally I broke. I said “What’s with that ridiculous head gear? You look like a fool in it.” The helmet was big and boxy; black like tar paper; spackled with silver mirror splotches. It was adorned so as to evoke a bird’s head, complete with a beak. The beak was shiny—stainless steel. The helmet looked intense and mysterious but also crude and mask-like. It was somehow very enchanting and I coveted it.

I grabbed the helmet and snatched it from his head. He yelped “My flying helmet!”

He swiveled around to grab for it and briefly his eyes met mine before he looked down—away. I saw his face though. It was grotesque, misshapen, like a twisted rag with skin and sensory organs attached. I still held the helmet but I offered it back. The pain in his eyes when I saw them moved me, despite his biting cruelty. He reached for the helmet and placed it back over his head.

I tried my best to just get on with the residency. Chinneck disappeared rather quickly once I challenged him. Nevertheless his words still haunted me. There was enough skepticism among the other residents about Margot’s existential imperative to amplify the echoes of Chinneck’s voice.

It is now the fourth day of my stay. Back in the barn I head for my room to play piano. I sit down and begin to improvise. The sounds are jagged, disjointed, dissonant and rapid. I am discharging my anger with Chinneck. Why did he deride me? I ponder at how I’ve already grown to love his plaques, his enchanting tales. How he must suffer though. The footsteps are above me now. I play in rhythm to them. I close my eyes and dive into a trance but am soon yanked out by a knock at my door.

I open my eyes. As I zip to the door I sense a dark mass on the floor in my peripheral vision—it was not there before. Deborah beckons. She says “Hey, James Chinneck is here. He’s showed up unannounced. Come say hi!”

It is indeed the same man I met my first day. He is engaged in unabashed affability with the residents. His mangled face is not covered. It is somehow painless now, though still alien—there is a new softness to his visage. He is all smiles. I am introduced as though we have never met. He does not let on—though he does reach out to hug me as though we are long lost friends. He holds me in an embrace for a split second and in my ear he whispers “I’m sorry.”

The day winds on and everyone falls in love with James. He tells us wild stories of his adventures here. They are farcical, bold and ridiculous, but we cry for more.

James packs up his Prius and drives off after a bout of sentimental farewells. I return to the room and discover Chinneck’s mask there. The following day I begin to justify its presence. I tell the other residents I made this mask.

Halfway Point





Last night several residents and I were watching composer and scientist Eathan Janney perform an impressive improvisational piano piece. I recall the sounds coming from the piano as he translated his thoughts and feelings, the warmth of the room from the wood stove, the way everyone was sitting or stretching out comfortably while he played, and the conversation that ensued from his performance regarding his approach and our responses to the piece.


I think about the details of that evening and how they are reflective of the organic and supportive nature of this residency. The fluid exchange of stories, experiences, thoughts, scientific data and research, and the brainstorming of possible collaborative projects happen anytime and anywhere.  Whether during walks, breaks, short rehearsals or mini performances, while eating meals or playing games, there is a high level of engagement that my fellow residents are willing to participate in. The atmosphere has a nice balance of natural curiosity, humor and respect.


Today marks the halfway point of the Scientific Delirium Madness residency and the revelation that I have known these people for only two weeks is kind of shocking. I am currently finding a balance between working on the in-progress projects and pieces I brought with, and the new ideas and possible collaborations that are developing (see images below, more to come). I am extremely excited for the potential of the ideas being generated. I find myself repeating how lucky I am to be here right now (sometimes silently, sometimes out loud) with such an inspiring, creative, intelligent and thoughtful group.




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Djerassi Day 1 – Gratitude


djerassi artist residency

We arrived at Djerassi forever ago but only a moment has passed. I have been collecting memories and it is time to share. My theme for day one is gratitude and this may well be the theme of all days that follow. Guillermo mentioned at dinner that this is the kind of place you can quickly take for granted. Reviewing day one inspires a new appreciation for the coming days.