Notes on a surveillance apparatus

Peep/Show reframes surveillance and voyeurism as a question of innocence and experience and plays with the hierarchy of power determined by subjectivity and the knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of when one is being watched or has been watched.

I’m still ultimately not sure how I want the interaction in the peepshow booth to work. On the one hand, the “email” paradigm might be the strongest – a misdirection away from the mirror towards another instance of surveillance, namely reading a stranger’s email, only to find out that that was a red herring and really it’s you who has been surveilled. Additionally, it could be strengthened by opening up a bunch of surveillance-y/voyeuristic content on the computer – closed-circuit camera feeds, lurid gossip websites, etc.

But that in some ways sacrifices one of the juicier psychological elements of the two-way mirror (which is really the star of the show), namely that it’s an instrument that in one mode reinforces ideas of privacy and aloneness-with-self, and in the other constitutes an absolute inversion of the same, invading the privacy of another while their sense of privacy is falsely reinforced. That the means of making the switch is the transition of a space from light (pride, security, obviousness) to darkness (shadows, hiding, scandal) is icing on the cake.

I’m therefore still trying to come up with something that makes use of the mirror in creating the situation that keeps the mark (perhaps soon to become the spy) engaged and performing for the delectation of the other. That’s what makes Ripley’s exhibit so good – the thing on the wall about rolling your tongue, in an oddity-museum space where such a suggestion makes complete sense, turns the participant’s attention directly to the mirror while blinding it to the real truth of what’s going on.

A similar setup using computers would be to have nothing on the wall, just a laptop open. You sit down and start reading, and then at some point (when your voyeur leaves and the next person comes in) a window pops up on your screen with a camera feed from their laptop (the camera light having of course somehow been disabled). It would even have the added benefit of being able to be staged in two totally separate spaces, thus reducing the possibility that the participant would “get” the trick before it was played on him or her.

But it loses something that way… there’s a viscerality to the mirror trick that I don’t want to discard in favor of the hyper-mediated electronic version (although, of course, that’s the situation in which you are most likely to encounter actual hidden surveillance). There’s something dreary about webcam footage, in contrast to the joy of the two-way mirror. And perhaps we’re already semiconsciously aware of the potential for surveillance inherent in electronic interactions, having tacitly bargained away our privacy in exchange for access to the world.

So the quest remains – find the right interaction. It needs to use the mirror; it needs to reinforce the idea that the mirror is a mirror, not a window; and it needs to encourage people to reveal something that they would not reveal if they knew someone was watching.

Putting the Audience through a Difficult Evening

I have neither read nor seen Aunt Dan and Lemon, so can’t comment on any of the specifics of the piece, but reading through Wallace Shawn’s justification (or “justification”) put me in mind of another work touching on how we process atrocity (and specifically the atrocities of the Second World War), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones.

The Kindly Ones is a thousand-page doorstop of a book narrated by a fictional SS officer who leads us through the war and the Holocaust as he participates in them, first reluctantly and then with increasing enthusiasm (and here I keep typing variations of “until he eradicates his humanity entirely,” but that feels wrong – much of the point of the book is the very humanness of evil).

In his introduction (framing the novel as a reminiscence years after he has slipped back, unpunished, into the general public) he makes the point that “in most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying … at the bottom of the pit.” And it’s both a repellent, self-serving justification for participating in evil, and true. Tracing his experiences, the reader is pulled sickeningly through a set of circumstances and decisions where one is forced to ask “what would I do differently?” Not in a general sense (“I wouldn’t have been a Nazi!”) but in the moment – how do all of these small actions and inactions add up to the greater horror? And what, in those specific circumstances, is the just, moral, ethical thing to do?

We are deeply reluctant to admit that we have anything in common with people whose behaviors we rightly see as monstrous. We want to see fascism (or indeed any system of brutality) as inherently and totally amoral. And yet, if you concede one small central point, that outsiders are not human (or not sentient, or the implacable enemy of the insiders), the system becomes completely moral. Who wouldn’t take the initiative to eradicate what he or she sees as evil (the depravity of the outsiders) and defend the virtues of love, purity, the home, the family, etc., even if it means doing something hideous?

So perhaps that point is the one to stand on and guard with your life – that the true evil is not the atrocity itself but the division of the world into “us” and “them.” I’ve often thought that there’s really no such thing as true altruism – nobody acts on behalf of others, at the bottom of it. But we can and often do act on behalf of our families and loved ones, which is a sort of selfish selflessness. We see those we identify with as extensions of ourselves. If we wish to avoid repeating atrocity, the trick is therefore to grow our sense of “us” until there is no more “them.” Not to behave benevolently towards outsiders, but to recognize everyone as an insider.

Five works from the Whitney Biennial

Jordan Wolfson, Real Violence

Of everything I saw at the Biennial, this is the piece that has stuck with me most doggedly. I felt sort of glib standing in line and reading the warnings – I was sure, given my lifelong exposure to representations of violence (and the fact that I’m a sophisticated cool jaded person) that no matter how disturbing the subject matter, I would (indeed could) not actually be disturbed by it.

And then I experienced it and was very disturbed.

I’ve been unable to figure out whether I think it’s a successful artwork, although on a number of levels I have to think it is – I continue to dwell on it, it uses its medium to create an experience that fully utilizes and depends on the medium, it gets people talking about important questions… but on another level there’s something that feels like complicity in a gross phenomenon, to credit such an assaultive piece with profundity when it is remarkable mostly for how much it “goes there”.

I think that virtual reality changes the representation of violence in that the viewer doesn’t have the normal option to look away from mediated atrocity. Instead of being able to look away from a screen or a photo, and thus back into a world where The Thing isn’t happening, one can only look away to other views within the diegetic world, and in that moment the violence becomes real in a new sense. I found myself staring at the cars passing on the street, and wondering if they were aware of what was going on, and if so, at what level?

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes

I am, at the moment, especially attuned to the creative possibilities of mirrors, and so Samara Golden’s amazing installation was particularly intriguing to me. In one sense, it’s a jaw-dropping confection – a relatively small space rendered into a variegated infinity with clever positioning of mirrors, use of floors as ceilings and vice versa, playing with scale and perspective and all of the tricks of convincing the eye to believe the impossible. On a deeper level, it’s a profound hallucination – layer upon layer (stretching upward and downward endlessly) of spaces right on top of one another and yet seemingly isolated: the lavish apartment, the office, the gore-stained institutional bathroom (not coincidentally nearest the viewer’s eye). It seems to be an especially New York piece, where the rigors of proximity encourage us to ignore whole worlds above our heads, below our feet or standing right next to us on the subway platform.

John Riepenhoff, The John Riepenhoff Experience

More mirrors… It’s an intriguing idea, to try to stuff visual endlessness into a tiny space, and from the outside, the piece is joyful and hugely appealing – a small unprepossessing white step ladder, where the viewer climbs up and inserts his or her head into a white box. But inside, the visuals are sort of a mess (the scale really does render the mirrors less effective, and the brown tinge of either the light or the surface doesn’t help matters) and the other sensory experiences are jarring. At this size, the lights give off enough heat to make the space rather warmer than is comfortable, and the lack of ventilation means you are bathed in the accrued moist breath of everyone who has been in it before. It’s all very close. Which is unsettling. And not in a good (or seemingly intentional) way.

Jon Kessler, Exodus and Evolution

The political implications of Exodus were lost on me, though on the level of technological representation, I was fascinated by the algorithmic color and detail reduction in the kaleidoscopic feedback loop as the video reached the center of the screen, going from being video-of-a-thing to video-of-video-of-a-thing and so on. Which I guess serves as proof that the politics were indeed lost on me. Evolution was somewhat more graspable, though I still got a feeling of an artist exuberantly at play, somewhat sheepishly attaching the work to political critique in order to give it substance. That said, it all worked pretty well as a half-ironic celebration of artifice.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo

We walked right past this one, and it’s not in the Biennial, so I’m not sure if it’s within bounds to comment on it, but it’s a remarkable piece and it felt very relevant to look at it right after experiencing Real Violence. I think one of the most horrifying aspects of Wolfson’s work is the non-reaction of the beaten man – his submissive posture at the beginning (as he must on some level know what’s about to happen), his total failure to fight back, his blank abjectness. It seems to implicate the bystander more because he refuses to fight – he is only a victim, and becomes our responsibility on some level, which we can do nothing about. That calls to mind many situations in life, but is in this case rather a manipulative posture, forced as we are to absorb our bystander status without being able to change it.

Dempsey and Firpo is very different, in this case the heroic mode of violence. The bystanders aren’t looking away, they’re cheering. They embrace the man who has just been punched out of the ring and thrust him back into it, both for their delectation and for his eventual triumph – he is merely knocked down but is fighting back, and we know he will actually win the bout. There’s a sense of fair play to it, violence as a contest of strength rather than an act of victimization.

This is of course the story we prefer to tell ourselves about violence, especially as Americans. Yet the other, seemingly more authentic picture (no sugar-coating, just brutality) is also not entirely or always true.

Einstein’s Dreams

Reading through Einstein’s Dreams, I found myself repeatedly identifying with the inhabitants of the many different worlds described, where time supposedly behaves differently than it does in ours. In my own experience, sometimes time moves fitfully; sometimes it seems to stop or speed up; occasionally it feels terrifyingly that it moves in reverse, and deja vu is nothing if not the uncanny certainty that time is circular. More than literal temporal perception or the possibilities of time under different laws of physics, Einstein’s Dreams addresses the many functions of time in human lives in this world, and how our emotional experiences interact with, and are affected by, time.

We construct time in our lives through memory, and it’s this interplay between moment and memory at the heart of the most affecting stories here. The dream of June 15, 1905 might have hit me the hardest of all – the world where you can move through time as though it were another dimension of space. But (brutally) apparently only forward, at a fast or slow pace. The dreamer posits two scenarios – one where a person clings to the present, frightened of the future, as his friends walk past him, and another, where a young woman, traumatized by the present, rockets into old age to get away from her fighting parents. I have been both of these people, and perhaps I still am, in different aspects of my life.

If there’s one thread that ties all of the stories together, it’s the uneasy relationship that humans have with time – the obsessive desire to capture it when it suits you, to grow younger, to have more of it (but only the time that brings you what you want). These stories posit time as a slippery thing, which can never be contained, and the inhabitants of these strange worlds seem happy or unhappy in proportion to how well they’ve adapted to how it works in their world.

Robert Irwin

Reading through Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, I found myself thinking a lot about how we make meaning without recourse to religion – what motivates the Questions that Irwin is so captivated by. It’s a weird sort of science to posit that a rectangle can be squarer than a measurable square because we see it that way, but it is science nonetheless, of a much trickier sort than just measuring angles and lengths.

It’s hard to respond to the reading without merely regurgitating his process. I found myself envying his dedication (devotion?) to the work of seeing, and the combination of inner quiet and human(e) rigor (intellectual, spiritual, emotional) that would allow him to see and seek the actual experience of perception both as falsifiable scientific research (which it may never have actually been) and on the deeper level that differentiates an artistic inquiry from a purely intellectual one.

I love the idea of reducing what’s obviously “there” – taking pains to identify everything ancillary and discard it while preserving and heightening the unquantifiable essence of the piece. It’s iconoclastic work, smashing idols (representation, the art object, ornament) in search of The Truth, while recognizing that The Truth is so elusive that one has no hope of ever finding it, or even of knowing what “finding it” might be.

And given that perception is itself totally artificial, an attempt to reconcile the very limited subset of phenomena that we can experience with the inner story of our lives, we have only artificial means to address even these slipperiest of questions. There’s nothing particularly natural (much less supernatural) about an expertly-crafted metal disc hovering in space in front of a gallery wall, held up by a twenty-inch metal arm. But seeing it might be an ecstatic encounter that can change the seer in small but meaningful ways. Or to put it in another way, the piece is artificial, the place is artificial, but the seeing is real.

It made me think about illusion in the context of shamanism. I remembered the story of Quesalid, the skeptical apprentice healer in the Pacific Northwest studied by Franz Boas, who set out to expose traditional healing practices as nothing but magic tricks but discovered, to his astonishment, that his patients got better even though his “treatments” were fake. In seeing their illnesses manifested as a pile of bloody feathers coming out of the shaman’s mouth, the patients knew themselves to be cured, and so they were (though of course I’m sure this technique had its fair share of limitations).

F for Fake

In “F for Fake,” Orson Welles invites us to consider the interplay between fakery and reality in the world – how can we “know” something? What part of our knowledge is given to us by “experts” whose opinions we have adopted and whose assertions we now believe to be unassailable fact? And how can we be sure that those experts are neither mistaken nor lying to us?

On the other side of the coin (which may change into a key with a wave of the magician’s hand), how can we be sure we know something ourselves? Are our eyes always reliable? How can we ensure that we aren’t being hoodwinked? And do we in fact want to know the truth, or is belief in the lie sometimes more appealing?

The story of Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving is a fascinating one, and the deep twist in it (that the biographer who exposed the fake turns out to be a fake himself) is delicious to both Welles and the audience. And it certainly provides a lot of authentic commentary on issues of truth that were current then (Watergate and Vietnam spring immediately to mind) and chillingly current now (the steady diet of “alternative facts” that the Trump administration seems intent on feeding us). One of Welles’ most valuable insights is that art forgery only becomes a viable career when there exists an art market willing to pay for it and not ask too many questions. These days, of course, we have a truth market operating on much the same principle, drenched now, as then, in pleasure and incuriosity.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the actual heart of the piece were the bits of truth that Welles seemed determined to sweep away or push to the side, perhaps because they complicated his ripping yarn and his fashionably cynical notion that surface has finally and permanently trumped substance. Irving makes glancing reference to de Hory being chased from town to town, one step ahead of the law, while simultaneously telling the story of his Modiglianis, van Dongens and Picassos hanging in the world’s most important museums. He never mentions that this flight was kicked off by a diligent and unremembered curator who noticed that drawings purportedly created by three different artists appeared to have been made by the same hand.

And the enigma of de Hory itself is grounded in several awful realities, among them the Holocaust, persecution for his sexuality and a number of suicide attempts, the last of which was successful. Irving poses the question of why de Hory never “made it” as an artist in his own right, and posits that it might have been because he had nothing original to say. Yet there is a poignant authenticity to the existence he created in the margins available to him that remains even after his many forgeries have been exposed.

Words are Amok! Again!!

Introducing WordsAmok 2, a most irksome word game!


The player is given 19 letter-tiles, arranged in two hexagonal rings around a central tile. He or she has three minutes to make as many words as he or she can by stringing together adjacent letters, but with a twist – every time a new word is made, the rings of tiles rotate. And to make matters worse, each can rotate in either direction, at random! This means one can never be sure what words one might be able to make on the next turn, but at the same time, new possibilities open up with every spin.

Words are scored based not only on length but on uncommonness – thus, “bane” is worth more points than “bean”. This helps to highlight interesting and unusual words, and (hopefully) makes the game more surprising and fun.

The next steps of development are aesthetic (adding opening animation, sound, and slightly less spartan graphics, possibly also heightening urgency as the clock ticks down) and functional – adding a leader board for all players, as well as personal high scores. Additionally, players will be asked to make a poem from the words they’ve formed, to be displayed next to their score.

My hope is to accomplish these over the winter, with an eye towards making it into an Android and/or iPhone app, as I think its true home is on the subway, an airplane, or anywhere else that people are looking to escape for a time into their own little worlds.

Play it here:

Or check out the code here:

Useful Want Ads!

For my first Twitterbot, I decided to make a program to generate classified ads. I took a lot of inspiration from Magic Realism Bot and Art Assignment Bot, and it seemed to me that a good way to begin was to look for places that text appears in small chunks with certain conventions of form and content, and play with those to create something interesting. Classified ads seemed to be an ideal genre for a number of reasons, most notably because they tend to be very terse and to the point (having been charged-for by the letter in the pre-internet age, a weirdly perfect analog to the 140 permitted characters of Twitter), and their lingo provides a rich opportunity for constructing bizarre statements.

The first ad type I have created is a job posting. I tried to walk a line between randomness (which might create something funny or surprising, but might also get tediously silly) and over-determination (which would be boring). I also took pains to try to vary the structure and content of the tweets (drawing from a list of available sentences, providing a couple potential structures for each sentence, weighting vocabulary items to prevent them from reappearing immediately, sometimes adding an article here or there) to keep them from becoming too rote too quickly. The result is a mishmash, but I think it’s on the way to becoming interesting.

Sample tweets:

“Established hedge fund looking for a snake oil salesperson. Key responsibilities: flim-flam, light housekeeping. Must provide own transport.”

“Home-based business looking for a woodchuck walker. Base pay is 12000 lei per week. Discretion assured.”

My intention is to continue the project to include multiple types of classified ads – next will be missed connections, followed by personal ads, real estate listings, items for sale… who knows?

As far as the bones of it go, at the moment it’s a little more hard-coded than I would like, with a fairly limited vocabulary. The two ways to improve this that I can see are either to just keep  adding different words and tweaked structures, or to try to let the computer figure out content and structure by reading Tweets, craigslist postings, etc.. The latter is obviously the far harder of the two, but I’d be interested in giving it a shot.

A Machine for Shuffling Poems

1)  Pick a poem.

2) Get two pieces of paper.

3) Look at the first word of the poem – what part of speech is it? You can be as specific or as vague as you’d like. On one piece of paper, write the part of speech as though it were the first word of your poem; on the other, write the part of speech and then the word from your poem under it.

4) Repeat for every word in your poem. When you come to a part of speech you haven’t yet encountered, make a new column; when you come to a repeated part of speech, toss the new word in with its fellows. Preserve punctuation.

5) You should now have a dummy poem that looks like:

“Noun noun verb adjective adverb!

Noun conjunction noun verb, etc.”

6) Use an algorithm of your choice to shuffle the elements of each part-of-speech group.

7) Fill the poem back in using the words in order from the appropriate group. If you’ve done this correctly, you shouldn’t have any words left over.

8) Read and determine whether you have increased, decreased, or left unchanged the sense of the poem.

So here it is in action!

I chose a current favorite poem, a super-bleak piece of Victorian humor by WE Henley:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once or twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

I broke it down into to components – the structure:


and the ingredients:


I then shuffled the list orders using a simple p5 sketch, and the results are… I think even “interesting” is probably pushing things a bit far. But it’s recognizable as language, at least, and every now and then there’s a nice turn of phrase. Here it is:

Job throat knows a piece of bloom
End’s dogging twice:
He goes the madam in the death,
She’s a tenant on the price.

She would protest you in the fun,
You shall plead her once but well;
Or you shall reason it with the stair,
And he’ll see you at your petticoat.

At your kneebones as your chest,
And her knuckles in his ruffian,
You’ll bilk – trap – stick!
Clutching for her friend;

And he’s had him all gingerly,
Everywhere you is she’ve heard your room,
Before she’s the door,
But his done life gains little.



Be a doll and generate your own energy…

A long-winded look at the trials and tribulations of triboelectricity, with a brief sally into silly sculpture:


And videos of the serious research parts of the project:

(Just the TENG, no capacitor, no load, spiking around 10-15 volts per whack)

(The TENG with .1uF capacitor, smoother charge/discharge curves of around half a volt)

(The TENG with .01uF capacitor, broader peaks of around 3 volts, and then with an LED load)

(Multi-Layer TENG with .01uF capacitor, with and without LED, showing a little more power but still no visible light from the LED)

And a video of the baby, because why not?