Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finger Tutting and King Tutankhamun

by Drew Martin
Fingers have always been crucial to 
creating art and communication: from signing a language to pecking Morse code. More often than not, fingers are busy holding tools: pens and pencils, paintbrushes and stone chisels. Music has perhaps celebrated the dexterity and possibilities of fingers more than any other art form or manner of communication. The "digital" demands of the harpsichord preceded the qwerty keyboard of typewriters by hundreds of years.

While finger movements have been essential to dance from the beginning of time, the art form of finger tutting has taken it to a whole new level. It is really a microcosm/subset of the breakdancing scene that started in the late 1970s.

Breakdancing itself is a derivative of tutting, which references King 
Tutankhamun, more popularly referred to as King Tut. In the 1970s funk dancers began to mimick the stiff, angular positions locked into the stylized paintings and sculptures from ancient Egypt.

King Tut was the pharaoh of the 18th dynasty (1332 BC – 1323 BC) but his tomb was not discovered until 1922, which renewed public interest in ancient Egypt.

The relics of his tomb hit the road with The Treasures of Tutankhamun tour from 1972 to 1979. The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the exhibition for its display in the United States, which ran from 1976 through 1979. More than eight million people attended.

So while breakdancing started on the streets of New York, the influence came from the revival of ancient Egypt art that hit New York like a sand storm.

And just as unlikely as this active street dance originating in the calm galleries of New York's greatest museum, Taylor Swift recently mainstreamed finger tutting in her Shake It Off video, in which she comically inserts herself into various dance style groups. She finger tuts side by side one of the greatest, PNUT.

I first watched her video in response to reading a harsh critique I read by a woman who identified herself, in a popular magazine, as African American. She slammed Swift for twerking with black women. I was expecting something like Lily Allen's Hard Out There twerking video but it was much more benign, playful, and self deprecating. She tries to pull off several styles and they all end with a kind of klutzy attempt. She half-asses her way through ballet, breakdancing, modern dance, ribbon dancing, and cheerleading, and pokes a little fun at Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. The tone is what you see in the animated gif here: someone (in this case PNUT) doing something really well, and Swift fumbling, and it works...it's cute.

I know that trying out different styles in music videos has been done before but what immediately came to mind was KT Tunstall's Hold On music video. I rewatched it to see how she handled a style that might raise an eyebrow and my jaw dropped. There are a couple seconds of her standing with three almost-naked African warriors doing vertical leaps.

Popularizing cultural arts is always an issue but I am not sure if people should take offense to acts like The Bangels Walk Like an Egyptian song/music video or Steve Martin's King Tut performance on Saturday Night Live.

Watch the video at the bottom of this post to see Mark Benson's seminal tutting moves. 

Watch the video below to see "
The Best Finger Dancers in the world, all in one video! Dancers: CTUT. JAYFUNK, NEMESIS, PNUT, STROBE, ERA"

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On-Demanding People: From 3D-Printing Revolution to 4D-Printing Evolution

by Drew Martin
Last winter my youngest kid, then six years old, asked for a 3D printer as a holiday gift. His intention was to make figurines to add to his collection of store-bought Angry Birds paraphernalia. He was not confronted by business demands, and he did not need a TED Talk to seed a vision, it simply made sense to him: why get a box of toys when you can get something that will make boxes of toys? I have not bought him one...yet. Maybe a new term for 
demanding millennial kids should be on-demanding kids.

I like the phrase technological advance because it signifies not only a departure from the current state but also movement towards something else that is predetermined. The 3D printer has already been played out in science fiction, including the replicator in Star Trek, and even in mythologies and old stories such as the gold-egg-laying goose in Jack and the Beanstalk. The "revolution" of 3D printing, a technology that has been around and in use for decades, is that it is coming to your home.

The parallel to personal computers is uncanny. My millennial teenage kids are in the same position with 3D printing as I was at their age with computers. I had early access in the 1970s to the first computers through my father's nuclear lab, and yet at that time there was the question of why you would ever need or even want one in your home. Once the size and price dropped, it just happened. And like the early trinkets of 3D printing, the first real instance of computers in homes was through video games. Playfulness aside, they also introduced intense graphic user interfaces at least a decade before Apple caught on to it for their Macs.

In ten years' time, everyone who has a reason for owning a computer now, will own a 3D printer and companies such as Home Depot need to get on board and have as much of their inventory scanned/modeled as possible, otherwise they will go the way of Borders Books, Blockbuster Video, and Tower Records. Why would I jump in a car and drive ten miles to pick up some plastic hooks or a screwdriver when I can just print them out?

I watched an interesting documentary yesterday on Netflix, called Print the Legend, about the two forces behind desktop 3D printing: Makerbot (pictured top) and Form Labs (pictured second from top), and the guys that are running these companies, Bre Pettis and Maxim Lobovsky, respectively.

Makerbot, which uses extrusion-based technology, is the more popular of the two and has a larger market share, but Form Labs uses a more-advanced system, laser-sintering stereolithography, and spits out a better product. Extrusion works by squeezing heated plastic through a nozzle, whereas stereolithography uses a laser to polymerize and harden a liquid resin. 
You can see the difference in quality and prices of the systems as shown in the comparison of rooks (pictured middle) made by these desktop printers, along with the one made on a 3D Systems industrial printer. Better is about quality of the material used and "resolution," which is the quality of the end piece. We are all familiar with image quality differences in the world of digital images, so one could say that the Makerbot end product is lower resolution and has a rough, almost pixelated look, compared to Form Labs.

In addition to Pettis and Lobovsky, another main character in this story is Cody Wilson, a free-market anarchist, and guns-right activist, partially shown here (pictured second from bottom) holding the first 3D-printed gun, The Liberator, made with a Makerbot. Pettis refuses to address the topic of guns printed with his machines. After Cody's video about The Liberator went viral, Pettis splashed around a feel-good story about Robohand, a prosthetic (pictured bottom) made with the Makerbot, for kids born without fingers. In the end, The Liberator was more of a sensation with 3,700,000 views compared to 484,000 views for Robohand. If Wilson is a thorn in the industry's side, it is in the right place. During the divided national argument about acquiring guns, he simply made one. He slyly disrupted a disruptive technology.

In the end, this documentary is really a story about the personalities of Pettis, Lobovsky, and Wilson. Pettis is pitched as the next Steve Jobs, and there is much time devoted to him turning his back on his friends and cofounders in order to build a bigger company. There is also a change of character the other way around. Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, at first tries to crush Lobovsky's Form Labs with a lawsuit for copyright infringement but then comes around and decides to be more open with his company. One of the strongest human voices in all of this is Nadia Cheng, Lobovsky's girlfriend, who questions the emotional tools of her boyfriend and other entrepreneurs out to "change the world."

I think the technology will be especially interesting when the units become mobile. I am thinking about how spiders operate their three pairs of spinners, and can emit different substances, such as a sticky or a non sticky thread. Picture automated spiderbots spinning latticed footbridges in remote places, or safety netting on construction sites.

Even more fascinating is 4D printing, which is about programming physical materials to build themselves. This would have infinite applications from nano and micro needs to the built environment with construction, infrastructure, and manufacturing. S
elf assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction. Materials can be programmed to assume a desired geometry once they are activated by energy sources such as heat, movement, pneumatics, gravity, and/or magnetics.

Click here to watch Skylar Tibbits TED Talk, the Emergence of "4D Printing."

Click here to watch the trailer for Print a Legend

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pulling My Lego

by Drew Martin
I watched a short (20 minute) British documentary today about the turnaround success of Lego, and how it serves as a model/case study for reviving a troubled business. A decade ago it was in bad shape but more recently Lego has been experiencing double-digit growth. In 2013 its profits rose 24% and the company produced 55 billion elements, which breaks down to 105,000 pieces per minute. It is estimated that more than 600 billion pieces have been made since it the company's founding in 1932. There are at least 80 pieces of Lego for every human being on the planet. With more than 500 million tiny tires produced each year, it is also considered one of the largest tire makers.

Lego is a merging of the Danish words Leg and godt, which mean "play well."  
While the trademark element is the basic building block (originally referred to as automatic binding bricks) some of the sets require detailed instructions and enduring patience. The most complex packaged set is the Taj Mahal with 5,922 pieces. Adult enthusiasts for the toy have built much more elaborate creations, which incorporate computers and other hardware. Many of them belong to AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego) and participate in the Lego Mindstorms. But no matter how complex the sets or how sophisticated the projects, the real power of the possibility is in the block itself.

A young employee in the documentary explains that with two 2x4 pegged blocks, it is possible to position them in 24 different ways. With three blocks, there are 1,060 possibilities, and with six blocks there are 915,103,765 ways to combine them. The CEO says that they have a digital-like aspect (0 and 1 combinations) so they are endlessly creative, yet extremely logical.

I grew up with the old-school sets of Legos, in which the most complicated pieces might be hinged shutters or doors. The number of unique pieces being manufactured was once upward of 13,000 units, but the CEO insisted they cut that back to 7,000 in order to help revive the core business.

In my house thousands of Lego pieces sit in big bins, which resemble colorful trash heaps. My first two kids are too old to play with them and my youngest boy does not have a particular interest in them so they remain as detritus of their childhood. I have been trying to make sense of them as basic art materials.

Pictured top, is a Lego mural I have slowly built (whenever I find a stash or piece) for the past year. After a recent doubling in size, it is more than six feet wide. From the beginning, it was important for me to capture the creative magic of my childhood when the pieces were limited so I established some basic rules. For this mural I only used the very thin, solid pieces, without curved edges. Angled edges are included but only if they do not cut back and create a negative space. In terms of the process, I established that there could only be two layers throughout the entire piece, which means there are no stacking or layering of three or more pieces, which keeps the work very flat.

To sift through bins of Lego pieces in order to find the pieces for this mural is time consuming so the last time I did it, I started to also pull out several other types and sorted them accordingly so I could use them for additional projects. Pictured bottom, is another piece I did with only the skinniest pieces of Lego. They are standard height but are only one peg wide. Then I capped the top pieces with the smooth side Legos. My two younger sons joined me when they saw me working on it. This piece wraps around a support column in the center of our house. It is loose (and strong) enough to move up and down the column.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

NOW Wow: Wonder Woman Revisited

by Drew Martin
Jill Lepore's article The Last Amazon: Wonder Woman Returns in the September 22, 2014 issue of The New Yorker brought back fond, boyhood memories, and helped explain a thing or two about my childhood crush-hero.

I loved Wonder Woman when I was a kid: I loved her look, her power, and her golden lasso of truth. Lynda Carter was a beautiful goddess to me. I was even hooked on the animated version on television. I especially liked how Wonder Woman's invisible plane was minimally represented with simple white lines, similar to the treatment used to show (her guy friend) Aquaman's sonar call to his marine friends.

I tuned out of the whole thing as I matured but I did have a reaction when I brought my teen daughter to Comic Con in New York a couple years ago and saw totally out-of-shape and junk-food-feed women donning the costume. Likewise, as Lepore points out the shortcomings of Gal Gadot for the new movie role, I had a similar unsettled feeling about not doing justice to the character and Carter's stellar embodiment of my adolescent icon.

Lepore's article digs deep (for nine, full pages) into the history of Wonder Woman and her creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, who breathed life into her in 1941 so as to bolster self-confidence in girls.

Marsten's dissertation on the detection of deception based on the changes in blood pressure earned him credit as the inventor of the lie detector test. This explains Wonder Woman's golden lasso, with which she captures people who cannot lie once they are ensnared.

Wonder Woman's big, bullet-blocking bracelets were a nod (or more like a wink) to one of Marsten's students who wore two long, silver bracelets: one from Africa and one from Mexico. This student became part of a threesome love affair and long-term living arrangement manned by Marston.

Wonder Woman was embraced by the Equal Rights movement, and as Lepore mentions on more than one occasion in her article, Ms. magazine featured her on the cover of their first regular issue, in 1972.

My mother, who was very active in the feminist movement and NOW (National Organization for Women) in the 1970s, took this picture of me (bottom image) in 1972 with that very issue!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Artist and the Mathematician: A Revolution of Human Thought

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago I bought a book titled The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. I was hoping it would be something like The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary but it did not have the same kind of flow or kick-start so I put it down and spurned it every time I saw it on the book shelf.

For some reason I picked it up a couple weeks ago and discovered what a brilliant book it is. The Artist and the Mathematician is about a French mathematics group that..."embarked on the ambitious project of setting the mathematics curriculum for calculus and mathematical analysis offered in all universities in France." They were the best mathematicians in their country whose collective genius changed the course of mathematics around the world.

They published as "Nicolas Bourbaki," a character they not only invented but also built a life around including a baptism, baptismal certificate, godparents, and even invitations to his "daughter's" wedding. There was one member of the collective who most captured the essence of Bourbaki, Alexandre Grothendieck - a brilliant man who survived a horrific childhood during the Holocaust, changed modern mathematics, and then abandoned his academic post, friends, and family to return to the solitude that he credited for the success of his deep understanding of mathematics.

The Bourbaki group enjoyed a special place in society:

é life in Paris would, therefore be dominated not only by the philosophers and the writers and artists, but also by the mathematicians. And perhaps for the first time in modern history, mathematics would play a key role in the general culture - in a way that it did only in the very distant past of ancient Greece. 

Since Sartre and his allies were decidedly non-mathematical in their approach to life, they would inevitably be left behind. Their philosophical theory of existentialism would end its reign as the strictly axiomatic, rigorous, and system-oriented theory called structuralism swept France and the rest of the Western world. The mathematicians would play a key role in the new milieu not only as proponents of a new and widely-used approach to life, but also as 'connectors' among practitioners in different fields: the exact sciences, the social sciences, art, literature, psychology, economics, and philosophy. This would launch a new age for mathematics, one in which the role of the discipline in our culture could not be matched by any other...

...in fact, the ideas developed by these mathematicians sitting in Parisian caf
és would prove to be of crucial importance for society as a whole. The ideas of these mathematicians would constitute nothing less than a revolution in human thought - one whose effect would be felt far and wide.

The art world in this period was driven by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp who absorbed this mathematical and scientific awakening into their work.

Einstein's dramatic discovery in 1905 dealt a fatal blow to our view of the universe. His theory (of relativity) added a fourth dimension to our world: the dimension of time. It was now time for our new view of nature to enter into art. The mathematician Maurice Princet explained Einstein's theory to artists, and they began to mimic these discoveries in physics in their own work.

While Princet did not create cubism, his explanations did influence the new art form. Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Metzinger, Gris, and others created the new art form by destroying the old perspective and realism and creating the new way of painting. But the fourth dimension itself was now to enter as well. Artists tried both to paint in a way that seemed to reflect a new dimension and to create art in which time itself was the variable. Time was the added dimension. Marcel Duchamp, in particular, explored paintings in which subjects were depicted at different point in time. He even experimented with paintings in which time was accelerating or slowing down. Duchamp's Portrait de joueurs d'echecs, 1911...serves as a good illustration of these ideas...

...He painted a series of studies and canvases of checkers and chess players...The cubist painting (Portrait de joueurs d'echecs) shows his two brothers, Villon on the right and Duchamp-Villon on the left, engrossed in the game. The two figures are fused in the center, creating an illusion from a single point of view, thus doing away with the old spatial perspective. The figures reappear, deformed and at changing angles, higher on the canvass, reflecting the effects as a fourth dimension. The two players, however, are unaware of the fourth dimension and are locked in a static subspace of the dynamic universe around them.

Structuralism is defined by the author, Amir Aczel, as...

...a method of intellectual inquiry that provides a framework for organizing and understanding areas of human study concerned with the production and perception of meaning.

Structuralism is interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary.

Although this system originated with mathematicians as well as linguists, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss is credited as being the father of structuralism because he released it from its breeding grounds to other fields where it flourished.

The fundamental assumption of structuralism is that all of human behavior arises from an innate structuring capability. This structuring ability latent in the human brain, gives rise to language. But the same structures hidden inside the brain also lead to myths, creativity, and various social patterns...

Structuralism deals with the relationships between parts and the whole. Totality takes logical priority over individual parts, and the relationships are more important than the entities they connect. The hidden structure is thus much more important than whit is obvious or apparent in any given situation. It is the symbolism that matters, rather than the entities symbolized. Because of the philosophical components of structure, we find the ideas of structure in areas far beyond the sciences...

Structuralism was a deep method that stripped away all the unnecessary elements of a system.

The linguistic origins of structuralism started with Roman Jakobson, who helped found the Moscow Circle of linguistics in 1915, the Saint Petersburg Circle of linguistics in 1917, and then the Circle of Prague.

In the Theses of 1929 the Prague linguists wrote:

In its social role, one must distinguish language following the existing relationship between it and the extra-linguistic reality. Language has a function in communication, that is, it is aimed at the signified: or it has a poetic function, that is, it is aimed at the symbolism itself.

A literary society founded in 1960 was also modeled after Bourbaki. They were called Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle - Workshop of potential literature). 
One of the most prominent members was the Italian writer Italo Calvino. 

Oulipo translated geometrical ideas into linguistic ones:

Point = Word, Line = Sentence, Place = Paragraph

Oulipo attempted to deconstruct literature and rebuild it in a new way, thus bringing the new structuralism from mathematics, anthropology, and art into the foundation of a new literature.

They created systems for producing poetry such as the M+/-n Method, and from that the S+7 Method, which brings to mind the game of juxtapositions by the surrealists that we refer to as Exquisite Corpse. Or perhaps it is even more akin to the word substitution game marketed as Mad Libs.

S+7 Method:

  • choose a text
  • select a dictionary (bilingual was typically used)
  • replace every noun with the seventh noun appearing after it in the dictionary
So a passage such as...

I saw a rabbit in the garden,
eating my cabbage, tomatoes, and carrots.
I tried to throw a stone at it,

but it bolted when it noticed my raised arm.


I saw a radio in the garrison,
eating my cacophony, tongue, and cartwheels.
I tried to throw a stove at it,

but it bolted when it noticed my raised aroma.

Having done this on the spot with the student's dictionary next to me, the process is a kind of random/false creativity.

The way the brain processes information, according to Lé
vi-Strauss, is by using symbolism. The symbolism is what structural analysis  is designed to uncover. Structure is thus a code, consisting of concise symbols. The symbolism inherent in brain function follows mathematical rules that are tantamount to the ideas developed by Bourbaki: the notions of closeness, transformation, groupings, and other of the "mother structures" studied by the group.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sleeping Senses

by Drew Martin
Lately I have been having a kind of surge in lucid dreams, which I should probably keep to myself, but the increase in detail is worth noting.

I have always had vivid and complex dreams but what I experienced last night was one of the most bizarre dreams I have had in recent times. In it I was supposedly on some kind of drug but the fascinating effects of the drug were my dream sensibilities: unreal tactile feeling and movement, and my muddled non-awake comprehension of things. The sobriety I was yearning was really awakened consciousness.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film

by Drew Martin
In Sleeper (1973), Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and owner of the 'Happy Carrot' Health-Food store who was cryopreserved in 1973, and revived 200 years later. When Allen’s character realizes the duration of his stasis he says, “You know, I bought Polaroid at seven, it’s probably up millions by now.”

At the time Sleeper came out Polaroid was cutting edge, the kind of company that Apple grew up wanting to be, but unlike Apple, Polaroid was unique in that they had unchallenged rule over their product - consumer cameras that shot instant film.

The company was founded in 1937 and had their first consumer camera on the market in 1947.  In 1972 the company introduced the folding, single lens Polaroid SX-70, which changed the history of photography. By 2001 the Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy. It stopped making cameras in 2007 and stopped selling film after 2009 to the shock of die-hard Polaroid photographers. The decline had less to do with losing out to the digital age and more to do with mismanagement and lack of enthusiasm for their own product .

Since 2010, however, a group called The Impossible Project kick-started a defunct Polaroid production plant in Enschede, Holland, and have made instant film available to its niche market.

This morning I watched Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film, a 95-minute documentary that captures this free-fall moment for Polaroid photographers through many personal interviews.

What I did not know was how devoted the employees were to the founder and leader, Edwin Land, who considered himself first and foremost an artist. One of his first employees explained that she went to work for Polaroid thinking of it as a technology company and found herself dealing more with the art and the artist.

One of Land’s achievements with the SX-70 was its integral film, which meant everything was contained in the photograph: no peel away, no chemical waste, no detritus. Land did not want the people using his cameras to litter the land. His love for the photographic arts and the environment is evident with one of his first hired consultants, Ansel Adams. Land believed that everyone had a kernel of creativity and his cameras were tools to help them explore their inner artist.

Most of the film speaks about Polaroid as one would expect from an artistic point of view: the magical production of a physical product, the instant artifact and instant memory, and the social experience of taking pictures. One of the surprises was a clip by Paul Giambarba, a former art director at Polaroid, who was most known for the package design. He says what he did was big deal at the time because it gave the consumer the first chance to pronounce the company's name. A lot of people mispronounced it with attempts like poylaroad. Giambarba said this had a lot to do with the typeface of the original packaging that used Memphis, which made little distinction between the lowercase a and o (left logo, top). He improved the clarity of the name by setting up POLAROID in all caps New Gothic within a black end panel (left logo, bottom).

Click here to watch the trailer for Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film.