Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings at MASS MoCA

Located in a sprawling, former factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is the largest contemporary art museum in the United States. Its centerpiece is Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, three floors of wall-sized drawings and paintings conceived by LeWitt.

I say conceived because LeWitt’s role in the works is to describe how to make them. Others do the interpreting and executing, like how musicians interpret and play a composer’s score.

Here is an example, the fourth wall of Wall Drawing 289, with LeWitt’s instructions below the image.

A 6-inch (15 cm) grid covering each of the four black walls. White lines to points on the grids. Fourth wall: twenty-four lines from the center, twelve lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, twelve lines from each corner. (The length of the lines and their placement are determined by the drafter.)

Keep in mind, the little image above is of an entire wall. To give you a better sense of scale, consider this image of Wall Drawing 146A, including its surroundings.

This piece encompasses an entire room. It immerses you.

For LeWitt, the exhibition space itself was like a blank canvas. Given 27,000 square feet of open floor plan, LeWitt configured the space not just in which, but on which, his work would be displayed, down to individual wall specifications for each piece. He did this shortly before his death in 2007.

In 2008, over a period of six months, 62 artists rendered 105 of LeWitt’s wall drawings. This nine-minute video shows the process.

Process is an apt word because understanding LeWitt is as much about the processes and ideas as it is looking at the art. The MASS MoCA exhibit affords plenty of opportunities to learn about this context while providing a unique and impressive venue for the works themselves.

The only hitch is North Adams’ location. It is an hour from Albany, NY; two hours from Hartford, CT; and three hours from Boston, MA. The nearest interstate highway is almost an hour away, so chances are low that you’ll be in the neighborhood for other reasons.

Defying those odds, we arranged a weekend trip from West Hartford to Vermont, knowing MASS MoCA would be on the way. It was a great trip. Vermont’s fall foliage was on fine display. However, Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective was the highlight.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wildlife Documentaries Exposed?

Are wildlife documentaries as staged as pro wrestling? You’ll get that impression from a Washington Post article on the subject.

It’s about filmmaker Chris Palmer, whose book Shooting in the Wild “exposes the unpleasant secrets of environmental filmmaking: manufactured sounds, staged fights, wild animals that aren’t quite wild filmed in nature that isn’t entirely natural.” Even Marlin Perkins is on the wrong side of the name-dropping.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, but I was still struck by this: “[I]f you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film, it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer’s stomach.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Does the Future of Testing Need Tests?

I’d like to highlight three recent articles, each a worthy read. Together they illuminate a trend in educational testing from big, scary tests to smaller, frequent tests to maybe no need for tests.

Testing, The Chinese Way

Consider Testing, the Chinese Way. In it, Elisabeth Rosenthal says, “When my children were 6 and 8, taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time.”

Rosenthal’s family was living in China, where “a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking.” From this experience, Rosenthal asks, “What makes a test feel like an interesting challenge rather than an anxiety-provoking assault?”

This Test Has Been Canceled

In This Test Has Been Canceled, Keith O’Brien says, “[T]here is growing evidence that final exams — once considered so important that universities named a week after them — are being abandoned or diminished.”

O’Brien suggests a prime cause is the growing favor for frequent, small tests over big, end-of-term finals. In support, O’Brien cites numerous experts and research examples, including these results from a poll of 600 students in a University of Arizona astronomy class:

93 percent of students said they’d prefer weekly quizzes over a couple of large midterms and a final. Seventy-eight percent reported actually learning more that way, and almost all of them — 98 percent — said they were less stressed taking short, weekly quizzes than they were taking large exams.

Learning by Playing

If educators are already tilting toward smaller tests, technology in the classroom may push things further. In Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom, Sara Corbett profiles a New York charter school...

...organized specifically around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and also increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration....Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest....

A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses....[G]ames themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as [Arizona State’s James Paul Gee] says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

That’s a provocative question. It asks us to consider whether the future of testing needs what we today call tests. I doubt the answer will be a simple yes or no. But the fact such a fundamental question is in play suggests interesting times ahead.

[See also, from 2007: Review: Shaffer’s “How Computer Games Help Children Learn”]

Sunday, October 3, 2010

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is a firsthand report from an Army battalion’s deployment in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Finkel takes you there with the American soldiers, many still teenagers, as they drop into a bewildering world of hostility, horrid conditions, and ambient dread.

[Upon landing] the air caught in their throats. Dirt and dust coated them right away. Because they arrived in the dead of night, they couldn’t see very much, but soon after sunrise, a few soldiers climbed a guard tower, peeked through the camouflage tarp, and were startled to see a vast landscape of trash, much of it on fire....They had been told that [roadside bombs] were often hidden in piles of trash. At the time it didn’t overly worry them, but now, as they looked out from the guard tower at acres of blowing trash across dirt fields and ashes from burned trash rising in smoke columns, it did....

Out they went through the heavily guarded main gate of [their base] and were instantly on the front lines of the war. In other wars, the front line was exactly that, a line to advance toward and cross, but in this war, the enemy was everywhere, it was anywhere out of the wire, in any direction: that building, that town, that province, the entire country, in 360 degrees.

The enemy’s main weapon was the roadside bomb—something you can’t fight, only avoid if you’re lucky. It made going on patrol like Russian Roulette: Who’s going to get hit today? Finkel unflinchingly reports the carnage of the inevitable hits. It is ugly, harrowing, and, as far as Finkel is concerned, necessary reading if you want to understand the actual war as opposed to the made-for-TV political bickering about the war.

[W]hile the news in Rustamiyah on September 4 was all about three dead soldiers and a fourth who lost both legs, and a fifth who lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm had been severely burned over what remained of him, that wasn’t the news in the United States. In the United States the news was all macro rather than micro. It was about President Bush arriving in Australia that morning, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, “We’re kicking ass.” It was about a government report released in the afternoon that noted the Iraqi government’s lack of progress toward self-sustainability, which Democrats seized on as one more reason to get out of Iraq pronto, which Republicans seized on as one more reason why Democrats were unpratriotic, which various pundits seized on as a chance to go on television and do some screaming.

The soldiers tried to win hearts and minds. By training they were not diplomats or social workers or nation builders. The people they were supposed to be helping either wanted to kill them or were at risk of being killed for accepting the soldiers’ help. Local leaders were often corrupt and infighting. As recipes for success go, this one was full of bad ingredients.

Nevertheless, amid the violence and despair, personal acts of bravery and kindness sometimes redeemed scraps of a tattered, seemingly unfixable whole. A soldier ignored the rules to save a hurt Iraqi child; a soldier pulled his paralyzed buddy from a burning Humvee. In an environment where the months, days, and hours varied only among shades of dark, perhaps such moments of grace were all that was left for good soldiers.

A convoy of three platoons and two body bags left at 3:22 a.m. By 3:40 a.m., the first IED had exploded and flattened some tires. By 3:45 a.m., the first gunfight was under way. By 3:55 a.m., soldiers had found and destroyed three EFPs. By 4:50am, they were at the DAC, where the ruined Humvee had been taken. By 5:10 a.m., they were lifting and then scooping Bennett and Miller into the body bags. By 5:30 a.m., they were on their way to COP Cajimat to rendezvous with Nate Showman and his soldiers. By 5:47, they were in another gunfight. By 5:48, the vehicle leading the convey was hit by some type of IED but was able to keep going. By 5:49, the same vehicle was hit with another IED but was still able to keep going. By 6:00 a.m., the convoy had made it to COP Cajimat. By 7:00 a.m., the soldiers were escorting Showman, his ruined platoon, the ruined Humvee, and the remains of Bennett and Miller to the FOB. By 7:55 a.m., everyone was back, and the mission was officially a success.

Most people, understandably, won’t be up for hundreds of pages of this stuff. But if you’ve read this far, I hope I have been able to convey some of The Good Soldiers’ impact.

Finkel deserves a medal for living enough of the story to write it. And the U.S. Army deserves credit for allowing him the unfettered access to do so.

Here is the link to the book at Amazon, where it deservedly has 4.5 out of 5 stars across nearly 100 reviews.