Sunday, August 26, 2007

Drawing a Line in the Dirt, or Fall of the House of Ussher

A while back, I found what looked to be a cow magnet attached to a shopping cart. This confused me as I wouldn’t expect a cow magnet in the middle of a metropolitan area. My paranoia set in after a while, and I began to worry that it might be radioactive or unhealthy or something. (turns out it was part of a kid’s toy set of two magnets, that make noise when thrown up in the air together, so it’s probably safe as long as I keep it away from my credit cards)

While, trying to track down this particular cow magnet, I ran across a very interesting web page, made by Theodore Gray; the Periodic Table Table. It has photo examples of every element (those that one can take photos of anyway… Seaborgium, not so much) I couldn’t find a cow magnet, but I did find a photo of a metal ball
that I found in the streets of Seattle. His site explains the use of this odd looking pinball-sized sphere. How it ended up in a gutter in Queen Anne is beyond me.

Anyway, I mentioned my project to him, and we quickly struck up a conversation about it. He’s been very supportive, and held my feet to the fire on coming up with a clearly defined rule set. Here’s the email conversation:

Perhaps the words 'naturally occurring' need to be looked at closer. They imply that humans are not part of the natural processes that takes place on earth, nor is anything we do. If you take a larger view of the world, and consider the human race to be part of nature, then our by-products are also an extension of nature. In this case aluminum powder is naturally found... in etch-a-sketches. Just like Plutonium can be naturally found, in breeder reactors.

Which is exactly the point I'm making in my description of those aluminum nodules. It's both arrogant and insecure of us to imply that anything we do is somehow fundamentally different from what chorals or algae do. If you were doing your project in Africa, would you be allowed to use savannah grasses? Because the savannah is grassland only because of human burning over hundreds of thousands of years.

I think the problem is where to draw the line, since by that argument, you could just go down to the store and buy anything you want.

You have to find a way to draw a bright line, no hedging or it's not art.

Here's one possibility: Assume there is a nuclear (or biological) war that wipes out the human race completely. You get to use anything that's still around a hundred million years from now. [let’s see, this conversation mentions breeder reactors & nuclear war… what are the chances that the NSA will be looking at my painting project more closely now?]

This eliminates all manufactured objects, everything made of iron, anything in a recognizable shape. But the aluminum nodules will still be washing up on the shores of the great lakes.

I'm finding that I have to question everything, and I haven't been able to come up with a system that easily handles every situation. So right now, it feels like a wobbly line. I'm getting the feeling that maybe one system that would work is if I decide how many levels back or levels removed from my day job I'll go for any particular thing. Let me know what you think of this idea:

For almost everything I see in the world around me, it seems that at some level back, smelting & loom technology come into play. I've read somewhere that it is estimated that smelting has only been discovered independently 5 or 6 times. Amazing if true.

I guess the money aspect [buying material, like flax plants] doesn't bother me so much as what the materials are. As long as what you're paying for isn't processed in any non-trivial way, I don't see that the art is effected by whether you bought, borrowed, begged, scavenged, or stole it.

…You've got to have a headline, a soundbite, that is immediately understandable to explain why what you've done is interesting.

So, here's another random bright line you could try: Making a modern painting in 10,000BC.
Assume you, with all your modern knowledge and access to all the books and information resources you want, are dropped into the world in 10,000 BC and asked to produce a painting. (Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court kind of thing.) …

This concept is beginning to resonate with me. Maybe some tweaking here and there, but very close to what seems right. Loved that book by the way.

We also talked about the coolness incarnate that is Boeing Surplus,
which turned out to be good timing for Theo, as he was planning a trip to Seattle right around the time we were talking.

He came back with some nice samples:
Boeing Contributions
Aluminum Samples

By the way, if you want to get yourself or a friend an engaging Periodic table poster, buy one from Theo. The placemat version has educational and witty text describing each element on the back.

So, Theo has tasked me to find a suitable starting point in time. Anything that existed on or before this date I can consider ‘From Scratch’. I did my research, and have found a very clear, if somewhat controversial date: the date of the earth’s creation! To the day! I needed to find a scholar that has been respected for quite some time, well over a hundred years. I found that in James Ussher (1581-1656) Anglican Archbishop of Armagh (Ireland).

Ussher deduced that the first day of Creation began at nightfall preceding Sunday October 23, 4004 BC. So, let’s make our starting point, October 31st, 4004 BC. This gives us a little slack, just in case James made a rounding error. Also, Halloween is an easy date to remember.

As much as I respect the (arduous) efforts and results of Archbishop Ussher, I also respect the findings of modern archeologists. I believe them when they say they’ve dated an object to be older than Oct 23, 4004 BC. How do I reconcile this? The easy way out is to say that the dating is wrong. This is a cop out, and I don’t cotton to this line of thinking, particularly since these dates have been made much more accurate with newer dating methodology. One could also argue that any artifacts older than this date (like tons of pottery, large buildings in Egypt, etc) were put there by the Creator to tempt the faith of archeologists, scientists, and ‘end-time’ society. Maybe. Not saying it didn’t happen (as there is no way to prove it wrong, and more to the point, I personally believe in a creator with an extreme sense of humor).

I’m taking the hard line of living with a paradox.

Next time, we’ll go into detail about what can and cannot be used for this art project.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cavemen: Not So Wimpey

I took some videos of my trip to Colton, Oregon last week, and have not one, but three clips to show you!

We’ve got some successes: a production run of refined pigment (my arms are still sore from this exercise!) & I found a new color source (burnt soil is much more red).

Also a couple of minor setbacks: The flax isn’t growing as well as I had hoped, and not only is it hard to remove soot from a stone, but grinding up charcoal doesn’t make for a good paint pigment (too coarse).

It’ll all make sense when you take a look at the photos and videos.

Woeful Flax

Attempt at Getting Soot

Burnt Soil Find

Refined Pigment Production Run

Here’s the dried silt from the refinement production run. Not bad for just using a rock, a stick and some water!

Here’s a Proof of concept shot of all three pigments: Soil, charcoal & burnt soil.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

In Colton, Making Paint

I’m typing this up right now in Microsoft Works on my Mom’s computer in Colton, OR. My dad stoked the firepit, and I put a stone on top of the fire. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to see if there is a sizable amount of soot on the stone for me to take back to Vancouver.

Also tomorrow, I’m planning on making a production batch of paint, by digging a hole with a stone, adding water & stirring to get the silt to rise to the top. We’ll see how it goes.

While I was walking around the property, I saw some *really* red soil. My dad said that was a spot where he burned stuff before. My guess is that the heat oxidized more of the iron. I’m going to take a few samples back with me.

Pictures or maybe some video later, when I get back up to Vancouver!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Yet Still More Pigment Tests

I’ve been working on a couple of processes to refine the red-clay pigment even further. The first and most obvious one is to re-slurry already refined pigment. Make sure to click on the thumbnails below for larger images.

Double Slurry results
In a nutshell, take refined pigment, and run the same process on it again (crush, mix with water, shake, let settle & dry, only take the top part that contains finer particles)

It’s smoother, and handles very similar to low-grade commercial paint. It’s still grainier than commercial paint, but totally acceptable for this project. I had to use a mortar & pestle to recrush it after it dried and I worked it longer with the oil than the single slurry batch. This stuff is ready for prime time.

I simply took the dried pigment chips and massaged them with a wet brush until it was loaded with pigment. Single or double slurry works fine for this, and although I could add something to the paint so it wouldn’t break down into mud and crack when it dries. Here are my results.

On this Birthday gift-card for my wife it reads “United States of Canada”. If you’re from America read it as “We’ll be incorporating Canada into our wonderful and fun-loving country soon, and by-golly they’ll thank us for it” If you’re from Canada read it as “Washington, Oregon & California will come to their senses and decide to merge with British Columbia” Thank you. Everyone happy & non-offended? Good.

Metal Removal Results
I found a magnet on a shopping cart a month or so back, and have been collecting the high-metal content soil and separating it out from the rest. I’ve since tried to remove all the dirt and see what kind of metal particles would be left.

Here’s the Process:
Drag magnet (in ziplock bag) through dried crushed dirt
Remove from bag & let dirt drop into a container
Repeat many times per batch of dirt
Mix metallic dirt with water
Put magnet/ziplock combo into slurry & remove into another can.

Repeat process

Take wet metal particles & put into mortar & crush w/ pestle

Repeat process with magnet

Add water, shake & let settle
Top layer is mostly red (Fe2O3 or ‘red rust’ I’d guess)
Bottom layer is mostly black (Fe3O4 i.e. magnetite)

It’s still too grainy to use at this point, but I’m going to see what I can do with it to make it into pigment. Still, it’s pretty cool that I can take soil & separate it out into a dark tan, an almost red and a nearly black. There is NO way I would use this technique to get enough ore to smelt into iron. This just takes too long. Besides, Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research Inc, makers of Mathmatica and creator of the Wooden Periodic Table Table, has listed a much better source for this (From Thermite Steel Entry):

The fun thing about magnetite is that you can find it lying around any beaches in many parts of the country. I collected about 40 pounds on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, in less than half an hour using a large magnet.

½ hour = 40 pounds huh? And it only took about 10 for me to get a thimble’s worth!

By the way, I’ve been talking over email with Theo about this project. He has been incredibly helpful and inspiring, and has held my feet to the fire on making sure I will clearly define the term “From Scratch”. I’m going to compile our email conversation in an upcoming entry. (You can also thank/blame him for my next camera purchase)

So, enough tests for pigment! I’m going to be doing an actual “From Scratch” production run very soon! No more plastic or glass jars for me!