BaseCamp 2021 Reflections

Swapping lenses

The Locarno basecamp was an experience in changing viewpoints. I learnt to see science from the perspective of an artist and to view filmography from the lens of a scientist. As a researcher, I often think about communicating science to different strata of society. The collaboration with Locarno basecamp and the project Art Of Molecule is one such initiative, albeit unique in what it brings to the table. Five NCCR researchers, including myself, had the opportunity to stay in a military basecamp for 10 days, with art and film students. This meant sharing a dormitory room with two film directors, one a young bachelor’s student, who were so brilliant that their short films were selected to be screened in a competitive section of the Locarno film festival! This initiative does not have a very tangible, pre-planned agenda and deliverable, but rather aims to bridge the gap between scientists and artists by forcing them stay together, eat together and hang out together for the entire duration of the festival. Such a setting removes the awe and inhibitions which typically precede our interactions and rather brings us together in a friendly and collegial atmosphere. My basecamp experience can be described as building of colors and layering of templates. The backdrop was a beautiful surrounding, with lush green hills, the lake Maggiore and the “Caserma” with first floor dormitories and ground floor halls, lounges and community breakfast room. To this, add a layer of crazy weather. Our arrival was met with thunderstorms and rains in the first 4 days followed by progressively hot sunny weather leaving me with confused memories. Next, is a layer of bright colored lights at the basecamp, when it came alive at midnight. It was lit with magenta and green hues illuminating the outer facade and reds/orange lights in the inner halls. The mixer parties happened in the open air outside while the numerous panel discussions and master class with invited filmmakers or the Swiss TV happened inside. The days began with breakfast where a lot of discussions happened with new people, about what films to watch, why a certain film is technically more interesting (e.g., Stop motion, animation) or which films and categories have interesting subjects. This is where I usually met new people. Next layer, of course, is then the actual film festival. This, in my memory is yellow. Yellow is the color of the Locarno film festival. Bright, sunny and gorgeous, on its majestical symbol, the “PARDO”, or leopard, which always serenaded across the film screen with a humble growl and revealed that “CINEMA IS BACK”. In the hum drum of this ever-present backdrop, are speckles which represent the projects we did to bridge science and art. These projects grew and took shape as the festival progressed. We participated in a fermentation project, installed an exhibition of pictures “First impressions”, launched “Basecamp Bio-signs” where we collected the bacterial diversity associated with artist’s media and lastly did several interviews with different filmmakers to intercept the threads that link art, filmmaking and science. Our projects sparked curiosity in the artists who were awed by the creativity in scientific data presentations, from microscopy images, to microfluidic devices to UMAPs. We discussed the artistic aspects of science. The creativity behind planning experiments and in data presentation. We also discussed the scientific aspects of filmmaking. The planning of a proposal, acquisition of funds, chemistry behind print making, angles and uncertainties. A key realization for me is that both filmmaking and research are very similar in their beginnings, from formalizing an idea to assembling a team but they digress massively in how they end. While filmmaking has a very clear and definite picture of the outcome once the pre-production is done, the unpredictable aspect of research rather begins at this stage. We never know how the experiments pan out and continue trying as a leap of faith, till we are able to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and see the final picture. I have returned from the basecamp with this newfound synthesis, with layered colorful memories and with a renewed excitement about using art and filmmaking from the lens of a scientist. Hopefully, we are able to communicate our work with scientific creativity.

- Akanksha Jain, postdoctoral researcher at NCCR MSE -

A wonderful laboratory of ideas

Being a scientist, who is incredibly excited to discover new worlds and who loves combining chemistry and art in an unconventional way to express myself, I undoubtedly loved the experience I had at the basecamp. The Basecamp is definitely a wonderful laboratory of ideas and an unprecedented place of creation and creativity between film, art and science. It is not only a source of inspiration for female directors and directors, but also for us scientists working in the field of the molecular systems engineering. We have promoted exhibitions and experiments and we have questioned how science and culture can establish a profound dialogue. We were pleasantly surprised to see people from an artistic background being interested and curious in the world of science and vice versa. During the week, several art and science installations were made and the exchange of ideas and visions created a strong sense of community. The breaks between the film screenings and the workshops and the considerable shared spaces were used for exchange and networking. During these exchange of experiences I understood how the world of film and science are united by the difficulty of having your idea financed to give a concrete result to an initial abstract thought. There were film makers from different nationalities (South Africa, Iran, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal) who talked about their difficulties in finding funds and this also happens in science where funds are essential to advance knowledge in order to have a better world. Without preconceptions and regardless of the big names or the size of the amounts invested in the productions, the film directors were able to create masterpieces. They were able to arouse emotions, curiosity by experimenting with new techniques and methodologies just like we scientists do every day. It could be seen that artists and scientists were both focused on the search for the new and wanting to experiment with new concepts, new genres and new styles. Freedom in experimentation was synonymous with the vitality of the authors to get involved, to document bizarre social situations, serious or strong themes and to arouse strong emotions in the spectator just as we scientists do to actively push the boundaries of human knowledge and advancing the frontiers of science.

- Viviana Maffeis, postdoctoral researcher at NCCR MSE -

We need more initiatives like Art of Molecule

In August 2021, the five of us scientists found ourselves given the amazing opportunity by NCCR-MSE and Art of Molecule to go to BaseCamp at the Locarno Film Festival. For 11 exhilarating, experimental, and exhausting days, we entered a whole new world: stepping from the world of science, into the world of artists and filmmakers. Here’s the story of our BaseCamp journey. Like all good stories, this one has a team of likeable heroes (us), a challenge to overcome, and a heartfelt resolution.

The challenge: Fitting in
For the first few days, we were unsure of our place at BaseCamp. We didn’t know many of the BaseCampers, we couldn’t always speak the languages the others were comfortable with, and we barely knew anything about art schools, film theories, and other topics that were the focus of many discussions. It seems a common way to get to know each other at BaseCamp is to ask if one had a film competing at the festival, or an art piece they were creating. Of course, we didn’t do either, so many at BaseCamp initially struggled to understand exactly what we did as scientists, and also why we were there. This was definitely a challenge, but we rose up to the occasion. We fully immersed ourselves in this new culture, using every opportunity to talk with other BaseCampers, trying to create new connections. We didn’t give up, and luckily, we came up with some unique ideas to introduce ourselves.

Overcoming the Challenge: Finding our place
A few days in to BaseCamp, we decided to show off our work, and share what we do with the others. We put up photos of experiments, figures of data from our labs, and some LB-agar plates for BaseCampers to see and play with. Finally having something physical and visual to work with, we quickly captured everyone’s attention. What followed in the second half of BaseCamp was a dialogue that didn’t take place physically, but rather through art: words on a sheet of paper, small sketches next to a microscope image of a cell, and beautiful colonies of microbes growing on a plate. The other BaseCampers were collaborating with us organically, in real time! By giving us their interpretations of our work, they’re transforming the context in which we see our research, giving us a new lens to view our work, and asking us questions that we never would have thought of before. (For example, why would bacteria from a blade of grass harm us when the grass normally doesn’t hurt us at all?) Very quickly, we found ourselves becoming integrated into BaseCamp. Other BaseCampers would give us a passing smile or nod across the dance floor, stopping to talk to us in the halls about our specific fields of research, and even asking us every day about how our BioSigns project was growing. We finally felt like we belonged here.

The Resolution: Lasting connections
The feeling of belonging also made it harder for us to leave at the end. The second half of BaseCamp seemed to pass by in a flash. The LB-agar plates were growing wonderfully, we were having amazing in-depth conversations with the other BaseCampers and inspiring ourselves with new films. On the last day, sitting around in the grass with everyone, eating the food that we’ve made (read: fermented) at BaseCamp, we really didn’t want it to end. And to be honest, it doesn’t have to. There are now artists who are eager to create something more from the BioSigns project we’ve done together. There are conversations with young filmmakers that we will share with those in our scientific world. What we’ve done here at BaseCamp these 11 days have initiated a dialogue between art and science, and it doesn’t have to stop when we leave BaseCamp. I, for one, really hope to continue these projects throughout the year.

These days, science communication is more important than ever. That’s why we need more initiatives like this from NCCR-MSE, Art of Molecule, and the Locarno Film Festival. We can’t continue working within our own ivory towers, and expect others in the world to do the work of translating our work for us. It’s time for us scientists to get out in the world, and speak for ourselves.

- Beichen Gao, PhD student NCCR MSE -

An opportunity that gives enlightening moments in one’s life and career

"So, have you all achieved your goals?" It was on day 8, when Beichen asked the question while we were having a drink at Rotonda. I hesitated a bit as I gathered my thoughts on how much the goal of the NCCR MSE Art of Molecule and mine aligned. For me for sure, and I believe for both, it was a big yes.

I entered into the BaseCamp programme hoping to learn from artists’ approach to their work, the mindset and their ways of thinking. Although I have often tried explaining science to my close ones, it was a whole new experience of doing so to a big community of young artists and film makers. I found it very much interesting how and at which point they question things – and their queries made me more conscious of the terms I use and the way I explain. It also reminded me of a conversation with my master’s thesis supervisor, who told me about how his seven-year-old boy asked him a seemingly naive question on ‘why not use x to solve y?’, which seemed out-of-context but apparently had a ground that it could work. Having had similar experience at Locarno, I believe that the thought-provoking experiences speaking to the ‘outsiders’, give us opportunities to think outside the box, and help us to step back from the subject we often get boiled down to. Many times, indeed, sci-fi films and creative thinking from outside the scientific realm progresses scientific research.

Another aspect that struck me was the different ways film makers curate their work – however much some films were bewildering, they managed to achieve one unifying aim: to deliver a message to the public. Some films, perhaps those that many of us are used to, were quite straightforward – story told very well that was easy to follow. Considering how Locarno film festival fosters experimentation, some films were indeed confusing, however it did give a moment for the audience to think and reflect. Scientific research, in a way, should be like that too. Not only it is important how well we explain to the public what we do, but we should also give public reasons and for them to think why we are doing it. Learning from film makers, the way we tell our story can be done in a creative way that gives the public food for thought.

All in all, I have gained more than expected from participating at the BaseCamp – it is not common to have an opportunity that gives enlightening moments in one’s life and career. It helped me rethink about the ways of approaching, and communicating science, and inspired me to learn more about techniques used in films. As Locarno film festival hosted many films that are unconventional, it gave me exposure to unusual techniques and to a different world of film making. Undoubtedly, video is a strong tool to communicate science, and I believe that it will hugely benefit scientists if we can be equipped with interesting video taking techniques. Also, it will be important to work with film makers to create videos that are not only educational, but can be more accessible and interesting to the public. During the 10 days I was also able to develop friendship with some of the most talented young film directors at the BaseCamp. In the near future, I hope to have a chance to work together on interesting science-art projects, and to offer my knowledge and scientific work that can be inspiring to their experimentation with film making.

I greatly appreciate the freedom we were given to do what we wanted, which led us conclude our journey with three main projects (Bio-Signs, Mural art, interviews) that were a result of us embracing the uncertainty. Lastly but not least, I thank Dr. Ralf Stuzki and the Art of Molecule initiatives for making this project a reality despite difficulties during the pandemic. I hope this can continue so that it could help more young researchers to have a unique experience to be out of the in-the-box thinking scientific research.

- Eunhee Cho, PhD student NCCR MSE -

The Basecamp Laboratory of Ideas took us out from our academic bubbles

Imagine that you’re a researcher in tissue engineering and somebody from your team invite you for a 10-days residence in a top-ranked research center, with one of the best infrastructures in the world. There, at least 150 professionals will circulate in the same building that you’ll be, participating of dozens of activities, performing new ideas, having informal inspiring conversations during the breakfast and evening-Apéros, and showing you a diverse range of new biological samples, new bio-synthetic materials, and stories about success and failure in doing their work. Well, as a Sociologist of science and technology (who deals with “samples” of culture and society constantly under transformation) I would say that it was pretty much what my participation at the Basecamp Laboratory of Ideas did look like.

During the Locarno Film Festival 2021, granted by the NCCR-MSE’s Art of Molecule Initiative, I had a once-in-lifetime opportunity of being surrounded by such a diverse group of artists, photographers, producers, filmmakers, and scientists, all interacting with each other in unexpected ways. In Social Sciences we usually take some time to “digest” and “frame” our reflections after days of observation in the field, and Basecamp had everything to be considered as a great experiment in Urban Anthropology, Sociology of Knowledge, and experimental Communication Sciences.

I could follow different research hypotheses from the activities we got involved from August 4th to 13th. But I’d let myself free to perform, at least once since I finished my Ph.D., in a no-method arena. Before the residence in the Losone-Caserma in Locarno, I had a general idea about how the experience would look like. And I confess that I tried to prepare some methodological approach to organize a potential schedule of data collection in such a limited time (10 days for a sociological study is nothing). But it was not the Basecamp’s purpose: since the first day, I noticed that our experience should be built from zero. It was a challenge for me, which made myself to confirm (once again) why Sociology is a Science, driven by the empire of the path “problem, background, hypothesis, empirical design, method and results”. It made me think a lot about how rigid methodology is in science, and how it might constrain curiosity and creativity sometimes. What could we learn with the artist’s way to pursue their creativity? How they define priorities, tools and techniques? How have they let curiosity flow in a more fluid way than us, scientists? In other words, how can we study the fragile boundary between ordering and rationality in Arts and Sciences which makes projects evolve in different ways?

Our stay at Basecamp reinforced my background on how knowledge develop itself in society. I understand creativity as social and technical process significantly shaped by the cultural contexts where those activities happen. My lens got focused to the collective/reflexive behavior of our team of NCCR-MSE researchers, their surprises and discomfort in front of “too abstract” things, “weird” movies, lack of pathways to follow and, maybe the most interesting to me, the subjective coercion of the scientific style to concept and design an artistic project.

It was completely clear when my dear more-than-just-colleagues Akanksha, Viviana, Eunhee and Beichen, and myself, developed and negotiated the concept for our two projects “First impressions” – a collage/mural with visual/scientific representations of biological life and artifacts -, and “The Basecamp Bio-Signs” - a collection of bacteria samples from 15 basecampers’ personal objects and work materials, addressed to create pieces of Bio-Art. Most of the debate around the projects’ concepts followed concerns regarding to “viability”, “feasibility”, “time” and “materiality” – all aspects that scientists valuate a lot in their routines of design activities. However, for the artistic audience, elements like “Aesthetics”, “Identity”, “open-ended experiences” and “irreproducibility” were added as part of the interaction with the NCCR team. Talking in person with some of my colleagues, the two PhD students were pretty much opened for changing pathways in the way they pursue curiosity and creativity, and the postdocs were more pragmatic and utilitarian with the plans – which, even in Arts and Filmmaking, it is a fundamental skill for making things happen – and a better sense of organizational possibilities. However, the relationship of scientists and creative professionals, in workshops and social events, shown that we shouldn’t be naïve and assume that arts have no organizational and rationality behind, and that Sciences has no subjectivity and immaterial creativity beyond the methods’ frontiers.

Trying to reach a bit more details about the black box of the two-way road of Arts and Sciences, we decided to follow aspects of the creative process of making Films and Art installations and compare that with my previous knowledge about how scientists make science. We had GREAT examples of very competent young professionals in both ways. With my personal smartphone and catching people in the corridors before 11am or after 11pm, I interviewed (my Basecamp’s roommate) Keerthigan Sivakumar, filmmaker, graduated from the L'École cantonale d'art de Lausanne (ECAL), the Swiss Artist Viola Poli, graduated from the La Haute École d'art et de design de Genève (HEAD) and my dear colleague (great partner, by the way) from NCCR-MSE Dr. Akanksha Jain, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Biosystems, Science and Engineering (D-BSSE), ETH Zurich in Basel. Arts, Film and Sciences look like separated worlds, working in heterogeneous institutional and organizational logics. However, our interviews shown that they share strong similarities in the way they make their work viable in different cultural and technological settings.

Then, through informal conversations, I tried to understand a little more on how they balance their expectations and ideas with planning and available technologies. I called this as a sociological experiment which can be considered as a first step for future projects in Sociology of knowledge in Arts, Films and Sciences. I am sure about the relevance of this NCCR-MSE initiative in improving science communication and multidisciplinary networking (during the event and beyond). It positioned our activities as scientists to a different level as part of the official guests of the Locarno Film Festival 2021. The Basecamp Laboratory of Ideas is a house that took us out from our academic bubbles, and amazing collaborations have been growing from this experience. Back to the Health Ethics and Policy Lab in Zurich, it is now not only a new skill for the team, but a new intellectual agenda to be explored and expanded.

- Renan Leonel, postdoctoral researcher at NCCR MSE -