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Q&A: ASU professor blurs line between art, science

ASU prof's projects involve robots, Earth's interior, NASA-designed satellite.
September 6, 2016

Herberger Institute professor Lance Gharavi advances research through performances that explore the wonders of the universe

Arizona State University professor Lance Gharavi is an experimental artist and scholar who has a knack for linking with interdisciplinary teams to explore difficult subjects through multimedia performances.

Gharavi is an actor, director, performance artist, writer, designer and early pioneer in the field of digital performance. Yet he’s most comfortable at the intersection of art, science and technology, where he and others can collaborate on projects that advance ASU research.

His most recent projects have involved research robots and artificial intelligence, planetarium systems, the interior structure of Earth, and currently he’s involved with a research project for a NASA-designed satellite that will measure Phoenix’s urban heat islands — unlikely topics for stage and screen.

Gharavi, associate professor and artistic director in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, recently discussed his wide-ranging work and the wonders of the universe:

Question: How do you view yourself given that your work cuts across so many disciplines?

Answer: I am absolutely an artist first and foremost. I am by no means a scientist. All of my training is in the arts. I have three advanced degrees, all in the theater. I am, however, an appreciator of science. I am a booster of science. I think science is already interesting. It’s already compelling and fascinating. I just put it through the filter of my own sensibilities, the sensibilities of the other artists I work with and we channel it into the medium of live performance. Scientists and artists are great storytellers, but sometimes we use different language to tell the same story. The most exciting thing is that when artists and scientists come together, we can produce new knowledge and advance the science.

Q: You have a clever way of presenting science in a way that’s entertaining and useful to an outside audience.

A: Maybe, sure. Science is all around us. Science is the best method we’ve found to discover what is actually the case for what we call “the natural world.” I’m interested in stories. Big stories. I’m interested in ideas. Big ideas. Science is one of the few places where we keep our biggest stories, and our biggest, grandest, most useful ideas. When you simply tell those stories, communicate those ideas, it’s not that difficult to make those ideas compelling. It’s already compelling. It’s already wondrous and magical. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being the finger pointing at the moon.

Q: I saw a sneak preview of “Beneath” last year, your multimedia production that explores the Earth’s core. How did that project come to fruition?

A: I had recently completed a project with the School of Earth and Space Exploration based on Stephen Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time.” It was a one-man show in the Marston Exploration Theater. I launched it there because I wanted to see what I could do with that space and the set of marvelous technologies it has available. A year later, Edward Garnero, a geophysicist, approached Herberger associate dean Jake Pinholster and me and said, “I’ve got this great idea. I want to bring art and science together to make a show.”

I said, “Great. That’s our shtick. What’s on your mind?”

He said, “Beneath our feet there, thousands of miles below the surface, there are enormous, continent-sized amorphous blobs, and scientists don’t know what they are.”

That’s crazy! We know the mass of the moon and Jupiter, we know what the center of our galaxy smells like, but we don’t know what these blobs are just a couple of thousand miles beneath us? It blows my mind and, frankly, scares the crap out of me. It could be anything.

This project started pretty much how every other project starts — me being astonished, amazed and a little creeped out. We plan on turning “Beneath” into a 60- to 90-minute presentation in 2017. Our hope is to take it to space museums and planetariums around the United States.

Q: You are also involved in NASA’s "Phoenix" CubeSat project, a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread that will measure Phoenix’s urban heat islands. I’m curious as to how an artist got linked to this.

A: ASU received a $200,000 NASA grant last May to assemble a team of undergraduates to design, build and operate CubeSat, which is a small, functional satellite. The key here is that the 25-member team is entirely composed of undergraduates from engineering, science, journalism, sustainability and the arts. The faculty is strictly in a mentorship role. Jake Pinholster and me recruited students from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and from the School of Film, Dance and Theatre who we thought would be interested in a very interdisciplinary project like this and put them on a team. They’ll be creating a website, a social-media site and a series of short videos about the project and the people involved. NASA’s going to cover the launch and flight costs. How cool is that?

Q: Your work with robotics and artificial intelligence is also noted. I saw a recent tweet of yours regarding the Dallas Police Department’s decision to use an armed robot to kill a sniper. It struck me that this bothered you.

A: It’s a big deal. Certain kinds of machines like drones have been used by the military to kill people before. But in this instance with the shooter in Dallas, it was the first time that police have used a robot to kill someone. So “Robocop” is here. It’s no longer science fiction. It’s creepy, right? A robot killing people … isn’t that what the premise of “The Terminator” was all about? Work that advances the science of robots is a little more of an awesome responsibility.

The work we’re doing will never bring about the robot revolution — knock on wood. But one of the things the most serious philosophers and futurists — people like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Nick Bostrom — are really worried about is the impact of increasing automation through robotics and artificial intelligence on basic human life and causing unemployment. We might be facing a future, not too distant from now, where we could have up to 50, 60, 70 percent unemployment because of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics. That would require the radical rethinking of the social contract and likely cause mass disruption and political and social unrest. Beyond that, these very serious thinkers are concerned with artificial intelligence as a possible existential threat to our species or even enslavement.

So if that were the case, what use would we be to creatures like that? What would creatures like that do with us? The answer is, whatever they want. When you’re working with technologies that could someday cause disruption in economies and societies, or species extinction, or can kill people through the police, you take those things seriously. In order to be a responsible artist, you must take those things into account. 

Top photo of Lance Gharavi by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU anthropologist examines immigration through the eyes of children

Working in family’s shop in Mexico helped shape course of ASU prof's career.
September 6, 2016

Personal experience in Mexico and U.S. shaped assistant professor's research into family street-vending businesses

Emir Estrada understands the hardships that come with immigration from personal experience. 

A sociocultural anthropologist in Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Estrada came to the U.S. from Mexico shortly after finishing high school. Young Estrada would have been surprised to learn that this experience, as well as her time working in her family’s shop in Mexico, would shape the course of her professional research in the years ahead. The assistant professor studies the role that children play in the immigration processes of their families.

A formative youth

During her childhood, Estrada’s father worked in California and sent money home to her family in Zacatecas, Mexico. The money was not enough to meet their needs, however, so her mother saved up to open a small grocery store known as a tienda de abarrotes, where she and her brothers were expected to help out.

“Early on, I learned that all family members had to work in the family business in order to contribute to the family economy,” Estrada said.

A few months before she was to graduate high school, her father decided to return to Mexico and stay there for good. Unfortunately, the family’s joy was cut short when he died unexpectedly just 11 days after he arrived home. With their savings account used up by medical bills and limited opportunities in their town, Estrada and her remaining family chose to move to California after her graduation.

“Once in the U.S, it was difficult to adjust to the culture, the language and the community,” she said.

When an employer ridiculed Estrada in front of customers for not knowing English, she quit her job and enrolled herself in English for Speakers of Other Languages courses at Long Beach City College. After taking many ESOL classes, she gained the confidence to take other college courses, including a sociology class where she wrote a paper on children and work.

In 2002, Estrada transferred to UCLA and majored in sociology with a minor in Chicana/o studies. It was during this time that she read "Domestica" by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, which resonated with her because it reflected her mother’s experience as a domestic worker and her own immigration experience. When she had the chance to meet the author a few years later, she was inspired to enroll as a graduate student at the University of Southern California and became Hondagneu-Sotelo’s mentee.

Food-stand epiphanies

Oddly, Estrada discovered her area of field research because she had to sell her car to afford graduate school. She was forced to use the bus and metro during her first year, which brought her to new areas of Los Angeles. Near the stops, she found street vendors selling such cultural food as tamales and raspados (similar to snow cones, with fruit and sweet condensed milk) and became a regular customer.

“I began to notice that the children of these vendors were intricately involved in the family street-vending business. They helped with cash transactions, prepared food and ran errands for their parents. I had discovered my research site!” Estrada said.

photo of teen vendor being cited by police

A 13-year-old orange juice vendor is cited by an LA policewoman for having her vending cart on the street. Photo by Emir Estrada

“Street-vending families and street-vending sites gave me the opportunity to explore Latino family and work relations with a specific focus on the labor contribution of children,” she said. 

By taking a child-centered approach, she had the opportunity to fill an important gap in street-vending literature. Street vending is an informal and, in Los Angeles, illegal occupation that is often racialized as an immigrant occupation. Yet, the majority of the children whom Estrada studied were U.S.-born, educated English speakers; they didn’t fit the characteristics of the typical street vendor.

The paradigm shift

Today, Estrada continues to research Latino children’s experiences working alongside their street-vending parents in Los Angeles. She has published several articles based on this work, including one this year in Ethnic and Racial Studies titled “Economic Empathy in Family Entrepreneurship: Mexican-Origin Street Vendor Children and Their Parents,” which discusses her concept of “economic empathy.” She found that street-vending children develop an early maturity because they help the family economy while also witnessing their parents’ position of oppression.

She is working on another article about street vending and gendered expectations.

“The work that girls and boys do as street vendors both perpetuates and challenges gendered expectations among Latino families,” Estrada said. “On the one hand, girls are preparing food, a type of work that has been gendered as feminine; on the other, they are doing this work on the street, a space that has been gendered as masculine and inappropriate for señoritas.”

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ASU assistant professor Emir Estrada helps one of her respondents make freshly squeezed orange juice on the side of the street.

Because street-vending boys often experience more violence from gang members and their peers, she has found that women of all ages have gained the ability to exercise social power in the street, what Estrada terms capital socio-femenino.

“The social, political, economic and cultural context in which street vending takes place creates a paradigm shift where the presence of women in the street-vending markets of LA serves as a protective mechanism for male street vendors of all ages,” she explained.

Recently, Estrada began a new collaboration research project with fellow School of Human Evolution and Social Change professor Alissa Ruth on DREAMers who gained temporary rights under the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Last summer, they interviewed DACA recipients who traveled to Mexico for the first time after their childhood arrival in the U.S.

“This is an intimidating process for DREAMers and for their families because there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to re-enter the U.S. by Customs and Immigration,” Estrada said. “Moreover, there is much uncertainty about the future of DACA. Thus, while these DREAMers have more rights than ever before, they are still living in a state of limbo.”

The study aims to understand the family decision-making process leading up to a DACA DREAMer’s visit to Mexico and how that decision impacts the whole family unit.

More than baggage

Estrada’s future plans reflect the ambition demonstrated in her past.

“My next goal is to publish my book manuscript. My dream is to see the stories of the young street vendors and the families I interviewed published as a book,” she said.

She is also planning another project focusing on return migration. She wants to study senior Mexicans who, on retiring from their work in the U.S., are deciding to move back to Mexico. Part of this study will also involve interviewing the children and grandchildren of those returning.

“I am interested in seeing how the family and social attachments, as well as the economic resources post-retirement, have an impact on their return migration destination and plans,” she said.

Ultimately, Estrada’s research not only expands our knowledge of how immigrant family units negotiate economic incorporation in the United States, it also validates the immigration experiences of children.

“We can learn a lot about the immigration process through the eyes and experiences of children. As my work shows, children are not merely ‘baggage’ that adult immigrants simply bring along. Children are active contributors to family processes and household resources.”

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise