27 June 2020

Seth Price. 2020

It’s been a privilege to work the past year in LICA and the Division of Biomedical Life Sciences on my Critical Kits PhD research, but recent events in the world, crises within crises have made me realise just quite how much of a privilege this really is. The flexible nature of Kits and how they can make knowledge ‘travel’ means I can continue the research in and out of lockdown having just posted out a series of Lab From A Chip Kits to a diverse mix of people.

My research, like much research has developed alot of sensitivities in myself, my work and I hope my collaborators and the kits we are making and using together. Like everyone the lockdown has made us re-think and re-configure; I reflected a little on this in some writing for the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North-by-NorthWest (CVANNbyNW)

I’ve selected a section of an interview with Richard Lewontin over 10 years ago that seems to fit our strange critical times and hint at reconfigurations of art, science, kits and interdisciplinary work in an uncertain fragile world.

Interview with Richard Lewontin in Da Costa, Beatriz, and Philip Kavita. 2008. Tactical Biopolitics : Art, Activism, and Technoscience. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT. Interview by Gwen D’Angelis, Beatriz Da Costa & Kavita Philip (TB)

“RL: Look, this raises a very interesting issue. Suppose Cambridge is going to have regulations about what science of DNA-level technology can be done. Who’s going to make the decisions? You’re not going to let the scientists make the decisions, even though they said, “You can trust us, after all we’re.. .” So you say okay, well, we have to let the public make the decision. So we have to form an outside group. Who are you going to put on the committee? Are you going to walk down to the central square and point at people at random and say, “You’re on the committee”? You can’t do that because people have to be highly educated in this material before they can make decisions. So therefore you take academics or biologists, but they already have a vested interest. And this is a long-standing legal problem in the United States or anywhere. When you want to have a regulation of something, who do you make the regulators? You have to make the regulators people who understand the technology. Who are the people who understand che technology? People who already have a vested interest in it.

TB: The government.

RL: Or industry. We don’t know … look, let me just diverge a little bit and tell you a story. Fifteen years ago or so, I can’t remember anymore, a group was formed in California using a public interest law firm to sue the University of California because of all the money they put into agricultural research that was a benefit only to very rich farmers, to corporations who were involved in processing food, and stuff like that. And the claim of this group, which I was a participant in, was that the legislation which set up the agricultural experiment station system in Calitornia, the State University agriculture school at Davis, was, according to the law, to benefit farmers, farmworkers, consumers. Our claim was that all the research that was being done, did not benefit farm workers, on the contrary they exploited farm workers, did not benefit consumers, was only a benefit to farmers, and to thr richer farmers. And we wanted that to change.

That was a wonderful trial. We could so easily demonstrate that the agricultural experiment station, the whole agricultural experiment station system in California, was rigged against labor, and against a huge constituency. And we won the case. And you might be.interested to know that the judge in the case was the father of Bob Avakian.

TB: Who’s that?

RL: Bob Avakian? He’s the head of the Revolutionary Communist Party. But his father, Sparky Spurgeon Avakian, was a judge in California. At any rate, the University of California lost the case. Then came the problem. Okay, the court judges in favor of the plaintiffs: the University of California must be required to do research that benefits consumers, farmworkers, and small farmers. Since we cannot look at every research proposal which would interfere with academic freedom, among other things, we have to have some group that will generally oversee the direction of work. It’s up to you, the plaintiff tell us how we should form this group. We.couldn’t do it. How did we make the remedies? We couldn’t make a remedy which said that we, in particular, will oversee. First of all, every state in the Union had got some interest in it… they filed amicus briefs because they didn’t want anybody interfering with the agricultural research they did in North Dakota, or Kansas, or Iowa. And that’s where we failed. We won the case, but we failed to suggest sensible remedies because we could not invent a way of forming a judgement… a town… that would not contain people who were not already deeply interested in the issue. The result was that the judge ruled that it would have to stay in his hands and he would himself make the judgment. Well, it was simple, … and so the whole movement failed in that sense, and nothing changed.

TB:So what do we do?

RL: Well, I mean, now I just have to go back to old politics. When you live in a hierarchical and class society, you’re stuck with some aspects of that hierarchical society. We’re going back to that whole political issue which I told you about, which we had in Chicago… if you had a participatory democracy, that would be one thing; but we don’t.

There are models. I’ll tell you an example of a model at work. The chicken slaughterhouse workers in Canada were getting all kinds of warts and other kinds of bad things from handling chickens. They were getting viruses. They were getting other viral diseases. They went to public health school at the University of Quebec in Montreal, and got a group of the public health people to start giving evening classes to which the workers went to learn all the science necessary for this particular question. They weren’t trying to give them Ph.D.s. They were teaching them the science they would need. And they succeeded in doing that, and the result was that the slaughterhouse workers’ union was then able to negotiate with the owners of the slaughterhouses along lines that would protect their health.

That’s what you need. What you need are interested parties who will be educated on the specific issues, will spend enough time to learn what they have to learn for their own benefit, and then go there and demand… Labor unions, . . .when they were powerful, were a very important source of that kind of stuff for industrial health. Workers themselves would oversee their own health, provided they were educated. And so what you need to do is set up workers’ schools. Now of course the unions are less and less powerful in America, and don’t know what to do about that. But you see it’s a part of the whole system.

Let’s talk about these containment labs. The head of the lab doesn’t do any work in the lab. The head of the lab sits in his office. The workplace remains the place to organize. There are scientific workers in every laboratory. There are people who just do everyday technical work, they are exposed to all of these germs. They should be organized. And they probably know a lot about it; they don’t have to be educated. They should organize. It’d have to be organized from the inside. You have to have small participatory groups not from the outside, picked at random from the public. It’s important from the standpoint of what you’re doing to look at the makeup of government advisory committees on scientific issues and see who they are.

They’re almost always presidents of universities, heads of technological companies. They don’t go into the lab and ask some lab worker to be on the committee, do they? It’s always the people who are running the world who are on those committees. And that’s where the real politics is. The real politics is to get people from the bottom of the hierarchy into… power, to make those decisions. That’s a very heavy political question. There was a time when unions were strong. But even then. . . when I was in Chicago, I tried to get Walter Reuther, a name which you’re probably not familiar with. He was.perhaps the most famous and powerful union leader. He was head of the United Auto Workers when they were really big stuff. I tried to convince Reuther and his brother to deemphasize at the next go-round of negotiations an increase in hourly wage and instead make demands about pollution, because the workers were in fact living side by side with the factories in workers’ housing around Chicago, over the Indiana line. There were big steel mills and auto plants. Those workers were getting poisoned heavily by stuff coming out of the chimneys. I.wasn’t getting poisoned; I lived far away. But they were getting poisoned. And I said, “Look, what you got to do is get the organizing, the negotiating team, and demand investment in pollution control for the health of the workers themselves. Reuther wouldn’t buy it, because he regarded wage demands as the easiest thing to do… it’s not that he was against it in principle… he just thought it wouldn’t go.

TB: Right, priority.

RL: So we need more; at that time we needed more consciousness-raising among the general public, among the workers and the people, about the dangers of pollucion. Fortunately we’re not in that position now, because that work’s been done. The American public is conscious about pollution. Unfortunately, we no longer have a powerful labor movement.

TB: What about the people representing science to the public? For example, artists, journalists, and corporations?

RL: I wouldn’t be too vulgar in my explanation…. but it’s too easy to say that it’s being pushed by the corporations and the scientists are not responsible. They are responsible. And the artists are responsible. The artists are participating in that same consciousness. After all, I’m not a scientist; I’m an artist, right? I have to believe what the scientist tells me. Who am I going to believe if I don’t believe the scientist? Look, I think this has much broader implications than just the art world. It has to do with the feature articles, and the reporting, and the writing, and the press, and TV, and so on about science in general. It has to do with science journalism.

The New York Times has a lot of science journalism. They even have a weekly science section. And the stuff in there is terrible. I mean, really terrible. Nicholas Wade and Gina Kolada.. . they’re awful. They’re really awful..They vulgarize everything. They love it when some scientist makes an announcement, ‘Scientists today have announced the discovery of a gene which may one day lead to a possible cure for…’… so I think that brainwashing of the public goes on very, very successfully and constantly through… the public media. And what is to be done about it? Now, having bad-mouthed Gina Kolada and Nicholas Wade and their friends, I have to take a step back. I have had for some years active participation, not in the last couple of years, ..with fellowships at MIT, which are fellowships for science writers. They come to MIT, they study science… and I used to go there and give them talks and discussions. And what I found was that science writers are actually very sophisticated about science. The problem is not what’s in their heads. The problem is papers, magazines, radio, and so on, are in competition for space with other kinds of news. If I’m a science writer and I write, “Well, a scientist today claims to have tound the gene that… may one of these days lead to some blah blah blah, but you know, they really don’t know much about it, and it’s all very complicated because the environment is important and genes don’t determine anything,” I can’t get that article in the paper. If I.want column inches, I have to have something dramatic. And so, by the very nature of.print publications and radio and TV, where space and/or time slots are at a premium, if you don’t say something dramatic, you don’t get in. So our problem is not with those stupid science writers; our problem is their profession is bound by a larger constraint. I don’t think they need to be any more educated than they are; I think they need to be freed from… Look we have models. They don’t happen to be American models, but we have models. For example, we have what’s called the feuilleton… French newspapers have sections called the feuilleton section - Italian newspapers have the same thing - in which serious articles of some length are written about.intellectual and scientific issues… they have a tradition of getting people to write seriously about serious scientific issues.”