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Updated: Jan 11

My fingers below the name “Mera,” inscribed at the tenth-century temple of Baksei Chamkrong. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

“Where are you going? Where do you come from? What will you do?”[1]

These are the words of Chheng Phon,[2] an eminent figure in the world of Khmer art and culture. The artist was instrumental in reviving shadow play and inventing the genre of folk dance, leading as Minister of Culture and Information after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Lok Ta, as I and many others know him, passed away earlier this year. But his poetic soul and astute philosophy lives on in his students and their students, and in the many forms of dance, music, and performing arts currently practiced in the country.

I would like to dedicate this writing to Lok Ta, and to use his words to explore where we are as a people and where we need to be. I will do so by digging into our creation stories, into our first-known conceptions of self, nationhood, world, and universe. For it is only with understanding of the past, as the great teacher so poignantly suggests, that we can forge higher possibilities and futures.

Naga women next to their serpentine form at the Terrace of the Leper King. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The earliest Khmer founding myth is Preah Thaong Neang Neak. It is cited in fifth-century Chinese sources,[3] and in a seventh-century inscription tracing the Cham king’s legitimacy to Khmer King Isanavarmann I.[4] Even the Tamil epic Manimekhalai, dated from the sixth century of the Common Era, incorporates a version of the narrative.[5]

Before I recount the story, it is important to bear in mind that different peoples, places, and times have left us with variations of Preah Thaong Neang Neak. Therefore, what follows is the tale only as I carry it:

Once, in a faraway land, there was a brahmin named Preah Thaong. The young man worshipped a deity with deep devotion, and dreamt the god gave him a bow and ordered him to set sail. When he woke up the next morning, Preah Thaong went to pay his respects at the temple. And, to his surprise, he found the same bow at the base of the god’s sacred tree.

Taking this as a good omen, Preah Thaong journeyed with his men into unknown waters, into the domain of a naga (serpent) princess named Neang Neak. Seeing the intruders, the princess raised her army to defend her territory. Preah Thaong fired an arrow into the bow of her ship however, and Neang Neak surrendered upon seeing its powerful magic.

The brahmin demanded that the naga princess marry him, but the ceremony could only be completed in the subterranean realm. Neang Neak therefore transformed into her true serpentine form. The princess swam to the kingdom of the naga as the brahmin hung onto her tail.

Their wedding was celebrated with great festivity by the creatures of the ocean, who sang and danced with an elated joy. Neang Neak’s father, the naga king, swallowed an entire sea in honor of the sacred union. He revealed a most fertile land and named it Kambujadesa, and gave it to the newlyweds to rule.

Kambujadesa—“land born of Kambu”—is known as Kampuchea or Cambodia today. It was known this way by the fifth century of the Common Era, as Chinese records described “Kambuja aliens” making tribute to their court in the first century.[6] We may never know when our ancestors first referred to the country as Kambuja, but let this not stop us from diving deeper into the tale.

Through Preah Thaong Neang Neak, we know that Cambodia has always been a hybridity, a coming together of different peoples, cultures, and realms. Preah Thaong exemplifies the masculine, foreign, and human forces while Neang Neak embodies the feminine, local, and divine. This connection and interchange between different spheres of being and thought is what gave rise to our earliest nation, described as Funan by the Chinese, transliterated as “phnom” by French scholar George Cœdès, but described as Kambuja by our ancestors.

Secondly, kambu is a Pali word for “gold.”[7] Kambujadesa, therefore, means “land born of gold.” This creates a direct connection to ancient concepts of Suvarnabhumi or Sovannaphum, the “land of gold” where many South Asian merchants traveled to trade. In fact, ancient Cambodia was a prime center for trade between India and China, with artifacts of Greek, Roman, and Persian provenance unearthed at Óc Eo in modern day Vietnam.[8] This translation can explain why the name Kampu[9] is used interchangeably with Preah Thaong, as thaong is commonly understood to mean “gold.”

Kampu is associated with another Khmer founding story however, and we must explore it to further understand what creates and animates us as a people. That story is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a story of Hindu origin, but interpreted below based on the bas-relief at Angkor Wat:

Once, a long time ago, the tevea (gods) and yeak wanted to procure amrita. Whoever drank this elixir would be granted the power of immortality. As both sides saw mutual gain, they agreed to join forces.

They decided to have a tug of war to decide who would win the prize. The god Vishnu transformed into a giant tortoise to hold up Mount Mandara, the pivot of the contest. And Vasuki, the naga of Shiva, wrapped around the mountain to serve as a rope.

For hundreds and thousands of years, the tevea and yeak pulled and pulled but no side seemed to prevail. They pulled until white milk started to bleed and seep from the naga’s body, the fluid quickly forming a vast ocean.

The deities continued to pull and pull, their competition killing the many creatures of the sea. The ocean began to foam as they continued to turn and pivot, some of the bubbles floating into the air and transforming into heavenly dancers known as apsara.

The most talented and beautiful of these apsara—their queen—was Mera. She was given by Shiva as a wife to the sage Kampu Svayambhuva, or “Kampu the Self-Born.” It is the union of Kampu and Mera from whom we, Khmer people, originated.

Beyond the name Kampu, there are many things which connect our two founding myths. First is water, sea, and ocean. Even the apsara indicate this, as they take their name from the Sanskrit root ap (water). At the core of our founding myths then are the forces of motion, movement, interchange, and adaptability, as water takes the shape of its container. Secondly, the naga, creatures associated with water and its ability to deliver life and fertility, serve as bridges between different worlds in both stories: between human and non-human, surface and below the surface in the prior; godly and ungodly, mortal and immortal in the latter. Thirdly, there is the generative competition and union of complementary forces. In the first story, a battle produces our land, people, and nation. In the second, a tug of war produces the apsara, and eventually our people.

It is interesting to note that the reptilian naga and heavenly apsara are but one expression of the bridge. Their mutual purpose can be seen in robam kbach boran (classical dance), whose origins are traced to the primal, animist roots of the naga as well as the apsara of Hindu conception. This interchange of naga and apsara, of local[10] and foreign, is mirrored in the way that Khmer kings traced their lineage to both stories, which respectively represented the nation’s lunar and solar dynasties.

Furthermore, the battle between Preah Thaong and Neang Neak always appears to be non-violent. This is mirrored in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat, in which the yeak seem to be handsome, benign, and collaborative. They are nowhere near attacking the tevea in malice, and lack the vicious ferocity seen in their counterparts from India, Tibet, and other parts of Hindu and Buddhist Asia.

This may seem contrary to modern conceptions of yeak, which is often translated as “demon” or “ogre,” but I would like to share the words of my Khmer language teacher: “In the beginning the yeak were beautiful. People wanted to show their power however, so they drew fangs and gave them angry faces to make people respect them.”[11] Furthermore, in Samdech Chuon Nath’s dictionary, the word yeak is defined as​ a “non-human, invisible deity of land, object, or place; an asora; an evil spirit; either good- or bad-hearted that humans venerate and make offerings to.” In fact, the yeak are to the tevea as the titans are to the Olympian gods of ancient Greece (and the apsara are comparable to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty who was born from sea foam).

Yeak in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

If Preah Thaong and Neang Neak and the tevea and yeak of Angkor Wat teach us how to join different communities and ways of thinking, Mera and the apsara teach us how to transcend conflicts that may result from that process.

Indeed, of all the gifts to emerge from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Khmer artists depicted only the apsara at Angkor Wat. They are shown flying with their hands in the dance gesture known as stuoy—the gesture of strength, victory, pride, greatness, celebration, and uplifting. They emerge in astounding numbers like a powerful cloud and demarcate the heavens, flying as if they might raise the entire temple up to the sky.

The apsara are born from the tug of war between tevea and yeak, between right and left, but they are neither tevea nor yeak, neither right nor left. Furthermore, they are polar-opposites of the dead and butchered sea creatures depicted on the bottom of the relief panel. The apsara appear at the top of the scene, springing to life from the forces of competition and conflict, born of violence but neither broken nor destroyed by it, born of violence but transcendent. They also represent a rebirth, in a sense—the force of the central axis sucking in the sea creatures at the bottom, lifting them up and transforming them, and spewing them out as resplendent apsara above.

The apsara then are the triumph of the middle point and path, the balance, power, and creative force of convergences and intersections. Chheng Phon has described them further as “the symbol of the surety of a life free from anxiety . . . [beings] trying to find this surety for others.”[12]

So what might this mean for us today?

Cambodia is a nation that has been shaped by centuries of war, and our people have been both the conquerors and the defeated. The temples of Angkor—symbols of Khmer victory—are celebrated with great pride as they represent the height of Khmer power and cultural sophistication. On the other hand, the periods after Angkor—when Thailand and Vietnam ate at our country’s territories—is perceived as a time of lost glory, a time conceptualized by French colonials as a “dark age” and imprinted onto the popular Cambodian imagination.

In the modern era, violence manifested in the genocide initiated by the Khmer Rouge, which saw the deaths of a third of the entire population,[13] including ninety percent of Khmer artists. The effects of this conflict are still visible in the country and diaspora today, ranging from landmine victims with missing limbs to the genetic passage of post-traumatic stress disorder. In Long Beach, CA, for example, a survey conducted by Khmer Girls in Action and the University of California – Los Angeles showed that nearly half of Khmer American youth participants possessed symptoms of depression.[14]

War and violence creates a cycle of fear all over the world. The victors manipulate those around them by instilling fear, and in turn fear the possibility of betrayal and revenge. On the other hand, the defeated and oppressed come to fear people and ideas from the outside, manifested in a fear of lost land, lost identity, lost sovereignty, and lost heritage. This culture of fear, and its debilitating effects on Cambodia, is aptly described by Khmer social psychologist Dr. Seanglim Bit:

“Fear is a constant reality in the Cambodian psyche . . . the fear stems from the centuries of complex history, the religious and mythological belief systems and the social arrangements which characterize Cambodian society. Through the systematic use of force to gain advantage, the Cambodian population has become conditioned to accept and tolerate fear as the expected human condition. Compounding the effects of fear in the Cambodian experience is the fact that it is submerged and hidden behind a façade of social characteristics which present a superficial picture of harmony and humility, at least until the recent period of civil strife. Fear is neither identified nor openly recognized as a primary determinant in human psychology or in the conduct of public affairs by those who would assist Cambodia to resolve its contemporary problems or indeed by Cambodians themselves. Fear restrains the exercises of creativity, the ability to conceive new solutions, adaptations or innovations for contributing to general society. Attitudes of self-glorification based on cultural triumphs long past but incompletely understood, have denied present society a source of inspiration for the changes it must make to reform its cultural values. The triad of fear-oppression-false pride creates an infertile ground for progressive self-development. The net result of this triad operating at the various levels of social interaction is a society which does not have the full benefit of its own internal human resources to generate its own self-development and manage incremental social change.”[15]

To root Dr. Bit’s observation in everyday Khmer life, I would like to share an example from the world of classical dance, one that touches upon our methods of pedagogy as well as our interpersonal relationships and social hierarchies. Soth Sam On, my teacher’s teacher, the star performer of yeak roles from the 1950s to 1970s, was once interviewed for the Khmer Dance Project. The late dance master rationalized being hit as a young student by her very strict teacher Lok Khun Mit: “It all depends on fear. If the students are not afraid, they will not learn . . . If they are not afraid, nothing is possible.”[16]

Love, devotion, respect, and fear are often intertwined in Khmer dance and culture. This can be understood somewhat through the word awe, which originally described the wonder and fear one experiences upon seeing a god. Interestingly, in Cambodia, we say that there are three types of gods: the first being our parents who gave us life, the second being our teachers who illuminate our lives, and the third being the Buddha who enlightens our world.

That said, Soth Sam On distinguished between fearing the beating stick and respecting the teacher in her interview. And my own late father has once said, “Making people fear you is not the same as making them respect you.”

The yeak at Angkor Wat have been carved to be respected, not feared. The temple they appear in, in turn, has garnered the admiration of numerous Khmer individuals and groups, appearing on our nation’s flag and inspiring the creation of dance, music, sculpture, and film for generations. It is this grand religious structure that I will address last, as it is perhaps the most potent point of origination for Khmer identity and consciousness today.

Angkor Wat. By sam garza (originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

As a people, we take great pride in being the children of Angkor. Dr. Bit writes astutely of this in his essential book The Warrior Heritage:

“To be Cambodian is to be the warrior, the creator and the builder of Angkor Wat. More accurately, to be a Cambodian is to be a descendant of a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the achievements of any of the ancient civilizations.”[17]

In other words, as Khmer, we carry the legacies of the warrior and the artist. We are both the destroyer and the creator, a fact made evident in the many scenes of battle and war exquisitely depicted at Angkor Wat, and in Shiva, the deity most venerated by royalty in ancient Cambodia, whose cosmic dance both destroys and recreates the universe.

Due to centuries of on-going war however, the warrior spirit has prevailed in Cambodia. The positive side of this is a certain strength, vigor, perseverance, urgency, immediacy, and action; its negative is a subtractive, fear-driven mentality, a this-or-that, you-or-me, us-or-them, life-or-death way of thinking and behaving. This must now be balanced by our rich artist spirit, the fertile force that nurtures, grows, connects, creates, invents, and builds. We must become more of a this-and-that, you-and-me, us-and-them, life-and-life-through-death people. Perhaps then we will have new sources of hope, peace, genius, and inspiration, and push our country to a new era of enlightenment, prosperity, wealth, and abundance.

Satellite image of Phnom Penh. Imagery 2017 TerraMetrics, Map data 2017 Google.

As we strive for this then, we must bear in mind and heart the stories of where we come from. They exist in the spaces of the in-between—between history and mythology, body and memory, reality and emotion, person and society, Cambodia and the world. In our work to lift our people and country beyond war and genocide, let us not succumb to fear and the anger, mistrust, divisiveness, and violence that it breeds. This will only render us the sea animals depicted in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, whose bodies are mercilessly broken, torn, and ripped apart at the relief’s central axis.

Instead, let us aim high and strive for the divine apsara. Let us revalue them as more than pretty decorations, carry them for their fullest power and transcendent resilience. In fact, in Java, the apsara are known as vidyadhari, as “holders of knowledge.” And knowledge is liberating.

How will Cambodia nurture its next generation of svayambhuva—those who are born of themselves, those who are self-made and self-creating? How will it attract and retain the brightest minds and visionary talents who constantly define their fields and disciplines, from inside and outside of its borders? And what must we do to allow these leaders to contribute fully to our systems of culture and education, health and urban planning, environmental conservation and industrial development?

On our journey forward then, let us remember Lok Ta’s words which reminds us to constantly assess, understand, and re-chart our trajectories. Let us strive to interact in non-violent generative union, without demonizing the other in our moments of tension and conflict. And let us shed away our skins of fear, transforming our historical wounds and painful legacies into sources of strength, imagining and creating new stories, meanings, and possibilities for our individual selves, our families, our communities, and our country.

For example, contrary to popular Khmer belief, a smaller Cambodia is not necessarily a sign of weakness nor decay. It is an opportunity. Smaller requires fewer resources, enables greater precision and care, is easier to manage and faster to mobilize. And, if the development of technology and medicine is any indication, size is neither a marker of strength, efficacy, impact, power, nor influence.

Therefore, let us be like tiny, precious diamonds that form under immense heat and pressure. And let us be like beautiful pearls, which form in response to illness and danger.

Phnom Penh, the current capital of our country, was once called the “Pearl of Asia.”[18] The city was also once known as Krong Chatumok, the “City of Four Faces,” as it sits on the convergence of multiple rivers. This intersection mirrors our earliest founding stories and the wisdom of our ancestors, which emphasizes the generative capacities of connection, intersection, interchange, adaptability, and hybridity. It is a ritual image of creative power, universal omniscience, and cosmic radiance—not unlike the mandala upon which Angkor Wat was modeled.

Let the past, present, and future converge in and through us then. And let the most groundbreaking people, ideas, images, approaches, narratives, systems, and technologies converge on our city. Let us filter, transform, and improve all these things—creating, developing, and inventing those of our own ingenuity—so that they may flow to the rest of Cambodia and beyond, uplifting our people and country, and with that, the world.

- - - - -

[1] The phrase in Khmer is: ទៅណាមកពីណាធ្វើអី?

[2] My friend Anjan pointed out that this is very similar to Gauguin’s famous questions, written on the back of one of his works.

[3] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter. Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 10.

[4] Southward, William A. “The Coastal States of Champa.” Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History, edited by Ian Glover and Peter Bellwood, RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, pp. 224.

[5] Even Japan's eighth-century Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Matters," includes a creation myth nearly identical to Preah Thaong Neang Neak. Please see the story of Toyotama-hime and Yamasachi-hiko, the grandparents of Emperor Jimmu (Japan's first emperor).

[6] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter. Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 10.

[7] My friend Trent Walker, a scholar of Buddhism and performer of smot (dharma chanting), tells me that it can mean “gold” but also “a piece of jewelry” or “conch.” All these meanings are attested in Samdech Chuon Nath’s dictionary, with “gold” being the first and primary definition.

[8] The name Óc Eo is a French transliteration of the Khmer Or Kaiv, which means “glass” or “crystal canal.”

[9] I am interchanging Kambu and Kampu here, the first being the romanization of Sanskrit and the latter being the common, contemporary spelling. No matter what, it refers to the same thing and person.

[10] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987. Pages 265 - 267. The word naga is believed to have been incorporated into the vocabulary of India from Southeast Asia. And the Manimekhalai may have adopted the being and its associated narratives from there as well.

[11] Name has been omitted. Personal communication, 2016.

[12] Shapiro-Phim, Toni. Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1994. Page 77.

[13] Shapiro-Phim, Toni. “Flight and Renewal.” Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, edited by Prumsodun Ok, self-published, 2013, pp. 10 - 13. Be advised that numbers vary for this estimate.

[14] Minasian, Stephanie. “Khmer Girls in Action Fight for Youth Rights.” www.gazettes.com, 2 Nov. 2011, www.gazettes.com/news/khmer-girls-in-action-fight-for-youth-rights/article_3816f134-05a3-11e1-9369-001cc4c002e0.html. Accessed 4 Sept. 2017.

[15] Bit, Seanglim. The Warrior Heritage. Self-Published, 1991. Pages 135 – 136.

[16] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Soth Sam On, 2008-03-30" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c3ec3120-0380-0131-9dcb-3c075448cc4b

[17] Bit, Seanglim. The Warrior Heritage. Self-Published, 1991. Page 3.

[18] My friend Roger Nelson, an Australian curator and art historian, says that many cities in Asia have been described, or have described themselves, as the “Pearl of Asia.” Personal communication, September 2017.

Throwback to Currents Festival - Phnom Penh, where we had the world premiere of Beloved. In this video, children play in sand installed especially for the performance at B E S U N Temple in Arey Ksatr. I remember thinking: "Even if the performance might fail, at least I gave these little ones a bit of magic and joy."

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

Photo: Colin Rowe.

Andrew Pelling is a biohacker, inventor, TED Senior Fellow, and the director of Pelling Lab. I had the pleasure to sit with him for a conversation about the relationship between art, science, and innovation, touching upon everything from ears made from apples to immortality.

Prumsodun Ok: When you were young, what was your imagination of your life and your future?

Andrew Pelling: Oh man. It was everything. The two things that really come to mind are . . . I wanted to be an archeologist. Or I wanted to be a rockstar.

PO: Wow.

AP: It was one or the other. My parents hated it and they told me to go to school.

I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about it but I was chosen for some reason to attend a special school for the arts. So all of my early education is all arts-based. Singing, dancing, music, visual arts, whatever—I spent a lot of time doing that sort of thing.

It was in this school that I discovered math and science, and it eventually became my career path. Nowadays we’ve got artists, scientists, and humanists in my lab. We do everything.

PO: You’re breaking rules. You go to an art school and you come out a scientist.

AP: I know. That’s how you feel in art school.

PO: So what was that moment that made you realize, “This is what I want to do? This is what I’m meant to do?”

AP: Curiosity’s become a big theme of everything that I do. I think that in the last few years, maybe decade or so, I’ve started to own that idea of curiosity. I value it because I don’t think anyone values curiosity anymore. It’s seen as a childhood thing. And then when you become an adult you become very serious. And you do away with just asking questions about your stuff.

I realized that research was just asking questions about the natural world during my first day of undergrad. It was in my very first class, my very first lecture, which is why it’s so clear in my mind. Because this was the first time I was in a university classroom.

The prof comes up and the first thing that he said was, “At the heart of any good chemist, is the desire to make things burn and blow things up.” And that’s when I realized I’m a chemist! Because as a kid I used to blow things up and burn things, pull up insects from the dirt.

That whole semester, all the prof talked about was all the unknowns of the universe, all the big questions, what we don’t know about science. And I just loved it. For me this is what I have to be doing with my life. I have to be asking questions and finding answers, exploring the natural environment. I’m lucky to do it.

PO: Is it frustrating sometimes to not have the answer?

AP: I hate having the answer! It drives me crazy. When you design an experiment and you know how it’s going to end before you even run it, I find that so boring. It’s so obvious. I’m much happier when I don’t know the answer. And, in fact, I’m often just happy to not know, to leave it at that.

My lab’s gotten some criticism over the years for writing research papers where we answer one little question but then we create ten big questions. For me that’s kind of beautiful because you can do a simple experiment and expose what we don’t know. And I think that’s what we should be doing. Our society kind of loses that because we always want answers. We always want to know what’s happening.

On the other hand we’ve become this lab that is more about the questions, more about doing things that make people curious. Because that’s really important. It’s how we create things. If we can do more of that . . . We’d like to be a part of that process, or that stimulus for making people curious.

PO: What have been some questions that have been fun for you to try and answer in your career?

AP: So many things. In my early research career I was asking, “Can I listen to a cell? Can I hear what it sounds like?” And I tried to figure out ways to do that.

“Can I feel a cell? Can I poke a cell, like how I would poke bugs and dead animals?”

Both of those projects, at the beginning they seemed silly and pointless. In both of those cases, they ended up resulting in patents and diagnostic tools and new understandings of health and disease in our own bodies. That was by accident.

Once I wanted to figure out if we could feel the heartbeat of a butterfly, or of a caterpillar as it was turning into a butterfly. And we actually managed to! Literally you can feel this heartbeat in a cocoon as it grew over the course of a week into a monarch butterfly. It was just really beautiful to be able to watch that, understand the biology, discover things that nobody really knew.

When you have a caterpillar and it goes into a cocoon and it comes out as a butterfly, there’s always been a big question. What happens to all the internal organs? Do they dissolve? Or do they stay intact? And we figured out the heart stays intact. It just keeps beating. It’s really nice, this beautiful data.

More recently, the question was: “Can we grow human cells inside of an apple?” Seems crazy right? But it just turned into more patents and tools for fixing the human body.

I don’t know if we’ll do it but we’ve been growing some tissues in the lab—human tissues, artificial tissues. And I think we can treat them like batteries. So I think we might be able to draw power out of them, just enough to run a small micro-controller, like a tiny little computer that you find inside your watch or whatever. They’re all over the place.

And, why this is neat is, if you’ve ever seen The Matrix, the machines are using human bodies as batteries essentially, as energy sources. So we’re seeing if we can do this on a small scale in the lab. Because this is the first step to making The Matrix. Let’s try it!

It might fail. And we’ve had plenty of projects that have failed. But you always end up learning really interesting things in that process. Our attitude has always been: let’s fail as much as possible. Let’s design crazy experiments that are just never going to work. Because if we do that, and we learn from our mistakes, we’re going to learn new things, discover new ideas that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s just proven true. As human beings we’re really good at being curious. Learning from our mistakes, usually.

PO: Usually. So then, would you say that risk is structurally encouraged in the field of science?

AP: No, not anymore. I would say that when you write a grant proposal, and you try to get a job and all that, you write projects that are really safe. It’s always driven me crazy.

Often when you write a proposal for a whole boatload of money, you’ve actually already done all of the science. And often, you’re actually supplying the data to show that everything you’re proposing can be done, has been done, and it’s 100% sure that you’re going to get the result that you think you’re going to get. And those proposals often win because they are safe, risk-free.

And everything you’re doing in your proposal is trying to convince the committee that you’re the safest bet. There’s no risk at all. You have all the people. You have all the personnel. You have all the equipment. You have all the expertise. You’ve done the experiment. And it’s so boring.

What’s interesting is, through the course of human history there have been so many accidental discoveries, things that have changed the world that were failures at first, mistakes. And that’s where the meat is but we don’t reward that type of behavior.

I want to change that in my own little way. And what we’ve been doing, what we’re going to keep doing, is just being very vocal and very public about the fact that yeah, this is a crazy experiment but look where it went. This failed but look where it went. We did it anyway and look where it went. Just keep showing again and again and again that we can use curiosity and failure to drive discovery.

Human cells grown in apples. Photo by Peter Thornton.

PO: Do you think that, with those proposals where the answers are already known, do you think that they are unnecessary? Or that there is a need for them? Why do something you already know?

AP: That’s a good question. I feel like I need to say that they are necessary. Why are they necessary, I don’t know. Well, okay, I don’t think it’s an either-or. With everything there has to be a balance. We need to be courting applied science, where it’s very clear what’s happening, what’s going to happen to develop a new technology or therapy or whatever. That has to keep happening.

There are scientists who are really good at doing that. And those are really easy for politicians to fund, because there’s a clear result, especially when you talk about publically funded science. You put $100 million into this and here are the results. You know it’s going to happen. There’s a quick timeline. Your money’s been invested well. This is a responsibility that people in power, politicians, kind of hope for, spending public money wisely.

But I think that we forget. We don’t have a way to think about it yet. How do we fund those accidents, those pie-in-the-sky research programs where it’s very hard to say in three years we’re going to have a treatment for cancer. Or a new battery or a new machine that does X. And so those are harder to fund. It takes a lot of leadership and vision to be able to construct an argument around these kind of projects.

But if you talk to anybody, if you talk to most people, most people will recognize that that’s how some of the most important discoveries have been made. It’s just through that fundamental science, things that are really pointless in the beginning. But then the discoveries end up changing the world. We don’t have mechanisms yet to really deal with that.

Recently I started a new research lab which is more of a public lab. We solicit research proposals from people, anybody in the world. The whole thing is an experiment. We ask people to submit proposals for ideas that are never going to work, they’re probably going to fail, to encourage people to start thinking like that. And people have a hard time thinking that way.

We’ve been gathering proposals and we get rid of the ones that are too safe. We know the outcome of another one so we get rid of it as well. And then we look for those proposals that seem completely nuts, but are still based in reality. They seem pointless and probably won’t work. And then we work on those projects and see where it goes.

We’ve just started. But our very first project ended up on Discovery Channel. It was actually an art project. It created a new funding stream for this particular artist, for these installations that nobody would fund in the beginning. Nobody would undertake them because they were just too risky.

Really this installation could have gone so badly. But you know, a positive story came out of it. It ended up on the Discovery Channel, led to more installations and commissions for the artist.

Right now we’re trying to build a wheel for a machine that might drive around on Saturn. It’s a gas a planet so there’s not even a surface to drive around. There’s no point in making a wheel. NASA would never ever do this. And we’ll see what we learn.

PO: I think what I’m hearing is the importance of journeys without expectations, and learning and discovering along the way. It’s so brave. You really need to somehow convince your donors and government to support that. Because that’s what I think people think of artists. We’re just these crazy people. Sometimes you don’t know what it’s going to be. You just need to make something.

AP: That’s right. My intuition tells me there’s something there.

PO: Can you tell me more about discovering things by accident or learning from mistakes? What has that been like in your career?

AP: All of the major stuff has come out of accidents, out of failures. This is not something that’s limited to science. That creative process, it doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or an artist or whatever, it’s the same. Human beings are really good at being curious.

I think this goes back to my art school days. We spent so much time having our work being critiqued by people. You sort of get very comfortable sitting outside of the box. You get comfortable following your intuition, that voice deep inside that’s saying, “This is important to me. I need to do it. Even if I get made fun of. Even if I’m going to fail.”

You get critiqued. And you often fail. And what you start learning how to do is to learn from that failure. That theme has followed me through my career, whether it’s an artistic project or scientific project. We need to ask this question because it’s important to us.

I want to know, I’m going to own my curiosity, and I don’t care if the whole scientific field wants to criticize me. Because I know this is an unanswered question which means I’m going to discover new knowledge. And I’m going to publish that, quantify it and prove it in an experiment, and at that point people have to take it seriously.

And then what’s been happening lately—I’m only ten years into my independent scientific career—but now what’s happening is other groups are reproducing our work, using our work as the starting point for their own type of work. That’s giving us a lot of validation.

A few years ago I would go to a conference and literally people would laugh at me. And now people are citing our work as the beginning of a new field. That’s really cool to see. So it’s that process. You need some guts to do it. And I tell my students this all the time.

I like to think that I’m creating an environment where there’s a certain safety net for them, that they can get used to doing this. I’m here to protect them and take the brunt of any criticism. But if you’re going to step out on your own you just have to be ready for it.

You have to work on projects that you’re passionate about because otherwise it’s going to suck. And you need to figure out what that is and own it. Most people are just not used to doing that, not used to stepping out, being beyond the norms, beyond the borders of the box.

PO: So I’m just thinking about how I’m going to translate “it’s going to suck” into Khmer. But listening to you there are two things that come to mind. One is this bravery to be different, this bravery to go on stage knowing that people are going to laugh at and ridicule you. Have there been moments when you felt like, “I give up. I don’t want to do this anymore.” Have there been those moments at all?

AP: I don’t think so. Maybe there is a little bit of cockiness here, or arrogance, or maybe a better word is self-confidence. If anything, when I get criticized, I do two things. One is I listen to it very carefully. The people keeping you honest is actually a really good thing. Some of the colleagues who I respect the most are the most critical and most vocal about our work. Because they’re never afraid to just tell me what they think. And honestly, even if I disagree, even if I go back to my team and I look at what they are saying, and we’re convinced ourselves that they’re misinterpreting it, then at least we’ve been kept honest. We’ve thought through the criticism, we’ve thought through all of the arguments for why that argument is not valid. Or the criticism is totally valid and it just helps us to do better science.

And the other part of this is that when I’m criticized, I usually find it energizing. At least I’m getting a response from people. How many conferences have we been to where someone is giving a talk and people are yawning and just don’t care? At least I’m getting a response.

I may get vocal critics but I also get vocal supporters. And they’re often younger, earlier career scientists. And that gives me hope for the future. If I can inspire them right now, if our work can give them ammunition to emulate what we’ve done, I think that’s a good thing.

Someone’s got to break ground—and I’m not the only one. But someone’s got to break ground.

The other comment that I’ve been hearing recently from more senior scientists is . . . They come up to me and they say, “You know what, I’m going to start a project that I’ve always thought was crazy. I’m going to do that.” Or they’ll come back to me and say, “A few months ago we did a Pelling-like project. We undertook this crazy research and we discovered all these things.”

PO: And there’s a new word for it, “Pelling-like.”

AP: I hear that all the time from people telling me that it’s very brave. I’ve heard that two or three times last week actually. That’s very brave! I don’t think it is.

PO: Well, I think it really is brave. I think for someone like you, where it’s very natural to experiment and be curious, it may not feel so. But I think that for a lot of people, as you were saying, that that’s something unnatural. It does require a certain sense of bravery to be the different one.

The second thing that I was hearing was “new knowledge.” What is the importance of new knowledge for you?

AP: For me knowledge is everything. It’s an ideal of science at least, if not every discipline. It’s an ideal that what we do allows us to understand the universe better and reveals how the universe works. It’s all about new knowledge.

There’s the moments of discovery. It’s very new and you start to understand it. And then it becomes dogma sometimes. And discovering new knowledge sometimes requires breaking that dogma, questioning what we already know. And that’s the scientific process: constantly questioning.

But there are a lot of outside human factors that would motivate someone not to want to change the field that dramatically. Because suddenly it invalidates their decades of research. Well, in their mind anyways. It certainly doesn’t invalidate their research.

So again, I’m trying to own it. Curiosity is linked to discovering new knowledge. And in order to do that you have to ask questions that have never been asked before. For me that’s the only way I can get at new knowledge. So if I’m going to ask “weird” questions, it requires being very creative and fearless about questioning dogma and breaking rules.

It takes practice. People are just comfortable with dogma because there’s often no opportunity to practice breaking it. I often talk about curiosity as a practice. I practice curiosity.

It takes time. And I think art school’s good for this. It can be good for this.

PO: Art school is also very expensive. And unfortunately, it seems that in every country in the world, when they think about what’s important in terms of education, art is the last thing they think about. It’s also the first thing that they throw out.

Could you talk more about how your background in the arts, your training in an art school, was instrumental in you becoming you today? Does the art school list you among notable alumni? Like, “You could become the next Andrew Pelling.” Forget Andy Warhol, it’s all about Andy Pelling.

AP: I think, especially now, we just don’t need people to be robots. We already have computers and AI. We just don’t need people who can regurgitate information. It’s not good enough to just be a specialist in your field, and all you can do is regurgitate a textbook to me. When I teach students, I tell them it’s not good enough. And in fact, I would even argue that to become hyper-specialized isn’t all that useful because our world is so multidisciplinary now.

Think about people who are developing artificial intelligence. Of course there’s science behind it but it’s being applied to healthcare, so you need to have some understanding of healthcare. And then there’s all the ethical dimensions to it. So you have to have an understanding of the societal problems. And you can’t cut yourself off from all of it. Those discussions have to be had. You might talk with other people who are more specialized, but you have to be able to interact and synthesize information.

I think all of that comes down to creativity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or an artist. You have to be able to think much more creatively in all ways. I’ve always found my art education to be really fundamental, helping along in all of that, helping me to have the confidence to think creatively, as well as the training, the craft of creativity.

The craft of curiosity is something you have to practice. It’s not something you read in a book. You just have to do it. My arts education forced me to do that. Because I was exposed, at first, to different fields and practices, and got used to talking different languages, speaking differently.

We need people who can think. As surprising as it sounds, we just need people to think.

PO: It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a scientist. You just need to be crazy.

AP: How are we going to invent this crazy, unexpected technology? You have to be nuts!

Chixel Array. Photo: Andrew Pelling.

PO: With all the experimentation that you’re doing in your lab, and the ramifications of that for society, what about you? Do you feel that you have to constantly challenge yourself, experiment with yourself, in order to do the bigger work?

AP: Oh that’s a good question. I do. What some people know about me, or some don’t, is that I will often give myself very weird projects sometimes. Ones that just I have to do. It’s not a deliberate thing. I wait for that moment of inspiration.

I don’t know if I’ve ever shown you these little chickens ever.

PO: For some reason they’re familiar to me.

AP: This is a good example. I was in the dollar store a few months ago and I happened to come across this box of chickens. I don’t know why but I was just mesmerized by these stupid chickens. So I cleared out the shelf. I bought all of them and dropped them off at home. I just kept obsessing over them saying, “I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something with these things.”

I ended up creating a little light installation thing where these chickens are being lit up in different colors. Again, it’s just really stupid. But allowing myself . . . I give myself permission to do this. My whole weekend got eaten up by this. I ignored everything I had to do. All my responsibilities were pushed back and I obsessed over these chickens and built a light sculpture out of these things.

It required me to problem solve a whole bunch of design issues. I had to code. I had to solder together some circuits, work with LEDs. It literally took all weekend to figure this thing out.

In and of itself, this object has no real purpose. For me it’s the process of . . . Here’s the problem. Identifying it, figuring out the design criteria, thinking through things even though it’s pointless. It’s the practice of problem-solving and thinking creatively.

So I do this a lot. I build lots of weird things. It’s not prescribed. I don’t say I’m doing one a week or anything like that. When I see something where I know, just for some reason it’s resonating in my mind. Unlike most adults I won’t ignore it or push it off. I will obsess over it, push out all my other responsibilities and figure out what’s going on, why this thing is so interesting to me.

I ended up connecting each chicken to an LED pixel and then on social media I was like, “Look, I’ve invented the ‘Chixel.’”

PO: The Chixel!

AP: It’s a whole new technology. It’s a chicken plus an LED. So stupid.

When the whole thing was implemented, it was really mesmerizing. It’s surprising how interesting this thing ended up being. I shared it on social media and people went nuts. Somebody offered to pay $1,000 for this stupid Chixel Array. I couldn’t believe it.

What was really satisfying was that people just loved it. The response was really positive. It’s just a bunch of chickens being lit up in different colors. It’s nothing special.

But I think it’s so playful. It’s so weird. You don’t expect to see it in your daily life. So it really resonated with people, and the process really resonated with people too.

PO: But those chickens are cute.

AP: I’ve got boxes of them in the back. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of them.

PO: You’re going to be the crazy chicken guy. There’s the crazy cat lady; you’ll be the crazy chicken guy.

AP: One of the other ones that people have always loved was . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those blood pressure monitors that you strap to your wrists. They’re portable and they read out your blood pressure.

PO: The ones that tighten, right?

AP: Yeah, exactly. These ones are battery-operated and portable. You don’t need to go to your doctor’s office. We hacked one and put a little stress sensor in there. If you’re sort of stressed out, it will detect that and then it will tweet, “I need a hug.” And if somebody responds back with “#hug” then the armband squeezes your wrist. You can send a hug through Twitter.

PO: That’s so wonderful.

AP: Again, the response has been really positive. But if I told somebody, “I’m going to build a machine that sends hugs through Twitter.” It sounds stupid.

We were then approached by an autism researcher, and we might end up collaborating on a project. He said this is the type of thing that might really work with some autistic kids who need that little bit of physical stimulus to help them focus. But also, for parents to be sending hugs to their kids if that device is measuring some sort of physiological stress.

Who knew?

Biohacked Lego men. Photo: Andrew Pelling.

PO: Wow. Speaking of hacking, I’m not a scientist. I’m now in a country where I don’t know what to say if you asked what people are doing in terms of science. What is biohacking if you were to explain it to a guy on the street? Or to an auntie or an uncle?

AP: We’ve all heard in the news that an account has been hacked. Or a computer system has been hacked. We usually think about someone altering computer code, writing malicious computer code, like a program or piece of software that does something nasty.

The early days of biohacking really was this analogy of . . . There’s an analogy between our genetic code, our DNA, which has all these letters. It’s a code—and hacking that code, right? There are biological tools that allow you to rewrite it. That’s the traditional ideal of biohacking, creating a genetically modified organism (GMO).

For me, I’m more primitive than that. I think, if you hack together an object. You take apart a toaster and a printer, and you put some parts together, and you create a bicycle out of it or something. It’s called physical hacking.

I think about biology in that way. Can I take parts of an apple that I like, parts of a human that I like, parts of a mouse? Can I put them back together to create something new out of it? Kind of thinking of biology like legos, like building biology. That’s kind of how we think of biohacking. It’s very primitive. It’s sort of like Frankenstein: taking the parts you like, putting them together, seeing if you can power it on. That’s driven a lot of our research.

Again in the early days, this was a very weird way to think about biohacking. It was like this sort of Stone Age approach to things. Because what we do in the lab is just primitive compared to so many other labs right now. And we’ve been much more successful than some of those people.

PO: What are some examples of biohacking that your lab has done?

AP: One of the projects that didn’t really go anywhere was . . . We took human cells, jellyfish DNA, and lego figures to make little green men. You know those little Lego mini figures? We grew greens skin onto them. That’s a hack—classic. We took human cells and jellyfish and it became a semi-living object.

The hack that’s most well-recognized is that we took parts of an apple, the flesh of an apple. We were able to grow human cells onto it. And we created prosthetics or implants. We’re now starting to take those materials, put them into human beings for clinical trials to start fixing damaged tissues and diseases.

If you think about it, the end-product would be a human with plant material inside of them. It’s this sort of plant hybrid that wouldn’t naturally exist in nature. But it’s still living. It’s not unlike people with titanium inside of them, or silicone.

Using plant is really interesting because that implanted tissue actually becomes alive. Your cells live inside of it. It’s a living part of your body rather than just a piece of metal stuck to your head or to your bones. That’s kind of a big shift there.

PO: It’s making me think. I remember reading that in Cambodia, that there was a tradition of implanting metal that’s been inscribed upon with sacred letters, a protective spell that would be implanted into you.

AP: That’s interesting.

PO: What about metal and electronic objects? I’m thinking about the future of AI and things that you see in the movies when you’re growing up—these robot-people. What about things like that?

AP: That’s actually becoming quite popular. People are calling themselves cyborgs now, and I guess that definition sort of holds. They’re implanting electronics under their skin. There may be sensors and lights. There may be just purely aesthetic reasons for why someone would want to do this, or there might be some functional reason.

This is not a standard practice. People are doing this in garages, tattoo parlors, and outside of the medical institutions primarily because these are boards and electronics that they’re building themselves. They’re taking that risk upon themselves. That’s very fascinating stuff.

For me, where my interest in that kind of stuff ends is that those boards and electronics are never living. They’re always a foreign object in the body. That’s not to say it’s not cool. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if it was alive?

This actually goes back to what I was talking about in The Matrix. It’s a little bit of a thought experiment but if I had a piece of tissue, a human tissue powering some electronics, and the electronics are in turn feeding the tissue the nutrients it needs to grow, then the tissue is being kept alive by the electronics but also the electronics are being powered, kept alive, by the tissue. What you have in that scenario is a symbiotic relationship between silicon and carbon biology.

That for me is a little more interesting than a cyborg, which is someone who has implanted a piece of dead electronics inside of them. It’s just reading something or it’s powered by a battery or something.

As a concept, potentially what we’re trying to build here is a symbiotic cybernetic organism. It’s a little bit murky. We still haven’t found the right language to explain it all. But basically there’s this symbiotic relationship between electronics and organism, the human, where each keeps the other alive. Without one the other dies. I think that’s really the next, next step.

Right now, we’ve got electronics that are passively measuring things in your body and spitting out data. And the electronics now are being powered by rechargeable batteries. So they always have to be pulled out, recharged, and put back in.

If we think next, next step, maybe those electronics are being powered by your own blood system, your own energy. And at the same time, they’re keeping you alive in some way or connecting you to the internet. Who knows? There’s all sorts of possibilities.

I’d like to remove the battery from the whole situation. There’s no need to replace a battery. This thing is just powered by you. And in turn, could this thing be helping to keep you alive in some way, maybe an organ? Right now we’re at the beginning of all this so who knows where this goes.

PO: So maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe I’m not understanding you. But you mentioned the loop between carbon and silicon, and how those forms can send energy to each other. Is there the sense that . . . Is immortality possible in something like this?

AP: Yeah, I think that’s there too. The other consequence that’s gaining a lot of traction right now is this so-called “singularity.” You upload your consciousness to the internet, do away with your physical body and whatever that means.

These types of concepts, these types of technologies where something biological is powering something electronic and the electronic component is keeping the biology alive could play a role in all of that. Potentially this could lead to avatars, where they will be able to download your consciousness to.

I think these are the ideas that are coming. We haven’t proven anything. It’s all speculation right now. It’s really interesting science fiction. How much of that we can make real is a fun game to play.

I think that the immortality question is there. My wife however, she is adamant. She has one life to live and that’s that. For me, if I could have a very good internet connection that might be enough. We keep joking around here that if we could make an implant that would give you super high speed internet, that would be so cool.

PO: I think people would really love that. The bigger questions and possibilities will come later.

AP: Absolutely.

Apples to ears. Photo: Bonnie Findley.

PO: I have one last question. This idea of making an ear from an apple, this idea of this plant-human—all throughout history, all throughout the world, there are spirits that are associated with trees and flowers . . . It’s really interesting to literally have that happen.

But now to root it in the ground here in Cambodia. This is a country that’s still grappling with the effects of war in so many ways. Landmines are still littered in some parts of the country. There are people who are maimed, missing their limbs, fingers, and legs as a result. How do you see this technology impacting a place like Cambodia?

AP: This is one of the unintended consequences of just working on a goofy sci-fi project, trying to grow cells in apples. What we accidentally discovered was that we suddenly have a material made from plants that seems to be very effective at rebuilding bones, skin, soft tissue, and nerves even. It’s much cheaper and much more accessible than any other method out there right now.

The traditional materials that are out there are exorbitantly expensive. They’re often derived from animals, or human cadavers are cut up and the parts we like are used in other people. Or they’re made from chemicals. Again, it’s just an expensive process. There are a lot of ethical problems with it. It’s kind of the only solution right now.

All of a sudden though, there’s something that can be made from plants. This solves a lot of problems, like costs and ethics. Also, interestingly, we haven’t done it yet, I think it’s still down the road . . . But one of the things that we are thinking about is: could we train clinicians in a country to use the local plants that are available to them to make these types of prosthetics on-site? And then you’re not dependent on FedEx or pharmaceutical companies shipping it to you, which is not always straightforward and often can be expensive no matter what.

We’re about to embark on human clinical trials. We have a lot of diligence to do here to make sure that it’s properly safe on human beings before it’s ready for people to get this on a wide, global scale. All of our animal studies so far have been really positive so we’re not expecting any surprises. But we have to do this. Once it’s an accepted and validated approach, these materials can be made as a medical-grade product, it’s safe, it’s stable in the human body, then all of a sudden you could think about it.

Could you, yourself, go out into the forest and grab what you want and make your next appendage?

Or, if you take the ears as an example, people ask a lot why we didn’t 3D-print the ear. “Why didn’t you use a robot to carve it out? Why did you get a human to do it?” I got my wife who is a woodcarver to carve it. Because right now, if you want an ear, a pharmaceutical company determines what your ear looks like and it’s all robotic and mass-produced.

This approach, showing you can hand-make this body part, means that we’re putting power back into the patient’s hands. They themselves could define what it looks like. And it doesn’t have to look like a normal ear if they don’t want it to. Or you can co-commission an artist to create that prosthetic for you. It opens up this new dimension in controlling what your body looks like, how it functions.

I mean, for many people, if you’ve lost limbs, all you want is a working arm or leg. That certainly is priority number one. But I’m thinking a little bit ahead in the future here— and let’s say that this all becomes standard—it also becomes possible to think about how I would redesign my limb if I had to. Or do I just want it to look like my old arm? Here’s a picture; make it look like that. And that’s fine too.

These possibilities are really interesting, both from the immediate accessibility to healthcare and healthcare technologies and also thinking forward to the future about how we define our own bodies. And there’s the fact that these become living parts. It’s not just titanium or plastic.

This is an area where we’ve had a lot of interest from people who are transitioning, going through sex changes. If you’re getting breasts, they aren’t just silicone bags. This would actually become flesh. Your flesh. And that idea’s powerful for somebody’s well-being.

All of this was unintended. We weren’t expecting any of this. Although that’s what happens sometimes.

PO: So, no expectations.

AP: Or expect the unexpected. And yeah, the genesis of this project was . . . Have you seen The Little Shop of Horrors? That plant that eats people—we were just trying to grow a plant that eats people!

PO: It’s nice to know you have the good of humanity in mind.

AP: Well, you know, it wasn’t the original intent but we follow the data.

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To learn more about Andrew and his work, please visit:

https://www.pellinglab.net

Also, you can check out his TED Talk here:

https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_pelling_this_scientist_makes_ears_out_of_apples