The Sixth Annual Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon is going on all over the world, November 10-11, 2018.
In this weird Trump Dystopian Bizarre Feverish Lunatic Dream of White Supremacy that we’re kind of trying to deprogram out of, these kinds of films, and these kinds of gatherings, are where people from different perspectives, races, classes, come together and think: “How does cinema change our vision of things?”
Don’t forget, most people in the Trump administration were involved with film. Whether it be Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin or the Mootch guy (Anthony Scaramucci).
Steve Bannon was also a producer, and of course Trump comes out of reality TV. So, we can easily see how they try to apply cinematic narrative to this nightmarish shitstorm of an administration. And you can see we can use film to deprogram and decolonize people’s perspective.”
– DJ Spooky, during his introduction for “Body and Soul,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 12, 2018.
By Lisa Rein
I went to see Body and Soul at MOMA last July, as I was excited about DJ Spooky’s new score for this silent 1925 Paul Robeson movie directed by Oscar Micheaux. It is said to be Robeson’s first film.
Watching it was quite an experience. I have never had such a riveting time watching a silent film before. Not only was the acting was incredible, but DJ Spooky’s soundtrack was moving and suspenseful.
Even though “Body and Soul” was released in 1925, the subject matter is as timely as ever.
This film is just one of many on the The Pioneers of African-American Cinema DVD box set. These landmarks of early African-American film have been remastered in HD from archive elements and digitally restored, and are available as a box set or for streaming on Netflix.
DJ Spooky spoke to the audience a bit before the MOMA showing. Below is a complete transcription.
“Thanks to MOMA for putting together such a wonderful and hyper eclectic group of films.
It’s a roster that really goes all over the spectrum of African-American cinema, showing the last century as it sort of evolves into the 21st.
First, a little background. After reconstruction in the south, there was a tremendous amount of effort, systematically, to disenfranchise African-Americans. So, one of the more intriguing situations that ended up happening is that there was a huge migration. As a matter of fact, I’m working on another project, with Henry Louis Gates, of Harvard, based on this idea of the genetics of Reconstruction. I’m scoring that this summer, it’s called “Reconstruction.” It will be out soon. Read more “DJ Spooky Looks Deeper Into the Films of Cinema Pioneer Oscar Micheaux”
I originally contacted Danielle strictly on her professional reputation, after I asked Tracey Jaquith at the Internet Archive who would be a good person to explain why the distributed web is so important and in the public’s best interest.
During our email exchange, Danielle shared with me how much she had been influenced by Aaron and his work. It was all quite interesting, so I asked Danielle if she would share her story here.
Lisa Rein: Danielle, thank you so much for talking openly about this. I know these stories can be very personal. You mentioned that Aaron and his work meant a lot to you?
Danielle: Yes, I was a second year PhD student when he died. I was already disillusioned with academia and just beginning to see how I could put that energy to use. Aaron’s work had a big impact on my life and I would not be doing what I do today without his influence.
LR: Really? How did he influence you?
DR: Well, although I did not know Aaron Swartz personally, on a fundamental level, Aaron’s work on open access issues set the stage to grow the movement. I became a part of that movement and it changed my life. Aaron’s work impacted me and many of my colleagues at Dat (https://datproject.org/) the broader Code for Science & Society community, and in the open access movement.
Along with my colleague Joe Hand, I run Code for Science & Society, a nonprofit that supports public interest technology. We work with projects like Dat to build capacity, develop partnerships, and build software centered in the public’s interest.
Note that our next Code for Science & Society Community Call will be on Friday Sept 7 9am PST. Interested folks can join our mailing list or follow @codeforsociety on Twitter for more details about tuning in. These meetings are always super fun and newcomers are welcome to attend.
I’m a believer in the potential of P2P technologies and the decentralized web to change the way knowledge is disseminated. I consider open science/scholarship to include equity, justice, and opening the profession of scholarship to historically marginalized communities. Building offline-friendly tools, baking in free access, and creating decentralized communities can help open the profession of research and scholarship. A personal goal is to build systems that provide free access to knowledge.
Working with the open access movement via OpenCon, the Code for Science & Society community, and projects like Dat, ScienceFair, and the decentralized data sharing project – I am privileged to wake up everyday and work towards that goal.
LR: You mentioned that Aaron’s death happened at a time when you were becoming “disillusioned with academia.” Would you mind expanding on what you meant exactly?
DR: I started a PhD program in 2011, after working for about three years as a technician I thought I understood the system and rather naively imagined my PhD as a time of intellectual freedom. I am sure it is for some folks.
But the reality of my PhD was quite different, I was working on the grants of my advisor and didn’t have a lot of freedom. Rather than being empowered to pursue knowledge and share information, there was a competitive and secretive culture which extended from lab meetings (opportunities for intellectual take-downs) to keeping our work under wraps for fear of getting scooped.
RU Sirius asked me to elaborate in detail about the history behind this year’s Aaron Swartz Day International Hackathon and Evening Event.
To do this, we’ll need to go back to the launch of Creative Commons, in December of 2002. This is where Aaron presented our metadata vision to the world, and DJ Spooky presented and showed a trailer for what would become his classic “Rebirth of a Nation” masterpiece.
DJ Spooky spoke and performed at the Creative Commons Launch in December of 2002.
Some of you might know me as “Paul Miller.” Some of you might know me as “DJ Spooky.”
The fun part about DJ Spooky is that it’s a fiction. It was meant to be a character in a novel I’m working on. It started as sort of an art project. I was living in a place called “The Gas Station” in New York. It was next to a junkyard on 2nd street. It’s been razed over and is now a condominium.
Being in New York at a certain point in the mid 90s. It ws right on the cusp of when Digital Culture was slowly migrating out of the academiess, and really began to spread throughout the entire culture as we know it.
So, for me, music was always a hobby. Most of my other work – and many of my peers and fellow DJs – were always kind of archivists. We’re collectors – I like to say “philanderers of the subconcious.” People who like to look for rare nuggets of sound. Rare records. Rare grooves. Rare beats. And make new mixes out of it.
When I was first starting out, I would always make these CDs and little mixes that would say “Who is DJ Spooky?” There was a sense of humor about sort of audio theater.
To make a long story short, when they asked me to do a piece for this, I was thinking about it. I am in the middle of about three different projects. One of them is “Birth of a Nation” I am remixing that. It’s an early D.W. Griffith film. And many copyrighted works that are pre-1920 are still accessible. The film makes kind of a statement about the ownership of culture, and of course, about ownership of memory. Collective memory.
So that’s the project that’s going to be associated with Creative Commons. What I’d like to do is show a snippet of it. I presented an early work in progress of it at the Castro Theater.
Essentially whenever you hear something and the idea is made, it’s always a sense of playing with memory. What I’m fascinated with in the Eldred case, is the idea of who controls memory. How can you recall an image or a sound that’s essentially part of a collective unconscious. How we think of things that just go through your mind every day and how you externalize that. That’s what DJing is about. It’s playfulness. It’s reverence for controlled memory. Reverence for the found object.
So essentially, that’s what DJing has become. It’s almost a basic fabric; part of the the fabric of contemporary culture. So, there’s that kind of thing, which to me it becomes kind of what I like to call 21st century – a new form of folk music or folk culture. Some of you guys might have heard of the Joe Wecker case? A guy who sang lyrics about how to decode DVDs. Anybody? It was a very funny case where a kid basically sang the lyrics of how to decode DeCSS DVD control systems, and then made an MP3 out of it, and had various people show up at his door. So, it was a little bit of a hectic scene.
Kids being who they are, they printed the lyrics to the song (on how to decode DVDs) on a T-shirt.
(Someone hollers “woo!” from the audience.)
And so, again these issues, always migrate. You control one thing, the net will thread its way around it. And so on and so on.
That sense of control, one of the terms Larry always uses a lot, in his great book “The Future of Ideas” – if you haven’t read it yet; you should – is the idea of “creative co-authorship.” Being able to actually reach into a text and reconfigure it. And if there’s something we’ve seen throughout the 21st century, whether you are looking at the outside of things, or the underground or overground, it’s that sense of; whether you are looking at William S. Burroughs or the Jack Kerouac and the beats in the 50s, or the Dada scene in the 20s, or the early cinema people working with that, is that America has always been the place of “the mix.” But somehow, I think in the 19th century we were a net importer of intellectual property, whereas after a certain point we became a net exporter, and that’s when all these kinds of control issues come up.
So, how many of you have heard of a magazine called Adbusters? (Audience cheers.) As a kind of a sense of humor about that, they made this new flag. (He holds it up.) As a way to think about copyright culture in our era.
There’s that famous scene in Bladerunner: The main character goes into a DNA lab, where “they” own your eyes. Or they own your DNA. So, if you’re Monsanto, or one of these other companies, you can reach out and copyright, an indian in Brazil’s DNA, for example. But if you’re a DJ, and you download an MP3, all of a sudden the FBI shows up at your door. So these kinds of imbalances are very intrinsic to how we think of them.
So, anyway, to make a long story short. What I’m going to be doing is presenting a short trailer, so to speak, of the remix of “Birth of a Nation.” In it, you’re going to hear a different soundtrack and different kind of clips of the film remixed against itself. The idea is “cinema as memory.”
Lisa Rein: Hi Matteo! Let’s talk about the implications of the “lake” they just found on Mars. Does this mean there is life on Mars? Is that all we needed to do; find water?
Matteo Borri: No, finding water just means it is more likely. Water does not guarantee life. But it does mean that there is a small chance that something could be alive in there.
LR: Were the Italian scientists looking for “current life” rather than “past life?” Is that how they found it?
MB: No. They were just looking at what the rock under the polar ice looked like.
LR: Where exactly was the lake found?
MB: The lake was found in the South Pole of Mars. It’s very cold there. There is about 1.5 miles of ice above the lake. Either enough salts were dissolved by the ice to lower its freezing point, or some source of heat is underneath it, turning it into a liquid.
LR: Like an aquifer?
MB: No. More like a big pond or small lake, with a bunch of ice on top. We don’t know how old it is.
LR: They weren’t using any special kinds of instruments different from the ones NASA uses?
MB: Nope. Same kinds of instruments. It was just the luck of the draw.
It’s interesting because it tells us to look for actual living “life,” rather than just for traces of past “life.”
This sort of under-the-ice brine lake is similar to one found in Antarctica a few years back: and there were viable single-cell critters in it. So if Mars ever had pervasive life, like earth does now, some of it may have survived under there.
LR: Could life have evolved to survive under there to begin with, rather than being frozen under there? Similar to the extremophiles we found living in the Ocean near volcanoes here on Earth? (Although these are surviving at extremely high temperatures – like 200 degrees Fahrenheit – as opposed to low ones, like on Mars.)
MB: Yes, but it would still need to get its energy from somewhere. And getting energy is harder in general on Mars, compared to Earth, because it only gets about 1/4 of the energy we get from the Sun, and it’s seismically dead so no volcanic vents.
LR: You mean from something other than light, right?
MB: Yes. Something other than light. So, something that uses something other than chlorophyll and sunlight. For that water to exist underground like that, you have to be getting some energy from somewhere. Light, heat, anything.
LR: We now know that such organisms exist here on earth right? How some fairly-recently discovered “Extremophiles” are organisms that don’t need sunlight. (Which, in turn tells us that there are energy sources other than sunlight.)
What do the extremophiles we know about here on Earth use as an energy source?
MB: Well, “extremophiles” simply means life that can exist in very harsh environment. One that would normally be too cold, too hot, or too dry for other life.
There are some simple life forms that exist near the volcanic vent (where the water goes up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit).
LR: And they are “in the dark,” right? No sunlight.
MB: Right. No Sunlight.
LR: So, how do they get their energy then?
MB: Using the temperature gradient between the volcanic vent and the surrounding environment.
LR: Wow. Could some kind of volcano-based temperature gradient system exist on Mars.
MB: Nope. Mars doesn’t have any active volcanoes or seismic activity. Zero. Although, there was a lot of it at some point, but way back when, like billions of years ago.
LR: So, the big mystery is what the hell is melting part of the ice into a big lake?
LR: What are the theories?
MB: Well, the most likely theory is that salts deposits were slowly eaten up by the ice, which lowered its freezing point. Once you get some liquid, it will spread out, making that particular reaction go faster.
See Tracy Rosenberg at this year’s event on November 10! She will be on a panel with Lisa Rein and Daniel Rigmaiden on Saturday at this year’s San Francisco hackathon!
TICKETS ($50) – (Can’t afford it? Okay no problem. Just use the code “hackathoner” for 1/2 off! (Perhaps you can buy one at full price and then discount the rest? Or just use the discount for all of them! It’s up to you 🙂 – Yep – It’s on the honor system folks <3
These simple letter templates can compel the Police and Sheriff Departments of a given city to provide you with documentation regarding every type of surveillance equipment in existence for a given City (Police) and saCounty (Sheriff).
It’s a roundabout way of determining what surveillance equipment is being used on the public in a given city, but since it’s all we have, at least the #ASDPSP project will make it so much easier for journalists and the public to get their hands on this information.
In this third installment of our series, Tracy will help us understand more about what we found in Sacramento, and how do approach local politicians to put pressure on them to do something about it, by implementing a “surveillance policy framework.”
Here’s are the first two interviews of this series:
The Police Surveillance Project at Aaron Swartz Day aims to empower journalists and citizen researchers with pre-written letters that use just the right language to compel a city’s police or sheriff departments to hand over the relevant documents.
There is much to be done once the evidence is in-hand, but getting that evidence can be half the battle. These letter templates make it easy to use Muckrock and quickly file a large set of public records requests to the Police and Sheriff Departments of a given city.
We recently added two new templates that include the use of facial recognition software, since it came out recently that Amazon has been literally giving away its facial recognition software to law enforcement. I explain how to use the letter templates here. There are 20 templates now; 10 for the Police Department and 10 for the Sheriff’s Department of any given city.
Once you get the information back on a given city, you can begin to determine exactly which types of surveillance equipment a city’s police and a county’s sheriff departments have already purchased. Then, gradually, you can bring attention to the existence of the equipment to the relevant City’s City Council, in order to start the process of implementing a “surveillance policy framework” in that town.
As we learned in an earlier interview with Tracy, Occupy activists learned these techniques in the process of finding out what the City of Oakland was using on its citizens during the #OccupyOakland protests several years ago. Once Oakland’s City Council were given evidence that the surveillance equipment existed, they could (eventually) do the right thing, and put a Surveillance Policy Framework in place regulating how it is allowed to be used.
Your town’s City Council could do the right thing too, but first you will probably have to provide them with proof, direct from the Police and Sheriff Departments themselves, that this kind of surveillance equipment even exists.
However, when you get the documents back, it’s important to make sure you really understand what you think you might have found. That’s what thus week’s interview is all about; understanding the documents you received back, so you can make a list and hand it over, with the supporting documentation, to your City Council members.
LR: Here’s a list of the equipment we recommend asking about with the letter templates for each in .doc & .pdf formats). It’s best to file a separate public records request for each kind of equipment.
The trick is knowing how to write the letters; and you have done that for us already. Thank you so much.
TR: My pleasure. As we discussed earlier, these letters cover most known basic equipment that your local city and county might be using, including: drones and flying over head cameras, license plate readers, policing predictive software, social media monitoring software, stingrays, and most recently, facial recognition software.
LR: Since I asked you to create a template to address what we just learned about Amazon’s Rekognition software, something the ACLU is very concerned about.
TR: We are asking about these pieces of equipment because we already know that there is a good chance that big police departments will probably have all of it. The smaller ones will at least have some of it. But you have to ask about all of it, because sometimes they are using it in secret, and you never know until you ask.
LR: We have already received word back from Sacramento. Let’s talk what we found in Sacramento, and you can tell us how we might go about getting that information to our Sacramento representatives.
See “Body and Soul” – the first masterpiece of the silent screen era written, directed, and produced by prolific director Oscar Micheaux.- Tonight at SF MOMA, with a special Introduction by DJ Spooky.
Besides telling you that Paul Robeson stars in it, I really don’t want to give anything away, but these African American-focused “race” films – made by Black filmmakers, featuring an all-Black cast, and intended for Black audiences – are few and far between. Micheaux was not only considered the first African American to produce a feature length film. He wrote, produced, and directed more than 40 films from 1919 to 1948.
Robeson himself is something of a legend; besides being an actor, he was an All American football player, a lawyer, a political activist and a powerful and inspirational singer.
“A true pioneer, Micheaux and his’s films answered the challenges of racial segregation and provided black moviegoers with an alternative to the mainstream films being produced by a segregated Hollywood.”
The movie is available at the Internet Archive, but this is your chance to see it with DJ Spooky’s new awesome soundtrack for it – and with an introduction, in person, by DJ Spooky too.
Lisa Rein: Matteo, would you please summarize the implications of the Methane material NASA found on Mars?
Matteo Borri: Well, we already knew that there is Methane on Mars. What is interesting and new is that we have now figured out it comes out of the ground seasonally.
Methane on Earth mostly comes about by biological means, from bacteria, but surprisingly enough, the large share of it that comes out of cows’ hindquarters is enough to muddle the data, so we are not sure about it.
However, there is also a seasonal component to how much of it is released in the atmosphere. We now know that Methane is released during the summer and fall. On earth, Methane is also released seasonally. Typically during the end of summer.
LR: So is part of the excitement that Mars is exhibiting more Earth-like characteristics?
MB: Yes. It’s one more point in common between the two planets.
LR: When they say they’ve found “organic compounds” one of the complex molecules required for life,” what does that mean?
MB: It means that there are complex molecules. “Organic compound” simply means a non-simple molecule containing Carbon. Historically, it was thought that only life-related processes could make those, but we’ve known that this is not the case for more than a century now. (However, the name stuck, which can cause confusion.)
LR: The NASA article said “It should take methane several hundred years to break apart in the presence of UV light, but that’s not what happened on Mars. The surge in methane seems to fade as quickly as it appears, indicating there’s not just a variable source, but a methane sink as well.” What the heck is a “methane sink?”
MB: A methane sink is a type of rock that absorbs methane when the condition for it. Carbonate rocks will fit the bill; so will Granite.
MB: If we find Tryptophan, we know that we’ve got a life sign. Methane is actually a simple molecule, five atoms total, and can come about in an inorganic way.
Finding Methane in some parts of Mars, and not others, raises many interesting questions about the Methane’s origin. Might we have stumbled upon ancient Methane deposits from hardy bacteria that are no longer living? Or something else entirely?
There isn’t enough data right now. We have to go back and look, but this recent discovery gives us a place to start looking. It’s never a bad thing if you have even a hint of where to land your rover.
When we last left Matteo Borri and his company,Robots Everywhere LLC, he had built a chlorophyll spectroscope for NASA and the Mars Society, for the next Mars Rover. It uses a laser beam to zap the surface and then detect the reactive chlorophyll from other complex molecules. It was tested successfully over the last few months by the Mars Society, and will fly to Mars in 2020 on the next Mars Rover.
I checked back in with Matteo to see what new and exciting projects he is working on, and to help us better understand the science behind his laser-driven life-detecting inventions.
Lisa Rein: Hey Matteo how’s it going? What’s the latest on your NASA Mars Rover experimental research?
Matteo Borri: Well, if you remember, I had managed to figure out how to make a Chlorophyll detector that did not require cutting up a leaf and putting it in a little box. This is significant because we wanted to be able to mount the laser on a rover and have it scanning the surface as the rover moves along the surface of mars, and notifying the rover to stop when it detects something worth stopping for, like, the presence of Chlorophyll.
So, that worked so well, NASA decided to give me another hard problem to solve; could I develop a spectroscope that would cause a reaction to Tryptophan the way I got the chlorophyll to react to the other spectroscope?
LR: Why Tryptophan? I think of that being in turkey and making you tired on Thanksgiving. When my grandpa played professional baseball, they wouldn’t let them eat turkey on the day of a game.
MB: The sleepiness is an urban legend. We now know that Tryptophan doesn’t make you tired. But it is the same ingredient known to be in turkey.
But just as Chlorophyll exists in every piece of plant life on earth, tryptophan exists in not all but almost all pieces of animal life on earth.
So, if we had one laser spectroscope detecting Chlorophyll molecules, and the other detecting Tryptophan molecules, we will always be able to detect the existence of life (as we know it) there.
LR: We can only look for molecules that we already know to exist in “life” here on planet Earth?
MB: Correct. But we also have good reason to believe that any “life” found on other planets would still actually be composed of the same kinds of molecules found in “life” here.
LR: So the idea is to look for the most basic molecular substances that would have to be there along with anything else that was plant or animal living there.
Soon, we will be publishing the documents that we received from our first city (Sacramento).
I asked Tracy Rosenberg if she would explain the history and origin of Oakland Privacy, which she had mentioned to me actually started out as the “Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group.” I enjoyed learning that the organization that has been so pivotal in helping put Oakland’s current surveillance policy framework in place had its roots in Occupy Oakland. (We will be talking to Tracy more about that framework, and how it can be used as a model for every city across the country.)
But I had no idea what a relevant slice of history I had unearthed, and it seems like we could all benefit from learning more about it.
This is the first of two interviews with Oakland Privacy’s Tracy Rosenberg. (Second Interview here.)
Lisa Rein: Okay so it’s January 2012. Occupy Oakland is still alive, but waning.
Tracy Rosenberg: Right. So, Occupy Oakland, as you know, had a reputation as one of the more militant occupy encampments. It was one of the later ones. One of the last ones. After about two weeks of occupation in the plaza it was forceably busted by police, with tear gas and multiple injuries. Veteran Scott Olsen had his head basically split open by the police.
LR: With a tear gas grenade, correct?
TR: Yes. There were a bunch of re-occupations and episodes that continued up through January 28, 2012 or so, which was one of the last confrontations between Occupy Oakland and the police happened.
Occupy Oakland’s January 28 event was an attempted occupation of an abandoned building. An abandoned, county-owned building in the City of Oakland. The idea was that spaces that weren’t being used by the government needed to be available as public spaces or common spaces for people who were economically disenfranchised. (Economically disenfranchised = The homeless and people who were just displaced.)
So, the #J28 “occupation” of this government building was militant and controversial. Essentially, it sort of drew a line in the sand for a lot of people. There were people who sort of identified with the general idea of Occupy, but weren’t super duper comfortable with militant activism and the physical occupation of public property that was increasingly appening with Oakland Occupy. And, ultimately, a lot of people walked away after #J28.
Occupy Wall Street starts
September 17, 2011
Occupy Oakland starts
October 10, 2011
Occupy Oakland Privacy Working Group starts
July 2, 2013
Oakland Privacy starts
July 15, 2016
LR: I heard that there were a lot of problems with the businesses in that area during Occupy. What was going on there?
TR: Well, there were a lot of business in the downtown area, which, at that time, were struggling somewhat. These last seven years, we have had a lot of gentrification in downtown Oakland, but back then, in 2011, Downtown Oakland was a hard place to have a business. So, there were a lot of small businesses – a lot of “mom and pop” stores – that were just beside themselves.
LR: Wait I’m sorry. I don’t understand. How was the occupation affecting them negatively? I would have thought it would have brought in more business for them, by drawing more people out in mass numbers for so many weeks in a row. (I know in San Francisco, after a protest, all the restaurants are packed.) So why were they “beside themselves?”
TR: They said that their customers were too frightened of the Plaza to come down and patronize their business.
LR: Oh. So, it gave downtown a bad reputation for a bit because people didn’t know what to expect? But that wasn’t really the protesters’ fault was it. Wasn’t it more because people were afraid of possible police confrontations, often unprovoked, in that area?
TR: Yeah, it was a combination of things. Occupy Oakland kind of wrapped itself up with the “Fuck the Police” ethos. Especially towards the end. Many folks who had been involved with it started to think about the fact that they’d seen a lot of police ammunition and equipment driving around the encampments. There seemed to be a lot of federal agencies participating.
These folks weren’t really sure what had been used on them, or how. So they started to do a little bit of research on these issues. What equipment had been used? What police tactics were being used? What were some of these other agencies? People started taking pictures of the federal trucks. “What was all of this?” They wondered. “What exactly were they using against us?”
This time last year, my friends Chelsea Manning and Heather Hewey-Hagborg were still depending on me in order to communicate effectively; so they could collaborate on their art and research projects together.
Heather and Chelsea’s collaborations started way back in 2015, when some folks at Paper magazine orchestrated their first collaboration. Using only the good old U.S. mail, Chelsea sent Heather swabs of her DNA and answered a number of powerful questions to start a discussion about DNA and privacy that continues to this day. Boy was it cool being in the middle of that conversation. 🙂
Heather had developed a method for creating portraits of strangers based on DNA, and was speaking around the world, explaining both the wonders of forensic phenotyping, and how the technology is inherently problematic.
Meanwhile, Chelsea, in prison, in 2013 was not being allowed to be photographed or recorded. (After a charismatic Daniel Ellsberg won over the hearts of millions in the 1970s, the Feds sure weren’t going to make that mistake again.)
The way Chelsea’s voice was being silenced angered and, ultimately, intrigued Heather. Perhaps she could turn it around into something anti-oppressive, and utilize this technology to give Chelsea the public face she had been denied, by creating portraits of her, from her DNA.
By the time I came along, they had already completed Stranger Visions and Radical Love – so I had a lot of catching up to do, at first, just to understand Chelsea’s artistic preferences. Chelsea would often have ideas that she had written up, and I would take notes and read them back to Chelsea exactly, so I could convey the information accurately to Heather. Then Heather would write back with her ideas, and I would have to make sure I understood those well enough to explain them to Chelsea the next time we spoke.
On November 23, 2016, Heather sent me an excited email with a great idea for “taking some of the writing I have been doing and working with an illustrator to make a comic book or animation bringing things to life.” This would become the Suppressed Images comic book, which tells the story about their friendship and artistic collaborations, and specifically how Chelsea learned it’s important to “Never Shut Up” when someone tries to chill your speech.
Although both Chelsea and I loved the idea, we didn’t think there was enough time to complete the project, and didn’t want to pressure them. But Heather and illustrator Shoili Kanungo worked very very hard to meet their own intense deadlines, in order to finish it in time to be published during President Obama’s last week in office. (When, historically, commutations happen.) As it turned out, it was published in the morning on the same day her commutation was announced. (As the White House announced Chelsea’s commutation in the early afternoon, east coast time.)
This comic book had become our attempt to visualize a reality where Chelsea was commuted – in a world where everyone else had told us that it was impossible. (Now, amazingly, in that same world, everyone acts like it was inevitable 🙂
I was asking different people all over the world to visualize Chelsea out in the regular world with them. Playwrights visualized Chelsea sitting in the audience at their plays. Band members pictured her rocking out at their shows. DJs pictured her dancing to their beats. And now, this comic book literally provided illustrated pictures of the possibilities.
Just one month after the comic book was released — and of course — one month after we had received the good news about Chelsea’s upcoming release — in February, 2017, I got to do it again.
This time last year, it really did still fee like a dream. Chelsea was still in prison but we had begun working on the expanded installation – our collaboration on ProbablyChelsea – that would mark and celebrate her release. I shared some initial rough ideas with the audience about even at the end of the talk, although they grew and changed in important ways over the next months.
I also described our graphic short story that Chelsea and I wrote together with illustrator Shoili Kanungo which advocated and envisioned her commutation – to the audience – and told them the amazing and miraculous story of publishing the comic on the very morning that Obama actually granted her clemency.
Now I am so incredibly honored, humbled, inspired, and filled with gratitude to be able to stand on the stage together with Chelsea in person to discuss art, technology, and politics — like it’s just totally normal to be here together.
LR: I remember the morning we heard the news, on January 17, 2017.
HDH: For me, on the east coast, it was in the early afternoon 🙂 The comic went live early morning my time and I heard about the commutation that afternoon.The announcement of Chelsea’s commutation was one of the most jubilant and overwhelmingly emotional moments of my life, and certainly my artistic career. It was incredibly meaningful to me.
LR: It also felt important the whole time you guys were working on that comic book too. It was an incredible experience for me, as a historian and archivist, to not just meet or read about, but actually be the conduit that worked between you guys on those projects (Suppressed Images and Probably Chelsea).
HDH: Looking back, it was, and is, such a dark time. After Trump in the U.S. and brexit in Europe, Chelsea’s commutation was like a beacon of hope; a way of showing us how important it is to really incant the future you want to see, and how the power of words can be used to make the changes you want.
Of course her release was the result of a lot of different things coming together — and the comic we wrote, anticipating, asking for her release, felt like this little sprinkle of magic potion that catalyzed this reaction. To revisit that today is such a powerful reminder that positive change is really possible.