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.

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