Biocode: Exploring the Edge


This week at the University of Pennsylvania, academics, activism, and art will converge at Biocode: Performing Transgression After New Media, a three-day conference envisioned and organized by Penn graduate students across several departments, including gender studies, education, communication, English, history of art, and political science. From April 9 through April 11, Biocode participants will lead audience members through explorations of digital media’s implications for politics, race, sexuality, disability, surveillance and more.

Biocode, in name and practice, highlights disciplinary boundaries to defy them.

“This is not your normal academic conference,” Kevin Gotkin, a Biocode organizer and Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School for Communication, said. “From the very beginning, we started to think of ways that we could transgress the format of the academic conference itself by bringing in folks whose work produces transgressions in larger ways.”

The term “biocode” emerged early in the conference’s development stage, as Gotkin and other graduate students began articulating the common threads connecting their disciplines in an effort to foster interdisciplinary engagement.

“A number of us were just spitballing about some of the intersections of our interests and the idea of holding a conference to explore them came up. For a while ‘digital biopolitics’ was the word we were using to name the heart of our explorations, but we used our conference planning meetings to try to figure out exactly what that meant to us,” Gotkin said. “I don’t think any of us truly knows precisely how the conference participants will flesh out the term ‘biocode,’ but we’re enjoying that flexibility a great deal.”

Biocode’s elusion of easy definition draws attention to theoretical, technological, and physical borders, or what organizers on the conference website refer to as “the interfacial potentials between digital manipulation, artistic performance, and political intervention.” While the term is used widely in the natural sciences, conference organizers drew inspiration from the work of philosopher Paul Preciado, who reappropriates “biocode” to describe the intersections among technology, capitalism, and personal embodiment as critical opportunities for political transgression.

“What people will see at Biocode is a real affinity for the edge. Our participants are interested in the seams of things, where the status quo reaches its limit, where really exciting new stuff might happen,” Gotkin said.

Conference participants navigating these borders include Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men, who expose abuses of political power through satirical impersonations, Sarah Kember, whose academic work and photography offer a feminist approach to science and technology, and the Dirty Looks, a queer performance artist collective.

The Media Activism Research Collective is sponsoring the participation of Simone Browne, Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Browne will present her work on technologies of tracking black bodies across history alongside Lisa Parks on the panel, Technologies of Surveillance, Tactics of Escape. For an opportunity to meet with her prior to Biocode, join MARC for a salon discussion with Browne on Wednesday, April 8 at 5 p.m. in Annenberg room 225; RSVP here.

Biocode organizers hope conference participants will inspire attendees to carefully examine life at “the edge.”

“There are so many different experiences built into our program. I hope our attendees will start to hear the echoes between the events, seeing how analytics like disability, borders, escape, intelligence, among others are already formed in a kind of tapestry our conference is hoping to shed light on,” Gotkin said. “I think Biocode will inspire and energize. And of course I hope it provides a platform for new collaborations and future spaces to continue to think through the biocodes we reckon with all the time.”

Ultimately, Gotkin said the main thrust of Biocode is to deconstruct the activist/academic binary and claim academia as a space for activism.

“Our participants insist on the beautiful and subtle complexities their work demands we contend with, refusing to reduce their work to ‘activism’ if that terms implies a certain torquing that is somehow incompatible with academe’s pursuit of knowledge generally,” Gotkin said. “It’s all a pursuit of knowledge. I think when we get down to it, whether we identify as ‘activists’ or not, provocations are what we are trying to perfect and perform all the time.”

Biocode is free and open to the public. To view a complete schedule and to register, visit Biocode’s Eventbrite page.

Rosemary Clark, Ph.D. Student, University of Pennsylvania

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