November 19, 2013
In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher published a book of remarkable images that captured the honeybee in an entirely new light. By using powerful scanning electron microscopes, she magnified a bee’s microscopic structures by hundreds or even thousands of times in size, revealing startling, abstract forms that are far too small to see with the naked eye.
Now, as part of a new project called “Topography of Tears,” she’s using microscopes to give us an unexpected view of another familiar subject: dried human tears.
“I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tears, amid lots of change and loss—so I had a surplus of raw material,” Fisher says. After the bee project and one in which she’d looked at a fragment of her own hip bone removed during surgery, she’d come to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually,” she explains. “So I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’”
When she caught one of her own tears on a slide, dried it, and then peered at it through a standard light microscope, “It was really interesting. It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane,” she says. “Eventually, I started wondering—would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”
This idle musing ended up launching a multi-year photography project in which Fisher collected, examined and photographed more than 100 tears from both herself an a handful of other volunteers, including a newborn baby.
Scientifically, tears are divided into three different types, based on their origin. Both tears of grief and joy are psychic tears, triggered by extreme emotions, whether positive or negative. Basal tears are released continuously in tiny quantities (on average, 0.75 to 1.1 grams over a 24-hour period) to keep the cornea lubricated. Reflex tears are secreted in response to an irritant, like dust, onion vapors or tear gas.
All tears contain a variety of biological substances (including oils, antibodies and enzymes) suspended in salt water, but as Fisher saw, tears from each of the different categories include distinct molecules as well. Emotional tears, for instance, have been found to contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.
Additionally, because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close. “There are so many variables—there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate and the settings of the microscope,” Fisher says.
As Fisher pored over the hundreds of dried tears, she began to see even more ways in which they resembled large-scale landscapes, or as she calls them, “aerial views of emotion terrain.”
“It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale,” she says. “You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.”
Closely studying tears for so long has made Fisher think of them as far more than a salty liquid we discharge during difficult moments. “Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage,” she says. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”
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.”
November 1, 2013
As a mathematical concept, the fractal can be intimidating.
Benoit Mandelbrot, the Polish-born mathematician who coined the term, defined a fractal as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” Fractus, in Latin, means “broken.”
But, the whole idea, I think, becomes a lot more digestible when you look to nature.
The natural world is chock full of fractals. Consider a tree, one of the simplest examples. Whether you look at the entire tree, a branch or a single twig, the shape is generally the same. The same can be said for rivers and their tributaries. This “self-similarity” is a defining trait of a fractal. A fiddlehead—a young fern that is tightly coiled—has little leaflets that form even tinier coils. Similarly, the interior sections of a nautilus shell, all the same crescent shape, get progressively larger from the center of the spiral outwards. Fractal geeks also point to their favorite vegetable: Romanesco broccoli. Each bud of the edible plant is composed of more miniature buds of the same geometric form.
“There’s this moment of awakening where you understand that the natural patterns that you’ve been seeing your entire life are actually based on simple mathematical formulas. And once you’re aware of those patterns—be it the spiral shape of a galaxy or the whirl of a hurricane or the swirls of cream in your morning coffee—you’re able to recognize them anywhere,” says Ben Weiss.
An expert in computer graphics, Weiss has taken it upon himself to make these universal mathematical principles even more accessible. His new iOS app, Frax, which he developed with colleagues Kai Krause and Tom Beddard, puts fractals, as he says, “in the palm of your hand.”
Frax users begin with a basic shape from the app’s fractal library. Then, they manipulate the shape to their own liking, adding depth, shading, color, lighting, gloss and texture. The end result is nothing short of art. The fractals are complex, colorful patterns that conjure any number of things—sea weed, snowflakes, sand dunes and oil spills.
While most will just doodle on their iPhones and iPads, “Some will use it to create more complex works of art, using it as a starting point for fabrics or paintings or digital art installations,” says Weiss. “We’re also hoping that the interaction with these beautiful images will inspire users to want to learn more about the underlying math and geometry, in the same way that looking through a telescope can inspire interest in astronomy and science.”
Weiss’ fascination with fractals took root at an early age. As a 10-year-old, he was writing bits of code and patiently waiting hours for the images to load on the screen of his Apple IIc. For three decades, fractal programs have required users to plug in lots of equations to generate visuals, Weiss explains. He was excited to harness the power of today’s touchscreen devices for this purpose. Frax is built on the famous Mandelbrot and Julia set equations, but, as Weiss told Co.Design, he and his team hid all the mathematical inputs, amounting to almost 100,000 lines of custom code, “under the hood.”
“Not everyone wants to be introduced to something in terms of math,” says Weiss. “There is plenty of complexity hidden away behind the scenes, but the audience is immersed more easily if they don’t see the mechanics behind it all.” (It is a little like slipping fruits and vegetables into desserts.)
Kai Krause, a German software and interface designer involved in the project, has watched kids use Frax. “They clearly have no clue about ‘Mandelbrot’ or the math of it,” he says, and yet they have an appetite for the app, as an entertaining, creative experience. The design team sees Frax as something with broader appeal than other fractal programs on the market, used mainly by math geeks. Krause says they have amplified the play value, without making Frax a game in the traditional sense. “The belief is that you can have serious fun without the need for shooting pigs or people or high scores,” he says.
The experience is immersive, and, as the user zooms in on fractals and makes aesthetic decisions about colors and other effects, he or she picking up skills and developing a more innate understanding of this mathematical art form.
“You’re playing directly with mathematics, but it doesn’t feel dry,” says Weiss. “It feels like an artistic adventure.”
October 11, 2013
A few years ago, Linda Alterwitz noticed her husband watching something interesting on TV. An artist and photographer, she’d previously worked with X-rays, MRIs and other medical techniques to reveal visualizations invisible to the unaided eye, and she saw an intriguing image on the screen during an episode of Cops.
“The helicopter was chasing a person running, in the pitch-black night, and this thermal camera showed amazing silhouetted images,” she says. “I saw it, and my first thought was ‘how can I get one of those cameras?’”
When she looked into the idea, she found that professional-quality thermographic cameras—used most often for military, police and medical purposes—cost tens of thousands of dollars. But when she got in touch with a company in her hometown of Las Vegas called Sierra Pacific Innovations that made these types of cameras, they were willing to lend her one for artistic purposes.
In the years since, as part of her “Thermal” project, Alterwitz has used thermal cameras to photograph family, friends, strangers and even dogs in both black-and-white and color. “Essentially, it’s a camera with a sensor that detects heat radiation, instead of light,” she says. “The neatest thing about it is the experimentation process, because you never know what effects you’re going to produce.”
At times, she’s gone out into crowded public places to shoot portraits of strangers, not always clueing them in on the technology she’s using. ”The thermal cameras look like old movie cameras—big and bulky, and you hold them on your shoulder,” she says. “Which is really great for me, because a lot of people don’t really know what I’m doing with it, they think I’m taking movies.”
For her “Core” series, shot at home, Alterwitz’ subjects lifted up their shirts or otherwise exposed their bodies so that the camera could pick up unexpected thermal signatures of their blood vessels. “My son was in the hot tub, and he came out, and it basically looked like his circulatory system was on fire,” she says, describing the image at top. “It looks like tree branches climbing up his body.”
Alterwitz initially decided to shoot the “Canine” series because her dog Ruby “is a really good model, and always available.” When she shot the image above, “Ruby had just finished drinking and she had water spots all over her face which were only made visible through the lens of the thermal camera,” she explains. “So what we’re seeing are cold spots of water on her face in relation to her warm body temperature.”
When she shot a friend’s dog with its head resting out of a car window, above, Alterwitz discovered that heat radiation is entirely blocked by glass—so the image shows a red-hot dog cut off by a cool glass window.
Once, Alterwitz was inspired to use the camera to take a self-portrait. “I’d gotten a facial, and my face was all swollen and enflamed, and I had the camera with me,” she says. “So I asked my husband to take a photo of all the heat and inflammation coming off it.”
She’s constantly looking for hidden thermal images she can capture with the cameras—next, she wants to take photos of people getting tattoos, which she hopes will reveal tiny dots of inflammation where the needle punctures their skin.
“After a while, I realized it’s really a different way of seeing the world. We’re used to seeing in terms of light, but that’s just one way of portrating visual information,” Alterwitz says. “My brain gets totally focused on heat, and cold—at times, I’ve even dreamed in thermal.”
September 18, 2013
When the Pacific Science Center in Seattle put out a call for public art demonstrating solar energy, Dan Corson submitted a proposal. He called his musing a “Humming Heliotrope.” Heliotrope, in Latin, means “turning toward the Sun.”
“I was thinking about how some flowers move in order to capture the Sun,” says the artist.
Corson drew up a plan for five towering sculptures of flowers, inspired by the flower of the Australian firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus), to sprout from the grounds of the science center near the base of Seattle’s famous Space Needle. The flowers would light up at night, thanks to electricity generated by day courtesy of solar panels on their faces. They’d also hum as people walked around the stems.
“I also was thinking about science centers and how they reveal things to us that we normally don’t see—microscopically, atmospherically or phenomenologically. This led me down the path of imagining looking up and experiencing flowers from under them, as if you were the scale of a small insect,” he says.
The Pacific Science Center selected Corson for the job. “He is very talented. Of all the artists, he had the most experience in solar,” says Michal Anderson, the center’s chief financial and operating officer. For example, Corson previously created a series of sculptures called “Nepenthes” in Portland, Oregon, that involve photovoltaic panels. The pieces collect solar energy during the day and then glow for four hours after sundown.
“We had a lot of people apply who did not have solar experience, and we had some people apply that had solar experience but no public art background,” adds Anderson. “He was a nice blend and definitely the strongest candidate. We think we made the right choice.”
So, after a few tweaks to the original plan, Corson created the playful installation, now called “Sonic Bloom.” Seattle City Light’s Green Up program, which sponsors projects that stir interest in renewable energy, provided the funds for the commission as a way to honor the center’s 50th anniversary.
The patch of brightly colored blossoms, unveiled last month after three years of planning, is a welcome sight. The flowers stand up to 33 feet tall with petals measuring 20 feet wide. All told, 270 four-watt solar panels, built by the Washington company Silicon Energy, are mounted to the tops of the flower heads. Directly under the solar panels, in fiberglass domes facing downward, are LEDs. At night, the LEDs change colors and the beams chase each other, creating a light show effect.
Corson tilted the flowers at different angles and in different directions to show the effect of time of day and orientation on energy generation. Visitors can see real-time, daily, monthly and yearly electricity generation on a kiosk inside the center. “As you scroll through, you can see how different flowers are performing due to their angle,” the artist explains.
The flowers are tied to the electricity grid, so their brightness is consistent over the five-plus hours each night that they shine. Despite Seattle’s notoriety as a cloudy city, “the amount of energy [created] is calculated over the whole year, so the flowers produce extra energy in the summer, and less in the winter, but overall, the project is energy neutral,” says the artist. During the summer months, that extra energy is used to offset some of the center’s energy needs.
Corson is fascinated by light—so much so that he incorporates it into many of his public artworks. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he constructed a circle of lit trees he calls “Luminous Conjunction.” When a pedestrian walking along the laid brick sidewalk passes a tree, the spotlight illuminating it changes from white to green. Then, in “Rays,” an installation in Rivers Edge Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Corson created a nightly light show that projects lines, rings and swirly patterns on a five-acre grassy lawn.
“Light draws us into work; it acts as a lure to start the artistic conversation,” says Corson. “From a purely phenomenological perspective, it can make you feel differently by the color, angle and brightness. I also think it is one of the easiest ways to transform a piece’s experience from the daytime to the nighttime.”
More than one million people visit the Pacific Science Center each year, guaranteeing “Sonic Bloom” a large viewership. The installation is located just outside the center’s gates, so passersby need not pay admission to see it. “People lay on the ground and take pictures looking up through the petals,” says Anderson. “There is also a sound component to the flowers. There are motion sensors at the base of each flower, and it makes a sound like a chanting monk. It is fun to watch people walk by who don’t expect the sound.”
“Sonic Bloom” teaches visitors about how solar power works, while also showing that it can be an effective means of generating electricity even in the rainy, misty, overcast Pacific Northwest. “We really want people to understand that we have finite resources in the world and that renewable energy is a very important part of our future,” Anderson explains. “People think that Seattle has so much rain that solar energy is not a viable option, and it really is. We want people to give some thought about sustainable energy in their life and how they might be able to use that.”
Corson, nonetheless, primarily considers it an artwork. “One of the things I wanted to do is share that photovoltaic [PV] projects do not need to look ugly,” he says. “Not that all solar projects are ugly, but we often see PV cells arranged in an efficient and non-aesthetic manner. I wanted to look at ways of using the PV cells to tell more stories.”