Unreal Nature

October 31, 2008

Hypocritic Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:36 am

“Boundary extension.” That could be a great two-word description of what art is or, maybe, of what artists do with their imagination when they are trying to create something.

Turns out, this is the phrase used by scientists to describe what we do, perceptually, all day, all the time:

Boundary extension is a mistake that we often make when recalling a view of a scene — we will insist that the boundaries of an image stretched out farther than what we actually saw.

— from Our Cheatin’ Brain: The Brain’s Clever Way of Showing Us the World as a Whole from ScienceDaily (Oct.30, 2008)

A mistake. So, art is a mistake? Presumably, a happy, intentional mistake (oxymoron alert!).

So, what tools do scientists use to prove and get rid of this mistake?

The researchers created two versions of a photograph- the photographs depicted the same scene but one had a wider view, showing more of the background. In the first experiment, volunteers were shown one view, interrupted very briefly by a “mask” (an unrelated display of lines and curves with a small “happy face” in the center) followed by the same photograph or the other version of the photograph, which remained on the screen. Volunteers were then asked to report whether the picture they were looking at was the same, or showed more or less of the view compared to the first photograph.

The second experiment had a similar set up except that the first and second photographs were shown on opposite sides of the monitor forcing the volunteers to shift their eyes from one image to the other so that the interruption included an eye movement.

The results, reported in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, showed that boundary extension occurred in both experiments—although the volunteers knew exactly what would be tested and their view of the scene was disrupted for as little as 42 milliseconds, when the view was identical, they rated the second photograph as being “closer up” compared to the first. They were positive that they saw more of the scene in the first photograph, even when the interruption lasted quicker than an eye blink! The results of the second experiment (requiring an eye movement) indicate that boundary extension also occurs during visual scanning and not just during more simple tasks that use a mask alone (as in Experiment 1).

Of course. The photograph. Photography is used to get rid of, remove, STOP all this “boundary extension.” And we’re surprised when our audience gets confused when we turn around and claim, “but these photographs are art.” Photos disprove boundary extension; art = boundary extension.

Photos disprove boundary extension, but they are also … boundary extensions. Yes. Damn it, if I say they’re art, they’re art.

*hypocrite, (n), dissembler, dissimulator, phony, phoney, pretender: a person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives

*hypocritic, pertaining to (an actor’s) delivery — from The Shorter OED, sixth ed.



October 30, 2008

Masks of Knowledge

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:54 am

I have breakfasted on ashes, the black

Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.

When a coup makes no stain, and a tornado sticks to half a page.

And it seemed to me as though the Fates licked their lips

When war broke out in the sports section, reflected in the falling Dow.

I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread.

And Clio, as ever, keeps mum…. There, just as I folded them up,

The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.

That’s from from Oblivion City: A Review  by Helen Vendler from The New Republic Online  (Oct 30, 2008). It’s a review of the book, Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems by Durs Grünbein; poems translated from German by Michael Hofmann. Here is a bit of a poem followed by Vendler’s commentary:

Shivering under masks of knowledge,

Freaked out by the extraordinary,

Dreamless by day under cynical clocks,

Timetables, scales, counseled by

Cheerful killers, in front of the monitor–

It made you sarcastic.

By the end of the poem, the self has had its sight immedicably corrupted: “The backs of your eyes peopled by monsters.” (“Insects,” not monsters, in the German.) The insects, as actual beings, seem more frightening than monsters (out of legend). The despair in the ironist’s retrospect is felt in the shadow presence in the poem of the child he was, whose “sweet songs” antedated the sarcasm of the present.

Grünbein’s poems are not all so dark. This one is about writing poems (and it applies well to the making of photographs):

You pursue your own
eccentric designs you re-

fine the images you order
the moments but you don’t

listen to them
as quite differently in their own ways

they pursue their eccentric
designs refine

images show chance movements
move differently

in the same spaces and damned
if they’re going to listen to you. That

is the nub.

And, finally, this bit from the beginning of the review, because it made me laugh:

“Being a dog,” says a defining poem early in “Portrait of the Artist,” “is having to when you don’t want to, wanting to/When you can’t, and always somebody watching.”

The full title of the poem is actually “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (Not Collie).”

The full review can be found either at Powell’s Books (with few sidebar ads) or at its source, The New Republic Online  (with lots of sidebar ads).



October 29, 2008

Purpose and Discover

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:15 pm

Natural Selection
by Alan Shapiro

proceeds by chance
and necessity

becomes nonrandom
through randomness

builds complexity
from simplicity

nurtures consciousness

evolves purposelessly
creatures who demand

and discover

natural selection


— from the December, 1998 issue of Poetry magazine

I like the poem, but I have a hard time pronouncing “purposelessly”.



Spirals of Darkness Into Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:22 am

RIP, reels. I knew ye well …

[For all you digital-only whippersnappers, this is one of those five-feet-of-snow, uphill-both-ways things.]

Look at this; there’s a little piece of film still stuck in the clip:


[Addendum: I set about taking these pictures this morning as quickie snaps for this post. An hour later, I was still playing with the reels … just one more … When I hold a camera to my eye, everything else, other stuff is … what other stuff …? All you photographers out there know exactly what I’m talking about.



October 28, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

In an earlier post of mine I used the following Chuck Close quote:

I think one of the problems with learning to be a photographer is that you have instant wholeness.

I was reminded of that when reading an article, The Mason’s Apprentice by PZ Meyers from Seed Magazine (Oct 24, 2008):

No one wants to be an architect because they’re interested in the physics of nails and screws and glue and mortar. But as stirring as it can be to contemplate a great piece of architecture — it’s easy to imagine Brunelleschi’s excitement as he first contemplated the stunning dome he was to build on Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore — and as much fun as it can be to design a dream house, no architect will ever realize a vision without an understanding of how to join a structure’s materials.

Biology has a similar problem. Much of modern developmental biology has a bias for grand visions of form and structure. Our major model organisms are creatures like fruit flies and mice and zebrafish, but these are the elaborate edifices of evolution, far out on the extreme edge of multicellular complexity. While it is both interesting and productive to study the grand patterns of development in producing such wonderful phenomena as the outline of the body plan in the expression of Hox genes, or the growth of limbs, or the functional anatomy and physiology of intricate sensory organs like the eye, these processes all hinge on the most fundamental pieces of ontogeny: the mechanisms by which cells can adhere, interact, and cooperate. These are the nails and glue of the development and evolution of multicellular organisms. And, just as Brunelleschi’s greatest achievement began not with a grand plan, but with expert knowledge of the simple brick, we can better understand those processes if we look away from the mice and turn our eyes to simpler, humbler creatures, ones that have mastered the crucial skills of cellular masonry.

As a compositor, I am a “mason” — as are artists in all(?) other forms of art. But (straight) photography … ? Is photography the only creative process that is “instantly whole”?




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

Carrying on from yesterday’s post, Scatter the Pieces where the quotes were about the moral questions posed by the fictitious world of film noir, I’d like to move from fantasy into reality. First, here again is a bit of one of the quotes from yesterday:

We enter a world where our moral bearings are lost, and we allow ourselves to side with amoral people living in a world quite like our own, but with all its ugly, unjust defects emphasised.

Apply that to this the very real:

Even as they confront the tension between their traditional mission to do good and the need to think about all manner of unintended consequences, humanitarians are also weighing a third element: tackling the root causes of humanitarian crises, and delivering the sort of aid that might provide durable “insurance” against them.

There is an undeniable logic to this kind of approach, but when they try to address long-term needs, humanitarian organizations cross over into the field of development assistance—and risk not only losing their focus and effectiveness but blundering into new minefields.

That’s from an excellent (and very long) article, Humanitarian Dilemmas by G. Paschal Zachary from the summer 2008 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. Here is more, from near the beginning of the piece:

Barnett and Weiss, political scientists at the University of Minnesota and the City University of New York Graduate Center, respectively, describe some of the questions that engage the intellectuals, as well as many of their counterparts in the field:

When, if ever, should [humanitarians] request armed protection and work with states? Would armed protection facilitate access or create the impression that aid workers were now one of the warring parties? Should they provide aid unconditionally? What if doing so means feeding the armies, militias, and killers who are responsible for and clearly benefit from terrorizing civilian populations? At what point should aid workers withdraw because the situation is too dangerous? Can aid really make a difference?

This from near the end:

Humanitarians will continue to need patience and a willingness to make the best of bad situations. Even in Kosovo, where humanitarians were backed by military force and worked under conditions of relative peace and security, billions of dollars were required to help a relatively small number of people and still for a long time it appeared that the state of political and social limbo might last forever. In northern Uganda, however, the perverse incentives of humanitarian assistance may be merely prolonging a stalemate. Still, the limbo of dependency and interference in local affairs by the “humanitarian international” is much preferable to the resumption of war.

The Goldilocks* solution is unsatisfying to scholars and many practitioners, since it acknowledges that we don’t know what is working until after it has been done. Purists who don’t want humanitarian aid to help the Mugabes and Konys of the world, either directly or indirectly, can’t be happy with the Goldilocks solution either. And those who wish humanitarian aid to tackle long-term problems and root causes — in essence, to serve legitimate development aims — will also be disappointed. As a practical matter, the relief of suffering is an achievement that can be measured day by day, while creating sustainable benefits and structural changes in societies can only be judged over long periods of time.

Whatever its shortcomings, the Goldilocks solution — getting humanitarian intervention just right — cannot be judged on measurable outcomes alone. Humanitarianism is ultimately about our humanity: how we choose to live. Good intentions are not enough, but they are still something.

[* “In order to succeed, humanitarian efforts require a “Goldilocks” solution — just the right mix of force and charity, sympathy and structure, blind will and determined follow-up.”]

If you are interested and have the time, the article is very good. [ link ]



October 27, 2008

Scatter The Pieces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

Philosophy is the art of putting our thoughts in order. But doing that requires us to scatter the pieces sometimes, just to see how we again arrive at order from the disorder.

“… scatter the pieces…” Yeah! I do that. All. Day. Long. I don’t do so well with the “arrive at order” part, but who cares. Neatness is overrated.

The quote is from a review of the book, The Philosophy of Film Noir edited by Mark Conard. The review is by Les Reid in the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of Philosophy Now. Here’s a bit more from it; this is what immediately preceded the above in the article:

Hume argued quite convincingly that morality ultimately rests on our emotions of sympathy and compassion. Those feelings provide the ‘ought’ – the basic moral values – from which all our complex moral reasonings are derived. But Hume assumed our sympathies would follow a conventional path and cherish our common humanity. The challenge of film noir is to deny that assumption and depict a world where our sympathies take a different path that leads us down darker alleyways. Perhaps that is part of its attraction. We enter a world where our moral bearings are lost, and we allow ourselves to side with amoral people living in a world quite like our own, but with all its ugly, unjust defects emphasised. We cannot tell how well we shall cope, confronting murky situations with our moral complacency switched off, but that uncertainty grips our conscience and our attention and carries us into the story.



Some Assembly Required

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

Good morning, boys and girls!

In today’s class, we are going to make one of Julie Heyward’s world famous Equilateral® … things. So, open your starter kits and we shall begin.

First of all, in your kit materials, locate your bean seed (yes, they are safe for vegetarians; these are from vegetable-fed vegetables):

Plant the seed in the little pot of dirt, also found in your kit. Then seal the pot in a clear plastic bag. Take your pots and put them in a warm spot; for example on top of your refrigerator. In 3-4 days they will sprout. Take the sprouted bean and put it in a sunny window. After another two days, you should have a sprout suitable for inclusion in an Equilateral® … thing.

While the bean is sprouting, we will work on the rest of the … thing. Included in your starter kit are two background images with the crabapple triangle already in place:

Take your pick, or, for extra credit, do them both! Here are the rules of construction:

First, you may not move the crabapples AT ALL. They are absolutely fixed iin place, as you find them.

Second, there is Imaginary Gravity. This gravity is always in the top-to-bottom plane of the image, so, right now, boys and girls, go into your brain and adjust your gravity dial so that its angle matches that of your monitor.

Third, add your own objects to the image (you may use anything you like, though the world-famous Ms. Heyward only used sticks® and lichenStones®). All items must balance according to Imaginary Gravity. Your purpose is to build support for the three crabapples.

Fourth, items in the image are not permitted to overlap. Contact is tangential only. The one exception is the sprout, which will be added at the very end. It can overlap anything, but supports nothing.

Okay. Everybody has their little scissors and bottles of glue? You have five days (until the sprouts are ready) to build your own, personal Equilateral®. Isn’t this fun?

Below you can see the Equilateral … things … that Ms. Heyward made from these exact same identical backgrounds!

Now, everybody, please pay attention for one minute. It is absolutely essential that when class ends today (and every day) that you set your gravity dial back to where it was before. Failure to do so can result in, for example, bizarre nonlinear tilted  blog postings (of course, if you tune your gravity dial to the same angle as that of the tilted person, it will un-tilt the blog postings and all make perfect sense).



October 26, 2008

There Is No Why

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 pm

[the quote, below, is from Dancing on Air  by Noy Thrupkaew, posted to The American Prospect on October 23, 2008]

Nearly three decades before the World Trade Center towers became sites of real-life tragedy and mythic icons of the war on terrorism, they served as the staging ground for an entirely different act. On August 7, 1974, a tiny figure stepped out into the space between the buildings. He didn’t fall, nor did he jump — although audiences watching James Marsh’s Sundance award-winning documentary Man On Wire may be reminded of the terrible images of those who did during 9/11. Philippe Petit was actually balancing on a wire suspended between the structures, but from the ground, it looked as if he was walking on nothing but air.

The diminutive Frenchman capered on his wire for 45 minutes — dancing, lying down, kneeling and saluting, and traipsing across the void between the buildings no less than eight times before he delivered himself into the arms of the police, who promptly handcuffed the funambulist. Petit responded by balancing a policeman’s cap on his nose.

He handled the American media’s questions with equal irreverence. According to Man on Wire, reporters were obsessed with one main question: “Why did you do it?” Fifty-eight-year-old Petit, his voice crackling with amusement, recounts his response to those “so American” questions: “There is no why.”

Now  you tell me.



World View

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:07 am

What the heck is with all these people who don’t see the world the same way I do? There are so many examples, from the personal to the political (especially the political, but we won’t go there…) where I find myself thinking, ‘what a fucking idiot!’

To demonstrate, I’ve picked out a fairly innocuous example that happened yesterday. Try following along as I do a sort of bad Joycian stream of tutti-frutti-ness of my thought process:

I’m browsing the latest issue of The Georgia Review. I find this essay, The Art of Looking Down by Rebecca Emlinger Roberts [pdf file]. I’m reading … reading … Here’s a bit from it:

… To live with chronic disease is to learn to be artful in a most unceremonious way, simply to think through the moves that get a person going: tying shoes, climbing hills, walking on sand, getting out of bed, getting on the plane.

… Such are the perversities of the mind as it conforms to the pressures of disease. The second joint of each of my thumbs droops like a tired flag; my fingers cross and curl; there are unintended bumps and swellings. Still, I own them: they are my hands, my fingers. Something is in me, in us — in those of us whose bodies do not match our illusions — that is willing to take in the orphaned parts, that impels us to preserve the integrity of the whole. Thus does the self attempt to make of the will and the flesh a unified being.

This might be art.

Oh, that’s good. Profound. Deep. I really like what she’s saying, and, by extension, I like her. Feeling all warm and fuzzy — connected, if you will, to the phantom of Ms. Roberts. I go on reading her essay:

… I have learned — after years of rheumatoid-induced joint erosions, after replacements of both hips and knees in surgeries stitching up but never quite replacing the precision of the originals, and after years of falling — the art of looking at the ground.

… Art: resistance, compliance, compliance, resistance. And so I look down. But I don’t want to look down. I want to look up: at the sky, at birds in flight; this is not natural; this is unfair. The ground is the ground: homely, uninspiring, empty of focus. What’s to look at down there? The ground is where grubs live, where serpents crawl — the sinner’s reward. The ground is bleak and brown and hard and yields only to our shovels, our machinery — never to our souls. It is penurious; it is caustic and brutal and faceless.

The ground. Where’s the dream in it?

Jeeeezus. What a fucking idiot! What the hell does she know? The ground, the earth is down. You know, mother earth??? Life?? All that good stuff like plants and bugs and rocks … (and about, oh, 80% of my photography). Get out of yourself, lady. Open your fucking eyes. Note — of course, I would never actually call her a fucking idiot out loud. Only in my head — which phrase I apply at least a dozen times a day to various people; and about half the time I’m talking about myself as in “you fucking idiot” as I drip, crash, and generally do my cow-in-the-china-shop thing.

So I back button out of her page on The Georgia Review web site and click on the next essay. It’s Forms and Structures by Stephen Dunn and in it, I ponder this sentence, “Either we’re working within chosen confines, our details pressing up against the boundaries and those boundaries pressing back, or we’re seeking those confines that will hold in place our wanderings. Or both. Each presents its own demands and opportunities.” At the time, I couldn’t decide what I thought of that one, though, now, in the context of this post, it seems kind of funny. But I won’t go off on a tangent like some other blog-writer who shall remain nameless; whose posts sometimes wander off in loop-de-loops — quite possibly deliberately, to throw off the hounds of pursuit.

Erm … where was I? Oh. Last night. Reading … Okay. So, eventually night falls, I disconnect the brain and do the sleeping thing. This morning, as I’m puttering around through the AM chores, I’m getting little, irritating bleeps about that Looking Down article. What exactly was she saying …? What was the first part of that thing? So I go back, and read it. Slowly. Now that I’m prepared for it, the ending doesn’t make me so defensive. And, I eventually circle back to this sentence:

Something is in me, in us — in those of us whose bodies do not match our illusions — that is willing to take in the orphaned parts, that impels us to preserve the integrity of the whole. Thus does the self attempt to make of the will and the flesh a unified being.

Okay. So, she’s not a fucking idiot.


I’m not preaching relativism. What I am suggesting is that far more harm is done by spreading the net of one’s absolute values too wide such that what are in fact only relative values get included — than vice versa. At least as much attention needs to be paid to making the distinction between what is absolute and what is relative, as needs to be paid to what one’s absolute values ought to be. Many times, I think that doing the former will find the latter.



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