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Art and Invention

A few weeks ago, my wife picked up a book called The Written Suburb at a Greenwich Village used bookshop about Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and how it was an invented, postmodern place, designed to become a mythological homeland of the American realist movement.

As the area was home to painters like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth, its history was certainly intertwined with that of American art. The Brandywine River Museum has done a fine job selling itself as the First Church of Delaware Valley Realism and enhancing the myth of Brandywine River as a seat of not just Realism but also of the Real.

As a teenager, I had visited the Brandywine River Museum, and when pressed to write a paper for an art class, I chose to write about the work of Maxfield Parrish, the prolific American illustrator whose work is featured there. I was enchanted by his technical method, which employed multilayer transparencies and unusual materials, but my teacher disputed that his stuff was really “art” and undoubtedly had wished I’d chosen to write about Picasso or Millet – somebody “real.”

With the news of the death of Andrew Wyeth, the whole question of whether the Brandywine River school really produced “art” is back in the news again. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York refused to show his “Helga” paintings on the grounds that they were not, or at least weren’t very good.

The Museum of Modern Art keeps Andrew Wyeth’s most famous work Christina’s World (1949) in a back corner, and it’s always fun to watch people discover its presence. They stumble upon it, and are surprised at how it moves them. As an icon, they are completely ready for it to be trite and clichéd, but in person it still seems to catch people up.

Art purists would say that the only valid art is work that’s done for art’s sake alone: without guile, without intention to build an audience, without regard to populism. Arguably, only art that fits this definition can advance what’s been done before it in the same vein: populism and intellectual progress usually don’t mix.

However, another definition of art is any work that conveys emotion, and on this score, the Wyeths and the Brandywine River School perform well enough to merit attention. That 200 million people can name Wyeth as one of their favorite artists shows his communication has been effective, however invented or populist it may be.

The intersection between art, populism, and commerce is an interesting place to poke around. Here are the seams of our culture, where values, money, and progress bang up against each other.

The Brandywine River Museum touts the artistic authenticity of an invented place, and the Wyeths, Pyle, and Parrish are all promoted as invented artists, designed to insure the flow of tourist dollars into Chadds Ford and Kennett Square — beautiful places, to be sure, and if you squint you can convince yourself the place conveys the feelings the art is trying to make you feel — especially at this time of year, when the browns, greys, white and cold look and feel just like a Wyeth landscape.

But in the end, that’s a leap of faith on the part of the viewer. Sometimes art requires the viewer to become complicit in its own invention.

Design and the Elastic Mind: Opening Night

On Tuesday, I attended the press preview and opening night events for Design and the Elastic Mind at the MoMA in NYC. It opens to the public Sunday, February 24th and includes works from designers, scientists, digital artists and thinkers from across a wide range of disciplines; my projects Twittervision and Flickrvision are featured.

I strongly recommend that you check out this exhibition, especially if you’re interested in the intersection between science, design, and art. There are some stunningly beautiful and provocative pieces. While the core ideas behind many of the pieces are technical — computation, informatics, bioscience — good design is required to make the information presentable and understandable to a broader audience. Paola Antonelli, curator for Architecture and Design at the MoMA, has done a remarkable job of assembling these pieces.

Here are some photos from the party Tuesday night.

Large scale, open-source Graffiti Projection System from Graffiti Research Lab. I need to build one of these. The graffiti is “painted” where the green laser hits. Note that the paint drips “up” in this photo. You can do that with digital paint!

This still seems improbable.


Sofia Lagerkvist (right) w/partner from Front Design. Creators of the remarkable “Sketch Furniture”, which can be drawn freehand in 3-space, then rendered in plastic using a laser-based process. Insane. Create your own furniture that looks like it’s straight out of a cartoon!


This is an example of an object created with the Sketch Furniture process.

The Painstation video game; where the punishment for losing is actual pain, inflicted by a table-mounted wristband!

Adam Putter and Janis Mussat. Their project Beerfinder.ca helps beer drinkers in Toronto coordinate beer runs, navigating complex store-closing hours!


No contemporary design exhibit is complete without the OLPC!


Me and Paola Antonelli, MoMA Curator of Design & Architecture.
She curated Design and the Elastic Mind.


My favorite installation in the show, Shadow Monsters by Philip Worthington. Transforms people into amazing sights and sounds. You need to see this.


Me and Ian Spiro of fastfoodmaps.com, a Google maps project that shows the fast-food restaurants in the United States. He wishes he had more time to devote to this. He thinks Arby’s is retreating, but he wants to prove it!


“I Want You to Want Me” is a project by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, of wefeelfine.org fame. This project scrapes data from online dating sites and attempts to make sense of it. It uses a giant touch screen and is visually quite impressive.


A giant, pulsating 15′ tall “tree” made from what appear to be clear-coated fiberoptic strands. Really, really impressive piece of work. It is the “Sonumbra” by Rachel Wingfield and Mathias Gmachl.


Me and Noelle Steber of the Google Moon project. Noelle was responsible for assembling the Apollo data and is a student at MIT.


My wife Jennifer, showing off the digitally projected “Lightweeds” by Simon Heijdens.


My other project, Flickrvision


All in all, a successful evening. Design and the Elastic Mind will run through May 12, 2008! I hope you get a chance to see this exhibit in person!

Upcoming Events for Dave Troy…

Well folks, it’s shaping up to be a busy few weeks!

This week, my projects Twittervision and Flickrvision will be opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in an exhibit called Design and the Elastic Mind. A press preview will be held on Tuesday morning at 10AM, and opening night will be at 6:30 or something that day. It’s pretty exciting; I never suspected my locking myself in a room and coding would lead to this sort of thing! The exhibit is open to the general public Feb 24-May 12, 2008.

UPDATE:
Opening Night Photo Report!

Beyond that, here’s what else is going on:

Jeff Pulver’s Social Media Breakfast in New York – Feb 26 8AM
Jeff’s been sponsoring these events in cities across the country (and around the world) the last few months, and I made it to the most recent one in Washington DC on February 7th. It was a blast; a chance to catch up with some old friends and make many new ones. If you are interested in social media, I suggest you seek out one of these breakfasts near you. Seek out the details for this event on Facebook and RSVP. They fill up fast.

If all goes well, I will also be appearing on Jeff’s show PulverTV as part of my visit to New York that day. Please stay tuned for the details on that.

eComm 2008 – Sunnyvale, CA – March 12-14
I’ll be speaking at eComm 2008 about open source telephony, social media and making wild and crazy things. eComm is the next version of what was O’Reilly Media’s eTel show. While no longer affiliated with O’Reilly, it should be the premier venue for telecommunications innovators and will feature a good representation from the handset, carrier, and open-source worlds. Of all the shows I attended last year, eTel was one of the most valuable, and eComm is carrying the torch forward.

There’s still time to get in on eComm. Please visit the eComm website for more information and to register.

VON.x 2008 Spring – San Jose, CA – March 17-20
This is Jeff Pulver’s big semi-annual US tradeshow about IP Communications. While originally focused on VoIP, it has expanded to cover video and social media. I’ve been attending nearly every VON show since 2003 or so and have found the sense of community and camaraderie to be very valuable. Don’t miss the party. Jeff manages to get some great bands and everybody always has a great time.

This year VON.x will be co-located with Digium Asterisk World, a joint-venture between Pulver Media and Digium. I’ll be speaking at Digium Asterisk World on March 18th. Please visit the VON website for more information and to attend.

Other Jeff Pulver Social Media Breakfasts
I’ll also be attending these other Jeff Pulver social media breakfasts:

  • San Jose, March 17 (as part of VON)
  • Baltimore, March 25 (it’s in my hometown!)
  • Washington, DC, May 1

I’m looking forward to meeting folks at all of these events and hope to have a lot to talk about in the next few weeks. Meantime, please do stop by the MoMA in New York and check out Design and the Elastic Mind.

See you on the road!

MoMA NY Selects Twittervision & Flickrvision

Yesterday, I received final confirmation that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has selected my mash-ups twittervision.com and flickrvision.com for its 2008 exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind.

I’m certainly very flattered to be included and have never considered myself to be an artist. I didn’t seek out MoMA on this. I am just very, very happy to have an opportunity to participate in a small way in the ongoing dialog about what technology means for humanity. Crap. Now I sound like an artist.

Incidentally, this means that twittervision.com and flickrvision.com are the first ever Ruby On Rails apps to be included in a major art exhibition. I already told DHH.

Anyway, at RailsConf Europe a few weeks ago, Dave Thomas’ keynote speech emphasized the role of software designers as artists. He said, “treat your projects as though they are artworks, and sign your name to them.” Or pretty close to it. I think this is incredibly valuable advice for software designers today.

We’re past the days of using machines as amplifiers of our physical efforts. It’s not enough to jam more features into code just so we can eliminate one more position on the assembly line. We’re at a point where the machines can help amplify our imaginations.

Today, creativity and imagination (what some folks are calling the right brain) are becoming the key drivers of software and design. With imagination, we can see around the corners of today’s most pressing challenges. While technical skill is certainly valuable, if it’s applied to the wrong problems, it’s wasted effort.

Creativity, imagination, and artistry help us identify the areas where we should put our efforts. They help us see things in new ways.

Everywhere I turn (perhaps partly because I am a Rubyist), I hear discussions of Domain Specific Languages, and of framing our problems in the right grammars.

This is hugely valuable because the creative part of our brain thinks in terms of semantics, grammars, and symbols. If we can’t get the words right, our imaginations can’t engage.

Everything stays stuck in the left side of our brains when we have to jump through hoops to please some particular language or development environment.

I hope you all will come out to see Design and the Elastic Mind when it opens at NYC MoMA, Feb 24 – May 12 2008. I’m not sure how we’re going to present the sites but we’re going to see if we can get some partners and sponsors involved to do something really beautiful.

And again, thanks to MoMA for the selection. And here’s to creativity, imagination, and artistry as the next big thing in software design!