And now for something completely different

As the semester wraps up, I am going through my notes from the course, and there are a few more things I wanted to post on. So here is a series of somewhat disjointed links and references.

Two books on art and science

I did a fair bit of reading from the course list, and outside of it. I came upon two books that were useful for the topics I was interested in, and tie in nicely with course materials:

  • Reichle, I., & Zwijnenberg, R. (2009). Art in the Age of Technoscience: Genetic Engineering, Robotics, and Artificial Life in Contemporary Art. (G. Custance, Trans.). New York, NY: Springer.
  • Whitelaw, M. (2004). Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Writing systems

Omniglot is an “online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages”. The list of alphabets and writing systems in the index is unbelievably long. Arguably, many are adaptations of the roman alphabet, but there is still an incredible diversity. And each system has full depictions of its characters. How many ways are there to organize series of little lines into meaningful symbols…

Here are Balinese and Bhutanese, two examples out of many:



Ghost in the shell

A number of classic cinematic references have come up, and I thought there is an influential one I should add. Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 anime depicting a cybernetic future:

“In 2029, the world is interconnected by a vast electronic network that permeates every aspect of life. Much of humanity has access to this network through cybernetic bodies, or “shells”, which possess their consciousness and can give them superhuman abilities.”

Wikipedia, Ghost in the Shell (1995)

It is coming back in the news, as Hollywood is planning (yet another) remake. And there is some controversy because the main character, the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi, has been cast to be played by Scarlett Johansson.

Now I don’t know about the remake, but the original anime is worth watching. In spite of some anime tropes it was well ahead of its time, and influenced many science fiction movies after that. The digital rain in Matrix for instance, is taken straight from Ghost in the Shell‘s opening credits. There are also papers discussing gender identities and the cyborg body, in the context of the film.

Algorithmic art before computers

Remembering a retrospective of Sol LeWitt’s massive wall drawings, which I saw at Mass MoCA, I realized that his work can be seen as a precursor to algorithmic art and generative systems. The exhibition had some video documenting the making of these pieces. Essentially, it required a lot of people spending a lot of time drawing on the walls. There was a minutia to the process reminiscent of medieval monks copying tome after tome. And I thought about the origins of the word ‘computer’, when it still referred to a person, who was skilled at calculating. It takes time to realize algorithms by hand, in the analog world…

Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

Here is a quote from a blog that sums it up really well:

“Wall Drawing 797, above, is a good example of Sol Lewitt’s work: he left instructions on how the art would be done, rather than an actual physical piece. In this case, four drafters work, with the first drawing a blue line, the second a red line that follows the blue line without touching it, the third a yellow line that follows the red line without touching it, the fourth a blue line, until the bottom of the wall is reached. The original line is random and the patterns emerge from the process.”

Sol LeWitt - 797

Neal Stephenson

I am a huge fan of the writer Neal Stephenson. Every single book of his could be tied to many of the topics we discussed. I am particularly fond of:

  • Anathem: A dystopian world where scientists live segregated in monasteries.
  • The Baroque Cycle: The birth of science, currency, the Newton-Leibniz controversy, and a dash of swashbuckling adventures…
  • Cryptonomicon: Cryptography, Alan Turing, the first computer…

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I restrain myself from saying much more. But I can’t recommend these too much.

Two more essays are worth mentioning:

  • Mother Earth Mother Board: “The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth.” A long text on the materiality of the internet, following our discussion in class (and the importance of slack).
  • In the Beginning… Was the Command Line: Stephenson discusses our relation to software through the lens of interfaces and operating systems, here in a version with a critical response by Garrett Birkel.

Exchange – Money, gifts, and more…

And since I opened with a title from Monty Python, I might as well bookend the post with a closing comedic reference. There is a scene in Seinfeld which relates surprisingly well to the “Exchange” chapter, and is I think quite hilarious.

That’s it…

Thank you all for a fantastic semester!

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