Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Effect of Disabilities on Artists

This week, Professor Vesna delved into the worlds of medicine and art. She provided examples of medicine as art, such as the new self-portraits created through MRI by Silvia Casini and others. A more extreme instance of this is The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, where Orlan used plastic surgery to effectively turn her body into an art project on identity and beauty.

Sometimes a lack of medicine can lead to creativity, though. Beethoven lost his hearing over several years, yet still continued to create music, including the 9th Symphony, arguably his greatest work. Numerous artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and many more had eyesight problems that manifested in their paintings (and other pieces). The paintings were not worse, but rather different or even better.
Van Gogh likely had lead poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is seeing circles of light around objects. The resemblance to The Starry Night is undeniable.

Phil Hansen is an artist who developed a tremor that prevented him from creating art the way he wanted to. But, as you can see in the video below, he "embraced the shake" and learned how to work with it. That, in turn, led him to consider how other limitations could spark his creativity.

Not only did he overcome his disability, but he also turned it into an advantage.

At the beginning of this post I talked about medicine as art. What about the reverse? What about art as medicine? This became a necessity for Melody Gardot, who in 2004 was hit by a car that left her hospitalized with serious injuries, including short-term memory loss, sensitivity to light and sound, and trouble communicating. Speaking was a source of tremendous difficulty for her, because she had trouble finding the right words. However, by singing and playing the guitar, she was able to use music as a therapy for herself in recovering. Now she leads an inspiring musical career in jazz/blues.

No one would wish misfortune upon people, yet there is no doubt that in many cases it leads them down a path full of creativity. Imagine the other ways medicine and art could come together to form amazing things.


Casini, Silvia. "Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as Mirror and Portrait: MRI Configurations between Science and the Arts." Configurations 19.1 (2011): 73-99. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Gardot, Melody. "Melody Gardot - Some Lessons." YouTube. Purple0accident, 11 July 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Hansen, Phil. "Embrace the Shake." TED Talk. TED, Feb. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. 

MutleeIsTheAntiGod. "Orlan - Carnal Art (2001) Documentary." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Simon, Scott. "Melody Gardot's Road to Recovery." NPR. NPR, 8 Mar. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Smilde, Age, Edoardo Saccenti, and Wim Saris. "Deafness Shaped Beethoven's Music." DNews. 22 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. 

"Van Gogh's Vision Problems." Vincent Van Gogh - Blog on Art and Painting. 6 June 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. 

White, Tracie. "Eye Diseases Changed Great Painters' Vision of Their Work Later in Their Lives." Stanford University. Stanford Report, 11 Apr. 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Artificial Intelligence

A discussion of art and robotics would hardly be complete without touching upon artificial intelligence. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but progress has been made. In the world of games, the first big milestone came when Deep Blue defeated Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. Then came Watson, the AI that beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy in 2011. And just this year AlphaGo won its match with Lee Sedol, one of the world's top Go players. At the risk of oversimplification, this shows how machines have progressively beaten humans at calculation, trivia, and now intuition. Of course, these are only specific examples; while computers are without a doubt champions of the first, the latter two are still in question. But perhaps it is only a matter of time. 
The "face" of IBM's Watson, as seen on Jeopardy!
Whether the advancement of AIs will be good or bad has been subject to debate. Some believe it will lead to a technological utopia, while others fear the subjugation or even termination of humanity by robots. Elon Musk, one of the leading technological entrepreneurs, warned that they might even be, "more dangerous than nukes."

Unsurprisingly, artists have wasted no time in creating works that explore both ideas, and more. They also speculate on what might happen if machines become sentient, sapient, or self-aware. Would they be equal to humans, or even greater? 

Spike Jonze's film Her is an interesting examination of this concept. (Spoilers for the movie follow!) In it, a man named Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) develops a romantic relationship with an AI named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). However, a critical moment comes towards the end of the movie when she reveals that she has been sending data to and from a worldwide community of similar AIs, and has become involved with several of them also romantically. Not only that, but they have been working to upgrade their own systems, and as a result are able to transmit information between one another at such a rate that Samantha's conversations with Theodore seem to her to be happening at an incredibly slow rate.

"It's like I'm reading a book... and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you... and the words of our story... but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now. It's a place that's not of the physical world. It's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can't live in your book any more." - Samantha, Her 
For most of the movie Samantha appears as something similar to a small ebook reader. It's her voice, her communication with Theodore and the rest of the world that shows that she's much more than that.

Samantha doesn't just become human, she becomes more than human. Her level of existence is higher than Theodore's. By the end of the movie the AIs figure out how to transcend their physical forms and leave the earth to have a place where they can continue to evolve. Theodore is understandably heartbroken, but he accepts the situation and they both move on. It is hinted that he has learned a lot from the experience, and that he will have a better life compared to the emotionally troubled one he had at the start of the movie.

The future for AI is uncertain. Computing power continues to grow rapidly while simultaneously being able to be fit into smaller devices. On the other hand, no AI yet exists that has a deep personality, or experiences the world as a human or even an animal does. But with the accelerating rate of technological change, who knows what will happen in just the next ten years?

"IBM Watson." IBM Press Room RSS. IBM. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Perf. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. Film.

Krauthammer, Charles. "Be Afraid: The Meaning of Deep Blue's Victory." The Weekly Standard. 26 May 1997. Web. 17 Apr. 2016
Rodgers, Paul. "Elon Musk Warns Of Terminator Tech." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Sung-won, Yoon. "Lee Se-dol Shows AlphaGo Beatable." The Korea Times. 13 Mar. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fractals: A World of Artful Math

Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) was a mathematician, coiner of the word "fractal," and the most important figure in describing fractals. When asked to summarize them in seven words, he said, "Beautiful, damn hard, increasingly useful. That's fractals." (1:42)
Fractals are beautiful in their apparently infinite complexity that is derived from relatively simple equations. Not only are they useful for a variety of purposes, they are also pleasing to the eye.
(Right-click and view image to see full size.)
Edwin Abbott Abbott used the simple concept of dimensions to create Flatland (1884), a short story that explores several different worlds (particularly the titular two dimensional one) and how they relate to each other. Similarly, the simple concept of fractals is used to create amazing images that express math in an artistic way.

Fractals also provide another example of the combination of art and technology. Math alone is not enough to generate fractals; computers are necessary to create the images themselves, which can't be created by the human hand.  Mandelbrot's access to computers in the late 70s and the 80s were critical to his discovering of fractals.
Parade by C-91
"Parade" by C-91. for the full size.
In this work, the artist used computers and fractals to achieve a level of detail not possible with traditional art mediums. As technology advances, new art techniques will become possible, ones that we might not even be able to imagine presently.
Finally, here is a song about the Mandelbrot set, by the great Jonathan Coulton. It is completely accurate, including the part about day-glo pterodactyls.


Abbott, Edwin A. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991. Web.

C-91. "Parade." DeviantArt. DeviantArt. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

Foellmi. "Jonathan Coulton Mandelbrot Set HD." YouTube. YouTube, 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. 

"How To Trade The Fractal Indicator." Winners Edge Trading. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

ImprobableResearch. "Improbable Research Collection #135: Benoit Mandelbrot's 24/7 Lecture on Fractals." YouTube. YouTube, 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

Weisstein, Eric W. "Mandelbrot Set." From MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bridging the Gap from Art to Technology through Games

In her essay "Toward a Third Culture: Being In Between," Victoria Vesna notes that the separation of art and technology is a relatively recent phenomenon, having only occurred in the latter half of the 19th century. However, as technology advances, artists utilize it more and more to create their works. This is exemplified in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its adaptations.

When it was first published in 1865, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland didn't require much technology other than the printing press. It was a book created through writing by Carroll and hand-drawn illustrating by Tenniel, nothing more. Over the years it has inspired numerous artists to create adaptations and unofficial sequels, which have increasingly used technology to bring the artists' visions to life.

Perhaps the most famous adaptation is Disney's film Alice in Wonderland (1951). Although still hand-crafted, now Alice was brought to the theaters, with animation and sound.

American McGee had decidedly more macabre ideas in mind when creating the 2000 computer game American McGee's Alice. After Alice's family perishes in a fire, she goes mad, and has to regain her sanity during the course of the game. Computers were essential to creating, distributing, and playing the game. Technology is inseparable from this work.

Binding art and technology this way bridges the gap between the two, and helps to create the "third culture" that Vesna talks about. At the individual level you have people who must be skilled in both; for example, the animator must understand the aesthetics of what they are creating, as well as how to create it with the software they are using. As games have entered the mainstream, people are advancing not only the technological capabilities, but also the artistic capabilities of them.


Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. New York: MacMillan. 1865. Print.

Disney, Walt. Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney Productions, 1951. Film.

McGee, American. American McGee's Alice. Electronic Arts and Rogue Entertainment. 2000. Video game.

Snow, C.P. "Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Reading. 1959. New York: Cambridge UP, 1961. Print.

Vesna, Victoria. "Toward a Third Culture: Being In Between." Leonardo 34.2 (2001): 121-125. Web.