Category Archives: art

Art in 140 Characters

Is it pos­sible to encode and com­press an image to such a degree that the raw data can fit in a single Twit­ter mes­sage (140 char­ac­ters) that, when decoded again, is still recog­nis­able? The answer to the ques­tions is a resound­ing Yes, as con­firmed by a cod­ing chal­lenge inspired by Mario Klingemann’s attempt to com­press and encode the Mona Lisa down to 140 char­ac­ters.

Klingemann’s attempt, dubbed the Mon­aT­weeta II, is def­in­itely an image recog­nis­able as the Mona Lisa, but it must be said that some of the entries to the main cod­ing chal­lenge are truly breath­tak­ing.

The win­ning tweet (with a char­ac­ter to spare):


via @spolsky

Art Forgeries and the Uncanny Valley

In the third instal­ment of the Bam­booz­ling Ourselves series (a look at the mas­ter Ver­meer for­ger, Han van Mee­ger­en), Errol Mor­ris inter­views the author of The Forger’s Spell, Edward Dol­nick, and the two dis­cuss the applic­a­tion of the uncanny val­ley in the for­gery of art.

I par­tic­u­larly like Dolnick’s thoughts on the hindrance of expert­ise (final para­graph of this excerpt).

You would think a close copy would be the goal of a for­ger, but it might not be a smart way to go. If you were a bril­liant tech­ni­cian it might be an accept­able strategy, but my for­ger, Van Mee­ger­en, is not as good as that. […] He’s going to get in trouble, because that’s ask­ing for a side-by-side com­par­is­on, and he’s not good enough to get away with that. […]

So how is he going to paint a pic­ture that doesn’t look like a Ver­meer, but that people are going to say, “Oh! It’s a Ver­meer?” How’s he going to pull it off? It’s a tough chal­lenge. Now here’s the point of The Uncanny Val­ley: as your imit­a­tion gets closer and closer to the real thing, people think, “Good, good, good!” — but then when it’s very close, when it’s with­in 1 per­cent or some­thing, instead of focus­ing on the 99 per­cent that is done well, they focus on the 1 per­cent that you’re miss­ing, and you’re in trouble. Big trouble. […]

Van Mee­ger­en is trapped in the val­ley. If he tries for the close copy, an almost exact copy, he’s going to fall short. He’s going to look silly. So what he does instead is rely on the blanks in Vermeer’s career, because hardly any­thing is known about him. […] He’ll take advant­age of those blanks by invent­ing a whole new era in Vermeer’s career. No one knows what he was up to all this time. He’ll throw in some Ver­meer touches, includ­ing a sig­na­ture, so that people who look at it will be led to think, “Yes, this is a Ver­meer.” […]

It wasn’t going to be about how “you can’t tell the dif­fer­ence,” because you could. It would be, “How could people look at these things which are mani­festly so dif­fer­ent and not see what’s going on?” It became a story about how experts can get it wrong, and in fact, how expert know­ledge, instead of help­ing, can be a hindrance. On the sur­face it seemed to be a story about art and his­tory, but really, it’s a story about psy­cho­logy.

Why We Make Lists

One of the cur­rent exhib­i­tions being held in the Musée du Louvre, Par­is has been cur­ated by author and con­sist­ent top intel­lec­tu­al, Umberto Eco. The Infin­ity of Lists, as the exhib­i­tion is called, looks at the human fas­cin­a­tion with lists and how they have pro­gressed cul­tures.

What does cul­ture want? To make infin­ity com­pre­hens­ible. It also wants to cre­ate order – not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infin­ity? How does one attempt to grasp the incom­pre­hens­ible? Through lists, through cata­logs, through col­lec­tions in museums and through encyc­lo­pe­di­as and dic­tion­ar­ies.

But why do we feel this need to com­pre­hend and face infin­ity?

We have a lim­it, a very dis­cour­aging, humi­li­at­ing lim­it: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no lim­its and, there­fore, no end. It’s a way of escap­ing thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Sug­gest­ing that Google is “a tragedy” for the young as they lack (or, more cor­rectly, they are not taught) basic inform­a­tion lit­er­acy, Eco notes his obvi­ous dis­like of rote learn­ing.

Cul­ture isn’t know­ing when Napo­leon died. Cul­ture means know­ing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of inform­a­tion on the Inter­net in no time.

This inter­view with Der Spiegel ends with a quote I must try to remem­ber:

If you inter­act with things in your life, everything is con­stantly chan­ging. And if noth­ing changes, you’re an idi­ot.

Your Job as an Artist

Andrew Keen, the so-called Anti-Christ of Sil­ic­on Val­ley, tackles his com­mon ground of tech­no­logy and cre­ativ­ity in a piece from the Tele­graph where he hopes to dis­cov­er Why are Artists so Poor? After a bit of Twit­ter­ing, Andrew found that his:

responses exten­ded to everything from lucid one-worders like “oversupply” to philo­soph­ic­al tweets such as “because they live in the moment” to Clay Shirky’s terse and ellipt­ic­ally author­it­at­ive “unequal dis­tri­bu­tion of tal­ent + sup­ply and demand”.

The shift in the rela­tion­ship between art and tech­no­logy, as Andrew con­tin­ues to explain, is due as much to the lack of gate­keep­ers (agents, edit­ors, stu­di­os) on the Inter­net as it is to the ease of per­son­al dis­tri­bu­tion.

With that being said, the (new) job of the artist is more or less stra­tegic self-pro­mo­tion:

In an age in which the old cul­tur­al gate­keep­ers are being swept away, the most press­ing chal­lenge of cre­at­ive artists is to build their own brands. And it’s the Inter­net which provides cre­at­ive tal­ent with easy-to-use and cheap tools for their self-pro­mo­tion.

This is a guest post from Alex J. Mann.  You can sub­scribe to his blog here and fol­low him on Twit­ter here.

In Defense of Sampling: Why Stealing is Inspiring

Audio sampling in con­tem­por­ary music is a form of bud­ding innov­a­tion that proves not only the evol­u­tion of the industry, but a meth­od to build on cre­at­ive works that inspire us.  The prac­tice of sampling is com­mon in most cre­at­ive indus­tries, but often less obvi­ous than it is in music.  Music sampling hap­pens to receive a poor, dis­taste­ful repu­ta­tion simply because of how it’s per­ceived in pop­u­lar cul­ture, rather than under­stand­ing why it is a cre­at­ive tool.  The crit­ics and intel­lec­tu­als bash the sample for its lack of ori­gin­al­ity. I praise it for its inspir­a­tion­al tan­gib­il­ity.

My unique argu­ment is that we all, espe­cially those in cre­at­ive fields, sample like music producers.  Sampling, as it’s embraced in music, just hap­pens to be a more con­crete cita­tion of inspiration.  It’s a nod, an ode or respect­ful glance to those that did it before we did.  The sample is why we do what we do.

The sample is observed in a vari­ety of shapes, forms and frequencies.  Typ­ic­ally, a snip­pet of anoth­er song is cut out, sped up, slowed down or looped, and finally mashed, forced or hammered into new, ori­gin­al sound bite.  Occa­sion­ally, the sample is obvi­ous, even iden­ti­fi­able at first listen.  Oth­er times, the sample is indis­tin­guish­able, tak­ing on a new cre­at­ive life form of its own.

The hip-hop music industry has embraced the audio sample, and has sub­sequently become an easy tar­get for the so-called critics.  The crit­ics yell that it’s stealing.  My response is that it’s sharing.  The crit­ics cry that it’s not creative.  I respond that it’s a new type of creative.  Sampling is simply fair use of the avail­able tech­no­logy to build and advance pre­vi­ous works of art, dis­play­ing little dif­fer­ence to how we embrace the same tech­no­lo­gies in oth­er indus­tries.

My only per­son­al, and admit­tedly obnox­ious issue with sampling is the expec­ted pub­lic ignor­ance it promotes.  For instance, Kanye West (who samples in nearly every one of his songs, some­times dis­taste­fully) rapped on the mon­ster, Just Blaze pro­duced, smash hit “Touch the Sky,” which bor­rowed nearly the entire back­ground instru­ment­a­tion of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.“  Like­wise, the Grammy nom­in­ated song “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. pulled the retro punk-rock intro­duc­tion from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” while adding styl­ist­ic gun­shots and heavy drums for flavor.  Over­all, this is healthy for the industry.  But, while these songs have become main­stream hits, the ref­er­ences are ignored by most listen­ers.

Sampling has and con­tin­ues to expand past hip-hop.  Led Zep­pelin, argu­ably the most innov­at­ive rock out­fit in blues rock and heavy met­al his­tory, were actu­ally samplers of their time.  They bor­rowed rifts, covered jams and even trans­ferred lyr­ics into their own ori­gin­al music for the record­ing of their second album.  And, twenty-five years later, the Beast­ie Boys sampled the brave drum intro­duc­tion from “When the Levee Breaks” into a aggress­ive, break beat for their song “Rhym­in’ and Steal­in.“  Led Zep­pelin, the innov­at­ors, have been re-innovated.  The old folks scream blasphemy.  To me, it is a slight con­firm­a­tion that the Beast­ie Boys have good taste in rock ‘n roll.

Sampling is prom­in­ent everywhere.  The Blue Note has a com­pil­a­tion of heav­ily sampled jazz tunes, most of which you will recognize.  Girl Talk developed his entire album, Feed the Anim­als, around snip­pets of samples, pro­du­cing entirely new songs from pieces of others.  When you watch a Quentin Tarant­ino film, notice his samples of clas­sic Kung Fu flicks.  Or, when you observe a paint­ing by Sal­vador Dali, attempt to under­stand his influ­ence from Sig­mund Freud.  The sample is rel­at­ive in all forms of art and sci­ence.

My exper­i­ence as an entre­pren­eur, spe­cific­ally in man­aging soft­ware devel­op­ment, has been sample driven.  Although I do more react­ing than plan­ning, large aspects of my job are sampling what has worked in the past with hopes that it will work again in the future.  The team I work with began our design pro­cess by review­ing numer­ous soft­ware dash­boards that had pieces rel­ev­ant to our vision.  We then pulled and sampled these ele­ments into our sketches, and finally imple­men­ted the puzzle pieces into an ori­gin­al design.

The goal of recog­niz­ing samples in any form is to have an open, but defens­ive mind, and ques­tion not only the music, but how it is con­sumed.  Who are the artist’s influences?  Who is sampled, delib­er­ately or unconsciously?  Recog­niz­ing sampled inspir­a­tion is more than being aware or know­ledge­able of history.  It allows you to be a true, crit­ic­al observ­er of artist­ic found­a­tion.

This is a guest post from Alex J. Mann.  You can sub­scribe to his blog here and fol­low him on Twit­ter here.