Episode 03: Far and Away | Leonardo/ISAST

Episode 03: Far and Away

By Erica Hruby
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This special bonus episode coproduced with the MIT Press Podcast features a conversation between Bettina Forget, director of the SETI institute's artist-in-residence program, and Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of the NASA Psyche Mission. Listen as these Leonardo authors discuss the connections between art and science, the flawed idea of the hero, exploration of both land and space, and the complexities of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

Bettina Forget and Lindy Elkins-Tanton speak in the context of their contributions to the February 2021 issue of Leonardo journal on Space Art, a special publication in English and Russian for the CYFEST-13 Media Art Festival. 

"Women With Impact: Taking One Small Step into the Universe" by Bettina Forget: https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_01985

"The 'Frozen, Darkened Soul' Rises into Space: Travels in Siberia and the Plight of Life on Earth" by Lindy Elkins-Tanton: https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_01994

This episode’s featured conversation is from a presentation of LASER St. Petersburg recorded in February 2021. Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) Talks are a program of international gatherings that bring artists, scientists, humanists and technologists together for informal presentations, performances and conversations with the wider public in more than 40 cities worldwide (and globally). See www.leonardo.info/laser-talks

Find all episodes of Between Art and Science at www.leonardo.info/podcast.


Bettina Forget is the Director of the SETI Institute’s Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program and the Director of Visual Voice Gallery, which presents exhibitions that create a dialogue between art and science. 

Lindy Elkins-Tanton is the principal investigator (lead) of the NASA Psyche mission, managing director of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University, and cofounder of Beagle Learning, a tech company providing training in and measuring collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking.

The MIT Press Podcast: Authors and Editors discuss topics, themes, and trends explored within the pages of MIT Press books and journals. https://mitpress.podbean.com

Read the Leonardo journal issue COSMOS and CHAOS at https://direct.mit.edu/leon/issue/54/1

Host: Erica Hruby
Production assistance: Tinatswe Mhaka
Theme music: Wyatt Keusch is a musician living in British Columbia, Canada. His work can be explored in detail at jazz.fish.

TRANSCRIPT by Otter.ai

Erica Hruby  00:13

You have found the space between art and science. I'm your host, Erica Hruby. Today I have the pleasure of presenting a special bonus episode of our podcast, which is produced in collaboration with the MIT Press. In the MIT Press podcast authors and editors discuss topics themes and trends explored within the pages of MIT Press books and journals. You can find the MIT Press podcast at MIT Press dot podbean.com. Today's episode features a conversation between two authors published at the Leonardo special issue cosmos and chaos, Bettina Forget, and Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Listen as these authors discuss the connections between art and science, the flawed idea of the hero exploration of both land and space and the complexities of being a woman in a male dominated field. We're going to introduce Bettina Forget and Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Bettina Forget's contribution to the special issue is women with impact taking one small step into the universe. Bettina Forget is an artist, educator and researcher. She is the director of the SETI Institute artists in residence program in Mountain View, California and director of the visual voice gallery in Montreal, Canada. Lindy Elkins-Tanton wrote the frozen darkened soul rises into space travels in Siberia and the plight of life on Earth, which is the end note to our special issue. Lindy is the principal investigator of the NASA psyche mission, the managing director of the interplanetary initiative at Arizona State University and co founder of Beagle learning, a tech company providing training in and measuring collaborative problem solving and critical thinking. Welcome, Lindy and Bettina.

Bettina Forget  02:03

Thank you. Thank you. Hello, everyone. And thank you for including me in this phenomenal panel. And my head is buzzing with all these ideas and thoughts that we've already discussed and this time here, and thank you for pairing me with Lindy. When I first saw what she does, I thought oh, you know, scientists, I have an art background like how it's gonna work. But we have so many connection points between our two articles. That was really fascinating. And we've been chatting like crazy on the site here which you can't see but we'll talk about it. And Lindy, I really loved your article enjoyed reading it. I mean, just the title like the frozen darkened soul like right, it's just the so poetic. And you allude to the, to the importance of connecting art and science and your writing is already art. I was reminded of Alexander von Humboldt, who did these really evocative narratives of his travels to faraway places that seemed very foreign and otherworldly at his time. And he learned from Goethe to really sort of color his narrative with modern scientific fact. And I found that your article that's very much that you speak of a kind,

Lindy Elkins-Tanton  03:24

I might just faint right now to be compared with Alexander von Humboldt.

Bettina Forget  03:31

Yeah, I think to both of us, right, because, you know, he also grew a lot from the arts. And I mean, so that's your writing, flow. And really,

Lindy Elkins-Tanton  03:43

just to interject, very briefly to say that I was so thrilled when we were paired because when I read your article, I saw so much art and so much science together. And I really, I deflect the notion that art and science are really disparate things. They're just ways that all of us humans try to apprehend our world.

Bettina Forget  04:01

Yes, and I think these are such artificial boundaries that also restrict us and they will, they're sort of new that we have ourselves and our capabilities and the capabilities of others. So what really, really need to do is to sort of follow our own loves and our own passions, which you really do, I love how you describe your field work. Being in Siberia, the experience of you and the landscape. That's the school that I picked out, like you describe the vast wilderness, “that felt too big to fit into the Earth I knew.” That was just so lovely. So I'd like you to talk about what it was like for you to be doing fieldwork also as a woman like and you know, in Russia, as you, you know, you your narrative is really like an adventure story. But you also offer critique about the impact that you have as a researcher in the landscape and the impact of your research on like, environment and indigenous people. So can you elaborate a bit on that?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton  05:04

I thank you so much for some lovely introduction. So indeed, we have a very large project that involved scientists from, ah, there were 30 scientists from eight different countries. And most of the fieldwork happened in Russia. And my particular part of the project, we have five field seasons in central Siberia, everywhere from down in the south, not too far from Lake Baikal in Ust Ilimsk on the Angara river, and then in central Siberia near Tura on the Nizhnyaya Tunguska, River and then in the far north, both near Norilsk and then also by a small town called Xatanga, on an inlet to the Arctic Ocean. And in these different explorations, I was out in the field with usually a group of four or five people, sometimes in American graduate student with me, but mostly with my Russian colleagues. And it was astonishing to see from the helicopters, we get dropped by helicopter out on these rivers, and then we spend several weeks in boats or hiking by ourselves, hundreds and hundreds of kilometers from anyone, and to see the size of Siberia, even for someone who lives now in the American Southwest, and I can be in a plane and look over the deserts of the western part of North America, Siberia is so gigantic, and to see it is almost to see an ocean only it's a land. And, and the beauty of it is breathtaking. And so when we are in the little towns, that's when I would understand the human connection with this vastness. And one part of what I experienced that you and I have been chatting about is what it is to be a woman leader in science, particularly in exploration, I think of all the parts of human endeavor, exploration is one of the hardest places for women to find a foothold, it's really thought to be the world of the male hero. And, and so I would be in these tiny towns, and we would go to the little tiny grocery stores and I had a, you know, a year of intensive Russian and I could say that I zdravstvuyte, ochen' priyatno poznakomit'sya. And I would have little conversations with the women working in the stores. And they would always, as soon as the men went away, they would bring out, you know, the berry liqueur that they had made the previous year, give us little drinks, and we went to each other's house, and immediately become best friends. And we would learn how many children we had and where we lived. And then they would always tell me that geology is no work for women, and then I should go home and be with my husband in my family and my son right away. And that, and I would just leave them shaking their heads. And I would think, what gender am I, you know, I'm not a Russian woman. I'm not a Russian man, I'm not an American man, you know, what am I doing, I would feel so alienated from all the different parts of where I was. And then we would see the indigenous peoples the Evenks and the other people who had lived in central Siberia now increasingly displaced. And all these things together, maybe think more and more about what we all know, which is that exploration is the devastation and suffering of indigenous peoples. And then exploration has always been for the financial betterment of mainly the wealthy men of the of the community. And so I really see space exploration as a way for us to do it right, a way for us to be the society that we know we can be, and to become that inspiration for creating things better on Earth. And so I was so excited about your art project. And the fact that you look at the Moon with the beautiful telescope that I see behind you over your shoulder. And you look at the Moon and you see the craters. Now, imagine how exciting it was me to read this paper, knowing something that Bettina did not know just that I've spent about half of my career studying the geology of the Moon and studying the craters on the Moon. And so and so I'm so familiar with the beautiful things that you've been staring at. And I've been so struck over and over again, by how many men there are named, you know, you go to Venus, it's named after women. Everything else in the solar system is named after men. And thinking about what our position is in this place. And then you created this art project, where we could put on the bottom of our boots, the impressions of craters, and as we walked, we could make our own craters here on Earth. And I thought that was so beautiful and evocative. And so I'm so interested to hear you talk about not just the materials because when we create our craters with our boots, they're transient, they're in the sand of the seashore, they're going to come and go, the craters on the Moon are made of rock and hardened lava, and there will be there for the age of the solar system. And the dichotomy of this, which I believe is driven by the hero model, which brings us back to exploration. If our hero is the one man who is the astronaut who could do the thing, that is actually not creating inclusion, it's creating a barrier. And I have trouble seeing myself in that person doing that thing. And so, you know, what is the prevalence of the posture of the hero, the singular expert, the leader filled with confidence and assertion in your field? And what is the relative importance of raising others up, as opposed to raising oneself up, which is what I mainly see in academia, and an exploration. And I think that your gorgeous work addresses all of that, I would love to hear you talk about it.

Bettina Forget  10:36

Thank you, that's a really great question. Because we have that hero story, both in the arts and in science, you know, like the Einstein genius, you know, single handedly will fill the whole Blackboard with like these fantastic equations, that's a trope. But on the other hand, we have, like Jackson Pollock, genius, swirled some paint around, best artist in North America. So, you know, obviously, and emphasize some of these male hero types. And that is echoed in how we mark places as well, that my inspiration for the woman with impact series was, because only, like less than 2% of all new crators are named after women. And it's important how we name things, how we name things on Earth, how we, Lucy Lippard says, like, our cities are our mirrors, you know, we live in them, and we co-shape them. And I find that this idea of the hero stories is so inaccurate, both in art and science. Actually, science is very collaborative. And it's always teams. And even in the arts, especially now, in contemporary practice. It's so collaborative, it's crust in a disciplinary transdisciplinary interdisciplinary work, as, you know, collaborators like everybody here, whose talk was sort of alluding to the fact that we will be inspired by working with other people. And I think that is much more accurate, and, and healthy way to approach it as a network of individuals embedded in the network that is our world, our, our environment. We know that we are one species of many, I think, the sort of rhizome approach to life and as, as much leads to more creativity and breakthroughs than this. So we talked about boundaries, the individual as a boundary is a problem, you know, this, we need to open that up. And of course, the power dynamics and hierarchies that implied through that your model is that is it as a male hero on women can or have a really hard time breaking into the STEM field breaking into sciences, because you're always being the other who breaks in. And when we're when we're looking at female achievements. Even in the arts, it's always oh women, they just work very hard, don't they, they are so meticulous. And this is why they do it making nice things. And the men are dressed, you know, they wake up in the morning and adventurous light and novels. That's that's how that are, just geniuses. And born geniuses. And I think art and what we're doing and what you doing can really help a great amount, especially with by breaking the art and science boundaries, I think we are breaking the associated gender stereotypes. And that is that is a central part of my work. And something that you alluded to in your article as well, the idea that art can actually help us to be better humans on this, on this planet. And I would love to find out more about the Psyche Inspired project that you have instigated where you bringing artists to work on the Psyche mission and the perspective that you're taking on this.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton  13:59

I know we don't have time to talk about that. Unfortunately, Erica has let us know it's the end. Although I would love to. I could invite everyone to look at our website psyche.asu.edu and see what NASA has funded us to do with artists. Thank you for making that a possibility that I could mention.

Erica Hruby  14:25

You can read Bettina Forget and Lindy Elkins-Tanton's contribution to the special Leonardo issue on chaos and Cosmos published in February 2021. This bilingual issue in Russian and English was produced with Cyland media art lab, and can be read through the MIT Press journals website, Project Muse and various institutional subscriptions.

Tinatswe Mhaka  14:48

Between art and science is a production of Leonardo, the International Society for the art Sciences and Technology. Our editorial director is Erica Hruby. This episode's feature discussion is produced for laser St. Petersburg, Leonardo art science evening rendezvous hosted by Cyland media artlab Leonardo is led by Editor in Chief Michael punt. Production assistance by Tinatswe Mhaka. Our theme music was composed by Wyatt Keusch. find out more about Leonardo, our publications and our programs at WWW dot Leonardo dot info

Transcription by Otter.ai