Logbook 2021

Day 1: The Arrival

Weather: Rainy

We’re here! NCCR-MSE has made it safely to BaseCamp! After a cramped train ride for all but a lucky one of us, and checking our vaccination certificates, we’ve made it safely to our assigned rooms in Locarno "Kaserma", and had some time to explore the old military barracks.

Among the rooms dedicated to spontaneous gatherings, make-shift ateliers, and one exhibiting short films from Swatch, we already had some time to meet a few directors and film students wandering the halls.

Skipping forward to the Opening Ceremonies, where after showing our vaccination certificates once again, we were allowed in to rub elbows and drink wine with the creatives in attendance.

Now it’s time to celebrate the first night at BaseCamp. More to come tomorrow. Ciao!

Fun fact: the Locarno Film Festival poster this year consists of a leopard split into 24 frames - the exact number of frames per second (24fps) that fools the human eye to create the illusion of movement. Read more about it here: https://www.locarnofestival.ch/LFF/news/2021/02/Manifesto_Locarno74.html

Day 2: The Planning Begins

Weather: Sunny, with a chance of sunburn.

Breakfast was quiet this morning, as people slowly trickled in, the room filled with soft discussions about the films of the day between mouthfuls of toast and müesli. With the help of strong coffee, around 10:30, Kaserme came alive.

And so we find the NCCR Science Ambassador team huddled in a room together (with two other filmmakers today!). The goal today is to start putting the wheels in motion for our own sci-art project. We poured over the photos we brought and how best to show our work off to the rest of BaseCamp. Ideas were formed, ideas were scrapped, and finally an idea was proposed to the BaseCamp organizers. Whiteboards and markers are on their way, to make artistic visions of science come alive at BaseCamp. (see Instagram for photos of organoids, microfluidics and more!)

With that done, the sun outside is calling our names, and there are many movies to see. Evocative dramas, innovative horror, and beautiful stories of strength are on the list today. Tears and pounding heartbeats to end the day after laying the groundwork for our Sci-comm projects here at BaseCamp. Not bad for Day 2. Let’s see what Day 3 will bring.

Fun fact: the Outdoor Screen from Piazza Grande is on the 20CHF bill, if you have one, it’s almost like you’re here with us!

Day 3: “What are these scientists doing at a film festival?”

After all of us NCCR-MSE scientists attended a late night event aimed at helping young filmmakers learn how to get their work into high-ranking festivals, I’m sure many BaseCampers had this question in mind. And I’m sure many of you are wondering the same.

The 5 of us are a group of PhDs and PostDocs in various domains in the NCCR-MSE umbrella with strong science communication experience. NCCR and the Art of Molecule have provided us the opportunity to attend BaseCamp where we are able to learn from creatives to hone our communication skills, and also a chance to engage in a rare opportunity of cultural exchange between scientists and artists/filmmakers/designers. So now that we’ve had a moment to settle down, allow us to introduce ourselves and our plans for while we’re here.

First up is Renan. The calm and collected sociologist PostDoc of the group, Renan has been spending these days observing how the other 4 of us engage in science translation: how do we explain our projects? How do we provide context for our work? And most importantly, how do the creatives connect with us in return? In addition to these questions, Renan will be the one providing updates of our activities on Facebook!

Next up, Eunhee: the bright and curious PhD student. Outside of her work in microfluidics, she’s curious about the process of how artists and creatives approach their work, and finding similarities in our own workflows in the lab.  Artists are always experimenting with new approaches and methods as well after all. You can find the interesting things she (and the others) spot around BaseCamp and Locarno on the NCCR-MSE Instagram account! (Or in filmmaker terms: Instagram is a good place to understand Eunhee’s “gaze” on the festival)

Completing the social media holy trinity is Akanksha - the PostDoc who’s actively tweeting for us on the NCCR-MSE Twitter account! As a specialist in microscopy, Akanksha’s interested in exploring her skills behind a different lens: that of a filmmaker’s camera. Aspiring to use filmmaking as a new avenue for science communication, she’s using this chance at BaseCamp to connect with filmmakers and directors, and understand how they make their messages translate through the camera. You can learn more about discoveries and insights from both Akanksha and the rest of us through her posts on the NCCR-MSE Twitter account!

Next up, Viviana: our physical chemist interested in bio-signalling and bio-communication for her PhD. Her motivation at BaseCamp? She seeks to explore communication in a different way - and to communicate with artists using varied and original methods. The bio communication that she is currently studying could interpret the communication between scientists and artists in a very eccentric way. At BaseCamp, she wants to understand the culture here among creatives, and leverage that to create interesting Sci-comm projects. As part of her social responsibilities, she’s helping me, the final member with writing these daily logs in an engaging way, and providing inspiration for each post.

And finally we arrive at me, Beichen: the guy who writes a lot. In the lab, my PhD research is focused on protein engineering, and synthetic immunology. Outside of the lab, I’m fascinated by storytelling as a way to engage people, get their attention, and pass on different messages. So at BaseCamp, I’m looking for an interesting story through collaboration, to work on a project together with an artist, and create something out of clashing views and ideas. While I’m not dreaming of that, you hear (or rather: read) my voice here on the Daily Log posts.

So, there you have it, we are the NCCR-MSE Ambassadors. You know what why we’re here at BaseCamp, what our interests are, and how we’re contributing to the various NCCR-MSE social media platforms these next few days.

And now to cap it off, you must all be wondering: do we have a collective project here at BaseCamp? Why yes, yes we do!

As a group, we’re super curious to know what other BaseCampers think of the art and images we encounter ever day in our work: How might an image of an organoid inspire an artist? or how might a filmmaker interpret the concept of “molecular machines”? How might others curate our work? And how can artists make these figures more engaging? With our project, tentatively titled “First Impressions”, we aim to explore these questions.

Each of us have brought some images and technical terms that are used often in our own fields of research, and we will exhibit them to the residents of BaseCamp un a way that invites natural collaboration: by putting them up and allowing them to take any image that inspire them and work it into a new piece, providing a new context, and a new viewpoint on science. The project is a great way to start conversations with any of the ambassadors at BaseCamp, as well as a source of creative materials for spontaneous works that will be shown off later near the end of BaseCamp. We can’t wait to see what comes out of this project!

Day 4: Weather? Pouring rain!

With the storms raging outside, it’s a good day to work on our projects. Some of us spent the morning cutting up the pictures we brought, some of us spent the time curating the images, and then some of us scrambled around to find the materials we needed like a whiteboard (spoiler: we didn’t get it).

Midway through the day, inspiration struck, and our main BaseCamp project began. It began with a single goal: “to capture a biological signature of BaseCamp”: it’s projects, it’s environments, and the people who are here. We’ve brought some LB-agar plates with us (perfect for growing microorganisms) and we will use these to capture a microbiotic “snapshot” of on-going projects at BaseCamp - and see what grows in the next few days! It’s an exciting opportunity to create a dialogue between art and science that could even continue after BaseCamp has ended!

But it takes some preparation: writing messages to BaseCamp, making posters, and gathering artists who are interested. However it’s an exciting start!

Also by this time, we’ve all started getting accustomed to the BaseCamp schedule: where it comes to life from 11pm-3am. So at midnight, us scientists got to work! (Now that I think about it, sometimes we’re also working at midnight in the lab, maybe BaseCamp isn’t so different) Between the hours of midnight to 2am, we channeled the guerrilla tactics of street artists, and took over a wall at BaseCamp with our scientific figures and images, to the sound of thumping house music coming from the room next door. Finished with our “First Impressions” installation, we went to bed, exhausted but excited…looking forward to seeing how the other BaseCampers will interpret our work. Will it inspire them to create their own art? We can’t wait to find out.

Fun observation: during our process of putting up our images, n=4 of observers thought that an epithelial cell was a jelly fish.

Day 5: Weather? Sun, glorious sun!

There are comments! Drawings! Our “First Impressions” is getting some attention! This was a biggggg confidence boost for all of us as we woke up this morning. “the Universe”, “Cells”, “Viruses”. I think these artists are on to us…

Even though it’s a Sunday today, the day’s full of activities at BaseCamp, with events advertised through a common WhatsApp group…with, importantly, our own call for artists to collaborate with us on the BaseCamp Bio-Signatures project at midnight tonight. I hope a lot of people show up. Or else my disappointment will be immeasurable and my day ruined. Just kidding, but it would be great to get all of BaseCamp involved.

First up on the list for the day: a Masterclass on Video Essays with Kevin B Lee. This session was fascinating for many reasons, one of which was his ability to talk to us, the scientists. Upon realizing we were in attendance, he started using terms we would use to create scientific analogies to what filmmakers do (ex. calling the creative exploration of ideas as “forming and testing a hypothesis”) Listening to him talk, it’s clear that there are many similarities in how filmmakers and scientists develop and explore our project ideas. With many other parallels such as spending months to years to complete a project, the drive to answer a particular question, and more!

This connection between science and art was also addressed in the following workshop around fermenting foods. Indeed, fermenting foods require a careful balance of microbes and the brine to create the perfect environment for a chemical reaction. But in a way, it’s also similar to cooking, where there is creativity in how you create and balance the flavours in your “pickles”. There were about 20 of us that participated in the fermentation workshop: scientists, artists, filmmakers, students. All working together, on an activity that involved both an understanding of science, and a smattering of creativity. It’s layers of art, and science and art, and science together!

Finally, as we go into the late afternoon, a few of us are going to hop out to Locarno for some film screenings, before returning to BaseCamp tonight to start taking some “samples” from the creatives here. We can’t wait to see what develops (or should I say “grows”) out of this project!

Fun fact: there is a popular belief that using table salt, which contains iodine, prevents the growth of bacteria crucial for fermenting sauerkraut. This was disproved by a paper in 2018 that found no effect of iodine on bacteria, however, there was an *almost* statistically significant effect on yeast!

Day 6: Weather? Sunny, humid, I hate that my clothes are stuck to my back

Remember how I said if no one shows up for the BioSigns project last night, my disappointment will be immeasurable? Well a few minutes after the log, we found out that yesterday at midnight might not have been the best time to kick off the project, and instead moved it to tonight.

As the meme goes: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome. Tonight will be the night!

Otherwise, last night was verrrrry quiet at BaseCamp. I think either everyone is out at the event in Locarno, or are all exhausted and wanted to use the chance on Sunday to go to bed early. Either way, I think all of the 5 of us are happy to have a quiet night.

This morning, everything was back to usual. The energy in the atmosphere is back! Some BaseCampers are leaving today, but there are new BaseCampers joining us. I wonder what new perspectives they’ll bring with them?

For the better part of the day, all of us spent it really connecting and chatting with some of the other BaseCampers that we’ve met and have grown close to. Some of us sat down to discuss potential projects (BioSigns, ahem) and others decided too start an interview series focused on individual BaseCampers: chatting to them about what they do, how they approach their art, and also, what do they find interesting about our science. These projects took up the better part of our day, but we believe the recordings will make excellent materials for future projects and initiatives to be created for NCCRs Art of Molecule.

And now for the afternoon - well more like early evening - we’re all off to the movies. I think over the course of these few days, all 5 of us here have been exposed to so many different styles and genres of films - it’s quite an education! I for one, am off to a documentary about puppeteers tonight. Let’s see how it is!

Fun fact: I’m scared of puppets and dolls…they’re creepy and I might have nightmares tonight.

Day 7: Weather? Hot, humid, I miss the rain a little bit.

I think today’s a good day to focus our log on the success of the Bio-signs project last night and this morning.

In short, it was an incredible experience! In one night (and a bit of a day), we worked together with 15 other BaseCampers to complete their own individual plates! The process also gave us a chance to explain to them how and why bacteria and fungi would grow on LB-agar, and what other types of “nutrient plates” there were that we used.

For us scientists, it was amazing to see what items each BaseCamper brought and how they composed their pieces. A few highlights:
- an artist who’s creating a collage from recycled clothes and fabrics brought strips of fabric, and over the course of a few minutes, created a beautiful composition on the plate, almost resembling a beautiful fungal growth.
- A filmmaker brought a vintage Super8 camera, which struck up a conversation about the differences between using film and digital cameras in movie making, and how it can influence the tone of the movie. For such a vintage piece of equipment, I’m personally very curious to see if can be cultured on that plate.
- An artist exploring different mediums of animation put one of his sketches directly on the plate! Both of us wondered if we can still see the outline of his sketch after the cultures have had time to grow, guess we’ll need to check back in a few days.
- An actress and film director brought us her ring light that she uses often, and shared stories of her travels, and her experiences being involved in two different roles in movie making. She also turned into an amazing champion for our projects here and helped us reach out to many other BaseCampers to initiate new conversations.

For now, I think that’s a pretty good summary of the highlights of the night/morning. As usual, there are movies to see for the rest of the day, and (for me) some new areas of Locarno and Ascona to discover. Looking forward to seeing what happens at BaseCamp tonight - I’ll be sure to keep you all updated!

Fun fact: Super8 film is well known for its use in home movie recordings. Even to this day, filmmakers will specifically choose this format to evoke images of home movies, memories, or to create an aesthetically pleasing “grainy” effect. I know all of you can imagine it right now. Yes, you know the exact effect I’m talking about.

Day 8: Weather? Even hotter than yesterday.

Let’s get a little experimental. I’m going to recount the day, but also give you an idea of how conversations develop naturally at Basecamp. The recount of the day will be in standard font, while the ***updates on an ongoing conversation I’m having/listening to during writing this will be sandwiched between asterisks***. Let’s go!

I’m writing this daily log from the “hangout room” at BaseCamp, with huge comfortable cushions scattered around the room. There are 2 others here, and ***we’re talking about Chess - and another popular topic that starts with “C”***. It’s 10:30pm and it’s the calm before the storm - before BaseCamp comes alive in another hour or so. And here in this place, I’m going to write the log for the day.

So, before even talking about the start of our day, let’s talk about last night. Last night was the “big party” here: cast members from feature films, directors, the media, etc. all congregated at BaseCamp. The atmosphere was electric, with so many discussions going on in so many different languages. It really captures an incredibly diverse image of the Locarno Film Festival.

***And now we’re talking about cooking, and tomatoes, and how making lasagna is like creating a work of art. The “art of the kitchen” if you will.***

So let’s move on to today. I feel like all 5 of us are waking up later and later in the mornings. The highlight of the morning would be an interview a few of us had recorded with a young filmmaker here: Giselle, who has a short-film in the competition. In the discussion, she expressed her interest in the psychology of families, and noted how the scientific method (hypothesis, testing, analysis and observation) plays an important role in filmmaking too. Once again, it appears our individual fields are not so different after all.

***Two others have just joined us here. One Swiss, and another who’s Ukrainian. The conversation has switched to the Icelandic film industry, followed by the chemical processes to develop film.***

Moving on to the afternoon, with the hot weather today, we decided it was a good chance to get away from Locarno for a short break, and go for a swim near the Cascata del Salto. While due to a Google Maps error, we didn’t get to do the swim, but we enjoyed a great hike into the mountains and were rewarded with some beautiful views of the valley to enjoy while eating the dinner we packed with us.

***And we close up the conversation of the night with radioactivity, and how a photographer once experimented with using radioactive sand on film to create unique, and terrifying images.***

As for tonight, Yan Hirschbeuhl, the Oscars winner for special effects for “Blade Runner 2049” will be here soon discussing Switzerland vs Hollywood. I’m sure it’ll be a great session, providing some good food for thought before bedtime tonight.

Fun fact: The “LB” in the LB-agar plates we used for our Bio-Signs project stands for Lysogeny Broth, and it’s used in labs to grow bacteria from the Enterobacteriaceae family, such as E.coli.

Day 9: Weather? I received a Heat Wave warning from MeteoSwiss…

Day 9! I can’t believe BaseCamp is almost coming to an end. It’s been a crazy ride, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping yet. Starting with breakfast: only 3 out of the 5 of us made it in time this morning. Maybe tomorrow only one of us will show up on time. Anyone want to bet?

Anyways, the morning and early afternoons go as usual now - spending our times between movies and the projects at BaseCamp. We’re getting a lot of attention on the “First Impressions” wall! Interestingly enough, someone has connected all of the microfluidic chips into a circuit. Now that I think about it, they also looks like small electronic chips to me. Also in this heat (30°C today!) the Bio-Signs plates are growing VERY well, maybe a bit too well. I’m concerned that they will overgrow, which might affect our future analyses, but…at the moment it’s great to see them flourishing! Additionally, some plates have colonies that have an iridescent sheen when held up to the sun - we have no idea what they are but we’re excited to find out! (Remember, our specialties are organoids, chemistry, microfluidics, synthetic biology, and sociology: there’s not a microbiologist in sight!)

As for the movie of the day, most of us attended a film called “Zeroes and Ones” - which almost everyone agreed was confusing. With critiques such as “the concept was technically good”, and “maybe it was trying to do too many things, and became unfocused”, I think all of us are becoming amateur film critics after these few days! I, for one, would have rarely approached film in this way before in every day life.

The comment about the film trying to do too much also reminds me of a philosophy some of us hold in science: the best experiments are those that are designed elegantly, and focused on a single question. Like a film, sometimes simple experiments are what you want to aim for as a professional.

And as usual, BaseCamp has changed once again as we returned tonight. There are projections now on the walls, and even in the trees. Looks like digital art is the theme of the night. Like usual, it’s time to have a drink, de-compress and network a bit. Ciao!

Fun fact: Numbers in binary are depicted as 0’s and 1’s. If a binary number ends in 0, it will always be an odd number, and if it ends in 1, it will always be even.

Day 10: Weather? The heatwave continues. Is there anywhere to swim around...

It happened. I missed breakfast this morning, and therefore can no longer report on the breakfast situation. For my own ego, I’ll imagine that no one made it. As it is written, so it shall be.

It’s Day 10: the last full day at BaseCamp! Looking back, we all thought that 10 days would feel much longer, but the last week has just flown by. The atmosphere today at BaseCamp is a bit strange. Walking through the halls, you can definitely feel an…absence of people, but there’s still an undercurrent of excitement. Why excitement? Today’s the day all of the projects at BaseCamp come to completion and we can finally enjoy them. Now that I think about it, we’ve been rather focused on our own projects lately here on these daily logs. Let me introduce some of the others:

- Viola, an Italian visual artist has created an installation in one of the basement rooms. Within, she’s using a combination of lights, jars, chains, and other natural items to evoke a distinctly…thoughtful and melancholic atmosphere.
- Kathrin, a Swiss art student, has taken another room and created an exhibit that combines her paintings with a short film she shot herself, focused on the growth of the female main character as an independent artist.
- Linda, another Italian artist, has spent the last few days weaving a large collage using recycled fabrics, into a beautiful scene. Really showing the flexibility of making art using different materials.
- Hubert, a photographer from Paris, has created a short music video using life-sized photographs of BaseCampers. Attached to drones, the BaseCampers “danced” around BaseCamp, and it’s various rooms. The music video will be shown off later in Piazza Grande!
- Niki, an illustrator and artist from nearby Lugano, has spent his time at BaseCamp on a project that explores animation using different mediums (pens, chalk, etc) and has created a small short film to be shown on a loop today.
- Peilian, also working with fabrics and materials, have spent the last few days weaving a HUGE hammock (over 5 meters long!) that could hold 2 people. Creating a beautiful installation that invites spontaneous interactions out in the yard.

As another “finale celebration” today, our dinner at BaseCamp consisted of a feast on the foods we fermented at the fermentation workshop earlier this week. A wonderful spread was created in the middle of the yard. BaseCampers sat on cushions made out of twine coffee sacks, around a large white sheet, loaded with colourful jars of pickles, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods we’ve made ourselves. As we ate, conversation topics flowed from favourite movies, to memories of the last 10 days, and how we plan to celebrate tonight. It was a beautiful way to have a final dinner here.

But everything isn’t over yet! As the sun sets, many of us head out to Piazza Grande to see Hubert’s (and others’) short films exhibited, and will come back later in the night for more workshops, and a good farewell BBQ party. Although bittersweet, the excitement at BaseCamp never ends!