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  • Writer's pictureTrack Two

CONFERENCE REPORT: Capturing the Citizen Eye

Missing: Mac McQuown, William Potter, Nicole Perlroth, Eric Schlosser, Ginger Thomson (photographer!)

October 10 to 15, 2021

Track Two and Esalen Institute gathered seven artists with 18 other participants from Europe, Canada and the US at a conference on global threats and the arts in Big Sur in October. Participants shared some of their work, personal stories, research and teachings. The goal of the conference was to conceive of ideas and projects to address and reduce the global threats. We encouraged the group to think about the role non-State players could play in such efforts. The global threats we focused on included climate change, nuclear arms and cybercrime. We also addressed the subject of ethics as foundational to all this work and its importance as the defining root of any change we might hope to realize. As we met and spoke, we acknowledged that these threats are deeply intertwined, highlight the vulnerability of all life on the planet, and must be attended to urgently and with multilateral cooperation.

Some key points emerged:
  • Trust is "missing" in international dialog today regardless of the topic

    • The Pandemic offered a real-life opportunity to cooperate and collaborate; instead it became a means to further divide

  • Climate Change is accelerating; mitigations and adaptations are not keeping pace

    • For life to survive, all efforts must be directed towards mitigating threats, not increasing them

    • Today, even rudimentary efforts fail due to international mistrust (Russia, China, Japan regarding the Antarctic Ocean, for example)

  • A nuclear war must NEVER be fought

    • Focusing funding on arms buildup is counterintuitive in the face of global threats

      • Can modernization funding serve the greater cause of climate mitigation and adaptation?

      • Can these funds and the employment they offer be redirected to green economies?

    • Can boycotts influence the corporate players involved in nuclear arms to end their involvement?

    • What are the "real" routes to eliminating nuclear weapons?

  • Cyber capacities must be controlled cooperatively, internationally

    • Can international discourse chart a course of mutual protection rather than mutual annihilation?

    • Can we advance a cyber code of ethics?

    • Can we induce governments and private companies to take cyber security seriously to prevent or limit "zero day" cyber attacks?

  • There are rays of hope! We must hold onto and expand these!

    • Talks between Russia and the US on nuclear non-proliferation have opened once again in small ways following the June 2021 Biden-Putin summit; can we encourage more, including collaborations among scientists, engineers?

    • Can we create a platform for China-US discourse which is currently totally absent on the global stage?

    • Can we launch the new narratives of cooperation, collaboration, and joint successes into the media river?

  • There are some other existential threats!

    • Too many leaders are behaving irrationally

      • They place personal interests ahead of the people's interests

      • How can irrational leaders be influenced/stopped?

    • The interrelatedness of "systems" offers new opportunities for attacks on humanity; how might we co-exist in respect and prosperity to better serve humanity?

Conclusions and an offering of potential solutions are outlined at the end of the session summaries.


Day One

After opening the conference with introductions on Sunday evening, Monday morning was opened by Mary Ellen Klee, accompanied by Roger Zim, both students of Oscar Ichazo, who walked us through an exercise to connect ourselves to internal moral compasses. The ethics of multi-lateral undertakings seems forgotten by so many and yet without it, functioning as societies in the face of existential threats becomes near impossible. A walk through a wonderful ethical framework followed by a short meditation, grounded the group in the tasks ahead of us in a calm and thoughtful way.

This exercise was followed by a presentation by Annie Albagli, visual artist and instructor, who shared elements of her piece We Become as a video with the group. The piece evoked heart-rich responses and touched each participant deeply with an apparent release of mind and preconception as we were directed through a landscape of comings and goings, human and natural. Annie has just returned from a residency in Kyrgyzstan where she worked with community members on art in place that restored cultural histories. She has done similar work in Russia with Tea Ladies in St. Petersburg, Inheriting the Wisdom of the Mothers, before the Pandemic. Another project she shared was a visual chronicle of an activist project in Germany to prevent the building of a nuclear power plant in a prized and ancient forest.

Nuclear Arms Threat

William Potter, Founding Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, introduced the group to the current state of the nuclear arms threat. He shared a quote that in our current nuclear "state" we are nuclear giants - and ethical infants. The greatest current threat is the difficult environment for discussion. Mistrust between nations form the roadblocks to non-proliferation and are truly worrisome. It is friendship and relationships that have prevented several accidents from triggering a nuclear war. Without friendships the risk of triggers becomes far greater. Compared with the 1960's and '70's, when the US and Russia shared a common interest in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons as they held open discussions and revealed their intentions, today no discussions take place. Trust has evaporated and all the nuclear powers are "modernizing" their arsenals - applying significant investment to the nuclear war that must never be! Further, "dirty bombs" are being created and stockpiled, both by the recognized nuclear states and by other groups. And the risk of a false start, accidents, etc. have never been greater.

Without relationships and ongoing discourse that builds them, the peril continues to mount. If regular citizens hold discussions across borders can they in turn influence leaders to do the same? Potter suggests that there must be a multilateralization of the principle that a nuclear war can never be won; no one wins; a nuclear war must never be started.

The Pandemic and its vast spread across the globe did little to help people understand their common objectives. And yet, it is possible the Russia-US Summit earlier this year made some progress towards more positive relations between the US and Russia. Some meetings of mid- and high-level experts are happening now. This is encouraging.

However, a greater threat looms in relation to China, with whom US relations have completely broken down. China is the third most powerful nuclear arms holder. And they are apparently building their arsenal despite their no-first-strike "policy". There is little transparency on their activities. But they are flexing their "muscles" across Asia while also building their foreign infrastructure investments in the global south.

Climate Threat

Mac McQuown, Evelyn Messinger and Masha Vorontsova walked us through several aspects of the climate threat. Masha, a marine biologist, has worked to create several marine protected areas in the Antarctic and in the high seas where international cooperation is also breaking down. China and others will not participate in marine protected areas, claiming these efforts are simply political and not substantive, despite the scientific efficacy presented. Mac, a member of the Advisory Board of Scripps Institute, noted that the oceans can no longer absorb CO2. And CO2 is destroying the air, the land, life as we know it. Alternative energies are they key to reducing CO2 everywhere, but not enough is being done. China is building more coal plants; fossil fuels continue to move tonnage around the planet. And most nations refuse to tax environmental waste from fossil fuels. And yet human survival depends upon CO2 reduction, fast! The cost to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is only 7% of GDP. And yet, even in the US we refuse to make the changes needed to meet this need.

Meanwhile the environment and the wild species that inhabit the planet are at critical risk. The fast-moving pace of development, farming, mining, resource extraction, waterway pollution is threatening the viability of life, one species at a time. The oceans are harboring only 5% of the original fishery and pressure on the most remote, inaccessible areas is growing, exponentially increasing the risk of extinctions.

Cyber Threat

Nicole Perlroth, NY Times reporter and author of This is How They Tell Me The World Ends, provided a picture into the complexities of cybercrime, cyber war and the often perilous influence of cyber fluidity on the geopolitical landscape. From a brief description of Stuxnet, which infected millions of systems worldwide, to a breach of Saudi ARAMCO's systems that replaced all data with a burning American flag, cyber attacks are growing in their virility and impact. Several years ago, Russia requested the US join them in a cyber treaty to limit these attacks; the US would not agree. Today there are several nuclear propulsion tech hacks, zero-day exploits, ransomware attacks taking place all the time. And the funds for these mechanisms are held by governments, militaries, corporates and criminals. Vulnerability and equity are at the core of the risk in these systems. And while some players (Electronic Frontier Foundation) are helping, particularly with online privacy, there is little understanding among most people about the scale of the cyber risk.

Day Two

Tuesday’s meeting began with a short meditation on the application of Ethics as a special addition to Mary Ellen Klee’s Day One lecture on Ethics.

Nuclear Arms Threat

This was followed by a ZOOM talk by Eric Schlosser about the danger of an accidental nuclear conflict. A gripping and depressive tale of how the precarious decision-making process permits single people to accidentally or voluntarily set off a nuclear conflict.

Schlosser is an American journalist and author known for his investigative journalism, captured in his books Fast Food Nation (2001), Reefer Madness (2003), and Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013). Schlosser spoke to the current state of threat from nuclear arms and the extraordinary amnesia and denial of leaders and publics regarding these arms. In our current environment there is too little dialog, too little awareness. And there are leaders who think nothing of behaviors that put their own security at risk. There are too many players who are not deterred by the idea of annihilation. "Our nuclear programs are a threat to commit mass murder - deliverance works, until it doesn't."

Schlosser commented that conventional command and control systems are now embedded with nuclear systems, creating massive opportunities for security "cracks". While the existential threat of climate change is counted in years, a nuclear mishap is seven minutes from occurring. Even a "small" nuclear war could kill 1 to 2 billion people - think Pakistan and India where religious tensions have never been higher.

People have had an impact on limiting the nuclear arms buildup. In a 1982 demonstration in Central Park, New York, anti-nuke protesters changed the course of the Cold War. Reagan was prompted by these demonstrations to pay attention to nukes for the first time. After the demonstrations and watching "The Day After", a film about a nuclear explosion, Regan began his move to work with Russia to reduce the threat.

A participant posed the question, can we agree that our primary role on the planet is to be an earth being and proceed from this understanding?

Mitchell Johnson, Track Two Board member, then told us about his life in Russia (Rostov on Don) and his film productions and showed us a short rendition of his film about Norbert Wiener – the father of cybernetics.

Weiner is a hero of Johnson's someone who explored new possibilities, recognizing these might lead to new restrictions. Weiner also spoke of the world as a system of distributed systems, interconnected and the dangers of the technologies we have created - reflected in Nicole Perlroth's very apt comments. Johnson suggested that culture is the way we can live together with different mechanisms, needs and desires.

Sean Bonner, artist, musician, author and developer demonstrated his real time monitoring of radiation levels and pollution levels worldwide which he created without any government or corporate support at the time of the Fukushima nuclear explosion. Bonner's career has spanned many disciplines and sectors from philanthropy to digital music. Today Bonner spends a good deal of his time helping move or shift power from existing structures towards creators. All data collected for the radiation detector system, SafeCast, is open source. In the two weeks following the nuclear explosion, the Safecast team of volunteers using hand made Geiger counters helped the Japanese people understand that their safe harbors were in fact unsafe - something the government could not do. Bonner applies block chain technologies and other distributive systems to solving problems. The notion of a secure information repository may be instrumental to addressing global threats - placing power to make the changes required in the hands of people rather than states. One participant commented, "When we realize we are the environment, we fix the environment!" Distributed systems encourage ownership of the environment. The students who made their own geiger counters using SafeCast's kits and instructions followed the data collection activity for months and months. They became their environment and the disaster's solution.

The Baltimore-based Japanese artist Kei Ito showed us his fascinating installations and photo works dedicated to the Nagasaki 1945 atomic bomb that killed over 60.000 civilians including Kei’s grandfather who later died of radiation. Kei remembers as a child his grandpa telling him the flash was brighter than a thousand suns. Visit his website.

Kei's work sensitively engenders our compassion for the human destruction caused by nuclear events. Kei has developed works reflective of down-winders, people who live in the down drafts of nuclear test sites, as well as works that touch upon the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. His explorations and collaboration with the son of a US engineer involved in the Manhattan Project demonstrate the human cost but also the human capacity for cooperation against such threats.

Day Three

Ingo Gunther , German born artist, opened the day with an eloquent presentation on how he used the earth’s globe in different variations to artistically illustrate diverse trends and specific statistics and their distribution patterns on the globe. Gunther has tried to cross-infuse journalism and art even before he founded the first independent TV station in Eastern Europe (Leipzig’s Channel X) in 1989.

Ingo gave the group some interesting ideas for contemplation:

  • "art school" - is a social currency, a fantasy of what the artist is

  • there is no connection between art and ethics

  • art can be emotional and intellectual, but is not necessarily so

  • funding for Ingo's art vanished during the Pandemic; he had an exhibit in China after which his globes were destroyed!

  • Is his art the art of a propagandist? Are we looking for propagandist art?

  • 90% of the garbage in the Pacific is from Indonesia and China

Joe Orrach, dancer, boxer and performance artist, storyteller and teacher, spoke to the group about the origins of Tap, a uniquely "American" art form that combined elements of African, Irish and British movement in a new form that took over American stages. Performance creates a gestural space - with movement as a reference point to bring people into a group.

On Wednesday afternoon the group gathered to formulate ideas for potential projects we might undertake.

Additional Mini-Presentations

Joe Montville described a good example of bringing Israeli Jews and Arabs together for a good cause. His writing spoke to the importance of dialog.

Kim Spencer showed a short film produced with Evelyn Messinger at the height of the Cold War about an American family at home and the discussion with their three children about a nuclear explosion. A touching, very personal, insight into the anxieties of parents and children regarding the results of possible nuclear wars based on previous such war images. It was a good reminder about the devastating impact of our wars and allowed some of the group "to find ourselves" amidst these narratives.

Tamar Miller gave a presentation of her project "I AM YOUR PROTECTOR,” a public art campaign exploring the intersection of storytelling art and activism; "I Am Your Protector is a community of people who speak out and stand up for one another other across dimensions of religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Through our work, we transcend perceived lines of division between different communities and endeavor to change the way people view the “other”. We share knowledge, stories, and tools that inspire people to become each other’s protectors."

Lizbeth Hasse, Track Two Board member, told the story of her childhood memories on the nuclear arms race and gave examples of her professional legal work as a mediator, stressing the fact that personal presence of parties in conflict is vital to impasses born of perceptions. Her recollection of "tuck and cover" instructions in elementary school form a critical part of her consciousness about not only nuclear threats but also international relations.

Following these brief talks, the group engaged in an ideas "popcorn" session during which about 50 ideas for projects, actions, discussion were written on post it paper. These formed the basis for the group's discussion on Day Four.

In our evening session on Day Three, Nicole Baden and Richard Baker helped the group review the less tangible, more spiritual aspects of the vast information on these existential threats - a means to begin to process our thoughts. Nicole began with the thought that mental postures can have real power. Hope, she mentions, is the conviction that what you are doing makes sense.

Additionally, she reminded the group that we are all going to feel pain; but we "choose" to suffer or to not suffer with pain. Freedom from "problems" means we can choose to direct our sensitivity to those problems or we can see a problem as a wonderful entry into life, complexity and learning.


1. Real change/transformation and Awakening is possible

We need to get the chemistry right: this does not mean it is possible in the future, if I only keep striving. The possibility is a presence, here and now. This is not about you. Real change and transformation are possible for everyone.

What it does mean is you create the seed for the change you want to see inside of you. You give it a location. You just keep nourishing this location and your intention. The intention for any change we want to see is already the first manifestation of this change. And now we keep nourishing this first manifestation, this seed.

2. Freedom from mentally caused suffering is possible

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. You are still going to have problems, but it is possible to develop a simultaneous stream where problems are just part of life, they are just a form of aliveness, an opportunity for aliveness.

3. It is possible to align your intentions for the benefit of allness

It is not possible to not harm anything. So, what is the alternative? It is about the inclusiveness of our intentions. Am I acting on behalf of myself? My organization? My country? All humans? All sentience? Or everything, sentient and insentient that is i"s-ing". Are we just trying to save the fish or the ocean?

Given that we have conflicting interests, maybe even when we are choosing: are we going to have this meat? Or are we going vegetarian? It is possible to go through the process of clarifying our intentions and to live in accord with our best intention. This is a choice. It's a decision.

4. It is possible to live in attunement with how we and the world actually exist

Benefitting the concept of "all-ness" is bold, brave and useful!

Day Four

The day was spent reviewing the ideas gathered during the popcorn session and refining the ideas. They are included in a spreadsheet attached to this report. Conference participants are currently working together to transform certain of these ideas into more palpable projects that can be executed with the group. Following are initial concepts:

  • Linking nuclear arms and climate threats with the current climate leaders like Greta Thunberg among others and creating messaging they can deliver to influence state players while informing the general public about the imminence of the nuclear threat

  • Create an exhibit of artists from the 9 nuclear states who are protesting the expansion of the nuclear arms race

  • Bring the threat of cybercrime to people's attention, particularly as it threatens life systems like potable water systems

  • Support "Remaining Human," film on Norbert Weiner and his understanding that the systems we create are eradicating life as we know it.

  • Create the tools for mediation - helping to bring seeming competitors together to address these threats collaboratively: discussion sessions, conflict resolution workshopping, constellations, etc.

  • Create "safe spaces" for discussions regarding the threats, particularly in areas of complete breakdown but that require collaboration for Humanity's sake. The effort to declare marine protected areas in the Antarctic, where China and Russia accuse the US of acting politically, not environmentally, is an example.

  • Create and promote Codes of Ethics around each threat.

  • Write a book on Track Two's history and successes to share these with larger audiences.

  • Seek out and join hacker circles (working to gain their respect)

  • Facilitate scientist to scientist diplomacy through gatherings at Esalen and beyond

  • Add cyber-oriented youth to our network through groups like The Hack Club

  • Create a Mutual Aid network

  • Gather hackers in small groups to discuss cyber security and interventions

  • Bring Kei's artwork to Russia and the Middle East

  • Shift nuclear "modernization" monies to climate change efforts through a series of campaigns and with the help of activists like Greta Thunberg. Connect the dots between Nuclear, Cyber and Climate threats!

  • Support a Safecast (nuclear data collection) collaboration with Kei Ito

  • Prepare/contribute to Netflix-type series on Nuclear and Cyber threats (Chernobyls eg.)

  • Create live arts collaborations, particularly in dance

Everyone agreed that these ideas must move forward. Ksenia Semenova is fielding comments that might advance one or two projects quickly with Track Two's support. Others will be evolved but undertaken by other groups. Many have already been initiated in one way or another but some are original. In either event, contributing to a larger ecosystem of changemakers in the face of the global threats felt urgent and vital. We hope you will join us!


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