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Rethinking Invention

April 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” - T. S. Eliot

I used to work for a professor who would say: “Without the toaster, we’d have no computers!” Each invention brings about a whole new world of possibilities. The toaster may not resemble the computer, but they are stages on a continuum once seen at a distance. Of course, that is not apparent in the beginning of any invention, only hindsight provides that kind of perspective.

The first toaster came about in the early 1900s and even it did not resemble the toasters of today. The first toaster browned one side of bread at a time, requiring the user to flip the toast halfway through. And wouldn’t you know the invention that immediately followed the toaster? Presliced bread. In other words, the new product created space for another new product. This is not surprising, and in fact, seems to be an unwritten rule of invention. It is anyone’s guess which products will survive (like presliced bread) and which will fade.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony got me thinking about invention in general. Zuckerberg has repeated that he did not know exactly what he was creating Facebook. I think that can be said of all invention. And if the inventor does not fully understand the capabilities and repercussions of their creation, imagine the public. We are left wandering behind in a variety of states of interest, desire, greed, paranoia and ignorance. Listening to the questions I had two thoughts. First: clearly there is a difficulty in framing the right questions, particularly about something so foreign to our own experience and training. And two: humans really do not understand these new technologies.

It is likely that all teenagers function on nothing less than three social media platforms a day. Maybe more. They may not be able to imagine a day when these platforms did not exist. But I think it is worth our time to offer some perspective on technology. For this, I thought it best to offer a very visual demonstration of invention, namely, the airplane. In 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew the Flyer. It was not their first attempt at a plane, but it finally proved that humans could fly. Furthermore, they “discovered the first principles of human flight”. And of course, flight experimentation did not stop there. Nineteen years after the Flyer, Italian designer Caproni built the Ca 60, a prototype of a flying boat, intended for transatlantic travel. To look at it now, in retrospect, it looks like a science project (because, of course, it was). On its second flight, the Ca 60 crashed into the water and broke apart. Airplanes nowadays are sleeker, constructed from entirely different materials and a whole lot more sophisticated, but the builders learned a lot from these early experiments.

 Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That there were nineteen years between the first flight and the first pursuit of transatlantic flight is important, however, because it is also roughly equivalent to the length of time in which we have had social media. (The first blogs were generated in 1999, and took off by 2004. The intent of my blog today, however, is not to define social media, which will have to wait for another day). Blogs arrived in early 2000 and became heavy traffickers by 2010. Other sites naturally filtered in to fill niche markets. Sites like Photobucket and Flickr, Tumblr and Youtube generated a new way to use, share and create our own content. (During this time, Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004.) As social media sites visibly changed and grew with their markets, they also changed on the back end. Data-mining and information-gathering changed too. I think it is important to remember how revolutionary the internet was (and is!). Whereas with the Flyer and Ca 60 one could see the differences and reasons for construction, social media markets are much more subtle.

It seems to me that social media is less social and more media than we originally imagined. What is hidden may be more important than what is received. The way that we code documents, tag them, like them, share them, all create invisible data which now hangs onto the content in question, but also hangs onto the users. Ironically, this data is parsed and stored in a variety of middleman’s hands, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In complete contrast to the airplane, the internet has masked invention in such a subtle way that the user is unaware of our own participation in invention.


When humans did achieve the first transatlantic flight, they had few navigational systems, and no bathrooms or heaters. Imagine Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, who were embraced for their spirit of adventure and bold daring. The first airplanes carried one person or a few people at their own cost and risk of their own life. Today, we use the internet more often than we use transportation and yet we understand it less. Its implications are creating profound effects upon our lives and yet we still cannot see the wheels or wings. How do we make transparent that which cannot be seen? How do we create a spirit of cooperation, much like the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh?

I am simply wondering if, as concepts become murkier and more nuanced, how do we educate a global population which is heavily dependent upon such technologies? The Ca 60’s first flight was short and its second, disastrous. Can we risk that of our websites and internet services? Yet, one idea often inspires the next. We are fortunate to have inventors willing to test their ideas, but what happens when the inventions risk issues of identity and truth? I ask this because I believe that future inventions will continue to be hidden from sight and we should find ways for dealing with such subtlety.

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Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcD-5UfY1g0 )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

 Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: http://nineplanets.org/days.html ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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Interview with an Artist

September 18, 2015

Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, recently interviewed Lea Anderson, an artist whose work, Memoryfeeld, touches upon many of the Great Ideas. The interview is posted in its entirety following a short introduction of Lea Anderson.

Lea Anderson, a San Diego native, has lived and worked in the New Mexico art community for over a decade and has discovered much during her adventures in the dramatic, colorful, and wild desert environment. Fluent in both two-and three-dimensional visual languages, she creates living, philosophical worlds that echo the formal variations seen in natural systems. These themes are explored through individual works, full-scale ambitious mixed media installations, and solo exhibitions using a wide variety of both digital and traditional media. She has exhibited throughout New Mexico and the United States, as well as internationally in Bangkok, Thailand in 2010. A recipient of numerous awards for her artwork, she was also awarded “Albuquerque Local Treasure” in 2010. In 2013, Anderson was the Guest Curator for the exhibition Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque. Anderson has just completed her tenth solo exhibition, the installation piece “HOLOCENE GARDEN” with Santa Fe’s mobile gallery Axle Contemporary in Spring 2015 (4/17-5/17), and she has been invited to create an installation for the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History as their 2015 Summer Artist-in-Residence.

 

Image: Memoryfeeld, Copyright: Lea Anderson.

 

Alissa Simon (AS): I am struck by the way that humans age. We do not know exactly why organic matter weakens/degrades as it ages. Looking at a piece like Memoryfeeld, I am curious about the effect of emotion on organic matter. How do you see emotion combining with physicality in this piece?

Lea Anderson (LA): Most of us are aware that our memories fluctuate, degrade, and even re-surface over time. In Memoryfeeld, the physical materials are significant to the meaning of the piece. Each of the 1000 pieces is made using a method called “Image transfer”. Image Transfers are made using an ordinary b/w toner-based photocopy and clear acrylic gel. To get the photocopy image to transfer into the gel, I had to spread the gel (mayonnaise consistency) on top of photocopies of past images of my own artwork (to represent my personal memories). Once the gel dried, I soaked the paper/gel combination in water for a few minutes until the paper could be scraped away. The black toner was then embedded in the clear gel- and in effect, my memories were then trapped in the semi-transparent membrane-like gel pieces. One of the important things about a photocopy is that it is not an exact replica of the original - it is a simplification and a generalization – another appropriate metaphor for how we store our memories. While imprinted and stored somehow, our memories are not exact replicas of the original experiences. In Memoryfeeld, some of the individual forms are large and colorful (I added paint), some are clear, some are cloudy, some are buried, some sit on the surface, and some are incredibly tiny. This differentiation could demonstrate both the degradation of certain memories over time, or through aging, or through trauma, as well as the exaggeration or embellishment of certain memories based upon intense emotional resonance.

 

AS: The idea of love is often ennobled...meaning that humans make extra allowances for love. It appears that love ranks as a more powerful emotion than any of the other emotions. In addition, there are various types of love: mother/child, husband/wife, love of self, friendship, etc. Do you feel that your work represents an emotion of such diversity? And if so, how? Is it the sole emotion represented, or do emotions bleed into one another (desire, fear, hate, jealousy, etc)?

LA: Because each individual piece in Memoryfeeld is made using photocopies of older artwork (and segments of older artwork) that I had made over many years, there are many representations of my own experiences - love is certainly there (in certain pieces) in many forms. If I had the time, I could talk about each ‘memoryshape’ individually and reference all kinds of emotional, philosophical, and symbolic content. One of the things that may lend authenticity to this piece is that each individual component still represents a range of experiences and time periods from my past. While a memory might be experienced as a point of focus, the boundaries of where it begins and ends or what the sights/sounds/sensations that are associated with that memory are never 100% defined or even fully repeatable, even if you call up that memory again and again. Likewise, I believe no singular emotional experience is really possible, either definitively in Memoryfeeld or in our own internal collection of memories. Emotions absolutely bleed into one another, and can even change over time (our interpretation of them) as our own values or understanding of the world continues to evolve.

Image: a single memoryshape in Memoryfeeld, Copyright: Lea Anderson.

 

AS: When we create, what are we trying to create? A type of wisdom? Knowledge? Understanding? Human connection? Truth? What do you contemplate before/during creating a piece of artwork as complex as Memoryfeeld (or other works of your choice)? You demonstrate a vast emotional journey, perhaps a unique and singular journey...for what purpose? To better understand emotion? Self? Humans?

LA: Hmm. Maybe a chicken/egg question here…. I believe all of those are mixed into the recipe. While I can’t speak for all who create, I think most generally the act of creation provides an experience for the creator, and for those who encounter the creation, in order to make all of those “whats” possible. The physical/productive creative act itself is one aspect of that experience, and then the contemplation of, final function of, or interaction with the creation is another arena for more experiences. For Memoryfeeld, I can’t say that the idea was in any way fully formed when I began. I had a short time period in which to make it (6 weeks), so I had to act/produce immediately. Knowing the transfer technique was a way to produce a lot of material somewhat rapidly, I began with the technique and associated materials, and then the ideas were born as I pondered the conceptual implications of those materials. I believe most of my work begins with a general decision about materials (or for an installation piece relates to the space I’m given to create within). The development of the idea and process of actually making are intertwined. Idea development feels as though I’m attempting to solve a 100-sided, morphing Rubik’s cube, and yet I’m not really sure what the “solution” state is supposed to be. The various possibilities are turned around and around, shifted, revised, reversed, and fiddled with until I finally come to a resting point; maybe never solved as neatly as I’d like, but to a certain level of satisfaction.

What is my purpose in this creative journey? I see the creative act as a form of literal magic; of evidence that there is more to our world and existence than we can possibly understand, that there is some kind of “other” - a place, a dimension, or a source that we are feeding from, transforming energy from “there” and bringing it “here” through creativity into physical and/or virtual and/or ponder-able reality. This is true of Memoryfeeld and of all of my other works.

 

AS: How does the mind of the observer enter a complex work of art such as Memoryfeeld? Does it logically enter, and then follow a logical/reasonable path? Are logic and emotion bound together in some complex form? Is there a correct way to enter a piece of art?

LA: I do think there is an immediate physical response to Memoryfeeld. Logically, the mind of the viewer is going to associate their response with something familiar. Because Memoryfeeld is not an actual “thing” from the tangible world that anyone has seen before, they must begin to make connections to stored knowledge to interpret it. This is incredibly interesting to me, because there are an infinite amount of associations that can be made, each person filtering their visual response through their own personal Memoryfeeld and finding similarities. Any emotional response would also be connected to this set of stored associations. I’m fascinated to hear what those are, and if they are similar or completely different than what I ascribed as the original meaning in the piece. No, there is no correct way to enter a piece of art. It really depends on their cultural background, their visual sensitivity, and their learned behavior (or lack of learned behavior) around anything labeled “art”.

 

AS: As the artist, do you remove yourself from the piece of art in order to maintain symmetry? Or is it better to feel presence? Does it depend upon the piece?

LA: I assume you mean symmetry in an ideological sense, not in a visual sense, and you mean it as another word for ‘balance’ or ‘democratic ideological availability’. I believe that I am ‘in’ the piece when I look at the work, and if someone is exposed to my ideas surrounding the work then I am in the work in their understanding of it to a certain extent, but someone who doesn’t know me or my ideas about the work can access it on completely open terms. By removing/intentionally not including/distorting recognizable and potentially loaded imagery from most of my work, I assume that viewers tend to have to respond instinctively and associate more generally. Both the informed and the naive reaction are valid. It is highly unlikely that anyone would read the piece exactly as I intended it without an explanation, and that’s perfectly ok with me. Some people like to know what the artist was thinking about and some people are just as happy to find their own meaning. I think that’s an especially exciting aspect of art viewing.

 

AS: Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise of Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, claims that a person's will is moved by beauty. What 'aesthetic force' (Sarah Lewis) changes us as artist and as viewer?

LA: It seems that ‘aesthetic force’ refers to a ‘powerful response’. It also seems that any discussion about the conditions that foster the creation of an ‘aesthetic force’ consistently includes the debate about the quality of ‘beauty’ as either an important ingredient in art or a quality that diminishes the legitimacy of art. I do believe that those of us using contemporary English language as our way of interpreting the world around us have come to most often connect the word beauty with the word pretty… which is frequently used as a light compliment but also quite regularly in terms of shallow or morally insubstantial. It might be true, at times, that something that is beautiful is also pretty, but I propose that we more intentionally use the word beautiful instead as a synonym for powerful. I believe that something powerful might also be pretty, but something powerful might also be horrifying, tragic, offensive, confusing, and so on. By using the adjective beautiful as a synonym for powerful rather than for pretty, then beauty can more accurately be called a necessary ingredient in art and in ‘aesthetic force’. “Power” is what changes us… beautiful Power.

For more information about Anderson's work, visit her website: http://www.leaandersonart.com/ .

For questions regarding this blog or interview, email asimon@hmu.edu.

 

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