Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Terror vs Terroir

 I've read several articles lately about the rapid increase in consumption in this country of anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants.  Sometimes I’m afflicted myself with sufficient anxiety about the general state of  the world, environment, and economy that I find it necessary to cut way back on news consumption. A good proportion of other people I know feel similarly.

In reading through comments in my journal regarding French wine-making and agriculture, I came across the French word, terroir. This word is not etymologically related to our word, terror, but it suddenly struck me that there is a less-than-obvious relationship between these two words, as unrelated as they might normally seem, especially since they're vocabulary in two different languages.

In French terroir is vaguely related to our word “territory,” the closest single-word translation to English being “region.” But in French, the meaning is wider and more complicated than that: it's often applied to agricultural regions, especially in relation to vineyards. It refers to the "tang" of the soil, to rural-ness and to the countryside. There's connection to family history and to tradition. One apt definition I found in Wikipedia is "a sense of place."

It strikes me that in the population of the United States of America, one source of anxiety, fear, terror certainly has to do with loss of terroir, sense of place, contact with the soil and related work. In the early part of the 20th century 95% of the economy was directly or indirectly related to agriculture. (40 percent of the work force in 1940 were farmers.) Nowadays the figure is under five percent. This is not to romanticize the hard work of farming, but simply to point out that at one time in our history our major devotion was to a fundamental aspect of physical reality, namely feeding ourselves.

In bringing up the idea of terroir, most usefully translated as "a sense of place," I'm suggesting that much of our ennui (another French-derived word that means, variously, unhappiness, anxiety, angst, etc) has to do with literally losing touch with reality. After all, we float in what I like to think of as a thin tissue of lies. Our lives are saturated with advertising, which amounts mostly to lies and fantasies about what buying things will do for us. Our government and the corporations who structure our lives lie to us about their intentions. The “American dream,” which we’ve been sold as an ideal for decades is just that, a dream, a fabrication, which nowadays is increasingly impossible for most Americans to attain.

Furthermore, unlike in earlier decades, the hardware and software “tools” that dominate our work and recreation rapidly grow obsolete and must be replaced at relatively short intervals. Any skill we acquire in connection to using those tools needs to be endlessly relearned.

Old buildings, often beautifully built, are torn down and replaced with new ones, more in style with the times. Farmland and woodland morphs into housing developments. Basically, we have no firm ground to stand on. On top of that, whatever news or other information you read on the Internet is of questionable truth. Photos and even video are easily manipulated. We can no longer even count on the climate to remain constant.We live on screens, immersed for hours per day in this virtual world of questionable verity.

Is there any doubt that this constant flux afflicts us with anxiety, ennui, or whatever brand of unhappiness you care to mention? We truly no longer are blessed with a sense of place, since even the places we live change so rapidly that they’re unrecognizable in a few short years. When I first moved to this town of Bellingham thirty-eight years ago, you could drive from one end to the other during rush hour in about ten minutes. There’s not a chance of doing that now.

How do we cope with this groundlessness I’m describing? It affects us in all domains: physical place, work, climate, social custom. Some change is exciting and desirable, but with total absence of firm ground to stand on, how do we know where to go?

One way I've discovered to cope with this loss of a sense of place is to withdraw from such distractions as social networking, many of the internet news sources, and any situation that exposes me to advertising. Stay away from malls, in other words. Limit exposure to the news, especially that of the “mainstream” variety. Gardening is one good way to recover a sense of place. Being outside, preferably on a regular basis in some relatively wild place is another one. Lacking a patch of ground to cultivate a few tomatoes (I once grew them in an alley), I’ve found that there’s great satisfaction and a sense of groundedness that accrues in nurturing vegetables or flowers in pots, either indoors or out.

Oddly enough, I've found a certain reassuring sense of grounding in watching films made in the years before TV was widespread. Some of these films seem laughably quaint, but it's interesting and comforting to see portrayals of life as it was before we became completely lost in a world of electronic gadgetry. It helps that I was born in 1944, so actually lived during a pre micro-elecronic era.

Of course this piece is written from the point of view of someone who mostly grew up as a middle-class citizen of the USA. However, I’ve done enough international traveling, including 3 years of residence in Belgium as a high-school student, to understand that many people who can now read such material on the Internet live in unimaginably different circumstances, perhaps with more “grounded reality”in their lives than they welcome. Still, from my own reading, it’s apparent to me that conditions in most of the world have changed radically enough, often for the worse, that the challenge of coping with loss of firm ground and a sense of place is a challenge for a good proportion of citizens anywhere in the world.
Kevin Jones

Friday, April 3, 2015

Second Annual Summer Writing Workshop

 We are excited to announce the second year of our week-long summertime creative writing intensive with New York-based writer Whitney Wimbish. 

This workshop is a chance for six women, ages 17 and up, to practice and hone their craft in an encouraging and safe environment. Each writer will create and polish a work of original prose and help her fellow writers to do the same. The class will include workshop-style critiques in which students give and receive feedback – a component of virtually all creative writing MFA programs across the country – and will end with an evening reading at which the writers will present their work to the public.

The class will be held at Mindport July 13 – July 17, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The public reading will be held Saturday, July 18, at 7 p.m. in Mindport’s fine arts gallery and will be followed by a reception.


To apply, please email Whitney at whitneyck@gmail.com with brief answers to the following:
* Why would you benefit from a writing workshop?
* What would you contribute to a writing workshop group?
* What do you plan to work on in the workshop? (Answers could include a first-person essay, a fictional short story, a chapter of a novel-in-progress, a critical essay, or an experimental work that combines many genres.)
* Please briefly include any additional thoughts you’d like to share.

The deadline for applications is Friday, May 1. Whitney will notify applicants of placement by Friday, May 15.

The cost of the class is $60. Following notification, a $30 deposit is required to hold a place in the class. The remainder is due the first day of the workshop.

Questions? Email Whitney at whitneyck@gmail.

Whitney Curry Wimbish is a journalist and creative writer in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in BOMB, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Financial Times, The Cambodia Daily, and elsewhere. She is winner of a Poynter fellowship for journalists and an honorable mention in two Glimmer Train fiction contests. She holds a BA from The Evergreen State College and an MFA in creative writing from The New School in New York.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?

On the island where I live, a number of young people have performed the decorations you will see represented in a collection of photos that will hang in Mindport’s gallery commencing the third week of January, 2015. The original work illuminates a long sea wall of grey concrete slabs that protects a shoreline road from the wave action of Northern Puget Sound. One of these creative doodlers referred to their graphic exhibition on a local computer forum as “art.” Since graphic work on walls has always interested me, I photographed a number of these marks, which, in a cranky mood, I would view simply as vandalism. With the help of a photo processing program on my computer I selectively enhanced them by choice of framing and great amplification of color and contrast.

I don’t believe the resulting photographs are much different in character than certain others of mine that were recorded with the camera pointed at randomly peeling paint, diverse materials etched by the elements, or weathered geological formations. Whatever the “canvas,” all the original marks and patterns are created and/or further enhanced by natural forces acting on surfaces; sun, wind, freezing, rain and sometimes wave action. In the case of the graphic work we’re currently discussing, the original paints were laid down by the semi-random forces of young minds and hands, apparently being spontaneous, with little discernable plan. The images I make of such subject matter, including these, are commonly  not about the actual objects pictured, but are about abstract patterns to which my imagination or emotions respond. Often I manipulate such images to make these patterns more obvious, as I’ve done in the case of this graphic work.

If the creators of this work call it art, is it? If I frame and enhance it in various ways, whose “art” is that? A collaboration? If we uncharitably consider the raw efforts to be simply vandalism, do the modifications I perform on it turn it into art? These are intriguing questions focusing on what art is, what it isn’t, and what might be good art, bad art or non-art.

Much work of innovative historical artists, including graffiti art, was initially unappreciated by the public. Work that sells for millions today barely kept the artists who created it eating during their own era. What happened? How is it that the public judgment about such creative endeavor can change so radically, sometimes in a relatively short time? To me one of the most alluring mysteries that make creativity such a fascinating field of study and contemplation is the way it interacts with taste and what is considered valuable or worthless or of little interest at all in a given era. I have no definitive answers and mostly negotiable opinions about this myself, and hence leave it for you to ponder as you view these photographs.

Kevin Jones

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gallery Show: The Language of Rock

A new selection of my photos will be hanging in Mindport's gallery for the next couple months. These images were collected on the Oregon Coast in the vicinity  of the towns of Gold Beach and Cannon Beach, where weathering clay and crumbling stone cliffs have deposited wide varieties and sizes of lithic artifacts on the beach. In other words, pebbles, rocks, stones, and boulders, many of them bearing markings betraying eons of geologic history.

Geology was one subject I studied for a full year during my time as a college freshman. For a period I thought I might care to take on geology  as a profession, but I realized eventually that my interest was not academic but aesthetic. Besides that, the oil industry is probably the greatest single employer of geologists, so I'm retrospectively grateful not to have made that choice, considering the recent depredations of that industry.

I find it difficult or impossible to articulate verbally what attracts me to geology, which is part of the point of these photographs. As you might be able to tell by looking at them, rocks speak to me metaphorically. Perhaps, having grown up as a military brat who moved every three years or less of my young life, I find reassuring the primordial permanence of geological structure, the knowledge that its character has been formed over millions of years of crushing, crumbling, melting, congealing, twisting, and folding through the actions of orogeny, wind, flood, and freezing. These forces all leave their marks on the face of mother earth which invite interpretation by my own imagination.

Kevin Jones

Saturday, September 27, 2014

New Exhibit: Combination Lock

As a kid I took a lot of things apart to see how they worked: clocks, radios, motors, various mechanized toys. Usually they didn't get put back together again, but most of the time they were castoffs anyway so that there was no loss and plenty of gain for me in the form of learning how things worked. One device I never did take apart was a combination lock, mostly because locks are designed to be difficult to disassemble, for obvious reasons. Hence, I've never educated myself as to exactly how a combination lock operates. Until now.

Recently I paid a visit to Matthias Wandel's woodworking site on the web. I discovered this site back when I was building Mindport's pipe organ, and found a number of  useful ideas that I incorporated into my instrument. It's a good place to look for exhibit ideas, not to speak of a large collection of esoteric woodworking wisdom. Upon looking through the various wooden gadgets that Wandel has designed, I ran across plans for an operating combination lock mechanism, all fabricated from wood. For $7 I downloaded these plans and built my own version, which you can now explore at Mindport.

Kevin Jones

Friday, September 19, 2014

Currently in our Gallery

Thao Thanh Le
Bellingham's Plein Air Artists will be showing their paintings in Mindport's gallery September 19 through October 5th.

They submitted the following statement:

We paint from life in order to learn how to see. If you can paint light, you can paint everything under the sun.
          --Frank LaLumia, PAPA Signature Member

Painting from life is a pursuit unlike any other painting technique. It challenges artists to concentrate every sensory nerve on the information in front them. They absorb it all, from sight to sound, from temperature to atmosphere, and then channel those feelings from head to hand, re-creating the vision in paints on paper or canvas.

The roots of painting from life are found in 19th-century Europe. Englishman John Constable believed the artist should forget about formulas and trust his own vision in finding truth in nature. To find that truth, he made sketches outdoors, then elaborated on them in the studio. Around the same time in France, in a small village outside Paris called Barbizon, a group of artists focused their attentions on peasant life and the natural world surrounding it. Like Constable, Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet challenged conventions of the day, choosing everyday subjects rather than the traditional cliches and presenting them in natural settings, the information for which came from sketches made in the field.

 These realists, as they came to be called, laid the groundwork for the mid-19th century revolution in France that took painting from life to its logical conclusion. Lead by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas, Auguste Renoir, et. al. the impressionists espoused the belief that you should trust your eyes. Using newly developed theories of how the eye physically registers color, they maintained that what you saw in nature was not form, but rather light on form. And light could be conveyed by color. To prove their theories, they took their paint tubes and easels outdoors, where they re-created the world as colors which suggested light. Rebuffed at first for what appeared to be unfinished paintings, the impressionist vision soon became a standard for truthfully conveying the outdoor experience.

Painting en plein air (in the open air) would forever change how we see the world. Artists in the United States were attracted to the concept, and many, like Californian Guy Rose, traveled to France to study with Monet. Suddenly, places with remarkable light were of particular interest to painters, including the both the East and West Coasts, and the American Southwest, where painting colonies formed. The goal of teachers and students alike was to capture the light and colors peculiar to the place.

Today, painting from life is a pursuit that continues to challenge the finest artists in the world, as well as the group from Studio UFO here in Bellingham.  This August will be our 9thth Annual Downtown Bellingham Plein Air Paint Out & Exhibition (PAPO).  We have an average of 30 artists that participate.  The Bellingham PAPO is different in that it focuses on the downtown core and not a natural or wilderness setting.  It is our mission to raise awareness about plein air painting, to show the community how many artists are here in Bellingham and to show the artists' interpretation of downtown Bellingham.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Automation as Golem

Early Telegraph Device, Spark Museum, Bellingham, WA
I've been involved in electronics since an early age. I was accomplishing simple radio repairs at age 9, earned my first ham radio license at age 14, and built more than one transmitter by the time I'd graduated from high school. In those days (I  turned 14 in 1958), many people my age earned radio licenses, and many of us built our own gear simply because that was the only way we could afford it.

As  time passed, I built more and more equipment, mostly associated with ham radio. At age 19, after one year of college, I spent 15 months working on an oceanographic ship in the Indian Ocean. I was responsible for keeping the ship's electronic equipment in operation: echo sounders, radar, and a few pieces of laboratory gear. Upon returning home, I returned to school for couple years, vacillating between arts & sciences and engineering. A&S was too crazy, and engineering too linear. That was in the mid-60s.

Eventually I ended up working as an electronics technician, then as a research engineer in the radio astronomy branch of the Astrogeophysics Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I'd previously been a student. One of my jobs there was to automate the tracking mechanism that controlled two twenty-ton radio telescope antennas that ran on circular rails.  My system read punched cards in a modified IBM card reader that weighed about 600 pounds. One card with new solar coordinates coded into it fed through the reader every 15 minutes and the electronics moved the antennas in accordance to them. Solar radio emissions were recorded on a chart recorder identical to the ones used to record water depth during my shipboard duty in the Indian Ocean.

That was the first time I'd been involved in automating anything. Previous to that time, the antennas had been moved at quarter hourly intervals by a grad student reading solar pointing data from a table. Hence the device I built eliminated one job.

By that time I was 25 years old. The antenna pointing system whetted my appetite for automating things, one way or another. I built a porch light turner-onner to turn on the porch light of our house when I came home after dark. It included a timer to keep the light on for a couple minutes before turning it off. That was before commercially made motion detectors were on the market. My version used a photo transistor to detect the light of my headlights.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about automation. When I later became a potter, I fired my kiln just a few times before realizing that here was a function that could easily be automated. I built three different versions of kiln programmers, the last one being completely software mediated via the first notebook computer, the Tandy 100. I had it configured so I could call the computer from a remote phone and get data on the current firing stage and temperature read out to me via Morse code.

That was fun. A few more years went by, along with various other electronic projects, one involving a joint effort with a friend, to build an electronically controlled espresso machine. It was operated by a microprocessor, which by that time was common and widely available device. The project took us about 8 years to complete, during which time I learned a lot about microprocessors, programming, etc, enough that it eventually led to building the wave music machine now on display at Mindport. That was the product of an obsessive year of work, during which I actually injured myself by writing software code, ultimately 30 pages of it.

Those lengthy sessions of coding while sitting in a straight-backed chair and staring at a computer screen culminated in a seriously inflamed muscle in my pelvis, which kept me immobile for several weeks. It set me to thinking about the obsessive quality of the programming work I was doing, and was my first clue that there was an emotional component to my intense interest in programming and automating things. It led to questions about the role played by electronic equipment in the larger world, not just my own.

Wave music was the first exhibit I built for Mindport. . . except I didn't know it was for Mindport because it was 1994 and Mindport didn't exist yet. After Mindport opened in 1995, I installed "Wave Music" there, then built the "House of Mystery," which incorporated two microprocessors to control its lighting functions. I could have done that with simple toggle switches, but I wanted it to cycle its lighting automatically and detect when someone came near so it could prepare itself to interact with a visitor. This incorporation of electronics into what was basically an art piece really set me on the path on considering the meanings behind automation, not only personal meanings but meanings in society at large.

Jump ahead, nearly to the present. A year or so ago Mindport began subscribing to "Make" magazine, which is devoted to. . . what else but making things. As time has passed the magazine seems to have evolved from one devoted to making a large variety of things, such as wooden gadgets and toys, plus a few electronically related devices, to one much more focused on high tech gadgetry, and robots of various sorts, including drone aircraft. I wondered why our societal obsession with robots seemed to be escalating, and I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with the trend.

At the same time techno-triumphalists (a word I believe was coined by James Howard Kunstler) were beginning to talk about "The Singularity," which is a kind of techno-rapture that they believe will occur when humans have fully integrated themselves with machinery, to the point that we can upload ourselves to computers and live forever.

My candid opinion on this subject is this: HOGWASH!

After years of deep immersion in electronics, computers, programming, and then art, I've begun to understand something about the meaning of our societal obsession with electronic gadgetry, and especially robots. A clue came when it occurred to me that in my own process of automating things I was, in a sense, creating crude proxies of my own self.

There's an archetypal figure in Jewish mythology called a golem. I'll leave it to you to read the entry on the Golem found in Wikipedia. Basically it was a being formed from mud, then magically animated. If you remember the story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, its theme runs parallel. In the latter story, the sorcerer goes away to attend outside business. His apprentice, an amateur in magical operations, animates a broom to carry water for him. The broom goes out control because the apprentice has not learned the spells necessary to de-animate the broom. He attempts to stop it by chopping it into bits, but all the fragments jump up and each begins carrying water until the apprentice is swimming for his life.

The story of the Golem or that of The Sorcerer's Apprentice are part of our cultural mythology. Many people think of myths as just stories we tell to amuse ourselves, with no relation to any rational truth. However myths are usually descriptions of deep patterns that run in our psyches, our "collective unconscious."

One significant part of the Golem mythology is that the Golem is made out of mud or clay. You might ask what that has to do with electronic technology. Everything. Look at the computer upon which you're reading this. Every component in it was dug out of the earth: the oil from which the plastic case and circuit boards are made, all the carbon, copper, silver, gold, and rarer elements that make up the electronic circuitry and screen. All were dug from the earth.

In many ways this machinery we've built constitutes a Golem that has or is rapidly taking on a life of its own. We've so thoroughly incorporated this electronic equipment, formed from earth, into our lives that it actually controls us, not the other way around. Consider what would happen if the Internet was put out of commission by hackers, a solar storm, or other disaster. The country, or the world, in fact, outside of the rare indigenous tribe still living sustainably off the land, would come to a screeching halt. It would be like suddenly destroying an animal's nervous system. Instant death. We are completely in the power of the machinery.

Certain  people, Google’s Ray Kurzweil, for example, enthusiastically predict a day when we're fully integrated with machines, possibly having "uploaded" ourselves into them.  But how many machines still are viable after being in operation for eighty or a hundred years? How many of them can climb a fourteen thousand foot peak running on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a couple quarts of water?

Whoa! What are we thinking, and why?

Kurzweil and other high-powered technologists, such as Marvin Minsky of M.I.T. , Bill Gates, and others, have indeed made many valuable contributions to the technosphere. However the tech cheering section seems oblivious to the fact that every technological innovation invariably creates a whole raft of new problems, which we then attempt to solve by introducing yet more technology. Kurzweil earned a B.S. in computer science and literature at M.I.T. One wonders what literature he actually read, or whether he took other courses that focus on the human condition. Wikipedia informs us that in high school:  “. . .he often held onto his class textbooks to seemingly participate, but instead, focused on his own projects which were hidden behind the book.”

The latter quote lends credence to my belief that technologists are the LEAST qualified people to be guiding the future of the world. So many of them apparently have very little grounding in subjects such as history, social studies, anthropology, psychology or other humanities. If they do, they act oblivious to any truths they might have garnered there. Do we want our lives determined by people obsessively interested in technology to the exclusion of everything else?  Should we do what they believe is good for us without question?  (Of course, we love the toys they invent, partially because we're a young culture, even adolescent, as Robert Bly argued in his book, The Sibling Society, but it doesn't necessarily mean all the toys are good for us.)

We're in a jobs crisis. That's because either the jobs have been sent overseas where labor is cheaper, or they've been taken over by machines. I eliminated at least one job myself by building a machine. Granted, it was a pretty tedious job, turning a couple antennas every fifteen minutes. But it did provide support for one grad student who could study or read while doing his or her job.

The computerized espresso machine I helped build eliminated the need for a barista to possess any particular skill in making espresso coffee, which means if a restaurant owned one of these machines, they wouldn't have to train anyone in the subtleties of making espresso with an old fashioned (beautiful) manually operated machine. One more job down the drain. It probably increased espresso "productivity" and the profits of machine owners, but was perhaps not the gift to the world that my engineering partner and I anticipated at the time. Incidentally, I never made any money off that enterprise. But that's a whole other story.

All I've written above leads to no answers but only to questions, and possibly a couple realizations. The biggest and most interesting question to me is, why this preoccupation with replacing our own functions with machinery? Which leads to this one: once we're replaced ourselves with machinery, what are we FOR, what do we DO, what's the purpose of our lives? A few of us who are artists and scientists can keep themselves happily amused creating art or exploring the universe. What about the rest? I've argued that there's an artist in everyone, but I've also known plenty of people with absolutely no interest in art OR science. What happens to those who like to build, maintain, and repair useful things; the people who are the human face and life of our businesses and daily transactions?

It seems to me that those who go to extremes in advocating or believing that machines can effectively replace the functions of human beings have a very limited concept of what it means to be human, and about what characteristics are desirable in a human-centered society. They possess a stunted view of their own essence. This was not an academic realization for me, but it was one that my own years-long immersion in machinery, to the point that it afflicted me with a physical ailment, woke me up to. We are not machines. We are not even LIKE machines. Machines are modeled after a very limited understanding of our own being, and that conception of our being has its own history, grown over time into a set of unconscious beliefs about ourselves that, should we penetrate them deeply, might allow us to expand our being in unexpected ways. Such understanding would also enable us to chart a course for ourselves and our society that could culminate in a much happier existence for everyone.

Post Script: You will notice that I've drawn little or no distinction between automating processes and creating robots. A robot is simply an ultimate form of automation, perhaps more autonomous than other forms. An automated machine or process is a limited form of robot. I’m not arguing that some, or even many, processes shouldn’t be automated, but that we need to widen our understanding of the function our lives serve and consider more deeply the meaning of whatever automation we eventually accomplish, not to speak of how much we really want machinery mediating our daily existence.

Kevin Jones
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