Saturday, January 16, 2016

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me - A Movie That Strikes A Chord

by Drew Martin
Glen Campbell sang Rhinestone Cowboy back in 1975 when I was six years old. I feel like that song is in my DNA because I heard it when music just seemed like it was part of the atmosphere. Campbell was the first signer to win a Grammy award in both Country and Contemporary in the same year.

I just watched Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, wow, what an amazing documentary. For one thing I got to rediscover how talented he is as a musician. The film really does a good job of expressing his gifts, such as his perfect-pitch tone (he was even in the Beach Boys to fill in after Brian Wilson had his nervous breakdown), and his great guitar playing (which I had not known about).

The focus on the film, however, is about his decline from Alzheimer's and how he and his family (who perform with him) struggle with the disease.

A little more than a year ago I wrote a blog post about Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, a film about social worker Dan Cohen who visited America’s nursing homes in a quest to unlock the minds of people with dementia having them listen to music they liked in their youth. It is remarkable how unresponsive people all of a sudden come alive when they tune in.

This documentary about Campbell should be watched in tandem with Alive Inside, because it shows how this famous musician, who cannot recall the names of his closest family members or answer simple facts, can turn around, go onstage, and perform his songs in front of thousands of people.

Pictured above, Campbell and his talented daughter, Ashley, dueling it out onstage during his farewell tour.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Body Paint King

by Drew Martin
Body painting is older than clothing, and while several modern artists have incorporated it into their work - most famously Yves Klein’s Anthropométries, and Keith Haring's paintings on dancer Bill T. Jones, and singer Grace Jones, it is still often looked at as a free pass to stare at a naked (more-often-than-not young female) body. I have recently started following "Ed the Artist" on Instagram @edtheartist1 who has claimed the title as Body Paint King. Raised in DMV (DC, MD, VA) and based in Atlanta, Ed regularly posts pictures of his models at photo shoots, and sometimes of him painting them. While many images are more titillating than others (because the model's body dominates the design), he often finds the right balance where everything comes together nicely and his talent shines through. In those moments Ed takes the art of body painting to another level and redefines what it can be. Here are a few of my favorites:

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Seymour Hear More

by Drew Martin
I saw an interesting documentary today by Ethan Hawke about Seymour Bernstein, the American pianist, composer, and music teacher who turned away from public performances at the age of 50 in order to enjoy a calmer life.

Most of the film is a direct conversation between him and one of several friends and students.

At the age of 15 Bernstein said he was aware that when his practicing went well, everything in his life seemed to be harmonized by that. And when it did not go well, he was out of sorts with people. From this he concluded that...

"The real essence of who we are resides in our talent."

Many times his close-up, placid face dominates the frame and he speaks so directly to the camera that you lock eyes with him. His musings border a line between artistic philosophy and guru self-help advice.

"Motivated by a love of music and possessed by a clear understanding of the reasons for practicing you can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment."

When asked by an off-camera Hawke about extremely talented yet extremely horrible people and whether there is a connection between the monsters and the gift, he responds:

"The contrast between the unbelievable attainment of art, and the unpredictability of the social world is so great that it makes them neurotic."

Bernstein relishes and thrives in his solitude. He has lived by himself in a one-bedroom apartment for nearly 60 years. He expresses trepidation of social interaction outside his music world and explains that even when someone is really close to you, one comment may dissolve a friendship. He takes comfort in the "predictability" of music.

"When Beethoven put a B-flat down, that's there forever. Because of the predictability of music, when we work at it, we have a sense of order, harmony, predictability and something we can control."

He says that and then switches gears...

"Your initial response to music occurs without intellectual analysis. Gifted children, for example, often project deep musical feeling without being aware of musical structure or historical facts. It is this kind of innocence from which adults can learn. Therefore in practicing avoid excess of analysis and allow the music to reveal its own beauty. A beauty that is answered by something deep within you."

Hawke asks Bernstein how he felt when his father used to say he had three daughters and a pianist. Not only does he respond negatively but then he explains about a "transparent dome" he protects himself with that ravens whirl around, and says that his father was one of the ravens pecking at the glass. This patriarch is one of many people he explains that hope for your failure. But Bernstein was world-class and got rave reviews. He even performed on a grand piano for his fellow soldiers during the Korean War. These personal stories play nicely into his comment that "the struggle is what makes the art form" and his expressing that the dissonance, harmony and resolution of life is captured in music and that it is the dissonance that gives meaning to the resolution.

The ideal of music as a universal language because it is a language of feeling, also becomes his religion. He talks about the ecstasy and transcendence of music and that while religion requires faith, music is present in its language. His theology is of a god within us, which he calls a "spiritual reservoir." 

The film is full of his great musings and conversations of craft versus talent, the effect of nervousness (that more people should be a lot more nervous and that many artists are not nervous enough), the importance of composing to be closer to the creative process, and how learning to listen to yourself play will allow your to better listen to other people, which he complements with a comment...

"The greatest compliment your can give people is to tell them the truth."

The film ends with a wondrous Bernstein saying...

"I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky."

Lily Yeh Yeah Yeahs

by Drew Martin
When I see a movie (in this case on Netflix) with a lowly one-star rating, I usually check to see if it is really bad or really good. Most of the time it is the former but I recently lucked out. The other day the lone star The Barefoot Artist caught my eye and it was something I am really glad I watched. It is a documentary about Lily Yeh; her work as an artist, and an emotional detour to her ancestral home on the southern island Hainan, and other parts of China to reconnect with her step-siblings who her father left behind for a harsh fate while he went off to have a good life with her mother in Taiwan.

A visual metaphor for this part of the film is when she and the various relatives and friends in China piece together an extensive and beautifully drawn map her father made of the island.

When Yeh came to America in the 60s as a young lady to study painting her dedication to traditional Chinese landscape painting was challenged by the New York artworld's emphasis on Pop Art and happenings. And while she had professional representation and envisioned a full career as a gallery artist, she ended up taking a very different and quite remarkable path, which led her to do community art projects in troubled parts of the world.

The top image here is a site she created in response to seeing a depressing animal-shed-like place for the remains of the 1994 Rwanda genocide victims. She understood that the survivors of the massacre were distraught by this situation because they felt that their loved ones could not rest in peace until they had a respectable burial site.

The picture underneath that is one of her more extensive projects - the multiple-block arts garden in Philadelphia called the Village of Arts and Humanities, which is where she really cut her teeth and assumed the role as a public artist, director, community organizer and fundraiser.

Her work transforms rough abandoned lots and other unattractive neglected spaces into colorful and peaceful oases with bright painted and tiled murals, organic sculptures, and quirky masonry walls. There is no need for validating art-world reviews of these projects, because the reward is in the faces of the communities who get to share these installed gifts.

Yeh talks about wanting to create dustless places, a term used to describe the serene environments of Chinese landscape paintings. There is a motivation in her to better sad locations through colorful art and community collaboration, and there is also a side she expresses to find peace in a world where her beloved father never felt complete after leaving his first family, and one that was also troubled through her own failed marriage. She expresses that her idea of home is not a location but that place where she feels connected in art.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Fresh Start in 2016

by Drew Martin
The African-American community is arguably the most creative and inventive culture in the world, especially when trends bubble up from small, close-knit neighborhoods as a way to get local attention and respect, and anything mainstream or out of reach gets customized for that community.

Yesterday I watched Fresh Dressed, a 2015 documentary about the history of fashion behind hip-hop. It's a wonderful sartorial time capsule that begins with the territorial gang outfits of the boroughs of New York City, builds up to the big-name performers with their own clothing lines, and then returns to high-end brands with staying power that were once sought after, when the popularity of musician-backed lines waned; an issue of style being too closely associated with a personality.

One thing emphasized was how hip-hop music put the spotlight on street styles that were already there, and how as hip-hop spread around the world and people liked the music but could not always relate to the English lyrics, the fashion became an even more important way for kids in other countries to identify with the music.

Ralph McDaniels, the creator and host of Video Music Box says that the colors of hip hop came from the spray paint can selections that were favored in graffiti and that the first canvases for hip hop individuality were on the backs of jean jackets.

Dapper Dan's Boutique in Harlem was the first store that was tailored to the hip-hop scene. Dan did with fashion what hip-hop did with music: he sampled and mixed fashion, and brought the music scene's imagination into reality. He also introduced urban luxury brands when luxury brands were unattainable for people living in the projects. Dan did big, bold outfits as well as simple things, like put Louis Vuitton's LV mark on caps, when they would not think about doing something like that. Dan says he blackenized those famous designers for his people.

A "fresh starts with the feet first" comment leads into a funny anecdote by rapper Jim Jones about the importance of sneakers. His school required a uniform so sometimes kids would fake a sprained ankle in order to be able to wear at least one of their new sneakers, albeit while fake-limping with a cane.

Now people buy fat laces but before they were available for purchase they had to be customized. Kids would take the standard laces that came with the sneakers, then stretch, starch, and iron them before lacing them the opposite way - looped over the eyelets.

Personally, I was less interested in seeing the late-comers such as Kanye, and was more interested in the beginning of the movement. I especially liked the breakdown of the "flavors" from the different parts of NYC that were unique to each borough:

A guy from Brooklyn would have on Clarks, shark skins, Cazal glasses with no lens in it, and a Kangol crease like I don't know what. That was a Brooklyn cat. He didn't have to say anything. You knew he was from Brooklyn.

A guy from Harlem would have on...a velour sweat suit, and whatever brand the sweat suit was from, he would have the sneaker to match.

Same with the Bronx. The Bronx was a mix of Harlem and Brooklyn together.

Queens - - Queens had their own flow too.

If one of your New Year resolutions is to take your fresh to another level then definitely watch this flick. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Year in Review: The Museum of Peripheral Art in 2015

To see past annual reviews for the Museum of Peripheral Art, click on the years under the blog archive. The last entry each year is the annual review.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Streak of Look

by Drew Martin
One project I got carried away with this year, from the beginning of fall to the beginning of winter, was my morning run photo series, posted to @peripheralart on Instagram. It consisted of 100 pictures from 100 consecutive morning runs. The first 88 images where set in a similar matrix (8 frames wide x 11 high) and turned into wrapping paper for my friends. It was lacking the last dozen because I had to send it off to the printer in order to get it back in time for the holidays. The series celebrates my 7+ year running streak of running every morning.

In the beginning I thought that this series was the perfect solution for me: a way to integrate my running and the arts, and those two separate groups of friends. But it got to the point where setting up the shot, and even the act of stopping for the photos took away from the running, and by the end it felt like I was stretching it a bit. It was a relief to end the series and was able to solely focus on running again. That being said, if I do see a great photo op when I am out there, I certainly don't hesitate to snap a picture. 

Below are all the images shrunken down and missing the stories and comments that went with each one, such as tales of my working in a northern Czech zoo in the early 1990s that accompany the images with animals. If you wish to read those just scan through my @peripheralart feed on Instagram.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi: Forging Ahead

by Drew Martin
With the art market being such a random and unregulated field of whims and speculations, the question of what is art and why certain works are worth millions of dollars gets turned on its head when a fake is introduced, especially when it takes a team of art experts, forensic scientists and chemical analysis to make the distinction between an original and a forgery.

A copy of a painting only becomes a forgery when the forger signs the name of the original artist. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a master forger who made millions by passing off works by great artists. His specialty was not an exact copy of something (that would be too easy to identify) but of works existing only in literature and not in catalogs. 

There were many paintings by artists that were written about but never photographed and are not in anyone's collection. So Beltracchi, who boasts he can paint like anyone and in any style, filled that gap. When questions of provenance came up, Beltracchi's scheme sent the collectors down a rabbit hole of his game. He and his wife, Helene, turned her deceased grandparents into fictitious collectors, and even went so far as to fake photographs of Helene, posing as her grandmother with the works: all forgeries by Beltracchi. (Second picture from the bottom)

Beltracchi's father was an art restorer and a decorative painter who used the tricks of the trade to paint plastered surfaces in churches to look like wood and marble. The young Beltracchi was a quick study and learned all these techniques but this practical approach desensitized him to art. He says his emotions are devoted only to his family and not to art. That might sound shocking to a collector or curator, but is actually quite refreshing to hear. He explains that he never did the forgeries for money but rather for the rush.

Beltracchi led himself slowly to this art-crime career by way of restoration. He had the eye and skills to fake anything. So, he reasoned, why not take it to another level? Between 1970 and 2010 Beltracchi created at least 300 forgeries, sold as originals, which supported an extravagant lifestyle and was a means to raise his family in beautiful houses and locations in Europe and Morocco. He was meticulous about the details of the forgeries but his game was exposed when he did not mix his own white paint and the too modern titanium white was used for a pre-WWI forgery of Heinrich Campendonk. After he was caught and punished, and asked if he had any regrets he could only offer that he should never have used titanium white, and ponders where it came from.

He and his wife went to prison for several years when they were found guilty and charged with forgery of 14 works of art that sold in total for $45 million. Only 50 or so of Beltracchi's works have been identified. The balance of his faked 300+ drawings and paintings are still in museums and other collections, unidentified as forgeries, with the art world non the wiser. An interesting comment he made was that it is easier to sell a fake for millions of dollars than it is to sell it for thousands of dollars because people are less likely to question the authenticity of a painting with a higher price.  

The bottom picture is of the Beltracchis moving out of their beautiful glass house in Freiburg, Germany. This piece of property and other real estate was liquidated to compensate the collectors who bought his forgeries. This is actually a really interesting business model for art: people invest in forgeries, that money gets invested in appreciating real estate, and when the work is identified as fake, they are compensated by the sale of the properties. Compared to a Ponzi scheme the investors could have done much worse than buying a Beltracchi copy. The couple is now living freely and making millions producing art again, this time not as forgeries.

This whole story unfolds in the documentary Beltracchi: Die Kunst der Fälschung, (The Art of Forgery), which I recently watched. While he has been vilified by many, I am in the camp that thinks he's more a genius than a criminal and have more respect for him than artists like Koons or Cattelan. For one thing, he has much more sheer talent than the aforementioned businessman and prankster. In many ways he is actually more honest than them. Also, his ability to replicate the work of any artist and fool the best eyes of the art world challenges the value we place on art, financially as well as emotionally. 

If a painting-by-painting case study reveals his trickery, and exposes the experts' and collectors' naiveté, the totality of his influence questions if our interest in art is a delusion of our species. At a base level, there is also a kind of payback from an art world that too often undervalues artists while they are alive and then fans the flames of financial success among themselves when the creators are dead. Beltracchi cracks a hole into those coffers and takes what he thinks is his own value. When he is shown faking a piece by Max Ernst, an artist he does not regard as anyone special, he kicks back with his daughter, looks at the progress of the work and sighs that the real pity is that he cannot sell the painting for five million, as he could if his business was still under wraps.

The film is made during his and Helene's very loose prison years: they only needed to report to separate prisons at night but were allowed to spend their days working together in an off-site studio. Not only is Beltracchi very optimistic and cheerful in the film but he is also incredibly cooperative and takes the viewer through the whole process of forgery: going to flea markets to find old canvases, scraping off the original paint and integrating any remaining marks into the final piece. He even sifts early-20th Century dust between the stretcher bars and the repainted canvas, and tries to give a painting the smell of the place in which it would have been hung. He claims that he can tell which country a painting is from by its smell. He suggests you can hang it for awhile in bar to get the right odor, but then jokes at least your could when you were still allowed to smoke in bars.

The top picture here shows Beltracchi scraping the paint off an old, worthless canvas, which he picked up in an open-air market, as he prepares it to create a painting as if done by the hand and mind of Marie Vassilieff. The photo here under that, second from top, is the new/old painting underway while he talks to the camera, as he hides any trace of the original sub-par nude:

"I'll make the one breast into a little tree. And I'll make the second breast into a house. Voilà. Now she's gone." 

If you are interested in other articles/documentaries about individuals who turned the art world upside down, check out my post Mona Lisa is Missing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Finding the Familiar in Foreign Films

by Drew Martin
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is most famous worldwide for their Academy Awards - The Oscars. Many American films have more explosions and gunfire than actual dialogue, and bad dialogue at that, so it's surprising that anything not in English is in a whole other category, which sits on the side of the Awards like children at the kiddie table.

The first Awards, which started in 1929 made no such separation but between 1947 - 1952, and in 1954 and 1955 Special/
Honorary Awards were given out for "foreign language films" released in the U.S. The Academy Award of Merit, a.k.a the Best Foreign Language Film Award for non-English "speaking" films began in 1956.

It is offensive to label non-English language films released in the U.S. as foreign language films. The top film of this category last year, Ida, is not a foreign language film to my wife who is an American citizen and is a native Polish speaker, or for nearly10 million Polish Americans. The same could be said for any language film.

Netflix has an International Movies section, which includes English language films that are African, Australian, British, Canadian and Irish.

I wish Netflix had an even bigger selection of international movies because if it's a good movie, it does not matter what language it's in if you can follow it with subtitles in your own language. Netflix in the U.S. only offers subtitles in English.

A couple recent releases on Netflix worth mentioning are The Lesson and Phoenix.

The Lesson is a 2014 Bulgarian film that starts off with an underpaid school teacher confronting a class when a student reports that her wallet was swiped. The teacher can't let the incident go until the very end of the film, after she has robbed a bank to save her house from foreclosure, which is one of my favorite movie scenes: she is going to defer payment to a loan shark through reluctant sexual favors. On her way to see him she is overwhelmed with fear and disgust about what she is about to do, and the stockings she has put on that day for him become her mask, and a realistic-looking water gun she took earlier from a student becomes her stick-up weapon for a robbery of a bank, which had previously given her a hard time when she was trying to transfer money to save her house.

is 2014 German film about a woman returning from a concentration camp to Berlin after WWII. Her face was shattered by a bullet so she is brought by a friend to Switzerland for reconstructive surgery. It's enough give her a familiar face to people she knew before the war but not to be recognized by her husband who betrayed her and gave her up to the Nazis for his own release, and thinks she is dead. It's way too complicated to explain further, but they meet and he finds her resemblance close enough to make others believe she is alive in order to go after her inheritance, without him actually knowing it's her. Sounds crazy but it's a good movie with a great ending of how he finally realizes it is indeed her.

When I sat down to write this blog I got entirely distracted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDGlobal 2009 talk in London: The danger of a single story. It is a great talk about flattened stories and the problem of one story being the only story you have of a culture and an event. Her angle is literature, although she also talks about her native Nigeria's Nollywood, which produces more than 800 films a year. The take-away I got from Chimamanda's talk is that we are all guilty of summarizing another culture with a single-story that is convenient for us. And the best way to change this limited perspective is to write one's own story to share with the people who put you in a box, and to absorb as much as you can of other cultures through literature, cinema, art and music.

The nice thing about "foreign language films" is that you get to absorb more of the culture through the spoken language (if it's not dubbed) and the locations, as opposed to reading a "foreign language book" in translation to your own language.

So if you are not up for sitting through these entire films, at least take a minute to watch the trailers:

And if you have 15 minutes to spare, watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Free-Range Eggs at Kate Werble Gallery

by Drew Martin
I was at a company holiday luncheon later this afternoon in TriBeCa and one of the topics discussed was the yolk-to-egg white ratio. A young colleague, who is an engineer, was arguing that the yolk should be bioengineered to a fraction of its size. So to my surprise, walking back from our department gathering to my office in SoHo, I passed the Kate Werble Gallery full of sunny-side-up fried egg sculptures: LIVESTRONG by Christopher Chiappa. The 7,000 resin and plaster eggs (584 dozen plus a few extra) cover the floor and walls of the two-room gallery. Although I was in a bit of a rush, the eggs were playful and inviting so I stopped in for a few minutes to have a look and take some pictures (posted here).

The show is surreal and makes me think about the use of eggs in the history of painting (egg tempera) and of artists who have represented eggs: Salvador Dalí and Claes Oldenburg first come to mind. The multiplication of the eggs also conjures up sci-fi references, like the classic Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles, when furry, featureless pom-pom creatures reproduce at an alarming rate and threaten the integrity of the Starship Enterprise. 

Aside from the immediate fun of this installation, the deeper meaning is of course in the idea of reproduction. The eggs we consume are unfertilized and sexless, and a chicken without a rooster can yield an egg a day. In the classic paradox, Which came first the chicken or the egg?, this installation offers a situation in which the chicken has been bioengineered out of the equation and the eggs themselves continue on through asexual reproduction.

It's a great show that put this little gallery on the map for me. I look forward to seeing what Kate has planned for this space in the new year.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Vidal Signs

by Drew Martin
I just watched a new documentary about an old debate. Best of Enemies is a fairly new release about the televised debates between the politically and morally clashing intellectuals William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the ABC News coverage of the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.

The climax is Buckley's rage to Vidal when he loses it and spouts: 
Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.

It's a moment that changed the course of television: the gloves were off and any chance of legitimate debate was trumped by this kind of caustic banter.

In the epilogue of the tenth debate Vidal offers, "I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense. The way they're set up, there's no interchange of ideas, very little, even, of personality. There's also the terrible thing about this medium that hardly anyone listens. They sort of get an impression of someone and think they've figured out just what he's like by seeing him on television."

One commentator says the debate was the harbinger of the unhappy future of television. And in response to a question to Buckley, "Does television run America?" he responds that "there is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating."

Television as the public square was over. A commentator suggests, "The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more we are divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation because what binds us together is the picture in our heads. But if these people are not sharing those ideas they're not living in the same place."

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alien Aesthetic: H.R. Giger

by Drew Martin
Last night I watched a really good documentary about the artist whose surreal and bleak futuristic imagery influences us more than we can imagine - Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World.

Hans Ruedi Giger (1940 - 2014) was a Swiss airbrush painter who created a world of biomechanical creatures that cycle through themes of sex, birth, and death. 

It is easy to look at his work and dismiss it as a certain sci-fi fantasy style, but it's a look he introduced to the world and created from his dreams. In the documentary he talks about dreams, and laments the unfinished erotic dream from which one is unfairly pulled away to awaken to reality. 

Look closer and you will see the skills of his years of study in architecture and industrial design combined with an intuitive grasp of anatomy and references to Egyptian art. A friend of his, who does not believe in the occult, says he feels like Giger was channeling another world for us to witness. A psychiatrist in the film calls Giger an artistic reporter for the darkness in us. 

It was always a personal fantasy of mine as a kid to be able to bring something physical back from my own dreamworld, and Giger did just that. A delightful aspect of the film is that it shows his chaotic, overgrown house, which is a labyrinth of rooms full of his images, sculptures based on his world, curious artifacts and skulls. 

As a child Giger was scared of a mummy at a local museum. His older sister teased him about this so he returned every day until he got over his fear. Likewise, his father, a pharmacist, was given a human skull by the Ciga-Geigy pharmaceutical company. At first it scared the younger Giger but then he started dragging it by a string around town in order to show that he was no longer afraid of it. 

Perhaps this is part of his attraction for his devoted fans: no matter how much fantasy Giger creates in his images, there is an overwhelming sense of morbid reality, which is not sugarcoated and he is a totally uncensored artist, without moral apologies. His work has an honesty to it that is unparalleled. In one of the final scenes we see Giger shortly before his death signing books and drawings for his fans. Many of them extend an arm for him to sign. A few of them pull off their shirts to reveal tattoos of his work. These same, rough-looking individuals profusely thank him with such emotional intensity that they break into tears.

Giger's paintings sold well as posters and he was hired to do album design for musicians such as the American punk band, the Dead Kennedys. The first time I saw his Penis Landscape, which is featured on their Frankenchrist album was in a friend's dorm room in college. It is an impossible motif/collage of stacks of buttocks, and penises copulating with vaginas. 

Giger broke out on the world scene when Hollywood discovered him and he was hired to create the look of the creatures and their ship in the 1979 Academy-Award-winning sci-fi horror film, Alien, by Ridley Scott. It's an aesthetic that continues with Blade Runner in 1982, and we see used countless other times in sci-fi films such as The Matrix.

The term "airbrushed" shares the same cultural meaning as "Photoshopped" as a kind of digital makeup/plastic surgery but this film restores it to the original source and has some nice scenes of Giger airbrushing his work without any preliminary sketches. It's a lost art where natural arm movements are now replaced by bezier computer curves. From a graphics point of view, the documentary is worth viewing for those moments alone.

Pictured top is Giger with Swiss actress Li Tobler. They were together for nine years before she shot herself. Tobler's face and nude body are featured in much of his work during their time together. The image second from the top is representational of Giger's biomechanical creatures. The third image from the top is his design of the alien spaceship in Alien. And finally, the last picture is an interior he created for one of two Giger-themed bars in Switzerland.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Physics of Light

by Drew Martin
Over the past week I watched a six-part, South Korean-made series about physics, called The Physics of Light. It is a well-done and engaging introduction to the scientific conceptual leaps made by Galileo, Newton, Einstein and other famous scientists.

Some of the concepts are quite complicated, especially when it ventures into Quantum Mechanics, and five variations of String Theory rolled up into M-Theory. Don't feel bad if you find these ideas difficult to understand, Einstein himself could not wrap his head around Quantum Mechanics and everything that came after that. Fortunately this series is witty and clear.

At times I could not tell if it was being dumbed down a bit for a younger audience or if it was simply a cultural difference; that a South Korean approach to education might purposefully be repetitive with explanations.

I always tell people that I went to college to study medical illustration (ended up getting a degree in fine arts after studying "pre-med" for two years) but more accurately I was going to focus on scientific illustration. At school I contributed to the college daily newspaper as an editorial illustrator, which, like scientific illustration, brings clarity to a subject. This is still a big interest of mine, which means I have a keen eye on what is being shown to explain a system, whatever the field.

All the images here are from the series. The top diagram is used to explain how Newton applied his first law of motion to explain how the inertia of the moon keeps it constantly "falling" around the Earth, while the apple on Earth will fall directly to the ground. Newton is hands down the most brilliant scientist to ever live and the series does a good job of showing his range of interest, and profound, independent thoughts. 

I do not have a problem with the way the series explains his thinking. My eight-year-old was watching this section last night and was able to comprehend his laws of gravity through the graphic explanations and analogies. I do have a problem with how Einstein's special theory of relativity and Hermann Minkowski's space-time is often visually explained. The middle picture here is clear, though exaggerated, if you are discussing how light would bend around objects in space but it fails as a substitute in explaining how it has replaced Newtonian gravity.

While many complicated theories in physics must be explained mathematically, they are often conceived of visually, but they are more visual concepts that do not translate well as visual analogies. This is not so much a fault of the documentary as it is about the scientific community and its inability to properly edit graphics.

The most humorous example of the disconnect between visualizing and visuals is the when leading physicists are asks to draw the strings of String Theory, and they end up drawing simple lines, as pictured in the bottom image.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Slowest, Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet

by Drew Martin
I watched a documentary today about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway (no, he did not die by driving one off a cliff). He is also the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which brings out the engineers in students through arena-style robotic competitions) and the SEE Science Center, a hands-on learning museum in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The documentary is called SlingShot, which is the name of a water distillation machine he hopes to distribute and install around the world in order to bring clean water to communities who are in need of potable water. He chose the name SlingShot because of the story of David and Goliath, which fascinated him as a kid. While most people focus on the small, less-powerful David overcoming Goliath, his giant adversary, the take-away of the story for Kamen was that technology (the slingshot) is cool, and empowering. It also complements one of the many adages he expresses in the documentary: that a really big person helps everybody else be big and to not keep them small.

Kamen has devoted his life to technology; specifically to technology that saves lives, including SlingShot as well as a home dialysis machine, which actually led to the development of SlingShot in order to provide medical-grade water for dialysis. Like most of us, I probably looked at the Segway as more of a recreational scooter, but Kamen approached it as a real people-mover in order to solve the problem of car-congested/polluted cities and as a segway between walking and driving.

While technology is king for Kamen, and he has filled his dream house in New Hampshire with beautiful machines such as a 150+-year-old steam engine from an old tugboat, and a real helicopter in a glass-walled garage, which he flies around, he does see shortcomings to its promises, such as the social contradictions of how it is used as well as unattainable dreams including his desire for a time machine. Another adage he says is that truth is transient, especially with technology.

To this point Kamen suggests that we do not have an education problem in America, but rather a cultural problem in that we do not pay much attention to the great minds that contribute to the betterment of society but are amazed that someone can perform slightly better in a sport, and get a basketball in a net. He says that unless you are doing something that inspires you and wake up ready to embrace each day, you are cheating yourself of a happy and meaningful life.

Kamen's intelligent humor shows through in many moments of the documentary, such as when he takes off the housing of a SlingShot model to explain its inner workings and points to the location of its expensium, unobtainium, unreliabilium, and icantmaketwoathem.

While he has had many successes, he also explains the difficulty of implementing innovation and warns his staff at his company DEKA of resting on their laurels, which he expresses as taking a nap on the bear-skin rug before you are sure you shot the bear.

Kamen is concerned by an attitude towards aid work that something of no cost has no value but his drive to solve world problems through technological solutions is unyielding, and with his wit promises that he will be an overnight success in twenty years.

On a hallway wall in his house he has hung drawings of great scientists and thinkers, which his father drew: Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein, who he refers to as Big Al. While responding to a comment about his own genius, he is flattered but explains he is a very slow learner with dyslexia. He says..If I am a genius then I am the slowest, dumbest genius that you'll even meet.