Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

A Brief Visual History of Robots in a Matrix of Creepiness & Intelligence

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What Louis XV has to do with H.G. Wells and the hazards of mechanical animation.

Ed.: The lovely and talented Michelle Legro is an associate editor of the history and ideas magazine Lapham’s Quarterly. In her inaugural piece for Brain Pickings, she offers an exclusive snippet of LQ’s forthcoming Fall issue, which explores the future, comes out on September 15, and is an absolute treat of curiosity and fascination — get your hands on it by subscribing today. It’ll be your finest gift to yourself in a long while, we promise.

Talos, the automaton forged for King Minos to protect his kingdom from pirates and invaders, may have been the first robot in recorded literature — made of metal, its veins flowed with ichor, the divine blood of the gods. The Golem of Prague was brought to life to protect the city’s Jews, but it was rendered lifeless when it threatened innocent lives. These proto-robots provided an assurance that one day in the future, statues would move—whether they would protect us or rise against us, it was hard to tell.

“The Future” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly collects more than eight-thousand centuries of forward-looking thought, thanks to the inclusion of both Aeschylus Cassandra and H.G Wells‘ time traveler. Also from the issue, this matrix of historical robots organized by their relative intelligence and creepiness.

You’ll also find two automatons from eighteenth century Europe: the Digesting Duck, which ate and then defecated its meal, and the Chess-Playing Turk, which once played a game with Napoleon. These mechanical parlor tricks captivated court life and inspired writers with uncanny nightmares of moving statues. (Think of the mechanical beauty Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early-nineteenth-century horror story “The Sandman.”)

One robot unfortunately not included on the matrix was Louis XV‘s special likeness of his mistress Madame du Barry by wax sculptor Philippe Curtius, better known as the teacher of young Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud. The wax figure is the oldest in the collection of Tussaud’s London museum, surviving both the French Revolution and a devastating 1925 fire. Laid out on a divan, du Barry appears in the throes of a ravishing dream, her eyes are closed but her chest heaves up and down thanks to a mechanical engine devised by Curtius.

This simple device imparted a serene animation to the lifelike wax, an impression not lost on Louis’s courtiers, who called the sculpture “The Sleeping Beauty.” While her wax-figure has slept quietly for over three hundred years, du Barry herself came to a less quiet end. After her banishment from the court of her lover’s grandson Louis XVI, she was captured by the Jacobins and dragged kicking and screaming to the guillotine.

For a complete history of robots, automatons, and moving statues there is no better book than Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

This Must Be The Place: Poetic Short Films Explore ‘Home’

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What 19th-century farming has to do with solar panels and the creative losses of digital photography.

From filmmakers Ben Wu and David Usui of Lost & Found Films comes This Must Be The Place — an inspired ongoing series of short films exploring the idea of home and what our private sanctuaries mean to us. The latest film in the series, Coffer, takes us to the small kingdom of an upstate New York farmer named John Coffer. Tucked between his quiet rural routines is a profound creative and philosophical lens on contemporary culture, articulated with remarkable humility and authenticity.

I got a bug to do wet plate photography in ’76. In this day and age of digital, it’s so easy to just shoot thousands of pictures a day. Each individual picture becomes rather insignificant. Whereas, with the tintype, it’s very intentional and you’re not gonna make very many in a day. They become valued objects, not just an image. Each image is absolutely unique, like a painting.”

I have created a hybrid situation where there are certain things I continue to do in the old, 19th-century way — somethings may be the way it was done before Christ, as far as I know — but then there are cutting-edge, high-tech things that I have here and do. I have a wind generator, solar panels, a laptop computer. You can blend these old, timeless things with the latest technology to do the things that need to be done in life. I think there’s going to be more people looking back for models from the past, and use it to blend in with new ideas and technology today.”

(This sentiment is reminiscent of Molly Landreth’s tender vintage portraits.)

Coffer follows last year’s excellent Byun — the story of an eccentric Korean artist and collector-of-everything living in Brooklyn, who takes a hands-on approach to the concept of combinatorial creativity:

You can create a lot of stories by putting all these objects together.”

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Asylum: Inside the Haunting World of 19th-Century Mental Hospitals

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What straitjackets have to do with Eames chairs and the mutations of policy ideals.

One of the 19th-century’s most notorious socioarchitectural phenomena were the “insane asylums” that housed the era’s mentally ill — enormous and stunning buildings whose architecture stood in stark contrast with the ominous athmosphere of their inner workings. Fascinated by this phenomenon and its ghosts, photographer Christopher Payne set out to document the afterlife of those baleful buildings in Asylum: Inside The Closed World Of State Mental Hospitals — a compendium of images that peel away at a lost world and, in the process, offer a provocative portrait of the history of our (mis)treatment of the mentally ill. A foreword by iconic neuroscientist Oliver Sacks (remember him?) frame the photographs in a sociocultural context of how these institutions evolved and what role they came to play, both in their time and in our reflections on history.

Autopsy theater, St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, DC

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Patient dresses, Clarinda State Hospital, IA

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Mead building lobby, Yankton State Hospital, SD

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Straitjacket, Logansboard State Hospital, IN

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

What’s most peculiar about those asylums is that they, like much of policy dysmorphia that begins with an idealistic vision and ends in a social malady, began with the idea of “moral treatment” wherein the ill would be removed from the city and placed in these Utopian environments, many of which were fully self-sufficient and even generated their own electricity, and put to meaningful work.

Asylums offered a life with its own special protections and limitations, a simplified and narrowed life perhaps, but within this protective structure, the freedom to be as mad as one liked and, for some patients at least, to live through their psychoses and emerge from their depths as saner and stabler people.

In general, though, patients remained in asylums for the long term. There was little preparation for return to life outside, and perhaps after years cloistered in an asylum, residents became ‘institutionalized’ to some extent, and no longer desired, or could no longer face, the outside world.” ~ Oliver Sacks

Beauty salon, Trenton State Hospital, NJ

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Patient suitcases, Bolivar State Hospital, TN

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Buffalo State Hospital, NY

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Unclaimed cremation urns, Oregon State Hospital, OR

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Hiding in Payne’s photographs are peculiar objects that survived almost untouched amidst the general decay of their surroundings — a colorful armchair here, some toothbrushes there, slippers, even some Eames chairs.

Patient toothbrushes, Hudson River State Hospital, NY

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Typical ward, Buffalo State Hospital, NY

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Asylum is part Library of Dust, part Urban Atrophy, part its own room in humanity’s haunted house of collective memory.

via NPR

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