Art of Science

Over the past week or so, I’ve been diving into the Ptak Science Books blog entries on anatomical illustrations, a completely amazing, complex, almost frighteningly well researched series.  (Benefits of blogging for a bookstore, I suppose.)  Today I came across BodyMaps, a 3D, 360 degree, annotated, searchable anatomical model of the human body.  Looking at it in the context of Ptak’s curated illustrations, it’s a fascinating next step in the production of laymen-accessible anatomic modeling.

When I was in Pittsburgh, I volunteered at the Carnegie Natural History Museum, as an illustrator.  I worked in the Mollusk Section, drawing insect specimens and shells for the scientists and researchers.  (You can find some of my illustrations over at my Flickr page.)  It was one of my favorite things to do, sitting in the lab after hours with my scope, pens, and specimen tubes label in minute, precise handwriting with the location and date of collection.  Scientific illustration is about precision and accuracy (some species of beetle can only be differentiated by the hair pattens on their legs or the microscopic structure of their genitalia), but there’s a good deal of interpretation that falls to the artist as well.  Audobon’s birds are clear and accurate enough to be matched to individuals in the wild, but they are each also endowed with a lively personality.  In the lab, I spent hours fixated on a dead brown spider pinned to my mat, though I am terrified of the living, skittery things, trying to coax some illusion of life into my drawing.

The drawings highlighted by Ptak are filled with humor, intentional and unintentional, and exquisite detail, the kind that makes my drawing hand hurt.  The artists I worked with at the Carnegie were eager to embrace digital visualization tools like the kind used in BodyMaps, and I’m excited to see how the field of scientific illustration adapts to new technological capabilities and scientific demands.

Disorganized Remix Primer 2: Remix as Communities

This primer makes no claim to expertise or authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is a compilation of interesting cultural objects that partake in different, yet related, forms of “derivative” or “appropriative” creativity that could generally be defined as “remix.” Have a favorite video, audio recording, or other artifact not included in this primer? Leave a link in the comments!

So, you know those videos on YouTube of folks, alone with a webcam, showing off their mad guitar/drum/harmonica/vuvuzela skillz? Or those “learn how to play a guitar/drum/harmonica/vuvuzela videos? Israeli musician Kutiman took countless YouTube videos of just those sort, as well as other uploaded videos of musicians, singers and dancers, and mixed the video and audio into a seven track piece titled Thru-you. (All his sources are linked on the project’s website.) What I find particularly astonishing about this piece is the way in which Kutiman created a communities of artistry through his sampling. In the first track, “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” different videos are played against each other in such a way as to create a literal conversation between the videos. It is as though the viewer has stumbled across a trans-geographic and trans-temporal jam session.

One of the primary virtues of the remix genre is how it enables the creation of communities: both communities of remix artists and communities of artists whose work is being remixed. The chance that the original creators of Kutiman’s source material would have encountered each other is vanishingly small. For the most part, each source video is, in and of itself, a creative endpoint: a non-interactive, non-generative artifact. Thru-you spurns on that generatively and interactive potential by forcing the work into an active and creative conversation with its fellows. It informs the works and the creators that they are members of a community. Moreover, by painstakingly citing and linking to its source material, Thru-you enables its viewer to join the same creative community by revealing what were formerly final performances (the original source videos) as creative tools.

The next trio of videos inspired similar thoughts about the nature of community in remix culture, but of a slightly different nature. Honestly, the “Lisztomania” Bratpack phenomenon could fuel more analysis than I has space for here, but here goes. Here is what happened:

In May of 2009 the French alternative band Phoenix releases the album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It’s pretty fabulous. “Lisztomania” it its first track.
Sometime after that (the timeline is muddled because the original video has been taken down) YouTube user avoidantconsumer (account currently suspended for TOU violations) posted this tribute video:

31 May 2009: YouTube user thepinkbismuth posts this “tribute to the tribute”:

18 November 2009: YouTube user chinorockwell posts this (at this point) tribute to a tribute to a tribute:

Since then, videos have been posted from Amsterdam, Paris, Winnipeg, and elsewhere.

These videos are all part of the same community, joined together by virtue of the content they are producing, the conversation they are having (there are also several videos commenting on that conversation in and of itself). While the community typified by Thru-you is one of sources created/curated by an artist, the community here is one created by the remix artists themselves. By choosing to reinterpret the same content, they are declaring themselves part of the same community. The cost of entry to this community is a video camera and a YouTube account. Permission does not need to be asked to join the conversation (though, as we can see in the case of avoidantconsumer, active participation can be revoked by a specific third party).

Avoidantconsumer’s original work can be easily slide into the sub-genre of mashup: a derivative work meant to force a comparison or conflict between a small number of sources. In this case, we have the iconic imagery of John Hughes bratpack films from the 1980s against Phoenix’s hit song. So what, then, are all the subsequent videos? They are no longer only commenting on the source material, in fact, by their video performance they are obliterating half of it. Instead, the commentary is now on the commentary or as thepinkbismuth puts it, a “tribute to the tribute.” The source material has been transcended, the community and the conversation itself has become the focus and the primary virtue and joy for those involved.

Disorganized Remix Primer 1: Speech-Based Remix

This primer makes no claim to expertise or authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is a compilation of interesting cultural objects that partake in different, yet related, forms of “derivative” or “appropriative” creativity that could generally be defined as “remix.” Have a favorite video, audio recording, or other artifact not included in this primer? Leave a link in the comments!

The Symphony of Science is an ongoing project headed by John Boswell, an electronic musician based in Washington. Boswell combines original compositions, still images, video, and the speech of famous scientists (both unaltered, and processed using the “auto-tune” technique, which more-or-less exaggerates the tonal cadences of normal speech using a computer program) to produce music videos celebrating science and scientific exploration. So far, six music videos have been produced, and the samples used have come from sources such as Cosmos, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, The Eyes of Nye,, and The Elegant Universe

By making scientific speech musical, Boswell taps into a wealth of whimsy and playfulness that is often at the heart of the best of scientific research (“these are some of the things that molecules do…”). The musical speech anchors the scientific and philosophical speech in the mind in a way that would be impossible were it simply spoken.

Boswell is not the only remix artist using auto-tune techniques to play with the power of human speech. The best work of Auto-Tune the News has illustrated, much better than any public speaking textbook, the close connections between skilled rhetoric and musical performance.

On the other side of the “found speech” coin is Revolucian‘s club mix of Christian Bale’s infamous on-set freak out, mirrored with a similar incident involving Barbara Streisand. Unlike the work of Boswell or Auto-Tune the News, Revolucian leaves the tonal content of the found tracks intact, choosing instead to play the rhythmic cadences of Bale’s and Streisand’s speech off themselves. The piece exploits generated and perceived conflict between the two “singers,” satirizing both the personalities and the initial incidents (both of which were publicized via leaked videos at the time).

Helene Hegemann

A week ago, the New York Times ran an article about the curious case of Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old author whose first book, Axolotl Roadkill, landed at number five on Der Spiegal’s best-seller list and was a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair fiction prize, which comes with a $20,000 prize purse.

It’s now been revealed that sections of Axolotl Roadkill were copied from other published sources, most notable a novel, Strobo,” by Airen. But (dramatic twist!), it appears that the judges panel for the Leipzig Book Fair had been informed of the plagiarism charges before Hegemann’s book was selected as a finalist and decided they didn’t matter.

When these accusations surfaced in the press, Hegemann did not duck, but acknowledged that copying had taken place. However, she claimed she didn’t see the problem, after all, she was “mixing” the work of others, not copying it, “putting it in a different context,” and “[t]here’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Hegemann’s defense leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On the one hand, she claims the shield of remix and appropriative culture, while with the other she waives away the responsibility of the remixer to acknowledge original sources by claiming ignorance of citation practices. For me, this case is troubling but clear cut. Sources must be cited OR MUST BE OTHERWISE OBVIOUS (as in the case of an image of Mickey Mouse or a corporate logo). Especially if you are pulling verbatim text from an identifiable author, you must cite. To not cite is not to remix, but to attempt to pass off another’s work as your own, which *is* intellectual theft. (and for the purposes of this blog, I am talking only about verbatim copying, which is alleged, and substantiated in this case. We can talk about stuff like hyper-referentiality later.)

One of the defenses she offers is that of recontextualization. How could she have been copying when she was placing the material in a new context? However, due to the lack of proper citations, there is no recontextualization actually happening in this case! If the audience cannot recognize what has been borrowed, then they cannot recognize when it has been recontextualized. This argument relies on the recognizability of what is being borrowed, which was not apparent in this case.

And then there is that last quote, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway…”

Hegemann obviously completely misunderstands the arguments made against the cult of complete originality and the canonization of the Inspired Artist. Regardless of the relative quality of her book, she does herself, and the remixing generation she claims to represent, a disservice by denigrating the authors’ she borrowed from, because to not acknowledge them is to cut them out of the creative equation. You have destroyed the social and cultural value of remix if you refuse to involve those creators you have pulled from.

There was a video released a few weeks ago by normative, which examined the art of remix from just this social perspective. The social phenomenon of remix is just as important as the artistic creations it allows to be created. To remove a work of remix from its social web of influences and referents is to deny that it is an act of remix, and instead condemn it to being merely intellectual theft.

The New York Times: Author Says it’s ‘Mixing’
The Independent: Publish and Be Damned

Dennis Loy Johnson: Dern Copyright

Kseniya Simonova

In thee same vein as my Visual Storytelling entry last week, check out this video of this year’s winner of “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” Kseniya Simonova, whose real time sand painting/animation technique is completely fascinating. My lack of Ukrainian language skills or any real understanding of Ukrainian history only hampered my understanding of her work a little. The story is conveyed very clearly in a purely visual medium. (Though the fact that she leaves her hair down completely terrifies me. I keep thinking it’s going to sweep down off her shoulders and ruin everything.


Art and Pumpkins

its only a nightmare small

it’s only a nightmare. Sold, to a nice lady whose daughter’s favorite book is The Paper Bag Princess. I took Peter out to a Thai restaurant named after a pun with the commission, and now it’s all gone again.
But it was delicious, and now I want to make pumpkin curry. I walk past the church with their yard full of pumpkins for sale and think about potential yum.