Where Art and Tech Meet

A couple months ago, I was invited to write an introductory essay for Masters of Abstraction, a new book by German photographer Peter Badge. The book is a collection of portraits of winners of the Fields and Abel prizes in mathematics, and the Turing and Nevanlinna awards in computing. These are the top prizes in their fields, all modeled more or less on the Nobel, which has no category for mathematics.

I first met Peter about fifteen years ago when I was co-curating an international exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize. He was commissioned to photograph the laureates for the exhibition and accompanying volume. When I watched Peter at work I was immediately struck by two things: first, his uncanny ability to relate to the laureates on a personal level and to capture on film his sense of their personalities and deep humanity, however remote or abstract their research; and, second, his stubborn insistence on sticking with analog photography and old-fashioned photographic film—specifically black-and-white Kodak Tri-X—just when digital technology was taking over his medium. Over the years, he has never gone digital, despite the near-disappearance of Tri-X from the shelves of photo stores. These observations prompted me to reflect on the tools of photographers, human creativity, and machine “intelligence.”

Vint Cerf, 2004 Turing Award Winner

Vint Cerf won the Turing Award in 2004 with Bob E. Kahn for “pioneering work on internetworking.” c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Let me try to explain why I think this matters. It is conceivable that Alan Turing, mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, and pioneer of artificial intelligence after whom the prize is named, could have ultimately rendered Peter’s work obsolete. Turing’s famous “Turing Test,” proposed in 1950, is defined in Wikipedia as a “test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of an actual human.” As far as I know, Turing himself never ascribed any deep existential meaning to his test.  However, in the popular mind, it carries the implication that smart machines, perhaps in the not too distant future, will surpass and eventually replace the brains of intelligent, even super intelligent, humans.


HAL 9000, via Wikimedia Commons.

Should that appalling day arrive when the descendants of HAL 9000, the single-minded and omniscient computer of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, become masters of the universe and solve all conceivable mathematical riddles, would we still want to buy Peter’s book? Would we want to view photographs of human also-rans in some future mathematical Olympiad totally dominated by machines? Granted, it would be interesting and probably comforting to study the humanity, character, and creativity written in their faces. But, in the end, would it matter?

For Peter, the answer to this question is surely that yes, it matters, and for a myriad human reasons. Intelligence is ultimately a human concept. In that sense, we can reasonably ask if intelligence can ever truly be “artificial.” Peter’s goal is not only to honor prizewinners, but to probe the mysteries of human creativity. He knows instinctively that creativity can never be reduced to computer algorithms. It is ironic to think that Turing himself, who lived a brilliant but tormented life, would have been the worst possible candidate for machine replacement.

That takes us back to Peter’s loyalty to analog film, his chosen and evidently natural medium. I have not asked Peter this question, but I think I know why he has not yet gone digital. I suspect he resists the imposition of a computerized process between himself and his human subjects.

Shafrira Goldwasser, 2012 Turing Award winner.

Shafrira Goldwasser won the 2012 Turing Award along with Silvio Micali for their work in the field of cryptography. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013.

There are suggestive parallels here with the creative processes of mathematicians. Evolving computer technology has changed how mathematicians work. Abstract mathematics increasingly involves computers; the verification of proofs is one example. But, just as photographers “see” their final image in their mind’s eye before actually taking the shot, mathematicians often visualize their proofs in advance. Both photographers and mathematicians share this sensory, almost tactile feeling for their creations.

Abstraction is central to science and mathematics, but the term has other, equally rich resonances. In this sense, the title of Badge’s book—Master of Abstraction—plays brilliantly on the association with masters of abstract art. Even die-hard believers in machine intelligence cannot credibly claim that artists will eventually cede their studios to ranks of painting robots wielding brushes and palettes. The creative theories and inventions honored in Peter’s book are not just equivalent to art, they have become art and speak to the identity of all forms of creativity.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that photography, too, is all about numbers: film speeds,
f-stops, shutter speeds, focal lengths, light intensity, even the “golden ratio” applied to framing an image. This is just as true for analog film as it is for digital photography, though digital has added a few more numerical parameters to play with. At some point though, Peter Badge, like all genuine practitioners of his art form, puts the numbers behind him and proceeds on the wings of creative instinct. And this is where Peter and his subjects merge in body, mind, and spirit, in a realm where numbers become sheer beauty.

Sergei Novikov, 1970 winner of the Fields Medal.

Sergei Novikov won the Fields Medal in 1970 for his work in algebraic topology, most notably the Novikov conjecture, which concerns homotopy invariance of certain polynomials in the Pontryagin classes of a manifold. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of antiquity, is featured on the Fields Medal for mathematics. A Latin inscription from Astronomica, by the Roman poet Manilius, surrounds Archimedes likeness:

you are seeking to pass beyond your understanding and make yourself master of the universe….

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

In a title match for “Master of the Universe” between Archimedes and HAL 9000, where would you put your money? I know where I would.

Sound and Vision

Editors Note: This is a follow-up to “It’s in the Details,” Anna’s recent blog about fiber artist Timothy Westbrook and his use of repurposed materials. Originally from upstate New York, Westbrook has enjoyed becoming part of Milwaukee’s robust arts community, itself at the center of a vibrant place of invention

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio


Westbrook's "The Unicorn Maiden" comprised of woven cassette tape with cotton, blue velvet curtains, bed sheets, a Victorian hand-embroidered curtain, and a Victorian unicorn button. Modeled by Raquel and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

“Blue, blue/
electric blue/
that’s the color/
of my room/
where I will live— /
blue, blue—”

These lyrics from David Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” have been lolling through my mind ever since I began thinking about the hand-woven cassette tapes in Timothy Westbrook‘s
designs. If it wasn’t for Bowie, after all, or the Clash or the Ramones or Troublefunk (you get the picture), I might not have felt such a familiar and sentimental pull towards Westbrook’s use of crinkly, sparkly, magnetic cassette tape. Who knew that old cassettes full of hiss could LOOK so good. Recognizing the tape in Westbrook’s jackets, dresses, and scarves was like seeing an old friend in a new context. In Westbrook’s Pfister Hotel studio, once-loved tape was woven into shimmering new life with pearl cotton, wool, and blended silk bamboo.

For those who remember, cassettes were high-maintenance friends: easily degraded by heat and humidity, often stuck in Walkmans, and with a tendency to spew ribbons of crumpled tape that had to be carefully rewound with a pencil. (This was best-case scenario: more often, the tape was mangled.) You work with what you have and I loved that technology. Soundtracks, mix tapes, and “cassingles” got me through.

Where do all the old “new technologies” like cassette tape go, though? I often think about that here at the Lemelson Center where we study innovative technology that supplants the old. While collections documenting the history of invention are carefully preserved by the Smithsonian and its counterparts, cassettes mostly go from shoe boxes to giant landfills where they degrade and leach pollutants into our water table and get into our food chain.

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

Thankfully, artists like Westbrook are inspired to re-think this cycle and imagine how materials can be repurposed. Each of his gowns, for example, use between 6 and 12 yards of cassette tape. He makes it a point to never use virgin materials: “The goal is zero-waste which is often confused as ‘take this rectangular fabric and make a muumuu wrap dress.’ I simply mean do not throw anything away that is not biodegradable.”

Naysayers who think eco-friendly/sustainable fashion means burlap and muumuus will be more than surprised when they see Westbrook’s holiday dress. Made from a combination of gospel and holiday tapes, wire hangers, roses, grommets, and a Mrs. Claus costume, the materials inspire humor and play a metaphorical role in the visual story of the dress. Varying tape colors add visual depth.

The "Alexis Rose" holiday dress made of gospel and holiday-themed audio cassette tapes, red velvet from a Mrs. Claus costume, wire hangers, and donated grommets filled with roses. Sue Lawton's "Willow Tree" is in the background.

The relationship between sound and vision is not only a constant in Westbrook’s work—it also is the inspiration for his experimentation with audio tape. As a child, time spent listening to books-on-tape with his blind grandfather made him think about ways that sensory experiences could be translated. What if the books they listened to could be transformed back into something visual that could be understood through touch?

"The Stripe" (right) with woven cassette tape and a cotton and vintage chiffon curtain. Modeled by Michael and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Asked about the challenges of his medium, Westbrook muses, “I don’t really have problems with the cassette tapes—only inspiration. The story is in the wording: cassette tape is a kind of ribbon. So where else do we hear ‘yarn, thread, string, rope, ribbon’? Fabric. Weaving. What are other related things? Line, floss, string—violin string!—electric wire, silk. All of a sudden new materials make themselves available.”

His ability to look at things differently—to see all of the preceding materials as monofilaments to be woven, for example—keeps Westbrook’s work evolving. Strong mathematical ability and a fertile imagination stoke this fire, even allowing him to think about similarities between the sensorial process of weaving and playing audio cassettes reel to reel.

"The Femme Nouvelle" made with woven cassette tape and wool and a scarf made with woven plastic bags and cotton. Modeled by Layna and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

So what next? Coming off a successful final gallery night show at the Pfister Hotel, Westbrook is winding down his time as Artist-in-Residence. He plans to stay in Milwaukee where he will continue to explore new ways to create sustainable, low-impact works that challenge established ideas about luxury and beauty in our disposable culture. He is innately good at connecting different people, ideas, and industries together—an important figure in any thriving place of invention—and I expect we will hear remarkable things about the community-focused projects he and collaborator Alexis Rose have on the horizon.

Alexis Rose and Westbrook at his final gallery night show. Rose styled the show and was its creative director. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Earlier today, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Westbrook speak at the GreenBizForum about every object’s potential reuse. 

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen, Skateboard Legends…and Inventors?

In January 2011 I found myself in a rather unusual place—at the National Surf and Skate Expo in Orlando, Florida. Along with my colleagues Jane Rogers, an Associate Curator in the Museum’s Division of Entertainment, Sports, and Culture, and Betsy Gordon, a Project Executive from the National Museum of the American Indian, I traveled to Orlando to meet some of skateboarding’s founding pioneers and enduring legends. The National Museum of American History had just launched a broad collecting initiative focusing on skateboarding and I was keenly interested in the role of invention, innovation, and creativity play in skate’s history and culture. As a group that feels that it has been cast as “outsiders” most of their lives, the skaters were surprised at the Smithsonian’s interest, but very welcoming and eager to share their experiences with us. The day culminated with an “All-80s” skate competition that featured the likes of Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Andy MacDonald, and a host of other icons of skateboarding lore. At the conclusion of the event, Tony Hawk donated his skateboard to the Museum while standing in the middle of the vert ramp surrounded by 2,500 screaming fans.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck. Jane and I are standing by--the skateboarders were expecting the Smithsonian to be represented by a bunch of "old dudes." Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards.

Since that time, the Lemelson Center and the Museum have continued to build important relationships with skateboarding’s innovators. The Lemelson Center’s belief that everyone is inventive and that innovation abounds all around us is one of our greatest strengths and affords us the opportunity to explore the history of invention and innovation from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and across a broad range of subjects. Most associate invention and innovation with technology and science, but the Center often explores other unexpected places where invention and innovation flourishes—like skateboarding. This wide exploration is critical to fostering an appreciation for the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. It also makes our work extremely interesting, fun, and exciting as we meet, collaborate, and explore the world of invention and innovation with all types of people.

Skate legend Rodney Mullen was kind enough to let us film him doing tricks on the roof terrace of the Museum.

In August of 2012, the Lemelson Center invited Rodney Mullen, the unquestioned leader and pioneer of street skating, to visit us to discuss the role of invention and innovation in American life. It was a truly wonderful day in which we exchanged ideas and views not only about skateboarding, but about the role and importance of creativity and innovation to building a better society.  You can watch our video podcast with Rodney below or on YouTube.

Our exploration of the intersection between innovation and skateboarding continues. On June 21-22, to coincide with National Go Skate Day 2013, the Lemelson Center will host Innoskate, a major public festival that will celebrate invention and creativity in skate culture. Innoskate will highlight the contributions skate innovators make to society through demonstrations, hands-on education activities, public programs with inventors and innovators, and donations of objects to the national collections. Activities will also include discussions and demonstrations of evolving technology such as decks, wheels, trucks, board design, materials, etc., as well as innovations in tricks that fueled further technological innovations. Hands-on activities related to skate culture may include aspects of board design and fabrication, use of new materials, and/or the engineering and physics of making decks and performing tricks.

We will continue to share program information about Innoskate in the months to come—so keep checking back with us.