Episode 07: Science fiction on stage & Fiction-Science in the gallery | Leonardo/ISAST

Episode 07: Science fiction on stage & Fiction-Science in the gallery

By Erica Hruby

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Derek Lee McPhatter, a playwright who unfolds narratives at the crossroads of race, class, gender, sexuality and technology speaks about his work, informed by his subjective experience as a black gay man. Edith Doove reviews the exhibition Fiction-Science—Buvard et Pichet.

Leonardo at Djerassi is a monthlong annual art-science residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Northern California. Formerly named Scientific Delirium Madness, this residency will resume in 2022. Learn about past residents, read their “field notes,” and view the outcomes of their residencies at https://www.leonardo.info/leonardo-at-djerassi.

Learn more about the Djerassi Resident Artists Program at https://djerassi.org.

Leonardo Reviews is a scholarly review service published since 1968 by Leonardo/ISAST. It is the work of a dedicated team of editors led by editor-in-chief Michael Punt. Reviews are posted monthly at www.leonardo.info/reviews. Edith Doove’s review Fiction-Science—Buvard et Pichet can be read at https://leonardo.info/review/2021/06/fiction-science-buvard-et-pecuchet.

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

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


Derek Lee McPhatter writes plays to activate alternative views of our past, present and future in pursuit of truths that will empower us all. He proceeds from an expansive perspective on our shared experiences and take the human imagination seriously. His growing body of work often unfolds at intersections of class, gender, sexuality, technology and race. Informed by his subjectivity as a black gay man, he is a dramatist committed to generating new work that speaks directly to the diverse audience communities the American Theater needs to thrive in the 21st century.

Edith Doove is an art historian, curator, writer and researcher, specifically interested in notions of emergence and contingency, cross and transdisciplinary collaborations. She started curating in 1987 in Antwerp and worked as a freelance curator and art critic in Belgium until 2010 before moving to the UK where she became a member of Transtechnology Research at Plymouth University and attained her PhD in November 2017. Since 2018 she lives and works in France, currently in Rouen where she teaches at ESADHaR Le Havre-Rouen. She is a postdoctoral advisor with Transtechnology Research, a regular contributor to Leonardo Reviews, co-convenor of LASER Talks Brussels with Alexandra Dementieva and co-convenor of Currer Bell College with Jean-Louis Vincendeau. With her creative consultancy BUREAU DOOVE, which she started in 2014, Doove continues to develop a unique bespoke way of collaborating, working with, for and alongside artists and researchers.

TRANSCRIPT by Otter.ai

Erica Hruby  00:16

You have found the space between art and science. I am your host Erica Hruby. On today's episode we speak with playwright Derek Lee McPhatter, the 2021 recipient of the creative capital award. Later, you just dove reviews the exhibition fiction-science Buvard et Pichet. Derek Lee McPhatter writes plays to activate alternative views of our past, present and future in pursuit of truths that will empower us all. His growing body of work often unfolds at intersections of class, gender, sexuality, technology and race. informed by his subjectivity as a black gay man, he is a dramatist committed to generating new work that speaks directly to the diverse audience communities the American Theatre needs to survive in the 21st century.

Erica Hruby  01:05

Welcome Derek Lee McPhatter to our podcast today. Derek is a playwright, producer and writer from another dimension, he unfolds narratives at the crossroads of race, class, gender, sexuality, and technology. We met over the course of your residency at the Djerassi resident artists program. This was in 2019. So once a year before the pandemic, Leonardo and Djerassi program collaborated on a cross disciplinary residency that brings together artists and scientists for a month long retreat, during which artists working in a variety of media worked closely with scientists working in disciplines to explore and transform the boundaries of art and science. So can you tell me a bit about the intention that you had in going into the residency and how the experience has influenced your work since?

Derek Lee McPhatter  01:55

Thank you, Erica. Yeah, the Djerassi residency with Leonardo and 2019, I was really looking for an opportunity to do some deep thinking around my work. As somebody that has a day job and kind of fits their art in where I can, a lot of my energy is consumed in the day to day even when I have an art project, it's usually I'm presenting I'm producing part of it. So I'm really caught in the day to day. And I knew the next couple projects I wanted to do, would really require more constant more time to concentrate. I also had a lot of questions where I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to write. So I didn't come to the Djerassi residency with really a specific project in mind, I had a specific couple things I wanted to read, and some general topic areas. And I was also really, really interested in in deepening some of the reading I'd done specifically on climate change, because I knew thematicly at least, where I was going to go. So as I was looking for residency opportunities, which are also new to me, I hadn't really taken many residences before the of this length in this scope, I was looking for something that had some sort of connection to science, but also since I'm a playwright, so I'm not a scientist, I was looking for an opportunity like that. And the collaboration that you do with dropsy seemed like kind of the perfect fit. So that's why I applied specifically for that residency. And my intentions were really to give myself time to breathe, to dream and to explore, to try to like feed the creative muscles. And that's what happened.

Erica Hruby  03:32

So what what came out of the work that you did there.

Derek Lee McPhatter  03:36

I mean, it was sort of a transcendent spiritual experience, if I can really be honest with you, it's such a beautiful place to be. And the environment that is cultivated, there is one of immense support and respect for the creative process and all the time you need. And so one of the big things that I took out of there was affirmation that I am an artist, and that I do, you know, deserve to have opportunities like that. And that that is actually part of what I need to create my best work. And more than anything else that I've experienced today. That residency provided that affirmation in a way that I didn't even realize I was looking for, but that I definitely definitely grew from so like, kind of being comfortable sitting in the artist chair is kind of something that I got out of it. I also got a lot of reading and worked out. So it was it was a wonderful time to finish some writing on some other projects that I've kind of let languish a little bit just need a little bit more push. So a couple other projects got completed. And then I really, really, really got to a point where I could dream about what has become the NightQueen performance suite, which is a trilogy of new works that are looking at climate change from an afro futuristic perspective, specifically, communities of color and urban environments in their experience. There's kind of one on The anchors. So that's the big creative thing that came out of it, I got to dream up a whole new world in a trilogy of work that I wasn't that I thought about before, but I never had time to really contemplate in a meaningful way.

Erica Hruby  05:14

So I know that you've brought an excerpt from NightQueen, part one to read for us today, can you give me a little bit of context about this piece and the character you'll be reading?

Derek Lee McPhatter  05:26

NightQueen is envisioned as the technical Well, the formal title, I'm giving it to the NightQueen NightQueen performance suite. It's an afro surreal performance suite, which is looking at climate change. But this specific question is looking at is the water crisis, one of the big crises of the 21st century that's impacting the entire world in a lot of different ways. with climate change with rising temperatures, water is not where it used to be, and all these different ways with the melting ice glaciers and all of that. So that's kind of the social, the big social question. And what I'm trying to get out to the trilogy is how do we find hope? How do we not despair? We've passed a couple thresholds that environmentalists and scientists have told us or if we don't reverse here, it'll it's kind of a point of no return, we've passed about the past a couple of those over the last 30 years. So we're in a pretty dire situation in a lot of ways. And it's, it's even stalled around us. So I'm looking, I'm predicting slightly ahead into the future and looking at if we've allowed it to get this bad. How do we what do we do from here? Because we cannot give up? So that's kind of the big, big question. And then specifically, I'm looking at exactly that question over three works. And the first work is working title under drown, and we're looking at a black, queer intellectual, who what he's trying to do is finish his dissertation. But he's also in a city that is purportedly sinking. So it's a future vision of Chicago. And it's, according to the powers that be it is sinking into Lake Michigan. And he's skeptical of that, but he's not necessarily a climate change denier. And he's giving a lecture to his students about sort of that context. So that's kind of the wind up for this little excerpt.

Erica Hruby  07:10

Well, I would love to hear it. Please go ahead.

Derek Lee McPhatter  07:13

So I'll share a little bit from NightQueen, part one, underdrown. The main character's name is Zeke by the way. And our setting is a virtual lecture supported by IX Zeke's AI, a la Siri or Alexa.

Derek Lee McPhatter  07:30

Wow. Okay, we're back. How was that? What did you trace? Okay, I see a couple of you had questions. Sorry, I missed those in the chat. Listen, the system I guess, no problem. Let's run through it together, then nine, outside, please. And the waters are rising right now, even as we look outside, feels like a bad storm. But it's unprecedented, right? Our powers that be stewards of the network that that complicated chain of government, private and semi public entities we've been trusted to keep things going. When traced, we find not only the fact the authenticity of the assertion, but also the context informing its interpretation. Our powers that be are willing are telling us to abandon our ill fated city and the wind. These unprecedented waters are just the beginning. They say an extreme atmospheric event has been forecast as a near certainty. So are we drowning, too? Are we sinking? There's no ocean here, no Gulf of Mexico. And yes, we can trace the sinking claim to source geo thermal imaging of Chicago and the lake, it appears to be true. Two tectonic plates converge deep beneath Lake Michigan. And every year or so they're stubborn conflict pushes the floor on our side of the shore up just a bit, the effectively increasing the water level. And here's another bit of authenticated fact, the lake has been challenging levels across the 20th century with all sorts of attribution, no singular cause. So are we convinced, shall we simply trust the officials insistent we flee are sitting in the wind and before the end of the week? I submit we must push further. Before we release our skepticism. We must ask questions. Who benefits from the proliferation of this message? Leave the city ask yourself, what happens to the Chicago we leave behind who inherits it? and for what purpose? ask these questions students trace your assumptions to source and you'll have everything you need to decide for yourself.

Erica Hruby  09:51

Thank you so much. I mean that speaks so specifically to contemporary issues that that we're facing with the environment with skepticism of Government and overreach and quite like a lot of science fiction, right that is grounded in and comments on contemporary issues. Another of your plays, the the Serious Adverse Effects has premiered in Baltimore in May. So yeah, in this piece, a scientist who was on the verge of discovering a cure for a mysterious disease seeks reconciliation with a family who does not trust her motives. So I understand that you wrote this work prior to the covid 19 pandemic. And I'm wondering if the play hits differently for an audience in today's world, than the audience you might have imagined while you were writing,

Derek Lee McPhatter  10:38

thank you for asking about Serious Adverse Effects. It's another play that I really, really love that is, again, at the collision of science and technology. And what we're dealing with, in the sort of futuristic way I did. I wrote it over the course of 2016 into 2018. So that was a different time, not so different from now, but it definitely wasn't specifically COVID-19 pandemic times. And I will say that I, one of the things that I finished finished was Serious Adverse Effects during my Djerassi residency. So I went back and polished a couple things. And out of all of that, I did get the production opportunity. So I'm really excited about that project. I will say, during the press, and everything for Serious Adverse Effects, adverse effects in Baltimore a couple months ago, everybody thought I wrote it about the pandemic. And they were really surprised to hear that I did not. I will also say that the cast, the team that did in Baltimore, basically did it in masks, they kind of took our current context and like, put that in the production vision. So it became sort of about today in a way that I wasn't necessarily anticipating the truth, the science that I was looking at is that pandemics happen regularly, and we're due for another one, given how human behavior is. And specifically, I was looking specifically about how the healthcare system is not necessarily equipped to handle that. And I was drilling down on how that affects black people. So that's where my research came from. And I was looking at things like the Tuskegee experiment, Henrietta Lacks whose you know, genome was used to create infinite strains for science and stuff like that. So that's where my brain was. And yeah, the audience in terms of how they received it. I think they thought it was prescient, which I guess you could say it was one reviewer called it a tonic. So you know, they presented it in March. And, you know, we were I would love to say that we're on the grand late era, pandemic times is how I'll describe the times and for them for that particular person. It was interesting to experience is sort of given a catharsis and kind of to say goodbye to at least the way COVID-19 was experience, we were experiencing it, then I have to say that I have no interest in seeing a pandemic play now, right? I don't want it. So I was very like, are you sure you want to do this play? I know, we've signed the contract. But I, it's COVID. If you want to cancel I, I'm perfectly fine. Because I don't have any interest in like revisiting a pandemic. But as I watched it, via the streaming services, I realized it was providing a way to have a conversation about what we've been through recently, in a way that seemed helpful for people. So I'm grateful for that, as the playwright, you know, you kind of make it and you let it go. So I'm at the point now, where I'm trying to let it go and let it be, what it's going to be. So I don't know if I answered your question. But those are like my thoughts.

Erica Hruby  13:29

Absolutely. I think that art really is cathartic. And it does give us a window or a filter through which to view our own experience and to interpret it, you know, in a different way. And that's, that's really the beauty of art. Yeah. I'm wondering, in our last few minutes that we have together, what's next for you? What's coming up? And what should we look for?

Derek Lee McPhatter  13:54

Well Hive is a sci fi anthology series that I'm co creating, which is more about AI than like environmental concerns. We just had our first screening in Denver, and we have a couple more festivals coming up. So if you follow me on all the things they're deemed to be number one on Instagram and stuff, you'll see my announcements about that. But what I'm also in terms of writing process, what I'm excited about is really NightQueen, the project that I developed, I dreamt up at Djerassi and I received a creative capital award for last year into this year. So I'm really drilling down on that. In fact, after this call, I had to schedule a meeting with the director of part one to talk about where we go with the project. So I've got a lot of momentum off of NightQueen, so stay tuned for more announcements on that as well.

Erica Hruby  14:40

Wonderful. Please keep us well informed and we're watching your work with a lot of anticipation. Really, really happy to have you as a guest today on between art and science. So thank you so much.

Derek Lee McPhatter  14:53

Thank you, Erica. It's been a pleasure. It's been fun.

Erica Hruby  14:58

The annual Leonardo at Djerassi art science residency, held at the Djerassi resident artists program in Northern California has been on hiatus due to the covid 19 pandemic but is scheduled to resume in 2022.  Visit Leonardo dot info slash residencies to view past residents, their field notes and resulting work and stay tuned for news on the return of the residency next year. For Leonardo reviews, here is Edith Doove.

Edith Doove  15:29

It may be somewhat unusual to critique a student exhibition but Fiction-Science Buvard et Pichet revealed a pleasant surprise with the discovery of the work of scientists, artists, Samuel Etienne, that begs for sharing a small exhibition at the Artothèque ESADHaR in Le Havre France is the preliminary end result of an art and science seminar that was organized for the first time during the past year. This seminar is the brainchild of artists Dominique De Beir and art historian Tania Vladova who invited geomorphologist Samuel Etienne as a collaborator. He specializes in the erosion of landscapes, and more specifically that of the littoral. He has been collaborating with De Beir on several projects since 2018, as her artwork, for which she chisels away at all kinds of materials, such as polystyrene has a clear resemblance with natural erosion processes. Etienne points for instance, to the resemblance of her work with several eroded landscapes, including that of one of Jupiter's moons.

Edith Doove  16:35

since 2016, Etienne is also active as an artist under the name of Seitoung, a pseudonym that comes forth out of his long standing love for fanzines of which he has become somewhat of a specialist. As Seitoung, he endeavors to use his art practice to introduce signs to wider audience. This is done, as he says, not in our email conversation by reinventing his naturalist view on landscapes, and putting an effective and personal dimension at the heart of an analytical approach. As for the exhibition before a picture that came out of his collaboration and seminar, the reference to Gustav Flaubert's infamous Bouvard et Pecuchet is obvious, the hilarious story of two copyists that run into each other in Paris by chance, discovering a lot of similarities and interests, and our thanks to an unexpected inheritance finally able to retire to the Normandy countryside, and more specifically to the as not yet existing Chavignolles. Y'all, it's very activated in a most original way. This year is not only Flaubert's 200 year birth anniversary, with the project being part of the many festivities that surrounded it's also the 140th anniversary of Bouvard et Pecuchet that was published posthumously in 1881. But the main reason for choosing this book is, of course, a couple's tireless first for knowledge, the endless experiments that more often than not complete failure, but nevertheless keep them continuing discovering the world through the scientific literature of its time and copying it.

Edith Doove  18:19

The possibilities of the experiment, whether in art or science, or the combination of both lies at the heart of fiction science, a form of art science, situated between art and geomorphology. The project has a clear metaphysical aspect. That is also confirmed by Etienne in our email conversation on his work, saying that this aspect interests him in both his theoretical and practical activities, but also as a way of living in the world, or leaving the world in which every encounter becomes an event, opening up to something new, not unlike the constant experiments of Flaubert's antagonists. The idea is to produce a joyful science where the mood and thought of the producer of knowledge scientist as well as artists are at the heart of the creative mechanism, and are a priori worth as much as the classical scientific baggage or tools. While part of the students work is a direct illustration of text fragments from Buvard et Pecuchet In other cases, the nature of the work seamlessly connects with the theme of the seminar and the exhibition. The post image by Letitia Mamodaly mimics scientific drawings of plant and other specimen installations. She also cut geographically into into Flaubert's text. David Mendy was inspired by Buvard et Pecuchet's curiosity and determination which made him take the episode of the interest in the human body and its functions to create a series of organs in Le coeur, l’estomac, l’oreille et les intestins. A more ongoing interest in semi scientific work, the chance with that book, fire and perish sorry A more ongoing interest in semi scientific work that chimes with that of Baptiste Edde-Chevrier’s Sans titre (juste carotte) a kind of cabinet of curiosities, showing the beauty of all kinds of misshapes carrots in jars on an orange colored oil drum, or Anicet Oser’s tongue in cheek scientific experiment, coffers or incubator that has an ultimate aim to develop a burger.

Edith Doove  20:29

Emma Genty, on the other hand, is somewhat of a geologist herself, having collected stones from the landscape she adores since 2019. And showing part of our collection Précieuses archives de la Terre, happily coinciding with Bouvard et Pecuchet's expedition to the Normandy coast to find fossils, are trying to copy a small grotto with the use of a hand painted birth colored plastic sheets. The backbone of the exhibition is however, literally formed by the work of Samuel Étienne and Dominique De Beir. The latter uses the shells of Rayonnages Altération racks that are sculptures in themselves with a typically hammered surfaces to generously show the work of the other participants, amongst others, the various petri dishes that Etienne has transformed into MicrosCopies, hinting to the ongoing copying activities ofBouvard and Pécuchet. A small fanzine in addition with the same title presents various two morphological surfaces. most surprising are probably his so called payscaments, the name of which is an amalgamation of the words paysage (landscape) and médicament (medicine). Étienne sees his meticulously designed medicine as a way of both consuming and preserving various landscapes. A special edition of his fanzine Karst comes with a box of six landscape capsules that can be mentally taken to be transported to a landscape of one's choice. neatly positioned on the connecting cable housing between the sockets on the back wall is a series of medicine boxes Chavignolles the capsules of which possibly give direct access to Bouvard et Pecuchet's stomping ground. Etienne intends to place Chauvignolles on Google Maps as part of this new reality project. In a way it's already there.

Erica Hruby  22:26

Edith Doove is an art historian, curator, writer and researcher specifically interested in notions of emergence and contingency, cross and transdisciplinary collaborations. Leonardo reviews has provided scholarly reviews of books, exhibitions, videos, websites and conferences since 1968. Reviews are published monthly at Leonardo dot info slash reviews.

Tinatswe Mhaka  23:01

Between art and science is a production of Leonardo, the International Society for the art Sciences and Technology. Our editorial director is Erica Hruby. Leonardo at Djerassi is an art science residency co produced with Djerassi resident artists program in Northern California. Leonardo reviews editor in chief is Michael punt. podcast production by Tinatswe Mhaka. Our theme music was composed by Wyatt Keusch, visit Leonardo dot info slash podcast for extended episode notes with more information about our contributors, a list of all available episodes, and links to the streaming services where we can be found. Find out more about Leonardo our publications and our programs at WWE dot Leonardo dot info.