As 4 young scientists begin their journey towards the hallowed halls of one of the world's great film festivals, we begin with some meditation on what our role there will be, and what our qualities were that got us this privilege in the first place. Fundamentally, art and science approach the world from different directions: art sees the world for what is not but could be, while science tries to come to a deeper understanding of what already is. However, the two disciplines share a commonality that many others do not: the greatest prestige comes from communicating ideas in ways that reshape them and make the viewer see them in a new light.
If I'm being honest, it feels that we have more to learn from the artists than they have to learn from us. We can learn a lot about communication, about the mediums that make it possible for us to engage the audiences for our research, and about how to tell stories that engage and excite. As research scientists, our day-to-day lives are dominated by the minutae of making experiments work: the binding thermodynamics of a specific DNA sequence, the best organic solvent for a reaction, or the best bacterial strain for expressing today's protein. For the next 10 days we have to rewire our brains to have our heads in the clouds such that we can communicate with artists in a way that engages their creative side.
There are two modes of thinking that I am particularly focused on. First, we need to be the representatives of the future. We work on things that may have impact on the 'real world' in 10-20 years and we have to share that long vision with them. We have to show them the world that might be, and let that spawn dialogue about how we make that world a beautiful place rather than one that is dark and scary. Second, we can be the systematic thinkers that pull ideas together through underlying model similarities that they may not have seen. Many of us have some background in physics, and I have seen many instances in social, political, and econonimc contexts where the ideas of physics, (e.g. forces, partition functions, conservation of mass/energy) can map beautifully onto other problems and lead to that deeper understanding that both artists and scientists seek.
Anyway, that's enough of my ramblings, I have to go buy paints for our models and a new swimsuit.
Before embarking our train journey to Switzerland to meet Míša in Basel, we were faced with missing the ECE in Mannheim. Rushing from the MPI of Medical Research at the Neuenheimer Feld, we repeatedly reloaded DB Navigator in search of an alternative.
Squeezed into a packed train, maneuvering around suitcases, we soon dozed off, only to awaken to breathtaking views of mountains and Swiss lakes through the windows. Upon arriving in Bellinzona, we were greeted by the bright neon yellow leopard print, from the Locarno festival, and welcomed by Mediterranean temperatures.
Since we were longing for a swim in the lake, we had to walk through Locarno with our bags full of SCIENCE instead to find the check-in desk.When we found it, the sign said 'professional accreditation', very fancy.Some confusing instructions later, we reached Basecamp, an elementary school in Losone, where we received a warm welcome amidst the pleasant fragrance of freshly cut grass. We were then directed to our shared rooms, with children's toilets scented with rose soap and sinks that were almost knee-high.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, we worked on setting up Internet access on our Swiss SIM cards, satisfied our hungry stomachs, and snapped Instagram-worthy introduction photos. Despite the hectic schedule, we fully immersed ourselves in the artistic atmosphere - and met fascinating people, artistic personas, and a unique approach to life that we were eager to explore, learn from, and connect with over the next 10 days.
First official meeting with Ralf to initiate business onsite, demonstration of our 3D printed strucutres thanks to Sadi at the Scientific Facility for Microfabrication and Microfluidics of Heidelberg University and to the MPI workshop. Over an espresso we discuss DNA nanotechnology and plan our exhibitions and science visibility at pop-up.
Then: first film on the piazza grande in the pouring rain and in rain ponchos with leopard print and breathtaking creativity thrown on the screen.
We were incredibly grateful that we hurried earlier to dress elegantly, because descending the shuttle that left at the red carpet in Piazza Grande and ended in front of the Campari red villa, we knew why.Between views on the lake (at night - only black) and the latest fashion of models, directors, actors and all shades of Campari red in Spritz, Amalfi, Negroni and other versions of glasses we enjoyed to discuss issues about life in Switzerland and the world of film.
So in summary: second color this day from bright leopard yellow to glowing Campari red. I am curious to see what comes next.
Hot coffee - hot sunlight - hot shower. Hot keyboard - morning posting session.And finally wifi and some time to start the day in peace and quiet.
Our morning task was to organize and digitalize, set up the Gimble and a calender to share the schedule among us. In addition: review of the program and connect with the app to book movies and find venues.We optimized our daily schedule with Basecamp events, Academy meetings, films we need to see to discuss, and organized the purchase of materials for our science fair.
Another business lunch with Ralf brought discussions about bad people making good art, morality and whether the two can or should be distinguished.We were picked up by Chiara, the coordinator, and taken to the heart of the Basecamp PopUp, the backyard of the building.Looking for a dark place to set up our laser droplet microscope and a wall to squeeze our mind sheets into we found a great spot.Stay tuned …
Next scheduled event:First Basecamp Academy meeting. We met dedicated people who take extra time to share and network, led by Stefano Knuchel, whom we had the pleasure of meeting ealier on zoom thanks to Ralf. This allowed us to interact with science fiction filmmakers.Gradually we realized that we are surrounded by so many global, cosmopolitan people who have more than art and film in their lives.Gently sliding over to the afternoon live band on the wet ground - stepping on the grass in the rain and enjoying the dance.
''The process of creation must start from something deep or personal.''
At the academy’s short film screenings, we hear and see 5 women filmmakers approach the subject of ethnic identity, integration, sexuality and growing up.We learn that people work in the arts because they want to contribute. Many have jobs on the side, few can make a living doing what they do, but still they believe in it and want to raise their voices.
New color for today: sepia - describes an alternative setting for the evening event.
The plan was to be at one of the screening venues at 11:15am to see ''Yannick'', a highly recommended film by Quentin Dupieux. This time we were lucky and managed to squeeze into the auditorium, which was filled to capacity. Right from the beginning, the film gave me the feeling of being part of the scene. „Yannick“ triggered the memory of some situations we all know and developed the frame around that moment. It opened a discussion about expectations of art. Should theatre or film primarily entertain or stimulate critical thinking, and what is 'entertaining' to different people?
Today we discussed these questions again in one of the many cafes in Locarno's old town with Ralf and we gave these daily meetings a name: EsprEthics (check it out on Twitter @esprethics).
Achievements of the day were: We finally got all the material together we need for the PopUp. We had a quick table football match at Rotonda and finally got comfortable (or shall we say agreed) with social media posting, which we're all not (that much) used to. As one of the few people at basecamp who opened their laptops after breakfast and got feedback that people were getting useful impressions thanks to logbook from previous years, we felt the urge to fulfill our ambassadorial duties and let the world know what was happening in Locarno and could happen on this planet. Appreciative feedback also came from the coordinator for dedicated science group participation over the yearrs (the praise goes out to you).
Today's Academy topic was 'Virtual reality' or should we call it 'Virtual reality is coming, it's here, it's the future and the future is now - it’s going to be great. VR here - but where?'
'Missing pictures' with Clément Deneux.
He is directing a series of short VR experiences. This world is about switching between "virtual reality", "augmented reality" and "reality" - and that there will be “Interaction with realities”. So what is the goal of VR? The most intense experiences resulting from the loss of sense of time or sense of meaning altogether, or the opposite: is it realism? Is it perhaps augmented reality in your own living room and the experience of eye contact with a virtual person?
Arguments like "you can't share the experience" versus the Locarno slogan "cinema is better together" were hotly debated topics. And we're not even talking about the world of video games, with which VR often merges, or sharing experiences like in Escape Rooms. Imagine: opening portals to monsters in the living room - where does the video game begin and the VR experience end? YouTube has taken over the point of TV - people giving you information. What replaces VR - Locarno is sure it's not cinema, but many applications in medicine and therapy have already proven to meet needs better than traditional practice.
We also discovered the market behind VR, including horrendous cost of production, the time pressure of funding and the market dictated by VR brands that provoke a race to complete a project before technology evolves. Sustained creative work suffers as a result, and accessibility is a major problem: how to produce work with limited access technology?One possible answer to the above question is that VR is a step toward new ways of story telling, but is not yet a solution or a suitable medium, but is still evolving. We also see dangers in this technology and this is a question for esprethics.
Therefore the remaining sticky color of the day is espresso brown.
Every day is different and every day has a program. Everything is free to design, we are allowed to visit the Academy to which we were specially invited and we have access to the PopUp, this wonderful place. Films, discussions, party, live music, exhibitions and not to forget networking. Even if the things are quickly in the foreground - as the points on the schedule. "It's really a must." But what must and what must not? We were told it's about the people, the life, not the things. Today was about creativity. Creativity in storytelling, in video games, and in creating art for the audience - and in creating art for yourself.
Basecamp PopUp is about giving heart to the cause. The difference we're starting to realize is that the PopUp is a place where people care, take an interest in you, where you can be yourself and still be noticed even if you don't fit the grid. The message that went out to us today was "Keep doing what you're doing."It is ultra motivating to be in such an environment.
Marianne Slot received the Raimondo Rezzonico Film Award in the evening at the Piazza Grande and mentioned in her acceptance speech that they were often in life-threatening situations on their film sets but in the end so close to life.
It is so pleasant to experience that it is about authenticity. We have all agreed that photos can be taken and there is no asking for each snapshot. There are filmmakers of the future and they are not concerned with the posed moment to create envy and fomo in other people.
Authenticity is also a big theme in language. The film "Anatomie d'une chute" by Justine Trier has shown this in an excellent way. To be honest, I have often wondered why language issues are often lost in films. Here, however, the main actress was in the same situation as many multilingual people (to be honest, here on basecamp it's rather funny when you can't switch from Italian to Spanish and French or German and have broken English as backup). Strong personalities meet strong thought sensitivity and create a space between mental health and illness with many pronounced taboos, uncomfortable moments and the old familiar claim view yourself.
What do you want to achieve? Influence, change, activism, family and your job? Sacrifice or a good balance?It's about experiencing new things and learning from others. It was about creativity in the Academy, and maybe it's time to learn to feel the pleasure of missing out. The joy of missing out. Being receptive to any kind of art - maybe it's the rolled cigarette that was put on the towel rack in the toilet and forgotten and rediscovered. To enjoy the weirdness of the moment and be inspired by it. That is creativity.
As a contrast program we are always in the middle of two worlds or even more - and the one where one group of people is encouraged to wear evening dresses and heels and the other suits.
In this glamorous setting, the color of the evening in the Piazza Grande was the superimposed lunar white of the moon on the screen and the shining earth moon.
We are here in the middle of the Swiss Ticino, every morning at breakfast we look at the mountains. Almost always we move towards Locarno to the bus stop, but today we started in the other direction. Through a beautiful silent jungle with palm trees, as every monstera owner imagines for his home. Arriving at the river, everyone chose their couch stone and we recharged a bit for today's Academy topic: the independence of one's project.
We started the discussion by considering what the difference between a producer and a director actually is, and ended with a clear idea of how ambiguous everything is. Here are the parallels we drew to a project in science while listening to Carmen Jaquier and Flavia Zanon:
The producer - manager - takes care of the scheduling, manages the logistics and the people, like a lab manager or a PhD student for itself.
The director - directs the artistic scene and has the vision of the overall product in mind, like an academic advisor or a graduate student does for its project.
Cameraman or photo director - takes care of shooting the image and makes sure the actual data is there, like sometimes the supervised student or most likely the PhD student itself.
Then there is funding, in Switzerland we have learned that there is a lot of money and therefore the possibility to support very free and versatile topics with new backgrounds and activist topics with high risk (like the Migros Story Lab does), you might think like private research institutions. The money is there for now and can and must be put to good use in the end, otherwise you lose funding for the coming year.
In addition, the people must be well chosen, because you already enter into a 'small marriage' with your collaborators and especially producer and director, just as the graduate student must come to terms with himself a lot.
In auteur cinema it's also common that everything comes together in one person, many of these people are also in the base camp - all the strings in their hands - always the feeling of being responsible for everything and having to control everything and, above all, being the owner of the project.
A director, it was said, must be an artist, a psychiatrist and an engineer at the same time. When people are involved, everyone must feel they are part of the project and personally committed. Ultimately, it's about project work with people management and the goal of financial independence. You have to develop a sense of what you're spending your time and energy on. And if you don't know that at first, you have to talk to people and figure it out. Make mistakes and then know when you need to change something.
To do that, you have to convince people with money to get the opportunity, and most importantly, you have to love your project yourself, have a secret that keeps you coming back. Or people to see it through with, like your thesis advisor - a mentor or a partner.
The answer to the question of whether it would be possible for a scientist to approach a producer with an idea and make something out of it is a resounding yes - there would then be someone writing a script, and you have to see whether you stay on board or not: it's like a collaboration - experimenter and theorist come together and something great comes out of it, but everyone has to see how much they invest, and in the end, unfortunately, it's all about who comes first. Or is it about the cause? But collaborations also thrive on whether people can work with each other, so ultimately we're all based on our psychological social foundations.
How do you deal with pressure?All projects have their ups and downs, we have to protect ourselves in down moments and keep telling ourselves that I don't care to believe it either. When you have achieved and completed something, it is helpful to take a step back, to do something calming, to be able to experiment again, to be creative.
And a secret is also: approach a project that involves emotion in a way that doesn't involve emotion.
Sometimes something can emerge when science fiction writers, artists, scientists come forward and ask how to make a harder material than diamond, for example, and very dedicated scientists who are open-minded and can't shake such requests even make their own science out of it, as a paper by Proserpio et al. (1994, J. Am. Chem. Soc.). We learned this at a chat with NCCR MSE Director Thomas R. Ward, Uni Basel, and his wife Anouk Ward, who visited us at PopUp. It was a successful round.
During the last days we were also approached by the climate-fiction project 'Solanum' with their eco-feminist project on genomically modified plants and the future of agriculture. So we talked about the toolkits of DNA and RNA nanotechnology and what we're creating with that. One thing is certain: we're going to meet again.
And what got us through the day today and made it all trackable is stone-grey - the color of couch rock at the river.
Locarno is filled. Basecamp is at the same time emptied and filled again - apparently many groups from the story lab joined and shared the pass for the whole 10 days. So the expectation that it’s getting calmer throughout the next week diminishes and rather new enthusiasm conquers the world of basecamp. Young filmmakers meet during the day and night to shoot a new short film. I was lucky enough to see their premiere in the hall of elementary school on my way to bed. And I couldn’t deny that it was one of the short films in downtown Locarno. So what‘s our contribution?
Today is the day we bring two big and heavy bags - our portable outreach lab - to Locarno Centro. It is unsure how much we’ll be able to install but one step at a time.
Part ONE of our science exhibition:
The bright and shiny gloves carrying the letters for our title: WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
And not so shiny but white labcoats nailed to the wall that say „Earth in 100 years“ and „science“.
And indeed people started to check it out.
In the meantime PopUp flourished with another round of DJ Alan Alpenfelt, sausage Ticino and in parallel many many movies. We went watch again at Piazza Grande ”Continent magnétique/ Antarctica calling” by Luc Jacquet.
During the Kids award ceremony two young activists ran on stage to deliver a message to these 8000 people waiting for a film about the beauty of the Antarctic. It made the audience clap, murmur and me cry.
"We’re going to end up in prison while you’re watching this film", they said.
"We knew you were coming at some point, don’t you just want to take the microphone?", the artistic director of Locarno film festival Giona A. Nazarro proposed.
The planet is burning. We’re afraid. We have to act now.
Subsequent speech by director Luc Jacquet. We have to give a future to the young people that are here on the stage tonight.
Moving — graceful — awe inspiring — meditative — visually powerful.
The message is to take a step back and allow for our children and grand children to enjoy the splendors our world.
Black on white is the color. It’s written down by scientists. It’s visible because it‘s full of contrasts.
For esprEthics today, we discussed how much the Locarno Film Festival should flaunt its climate neutrality and how much activism is needed to address global warming in an appropriate way. What is the right way to discuss the problem without offending people or getting defensive?We changed up the scenery for this discussion. We started at the central train station, took off with a swim in the lake at the other side and kept rolling with an ice cream at the tennis club bar, and finished with the postboat taking us back across the lake.
On this active day, we first took advantage of the possibility to rent bicycles - very uncomplicated, free of charge and just perfect. We biked around town finishing some errands; first, we bought a bottle of alcohol for DNA extraction and stored it in a freezer at our PopUp, then began day 2 of setting up our exhibition. We managed to build a very fragile construct for laser and syringe. And projected some microobjects into the shower while Erik typed up a description to be printed in the corporate design of the exhibition:
Illuminate the unknown water and laser pointer
When light enters a new medium, it slows down which if the light beam hits the interface at an angle, it causes the beam to bend, a process known as refraction. You are probably most familiar with this effect from sunlight refracting through rain to become a rainbow. Here, we make use of the geometry of a single drop of water to make a simple microscope, where the refraction of the light and absorbance of material in the water lead to a magnified shadow of the droplet. The contrast between the simplicity of the setup and the beautiful complexity of optics and quantum mechanics that make it possible reveals the depth of our world.
We showed our installation to the first listeners and they immediately came up with some ideas to turn it into interactive sound visuals for club music.
After setup, we split up for a bit, Maja and Míša went for a swim on a beautiful beach, and Erik biked up the mountains into the hillside neighborhoods of Locarno. Tobi, on the other hand, had an appointment on the red carpet, an interview with Michael Berger from Radio "Kanal K", which we were all very excited about. He was able to share our experiences as physicists/scientists at Basecamp. The question that came up was whether cinema is not also a 'too high language' that cannot always be understood without previous studies.
At the PopUp today we were surprised with a very crazy performance of some biofeedback tunes. And we met a lot of new people spread around the PopUp. In a way we had to start from scratch because all the people we knew and were with had already left the project to pursue their work.
We were lucky again that PopUp is organized by such dedicated people like Stefano. We need something, we talk to them and they organize it across all disciplines and we got a very direct insight into how this project is created step by step and how important it is to experience the difficulties and the complexity and not only the joy when everything works out.
Tonight we experienced a motion sickness inducing leopard print projection on the dance floor of another "halftime" party. And the color of the day will be this piercing pink.
The order was the same as every day, only today the bones were heavy in our bodies. It was time to present the science exhibition, and a lot had to be done for that - especially the DNA extraction, but we had already bought vodka for that.
Before the Esprethics meeting we had already bought strawberry and a strainer. And at the PopUp Tobi started to chop strawberries and to extract the DNA. Unfortunately it did not work. The alcohol was too weak. So Erik went out and looked for harder stuff. The idea was maybe acetone would work as a polar solvent. But the goal was not only to see and touch the identity, but also to eat it.
So Erik went again and in search he was sent to Italy, but then he came across this wine store and got good absinthe with 72% alc./vol. And finally finally it worked out with it. The DNA rose and you could fish it out with a toothpick and eat it with a taste of absinthe. Stunning.
But we had much more in the bag - the laser drop microscope was already set up in the shower, but the cabin next to it was still full of our stuff. Míša's bacteria plates had meanwhile already put on quite a bit and were ready for painting. There were also a few funghi grown, but pretty to look at. So we painted with the different bacterial cultures on new plates and look at the next days what happens with it.
Next to it, there were the 3D printed DNA constructs and our pipettable dyes, Tobi's Fluorescein that enchanted everyone and the Foldscopes with different samples like penicillin to touch, look through and experience.
Our table will probably be set up again and again the next few days and it is more of an interactive corner and needs our presence. On the one hand it's good to talk to people and in the PopUp many people often lack something interactive, but the style is different when an installation speaks for itself artistically. Maybe science could be presented in a different way - an interactive installation that has an impact and where people can talk together in front of it, rather than a classroom situation. Teacher behind the table, students in front of the table, and now I'm explaining how you do it.
Nevertheless, the people who were with us were interested, painted with colors and tipped liquids together. Wildly changed the Foldscope samples and painted with bacteria.
All in all, it felt really good to have contributed shared science. And after another Pizza (although we aimed for a pizza-free day) we were all set for the night to come:the long night of the dream about the future of intelligence from sunset to sunrise, an atmosphere of narrative in the popup backyard on couches and pillows.
With that I let you dream about the milky-transparent color of DNA.
Esprethics evaluated the first day of the show and the feedback was that we were able to inspire, excite and equip some people with new ideas.They discovered the beauty of science and asked for details. And then we debated yesterday's topics, whether AI can work as a romantic relationship and what it means when a perfect partner only ever gives positive feedback. It's like emotional heroin and then it makes it harder to fall in love with a human person. It is too perfect and too much in line.
After that, we decided to watch a movie that captivated us for two hours. People leave the solar system. How does that help the others? What's the point? The big deal. Pondering meaning or just emptiness. Along the lines of: 'Do you like the flowers?', 'They are already dead.'An attempt to straighten up: " Dear scientist, .... ."We have not seen here a film about a transformation into a fish, but about the disappearance of chickens. The audience has also shrunk. The realities of the films are disappearing. Is the future depressed?
Okay, that's enough - part of the real film festival experience - it's shower time. Back to PopUp shower, turn on the laser, make the microbes from the lake shine on the tiles, crush the peaches for the live DNA. And communicate science, people have come back to look at their bacterial art and people are looking through the foldscopes and we start writing a protocol and recording our experiences with the exhibition for years to come. And if the imagination isn't enough, the basics of chemistry are painted on. The conversations are so diverse from details why DNA can settle to the top and why soap stays in water, layered colors, densities - inspiration from fluorescence over and over.
The evening immersed us in Irish chanties and visual effects to electronic music. We spent time with people who change languages 5 times in one sentence and rode unicycles in front of the technoclub. We got to know the world of TikTok influencers, but from the same side of the camera as the people behind it and we learned that in the end they are all real people with real experiences. The film is just everywhere.
The color would have to be the faint red and faint yellow of the bacteria that developed as it was applied to them.
Last day, one last movie, a highlight one at Palexpo. Kungfu at its funniest - a feast for the eyes with tears of laughter.
One last Esprethics meeting downtown. We talk about how to get away from the technical and dive more into the art. Everyone wants to do something different, maybe art criticism, maybe microscopy art, maybe visuals. We keep at it, at the art, at the people, at ourselves.
We felt many people who were interested in our cause also had a science background, artists we reached less. So a goal for the next few years would be to reach out to artists and take the opportunity to make art ourselves.
Maybe we can get together with next year's science folks and brainstorm and revive Art Of Molecule. We have developed many ideas over the last few days on how to bring scientists and artists together even better. It is a process. We probably talk about our time here now as cryptically as we were told about it before. It was magical going with the flow.
It's basically about the language that scientist use in their everyday lives to write papers, to share knowledge, and the language that artists use to provoke thought. Both go deep, but in different ways, have different goals. We philosophize about the characters we've met and how tomorrow we'll stop taking notes from the day, stop making posts, stop having crazy people around, but we will not stop to think of everything in a different way - not in one way, in many ways. The way we learnt to feel.
Last evening, last time science exhibition in PopUp, last time laser - droplet alignment, last time eat, drink, dance and go to sleep.
In the morning one more espresso, esprethics without Ralf and a farewell.
We thank everyone who was there to make it possible and I want to close with the color of it all, not only the visible but the whole spectrum - we have packed our energy - we feel like photons.