Drawing you on

That last article I linked to yesterday about children’s art leads on nicely to this one. Anne Quito from Quartz takes a look at Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice, the new book by design historian D.B. Dowd.

According to Dowd, we’ve been misunderstanding the significance of drawing for too long. It’s not about performance, something left only to the “artists”, but about process, a way of observing and learning.

Drawing is the best way to learn, even if you’re no Leonardo Da Vinci
There’s another fundamental reason for using drawing as a learning tool: It can bring out our better qualities as people. “If practiced in the service of inquiry and understanding, drawing does enforce modesty,” says Dowd. “You quickly discover how little you know.”

The observation that’s necessary for drawing is also enriching. “Drawing makes us slow down, be patient, pay attention,” he says. “Observation itself is respectful, above all else.”

In the closing chapter of Stick Figures, Dowd argues that drawing can even make us better citizens, in the sense that it trains us to wrestle with evidence and challenge assumptions. “It might seem sort of nutty, but I do think that drawing can be a form of citizenship,” he says. “Observation, inquiry, and steady effort are good for us.”

It’s a really interesting viewpoint. Looking back, all my posts about drawing have been more about the finished product than the process. Even the dancing one, the wind one and the one about the inflatable ball — all heavily process-driven — are artist-led, with an end product in mind.

The hidden lives of ordinary things

I’ve just found a new (to me) corner of the web, full of interesting things to read.

Object Lessons
Object Lessons is an essay and book series published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury about the hidden lives of ordinary things, from sardines to silence, juniper berries to jumper cables.

Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific inspiration: an anthropological query, ecological matter, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation—and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.

I love that domain name. Some of the essays I’ve bookmarked to catch up on later include:

How the 50-mm lens became ‘normal’
It’s often called the optic that best approximates human vision, but approximation is relative.

The case for locking up your smartphone
Lockers and sleeves for phones can feel like an infringement on personal rights, but they also might save people from their worst habits.

How the index card cataloged the world
Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything.

And this poignant, tricky one, too.

Why it’s okay to throw your children’s art away
There’s a moment when a child first presents you with her art, holding it out with the last split second of attention she can muster after completing it. That moment contains a burst of pride on both your parts, and a frisson of mutual love. But in the end, your pride lasts longer than the child’s does. Eventually, and soon, it must move on to another venture. Theirs always does, but yours lingers, heartstrings tugged.

It’s the wish to prolong this moment artificially, I think, that motivates the urge to keep and curate your children’s art for posterity. You convince yourself there’s some future where your child will want to return to that moment of pride and love through the act of witnessing the thing she made so long ago.

Don’t fall for it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better. You’ll never quite be able to tell which moment your children will remember, and it’s not as if you can regulate that memory on their behalf anyway. And besides, childhood is made from a thousand moments just like this. There’s no way to hold on to all of them.

Watching the time go by, together

I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first I’ve heard of this remarkable piece of video art. Christian Marclay’s The Clock, from 2010, is at Tate Modern till January.

The Clock review – ‘The longer you watch it, the more addictive it becomes’
When the screen says 8.23, I check my phone and find it’s telling the same time. A gaggle of clips from the 1950s and 60s signals that it’s time for the first cigarette of the day. Ashtrays full from the previous night are getting fresh ash tapped into them. Meanwhile, in a clip from the 1993 film Falling Down, Michael Douglas is in his car in a traffic jam, face tense and twitchy as he heads for a crazed rampage. And Richard Burton as a cockney gangster serves his mum breakfast in bed in a clip from – I think – the 1971 film Villain.

All these moments contain clocks – digital clocks, grandfather clocks, watches, alarm clocks or just the time on a TV newsflash – and that time is the same as the time your watch says. The Clock is a highly reliable clock. I am sure there is an art collector somewhere who owns a copy and projects it in the kitchen on a permanent loop to tell the time.

That last line reminded me of Raymond Dufayel from Amelie, aiming his video camera at the clock on the street outside, so that he doesn’t have to wind his own clocks. I’m sure that clip will be in there somewhere.

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I wonder how many people have watched the whole of Marclay’s video. Is it really 24 hours long? Does it really not have any repeated clips in it? Quite remarkable.

‘It’s impossible!’ – Christian Marclay and the 24-hour clock made of movie clips
It is a staggering, almost superhuman feat of research that has gained a cult following ever since it was unveiled at the White Cube gallery in London in 2010. The Clock’s easy-to-grasp governing principle coexists with the almost ungraspable fact that its creator, Christian Marclay, really has pulled it off, beguilingly combining the utter randomness of each individual clip with the strict form of his overarching idea, allowing everyone to meditate on time, how we’re obsessed with it, how there’s never enough of it.

There are quite a few clips on YouTube of snatches of The Clock (start watching this one at 10:15, or this one at 12:04, or this one at 2:18), but here’s a segment on it from the BBC’s Culture Show, with Alain de Botton.

Christian Marclay – The Clock

Wanting a copy of the full video? Don’t hold your breath for a DVD release, it might be a little… costly.

The Clock (2010 film): Release
Marclay made six editions of The Clock, plus two artist’s proofs. Five copies were designated to be sold to institutions for US$467,500 each under the condition that The Clock can’t be playyed in more than one location at the same time. The last copy was sold to hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen for an undisclosed amount. Within a day of premiering The Clock, White Cube received a host of offers from museums, some of which purchased copies jointly. The sale became one of the largest purchases of video art and one of the highest purchases to happen on the primary market.

Vibrant butterfly

Another great find from the Futility Closet — an incredible book, hiding within an ordinary one.

Subtext
To create his 1970 novel A Humument, British artist Tom Phillips began with W.H. Mallock’s forgotten 1892 novel A Human Document and drew, painted, and collaged over the pages, leaving a few words showing to tell a new, hitherto unrevealed story. For instance, the title arises from Phillips’ deletion of two central syllables in Mallock’s title, and the protagonist, Bill Toge, can appear only when the word “together” or “altogether” arises in Mallock’s original text.

The article points us to this amazing gallery of pages from the book. All I knew of Tom Phillips before reading this was that he collaborated with Peter Greenaway on A TV Dante, but you can certainly see some of that shared aesthetic here.

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We’re also pointed to this review from the London Review of Books, for a more in-depth look at the ‘author’ and his ‘book’.

Double Act: Adam Smyth reviews ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips
He treats each page of Mallock’s novel in this way, effacing most of the text, generally by painting, occasionally by cutting, slicing, or even in one instance burning the page, to leave an alternative narrative. Phillips’s revealed story was in one sense always there in Mallock, just lost amid the torrent of other text. This is authorship as pruning, a process of erasure or cutting away that finds in the buttoned-up A Human Document a teeming world of humour, sex, sadness and art that would have baffled and shocked the conservative Mallock.

[…]

Phillips is a lover of games and chance and rules. With Brian Eno – his pupil at Ipswich Art School in the early 1960s – he invented ‘sound tennis’, striking a ball against five pianos with their workings exposed, and scoring according to the sounds produced. In A Humument, Phillips deploys what he calls ‘invited accident’: in the 1987 edition, coin tosses dictated which words should be struck out on page 99 of Mallock, until there were only two left standing: ‘something already’.

[…]

The reeling comic voice that Phillips finds buried inside Mallock – ‘on the philosophy mattress to-night My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after and Aristotle’s Ethics’ – frequently recalls other masters of strange, urgent sentences: Monty Python; Samuel Beckett; Chris Morris in Blue Jam; and perhaps most vividly of all, Vivian Stanshall in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. In fact, A Humument is a novel of quotation: not only in the sense that all of its words were written first by Mallock (although not, as Eric Morecambe said of the notes in his piano playing, necessarily in the right order); but also because Phillips pieces together Mallock’s words to produce other writers’ lines. So there is Donne and Shakespeare, but also lines from books that in 1892 had not yet been written. Versions of E.M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ (Howards End, 1910) pop up throughout: ‘merely connect’; ‘closely connect’; ‘oddly connect’; ‘My little muse was connect connect.’ Molly Bloom’s closing words in Ulysses (1922) fill A Humument’s penultimate page (‘And I said yes – yes, I will yes’); and Ezra Pound’s Make It New (1935) is in there too. Beckett is a constant near presence, including a version of the most famous lines from Worstward Ho (1983): ‘as years went on, you began to fail better.’ The temporality of the quotation is complex: Mallock (1892) is being made to quote Beckett (1983) by Phillips (in a 2012 edition of a book he began in 1966).

OK I’m getting dizzy now.

Can we call what Phillips is doing ‘writing’, or would some other term be better? What version of authorship or creativity is at work here? A Humument is a reminder that books are inevitably intertextual – they grow out of older texts – and that all writing involves selecting words from a finite pool: what appears to be a constraint, having to work within the walls of an existing novel, in fact dramatises a condition of literature.

Follow the data

I’m hearing more and more about data ethics. It wasn’t ‘a thing’ before, was it? But it certainly is now. Here’s a very interesting take on it: flow.

The ethics of data flow
In Privacy in Context, Helen Nissenbaum connects data’s mobility to privacy and ethics. For Nissenbaum, the important issue isn’t what data should be private or public, but how data and information flow: what happens to your data, and how it is used. Information flows are central to our expectations of privacy, and respecting those expectations is at the heart of data ethics.

It’s not what they’ve got, but what they do with it that matters.

The infamous Target case, in which Target outed a pregnant teenager by sending ad circulars to her home, is a great example. We all buy things, and when we buy things, we know that data is used—to send bills and to manage inventory, if nothing else. In this case, the surprise was that Target used this customer’s purchase history to identify her as pregnant, and send circulars advertising products for pregnant women and new mothers to her house. The problem isn’t the collection of data, or even its use; the problem is that the advertising comes from, and produces, a different and unexpected data flow. The data that’s flowing isn’t just the feed to the marketing contractor. That ad circular, pushed into a mailbox (and read by the girl’s father) is another data flow, and one that’s not expected.

[…]

Everyone who works with data knows that data becomes much more powerful when it is combined with data from other sources. Data that seems innocuous, like a grocery store purchase history, can be combined with geographic data, medical data, and other kinds of data to characterize users and their behavior with great precision. Knowing whether a person purchases cigarettes can be of great interest to an insurance company, as can knowing whether a cardiac patient is buying bacon.

The article is written by and for data developers, primarily, and poses more questions than it can answer, especially around the thorny concept of data deletion. It’s an interesting read, but it left me wondering if those GDPR data protection principles will ever be fully put into practice.

Art and AI #2

More about computer science’s latest foray into the art world.

The first piece of AI-generated art to come to auction
As part of the ongoing dialogue over AI and art, Christie’s will become the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm.

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The portrait in its gilt frame depicts a portly gentleman, possibly French and — to judge by his dark frockcoat and plain white collar — a man of the church. The work appears unfinished: the facial features are somewhat indistinct and there are blank areas of canvas. Oddly, the whole composition is displaced slightly to the north-west. A label on the wall states that the sitter is a man named Edmond Belamy, but the giveaway clue as to the origins of the work is the artist’s signature at the bottom right. In cursive Gallic script it reads:

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This portrait, however, is not the product of a human mind. It was created by an artificial intelligence, an algorithm defined by that algebraic formula with its many parentheses.

It’s certainly a very interesting image — it reminds me a little of Francis Bacon’s popes — but the pedant in me would rather they stick with “created by an algorithm”, rather than generated by an artificial intelligence. We’re not there yet. It was the “product of a human mind”, albeit indirectly. Take that signature, for example. I refuse to believe that this artificial intelligence decided for itself to sign its work that way. Declaring the AI to be the artist, as opposed to the medium, is like saying Excel is the artist in this case:

Tatsuo Horiuchi, the 73-year old Excel spreadsheet artist
“I never used Excel at work but I saw other people making pretty graphs and thought, ‘I could probably draw with that,’” says 73-year old Tatsuo Horiuchi. About 13 years ago, shortly before retiring, Horiuchi decide he needed a new challenge in his life. So he bought a computer and began experimenting with Excel. “Graphics software is expensive but Excel comes pre-installed in most computers,” explained Horiuchi. “And it has more functions and is easier to use than [Microsoft] Paint.”

Those are amazing paintings, by the way. Colossal has more, as well as a link to an interview with Tatsuo. But anyway, here’s some more AI art.

This AI is bad at drawing but will try anyways
This bird is less, um, recognizable. When the GAN has to draw *anything* I ask for, there’s just too much to keep track of – the problem’s too broad, and the algorithm spreads itself too thin. It doesn’t just have trouble with birds. A GAN that’s been trained just on celebrity faces will tend to produce photorealistic portraits. But this one, however…

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In fact, it does a horrifying job with humans because it can never quite seem to get the number of orifices correct.

But it seems the human artists can still surprise us, so all’s well.

Holed up: man falls into art installation of 8ft hole painted black
If there were any doubt at all that Anish Kapoor’s work Descent into Limbo is a big hole with a 2.5-metre drop, and not a black circle painted on the floor, then it has been settled. An unnamed Italian man has discovered to his cost that the work is definitely a hole after apparently falling in it.

Nigel Farage’s £25,000 portrait failed to attract a single bid at prestigious art show
The former Ukip leader has been a dealt a blow after the work, by painter David Griffiths, raised no interest at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in London.

Which app when?

Brad Grissom from REgarding 365 sets out to untangle the various workflow and collaboration apps available within Office 365.

Where work gets done
By adding a couple of layers to the inner/outer loop analogy, I think we get a fuller picture of all the interactions that an individual may have within and outside of an organization. This model doesn’t capture all the apps in the Office 365 toolkit, but it should provide a fair representation. It also doesn’t perfectly provide a clear-cut answer to the question of what to use when. That’s okay in my book (or blog, as the case may be).

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Perfect pairings

Buffalo Bill Gates makes celebrity portraits like you’ve never seen
Buffalo Bill Gates, aka Swedish artist Kalle Mattsson, a creator whose work is very much perfect for the part of the web made up of memes, idol irreverence and anarchic art. His weirdo celebrity portraits mash up famous faces with other celebrity identities or even fictional entities to create offbeat hybrid personalities like Putintin featured here.

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As well as being really funny, I love how perfectly these faces line up. It must have taken ages to find photos with just the right angle.

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Sometimes simple ≠ efficient

Here’s an interesting take on productivity and efficiency from Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz.

Forget easy-to-use design. Choose something hard instead
The new cult of simple software is making us less productive. Simple tools get in the way of our thinking by making assumptions about what we want to do, and by putting the ease of getting going ahead of optimizing productivity. By contrast, using a tool like Vim makes me more expressive. It reduces the friction between what’s in my head and what I can make happen on the computer. […]

It is time to embrace the difficult tool. No more accepting Excel when learning R or Python would let us do better work; no more out-of-the-box flashcards instead of customized software like Anki. Let’s stop expecting software to do everything for us, and put our minds to work.

Yes, sometimes less is more. But sometimes more is more, too. I’ll pass over Vim, I think, but I’m very tempted to head back over to Udemy and give those Python courses another go.

Eye to eye

From Chris Eckert, a maker of “little art machines”, has made what could be described as a surveillance sculpture.

A disconcerting installation featuring 20 blinking kinetic eyeballs that track a person around a room
San Francisco artist Chris Eckert, who wanted to make a point of increasing surveillance and decreasing privacy of the population, has created “Blink”, an absolutely incredible series of mechanically operating blinking single eyeballs in a row, each equipped with face tracking software to deliberately evoke a disconcerting sense of privacy violation.

Yes, that combination of a very realistic eyeball looking directly at you from a very unreal, robotic face is unsettling, but I think what really works well is what happens after, as Chris explains in this video.

“You would have these interactions with them, and hopefully enjoy yourself playing with these eyeballs, only to go around the corner to discover that you’ve been recorded and observed the entire time by multiple eyeballs. And that anyone in that room was watching those video feeds and observing you doing that. And it kind of shifted your view of what was happening there. It changed it from being fun to being kind of invasive.”

Look Out! Chris Eckert’s Machines Are Watching You | KQED Arts

There are many more remarkable art machines on his website, and here is a piece on his Privacy Not Included exhibition, that Blink formed part of.

Chris Eckert: Privacy Not Included exhibition at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
Privacy Not Included presents a sensorial experience that considers how we are viewed, followed, and tracked. As technology progresses and, in conjunction, as we continue to share personal data and information, what will be the consequences of our own privacy, our right to personal space, and ultimately, our freedom? In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 about omnipresent surveillance and public manipulation, the author writes, “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” The works in the exhibition challenge us to contemplate this dilemma. They reflect the conundrum we face in our contemporary society: appreciating the joy of convenience and technology’s ability to provide us security and safety, versus negotiating between the disconcerting, constant surveillance and intrusion in our lives.

And to really bring that point home, here’s an article from Aeon on the same theme, convenience versus surveillance.

Orwell knew: we willingly buy the screens that are used against us
One can easily imagine choosing to buy a telescreen – indeed, many of us already have. And one can also imagine needing one, or finding them so convenient that they feel compulsory. The big step is when convenience becomes compulsory: when we can’t file our taxes, complete the census or contest a claim without a telescreen.