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Introduction to "Song Book: The Quotient of Desire"

September 22, 2023

“But what is our spirit, what will it project? What machines will it produce? What will they achieve? What will be their morality? Check the different morality of the Chinese birthday celebration firecracker & the white boy’s bomb. Machines have the morality of their inventors.” - Amiri Baraka, Ethos and Technology (1)

“The practice of refusal invoked in the collective’s name [Practicing Refusal Collective] signals a rejection of the status quo as livable. It is a refusal to recognize a social order that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible. It is a refusal to embrace the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented and to use negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise. The practice of refusal is a striving to create possibility in the face of negation.” – Tina Campt, The Visual Frequency of Black Life (2)

“Who Killed Julius Eastman?” – Camae Ayewa, Analog Fluids (3)

We begin with a clarification of terms…

  1. Quotient [ kwoh-shuhnt ]

noun mathematics.

  1. the result of division; the number of times one quantity is contained in another

  2. the number resulting from the division of one number by another

  3. quota; share, as in a measure of debt or intelligence

  4. the magnitude of a specified characteristic or quality

Is there a name for division that has no quotient?

Yes, division that has no quotient is often referred to as “undefined” or “indeterminate.” This occurs in cases where the division operation does not yield a meaningful or well-defined result within the rules of mathematics.

Indeterminate quotients misbehave. They operate in excess of the rules.

What are advanced mathematical methods for handling indeterminate quotients?

Advanced mathematical methods for handling indeterminate quotients often involve concepts from calculus and analysis. Here is one technique commonly used to handle indeterminate forms in limits and calculus:

Residue calculus: In complex analysis, the residue theorem can be used to evaluate certain types of integrals and limits involving indeterminate forms by analyzing the residues of a function.

What follows is an experiment in the offerings of residue. (4) The partial traces of something that has already happened. Between absence and presence residue is rife with the potential for porosity, the unchartered movements between, amongst, and beyond.

But what happens when these terms stray? When quotients, calculus, and residue converge and depart? When they saunter off the established path to wander errantly? (5) This is a story of errant wandering, of improvised repertoires and recursive arrays—radiance borne through connection. Song Book: The Quotient of Desire attempts to trace the residues that collect in the life of artist Julius Eastman. To consider his life, and the cacophony of his encounters, as an experiment in maintaining a proximity to uncertainty. To thrive in the queer temporality of risk. (6)

To wander beyond the inscriptions of order, which is to say entropy.

Spread from Romi Ron Morrison, Song Book: The Quotient of Desire, 2023.

In 1976 Julius Eastman left the relative stability of Buffalo, NY for the seductive din of New York City. (7) Fourteen years later he would die alone in a state hospital. Complications due to cardiac arrest. After years of various displacements later in his life, his heart couldn’t take it anymore: it broke. Julius Eastman died of a broken heart.

One year before Julius left for New York City, he performed an iteration of John Cage’s canonical work Song Books with the S.E.M. Ensemble at The University of Buffalo. Julius chose Solo for Voice #8 (“Solo”). The composition is defined by a series of Cage’s instructions for the performer such as:

“[I]n a situation with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action. With any interruptions. Fulfilling in whole or part an obligation to others. No attention to be given the situation (electronic, musical, theatrical).” (8)

As early as 1971, Julius performed various versions from Cage’s Song Books, attracting the attention of Cage himself. (9) However, for this performance, Julius decided to break from prior conventions and give an improvised performative lecture on “a new system of love.” Adhering to Cage’s strict insistence that no rehearsals were allowed before a performance, Julius took a man and woman on stage and proceeded to undress the man. In the guise of a mock discourse on sexuality and the sterility of medical approaches to sex, Julius examined the naked man while switching his affect from the stoic lecturer to libidinous satire. S.E.M. performer Peter Kotik described the scene:

“Julius only managed to get the guy naked and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down. He was all over the guy while the girl was standing there rather embarrassed. Cage thought that this was some kind of mockery about him. He was scandalized.” (10)

The performance enlivened the audience but unsettled Cage. The following day in a lecture he castigated Julius’s performance for its use of nudity and its emphasis on queer desire. Desire disarms the limits of Cage’s aesthetic control. It marks the bounds of appropriateness, the prescribed contours for how one ought to engage improvisation and indeterminacy. The rules to entertain chance. This marked a pivotal turning point in Julius’s career. What was relegated to absence for Cage was unavoidable for Julius. His very presence as a Black gay man honed his political life and work. Four years after his confrontation with Cage, Julius composes Evil N, Crazy N, and Gay Guerrilla (all 1979)—an affront to the sensibilities that secure Cage’s silence. (11)

The same year that Julius left Buffalo for New York City, computation attempted to rationalize the city landscape, spoken through loud sirens, controlled flames, and Cartesian grids. Between 1969 and 1976, the RAND Institute in coordination with the Department of Housing and Development devised an algorithmic model that decimated Black and Brown neighborhoods. Known as Planned Shrinkage, these algorithms were used to justify immense service reductions mainly in densely populated, high-fire-incidence neighborhoods of color. The service reductions accelerated an epidemic of fires that led to abandonment and neglect. As a result many neighborhoods were destroyed, forcing mass migrations and triggering a public health and safety crisis spanning the 1970s into the early 1990s. Two areas that lost the most housing stock and saw the highest rates of displacement during this period were the South Bronx and the Lower East Side. Both were neighborhoods that anchored Julius. Researcher Mindy Fullilove calls this serial displacement root shock. Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction that follows displacement and the severing of one’s social and emotional ecosystem.

“Root shock, at the level of the individual, is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. Root shock undermines trust, increases anxiety about letting loved ones out of one’s sight, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional, and financial resources, and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack.” (12)

It is the stress of heartbreak.

To read about the end of Julius’s life is to read the often repeated siren call of uniquely gifted and extraordinary Blackness caught in the perils of brilliance, succumbing to their own demise. It is a story about Nina, Billie, Donny, and Jimi. (13) But much like Cage’s aesthetics of uncertainty, (14) the context is absent. What follows is an act of love. Research as an act of love, not to write the thing but to right the thing. (15) To correct the story, and to come with receipts. To right the thing is to hold the residues—the ephemera left in the wake of the event. Ephemera too can be a way of knowing.

In Queering Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, theorist José Muñoz described queerness itself as an orientation to absence. Specifically he stated that queerness is “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present… Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” This “something” that is missing marks absence as an affective site for desire, and the beginnings of a path towards knowing that makes use of the ephemeral and the fleeting as meaningful markers of history that evade the devices of neat capture. For Muñoz ephemera counts as “all of those things that remain after a performance, a kind of evidence of what has transpired but certainly not the thing itself.” (16) Perhaps then absence is able to have a different relationship to evidence, not as the inverse of presence, but as a way to mark the space for desire.

Page from Romi Ron Morrison, Song Book: The Quotient of Desire, 2023.

This Song Book is an attempt to speak to the absences, the radical removal of context in a Cagean aesthetic, and to contextualize the fullness of desire, of that form of knowing so vital to Julius that points beyond the present and challenges the inscribed normative protocols towards the non-normative, the deviant, and the experimental. A longing grasped at the edges made porous. In speaking to the voluminous gait of Julius, I anthologize and scramble the residues that help me to make sense of his life and his challenge to the adherence of instructions, bucking a certain programmability. Instead, I want to consider the direction of his desire as he navigated across New York in search of a horizon beyond the present. What is the residue of his own queer calculus about where to go, who to meet, and how to make home? (17) What networks of encounter were built at a time when the fraying of the city’s social fabric was expedited through neat ledgers and specious equations? The compiled texts ranging from sound studies, Black studies, geography, and computer science bring us a textured reconsideration of a life that operates from a different code. The impossible calculus of desire that fosters the literal space for a different genre of computation. (18) To engage the flesh and the materiality of Julius, his body, his movements, the ephemera of old lovers’ lofts, dim lit corners of dance floors, and the hushed tones of “vicious sissies.” (19)

This is not to entomb Julius to his body but to consider the ways he is aware of the unavoidable politics of how he shows up in place. His own positioning draws that unavoidability into sharp contrast with Cage’s cleanly aesthetic instructions to create uncertainty. Rather, Julius understands the material stakes of his own context, unapologetically Black and queer. (20) Within this context he builds a relationship to uncertainty, and commits to them as a lived expression beyond syntax.

What would it mean for software and computing at large to deal with its own materiality in a similar way? To reckon with its context? No longer able to transcend towards the promise of a radical erasure, or a metaphoric immateriality. The poetics of the cloud in dissipation. To refuse the negation that Cage sanctified as a radical act of improvisation and uncertainty, how might Julius’s errant paths and scandalous desires be considered their own knowledge, a knowing that takes the form of a refusal but doesn’t remain within its bounds.

A knowledge of seeking beyond what seems possible. How might this seeking through uncertainty push the bounds of our current discourses on technology beyond bias, and into the strangely otherwise? More importantly, this may be a problem through which we not only are required to think, but also are required to feel. A disastrous repertoire for a sensuous reassembling.

What I have come to realize is that the archive for such a practice does not exist in exhausted canons but in fragments and residues. Evidence that misbehaves and yields complex expressions. A calculus gone awry. What follows is an attempt to follow those residues to work in tandem with the absence. To engage the fullness of a pause, the cadence that breaks speech into information. Which is to say that this piece, this research, this work, quickly came out of bounds,tarrying at the edge of expectation. This text is an experiment in a different kind of algorithm making, one born from the residues needed to put a life in context. Of Black queer desire as a form of knowledge that produces wayward geographic practices to rekindle an abundance of relationships. The ties that move through uncertainty to avoid root shock, posing new questions.

What would computation look like that saunters, that sways in obtuse degrees and non-euclidian curves? A computation that lingers between the overwrought narratives of salvation and eschatological demise. Computation not as a tool, but as a desire to hold things in irresolution, as a mode of seeing and understanding, no longer a view from nowhere. (21)

What is the quotient of desire divided by direction, the constant upending of a predictive program set on limiting the outcomes of Black lives?

How might desire work as a queer form of knowing that drives us to what might not seem possible in the present but is needed?

What is the queer calculus of desire that offers other forms of social organization that thrive in relationships to uncertainty? An impossible calculus of recursive loops, vibrant triplets— a fundamental blasphemy.

SCORE

In response to the score for Song Book: The Quotient of Desire (below), a group of invited artists—Oxana Chi & Layla Zami, Kumi James (BAE BAE), and Mendi + Keith Obadike—have created a new composition to be presented online and performed during a live event on September 27, 203. The recorded versions by Oxana Chi & Layla Zami and BAE BAE are available to listen here; Mendi + Keith Obadike's composition will be released online at a later date.

Romi Ron Morrison, Song Book: The Quotient of Desire, 2023.
Romi Ron Morrison, Song Book: The Quotient of Desire, 2023.

Layla Zami, Corpuscular Cores: Ju&Ju, 2023.

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Credits for Layla Zami, Corpuscular Cores: Ju&Ju, 2023

Composed by Layla Zami in collaboration with dancer Oxana Chi

All music performed live by Layla Zami (saxophone, loops, bells, wood drum)

Except drums performed by Hervé Hartock, composed & recorded by Layla Zami

Sound Engineer: Heidrun Schramm

Recorded September 7, 2023 at the Church KulturKirche Nikodemus, Berlin, Germany

BAE BAE, Send Your Location, 2023

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BIOS

Romi Ron Morrison is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and educator. Their work investigates the personal, political, ideological, and spatial boundaries of race, ethics, and social infrastructure within digital technologies. Using maps, data, sound, performance, and video, their installations center Black diasporic technologies that challenge the demands of an increasingly quantified world—reducing land into property, people into digits, and knowledge into data. Romi has exhibited work and given talks at numerous exhibitions, conferences, and workshops around the world including Transmediale (Berlin), ALT_CPH Biennial (Copenhagen), the American Institute of Architects (New York), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Queens Museum (New York), and the Walker Museum of Art. They have been in residence at Eyebeam Center for Art + Technology, New York University (ITP), The Joan Mitchell Foundation, and FemTechNet. Their writing has appeared in publications by MIT Press, University of California Press, Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, and Logic Magazine. They have taught courses at Parsons School of Design and the University of Southern California (USC). They are currently an Assistant Professor in the Design Media Arts program at UCLA in Los Angeles.

Oxana Chi is a Nigerian-German dancer, choreographer, curator, writer, filmmaker, educator, and trendsetter. Her work explores how our present is built upon in/visible remnants from the past, and its porous relation to our futures. Her rich multidisciplinary repertoire includes commissioned works for Humboldt-University (Berlin) and for the Leo-Baeck-Institute (NYC/Berlin). International tour history includes Jack Crystal Theater at NYU, Volksbühne Berlin, HAU, Societätstheater Dresden, Delhi International Queer Theatre & Film Festival, SIPA Festival Surakarta, University of Ghana, Goldsmith University, among many others. Honors, residencies and awards include: PSi 2023 Bursary, Abrons Arts Center AIRspace Grant 2017-2018, Ambassador of Peace DOSHIMA 2016, and being listed in The Dance Enthusiast’s A to Z of People Who Power the Dance World (NYC 2018). Her choreography and film works are discussed in several publications and university syllabi. She was a Curator for the International Human Rights Art Festival and a guest faculty in the Dance Department at NYU.

Kumi James, aka BAE BAE, is a DJ/producer, sound artist, and filmmaker born and raised in Los Angeles. Her sound design practice explores the permeability of identity, the liberatory potential of Black culture(s), and possibilities for personal and collective healing. James’ uncanny sonic assemblages and dj mixes provoke muddy flows of knowing through the body, senses, and memory. She curates LA's beloved underground party, Hood Rave, and hosts a monthly radio show on NTS Radio called Hypersensitivity.

Dr. Layla Zami is an interdisciplinary scholar and artist working with music, sounds, poetry, and theater. She is currently Postdoctoral Researcher in Performance Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and a Resident Artist with Oxana Chi Dance & Art. Born in Paris in 1985, she is proudly rooted in a Jewish-European and Afro-Caribbean-Indian heritage, and blossoms on tour with her wife. The duo has gratefully and gracefully performed in universities, theaters, and festivals in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. The author of Contemporary PerforMemory (2020), she holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Humboldt-University) and a Diploma in Classical Saxophone (Conservatoire du Mans). During her NYC years, Zami was Adj. Associate Professor of Humanities and Media Studies and Co-Chair of Black Lives Matter at Pratt Institute in NYC, and a LABA Fellow at the 14th Street Y Theater.

FOOTNOTES AND CREDITS

(1) For more see Amiri Baraka’s work as anthologized in Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965.

(2) For more see Tina Campt’s work in A Black Gaze: Changing How Artists See.

(3) This line is the title of Camae Ayewa’s poetry collection Analog Fluids that coincided with their show at the Kitchen in 2018.

(4) Lisa Lowe adapts Raymond Williams’ use of the term residual to describe elements of the past that permeate into and continue to shape the present. Her work in The Intimacies of Four Continents tracks the residual processes of colonialism and slavery that shape liberal formations of personhood. In my own deployment I am interested in the residual potential that Julius Eastman’s life may hold for learning how to move in relation to uncertainty amidst an increasing demand for predictive computing models today.

(5) My use of the term errantly is a homage to Glissant’s thinking on errantry. In Poetics of Relation Glissant describes errantry as a spatial form of relation, not a wandering or repetitive cycle, but to be directed by relation. I see Julius’s life as an invocation of being directed by relation.

(6) My use of risk is informed by the queer Black feminist scholarship of Cathy Cohen and Kara Keeling. In “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens”, Cohen considers how a queer politic may thrive through embracing deviance as a model for coalition building beyond the stasis of same sex attraction. In Queer Times Black Futures, Keeling theorizes queer temporality as the social formations that thrive in relation to uncertainty. I see Cohen’s embrace of deviance as an instantiation of the social formations Keeling hints at within queer temporality.

(7) For nine years Buffalo had been home to Julius’s flourishing creativity. He produced 23 compositions, including some of his seminal work, The Moon’s Silent Modulation (1970), Macle (1971), Stay On It (1973), and Femenine (1974). He was a core member of the highly regarded Creative Associates, owned a house, and taught as an Assistant Professor in the Music Department at the University of Buffalo. However, the stability that Buffalo provided was fraught at best. It is clear that Julius struggled to adhere to the social expectations and protocols that secured such stability. Julius fails to perform. He fails to perform deference. He fails to perform convention. He fails to perform the professionalism that the academy demands. He fails to perform what is already a failed performance–straight white masculinity. Put simply, he is out of place. Instead, he is flamboyant, curious, flirtatious, and bold. He operates in excess of the rules. For more on this see Renée Levine Packer (2015), Issac Alexandre Jean-Francois (2020), Ryan Dohoney (2014), and Ellie M. Hisama (2014).

(8) These are the instructions in full for Solo for Voice #8 quoted directly from Cage’s Song Books Volume 1.

(9) In his article, “John Cage, Julius Eastman, and the Homosexual Ego”, Ryan Doheney interviews Peter Kontik about the Song Books incident. He shares that Cage was impressed by previous performances Julius had done of Song Books and discloses that, “...when Feldman asked me to perform Song Books with S.E.M…I was convinced that the reason was Julius Eastman.”

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid. Later in his article Dohoney references Caroline A. Jones and Jonathan D. Katz’s work to theorize on Cage’s use of silence as a strategic “homosexual aesthetic” that disembodies the self as a means of passing within compulsive heterosexuality. However, this silence cannot be separated from its dependence on white male embodiment, the very thing that it seeks to obscure, the body.. It is whiteness that marks silence as not only possible but strategic. Doheney is careful to note that the Song Books incident marks an end to the strategic usefulness of Cage’s silence. Instead it became the basis for his disapproval of Julius’s performance. George Lewis calls this capacity of whiteness exnomination, the ability for whiteness to negate itself while continuing to operate within a white universalism, judging other in relation to itself."

(12) For more see Mindy Fullilove’s Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It.

(13) For clarity I’m referring to the ways that Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Donny Hathaway, and Jimi Hendrix are often described posthumously as tragic figures who struggled with mental health. What is obscured is the context, the root shock of cis white hetero patriarchy. For more on Blackness and madness see La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, and Theri Alyce Pickens’ Black Madness :: Mad Blackness.

(14) George Lewis places Cage within a Eurological approach to improvisation. This approach seeks to exclude history or memory and operates in pursuit of an idealized pure spontaneity.

(15) This distinction between what it means to write the thing and to right the thing comes from the Mythscience series conversation between Lonnie Holley and Fred Moten on May 31st at 2220 Art+Archives.

(16) This quote comes from “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts” by Jose Munoz.

(17) Here I am specifically thinking with Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Julia Roxanne Wallace in their piece, “Black Feminist Calculus Meets Nothing to Prove: A Mobile Homecoming Project Ritual Towards the Postdigital” in which they theorize black feminist calculus as “the careful calculations of our ancestors, their specific choices about when to breathe, when to sleep, who to be, where to go, and for how long”.

(18) See “Voluptuous Disintegration: A Future History of Black Computational Thought” for more of my thinking on genres of computation.

(19) In an interview with R. Nemo Hill by Renee Levin Packer he states that Eastman was “into S and M” preferred “vicious sissies.” For more see Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music.

(20) I also want to be clear here, that Blackness and queerness are not mere significations of bodies and their relationship to sex, gender, or race– but are also ways of knowing and being in the world. Worlds unto themselves.

(21) In “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective ” Donna Haraway seeks to critique the disembodied place from which scientific objectivity speaks. Instead, she is “arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.”

WORKS CITED

Ayewa, Camae. “Analog Fluids: Book Of Poetry.” Accessed September 18, 2023. https://moormother.bandcamp.com/merch/analog-fluids-book-of-poetry.

Baraka, Amiri. Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965. First Edition. New York: Random House, 1971.

Borden, David, R. Nemo Hill, Kyle Gann, John Patrick Thomas, Ryan Dohoney, Andrew Hanson-Dvoracek, Matthew Mendez, Luciano Chessa, and George E. Lewis. Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music. Edited by Renee Levine-Packer and Mary Jane Leach. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2018.

Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity. Duke University Press Books, 2021.

Campt, Tina M. A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See. First Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2021.

Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, 2005, 21—51.

Dohoney, Ryan. “John Cage, Julius Eastman, and the Homosexual Ego.” Tomorrow Is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, 2014, 39–62.

Fullilove, Mindy Thompson, Carlos F. Peterson, and Mary Travis Bassett. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It. Second edition. New Village Press, 2016.

Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline, Wallace, Julia Roxanne. “Black Feminist Calculus Meets Nothing to Prove: A Mobile Homecoming Project Ritual toward the Postdigital” from Hobson, J. Are all the women still white?: Rethinking race, expanding feminisms. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.

Hisama, Ellie M. “‘Diving into the Earth’: The Musical Worlds of Julius Eastman.” In Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship, edited by Jeffrey Kallberg, Melanie Lowe, and Olivia Bloechl, 260–86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Jean-Francois, Isaac. “Julius Eastman: The Sonority of Blackness Otherwise.” Current Musicology 106 (2020).

Keeling, Kara. Queer Times, Black Futures. New York: NYU Press, 2019. Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

Morrison, Romi Ron. “Voluptuous Disintegration: A Future History of Black Computational Thought.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 016, no. 3 (July 22, 2022).

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (January 1, 1996): 5–16.

Pickens, Therí Alyce. Black Madness :: Mad Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2019.

FUNDING SUPPORT

The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency is generously supported by the Simons Foundation, whose mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The Foundation’s Science, Society and Culture division seeks to provide opportunities for people to forge a connection to science—whether for the first time or a lifetime. Through their initiatives, they work to inspire a feeling of awe and wonder, foster connections between people and science, and support environments that provide a sense of belonging.

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