Posts Tagged ‘comm lab’

Animating comics – The Red Star

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

For my final project in Comm Lab I ended up doing a piece of animation using a body of artwork that I’ve wanted to work with for quite a while: The Red Star. The Red Star is a graphic novel by Christian Gossett and its art has a great sense of scale to it.

I’m so taken with the art and story of the original that I didn’t really want to do something narratively transformative with it, which left me with attempting to animate what was already there. This project ended up being an extremely educational one on two fronts:

1) This was the first and only project for Comm Lab which I undertook solo. I found that working in groups teaches significantly different things than working alone does. This is probably because we were working in new groups with new people pretty much every week, so a large part of each project was developing functional group dynamics. This meant that I spent more time doing the creative work at an intuitive level while spending my conscious mental energy on group management. This was fun and useful, but it made for a very different experience from doing solo work. I found myself much more focused on composition, structure, and style while working alone. Part of this may also be attributable to the fact that I was working on something I cared about pretty deeply, but I’m not sure if that was a significant factor or not.

2) The second thing I learned, other than the interesting (to me) revelation about what I learned when, was that taking comic images and animating them is extremely difficult when one tries to maintain the “look and feel” of the original work. The problem is that since comics are sequential in a way that guides the mind to fill in gaps of movement, making the art move is somewhat jarring. Most comic art illustrates only end positions, allowing the mind to fill in the simple transitions. The problem with this is that without art of those transitions, it is hard to animate things. End positions moving around don’t tend to work very well.

The sequences I was happiest with were, by and large, scenes with little movement. The ones that made me happiest were the opening sequence, with a single animated part that is overwhelmed by the static art, and the long shot of the cemetery in which the movement was accomplished with cross-fades that made it seem much more comic book-y.

The problem is that this sort of scene is often hard to handle with comic book sources since the art is often dominated by the parts that should move. Many close-ups on faces and such. I feel like The Red Star might be a near-ideal source of material for this kind of thing because it has so many epic-scoped images.

Without further ado:

Overall it was a fun project, and I suspect I may continue working on it. I feel like I learned a lot about animating comic art, and I’d like to keep at it for a bit.


Animation project: Poor Andy

Friday, December 5th, 2008

As has been consistently the case in this class, it was working with Si on the animation project that was most interesting.  Of course the project itself was fun, especially since I haven’t worked with animation before, so this was the most technically informative project I’ve  worked on.

Si and I agreed to work together after class when the assignment was given, but didn’t really know what we wanted to do.  I had the idea of possibly using some hi-res scans of some comic books I have, but Si had a much better idea.  It started off vague: she had done some animaion before using Andy Warhol.  Nothing major, but enough to have a few prepared assetts.  With that as a starting point we realized it’d be fun to have Andy interact, in some way, with some of his works.

Our original storyboard involved him directly talking to his paintings, but we realized this would be extremely limiting because in the case of Jacky and Marilyn they were headshots only.  That limited the sorts of scenes we could do, so we tweaked things.

This involved more assett acquisition and preparation, but I feel that it was worth it.

While there were elements of the project that could definitely use improvement, overall I’m very pleased with how things turned out.



Working in groups is a lot of work

Monday, November 17th, 2008

I talked about this a bit when I discussed the Audio Mashup project, but the craziest part of doing our short film has been the people.

I honestly can’t say where most of the ideas came from other than “the group”. Other people may have better memories, but all I know is that we were sitting around and the ideas bubbled up from somewhere. And they’ve all been awesome and exciting, even the ones we had to set aside or not do because they didn’t cohere with what we had, or were too ambitious for the time available. So it’s been super-awesome.

Of course it hasn’t been all fun and games. There’s been some tension, especially during filming. This is, I suspect, inevitable in any group doing anything, and I’m definitely not complaining. As much as the experience has been learning about producing film, the entire project has been one long lesson in compromise and work-distribution. There were so many times when I felt that a job could be accomplished with slightly less polish and still suit our purposes and the others didn’t. And we were all cranky and tired and just wanted to be done. But we managed to work things out every time, and that has been at least as important as our actual ability to make a short, film-like thing.

One of the higher stress things for me, and maybe for the others too, has been the fact that I’ve been out of town for most of the post-production week. I’d been planning a trip to Boston for this week for months, but that hasn’t really made me feel any better about being unavailable. Maybe the others haven’t had a problem with it, but I know that I’ve been stressed about flaking out.

In summary, it’s been a great experience. Not ony has the project been fun in its own right, but all the interaction and group negotiation has been immensely valuable.


Learning by doing – over and over and over

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

When it came time to pick groups for a three-week film project, I immediately asked Sara if she’d be interested in working together since I’ve wanted to do a project with her for a while. She quickly tapped Nobu and Fillipo to join us, so we ended up with a group of four, which turned out to be rather fortuitous. We agreed to meet on the following Thursday to kick around ideas and do some storyboarding.

When Thursday rolled around we got to talking. As is often the case with good collaboration, it’s not easy to reconstruct the discussion in terms of who suggested what when. I know we got to talking about recontextualization. At first it was with an idea toward filming the same scene twice in different contexts in a way that would make the actions, while identical, very different in meaning. We played with this idea for a bit, discussing layout and order. Would we do things sequentially, or would we rather split the screen and run the two scenes in parallel.

The talk of parallel viewing got us thinking, and somehow we started talking about doing something a bit different. Instead of playing with context for narrative purposes, we’d try something more technically experimental. What we settled on was filming each of us going through the same simple scene, and then intercutting those takes to create a sort of collage. Then, at a unifying moment, we would slide the screen into quadrants and have all four of us doing the same thing at the same time in parallel.

We refined this idea a bit, but decided that it was, indeed, what we wanted to do. This resulted in some very interesting story-boarding as we tried to figure out the best way to represent quad-screen layouts.

The story boarding process went pretty well for us. We ran through the scene we wanted to record and named each shot. Then, with our list of named shots in front of us, we started doing the story boards. This helped quite a bit by providing context for where we were gong as we set up any given shot.

With the story boards done, we realized that our project was pretty ambitious in that we wanted to flim in four separate locations. If we were going to make that happen, then we definitely needed to get started early. Thus we agreed to meet on Monday, the day before we officially got our filming assignment, and get one of our locations taken care of. Which we did.

I feel that, in many ways, this particular projct is going to be an exceptionally good learning experience. By filming four separate times, we each have the opportunity to do the various tasks involved. That gives us a wider range of experience than we might have had otherwise.

Additionally, four separate locations means four entirely different instances of filming. Considerng how many mistakes we made at our first location, mistakes we want to correct, four different attempts should mean we have more chances to learn and iterate our skills.

Overall I’m pretty excited to see what happens when we meet again on Thursday.


Audio Mashup – Closing Doors

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

By far the most interesting part of the audio assignment was working with Brian.  I’d done work with audio in the past.  Nothing quite like this, but some similar stuff.  Most of my audio exprience has been in cleaning and trimming recorded lectures for distribution, so while I was familiar with layering tracks, I hadn’t done much of it.

Still, from a technical standpoint this wasn’t all that new, which brings me back to working with Brian.  I think that Brian is the person I’ve partnered with in comm lab who thinks least like I do.  Far from being a bad thing, this ended up pushing my creative boundaries a bit in ways I hadn’t expected.

I’ve long recongized that my thinking is highly analytical.  I tend to be focused on breaking things down into chunks and figuring out how those chunks interact.  Brian is a much more intuitive thinker, I suspect.

Before we had agreed to work together I had gone ahead and grabbed a series of audio samples from my morning routine.  I didn’t know if we’d use them, but I thought it woulld be useful to have.  I had originally envisioned a sort of linearly-sequential audio montage of my morning as a sort of narrative piece.  But when Brian and I sat down, it quickly became clear that while he liked the audio samples, he had other ideas.

Brian wanted something more poetic, and I found it extremely educational to sort of sit back and let him take over creative direction.  The first thing he suggested was taking the audio out of its context and using it to construct something like an instrumental piece.  This actually seemed like an awesome idea, and not one I would have had on my own, so I was pretty enthusiastic.  However, my vision of our hypothetical instrumental piece and Brian’s vision didn’t really match up.

Again my analytical side kicked in and I was thinking about controlled rhythms and percussion loops, just using the sounds of my morning (a project I still think could be a lot of fun).  Brian was envisioning something less traditional.  Or, at the least, less within my traditions.  Again, curious to see where this led us, I waved for him to take the lead.

The piece we ended up with was definitely the sort of thing I would have produced on my own.  It’s cacophonous and dominated by a verbal track, neither of which are things I would have been drawn to alone.  Yet it’s also a very interesting piece.  Perhaps, in part, because it’s not what I would have done.  There was alot more “that sounds right” and “that feels right” in our execution as a team, and a lot less of the “that looks right” that I would have been guided by watching the waveforms on my own.

In a lot of ways this is what I came to ITP for: to collaborate with people who would stretch me.  And while I doubt that, even after this project, I’d do things Brian’s way on my own in the future, I enjoyed working with him quite a bit.  And without further ado, here’s the ever-so-exciting piece we did.

Closing Doors


McLuhan, hot and cold, and context

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

It’s been a while since I did anything with McLuhan. He wasn’t really part of any of my previous academic traditions so I haven’t pored over him as I have with other people. (Though, perhaps ironically, I found myself defending his prescience the other day.)

Still, I find that McLuhan is one of those people who challenges me in different ways each time I approach him. In general I feel as if he’s, at the macro level, confused. For instance, I think he correctly identified the importance of “electric speed”, but ened up improperly understanding why it is important. That most certainly does not render his observations any less useful.

This read-through I found myself, unsurprisingly for those familiar with the thinking I’ve been doing about fiction over the past couple of years, struggling with McLuhan’s differentiation between “hot” and “cold” media.

For some time I have felt that McLuhan’s classification of one medium as hot and another as cold to be massively and problematically arbitrary. This led me to dismiss the entire classification system as utterly useless. On my most recent reading I decided that his classification was indeed arbitrary, but that the categories themselves are potentially very useful. As with many things in McLuhan’s work, it’s hard to know precisely what he means by “hot” and “cold”, and I tend to find myself going through five different interpretations in as many minutes. However, I find that most (if not all) of the ways I look at it circle around a single theme. The fact that I’ve been interpreting a lot of things as circling around this theme may mean that I’m reading into things, but I’m okay with that.

It all comes down to context for me. I take it that “hot” media are those which contain more context within the media itself. Movies are, to a strong degree, self-contained. You come to a film with no exterior context and the film provides everything you need to understand it. (This is not entirely true since clearly there are cultural and genre assumptions at work, but it is relatively true.) “Cold” media, on the other hand, is full of gaps. Gaps that the reader/viewer has to fill in in order to get the message encoded within the media. This is the realm of conversation and commentary. In order to understand such things you must come to them with far more context than is required for a “hotter” medium such as film.

If this reading of “hot” and “cold” is close to what McLuhan intended, then it suggests that his classification of various media as one or the other must be arbitrary. Because there is nothing inherent in the technological form of film that necessitates that it provide its own context, and there is nothng inherent in the technological form of television necessitating that it leave gaps. In fact, it seems that television has shifted to be “hotter” than not. I suspect that there are technical aspects of various media that make them better suited to hotness or coldness, but nothing that constrains their use in the opposite mode.

McLuhan properly identifies hotness and coldness as a continuum rather than a dichotemy, but he fails to recognize that any piece of media’s position on that continuum is flexible.


Stop-motion is hard work

Monday, October 6th, 2008

Zach and I ended up working together on our stop-motion project. We tossed some ideas back and forth, and at first we were thinking about doing something involving time-travel by using onion skinning in the actual video file.

After some more discussion we decided to do something different. Zach had done some stop-motion work for fun a while back, and he had used aluminum foil for his characters. This seemed like a pretty cool idea so we sat down and did that. I’m rather pleased with the results:

A couple of things that were interesting here:

1. Stop-motion is incredibly time-consuming. We shot just under 500 frames, and it took us just over three hours to do. It probably would have been slightly faster with a better pre-production setup, but most of that time was taken up by actual posing work so I doubt it would have been much faster.

2. Since neither of us had Macs, I used a piece of open-source software called StopMojo. It’s nothing fancy, just a simple Java-based image capture program that tracks frames and allows for simple onion-skinning. The frames are stored as JPG images. For post-production we simply copied that folder of JPGs and imported them into iStopMotion in order to duplicate frames as needed, and delete or move things show out of order.

3. We had assumed at first that we would be using 15 frames per second, but once we took a look at that, it felt too fast, too smooth. We ended up dialing things back to 12 frames per second which felt a lot closer to what we were going for.

4. I was shocked by the size of the final video file. The 500 frames we ended up using constituted about 4MB of space on the disk. The just over 40 second .mov file we ended up with was over 600MB. With no audio track. I have to assume that it got saved as an uncompressed MPG2 format file or something because I’ve never seen 40 seconds take up that much space before.


Comics and closure

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

This is a somewhat belated update, but I felt it needed to be documented.

For this past week our comm lab assignment was to read Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comic and use that reading as the basis for a 4 to 10 panel comic strip.

This was a paired assignment, and I ended up with the excellent Catherine White as a partner. Having read McCloud before, and having reread the book before our first meeting, I had some things to suggest. Once again demonstrating that I am not an artist, my idea was to play with closure. Closure is the way that the mind fills in the parts of the narrative not shown. When the murderer raises his knife and stabs it down and the scene cuts, you mind provides closure, filling in at least a general idea of what happened. In comics closure is a big deal because it happens between almost every set of panels. The mind must fill in what happens between one image and the next.

Given the specific way I tend to be interested in narratives, playing with expectations like this was a no-brainer. My specific idea, which interested Catherine, was to start with a simple two-panel comic which suggested a simple, uninteresting transition. We went with an uneaten bagel in frame one and the same bagel with two bites taken out of it in frame two. Hopefully the audience would fill in the mundane eating of the bagel for us.

Then, once the audience has this story in mind, we reveal the true sequence of events. Clicking on the strip reveals a longer, 7 panel, strip wit the same first and last panel. However, the expanded comic reveals a much less sequence of events that lead to those two bites being taken.

There were some mistakes in execution, of course, but I was rather pleased with things overall.

Of course I’m not an artist, or to whatever degree I m, my medium is analytical writing, so I feel like I’ve conveyed my point at least as well in ths explanation as I did in the comic, but it was still an interesting and satisfying project.

For those interested, the strip is here. Click on it to transition between the two versions.


Mechanical reproduction, another thought-provoking reading

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

So for Comm Lab we’ve had a number of interesting readings. This week was Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Actually, I’d read this one before, but it was quite a while ago. In fact it was waaaay back in one of my earliest philosophy classes: Dr. James Shelley’s “Meta-aesthetics”.

It’s interesting to come back to it so many years, and a sociology B.A., later. After all, the piece is incredibly Marxist, and the analytic school of philosophy isn’t all that Marxist. But all that sociology reading gave me a much better grasp of Marxist ideas and direction than I had before. I actually found this reading more thought-provoking as a result.

Benjamin actually has a lot of ideas packed into this tiny little essay, and he expresses them in a very Continental way. It’s very strongly about politics, and the ideas themselves are argued in historical rather than analytic terms. There are many references to French thinkers too, and that’s generally a good tip-off. Of course with it being such a Continentally-styled piece of writing it’s hard for me to judge whether Benjamin actually misses the key to all of his discussion, or if he just says it in a way that I don’t parse well. I suspect the former. (As with Ong, I’m being uncharitable and assuming a mistake in thinking rather than one in communication.)

While Benjamin presents his argument as being about mechanical reproduction generally, I suspect that he’s really concerned with a very specific set of mechanical reproduction: film, and perhaps, recorded music. Sure, he pays lip service to the changes introduced by other forms of reproduction, and these shouldn’t be taken lightly for they are certainly significant, but most of his arguments don’t seem to be about those in general, but about film in particular.

He talks a bit about aura (a poorly chosen piece of specialty jargon), and that’s certainly a general concern for all mechanical reproduction, but it seems that the real thrust of his argument is about the nature of viewing. What he seems to want to call the shift to “political” viewing of art. (I’ll talk a bit more about aura later.)

The problem with all of this is that he seems to attribute both more and less than he should to film. He hails it as the first medium of its kind, and justifies this by pointing to its wide audience intention and sort of requirement of a passive, rather than engaged, audience.

I actually don’t feel like I have the time or energy to do a deep analysis of all thism, so I’m going to break it down to a couple of quick points.

1. Film audiences operate at two scales: everyone watching a specific screen (and thus able to directly interact with one another) and everyone watching the film on any screen (no matter how separated).

2. The key to film’s differences is, as Benjamin brushed across, the way that it mediates time for the audience. This makes it like music more than like any form of static art.

3. The other key actually is mechanical reproduction. It is because film must be a mediated experience, it can not interact with or adjust to its audiences, that makes it so different.

4. Combining 2 and 3 actually does give us a new art form of sorts in that prior to film, mediated art was static. (There might be a very interesting exception here in recorded music.)

5. Benjamin’s thoughts about architecture are brilliant. The suggestion that its an art-form properly appreciated “tactiley” (I’d say kinesthetically) is extremely good and opens up a number of new questions.

6. He does a terrible job of justifying his ideas about art becoming “political”. In fact I feel like he has too much unexamined Marxism in his thinking in general.

That’s it for now.


Social interaction online

Monday, September 15th, 2008

For comm lab this week we were given three articles to read. The articles in question were “The Trolls Among Us” and “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” from the New York Times Magazine and “CIA, FBI push ‘Facebook for spies’” from

All three articles deal with the intersection of real social life and the internet. I don’t really have much of a reaction to the articles. They were interesting, to some degree, but as someone who spends far too much time reading and thinking about social-technological interaction there wasn’t really anything new there for me.

The trolling article was really more of a human interest piece on Jason Fortuny than a real attempt to understand trolling. In fact, both of the articles from the New York Times Magazine had the same conversational tone to them. They were fine for explaining things for people who had no background, but there was no real academic rigor or serious theoretical thought.

Also, one of the articles capitalized danah boyd’s name, which is one of those things that always bothers me.

Basically the articles were ddecent overviews, but for people with serious interest in the subjects they dealt wth, there just wasn’t much there.


Since I didn’t migrate, a documentation of my upgrade

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Since I’ve had a WordPress blog for quite some time, and since I actually ended up writing both of my previous responses into my WordPress blog here and then using a nice copy+paste to get the content into HTML, there wasn’t a process to document for this week’s assignment. However, simply saying so seemed as if it would be something of a cop-out, and besides, there was some documentation I could do anyway!

See, due to the roadtrip I took this summer, the blog went un-administrated and un-updated for about four months. This meant that I fell behind a number of WordPress versions, and it was time to get that fixed. Since I didn’t have to install WordPress itself, I figured I’d run the upgrade process and document that.

At some point everyone using WordPress (and not using the “shut up and don’t tell me about updates” plugin) will notice at the top of their management page a notice that they’re out of date and that they should update. When it comes to WordPress it is extremely important that you do this in a timely manner because, unfortunately, WordPress is one of the most poorly secured widely used software packages on the net. There’s so much PHP, and there is absolutely no plugin vetting process. These two things combine to create any number of security loopholes that can be used by Bad People to hack your site. So when WordPress asks to be updated, it’s worth listening.

The process is pretty painless. In fact, it’s very similar to doing a WordPress installation. You download the latest version of the software package. You edit your config.php file (more on this later). You upload everything to the target directory. Then, instead of going to …/wp-admin/install.php you simply go to …/wp-admin/upgrade.php

Finally, you go have yourself a milkshake. (This is an important step, and not to be ignored.)

The main reason you can download the entire software package again and not worry about overwriting the existing files is that WordPress keeps everything you actually care about in the MySQL database that it connects to. All those files you upload to the internet when installing WordPress are just interface: they tell the system how to read and display information in the database and how to put new information there. Once you understand this, then the re-uploading the WordPress files thing makes sense.

What might not make sense is re-creating a config.php file. You did that once already, right? That’s how you made the site work the first time. Your database is the same, so is your username and password. Why can’t you just use that file? The answer is that the people developing WordPress keep changing what’s in that file. For instance, I was upgrading from a pre-2.5 version of the package so my original config.php file didn’t have any of the pass-phrase stuff entered in. WordPress will throw some funky errors if you try to upgrade without first fixing your config file. More interesting, to me at least, than the addition of new options in the config file, is the removal of old options. While I had to add three lines of config to upgrade, I had to removed two old ones. Apparently the WordPress team has someone making sure that they don’t just keep adding stuff, and in my book that’s entirely a good thing.

I went to the upgrade page, clicked a button, and WordPress conveniently checked all my files and then reformatted my database to the new information schema. This is important because many features the system adds requires information to be organized in a different way. Back in version *mumble*, where they introduced tags and categories to the software, the entire organizational structure had to be rebuilt from the ground up because the original design just couldn’t handle the things.

Anyway, all went well, my blog is updated and running smoothly (though I did have to re-install one of my plugins). Now I’m off to get a milkshake.


Orality and Literacy Chapters 1-4

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Orality and Literacy is a 1988 book by Walter J. Ong. It is a discussion of the differences in thought patterns in “primary oral” cultures (those cultures without writing, or which have not yet internalized writing) and literate cultures. The first four chapters introduce the basic subject of study and focus on two things: 1) The ways that lack of literacy impact human thought processes, and 2) The way that the development of writing technology change the human thought processes.

Ong supports neither orality or literacy as superior to the other, but he does note that many valuable developments in human society are simply not possible without the development of literacy. The core issues at work behind the shifts in thinking from orality to literacy (and vice versa) are memory and abstraction.

Early in the book Ong makes quite a big deal about the orality of non-literate language itself being important and necessary to the issues he is discussing. I feel that this is a mistake, though it actually has little bearing on the rest of his thinking. Ong seems to feel that the absolute impermanence and invisibility of spoken speech is a big part of what influences its development. He may well be right, but I do think it is unnecessary to put so much weight on the spoken word when it might have been the case that we all ended up communicating with sign language, or via smell. The dominance of spoken language is not really a historical accident, but is certainly attributable to the specific situations of early humanity: the need for long distance, large audience communication. Sound is just better at that than most media.

As I mentioned, this erroneous focus on aural transmission does nothing to dull Ong’s real point which is that oral conversation is impermanent. Oral records exist literally only in memory. It is impossible to go back and examine a conversation even as it is in progress. (This contrasts fascinatingly with things like email or IM conversations where the entire record of discussion is available verbatim at all times.)

According to Ong, and I certainly think he is correct, the need to remember everything forces an entire set of thought organization and speech patterns on primary oral cultures. Everything worth knowing must be easy to remember because otherwise not enough people will remember it for it to continue being useful to society. This means that things worth knowing must be set into formulaic phrases in order to allow them to better fix themselves in memory. What’s more, these phrases must be repeated constantly in order to reinforce that memory. Primary oral speech patterns are thus full of formulaic phrasings which are oft-repeated.

In addition to forcing this sort of highly mnemonic structure on language, primary oral situations also generate a sort of low-abstraction thought pattern. Since oral language is impermanent it is used only in immediate situations. When I talk about something (Ong uses the example of a tree) in an oral situation I mean a specific tree. Or, perhaps, I mean a tree in a specific location (as in “we should plant a tree here”). Even when recounting events that have occurred in the past I convey the situation in which they occurred: “We were out in the backyard and I was saying we should plant a tree there”. With such a direct level of connection between spoken utterance and direct experience high level abstraction doesn’t occur.

Ong’s book comes at a fascinating time historically. He makes clear distinctions between chirographic (cultures with hand-writing) and typographic (cultures with printing presses) cultures. Though literacy obtains in each, the impact of literacy on thought changes as writing technology does. Writing in the mid and late 80s, Ong missed the explosion of the next big writing technology: the internet.

The reason the internet pertains here is that, while Ong doesn’t seem to make a big deal of this, perhaps because he does not fully recognize it, the entire orality/literacy duality turns on one class of technology: memory aids. Writing is the first, easiest, and perhaps most flexible memory aid ever produced. Chirographic cultures are able to use it primarily for aiding personal memory: writing thoughts as they occur. But production is too slow and expensive to generally externalize one person’s or group’s memory to the culture at large. The printing press adds to the advantages of chirography the ability to mass-produce certain works and thus make them generally available. This allows certain thoughts to become generally stored in the cultural external memory.

The internet, and computer technology in general, allows for even more off-loading to external memory. And, perhaps more importantly, allows one to carry and/or access an entire library near-instantaneously. In a purely typographic culture one might know that one has access to an idea or thought, but must find the book which contains it and then find that thought. We are rapidly moving to a point where anyone can instantly search their library (or Wikipedia for that matter) for just the thought they are looking for. This large-scale near-instant access of printed material is beginning to produce yet another shift in thought processes.

The key observation Ong has is that as memory becomes less and less important humans are able to devote less and less of their linguistic and mental structures to it. This allows language and thought to shift in other directions, focusing on solving other problems. It’s a shift that I suspect we’re about to undergo again.


Reaction to the NYC Waterfalls

Friday, September 5th, 2008

For those who aren’t familiar, and I suspect that’s true of many people, the NYC Waterfalls are a public art project. The basic construction is a scaffolding system with a set of pumps placed near the East River. Water is pumped up to the top of the scaffolding and allowed to fall. The effect is, in some ways, quite waterfall-like, hence the name.

The first time I saw the waterfalls was while my dad was in town at the beginning of August. We had hopped the Q-train, I think on the way back from Central Park or something. The train goes across the Manhattan Bridge, and it has an excellent view of the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the waterfalls (there are four) is erected beneath the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side. He asked what it was, and I wasn’t sure. That particular waterfall, due to its placement, looks almost like part of an industrial process. It’s hard to see it as free-standing as opposed to some auxiliary structure attached to the bridge.

I didn’t think anything more of it until we got to our first meeting of Comm Lab here at ITP where one of the week one assignments is to visit the waterfalls and write a reaction. Upon realizing that this was an art project, my initial reaction was relatively negative. A sort of “you’re spending public money on what now?” thing.

Having hopped on the IKEA ferry which goes by three of the four waterfalls, and viewing them myself, I was less than impressed. They’re sort of cool, yeah, but nothing spectacular. They don’t evoke the same sense of wonder that real waterfalls do. I suspect that this is due to the lack of waterfall context. Part of what makes waterfalls so awe-inspiring is the sharp cut in the landscape that accompanies them. The sense of insane natural power involved in carving rock and all that water rushing down. When it’s man-made some of that impact is somehow gone.

That said, I can’t actually be unhappy about the waterfalls for one simple reason: while we were waiting in line for the ferry I watched this family a couple of places in front of us. One of their children was a boy who looked to be maybe seven or eight. (Sadly I’m really bad with ages of this sort, which is deeply ironic considering how much time I spent working with kids in the age bracket.)

Anyway, there was this kid, and he was so excited by the prospect of getting on the ferry. He wanted to see the waterfall! He wanted to go to the waterfall! He wanted to play at the waterfall! (I suspect that playing at the waterfalls is not actually permitted, but he didn’t care about that.) So while I, with my world traveling and my viewing of massive natural waterfalls may find the constructed forms lacking and almost a mockery, there is value in them nonetheless.

That value is for the city of New York. I suspect that it’s something I’m going to have a hard time maintaining a proper view of. ITP is an international community, it is peopled by the well-traveled and in many cases by the travel-obsessed (like myself), but New York City itself is like any other place: a huge percentage of the population never leaves. There are kids, probably thousands of them, who will never come closer to a waterfall than this in their entire lives.

While the New York waterfalls may be sad ghosts of the real phenomena they try to emulate, there is power and suggestion in them anyway. A kid seeing them, and applying sufficient imagination, may grasp some of the wonder that comes from such structure. Perhaps they will not experience the same thing that (say) Niagara can instill, but then again maybe they will.