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Natalie Jeremijenko: The WorldChanging Interview
Emily Gertz, 22 Oct 04

njenk.jpgFrom releasing packs of Feral Robot Dogs that sniff out chemical contamination, to teaching Yale engineering students socially responsible design, from creating pollution-detecting Clear Skies Masks for bicycle riders, to co-authoring Biotech Hobbyist Magazine, Natalie Jeremijenko’s work merges engineering, biology and art to explore socio-political hot spots along the fault line where design meets information meets society.

As reported in the technogeek press in August, Jeremijenko was one of several artist-engineers developing and deploying protest technology during the Republican National Convention in New York City. She collaborated with activists to devise a number of devices that were both media-savvy and functional, designed to undercut surveillance, create accurate crowd counts, and protect activists--gestures that highlighted the growing technological arsenal being aimed on political speech and action.

I interviewed Jeremijenko for Worldchanging last month, over a vegan takeout dinner in her West Village apartment in New York City. We began by discussing her Republican National Convention protest tech.

Natalie Jeremijenko: The statement I’m going for is about illegitimate use of force, the militarization of the police force around legal political protest.

Can you imagine if they militarized around lobbyists visiting Washington?

One side is going on as if there is this tremendous political threat; they’re in an arms race with their Kevlar flack jackets. And on the other side are little grannies waving cardboard placards, and kids with dreadlocks. This is a political process, written into the Constitution. It is not a military emergency. It is not a reason for arms.

[At the Democratic and Republican conventions this past summer], the police threatened to deploy a sound weapon that concentrates sound energy on particular people and makes them tremendously nauseous.

Of course they say they’d use it to bring down ‘problem people’, i.e. direct action leaders. Also, to deliver messages, but what kind of messages? “Cease and desist”? “We’re going to kill you”?

So what we did was create these parabolic reflectors, to deflect sound energy and protect particular key people. I wanted to make a very visible thing…

Jeremijenko picks up what looks like a large silver metal bowl from amidst some other materials, and holds it up in different positions around her torso.

The various affinity groups that used this, they got to come here and play with things. Who’s the guy in the James Bond movies, who gets to design equipment?

Emily Gertz: Q.

NJ: I got to play Q to these various people, and they got to deploy the devices. Devices like these become a kind of accessory of non-violent defense.

EG: Was there a cause and effect between the protest action and the police reaction?

NJ: The police were concerned with things like people throwing bottles of hydrochloric acid. It’s the police who invent these kinds of things. Try and track where they’re from: they’re from police discussions, they’re not from Indymedia or Direct Action Network or my Yale students talking online about D4PA—Design for Political Action.

EG: Is that a conscious play on DARPA, by the way?

NJ: Actually it wasn’t. Because there is “Design for Development.” But I like it – the DARPA of dissent—that’s what Wired called it. Imagine if there was a DARPA of dissent!

There are Italian and Spanish direct action groups, very well trained in direct action. They’re doing marvelous actions using blow up pool toys, big happy smiley faces on the strike zones [parts of the body would be likely to be hit by police] so they can protect themselves. Putting pockets into these bright clownish costumes they wear, both mediagenic and highly visual, but also with room for putting in an empty two-liter soda container, with their tops on. These make good protection in the strike zone.

Nonviolent defense is a long tradition. Profoundly misplaced, but necessary. I wish our energies could be better spent. Nonetheless, their threat has to be answered. And systematically, we have to answer every threat of this abuse power, of criminalizing political process, the political right to gather with a nonviolent method.

I wouldn’t take my kids to these marches. They’re not safe. That’s only happened in the last couple of years, under the Bush administration. That’s a real tragedy—this militarization of civil society, of our political processes.

EG: How do your technologies right the balance?

NJ: While obviously the scale of deployment is off, we can demonstrate, at least in the media, that we will answer any violent technologisation or militarization. That anything they come up with, the open community of people who believe in this political process will come up with responses.

We have the power of diversity on our side. They have organized, hierarchical systems. We have open source. We’re vaguely anarchist. It’s not about escalating.

EG: Is this also art? Is it art at the same time that it’s defense and technology?

NJ: It’s communicative. It’s meant to be mediagenic. You can do fun things with a parabolic reflector. Like any political technology, it carries messages.

To ask if it’s art is to say, has it entered the art market? Do people exhibit it in galleries?

EG: Your earlier work, with Bureau of Information Technology and even up to OneTrees, crosses over very coherently and consciously between being technologist and technology, and being something that can be exhibited in an art setting.

NJ: It’s not art because it’s brought into the museums. It’s in the museums after the fact, if it’s had any kind of effectiveness, any kind of cultural zeitgeist that it’s actually worked with.

Another form of direct action is the Anti-Terror Line, which people can record on using cell phones as microphones, putting their observations into a public database. The collective evidence that is posted to the anti-terror line is open, and highly creative people use it -- in ambient tracks, documentary videos, radio journalism.

Anyone who uploads is putting it into an information commons, wanting this to be documented, wanting to make sense of it, in a collective sense-making process.

A lot of what’s on the anti-terrorism database is how this excuse of terrorism is being used people to tear at the very fundamental social fabric of trust, and report “suspicious acts,” but not be accountable. One very colorful and lovely, very funny story is from this raving queen who went to get on this plane, and had to put up with these guys going through all his leather and harnesses and gay porn! He asked, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to me?” He was held for a day and a half.

His boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend had called up and said, [whispery voice] “oh, he’s a terrorist!”

This use of power is a pervasive systemic issue—it’s about requiring each one of us to be not trusting, not to live in an open society, to be suspicious.

How do you build a civil society? The anti-terrorism line is about that.

EG: You’re using the same technology for the Kurtz Shoutout Line, in support of artist Steve Kurtz, who’s been charged with bioterrorism. What is the latest?

NJ: It’s very sad. He’s such a sweet man. He’s waiting for a trial. It’s Robert Ferrell and Steve Kurtz. Robert Ferrell is a professor of genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. He sent Steve these cultures, a bacteria. These two people were charged originally with bioterrorism, and now it’s mail fraud.

I’ve committed that crime almost every week of my professional life, and I’m not unusual. This is the basis of normal science, the exchange of materials between graduate students and between scientists. This is criminalizing academic inquiry.

This persecution is very, very disturbing, as a measure of just how few civil liberties may be left. How anti-terrorism legislation, designed to protect, has corroded the open society.

EG: One thing that is frightening right now is that devices like your Clear Skies Masks may soon be the only way that citizens can gather data about environmental contamination, because vast amounts of information are being classified with the excuse of having to fight terrorism. Packs of feral dogs are going to become a primary way for citizen activists to gather information about chemical contamination.

NJ: Even if not, it’s necessary to have such devices to ground the information in something comprehensible, because the EPA, satellite images, GIS, they’re not publicly legible. Even though they’re publicly accessible, they’re not an active part of public discourse by any means.

Once you’ve got a face mask, you might know nothing about diesel fumes or particulate types, and whether they’re moving sources, or whether they’re associated with reactive airways, what air quality is measured in—you don’t know and you don’t care. You just had a friend once who had really bad asthma.

Just having your own evidence allows you to enter into and contest a discussion about what this means, to enter into political engagement in the real world.

What I’m most interested in is: how do we characterize systems of which we know very little, and have very poor information? Knowledge is very partial, very incomplete, and yet decisions are made. So, I specifically try to design information systems that measure urban environmental interactions.

For instance, I put a camera in Fresh Kills landfill, just a little networked web cam. It went on whenever the background radiation flipped above the so-called safe level.

What was interesting was that Staten Island has a hospital on it, which was also measuring environmental radiation. Medical facilities are required to do that. So they had their dosimeter, I had my dosimeter. We’re both gathering the same data and it’s not that different.

But mine’s triggering a web cam. So instead of presenting me with information so that it looks like science, like a little graph, it’s clips. Every time the background radiation fluctuates above a certain level, you get two seconds of video.

When you look at that, you start to see things you were not looking for. Seagulls are always going past when this is being triggered. Something happens at sundown, there’s a truck going past. That becomes interesting.

This issue of radioactive seagulls—there’s only one other paper on it. I wasn’t looking for radioactive seagulls. I had no idea about radioactive seagulls, or the concentration of radioactive diets that go on within the gullet of a seagull. It has actually been partially documented by some Greenpeace science groups in England, in Sellafield. But there are no publications on it here.

So, I was seeing something I wasn’t expecting to see. That’s discovery. That’s what I call data mining. Not taking corporate databases, and going through people’s social security numbers, classic data mining. What is interesting is having open systems that can tell you something. You learn something.

An open system is the definition of a learning system. A closed system is a system that doesn’t learn. And so, if you’re studying urban environmental interactions, they’re dynamic systems, constantly changing, always evolving. So you have to design open monitoring systems.

These are things that you can’t tell a priori, and that’s what so interesting about working with material in open urban environmental systems, as opposed to working with closed technological systems, where they’re bounded in many different ways, a Sim City version of urban environmental interactions.

EG: Usually science demands that you set up an experiment with very well-defined parameters and look for a particular thing. Your method leaves you open to discover the significant thing you didn’t know, that might not have made itself apparent in the traditional method.

NJ: It also leaves me open to a lot of criticism!

In the new Ben Franklin biography, what he bases his constitutional impulse on is not, “We hold these things to be true,” not an appeal to God, not to be holy, not to be morally right, some higher moral, religious or political truth, but just to be self-evident. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” You or me or any Joe can figure it out.

That’s the kind of impulse that I’m really interested in. Not the super-specialized elitism of science. Although there are a lot of scientists doing some great work, it’s not just scientists who are responsible for understanding urban environmental interactions. It’s the larger political body that needs to figure this out.

If we want to make effective political change when it comes to urban environmental interactions, we need to change how evidence is gathered. As much as I love the EPA’s toxic inventory, we also have to have the things we hold to be self-evident.

EG: Tell me about some of your current projects.

NJ: The goose stuff is lots of fun—this OOZ project, trying to find a reciprocal interface for interaction with non-humans. The idea of being able to have an interactive, engaged relationship with the natural, not seeing it as outside or over there, but here.

I’ve been doing experiments that appear in Biotech Hobbyist Magazine, redefining what is the lab.

Animal models are used in labs. Ninety five per cent of all our medicine is tested on animals before we do human tests. And only on mice and rats, before being tested on humans.

Lab mice are actually all from four or five strains that were donated to Harvard by a fancy mouse breeder at the turn of the last century. A hundred and something years later, all the mice that you buy as products are actually mice from those strains. Their pedigree has to be known. So what you have is a whole population, several hundred generations that were bred in lab conditions, for testing on human medications. These animal models are the basis of our medicine.

[Like OncoMouse®--Ed.]

They’re very peculiar!

What’s the difference between the feral mice in Manhattan, and their reaction to Zoloft, or your favorite anti-depressant, and this particular strain of lab mice? Because frankly, if I’m going to ingest any kind of medication, I’m much more interested in how the mice in my walls, that are dealing with the same levels of asbestos, the same levels of VOCs and hydrocarbons and other environmental stressors, that are in my environment. I’m not really interested in some mouse in some lab in Idaho.

EG: An idealized mouse in an idealized setting.

NJ: Right. So Biotech Hobbyist Magazine explodes the lab.

I’ve set up these little experiments on the mice freeways, along the edge of the wall. Little spoons that trigger sounds, that trigger web cams. Will they stop and will they eat? Will they nibble on black jellybeans or do they prefer muscle relaxants, Prozac or Zoloft?

EG: It’s a whole pharmacopeia. They’ll be very well-adjusted mice.

NJ: Or, poorly adjusted! What’s interesting is that they will self-administer anti-depressants.

If you’re interested in complex urban environmental interactions, it means that you can’t stay in a lab, where you’re looking at a priori, known parameters.

The lab is everywhere that you are. It’s garage biotech.

EG: It’s very much in the history of science in the western world, where you have these kooky Englishmen with too much time on their hands wandering off, studying botany and chemical reactions, inventing photography. And then in the last century, you have men in their basements with their little engineering projects. They didn’t think of them as engineering projects, but they were essentially conducting science.

NJ: Right. It’s a tremendously productive area. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs—what were they doing in their garages? They weren’t doing degrees in computer science, they were actually specifically dropping out of them and they were building stuff in their labs.

That kind of open-ended, creative work that was done outside of institutions is not a threat to the progress of ideas, it’s the basis of it, it’s absolutely fundamental.

That’s what this book tries to establish, even as it’s being criminalized, called bioterrorism.

Jeremijenko's pet rescued lab rabbit, Sally, noses about for spent edamame pods.

Photos: Emily Gertz

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Wonderful interview, Emily. Great work!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 22 Oct 04

I followed the link to biotech hobbyist maganize, and I don't really get it. There's two interesting-sounding (out of the 4 total) projects that invite the reader to buy their kits -- without even providing links to ask for more information. In other words, there's nothing there! What gives?

The interview, on the other hand, is really good. I quoted the little segment about mice on my own blog.

Posted by: Sergiy Grynko on 22 Oct 04

Steve Baer of Zomeworks wrote a little book about various solar scenarios. One of them was a protest in which the protesters had mirrors that they aimed at cops to dazzle them for a second or so. If everyone aimed their mirrors at a police car tire, they might be able to blow it out.

Years ago, I read an obit in the Village Voice for a homeless activist. It included a story about this guy confronting the NYC police as they trashed a homeless camp in the East Village. He grabbed a bathroom mirror from the rubble and held it in front of a cop with his nightstick, getting ready to club. When the cop saw his own face in the mirror, it stopped him in his tracks. Or so the writer wrote.

It is interesting to note that many shamanic tradition around the world use the mirror as a tool.

As for radiation monitoring, back in the late 80s, citizens groups around nuclear power plants began to do their own monitoring, starting with Maine Yankee. Plymouth Station has a monitoring system and I'm sure since I tuned out in the mid-90s, many more do. When the citizens started, the state agencies that were also doing the job, perked up. Small shops and services began to spring up to fill the need for chepa, accurate geiger counters and data loggers. NIRS (Nuclear Information and Resource Service) in Washington DC probably has a list of existing citizens monitoring groups.

I once approached the author of SimCity, Wil Wright, about using his game as a template for local environmental reporting and ecoligical design scenario planning. He was interested but not all that much. I was envisioning integrating environmental monitoring into the k-12 curriculum with quarterly or annual reports by the kids to the rest of the community, assuming that the young ones would keep the old ones more honest. TERC (Technical Education Research Center) at that time was working on a variety of low-cost, simple environmental monitoring devices like using rubber band degradation to monitor low level ozone.

Posted by: gmoke on 22 Oct 04

Thank you, Jamais! Natalie is a real ally of Worldchanging, and I in turn am really happy to help shine light on her work.

Appreciate the quote, Sergey. There is a printed version of the Biotech Hobbyist Magazine that is quite interesting...I don't know how many there are or what Natalie's plans are to sell or otherwise distribute it. But maybe signing up for the mailing list or using the other info on the contact page will lead to more info.

Thanks for the persepectives, is interesting to see that NJ's work falls on a continuum of steady efforts. She has a particular ability to invoke several layers of meaning in her works that I really admire.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 22 Oct 04

I for one agree that we need to reduce the amount of military force in this country, and increase the number of non-military entities, especially in our nation's capital. We have to be very careful about creating over-dependency on men (or women!) with weapons. Weapons can include guns, knives, grenades, or even bombs.

Less surveillance means more freedom. Less military means more freedom. And most importantly, less enemies mean more freedom.

-Paul Santos

Posted by: Paul Santos on 23 Oct 04

Great job, Emily (and Natalie)!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 23 Oct 04

Interesting read! I really like the work and philosophy of Natalie Jeremijenko and I just stumbled on this site. If this is the kind of info you usually post, I will be a regular reader.

Posted by: BjornW on 23 Oct 04

Some of the most advanced technological weapons (and I include the so-called, and recently disproved, non-lethal weapons in this category) can be defended as easily as home cookin'. For example, I know a handful of drummers who strap 5 gallon buckets around their necks and drum during protests. When the tear gas canisters fly, they calmly remove the strap from around their neck and put the bucket over the canister. Sonic disturbers that emit high-pitched irritating noises can be ignored with earplugs.

What gets interesting is when they start outlawing our defense, like when gas masks were proclaimed illegal to have after things hit the fan in Seattle. Can we come up with enough defenses so that they are having to outlaw an outlandish amount of trivial things?

Posted by: micah on 23 Oct 04

What BjornW said, except I came via Boingboing. I'll be staying here!

Posted by: emmett on 23 Oct 04

Affinity group structure and street tactics may be useful in times of emergency and disaster as well. Add modern telecom and you might have a very effective civil defense and preparedness system.

W David Stephenson has been trying to talk about the telecom and citizen-based home front security for the last couple of years now. He's even developed some information systems for PDAs with some ideas for cell phones and pagers. You can learn more about his work at

Posted by: gmoke on 23 Oct 04

i'm inspired

Posted by: MickeyTosh on 24 Oct 04

Natalie Jeremijenko offers a wonderful perspective on the whole notion of open vs. closed. Whether minds, societies, systems, or source code; open appears to offer the smarter, freer, lovelier and stronger alternative.

Posted by: Dave Myers on 25 Oct 04

What a great interview, Emily. And Natalie, you're doing amazing work.

Gmoke: The folks at Envision Tools, in Vancouver, have created just the sort of software you talked about, a tool for real-world regional sustainability modeling, inspired by SimCity. I wrote an article about it two years ago in Utne Magazine.

Posted by: Leif Utne on 27 Oct 04

Thank you, Leif!

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 27 Oct 04


Natalie Jeremijenko forwarded the following updated info for Biotech Hobbyist Magazine:

Creative Biotechnology: A USER’S MANUAL
Natalie Jeremijenko & Eugene Thacker
with essays by Heath Bunting and Dena Jones
A limited edition publication is available from Locus+
The project is available on-line at

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 27 Oct 04

great stuff. need to sign up for skool at yale.

as a cross reference, check out - a non-profit with a campaign to democratize technology and research politically. I'm not affiliated-- NJ just reminded me of a lecture by one of Loka's reps that i listened to back in college.

thanks for the interview, i will return to WC often.

Posted by: sp12 on 30 Oct 04

On a blog that's so concerned about biology, I'm amazed that nobody has seen that the cycle of police militarization and aggression vs. countermeasures is analagous to the mis-use of antibacterials and the consequent development of bacterial resistance.  The (ab)use of "non-lethal" weapons against peaceful protest leads to the development and public availability of methods to defeat those weapons.  Like plasmids transmitted from harmless bacteria to pathogens, those methods will inevitably filter their way to people who mean to do real harm.  When the weapons are most needed, they may turn out to be useless.

We should view the use of military tactics (including funny weapons) against non-violent civilians as a form of treason (destroying part of our weapons capability, giving aid and comfort to real enemies) as well as a crime against humanity.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 31 Oct 04

That's an excellent insight. It's equally valid in examining how fear is being used by political leaders to maintain support for the current incarnation of the war on terrorism.

Simultaneously, the anxiety induced by "terror alerts" drives people to maintain whatever coherence they can in daily life, including preservation of the current political status quo, while also creating cynicism when nothing materializes--we're innoculated, our capability to respond is blunted.

Posted by: Emily on 31 Oct 04

(I can't believe I mis-spelled "analogous".)

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 31 Oct 04



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