December 2, 2013
Speculative Pentimenti: Painting in the Age of Endarkenment, the most recent book I’ve designed for the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, has just been released. It is one in a series of monographs the ICI is issuing about the work of its Associates. Speculative Pentimenti is about the work of painter Sande Sisneros, specifically a series of paintings from 2009-2011 in which she deploys fluorescing pigments to create two strikingly different states of each painting, one visible under normal daylight or incandescent light, and the other under ultraviolet light. The book includes an essay about the related phenomenon of bioluminescence (by Lise Patt), an essay about Sisneros’s work (by Sue-Na Gay), an interview with Sisneros, and reproductions of selected paintings in both their daylight and UV-visible states. It can be ordered from the ICI website.
Comments (0) | Tags: art, bioluminescence, ICI, painting
November 28, 2013
November 20, 2013
Here is another free wallpaper for computer desktops. Like the last one I posted, it’s from the Long Beach shoreline. It’s a quieter, more tonally neutral image so it may be a better choice if you keep a lot of stuff on your desktop as I do.
Click here to download the high-rez version (1480×1040).
Comments (0) | Tags: beach, landscape, photography, wallpaper
November 7, 2013
One of my purposes with this blog is to promote DIY-oriented websites that enable people to create and acquire art at less-than-astronomical prices and without the intimidation factor or the need for advanced skill sets. I recently learned about a nifty website that solves several of the main obstacles to creating small artist’s books. Bookleteer.com technically belongs to the larger world of print-on-demand publishing populated by the likes of SharedInk, Shutterfly, Blurb, and Lulu, but it takes a quite different tack from those sites. The general approach of POD sites is to offer book templates into which users plug their own text and JPEG images, after which they can order commercially printed, perfect-bound books on nice paper stock for a (comparatively) reasonable price.
Bookleteer also offers templates, but their goal is to make it easy for someone with just an ordinary inkjet printer and a bunch of digital images to print out and assemble a booklet at home. Essentially, they are simplifying the production of hand-made books rather than helping people gain access to commercial printing.1 Anyone who has ever tried to create a hand-made book knows that it can be surprisingly tricky to get the pages organized in the right way, especially with double-sided printing. For example, in a 4-page booklet bound with a staple down the middle, it is not immediately obvious that pages 1 and 4 would actually be on the same piece of paper. Bookleteer has come up with a way of streamlining this production process for small books. Their templates are set up to create finished books of about 4.25 x 5.5 inches, or one-quarter of a standard 8.5×11-inch piece of paper.2 Each printed sheet has 4 pages on it—half of which are upside down with respect to the other half—and the sheets are folded over to create double-sided pages in the finished book. Particularly clever is their method for assembling the finished book: instead of the traditional staples or sewing, pages are held firmly together with a self-locking variation on tabs-and-slits (as shown in the image at right).
To create a book using the Bookleteer method, you upload your images and text to their website, just as with other POD sites.3 When you are done, they create a print-ready PDF for you to download to your home computer. You then print it out and follow their very straightforward folding, cutting, and insertion instructions to create the final booklet. You can make a complete, finished, self-covered book this way—like my 8-page test booklet shown at the top of this post—or you can print only the inside of the book and add your own cover afterwards. The adventurous can print a book with some blank or half-finished pages and add hand-drawn or collaged elements to make each book unique. The maximum size of a book you can create using the Bookleteer software is 40 pages, including the covers, and you have a choice of either portrait or landscape orientation. Theoretically, you could make even bigger books using their downloaded templates once you figured out the page-order logic necessary to create your own printable PDFs, but my guess is that 40 pages is probably the practical limit for books held together by this slit-binding method.
Bookleteer is a project of a pair of designers based in the United Kingdom, Alice Angus and Giles Lane, who work under the name Proboscis. They have an interesting practice that extends well beyond book design and publishing, reaching out to socially engaged practitioners in a lot of different fields, including the sciences. But they have been working with DIY publishing and the idea of shareable media for quite a long time, expressing a commitment to “playful hybrid digital/material publications combining the tactile pleasures of tangible objects with the ease of sharing via digital media.” Indeed, once you have created a booklet on Bookleteer, you have the option of sharing it with others by way of the Bookleteer ‘library’. One of their latest projects is a publishing wing called the Periodical, in which they attempt to “re-imagine publishing as public authoring.”
I’ve been designing and producting both hand-made and commercially printed books for a couple of decades now, and I’ve never come across a simpler method for creating and sharing small books than what the Bookleteer folks have come up with. Check it out: hand-made books make excellent holiday presents.
1. Bookleteer does also offer professional printing of books created with its software, but the minimum order is 25 books.
2. Bookleteer also has templates for standard European paper sizes.
3. You can also download their templates to create your book in InDesign, after which you upload individual pages back to the Bookleteer website to produce the final printable PDF.
Comments (0) | Tags: books & objects, DIY, internet, publishing, software, technology, tools
October 25, 2013
I often use my own photos as desktop images, but I’ve downloaded enough free images from the web over the years that I thought it was time to offer some wallpaper back. At left is a photo of the Long Beach, California, shoreline; click on the photo to see the high-rez version.
Click here to download the high-rez version (1480 x 1080 pixels).
Comments (0) | Tags: beach, landscape, photography, wallpaper
September 23, 2013
I’m a member of FemTechnet, a loose network of women involved professionally with technology, feminism, science studies, and related areas. Specifically, I’m part of a subgroup who are spending time working on Wikipedia to add missing material in our areas of expertise. I was very happy to join this group since I’ve been writing and editing Wikipedia entries in technology and art more or less on my own for several years now. Another subgroup of FemTechNet has organized a collaborative open course for 2013-14 across a number of participating colleges and universities on the topic “Dialogues on Feminism and Technology.” This DOOC (distributed open collaborative course) has embedded in its structure a shared pedagogical activity called Storming Wikipedia “designed to write women and feminist scholarship of science and technology back into our web-based cultural archives.” I’m not participating in this DOOC formally, but I am including a Storming Wikipedia unit in one of my fall courses. I’ll be having my students work on new entries for Wikipedia while also reflecting on what kinds of material are inappropriate for that encyclopedia and doing some work with those non-Wikipedian materials.
Storming Wikipedia briefly (and predictably) drew the ire of Fox News, but I imagine a bunch of feminist academics and their students are a pretty low-level target because they seem to have dropped the story almost immediately. Predictably, Fox News got it wrong, framing us as vandals out to “corrupt” Wikipedia rather than just another group of editors with a set of expertises and the same right to edit Wikipedia as every other living person on this planet. The Daily Dot ran a piece that gives a clearer sense of why FemTechNet organized its wikistorming activities in the first place. And Mother Jones also covered the story briefly, running a telling graphic showing the gender distribution of Wikipedia editors (spoiler alert: it skews 85-97% male depending on which English-speaking country you are looking at).
The brilliance of Wikipedia still resides in the fact that anyone can contribute to it—although learning the interface and the community standards is a bit of a pain, there is no other intellectual resource of such magnitude and social importance that I am aware of that is not a closed shop. (OK, maybe Linux.) The Digital Media + Learning hub at UC Irvine’s Humanities Research Institute has a useful post here on how to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool. It links to some good resources developed by the highly experienced Wikipedia editor and Occidental College professor Adrianne Wadewitz. FemTechNet has wikistorming resources here and here as well. But teaching is just one way to approach expanding Wikipedia and its editor base. I encourage everyone I meet to try their hand at editing Wikipedia at least once. Almost certainly, something you consider important is still missing from that bit-heap of knowledge fragments. You can stand on the sidelines carping until someone else gets around to it—if they ever do—or you can write it yourself.
Comments (0) | Tags: feminism, social media, technology, Wikipedia
September 21, 2013
One of our early discussions on “Far-Flung follows function” has been how to make and hang a 9×12-foot projection screen that will be visible from both sides. Most of the discussion has been around different possibilities for attaching the PVC screen material to its frame: staples, tape, clips, grommets, combination, other? So I was prompted to dig out my old grommeting set, something I haven’t used in a long time.
As I took the photo at left to share with my collaborators, I was reminded of just how primitive the technology feels to use, even though industrial precision methods are employed to create the tools, and sometimes even more modern materials like plastic are used for the grommets themselves. It’s basically a miniaturization of the hammer and anvil concept: a striker and a strike plate, with a third item—called a punch—to transfer the force of the blow more precisely and evenly. (This photo shows just the punch and the anvil; BYO hammer and grommets).
If you’ve never done this before, the basic idea is to seat one half of the grommet in the circular depression in the anvil, lay over it the layer of fabric being grommeted, lay on top of that the other half of the grommet, seat the anvil in the hole, and give a mighty whack. The two halves of the grommet are designed to lock permanently together under the force of the blow. Refinements include prepunching a hole in the fabric to avoid rips, but the process hardly ever gets more complicated than this. You can get mechanized grommet presses, but even these look like early Victorian technology and mostly run on arm power rather an electricity, so they aren’t much of an improvement on the hammer-punch-anvil setup.
Grommets are a fairly ubiquitous kind of eyelet: think shower curtains, boat sails, the lace holes on your shoes. But they weren’t widely used until the 20th century; before that, the reinforcement that grommets offer tended to be hand-sewn into fabric (like that other most familiar eyelet, the buttonhole). Sometimes they were reinforced with a hidden, oversewn metal or wooden ring, but that was comparatively rare. The word itself came into the English language in the 1720s as a term for a ring or circlet of rope; it didn’t come to signify a metal eyelet for another century and a half. So in the modern meaning of the term, we’re looking at an 18th century technology that hasn’t been substantially improved despite remaining widespread. Grommeting is one of those technologies that have been stable for so long we no longer think of them as technologies, until a random photo lets us see both the ancientness of form and the refinement of modern manufacture.
Comments (0) | Tags: technology, tools
September 19, 2013
We are now one week into our residency on my fall project, the new performance work “Far-Flung follows function.” The lead artist on this is Ursula Endlicher; I’ve signed on as both a general collaborator and a performer (more about that later). My longtime collaborator Robert Allen is the movement director of the piece and also a performer.
We’ve spent the last week in the Experimental Medial Performance Lab at UC Irvine working with the physical organization of the space. The xMPL has no permanently defined stage and audiences areas: it’s a big black box. So you have to begin with the basics: Where will the performers be working? Where will the set pieces go? Projectors, speakers, lights? The audience is going to be circulating freely through the space rather than seated, so that has to be borne in mind also.
Almost the first thing that happened, then, was that Ursula sketched out her floor plan with those giant pieces of tubular chalk that kids love so much. The black-painted wooden floor became a giant record of drawing and redrawing: pentimento city. At the end of the first day I took some photographs and created the digital collage above. Yet another redrawing, and far from the last—we are now slowing replacing the chalk with vinyl tape to create an abstract motherboard. More on that in a later post.
Comments (0) | Tags: art, Far-Flung, performance, technology
August 2, 2013
One of the enduring pleasures of walking seaside is picking up beach glass. When I was little, we had a strict hierarchy of colors: the most desirable was the rare red, followed by the somewhat rare cobalt blue. Then, in descending order, turquoise, aquamarine, dark green, light green, amber, dark brown, white, clear. It made a useful sort of currency whose exhange values fluctuated wildly, complicated by the fact that it was interlinked with a second oceanic currency, the seashell. Gold and silver jingle shells, whelks, periwinkles, boat shells, tiny clams (double angel wings preferred), mussels. Unusual rocks—’diamonds’, black-white sandwiches, heart shapes, ‘gold’ nuggets, mica—had their own values, as did oddities like the sinister but elegant skates’ egg cases and the translucent infant horsehoe crabs.
We would keep our bits of glass in water to bring out their color and translucency. The other day on the beach I found some glass of odd colors and put them in water and painted this quick study.
Comments (0) | Tags: art, glass
July 29, 2013
I recently spent a few days in the Bay Area Studio of my friend the artist Christel Dillbohner playing around with wet media. One of the things we did was collaborative drawings (Gemeinschaftsbilder), something I had never done before. Though I’ve collaborated on drawings with a poet, and played exquisite corpse any number of times, the shared work of 4-handed drawing had somehow never come my way. Basically, we set up 5 sheets of paper on a large table and, starting on opposite sides, went from sheet to sheet drawing and painting whatever we wanted. At first there was a lot of latitude because the paper was mostly empty, but soon we were working with, through, around, beside, over, and against each other’s marks. It was a great deal of fun. After several hours, we ended up with just 4 completed drawings because we ran out of time and energy to complete the fifth. One of them is posted over at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry’s website. At left is a blackboard of notes that we wrote to ourselves over the course of a couple of days. This is one of the things that I get out of art: it’s one of the few places where the phrases “Durchblicke schaffen”, “neolithic meets baroque”, and “the sun becomes the moon” can be part of a meaningful event.
Comments (0) | Tags: art, collaboration
July 18, 2013
A friend gave me this beautiful envelope from Sri Lanka. Like one I got awhile back from China, it’s a gorgeous assemblage of stamps, notations, and creases. This one I’m keeping … for now.
Comments (0) | Tags: art, mail art
July 13, 2013
Somewhere along the line I acquired a copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not in very good shape, but I’ve held on to it for years, not only because it is often spoken of as a high-water mark for excellence in encyclopedia writing but also because—having been published in 1910—it is out of copyright, meaning that everything in it, including the sparse but excellent illustrations, can be used as raw material for art projects without anxiety. Recently I was looking into it for a new project and I stumbled on the entry on American Literature. Although I’ve read a lot of American literature—it formed part of my college major—I didn’t recall ever having read the Britannica entry, so I sat down to take a look at what their editors thought of our literature at the turn of the last century.
In the end, I had to read it twice because the first time through I got thoroughly distracted by scorekeeping the ins and the outs. In: all three Mathers—Richard, Increase, and Cotton—who remembers there were three? Out: Emily Dickinson (really??), Kate Chopin, and Ambrose Bierce. Bronson Alcott in; Louisa May Alcott out. Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories in; Frederick Douglass out. Although books published as late as 1890 are mentioned, the editors seem to have set a cutoff for births around 1860 as there is no mention of anyone born after 1858. This excludes such important late 19th and early 20th century writers as Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Booth Tarkington. (There is some tension between the literature entry and entries on individual authors: Crane, although excluded from American literature proper, is given a brief entry under his own name.)
I was most curious to find out which women (if any) were included in the entry, which runs to nearly 11 full pages. Initially, I was surprised at how many of them there were: beginning with the poet Anne Bradstreet and ending with the novelist Mary Noailles Murfree (who wrote under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock), about 20 women are mentioned. But as these stand next to some 180 men, they represent just about 10% of all the American writers named. (It should be noted that the authorship of literature, as construed in this entry, embraces not only novelists, playwrights, and poets, but historians, scholars, ministers, orators, politicians, and humorists—professions mostly closed to women at that time.)
It was only on a second reading that I grasped this entry’s full peculiarity. It is signed “G.E.W.,” which the volume index identifies as the initials of George Edward Woodberry, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University between 1891 and 1904 and author of a book on Edgar Allan Poe. Woodberry evinces a deep disdain for the literature of his own country; so much so that I was astonished when I looked him up and discovered that he was not British, as I assumed, but American, born in Beverly, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard University. Oh, a few writers do merit his praise: he writes at length and for the most part approvingly on Washington Irvine, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant (his first holy trinity), on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (his second holy trinity), and—no surprise—Poe. But even here there are barbs: although the Irvine-Cooper-Bryant trinity rates one and a half of the 11 pages, Woodberry does slap down Irving for being a humorist and Cooper for being clumsy. Irving: “The excellence of his work lies rather in the treatment then the substance.” Cooper: “He wrote voluminously and with great unevenness. His literary defects, both of surface and construction, are patent.” (p. 834). And Woodberry goes out of his way to praise both Poe and Henry James for their un-American qualities: Poe for taking his cues from English writers (“He had no American origins, but only American conditions of life,” p. 836) and James for being a “cosmopolitan writer [who] has no other connexion with America than the accident of birth” (p. 840).
Most of the time, though, it is impossible for Woodberry to discuss any individual American writer, movement, period, tendency, or genre without putting it down. Often this is done subtly, as in the Irving example above; Woodberry is a master of damning with faint praise, backhanded compliments, litotes, and other forms of polite derision. A few examples (italics mine):
“The older clergy were not inferior in power or learning to the leaders of their own communion in England” (p. 831).
“The first books of true excellence were experiments; they seem almost accidents” (p. 833).
“American Romanticism and thus began with these three writers [Irving, Cooper, and Bryant], who gave it characterization after all by only a few simple traits” (p. 835).
Individually, these are not so bad, but in their relentless march down the page, they add up to an overall verdict of dismissal. And it is the women who fare worst. Early on, he writes of two now largely forgotten writers, “Fiction had been earlier attempted by Mrs. Susanna Haswell Rowson, whose Charlotte Temple (1790) is remembered, and contemporaneously by Mrs. Hannah Webster Foster in The Coquette (1797)” (p. 833; italics mine). “Attempted by” suggests a failed attempt, and “is remembered” is weak, signaling evasion of a judgment—remembered for what?—that could not have been good.
Some other examples (italics mine):
In the course of writing off much of the first half of the 19th century, which Woodberry terms a period of “sentimentality”, he mentions Lydia Sigourney as “a prolific writer” and Maria Gowan Brooks as “a more ambitious aspirant” (p. 835).
The novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick is said to have written “the best current fiction which was not to be incorporated in literature” (p. 836).
The historian Sarah Margaret Fuller (whose life was cut short at the age of 40 when the ship she was traveling on sank off Fire Island) is given as “a woman of extraordinary qualities and much usefulness, who is best remembered by her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844), but contributed no permanent work to literature” (p. 838).
Lydia Maria Child is tagged as one of a “line of notable American women who served their generation in literary ways” (p. 838).
A small flood of women— Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Eleanor Wilkins, Mary Hallock Foote, Mary Noailles Murfree—are subsumed under this categorization: “The principal minor product of the novel lay in the provincial tale” (p. 840).
Julia Ward Howe is brought in as one of the 19th century’s “minor poets of less distinction” (p. 840).
My point here is not to champion these women as writers—there are many people much more versed in this material than I am who are doing the hard work of reassessment—but that the many male writers mentioned don’t draw anywhere near the same degree of head-patting even when Woodberry treats them as minor or peripheral figures. Woodberry has established a clear hierarchy here: among writers, women rank below men, and American men rank below the British (and Europeans more generally). America is criticized for having moved away from European culture while at the same failing to produce a literature from within itself. After all this, it comes as no surprise to read Woodberry’s cruel summary of the state of American literature ca. 1910: “The imaginative life is feeble, and when felt is crude; the poetic pulse is imperceptible” (p. 840).
Addendum: After I finished the first draft of this post and was looking further into the history of the 1910 edition—trying to get a grasp on why Woodberry, of all people, was chosen to write this entry—I stumbled on a very early critique of the 1910 Britannica by the writer Willard Huntington Wright, better known today as the author of the Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dyne. In 1917, Wright published the book Misinforming a Nation, a scathing 222-page dissection of the Britannica’s errors of prejudice, bias, omission, misstatement, misdirection, and misjudgment. I recommend Wright’s book as an excellent introduction to thinking about what an encyclopedia should be, by way of what it should not be. A pertinent sample from Chapter 2:
“The importance of English writers is constantly exaggerated at the expense of foreign authors….in the majority of cases outside of England, criticism, when offered at all, is cool and circumscribed and not seldom adverse…. When we come to the American literary division of the Britannica however, prejudice and neglect reach their highest point. Never have I seen a better example of the contemptuous attitude of England toward American literature than the Encyclopædia’s treatment of the novelists of the United States” (pp. 24-51).
I’m cheered by the thought that it’s not just 100 years of hindsight that makes the 1910 Britannica entry on American literature so hair-raising; its defects were evident to at least some contemporary readers.
Note: All quotes are from volume 1 of the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Comments (0) | Tags: encyclopedias, women, writing
May 27, 2013
I come from a family that doesn’t talk a lot about the military or military service, and it doesn’t have many career soliders, so I don’t know much about this aspect of our family history. But thinking about it today, I realize that the fragmentary information I do have adds up to what is probably a common pattern in this country: a good deal of wartime service, and some other scattered service here and there. So today I am remembering:
Jean-Fréderic de la Farge (paternal great-great-great grandfather), who came to the new world in a somewhat unusual way. The following excerpt is from an 1896 book by Cecilia Waern about his son, the artist John La Farge. It’s doubtful that this story is wholly accurate, given that it was probably told to Waern at second or third hand and was probably already burnished to show its protagonist in the best light. In addition, the reference to an Easter Sunday massacre in 1806 is possibly a misdating of a more prolonged event that took place between February and April 1804.
“Jean-Frederic de la Farge, when a midshipman in the French navy, took part in the famous and ill-fated  expedition of General [Charles] Leclerc to St. Domingo [St. Domingue, later the Republic of Haiti], where, tempted bv a still more adventurous life and by promotion to the rank of lieutenant, he exchanged into the land forces. While on an inland expedition he was taken captive by the insurgent negroes under General [Philippe] Guerrier. His companions were tortured to death, but his life was spared in order — so runs the family tradition — that he might instruct the future President of the negro republic in reading and writing. De la Farge was held a prisoner even after the withdrawal of the French, but at last, being warned by his coloured friends of the impending massacre of all remaining whites on Easter Sunday, 1806 [1804?] he managed to escape in company with a Dutch gentleman and his wife. They put out to sea in a small boat and got away along the coast ; then, abandoning the boat, made their way through a tropical forest to the Spanish side of the island. Here they found a ship which took them to Philadelphia.
After Leclerc’s death [of yellow fever in 1802] there was less hope of advancement for the officers of Napoleon’s rivals. The young Frenchman, who had already seen the most terrible side of war, was quick to note the great commercial future awaiting America and decided to settle there. A youth of energy and keen insight, he rapidly became very wealthy, as wealth was reckoned in those days, by ventures on the high seas, running blockades, and later by purchases of land in New York [where other refugees from St. Domingo had settled, among them the planter whose daughter later became his wife] and the Southern States.”
Christopher “Kipper” Grant La Farge (paternal grandfather), who served in the U.S. Army in World War II as a war correspondent. His postwar book “East by Southwest” is a group of eleven fictionalized stories from his time on the South Pacific front.
Frances Hoar (paternal great-aunt), who worked in some hush-hush way on cryptography during World War II (probably for the Army).
Charles Hercules Boissevain (maternal grandfather), a naturalized citizen who served in the U.S. Army as a doctor during World War II, part of the time posted in Great Britain.
C. Grant La Farge (father), who served as a doctor in the U.S. Air Force ca. 1956-1960.
And then, too, there are those who served in different ways:
Robert “Bop” and Helena Suzanna “Sonia” Boissevain (maternal great-uncle and aunt, greatly beloved of my mother), Dutch citizens who lived in Haarlem during World War II, where they sheltered a Jewish family named Goldberg for over two years. Active in the Resistance, Robert was eventually forced to go into hiding but was eventually caught, tortured, and sent to Buchenwald. Sonia spent the remainder of the war caring for herself, her six children, and the four Goldbergs under conditions of extreme deprivation; one winter, the family story goes, they lived for a time off of several hundred pounds of tulip bulbs. When Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945, Robert was still barely alive, but he collapsed on his way to the entrance to meet the Americans and died.
Father John LaFarge, Jr. (great-granduncle), one of three Jesuit priests who, at the request of Pope Pius XI, drafted a papal encyclical that strongly condemned racism, antisemitism, and totalitarianism (though marred in places by the Catholic Church’s inherent anti-Judaism). Entitled Humani Generis Unitas (On the Unity of the Human Race), it was delivered to Pius XI shortly before he died. It was never promulgated in its original form, but the new pope, Pius XII, used material from the draft in his own first encyclical.
May 13, 2013
Back in December, I went to New York to visit my friend Beatriz da Costa. Walking from the Metropolitan Museum back downtown to my guest digs one evening, I passed this store window with its enormous, multi-monitor video display showing the waves breaking, live, on Huntington Beach, just a few miles south of where I live in the greater Los Angeles basin. It was that cool, enchanted December of New York, with Christmas lights netted over bushes and twining along the bare branches of every second tree. In drizzle and sparkle, a much-needed change from the unseasonable balminess of southern Calfornia. So it was odd to come suddenly upon what I had flown three thousand miles to leave behind, a through-the-looking-glass moment. But of course it made sense that our dreams should be reciprocal, I drawn to the magic city of the east even as its inhabitants longed for my mundane Pacific shore.
| Tags: California, media, video, writing
April 22, 2013
A while back, after updating Skype, I discovered that I would now be greeted each time I logged in with the following extremely annoying message: “Your contacts have not been very active recently.” My initial reaction—possibly the same as yours—was: so what? It took a few seconds before I became annoyed by the fact that this piece of software thinks I need this bit of information. The implication is that the inactivity of my contacts is a problem. But what is the problem, exactly? Does Skype think I am incapable of keeping track of my Skype contacts on my own? That I am a lonely shut-in who needs a nudge to reach out to other people? That I have lame friends?
And what am I supposed to do with this information? Bug people I know to spend more time online? Spend more time online myself? Well, perhaps that is the general idea, since the second part of the message suggests updating my Skye status or connecting to Facebook. Fine, I understand that Skype wants me to spend more time using their software. But I don’t want to be prodded about it every time I log in. All they’ve done with this message is ensure that I will think dark thoughts about their software and their software engineers every time I use Skype. As aversion conditioning, an undoubted success. As social media, an epic fail.
| Tags: social media, software, technology
April 2, 2013
It’s been over a year since I last posted on this blog, and some of you have been kind enough to ask where the hell have I been? I took what started out as a short break while I was immersed in my Galileo in America project. That stretched out to a year once I started working on a book. It’s been a process of deep immersion, and the book is not finished, but I do occasionally think about something else. Sometimes for a few days at a time, even. So I’m going to return to posting the occasional piece here, though probably not with any regularity for awhile.
December 27, 2011
As I wrote about a week ago, I’m in the midst of working on a new performance project, Galileo in America. We’re now at what may be the most awkward stage of all, long past the early, exciting phase of throwing ideas around to see what bounces highest, and not yet at the last, scary phase where it’s all about the tasks that must be completed in order to have a show at all. This is the shop floor phase, when ideas begin to take physical form and in the process reveal every possible bug, error, mismeasurement, flaw, wrong assumption, poor judgment, and half-baked aesthetic. You spend a lot of time repeating variations of “Yeah, ok, so that won’t work either. What about…”
Right now I’m working on the scheme for our projection scrims. In order to play with various possible combinations, I built a 1:40 scale model of the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL), where our performances will take place. Calling it a scale model makes it sound a good deal classier than it really is, evoking as it does miniature-gauge train sets and model car kits. My scale model is built from gatorboard (left over from another project), heavy wire (rusted from sitting around my studio so long), thin wood dowels (formerly skewers), paper, and tape.
These days, this kind of modeling is typically done on the computer in a CAD program. I decided not to take that route, and not just because CAD isn’t one of my areas of expertise. I wanted that immediate, physical, visceral sense of objects in space, a sense that is most directly conveyed by, well, actual objects. The crudity of my toy theater was deliberate also, a way to not get too hung up on possible solutions too early in the process. I find that this is a trap always waiting for me—maybe other artists are luckier in this regard—the temptation to start polishing up a preliminary idea before it’s ready. The lure of the finished. Computer programs are particularly deadly for me in this regard, since algorithmically generated objects turn out so neat and precise. They have a perfection that entices you to accept them even if they are in fact the wrong perfection.
So here I am surrounded by scraps of paper of all different sizes that I believe will lead me somewhere useful. The next step will be to replace the scraps of paper with fabric and look at the effects of actual light projected in various ways. What I really need is a 1:40 scale miniature data projector, but I’m guessing that doesn’t exist. Yet.
| Tags: art, Galileo in America, performance, scale model, tools
December 22, 2011
Most years I make either a solstice or a new year’s card to celebrate the return of the light– I really hate the short days of winter. This year’s card came about at the very tail end of a work session in my studio. I had been documenting some of my older work with the help of my assistant, using a classic studio setup with multiple light sources carefully placed to ensure that the work would be evenly lighted. Frankly, it’s a pretty tedious process.
Once we were done, as an antidote, I decided to play around for a bit with highly uneven lighting. I grabbed a small flower arrangement I had left over from a dinner party and we began to experiment with various forms of pinpoint and single-source lighting. Eventually we settled on a method of using my assistant’s LED-based miniature flashlight to ‘paint’ light into a fairly long time-lapse photograph. As a bonus, the process left light trails all through the image. (The moving hand, however, disappeared entirely.) The images for this year’s card are cropped from three different stages of our experiments, creating a visual reminder that art always begins with play— even if it ends with the grunt work of documentation).
As always, you are welcome to download this image and use it yourself as a card or small print. As a card, it’s designed to be a three-fold piece, with the righthand end folded back first and the lefthand end folded second. To make this work, the white border has to be trimmed all the way off the two ends— I took a quick snap with my cellphone to show the idea (though it doesn’t do the colors justice). The image is sized so that it can be printed on standard 8.5×11-inch paper; it works best on heavy matte stock with matte-black inks.
The 72-dpi version shown above is only 49 kb; the linked pdfs below are quite a lot larger. I’m including the 2-up version because it is the least wasteful of paper.
Large version (single image, 1.5 mb)
Large version, 2-up (2.7 mb)
And just in case you have a bad case of winter nostalgia, here is the link to last year’s card.
| Tags: artist's studio, experimentation, light, solstice
December 19, 2011
I’ve just launched a fund-raising campaing on IndieGoGo for my upcoming performance project in February-March. Check it out and contribute if you feel so moved. I’ll be blogging the process a bit as we go along, since the kind of high-tech, experimental work I make is not exactly the result of a cookie-cutter mode of artmaking.
There’s also a project website with a bit more information, and you can even buy tickets online— the performances are going to be in UC Irvine’s brand-new black-box performance space. But right now, we could really use help with our fund-raising so that when rehearsals begin in mid-January we aren’t still chewing our nails to the quick.
New art for the new year— because I’m just not buying that the world is going to end in 2012.
| Tags: 2012, Brecht, Galileo, HUAC, performance
October 26, 2011
I recently stumbled on the website of Bo Press Miniature Books, which is difficult to describe without resorting to very bad puns having to do with size. (It’s not just a small press, it’s a miniature press! You get the idea.) Bo Press specializes in both miniature books—those under 3 inches tall—and the even tinier microminiature or ‘dollhouse’ books, which top out at 1 inch tall.
Bo Press’s books are handmade, inkjet printed and imaginatively bound—the commedia dell’arte book shown here, for example, has covers modeled on the structure of the traditional theatrical flat used for scenery. (It’s also reminiscent of the backside of a painting since both are made using canvas stretched over wood.)
Miniature books are often dismissed as trifles for collectors, and I don’t have much of a taste for them myself, usually finding them overelaborate and twee. While Bo Press does have its share of decorative whimsy, I found the books appealing for the sheer eccentricity of their subject matter. There are books on flea circuses, hieroglyphs, water, flying carpets, and lost cities. There is a book about the physical structure of the book, and another of headdress designs inspired by naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s landmark book “Art Forms of Nature.” There are books on laboratory specimens, perpetual motion, and pi.
For those interested in charting the universe, there are books of maps: over here, Minard’s famous map of Napoleon’s retreat; over there, the Bellman’s rather understated map from “The Hunting of the Snark.” And there are miniature astronomical instruments as well: orreries and tellurions and pocket globes, many in glass cases. These were my favorite items, since I have an abiding fascination with orreries and astrolabes.
Bo Press is the creation of Pat Sweet, a former theatrical costumer turned publisher (as well as, by her own description, “printer, illustrator, writer, editor, proofreader, copy editor, designer, binder, art director, shipping clerk, head of marketing, and janitor”). The press is based in Riverside, but its products are for sale through the website. Including—if you can’t make up your mind between Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and a book of ‘extinction masks’—blank books.
Comments (3) | Tags: Bo Press, miniature books, small press
October 6, 2011
Steve Jobs died yesterday. Many people owe him a lot, but I probably owe him more than most. I belong to the transitional generation that didn’t grow up with desktop computers; my first experience with computers came just out of college, with a large typesetting system (I wrote a bit about it here). This kind of system was based around a mainframe computer with a bunch of satellite terminals where the writers input their copy and the editors messed it about and the typesetters formatted it and sent it to be output on a special kind of photographic paper stock. No one but elite technicians ever got to meddle with the ‘master’ computer itself, and the terminals where people like me worked were referred to variously as ‘dumb’ or ‘slave’ terminals, a nice example of the way jargons embed the world view of their creators.
In other words, this system was merely the latest in a long line of calculating and computing machines that had been designed primarily from what one might call the wizard’s viewpoint. By this I mean any system that is intended to remain opaque to—and therefore inaccessible to—all but a small cadre of super-skilled workers. The underlying mindset is one that values knowledge as a form of power and thus hoards rather than shares it to the extent possible. This attitude extends far beyond the technological fields—it was as characteristic of the medieval Catholic church’s efforts to block the literacy of the populace as it was of the medieval guilds’ corralling of trade skills such as metalworking or dyemaking.
As long as there are human beings of differing interests and abilities and the will to use that difference to hold power, the knowledge gap will never entirely disappear. It merely moves around within the culture, and with it the wizards who feel themselves called to maintain and even widen it. One could argue, for example, that one of its prime locales for the last decade as been in the arena of investment banking, where all those collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps were so clearly devised in large part to shut out most of the world from an understanding of what was really going on, and thus from any power to intervene. And Apple itself is by no means entirely free of this tendency, as its many outside software developers will be the first to tell you. But my perspective is that of the person who, right up to the advent of the personal computer, had been imagined (if thought of at all) as the operator of a dumb terminal. As long as I could do what the wizards imagined I would want to do at that dumb terminal, why would I want anything else? And how could I even imagine that anything else?
The earliest PCs pointed the way towards a new form of mass literacy, programming, which had been a sanctuary of computer wizards up to that point. What Steve Jobs did with Apple was to go the next step and focus all design efforts around making the personal computer (and its later offspring like tablets and cellphones) easily usable by people with a very wide range of skills, needs, and wants—including nonprogrammers. There remain arguments about whether Apple went too far in dumbing down the computer in a different way from its mainframe predecessors, in the years before it added UNIX-style command-line access to the system; and about whether the concomitant rise of ‘creativity’ software has actually tended to limit creativity by too narrowly focusing what most people are able to do with their PCs. But you only have to look around at the range of innovative and powerful work that’s being produced in part through computers—from music to interactive installations, from social media to game hacks—to see the enormity of the difference that the Apple approach has made.
Or to think about it another way: imagine that we were still in a phase where the only people who could create interesting work with computers were skilled programmers (or those with the money to hire programmers). Immediately, perhaps 90% of what has been produced in the last two decades simply vanishes into thin air. Including much of my own work. I’m not a natural programmer—though I’ve had to become a programmer along the way—and my acquaintance with mainframes and then early PCs was anything but inspiring. It wasn’t until a friend showed me a Macintosh SE running MacPaint that I saw the possibilities for my own work. I had been looking for a medium without realizing that what I actually needed was the right tool.
I’ve ended up becoming one of those people who works with different kinds of computers as needed, whether running UNIX or LINUX or OSX or even plain old unglamorous Windows (I’m writing this on a dual-boot Mac/Windows machine). But it’s also true that with my first computer, I became one of those diehard Apple loyalists with “I won’t give up my Mac until you pry it from my cold dead fingers” tattoo’d on my heart. I stayed with Macs when people laughed at me for buying one, I stayed when I had to take out a loan just to afford one, I even stayed when Apple’s market share fell below 5% and I was all but certain the company was going to go out of business within a year. I stayed for the simplest reason of all: Apple’s computers suited me. An artist reaches for her favorite paintbrush because it’s the one that gets her fastest into the flow, the place where you’re struggling towards the idea and not against the tool. For some of us, it’s the same with our computers.
So thank you, Steve Jobs. And thank you, anti-wizards everywhere: you know who you are.
| Tags: Apple, computers, programming, Steve Jobs, tools, wizards
September 18, 2011
A mandala… of sorts.
| Tags: art, diagrams, virtual performance
September 9, 2011
Like nearly every American alive at the time, I remember vividly the moment I first heard about the attacks of 9/11 2001. It’s in no way a remarkable story, but I feel a compulsion nonetheless to bear witness to a day that, if it did not ‘change everything’ (as is too often said), did at least significantly alter the course of U.S. and world history.
It was breakfast time on a slow morning in California—I wasn’t due to teach that day, and my husband had left a short time before for his own teaching job. He called me from the car to say that he had heard on the radio that something very bad was going down in New York, some kind of an attack. I must have turned on the tv around 7:15 local time because the South Tower was already down and the Pentagon crash was being reported, and I was shortly to watch the North Tower collapse on live video. I essentially remained glued to the tv for the next three days (my classes were cancelled that week).
I had just moved to the west coast from New York two years earlier and still thought of myself as a transplanted New Yorker, so part of my horror was personal—did I know anyone in the towers or the planes? (I still have on my computer a copy of this survivor list, a relic of those early hours of uncertainty.) The rest was that naked shock which cannot quite be recovered now that we have been growing used to these images for ten years. Those first video clips of the planes flying into the towers—replayed over and over again—the tiny heads and waving arms at the windows, the sudden collapse of first one tower and then the other—for that one day only it had the rawness of pure nightmare.
The particular form of the catastrophe had an extra resonance for me as someone with aerophobia. All my life I have been plagued by dreams of planes crashing, planes burning, planes falling out of the sky. They are always big planes, and sometimes I am on them, and sometimes I am trying to get out from underneath. Once, in my early twenties, I was in an intercity bus that crashed at high speed, rolled over on the median and burst into flames. In the strange, slowed-down time of such events, I thought: I’m going to die now—and the main reason I thought this was that it was all going down almost exactly like some of my dreams. (By great good fortune, I suffered only minor injuries, but so potent was the experience that I still think of the years since that day as my second life.) Watching those planes fly into the World Trade Center in 2001 was also like watching one of my nightmares come true—only this time I wasn’t in it.
Something that looked like normal life resumed after awhile, but it didn’t take long before I was finding it hard to endure the revengeful, violent, jingoistic language that was springing up in the media and on the street as information solidified about Al Qaeda’s role in the attacks. It worried me that we might be about to be derailed as a nation by a kind of mob psychosis fueled by the relief of hatred. So in late September 2001, on impulse, I sat down and created the poster shown here. I won’t pretend it’s any more (or less) than a propaganda piece, but in its small way it was sadly prescient. Our justice has found Osama bin Laden and many of his operatives, but the cost has been high. As I read about the many 9/11 memorials and recall that day’s 3000 dead, I find myself thinking about those other dead: the tens of thousands of casualties—most of them civilian—from the two wars that stemmed directly from the events of 9/11. When justice comes at such a high price, can we still call it that?
For a free copy of this poster, download the file here (zipped JPEG, 750kb).
Comments (1) | Tags: 9/11, WTC
September 5, 2011
Over on the blog Bioephemera, I came across the elegant sumi-e style paintings of neurons by University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Greg Dunn. Since my first passion in art, as a child, was for the Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, I was instantly taken with Dunn’s application of this minimalist technique to a subject ordinarily accessible only through micro-photography. While the best such photographs are themselves works of art, Dunn’s pieces bring to bear the different affordances of painting: color and texture, selective filtering of subject matter, traces of the hand as well as the eye.
Dunn sells high-quality digital prints of his work through his website, and he also takes commissions for original paintings and scrolls.
The major cultural value of scientific imaging may lie in the technical reliability of the image, and certainly the canonical story of its development as a field with reference to such key figures as Andreas Vesalius, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Étienne-Jules Marey is one of increasing accuracy. More interesting to me is the ongoing problem of how we learn to ‘see’ both through and with scientific images. That is, how what we see and know affects the kinds of images we make and, conversely, how the kinds of images we make affect what we can see and know.§
For instance, I’m struck by how Dunn’s paintings home in on the branching structure of neurons, the axons and dendrites that create forms reminiscent of tree roots. Trees are prominent in art, and they are familiar in another sense through the frequency with which they are used as a metaphor—genealogical trees, the ‘tree of life’. It is easy to feel we understand what we are seeing when we look at dendritic representations of the brain’s micro-structure. There is also the fact that one of the classic techniques for making the dendritic structure of neurons visible, known as Golgi’s method, stains the cells dark brown or black through impregnation with chemicals that precipitate as silver chromate. Dunn has, in effect, found a painterly analog of Golgi’s method in the black ink of sumi-e.
But it happens that I’ve been reading a good deal about neurochemistry lately, and there’s a whole other set of images and analogies at work there—for what happens ‘in the gap’ between neurons where neurotransmitting chemicals do their work. These tend to evoke images of riverbanks and ferries (docking, shuttling), of action and exchange, of a kind of chemical commerce at the molecular level. Where the tree imagery evokes stability, the synaptic imagery evokes fluidity. Neither kind of image is wrong—for one thing, the synaptic diagrams represent a different level of detail, a close-up of hot spots in the dendritic system—but neither offers a complete picture by itself. I find myself wondering: what are the images of the brain we have yet to ‘see’, the metaphors we have yet to invoke that will change our understanding once more?
§ A terrific article on this subject is Simon Schaffer’s “On Astronomical Drawing”, in Picturing Science Producing Art, edited by Caroline A. Jones and Peter Gallison. Also recommended on a related subject: Errol Morris’s new book Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), most of which appeared in an earlier form online through his “Opinionator” column at the New York Times.