Blog: entries tagged with "art"

Report on an unknown sea cucumber

Magnification of the Mandelbrot setBack in high school, I played around with fractals, after finding a writeup about the Mandelbrot set in a back issue of Scientific American. The article had loads of dazzling colour renderings, the likes of which would grace psychedelic CD covers a few short years later: spidery frost patterns, seahorse-like whorls, lighting licking around tiny replicas of the snowman-shaped set.

All that colour and infinite detail came from a mind-bendingly simple equation, calculated over and over: zn+1 = zn2 + c. The article provided a snippet of pseudocode, which I compiled in C and ran for days on end on the family PC/AT, pumping the raw results through DeluxePaint to colour them. (Later on I added a pause function so my mum and dad could use the computer again.)

It was a window into a mysterious mathematical world: look at the latest image and pick out an interesting looking bit, work out its co-ordinates, and start up the calculations again, and a day or two later, enjoy the results. There was no end to its detail no matter how much you zoomed in on it, and always with those circles upon circles. Similar but never the same: a fractal.

I hadn’t thought much about the Mandelbrot set until a few days ago, when I happened on a link to the Mandelbulb, a recently-discovered 3-D analogue to the old-school set.

It’s… a little creepy.

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Real… Unreal.

Faking It cover imageJust finished reading Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker. It’s an examination of the history of ideas about musical and personal authenticity, from the dawn of blues and country to the rise of disco, punk and sampling. I’m finding the topic completely fascinating - which is perhaps amusing given the name of this site…

I first heard about the book via an interview with Taylor on a public radio show from the States called The Sound of Young America. Since the book came out Taylor and Barker have continued to explore the topic on their blog, also called Faking It.

Some questions that occur to me: how has the idea of authenticity played out in other cultures? Only one chapter really gets beyond North America and the British Isles, and it restricts itself to the intersection of Western music with world music (Buena Vista Social Club, Graceland).

How universal, for example, is the celebration of primitivism - as in punk and other “back to basics” movements in rock - as more “authentic”? I’m thinking especially of an early chapter in Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth where he writes:

[B]ossa nova’s revival of samba evolved from a refinement of musical tastes that was influenced by high-quality American songs of the thirties and by the cool jazz of the fifties; by contrast, rock in its essence was a rejection of all sophistication, and continually proves to be so whenever it seeks its own reaffirmation… While rock was simplistic, repudiating the elegance and elaboration of a Porter or a Gershwin, with their symphonic orchestrations, Miles Davis, or Bill Evans, in João Gilberto one was witnessing an almost antithetical impulse, a continuation, rather than a suppression, of musical history… [p. 23]

On the other hand, this sort of elevation of the primitive, the artless, the naïve, is present from at least the Romantics onward - you can see it in the Fauvist painters, and in Picasso’s fascination with African tribal art. All of them yearned for a connection with something primal and natural, and saw evidence of it in art from less “sophisticated” cultures.

There’s also a parallel in the development of Zen aesthetics (I’ve also been reading Andrew Juniper’s book Wabi Sabi recently - see the Wikipedia entry for Wabi sabi for a quick intro to the topic). In a similar reaction to the ultra-refined craft that accompanied the spread of Buddhism from China, Japanese monks strove to cut away all the fussy, meaningless trappings and strike directly to the essence. The arts they cultivated, from calligraphy to pottery to the tea ceremony, were pared down to their essence, and aspired to the artlessness of nature.

Where these parallel lines diverge, perhaps, is in the realm of personality and ego. Where most authenticity-seeking artists in the West seem to strive foremost for self-expression, the Zen practitioners would seek to abandon the self, to focus on nothing but the creation.

In their discussion of Kurt Cobain, Taylor and Barker suggest that the inevitable gap between ideals and real life was what killed him in the end. They don’t offer any way out of this trap, but if there is one, it’s probably close to the Zen approach of abandoning self, ego, and all expectations - both your own and those of the audience.

Lots more thoughts to organize on this topic, but that’s enough for now. I’m off to play Rock Band with my housemates.

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Lessons

I may have spoken too soon, in that little outburst the other day. Wrapping up final projects for work has been taking up a huge amount of time. Having most of a weekend to mull things over helped, but I still have a lot of thinking to think. More about this soon.

In the meantime, some things I have learned over the past few weeks.

  • The Arabic alphabet actually isn’t that hard. I’d always wanted to learn it, because I like alphabets and lettering - not to mention the fabulousness of Islamic calligraphy... but for some reason I’d expected it to be tough, probably because it’s joined up and reminded me of Gregg shorthand. During our trip I started to decode some place names and brand names.
  • On the other hand, the Arabic language? Oh man. I just found out that numbers not only have gender, but for the numbers 3 through 10, they have polarity - if the noun they refer to is masculine, the number is feminine and vice versa. Perhaps I’ll work on mastering French first and move on when I’m feeling brave enough.
  • Peel-top cartons of yoghurt do not travel well in a backpack.
  • Do not watch the video for the Shins’ “Phantom Limb” moments before a meeting. Crying in front of a client can be awkward.
  • “The Weight” by The Band is more complicated than I remembered, especially after half a pint.

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Music comics

Sordid City Blues previewOne of the comics I’ve been keeping up with online is Sordid City Blues. It stands out among the throngs of webcomics out there, with a cast of smartly written and charmingly drawn characters wrestling with issues of love, faith and art. The author, Charles Schneeflock Snow, is taking a few weeks off to work on other projects, and recently put out a call for guest artists to fill in for him on the web site. So I chipped in with a page, and went for the most obvious subject: Luther and his bandmates. (Luther’s the one in the blue hat - the central characters in SCB are colour-coded.) Here it is!

There are some references to earlier stories - particularly Chapter 43, which deals with the origin of the mural. The conversation about the bass is one I’ve had several times (the Fury LS-4 I play has an unusual headstock which tends to attract the attention of gear nerds) but also, Barkey does play a rather odd-looking bass.

(Like SCB? The first collection of stories is available in book form… help support independent artists!)

I’ve played around with comics before but never in a big way. And I’ve used Adobe Illustrator for years, but this is one of the few times I’ve actually been using it for hand-drawn illustration. Lessons learned: use layers. Lettering using a tablet is a pain in the ass. Background detail really helps a panel to spring to life (as was the case with the graffiti and cinder-block wall in the second panel). Also, it’s really freeing to write in a different voice for a while, and play with someone else’s characters. I did my best to capture a little of SCB’s look and its rhythms.

For quite some time I’ve been tossing around some story ideas, but I’ve never settled on a satisfying way of telling them. The format and characters keep shifting around on me - first it was a series of radio plays, then it was going to be podcasts, or maybe just short stories, and now I’m thinking of doing it in comic form. It may end up being a combination of all of the above. This has been a good chance to test the comics waters, and see if I’m really up to the task.

SketchSome of the characters I’m developing are musicians as well, which means that at some point there will be music played. Which brings up the fascinating question of how to represent music in a silent, static medium. Usually comic artists just resort to a sprinkling of eighth-notes and some lyrics. But what about taking a crazy graphical approach, one that breaks out of the usual rhythm of panels, the way a big number in a musical jumps out of the “real world” of theatrical/cinematic structure?

The example that springs to my mind at the moment is Hot Jazz by the ever-wacky Hunt Emerson. I don’t know a whole lot about comics history, so I’m sure there are others… Any suggestions? I should probably look into some Matt Howarth, for instance.

In the meantime I’ve been hunting through The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (see here for images, mostly the ones by Alan Aldridge). I’ll have to have a look for What The Songs Look Like too, which does the same for Talking Heads… and I wish I had a copy of More Dark Than Shark, a collection of artworks created by Russell Mills inspired by Brian Eno’s early “rock” albums, now out of print and hard to find.

My next comic-related project, then, is going to be this: pick a few songs that really inspire some visuals, and do one or two pages for each one. Strong contenders for the first couple: Stereolab and the Pixies.

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Dorkbot

One of Stan Krzyzanowski's pine conesDorkbot Toronto, the local chapter of the network of “people doing strange things with electricity”, has a new slate of presentations, and last night was the first.

Patricia Rodriguez presented some of her video work using all sorts of cameras - film, video, digital - and taking advantage of each one’s unique features and most interesting ways of failing.

Cary Peppermint and Christine Nadir’s work is about breaking down the perceived borders between nature and the human-made world, using electronic media installations in unexpected places. Wild Information Network, a solar-powered streaming audio server installed deep in the woods of the Catskills, plays sound pieces submitted by various artists, all with the notion of humans broadcasting to the broader environment, or vice versa. It and other pieces are catalogued on their site: EcoArtTech.net.

Stan Krzyzanowski showed his time-lapse work, ranging from handheld still camera shots, to mesmerizing animations created from successive sections of wood and other materials (notably vegetables and marbled cheese), to his recent projects involving cones from various sorts of tree. Pine cones, see, open up as they dry and fold closed again if you get them wet. And when sped up, the waving of a big pine cone’s scales takes on an eerie, almost animal aspect.

It’s beautiful stuff. Interval is a rather huge archive of all his experiments - click some of the “special sets” on the lower right. Most of the best stuff is on the “Favorites” page.

The sessions are held at InterAccess, a gallery at Queen and Ossington devoted to electronic media art. They offer a very cool series of workshops on topics like microcontroller programming, introductory electronics, pinhole photography, and hacking your bike to turn it into a mobile piece of sound art. I’m hoping to attend the ones on Pure Data and creating “resilient outdoor works”.

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Nuit Blanche 2007

Event Horizon at U of T. Photo: Luke Hollins, aka Hercules Rockafeller. Used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.Once again, Nuit Blanche was a smash. I’ve never seen another event bring the city to life in the same way - nothing like the sensory overload of Pride or Caribana, though those are great in their own ways. The streets all over downtown were packed with people of all ages, wandering from one site to the next, bumping into friends and excitedly trading recommendations. And there was such a sense of curiosity and discovery in the air - what’s that weird light in the distance? What’s waiting around the next corner?

Wonderful things:

Swintak’s ThunderEgg Alley: A Dumpster Diver’s Paradise, wherein a dingy alleyway near Spadina and College was turned into a tiny hotel using found furnishings, complete with spa, boutique and a front desk clerk who asked if we’d like to book the room (a rather cozy-looking dumpster) for a ten-minute stay. The earliest slot available wasn’t until 5:45am, sadly - it would have been great to hold a room party.

Brian Cort’s It’s A Cloud: in the north atrium of the Eaton Centre, people lay on their backs in a meadow of artificial grass and shrubbery, watching the sky projected on a screen high above while oddly-shaped clouds drifted by. The clouds, in fact, were painted by visitors to the exhibit using black paint, then scanned and cunningly rendered by a Java app.

I still maintain that the best “interactive art” is usually the simplest. In front of the Italian Consulate, there was a giant sheet of phosphorescent paper on one wall, and a dude with a great big strobe light. Strike a pose and flash! - your shadow remained frozen on the wall. A circle had formed around the screen, and people stepped in and out: oddballs with flags who’d apparently drifted in from another performance, couples kissing (to general murmurs of “Awwww…”), dancers showing off their uncanny flexibility, half a dozen people hastily lining up to form a single multi-armed silhouette.

King’s College Circle, in the heart of the U of T campus, was a scene straight out of War of the Worlds or Quatermass - an apparent UFO crash site, surrounded by emergency personnel and people in hazmat suits. I understand there was more to the piece (Marman and Borins’ Event Horizon, pictured above) but we didn’t get to see that.

The park beneath Will Alsop’s famous “tabletop” at OCAD makes a natural and comfy hub for the central exhibit zone, and a nice spot to sit for a while and catch a few artsy short films (we saw one that was an adaptation of a piece by the wonderful troupe Corpus - organizers of the Dusk Dances festival every summer).

We didn’t check out The Ghost Station, a sound installation at the abandoned subway platform Lower Bay, because the lineup literally extended around the block, and by then I was starting to fade. Which meant that, sadly, we missed out on all the fun in the far west: the giant inflated locust at Lamport Stadium, the freaky looking animations at Massey Harris Park, the video projection-graffiti bike (based on that Graffiti Research Lab project), and Misha Glouberman’s Terrible Noises For Beautiful People: Music for a participatory noise choir.

It was barely 1am by the time I crashed. I’m determined to stay up later next year, and maybe bring a bike to get from one site to another. And more than that - to participate. To create an exhibit, or help out with one, or even just grab a guitar and busk somewhere. Dear city and sponsors: let there be a next year.

Pier Giorgio di Cicco: Municipal MindA friend recently gave me a copy of Municipal Mind: Manifestoes for the Creative City, an inspiring collection of short essays and manifestoes from Toronto’s Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio di Cicco. Nuit Blanche is just the sort of thing he prescribes: a celebration that brings out the “elements one no longer dares to ask for – conviviality, joy, delight in wonder, the shared forum of imagining and play, of unreserved laughter and serenity ... the playful and ecstatic registers that justify city life, without which the city becomes a place of business, or indentured servitude.”

It takes a poet to say what planners and politicians almost never dare. It’s easy, especially given the City of Toronto’s precarious financial situation, to get lost in talk of dollars and cents. Art, creativity, love: these things are what make us - and our cities - human.

Photos at the Flickr pool.

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Many hands make light (art)work

Three pieces. The first two were passed along by a fellow DIYer who’s working on interactive electronic public art (thanks Gabe!):

GRL's Laser Tag system in operationFirst up, the Graffiti Research Lab and their collaborators have produced a laptop / camera / projector setup that lets you paint on the side of a building.

Their software lets you define the contours of the wall you’re projecting onto, then tracks the position of a laser pointer beam using video fed from the camera, and draws the resulting lines - with some simulated paint dripping, for added effect. Naturally, it’s open source, complete with instructions.

IMAGENext, Body Movies by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Portraits are projected on a huge scale on walls surrounding a public square, revealed in the shadows thrown by passers-by. If people in the square arrange themselves in a matching pose, the projections switch. But much more interesting is the ways that people spontaneously interact, given the possibility of casting gigantic shadows of radically different sizes. It turns into instant mimed improv.

Hello from Pika PikaAnd finally, PIKA PIKA, a “lightning doodle project”. Doodler Takeshi explains:

We took a photo of each image using long exposures and put them together to make them look like one animation.

To work on this project,we went out to various places in Japan:parks,under the train track,the Tokyo Bay,school hallways,and so on.

We got all sorts of friends in different fields together to work on this project.
During the process,they got to know each other and discover new things. This is also about “communication”.
People can meet new friends as they create a piece art very easy which brings every one happiness.
We spend a very enjoyable evening at the workshop and the party through this animation.

The results are delightful to watch, too - it’s like a live performance of a Norman McLaren scratch-animation film, with luminous creatures and designs running riot through real physical spaces. I love how the “performers” are often faintly visible, but obscured, like bunraku puppeteers.

The beauty of these projects is how intuitive they are to use. Casting shadows, drawing with light… even if they’re a little tricky to get the hang of, the concept is utterly simple and inviting. And they let people think and interact with their whole bodies.

Now we need to make “computers for the rest of you.” GUI technology allows you to drag and drop, but it won’t notice if you twist and shout.
— Dan O’Sullivan and Tom Igoe, Physical Computing

The body is the large brain.
— Brian Eno

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Presonance at last

Flash visualizer from the Presonance site I’ve been messing about with Flash and Actionscript lately, and one of my big motivations was was wanting to finish the Presonance site.

Some months ago, I started trading files with Rezo Largul, and we decided to use the name “Presonance” for our collaboration, and “Mycestene” as a name for an eventual CD. So far we’ve completed four tracks and have a couple of others in the works. The finished ones are now up, along with some pretty little visualizations (yup, there’s the Flash programming coming into play). Spacy analogue waltzes, mysterious orchestral arrangements colliding with mad electronic rhythms, a dose of Casseiopean free jazz…

Have a listen! You can download the tracks there too.


And in the acoustic world, another Toronto lamppost has been graced with its own built-in bass. Now that I’ve got a new digital audio recorder I’ll have to pay the new “Garrison Creek” bass a visit. All hail RGB for bringing more music to our parks and sidewalks!

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Rerun: Five things

That “five things you might not have known about me” meme is going around the blogs lately, so what the heck - here are my answers, previously published elsewhere (except for #4).

1. When I was a kid, I drew quite a bit. My dad had a box of old, unused forms for tracking lab samples of plant material, which were my standard drawing paper for years. There were two sorts: white, legal-sized ones and heavy, green-tinted ones with a perforated section at the bottom (there was a serial number that you could stick in the bag with the smelly bits of collected leaves).

To me, the functional side of the paper was the blank side. And it seemed really weird to me that anyone would draw on anything else. I drew pictures of the house, the cats, and some incomprehensible comics - the detachable section at the bottom was roughly Sunday-comic sized - about talking mugs and bunnies that spent all their time falling into water and yelling at each other.

Purple2. A couple of years ago, I was Purple for Buddies in Bad Times’ Pride promo photos.

3. I talk to cats in made-up languages in addition to English. I sometimes use something like the peculiar dialect of “cat talk” spoken by everyone in my SO’s family, particularly when talking to Gomiya (her name is actually a form of address used when speaking to a cat; a more formal version is “Gohdemiya”). I think my personal cat dialect is also influenced by an old George Booth cartoon in the New Yorker called “Ip Gissa Gul” (“Ip Gets A Girl”) which was written in a made-up caveman language (I also find myself addressing dogs as “Huppy dod!” sometimes). Tarquin I talk to in something reminiscent of Inuktitut. I have no idea why.

4. My nickname in middle school was “Fish”, for reasons known only to the maybe three or four vaguely in-crowd kids who started calling me that. The only thing I can think of is that my last name has a similar rhythm to the word “mackerel”.

5. I owe a lot of my understanding of musical chords and chord progressions to a program I had for the Commodore 64 when I was in high school called Instant Music. The flip side of the disk had a whole bunch of example songs in different styles from rock history, all rendered in binky three-voice synthesis, and the book that came with it had a helpful rundown of chord types. The interface was horrible without a mouse, but I soldiered on anyway, even after my joystick died (I jammed its wires into an old calculator and used that as a controller instead).

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Along the streets

Aerial viewTook a couple cool walks through the west end, down the hill north of Davenport that marks the ancient Lake Iroquois shoreline, past the old Wychwood streetcar barns and the Tollkeeper’s Cottage, a couple of souvenirs of Toronto’s transportation history. The former site is slated for conversion to artists’ studios, greenhouses and parkland, the latter for restoration as a national heritage site.

And there were other neat things along the way - parks and neighbourhoods and friendly cats, and other stuff that may provide inspiration for the radio scripts I’ve been working on.

Down on Bloor Street, we passed by the trio of construction sites at Varsity Stadium, the Royal Conservatory and the ROM, and wandered down Philosopher’s Walk past the Conservatory and the U of T music building, there to check out the second lamppost bass installed by Richard Bishop (who ran across my post about his earlier installation, the Kensington Bass, and was kind enough to alert me to the arrival of its new sibling). A bit tough to play, but fun! I’ll have to come by with my contact microphone and an amp or recorder sometime.


Eucan megabin Speaking of the urban landscape, city council is now seeking proposals to provide street furniture citywide. One side effect of this is that the Eucan “monster bin” project (see left) is dead. Good thing too - but we’d better keep an eye on the proceedings and let councillors know we want ads kept under control.

There’s also one really maddening bit: those three-sided “ad pillars” that AstralMedia have installed in parks are exempt from all this. They’re just off the sidewalk, and therefore within the jurisdiction of Parks and Rec, not Urban Planning.

More about this via Spacing Wire. Also, a Star article by Christopher Hume.


Also, on Friday, Newmindspace (instigators of Bubble Battles, subway and streetcar parties, and other revelry) are having a big mobile party they’re calling Flight Of Fancy, somewhere close to downtown. Route to be annouced via email. I’m gonna be there, hopefully playing some music!

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