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At home with art and technology

profile dream photo

Me as a digital Deep Dream Vision Quest painting.

I grew up on a military base in the wide open Indian Wells Valley of California’s Mojave Desert. With a fantasy-prone mind and a peace loving heart, I felt a sublime fascination with the technology that powered jets up to speeds that broke the sound barrier and left trails in the skies above the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Yet, my life primarily evolved around home, church, and school, where I learned to color and write, think about God, sing, and dance. My father was a computer programmer, educated as an aeronautical engineer and gifted as a musician and poet. He would play the guitar with pens in his pocket. My mother worked as an accountant and could tap at a mean pace on an adding machine. At home her fingers were more often crocheting elaborate hanging planters, cooking homemade meals, or feeding material through her sewing machine. She was so adept at growing things that she actually made tulips come up in the hard, dry dirt of our backyard. Great with numbers, my mother still writes them with extra beautiful curves.

Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.

Coming from this home of engineers and artists, I always felt they were naturally parts of one whole. It wasn’t until I ventured into the wider world as an adult that I understood the cultural divide that I now feel compelled to challenge in my work as a science communicator and in my education and experience in the arts.

Fortunately many others are attempting to join what C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” Yesterday, I visited the Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose, originally conceived by author and historian Piero Scaruffi and organized by the Thymos Foundation. As described on the LAST Festival website, the event combines and fuses these disciplines “to help reshape the cultural environment of the 21st century towards a multidimensional form of individual and social creativity.”

LAST overview

Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose April 7-8, 2017.

The art exhibit, curated by Joel Slayton, playfully meandered across the art-science divide. Scientific concepts and technology were brought to bear on aesthetic concepts and displays that teased the mind and delighted the senses. Many were interactive pieces that operated on the viewer’s physical presence, movements, or sounds. Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest took images of viewers standing in front of a large screen and turned them into a rich dreamscape digital painting of layered familiar shapes, ceaselessly morphing. The piece uses videogames and machine learning to generate what Boodhoo calls “interactive science fiction” that “turns dreaming into a shared experience.”

Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest

Cere Davis’ Water Organ looked like a Dr. Seuss laboratory experiment: funny tin vessels moved on water via sound waves and magnets. The ambient sound composition coming from these curious components could be silenced by placing a finger on a strip of tin foil just in front of the sculpture. The softly shifting, goldfish colored sculpture with its dreamy sound patterns had a trance-like effect – all the while, I wondered what invisible forces were at work. According to her bio, sculptor, engineer, musician and dancer Davis plays at the boundaries of “engineering, soulful expression, and laboratory experimentation.”

water organ

Water Organ, a kinetic sound sculpture by Cere Davis.

As Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, “Human beings sometimes seem naturally inclined to see life in contrasting pairs.” Science is exact, disciplined, factual, logical, and analytical. Art is open, meandering, and based in emotion. Art is atmospheric; it appeals to our senses. Science is specific; it tells us about reality and enables useful inventions. Yet, even as I write these descriptions in order to place art and science on opposite poles, I see traces of each on the other side of human experience. Science is certainly open to new discoveries, and great artists are precise and rigorously trained. A beautiful equation can give scientists goose bumps, and art has contributed real power to civilizations. Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.

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More than Love on the Horizon hologram at LAST Festival.

 


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Imagining Akhenaten

AkhenatenThe ancient Egyptian sandstone sculpture Akhenaten represents the notorious pharaoh, formerly named Amenhotep IV, who broke with religious tradition by worshiping the sun god Aten over all others. Created during the New Kingdom period between 1353-1335 B.C.E., the artwork belongs to a style named for a city he founded in Central Egypt for the followers of his monotheistic belief—Akhetaten, or Amarna (Davies 72). Amarna style, like Akhenaten’s new religion, was a brief break from a strict and enduring Egyptian tradition. (Akhenaten’s city was destroyed after his death in 1335 B.C.E.) Janson’s History of Art describes Amarna style of portraiture as “emphasizing naturalism in the body” (72). This post will explore the visual elements of Akhenaten using two styles of visual description—formal analysis and ekphrasis —as explained in Margorie Munsterberg’s Writing About Art. Analyzing and interpreting the visual features of Akhenaten will illuminate its distinct character as an artistic tribute to the controversial king and his religion.

Akhenaten measures 13 feet in height from bottom—the sculpture starts just above his knees—to the tip of his crown. Carved from sandstone, the larger-than-life figure possesses a weighty earthiness, a solid, ample presence for all who stand before its imposing form. However, the block-like angularity typical of Egyptian sculptures has been cast off: Akhenaten emphasizes the king’s character in its striking facial features, soft shoulders and slightly rounded belly. The figure is long, stretched high, yet, curiously curvaceous.

The viewer’s eye falls on three central areas of focus: first, the horizontal gash of belly button in the gentle mound of belly above a belted kilt that smoothly spreads out in lines radiating from the center of the hips; second, the crossed wrists at the solar plexus marked by a thick bracelet that separates the kings two fists, fingers balled to the chest; and finally, the bridge of the long, sloping nose and beard piece framing plump and ever-so-slightly upturned lips. An interplay of angles and curves envelope these three focal points. The top of his crown is shaped like a mound of earth. The lobes of his headpiece spread like a drooping fan around his face. The angle of his shoulders falls to narrowed waist, and the soft belly rides an ample curve of hips. Yet, at the center there is a lean look to the king created by a long face, slender arms and chest accentuated with two crossed sticks held in a way that makes them look like exaggerated, protruding clavicle bones. This symmetrically balanced assemblage of shapes composed of tender body parts and simple costume around a strong vertical axis are striking in the duality they suggest: stretched up and weighted down, linear but round, soft yet strong, massive and still tender.

He is Akhenaten, ruler who took Aten’s name as his own and grew his form to contain the all-encompassing powers of the one god who animates and generates life. The sun radiates from his pelvis in thin lines from his kingly womb—life-giving center imbued with mystical forces of the rising day. He carries two whips crossed at his solar plexus, gathering his strength at the heart of his benevolent yet powerful form. He peers through half-moon eyes framed by high brows and gently smiles at his own good fortune: He is being complete. He is man and woman; he is man and god, stretched high and turned golden by Aten’s own rays. The lip of his crown receives the heaven’s blessed light. His soft belly is all earthly desire. His towering form gathers Aten at his back, casting a shadow upon his great city.

The artist of Akhenaten is not identified, but one can imagine his hands were set free from ancient Egyptian artistic conventions and emboldened by his ruler’s passionate break from religious tradition. The result is a sculpture that captures the monotheistic devotion that the king and his followers brought to the city of Akhetaten, “horizon of Aten” (Davies 72). Akhenaten, with its androgynous form, joins all life forces into one and places it literally and symbolically on the horizon of the earth and the spirit.

Works Cited
Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Munsterberg, Margorie. Writing About Art. writingaboutart.org, 2008-2009. Web. 18 Jan. 2015