Saturday, March 27, 2010

Yuri Knorozov: The Image of Russian Joy

 From Wikipedia: Yuri Knorozov:

In 1952 Knorozov published a paper which was later to prove to be a seminal work in the field (Drevnyaya pis’mennost’ Tsentral’noy Ameriki, or "Ancient Writing of Central America".) The general thesis of this paper put forward the observation that early scripts such as ancient Egyptian and Cuneiform which were generally or formerly thought to be predominantly logographic or even purely ideographic in nature, in fact contained a significant phonetic component. That is to say, rather than the symbols representing only or mainly whole words or concepts, many symbols in fact represented the sound elements of the language in which they were written, and had alphabetic or syllabic elements as well, which if understood could further their decipherment. By this time, this was largely known and accepted for several of these, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs (the decipherment of which was famously commenced by Jean-François Champollion in 1822 using the tri-lingual Rosetta Stone artefact); however the prevailing view was that Mayan did not have such features. Knorozov's studies in comparative linguistics drew him to the conclusion that the Mayan script should be no different from the others, and that purely logographic or ideographic scripts did not exist.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Graphic Arts: Melville's Moby Dick

From one of the best sites out there, Graphic Arts: Exhibitions, acquisitions, and other highlights from the Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University Library:

Melville's Moby Dick

Connections between Herman Melville (1819-1891) and Princeton University began in the eighteenth century, with his grandfather Major Thomas Melvill (1751-1832) graduating with Princeton class of 1769. His uncle Peter Gansevoort (1788-1876) followed in the class of 1808. To celebrate the centenary of Moby Dick in 1951, Firestone Library mounted a Melville extravaganza featuring dozens of the significant holdings, detailed in a catalogue compiled by Howard C. Rice, Jr., Alexander D. Wainwright, Julie Hudson, and Alexander P. Clark.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Between the Folds: Origami and Paper Art | Notes and Selected Quotes

The Artisan

From the Website:

Origami may seem an unlikely medium for understanding and explaining the world. But around the globe, several fine artists and theoretical scientists are abandoning more conventional career paths to forge lives as modern-day paper folders. Through origami, these offbeat and provocative minds are reshaping ideas of creativity and revealing the relationship between art and science.
BETWEEN THE FOLDS chronicles 10 of their stories. Featuring interviews with and insights into the practice of these intrepid paper folders, the film opens with three of the world's foremost origami artists: a former sculptor in France who folds caricatures in paper rivaling the figures of Daumier and Picasso; a hyper-realist who walked away from a successful physics career to challenge the physics of a folded square instead; and an artisanal papermaker who folds impressionistic creations from the very same medium he makes from scratch.

The film then moves to less conventional artists, exploring concepts of minimalism, deconstruction, process and empiricism. Abstract artists emerge with a greater emphasis on concept, chopping at the fundamental roots of realism, which have long dominated traditional origami. The film also features advanced mathematicians and a remarkable scientist who received a MacArthur Genius Award for his computational origami research.

While debates ebb and flow on issues of folding technique, symbolism and purpose, this unique film shows how closely art and science are intertwined. The medium of paper folding—a simple blank, uncut square—emerges as a resounding metaphor for the creative potential for transformation in all of us.

Between the Folds is one of the more profound and enlightening documentaries I have seen in some time. (And I watch a lot of documentaries.) For at least a short while, you can find the entire film at PBS: Independent Lens.

What follows are a few clips from the film, some of my notes and a selection of quotations from the featured artists.

Much of the Beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium.
- Henri Matisse

The three themes that I find most interesting are:

  • The challenge to create beauty with a limited medium
  • The tension between between technical  proficiency and emotional meaning
  • The relationship between the art and music

    From the History:

    Akira Yoshizawa, who died in 2005 at age 94, is considered one of the progenitors of modern origami. In the 1930s, he developed a system of folding patterns employing a set of symbols, arrows and diagrams. By the 1950s, these patterns were published and widely available, contributing to origami’s global reach and standardization. Yoshizawa and other origami masters formed local and international organizations publicizing the art.

    Yoshizawa never sold a single one of his pieces. Sold soup for a living.

    As I get older and older, I find that the big task is to put more white canvas in my work, to not play too many notes in music, to start to say what do I not want to put in this figure. To try to reduce it down to just a few lines and essences of what it is. That's a much tougher challenge to me now, trying to make something much more representational.  - Bernie Payton

    Technique vs. Emotion

    Yes, I think as I will get more and more old, I will take out technique and just keep emotional things with the paper. - Eric Joisel

    The Postmodernist

    Lots of people think about the reality of an elephant in origami. Does it look real? Does it look like an elephant? But it's a piece of paper. Of course, it can't look like an elephant. But people measure the detail. They measure the proportions to the real elephant to see if it is good or bad. And if it's got really long spindly legs, it can't be a good elephant. If it's got huge, huge, huge ears or just three legs or something, it can't be a good elephant. The elephants with four legs are better than the elephants with three legs. This is not just a problem in origami. This is a problem in painting. For example, you see a painting by Mondrian or something. Just colored squares and black lines. Is that better than, say, a painting of flowers? For many people it's not. I mean, it's the same in origami: that they would prefer to see an origami elephant than an origami blumpf. - Paul Jackson

     One Crease - Paul Jackson

    The process of making is the point of it. The object looks good if the process felt good. This needs to be a kind of ballet. And this is what I try to with my work, to take it to an edge of something - because that's always where the interesting things happen. - Paul Jackson

    A simple compostion is like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. It has a simple melody, a little bit of structure, not a lot going on, but it can be very elegant and nice - but simple. So, in the world of patterns, the hexagon grid or triangular grid is kind of like those real simple melodies. - Chris Palmer

     Chris Palmer at Origami USA

    When you are putting a crease in a piece of paper, you are essentially changing the memory. - Eric Demaine

    The Theory of Everything

    In the beginning we didn't know what would be possible, then we tried to push the limits and, eventually, found that everything could be made, that you could make any shape that you want with straight sides just by folding with one straight cut. - Eric Demaine

    A Demonstration of Supremely Bad Thinking: Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation — or Both

    Neural activation produced by God’s perceived love (left) and anger (right) [source]

    An article whose subject matter is of great interest to me. I started the piece only to find myself running through the three stages of a bad reading experience: distraction, frustration, and, Jesus, who wrote this? Sentence construction, loose logic, and the almost surreal conclusions drawn by the author make this into a supreme example of bad writing.  Perhaps, I am reading too rigorously. Perhaps, I am too passionate about the subject. Perhaps, God just hates me and deliberately doesn't want me to understand. Judge for yourself:

    Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation — or Both [commentary mine]

    Whether or not God exists, thinking about Him or Her doesn’t require divinely dedicated neurological wiring. [I am still trying to figure out what this sentence actually means. The only solution I could figure was to make a trite equation: God = Pain. However, the logic still tortures me.]

    Instead, religious thoughts run on brain systems used to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. [Again, what does this sentence mean?]

    The findings, based on brain scans of people contemplating God, don’t explain whether a propensity for religion is a neurobiological accident. But at least they give researchers a solid framework for exploring the question. [At this point, I am going back to the original article to see if it was incorrectly copied.]

    “In a way, this is a very cold look at religious belief,” said National Institutes of Health cognitive scientist Jordan Grafman, co-author of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’re only trying to understand where in the brain religious beliefs seem to be modulated.” [Willing to keep plowing through it.]

    Though scientific debate about God’s existence has transfixed the public, Grafman’s findings fit into a lesser known argument over why religion exists. [Transfixed? Really? transfix: 1. To pierce with or as if with a pointed weapon. 2. To fix fast; impale. 3. To render motionless, as with terror, amazement, or awe. With writing like this, I certainly feel transfixed.]

    Some scientists think it’s just an accidental byproduct of social cognition. They say humans evolved to imagine what other people are feeling, even people who aren’t present — and from there it was a short step to positing supernatural beings. [Imagine me looking up to the ceiling in disbelief, talking to the screen. Was this actually published in Wired? Is this a joke? Are they hiring copy-editors? Is there any reputable scientist who would allow that 'short step' to stumble by without pulling out a bazooka to stop it dead in its tracks? This is cartoon science: an apple fell on Isaac Newton's head - and from there it was as short step to the theory of gravity.]

    Others argue that religion is too pervasive to be just a byproduct. Historically, at least, it must have provided believers and their communities some sort of advantage, or else it would have disappeared.
    The argument breaks down into the so-called byproduct and adaptation camps. Of course, they might both be right. [If religion is a "byproduct" of social cognition, then one must imagine it to be substantially pervasive. Again, I am lost in the loose logic.]

    “Religious beliefs might have arisen as a byproduct,” said Justin Barrett, an Oxford University specialist in the cognitive neuroscience of religion, “but once in place, they’re pretty handy.” ["Pretty handy?" I realize that it is not only the author that is giving me trouble, it is the approach of the scientists who are performing these studies. There are so far away from how I understand Being in the World, the nature of religion and the idea of God, that I can barely understand them. With this in mind, I will stop commenting now.]

    Grafman started by interviewing 26 people of varying religious sentiments, breaking down their beliefs into three psychological categories: God’s perceived level of involvement in the world, God’s perceived emotions, and religious knowledge gained through doctrine or experience. Then they submitted statements based on these categories to 40 people hooked to fMRI machines.

    Statements based on God’s involvement — such as “God protects one’s life” or “Life has no higher purpose” — provoked activity in brain regions associated with understanding intent. Statements of God’s emotions — such as “God is forgiving” or “the afterlife will be punishing” — stimulated regions responsible for classifying emotions and relating observed actions to oneself.

    Knowledge-based statements, such as “a source of creation exists” or “religions provide moral guidance,” activated linguistic processing centers.

    Taken together, the neurological states evoked by the questions are known to cognitive scientists as the Theory of Mind: They underlie our understanding that other people have minds, thoughts and feelings.

    The advantages of a Theory of Mind are clear. People who lack one are considered developmentally challenged, even disabled. Anthropologist Scott Atran, a proponent of the byproduct hypothesis, has suggested that it let our ancestors quickly distinguish between friends and enemies. And once humans were able to imagine someone who wasn’t physically present, supernatural beliefs soon followed.

    But just as a Theory of Mind provided benefits, so might its supernatural byproducts and the religions that grew from them.

    Unlike other animals, humans can imagine the future, including their own death. The hope given by religious beliefs to people confronting their own mortality might provide motivation to care for their offspring.

    Supernatural beliefs may also have produced group-level advantages that then conferred benefits to individuals.

    “You get some selective advantages, such as inter-group cooperation and self-policing morality,” said Barrett. “And maybe the entire network of belief practices, and whatever is behind them, gets reinforced.”

    According to Barrett, religion may even have created a feedback loop, refining the Theory of Mind that produced it.

    “It could be that when you’re in a religious community, it improves what psychologists call perspective-taking,” he said. “Exercising your Theory of Mind could be good for developing it, making your reasoning more robust.”

    David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University, said the findings fit with the idea that religion started as a cognitive byproduct and became a cultural adaptation, but cautioned against over-interpreting them.

    “It’s tremendous to see religious belief manifested at the neurological level,” he said. “But there’s a sense that when you bring things down to that level, that trumps other kinds of understanding. That’s not true in this case.”

    Grafman declined to speculate, instead concentrating on what he hopes to achieve with future research: studying other kinds of religions than were represented in his small sample size, and comparing religious cognition to legal and political certainties.

    “The differences and nuances between these types of belief systems will be important to understanding the deliberation that goes on,” he said.

    Grafman also stressed that the study examined only the nature of religion, not the existence of God.
    “He, or She, didn’t come in for the evaluation,” he said.

    I cannot let that horribly nightly newscast conclusion rest. Here is Steiner, oil on the waters:

    "There is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb "to be" is a negation, however limited, of mortality. Even as every use of an "if"-sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact. "Shall," "will," and "if," circling in intricate fields of semantic force around a hidden center or nucleus of potentiality, are the pass-words to hope."

    Thanks to S.F-T, for getting me up on the soapbox.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010

    Antonin Artuad's "Spurt of Blood": Stars collide, the hand of God reaches down, and things turn transparent

    This review is for an event long gone. Her words remain around like an echo...

    Spurt of Blood: An experience in theater itself by Michelle Fordice (emphasis mine):

    When most people read Antonin Artuad's surrealist play "Spurt of Blood" they consider it an academic exercise. For all the influence Artuad has had on modern theater, this play is considered to be unstageable and unproduceable. But not all people work that way. Two years ago now-senior Jackie Dineen discovered "Spurt of Blood" during Dr. Mark Pilkinton's Theater, History and Society class. She remarked in an e-mailinterview that, "he had us read the play out loud in class as an academic exercise and briefly mentioned how it has always been considered unstageable due to many of the surrealist and absurd characteristics of the show. I immediately became interested in what it would take to faithfully translate Artaud's vision onto the stage." This week, under her guidance as dramaturge, her interest has come to full realization as the Film, Television, and Theater department take on one of theater's most difficult works. The show is part of her honors thesis for the department, which will focus first on the practical aspects of translating Theater of Cruelty, an overarching theme of Artuad's work, to a modern stage and audience and second on Peter Brooks, the first person to bring the play to the stage. Taking "Spurt of Blood," which is a very short play filled with surrealist imagery, and turning it into a physical performance is not an easy task, both conceptually and physically. The audience is not given much text and no plot to react to and there are events that are difficult to express within the limits of a stage: stars collide, the hand of God reaches down, and things turn transparent. Dineen remarked, "once you read the play you immediately realize how incredibly challenging it is to translate to a modern audience. It has so many surrealist and absurd characteristics like objects falling with a 'despairing slowness' or characters catching on fire. The brevity of the play also tends to leave the reader a little shocked and feeling like nothing was explained."

    In his introduction to the play, director Dr. Mark Pilkinton wrote, "'Spurt of Blood' challenges the traditional Aristotelian concept of theatre." The cast and crew worked hard to make "Spurt of Blood" a reality, especially under a short three week production schedule. In an e-mail interview, Kathleen Hession, the assistant director and one of the actresses remarked, "being completed entirely by Theatre Majors, this production highlights the immense talent that exists on this campus. I just wish people could have seen the insane amount of work that was put into the three weeks that preceded this performance." Dineen remarked, "the first few days of rehearsal took a lot of patience just in deciding what ideas we could use and what we couldn't. Everyone helped in all areas of the show like acting, designing, and staging which really added to the mentality that this is a Company production." Of course, while the company did their best to remain true to the spirit of the play, not every one of Artuad's directions was able to be followed. Dineen explained, "it was important that we tried to stay as true to Artaud's concept as possible, but some things will always have to be changed based on the resources you have."

    The question on most people's lips is, of course, what is this play about? Before audience members walk in, they need to recognize that there isn't a plot or a theme in the way we have come to expect them. Dineen said the play, "…is about the concept and the method of production not necessarily the story," and expanded, "the play doesn't have a traditional plot line or your typical characters that audience members relate to, but it does show exactly what Artaud thought theater should be." She said, "it's important that everyone try to see what Artaud believes is broken in our typical theatre performances. The surrealism that runs throughout the show is there to tell the audience that there are more important things in theatre than just the spoken word. Theatre of Cruelty isn't about violence; it's about focusing on what makes us human, which is more than just talking." With "Spurt of Blood" Artuad is challenging the audience to drop their preconceptions and approach theater anew. Hession remarked, "when you enter the theatre and the show begins focus more on the style of the production and less on the text. Allow yourself to be taken over by the production and just have fun with it. Not everything has to be explained … surrender to the madness!" She explained that the show is in a way attempting to turn a passive audience into an active one, startling their senses so that they cannot just sit back and absorb. This was not only a challenge for the audience, but the actors as well. Hession explained that the actors had to remember that, "the text is not what should be placed at the center of this production. Rather it is the style of the play that we try to highlight." She continued, "once you convince yourself that you can let go of that stress the entire process becomes much easier and you focus more on simply being constantly present." Attendees of FTT's production of "Spurt of Blood" are certain to be exposed to a new theater experience.

    Monday, March 15, 2010

    Calligrams of Animals Based on John Baskerville Font

    I am pretty easy when it comes to anything regarding bones. I'm also a pushover for fonts. So you can imagine my delight in discovering this site featuring the work of Katerina Orlikova. Portfolio here.

    Simply beautiful work. Outstanding in the theme, tone and composition. Do not miss the Calligrams of Animals: Motion Picture

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    Notes on Ergot Poisoning: Red flowers were blossoming from their bodies

    Sergei Sharov | The Temptations of St. Anthony | 1969

    From The French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment

    The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.

    On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

    One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: "I am a plane", before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. He then got up and carried on for 50 yards. Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets.

    Time magazine wrote at the time: "Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead."

    [ source ]

    From Wikipedia: France:

    Les cinq hypothèses

    Près de soixante ans après les évènements de Pont-Saint-Esprit, on ne sait toujours pas à quoi les attribuer. Cliniquement, les symptômes étaient ceux d'une forme mixte d'ergotisme ou « mal des ardents ».

    • L'hypothèse "ergot de seigle" : En 1951, le corps médical avait estimé que le « pain maudit » aurait pu être contaminé par de l'ergot de seigle (Claviceps purpurea), un champignon parasite des graminées. Mais ce diagnostic n'a jamais pu être prouvé.
    •  L'hypothèse "Panogen (r)" : On a aussi pensé à une intoxication par le dicyandiamide de métyl-mercure, un produit contenu dans un fongicide ("Panogen (r)") utilisé pour la conservation des grains ayant servi à faire la farine. La justice retient cette hypothèse, mais cette piste a fini par être abandonnée suite à une thèse en pharmacie soutenue en 1965. Elle est également mise en doute par Steven Kaplan.
    • L'hypothèse "mycotoxines" : En 1982, le Pr Moreau, toxicologue spécialiste des moisissures, a émis l'hypothèse que l'intoxication de Pont-Saint-Esprit aurait pu provenir de mycotoxines, substances produites par des moisissures pouvant se développer dans les silos à grain. Les effets toxiques des de mycotoxines sont aujourd'hui bien connus en médecine vétérinaire mais étaient quasiment inconnus en 1951.
    • L'hypothèse "agène" : Outre l'hypothèse des mycotoxines, Steven Kaplan retient celle d'un blanchiment artificiel du pain à l'aide d'un composé chimique pathogène : l'agène
    •  L'hypothèse "LSD 25" : Dans un livre publié aux États-Unis en octobre 2009 et traitant des opérations de la CIA durant la Guerre froide, le journaliste américain Hank P. Albarelli Jr. avance que la CIA aurait testé le LSD comme arme de guerre par pulvérisation aérienne sur la population spiripontaine. Dans son n°559 du 18 février 2010, l'hebdomadaire nîmois La Gazette fait état de cette thèse, suivi par d'autres médias. Les hallucinations qui accompagnent les convulsions de l'ergotisme sont similaires à celle déclenchées par le LSD (l'acide lysergique, base du LSD, est synthétisé à partir de l'ergot de seigle). La faille de cette hypothèse est que le LSD ne donne pas de troubles digestifs (nausées, brûlures d'estomac, vomissements).

    From Shoa Planetaire:

    Un journal français écrivait à l’époque des événements bizarres : « Ce n’est ni du Shakespeare, ni de l’Edgar Poe. C’est hélas la triste réalité tout autour de Pont-Saint-Esprit et de ses environs, où se déroulent des scènes d’hallucinations terrifiantes. Ce sont des scènes tout droit sorties du Moyen Âge, des scènes d’horreur et de pathos, pleines d’ombres sinistres. » Le magazine étasunien Time, dont l’éditeur Henry Luce était étroitement lié aux activités de propagande de la CIA dans les années 50, écrivait : « Parmi les affligés, grandissait le délire : les patients se débattaient sauvagement sur leur lit, en hurlant que des fleurs rouges s’épanouissaient sur leur corps, que leurs têtes se transformaient en plomb fondu. L’hôpital de Pont-Saint-Esprit a signalé quatre tentatives de suicide. »

    From the informative and fascinating Ergot of Rye: History:

    Due to the cold and wet years that occurred in 1348-50, in certain areas of Europe, grain crops, which were the staple for Europe at this time, were thought to have been contaminated with T-2 or related toxins that damaged the immune systems of both rats and humans. The damage to the immune systems of both rats and human is is believed to be one the contributing factors that led to the high mortality during the Bubonic Plague. However, other causes of depressed immune systems, other than fungal in origin, may also have occurred at this time.

    When the greatest mortality due to the Bubonic Plague had passed, areas that were hard hit with the plague did not recover. This puzzled historians, although there were still some incidents of famine and diseases, after the plague, generally there was not a lack of food nor a great deal of disease since the populations in many areas had been drastically reduced by the plague. However, there was still a population depression even a generation after the plague, and longer . Populations in many areas had still not reached levels that were present before the plague. After the plague, the winters were unusually cold. This affected the diet of the poor more than the wealthy. In those years where the winters were cooler, Rye would be more likely to survive than wheat. This made it more likely that Rye would be consumed, and while the Rye survived the cold temperatures, the plants were traumatized and were more susceptible to infections by Ergot. Evidence that Ergot poisoning was occurring was based on reports of nervous system disorders. In summer of 1355, there was an epidemic of “madness” in England. People believed that they saw demons. In 1374, a wet year, marked by a lack of food, there was an outbreak of hallucinations, convulsions and compulsive dancing in the Rhineland. Some people imagined they were drowning in a stream of blood. In addition to nervous system disorders such as those described above, Ergot poisoning is also known to reduce fertility and cause spontaneous abortions. With the greater consumption of Rye, coupled with consumption of grains infected with T-2 and related mycotoxin that is believed to have shortened the consumer's life span by compromising their immune system, were possibly the reason for the population depression during this period of time. It would not be until almost the 15th. Century that an upward trend in population would begin. [...]

    Ergotism occurred in 1926-27 in Russia, with 10,000 reported cases, in England in 1927, with 200 cases, among central European Jewish immigrants and the last known example occurred on August 12, 1951. On that day, Jean Vieu, a medical doctor in the little town of Pont-St. Esprit, in Provence, France, was the first to discover the outbreak while puzzling over two cases of patients who complained of intense pain in the lower abdomen. At first Dr. Vieu believed these cases to be acute appendicitis, but the symptoms that his patience exhibited were not those of this particular ailment. Instead, Some of these symptoms included low body temperatures and cold fingertips. Even stranger were the wild babbling and hallucinations. By August 13th., Dr. Vieu had a third patience with these symptoms. His concern of these patients led him to meet with two other colleagues and together, the three doctors had twenty patients with the symptoms just described.

    By August 14th., the town's hospital was now filled with more patients with the same symptoms and 70 homes were required as emergency wards. When possible, victims were tied to their beds, those that escaped were running mad and frantic through the streets. All available strait jackets were rushed to the town to restrain the victims of this sickness. If there were any town's people of Pont-St.-Esprit that were not terrified by this time, they became so when they learned of a demented, eleven year old boy, who had tried to strangle his own mother. Paranoia soon spread throughout the town, rumors soon spread that this wave of dementia was due to a mass poisoning that had been carried out by the local authorities.

    Meanwhile, the doctors, were working diligently to discover the cause of this dementia. That this was caused by some sort of food poisoning, they were certain. However, what had all these people consumed? The doctors searched the houses of the afflicted and found only one common food item. All the victims had consumed wheat bread from the same baker. Samples of the bread were taken and sent to Marseilles. When the results from the analysis of the bread samples were completed, tests indicated that it contained approximately twenty alkaloid poisons, and that they had all apparently came from the same source. The origin of the alkaloids was identified as those belonging to the fungus causing ergot of the rye plant.

    It would be four more weeks before the whole story concerning the contamination of the bread would unfold. Beyond the Auvergne Mountains, where wheat is grown, an unethical farmer had apparently sold contaminated rye grain to a miller who had mixed it with wheat and grounded it into flower. The miller then shipped the flour to Pont-St.-Esprit, to the baker who was also collaborating with the farmer and miller. It was their greed that was responsible for over two hundred cases of alkaloid poisoning, thirty two cases of insanity and four deaths.

    [ source ]

    From the 1951 article in The British Medical Journal: Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit (.pdf):

    Logorrhoea, psychomotor agitation, and absolute insomnia always presaged the appearance of mental disorders. Towards evening visual hallucinations appeared, recalling those of alcoholism. The particular themes were visions of animals and of flames. All these visions were fleeting and variable. In many of the patients they were followed by dreamy delirium. The delirium seemed to be systematized, with animal hallucinations and self-accusation, and it was sometimes mystical or macabre. In some cases terrifying visions were followed by-fugues, and two patients even threw themselves out of windows. The delirium was of a confusional kind which could be interrupted for some moments by strong stimulation. Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation. In severe cases muscular spasms appeared, recalling those of tetanus,but seeming to be less sustained and less painful. During this stage, sweating was abundant, and the temperature somewhat raised. The duration of these periods of delirium was very varied. They lasted several hours in been treated and four cases of the latter. In some patients, in others they still persist.

    [ source ]

    From the PBS Series: Secrets of the Dead: The Witches Curse:

    When Linnda Caporael began nosing into the Salem witch trials as a college student in the early 1970s, she had no idea that a common grain fungus might be responsible for the terrible events of 1692. But then the pieces began to fall into place. Caporael, now a behavioral psychologist at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, soon noticed a link between the strange symptoms reported by Salem's accusers, chiefly eight young women, and the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like LSD. LSD is a derivative of ergot, a fungus that affects rye grain. Ergotism -- ergot poisoning -- had indeed been implicated in other outbreaks of bizarre behavior, such as the one that afflicted the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951.

    But could ergot actually have been the culprit? Did it have the means and the opportunity to wreak havoc in Salem? Caporael's sleuthing, with the help of science, provided the answers. 

    Ergotism is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which affects rye, wheat and other cereal grasses. When first infected, the flowering head of a grain will spew out sweet, yellow-colored mucus, called "honey dew," which contains fungal spores that can spread the disease. Eventually, the fungus invades the developing kernels of grain, taking them over with a network of filaments that turn the grains into purplish-black sclerotia. Sclerotia can be mistaken for large, discolored grains of rye. Within them are potent chemicals: ergot alkaloids, including lysergic acid (from which LSD is made) and ergotamine (now used to treat migraine headaches). The alkaloids affect the central nervous system and cause the contraction of smooth muscle -- the muscles that make up the walls of veins and arteries, as well as the internal organs.

    Toxicologists now know that eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms -- all of which, Linnda Caporael noted, are present in the records of the Salem witchcraft trials. Ergot thrives in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers. When Caporael examined the diaries of Salem residents, she found that those exact conditions had been present in 1691. Nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem village, a region of swampy meadows that would have been prime breeding ground for the fungus. At that time, rye was the staple grain of Salem. The rye crop consumed in the winter of 1691-1692 -- when the first unusual symptoms began to be reported -- could easily have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot. The summer of 1692, however, was dry, which could explain the abrupt end of the "bewitchments." These and other clues built up into a circumstantial case against ergot that Caporael found impossible to ignore. 

    [ source ]

    From the New York Times, October 22, 1998:

    DELAIN, France, Oct. 21 - An exorcist has been called in to rid the Delain village church of devils, which he said had sent candlesticks flying, forcing ecclesiastical authorities to close the building until further notice.

    The exorcist, the Rev. Max de Wasseige, who was called in by the Archbishop of Besancon to drive out the devils, said, ''I saw candlesticks flying about with my own eyes.''

    The trouble began last Thursday in this village in eastern France when volunteers moved the altar by a few inches to make more space for a visiting symphony orchestra.

    Witnesses said afterward that a candle went flying, splitting in two, and that statuettes and vases were broken inexplicably. Also the altar was moved by four inches, apparently unaided.

    The Mayor of Delain, Thierry Marceaux, said, ''There was no collective hallucination, or 50 people will have to be sent to the lunatic asylum.''

    He said that the orchestra gave its concert normally on Sunday, but that the devils resumed their work on Monday, even though the altar had been put back in its place.

    The Roman Catholic Church, like many Christian churches, teaches that the Devil is real and evil spirits exist. But modern theologians have been playing down Satan's influence as they have accepted psychological and psychiatric explanations of abnormal behavior.

    Niklaus Manuel | Temptation of Saint Anthony | 1520

    Thanks to Tiffany for the lead.

    Saturday, March 06, 2010

    The Core Anagogical Allegory: Unpainted to the last


    It is perhaps tedious to beat a dead whale but Moby-Dick never ceases to fascinate me with the richness of its allegory. Essentially, I boil it down to these idiosyncratic axioms [all links, save one, go to the works of Charles "Bonesy" Jones on the Laughing Bone Website]: 

    Moby-Dick is the Fugitive God, the ship is our system of belief that we use to find/hunt God, Ahab is the God-Haunted Man. And, as always for me, the Truth of Things is at the skeletal level. The Bone equals Reality. The Flesh is the Dream. We are all dreaming the Goddream.

    With this in mind, here it is spun out before you as the Good News from the Master of All Who Hunt for God:

    But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young sucking whale and a full- grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship's deck, such is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that his precise expression the devil himself could not catch.

    But it may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all. For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape. Though Jeremy Bentham's skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of his executors, correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian old gentleman, with all Jeremy's other leading personal characteristics; yet nothing of this kind could be inferred from any Leviathan's articulated bones. In fact, as the great Hunter says, the mere skeleton of the whale bears the same relation to the fully invested and padded animal as the insect does to the chrysalis that so roundingly envelopes it. This peculiarity is strikingly evinced in the head, as in some part of this book will be incidentally shown. It is also very curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb. This fin has four regular bone-fingers, the index, middle, ring, and little finger. But all these are permanently lodged in their fleshy covering, as the human fingers in an artificial covering. "However recklessly the whale may sometimes serve us," said humorous Stubb one day, "he can never be truly said to handle us without mittens".

    For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.

    - From Moby-Dick:  Chapter LV: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales


    Thanks to Dave Walsh for the link.

    Thursday, March 04, 2010

    The Moment We Severed Ourselves From Nature

    Origin of Culture (Mesopotamia dining table), 2006
    The dining table top is an accurate relief map of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), birthplace of agriculture.

    Contemporary art is seeing a surge of interest in what I call “the rural.” I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one decisive factor appears to be a shared reaction to anxiety. I am reminded of Regionalist painter Grant Wood’s essay Revolt Against the City (1935) where he quotes Carl Van Doren, asserting that any society—American society in particular—tends to re-evaluate itself every thirty years or so in response to some kind of outside trauma. We are currently facing compound concerns on a pandemic level: political unrest (9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, partisanship), social unrest (gay marriage, nationalism, immigration), environmental concerns (global warming, genetic engineering, carbon footprints), economic meltdown…the list goes on and on. To alleviate a perceived loss of control, individuals search for a sense of grounding. In my opinion, a return to the rural seems to be the latest form of such introspection, and as a result, artists are looking back to traditional—and perhaps more stable—ways of life. We are witnessing a preponderance of agricultural/community gardening projects, references to rodeos, cowboys, taxidermy, hunting, an interest in vernacular architecture, etc.

    Unlike the Regionalists, however, this call is not based on a reaction to outside (read non-American) influences, nor is it because of any insular ideological or artistic position. In fact, a return to the rural in contemporary art is happening in various parts of the world, not just the United States. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Land Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which combines contemporary art with traditional rice cultivation, or Karen Lubbock’s Karen magazine, which documents village life in Rodbourne Bottom, England, or Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates, sustainable front-yard gardens from Salina, Kansas to London, are all highly conceptual projects that fall within the rubric of the rural.

    Having grown up on my grandparents’ ranch, the rural, for me, is tied up with identity. Although most people now live in and around cities, many practicing artists are not native to urban areas. Embracing their roots is a way of acknowledging and clarifying identity—of mining their personal, formative experiences to produce work that is at once contemporary and local. I am again reminded of Grant Wood’s Revolt. His ideas seem particularly interesting now, as technology has performed a major role in creating global homogenization while at the same time making it possible to share remotely generated ideas on a global scale. Art that reflects non-urban sensibilities not only adds to the rich texture of contemporary art but points to possible connections between seemingly disparate cultures.

    When I think of the rural, I usually think of agriculture. Interestingly enough, it is agriculture where we find both the root of a lot of current environmental problems and the medium many artists are turning to for solutions (I am thinking of artists like Haeg, and WORKac’s Public Farm 1 at P.S.1). But this is by no means a new concern for me. In 2001, I was invited by Blanton Museum curator Annette Carlozzi to participate in an exhibition about artists’ processes at the Salina Art Center in Kansas. At the opening, I met Wes Jackson who, I later found out, is the founder and director of the Land Institute, a MacArthur Fellow and, more recently, one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 2009 “100 Agents of Change.” We were talking about the difference—if any—between nature and culture and the conversation eventually turned to the subject of agriculture.

    While many historians and anthropologists believe that it was the development of agriculture that made civilization possible, Jackson regards agriculture as humanity’s first sin—Man’s first step outside of Eden, so to speak—and the moment we severed ourselves from nature. In other words, most, if not all, of our environmental ills find their origin in the invention of agriculture. So it makes sense, then, that at the front line of this conundrum we find artists looking at man’s relationship to nature in various ways, making what we consider “town” and “country”—or, more precisely, “cosmopolitan” and “local”—a contested space. These artists I would contend constitute a new avant-garde. (The term avant-garde, after all, originates from a military term that literally means “the front line.”)

    The avant-garde is usually associated with Modernism and used to describe the art and artists at the very start of that period. I associate Modernism with urbanism. The stories surrounding the growth of Modernism tell of intellectuals sitting in cafés and bars arguing the then-current state of affairs, formulating their reactions, writing manifestos and vowing to break with the past in favor of the new. In fact, Modernism did arise at the point when cities became dominant, shortly after the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. I certainly believe that it is responsible for some amazing art—I know that I would not be able to make the work that I do without its legacy.

    But the mindset of mistrusting tradition is problematic at the very least. In its most extreme mode, totally discarding the past has led us to the predicament we are currently in, untethered from earlier foundations. We have arrived at a time when Modernist rejection of the past and its problematic relationship to nature should come to an end. Many artists, including those discussed and featured in the following pages, are looking back to traditions rooted in the rural. Some are adding their personal non-urban experience to a global dialogue, fighting the peripatetic homogenization that is the hallmark of contemporary life. These artists are seeking solutions to anxiety by interacting directly with the land and with their respective communities. This exploration seems to me to be a real paradigm shift. The avant-garde of today is not a break from the past—not a severing of roots. It is a true front line grounded by the past. After all, there are millennia’s worth of knowledge buried down there.

    Chris Sauter Website

    Thanks to Shelton Walsmith for the lead.

    He Painted A Tombstone, I Found It Beautiful

    The most interesting art always comes from the street, from beauty uncovered in the everyday - murals, signs, graffiti, local advertisements, religious icons. A sign of a healthy community is one in which the artist occupies a vital function - whether it be to make the side of a house or a tombstone more beautiful. Towards the end of this short film about the artist, Stephan Doitschinoff, he inquires about painting a local chapel. The Gravekeeper tells him: "The chapel is there. Do what you wish."

    From 2005—2008, Stephan Doitschinoff traveled throughout the Brazilian countryside of Bahia, painting site-specific murals on adobe houses, chapels, and even a cemetery. In the small village of Lençóis, he collaborated with local artisans, and expanded his research into the rich history of Brazilian folklore and the syncretism between Christian theology and African spiritual traditions. [ source ]