Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (and other shadow beings)

My friend Gwyan lent me this film, and I am forever in his debt, for it is one of the most amazing films I've ever seen.

I've been fascinated by shadow puppetry since I was a teenager, when I had an anthropology teacher who was an expert on Bali. She showed us Balinese dancing and Balinese shadow puppets, among other things, and thus my introduction to Wayang theatre, or Indonesian shadow puppet theatre. In my first novel (as yet unpublished), the Wayang plays an important role, as in some parts of Java, in certain situations, it is used as an exorcism ceremony.

Lotte Reiniger was one of those peculiarly creative souls who was lucky enough to have the support and resources to follow her interest - and her interest, from a young child, was silhouettes. She even built her own theatre, so she could put on silhouette performances for her family and friends. Through a series of fortunate circumstances, she was able to work her way into a select group of avant-garde filmmakers and artists and thus begin making short films using silhouettes, and animation techniques that were, at that time, very new.

She was quite successful, and in 1923 she was the recipient of a large amount of raw film, and so was able to set about creating a longer film, now the oldest surviving feature-length animation. Reiniger anticipated Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks by a decade by devising the first multi-plane camera for certain effects, and her animation - in detail, subtlety, and sheer design sense - is stunning.

Apparently, the original print was lost in World War ll bombing; all German nitrate prints, which had colored backgrounds, were lost as well. The only remaining prints were all black and white, and even then only fragments were found. Working from these surviving bits, German and British archivists have restored the film including adding back the original delicately-tinted pastel backgrounds, which enliven the lovely background designs of Walther Ruttmann.

The extraordinary thing about this film is its obvious brilliance. Working with cardboard, scissors, and thin sheets of lead, Ms. Reiniger created some of the most delicate, detailed images in film or shadow theatre. The beauty, the sensibility, the naturalistic movement, are in some respects still unparallelled in animation today. Her images are reminiscent of other artists, such as Kay Nielsen, who teetered in the Chinoiserie space between curvaceous Art Nouveau and more muscular, clean-cut Art Deco; like traditional wayang, she worked with characters carved into mere slivers of shadow. However, unlike traditional wayang, these puppets move all over: their hair, their clothes, their wrists and ankles.

As Art on Paper says:

"The only daughter of a banker and a homemaker, Reiniger set great stock by her birth in the last year of the nineteenth century. Except for the fact that she worked in film, her techniques and sensibilities reflected the earlier century more than her own. She described her childhood as 'extraordinarily' happy, her artistic interests celebrated and encouraged by both her parents. Theater captured her imagination early on, but after her first film, she was hooked; she had in the meantime discovered her 'unsettling gift' for making silhouettes.

Though inspired by shadow theater, Reiniger’s figures appear to have none of the stiffness of their non-film predecessors. 'Film is movement,' she noted, often comparing filmmaking to ballet. 'It’s the combination of curves and diagonals that gives ballet and animation their sweet tenderness and their striking directness.' While using literal light and shadow, Reiniger also relied on the shadings of music: the fine variations in her animations often parallel the tone and stress of musical notes rather than the hiccoughs of flip-book style animating techniques. She rather modestly noted that, "even with primitive materials, one can work small wonders."

The story is based on a melange of stories from the Arabian Nights, fitting several ideas neatly together to fill in spaces in the familiar tale of Aladdin. It's a fairy tale, with all the trimmings, a really good adventure story with visuals that stimulate that wild-longing-part-of-the-brain, the part that says "I wanna go there!" I love it all, except perhaps the parts where the Princess lies back passively, while yet another person abducts her against her will.

My biggest issue with this really beautiful restoration is that Milestone Films, the people who are distributing this work of art, are resolutely issuing cease-and-desist orders for all YouTube and other clips on the Internet. Personally, I think this is a publicity disaster, and I hesitate to recommend you spend money on these people, but the film is really so wonderful that you should at least check it out. I'm going to buy it, PR department or no PR department.

Along the same lines, may I recommend a group called Shadowlight Productions, who have been putting on really wonderful shows around the San Francisco Bay Area (and elsewhere) for years now.
Another example of creative people using the Wayang as a springboard, Shadowlight produces video of their work, which run from bringing to life a jazz-age poem from the 1920's, to telling a funny Native American story about Coyote, to Xanadu, the epic Chinese love story about Kublai Khan.

"ShadowLight Productions, founded by Larry Reed in 1972, has a mission to bring the stories of the world to light. [They] hope to build a world community through crosscultural storytelling and the magic of shadow theater."

They have been known to use huge projection screens as large as 30ft x 15ft, ensuring that their wonderful images come across much larger than life, and immersing the audience in the story in a way that traditional small shadow puppetry might not. Their images, which often use live actors costumed in shadow-making armatures, are startling, while still referring to the tradition of Balinese shadow puppetry. Wonderful stuff.

PS. I seem unable to access their site, except for the link above, to their store. I will look into it. Sorry!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mechanical Thinking and the Human Soul

Holding Onto Myself, by Peter Callesen

Machine With Wishbone, by Arthur Ganson, where the machine that gives the wishbone life is also its burden to pull

My apologies for being late this week. Firstly, for those of us on academic schedules, the After School Chaos Control kicks in, where all the cleanup happens after weeks of grading; then we naturally go through a bit of slacking when the big push is done, and I'm afraid it has all lasted longer than I planned!

For your perusal this week I have a couple of great examples of mechanical thinking and the possibility of a lyrical end-product. By mechanical thinking I don't always mean the ability to fix clocks or understand what the car mechanic is saying, but rather the ability to envision how something is put together; to see the flat outlines of something that will be three-dimensional; to have an intuitive grasp of how something will work before it is created and, when it doesn't quite work how you wanted, to be able to envision an interesting solution.

A few examples of mechanical thinking are:
- Creation of machinery (of course)
- Packing a lot of things into a small space
- Paper engineering
- Rowing a boat
- Building structures, like treehouses, chicken coops, and of course larger constructions
- Rubix cubes (when you're able to be successful)
- Pattern drafting, for making clothes
- Sewing too, in a different way
- Puzzles of all sorts
- Mold making, especially several-part molds
- Glass-blowing, throwing pottery, and many of the sculptural arts
- Animation

Some of these could be conceived as spacial abilities, or simply artistic vision, but I think there is another element involved, about working with many pieces and parts and managing, somehow, to make them all work together. Paper engineering and patternmaking are, indeed, a kind of spacial imagining: taking flat sheets and bending them to encompass volumes of space. But there is often the matter of collars, sleeves and so on (or interlocking cuts and twists, for paper), which must be fitted together properly. Sewing, long denigrated by society as a "hobby", is actually quite fascinating, like a wearable puzzle: there are so many kinds of seams, so many intricate and complex ways of putting things together and turning them inside-out, that it is mind-twisting sometimes to understand what the result will be.

Other everyday examples, such as packing or rowing a boat, require a willingness to turn space around in one's mind and discover the trick which will make it work. Not only are you thinking of how something will happen in space, you are in effect twiddling the dials of reality, turning the world upside-down and backwards to get where you need to go.

The Machine with Artichoke Petal makes a plain piece of dried artichoke walk, plodding eternally on a turning wheel - which is also the driver for his walking

Arthur Ganson, who I found (despite his apparent fame) via a completely different link on Boing Boing, is a kinetic sculptor who - unlike many mechanical scuptors - creates his own parts. The elements of his machines: cogs, gears, worm gears, arms, wheels, dangly bits and so on, are built by hand from wire and other materials. But best of all are the odd elements he integrates into his machines: artichoke leaves, wishbones, and toy chairs are animated and integrated in such a way as to make us see them in a contemplative, funny, anthropomorphic way. This sideways-type thinking, the ever-present consciousness of art-making, is so clear and present in Mr. Ganson's work, that it bowls me over. Just the type of reality-twiddling that we need more of in this world.

The marvelously contemplative "Thinking Chair," which seems to pace its rock eternally, thoughtfully.

Thinking Chair, detail

Inspired by the work of such artists as Jean Tinguely and Paul Klee, as well as his own observation of people and human nature, Ganson's delicate, complex mechanisms work in the same fluid, skeletal way that bodies work. Their simplicity and self-containedness allows us to see either the mechanisms themselves, or the everyday items attached to them, as living creatures - rather than puppets dancing to the (comparatively enormous) machine's direction. It is easy to see emotion and humor in the machines; their humble materials, so clearly homemade, make you look closer and breathe, "Wo-o-ow!" - and wish that you could meet the man, see the machines in person. Smithsonian Magazine describes his work as "Rube Goldberg meets Jean-Paul Sartre." MIT Museum describes it as "Gestural Engineering." Mr. Ganson himself says that he is "not interested in intellectual sculpture that needs to be explained to be understood." And yet, he makes us think that an artichoke petal is a person, and imbues that person with so much expression, simply by means of mechanical movement. His inspiration is bewildering in its enormous obviousness, its excellent, mundane, intuitive sense of wonder.

You can see many of his pieces beautifully video-documented on eBaumsworld, as well as on his own site (beware the T-1 warning; these seem to work perfectly well on DSL).

Impenetrable Castle

Impenetrable Castle, detail

Another person worth noting, since I mention paper-engineering, is Danish artist Peter Callesen, whose "A4 papercut" series is all about the human condition. Playing on the idea of the object and its materials, Mr. Callesen creates 3-dimensional figures who are permanently fixed in place by the very stuff that made them. The results, as he points out, can be full of pathos:

"I find this materialization of a flat piece of paper into a 3D form almost as a magic process - or maybe one could call it obvious magic, because the process is obvious and the figures still stick to their origin, without the possibility of escaping. In that sense there is also an aspect of something tragic in most of the cuts."


Closet, detail (note the monsters all crammed inside)

Following the theme of imbuing parts with a further meaning and scope, Mr. Callesen is another artist who takes his materials and pulls them together into an amalgam of human consciousness. Helene Nyborg Gallery describes his work with the words, "Beauty, fragility, and failure."

Looking Back

"Big wave moving towards a small castle made of sand": stunning simplicity


Like Arthur Ganson, Peter Callesen's work is often stunning in its simplicity, yet surprisingly moving. Like Mr. Ganson's work, Mr. Callesen's are exquisitely detailed, obsession-driven, and intensely personal (in the sense of not-grandiose). Both artists create wonders out of simple materials, and each, in his own way, deserve a place in the Cabinet.

On Friday, if I have time, I'll be posting another amazing, obsessive artist who created a really extraordinary film - using scissors and paper.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Thank You

Thanks to all the readers who answered my plea! It was unanimous that the "Read On" links were unpleasant, so I have pulled them. Whew. What a wild-goose chase!

Looking forward to posting more soon,


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Editor's Plea

To all my readers,

I have just begun adding "Read More" links to turn some of my posts into "folding" posts, so that there is not so much to scroll through when you're perusing the blog. I'm somewhat ambivalent about this, as sometimes I would like the full text of the (shorter) posts to simply be there, and have not seen a way to allow the link on some pages and not on others (it is built into the template). If I leave them up, I will have to go back and reformat all the old ones - which I am happy to do if it seems worthwhile.

I would like to ask you, who actually read the thing, what you would prefer: all posts simply there and undivided (which I sometimes feel disrupts the flow of an essay), or the ability to scroll through and pick and choose. I don't put a whole lot of posts up, so perhaps it doesn't matter. Still, I'd like your feedback so I'm not going about trying to please the wrong people.



Mr. Roy's Elegant Machines


I've been meaning to do a post on David C. Roy's kinetic sculptures for a long time. I found him by accident when I was looking for something else, and was captivated by his combination of precision, mathematical engineering, and sheer beauty.

Each one is spring-driven and runs for an average of 20 hours. They are delicately carved from lovely, highly-polished, different-colored woods, and the best ones create the most marvelous moire illusions with their movements. One feels one could sit and contemplate their mesmerizing, shadow-theatre shapes for hours.


Mr. Roy, who has a degree in physics and engineering, says that the artistic influence of his wife, and later, an interest in optical patterns, led him to the designs he produces today. The names of his sculptures, words such as Radiance, Illusion, Spectrum, and Harmony seem to imply a dual interest in physics and metaphysics, or at least meditation, on Mr. Roy's part.

Interestingly, I thought these objects were small, either hand-held or head-sized; but if you look at Mr. Roy's About the Artist page, you will see that they are actually quite large, some of them about the size of large wagon wheels.

It's nice to see an elegant combination of craftsmanship and mechanical works; and combined, they produce a contemplative and, in some cases, satisfyingly clockpunk result.

Sprog (Cog) Blog

"A boy's head in a jar, with a finger in his mouth and a nice lacy collar to cover his neck." (A la the arm holding an eye socket with which Elder Child was very impressed).

I swore I'd never write about my children, but they have been doing these really cool drawings recently, out of the blue. My father, in his dry way, used to say "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" when beholding something truly ugly, but that is not so for these. They actually are things of beauty.

Elder Child is eight, Younger Child is five; both are female. Below are descriptions by the artists.

Star Drips

(Elder Child): "This one's going to be kind of hard to explain. It all started with trying to make a light bulb work in an unusual kind of way. The star drips drip into a little bottle which has a pipe that goes to those things, which go back and forth really fast, scratching the disk. This makes electricity. The little ball goes along and picks up the electricity, and sends it through the tube to the light bulb. It makes a light bulb work... it's kind of all that just to light a light bulb."

Oh, my God. I'm raising steampunk children. They're going to grow up and rule the world...And my favorite part is the little >pop!< at the tip of the alembic, which unfortunately you can't really see here. Where did she learn about alembics, for God's sake?

Walking Machine

(Elder Child): "The gear moves around and pushes the bar which moves the arm, to push the legs each one by one and then they walk." The inspiration for this first one apparently came from Gyro Gearloose, with fanciful extras added on. (Both children are vintage Donald Duck/Scrooge McDuck afficionados)


(Elder Child): "I'm not sure what it's for. It's just...something. The vent sucks up oxygen and makes the pump go up and down. It goes through the pipe which dries it off, and into the tank, which is four gallons full at the moment." I like the way the bulb of the pump is moving in and out.

Machine Girl

(Younger Child) "Mama, come look! I made a Machine Girl!"
Me: So, are these lights, hanging from this hair?
YC: Yeah, and the cheeks are fingernail clippers. She is in a cemetery because she is a burier. That's her job.
Me: Are those clocks on the tombstones?
YC: Yeah! And that's electricity coming out of her head. And the skul has electricity too.
Me: So, and these are clocks for her eyes?
YC: Yeah, and her eyelashes are magnifying glasses. And her nose is one of those things for pumping know, the pointy thing? And with the numbers on top.
Me: Are her legs mechanical?
YC: Yeah, with gears.
Me: What about this, up here above her head?
YC: Oh, that's a sign that says "no frowning." She's thinking about it. See? She's smiling. She's thinking about putting that sign there.
Me: Oh, I see. But the skull is frowning, isn't he?
YC: Yeah, but he's dead! But he's still gonna get in trou-ble!

So...did they learn all this by osmosis?

Newspaper Fragment

(Elder Child): "This is a torn piece of a newspaper. It's describing a strange mechanical butterfly that was found midway [sic] through carrying drugs from California to Japan."

The text of the image says, "Strange Insect Found! This unexpected creature has been found carrying drugs from California to Japan. This species is believed to be extinct. But soon there are many other strange insects other than butterflies. There have been dragonflies, flies, moths, bees, wasps and even mice."

Below this is the truncated text of another news story.


(Elder Child): "The gear goes around and pushes the rod, which squeezes the bulb thingie, which blows air through the tube and out through the vent. This blows the feather which brushes the disc, making sparks, which get sucked up by the other tube which sends electricity off somewhere. Each one finds something to predict. When they come back, they take a vote, and whichever one wins is what's going to come true (this doesn't always work). PS. They're kind of alive."

Wow. Kind of like the weather report, but much cooler. I'd like to have one of these. Maybe it would change the world...?

Thinly Disguised Plagerism

Younger child, not to be outdone, draws this:
(Younger Child): [warning: five-year-old explanation, somewhat moderated, follows] The person peeking in from the right-hand side is looking at a dictionary. The mechanism, which is "inside a mountain," consists of a gear turning a "twirler" (at the bottom), which is scratched by something (that looks like a carrot but isn't). The feather at the top of the carrot tickles the wires hanging off another whirler. Above that is a "shining thing which makes it hot, just like a mixer and dough, and this is the mixer." The "mixer" makes some electricity which turns on the light.
At the bottom is what appears to be a light-sensor, which turns everything off at night (but has a backup switch in case you need to turn it on). The array on the side is "a lightbulb that takes the warmth from the air. So this part is for people who like to be cold." The person-shaped thing on top is "something to show that you can read here."

I promise you that I have not been trying in any way to influence my children. I write the blog when they are at school, and don't show them much of it (though occasionally they'll catch glimpses of some of the images). On the surface, I am neither gothic nor Victorian, nor any other unusual look. Where did this fascination come from? Perhaps it is simply obvious that I love things like this. Perhaps they developed this interest separate from me (after all, they love Castle in the Sky and other steampunk-like children's media). Perhaps it is some kind of virus and they've caught it from me...

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Achitecture of Fear

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, 1919
There is something about certain architecture which inspires fear. Modernist housing, for example, with its brutalist angles and sheer blank walls, make us feel small and helpless; the superclean, cold spaces inside leave no place for us to snuggle in. Everything is hidden away; there are no cubbies, no hiding spaces, no comfortable clutter. Ceilings soar; everything is bright; there are few walls. Furniture looks dwarfed and lonely.

On the other hand, a place with too many cubbies, too many hiding places, or too much darkness, can be pretty frightening too. Think of the consummate haunted house, with its secret doors and dark corners. Cellars. Attics. The imaginative child spends a lot of time thinking about what might be hanging out in those places. My father, for example, had to walk to the back of the cellar in his house to shovel coal into the furnace. The stairs had no kick-plates on them, so they were open to whatever was below them (whatever it was could easily reach through and grab his ankles). The wall next to the stairs was connected to a disused root-cellar, fenced off by planks with large gaps full of darkness between them. He used to run down the stairs, shovel fast, and run up again.

Original sketch for a scene in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, 1919 from Lotte Eisner - The Haunted Screen

As for me, I was one of those kids who spend a lot of time scared. Did you ever see that movie Sixth Sense? That kid was me: though I didn't see dead people, I know exactly the kind of terror that kid felt. Did you ever see the first Poltergeist? Remember the scary/friendly clown? I was afraid of my dolls sometimes in that same way. All the stuff in Stephen King's It, with the drains and the sewers and stuff? That was me - I was terrified of toilets. I thought a disembodied hand would come up out of the toilet (never imagined what would happen next, of course).

Mostly I was scared in my house (though the roaring toilets at school, in the prison-like bathroom, were pretty bad). I grew up rurally, on a lonely road, in a ranch house. By this I don't mean ranch-style, as in modern suburbs, but really a ranch-house, built in 1901, with people having died in it and all. The house was porous in all the ways that made my dad's trip to the cellar awful: it had creepy closets and dark corners and was three stories tall, with long, long dim shotgun hallways and tall stairs. It was always creaking, because we lived in a windy place on a ridge above the ocean.

Curiously, I had (and still have, occasionally) dreams about being on high walkways with no railings, or traversing rooftops, or terrible pathways between frighteningly blue swimming pools. Despite the waking fears of hiding places, my dream-fears were of soulless places with no containment. The lack of warmth, of walls, of hiding places was naked, vulnerable, awful.

So, given that it's pretty hard to avoid scary structures, what is it that we want from a structure, other than shelter from the weather and a place to keep our stuff? I'd say a place to nest. A place where we can curl up and feel safe. All the other stuff, running water and dinner party capability, those are all extras. The most important thing, especially for children, is a sense of safety. And the biggest hurdles to that feeling are vulnerability, that sense that your self is available, even on display, for bad things that are watching, and porosity, the failing of walls, when the structure which offers you safety does, in fact, have too many holes in it (read: gaps, doors, windows, open grilles, even drains and plumbing).

My fear of toilets, for example, was really a fear of that hole in the bottom of the bowl. Where did it go? It was bottomless, constantly sucking things down. It was a porous place between the everyday world and...somewhere else, a place I never even tried to imagine. Neil Gaiman captured this sense of porosity to Another Place beautifully in Coraline, and managed in the process to capture the horrible vulnerability, too, when Coraline gets to the other side.

Any good horror movie maker knows both these concepts as well. Think about the shower scene in Psycho. Why is that so terrifying? My main guess is: the shower curtain. It makes you feel there's a wall there without actually offering any protection. There you are, naked and vulnerable, and there's that shape standing outside the curtain! That curtain which is really only a porous membrane, an obscuring, a nothing. There are oodles of horror movies where the hero(ine) is walking around in front of windows or through a forest while we watch, from the point of view of the monster/slasher/bad guy, and the implicit understanding is that it's horrible because s/he's so vulnerable to be seen. And my friend Gwyan points out that the scariest part of Night of the Living Dead is the part where the zombies are sticking their arms through the boarded-up windows (which were supposed to keep them out, right?). Shades of my father's cellar! And, oldest of all: the minotaur, down there in his creepy Labyrinth, waiting to catch you and eat you.

On the other hand, there is a flip side to all of this, where the secret can become magical. How many stories are there of cool attics full of wonderous stuff? Or haunted houses full of treasure? Think about Baba Yaga's house, on its chicken feet, waiting for you in the depths of the forest. Or a witch's house, full of hanging herbs and smelly smoke? Or the famous Magic Shop? All of these things are totally fascinating: even though they might be dangerous, they don't feel so vulnerable, perhaps because they're so full of stuff. And the porosity to otherwhere can also have its flip side: think of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe! Or the trap-door in The Twelve Dancing Princesses! Or that wonderful idea of turning a conceptual corner in your room at night to get to other worlds, as in the fabulous Diana Wynne Jones' The Lives of Christopher Chant.

Which brings me to one of my favorite books. One of the most interesting tomes I know about human living space, A Pattern Language actually talks about what kinds of things make a building more psychologically comfortable - more human, if you will. Their theory is that houses traditionally have been a conglomeration of added-on spaces, arising organically from need (however if you read the book, please discount most of what they say about the larger landscape, it's pretty outdated and ecologically uneducated, though well-meaning).

What I like best about this book is that it talks about architecture in terms of conceptual spaces and details. It doesn't use high-flying jargon, it only talks in terms of the people-ness of a place, what makes places work, towards beauty and comfort. The book breaks down into 253 different ideas about comfortable space, some of them only a page long, and the pictures make you drool. The best bits are about houses themselves. You can read about "Common Areas at the Heart", for example, or "Corner Doors". "Windows Overlooking Life" discusses how to avoid creating rooms that are prison-like. Some of my favorites are "Thick Walls", "Open Shelves", "Built-In Seats", and of course "Child Caves". In #204: "Secret Place", they summarize something essential that I never thought of until I read it:

"Make a place in the house, perhaps only a few feet square, which is kept locked and secret; a place which is virtually impossible to discover - until you have been shown where it is; a place where the archives of the house, or other more potent secrets, might be kept."

The book endorses the use of bed alcoves (who could be scared in one of those?!), with a view out into a larger space. They like ceilings that come down low enough to touch (at least one place in a house), low windowsills, thick walls, and places to sit that feel safe. While it doesn't address the idea of fearfulness per se, it does identify and speak about issues of what makes architecture work better for people and their deeper needs, as in the passage, below:

"Modern architecture and building have deliberately tried to make windows less like windows and more as though there was nothing between you and the outdoors. Yet this entirely contradicts the nature of windows. It is the function of windows to offer a view and provide a relationship to the outside, true. But this does not mean that they should not at the same time, like the walls and roof, give you a sense of protection and shelter from the outside. It is uncomfortable to feel that there is nothing between you and the outside, when in fact you are inside a building. It is the nature of windows to give you a relationship to the outside and at the same time give a sense of enclosure."

One of the safest-feeling and best places I have ever stayed was in a yurt - you know, those circular tents favored by nomads in the steppes? There are a lot of modern versions nowadays that you can buy made of up-to-date, durable materials, but based in structure on the traditional ones. Instead of a smoke-hole in the top, there is a bubble skylight (where you can watch the clouds and the stars), and the walls, including where the windows are, are made from a wooden lattice-work covered with thick fabric. I always thought it was the lack of corners that made the place so incredibly comforting, but perhaps it was the way the lattice-work covers the windows as well.

I suppose not all people are sensitive to the space they live in. I remember an argument between two friends of mine, one an interior architect/designer and the other an extremely pragmatic engineer, about the word "home": the designer said that a house and a home are different things, and the engineer claimed there was no difference at all. If I had been more than passingly there for the argument I would have said that a home is safe and has a certain kind of domestic magic.

Ultimately, A Pattern Language manages to touch on what can make a house a magical place, and we all need that.

(PS. For a wonderful synopsis of the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, try here.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

More Bits and Bobs and LOOK! Look what I found!

Someone just got me this. No, not the car, the license plate. I know, it's quite silly. Just...uh, think of this as a "before" picture. I think now I will have to be converting this car to something less silvery and more...well, dirty-looking and brass, with gears glued or painted on. I will own the Clockwork Car. I am told by other members of my family that this will destroy the retail value, but I think I don't care. I won't be able to afford to buy another car for many years anyway. My only issue is the whale's tail on the license plate, but I do live in an old whaling town, so perhaps it's not too bad. Wish me luck with the conversion, which will probably be slow.

Meanwhile, coming across this reference on Brass Goggles, I feel it my duty to check it out. Alex CF's blog/website, Many Dead Things, has quite a self-descriptive title. Among many gruesome and startling drawings (see the link to the old website for the full display) are some quite wonderful creations he describes as "Lovecraftian Horrors in Specimen Jars." For an unspecified fee, Mr. CF will make you your very own compartmented box with your very own horror in a jar and attendant documentation. Sounds ideal!

Mr. CF also has a curiously compelling clockwork foetus, which I find simultaneously fascinating and very disturbing. You can see more of his stuff on his MySpace page.

On other blog fronts, I was surprised to find out that two days before I published the post about the Musee Mechanique (below), Boingboing actually had them on their "most interesting places" list. I suppose this fits in with my deep belief in synchronicity. The place deserves the publicity, that's all I can say.

And now...for the piece de resistance: look what I found in my parents' basement! I asked my mother about it, and she said she and my dad fell in love with it when traveling in England, and came home with it in their laps on the plane, full of glassware. Sigh. You can't do that anymore, I'm afraid. Might dash the glassware on the floor and threaten someone with the broken shards, or something.

Anyway, she said I could have it. It is apparently a Victorian hat-box, back from the days when people traveled by steam-ship. Think of it: you load up your steamer trunks with the drawers and the wallpaper linings, your copper hat-boxes... I think I'm in love.

I put her on the shelf with Mrs. Chicken, another friend of mine (note the cool graphics on her wheels).

A friend of mine told me once that she loved my house because it reminded her of the old Smithsonian, before it had its facelift, back when it was more like a combination Wunderkammer and crammed attic: things were just piled up higgledy-piggledy, and you could sort of burrow into odd corners and find interesting things. I was very flattered. It was the nicest way to describe a cluttered, messy house that I have ever heard.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Fetishes As Fetish Does

Dayak household fetish, collection of the author

. An object that is believed to have magical or spiritual powers, especially such an object associated with animistic or shamanistic religious practices. 2. An object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence: made a fetish of punctuality. 3. Something, such as a material object or a nonsexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification. 4. An abnormally obsessive preoccupation or attachment; a fixation.
[The root for this word is based in a French/Portuguese word for "artificial"]

- Definition from the American Heritage Dictionary [full version].

Dayak fetish, purchased by the author in Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo

It's interesting, to me, as someone who is deeply interested in holy objects - whether they be holy in a Christian sense, or in an animistic/shamanistic sense, or in a scientific sense - that the word "fetish" could be so entirely co-opted by the sexual community.* When I google images for "fetish," I cannot tell you how predictable the images are. Finding real fetishes, that is, objects of power, is a matter of happenstance, hard work, good luck, or being in the right place at the right time. Or, perhaps, going to a good museum.

One of the most interesting examples of fetishes are african nail fetishes. Here is a quote from Rand African Art, a site devoted to collecting African art:

"Fetishes were protective figures used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken evil spirits, prevent or cure illnesses, repel bad deeds, solemnize contracts or oath-taking, and decide arguments. A diviner or holy person would activate the statue, using magical substances. Fetishes gained power and were effective because people believed in them.

The nkondi are the most powerful of the nkisi. They were used to identify and hunt down unknown wrongdoers such as thieves, and people who were believed to cause sickness or death by occult means. They were also used to punish people who swore false oaths and villages which broke treaties. To inspire the nkondi to action, it was both invoked and provoked. Invocations, in bloodthirsty language, encouraged it to punish the guilty party. It would also be provoked by having gunpowder exploded in front of it, and having nails hammered into it. They were also used to literally "hammer out agreements"...with clear implications as to what would happen to people who broke the agreements."

Rand also has an excellent couple of comparison pages for nail fetishes, with lots of great pictures and interesting comments.

The thing that I find interesting about fetishes is how, like relics, they are given reverence and attributed power. The mana idea I discussed previously is not only an Oceanic concept. Imbuing objects with sacred or magical powers is a global preoccupation. All humans do it, from children who need a special animal to keep the monsters away at night to people who continue wearing their wedding ring after a spouse has died. Think about it: most ghost stories, horror stories, and fantasy tales are rife with objects which are either haunted, powerful, or somehow connected to good or evil.

In many Native American beliefs, plants and animals have a strong spiritual nature. By carving an image of an animal, the spirit of the animal may be encouraged to reside within the carving. By taking good care of a fetish, a person can be sure the spirit that resides in it will be inclined to take care of that person, bringing the person good luck and power. Many archeological finds have shown these carvings decorated by or accompanied by shells, fiber, sinew, etc. Some peoples believed that found objects, such as stones or shells, which were naturally shaped to look like an animal, carried a stronger spiritual presence than a totally man-made carving.

Lakota Sioux bird fetish, made by Steven Wolfe of South Dakota.

Fetishization, the act of turning a simple object into an object of power, is something practiced every day by billions of people. There are a hundred and one ways in which we can find some thing to hold our spirituality - or our meaningfulness, if you are not spiritually-minded. Some people fetishize cars. Some do it with computers. Some get into sexual fetishization. Some people fetishize body decoration and go in for tatooing and piercing. Some people fetishize the past, and attribute great spiritual depth to things which are or look aged.

I'm particularly fascinated with this, the way people have begun to fetishize objects that carry age and experience, finding a sort of spiritual, or perhaps merely powerfully asthetic, depth in post-rennaissance artifacts. It's as if we want to capture something that has been lost, perhaps go back and rewrite progress where it went astray; rewrite it so that it doesn't end up where we've ended up.

It strikes me that the place this progress has taken us - this space-age and computerized brand of progress - is into a sterile land of managed comfort, where even food is not sacrosanct: pieces of meat on styrofoam trays in hygenic supermarkets where the produce looks like it was molded in a factory somewhere. One's everyday life is a round of plastic technology, meaningless work and ugly houses, where the oily, fingerprinted magic, that patina of reality, is constantly wiped away. No wonder we look to something marvelous to fetishize: in these circumstances, where everything gets thrown away, the patina of age begins to look startlingly like the patina of love. Anything which has lasted a long time must have been truly loved, truly created with the magic of attention; must therefore be marvelous in itself. No wonder the Steampunk and Clockpunk communities are growing. No wonder creative-minded people are coming together to celebrate the crusty, the outdated, the used. The loved.

No wonder.

The famous Studley Toolchest

*(NB: By "sexual community" I mean the sex industry and those who follow sexual practices that seem to be reflecting those seen in the industry: ultra high heels, garters, rubber, dominatrixes, etc, etc: all the stuff you can see in videos and so on. My apologies to anyone who thinks I am lumping you together too much, but hopefully the general concept is clear; it's not my intention to spend this post dissecting peoples' sexual practices!)

Musee Mechanique

One of the little-known wonders of San Francisco, the Musee Mechanique spent many years hidden underneath the Cliff House, next to the Camera Obscura. It seemed to be open at odd hours, and so visits were sort of rare and exciting. It is the privately-owned collection of Edward Galland Zelinsky, who began collecting at the age of eleven, and went on collecting to this day. He is the proud owner of a rare steam-powered motorcycle (see below), built in about 1912 by a man named Gillingwater (on display in the Museum).

He says "I seldom sell, but I love to trade."

The thing I particularly like about the objects in the Museum is that they have this amazing patina of age and wear, and yet you can still see quite clearly how they must have appeared when they were new. Some of the things appear kind of cheesy on the outside, but in reality are quite strikingly innovative in their mechanisms. A number of really complex automata are there, going incognito under a layer of funky papier-mache and dusty wear-and-tear. Among other things, you can find the Bimbo Box, a band of clockwork monkeys playing to a recording of Herb Alpert's "Tijuana Taxi"; the "Naughty Marietta" Cail-O-Scope, which is a sort of stereoscopic hand-cranked movie device; an English pub-going Drinking Man automata (with real liquid); and a boggling collection of other automata, working models, peepshows and carnival figures. Wonderful stuff!

The carnival atmosphere is unique; many of the items are actually originally from carnivals, and have that indefinable air of creepy, tawdry awe. I admit I have not been to their new location at Pier 45, but hope that it preserves some of the oddness and funkiness of the original location.

If you're ever in San Francisco, make sure and go have a look!

For more/other steam-powered motorcycles and bicycles, see these:
- A 1936 Motorcycle featured in Popular Science
- A beautiful restoration gallery of the Hubbard Steamcycle, built in the early 1970's
- Various steam bicycles through time.