Fancy Feat

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“Look. It’s moving.” That first feeble wave of a massive hand was enough for Dr. Frankenstein to claim victory: “It’s alive.” The pursuit of engineering life seems to have leapt far past those first monstrous lurches. In vitro meat producers make beef that never walked as a steer. Singularity suggests that lives can carry on without any bone or fleshy encumbrance altogether, as an immortal conscience in the computing cloud. (“Yesterday Dr. Will Caster was only human.”)

Making something walk is still a marvelous feat. Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest—giant, wind-powered, walking figures—recapture locomotion as an essential property of life.

“Since 1990 I have been occupied creating new forms of life,” the Dutch scientist/artist’s website  proclaims. Parked in a gallery or warehouse Jansen’s creations look like jungle gyms built from huge yellow drinking straws, or supersized toothpick model airplanes.

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Jansen is clear that his aim is to create species, not sculpture. On display in his traveling museum exhibition* are taxonomy charts mapping the succession of designs over the past several years, and rows upon rows of fossils—relics of the joints and bones he has used to construct the ‘Beest. These records are impressive in scope and scale, and give the visitor a sense of being in a natural history museum rather than an art gallery.

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Specimens in the Strandbeest exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum.

What makes the Strandbeest exhibit transform from a museum to a zoo, however, is when the creatures move.

Once they’re set to motion,** the tubes become shins, the triangle points become knees, and the racks of sticks on either side become wings. It takes just one or two rotations to transform playground equipment to mega-bugs. When I first watched a ‘Beest cross the museum floor, I heard the gasp in my own head and saw it on others’ faces: “It’s alive!”

The plastic menagerie attracted a crowd of all ages and dispositions, from toddler to senior and studious to boisterous. Almost all of these bipeds were drawn to the line where they could walk with the Strandbeest. A few of the youngest, and itchiest during the wait, suddenly turned cautious and shy when it came time for them to step up.  Almost everyone adopted a careful, watchful pace once they placed their hands on the ‘Beest’s “crossbar” (waist?) and began moving with it. Part of this could be chalked up to the liability of holding a museum exhibit in one’s hands, an instinctive resistance to breaking the golden “Don’t Touch” rule. The walkers’ eyes showed their was more to it. Their gazes inevitably wandered to the ‘Beest’s knees and feet, and to their own.

Watching the skeleton articulate the complicated series of hinges and strokes that guide each step, something that feels so simple is suddenly revealed as amazingly complex. I, for one, was slowed down by an awe-filled self-consciousness of all of the tiny, crucial movements that happen before my sole hit the floor.

The movement of living things, in its simplest sense, is a process of capturing energy and responding to stimuli, both as means and ends. Living creatures have adapted countless ways of doing so (some of us more gracefully than others.)The Strandbeest rely on air as their energy source. Some species have wings that flap in the breeze and pump air into “stomachs” made from recycled plastic bottles that store and release air to propel the appendages. More recent adaptations include “sweat glands” that draw moisture out of the tubes and sensors that help detect and divert creatures from wet surfaces.

The system of pumps alone is ingenious, but taking in energy and releasing bursts of air only gets the creatures to couch potato status. Jansen also had to figure out how to make the bones move in the smooth, steady pattern that we’d call walking. It’s a math problem that comes down to rotation and precisely measured length ratios that determine where the rods that make up legs and feet should be in relation to the ground as they complete a step.

To crack the code of biological legs, Jansen leveraged nature’s methods, and reduced the process to human scale with the help of modern technology. On his website he describes how he deployed computer-aided evolution to design parts for Animaris Currens Vulgaris, the first Strandbeest species to walk. Fifteen hundred legs with rods of random lengths were generated through a program. It then assessed which of these approached what Jansen calls the “ideal walking curve.” Out of the 1500, the best 100 were “awarded the privilege of reproduction,” which is to say run through the computer program again. Over the course of months, the computer model ran through several “generations,” refining toward that ideal curve. Ultimately Jansen arrived at what he calls the “eleven holy numbers” that describe the lengths of rods in that first successful leg.  “It is thanks to these numbers that the animals walk the way they do,” he says.

“Holy,” might be an overstatement to some ears, but it captures the superhuman scale of chance and variation behind the “success.” Jansen’s program tested millions of combinations, and those were only a fraction of the possibilities. It’s hard to read that without also having some reverence for the process —whether you choose to describe it in terms of science, spirit or otherwise—that moved through billions of numeric possibilities to every prancing paw, lumbering elephant limb, and stumbling baby giraffe stilt moseying around our world today.

The allure of Jansen’s project is not about how easy it is for a genius with an algorithm to create a walking PVC quadruped, it’s about how incredibly difficult and unlikely that is. The Strandbeest embody the magic improbability of naturally occurring designs that carry bodies through the world.

With the aid of planes and automobiles, The Strandbeest will continue a global migration, with upcoming stops in Chicago, Paris and Tokyo. No doubt they will give many more viewers reason to take pause and consider what it means to move.

*Photos and notes here are from my trip to see the exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, which closed at the end of December.

**Indoors, they have human assistance. When they roam “in the wild” on their natural beach habitat, the Strandbeest are wind-powered.

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Package Deal

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Looking for a last-minute Boxing Day gift? How about something they literally can’t live without?

How about a can of “Fresh Clean Air” from VitalityAir.com? The business started that started as a gag, and now promises easy breathing to people around the world. Co-founder Moses Lam and his friend Troy auctioned off a bag of local Alberta, Canada air on ebay for 99 cents. The second bag went for $160US, and they realized that they might have a saleable product. Now, on can buy 3  liters sourced from Banff National Park or Lake Louise in Alberta for $28.99CA.  A single can, “Fits comfortably within your purse, satchel, gym bag or backpack and lasts up to 80, one-second inhalations.” For those who might think Vitality Air is (still) kidding, the site asks visitors, “Remember the day when people laughed off bottled water?”

Have in mind something heftier? Try ShipSnowYo. In February 2015, founder Kyle Waring found himself shoveling out of a record-breaking heap of snowfall in the Boston, MA area. For $89.99 and a laugh, he offered to overnight styrofoam coolers packed with white stuff anywhere in the country —except the Northeast. He found a market with companies in warm states, and has sold 1016 pounds of flakes to-date. (Boston is having a warm December this year, but ShipSnowYo is offering coolers and snowman kits sourced from Colorado and Vermont.)

Vitality Air calls its product an “affordable luxury experience,” and a cooler of snow is a silly splurge for most customers. But like many good jokes, these quirky gimmicks also resonate with some darker, more dangerous truths.

Many of Vitality Air’s shipments, for example, are going to people in areas like northern China, where the item itself is a novelty, but where clean air is a daily concern. The Chinese government issued red alerts for high air pollution levels this month.

Boston’s surplus of snow in 2015 put the city in such crisis that sending it out by the box didn’t seems like such a bad idea. By Feb 15 it was already the snowiest month on record with 45.5  inches, and by mid-March it beat the record for snowiest winter with 108.6 inches total. The last snow in a “snow farm” —an emergency area where the city moved snow from its streets—didn’t melt until mid-July At the same time, California was issuing strengthened warnings to rights holders who diverted water in the midst of the state’s drought.

Health risks and extreme weather are among the many concerns that brought together 195 States Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Paris Conference a few weeks ago. (For a review of the history of these negotiations) . or the basics of how human activity causes climate disruption see the COP-21 web page.) The goal of the meeting was to reach an agreement that applied to all and that would keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Among the many hurdles of reaching such an agreement was finding a solution that seemed fair for all nations, given the uneven distribution of resources, contribution to pollution to-date, and vulnerability to pollution or weather effects (drought, flood, etc). The primary dividing line is among what had been dubbed “Annex-1” (typically referred to as “developed”) countries and “non-Annex-1” (typically referred to as “developing”) countries. Reaching an agreement required terms of “common but differentiated responsibility,” basically stating that the commitment to control pollution applied to all but that developed countries will need to meet a higher standard for that commitment. (For a good discussion of the nuances with references to original text, see The Atlantic’s “A Reader’s Guide to the Paris Agreement” )
3 liters of clean air for $20, 12 pounds of precipitation, overnight delivery. The appeal of these novelties may, on some level, reflect an unrealistic desire for a simple solution to the complex problems of air quality and extreme weather that we are facing. One could say the same about the Paris Conference. Many observers agree that the agreement’s value may be in the symbolic value of articulating a common, sustained commitment to minimize the effects of climate change. That may be enough. Surely the sellers and buyers of cans of air and boxes of snow, and whatever trinkets and gadgets were exchanged this month, understand a more complicated truth, too. The value of what is given and taken is in the mutual acknowledgment behind the gesture. We can’t solve everything by boxing it up and putting a bow on it, but we can honor our undeniable human ties.

Interdependence Day

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This 4th of July weekend I took a moment to refresh my understanding of the Declaration that we celebrate each year. The story of Independence that I remember from my grade school lessons is a breakup story. American colonists decided to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” They issued a list of grievances that “impel[led] them to separation” and led to a declaration of being “absolved from all allegiance” to Great Britain. The focus in that version of the story is on oneness the rights of the individual, or what separates one nation from another.

But that is not the whole story. With their last few lines of ink the authors proclaimed, “And for the support of this Declaration…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” [Emphasis mine.] The last words on Independence are not singular; they’re collective.

This re-discovery inspired me to think about the fellowship of freedom this Independence Day. Paradoxically, community was easier to focus on once I got away from the (human) crowd. I went about 25 miles upstream from the throngs of stonewashed jeans and flag tees on the Esplanade to Noanet Woodlands.

Interconnection in this forest is abundant and encompassing. Towering oaks shade carpets of ferns. Woodpeckers tip their red caps and make the best of whatever’s crawling in the crusty bark. He kicks up some sawdust and debris that furnish the home of the butterfly that winks in orangey groundcover below the tree. The bugs have plenty of leaves to choose from, and the chickadees peck at the bugs. I’m a Saturday tourist but at midmorning this is a bustling department busy with chittering, crackling, pecking din of takeoffs, landings, meetings on the lilypad and lunches in the shrubs.

This community felt like a world unto itself, but not distant or discrete others I know well. From Noanet peak I spotted the Top of the Hub poking out of a blanket of haze. Near the bottom, on softer ground, my nose recognized a bright, muddy brew, spiced with peppery whiff of grasses, shrubs and ferns that I know from the river banks closer to my home, a dozen miles upstream. The Noanet Brook is a thread that runs North through here, eventually trickles into the Charles, and later joins the perpetual tea party in Boston Harbor.

While they could make the commute, some species thrive here that wouldn’t be seen in the city. Woodland celebrities with rockstar names Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly, creeper mussel and spotted turtle (I think I spotted one! She plopped off her log for a swim before I got a close look). In this acreage they find the cedar trees; slow, sandy stream beds; or shrubby swamps that they can’t find everywhere else. These species thrive partly because of the intervention of some human neighbors. Noanet is a land trust; it’s managed in a way aims to keep the existing and/or native species alive. The crux of the Trust is that protection is not taken for granted, is enforced through mutual commitment.

That’s the crux of the Declaration, too. My woodland walk was a good reminder for me that protecting freedom is an active duty. Over the last few weeks, I’ve cheered at a few instances of power working to uphold Americans’ freedom, and I’ve dismayed at witnessing too many violations. Taking notice–yelping or muttering to myself—is a start, but it’s not enough. The community in the woods doesn’t live on clicking thumbs up or down; it lives on trills and crackling and trickling water—creatures that stand and stream and breathe together. From that I’ll take my cue to do more than declare, because we need each other to be free.

See It Again for the First Time

Rothko Hvd Crop
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Not long ago I visited the Harvard Art Museums, which re-opened their doors in November after a major renovation. The banners touting the recent updates immediately put me on notice of past and present, and the capacity of art to transcend those labels.

The most fascinating example is the Rothko mural project.  The short version of the story sounds miraculous in itself. The restoration team found a way to bring back the original color to the viewers’ eyes—-and did so without adding so much as a brushstroke, fingerprint or molecule of sweat from exacting brows.  Like so many elegant designs, the striking purity hides a complex, messy and ingenious process (which Harvard’s Senior Conservation Scientist, Narayan Khandekar, explains at The Conversation ).

The magic of the Rothko restoration, just reading about it, might seem to be that time can be undone. But the unexpected truth that struck me in the gallery was the opposite. Time can’t be undone. What Rothko put on that canvas hasn’t been lost or destroyed. The artist’s vision is still there, and visible to the rest of us, under the right conditions.

This revelation owes as much to the pedagogy of the exhibit as to the technology. Rather than letting us fall for this fancy trick, the museum dedicates the space to explaining what visitors are looking at. Plaques and displays outline and illustrate step-by-step, the technical process by which the mural was made to look for re-opening day in Nov 2014 precisely like it did for visitors of the Holyoke Campus Center in 1964. A sixth panel—never displayed before—also serves as a sort of “control,” as it was safe from the exposure the other panels had at Harvard and hadn’t been manipulated in the museum.

When I faced the full display with the projection I understood that now two murals exist simultaneously on that one wall: the one that came out of storage and the one that I saw when the projector was turned on. As an informed visitor, I was a witness to both. (*)

That opportunity to experience the omnipresence of what is in what could be was thrilling and a little scary. For me, it was a reminder of all else that—I think, or would like to think— has changed since 1964 and, when, for example, Louisiana and other states were issuing voter “literacy” tests (which today’s Harvard overachievers failed), and Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences had just opened to women one year before.  How much of the landscape I see as “now” is altered by projections, my own or others’—that laws and law enforcement are meant to protect citizens and our rights, or that my husband and I, with our equivalent educations, are equal breadwinners?

What beautiful or ugly truths are only waiting to be cast in a different light? Where are the switches, and who can throw them?

I’m grateful to the Rothko restoration for the opportunity to stand and face those questions, and for the reminder that they won’t disappear.

*Each day 4pm the projector is shut off and one actually can see the unaltered panels, too. Have you seen it? Please share in the Comment section. UPDATE: Louis Menand at the New Yorker has had this “discordant aesthetic experience

Resolution

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De-clutter your home! Rein in your spending! Cut down on waste. The New Year exhortations of my newsfeed are darts targeted at the ballooning trouble-spots of individual existence.

My January pledges almost always follow that design, which seems dictated by nature in a way. Standing at the dark gateway of the new year, my impulse is to do what I do when I head out the door on these winter mornings—trim and tighten all the frayed edges, shed anything that will slow me down. Not only is this reform approach understandable, it’s practical and even honorable, I think.  Why not focus on doing the best that I can do within the circumference of my flesh and bones, my brain and my little patch of habitat.

The problem is that when I take on one of these narrow-arrow resolutions, I start to take on that shape too. Even though my ultimate aim is to be a better part of a broader world, “resolved” decision-making inevitably whittles my perspective to the boundaries of my own daily run-around: “Do I need these old blankets? Will I miss that weekly movie treat? How many minutes of hot water do I really need?”

This year I’m wondering, what about getting big in 2015? I don’t mean getting ripped or perky or topping any chart. I mean stretching those goals and questions and gestures outward instead of inward.

Thinking bigger is intimidating. It’s daunting even to think of reaching beyond the confines of my coat some days. I have limited time, limited money, and limited imagination for monumental change. I got a boost, though, when I revisited the word “resolution.” In terms of digital or printed image means a degree of sharpness, based on the dots per inch. Basically, more dots means higher resolution. The bigger picture gets better not because some blobs straighten out their edges, but rather because more little lights huddle in together. The screen in front of you right now is evidence of what an impact a pack of pixels can have.

So I’m hatching a new plan for 2015. Maybe instead of focusing on how to become a cleaner machine unto myself, I can move a little closer to others. “What or who can I make time for, reach for? How can I stretch what I’ve got?” That semantic shift is enough to make me feel a little more bubbly and a little less rigid about what it means to change, and what shape that change can take.

Looking back at the photos and montages, I see those of you who organized and donated and created in 2014 and many years before that, already shining in a world of high-def hope and common cause. You are way ahead of me. Please stay, and please make a little room for one more.

Vital

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Last Friday I made it to the Body Worlds Vital exhibit in town. The first real review I heard was months ago. A man walking ahead of me on the street said to his companion, “Damn, now that we saw that, whenever someone goes by I feel like I can see all of their moving parts.”That slightly queasy allure seemed to me the best promise of the exhibit, which features several human bodies that have been stripped of skin, set in plastinate preservative, and posed in action.

In the flesh (I can’t help it!) the sculptures delivered: A salsa dancer frozen in elegant pose, muscles taut and textured and revealing the real choreography that happens with millions of fibers and tendons and bones. A man with an improbable straw hat looking fairly casual for having no back, showing that there is nothing hasty or sloppy about how his insides are arranged in cages and coils.

What I didn’t expect were all of the warning labels. Bright yellow banners describing the causes and effects of the big baddies: stroke, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, sclerosis. Corresponding exhibits showed hemorrhaged brains, blackened lungs, cross-sections of clotted arteries, slices of fatty flesh.

The signs irked me. Where’s the part about all of the stuff that goes right in a body? Pumping 5 liters of blood, moving 206 bones and 600-something muscles, the spiderweb nervous system that tells our brains what our eyes saw, literally in a flash.

I’d bet that on the exhibit proposal, it says that the signs are there to “educate” visitors. Somehow, education has become synonymous with spotting problems and mastering a list of don’ts. When my peers started with two minutes of “What’s working here?” in a writing workshop, I listened and blushed through what felt to me like a polite prelude to the “real” critique. When they started talking about what was wrong, that’s when I started taking notes. I was there to learn how to write, and we learn from our mistakes. Right? I recited it in elementary school. I whisper it to myself when I paw through my files of marked-up drafts and rejection letters. I repeat it as a teacher, imploring students to read beyond the letter on the top of their papers and to put some elbow grease into peer reviews. And, most everything we know about the human body comes from our efforts to figure out the many things that can go wrong.

To be negative is to be wise, discerning, even healthy. The shortcoming of this method is that it doesn’t offer any solutions. The focus on mistakes yields mostly no-no verbs: prevent, avoid, reduce, limit. Don’t.

Sitting in the writing chair or standing in the students’ shoes, I know the paralysis of analysis, of being burdened with so much critique that any next step seems impossibly daunting. And an earnest reader of those banners at the exhibit abuzz with admonitions—don’t breath this, ingest that, strain those—but little idea of anything new to do.

When it came time to make a new piece, I didn’t turn to my reams of no-no notes. I remembered what readers responded well to the last time, and tried to find a new way to do that again. Positivity is an animating force. That might have been the overwhelming joy of the exhibit. The cells keep moving, synapses firing, knees bending, despite infinitely variable and disruptive conditions. The impossible architecture is a self-fulfilling success. It works because it keeps working.

I hope to bring some of that propulsive energy to my own work this fall, to remind myself and my students to find the good thing that can be carried to the next class, discussion or text. It’s counter-intuitive to think of constant risk as the thing that keeps us alive, but when I see 37 trillion cells doing their things (times however many people I pass each day), pathogens and wear-and-tear be darned—I have to believe the willingness to try and keep trying is vital.

Country Saturday Night

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This Saturday in America, I learned a new way be a patriot.

The occasion was Prairie Home Companion at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA—a traditional event that was new to me. The parking lot itself was a lesson in Yankee ingenuity. I thought I was doing well with sunscreen, a blanket and a package of trail mix. I wrapped a beer in a blanket in case it was contraband and jammed all that stuff into a canvas shoulder bag. My cleverness became clunky as I lurched to the gate behind tribes of seasoned Tanglewooders gliding their Coleman picnic sledges over the path. On the lawn those wagons transformed into tables with four-course spreads and seasonal centerpieces. Some families even planted miniature American flags at their settlements. I’d like to think that if I’d put more time into it, I would’ve thought to strap a folding table on a dolly or serve chicken Caesar salad on a skewer. Tiny stakes waving Old Glory, though, would never have made my list.

At least they wouldn’t have before.

I flopped on a patch of grass near the edge of the concert shed, swigged the beer and sifted through the best bits of the snack mix. I started to feel confident that I’d prepared as adequately, if not as elegantly, as my neighbors. Then a wave I never saw coming wiped me out of that comfy pose.

It started with the hum and buzz of the crowd as Keillor wound his way across the lawn to the stage, pausing at those picnic displays that now looked like sub-stages set for this Polaroid-perfect moment.

Mr. Keillor serenading the picnickers

Mr. Keillor rousing the crowd

He brought a swell of loose and candid joy that sets a crowd to humming along with familiar tunes. The giddy awe of the star-struck crested at the opening bars of “America the Beautiful.” Keillor reached the stage the chorus slid into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and anyone not yet on his or her feet faced front and projected with gusto. I looked back and caught it all head a misty wistfulness washed over all of us, chased with a collective sigh of pride. Even the infants looked nostalgic, somehow, bouncing their elbows and thighs in time as if they’d heard this tune before.

In a way I felt as if I had never heard this tune before. Of course I had, but it never made me feel this way. The marching and the terrible swift swords were symbols of strife and righteousness that I could relate to rhetorically, but not personally. My awe might take the form of visceral shiver at the pierce and rattle of the fife and snare. This time, I surrendered to the  linen trills and rumbling basses dragged up from the bottoms of old loafers. I felt in tune with the spirit of a patriot in the simplest sense: “a person who loves her country.”

Perhaps those with the star-spangled setups anticipated this wave of love for our homeland, and I suppose that in that enthusiasm they also contributed to it. Maybe more so than those tiny stakes, the ground itself. While my neighbors and I may well be patriots wherever we stand, I think the where and when of this encounter with America had a good deal to do with how it struck me. Nestled in the knees of the Berkshires under the round shadows of extended twilight, we sat on the floor with America’s Uncle while he sang and told us stories. Neither Keillor nor the landscape insisted on awe or fearsomeness or allegiance, the way a furrowed forefather or a hall of flags might.

Credit is due to Keillor of course, for at least inviting and perhaps even conjuring the secular miracle of getting a herd of stiff Yankees to loosen up their Sans-a-Belts and get their sing-along and sway on. His gentle tenor and good-natured teasing strike just the right tone to invite participation and summon kinship.

More so than to any one person or to the words and tunes he chooses, I attribute the communal feeling to the land itself, the virtue of which Keillor might downplay or deny—at least if his witty little ditty in homage to New York City is to be believed. He’s a poet and he knows it, and why not embrace the comfort of a climate-controlled library? But I’m also confident that Keillor knows the power of place and that his stories and songs are beloved, in part, because they into the rhythms and punctuation of the natural human habitat. The well-worn story and the smack-dab pun and even the woeful misery of winter can delight us because they remind us of the world we all know, the stuff and juice that make us and make us go. Out there we revelers did look like a crop of a certain colorful and abundant species, sprouting from our respective picnic patches. From our sunburned noses to the square toes in the dirt, carbon atoms tumble through us and our neighbors and the land we share, in a circle that’s unbroken, by and by.

That substrate of our common experience is the country in its original sense, the unfettered physical knowledge of the earth and its textures, scents and shades. Sometimes when we try to define country with our reasoning brains we try to sort and straighten all those loops and clouds and the messy essence of a shared land, Our Country, gets hammered into boxes and lines: Your Country and My Country. Once the lines are drawn we might start to fret over crossing them: who and when and how it’s allowed. Here come the bayonets and fifes and red cards and air horns.

Now when I see and feel those lines, I’ll try to sweep them away with the force I learned to feel last Saturday—the Common feeling of living and of and for a place I love. Notes and laughter and carbon molecules will not obey imperial imaginations. I can be a patriot when I sing, laugh and dance in the dirt, then shake hands with my neighbor. Then when I put my loafers back on, I’ll bring a little of that common feeling with me down whichever road takes me home.

Berkshire twilight

Berkshire vista

*In tune in the figurative sense. I am always off-key by any musical standards.