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 8, 2013
Photographer Bernhard Edmaier is a geologist by training, and it is this knowledge base of the processes that create geological features that he leans on when selecting locations to shoot. For almost 20 years, he has hunted the world over for the most breathtaking views of coral reefs, active volcanoes, hot springs, desert dunes, dense forests and behemoth glaciers.
“Together with my partner Angelika Jung-Hüttl, I do a lot of internet research, including Google Earth[searches], study satellite images of planned destinations, maintain close contact with local scientists and commercial pilots, deal with various authorities and negotiate flight permits,” says Edmaier. “It can take months of research until the moment of shooting has arrived.”
Then, on that long-awaited day, the German photographer boards a small plane or helicopter and instructs the pilot to position him in just the right spot over the landform. He often has that perfect shot in mind, thanks to his planning, and he captures it out of the side of the side of the aircraft with his 60-megapixel digital Hasselblad camera.
From a logistical standpoint, Edmaier explains, “As my favorite motifs, geological structures, are mostly very large, I need to shoot my images from a greater distance. Only from a bird’s eye view can I manage to capture these phenomena and to visualize them in a certain ‘ideal’ composition.” Then, there are, of course, aesthetics driving his methods. “This perspective perfectly allows me an exciting interplay of concrete documentation and somehow detached reduction and abstraction, with more accentuation of the latter,” he adds.
Looking at an Edmaier photograph, your eye might trace a fracture, fault, rock fold or pattern of erosion like it would the stroke of a brush until, without any geographic coordinates or other means of orientation, you find yourself thinking you could be gazing at an abstract painting.
In his new book, EarthART, published by Phaidon, the aerial genius presents a broad survey, from the islands of the Bahamas to the alpine meadows of Italy’s Dolomites and Germany’s Alps, the rugged desert of California’s Death Valley to a bubbling mud pool in New Zealand ominously named “Hell’s Gate,” in 150 images organized–quite beautifully–
by color: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet, brown, grey and white.
“Each photograph is accompanied by a caption explaining how, where and why these spectacular colors occur: from tropical turquoise seas to icy blue glaciers; from lush green forests to rivers turned green by microscopically small algae,” reads the book jacket. Edmaier was particularly enamored with the Cerros de Visviri, a mountain range on the Chile-Bolivia border that he calls “an orgy of all shades of orange.” The oranges, yellows, reds and browns are the result of a chemical alteration of the iron in volcanic rocks turning to iron oxide and iron hydroxide.
The book reads like a plea not to take these colors and geologic wonders for granted. In the introduction, Jung-Hüttl, a science writer, describes how the Earth’s hues developed over 4.6 billion years:
“Our planet was first a grey cloud of cosmic dust, then, following collisions with meteorites and comets, a glowing red fire ball of molten rock, the surface of which cooled off gradually before solidifying to form a dark crust. Enormous quantities of water vapor in the early atmosphere, which was acid and without oxygen, led to intense precipitations on the young earth, which in turn led to the creation of oceans over the course of several millions of years. In the cold regions, the white of the ice fields was added to the blue of the water…The widespread shades of red, yellow and brown first occurred when the earth was half as old as it is today, that is to say around 2 billion years ago. These shades are the result of chemical rock weathering, which only became possible once small amounts of oxygen had become enriched in the earth’s atmosphere…Much later, around 500 million years ago, the first green land plants settled on the banks of the waters and spread gradually across the continents.”
Edmaier thinks most humans have a very anthropocentric view of the world. “In our imagination, the Earth or Earth’s surface is something eternal or with very little changes. But the opposite is true. Infinite processes are continuously remodeling the surface and interior of the Earth. But only a few processes are directly observable,” he says. The photographer specifically chooses landscapes that have not yet been touched or altered by humans.
“Most of these spots are fragile, nature-created formations which, in the long run, will be unable to resist man’s unstoppable urge to exploit. They will alter and ultimately disappear,” says Edmaier. “So, I would be happy if at least some viewers of my images decide for themselves that the remaining intact natural landscapes are worth preserving.”
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 5, 2013
Circus performer and Mongolian-trained contortionist Inka Siefker practiced moving like a giant Pacific octopus at home. “I wiped off kitchen counters like my arm had tentacles, or used my leg to get something from the top of the refrigerator,” she says. “I have long legs.”
Siefker is one of seven performers in Okeanos: A Love Letter to the Sea, a live dance/cirque show created by Capacitor, a group that fuses art and science to connect people to their world. Capacitor performs Okeanos on stage, with dance, music, sculpture, aerialists and underwater film as a backdrop, in the Aquarium of the Bay‘s 255-seat theater at San Francisco’s Pier 39. It premiered with four performances in 2012 at Fort Mason’s Herbst Theater and then opened at the aquarium in August 2013 to play through the end of September. The show’s run has been extended and shows are scheduled for most Thursday and Saturday nights through December.
Jodi Lomask, artistic director of Capacitor, took three years to research, design and create Okeanos. She learned to surf and scuba dive and found inspiration in Capacitor Labs, where California Academy of Sciences oceanographers and marine biologists gave informal lectures to Lomask and company. Senior science advisor Tierney Thys, a National Geographic Explorer, explained the dynamics of tropical coral reefs and California kelp forests. Thys helped the dancers find narratives and move in ways that resembled the movements of marine plants and animals. Siefker learned from Thys that an octopus is floppy, and that it has nine brains, one for each arm that can move independently of the central brain.
Thys explained that tiny ocean creatures like copepods live in a completely different flow regime than larger animals like whales and dolphins. Flow regimes are described by an equation called the Reynolds number, which characterizes flow as laminate (smooth and parallel) or turbulent (disruptive with vortices). Animals that are millimeters in length operate at low Reynolds numbers, where water acts more like thick honey. Viscosity is a factor in the Reynolds equation, and Lomask and her dancers experienced the challenges of water’s viscosity by practicing their movements underwater. “It’s hard to hold onto someone while water moves and the weight of it is on top of you,” said Siefker, who practiced her seahorse dance with her contortionist partner, Elliot Goodwin Gittelsohn, in pools.
Lomask choreographed the seahorse dance (or so I call it) after Healy Hamilton, a biodiversity scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, described her work. “Seahorses are some of the most romantic creatures alive,” says Lomask, who invented a movement style to imitate the extreme posture of the seahorses. She hired contortionists who were better able to stylize the seahorse’s extended bellies, locked tails and daylong mating dance (which, for the seahorse, ends with the female transferring her eggs to the male’s pouch where the babies grow). In the show, the seahorses dance in front of Great Barrier Reef footage by filmmaker David Hannan. San Francisco cinematographer Joseph Seif shot the underwater dance film.
In another piece, Siefker swings from a hanging spiral structure. She could be a coral polyp, an anemone or a diatom. She swings in the same current, or beat, as a dancer on the floor below who is on his back with arms and legs swaying as if he is sea grass or kelp. The movement is familiar to anyone who has scuba dived, snorkeled, surfed or, actually, even walked through the glass-walled tunnels of the 707,000-gallon tank in the Aquarium of the Bay (next door to the theater) where sea kelp sway with bat rays, white sturgeon and sprays of silver sardines.
Lomask grew up with strong influences in both art and science. Before she was born, her father, Morton Lomask, was one of the scientists aboard the Bathyscaphe Trieste when it broke deep-ocean diving records in the Mediterranean Sea. (The Trieste broke another record three years later after it was redesigned by Americans and sent into the Mariana Trench.) Jodi grew up on 85 acres in the woods of Connecticut where her father built and ran a biomedical research equipment lab. Her mother, Joan Lomask, was a printmaker, sculptor and painter. “Science is the way I learn about the world. Art is the way I process what I have learned,” says Jodi.
The collision of art and science is apparent in the name of Lomask’s company. A capacitor is an electrical device that accumulates and stores electricity for a given release. “It’s a metaphor for the life of a performer,” she says. “You spend a long period of time creating work and then you release the energy all at once in the form of a performance.”
Lomask, who has also explored a forest canopy and the reproductive life of a flower through performance art, created Okeanos because she wanted to learn about the deep ocean. In the process, she realized that the health of the ocean is in crisis, with coral reefs being destroyed twice as fast as rain forests and plastic accounting for 90 percent of all pollution in the ocean. Lomask changed her habits as a consumer. She eats less seafood, and when she does she makes sure it is sustainable, and she no longer uses single-use plastic. She hopes that her audiences will do the same and lists ten things on the program that people can do, such as supporting Marine Protected Areas and lowering carbon footprints, to protect ocean life.
“All living things are sea creatures, including humans,” says Sylvia Earle, an advisor on the project, in the show’s narration. ”Imagine Earth without an ocean. Imagine life without an ocean. The single non-negotiable thing that life requires is water. Take away the ocean and take away life.”
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.”