[-empyre-] response to Robert's first post

Renate Ferro rtf9 at cornell.edu
Mon Feb 4 08:07:38 EST 2013

Dear Robert,
Thank you so much for agreeing to be our guest during such an
emotional time for you. I wanted
to respond to you sooner but your post was so compelling yet complex I
found myself reading
it and then rereading it over again.  I post the URL to the website
"Dying for the Other" for our subscribers
and those who may not be familiar.


Also this on Vimeo


The timeliness in which Dr. Schneider responded to her first query
seems remarkable.  I look forward to your sharing not only this
completed project but also the ones that were in progress.  Can you
let us know if there
are any online resources for the video project?  This month's
discussion may be a good place to begin to help assimilate these

Many thanks again to both you and Christiane.  Looking forward to
hearing from both of you.

On Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 6:05 PM, Robert Nideffer <nideffer at gmail.com> wrote:
> 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
> available?
> Thank you so much,
> All best,
> Beatriz
> 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.
> Bob
> 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,
> Beatriz
> 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...
> Robert


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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