Small dioramas, big issues

Compare and contrast these two recent posts from Web Urbanist. Similar levels of ingenuity and skills, but eliciting very different emotional responses.

Refugee Baggage: Suitcase dioramas show dark scenes from countries fled
The project of a Syrian-born artist and architect and an Iraqi-born author, this installation invites viewers to imagine what refugees leave behind when the pack up the few things they can carry and flee an oppressive regime or war-torn country.

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The UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage installation by Mohamad and Ahmed Badr “sculpturally re-creates rooms, homes, buildings and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war. Each is embedded with the voices and stories of real people — from Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan — who have escaped those same rooms and buildings to build a new life in America.”

Some really important stories being told. Meanwhile, over in Japan, Tanaka Tatsuya is continuing his miniature photography series. It’s been going since 2011.

Miniature Calendar: Micro-city scenes made daily from household objects
It takes just one artist to raise this annual micro-village, putting out a fresh scene daily featuring miniature people going about their everyday lives, navigating repurposed objects designed for different purposes at larger scales.

The new Miniature Calendar by Tastuya Tanaka is the latest in a series of 7, each one featuring 365 snapshots of lives lived small. The figures are often framed by items that are easy to recognize and yet also simple to reimagine in context.

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Making of MINIATURE CALENDAR

Big in Japan

I was inspired to search through my Pinboard bookmarks for things relating to Japan, following my son’s recent school trip there. Here’s some of what I found.

David Bowie memorialized in traditional Japanese woodblock prints
The recent release of two modern ukiyo-e woodblock prints featuring the rocker has caused such mass swooning among legions of Japanophile Bowie fans, the reverberations may well be powerful enough to ring temple bells in Kyoto.

We could all use a little more Chindogu, the Japanese art of useless inventions
A little bit Dada, a little bit “only sold on television,” intentionally useless inventions called Chindogu look like a bunch of plastic junk at first glance, but there’s more to it than that. And they’re not quite altogether useless. In fact, as creator Kenji Kawakami stated when he first revealed Chindogu to the world in 1995, these objects are “un-useless.” They have a purpose, but they take their halfway practical solution to a perceived problem and stretch it to maximum absurdity. It’s all kind of dumb, and that’s the point.

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Japan pampers its pets like nowhere else – A dog’s life
It is common for a parent taking a baby for a stroll to exchange a look of solidarity with another pram-pusher, only to glance down and realise the other’s contains a furry friend. Greying Japan is alert to animal ageing, too: there are acupuncture services for elderly pets, and several firms offer funerals.

In Japan, the Kit Kat isn’t just a chocolate. It’s an obsession.
There are also carefully chosen collaborations that capitalize on Japan’s culture of omiyage, which can be loosely defined as returning from travels with gifts for friends, family and colleagues. The Kikyou shingen mochi Kit Kat, which would go on sale in mid-October, would be sold right alongside the real Kikyou shingen mochi at souvenir shops and in service areas along the Chuo Expressway, a major four-lane road more than 200 miles long that passes through the mountainous regions of several prefectures, connecting Tokyo to Nagoya. With any luck, people would associate the Kit Kat with the traditional sweet and snap it up as a souvenir. But for this to be a success, for Kit Kat to expand into the souvenir market, consumers would have to believe that Kit Kat, originally a British product, was Japanese, and that although it was manufactured in a factory far away, it somehow represented the very essence of a region.

Miyu Kojima creates miniature replicas of lonely deaths
Twenty six-year old Miyu Kojima works for a company that cleans up after kodokushi (孤独死) or lonely deaths: a Japanese phenomenon of people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a long period of time. […] Part art therapy and part public service campaign, Kojima spends a large portion of her free time recreating detailed miniature replicas of the rooms she has cleaned.

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An early 20th century guide to wave designs for Japanese craftsmen is now available online
In 1903, Japanese artist Mori Yuzan’s wave designs were published in a resource guide for Japanese craftsmen looking to add aquatic motifs to their wares. The three-volume series, titled Hamonshū, includes variations on contained and free-form wave patterns suitable for embellishing swords, religious objects, and ceramics.

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And their firework catalogue is a pretty interesting resource too.

Excel-lent architecture

I love this new take on an old art form.

The spreadsheet architecture of Emma Stevens
Normally the mere mention of a spreadsheet can bring a distant glaze across the eyes of most creatives – the file format perceived as the antithesis of imagination by those desiring to create rather than tabulate. But Australian landscape architect Emma Stevens imagined the mundane Excel spreadsheet as an opportunity rather than an impediment to exploring art, using a tried and true technique of type as a medium to create a vast skyline out of text and cells.

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It’s hard to believe that it’s the same tool, but used in a very different way, as the one this Japanese artist uses.

Meet Tatsuo Horiuchi, the 77-year-old artist who ‘paints’ Japanese landscapes with Excel
For over 15 years, Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi has rendered the subtle details of mountains, cherry blossoms, and dense forests with the most unlikely tool: Microsoft Excel. The 77-year-old illustrator shunned the idea of paying for expensive painting supplies or even a basic drawing program for his computer, saying that he prefers Excel even over Microsoft Paint because it has “more functions and is easier to use.” Using simple vector drawing tools developed primarily for graphs and simple shapes, Horiuchi instead draws panoramic scenes of life in rural Japan.

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Sadly, all the spreadsheets I create are far more conventional.

Bon voyage

My son flies to Japan next week, on a school science trip, via Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Here are a couple of links to send him on his way.

Schiphol Clock
Time is important at an airport, with thousands of people running back and forth trying to get their plane on time. This is why most airports are full of clocks everywhere, helping to guide harried travelers. Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands is no exception, but it offers a twist: a giant clock that appears as if a man is busy painting it real time, minute by minute.

The painter is actually a 12-hour-long recording, that gives a convincing illusion that a human is standing inside the translucent clock, busy at work as the hands go around. This creative timepiece is the latest work of Maarten Baas, a well-known Dutch artist and designer that has a series of similar live clock recordings.

Schipol Clock

A 12 hour long recording! There’s more on this remarkable clock on Maarten Baas’s website. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s still there.

And then, when my boy gets to Japan:

Four weird unexpected things to love about Japan
Washlets are one of the unexpected delights of going to Japan. The Japanese washlet is a technological marvel in that it cleans and dries your flanks, underside and phalanges after you’ve taken a shit, without you having to step foot in a shower.

What happens after your experience with the washlet is a feeling of unparalleled freshness, cleanliness and wellness unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced before. In the West we have toilets that flush but that’s about it. It’s a toilet made for a Jurassic reptile not a highly evolved human being.

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So, farewell then, GeoCities. Again

Ten years after it shut down for the rest of us, Yahoo Japan has finally pulled the plug on its GeoCities service.

Yahoo Japan is shutting down its website hosting service GeoCities
The company said in a statement that it was hard to encapsulate in one word the reason for the shut down, but that profitability and technological issues were primary factors. It added that it was full of “regret” for the fate of the immense amount of information that would be lost as a result of the service’s closure. […]

The fact that GeoCities survived in Japan for so long speaks to the country’s idiosyncratic nature online. Despite the fact that Yahoo—which purchased GeoCities in 1999 for almost $4 billion at the peak of the dot.com boom—has fallen into irrelevance in much of the world, the company continues to be the dominant news portal in Japan. It still commands a sizeable market share in search, though it has steadily ceded its position to Google over the years.

So it goes.

Behavioural tricks within Japanese train stations

An interesting look at some of the behavioural tricks and nudges that have been designed into Japan’s train stations. The millions of commuters that move through them aren’t just helped by things like reliable trains or better signage, but by their own unconscious actions triggered by light and sound.

The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations
Compounding the stressful nature of the commute in years past was the nerve-grating tone—a harsh buzzer used to signal a train’s imminent departure. The departing train buzzer was punctuated by sharp blasts of station attendants’ whistles, as harried salarymen raced down stairs and across platforms to beat the train’s closing doors.

To calm this stressful audio environment, in 1989 the major rail operator JR East commissioned Yamaha and composer Hiroaki Ide to create hassha melodies—short, ear-pleasing jingles to replace the traditional departure buzzer.

Not all of the aural additions are as melodic, though.

To address the Japanese fear of loitering and vandalism by young riders, some train stations deploy ultrasonic deterrents—small, unobtrusive devices that emit a high-frequency tone. The particular frequency used—17 kilohertz—can generally only be heard by those under the age of 25. (Older people can’t detect such frequencies, thanks to the age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis.) These devices—the brainchild of a Welsh inventor and also used to fend off loitering teens in the U.S. and Europe—have been enthusiastically adopted in Japan.

Standing outside one of Tokyo Station’s numerous exits on a recent summer day, it was easy to see the effectiveness of this deterrent in action. Weary salarymen and aged obaachan passed under the sonic deterrent without changing pace. Among uniform-clad students, however, the reactions were evident—a suddenly quickened pace, a look of confusion or discomfort, and often a cry of urusai! (Loud!) None appeared to connect the noise to the deterrents placed almost flush in the ceiling panels above.

Strange to contemplate a sound that I’ll never hear. The article links to a YouTube video of the hassha melodies, but there’s nothing about that 17 kilohertz one, unfortunately. (Or maybe there is and I just can’t hear it.)

But it’s not just the built environment that uses these behavioural tricks. The train conductors, drivers and platform attendants do too.

Why Japan’s rail workers can’t stop pointing at things
Known in Japanese as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers”—according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate.

キレキレ指差呼称で安全確認キレキレ車掌The conductor of metro who to confirm safety by a splendid pointing and calling.

Something I should try myself, perhaps?

*points to keyboard, mumbles something about e-mail*

Art and AI #1

Subtitled ‘What needs to happen for artificial intelligence to make fine art’, this is a fascinating read on current thinking about art and AI. The author, Hideki Nakazawa, one of the curators of the Artificial Intelligence Art and Aesthetics exhibition in Japan, thinks that, whilst we’re not there yet, we’re not too far away.

Waiting For the Robot Rembrandt
True AI fine art will be both painfully boring and highly stimulating, and that will be represent progress. Beauty, after all, cannot be quantified, and the very act of questioning the definition of aesthetics moves all art forward—something we’ve seen over and over again in the history of human-made art. The realization of AI will bring new dimensions to these questions. It will also be a triumph of materialism, further eroding the specialness of the human species and unveiling a world that has neither mystery nor God in which humans are merely machines made of inanimate materials. If we are right, it will also bring a new generation of artists, and with them, new Eiffel towers beyond our wildest imagination.

The pieces within that exhibition are grouped into four categories: human-made art with human aesthetics, human-made art with machine aesthetics, machine-made art with human aesthetics, and finally machine-made art with machine aesthetics. It’s that last category we’re interested in, but frustratingly it contained “no machine-made art, because none exists that also reflects machine aesthetics. The category was a useful placeholder—and, as we’ll learn, it was not entirely empty.”

What a great way to clarify where all these artworks, projects and systems sit. All too often we find AI and other computer systems merely mimicking the creation of art: the final product may look like art, but without the autonomous intention — without the AI wanting to create for its own sake — the AI is just a tool of the artist-behind-the-curtain, the programmer. For example:

‘Way to Artist’, intelligent robots and a human artist sketch the same image alongside each other
In the very thought-inspiring short film “Way to Artist” by TeamVOID, an artificially intelligent robotic arm and a human artist sit alongside one another to sketch the same image at the same time although with different skills. Without a word spoken, film loudly questions the role that artificial intelligence has within the creative process by putting the robots to the test.

More interestingly, here’s a wonderful piece that would have been placed in the second group of Nakazawa’s exhibition, human-made art with machine aesthetics.

Sarah Meyohas combines virtual reality, 10,000 roses and artificial intelligence in Cloud of Petals
Lastly, visitors can engage with a VR component, an element that replicates Sarah’s initial dream of the petals. There are six different screens and headsets – in a room filled with a customised rose scent – which are all gaze-activated to manipulate the AI generated petals. For example, in one headset petals explode into pixels as soon as you set your eyes on them.

And perhaps category three for these, machine-made art with human aesthetics?

A ‘neurographer’ puts the art in artificial intelligence
Claude Monet used brushes, Jackson Pollock liked a trowel, and Cartier-Bresson toted a Leica. Mario Klingemann makes art using artificial neural networks.

Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep
“Google sets up feedback loop in its image recognition neural network – which looks for patterns in pictures – creating hallucinatory images of animals, buildings and landscapes which veer from beautiful to terrifying.”

Don’t know where to place this one, however — art as a symptom of an AI’s mental ill health?

This artificial intelligence is designed to be mentally unstable
“At one end, we see all the characteristic symptoms of mental illness, hallucinations, attention deficit and mania,” Thaler says. “At the other, we have reduced cognitive flow and depression.” This process is illustrated by DABUS’s artistic output, which combines and mutates images in a progressively more surreal stream of consciousness.

stroll a for Out

Video of a man walking backwards through Tokyo played in reverse
When first thing that strikes you when watching this video of a man walking through Tokyo is that every other person in the entire clip is walking backward. The opposite of which is actually true: the man, Ludovic Zuili, is the one walking backward but the video is being played in reverse.

What you’re watching is just a short preview of a 9-hour movie that was aired in its entirety in France called Tokyo Reverse, part of a bizarre TV programming trend called Slow TV that has been regarded as a “small revolution.”

How strange, why has no one else thought of this?