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.