Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tobias Putrih’s Re-projection: Hoosac

When I wrote up my trip to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, I focused on its centerpiece, the Sol LeWitt retrospective. The museum also has other exhibits by other artists.

My favorite was Re-projection: Hoosac by Tobias Putrih. Here is a description from a Boston Globe article:

One installation, by Tobias Putrih, stretches long strands of fishing line across a dark and cavernous gallery. Bunched neatly together, the parallel lines start high on one wall, ending low on the opposite one. A single light source illuminates the strands at about the midway point, causing an optical effect reminiscent of spinning rotor blades or a mystical halo.

You can follow the path of the stretched filaments, which slowly descend below head height to waist level, in a tunnel-like space the dimensions of which become harder to perceive as you move away from the light.

When we were there, the gymnasium-sized room had a buzz of wonder, as people moved within and around the installation, and watched other people do the same. Here is a minute’s worth of video, shot by someone moving through the installation.

For further background, here is what the exhibit notes say:

Influenced by the utopian projects — and notable failures — of innovative artists and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, Frederick Kiesler, and Charles Eames, Tobias Putrih likens his works to experiments, or design prototypes. His use of cheap materials, including egg crates, cardboard, and plywood signify both a sense of potential and impending collapse. Many of the artist’s works reference the architecture and spectacle of the cinema: a space suspended between fantasy and reality, image and environment. With Re-projection: Hoosac Putrih distills the cinema to its most basic element: fishing line stretched across the gallery mimics the conical trajectory of a beam of light. A spotlight hits the strands of monofilament which in turn become a screen, reflecting an image in illuminated dots. Inspired by the Hoosac Tunnel just east of North Adams — a storied, engineering marvel that draws ghost-hunters to the area — Putrih’s tunnel is, likewise, both real and a representation, an optical trick that invites both wonder and investigation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto

A man spends six months living with wild turkeys as their surrogate parent, raising them from eggs to young adults. He spends most waking hours with them, seven days a week. He starts as teacher and finishes as student.

The book is Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto. It’s nonfiction.

Absent a plot or other tricks to entertain, Illumination in the Flatwoods simply describes the day-to-day existence of Hutto and the turkeys. Over the year, there are dramatic moments—if it was reality TV, they’d be called unscripted—but most of the “action” is foraging, exploring terrain, and even more mundane forms of being.

The turkeys seem subdued, and we feed slowly up the through the field. I think they are sun hungry and would like to dust, but we have only dark clouds and wet sand. They are concentrating very heavily on seeds today for some reason. I also hear green pods snapping around me, as they eat the creeping Crotalaria, known commonly as one of the rabbit bells (C. sagittalis) that grow abundantly in these pine woods. Some species of Crotalaria have a reputation for being poisonous to grazing livestock, but this particular species has a green pod that smells as fresh and sweet as any English pea. The wild turkeys are extremely fond of them. I find myself nibbling on one occasionally as well.

On the surface, such passages may seem as interesting as a collection of weather reports. But the cumulative effect of a year’s worth is meditative, altering one’s awareness.

The field and surrounding hammock are pulsing with the hypnotic drone of insects. The repetitive overlapping voices of several species of warbler combine to gently weave a warm blanket of experience. The words of Joseph Campbell quietly overtake me: “Illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things.”

Hutto’s suspicion is that human consciousness may have over-evolved, and that real meaning—the spiritual wholeness pursued by mystics and religions—lies at a deeper level, long ago lost to our big brains’ abstractions. Thus…

As we leave the confines of my language and culture, these graceful creatures become in every way my superiors. More alert, sensitive, and aware, they are vastly more conscious than I. They are in many ways, in fact, simply more intelligent. Theirs is an intricate aptitude, a clear distillation of purpose and design that is beyond my ability to comprehend.

Make of it what you will. For my part, I found Illumination in the Flatwoods a unique, satisfyingly different read.

Thanks to John for the recommendation.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

States with Places with English Names (or, How Much More English is New England?)

New England comprises six states in the northeast corner of the United States: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Here you’ll see so many English names on highway signs—New London, Cambridge, Glastonbury, Gloucester, Ipswich—that you might as well be driving on the left side of the road.

Of course, other parts of the United States have English names for their places too. For example, 27 states have a Manchester. So let us ask: How much more English are the place names in New England states versus others?

To answer this question, I found lists of English and U.S. place names—place name being a generic term for cities, towns, townships, villages, boroughs, and such. I then intersected the lists so each U.S. state’s place names were reduced to those that matched English place names. The names needed to match exactly except for the prefixes “New,” “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West.” That allowed matches like “New London” to “London” or “West Manchester” to “Manchester.”

I then calculated the percentage of each state’s names that matched English names. By this measure of relative Englishness, the winner was Rhode Island: 45.3% of its place names matched English place names. New Hampshire, Massachusett, and Vermont were only a few percentage points behind. At 39.4%, Connecticut was a few points further behind. More important, Connecticut was 15 points ahead of the next contender, Delaware, at 24.4%.

This 15-point gap between between the top five, which are all New England states, and the rest confirmed that the New England states have significantly more Englishness in their names.

But wait. What happend to Maine? It was on the other side of the gap, below Delaware. (Maine, you’ll be hearing from the Queen about this.) Still, even with that laggard Maine, the New England states averaged 36.9% English place names, whereas the rest averaged 12.77%.

So, to the question of how much more English are New England place names, we can say roughly three times. For the specifics on each state, see the chart below, after which are notes on my sources and methods.

The list of U.S. place names was from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 U.S. Gazetteer Files. I merged the names in the Places file with those in the County Subdivisions file.

The UK Office for National Statistics did not seem to have equivalent files, so I ended up using Pandemedia’s UK & Ireland Town and County Database, filtered to only include places in England.

The intersecting process yielded this file of states’ place names that match English place names. Browsing the file showed the names were indeed English, although close inspection revealed some quirks. For example, it’s safe to say that Washington, present and accounted for in 30 states, was not named after the English town Washington. And the 18 states with an Eagle probably weren’t inspired by the English village of that name. However, to keep this project doable in a few hours, I declined to venture onto the slippery slope of special-casing such situations. I assumed that their errors were distributed evenly enough across the states to not be a problem.

Also, as a final sanity check, I looked at the place names for a sample state (Connecticut) that were not matched. The first time I did this, I found I was missing obvious names like Avon. At the time, I was using only the Gazetteer “Places” file for the U.S. names. Merging the additional names from the “County Subdivisons” file corrected the obvious non-matches.