[-empyre-] Robert's first post

Robert Nideffer nideffer at gmail.com
Sat Feb 2 10:05:33 EST 2013

This is not an easy post to write, but then Shani (as Beatriz was also
known) rarely made things easy! I say that partly in jest, and completely
awe, admiration, and respect of what she's left behind, and at the depth of
the impact she had, and no doubt will continue to have. It's just over 30
days since her passing, so things are still very raw for me. I'm sitting in
our NYC apartment where she (and I) spent the better part of the last two
years of her life (as an artist in residence at Eyebeam, and as a cancer
patient at Sloan Kettering and NYU), going through the mechanics one is
forced to deal with at the time of death... organizing, packing,
remembering, forgetting, processing. All I can say is it's far emptier now
than it was just a short time ago. Shani filled whatever space she
occupied. She was very present. I realize and miss this more than ever.

Shani's energy, even with surgery after surgery and medication upon
medication, was amazing; not in terms of its mass, but in terms of how she
harnessed what little she had, and the use to which she put it. I often
wished I could channel her some of mine (or transfer to her some of my
time) just to see what she'd do with it. Her determination and will were
even more remarkable. She was extremely efficient in how she planned her
work and life. She had to be. I, on the other hand, tend to start things
with a fuzzy notion, meandering here and there, trying to tell a story
along the way or after the fact about what I've done and the motivation
behind it. Shani tended toward the opposite. I can still hear her asking
"how can you not know what you're doing before you do it?" I would
occasionally remark upon this, telling her how impressed (and envious) I
was with her ability to have a clear and compelling concept in her head
from the beginning, to know precisely what she was doing and why she was
doing it, and to then be able to execute on it. Sure, things would evolve,
but mostly with minor tweaks along the way. I don't recall her ever saying
much in response. In fact, if she felt it was something I'd said before,
she'd usually lose interest and stop me before I began. It was all about
the time... unnecessary repetition, sentimentality that hindered
forward movement, complimenting for the sake of being liked or appearing
nice, these things she had very little patience for.

I've been trying to think what I have to offer, as her friend and colleague
for the past decade, and her life partner for the last eight of those, the
final three of which were spent dealing very directly with dis/ease. Time
is such a funny thing. It somehow feels appropriate to begin at the end,
and start by reflecting upon her final body of work, which encompassed a
series of projects she'd  entitled "The Cost of Life." I'll focus, for the
moment at least, upon "Dying for the
her last completed project (though she had many others in various stages of
development, some of which may also make sense to discuss). She was always
good at titles. Her work, even though she used herself and her disease as
subject matter, was never just about her, or her illness. That, for Shani,
made all the difference. She created a complicated, nuanced, and at times
uncomfortable space for reflection, which could function as a catalyst for
change, A more politically committed and socially engaged artist you'd be
hard pressed to find.

Perhaps I can start by offering material of a more personal sort, and
provide a glimpse into how she initiated the contact that made Dying for
the Other possible. What follows is the original email exchange Shani had
with Dr. Robert Schneider, a highly respected cancer researcher at NYU
Langone Medical Hospital, and the person who made the highly unusual move
of granting Shani access to his research facility for filming. He also
became a real advocate for her in the context of her treatment at NYU. I
offer it here because I think her own words, and his, give much better
insight into her thinking and motivations than I ever could (caveat,,, I
often functioned as an editor, which is why I have copy of these):

Date: Thu, May 5, 2011 at 7:50 PM
Subject: artist/professor interested in your research

Dear Professor Schneider,

I am an experimental media artist currently on a fellowship in New York. I
am working on a series of projects examining the relationships between
rodents and humans. One the "types" of relationships I am interest in is
the cultural relationship between mice models used in cancer research and
cancer patients, and to some extent the very immediate relationship between
scientists/lab technicians and the animals. Non-scientists/lab technicians
usually don't interact with lab animals and it is very hard to obtain
access for obvious reasons. But it seems to me that contemplating on the
lives of and procedures used on lab animals is central to understanding the
economic, ethical and emotional "costs" that our own survival is built on.
I am a "chronic" breast cancer patient and have had different cancers in
the past. I have worked with animals and interspecies relations before as
well, addressing different issues though. Right now I would just like to
"meet" the creatures on whose back my survival is built. I am not an animal
rights person, but I just don't think that "willful ignorance" is good for
anyone. Anyway, before I start writing a whole manifest here, I was
wondering if we could possibly set up a meeting. I am interested to learn
more about your research and the breast cancer research group and see if
there might be any future possibility to observe and document research on
living mice models. I am happy to explain the project more concretely, but
I feel that maybe it's easier done in person. Is there anyway that you
would have a meeting slot available?

Thank you so much,
All best,

His response:

Date: Thu, May 5, 2011 at 10:26 PM
Subject: Re: artist/professor interested in your research

Hi Beatriz,

I will be delighted to speak to you. I am aware of some of your work by the
way. The relationship between investigators and the animals they must use
in their research is complicated and fascinating. I have always been
intrigued by the fact that we feel badly for the mice we use in our
research but not nearly so for the ones we poison or trap in our houses.

As for patients and breast cancer advocates, my experience is that most are
fascinated by the different types of mice, although some of the mice such
as “nude” (hairless and athymic mice) are quite ugly. In actual fact
however, most patients  know very little about the mice. One of our
advocates and breast cancer survivors told me there was an article about
medical mice, I believe in Newsweek or time.

I look forward to meeting you. As to filming and photographs, let’s take it
a step at a time. Animals with tumors and their sacrifice can be
emotionally challenging and need to be put in perspective with human
suffering and the absolute fact that there is no way to develop a therapy
or a drug without animal models. It is complicated, easily misunderstood
and easily distorted, and there is an enormous spectrum in animal research
from use of mice, which most of us can accept, to use of dogs and primates
which is emotionally wrenching.


Dr. Robert Schneider
Director, Translational Cancer Research
Co-director, Breast Cancer Research Program
Associate Director, NYU Cancer Institute
Albert B. Sabin Professor of Molecular Pathogenesis
NYU School of Medicine

Her response:

Date: Thu, May 5, 2011 at 11:59 PM
Subject: Re: artist/professor interested in your research

Hi Bob,

Thank you so very much for your quick response and willingness to meet. I
very much agree with your comments regarding the need to contextualize
things appropriately and to avoid oversimplification. Art doesn't do any
good if it just reinforces cliched and misinformed arguments. Science in
general is very hard for the "layperson" to understand, which is precisely
why I am so interested in the role art can take not just to attempt to
"demystify scientific processes" (assuming we studied up well :)), but also
to investigate ethical&emotional areas that are difficult to evoke in other
contexts. An "ethics debate" is ... well, a debate and while often fueled
with emotions, in the end the idea is to come up with rational arguments
that would either support one or the other side of the argument. "Art" is
allowed to leave things a little more open (if it decides to do so) and yet
confront people with the realities of the lives we all live. I think that
death and killing are too hidden in most aspects of our culture. And that
really doesn't help because it keeps us far too alienated from the
"fleshiness" of our own existence and that of the non-human world.

Anyway, I am "manifesting" again. I just feel really strongly about this. I
don't think any of these issues can be experienced in the abstract,
"encounter" is really necessary. Its like your mouse example below, some
people buy live traps, others "regular" ones, yet others get a cat. The
presence of mice in old houses and the fact that most of us don't really
want them there has such a long history that its become normalized. People
have seen/heard/chased mice in houses for centuries and consciously or not
decide on one or the other way to deal with the situation. With lab mice
(and other animals for that matter of course), its not the same. They are
completely removed from us.

I read up a little on "nude" "scid" and "knock-out" mice. I even bought a
manual explaining different lab procedures (how to draw blood etc.... ).
And I heard quite a few stories about "handlers'" relationships to the
animals. Although that was more in the context of primates. It sounded like
in the past they were encouraged to maintain as much of an emotional
distance to the animals as possible, whereas now things have changed to
encouraging handlers to develop a more personal relationship with them. It
sounded like a really difficult position to be in.

Thanks again,
I am really looking forward to this,

Already there's probably plenty here to discuss -- gaining access to "the
field," the idea of "interspecies co-production," working at the nexus of
art and science, making manifest what are often hidden and/or complicated
and difficult to translate cultural practices to a broader public, one's
position as subject/object in relation to a project, the artist as
researcher, just to mention a few. In re-reading these messages I'm again
struck by the clarity Shani had at the very early stages of thinking about
her work. It stuns me to realize that she initiated this just 10 days
before she went in for a craniotomy to remove two (of multiple) tumors, one
quite large, and disturbingly close to her brain stem. Her work truly was
her life's blood. It was to become her first video piece, and what a piece
it became. She never stopped being a student, and challenging herself to
think and create in new ways. She would go on to take a video class at SVA
in order to better learn software, hardware, and the mechanics of
production. She would find an amazing cameraman, Juan Recaman, to work
with. I would get to carry gear, occasionally offer my take on things (but
only if asked, otherwise beware!), and try to learn from her process. And
for that, and so much more, I'm eternally grateful...

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