Friday, December 31, 2010

Oddities on TV

I got an email at the beginning of November from Sean Francis at Leftfield Pictures about their new television show on the Discovery channel called Oddities. It's about a shop in Manhattan which sells, well, Wunderkammer things. Obscura Antiques and Oddities sells such things as bezoars, straitjackets, and wax medical models, and apparently this stuff is becoming increasingly hard to find. The owners spend a lot of time and energy traveling to look at things which often turn out to be nothing worth looking at.

I am assuming the show will track these journeys to find interesting stuff, and perhaps some of the odd customers the shop encounters. If you have television, it may well be worth a look.

You can read more about the new show at the Discovery page: you can see videos, tour the shop or even get on the show if you have something you want to sell them. It looks very cool.

Thanks, Sean! And sorry it took so long!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Plethora of Automata, but Lasting Forever

Nick Rayburn sent me a link to this video of a nicely done tapping hand:

It has beautifully-captured motion and a nice sense of sculpture to it. I watched it three times, and then, as always happens to me, I got distracted by all the other automata videos down the side of the page.

There are so many people doing automata now that every time I go to Youtube I find more. It didn't used to be this way; when I first started this blog I'd swear the video channels all seemed to show the same few. However, nowadays, more and more wonderful creations are blooming all the time. I'll try and feature a few now and then, although if you're like me you'll probably find them yourself by sheer compulsive watching.

Here's an example of a very complex one made by Thomas Kuntz:

Most of them are a little simpler than this one, which is remarkably theatrical (columns of fire!). Arthur Ganson, for example, makes his own gears and other mechanisms out of wire, and then puts together these complex creations that generate what seem like astonishingly simple motions in everyday objects, motions which aren't mechanical-looking at all -- which is why they're actually not simple. I've mentioned him before, but he's made many more beautiful things since then. You can find at least 25 different pieces of his on Youtube.

His pieces are remarkably lyrical, and although Mr. Ganson has a thoroughly Fine Art resume, his work avoids some of the pitfalls that contemporary art often falls into: the banality, the emphasis on a common understanding of mass culture, which taken as a whole -- suburbia, television, consumerism -- doesn't have much resonance for me.

He says, about the uber-creepy Machine With Abandoned Doll, above: "Stopping to view the ocean from Highway #1 on the coast of California just south of San Francisco, I found this doll lying in a trash pile by the side of the road. I picked it up and immediately visualized this machine. 'As above, so below.'- this recognition of the parallel nature of our spirit and body helps define the formal structure of the machine."

As you can see, he knows his artspeak, and can write what he needs to get recognized by the High Art community; but at the bottom of it all, anyone can understand his work, because he sticks to simple things that resonate with us at a deeper level than those banal parts of our culture -- even if his machines are anything but simple.

It makes me happy to see people thinking once again about the mechanical world. It seems to me there is a correlation between looking back at clockwork and other more fundamental mechanisms (as opposed to electronics-based mechanisms) and a more sustainable approach to the world, because it's a clear rejection of mass-produced planned obsolescence. If you've ever seen The Story of Stuff (below), you'll know that something like 80% of all the consumer goods we buy are in the landfill within 6 months, because they're simply designed to break. In a society like this, clockwork and steam -- and even the concepts of clockwork and steam -- have a certain satisfying durability which is often lacking in our day-to-day lives and stuff. Think of those many wonderful surviving automata from the 18th century, which still work: dancing, playing music, moving like they should all these hundreds of years later. Sure, they've needed tune-ups and the occasional rejuvenatory makeover, but they were really made to last, and they show it. That, in itself, has a resonance for those of us living with an endless supply of disposable stuff.

(beware, this is 20 minutes long, though very fascinating)

One of the things I thought a lot about on my hiatus was what is important to me. Much of what I find important is probably the same as most people: love, a good home, happy children, creativity, a job which makes me feel I'm doing something useful. But there are also things like conversation, wonder, discovery, intimacy, learning, community, nature, and aesthetic observation which, though they sound rather abstract, are things I need for true satisfaction in my life. A lot of people don't seem to need those things, or if they do, they don't realize it. For me, communicating some of these needs is part of what makes me write a blog; but I think there is an idea out there now, that the act of making art is a cerebral exercise, as divorced from the ideas above as we are from the realities of production. With Postmodernism, many people in the art world scoff at the naivete of belief in universal truths, which for me are no longer like those old ones in the Victorian novels -- Truth, Beauty, Virtue, and Hope -- but are embodied in things like the movements of birds, the feeling of holding a baby, the quality of water against your skin. Instead, with Postmodernism we have playfulness, multiculturalism (both good things), and fragmentation, which leaves us with a curious lack of certainty.

And that's an interesting thing, because when you try to paint certainty onto the contemporary world, you hit a mammoth fail. To be honest, I think it's part of what I don't like about some of the art I see now, is that feeling of amorphousness that comes with not being sure of your voice, not being certain what it is you're doing.

It's in the peripheral cultures that certainty seems to come a little more into focus, those ragtag groups like the Steampunk and Maker communities, where people know what they like and pursue it with happy abandon. The multitude of voices which make up this Postmodern society are finally finding their stride in the minglings of these subcultures, places where beauty and skill and the desire for something a little more permanent are considered good ideals.

And that's why I like seeing all this automata, from people who have contrived to straddle the space between the over-mixed blandness of the art world and the lively, vibrant certainty of subcultures. The interest in materials, the love of small pleasures, the geeky fascination with how things work: they work against the tendency of made things to end up in dumpsters, and especially they avoid that tendency for art to become saleable, showable detritus made by people who have been stuffed with unreadable theory, who don't, apparently, feel that vibrancy.

I have to say, it gives me hope.

Monday, December 13, 2010

3 Small Web Animation Experiences

My friend Gwyan sent me these today, and I wanted to share them. Silly, meaningful, and just plain interesting...

My favorite is this one, by Evelien Lohbeck:

Then there is this, uh... music video?? by a band called Sour.

Lastly, you could spend quite a few minutes exploring these super-simple but curiously arresting short... uh, thingies by Aron Sommer. Art pieces? Yes, I think.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

If Only I Had A Fourth-Dimensional Mirror

Since I've moved house, I've been looking through all my old clothes that have been stashed away for years. I'm one of those people who find really cool clothing and then when they look ridiculous I stash them away until they are reasonable to wear again. It's surprising how many clothes actually do work fifteen years later (as long as they're not bubble gum fashion statements).

One thing that has been striking me over and over recently is the shadow-me that I seem to live with. By this I mean, my younger self, which hangs around in these clothes and in photographs. A tall, slender girl with blonde hair who lacked the confidence to express her opinions. I pull out dresses with the 26 inch waist and think, who was that person? Why didn't she speak up? And I still feel her inside me somewhere, still anxious about things, still idealistic, and she's wondering "what the heck happened to me! I want my body back!" It's like being schizophrenic.

I think I blogged somewhere in Croatia about palimpsests, those places where the information from older times gets layered over newer information. Lately, I'm thinking that people, as creatures who live and grow through time, are really just living palimpsests. Our older selves are simply layered versions of our younger selves. Take a look, sometime, at an older person's face: you'll see every experience they ever had, etched into the lines there. If the person has had a bitter life, their face will show it; and people who live their lives well have a certain beauty, laid into their faces like a mosaic or like those poles with the layers and layers of posters stuck to them.

Have you ever seen or read Flatland (my favorite is the wonderful 1965 animated version, with members of Beyond the Fringe doing voices)? It's about some 2-dimensional people (squares, triangles, etc.) who meet a sphere as it passes through their space. The sphere, as it passes through, appears to grow and shrink as different parts of it are bisected by the 2-dimensional plane, and the denizens of that world think that it's only a circle which appears and disappears and fluxuates in size.

As you can see in the video above (which I found after writing most of this post), we are all multi-dimensional creatures, made huge with the vastness of time's dimension, yet seeing only the three-dimensional slice of ourselves in each moment. The younger me, the older me, the me-that-is-to-be, they are all only aspects of the wholeness of myself. So I really am only looking at a part of the whole when I wonder who that person is/was/will be.

What is the shape of that whole, really? I don't mean just in terms of our bodies moving through space; I mean, who are we? What drives us? How does that inform the multidimensional self?

Up to about twenty, we are growing so much that we can't keep up with our own changes, and as a result every time we meet ourselves we are totally different. We get used to this flux: it's all we've ever known, and we don't generally have the agency to influence the world, so we take it in stride.

However, by the twenties, then, are about being Finished -- about Being A Grownup. People in their late teens and twenties are busy reveling in doing all those things they've looked forward to doing when they became A Grownup: going out to clubs, eating whatever, drinking, staying up late, taking terrible care of their bodies: in other words, going where they want to when they want to -- and reading all those banned books. They smoke, they swear, they talk about exciting new things. They try stuff. They are busy devouring the world and showing everyone how they are Not A Kid.

In their thirties, people tend not to need to prove this point so much, and often settle down a bit, getting involved in their job or family life and generally feeling youthful but settled. Their bodies are still good, their friends are smarter, they are deepening intellectually. Life is good.

Then a weird thing happens in the forties and/or fifties. Suddenly their bodies are betraying them; weird physical anomalies appear as if overnight, literally -- one day they're not there, and the next day they are: weight gain, strange fallen bits, wrinkles and bags and puffy bits you never imagined on yourself, all materialize, one by one, in an avalanche of hellish change. By the time you're sixty or seventy, perhaps you're used to it. I don't know; I'm not there yet. However, it's clear that some people go down fighting all the way.

I used to look forward to getting crow's feet. I thought getting old wasn't such a bad thing, and looked forward to someday being one of those leathery old ladies full of cool stories (as opposed to the unmarked, unremarked face which was my youthful lot). Then one day, for reasons which aren't important but were temporary, I woke up and the space above my eyelids had fallen down over my eyes: I could feel my eyelashes holding them up, and when I looked in the mirror I almost screamed. My eyes had gone from the familiar crooked, normal-sized, expressive and not-ugly eyes to some horrid small and mean-looking ones, the eyes of a stranger. I'd swear it wasn't even me looking out of them.

In that moment, it suddenly occurred to me that this might be what my eyes might look like in old age. Suddenly I was a lot less keen. Where were my same eyes with the crow's feet? Would my eye-skin do this, simply sag over my eyes until I was drowned, lost, subsumed in someone else's face, getting up every morning and looking in the mirror and wondering where the me that I had looked at for years had gone? Was I doomed to look mean forever?

Luckily, the awful swelling passed, but it definitely shook me up.

I remember my 90-something-year-old great aunt -- the one who was married to the painter, who made amazing clothes out of curtains and wrote poetry and called you "Darling" in a wonderful deep voice -- I remember her telling my mom, "You're always sixteen inside, darling." She would flirt with young men and get away with it, because she was so dynamic. The young men always responded -- they were fascinated by her. She was as wrinkly and lacking in hair as the next old lady: but she carried herself with drama, wore interesting clothes, and was a marvelous conversationalist.

The thing is, I always aspired to be her. I thought I wanted to be that cool old lady when I was older. But I didn't realize how hard the journey might be -- to go on keeping hold of who you are when the outside of you changes so much. I'm already one of those people whose outsides and insides have never matched: I used to look in shop windows when I walked by, not because I was vain, but because I could never get used to the idea that that person was me. Initially, it was because I couldn't believe that I was fully-grown and had all the grownup bits; but later, it was more to do with not believing that the person with the blonde mane and the unfinished-looking face was really me. It simply didn't seem like an outward expression of who I was. And yet, as the years go by, you get used to that outer self and you come to see it as a favorite sweater, something comfortable that you wear every day and even dress up with accessories -- like clothes, for example (In my case, later, when I had a few more lines in my face, I dyed my hair red and became much more satisfied with the match between inner and outer selves).

Eventually, however, the sweater gets baggy -- and that's when you suddenly realize you're stuck wearing it even if you find you don't love it so much anymore.

I'm thinking more and more that what you have to do is stop thinking of it as if you are an unhappy consumer who can't buy a new sweater (although many people actually try to get the old one retailored); what you have to do is think of it -- all of it -- as a whole. It's not so much that the outer you has worn out, while the inner you is inside screaming to get out; rather, all of those incarnations of you -- the child, the nubile young thing, the virile strong young man, the parent, the middle aged person, whatever guises you have inhabited along the way -- all of those are actually still there. Literally. You just can't see them anymore.

Wikipedia informs me that although I was taught that "Time Is The Fourth Dimension," in most mathematical models there are many different spatial dimensions, and time is not a part of these dimensional spaces. However, there is a type of space (or spacetime) called Minkowski space: "In physics and mathematics, Minkowski space or Minkowski spacetime (named after the mathematician Hermann Minkowski) is the mathematical setting in which Einstein's theory of special relativity is most conveniently formulated. In this setting the three ordinary dimensions of space are combined with a single dimension of time to form a four-dimensional manifold for representing a spacetime.

"In theoretical physics, Minkowski space is often contrasted with Euclidean space. While a Euclidean space has only spacelike dimensions, a Minkowski space also has one timelike dimension."
Et voila! I can still talk about time like it's a fourth dimension. Mathematicians may scoff, but it's just damned easier this way, so I'll willfully stick to it for this post.

Hubble Captures View of
In some version of Minkowski spacetime, then, your tired old body might look like a Nebula photo from the Hubble telescope, or like the best palimpsest you could never imagine. You might find that all the joyous moments shine among the multitudinous wholeness like stars, or that each care that etched its line on your face was represented by a thousand tiny vacillations, like the delicate frills on a jellyfish. You might find that all your many travels make you into a great creature so tangled and enfolded in the Earth that the two have become inextricable. Which gives a new meaning to the "personal responsibility" part of ecological stewardship.

Looking at the women I know who have reached the crone age successfully, I think to myself "it is possible." It's possible to move through the baggy patches with grace, building a beautiful whole. The secret is to live with joy, and the wrinkles in your 3-D self will hopefully layer themselves over the droopy eyes until the palimpsest of happiness embeds itself in your polished old skin so your eyes can't look mean, especially when you look at them in all four dimensions and see who you were, where you went, who you became, and all the many layers and scars and travels and experiences in between, becoming something so vast, so world-encompassing and beautiful that you can't help but be proud.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This Is a Blog Post About News Websites

I don't usually do this simple passing-on-of-the-link, but I had to share.

Someone just sent me this link to a non-article about science writing, and it makes me laugh. It's hard to explain why it's so funny, but if you read as many website science articles that sum up what someone else said about the science, you'll probably think it's funny too. Especially as the Guardian themselves are known to write articles almost exactly like this...