Thursday, December 18, 2014

Return to Paradox

by Drew 
I am rattled by disorder so I have entertained that if I ever make a robot, the first thing I will program into its logic is to return things to the places from which they are taken. This is after all the fourth edict of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Put things back where you found them. It is a hallmark of civility. But on further thought this is not exactly what I want because, for example, if my robot were to take my favorite T-shirt and wear it to a concert, get it all greasy, and then precisely fold it and place it back into the drawer from which he took it, then that would not be good. Although that would be better than randomly discarding it on the street. So the request is really to put things back where you found them, in the state in which you found them, which might require cleaning, repair, refilling or some other kind of restoration.

I have been thinking a lot about "return" and what it means culturally. Return has a positive meaning: we want our parents to return home from work, children from school, soldiers from war. We want a return on investment, a return to paradise, and a return of affection.

The opposite of return is usually negative: something being stolen, divorce, and most permanently - death. That being said all of these have a more abstract sense of return: getting back to a moment of preownership, loneliness/solitude, and ultimately the final return to nonexistence.

Literature is full of literary themes of return and nonreturn, such as Candide, The Odyssey, Remembrance of Things Past versus You Can Never Go Home Again.

While this translates into the narrative and themes of the visual arts, the very idea of creating a painting, sculpture, or performance is also a kind of return. It returns the manifestation of an idea to its creator.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Foiled Again

by Drew Martin
When I set out to build Art Lab I was a little worried about its proximity to the boiler in my basement, which is only a few feet away from the edge of the space. I had originally conceived of a masonry blast wall of cinder-block and concrete mortar but I did not want to get that involved so I made it quickly from scrap wood with the idea that I would shield the exterior with sheet metal. In the end, I just started layering used sheets of aluminum foil: it is light, easy to manipulate and can be power-stapled into the wood surface of the wall.

The only problem is that aluminum foil, especially this kind of use, is associated with crazies, including the people (usually men) who line their hats with it or make hats entirely out of it. My worries that this might be an early sign of schizophrenia subsided when I realized Andy Warhol had lined his Silver Factory with foil. I hope people will think I am trying to steal his idea before writing me off as a nutcase.

This morning I went to the grocery store because I had to do some shopping. I was a little surprised to see that the Christmas present wrapping paper was so expensive, so in place of that I bought a large, heavy duty roll of generic aluminum foil for half the price but twice the square footage, and wrapped my presents with it. Now, instead of just throwing away wads of wrapping paper come Christmas morning, I can reuse the foil by coating my blast wall with it. In the meantime the bright, shiny foil-wrapped presents reflect the colors of the decorated tree and the string of lights.

Thankfully, most hands-on artists are creatively resourceful. The less money you have, the more important this is because the lower you are on totem pole, the more likely it is that you have issues that rich people do not have to deal with. This is especially true of housing.

My other low-budget fix this morning is in this same vein. A decade ago some you-get-what-you-pay-for work was done to the house in which I now live. The worker(s) cut corners on insulating the recessed lighting under a one-story roof. In cold weather the lights feel like they are air conditioning ducts blasting cold air. To help remedy this I bought a stack of clear disposal plates for almost nothing, put two together and then fit them up into the fixtures. First I took out the bigger floodlights and put in smaller bulbs so the plastic would not be close to the hot bulb. And then I taped the edge of the plate around the rim of the fixture. I am happy to report that they no longer draft.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Men Finding Themselves in Intense Physical Rites of Passage and My Little Ponies

by Drew Martin
I read an article yesterday from the 01.15 issue of Outside magazine that mentioned a stellar endurance athlete, Marcus Elliott, who I knew when I cycled and ran with that crowd back in the late 80s/early 90s in Santa Barbara while I attended UCSB. I never followed his career path but according to the article he went on to Harvard and became a sports scientist who has, in his words "...been innovating sports science for the past 20 years."

The article is about misogi, o
riginally a Japanese Shinto practice of ritual purification, which in Elliott's hands is an endurance challenge for some of his professional athlete clients. The most recent endeavor was an underwater, rock-carrying relay for five kilometers (which took nearly five hours).

It is about bettering your physical self but it is really about realizing physical limits that our prehistoric ancestors expanded, which modern society has narrowed to our comfort zones. The subtext, with the band of tough guys, giggling girls looking on, and having a beer together, is about being a man.

The article fell into my lap at a perfect time because the night prior I watched the Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) produced movie A Brony Tale, by film maker Brent Hodge, about bronies - young men who are fans of My Little Pony. Hodge and As
hleigh Ball, a voice-over talent for two of the show's characters, set off from British Columbia to the New York hosted Bronycon, to come face to face with her and the show's fans. 

Much discussed is the question of what is manly, and whether or not you can be a real man and like colorful cartoon ponies designed for little girls. The military-, gym-rat-, and motorcycle riding-bronies say yes.

The documentary is very optimistic and well done, and Ball is a great personality to tag along with. Coincidentally she is also the lead singer of Hey Ocean!

Below is the trailer for A Brony Tale, and a video of the Hey Ocean! hit song Big Blue Wave.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Personal Selflessness of Ida Lebenstein

by Drew Martin
Last night I saw the Polish film Ida, which is about a young lady named Ida Lebenstein (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) who was orphaned, and then raised in a convent. She is told she has an aunt whom she should visit before taking her vows to become a nun. The aunt, a bad ass communist state prosecutor, informs her they are Jewish and takes her to the house in which she lived as an infant. The tenants are the Polish Catholic family that hid and fed Ida's family during WWII but then murdered Ida's mom with her aunt's toddler son, and buried them in the woods when they understood that they too would be killed by the Nazis if they were discovered to be hiding Jews. The aunt had left her son to go off and fight, and young Ida was saved because she could pass as a gentile, whereas her cousin was darker and circumcised. The same man that killed her mother, took Ida to the convent.

The story unfolds along this narrative, and while this is not a movie review, I do want to point out two art-related moments that I found interesting. The first is the very opening scene. We see Ida intently working on a sculptural object (pictured top). With its long hair, the piece could be a self portrait, but it turns out she is putting the finishing touches on a restored Christ statue, which she and other nuns-to-be then carry out to the convent yard and place on a pedestal in a crater-like ring. This play on what might be personal that is actually selfless is a theme throughout the film. Ida's exposure to the lives of others who are out for personal satisfaction ends up strengthening her Christian faith.

The second artsy scene is regarding Ida's mom, Róża (Rose). The aunt tells Ida that her mom was quite artistic, and once she even made a stained glass window for the cows so they would be happy. While visiting the home, which the family that killed her mom then occupied, Ida wanders into the cow shed and sees the window (pictured second from top). Ida is a black and white film so we never see the window in full color but it works not only as a symbol of her creative mom, but also alludes to her own religious calling. In a way this moment is a kind of a return to the manger scene from which she went out into the world and led a Christian life.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Grand Opening Art Lab

by Drew Martin
I have good memories of playing in my father's laboratory when he went in on the weekends to "change samples." This was during the 1970s and was prior to the personal computer revolution. So my brother and I had access to the first computer games (before Atari), as well as cool things you find in labs, such as dry ice and liquid nitrogen, in which we would fast freeze rubber tubes and flowers, and then smash them on the floor.

After a fifteen-year quest to make a studio space for myself in my small house crowded with five people, I spent several weekends/countless hours making a corner of my dungeon-like basement into a usable space. The result: Art Lab.

It is far from perfect: I can only stand up between the 140-year old floor beams, it will occasionally flood when the groundwater rises after storms, and it is crawling with centipedes and a new creature I recently discovered down here, which looks something like a cross between a cricket and a spider - it's big and gross but after a good dose of sci-fi and Kafka's Metamorphosis, I am trying to develop a relationship with it.

The good part is that it is warm in the winter, and will be cool in the summer. I even have a nice little window that allows me to look up into the sky.


So Art Lab is a combination study-lab-studio for experimenting with various media. This is my first time blogging from the space, while I am listening to a Steve Reich station on Pandora.

The three pictures here are, at top, a view through a peep hole placed on the Art Lab door so people can look in and capture the small (6' x12') space in one fish eye glance.

In the middle is a picture of the door from the general dungeon basement area into Art Lab. It is actually my middle kid's bedroom door, which I used to cover with different images. It was looking kind of junky so I recently hung a new proper door outside his room and then cut this one down to size. Aside from the reverse peephole, another key feature is the top left hinge, shown here, which is an adjustable spring-loaded hinge. The door is at a 45 degree angle from the partition wall I made from scrap materials and this special hinge allows the door to snap closed against the foundation wall, which is not aligned with partition wall. It works great; just squeaks a little so I need to oil it.

The bottom image is a detail of a table I made with two, old vinyl insert windows from my house. They are screwed onto a 2x4 wood frame and stand on four pipe legs, which were cut down from jacks that held up an old tin ceiling that used to cover the low beams in this space.

Signing off from Art Lab...more to come!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mona Lisa is Missing

by Drew Martin
Mona Lisa is Missing 
is a smart, funny and thoroughly engaging documentary, which was written, produced and directed by Joe Medeiros about Vincenzo Peruggia, the Italian laborer who stole La Gioconda (Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa...La Joconde in French) and kept it in the closet of his modest apartment in Paris for a couple years before bringing it to Italy. Peruggia lifted it from the Louvre on August 21, 1911 and kept it for two years, three months and 17 days.

Mona Lisa
 had been a famous painting since its creation in the early 1500's, and a personal favorite of Leonardo, but the sensationalism of the heist turned it into the icon that it is today.

Peruggia did not have his sights specifically set on this painting but it was one of the smallest works in the 
Salon Carré of the Louvre, which made it less difficult to carry through the main entrance of the museum in broad daylight. Additionally, it is painted on wood, so it only took a minute to pop it out of its frame once he stole it away to a service staircase in the museum in order to wrap it in his white, worker's smock.

The most important factor was that is was by an Italian master, and Peruggia, who was repeatedly called a dirty macaroni by the French as he labored in Paris, wanted to spite them all and bring a masterpiece back to his people. This urge was intensified when he learned that many of the great Italian works were actually plundered from Italy by Napoleon. The Mona Lisa, however, was a clean purchase
by King Francis I from Leonardo himself, which then became the property of the French Republic and has been on permanent display at the Louvre since 1797.

Peruggia
 had access to the Louvre because his employer had the contract for glass-related projects in the museum. Originally this meant repairing skylights and windows but after a couple paintings were slashed by psycho museum-goers, the company received additional work to protect the most famous paintings with glass.

Peruggia no longer worked in the Louvre at the time of the theft but his prior experience gave him knowledge about the ins and outs of the museum. He knew, for example, that there was an average of 166 guards at work each day except on Mondays when the museum was closed to the public and the security staff was reduced to only a dozen people. It was also on Mondays that famous works were removed from the gallery walls in order to photograph them in a studio.


This is a very personal documentary that pings between Peruggia's descendants including his daughter, who is in her her eighties and wants to hold on to to her version of the story that her father's actions were primarily an act of patriotism. As Medeiros discovers, however, the truth is not so simple. Peruggia was more accurately looking for a quick lira. Actually, the sum he requested from an art dealer in Florence would be the equivalent of two million dollars today. His transaction, however, led to his arrest and imprisonment although his term was reduced from more than a year to seven months, partly because his act was seen as patriotic by his countrymen.

In his trial it was argued that Peruggia was a half-wit and mentally deficient. While this was partly introduced to excuse him of conscious motives, he had been seriously treated twice for lead poisoning. He also worked as a house painter in Paris in a time when painters were the worst affected profession by the toxic metal, even more so than plumbers. One result of the disease is that it shrinks the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is essential for decision making.

Such an intimate abduction of art was not unprecedented. In 1876 Adam Worth stole Thomas Gainsborough's painting Duchess of Devonshire, of the fetching Lady Georgina Cavendish, and kept it in a suitcase for 25 years.

The stealing of the Mona Lisa, dumbfounded Paris' finest. Rumors were that the Germans or Americans stole it. Even Picasso and his friend the Polish poet Jan Kostrowitski a.k.a. Guillaume Apollinaire (who coined the term, surrealism) were brought in for questioning because of their involvement with stolen statues from the Louvre, which Picasso used for two of the faces in his painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. They were let off the hook in exchange for the return of the statues.

Interesting facts and stories aside, Medeiros offers us a fun movie that transcends the artworld and does so without an agenda or self promotion. I love his playful visuals and other personal touches such as filming his volunteer translators, especially Nando de Stefano, owner of The Good Pizza restaurant in Los Angeles, who translated Peruggia's psychiatric report between customers. He was one of my favorite characters/performances in the film. And I love Medeiros' conclusion in Dumenza, Peruggia's town in northern Italy which ends with the descendants affixing a bronze plaque for their infamous ancestor on the exterior wall of the home in which he was born.

Unlike the descendants of Peruggia's friend 
Vincenzo Lancellotti, who say it was their ancestor who stole the Mona Lisa, and worked the story into the marketing and merchandising of their family restaurant in Cadero, Italy, Dumenza is quiet on the subject. But as Medeiro points out the town even has a wall in the village square with a memorial to the former Italian dictator Mussolini. And, just as remarkable, there is a "Watch Out: Falling Toni" street sign dedicated to a drunk who fell into a ravine when he tried to retrieve his keys.

The difference in titles between the Italian La Gioconda and the English Mona Lisa is because the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, who was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, which makes her Lisa del Giocondo.
 La Gioconda, like the word jocund: cheerful and lighthearted, literally means "the jocund one", and is a play on the feminine form of Giocondo. The French title La Joconde has the same meaning. Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari created the title, Mona Lisa when he wrote (in Italian) "Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife." Mona in Italian is a polite form of address, which evolved from ma donna (not unlike Madam) into madonna, the contraction of which is mona

Pictured from top to bottom:
The void left in the 
Salon Carré at the Louvre after the Mona Lisa was stolen.

Peruggia's grandson, Silvio, in front of the restored, and better protected Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
A mural in the town hall of Demunza (without mention of Peruggia) commemorating the return of Mona Lisa to Italy with the ghost of Leonardo da Vinci looking on in approval.
Thomas Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire.

Mona Lisa is Missing
is also titled/referred to as 
The Missing Piece: The Truth About Vincenzo Peruggia and the Unthinkable Theft of the Mona Lisa

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Freedom from Want: Kim Kardashian's Buttocks

by Drew Martin
I think I may have found the holy grail of peripheral art in the shiny and bountiful fruit of Kim Kardashian's bare buttocks as captured by Paper Magazine. My premise has always been to authenticate the mediated art experience. Which means, to redefine the first encounter of an original artwork in its reproduced form, and what it would mean to literally remove the "original" from the picture.

This of course is hardest to do with sculpture. How could you appreciate a massive work by confronting it only in words and pictures in the same way that you would feel its presence in person?


Kim's buttocks are a perfect example of such an experience because what you see in the photo does not actually exist in that state and that place. The photoshoot would have been much closer to theater in the flesh; a happening.

The image of her rear end is not about photography and the associated retouching anymore because it has claimed a sculptural space and everything about the image and composition is purely sculptural.

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to join in the public conversation about the image, the it's-nothing-we-have-not-seen-before twitter response was not a fleshy Rubens painting or one of their own photographs but rather a bootylicious and timeless (6,500+ years old) fertility statue (pictured top right).

That being said, the best just-in-time-for-the-holidays parody was, however, a surreal painting mash-up, which serves Kim's juicy ass on a silver platter in place of an oven-roasted turkey in Norman Rockwell's 1942 classic Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

Freedom from Want, has a whole new meaning here. On one side, it is a fitting title for her body in terms of its bounty but is quite ironic in terms of the "want"/desire her buttocks create.


Happy Thanksgiving.

The Way I Spent the End of the World

by Drew Martin
Regretfully, my time living and traveling around Eastern Europe between 1992-1997 did not include any moments in Romania. I stuck to Slavic lands and was a little intimidated by a language with names such as Ceauşescu, even more than I was by the mess this man made of his country.

Romania had and extreme non-Soviet communist regime that ended in a bloody revolution in December of 1989 and left more than a thousand people dead. It was, in fact, the last Eastern bloc government to tumble and the only one that was forced by a physical overthrow of the uprising people, which resulted in the execution of 
Nicolae Ceauşescu.


One reason why I wish I had spent time in Romania is because I have really appreciated the wit and quirkiness that I have seen of its people in the past year through films such as Tales from a Golden Age.

Last night I finished watching The Way I Spent the End of the World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii) by Romanian director Cătălin Mitulescu, which is a remarkable depiction of life under communism as experienced by the 
17-year-old character Eva Matei played by Dorotheea Petre.

It takes place in 1989 and feels like it was made in 1990 but to my surprise it was created as recent as 2006. The details in the choice of actors and their expressions, the atmosphere of the locations, and the accuracy of the clothing and sets evokes a really specific feeling. It made me think a lot about how there is a present world of possibilities that one can explore through travel, and then there is this world of the past that you cannot move to but have to get as close to it as possible with books or films like this one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

by Drew Martin
Two nights ago I watched a remarkable documentary called Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, which follows social worker Dan Cohen around America’s nursing homes in a quest to unlock the minds of people with dementia.

Cohen’s approach is simple but the results are mind boggling. He loads an iPod with the music the person loved most when he or she was younger, helps put on the headphones and explains how to turn on the device. The rest is magic: people who cannot recognize their own children, or even themselves in old photos all of a sudden are naming their favorite performers and songs, and start singing word for word. Even more incredible is that once these people are turned on they are much more lucid in general and can answer questions they seemed too distant to respond to prior to hearing the music.

One younger subject whose baby boomer husband looks after her at home, is a shadow of herself and cannot remember if the down elevator button of her apartment building is the one on top or bottom. She is dour and scared looking and does not know how to put the headphones over her ears without assistance, but once the Beach Boys start piping through, she jumps up and starts dancing as if she is in a bikini at a beach party and invites the camera crew to join in.

In addition to Cohen, we hear from a couple musicians and doctors about this phenomenon. Most notably is Oliver Sacks, the 
British-American neurologist and writer who took America by brain-storm in the mid 1980s with his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. More relevant to the theme of this documentary is his 2007 book Musicophilia. Sacks chimes in throughout the film and explains that our memory for music is least affected by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. He also says that it is the back door to memory, which means you can access other memories once the part of the brain for music is stimulated. Sacks reminds the viewer that Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher from the 1700s, called music the "quickening art."

The once popular social question, "What's on your iPod?" might one day be a welcomed standard medical inquiry.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

MULTIPOLARITY in SoHo

by Drew Martin
I like the current show, MULTIPOLARITY by Reuven Israel, at the Fridman Gallery on Spring Street in SoHo because of its post-found object, post-pop nature, which means Israel is modern without being lazy or blatantly referential. He favors an exact industrious approach and is timeless.

For MULTIPOLARITY, Israel has made a series of curious high-glossed and multi-colored objects, which are unidentifiable in function but are all fairly simple shapes. Most of these forms, which are made of MDF plywood and coated with car-shop quality layers of paint, are fitted along copper-coated steel rods.

While the rods seem to just have an obvious structural role, they actually are much more important because they have tradesman feel to them 
like copper tubing in plumbing or copper wire in electrical work. This familiarity connects us with the sculpture on a practical level, which then leads us to have a look at the body of work not just from a pure aesthetic appreciation of the shapes, but that maybe these forms have function.

The conductive properties of the copper and steel give the sculptures an oversized transistor look, which makes you feel shrunken. At the same time, the objects are sometimes arranged in such a way that they reference axles, or better yet; barbells, which thereby give the pieces a very heavy feeling.

Surprisingly, this makes me think of two famous artists, who did the opposite: Calder, who gave his mobiles a lightness through movement, and Rodin, whose heavy bronzes had deep shiny surfaces that played with light in such a way that they can feel as light as impressionist paintings.


Most importantly, the rods establish alignment, and with that: symmetry and perspective lines. While there are many artists that come to mind in terms of this kind of structure, such as Sol LeWitt and Walter De Maria, I actually first thought about Stanley Kubrick’s use of symmetry in his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. His alignment reflected a higher thought, which was meant to help bring order to Earthly creatures with random and base actions. What Israel offers us is this kind of direction but his interchangeability of parts also creates a playful, puzzle assembly to his work, which is actually his approach to the composition of the sculptures.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Barnes Raising and the Joy of Life

by Drew Martin
More than two years ago I wrote a brief review about the Barnes Foundation right after watching the documentary The Art of the Steal, and then I also explained a reference in that film about the looting in WWII with the details of another film, The Rape of Europa

Last week I took a quick trip to Philadelphia to visit the relocated Barnes, which totally blew me away. As one former student of the foundation verbally catalogues in the documentary...

They've got more Cézannes than that are in the entire city of Paris. There are 181 Renoirs, wall to wall, 59 paintings by Matisse. The Joy of Life is always cited in everyone's artbook because it is such an important painting in the history of art. Picasso, 46 [paintings], seven by Van Gogh, six by Seurat. The Seurat Models; now that really is sort of a spectacular thing that there is no equal for.


The new museum is unique in that it is very modern, and is a extremely well-designed and crafted building, and yet it maintains the linen-walled chambers of the structure Barnes had built in the nearby town of Marion, Pennsylvania.

The dense display of jaw-dropping paintings surprised me at every turn because I would see something that I just assumed was in the Louvre, MoMA or the Met. In the collection is Cézanne's Card Players, and as mentioned in the quote above Matisse's Joy of Life, which is one of the first Fauvist paintings, and the work that changed Picasso's life. After, and only after seeing it, did Picasso create Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Personally, I think the best way to see art, if the artist is alive, is in his or her studio with the artist present, surrounded by his or her inspirations, music, books, completed and unfinished works. How else could you fully appreciate someone like Mondrian than by seeing him in his tidy studio with even his easel at a right angle, where he might talk about his life governed by particular rules?

The paintings in the Barnes are shown alongside everyday objects including furniture, and (obsession for) door hardware: old hinges and locks. This creates a very different sensation than a typical gallery/museum, which isolates the artwork. For one thing, it is homier and more human feeling but what really affected me on this trip was how seeing so much art, so packed together, which is usually overwhelming for me, actually had a liberating effect. It makes you want to create art because in the flutter of images you get a real sense of creative experimentation. 

As far as the controversy of Barnes versus the establishment during his lifetime, the collection is greater than the personal conflicts and court rulings. Additionally, the anti-elitist drive that separated the collection from the downtown art world, was just another form of elitism.

This situation reminds me a lot of my recent post, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? in which Noam Chomsky speaks about continuity, which is the mental ability we have to maintain our relationship the true nature of a character even if it is transformed into another creature, such as a prince turning into a frog. A very clear example Chomsky gives is of the Charles River outside his window at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are many things you can do to alter the river, such as change its course, pollute it, or even freeze it over. Likewise the Barnes collection is no longer the man who assembled it, nor is it the old stone building in Marion or the new structure in downtown Philly, but rather it is the most impressive collection of post-impressionist art, and paintings of the first half of the 20th century, arranged in a specific way.

It should be seen without prejudices, and it should also continue its original purpose to educate students of art as well as the more casual visitor.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

MoMath: The Museum of Mathematics

by Drew Martin
Today I went to MoMath (The Museum of Math) on 26th Street in Manhattan, which looks out onto Madison Square Park, and is just a block south of MoSex (The Museum of Sex).

MoMath is a very engaging, hands-on, and very kids-friendly place. On top of that I do not think I have ever encountered such nice and involved staff.


MoMath is chockfull of interactive areas and displays, most of which have a kid-level attraction with a math professor thinking behind them, which means you get toddlers intuitively interacting with installations while their parents join in on a higher level.

MoMath occupies two floors: 0 at ground level, and -1 in the basement. Highlights include two, square-wheeled tricycles that ride smoothly over a bumpy surface made of radiating arches, and an illuminated floor maze that does not seem like much of a challenge until you realize you have to follow one rule to get to the finish point: no left turns.

I also loved a polypaint area, which has a traditional easel with little illuminated cans that the user dips a big paintbrush/stylus into and then applies that selection to a blank canvas (an interactive flat screen monitor). Unlike what you might anticipate to happen, the stroke gets translated into patterns and soon enough the canvas is rich with colors and sets of curves and lines.

One thing I really appreciated was how the details of the museum extended into the bathrooms: the two sinks in the men's room (pictured bottom) are pentagons at the surface level but triangles at the drain. There is also an advanced pattern with tiles on the wall. 


MoMath does a really good job making math-inspired interactive displays. If I were to add something it would probably be a display that could show how the various number systems work including Arabic, Roman, and Mayan numbers. Maybe there could be something like a wired abacus that would show the calculations behind the movements of the beads.

I see that the gallery section of the MoMath website has an interesting video series, called 
Math Encounters that I would like to watch. All three posted videos are all at least an hour and 15 minutes long:

1. Naked Geometry (81:01) 

2. Knot Theory, Experimental Mathematics, and 3D Printing (75:39)

3. Change of Perspective: How Math Helps Us See the World Differently (82:09) 

The second video, including knot theory reminds me of a guy I once sat next to on a flight returning to college. He was reading a tome titled On Knots. My understanding of knots was limited to boy scout hitches and so I did not think much more about them. I assumed Knots was an old English author I did not know about so I asked him who Knots was. Much to his amusement, he explained the math behind knot theory.

Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia's first paragraph on this subject:


In topology, knot theory is the study of mathematical knots. While inspired by knots which appear in daily life in shoelaces and rope, a mathematician's knot differs in that the ends are joined together so that it cannot be undone. In mathematical language, a knot is an embedding of a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space, R3 (since we're using topology, a circle isn't bound to the classical geometric concept, but to all of its homeomorphisms). Two mathematical knots are equivalent if one can be transformed into the other via a deformation of R3 upon itself (known as an ambient isotopy); these transformations correspond to manipulations of a knotted string that do not involve cutting the string or passing the string through itself.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Toilet Papered Trees, Princess Pumpkins, and Amish All the Way

by Drew Martin
I always forget about Mischief Night (Cabbage Night, Goosey Night) until I go running Halloween morning and see the toilet papered trees. Pictured top, is a tree I passed before sunrise yesterday and then returned to an hour later for this photo. In the predawn, trees in such a state have a mysterious appearance, and if you do not think about the mean intent then they have a kind of adorned and festive look.

I have bittersweet memories of Cabbage Night as we called it when I was a kid. On one side it was one of the most exciting and rouge nights of the year because of the excused vandalism you could pull off. But once I was with a neighbor who was the son of a retired boxer from the military. Instead of going to the store and buying the typical assortment of shaving cream, toilet paper, and eggs he stalked another group of kids doing the same and then waited outside the store along the road, as I tagged along. When the kids came out, this neighbor started a confrontation, punched the leader of their little group in the face, and then took all of their supplies. It was really carnal and still shocks me when I think about it. 
Fortunately, my middle kid, a teenage boy, does not care to go out this night. 

This year I took off from work and went to my youngest kid's school Halloween day parade. It was amazing to see all the costumes the elementary school kids and their parents put together. The best was one kid who has some disabilities and is bound to an electric wheel chair, rolled through the parade decorated as a tank.

Another thing that caught my eye at the school was a princess pumpkin: totally white and bejeweled, pictured here, middle. I love that the girl who did this disrupted the whole orange/earthy feel of the pumpkin and transformed it into the rarefied object that perhaps never quite returned to its original form after serving as Cinderella's carriage.

I know some parents who do not let their children partake in Halloween because of cultural and/or religious reasons. On one side I understand their concerns but I also think this pagan holiday can be quite liberating. It is the one day of the year you can be whatever you want: men can be women, women can be men, little kids can be monsters or warriors or princesses.

In past years I have gone as a vague early American in honor of my first pre-Pilgrim, British relative who arrived to the Jamestown area in 1619 but most people thought I was trying to be Samuel Adams.

Last year was the first real Halloween in a couple years. The year prior was cancelled by Governor Christie because of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the year before that was Snowpocalypse, when we had a blizzard and were without electricity for more than a week with freezing temperatures. Last year our family went to a party in town and I threw together a last minute costume: an alien cyclops, which had a Yo Gabba Gabba feel to it. I tried to stay in character but people did not want to talk to me when I tried to carry on a conversation with my alien language: a pattern of blips and bleeps.

This year I decided to put a little more effort into my costume, and to really use the day to explore a character I wanted to be - an Amish guy. The costume actually started with my straw hat that I wear out in the sun, especially when I am doing yardwork. One neighbor calls me Farmer Drew. I have a string that kind of holds the hat to my head but recently I was talking to another neighbor when it blew off and I told him I should get some elastic to loop around my chin so as to hold it on. He suggested an elastic Amish beard. So I ran with that, got a pair of suspenders from a lawyer at work (who insists they are braces) and then I put on old, black dress pants, and an old blue dress shirt to complete my Amish outfit, pictured here, bottom.

When I told people I was going to be Amish for Halloween, I got a lot of comments that I was being offensive but the truth is, there was no hint of mockery in it. I have always fantasized about the Amish and have loved visiting their lands in Lancaster County.

To prepare for my character I watched nearly five hours of Amish documentaries: one British series for their Channel 4 called Meet the Amish, and one BBC documentary called Amish, A Secret Life. The entirety of all five shows can be watched below.

Meet the Amish, is a reality show that follows five teenagers on Rumspringa, which is the letting-the-hair-down period for Amish youth before they decide whether or not they want to be officially baptized in the Amish church, and say goodbye to the conveniences, luxuries, information, and entertainment of the modern world. I have seen this kind of thing before but going to Britain was a twist. And like all the other versions where the show might have been set up to gawk at youth who many people would consider to be living under a rock, it actually turns out that you see how 
the more worldly hosts come across sometimes as privileged, unskilled, vulgar, petty, and immature.

These youth are followed through different locations, with a week in each spot. They start with hapless kids in South London who stay out of trouble by street dancing, spend time with an artist and her family in Kent, are pampered in a snobby castle in Scotland, and then hang out with communal surfers in Cornwall. They go to music festivities, raves, and the beach a couple times. They seem most at home when they can participate in hands-on tasks, such as when the two young Amish women take up the hem of a dress of a spoiled Scottish teen for her party, or when the three young Amish men build a chicken coop for the head of a Surf school. There is a combination of amazement and horror as they watch people dance, drink, play music, and talk about their loose relationships.

In Kent, the artist they stay with shows them her style of painting, dripping a mixture of acrylic black paint and glue with chopsticks onto large sheets of paper. The creation of art is something new to them and something they comment on wanting to explore more.


After the Meet the Amish series, I watched Amish - A Secret Life, which turned out to be a documentary that the BBC got more than they bargained for. The network set out to get a closeup look at an Amish family, even though it is forbidden to pose for pictures or movies. What ends up happening is that the young family they follow turns out to be part of a movement to redefine their Amish ways and label themselves as Amish Christians. They do things that are clearly against the elders wishes, which are grounds for excommunication and being shunned from the group. They mingle with former members who were shunned, and even go so far as to be rebaptized in the secret of the night. The young father of the family explains that it is not the Amish lifestyle that will make people happy but rather accepting their Christian faith, which need not be tied to the lifestyle.

What I liked most from all of these glimpses into the Amish life, is the way the youth react to seeing the ocean for the first time. On the way there they talk about what it must be like but are awed by its vastness when they finally see it in person. It was also extremely interesting to see their conviction in their belief. When we typically talk about people who believe in creationism and are extreme Christians, there is typically a right-wing political bashing that goes along with it, and we see it as a real ignorance in the face of scientific evidence. But when a beautiful young Amish girl talks about her belief in this world as god's creation it is hard to find fault with her because, for one thing - she is not looking at it in comparison to scientific evidence, and for another thing, I kept thinking how beautiful the world must be to her.










Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

by Drew Martin
I just saw a film I had been hesitating to watch, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? - an interview prompted by french filmmaker Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind)  and Noam Chomsky, who is most popular for his political commentary and activism, and particularly for his book Manufacturing Consent.

Chomsky, however, is by education and career a linguist and cognitive scientist, which is what Gondry seems most interested in exploring, not because of a simplistic interest in languages but rather that deeper reasoning behind language as a cognitive tool.

The audio of the movie is the dialogue between Gondry and Chomsky, with occasional movie footage of either Chomsky alone or Chomsky and Gondry in the same frame, from the interview.

The title of the film comes from an language structure example Chomsky explains to Gondry about taking a sentence such as The man who is tall is happy....and about asking a child to make it into a question, which they consistently, and correctly reshape as Is the man who is tall happy?

To say that what Gondry visually creates for this movie is animation is doing him a disservice. Perhaps it can be seen as an illustration of the conversation, and I think Chomsky probably thought it was cute in that way, but Gondry is really doing something much deeper than that. At times his animation runs as a visual language parallel to the dialogue. It steps in as subtitles to aid his heavy accent, complete with edits and asides. Most importantly, its fluctuation of different purposes makes you really attuned to the visually cues.

I liked how Gondry tries to explain to the viewer the point of his unanswered questions. Chomsky is often a one-way street. He is literally a know-it-all, and seems to have little tolerance for what he views as inferior thinking. But Gondry has a lot of important questions, which I wished were answered by Chomsky.

That being said, I was quite surprised by one section when Chomsky was talking about the Frank Gehry designed building they were sitting in at MIT (pictured here at bottom). He said there are no right angles where the walls meet in the building. He offered what a friend explained; that it was as if they were in a three dimensional Piet Mondrian, which he used for his own analogy. How can someone so smart make such a comment. Not only were Mondrian's conclusive later paintings only about right angles: squares and rectangles, he even set up his studio so that everything was at a right angle, including his easel.