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Studies in Repetition: “Self-Erasing Drawing” by Mona Hatoum

May 1st, 2009
Self-Erasing Drawing

"Self-Erasing Drawing"

[Image from here, originally located via a google image search.]

This is a kinetic sculpture by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. Its current incarnation, housed in the MoMA, is a larger version of the 1979 original. When I first visited the museum a few years ago, I was completely captivated by the piece, which occupies the center of a moderately-sized space.

If I read that it was entitled, “Self-Erasing Drawing” at the time, I don’t remember that now. What I did commit to memory was that a rake was continuously making lines in sand, while simultaneously smoothing the sand 180 degrees away. I did not conceive that the machine was drawing, but took it as some reflection on meditation; a mechanized zen exercise. Rather than contemplate while performing the simple, impermanent action ourselves, we robotized the task. To my mind, however, the sweeping was just as mesmerizing, and I was not the only patron completely captivated.

As I think about it now, I am less satisfied by the paradigm that this machine is drawing, than if it is some mindless meditation object. This is perhaps to be expected, but still, it’s not like it’s making a very interesting drawing. If it had even one more degree of freedom, and a simple, random algorithm for determining the angle between rake and sweep, it could produce a variety of drawings while remaining self-erasing. It would even be deceptively autonomous.

But perhaps I’ve missed the point. After all, it is the simplicity of the arrangement that most powerfully evokes the dualities of, “building and destroying, existence and disappearance, displacement and migration,” as the source post says.

I’ve also found the following video, which is the natural medium for relating moving artwork:

[Source unknown, as I found it via google video search.]

steven Studies in Repetition ,

Studies in Repetition: A Spider’s Variegated Weave

April 23rd, 2009
Check out those colors!

Check out those colors!



This spider web’s photons were captured by the brilliant kthread (Kristen Taylor), who is the kind of modern polymath I aspire to emulate. She’s a gifted photographer, skilled foodie and I gather well-versed in our New Media culture. She’s also consulted on a dinner party that I once co-hosted, so I’ll have to get her something nice if I ever have the pleasure of meeting her.

I grabbed this photo both to share its beauty, and because I’m excited by thin film diffraction.

See, each of the threads in the web is thin enough and spaced closely enough that the light from the other side is being bent (or diffracted) as it passes through. Light diffracted by the threads near the center has to travel a different distance than that near the edges, so that when they both reach your eyes (or your camera lens), the light waves from the different source locations are at different points in their oscillations (otherwise known as ‘out-of-phase’). This difference in distance travelled is called the path length difference.

The path length difference leads to wave interference: the waves are added together as they arrive and can appear brighter or darker than any individual wave. With lots of sources (like all of the threads and spaces in a spider web) there’s a lot of destructive interference happening, with waves mostly or totally canceling each other out. What’s left are bright peaks, the perceived color of which depends on the angle at which you’re viewing the web. This is because different colors have different wavelengths. Differences in wavelength changes the path length difference, in turn effecting where the bright maxima occur.

Since you see different parts of the web at different angles, it appears to shimmer kaleidoscopically, depending on which color is constructively interfering at that particular vantage point. This is ultimately the same phenomenon behind the rainbow of colors seen in gasoline spilled at the fill-up station, or the bands reflected on the back of a CD.

[Update! As E. J. points out in the comments below, if this is diffraction at all, it's likely due to reflection of the light rather than transmission through the web. The underlying principles of interference remain. However, it may also be that the camera wasn't capturing diffraction at all, but that the color is the result of Moiré patterns. This possibility didn't even occur to me, likely because I hadn't taught a lab on Moiré just two weeks ago.]

steven Studies in Repetition ,

Studies in Repetition: Kontoupoulos’ Frustrated Devices

April 21st, 2009

I’m positive that I first saw this video many months ago, but if it’s resurfaced on boingboing, I feel that I’m justified in bringing it some attention here as well:


Machines that Almost Fall Over from Michael Kontopoulos on Vimeo.

Plus, it’s a video that nicely fits into one of my meta-titles. I didn’t imagine there would be many of those.

As a minor note of criticism, I find myself wishing that the machines would knock themselves a bit more frequently. Perhaps the anticipation is key, and this was an aspect that was deeply considered by the artist, but I get a certain sense of rush from watching the near-topplings. There’s probably something zen to maximizing the length of time between experiencing those rushes, limited by the possibility of the viewer getting bored waiting for the next occurrence.

steven Studies in Repetition

Studies in Repetition: Spring has Sprung

April 17th, 2009
Flowers blooming in St. James Park, London

Flowers blooming in St. James Park, London

Though there have been a few times that the weather reached ‘pleasant’ here in Storrs, it wasn’t until today that I was able to go outside with a book and really enjoy the sunshine in the mid-60s. Unlike this child, though, I chose to spend my time far away from a field full of flowers because allergies, man, allergies.

Still, it makes a pretty picture.

[Photo grabbed from The Boston Globe's Big Picture feature, Signs of Spring entry. This image in particular is credited to Dan Kitwood, Getty Images.]

steven Studies in Repetition