[-empyre-] Fwd: Robert's first post

Renate Ferro rtf9 at cornell.edu
Sat Feb 2 14:12:03 EST 2013

Forwarded for Robert Nideffer

From: Robert Nideffer <nideffer at gmail.com>
Date: Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 6:05 PM
Subject: Robert's first post
To: empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au

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 Other," 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

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

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...



Renate Ferro
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art
Cornell University
Department of Art, Tjaden Hall Office #420
Ithaca, NY  14853
Email:   <rtf9 at cornell.edu>
URL:  http://www.renateferro.net
Lab:  http://www.tinkerfactory.net

Managing Co-moderator of -empyre- soft skinned space

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