Decapitated Robot, my piece for the ArtCon Mounted auction
This year’s Art Conspiracy SEED auction is called Mounted and has a faux taxidermy theme. Here’s how ArtCon describes it in their official news release “Conjuring visions animal, vegetable, mineral and digital, Life in Deep Ellum will be transformed from a gallery space into a lodge-like, electronic animalistic mounted dream sequence that only those crazy Art Conspirators can produce.” It’s coming up tonight so check it out if you can. My piece for the auction is called Decapitated Robot and it’s made entirely from found objects. I had to come up with a back story to explain the piece, and it goes something like this:
After a survey team crash landed on an alien planet, their robot turned homicidal due to a cognitive viral infection of unknown origin. The ensuing struggle resulted in many dead crew members and one decapitated robot. The survivors mounted the robot’s head on an airlock access panel and hung it in their camp as a reminder of their lost comrades.
So the idea was to the create something that could plausibly pass for an airlock hatch. In an ideal world, I’d live near an airplane grave yard where I could round up some kind of hatch but I had to make do with more mundane parts. Fortunately, I discovered that pretty much anything can conjure up the right idea if you apply diagonal airlock hazard stripes.
The robot head itself is made entirely from found metal objects from my personal junk stash. The face was once part of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Add in a handful of fasteners and adhesives from the local hardware store and you have what will hopefully pass for a severed robot head. If you want to see it in person, come by tonight and check out the auction. All the money goes towards the costs of the big Art Conspiracy charity auction this fall, which will benefit a local charity (this year’s beneficiary will be announced at tonight’s event). There will be lots of crazy art, food trucks, and bands.
Another year gone and it’s time to take stock of things done and make some plans for the new year. Do you want me list off a lot of goals and resolutions for 2012? I didn’t think so – too boring. How about if pull out my list of goals for 2011 and tell you some of the stuff I actually did. Things really done are always more interesting to read about.
After devoting a huge amount of 2010 to getting Dallas Makerspace off the ground, I took most of 2011 off from hackerspace managing. I attended meetings and helped out now and then but most of my time and interest went elsewhere.
In late January 2011, I joined a team of Camerpedia editors in saving the website from being assimilated by Wikia. We relaunched it under the new name Camera-Wiki.org. I developed quite an interest in Vivitar history and have been collecting many of the oldest Vivitar lenses; not just to document on Camera-Wiki but also to shoot with. Camera-wiki.org has been a huge success and has attracted lots of new editors. It’s growing at a faster rate than it ever did in it’s previous incarnation and we’re working hard to improve the quality as well as the quantity of the content. Hosting is paid for entirely through donation, so if you appreciate old cameras and lenses, why not help us out by donating a few dollars to our hosting fund!
I’ve continued to pursue photography in other ways. I did several more shoots with models in 2011. I did several paid shoots including a gig as the official photographer for the 2011 Vex World Championships. My photo essays continue to be published in Robot Magazine and Servo Magazine. One of my photographs was displayed in a local art exhibit, meeting another of my goals for the 2011. I hope to be in more exhibits during 2012.
Susan and I attended lots of art exhibits, music performances, and a few lectures. I managed to get to several Pecha Kucha and Spark Club events. Much more of the same for the 2012 I hope!
If you’re not an Advogato or robots.net user, you won’t really care but I finally managed to get the long-awaited libxml2 parser into the mod_virgule code base. It’s still a bit buggy but no more so than the old parser and it provides a good path forward for consolidating and simplifying the code. Whether mod_virgule can remain relevant in the world of Facebook and Google+ is another question. Perhaps 2012 will provide the answer to that one.
2011 was the year I finally created some ornaments for the annual Blue Yule charity auction at the MAC. I also volunteered at the 2011 Art Conspiracy Auction. That took care of two more 2011 goals. I hope to find a few more outlets for my artistic and creative sides in 2012.
As usual, there were goals I didn’t meet in 2011. I didn’t finish the project of scanning all my family photos. This has turned out to be much more material than I’d anticipated. I’ve scanned thousands of old photographs and negatives so far. Hopefully 2012 will see the scanning portion of the project completed.
2012 is an election year but with Obama running for his second term that means there is only going to be a Republican primary this year. I consider myself an independent but still feel compelled to vote in the primaries, which means this year I’ll be voting in the Republican primary regardless of how I vote in the final election.
At present I’m leaning toward Ron Paul for the primary vote. I don’t really like any of the choices but Ron Paul seems the least insane of the bunch and I think may be the only one of them who holds any positions at all that I actually agree with.
So for the next four years, the State of Texas will consider me a Republican despite my claim to be an independent. I’m pondering whether I should start going to my local Republican group meetings and see if I can do anything to reform them or shift them a bit toward the center or at least slow their movement toward the right-wing fringes. Unfortunately, I don’t think reason mixes well with the far right (or the far left for that matter). I’ll report on my experiences if anything interesting happens.
I finished reading “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution“ by the late Dennis Dutton a while back and it’s about time I write a short review. Actually, I read it aloud to Susan. In addition to our own personal reading lists, we usually have a shared book that I read aloud when we’re on long drives or working on some project around the house. We alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Susan selected the Art Instinct because it covered topics we’re both interested in: art, evolution, aesthetics, anthropology, the human brain, to name a few.
The title is most likely having a bit of fun with Steven Pinker’s 1994 book, The Language Instinct, which examines how the brain evolved an innate capacity for language (also a great book by the way, did I ever write a review of that one? Hmmmm). Dutton’s book uses a similar model. He argues that our sense of aesthetics is not just an arbitrary social construct as presumed by many art critics and academics.
He leads into his arguments by attempting to answer the question of why landscapes depicted in calendar art are so uniform – in every country, in every climate, everywhere in the world. A well-known 1992 study sought to explain why humans find one particular type of landscape more beautiful and appealing than all others. We favor this type of landscape whether it occurs in calendar art, golf courses, public parks, or classic paintings. Americans favor it, as do Europeans, Inuits, Russians, even members of the most remote and primitive tribes who may never have seen this type of landscape before.
The landscape we favor happens to be identical to the Pleistocene savanna of the type that occurs in Africa. Evolving hominid hunter-gathers who favored this type of savanna had much higher chances of survival. It’s a landscape with direct evidence of game animals, variegated cloud patterns, evidence of water, low forking fruit-bearing trees (food sources and easily climbable to escape predators), alternating open and wooded spaces. If you’ve never read it, the original study is: Evolved Responses to Landscapes by Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen.
After going over the various non-evolutionary explanations and why they were found wanting, he moves on to similar cases of direct evidence of evolution shaping our aesthetic tastes. Can evolution explain, for example, why blue, the color of the sky and water is the most common favorite color? Green, the color of plant life, is our second most commonly expressed favorite color. Our desire to see blue and green came to mind as I was writing because I’d just returned from an exhibit of paintings by Cathey Miller. She paints residents of the mythical Cathedonia in luminescent shades of blue or green. Somehow, I find a sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that the part of my brain which finds Cathedonia paintings appealing evolved to help my Pleistocene ancestors survive.
The tricky part is getting from the easy cases like agreement on colors and landscape to a more general description of beauty and aesthetic taste. It’s hard to look for the origin of a thing until you can agree on what the thing is. So, a large part of the book is involved in trying to precisely define art. Much time is spent on edge cases that are controversial – is Duchamp’s Fountain art? Are other readymades art? Why are expertly made forgeries not respected as much as expertly made originals? What about people who insist this or that category of art isn’t really art (e.g. abstract art, rap music, photography, etc).
Once he’s established a working definition or art, he goes after the problem of understanding how an innate sense of beauty could have evolved. He examines what we know about our evolutionary history to see if we can discover ways in which an innate art instinct would have direct survival value or if it could be an adaptive effect of some other survival characteristic that natural selection would have favored. Alternately, he looks at whether the art instinct is a result or adaptation of the other major evolutionary mechanism, sexual selection; like the Peacock’s tail – a case where sexual selection trumps natural selection. A bright tail actually has a negative survival value but serves as a fitness signal to the females (“hey, look, I’m so awesome at this survival game, even this flashy tail isn’t a problem. Mate with me!”).
Contrary to what art academics have argued for years, that art is culture-specific, Dutton presents world and history ranging emprical evidence that human appreciation for beautify is innate and occurs everywhere and at every time humans exist. To put it another way, Dutton’s revolutionary argument is that beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder” as folk wisdom claims but is rather part of the core workings of every human brain that evolved over millions of years.
What makes Dutton’s effort interesting (to me at least) is that it’s not just some random guy’s opinion, it’s an attempt to find an empirical, objective way to think about beauty and art; something that is not easily done. His efforts stop short of providing definitive proof that the evolution of our aesthetic sense followed the path he describes but he makes a convincing case.
Whether you’re a cognitive scientist or an artist, you’ll find this an interesting read. Who would have thought that it was Darwin and not some philosopher who finally figured out how beauty works! If you’d like to find out more about the book, visit The Art Instinct website. And you can read more about Dennis Dutton on his personal website, DennisDutton.com
In February of 2010, Dennis Dutton summarized the book in a 15 minute TED talk. The book offers enormously more detail, fascinating anecdotes, and mountains of evidence collected around the world and throughout history. But if you’d like a quick overview of what his book is all about, you can’t beat this TED talk.
It’s nice having a few days off for Thanksgiving! Yesterday we had a nice family Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards our family tends to break into two parts, those who want to watch sports on TV and those who don’t. I’m the latter group of course. We played a variety of games including a four hour marathon session of Mexican Train dominoes. I lost pretty badly this time (but I expect to make a comeback during the Christmas holidays).
My niece also tried out us old folks on an iPhone app that guesses the names of real or fictional characters by asking a series of questions. The trick is, even if you beat it, the app learns the identity at the end and adds the personality to its growing database, making it harder for the next person to win. Susan tried first with a fictional British spy but it guessed Napoleon Solo pretty quickly.
I had better luck with a fictional character from the 1930 pulps. After asking a zillion questions, it finally gave up, making me the only winner of the evening. Who was my character? Professor Jameson, an Earth scientist who was the first fictional character to be put into a cryosleep-like state after death; awakened millions of years later by a machine race called the Zoromes who placed his brain into a robot body and reactivated it. An obscure character but an important one, inspiring both Asimov’s robot stories and Robert Ettinger, the “father of cryonics” in the real world. Collecting a fairly complete set of Professor Jameson stories is only possible with the help of eBay and a lot of research. But it was kind of cool to point out afterwards that I had authored a fair amount of the Wikipedia article on Neil R. Jones, author of the Professor Jameson stories.
Besides holiday fun, there’s been a quite a lot of activity since my blog post last month. The TEDxSMU project went very well. There’s a nice TEDxSMU recap. with links to photos and video over on the Dallas Makerspace blog. Speaking of Dallas Makerspace, we also pulled off a successful first annual open house. Blog post and video will be up soon. We’re estimating between 150 – 200 people were there; way more than we expected. We also did a small art and technology discussion at Art Bytes, part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s late night program.
The downtime during the holidays has also given me time to ponder my over optimistic list of 2010 New Year’s goals and plans. But it’s not too late and I still hope to check a few more of them off before 2011 rolls around. In fact, I better get to work on that right now…
It took thousands of years but we finally got a complete graphic novelization of the book of Genesis. And by no less than renowned artist and illustrator R. Crumb. I knew when I saw The Book of Genesis Illustrated that I’d have to get a copy. Actually, Susan got it for me at Christmas. It was as amazing as I expected and I highly recommend it. I’m not someone who normally reads graphic novels or comics, aside from the occasional Zippy the Pinhead book. But this was such a fascinating combination of forms that it’s hard not to like it.
Not surprisingly, a complete and accurate depiction Genesis is not suitable for children and the book’s front and back covers are loaded with amusing warnings: “Adult supervision recommended for minors”, “the first book of the Bible graphically depicted, NOTHING LEFT OUT!” And there really is nothing left out. As noted on the back cover it even includes “the begots”. Ironically, R. Crumb notes that it took a non-believer to create an accurate graphic implementation of the book because believers have been hesitant to illustrate the contents as written. Most alleged illustrated versions of the Bible created in the past bear little resemblance to the actual text, having been sanitized and censored into a “G rating”.
R. Crumb started out with the intent to make a graphic parody of the Adam and Eve story but as he began reading Genesis, he realized the real thing is “a text so great and so strange that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions”. He worked from a combination of the King James (for the weirdly anachronistic style of English we’re accustomed to hearing Bible characters speak) and the Robert Alter translation, which attempts to reproduce in modern English the literary elements of the Hebrew poetry. Crumb also did a fair amount of research on older Mesopotamian myths such as the Sumerian Eridu Genesis, Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and Assyrian stories which share common story lines with the Jewish Genesis, such as the creation and flood, to help shed some light obscure plot elements.
Having grown up in a Christian family, I’ve had Genesis read to me and preached to me. I’ve read it myself in various translations from the weird and unreliable King James to more accurate modern translations. I’ve seen portions of it depicted in various Bible films. But seeing the word-for-word text illustrated is really like reading it for the first time. It gives one a whole new perspective on the stories and makes things stand our starkly which were hardly noticed before.
One example is how obvious the merged accounts of creation are; the first story in which God creates animals first, then man; the second in which God creates Man, who gets lonely, prompting God to create animals and then a woman to cheer him up. When reading the text, it’s easy to skip over things that don’t make sense or assume you’ve misread seemingly contradicting portions of the text. But actually seeing it depicted you can’t help but notice the creation story starts over again and gets retold differently. It brings to mind the Robert Graves book of Greek myths that often incorporates multiple accounts of the same story; (e.g. Heracles joined the Gods on Mount Olympus, though others say Heracles shed his mortal skin, which went down to Hades…)
One particularly unusual element is the depiction by Crumb of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a sort of bipedal lizard-alien who looks something like a friendly Gorn. This seems weird at first because most paintings depict the serpent incorrectly as a snake but the text clearly says the curse of crawling on its belly was a punishment for tempting Eve. Prior to its punishment, it must have had some other form of locomotion, and since it talks too, why not a reptilian biped?
You’ll find surprising illustrations throughout. If you’re expecting the Cherubim to look like greeting card angels, forget it, and check out that thing that looks like a Stargate blocking re-entrance to Eden. Crumb includes chapter by chapter commentary at the back of the book with explanations of why he chose some of the depictions, based on his historical research. He also offers insight into some of the stories based on elements from the counterpart Mesopotamian stories which are more complete or from historical background information. So be warned, you may actually learn some interesting ancient history while reading.
There’s an amazing level of detail and artistry throughout and the occasional chapter or two of “begots” mentioned on the back cover are a good example. R. Crumb has rendered unique and interesting faces for every individual mentioned, which can be quite a few. It’s hard not to skip over long lists of names when reading the original text but it’s actually interesting in this version of Genesis.
I enjoyed the book tremendously and highly recommend it. If you’re a believer, there’s nothing to fear here, the subject matter is treated with respect and accuracy. If you’re not a believer, there are still plenty of weird and interesting stories worthy of any modern graphic novel. Of course, you may not find many likable protagonists in the book. Even the good guys spend a lot of their time lying, raping, stealing each others birthrights, and killing or enslaving everyone in sight. If anybody tells you the characters in modern graphic novels are bad role models, just hand them a copy of this book and show them how the ancient Hebrew super heroes behaved.
2010 got off to a good start, then I was hit by some unexpected family losses followed by some annoying family weirdness. Between that and a larger than usual assortment of extra-curricular activities, my blog got derailed. It’s time to fix that.
We did pretty well. There was a good-sized crowd of people at our booth throughout the faire, handling our robots and playing with the robot arm. Our table won an editor’s choice award from Make magazine. And we’re already talking about how we can do something bigger and more interactive next year.
All the usual crazy stuff was there too; cyclecide with their human powered carnival rides, including one they didn’t have last year called the Melody Maker, in which the rider propels spinning guitars to make music. The Austin Bike Zoo brought a 50 foot human powered rattlesnake that could be seen slithering in and out of the show barn and surrounding areas during the faire.
I’ve been welding on Thursday nights for a while now, since I took a welding class several months ago. So far it’s all been practice welds of random steel scraps. I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at something a bit more artistic. Sculpture from found objects has always interested me. Robots have always interested me. Why not combined all this into something like a robot sculpture from found objects? It’s been done before by artists like Gordon Bennett and Clayton Bailey.
The first challenge I’m facing is figuring out how one goes about finding these so-called found objects that artists are always talking about. In my case, I’m particularly interested in steel objects. Susan and I have been going to estate sales on the weekends and I’ve visited numerous thrift shops around town. It seems like the best source would be something like a wrecking yard. There are plenty of them around but very little info about them online. Apparently not all of them let you wander around with tools pulling interesting parts you find. Maybe there are some in the smaller towns surround the Dallas area. I’m surprise there aren’t any web sites that review wrecking yards (at least that I’ve found yet).