In Session 2 of today’s Fellows Talks: a waterborne peep show in San Francisco, a triage app that saves lives, the architecture of death, and more!
The session starts with Bill “Blinky” Sellanga performing “Usinibore” solo on acoustic guitar. “It was a song I wrote in 2008 in response to the post-election violence,” he says, “when I was feeling very helpless.” The lyrics: “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. I can change the world.” This Kenyan producer and DJ fronts the musical collective Just-A-Band, which mixes genres like hip-hop, electronica and funk to make music for popular radio that give a voice to Kenyan youth. (Watch a video of Just-A-Band’s version of this song.)
Computational biologist Marcela Uliano da Silva is sequencing the invasive golden mussel’s genome to find the animals’ weaknesses and strengths. This mussel arrived in South America in the 1990s, choking river systems and causing millions in damages as it clogged power plants and water treatment facilities. At the same time, this mussel alters the transparency of water, allowing sunlight to penetrate and leading to toxic blooms, oxygen deprivation and massive fish deaths, homogenizing ecosystems over time. Uliano da Silva hopes to develop a genetic therapy that would prevent the mussels from being able to attach to substrates. This would target the mussel without the need for substances like chlorine, which don’t work well and harm the surrounding biodiversity in their own way. But the clock is ticking. At the moment, the golden mussel is only 150 km from the first river in the Amazon River basin, says Uliano da Silva. If the golden mussel gets there, it would spell disaster for the Amazon, which is also critically linked to the health of the rest of the planet.
Landscape architect Bradley Cantrell introduces a brand-new concept: engineered environments using computational landscaping. Current environmental construction is, like a prosthetic, functionally limited. It looks like nature, he explains, but it’s limited in function and can’t feel or respond to stimuli. In contrast, computational landscape architecture uses environmental sensing, computation and robotics, along with models, animations and illustrations built from data to gain a deeper understanding about how ecosystem dynamics work — to allow construction of landscapes that act as a natural extension of nature. He offers an example: a prototype of a Mississippi River spillway that can essentially “print” land, somewhat like an inkjet printer. The prototype opens and closes the spillway gates to divert water and re-shape and stabilize land forms. It keeps in mind support for plants and animals, while protecting cities from severe weather.
Chilean-American queer artist Constance Hockaday is interested in water as an undefinable space of unfettered liberty. It upholds the idea that living beings have the right to own the space that their physical bodies occupy, and the right to freedom of movement. “The social order of land has forgotten these basic rights,” says Hockaday. Last summer, she explored these ideas in a floating peep show. She latched four 30-foot sailboats together, using their hulls as performance spaces. Here, she gathered exotic dancers and drag queens from two radical and celebrated San Francisco establishments that had closed within six months of each other: the worker-owned peepshow Lusty Lady, and the Latino gay bar Esta Noche. More than 600 audience members were ferried by sailors to see this floating show, many of whom had never been on the water, never been on a boat or never been to a peep show. To Hockaday, the event represented a tear in social order, and a gathering of people successfully conversing with the urban and natural environment on their own terms.
Next, Bill Sellanga returns to the stage to talk about circles of influence in music, beginning and ending with Africa. As a child, Sellanga’s parents listened to African music — Hugh Masekela, Mirian Makeba, Franco, and so on. “It was painful to my ears,” he says. “I hated it.” Instead, he gravitated toward American pop music, like Michael Jackson. Likewise, many Kenyan bands of the 1970s were highly influenced by James Brown, whose genre was funk, which was influenced by jazz, which drew influences from African music. As Sellanga progressed as a musician himself, he found himself drawn back into this circle of influence. The music he once disliked is now what he gravitates towards — for example, he reworked “Dunia Ina Mambo,” a song by 1970s Kenyan funk band the Mighty Cavaliers. With his work, Sellanga is now exposing a new generation of Kenyan listeners to Kenyan music, reviving a new appreciation of the African contribution to pop.
Artist Julie Freeman loves data, not just for how it helps us understand the world, but because it is so abundant, malleable and profound. Freeman uses data as a material to create art, and is particularly excited about live data — data generated from living things. Her latest work, We Need Us, explores metadata from Zooniverse, a website that allows more than a million volunteers to help scientists classify data to help advance research in subjects like astronomy and biology. Freeman takes metadata from Zooniverse volunteers — she counts the numbers of clicks and classifications — stores it as new metadata, and looks at the rhythms of frequency. With this, she creates visual graphic forms that play back sound samples. The data gives the artwork impermanence and constant change — it’s a highly abstracted system. Unlike data visualizations, which help us understand data, Freeman’s work challenges us to experience data, to feel rather than analyze it.
Every day, medical personnel use triage to help doctors prioritize treatment. Triage involves asking a standard set of questions, taking vital signs, scoring the answers, and applying certain standard tests like ECGs. But in the developing world, limited resources can mean overwhelmed or exhausted personnel make mistakes that cost lives. South African emergency medical doctor Mohammed Dalwai, who has worked with Doctors Without Borders around the world, says that in South Africa, 25% of patients are incorrectly triaged. He’s formed the Open Medicine Project, which has created a mobile app that helps medical workers ask standard questions, and calculates medical scores as vital signs are added. When the app was implemented in the Western Cape, there was an 88% improvement in triage completion, and it is now being rolled out in 25 cities in South Africa. The data gathered using this app may also be used to create tools like a shock index that would help quickly diagnose internal bleeding, or monitor patient visits to help utilize resources more effectively. In the future, the app could even be used to track realtime data of disease outbreaks such as diarrhea and ebola, based on symptoms rather than deaths, which could help stop them before diseases become epidemic.
Inventor Joe Landolino is creating “smart bio-materials,” materials that work with the body to help it heal. Here’s how it works: the body is made up of cells, which sit in a complex mesh of fibers, sugars and proteins called the “extracellular matrix.” The ECM holds cells in place, tells them what to do, and provides structure for the body as a whole. ECM is responsible for all wound healing, says Landolina, but ECM is different for each part of the body. (In fact, a scar is just poorly formed ECM.) As a freshman at NYU, Landolina discovered a a plant-based polymer that can recognize the type of ECM it comes into contact with and build directly onto it like Lego blocks. When applied to skin, it takes on the properties of skin, and when applied to a liver, it takes on the properties of liver. It has many potential applications — including VETI-GEL. With a jaw-dropping onscreen video, he demonstrates how the bio-smart gel can be applied to traumatically bleeding wounds, forming a clot and closing it in seconds. VETI-GEL has been approved for use on animals, and will soon be submitted to the FDA for approval for human use.
Alison Killing is an architect who thinks about death. She notes that 100 years ago, people tended to die quickly at home of diseases like pneumonia, surrounded by family. This changed in the 20th century, when the advent of medicines like penicillin, universal access to healthcare, and large medical machinery gave birth to the sterile, institutional modern hospital as we know it. But things have changed again, says Killing, with many of us now dying of long illnesses like cancer. This means that time at the end of our lives will be spent in hospitals, care homes and hospices. Killing is considering what this means for buildings related to death and dying. She’s started public dialogue with a recent exhibition on the topic, Death in Venice. She asks us to consider what a good death would be, and what kinds of buildings might support that. Wouldn’t we want where we spend our last days to be full of beauty?
Microfinance and aid have good intentions, says Ghanaian investor Sangu Delle, but they haven’t worked. He proposes a different way: investing in pan-African entrepreneurial titans. Instead of lending $200 each to 500 banana farmers so they can dry their surplus for 15% more revenue, why not lend $100,000 to one entrepreneur to set up an agroprocessing plant which yields 40% extra revenue for all 500 farmers, as well as jobs for 50 more people? His investment company, Golden Palm Investment, is working on just such a model, hoping to incubate the mega-pan-African entrepreneurs of tomorrow. But why the pan-African focus? Delle argues that Africa as a whole yields a market of 1 billion people, albeit with trade restrictions and other challenges that might prove obstructive. Yet, with more high-impact pan-African entrepreneurs, Africa may be able to more than keep pace with the world’s emerging economies.
What does healthcare have to do with democracy, asks healthcare expert Alanna Shaikh. In Kyrgystan, a lot. Kyrgystan has only been a democracy since 2010, since its ruling autocrat was overthrown in a revolution. In this young democracy, the government-provided healthcare system is the Kyrgyz people’s closest point of contact with government, so the two are strongly associated. The worrying thing is, the Kyrgyz hate their healthcare — they equate doctors with werewolves in white coats. And, Shaikh points out drily, Kyrgyz have already shown what they will do when they dislike their government. So Shaikh, working with an aid agency, is assessing what the Kyrgyz want and need from healthcare, and making improvements. These include better access to care; tackling tuberculosis, the most serious infectious disease in Kyrgystan; and helping to reverse child malnutrition. In Kyrgystan, improving the health system is an example of democracy in action, says Shaikh, demonstrating a government that is accountable, transparent, and meets the needs of its citizens.
When British photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind arrived in Kiev on the first of February this year, Independence Square was under siege, with tensions growing between protesters and police loyal to the government. Taylor-Lind set up a studio in an alleyway near the barricades to take portraits of the men occupying the square. Using a black cloth to remove the visual distractions of the conflict, she focused only on the humans before her. Her photographs, taken with a handheld film camera, capture with thoughtful stillness ordinary men outfitted in warrior costumes improvised of combat fatigues and decommissioned military equipment. Weeks later, the worst day of violence on February 20 left the streets littered with bodies and blood. Tens of thousands of citizens came to mourn, including women who covered the square with flowers, memorializing the dead. Taylor-Lind captured their images too — their colorful clothes and blooms and their grief-stricken faces in stark contrast to the men. In juxtaposition, these portraits speak to the gender roles in conflicts all over the world. Taylor-Lind explains, “Men fight most wars, and women mourn them.”
The Fellows talks close with “one morning” — a collaborative improvisation by Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero and Philipino-American percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra. “My idea was to do a percussion and voice duo, because that is a very Brazilian approach to music,” says Meklit. “We wanted to pay homage to where we are.”