Friday, October 07, 2011

Fascinating Ada: There are more women scientists than you think, and some of them are filmmakers and poets

7th October is Ada Lovelace Day: a global opportunity to celebrate Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and the founder of scientific computing. It's both moving and vexing that Steve Jobs is not here to celebrate Ada's work with Charles Babbage on the Difference Engine which made modern computers possible.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine
I first encountered Ada as a fictional character: the daring hero of William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, which saluted its heroine by inventing steampunk to devise an alternate 19th century in which the Difference Engine had been more than a prototype. But before I met here there, in my Cybertext Theory and Practice class (which also introduced me to cyborg feminism and feminist philosophers of science such as Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant, N. Katherine Hayles and Sandy Stone), I'd encountered her in Lynn Hershmann Leeson's Conceiving Ada, starring a young Tilda Swinton.


Leeson's early video projects and online installations are a reminder that science and technology are not only driven by experiments in laboratories. As Haraway argues in "The Cyborg Manifesto," the military-industrial complex is the testing ground for many innovations, but -- from tempera to Pixar -- the arts have also provided a messy, alternative laboratory where 'discoveries' can be made. These may not have the commercial applications or textbook documentation of what we think of as scientific research, but they are  part of technologically-driven cultural change.

Ada, daughter of Lord Byron, was a writer and translator as much as a mathematician: working at the tail-end of the Enlightenment, where arts and sciences could be pursued inter connectedly as "philosophy" by someone such as Coleridge, Lovelace is not only a reminder of the achievements by women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but of the close interrelations in experimental thought. So it's perhaps no surprise that Gertrude Stein, perhaps the most ferociously experimental of Modernist writers, received a training in rigorous scientific process studying experimental psychology with William James.

At the same time (the turn of the nineteenth century)  Loïe Fuller (a close friend of Marie Curie's) was developed a number of innovations in relation to her dance films. Twenty years later in Hollywood,  Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to make Hollywood features (and still the most productive), famously invented the boom microphone.

Although experimental filmmaker Maya Deren held no patents, her films and critical writing make clear her engagement with cinematic technology. Her development of creative editing to free film narrative from realist strictures of time and place is as related to quantum physics as to her studies in the philosophy of Henri Bergson. For Deren, cinema was a site of experiment in its natural philosophical meaning, motivated by her youthful Trotskyism (particularly Trotsky's belief that artists would perform the experiments that produced the new society): aesthetics, scientific ideas and political ideology all converging to formulate a future with a difference.

Deren's work and legacy is being celebrated with a season at the BFI, opening with a conference tomorrow -- there will be a focus on her pioneering work as an ethnographic filmmaker, but also consideration for her technological innovations: her recognition of the camera as a difference engine.

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