after "Tim's Vermeer"

If I could put my life on hold for a year, I might write a book on art and technology. The thesis would be that every innovation in visual art can be traced to a technological innovation. I hypothesize that this is true not just for the modern era but for every era, where the technology may be related to paint manufacturing, optics, printing, or photography.

The inventor Tim Jenison has kindly taken care of one of the chapters, as documented in the fascinating Tim’s Vermeerwhich I saw today (it’s in limited release to be Oscar-eligible, coming out in January). His thesis is that the uncanny photographic quality of Vermeer’s paintings (200 years avant la lettre) can only come from a mechanical tool such as a camera obscura. What if Vemeer is not a visual genius of light and color but an inventor? What if this young, mysterious figure recognized the ability of optical technology to document everyday life, much as photographers did much, much later?  I feel strongly that the uncanniness always comes from technology rather than the quirky ability of a single artist. This helps to explain why those drawn to puzzles/formal devices are drawn to Vermeer — from Proust to Greenaway (the fantastic Zed & Two Noughts) to the Blue Balliett YA novel. (I haven’t read or seen  the book/movie Girl with a Pearl Earring). 

I agree that’s it strange that there’s no account of finding, say, a trove of lenses or his atelier outfitted unusually. But his career is odd: his family was supported by his in-laws; his output was very limited; he did not take on pupils (who might have shared his technique). It is not hard to imagine him constructing set-pieces then documenting them with optical-device assistance.
The film reminded me of one of my favorite old pictures, the Arnolfini marriage painting by Jan van Eyck, which also has a strong uncanny quality.
It features a convex mirror in the center, suggesting an optical device was used here, too, but the perspective here is geometrical rather than naturalistic. I tend to think much of the uncanniness is due to the novel use of oil paint (new at this time and capable of more “realistic” light and shade) with the older perspective system. (BTW, as in the Vermeer pictures, the window is on the left — why is the window/light always on the left?)
When we observe the artifacts of one medium/technology crossing over to another (as in the glints of light or outlines of objects in Vermeer — these are lens artifacts carrying over to the paintings) — we sense the uncanny. We perceive this in the machines of Duchamp and Picabia, in the prints of Warhol.  



workplace as city, city as workplace

A month ago I was on a panel at the day-long conference “Building the Digital City.” The scope was broad, but it was mostly about the emergence of NYC’s tech industry and the new information worker landscape. The timing was fortuitous. MESH had recently completed three spaces (Grind and IFP's Made in NY Media Center) featuring “co-working,” a term of art for an office shared by people who don’t work for the same company. Many who work in these offices are freelancers, although there are plenty of micro-companies and startups, too.

These spaces exemplify the new mode for information work (writing, marketing, law, consulting, design, etc). Without a dedicated desk, you bring your laptop to a space that feels right. That space might be at a large communal table, but it may also be in a comfortable armchair or a bustling cafe setting or standing at a high table or sequestered in a meeting room. It’s not far from the university model, the paradigm of the delicate balance of serious work and serious socializing, where you pick your spot according to your goal for the period of time.

This is the workplace as city — it resembles the familiar office form but offers a more varied landscape, opportunities for chance social encounters and different scenarios to foster creativity and energy. it is a kind of work village that Jane Jacobs might have appreciated. These spaces are often set up as tech incubators, which provide flexible accommodations for fledgling companies that might take off or fail at any moment. Conventional wisdom advised keeping startups out of New York, which was too cutthroat and expensive. But these new environments (along with the allure of staggering future valuations, naturally) are making New York an ever-more inviting place to hatch a tech company.

And that’s the converse: the city as workplace. Cities like New York offer an infinitely more social, physically connected environment for business. Silicon Valley’s science lab model of housing companies in isolated bunkers in office parks, inherited from Bell Labs et al., promotes sensory-deprivation focus, often beneficial. At the conference, executives from a few tech companies, most notably Google (who bought a giant building in Chelsea that ironically resembles those suburban bunkers) explained that they embraced the attractions of the city: street life, restaurants, transit. These are more than quality-of-life amenities — they are folded into the concept of the workplace. The example always cited is the Ace Hotel, where a highly social, mannered environment becomes a kind of workplace. 

These changes have resulted of course from technological change both in the work that we are doing and how the work is being done. We need less specialized equipment. A basic laptop — really just a smartphone — can communicate, compute, write, design, control, edit, and research. So less talking on the phone (noisy, tethered), no need for clunky computers or file drawers. And a generation of information workers more interested in the excitement of a dynamic environment than the ownership of an office or cubicle.


Crossing Borders

Last night was the opening reception for Crossing Borders, the show of exquisite medieval manuscripts at the Jewish Museum that MESH designed. The material is fascinating, as it embodies the crossing over of cultural influences among Jews, Muslims, and Christians at a rare time of relative harmony among the European religions. The illumination of Kennicott Bible, an amazingly preserved Hebrew Bible on parchment, shows Islamic influence. 

We were challenged to light the manuscripts at a very low level to prevent damage. They are from the Bodleian Library at Oxford and are rarely displayed at all. I also wanted people to really look at them, to avoid that feeling one gets often at the Met where there are so many objects that they blur together as one walks by.

For our first exhibition design we took 3 distinct risks.

Spatially, I wanted large displays in the center of the room vs. smaller cases around the perimeter. This was both for the scale impact and the social effect of visitors clustered around a large display, not unlike the Apple store(!). The vitrines themselves are steel and walnut, with acrylic "bonnets." Displaying the mss on untreated, milled steel sheet emphasizes the material quality. No fabric, which is industry standard for such cases. The vitrines have scissor steel legs to imply migration/movement, as a folding display case.

I wanted to show other pages of the mss in addition to the opening on display. iPads are perfect for this. The iPad resolution is astonishing -- we have never experienced a display this good. They are slim, self-contained (computer+display) devices. And as the pre-eminent form of the book today, the iPad presents a satisfying way to experience a thousand-year-old book--intimate, tactile. Strangely, "kiosk" readers are a black hole in the app store. There is one serious app that allows for browsing images and preventing users from leaving to check facebook -- Kiosk Pro -- and it is unreliable. We were fortunate that Mark Collins and Jeff Kenoff of Morpholio agreed to make a custom version of their app for us on very short notice. The museum commissioned a full photo capture of the Kennicott Bible, and the entire 922 pages are viewable on 5 iPads in the show.

The lighting: I loved the idea of dynamic lighting for the mss. We have worked a lot with programmable LEDs. I have been intrigued by the new generation of LED-powered media projectors, which are tiny and powerful. For the show I thought, why not use projectors to control the light precisely? This would allow highlighting of specific passages, say, when a visitor touched a spot on the nearby iPad. However, it quickly became clear that this was overreaching--next time. The projectors, one per vitrine, enable us to trim the light precisely to the shapes of the objects and labels. The stark contrast makes the requisite low light levels appear brighter. And the mss assume a glowing aura that draws us in to each one. 



Reinvent Green Hackathon

Last weekend was spent at the Reinvent Green hackathon ( coverage). Hackathons are typically weekend-long charrettes to create web/mobile apps, often around a theme. This one asked us how we can make NYC greener with an app. I love the concept, but I hestitated to jump in. I don't write code of any sort any more, and it seemed lame to show up without coder chops. However, the amazing chief digital officer of NYC, Rachel Sterne, convinced me I should do just that.

Rachel and her team put together an impressive event -- representatives from many of NYC's burgeoning tech co. community, genuinely excellent food, composting, biodegradable tableware. What struck me first was how NYC's tech sector has matured from the clubby Silicon Alley of digital media to a dense ecosystem of startups and mature companies. Most of the businesses who presented, as sponsors, existed to help other companies, rather than as standalone media properties. To me this is further evidence of a maturing culture of internet businesses.

I joined up with two sharp developers, Andrew (@andrewxhill) and Olex (@tholex) to develop Olex's idea. Olex is half my age. The concept: a mobile (web-based) platform to discuss building lots in NYC. Not obviously green, but we reasoned that a first step to making our city more efficient is enabling lot-specific information exchange. The idea (inspired by Candy Chang's initiative in New Orleans, I wish this were) is that if you come upon an underused building site, a derelict structure, a neglected lot, you take a picture and post a comment or question. We used twitter to record the comments (my twitter stream echoes on facebook, so my facebook friends probably wondered what all those weird (test) postings were about). If sites start to get a lot of chatter, perhaps building owners, city planners, or neighbors will take notice, and the forces of improvement will coalesce. We called it Reinvent Lots. You can find our rough version here.

I have always loved open discussion systems like this. The challenge is always sparseness -- the field is so huge (in this case every building lot in the city) that comments are too dispersed to reach critical mass. But this kind of system would be useful. I often follow discussions about particular building sites on Curbed. How great would it be to have one place to track all articles and posts about sites, indexed with a map?

It seemed to be going quickly, but with a couple of hours left, Olex and Andrew hit some technical snags, and we were not quite ready when presentation time came. The primary lesson I learned at my first hackathon is to make a PPT illustrating the idea, and keep the app simple, although for me the thrill is actually building something in such a short amount of time. 



Reflections on pipe lights

I made my first light of plumbing pipe for my wife, Betsey, 21 years ago. I had just moved into Tribeca, adjacent to Chinatown, and I discovered a small plumbing supply shop off Broome Street. Making objects from pipe was a quick, modular way to make structures — like Lego, except the structures were solid, strong, and maybe even beautiful. While I experimented with several object types (I made my own bed, a couple of tables), I liked the lights best. Running power through plumbing pipe stirred tension between electricity and water -- how shocking that the threading of electrical and plumbing piping are compatible! And bringing the infrastructure, usually concealed in walls, out, where it mimics the forms of the decorative arts carried a kind of industrial-emotional weight.


These days more people than usual seem intrigued by machinery imbued with emotion. There is wide interest in "steampunk," a sensibility based on Victorian-era technology (familiar to us in the films of Jeunet & Caro). Steampunk is nostalgia for a time when technology was innocent, the passionate work of mad scientists and crackpot inventors. We are saying good-bye to the Victorian technology of the incandescent light bulb, but we are having a last fling. Two years ago MESH opened an Etsy store to bring pipe lights to a wider audience. The lights have been unexpectedly popular. We have shipped them to homes, offices, and bars & restaurants.