Print-making — and gift-giving — with London’s young refugees by Karen Frances Eng

Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

Documentary filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky explains how a pop-up print shop is empowering young refugees to connect with the public by creating and sharing art.

It’s a busy summer Saturday at London’s Southbank Centre — Europe’s largest center for the arts. Just inside its main entrance, a delicately built structure of wood and fabric stands out in contrast against the vast, modern hall. Beyond the welcoming benched seating area and a corridor hung with fluttering paper prints, shadows move behind translucent walls.

Inside, the space reveals itself to be a small pop-up print studio. A group of young people wearing blue aprons teaches visitors how to make monoprints — rolling ink, marking plates, and running them through a tabletop press to produce beautiful images. The young teachers and visitors take turns pulling prints, then, if they wish, exchange them as gifts.

But these aren’t just any London youth. Subtle signage outside the structure says they are refugees and asylum seekers, working with artists Saeed Taji Farouky and Afshin Dehkordi in a special collaboration marking Refugee Week, a UK festival promoting understanding of the refugee experience. Here, Farouky — best known as a documentary filmmaker and a TED Fellow — tells us why he chose the platforms of printmaking, gift-giving and architecture to offer young refugees and the general public an opportunity to rewire social structures.

A print made by Kisanet, one of the young artists, as a gift for the author. Photo: Karen Frances Eng

A print made by Kisanet, one of the young artists, as a gift for the author. Photo: Karen Frances Eng

How did the project begin?

It started as a conversation with my friend Afshin, looking for ways to respond artistically to the refugee crisis and to contribute to Refugee Week. Both of us have a background of facilitating participatory, community-based art — where we collaborate with participants rather than teach. We both come from refugee backgrounds — so this subject is important to each of us personally. We also collaborated with two psychiatrists — Dr Kami and Dr Hodes — who work with young refugees around mental health.

There’s very little discussion about the mental health of refugees. What did you learn about how the refugee experience affects neurology, and how did that shape the project?

In his research, Dr Hodes identified three main sources of trauma, of which one is loss of social meaning. Your community’s not there, your familiar surroundings aren’t there, your house isn’t there. So we wanted to find a way to counteract that loss, and try to recreate social meaning.

Gift-giving is one powerful way to reestablishing these social bonds. During our research, we came across a classic anthropological text about reciprocal gift-giving called The Gift, by Marcel Mauss. He says that once you start a gift-giving cycle, it never really ends. If I give something to you, you give something back to me, but it doesn’t end there — because now I feel like I have to give back to you, and then you give back to me. For a lot of Western cultures, that seems like a real burden, and it becomes something very difficult. But it’s the foundation of social structures for a lot of other cultures.

Drying prints hung above the structure’s corridor. Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

Drying prints hung above the structure’s corridor. Photo: Saeed Taji Farouky

At the same time, we wanted to give the opportunity for the young people who are adapting to life in London as refugees to engage with the general public, and vice versa, in a different way than we normally think about. The young people are in control of their own space, instead of being excluded from it, and when visitors come, it’s the young people who hold the knowledge, who are doing the teaching, passing on their wisdom. We really liked this as a political act: young refugees who are normally thought of as disenfranchised are now the ones in charge, not just in terms of space, but inverting the power structure between the general public here in Britain, and new arrivals, people fleeing from war.

As artists we interrogated the psychiatrists so that our approach would be not only robust medically, but also ethically. How we should approach the young people, what kinds of questions may we ask them, what sort of work we can do with them that’s not going to retraumatize them? These conversations informed everything about the project in terms of structures, workflow, scheduling and so on.

One of the goals of the installation was for the general public to meet refugees in person, something many will have not had an opportunity to do. But did the young people find being labeled a refugee problematic?

What’s interesting is that a lot of the young people don’t even necessarily identify primarily as “refugee” — even though we met them in a refugee support group. Halfway through the project, I said, “People might be interested in talking to you about your experiences, because they’ve never met refugees before.” A few of them were really surprised. They said, “Oh, I see, right. It’s about my refugeeness, not my other identity.” It’s not something that, for them, is always on the table.

Visitors are not prying into personal stories, for the most part. Most of the dialogue is about the art-making process. And that’s the point: it’s about being able to just have an ordinary conversation. On a pragmatic level, these young people are being supported as professional working artists. They sign up for a shift, they show up, they work with the public. It was always important for us, from the beginning, that this was done on a socially equal level.

Why did you choose monotype printing, rather than another medium?

Part of it was metaphorical, in that the etching of the plate is an analogue for the way our experiences are recorded in our brains and bodies — the way that our memories are physically etched in the brain as well as how trauma damages our nervous systems. With PTSD, events subsequent to trauma will trigger the re-experiencing of a memory or feeling due to the effects of the original traumatic event on our neural pathways.

Pragmatically speaking, neither Afshin nor I knew how to print, and with our collaborative approach, we wanted to be on an equal level with the students, learning together. It’s also a very accessible art form. You don’t need to know how to draw, nor do you need to be artistic. It’s much more about mark-making, textures and lines, than it is about illustration. But it’s also very manual — the press, and the plates — and there’s something magical about it that people respond to really well. Plus it’s fun, and it’s relatively fast. It also created an object that could then be gifted.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 6 July 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>

An asteroid named for Henrietta Lacks honors her immortal legacy by Karen Frances Eng

Biohacker Andrew Pelling is making sure Henrietta Lacks gets the recognition she deserves for her contribution to medical science.

At what point does your body become not your own? And who should have access to your genome, and why? The ethical dilemma surrounding Henrietta Lacks — whose cervical cancer cells were harvested without permission in 1951 and have been used ever since in medical research — received a fresh airing as the film adaptation of best-selling bookThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks hit TV screens in late April 2017 — starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter.

Around the same time, but with far less fanfare, an asteroid was named for the woman who gave humanity its first immortal cell line — cells that, when removed from a body, do not die, but continue to live and divide. The asteroid previously known as “2010 LA71” has been renamed 359426 Lacks by the International Astronomical Union in honor of Henrietta Lacks. It all started with a suggestion by Andrew Pelling, TED Fellow and biohacker, famous for embedding human cells into plant cellulose — which may someday allow us to grow replacement organs for implants without having to manipulate DNA. [Watch his TED Talk, “This scientist makes ears out of apples,” below.]

Here, he tells us about his long association with the so-called HeLa line of cells, and how he has tried to call attention to Lacks’ predicament with previous art and science projects.

Why were Henrietta Lacks’ cells, specifically, useful and so famous? There must’ve been many patients around whose cells would have been available, and many cell lines in circulation.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were the first human cells to work as an immortal line. Normally, our cells have a “lifetime” — a certain number of divisions before they undergo programmed cell death. Some cells can continue dividing forever due to a mutation — whether random or deliberately introduced by scientists. Because of the mutation, the cells aren’t perfect, and often over time they continue mutating. But they are useful models for basic scientific research.

Because Lacks’ cells were a cancer, they just divided and carried on growing, and the scientist who discovered this, George Otto Gey, was then able share them around the world. These so-called HeLa cells essentially became a consumable item in labs, and were extremely useful for conducting drug tests and screening, developing vaccines and so on without needing to constantly isolate cells from patients and animals.

The reason Lacks’ cells were so ubiquitous was that they became a standard, which helped create a baseline from which to compare data across experiments. For example, if one lab is working with my cells, and another is working with yours, we have different histories and genetic profiles, making the resulting data harder to compare.

The availability of HeLa cells contributed greatly to healthcare and medical research — including the development of the polio vaccine, human papilloma virus research, gene mapping and more — and organizations certainly profited from this cell line. Meanwhile, it was not until recently that Lacks and her family have been formally recognized, and they have never been compensated.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with HeLa cells. First of all, they started as a cancer, and they have mutated over time. So they are already unstable — a fact that is recognized these days, and a reason that scientists are now choosing not to use HeLa in their research. It’s also important to note that her genome is now protected: you need permission to use Lacks’ genomic data, and only for biomedical research purposes.

Repurposed-46, an artwork by Andrew Pelling that featured 46 apple slices embedded with HeLa cells. Photo: Andrew Pelling

Repurposed-46, an artwork by Andrew Pelling that featured 46 apple slices embedded with HeLa cells. Photo: Andrew Pelling

Why did you feel compelled to suggest that an asteroid be named after Lacks?

When fellow TED Fellow Carrie Nugent [watch her TED Talk, “Adventures of an asteroid hunter”] described her efforts to honor individuals by naming them after asteroids, I thought it would be a fitting way to immortalize Lacks. I had been thinking about the injustice of her situation for a long time, and it fit with my own agenda of trying to bring a discussion of this ethical dilemma to the public.

I’ve been using Henrietta Lacks’ cells for a long time in my own work. The ears made out of apple cellulose and human cells were actually created with HeLa cells, for example. However, our lab has used lots of other cell lines from humans, mice, rats, dogs, hamsters, and so on, as well as different types of cells — fibroblast, epithelial, bone, muscle. They all work. I used HeLa for the apple ear because I knew it represented a breakthrough and felt we needed to use a cell line that had meaning.

Usually, scientists and companies justify the use of her biological material as for the benefit of mankind — medical applications and so on. But it doesn’t address the real problem: that they were distributed without permission. That whole ethical dilemma has traditionally gotten ignored, forgotten and whitewashed, although things are finally changing.


This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 15 March 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>

Meet the hearts and brains behind a new magical stop-motion video about longing to go home—when you’re not sure where home is anymore by Karen Frances Eng

What constitutes “home” — especially when one has lived and worked “away” for years? Is it the people, the places, the fragments of memory? Two American artists — Joey Foster Ellis, who spent much of his adult life living and working in China, and clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn, who discovered her passion for traditional Appalachian music while a law student in China — have joined forces to explore their experiences of being a stranger in a familiar land in a stunning new multilayered stop-motion video for “Paper Lanterns” — a song by Washburn’s avant-garde Appalachian-Chinese folk trio Wu Force.

Watch the video (vertical because it’s optimized for mobile phones), and read below about the video — an international collaboration sprawling from Memphis, Tennessee, to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Washburn and Ellis live, respectively.

Abigail, what does this song mean to you?

Abigail: “Paper Lanterns” is about the longing to be back with the people you love deeply, longing to float like a paper lantern back to the place you came from. It’s about feeling far away, even feeling a foreigner, and about that feeling of hopelessness when you can’t see how to return in the near future, while holding out deep hope that you’ll find a way. There’s also a belief in this song that memory can bring us closer together in the pictures, the mementos we carry.

My bandmates Wu Fei, Kai Welch and I started writing this song during the Lunar New Year. We were thinking about all the people in China separated from their families because they’d migrated to cities to make money to send home. Fei recreated a letter her mother wrote to her sister during the Cultural Revolution, when she had to work on a farm for six years, unable to go home for Lunar New Year. When we created the refrain to this song, both Fei and I started tearing up because the words and melody brought a heart-vision of the sadness of people who could not see the families they’d left behind. Being mothers, we felt the heaviness of not being able to be close to one’s child in an effort to try to provide for them.

Joey, how did you interpret this song for yourself?

Joey: For me it’s about going home to a place you no longer know — a place that’s in your head, consisting of a vintage pop culture full of cartoons, commercials and friends both imaginary and true. I find that home is just a compilation of memories. Internally, we’ve turned them into a sort of beautiful mixtape that an old friend once gave you, customized and curated to a point where it just all makes sense. You want to understand who curated it — and the unexpected aspect is that it’s you. The song is very much about self discovery.

The song ingrained the phrase hui jia into my head. In Chinese, this means “return home” or “go home.” I prefer the later translation because it’s more tonal. Listening to “go home” on repeat over and over, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Where would I return to?” Peter Pan once said, “If you grow up, you’re never coming back,” and it’s true. We can’t go back because we’ve changed. Our old home is no longer the same—it’s grown up just like you have. But then in the most magical of ways I realized that if home is just some feeling within, then we carry home wherever we go. So I thank this song for making me forever feel a little less homeless.

It’s probably important to mention that Abby and I have a similar shared history: we both left America for China at a young age and immersed ourselves into an unknown unfamiliar place. We both matured into adulthood there and grew artistically, her with music, me with sculpture. Chinese slowly entered our vernacular and now it cannot be removed. That’s why we chose this song as our first collaboration.

Abigail, did Joey’s video alter how you thought about the song?

Abigail: The video made me see three things in the song I would not have seen without Joey’s artistic interpretation: the joy and humor of remembering, the power of texture and pattern to illuminate the old. Joey’s use of images like the Lady and the Tramp noodle scene, an old photo of a silly face and the video of the couple eating the subway sandwich from opposite ends all brought the humor of memory forward. It also showed how powerful the sight of a scrap of wallpaper or the comforter from your childhood bedroom can be.

It also made me realize that nowadays, we can see our family in real time moving and interacting with us through a screen, which changes the nature of feeling far from those we love. Fei’s mother, for example, in the 1960s will have felt a very different version of “disconnected and far” than she would feel now with a phone and strong-enough signal to video chat. Watching Joey’s video, I felt even more heartened by the fact that we are still deeply affected by one another and the memories we create together through technology—even if we can’t be close enough to touch one another in the flesh.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 15 March 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>

A chef reclaims his Southern culinary history by Karen Frances Eng

Cooking a meal over a fire, antebellum style. Photo by Andrew Kornylak

Cooking a meal over a fire, antebellum style. Photo by Andrew Kornylak

Researching, celebrating and supporting African American food culture is Michael Twitty’s way to honor and heal those who came before.

To chef and blogger Michael Twitty, a plate of stewed okra is much more than a popular soul-food dish — it’s a form of African American history. For many years, people in New Orleans referred to okra as salade du fevi, and it was thought thatfevi was a corruption of French for fava beans. “I was like, I know this ain’t right,” says Twitty. For starters, fava beans and okra are different vegetables. “I researched it, and fevi is the word for okra in Fon, the main language of Dahomey,” an ancient African kingdom that is now part of Benin. The first shipment of Africans brought to New Orleans came directly from the Dahomey slave port of Ouidah, from which a million Africans were dispatched to the New World between the 17th and 19th centuries. In one dish, he says, “you can see a story of the movement of people and culture from one place to the next.”

Twitty, a TED Fellow, is an active practitioner of the traditions of antebellum, or pre-Civil War, cooking. He is striving to reclaim and revive this lost heritage withThe Cooking Gene, a project that connects African Americans with their ancestral food ways in order to remember the importance of the lives of enslaved people. It also represents his attempt at culinary justice.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 30 March 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Ideas blog >>>

The starships of the future won’t look anything like Star Trek’s Enterprise by Karen Frances Eng

Seeker [ES⁵]: GOGBOT Festival, Enschede, Netherlands, 2014. Photo: Willem-Jan Mengerinck

Seeker [ES⁵]: GOGBOT Festival, Enschede, Netherlands, 2014. Photo: Willem-Jan Mengerinck

Ever fantasize what it might be like to live life hurtling through deep space? Meet the space systems researcher who prototypes interstellar habitats that are out of this world.

Angelo Vermeulen has lived on Mars. Well, he’s lived in a NASA-funded simulation of a Mars mission: sealed into a habitat on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano with five other crew members for 120 days to collect data on how to feed humans on Mars, and what it’s like to live in isolation. But Vermeulen’s research isn’t only bound to the Red Planet. Most of the time, the space systems researcher, biologist and artist is creating new concepts for designing starships—vehicles that can sustain human life during space travel.

For most of us, “starship” pretty much makes the brain leap to science fiction starships of television and film — Star Trek’s Enterprise, or Star Wars’ Star Destroyers. But for Vermeulen, such stark, rigid and militaristic approaches won’t be what ultimately works in reality. Instead, his designs take an approach that integrates technological, biological and social systems in such a way that they all grow and evolve together to meet the needs of its inhabitants indefinitely.

Conceptual model of a growing and evolving asteroid starship. The image of comet 67P by ESA is used as a placeholder for a large asteroid. Composite image by Francisco Muñoz and Anton Dobrevski

Conceptual model of a growing and evolving asteroid starship. The image of comet 67P by ESA is used as a placeholder for a large asteroid. Composite image by Francisco Muñoz and Anton Dobrevski

Example? For one, Vermeulen is creating a computer simulation for an asteroid starship with a student team at Delft University of Technology. This hypothetical starship can mine organic materials and metals from asteroids and take them on board to expand the architecture of the ship using 3D printing. “Moreover, if you put the asteroid at the front of the ship, it also doubles as an ablative shield,” says Vermeulen, “protecting the crew and the internal ecosystem against damaging impacts.”

When Vermeulen isn’t at the university drawing board, he’s sharing his vision here back on Earth—leading community-based builds of starship prototypes in an art project called Seeker. Why get ordinary citizens to construct starships? Vermeulen believes that everyone—not just a scientific or academic elite—should participate in imagining and building humanity’s collective future, not only for the benefit of space exploration but for life on our own planet.

“Seeker is explicitly not embracing a doomsday scenario where Earth is destroyed and humanity has to build an ark to escape,” Vermeulen says. “On the contrary. The goal is to reimagine how we integrate ecological, technological and social systems by taking a step back from Earth. This approach lets participants question assumptions and stereotypes, radically rethink things, and let imagination flow freely. And the lessons we learn can be applied both in deep space and back on Earth.” Sound intriguing? Here’s a peek at Seeker projects so far...

This is an excerpt of an original article published on 25 Jan 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>

The ongoing quest to build life from scratch by Karen Frances Eng

A synthetic biologist has created artificial cells that can "talk" to natural cells – are they really alive?

How does one go about building a living cell from non-living components? And how will we know if we've succeeded - or even if we're headed in the right direction? Sheref Mansy, a TED Fellow, has been striving to answer the Mansy Lab  at the University of Trento in Italy. For the past six years, Mansy (TEDxUnTN Talk:  Imitating cellular life ) has been trying to make artificial cells that can interact with natural cells. His team has recently achieved a notable success: their partially artificial cells can "hear" molecules naturally released from bacteria, and they can also synthesize and send molecules back in reply. Mansy explains the science behind the breakthrough and discusses the potential implications.

The first challenge in trying to create a living cell is a doozy, since scientists have not settled on a universally agreed upon definition for life.  "There are two common ways to view life: one is self-replicating, and the other is often referred to as autopoiesis, which essentially means the ability to persist over time," says Mansy. "And the so-called NASA working definition  of life says it is a self-sustained chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution, which sort of combines the two approaches."

Mansy's lab, however, has focused on building artificial cells that display a feature associated with life: communication. "All living things communicate in order to increase their chance of survival," he says. "Communication is a good standard for evaluating 'aliveness,' 'because artificial cells can be subjected to a test that measures this ability."

Could an artificial cell pass the cellular version of the Turing testA Turing test is a way of evaluating the intelligence of a machine by assessing how well it communicates. "In the classical Turing test, you have a communicating machine with a person," says Mansy. If the human thinks they are communicating with another human like a machine - in other words, if the machine is responses are indistinguishable from a human - then the machine passes as intelligent.

All living things can communicate chemically with one another. "If we can construct the artificial cells that can be thought of as natural molecules, then we can see whether they are artificial or not." Mansy says.

Start by building your artificial cells.  What exactly does it take to make one? "We take non-living components and put them together in some things that displays the properties of life," says Mansy. "Using lipids, or fat molecules, we make microscopic containers called vesicles." The synthetic DNA. "

Then, try to get your artificial cells to "speak" with several different kinds of bacteria. Mansy and his team spent a number of years trying to get their party to a natural conversation. After much experimentation, they succeeded with a bacterium called Aliivibrio fischeri . "We built artificial cells that could speak the same chemical language as Aliivibrio fischeri , a language this organism uses to decide when to luminesce," says Mansy. The eureka moment: "When we saw light coming from the cultures containing a mixture of artificial and natural cells, we knew we were getting artificial cells to talk with the bacteria."

This is an excerpt of an article originally published on 8 March 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Ideas blog >>>