November 14, 2013
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.
November 7, 2013
If they chose, they could sit down and have their portrait painted. The catch, though, was that it’d be planned and executed entirely by an artificial intelligence program called The Painting Fool.
“I’m interested in the idea that software itself can be creative,” says Simon Colton, the British computer scientist behind the program. “I want to drag software into new territory—by getting it to write music, or compose poems or paint pictures in a creative way.”
The Painting Fool was created in 2001, when Colton, who was then working on a dissertation involving artificial intelligence, became obsessed with using photoshop to alter his photography. “I realized photoshop wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, and I started programming, trying to get the graphics to work how I wanted,” he says. “Eventually, I realized I could bring this computer graphics work into the fold of computational creativity.”
In the years since, his software has created thousands of paintings and graphics, and he’s continually improved the algorithm to come ever-closer to meeting what he sees as seven key criteria for creativity: skill, appreciation, imagination, learning, intentionality, reflection and invention. “Appreciation is what sets the program apart from Photoshop, which has no appreciation of what it’s doing, or what it’s produced, or what materials it’s working with,” Colton says. “In terms of imagination—if the software doesn’t do fun, surprising things, that you wouldn’t have thought of, then it’s not truly creative.”
He and colleagues have developed a number of different applications for the Painting Fool, but for the July exhibition, the program’s approach began with a seemingly unrelated task: reading the newspaper. They want to make the algorithm’s products unpredictable and surprising—hallmarks of creativity—but not merely the result of randomness, so reading the news and analyzing keywords in hundreds of articles is a means of putting the Painting Fool into different moods that inform its work.
At times, reading the news puts the program into such a bad mood that it doesn’t want to paint at all. “I was in a particularly negative mood, because I was reading an article entitled: ‘Aftershocks rock Italy earthquake zone‘ in the world section of the Guardian newspaper, which was really sad, because it spoke of ‘terrified residents.’ So, I decided not to paint a portrait,” the Painting Fool wrote in response to one exhibition-goer.
Most of the time, though, the articles put the program into other moods (experimental, reflective or happy) that dictate one of roughly 30 qualities—bright, colorful, vivid, cold, bleary or crazy, among others—that it seeks to convey with a painting. With this in mind, when a subject sits down for a portrait, the Painting Fool starts issuing instructions. “You never feel like you’re using it, you feel like it’s using you, and you’re the model,” Colton says. “It says, ‘Thanks for being my model.’ Then, maybe ‘I want you to smile right now.’”
After taking a photo, the program isolates the subject’s face and places it within one of roughly 1000 abstract templates, then uses one of an additional 1000 image filters to manipulate the template and face further, searching for a combination likely to produce a portrait with the quality it originally chose. Finally, it splits the image into segments and fills each of these with a different color and texture, using virtual tools such as pencil, pastel or watercolors.
Afterward, the Painting Fool assesses its product and decides whether it achieved the desired look, comparing it to thousands of other works of art in a database with characteristics commonly associated with the artistic quality that it sought to convey. Like a human, it’s sometimes pleased with its work and sometimes disappointed. “I was in a positive mood. So I wanted to paint a patterned portrait,” it wrote in response to the portrait above. “This is a miserable failure—I’m very unhappy about that. And I’m also annoyed that the portrait is bleached, because that does not suit my mood.”
This sort of intentionality and reflection, Colton says, are crucial elements of creativity. “It’s very easy to say, ‘You wrote the program, you tell it what to do, so it’s really just an extension of you. So we tried to get the software to aim to do something on its own, and then realize whether it has or hasn’t achieved it in the end,” he explains.
Colton’s aware that there are lots of people out there who don’t see real creativity in the program—and he sees their criticisms as essential to the Painting Fool’s success. “I’m always looking for people who say to me, ‘I don’t think it’s creative for this reason,’” he says. “That drives me on, and I’ll come back a year later with a few thousand lines of code to begin addressing that issue.”
Like Colton, the Painting Fool’s greatest strength is the fact that it can learn and improve—each time it fails to meet its own expectations, it assesses what went wrong and uses that knowledge in future creative decisions. “It did about 100 portraits, and by the end of the week, it knew, for instance, that pencils are not good for vibrant paintings, but they are good for making bleak and dreary ones,” Colton says. “It reflected, it learned, and by the end, it was doing things that I hadn’t programmed it to do.”
September 16, 2013
Ocean acidification has taken up an unlikely mascot: the shelled pteropod. While “charismatic megafauna,” the large creatures that pull at our heartstrings, are typically the face of environmental problems—think polar bears on a shrinking iceberg and oil-slicked pelicans—these tiny sea snails couldn’t be more different. They don’t have visible eyes or anything resembling a face, diminishing their cute factor. They can barely be seen with the human eye, rarely reaching one centimeter in length. And the changes acidification has on them are even harder to see: the slow disintegration of their calcium carbonate shells.
Even without the threat of more acidic seas—caused by carbon dioxide dissolving into seawater—pteropods (also called sea butterflies) look fragile, as if their translucent shells could barely hold up against the rough ocean. This fragility is what attracted artist Cornelia Kavanagh to sculpt the miniscule animals. Her series, called “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” will be on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall starting September 17.
“By making visible that which is essentially invisible, my pteropod sculptures could dramatize the threat of ocean acidification in a refreshing new way, causing the pteropod to become a surrogate for a problem of far-reaching implications,” says Kavanagh.
Ocean acidification is expected to affect a panoply of ocean organisms, but shelled animals like corals, clams and pteropods may be hardest hit. This is because the animals have more trouble crafting the molecular building blocks they use to construct their shells in more acidic water.
Pteropods and other shelled animals that live near the poles have an even bigger challenge: they live in cold water, which is historically more acidic than warm water. Acidification is expected to hit animals in colder regions first and harder—and it already has. Just last year, scientists described pteropod shells dissolving in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. These animals aren’t just struggling to build their shells; the more acidic water is breaking their shells apart.
While Kavanagh’s sculptures were made before this discovery, she still tried to portray the future effects of acidification by sculpting several species of pteropod in various stages of decay. Some of her pteropods are healthy, with whole shells and “wings”—actually the snail’s foot adapted to flap in the water—outspread. Others have holes in their shells with folded wings, so the viewer can almost see them sinking to the seafloor, defeated.
Before starting this project, Kavanagh had never heard of pteropods. She wanted to make art reflecting the impacts of climate change, and was searching for an animal with an appealing shape for abstraction. One day she stumbled upon the image of a pteropod and was sold. She found the animals both beautiful and evocative of the work of Modernist artists she admires, such as Miro, Arp and Kandinsky.
She based her aluminum and bronze sculptures off of pictures she found in books and on the internet, blown up more than 400 times their real size. But when she finished sculpting, she panicked. “While I tried to symbolize the danger pteropods faced by interpreting their forms,” Kavanagh says, “I became increasingly concerned that my sculptures might be too abstract to be recognizable.”
She contacted Gareth Lawson, a biological oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who studies the impacts of acidification on pteropods. To her relief, when he looked at pictures of her sculptures, he was able to easily identify each down to the species. After that, the pair teamed up, writing a book together and curating a show in New York, called “Charismatic Microfauna,” with scientific information alongside the sculptures.
“What drew me to [Cornelia's] work in particular is the way in which, through their posture and form, as a series her sculptures illustrate pteropods increasingly affected by ocean acidification,” says Lawson. “Through her medium she is ‘hypothesizing’ how these animals will respond to the changed chemistry of the future ocean. And that’s exactly what my collaborators and I do, albeit through science.”
June 21, 2013
What if we could control the weather? The thought has more than crossed the minds of Stuart Wood, Florian Ortkrass and Hannes Koch, the three founders of the London-based art studio Random International. In their latest installation, Rain Room, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the artists have created an indoor downpour that detects passers-through and actually adjusts, to keep them dry.
Visitors are lining up to walk—or even dance—through the temporary exhibition, staged in a lot next to MoMA, on West 54th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. As waves of people, ten at a time, are invited in, the 1,000-square-foot rain shower becomes a stage where improvised performances happen, as guests test how well the rainfall responds to their movements. Random International installed 3D cameras to track people throughout the space and thereby control which water spouts in the ceiling are on and which are off at any given time. Nearly 220 gallons of water fall every minute; the water gets filtered and cycles through again and again. For effect, a spotlight, positioned at one side of the room, casts light through the staccato dashes of pressurized water and produces rainbows. The creators say that the downpour is a static noise from within, blocking out extraneous sounds and making it a meditative place.
Rain Room had its first successful run at Barbican Centre in London from October 2012 to March 2013, and it has now become a popular attraction stateside at MoMA’s EXPO 1: New York, a festival-like presentation of ecologically-focused projects. Art critic Ken Johnson, in a review in the New York Times, expressed some skepticism, rightfully so, of the installation’s fit with this theme. Visitors, he writes, “may wonder what it contributes to deep thinking about ecological issues.” He even goes on to say, “‘Rain Room,’ for all its entertaining ingenuity, seems little more than a gimmicky diversion.” But, in its defense, MoMA argues that what the work does is encourage people “to explore the roles that science, technology, and human ingenuity can play in stabilizing our environment.”
Creator Stuart Wood has called Rain Room a “social experiment”—and it is immersive experiences like this one, in completely new environments, that Random International specializes in. The group’s 2008 project Audience had visitors walk through a field of small mirrors; the mirrors would single out a person and turn towards that individual in one fluid and “inquisitive” motion, as the artists put it. In 2011, the outfit created Swarm Study / III. The lighting installation, which hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is four cubes composed of illuminated brass rods that respond to activity on the staircase beneath them. On MoMA’s Inside/Out blog, Random International explained its driving force. It is quite simple, really. “We’re intrigued by how people and objects behave and respond to one another,” said the group.
Rain Room is on display at MoMA through July 28, 2013.
May 2, 2013
An artist’s studio is usually a private space, and the hours spent with a paint-dipped brush in hand mostly solitary. So, the final products we gaze at on gallery walls are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the makers’ creative processes.
For Nathan Walsh, each of his realist paintings is a culmination of four months of eight to 10-hour days in the studio. Now, thanks to a new app, we can go back in time and see how his work came to be, stroke by stroke.
Repentir, a free app for smartphones and the iPad, provides a hand-controlled time-lapse of Walsh’s oil painting, Transamerica. It compresses months of sketching and revision into interactive pixels, allowing users to peel back layers of paint and deconstruct Transamerica to its original pencil sketches.
The app, developed by researchers at Newcastle and Northumbria universities in England, uses computer vision algorithms to recognize the painting in photographs taken from various perspectives. When you take a photo of any part of Transamerica (or the entire work), the app replaces your image with those captured in the studio as Walsh painted. Every day for four months, a digital camera set up in his York-based studio snapped a shot of his progress, accumulating roughly 90 images.
Users can view the painting’s layers in two ways. A slider feature at bottom allows viewers to see the piece in its beginning stages to the final product by swiping from left to right (think “slide to unlock”). They can also use their fingers to rub away at a given spot on the painting on the screen, revealing earlier stages in the process.
“Where their fingers have been, we basically remove pixels from the image and add pixels from older layers until they’re rubbed away,” says Jonathan Hook, a research associate at Newcastle who studies human-computer interaction. “It’s like how you add paint to the canvas—we’re doing the opposite.”
Repentir was unveiled this week at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing in Paris, an annual science, engineering and design gathering. This year’s theme is “changing perspectives.” Transamerica will be on display there until tomorrow, when it moves to the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, a realist painting collection in New York.
The app relies on a process known as scale invariant feature matching, technology that’s similar to that of augmented reality. Researchers trained the app against a high-resolution image of Transamerica to identify and create markers for certain features. These markers can then be used to find matching features in a user’s photo of the painting and the artwork itself—even in a tiny piece of it.
“If you take a picture of the bottom right-hand corner, it will find the features in the bottom right-hand corner of the image and match them against those same features in the source image,” Hook says. “If there’s at least three or four features matched, you’re able to work out the perspective and the difference in image position on those features.”
Ninety images worth of layers may not sound like a lot when you factor in today’s smartphone scrolling speeds, but if you’re viewing Transamerica in person, there’s more than enough of it to explore. The canvas measures roughly 71 by 48 inches. It would take a massive number of screen grabs to rub away the layers of the entire work.
Transamerica is a colorful composite of elements that caught Walsh’s eye during a trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Several years ago, Walsh traveled across America, stopping in major cities, including San Francisco, New York and Chicago, sketching and taking photographs of the urban landscapes.
Walsh says he’s often accused of stitching photographs together or touching up in Photoshop because of the realistic look of his paintings. He aims to convey a sense of three-dimensional space in his work. In Transamerica, the juxtaposition of different objects and designs create almost palpable layers of paint.
“There’s always an assumption that there’s some sort of trickery involved,” Walsh says. “Getting involved in a project like this explains literally how I go about constructing these paintings. It shows all the nuts and bolts of their making.”
Hook says the researchers chose Walsh’s work to expose those “nuts and bolts.” “Lots of people, when they see his paintings, they think he’s cheated, when in reality what Nathan does is just get a pencil and a ruler and draws these really amazing photorealistic pictures from scratch,” he says. “The idea behind the app was to reveal Nathan’s process and show people how much hard work he does.”
In this way, Walsh believes using Repentir in front of the actual work will make the gallery experience more educational for visitors. “For me, the exciting thing is that you’re getting close, as close as you can, to my experience of making the painting,” he says.
While the app is free, Hook believes the tool could lead to a new business model for artists. In the future, app users could purchase a print of a configuration of layers they like best.