Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Imagination and Science

Science or imagination?
Every couple years I'm in the habit of asking myself what we're doing at Mindport, or what Mindport is all about now. This time the subject came up as I was lying in bed half asleep. A phrase popped into my head, "Mindport is a museum of art and imagination." My tendency has been to think of Mindport as a museum integrating art and science, which I mentioned in an essay on my staff page.

I've written a good deal about art and science being two ways of perceiving the world, one looking at it from the viewpoint of the emotions, and the other from that of the rational or logical mind. My quest in the past has been to attempt to integrate the two, since I've believed that if you study science while ignoring emotion, or practice an artistic discipline without acknowledging the logical and rational style of thinking, you get into various sorts of trouble.

So why, in my semi-somnolent musings, did the word "imagination" substitute itself for "science" in the phrase "a museum integrating art and science?" And why did I like the sound of the latter description better than the one I'd habitually used for years?

After a day or two of rumination on the subject, I realized that my attitude toward science has changed considerably over the last ten years. Previous to that, I'd thought of science as an "objective" style of viewing the world, i.e., what we learn via the scientific style of examination is a truth that you can't argue with once it's firmly established. The trouble is, after a long spell of observation, and having read a great deal about the history of science, about various scientific disciplines, especially the strangeness of quantum physics, and having seen the results of scientific research twisted in order to mislead people about such things as the harm caused by smoking, pollutants, and climate change, I'm beginning to suspect that scientific objectivity is. . . well. . . suspect; that a great deal of what science "discovers" is biased by what is already thought to be known, or by what we want to believe or what it's convenient or profitable to believe. Which is to say that scientific knowledge, and particularly the technology it begets are colored in large part by social and psychological factors.

Hence, experience and observation have awakened me to the fact that science and imagination are more closely entwined than I've been in the habit of thinking, and that one thing I've half-consciously been doing at Mindport is weaving the two together in such a way as to make that fact more obvious, at least to me, and possibly to others as well. This idea first came up in an essay I wrote about radio, which is a pet subject of mine, since I've been a licensed amateur radio operator for over 50 years. You can download the PDF here, then scroll down to the section, "Technology and Meaning," for a more detailed discussion.

To expand slightly on what I said in that essay, it seems that the direction taken by scientific research and the technological devices that follow on the heels of scientific discoveries is strongly determined by the way in which we collectively imagine ourselves. It's fun to consider what might have happened had we not been a "dominator" culture, bent on expanding our influence and ultimately creating an empire. If a culture with no interest in expansion had stumbled on electromagnetic radiation, would anyone have bothered to invent a use for it? Radio is a means to exert power at a distance, which is highly desirable for a culture bent on bringing large territories under its control. When a member of such a culture stumbles on a means to communicate instantly over long distances, of course that capability will be developed and refined. If we did not imagine ourselves to be conquerors or to have expansive desires, either physically or socially, there would be little motivation to develop communications technology.

The Aboriginal People of Australia, who inhabited the landscape of that continent for 40,000 years or more, are said to have been able to communicate over long distances via "bush telegraph." Somehow they knew at a distance what was happening to others of their society without recourse to mechanical means. Such human capabilities have been researched and well-documented, but are scoffed at by mainstream science. It doesn't fit with our current beliefs about ourselves or with the scientific paradigm, which holds that whatever cannot be proven by repeatable experiment does not exist. What would life be like if we were to consider anything possible unless absolutely DISproven by repeatable experiment?

Radio, as I see it, is an artifact of imagination. It seeded my 8 year-old mind with dreams of something quite similar to a smart phone, a handheld device with which you could communicate, watch movies, and do a number of the things smart phones are capable of. It's slightly spooky that such a device actually materialized 50-some years later. (Ironically, I don't own one.) If I'd been embedded in, say, the isolated culture of an Amazonian tribe, it's highly doubtful that anything like that would have occurred to me. Our present culture is the combination of many imaginations working in concert to realize a technologically-mediated sort of life that, if it's not exactly what WE dreamed of, it has certainly conformed to the dreams of the corporations and their technological enablers.

The Short Wave Radio exhibit at Mindport, is an example of re-visioning a technological artifact as an expression of meaning. Another exhibit, Wave Music, converts the movement of water waves to musical sound. It exemplifies an instance where "data" that might ordinarily graphed and used as a source for scientific inquiry, is turned toward aesthetic purposes instead. The intention was to be able to appreciate wave motion, not only as a physical sensation, but as a musical one as well. The ultimately pleasing application for it is to attach its four sensors around a tub of warm water, then lie submersed, wearing headphones, and listening to the music created by one's slight bodily movements stirring the water. From personal experience, it beats the hell out of lying in the tub listening to ads on the radio, which are mainly intended to convince me to colonize my life with more stuff.

In answer to my own question about what I/we are doing at Mindport: The present chaotic and possibly collapsing state of the economy and the culture have made it even more obvious to me how important it is that there exist havens of beauty and quiet. . . and good humor. Such places provide breathing room, and suggest alternatives to our increasingly frenetic and technology-plagued existence. We continue to present Mindport as one of those places. We hope that genuine peace and prosperity will rule your life in the New Year, and invite you to drop by and enjoy what we have to offer.
Kevin Jones

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Photographic Eye

 Walking on the beach yesterday, I photographed this attractive arrangement of shell, leaves, driftwood chips, and pebbles. My work? No, it’s completely the creation of wind, rain, trees, and tide. The main thing I did was to notice it and point my camera at it.

Frequently I think about the idea of "found art,” that is, odd things I just happen across that seem to express a message that I respond to aesthetically. It seems to me that much photographic subject matter could be characterized that way. I've experimented with consciously arranging things (or people) in front of the lens, but the most satisfying imagery, to me, is that which just fortuitously turns up. The art is in the noticing, which has involved cultivation, over time, of an alertness to the serendipitous appearance of photogenic subject matter before my eyes.

A possible downside to what I term “photographic alertness” is that to practice it successfully, you have to learn to see like a camera, which is really a specialized way of seeing. The photographic process compresses the 3D world into two dimensions and presents it as a bordered, flattened pattern on a page. What you see in the 3D world is not really what you get on paper, not unless you’re savvy to the tricks played by the camera eye.

After many years of practicing photography, seeing like a camera has become an internalized habit. This leads me to the question, were it not for this habit, what might I be seeing that I’m missing now?

Furthermore, now that half the population is carrying smart phones (capable of recording images and sometimes video), and is engaged in framing and flattening life for the display on computer screens, what effects might such training and habits be having on our psyches and our general response to what goes on around us?

I believe that learning to see the way a camera sees can be enriching, if accomplished consciously, but it can also be limiting in ways of which we may not be fully aware. For one thing, it focuses our attention on what can be seen, and takes our attention away from other senses. Our culture, in large part due to our focus (so to speak) on imagery, tends to cater to appearances, and to ignore substance. Also, as I’ve complained in other posts, we typically seem to be oblivious to the effect of sound on us, unless it happens to be music played very loudly. Similarly, we neglect our other senses, and do so increasingly, as we spend greater and greater amounts of time with our attention focused on electronic screens.

My last post, “Seeing outside the frame.”is a version of an essay I wrote some time ago. It seems to me that the best photography, though confined by its margins and two dimensionality, leads your attention to what's going on beyond the borders of the image, to the story it implies, or some metaphoric or even mystical meanings and associations. The objects pictured above, encountered at random on the beach, evoked feelings about the season, the end of life, that which it leaves behind. It inspired also to the speculations that I've indulged via this essay. . . and more thoughts yet about art, which I’m still exploring.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beyond the Frame




The casual photographer's aim is usually to take a picture of something, such as an object or a person, which in his or her's mind s/he's set apart from the surrounding environment. "Here's a picture of Aunt Mary." Or, "Here's a picture of a bee on a flower." This is one perfectly legitimate use of a camera, but one reflecting the traditional Cartesian paradigm that understands reality as a collection of objects which can be separated from one-another and observed independently.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, with the formulation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, discoveries in quantum physics, and more recently, complexity theory and fractals, a new view of reality has emerged, one which understands it as a network of dynamically changing relationships, rather than as a static arrangement of distinct and separable objects. Not only do classical “objects” begin to merge into something larger, but the viewer becomes inseparably related to them, implying that meaning and emotion become as legitimate a part of physical reality as more “objective” qualities.

As my own view of the world has evolved increasingly to reflect this “new” reality, I’ve found the camera to be an effective tool for exploring and expressing my understanding of it. Photography has become for me a process of meditation, and the resulting images point not only to what is seen within the frame, but to what lies outside it as well, particularly those invisible territories of relationship, meaning, and emotion. I am intrigued by the way in which unusual perspective and lighting call attention to these unseen qualities, sometimes lending images a surreal or even supernatural flavor.

The photo above exemplifies the emotional relationships of which I speak. To me, it embodies a quality which a photography teacher of mine use to call "otherness." In other words, it's about something different than what it depicts, something outside the frame. It provokes a question: "What is the meaning here?" "What is the story being told?""Why does this image make me feel the way it does?"
Kevin Jones

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Vraiment "Diaballique!"

Maze collaborator, Andy Mcbride, at work
Exhibit builder John Ito has done it again, this time with a truly diabolical creation which, with its sheer addictiveness, will put any video game you've ever played to shame.

The challenge is to get four steel balls through the maze and into a spiraling cup, where they ring a bell to let you know you're a genius. Looks easy? Don't be too sure. You can't see it in the picture, but the center of the maze counter-rotates against the perimeter part, mining an enticing adventure with with perils and pitfalls. Once you try Diaballique, you'll never go back to lackluster video games again.

See details here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chaos

Storm Wave, Indian Ocean, 1964
Things at Mindport are in flux just now, with staff members returning from vacation and leaving for vacation.

In the next couple weeks we're expecting our leaking roof to be replaced and for the floor of our bathroom and "wash-up" area to receive a facelift.

The short-wave radio has a new antenna, one that eliminates the overwhelming static that was obliterating reception. You can actually hear a station now and then, when the ionosphere cooperates. (Short wave signal strengths are very much affected by the state of the  ionosphere, which in turn is strongly affected by time-of-day, season, sunspots and solar storms.)

John Ito is busy at work designing and building another intriguing exhibit. No projections as yet on the date of its appearance. Stay tuned!

New work of two artists is up in the gallery. We'll get more details posted here by the end of the week. Please check back.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cracked!



During one period of my photographic career, I found myself photographing cracks in things. . . sidewalks, drift logs, rocks, walls. Once you start looking for them, of course, you see cracks everywhere. We take them for granted to the point we hardly pay attention, unless they're cracks of some obvious significance, like noticing that one has suddenly appeared in the ceiling or wall of our home.

After photographing cracks for a spell, I began to contemplate the interesting significance of these forms.

Cracks, or fractures, occur when stress on an object reaches a point where forces holding it together are less than the forces pulling it apart. They follow lines of maximum stress, and/or areas of minimum strength in the material being stressed. That being the case, the shape of a fracture can tell you both something about the material and something about the way it was stressed. Certain materials, for example the glass in your automobile windshield, are designed with internal stresses or weaknesses that will cause them to fracture in a particular way. Typically an automobile windshield will practically explode into tiny fragments when struck. It's designed not to break into large shards that might cause serious injury to someone riding in a car when a collision occurs.

Some materials can actually be identified by noting how they fracture. For example, the volcanic glass called obsidian exhibits conchoidal fracture, which is smoothly cupped, like the inside surface of a cockle shell. Some forms of quartz fracture this way also, and can be chipped (selectively stressed) into arrowheads, and more recently, extremely sharp surgical tools.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the phenomenon of cracking or fracture is that it's not a phenomenon restricted only to solid physical materials. Fracture can occur in the atmosphere, in the form of lightning. This is an instance when electrical stresses build to a point where the atoms in the air are torn apart into free protons and free electrons, a physical state known as plasma. Once this fracture has occurred, it becomes electrically conductive, allowing the passage of a flood of charge which we see as an instantly brilliant channel of light, and hope we're not too close. A crack of thunder occurs due to the sudden expansion accompanying the heat of the stroke. It's a literal explosion.

Perhaps I was drawn to cracking in physical media, most significantly, because of its metaphorical relationship to cracking in humans and society. We speak of people cracking, or being cracked. This is simply a state when an individual becomes stressed to the degree that something in the psyche gives way so that normal social function is no longer possible. The very same thing occurs when a whole society is placed under stress. At some point the stress creates a fracture that manifests in the form of demonstrations, riots, outright mayhem, or destructive wars.

Comparing societal fracture to physical fracture can present clues as to the origin of the former. If fractures are a manifestation of stresses acting on a material, and weaknesses within, it's obvious to ask, what are the stresses on society or an individual, and what are the weaknesses within, leading to crackups of various sorts, or even large scale war.

We're living in a period of history when these are important questions to ask. Cracks are starting to appear in the social fabric and we should be asking how they might be leading to large-scale fractures. . . that can't be glued back together like broken pottery. It's easy to remain unconscious of stresses and small crackups until it's too late to do something about them. Such manifestations of social stress as mass murder in a school or movie theater are frequently written off as “random,” events, when, in actuality they are symptoms of social stresses getting out of hand and weaknesses being ignored. The solution is to address those and not to focus on simplistic fixes such as more guns OR gun control, or ineffective security measures in schools, theaters. . . and airports. (I DO advocate prudent gun control measures, but do not believe they are the ultimate solution to violence stemming from societal stresses to which we currently seem oblivious.) All too often these sorts of "solutions" end up exacerbating the stresses that lead to a “crackup” in the first place. They serve mainly as a means of distracting us from the real work of initiating social changes that could alleviate the stress associated with poverty, abuse, and other social ills. You might say they are equivalent to smearing plaster over a crack in the wall, when the source of stress is a decaying foundation beneath the house.

Kevin Jones

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Interdependence

If you've visited Mindport, you may have noticed, or even played with, the exhibit pictured at the left.  It doesn't get a lot of attention, because it's a low-key exhibit, whose message is subtle. This is not surprising, since the metaphorical statement it makes refers to an aspect of reality that most Americans studiously relegate to the unconscious realm, if they are not indeed completely oblivious to it.

The exhibit, “Interdependence,” consists of a group of magnets glued to the bottom ends of a number of stiff wires that are suspended by their top ends so that the magnets are free to move like pendulums. The magnets are oriented so that they mutually repel, causing them to space themselves apart from one-another. A rubber squeeze bulb and air hose are situated so that you can direct a jet of air at the suspended magnets. The result is that the movement of one or more magnets causes all the others in the field to move in response. None of them can move independently from any of the others.

“Interdependence” relates to ecology, which is at the core of environmentalism. Ecological studies inform us that everything under the face of the sun is affected by and affects everything else, directly or indirectly, more or less.

Instead of maintaining an awareness of interdependence and the truths of ecology, we Americans typically focus on its opposite, independence. In fact, our whole traditional style of scientific research involves arbitrarily separating the subject or process being studied from its natural surroundings, then drawing conclusion about it as an isolated object or function. This can be a useful strategy at times, but more often than not, the conclusions derived from such study are misleading.

The idea of independence is a myth entwined in the roots of America's beliefs about itself. It's likely that many of the observable differences, say, between the Canadian character and the character of Americans goes back to the fact that we “won” our independence, while Canada maintained its membership in a commonwealth. To Americans, “commonwealth” smacks of socialism and we certainly want no part of that. . . unless it's socialism for the lords of banking and Wall street. We also are in love with the mythology of the West; the idea of the independent settler, and the myth of the self-made man. The fact that the frontier closed long ago, and we live in close contact with many of our fellows has yet to dawn on us. And no man is self-made these days. Anyone who manages to rise in the social/economic ladder does so either with the active help of others, or by acting at their expense.

I believe blindness to the importance of interdependence in nature and all social systems is at the root of the terrible predicament in which we find ourselves, economically, environmentally, and socially. We humans were not always so oblivious to this principle as we appear to be nowadays. Henry Ford historically realized that he must pay his employees well enough that they could purchase his cars if he wanted a market for them, a bit of wisdom that seems to have been forgotten. Most indigenous peoples realized that if they destroyed the environment that supported their lives, they would destroy their ability to survive. Many of us have abandoned traditional notions of civility and consideration, forgetting that ignoring our neighbors or treating them badly will sooner or later result in unpleasant forms of “blow-back.”

Ignorance, willful or not, of the principle of interdependence is a force behind all the ecological disasters that are currently afflicting us. We've barely acknowledged that if you clear cut all the forests, not only do you eliminate one possible sink for excess carbon dioxide, but the mountainsides turn to sliding mud, the salmon spawning grounds are destroyed, and the evaporative cooling supplied by living trees is eliminated, one more factor contributing to climate change.

Socially, certain members of society, who have managed to sequester a great deal of power, in the phantom form of money, remain oblivious to the fact that if they impoverish the “99%”, inevitably the value of money will decline, and the masses will likely turn on them, a sad lesson that has been repeated (and ignored) many times in history.

Perhaps the views elaborated here on interdependence will lend insight as to the thoughts that inspired  the creation of  its namesake exhibit pictured above. Despite the seeming non-assertiveness of its presence, the exhibit expresses an idea whose importance is such that if we ignore it, the continued survival of human beings on this planet is doubtful.

Kevin Jones

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Zen of Repetitive Form

Another Mindport staff member asked me what my current exhibit of photographic work in Mindport's gallery would be called. I wasn't sure I wanted to call it anything, but the above artbabble title tongued itself into my cheek. Not being a practitioner of Zen, I don't know a lot about it, outside of its inscrutable public face. According to my dictionary, inscrutable means, "impossible to understand or interpret." I don't know that either Zen or these photographs are impossible to understand, but both are difficult, if not impossible to interpret. A tiresomely overused contemporary phrase would have it, "they are what they are," which implies that they speak for themselves, and don't translate well into any sort of verbal description.

A thought-provoking book worth your attention is, The Tao of Photography, Seeing Beyond Seeing, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro. There's another called Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe. This latter I haven't looked at, so can't speak for it, but I bring it up because its description on the website where it's sold is similar to the way I'd characterize the subject contained in the former. This is to say, whether you're talking about the Zen of Photography or the Tao of photography, we're covering similar material. One way of understanding this (un) "style" of photography is to say that it's photographing without objectification. That is, it's photography that's not about something describable as an object, like "Mom's house," "Fido the Dog," etc. It's about emotional reactions to an image as abstract form, however not obvious emotions describable in one word or even many words. It involves inscrutable imagery.

I actually don't embrace any way of seeing upon which the label Taoist or Zen, or any other named "style," has been tacked. A few years ago, after reading Gross and Shapiro's book, I ran across a photographic web site that was devoted to "Taoist" photography. The images there became tedious after I'd gone through a few of them. It seemed to me that the people posting there had fallen precisely into a "style," and that had drummed the life out of the images. Such is the peril that comes of misunderstanding books. Still, Gross and Shapiro's is a good one to look at.

I'm not holding up the photos now hanging in Mindport's gallery as being anything but images that grab me emotionally in. . ."inscrutable" ways. For a long time I've been interested in the significance my eye finds in random patterns, whether they be formed by rocks, waves, geological formations, or any other grouping of forms, usually ones found in nature. Seeing these significant patterns involves being in a certain frame of mind, a non-thinking, spontaneous, "mindful," state, which is where the Zen or Taoist reference comes in. Those labels arose because they point to the pertinent mind state, that of paying rapt attention without labeling anything.

Whether these images will evoke the same emotional reaction in you that they evoke in me nobody can say. In that connection, consider the quandary that comes with the question: "When I see the color red and you see the color red, do we have the same sensation?"  Come by Mindport's gallery and have a look. These photos might stir your imagination in entertaining ways. If they don't, there's plenty else to see and explore at Mindport.

Kevin Jones

Friday, May 18, 2012

Further Perspectives on Photography and Place

 For half my adult life, one of my most beloved places to camp and hike has been in the Four Corners area of the Southwestern US, amongst the formations of pink sandstone often pictured in traditional shoot-em-up Western films. The photo here was shot on its Northwest margin, near a geological formation called San Rafael Swell. I present the image because within it a number of ideas converge that interest me. They include photography as a portal to other worlds, weathering and decay as stimulants to imagination, and how the spirit of place impinges on consciousness. The latter I discussed from a different point of view not long ago in this post.

The Navajo Indian Reservation lies within the general area I refer to above, and this "homeland" is sacred to them. It's easy to understand that because my explorations there have rendered it sacred to me, also. Deserts, of course, have always been seen as venues for spiritual pilgrimage. You can't spend time in a desert area, especially one so rich with interesting geological features as this, without eventually feeling that you're coming in touch with something ineffable and eternal. It's not an accident that the American West has been mythologized, not only by Americans, but by people from all over the world.

The photo above expresses something of the spiritually evocative essence embodied by this particular area of the Southwest desert. To me it's an example of what Carlos Castaneda characterized as a "power spot." In case you aren't acquainted with the work of Castaneda, he was an anthropologist who wrote a series of books in the late 60s about his life in Mexico as an apprentice to a Yaqui Indian shaman, identified as don Juan Matus. Since then Castaneda's claims have been questioned, and his works considered by some to be fiction, but whether or not you believe the stories are objectively true, they are certainly evocative and emotionally credible. Having once read them, I've never been able to forget them or some of the truths at which they hinted. I also remember being uneasy about going outdoors at night for weeks after reading them. Such was their affect.

Castaneda never completely defined what a "power spot" was, other than it was a place you could discover by turning your vision inward and moving about until you settled upon a physical location in which you felt a deep comfort. Having done a lot of camping and hiking in my life, I've had experience with this feeling. Even before reading Castaneda, I was aware that some places felt better than others as camping spots, but early on didn't give it much credence as anything but whim. With experience however, I came to believe that there was more than that involved. Not only are some places strongly congenial, but there are others that exude a spirit that makes me wish to actively avoid them. I've had friends that camped in particular spots in the Southwest that exuded such hostility that they felt compelled to get up in the middle of the night, break camp, and move elsewhere. In time I've concluded that the sense of recognition that I associate with certain places is authentic, and rather than attempt to logically or "scientifically" analyze it, I prefer it remain a sweet mystery.

A scientifically oriented person I know once mentioned hating the word mystery, arguing, in essence, that there is nothing in the universe that cannot sometime or somehow be explained. I doubt that, and wouldn't want it to be true anyhow. In my view, it's necessary to maintain balance atop a fence between one extreme, allowing science and logic to dictate everything or the other extreme of refusing to give credence to physically and logically provable fact. It's the work of maintaining that balance that keeps life interesting and worth living.

Earlier, I made mention of photography as a portal to other worlds. Those worlds could be imagination, but possibly, in addition, there may be other dimensions and realms in our universe of which we are just not aware. Those of us who grew up more in the tradition of logic and science jokingly refer to manifestations of some such realms as "woo-woo." That's not a train whistle, but the sound young children make in association with ghost stories told around a campfire late at night. . . and some of the tales of Carlos Castaneda, which planted the phantoms in my imagination that sent chills down my spine when I went out in the dark. Photography is sublimely suitable as a portal because it enables re-configuration of the physically-seen universe in ways that make features evident that we may not normally notice, and which do suggest in some sense, "other worlds." Castaneda, in his account of study with don Juan Matus refers to witnessing the "crack between the worlds," which opens during occasional moments, especially at the hour of sunset. Photographic practice, when pursued assiduously, confers a comparable experience.

Kevin Jones

Friday, April 27, 2012

GIANT TASKS/tiny people


Mindport has a number of new residents, all of whom are under an inch tall, all of whom are doing big jobs – vacuuming up tangled messes, feeding each other, cleaning gum off sidewalks, recreating without technology, ending racism, confronting environmental collapse.  One rounds the corner, and there they are, heads down, working hard, chipping away, little by little, day after day, only occasionally swayed by the seeming impossibility of solving the problems at hand. 


I admire their diligence and determination in the face of what may be insurmountable obstacles, and in quiet moments I can hear them shouting to us in their tiny voices, “This is our time!  These are our tasks!  If we can do it, so can you!” 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Devotion versus Distraction

Early Radio Receiver
Yesterday I took my camera on one of my periodic tours through the  Spark Museum, formerly known as the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, located just around the corner from Mindport. Much of the instrumentation and equipment there represents technological innovation of the hundred years previous to my birth in 1944. Textbooks on my grandfather's shelves, which supplied much of my early education in science, were full of attractive etched illustrations of just the sort of artifacts you find at the Spark Museum. That memory sparks a considerable amount of the pleasure I take in being a member there and in my periodic strolls around its aisles.

Morse Code Printer
 Vintage radio equipment and scientific instrumentation to me represent a time when handicraft was a part of nearly everyone's life. In viewing this handmade technology, you begin to understand the spirit of craft that produced it as a form of devotion bordering on the religious. These scientific artifacts were not just thrown together. They were built with love and an appreciation of form, as you may notice from the accompanying photos. They were built not only to demonstrate phenomena, or to serve useful purposes, but to be beautiful to look at, and possibly as monuments to the creativity of the people who fabricated them.

You see the same sort of devotion evident in technical drawings created by my great grandfather, mentioned in an earlier blog posting, and soon to be on display in our gallery. In them you notice infinite attention to detail and an obvious effort to create something of beauty as well as utility. Nowadays that sort of sustained creative attention has gone into hiding, at least when it comes to the design and production of the throwaway technology we use on a daily basis. A vestige of it survives in the arts. For example, Edward Burtynsky's startling images of enormous piles of junked cell phones and other castoff electronic equipment remind us of just how little enduring regard we now have for the the physical equipment and related technology that graces our daily routines.

Power vacuum tubes
 Some might accuse me of being a Luddite, or of being anti-technology, but, as I've mentioned in earlier blog postings, my life has been a long love affair with all sorts of technology. It's just that in the last ten years or so the direction of technological innovation has begun to evoke an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The sort of wonder I associate with the instruments over at the Spark Museum has disappeared without a trace, and we now merely consume equipment that operates on the very principles demonstrated by those early technological artifacts. We, especially young people, are endlessly absorbed by the Internet, as presented via smart phone, iPad, and computer, which tends to eclipse any possible interest in the history of scientific exploration that made such toys possible in the first place. I can't say that I don't understand why, but it's disturbing to me to witness in any case.

An allied discomfort I feel about the current thrust of scientific research, leading to technical innovation, is that it no longer seems motivated by a quest to understand the mysteries of the universe, as was the case 100 or more years ago, but now seems propelled strictly by commercial interests. . . which in turn use the technology as a means to spy on us and sell us more junk that in two or three years will end up being subject matter for Burtynsky's photographic work.

Leyden Jars
In perusing the historical technology at the Spark Museum, I find that it brings to awareness a subtle quality that is nearly extinct today, which I can only describe as an amalgam of silence and attention. It's an incomparably satisfying experience to see something that has heretofore only been manifest as a mental conception take material form in the physical world. Acknowledgment and understanding for that sort creative process has unfortunately waned and rarely seems to be modeled by adults to the advantage of young people. It's certainly not a quality that can be conveyed via such forms as film or video. The opposite is true in fact: the spontaneous capacities of the young to put themselves in such a quiet, concentrated mind space are being hijacked by a clangor of commercial distraction coming in the form of video games, television and the multitudes of other forms of mental noise promulgated by electronic media. It seems to me that if we don't foster the capacity for inner silence and concentrated attention, our ability to innovate in ways that truly enhance human life, rather than simply provide further distraction, will be further compromised.

Kevin Jones

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Science Education

I’ve been noticing a great deal of hoopla here and there on the web regarding the importance of science education, and the fact that a lot of jobs are going begging because companies can’t find adequately trained people to fill the positions they have available.

This, and the fact that I’ve encountered proposals recently that mentioned the idea of science education and Mindport in the same paragraph, have set me to thinking more about the subject and how Mindport fits there.

Over the last few years, especially since the advent of personal computers and the Internet, my interest in technology and science has evolved increasingly toward curiosity about the effect it has on us and what we’re doing with it. My curiosity is illuminated partially by the fact that I’ve known and worked with many scientists, so have had opportunity to observe first hand something of what science in the trenches is all about and how the character of scientific research has changed over the last fifty years.

Nowadays, when I encounter laments about the present state of science education, they usually take the form of worries expressed about companies not being able to find skilled employees, or that the United States is falling behind X other countries in training scientists, or that kids can’t pass exams in math or science, etc. In other words, science is usually presented as something that has to be learned in order that we can do something else, usually involving earning money or beating competition. In contrast to the frequently free spirit of scientific research before the mid 20th century, it’s rarely, if ever, presented as something that might be fascinating in itself, for no other reason than being a means to satisfy one’s craving for knowledge about the nature of the universe.

With that in mind, it becomes clear why science education is in such big trouble. Children, especially children, do not understand why they should learn something simply in order to attain some abstract carrot, like big bucks or high social station, that’s being dangled before them. Either they’re interested in something for its here-and-now reward, or they’re not. This implies that it’s important to present science to them not as: “science, which you have to learn so you can get into college and attain a high income working for a multi-national corporation,” but as knowledge about everyday things, which are right in front of your nose and easily explored.

My daughter has been telling me stories about my grandson, age two, who is fascinated with the fact that the sun rises and sets. He doesn’t even have enough language yet to explain his fascination with that, but he’s obviously attempting to “grok” the idea of the earth rotating and the sun only appearing to rise and set. This is a first attempt to “do” science. You see something akin to “scientific method” operating every time he explores some new facet of his environment. He plays with the handles on the wood cook-stove in our kitchen, attempting to fathom how they work and what they do. His exploration consists of manipulating them again and again, carefully observing what happens, as he does with many other mechanical things he encounters. He seems to have a built-in interest in what we call “science” . . . and it’s important to note that nobody discourages his exploration, hence inhibiting his “scientific” interests.

My point is, most children have built-in curiosity about what goes on around them, that is, until someone comes along and discourages their curiosity: “Don’t touch that.” “Stop asking so many questions.” “That’s wrong.” “That’s bad, etc. Later on, someone else comes along and tells them, oh, you gotta start leaning about science so you can get into college, get a job, make six figures, buy a house in suburbia (a thing of the past), and all that jazz. Then we wonder why they don’t want to study science and math. . . especially after they notice on TV that people seem to acquire whatever they want with scarcely any effort at all.

As a counterpoint to what I’ve just said, I also believe that when it comes to the formal study of science, it should be rooted in a matrix of meaning. In other words, to explore the world from a scientific point of view, it's desirable to be standing on some sort of firm base that relates your discoveries to a coherent world view or ethos. There must be a set of values in your background. Otherwise, discoveries float meaninglessly in limbo, as in, “Oh, that’s interesting, what can we do with it to make money?” For example, there have been controversial experiments done in England in which clones are created by crossing human and animal genes. Obviously, whoever is doing these experiments has given no thought to the sort of life and consciousness that might be the product of, say, human and pig genes being mixed, assuming that there was any product at all. It’s a little like purposefully causing a human to be born with genetic defects, just because you’re curious about what might be the result. Can you call such experiment ethical?

We’re all the time using science and technology to create new products, which are foisted on the public with NO examination of what the consequences might be. In fact, we’re living in a vast, chaotic sea of unanticipated consequences. We’re mired in them. Granted, you can’t anticipate every consequence of introducing some new technology, but you can at least give it a thought. The Amish, for example, carefully examine all technology before they adopt it. They live according to a certain set of firm beliefs, and they choose their technology consciously, with those beliefs in mind, and pay attention to the ways in which the technology in question might impinge on them.

In our country, there’s a large proportion of the populace who have never really examined what our culture is about, or examined the idea of culture in general. History is typically an unpopular subject in school. It certainly was for me, in large part, as I discovered later, because it was never taught in relation to a context I could relate to. Rather, it was presented as a series of (to me) abstract events whose dates I was expected to memorize. It wasn't until I was an adult and began to read history on my own that I discovered how scientific research and the adoption of various technologies has been driven by certain (unconscious) assumptions deep within our cultural history. For me, that was a pivotal discovery, one which I was never given an inkling of in school. It lead me to an understanding that science and technology are not value-neutral. They affect us powerfully, and are also a means by which others, notably corporations, gain power over us. We  need to know about that, and make decisions about which technologies should be adopted, how, and by whom.

What we’ve done instead is to adopt every sort of technology that has come along, willy-nilly, without a thought about the consequences, the main consideration being whether the technology in question can turn a profit. The consequence is chaos, and ultimately, a serious danger of collapse.

This gets me back to where I started, the subject of scientific education. I propose that before we even think about science education, we need education in the humanities, the arts, history, sociology. We’ve been running a blind sociology experiment for over 100 years and it’s time to take stock of where it’s lead us. Judging by the apparent unhappiness of many people around me, we seemed to have missed the boat somewhere. We need to generate a context in which we can live happily and comfortably, and THEN we can consider what sorts of technology will enhance and which sorts will muck it up.

To be realistic, it's unlikely that we'll make voluntary choices about how we adopt technology, but it is very likely our technology will impress on us some lessons we'd just as soon have avoided. We’ll learn the hard way that something we did didn’t work, and, while gathering seaweed for dinner, we can contemplate how best to start over without making the same mistakes.

Having said all this, what is my position on “scientific education?” First, it's desirable that young people be exposed to rich environments that inspire spontaneous interest in “scientific” exploration. Such explorations should be permitted to proceed freely, without being tempered by adult agendas involving considerations such as future jobs, fame, or money. Meanwhile formal and informal education in the arts, history, and sociology, would provide meaningful context for later formal scientific training.

It’s been my intention for Mindport to at least partially fulfill such conditions. We exhibit a collection of intriguing interactive exhibits, and have set them in an attractive physical space that also includes visual and three-dimensional artwork, many photographs relating to the natural world and human environments. We encourage adults and young people to explore, and if they have questions, we attempt to answer them. Or tell them where to find the answers. Or trust that they WILL find them if they’re sufficiently interested. We assume that if a project interests us enough to build it, that it will interest visitors enough to wonder how it works, where the idea came from, and possibly open up just a little spark of general curiosity. That is one way to foster a healthy and meaningfully-rooted curiosity about the universe in which we find ourselves, and an unselfconscious ability to employ logical thought in discovering its secrets, a process we culturally label as "doing science."

Kevin Jones

Friday, March 9, 2012

New Ceramic Show in Mindport's Gallery

Cary Lane
Commencing March 17th, the work of five local artists will be featured  in Mindport's gallery: Cary Lane, Linda Hughes, Eugene Lewis, Ene Lewis, and Larry Richmond. They're showing in conjunction with the National Council of Education for the Ceramic Arts conference in Seattle. The show will run through April 15th.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Photography and Place

The other day I took a walk along the Northeast Shore of Lummi Island, near where I live. My walks there are infrequent, compared to the number I take on the opposite shore, facing Orcas Island and Rosario Strait. This is especially true in the winter when the northeast-facing shore is dank, cold, and gets very little sunshine, except on the occasional cloudless morning. This shore is also subject to freezing and inhospitable "Nor'easter" windstorms, known to the professional forecasters as "northerly outflow winds."

When I walk I invariably carry along my camera. Having it along has the effect of organizing my seeing in a certain focused manner that I enjoy. It also heightens my awareness of place, i.e. the sort of feeling one place evokes compared to others. Most of us respond emotionally to surroundings, but the awareness of that response tends to remain only semi-conscious, if we notice it at all.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of photography, in fact, is the way it brings into fuller awareness my emotional response to physical environment. One way places speak to me is according to the way they appear visually. When I walk on the northeast side of the Island, especially in the winter, I often feel like I'm journeying in a realm populated by goblins. I see their distorted faces everywhere, the effect being enhanced by the naturally goblinesque dank winter atmosphere of the area. The sun doesn't touch it often and the high clay cliffs there become waterlogged after heavy rain. They collapse, bringing down trees with them, whose evocatively gnarled roots become quickly exposed as wave action washes the soil away from them. Also, the beach is littered with roughly barnacled rocks of all sizes that have weathered out of the soil of the cliffs. Excess moisture accelerates decay, and nourishes the growth of molds and green algae. All these physical conditions conspire to give the whole beach its rather spooky atmosphere, which colors my emotional and photographic response correspondingly.

By contrast, the beach on the Island's southwest-facing shore is exposed to the miles of often-turbulent water constituting Rosario and Georgia straits, hence receives warmer southerly winds and heavily scouring wave action. When the winter sun shines, this shore receives warming and drying solar rays for much of the day. The cliffs bordering the beach are much lower and set farther back from the water than on the Island's opposite side, so they're less subject to weathering. Part of the beach surface is characterized by nearly horizontal, wave-eroded sandstone shelves. Gravel and small stones from the beach litter these sculpted shelves in a visually interesting way, and the gravel beach as a whole takes on gracefully smooth forms that change according the the recent impact of wind, waves, and tidal flow along the shoreline. If my mood is low, this is the beach to which I naturally gravitate in order to bask in its cleansing atmosphere. The drift logs there dry to a weathered light gray, rather than accumulating green algae, as similar logs do on the east shore of the island. Weathered roots on some of these logs convey an association with elf homes, rather than goblins. . . a lighter association altogether.

Having intimately explored and observed these two beaches so frequently for the 35 years I've lived here, I've become acutely sensitized to the atmosphere associated with all the places I visit, whether country or city, and whether carrying a camera or not. The effect of place on me, and by extension, others, has become a fascination, and photography has provided a medium through which emotional associations with place can be expressed. Long experience with this special place has enriched my life in ways for which I remain deeply grateful.

Kevin Jones

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Art and Science of Bread

A year ago, my sister sent me a book called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. and Zoe Francois, which I squeezed into our amply stocked shelf of cookbooks and promptly forgot. But recently, the idea of baking bread came as a logical conclusion to my growing interest in food-growing and cooking as comforting counterpoints to my witnessing the ongoing economic and political disaster unfolding around us. The fact that one consequence of the latter is severely escalating bread prices certainly contributed to my interest in doing my own baking.

Herzberg and Francois's book advocates mixing batches of dough sufficient for three or more loaves at a time, then storing it in the refrigerator until you're ready to bake a fresh loaf. At that time you divide off a portion of the refrigerated dough, form it into a loaf, and allow it to rise for an hour or two, depending on temperature. No kneading is necessary, and many of the recipes call for baking without a pan, on a baking stone, which is a slab of ceramic material that gets preheated in the oven before you slide the bread on top of it. There are a few details to attend to, such as scoring the top of the loaf previous to baking, and making provision for steam in the oven over the first few minutes of baking time to help develop the bread's crispy crust.

Not long after successfully baking my first loaf, I ran across a book in the library, 52 Loaves, A Half-Baked Adventure, by William Alexander. The author spent a year, baking one loaf of bread a week, in a quest to discover the perfect "peasant loaf," which is the bread style I'd just been experimenting with myself. This book proved to be a fascinating and entertaining read. The author includes considerable information on the history, chemistry, and custom of baking bread. At the end of the year he describes at length five days that he spent living in a French monastery, teaching the monks to do their own baking, in the process managing finally to attain his own "perfect" loaf.

I bring up bread in the context of Mindport since formal or informal science plays such a large part in enabling the baker to create an object conferring such aesthetic and gustatory delight. The authors of both the books I've mentioned here, plus another book on the subject of no-knead bread that's worth a look, My Bread, by Jim Lahey (with Rick Flaste), have done a tremendous amount of research and experimentation to develop their recipes, delving into the physics and chemistry of bread, which is doubly complex due to the fact it depends on yeast, a living organism, for many of its dynamic properties. William Alexander, for his part, sings the praise of the aesthetic and sensual pleasure of bread-making. A loaf of bread, hence, seems to me to be the perfect embodiment of art and science combined in one beautiful and tasty object, the ideal metaphor to express Mindport's avowed aim of integrating two ways of understanding the world that are frequently juxtaposed in opposition to one another.

Bread, serving as a ritual object or metaphorical idea, has a long history.  "Breaking bread" with someone signifies a form of personal communion in taking sustenance together; the Lord's Prayer uses bread as a metaphor, as in "Give us this day our daily bread." The wafer used in Christian communion, symbolizing the body of Christ, is a special bread. In the Jewish tradition "showbread" is a form of bread or cake presented as an offering to God. Grains, made into bread, have provided a basic food staple for millennia. It's no wonder that bread is so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness.

Perhaps the growing interest in good food and bread that I detect in the air might be serving as compensation for our excessive preoccupation with technology and the virtual world of cyberspace, which have alienated us from our roots in the physical earth and our own manual skills. That's a cause for hope. Our main reminders of our biological and physical origins nowadays seem to be birth, sex, and death. I would include eating and food with these basic connections, but many of us no longer prepare our own food, and we often distract ourselves during meals with TV and iGadgets, to the point that eating has become just another chore to hurry through. Personally, as a gesture of revolt against that, I've begun to experience growing, preparing, and eating food as reassuring activities affirming my fundamental rootedness in the soil of this planet. The ritual of creating a aesthetically beautiful and sensually delicious loaf of bread from the basic materials of flour, salt, water, and yeast is a satisfaction crowning the many other social and physical rewards that come with cultivating a more mindful connection to the food I eat.


Kevin Jones

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mail Art Workshop


The text on this image is a bit hard to read, so I'll spell it out for you!

Mindport is offering its second mail art workshop, Sunday, January 29th from 1 to 4 pm.  If you're tired of receiving bills and ads in an otherwise empty mailbox, this workshop's for you.  Learn to make postal art,  and turn your mailbox into a museum as you connect with a network of creative folks who enjoy a good mail day.  $10 fee includes all materials.  No experience needed.

To register, please contact Tallie@mindport.org or call (360) 441-7162.  Limited space, so sign up early!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Introducing Bella Stella!

Mindport's latest exhibit is on the floor.  Exhibit designer/builder John Ito has created another wonder - this time a giant windup toy inspired by the crosswalks of our fair city.

To celebrate, we'll be open until 8:00 tonight, January 6th.  Stop by to visit Bella and congratulate John.  We'll see you there!

 
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