New Mexico’s International Symposium Of Electronic Arts

New Mexico is known for its overlapping identities. It’s an artistic hub (Santa Fe is the third largest art market in the country). It has incredible landscapes (it has 13 national and 33 state parks). And there’s a fair share of technological quirkiness (Roswell’s Area 51 comes to mind). While the state has been busy celebrating these different aspects of its history during its centennial events this year, this week these elements will gel as New Mexico begins looking to the future. That’s thanks to the kickoff of the International Symposium of Electronic Arts, an annual conference and exhibition that celebrates the intersection of art, technology and nature, which is being hosted in the United States for the first time in six years. Over 100 artists and 350 presenters from 29 countries have descended on the city, and are transforming Albuquerque and the surrounding region (which includes Taos, Santa Fe and southern New Mexico) into a “Machine Wilderness,” that looks at how humans, machines and animals will coexist in the future. Their installations, which include lowrider symphonies, robotic animal skeletons, and Navajo tapestries with QR codes woven into them, will be on display through January 2013.

In years past, artists have flocked to ISEA conferences in cultural hubs like Istanbul, Munich, and Paris, but event directors Suzanne Sbarge and Andrea Polli say that Albuquerque was selected in part because its access to wide-open spaces has led to the development of technological marvels one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. “We have huge swaths of wilderness, but we also have labs like Sandia and the first commercial spaceport,” says Polli. “It’s a strange juxtaposition that’s already here. We’re just bringing it to life.” In preparation for the event, the pair invited over 20 artists to take up residence throughout the area, and many arrived this summer to begin building out site-specific works for the conference.

%Gallery-166216%Both Sbarge and Polli hope that “Machine Wilderness” will help put Albuquerque, long seen as a dusty, pass-through-on-your-way-to-Santa-Fe town, on the map (and yes, they’re looking beyond the annual Balloon Fiesta, which draws tourists but has little cultural heft). “People think about Albuquerque as being the boonies,” says Sbarge. “But here we are, with leading scholars and artists making the journey here. It’s really exciting, and is just going to propel us into a bigger realm. There’s so much here happening, but people don’t really think of Albuquerque as a cultural center. I think this project is going to change that.”

Click through (above) for a slideshow of the ISEA installations that will be on display through January of next year.

Falling in love with oysters

The allure of the oyster always mystified me. For years, I’d wrinkle my nose when my tablemates would order the slippery creatures, put off by the texture of the little puddles of flesh. Don’t get me wrong: I like seafood. I grew up near the water, and I’ve scarfed down everything pulled from the sea ever since I could chew. And that’s not just fish–crustaceans are more than fair game, and I clamor to pry clams and mussels from their shells. But oysters always made me uncomfortable. It was something about their slimy, briny consistency–it seemed akin to willingly slurping down a slug.

So for a while I feigned interest. In New Orleans, I passed over the famous Oysters Rockfeller at Antoine’s, opting instead for a taste of something I thought would provide a perfect out: The Po’boy. A heaping portion of anything fried and served in a bun typically falls within my culinary wheelhouse, and the Parkway Bakery’s po’boy is considered to be one of the best in the city. The rubbery consistency of fried oysters was close enough to the clam rolls of my youth that I bit in without second thought. And to be honest, even mid-meal, no real difference between the two really registered in my mind; if anything there was a slightly creamier texture beneath the crispy oyster’s crust. I convinced myself that I’d overcome my aversion, but inside I knew the truth. I was still an oyster virgin. And for a while, I was okay with that.Then, earlier this year, I was offered an important opportunity that hinged largely upon my knowledge of oysters (or at least an appreciation for the creatures). So I did what most journalists do when encountered with an unfamiliar subject, and I dug deep, researching a foodstuff that I’d never really tried. I read that the Greeks worshiped the oyster and believed that Aphrodite, goddess of love, emerged the ocean in an oyster shell (which is the root of why they’re now considered aphrodisiacs). I found out that when the first colonial settlers arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, oyster reefs were so plentiful that they were considered navigational hazards (back then, they reportedly found oysters that were 13 inches long). Oysters, I learned, are an important part of the watery ecosystem, flushing out algae and pollutants from the water and creating reefs that help support other sea life. Groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Oyster Recovery Partnership have been working to repopulate oyster beds in areas around the country, as the conservancy estimates that in places like the Chesapeake, the oyster population is only one percent of what it once was. After giving myself a tutorial in all things oyster, my assignment thankfully worked out, and I was left feeling extremely beholden to the little bivalves. So I set out to get to know them better this summer.

In New England, where I live, oyster-selling establishments have history: The Union Oyster House is Boston‘s–and the country’s–oldest restaurant. It opened in 1826 and has been continuously operating ever since (J.F.K. apparently used to patronize a booth upstairs). It’s also a pretty crowded tourist attraction, but thankfully, one of Boston’s greatest oyster galleries is just a few blocks away, and it’s there that I had my official introduction.

Neptune Oyster bar is tiny and covered in white subway tiles that make you feel a bit like you’re dining in a fish market. Which in essence, you are. Their rotating menu of oysters are brought in daily from both coasts, and are served fanned out in circles and placed on a pile of shaved ice and rock salt. They’re elevated on the table on a little stand, not unlike the way pizza is served in certain restaurants, which allows you to get a closer glimpse of each variation. That was how I realized that I’d never really looked at an oyster up close: The ripples in the shells, the pearly white insides, the little pools of meat that admittedly still kind of creeped me out.

But I was there for the experience, and so experience I did. Aligning my mouth on the edge of the shell, I made my first fateful slurp. Salty and fresh, it tasted like the ocean. For the next half hour, as we worked our way through the plate, my friends and I explored the flavors as we would with wine. Earthy, mossy, bright, and fruity; who knew oysters varied so greatly? I spent the next few weeks ordering oysters on every menu I encountered, hoping to expand my palate. By summer’s end, I had not only gotten over my squeamishness, but landed on a favorite, the creamy, buttery Island Creeks, which are sustainably harvested in nearby Duxbury, Massachusetts.

I quickly learned that Island Creeks are a big deal in the Bay State; they have a new restaurant that opened in Boston this year, and are also the subject of a the book Shucked, out this month, about author Erin Byers Murray’s year spent working at the oyster farm. So I decided to complete my oyster appreciation tour with a pilgrimage of sorts.

Island Creek hosts an annual festival to raise funds for their charity, the Island Creek Oyster Foundation, which is working to build sustainably-grown oyster beds in Zanzibar and Haiti. So on a gorgeous afternoon earlier last month, I entered the huge tent that they’d set up on the beach in Duxbury, which was filled with outstanding chefs preparing oyster BLTs, grilled oysters, and hundreds and hundreds of raw oysters, shucked and served just out of the sea. “Look this one, it’s a porn star,” one shucker said as he handed an extremely large selection (apparently both oysters and porn stars are judged on the size of their cups). I eyed it greedily, and realized that when I comes to oysters, I’d finally come out of my shell.