ere the cock crows thrice


This conference has a name that used to be a little silly, and is now something of an industrial relic… but it’s still the best gathering of technologically and culturally-savvy folks you’ll encounter in North America. Zap Your PRAM is an “unconference”, where fifty or so folks gather at the far end of the earth to talk about fascinating and unrelated things. For a quick glance, see Stephen DesRoches’ excellent pics and Deane Barker’s inspiring recap, but for me, I mostly remember huge, crackling fireplaces, the roar of the immense Gulf of St. Lawrence, and basking in the warm radiation of other people’s expertise.


For the rest of this week, I’m going to spend each day concentrating on a different thing I learned, and to start, I’d like to tackle Nick Burka and his talk on Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas. That’s a lot of names and links, but the basic idea is this: Warburg was an art historian who rejected studying art in a chronological fashion. He dreamed of a more emotional, more fantastical method.

So he began a massive collection and organized everything by his own “elective affinities” – meaning one painting should go with another because of a certain energy, or a similarity in that way those two works of art makes a person feel. Highly subjective, sure (and impossible to search), but the collection started looking like this:


And our friend Nicholas Burka shrewdly noticed that was very similar to a typical page of results from Google Images:


Now, if I’m getting this right, Warburg thought all great works of art have certain “tensions” that are similar, and we’re born pre-conditioned to like (or to be drawn towards) these movements inside images. Makes sense, if you dig Chomsky’s ideas of inherent language or Jung’s collective unconscious.

Nick took this infamous picture, for example:


kept small b/c it’s so reprehensible

Why did this picture become emblematic of Abu Ghraib, and not the others? In my mind, it was obvious: a crucifixion pose, with the hands supplicant on the cross like so many paintings we’ve seen since childhood. The pointed hood was absolutely reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, who burned crosses at their gatherings, making the whole metaphor painfully obvious.

But Nick had a teacher who, influenced by Warburg, said the Abu Ghraib image actually invoked paintings of the Ecco Homo, the moment when Christ is brought before Pontius Pilate:


Do I agree? I dunno, the crucifixion angle seems much more obvious to me, but we are dealing with pretty ineffable qualities. One thing I do know – ever since Nicholas’ talk, I’ve been looking at pictures in a different way. On the flight home from P.E.I., I was reading a Time Magazine article about the European leaders meeting in order to solve the financial crisis. The accompanying picture was this:


The caption read: Still searching: Europe looks for a way out of the banking crisis. Obviously, the Belgian or Austrian guy dropped his pen, making the photo sort of an unintentional pun, but I was thinking. What did the picture remind me of? A row of heads, all askew in different directions… and I was led to this:


Another example – Korto may not have won “Project Runway”, but I thought her collection at Bryant Park was awesome. In particular, there was this green dress with an odd asymmetrical neckline. I don’t usually go for the asymmetry thing, but this one totally worked:


…and after thinking about it, I knew why. The neckline isn’t actually asymmetrical at all: it incorporates an idea treasured by the Greeks, mimicked in nature, and known as the Golden or Fibonacci Spiral:


I know, math majors, the Fibonacci Spiral has a little wobble where the Golden Spiral doesn’t, but it looks the same to us flaky artists. And Korto used it by doubling one side of the neckline, then subtly turning it into fourths. Not that she knew that’s what she was doing, but as Warburg might say, don’t we have an “elective affinity” for such things?

9 thoughts on “ere the cock crows thrice

  1. Anne

    Today’s entry is very semiotic. (a field pioneered in the US at my very own alma mater, although a few years after I had graduated) Signifiers, etc.
    I love the idea of art collections organized other than chronologically. Isn’t it amazing how early religious art has imprinted in our brains so that we consciously or subconsciously reference it when we see contemporary designs? I am a visual thinker so today’s entry especially touches me.
    I so wish I could be well-networked enough to join the annual conference! Thanks for bringing it to us, Ian.

  2. Ehren

    The mind as a connectionist network, little nerve cells and clusters with reinforcing connections to other nerves, until associations build up. The reason for metaphor and the seat of human thought.

  3. kevin from NC

    I was at a mapping show the other day with people looking at maps from different perspectives..Like a map of powerlines only and what they showed about development.. or a map of houses that have jack-o-lanterns and inferences of wealth in a city…A very interesting perspective that gives information a street map would never show.
    I suspect well into the future, we will have many new ways of looking at images besides the way we have traditionally viwed the world.


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