Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

19 NOVEMBER, 2010

Gadget Sculptures: The Afterlife of Devices


What bionic mosquitoes have to do with vintage cinema and sustainability.

Given the passionate love affair most of us have with our gadgets, we give surprisingly little thought to their afterlife. And when we do, it’s for purely utilitarian concerns of reselling and recycling. But for old gizmos can actually provide a fascinating and unusual canvas and raw material for art. Here are three artists who create fantastic and fantastical sculptures from old gadgets, breathing a new kind of animated whimsy into what was once a mere conduit of communication.


Artist Jeremy Mayer is part MacGuyver, part Michelangelo. He disassembles old typewriters and reassembles them into fantastic full-scale, anatomically correct sculptures that emanate a kind of techno-dystopian romanticism.

He uses no glue, soldering or welding, just pure physics and patience.

I do not introduce any part in the assemblage that did not come from a typewriter.” ~ Jeremy Mayer

Mayer’s sculptures embody the haunting retro-futurism of Fritz Lang’s aesthetic — something particularly timely given this month’s highly anticipated DVD release of the complete restored Metropolis.


Mike Rivamonte creates delightfully playful robots from vintage cameras, radios, microphones and other antique ephemera, some more than a century old. Each of the robots has its own personality, infused with the kind of charm that Rivamonte’s whimsical touch brings out of the cold metal parts.



Cuban-born artist Steven Rodrig creates sculptures that hit the spot for art lovers, geeks and environmentalists alike. Made of recycled circuit boards and other computer parts, his remarkable creations range from insects to flowers to intricate cityscapes, rescuing PCBs from the landfills they would otherwise haunt for a few thousand years.

My goal is to manipulate each PCB into becoming an organic life form “~ Steven Rodrig

And on an important PSA aside, recycling your electronics is no small matter. Even if you can’t masterfully reassemble them into artistic creations, it doesn’t mean you can’t dispose of them responsibly — just consult this handy EPA guide to e-cycling.

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18 NOVEMBER, 2010

Visualizing Enlightenment-Era Social Networks


Why Mark Zuckerberg has nothing on Voltaire.

Social networking isn’t really a modern phenomenon. Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history.

Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time — an inspired cross-pollination of humanitarian scholarship and computer science. (An important larger trend thoughtfully examined in this New York Times article.)

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

They were able to create and to foster public opinion, critical thinking, something that was going on in one city or country would soon be known and discussed elsewhere. So there was a sort of freedom of information that was created thanks to these networks.” ~ Dan Edelstein

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, we highly recommend Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

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17 NOVEMBER, 2010

Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters by David Sacks


It’s no secret we’re obsessed with alphabet books. But a new book by David Sacks offers much more depth than the designerly eye candy the genre lends itself to.

Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters is an ambitious exploration of the pervasiveness of letters in everyday life, tracing our visual vocabulary to its roots in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Kanji characters and other ancient alphabets with rich illustrations, beautiful graphic design and typography, found objects, graffiti and more.

B from Linotype Zootype

The Zootype font, with its animal heads poking holes into the backs of letters, was created by Argentine designer Victor Garcia in 1997

E in lights

Composed of thousands of E-letters, rendered in a bright neon light, this image seems almost kinetic

F from Peter Blake's Alphabet

Pop artist Peter Blake is a master of typographic collages and found objects

Sacks explores the persona of each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, treating it as a separate symbol with its own design history and cultural legacy. It’s interesting to consider letters outside the context of text and words — suddenly, they come to life as conceptual creations that carry a powerful and complex aesthetic, symbolic and interpretational charge.

The letter N, rendered in grass

X from Pin Ups

From a provocative book shaping letters out of women's bodies represented by negative space

And for a special tickle of our appetite for creative derivatives of the London Tube map, this gem:

Q from A to Z

London-based designer and illustrator Tim Fishlock posterized Harry Beck's famous alphabet made of sections and lines from the London Underground map

From Braille to the Morse code to Muji alphabet ice cube moulds, Alphabets covers an astounding range of linguistic symbolism, giving the nostalgically familiar alphabet book of our childhoods an adult upgrade with remarkable design sophistication and aesthetic sensibility.

Images courtesy of The Guardian

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17 NOVEMBER, 2010

Denis Dutton’s Provocative Darwinian Theory of Beauty


Why the cultural conditioning of your eye has nothing on the evolutionary biology of it.

What, exactly, is beauty? This question has been occupying the minds of philosophers, anthropologists, neuroscientists, art critics and ordinary people alike for centuries of human history. And while many may subscribe to the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” theory, this, it turns out, may not be the case. Arts & Letters Daily editor and philosopher Denis Dutton counters this adage by presenting a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty in his excellent TED talk, animated by Andrew Park of The RSA — it’s the smartest thing you’ll watch this week, likely this month, and possibly this year.

Dutton argues:

I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.

Dutton debunks the commonly accepted academic explanation of beauty as something in the “culturally conditioned” eye of the beholder by demonstrating that beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, in fact travels across cultures rather easily, hinting at some deeper, universal underpinning of what we find beautiful. To explain this, Dutton reverse-engineers our present aesthetic taste by constructing a fascinating Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic expression and aesthetic taste

For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: The beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.

So is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No! It’s deep in our minds, it’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.

For a deeper dive into Dutton’s work and insights, be sure to grab his brilliant 2008 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. The New Yorker, in reviewing the book, aptly noted that Dutton has done for art what Steven Pinker has for language, philosophy and religion in offering a compelling Darwinian explanation. Sample it with this hour-long but very much worthwhile talk by Dutton, part of the Authors @ Google series.

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