ITMO: TECHNOHISTORY Conference: Biohacking, Neuroart, and Women of Bauhaus

Last fall, ITMO University a unique educational project at the intersection of history, art, tech and natural sciences. TECHNOHISTORY was developed by the staff of ITMO’s Center of Social and Humanities Knowledge to popularize interdisciplinary research among students.

The first results of the project were at , an international tech and creativity festival, in November. TECHNOHISTORY was nominated for an award from the Government of St. Petersburg and invited to join a special project dedicated to the Сity Day from (“Boiling Point”).

The project actively collaborates with the Institute of the History of St. Petersburg State University and ITMO University. Its curators are history professors and lecturers, including Andrey Vasilyev, Galina Zhirkova, Nikita Prigodich, and Daria Martynova.

On March 25, students presented their work at the Technohistory: Open Science Conference, which was held as part of the TECHNOHISTORY project. As noted by Daria Martynova, the head curator of the project, an assistant at , and a manager at the Center of Social and Humanities Knowledge, the conference was excellent training before the Congress of Young Scientists that will take place in mid-April.

“Around 15 people will take part in the congress with the reports they prepared during our project. We decided to throw a special event where students will receive diplomas and certificates for their participation in Rukami. This will also become a great opportunity for students to practice public speaking since some might struggle with performance anxiety, creating presentations, and preparing texts. Our students spent six months learning to create visual content and prepare a speech. Plus, those who joined us in the second semester could see the results of their colleagues,” says Daria Martynova.

ITMO.NEWS talked to the participants of the TECHNOHISTORY project to learn more about the passion for humanities research, project topics, and prospects.

Alena Sidorenko, a first-year student, Faculty of Software Engineering and Computer Systems

In my report, I used the example of designer Gunta Stölzl to call upon the obstacles that women had to face when entering the Bauhaus school. This seemingly progressive community still fell for the prejudices of the 20th century. This is best illustrated by the Bauhaus founder’s quote: “There is no difference between a beautiful and a strong sex.”

When we were asked to give a talk about one of the artists in our history class, I noticed that there were no women among the 50 listed names. So I decided to find someone relatable. I am passionate about Bauhaus and constructivism and also interested in embroidery. This gives me even more ground for research.

Gunta Stölzl was a textile artist. She was the first student to study jacquard machines for complex patterns and thus gave rise to weaving at the school. This was a department purely for women who demonstrated quite impressive achievements from both aesthetic and tech perspectives. However, there’s little information about these women.

Also, I speak about the connection between the aspects of tech production and the aesthetics of objects. I’d like to investigate jacquard machines of the early 20th century and compare them to modern embroidery machines. I’ve already collected some data and I hope to move further.

Michael Kreslavsky, a first-year student, Faculty of Secure Information Technologies

I focus on the implication of AI in art creation and its ethical and technological aspects. I became fascinated by this a year ago when I visited an exhibition of AI-generated art. I was so impressed that I wanted to learn as much as possible about it. I’ve studied 25 projects and various sources. Then, I structured the information to get a big picture. That’s how I learned how AI works and what lies behind this process.

There’s a key question we have to answer. What is considered contemporary art? If until now we only accepted human-made art, can we say that only humans can make art? Can machines or algorithms create something equally inspiring? I’m afraid that once machines will be able to create art, people will have to take a backseat.

And what about copyright? For instance, there is a technology called neural style transfer which can copy the style of great artists, for example, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, etc. Is it a copyright violation? Or can we use it? Naturally, any scientific breakthrough entails changes in both the legal and ethical code. So, it goes without saying that with technology we will face lots of new questions.

I’m eager to create neural networks and make neuroart myself but so far, I have no experience in this field. For now, I’m engaged in the study of creators – are they artists or developers? – doing incredible things.

Angelina Dementieva, a first-year student, Faculty of Software Engineering and Computer Systems

Once I saw an interview with Bill Gates, in which he said that the microbiome is our future. I started looking into this topic and by chance joined Laura Rodriguez’s workshop where she demonstrated fascinating experiments with the decomposition of proteins. After that, we had two lectures on bioart and microbiome. Then we had to choose the most interesting aspects for independent work and I went for allergies because I’ve been struggling with them since I was a kid. I also learned about a new treatment for allergies based on the adjustment of microbiomes that is now being developed.

I wanted to do something similar and find biology experts in our university who are savvier in the topic because I don’t have the necessary background. I am an IT specialist. The idea was to create a miniature installation, a puzzle where you have to reassemble “low-quality” cells of the microbiome and replace them with “good” ones. In fact, this is a visualization of this new treatment for people to learn more about it and see that it’s quite affordable and simple. So far, I only have a draft but in the future, I’d like to make an app – something like a mini-game.

Pavel Pozdeev, a first-year student, Faculty of Software Engineering and Computer Systems

I joined the conference to talk about my favorite topic – biohacking. I was inspired by Elon Musk, whose company Neuralink deals with biohacking technologies. These are the technologies of the future, I believe. As I look into the future, too, I decided to dig into this. Elon Musk once said: “I could either watch it happen or be a part of it” – and I choose the second option. Perhaps, I’d even devote my life to this field.

Since I’ve been doing sport for a long time, I chose sports biohacking – specifically doping and different supplements for sports performance. One of my friends, a professional athlete, decided to help me and take part in my experiment. We will run a test on him to see the effects of testosterone propionate – the most common yet not-approved drug among athletes. The experiments will be guided by medical specialists and nutritionists, so it’s absolutely safe. And I will observe the process and record the results.

I think that this research will give answers to numerous questions. People will learn about the drug, its side effect, and so on. I don’t think that it’s dangerous to change the human body. After all, we all want to become better physically and intellectually. In fact, even a COVID-19 vaccine may well be considered doping as it improves your disease resistance.

Polina Potapova, a first-year student, Faculty of Secure Information Technologies

My topic doesn’t match my major. I’m studying the influence of Japonisme on trends of 19th-century art: impressionism and post-impressionism. During my first year, I had history as a compulsory course. At the same time, we could choose topics for research ourselves, so I decided on the history of art and culture because I’m into that.

A few months ago, I started to get interested in Japanese culture. However, I realized that I’m far from Eastern culture and decided to take a look at it through the lens of the Western world, namely, Western art.

I think that impressionism appeared as a result of the popularity and influence of Japanese culture in western Europe in the 19th century following the “discovery” of Japan. It can be seen in numerous works of the time. I analyzed paintings by Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and so on. And of course, I read many articles – both in Russian and English – and made a literary review on this topic.

I figured that Japonisme had the most profound influence on household items and interiors. Many paintings depict screens, fans, oriental vases, and so on. Even the very style of painting was greatly influenced by that of . We can notice how western artists inspired by the examples of Japanese prints begin to perceive color, light, and shade, and space differently. It was a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to go against the canons of classical academic painting.

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