Filmmaking practice as a space for ethical thinking

The second work I’m developing is an essay film addressing the broader ethics of nanotechnology. This post focuses on the different aspects of filmmaking where ethical consideration of the nanotechnologies being developed in the lab is taking place.

A quick note on “thinking”. As has become very clear to me in the time that my moving image and film practice has entered a more reflective style of experimental and essayistic practice, thinking is about so much more than just stringing words together in the mind. For me, some of the richest forms of thinking occur when I am holding a camera, forming a hybrid between my body and this instrument of phenomenological modification, or when I stumble upon new relationships between image, audio, movement and text while editing video. So I use the term thinking here very broadly, to encompass the knowledge of the body, the hybridity of the creative systems we construct with our tools (both manual and digital), as well as the content of information we engage with cognitively.

With this in mind, there are a few areas of my filmmaking practice that are currently becoming sites of thinking about ethics and the social and cultural implications of nanotechnologies.

1. Cinematography

This aspect incorporates my previous focus on how to make visible, or present, the nanoscale using human scale, or live action, video. In this situation, we are asking how we can represent social and cultural issues in the lab. They present a sort lateral and temporal invisibility in that they largely play out outside of spaces of scientific development and a long time after the technologies are released into society. I will write more about this as it develops in coming weeks, however, it has been interesting to note how, during conversations with the cinematographer I am working with, Cameron Matheson, our perspectives on cultural and ethical implications of nanotechnologies are shifting as we think of them visually, symbolically and metaphorically.

2. Microcinematography

In my practice, microscopy is a mode of communication, visualisation and reflection. This space (of blinkered darkness as you peer down a microscope) was the most philosophical. Time while scanning images, draws my mind away from the rat race, the experiment, analyse, report, finish, rinse repeat cycles of “productivity”. The space where time goes still. The time when for hours it is just me and my senses, and the ruminations on what I was “really doing” with a project. Microscopy represents a reflective space for me, but now I use it, consciously, within my practice, sometimes alone, sometimes with my collaborators. Something about the time set aside – 2 blissful hours on an in demand machine – about the cool desiccated air that flows, about the sometimes darkness, opens a portal to a different view, a different type of lensing on your sample, your object of study.

These images are of organic semiconductors imaged via Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM). I am working with the FEI Verios 460L SEM as a cinematographic tool, leveraging the inbuilt capabilities of the instrument to create movement and merging scientific imaging and video post-production workflows.

3. Developing voiceover

I have a begun a new collaboration with the poet and essayist Will Alexander and we are currently working to develop an essay that will act as the guiding structure for this essay film. I first met Will about five years when he was performing his poetry in Los Angeles, and was enraptured by the way he used scientific language — it was raw, visceral, rhythmic. I had often adopted the verbs of science for other uses, emotional and poetic, yet he is a master at this, creating flows between terms long cloistered within a scientific vernacular, and the existential, spiritual, and human. At times his work is so laden with these words that understanding their meaning becomes the less important experience of the writing and the rhythms and textures of the text take over. You can read one of my favourite poems of Will’s here.

Will and I have an epistolary relationship in that we write to one another via email. Back and forth bodies of text, of thoughts. A seeding of ideas for one another. The word is obviously the core of this, and one, even given my thoughts above on thinking, I still value highly and find incredibly inspiring. A sample of Will’s resulting essayistic writing on nanoscience:

“The former are not conditions controllable at room scale, subject to the windowless research through increment pursuing the trapping of voltage via cognitive emendation. Saying such I am not abstractly demeaning “bioimaging and diagnosis” that can divert disease ridden bodies from the looming door that is death, as if this diverting in itself is capable of neutralizing the soul implying by its prowess that the soul is of some secondary order sans its un-acknowleged alchemical presence. In modern parlance evidence by the senses remains the prime priority. For instance, we find in “microfabrication” principles such as “etching” “bonding”, “polishing” such “integrated circuits” “solar cells” “Flat Panel Displays” prone to the principles of the marketplace. As with Molecular Engineering these principles are concerned with the delimited functioning of matter, nothing of which approaches the understanding of transmutation. And by transmutation one fields concern with states that supersede those of a calcuable nature. I’m thinking of solid-liquid interfaces found in Surface science, or the “subdiscipline” that is organic chemistry, all of which gives way in the end to arid complexification of the marketplace. Even when the body is diverted from death by means of materials whose structure of measures registers “billionths of a meter” by our very circumstance nanomedicine indirectly infers the profit driven atmosphere that accrues from life and death. This is none other than the paradise of quantity, of its infinite alterity, never inclined to transgress its authorship by matter.”

4. Interviewing

Each day I spend time with scientists talking with them about their projects, and their views on the social and cultural implications of the nanotechnologies they are developing. These conversations — informal or semi-structured interviews — I have come to see as dialogic thinking, as they are informing and shifting perspectives for myself and the scientists. These interviews will formalised and documented in coming weeks on camera in workshops with the scientists. Often these conversations are happening in the laboratory as I learn more about the chemistry involved. I have been working with the nanoscientists in the lab, learning how to synthesise the nanoparticles that are used in their nanobiosensing systems.

These images show gold nanoparticles being synthesised. On the left the colour prior to reducing the gold into nanoparticles, and on the right the dark grey after the addition of a reducing agent. This colour will change again into a deep red wine colour after heating, indicating successful nanoparticle synthesis.

5. Sound design

I have begun to record and think about sound in relation to nanoparticles but I will talk more later about sound design and editing as I focus on those aspects of the practice.

So through these different aspects of filmmaking practice, we’re beginning to develop our understanding of social and cultural implications of NanoBioSensing technologies. Collaboration and reflection are important in the practices introduced above. Collaboration creates space for multiple perspectives, serendipitous association, play, allows dialogic thinking, and can be considered to include collaboration with scientists, with other creatives, even with instrumentation and software (filmmaking as an aggregation of collaborators). Filmmaking creates an umbrella over a multitude of activities, simultaneously providing opportunities to reach inward toward oneself and outward to observe and relate to the world.



Social-cultural experimentation

One of several projects I have pitched my collaborators is to perform a sort of social-cultural experiment to see what happens to people in response to their use of one of the technologies being created in the NanoBioSensing Laboratory. Using one of the scientific projects that is quite far along in its development process means we can produce a wearable mock up of the technology and observe it in a simulated real-world situation. I am planning a film around the experiment.

The technology in question is the paper-based UV sensing system I introduced in my last post. It’s used to help people of different skin colour know when they have had either too much harmful UV, or not enough Vitamin D inducing rays. The ink is chemically designed to develop at different rates, and to help determine how much is too much, or not enough, UV exposure. Scientists are designing wearable systems that are intended for use in scenarios such as music festivals. Here is more detail from my collaborators. A key component of the technology is the Fitzpatrick scale (see the above poster section titled “UV exposure limit for people with different skin color”). Developed in the 1975 by Thomas Fitzpatrick, the numerical scale classes people according to eye, hair and skin colouring. For this UV sensing technology to be accurate, people must class themselves, or be classed, correctly on the scale. The different classes are:

  • Type I (scores 0–6) always burns, never tans (palest; freckles).
  • Type II (scores 7–13) usually burns, tans minimally
  • Type III (scores 14–20) sometimes mild burn, tans uniformly
  • Type IV (scores 21–27) burns minimally, always tans well (moderate brown)
  • Type V (scores 28–34) very rarely burns, tans very easily (dark brown)
  • Type VI (scores 35–36) never burns (deeply pigmented dark brown to darkest brown)

In planning the filming I have run an experiment with the ink to understand how long the whole process will take and therefore how long to enlist volunteers for the shoot. I mixed the two active parts of the ink together and performed a series of dilutions. I dropped this onto filter paper, placed them into the sun, and waited for the colour change. This was a rough qualitative observation, looking to see how long it took for the ink to be visible (one and a half hours for the undiluted ink, many more hours for the dilutions, rendering them unusable).

In preparing for the film I also did a test run with a drone and its onboard camera. The drone is great for my purpose — it will provide an incredibly stable birds eye view shots of the crowd for 30 minutes at a time for the duration of the experiment. (See this short video and this one.) We will likely shoot the experiment in November or December, once the sun is stronger and more reliable. If you are interested in participating, watch this space!

In creating this social experiment, which I expect will have segregative social effects based on race, I am not stating that the health benefits of this technology are invalid, or that the technology should not be developed. However, it is said to be difficult to understand how technologies might affect humankind, the way we think about reality, the way we relate to each other, and the effects on our psychology. This project is an attempt to speculate, consider, and critique, ahead of time, the nuances of these effects.

NanoBioSensing Technologies

Recently, I’ve been exploring the technologies being developed in the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility and getting inspired by the scientists working in the lab. I’m particularly enjoying seeing the scientists present papers related to their work, discussing the scientific approaches, and being immersed in the practices, language and graphics of nanochemistry. I’ve interviewed several of the senior scientists to get to know their work, and I’ll outline some of the lab projects that I am engaging with here.

Nanoparticles are used in biosensing systems to detect biomolecules in-vivo (“within the living”, i.e. within a living organism), in-vitro (“within the glass”, i.e. outside of a living organism). I’m particularly interested in nanotechnologies and their interfaces with the body, however some of the technologies being developed in the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility are not yet fully developed for use in humans, so some of the experimentation is occurring in-vitro at this stage. But metaphorically and poetically I might use these experiments to stand-in for in-vivo use.

Three projects have peaked my interest so far:

1. Scientists are working on developing nanoparticles that can be used to trace the movement of engineered therapeutic immune cells within the body. This study is complex and so I will write more on this separately soon. This work is due for first-time-in-human studies in the next month. It is fascinating in that the patient’s immune cells are taken out of the body, engineered, loaded with nanoparticles, and re-introduced to the body. It represents a class of highly customisable, and highly expensive, therapeutics that are showing promise at combating certain cancers.

2. The development of nanoparticles that detect the DNA of pathogens such as Norovirus (which causes gastroenteritis) and bacterial species responsible for bacterial vaginosis. The nanoparticles are then involved in a colorimetric system, i.e. a system that includes a colour change that signals the presence of the pathogen.

3. Scientists are making a paper-based UV sensing system to help people of different skin colour know when they have had either too much harmful UV, or not enough Vitamin D inducing rays. The ink is chemically designed to develop at different rates, and to help determine how much is too much, or not enough, UV exposure. Scientists are designing wearable systems that are intended for use in scenarios such as music festivals.

Test version of the paper-based ink in a UV chamber.

Some thoughts and questions that have come out of this initial period of exploration, the interviews, and of reading around nanoethics, are the following:

  • To what extent should scientists be expected to consider the ethics of the technologies that they design?
  • Are social and cultural issues only the concern of the design and commercialisation processes rather than of scientific development?
  • How do we engage scientists in ethics? Many ethical considerations are factors in the design of these nanobiosensing technologies. For example, the simplicity of real-time colorimetric systems means greater accessibility for economically challenged communities and countries, or the ability to self-test in complete privacy without the possibly invasive involvement of a doctor, in the case of Bacterial Vaginosis.
  • The ethics that biomedical scientists are by law and training are required to follow are aimed at avoiding harm to individuals, but rarely consider broader psychological, cultural or social affects.
  • How do the ethics of science reflect our values as a broader society?
  • The ethical issues of importance that these kinds of technologies impinge upon are things like accessibility, low-cost / high-cost, privacy, short-term benefit / long term harm, individual benefit / social harm, social segregation, and possibly even surveillance of molecules/cells within the body.