The Institute

What can I say about our efforts to meld science and art at The Institute? There’s no doubt it was ambitious to push our students to carry out projects with both artistic and scientific agendas. But was it great? Were we justified?

The openness of these questions is what made it an exciting time to work with everyone. We got something like thirty philanthropists and art collectors on board to support us. If we could squeeze someone to donate a million — they’d get an original piece from one the world’s first artist-scientists. Squeeze a little tighter for two million — a dinner, maybe more. My friend’s a high-end painting dealer, and he says that could’ve easily ended up being a bargain for the market at the time. Easily.

But the money dried up, and I think for good reason. After the nightmare transpired, we could only get, let’s say, unsavory groups to donate. I’ll be the first to admit I rub elbows with both high and low society, and many in between. But towards the end, I couldn’t bring myself to take money from the few people that offered. Even if accepting funds meant removing support from their other projects. Plus, the Feds had already begun snooping around our daily logs.

It’s not to say the program was without merits. We had a fellow who worked diligently for what, two years? Found some new enzymes with really unexpected biochemical activities. Used the scientific publications he got out of the experiments to get a quarter-million dollar grant. Then, to make a statement about the woeful funding situation in America as well as the tendency of 90% of experiments to fail, he burned nine of ten dollars right out there, in the quad. Actually destroyed them in a bonfire. He pissed everyone off — his mentor, the faculty and the students who were living off of instant noodles and candy.

But then, to finish what we, at first, didn’t understand was a performance project, he took what remained and won big on the Rhode Island lotto. I mean, big! He paid the government back twice over and bought an old cabin in the Poconos. Quieter guy than you’d expect. But that idea, that the 10% can yield big returns, well, The New York Times loved it. The story even made it into a few political ad campaigns. Next year we expect that Congress will increase NIH funding by a few percent.

Then there was Sara, who sent S.O.S. radio signals to the nearest thousand stars, urging the Great Unknown to help with our runaway climate change. And while many don’t agree with her, I sincerely believe she got a genuine interstellar radio signal back in return. I’m writing a follow- up grant to pay for more computation time to round out the analysis. I won’t accept it’s supernova noise until we get the proper statistics done.

That’s aside from the main point, though, which is, the buzz about the initial project got a ton of blog press and the “Is the alien signal real or not?” debate hit national news networks. We got a few carbon tax bills through because of it. Sure, loopholes remain in all of them, but it was a symbolic victory. Art matters. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Perhaps my favorite student was Marcos, the computational street artist from Oslo. He hacked public and private records to pinpoint disputed real estate properties that had at least two individuals claiming ownership. He surmised, correctly, that he could tag these areas with his own brand of ironic science propagandic graffiti with near impunity. You see, nobody wants to spend money to clean up walls that might not belong to them.

It was a good, very public start to a science-art project. In fact, he gained enough notoriety with trendsetters that he was able to start his own t-shirt company. Bill Nye even wore one of his shirts on Hannity. It said “Science, It Twerks” or something obnoxious like that.

But then Marcos exceeded everyone’s expectations and used the same property-tracking algorithm with environmental data to find unknown, unpopulated ecological niches. He singlehandedly found new homes for the dwindling wolverine population at Yosemite. Saved them from endangered status just like that.

Things really soured, though, in the agriculture department with this one prodigy, Anna. God, Anna. She had more promise than any other student I’ve ever taught. She used traditional farming methods to breed organic apples that weren’t nutritionally valuable, and actually modestly poisonous. Then she ate one and got really sick. The Health Department wanted to shut us down, but she bounced back within a week. It was a commanding commentary on the absurdity of the GM frankenfood scare. We finally got some batcrazy eco-terrorists to admit that natural things can be bad, too.

And I think all of us on the faculty cheered her on when she expressed bovine pain receptors in plants. It was marvelous to get that to work at all, in mistletoe, no less, and it spoke volumes about livestock cruelty.

Of course the pain-detecting proteins didn’t “trigger” in the plant like ours do because plant physiology is different from cow physiology. And even if they were able to get turned “on”, there was no molecular machinery present in the plant to transduce any kind of sensation. Great concept, surprising science, and a star student. My Anna.

But I’m still haunted by how she decided to push the project further — by innervating corn.

She designed an artificial rudimentary nervous system to create stalks with wiry, thin neuronal networks and, I always suspected, those bovine pain receptors, too. No doubt in my mind those plants could feel a kind of suffering. Maybe their only form of sentience.

I often wake in the dead of the night, drenched in sweat, with memories of ending the project. I personally had to roll up my sleeves and uproot the corn, dispose of the husks in a fire pit. Sometimes I wonder, had she included vocal chords, what their screams might sound like.