Notes : 02/06 - 08/06


July 9, 2006

The wildly varying and flourishing flora and fauna of Japanese character design can be invigorating. Sometimes being a fine artist seems like a strange career choice when I could be making weird fluorescent creatures for candy packaging. More people would see those works and they might be more appreciative. The positioning of art is predicated, for better or worse, on a certain kind of uniqueness. On the positive end, a work of art provides a stage or environment wherein the user (to borrow from computer terminology) can imaginatively activate new stimulus. Or, a work of art is a space to play. On the negative end, art (or any creative stimulus) can be a shallow, repetitive representation of ubiquitous, uninteresting images. Beer advertising has this down cold.* But if an airbrushed alien monster in a plastic bag is commonplace then what is unique?

That question is so rhetorical as to be uninteresting, but it brings to mind another criteria that comes into play when I experience art : do I want to put this work in my pocket? I think this is a remnant of my childhood toy days. The toy carried everywhere earned the status of an object that became a lens for other environments. The toy-in-the-pocket meant that even if I had to go to the grocery store (or undertake some onerous task with a parent), my hero could explore the cavernous cities of boxes and cans that make up a store aisle. Art aspires to that status as well : to be a necessary part of a user's world. A work of art yearns for the same magic of the product, which is to come into being new and unknown but at the same time vital and necessary. Art provokes the marketer's dream question : "how did I ever live without this?"

The images above are characters from children's television shows. It's interesting that "content-free" creations, like the steroided advertisements that are most cartoons, could produce such curlicued, baroque offspring as these mechano-anima-human hybrids. I definitely would carry any of the above in my pocket.

* - Bud Light nails the "swoosh around mid-weight, sans-serif, italicized letters" that became the generic 90s logo de riguer. The icing on the cake would be if Bud Light wasn't the first example of the "genre". Beer advertising also features the same tall, blond global bodies in all of their advertising.

June 1, 2006

So YouTube is the new Napster, new EMail, new MySpace, new Internet hotness. I hate to link to another YouTube video, but this puts my previous robot video (check Feb. 15) to shame!

In this video, Mazinga and Gundam battle as actual real-live robots! If you stick with the video, you'll see a young boy controlling Mazinga with his arm movements! I was reading a recent NYTimes article about cell phone movie design and an MTV executive noted that going to South Korea to observe video phones was not like going to the future, it was going to the future. This feels the same way.

YouTube link (couldn't find it on a page, so this is a full-size Flash movie : you may want to resize your browser)

May 19, 2006

On an altered anatomy note, I just found a link to this home-brew, scratch-built Golem costume. Massive amounts of foam and glue sticks add up to a really great "working" costume. The arms in particular are built way out of scale with ordinary human anatomy, but they are essential to the new "character" that is created.

YouTube link.

May 17, 2006

I've been gone a bit, as I've been busy with an upcoming move. Grad school is over and it's time to be part of the slightly more normal working world. Maybe I'll post more on that later, but for now, let's just say I've been busy packing.

I have two links right up front to artists who work with altered anatomies, and as a bonus of sorts, don't seem to be part of the art mainstream. One I've been saving as my own private super-find, but I figure it's time to share - Willie Takatosi of St. Louis, Missouri, makes articulated action figures completely out of paper! The superhero action figures reproduce all the normal movement of a store-bought figure. But what's another level of amazement altogether, is that Willie makes Transformers as well, which TRANSFORM! They're made out of PAPER!

I'm definitely getting Willie in a show someday. Here's the only link I've found with his work.

Next is a doll maker. I recently discovered Japanese ningyo or super-articulated wooden dolls. If you want LOTS of links to sources about this, check out this comprehensive Metafilter link. The work of Marina Bychkova seems to be in a similar vein. Marina's alabaster figures loom out of the fog of a fairy tale. She spends hundreds of hours with meticulous bead-working besides the wig-making, painting and other jewelry work. Here is her site. The ningyo links and Ms. Bychkova's work both include anatomically correct dolls and so are NSFW.

Finally, I did my thesis defense. The thesis had its early emergence in this blog, and some of the copy here survived whole in my paper/talk. One of the interesting moments came during the question/answer period. Tobin Siebers drew a relation between aesthetic surgery and its quest for beauty and car customization and its quest for power (and isn't beauty power?). Both are extensions of the body, both involve aesthetic prostheses that extend the body (cars on a pretty large scale). We pondered on what sort of analogue exists for being a voyeur of car customization (I proposed "Pimp My Ride" as an analogue for a reality show like "The Swan"). I think there are a whole raft of self-transformation shows, running the gamut from Martha Stewart to Dr. Phil to Extreme Makeover : Home Edition. We watch these shows for the tantalizing taste of power such wholesale transformation promises. The question is, why are we feeling so powerless?

So in that spirit I present an altered anatomy of power that I'm finding quite irresistible (see pic above).

WHY do bikes have to be dangerous?

Pic from

April 11, 2006

I was talking to an art student this morning about Barry McGee, as McGee is an important influence on this student's work. The student was concerned about how to talk to other artists and art teachers about McGee as coming from "outside" the traditional art world. (McGee's appearance in Art 21 and the "Drawing Now" show puts him smack in the middle of the Barney&Whitney crowd, but I knew what the student was getting at.) One thing that interests me about McGee, as someone who thinks about and feels passionate about pop culture is the divide between doing something well (good pop culture) and doing that thing maniacally well (the art world). As creative image production is globalized, that is, as we see commercial images from Japan, Russia, Ireland, Iran, etc., and art becomes more interactive and more inclusive, how do I continue to justify the pursuit of the monastically well-produced item?

April 9, 2006

An interesting aspect of an altered anatomy* is its ability to become an archetype. As an archetype, it can be picked up and mutated and manipulated in other contexts, or even other cultures. It was quite surprising to me (perhaps given my inexperience with manga, as detailed below) to see that Cuchulainn, a rather ancient Irish hero, was utilized in a manga titled Youseiou, or Fairy King. A detailed synopsis of his appearance can be found here, with an intriguing picture here. To compare the Cuchulainn from the manga to one by say, Simon Bisley (link is alright, but the site is definitely not safe for work), the manga Cu has been transformed to fit certain broad precepts of Japanese comics and pop culture. Cuchulainn here looks quite a bit like Berg Katse, from Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman (or G-Force or Battle of the Planets or Eagle Riders for Gen-X Americans). Cuchulainn has been elongated and thinned out, given long straight hair and flowing clothes (more medieval knight style than 8th century Irish brigand). The exaggerated eyelashes that seem to scream "androgynous psycho!"** in Japanese anime or manga are present if you look closely. There are more Cu-manga pics if you go to the synopsis page and click the links. Meanwhile in the Bis's pics, Cuchulainn looks a bit more like the Incredible-Hulk-Transformer described in The Tain Bo Cualnge. It does say more about mid-90s fantasy art than any actual picture of Cuchulainn (especially as there is no such thing), but the picture seems to match the description in the texts - muscles gorging, heads-a-flyin', gore-a-plenty. The wild, spikey hair, in particular links the image to the Tain texts. Cuchulainn favored a spear, the Gae Bolg, but Simon Bisley's drawings are of a character he created called Slaine, only based on Cuchulainn - so we can allow for some slippage.

On a related note, here is a relatively thorough catalogue of international heroes. The site's compiler tried to stick mostly to those who could be classified as "superheroes" so there is likely more to be discovered amongst the comics of other countries. It would be interesting to chart which country's comics productions are dominated by superheroes. Is it just the US?

* - An altered anatomy, by my definition, is one that begins as a recognizable form, and bears the traces of such an origin, but transforms through shifting and changing into a body other or beyond its beginning.

** - We are watching "The Vision of Escaflowne" on loan from Autumn and Andre right now (I'm not sure if Autumn and Andre are safe for work. I don't know if they're safe for anything. They're just not safe people! :) ). My favorite character is probably Dilandau, he of the long eyelashes, pageboy haircut and really androgynous voice. I, in fact, took awhile before deciding he was a man. Maybe s/he's neither! Although to be fair, Allan Schezar, a hero of Escaflowne, is also pretty foppish.

March 26, 2006

Recently, Sarah Buckius loaned me some terrific books on Japanese pop culture, including Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Although my copy is from the late 80s, it is still broadly informative about the scope of genres produced in manga. One of the most interesting notes to me from the books is a throwaway side text (from page 156, for those reading along at home) noting that robot comics are considered by some in Japan to be "trashy." This comes as no surprise (nor is it too much of a concern, as I am from the Jules Pfeiffer school when it comes to comics status as "trash"). But it is amusing alongside manga appropriately named "Mr. Toilet". In a scene reproduced in the book, Mr. Toilet waxes eloquent on the fundamental equality of humans when people trapped in an elevator are reduced to using the floor as a toilet.

Paul Pope is a major influence on my work. He spent a few years early in his career working for Kodansha, which was, during his tenure, Japan's largest publisher of comics. Pope blends the romantic, textured brush work of early American newspaper strips (like "Terry and the Pirates") with the action-oriented page design and fluidity of manga. These forces collide in superb science fiction series like "THB" or "Heavy Liquid." If anyone can help me ease into manga (make suggestions!) working from Paul Pope, my EMail is elsewhere on this site.

Soon, I'll address bodies that cross over into Japanese pop culture, such as Spider-man or even Cuchulainn.

February 27, 2006

The power to change our very bodies is becoming increasingly accessible to the hands of the average person through plastic surgery and genetic engineering. We are confronted with the very real question of whether we can maintain reality in the teeth of these changes. Are we the same person with a different face? It seems like we can answer with an obvious "no" and an obvious "yes." The obvious "no" answer would point out how much our social interactions are influenced by our appearance. The color of our skin, the color of our hair, the size of our muscles, or lack of size of our fat influences our intersections with others in ways both obvious and subtle. We must still in all earnestness convince each other that minimal genetic differences should not produce maximal discord. The obvious "yes" answer (to this question of our consistency, whether our self can subside through changes in our very structure) would point out that we face near constant change in this contemporary world. Our beliefs are at times surprisingly stable. Neither of these options interest me as much as the more quotidian, visceral and unsettling possibility of glancing at a window reflection and seeing someone else. I am increasingly convinced that our approach to the world, while well-reasoned and complex and necessarily learned, is predicated in so many ways in our sense of our bodies - how big it is, what it can do, what it looks like, what it feels like. These are areas that language cannot fully touch - but I leave this topic by describing the buzzing vertigo I occasionally encounter when I see myself from an unusual vantage point such as a store security camera. Now, the handsome, square-jawed face I shave in the morning is a bobbing helium balloon of a noggin perched precariously atop a lean-at-best body.

I wrote parts of these thoughts in Logan International Airport waiting to return to Detroit. I awoke before dawn and huddled out into the cold and snow to be whisked to the airport. My body was dissected through security. I removed my shoes, wallet, cell phone, iPod, keys, hearing aid batteries, two jackets, laptop, gadget case from my person and arrayed them in trays for screening. I strolled through the metal detector completely ungirded. The sun was shining because it was a clear blue sky. I had had plenty of water. I put in my iPod recovered from security (the guard rubbed the felt of its carrying case admiringly) and listened to The Pogues. I pushed through my thoughts with clarity because my body was ready. That's one of art's many roles in the academy, to say "don't forget your body."

This does return me to a consideration of my work and art itself. My work does not flow so much from a meditation on culture or an epistemological rumination on embodiment (which I guess would look like "how do we know how we know who we are", which sounds confusing). Nor does it truly derive from an exploration of picture plane principles, although that's important. Both of these processes do happen. But, the work really comes from desire itself. The want to want. I am torn between my wise mind, which tells me that the enlightened being should seek peace with the body, and my desiring mind, which grabs me and pulls me toward ever-dizzying heights of imagined and transformed anatomies. These are bodies for me. Religions and philosophies preach the extinguishing of desire, but I wonder now if that isn't the extinguishment of the human. Perhaps that puritanical need to snuff out want is a desire itself. The desire to live without life.

February 15, 2006

Another item I've found from BoingBoing lately (they've been on a roll, haven't they?) is this video of a working, transforming robot from robotics developers in Japan. Here's a link to a YouTube video. This gave me chills when I saw it - it's eerie!

* - It's interesting on watching it again, notice that the robot has a set sequence of swinging its arms as it transforms. I assume that's because it doesn't have "muscles", or at least not as many controllable ones as a human. So, it needs to position its arms to even out its weight as it transforms, to maintain balance. It can't rely on, say, tightening its abdomen, so its arms don't topple it over. It must position them in balance with other transformations that are occuring. As a sometime toy designer, I'm very familiar with the issues of making vertebrates balance.

February 13, 2006

I just found a link to what looked to be a fascinating show at the Japan Society in New York : Little Boy : The Art of Japan's Exploding Subculture. It was originally linked from BoingBoing through this illustration of the inner workings of a gamera. Or kaiju. I am in no way an anime fan of any repute, but I was most taken by this image from Neon Genesis Evangelion. I guess I might head down to Hollywood Video and see if I can make any sense of the show. (As an aside : the vaunted pacing of anime and manga, I often find to be noodling. There's a place for it, such as in the drawn-out moments of coming face-to-face with the sublime in Akira, but usually cutting back and forth between two people flying, then sweating, then running, then being jaw-dropped confused can be boring. I think I prefer the screen/page design elements more).

I am working on a thesis about altered anatomies. I have the Irish hero/transformer Cuchulainn as my lodestone, but I want to be broadly cross-cultural in my approach, if not in the written thesis, then in my down-the-road knowledge about the topic. So, I am beginning with three areas that I am familiar with from my own background and growing up. One is Irish/Appalachian stories, such as Finn McCumhail, Cuchulainn and Appalachian Jack. Another is the universe of Marvel Comics, in particular (for transformer purposes) Spider-man and the Hulk. Lastly, is Japanese big robot culture. I am of an age to have grown up with Transformers from Hasbro (nee Takara).

I am looking for a variety of explanatory/explicatory sources on Japanese robots, as that is the cultural terrain I most need a map to. I live in the land of Spider-man and I come from the land of Cuchulainn. The land of Astro Boy is foreign to me, except through the aforementioned toys. (And Gatchaman/G-Force/Battle of the Planets, but I will make that another post.)

What I assume is the catalog text for the show (back to "Little Boy", now) is linked on the Web site. I found this to be a fascinating read, deep-mining a territory scraped at in the introduction to Super #1 Robot. The thrust of the writer, Julie Rauer, is that the monsters, robots, aliens, battlesuits, and techno-explosion of Japanese popular arts fills a wound left by the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rauer approaches these eruptions of art more specifically through the lens of the war photography which recorded the disfigurements and atrocities which trailed in Fat Man and Little Boy's wake. Those whose flesh was not burned or torn off were left to wither in the eye of radioactive contamination. These disfigurements guide the altered anatomies of Japan's popular culture, particularly it's fascination with giant monsters whose skin is covered with scales, wrinkles, spikes and other perturbations of the flesh. Godzilla, the most well-known of Japan's kaiju here in the US, carries a decidedly direct origin : atomic weapons tests disturb him from his slumber at the bottom of the ocean. Japan's military might is no match for the rampaging lizard as he scours the countryside with flaming breath and lightning eyes. Clearly, Rauer has revealed a resonant vein, to tie an idiosyncratic set of pop culture phenomenon to a cataclysmic moment in history. The binary approach to transhumans in Japanese pop culture (evil avenging monsters versus guardian robots) may very well stem from the twin prongs technology offered in the postwar period. On the one hand it was the cause of the most devastating attack fathomable. On the other hand, technology offered an opportunity to rebuild in the face of defeat. Rauer even goes so far as to suggest that these manifestations are the result of a "genetic scar", which I read as a persistent, embedded psychological state.

However, I think there are other threads to trace, particularly as pop-culture transhumans are not limited to contemporary Japanese society. These "little boys" turned rampaging war gods also signal a dislodging of contemporary men from entrenched gender roles. Not only are men adrift from traditional masculine roles, they are powerless to reclaim or reinvent those roles in any meaningful way. In Japan, the "salaryman" is the Everyman, just as in the US, the iconic contemporary job takes place in a grey cubicle in front of a glowing computer screen. I worked in an office for a few years where the owner encouraged us to "work hard and play hard." I never found hitting computer keys to be working hard, anymore than laughing at a mild golf joke was playing hard.

Anyone who has spent any time with superhero comics would recognize the archetype of the powerless male who accesses a transhuman state. Clark Kent is a nebbish-to-the-point-of-dazed reporter. Bruce Banner is an impotent scientist cowered by his father-in-law. Bruce Wayne is a lout and cad coasting on his wealth. Peter Parker is perhaps the most interesting as his human state is both closely linked to his altered state and hits closest to home for the stereotypical comic nerd : he's a know-it-all, who alienates his high-school peers. Each of these men revenges* his wrongs through costume (the visual element of the transhuman) and power beyond normal limits.

*The idea of revenge was largely kept in check in the 50s to 70s period, but received its most loathsome extreme in the antiheroes Wolverine, Lobo, Grimrod and Venom, et al. in the 80s and 90s.