Archive for the 'Softness of Things' Category

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This week I thought about sustainability, energy, and systems. Specifically, I thought about how people encapsulate and divide systems in ways that would be considered shady by even the most unscrupulous accountant. Solar energy, yay! Except that solar panels don’t last all that long and their production requires huge amounts of cadmium and other super toxic and “unsustainable” materials. Or the DDT ban in the 1960s that went into effect only in the developed world. DDT sales continued abroad for decades. But guess what, the water in Africa is connected to the water in Ohio! Rachel Carson’s movement, like much of the activism of the 60s, was eventually commoditized and co-opted when corporations adopted its language of environmental responsibility while engaging in virtually unregulated dumping and disposal practices that have led to the mercury-filled fish that we’ve been eating for the last twenty years.

Part of the problem, I realized, is that there is little alternative. Here is everything I threw away over the past week:

  1. Orange juice carton and plastic screw top
  2. Toilet paper (about one roll)
  3. 15 banana peels
  4. 2 plastic forks (neither at home)
  5. 1 plastic spoon
  6. 17 plastic supermarket bags
  7. 1 Styrofoam dinner tray (social hour at ITP)
  8. Pork fat
  9. 3 egg shells
  10. Grape stems
  11. 2 dozen roses
  12. 3 paper plates (pizza)
  13. Numerous paper napkins
  14. 2 individual plastic cream containers (diner)
  15. Plastic 1 qt. yogurt tub
  16. 10 plastic bags vegetables and fruit came in
  17. Broccoli bits
  18. Pork rib bones
  19. Used saran wrap
  20. Tin foil
  21. 3 Q-Tips
  22. 15 tea bags
  23. A ball of my wife’s hair
  24. English muffin cardboard box and plastic wrapper
  25. Garlic peel
  26. Onion peel
  27. Celery stalk
  28. Fish bones
  29. Junk mail
  30. Plastic magazine sleeve
  31. Half a broken plastic watch band
  32. Padded envelope
  33. Plastic cookie tray and wrapper
  34. Various receipts/tickets
  35. Cabbage bits
  36. Squash ends
  37. Can clams came in
  38. 3 glass bottles
  39. Paper bag
  40. Paper coffee cup
  41. Sandwich wrapper (wax paper)
  42. 4 Styrofoam meat trays
  43. Soap, dish detergent, toothpaste, shampoo
  44. A fair volume of urine
  45. Four or five respectable shits
  46. Sawdust/small electronic bits in the shop
  47. 5+ hours playing Chain Factor

Most of my garbage is either organic food waste or the packaging it comes in. No matter how fancy/organic/expensive food is, still comes wrapped in several layers of plastic. Much of my out of the house waste was the result of eating at cheap places around NYU, where everything comes in disposable containers/on disposable plates. Reducing my packaging waste would ironically require me to spend a lot more money: on meals at better restaurants with reusable flatware and silverware and on “responsibly packaged” frou-frou organic groceries. I would compost my organic waste if I had the space or something to do with the compost, but I have neither. I could buy one of those midget pigs. But even that seems shortsighted. I buy a pig, it eats my garbage thus keeping it out of landfills where it would eventually turn into methane, but its porcine stomach also turns it into methane. There is no escaping the interconnectedness of everything on earth.

This why the idea of “organic” products is such bullshit. Yes, it makes sense to minimize our impact on the planet’s ability to sustain us if we can, but the implication that the application of technology to a problem renders it somehow artificial or inorganic is preposterous. You can’t just pick starting and stopping points to assess some product or interaction’s impact. For instance, not using chemical pesticides in no way eliminates the residual pesticides, industrial particles, and all the other human-made muck that will fall with the rain as long as somewhere in the planet people are spraying chemicals on their crops and releasing smoke into the atmosphere. Rain cannot certified organic. Neither can groundwater. Everything is interconnected. So-called organic products are still shipped using trucks and trains and boats and planes which burn fossil fuels. Where do we stop assessing for sustainability?

The real problem is that it doesn’t even matter. If I leave every energy-inefficient tungsten bulb in my house on for the rest of my life—and if everyone else I’ve ever met does the same—it won’t use even a fraction of the energy required to run a steel manufacturing plant for one day. It is not in the interest of governments or corporations to assess the real costs of their activities, nor do they have the tools. Cost accounting is a financial process. From whose bottom line do we subtract dead rivers? The market can’t fix what it is responsible for breaking. That’s what makes the commoditization of C02 and other pollutants and emissions allowances so nefarious and nonsensical.

In the end, progress, production, and consumption serve to distract us from our lack of significance, taking over religion’s role throughout much of history. If I remember correctly, human exceptionalism—the idea of humanity as somehow separate from “nature”—arose in response to the industrial revolution. Romantics, Transcendentalists, the Sierra Club, Hippies, and New Agers all called for a return to nature. What does that mean? At what point did we become separate from nature? Aha, you say, plastics don’t occur in nature. Really? Did we get them from aliens? Or did we make them from materials available around us, much as bees make honeycomb? Just as fusion at the center of a star produces heavier and more massive elements, so we produce increasingly complex materials—that doesn’t make them unnatural. That they don’t decompose just means that no creature has yet evolved to take advantage of their energy-rich polymers—and that they’ll outlive us.

A maudlin and silly nostalgia for an idyllic pastoral past (and, I suspect, the lack of yearning for meaning that comes with consciousness) has plagued us since our expulsion from Eden. In the end, our exceptionalism is our humanity. It’s also the source of a great many of our problems. Environmentalism pits “us” against the environment, which is absurd. We are our own opponent. We talk of poisoning rivers or warming the globe when we’re actually poisoning ourselves and making the globe uninhabitable for humans. The rivers and the earth will survive. Ultimately, it makes no difference what we do because we’re just like any other species, and that, I think is something that most people find very hard to accept.


UPDATE: This project had a fantastic ending. After several months in the men’s bathroom raising eyebrows, making staff chuckle and the water guy look forward to refill day, the ladies met a fitting end. Near the end of the madness of the Spring Show in May, a group of thirteen-year-old boys discovered the ladies and went into a kind of frenzy, tearing them out of their plastic housings and stuffing them under their shirts. I could not have hoped for better.

Make a system. Do it with three of your classmates. Go.

Matt, Marco, Sarah, and I met two nights ago to talk about systems. The conversation started with fully formed systems. Matt brought up a number of ideas for creating interesting interactions within the class—ropes on pulleys, melting snowballs packed with India ink—which I objected to on the grounds that “neatness” does not a system make. Having just read an article that noted that only humans can provide feedback in a technological system, I countered with the possibility of creating a system that devolves into chaos unless constantly tended, like audio feedback or juggling. Not so popular either. Marco mentioned food and and mobiles, to which Sarah added balancing. We discarded games outright (too tip of the brain). We were briefly enthusiastic about using the whole Floor in some way—laying a string-based communication system along all the cable trays or bouncing a laser beam from room to room using a series of mirrors—but Matt had already done that (and it was awesome, by the way, so still a solid idea).

Discouraged by our seeming lack of progress, we tried teleology. What purpose could a hypothetical communication system of our creation serve at ITP that was not already the province of an existing system?

Marco mentioned the water bubbler in the front hall. We have two water bubblers at ITP. One is in the front hall; the other is across from the bathrooms at the far end of the back hall that leads to Red’s office. The extra jugs are stored in the men’s room, stacked floor to ceiling on their sides in crates along the wall. If the bubbler in front of the bathrooms runs out, no problem, some passing man can easily be co-opted into going into the bathroom to grab a full jug or some free-thinking woman can make a quick incursion when the coast is clear. The bubbler in the front hall, however, often goes empty several days before someone finally lugs a full jug all the way across the Floor. What if we created a way of communicating that the jug in the front hall needed replacing to the bathroom? We discussed wireless radios, string, a siren, and abandoned the idea for more talk of melting, inky ice.

I remembered going to see Eric Maskin talk right after he’d won the Nobel Prize for his work on mechanism design theory, a system that allows two or more parties to reach an agreement that accomplishes a desired outcome even when their priorities and goals are unstated. The simplest example is the mom with two kids and one piece of cake: she wants them to split it without complaining, they each want the bigger piece. One mechanism that gives everybody what s/he wants is to have one child cut the cake and the other choose which piece he wants. I mentioned this story. Everyone nodded tiredly. We reluctantly returned to the water jugs as our frontrunner, and then we had our breakthrough.


Trying to hammer out the technical details of signaling an empty jug across the Floor, we realized we didn’t need a technological solution, we needed an incentive! We could hide money behind some of the jugs so when they are pulled out, a dollar bill drops down. No, too venal, and besides, who’s going to pay? We could attach messages or riddles or candy or some other small reward. Then Sarah brought up the crucial point that the jugs are in the men’s room, thus only men will receive the incentive. That made us jump. Porn! Matt drew us all close together and whispered, “Juggs! Juggs behind the jugs!” thereby tying the conceptual knot into a tidy little bow.

I’m not joking when I say that this is one of my favorite projects so far this year. We’ve created a system that with its very existence calls attention to itself as well as lots of other systems. By choosing pornography as our reward for altruism, we’re calling attention to and extending the male stereotypes that played a role in the decision to store water jugs exclusively in the men’s room. Men can lift, men are brawny, men like boobs. On top of that system flows its opposite, a current of political correctness that will find such assumptions offensive or, less contentiously, single out a few ITP men at random to dispel any illusions of brawn. Pornographic portrayals of women also raise questions within religious and political contexts, and placed as they are in a charged semi-private space, one also wonders about their social implications. Should any discussion ensue, it will take place over a variety of communication channels, exposing our decision-making and accountability systems.


Besides facilitating discussion of itself, this system is also notable because despite its crudeness, it works. It has a clear purpose, a mechanism that coordinates several distinct components, and an agnosticism for other systems that while important to our community are not essential in this particular case. Changing a water jug requires only one person. It doesn’t matter if our pornographic incentive discourages 119 people from having anything to do with the water jugs if there’s 1 that can’t help but think of breasts every time he passes the bubbler. In a community that includes roughly 120 men, it seems safe to assume that a good portion like to look at women’s breasts and that a few are true enthusiasts. So even if we alienate a portion of the community that might otherwise occasionally change a jug, by creating one or two water jug fanatics we ensure that there is always water to drink in the front hall.


Mixed Connections

The most front-of-mind are purely physical connections, binding two separate things together. Most of the connectors I saw/thought about this week rely on some form of friction and/or a change in state (most often from liquid to solid). In no particular order: rope, wire, string, screws, nails, buttons, zippers, spray/liquid/solid adhesives, tape, sticky tack, epoxy, chains, springs, snaps, hooks and eyes, lashes, concrete, solder, welds, friction (dovetails), plugs and sockets, threaded joints, folds, roots, suction, magnetism, knots, sewing/weaving/knitting, bites (army ant sutures), staples, pins, mixing.

Some connections also rely on alterations of chemical/atomic structure to connect. These tend to be much harder to reverse than many physical connections: fusion, dissolution, cooking/firing/baking.

Then there are metaphysical connections, the connections we talk about between people or ideas or events, which I would characterize as a kind of sharing—be it of traits, genealogy, interests, friends, provenance, themes, or causality. We use the language of physical connection to describe these: bound in holy matrimony, causal chain, linked in, ties of blood.

The thing that connects all these expressions is the purpose of the connections to which they draw analogy: to constrain motion. Hinges, shackles, cuffs, reins, and handles all restrict motion through connection. Connectors are often also channels for the passage of something from two otherwise separate entities: tubes, pipes, wires, electromagnetic waves, buses, word of mouth, and all manner of electrically conductive materials act as connections that transport.

The most interesting of these of course being neurons. It is in connection, impossibly tangled and branching and complex connection, that our consciousness resides, that we understand the world.

I prototyped a nifty switch hidden in a magnetic box. A light is on when it’s not physically connected to something, but as soon as the magnetic (physical connection) is made, the electrical (channel) connection is broken. The two cannot coexist. But that’s an arbitrary fact of wiring. I could just as easily have wired the light only to turn on when the box is magnetically attached to something else.

Which made me realize that connections are most interesting when they are broken, when they’re forbidden, when they are unintended. Secret liaisons make good stories, short-circuits end in fires, ruptured pipelines induce panic. This is the great appeal of the mashup—possibly even the power of cinema (wasn’t it Eisenstein who wrote about cutting and the mental jumps the mind makes?)—the juxtaposition of disparate elements that our minds nonetheless connect.

jumblr screenshot

That is pretty much how my favorite parts of my brain work, making strange and unexpected connections with unpredictable outcomes. It’s also the way humor works, uncovering the unexpected connection to spark a laugh. So after much unsatisfying PComping, I ended up turning to the now almost clichéd connectivity of the web to explore the pleasure of the unexpected connection. Part php and part spit, Jumblr is a website that makes unexpected connections by jumbling links, either within a site or between two sites. It works by scraping a site, parsing its links and storing them in an array using XPath, shuffling the array, and then returning them via preg_replace(). Right now it breaks when sites use relative links because they end up pointing to my domain, but once I figure out how to construct a conditional regular expression, I’ll be able to fix that problem. I’m also going to develop a Javascript link interceptor so that the randomization persists with each link click.

Back Pocket in the Front: An Exploration of Modularity

modular banana

Make a module. This is the kind of assignment that is always better in retrospect (as this tardy write-up can attest).

Thinking about modules and the arenas in which they frequently appear led me to some interesting insights, not the least of which was a clear idea of the connector I want to build this coming week.

A module encapsulates a functionality within some larger, more complicated system. When properly designed, it can be joined smoothly with existing modules of the same or different types. Modular furniture, trains, pre-fab architecture, object-oriented programming, modulated and demodulated data streams, toys, and space stations are all modular because modularity makes decorating, managing freight, building, coding, communicating, playing, and not dying in a vacuum easier and less error prone, even in the presence of significant future uncertainty. Think back to Powers of Ten—the entire universe is modular!

I started my exploration of modularity by making modules of something homogeneous, which if my notions above are true achieves no added efficiency or ease through modularization. I peeled and sliced a banana such that the slices could be interchanged within the peel. Then I ate it. Not quite the robustness I was aiming for.

I then toyed with creating a code-based exploration of image pixels and letters (by translating one into the other so that an email might be encoded as an image composed of apparently arbitrary pixels), but the spatial advantages of modularity were just too compelling to ignore. You can place a modular couch in a space of any shape! Have a corner? It wraps around it! Straight wall? It becomes a love seat for twenty!

But how does one modularize without atomizing, without simply breaking something big into identical smaller segments? By separating functions the way code does. For some reason, I immediately thought about clothes and those zip-off sleeves from the Eighties. Clothing’s modularity (at least wearable clothing’s) is anatomically constrained. In theory I could make pants that accept as many legs as you care to attach—fun maybe, but not so useful.

Thinking about pant legs got me thinking about the make-up of clothing more generally—and led me to pockets. Most of my pants have at least two sets of pockets: the side ones that are sewn into the garment and the back ones that are sewn on. I carry lots of stuff in my pockets and I don’t ever seem to have enough room, and I prefer the bulge of a full exterior back pocket to the chafing of a stuffed inner one, though I can’t stand carrying things around where I can’t see them and inevitably crush them when I sit too enthusiastically. The answer?

finishedback of pocket and magnet stripboxers(empty)boxers(full)

Modular magnetic pockets. They can be attached to any part of any garment using a discreet, low-profile magnetic strip (or wadded up and crazily sewn elastic as in my prototype) that lies flat along the inside and firmly attaches the pocket to the outside.

And if it’s not in use? Just put it in your pocket.

Making Something Useless


When I semi-glibly stated that the thread that runs through most of my work is a kind of “sublime uselessness,” I hadn’t really thought through the idea of use. When Despina asked me to make something useless, I was sure it wouldn’t take me long. After a week, I’ve revised my thinking.

Something useful is something that has a purpose, that catalyzes an action to bring about a desired result, intentionally or not. That’s a definition I’m happy with. The problem arises when defining its opposite, the absence of utility. The concept seems straightforward enough—something useless is something that has no purpose, something that brings about no desired result. But the very rational nature of our brains makes such a thing impossible. There is no thing, concept, or thought which our brains can conceive to which we cannot ascribe some hypothetical use. Pathological hoarders suffer from an acute sensitivity to the possible uses of things most of us would cast aside—”I might one day need to reread this article” or “I know this pot is broken but what if some day I need shards of pottery for an art project?”

How can I make something useless?

Because every single thing I can think of, including Jorge’s devilish milk stain on white pants, fulfills this particular assignment, everything has a use. The only truly useless thing is that which my mind cannot conceive, but how can I make something my mind cannot apprehend? I can’t, so I do nothing. I make silence.

Conceptually cool, but a cop out. So while technically what I cannot conceive is the most useless thing I can make, I chose instead to unpack the various possible meanings embedded in the “make something useless” directive and combine them into the greatest possible degree of uselessness.

There are degrees of utility. A Swiss Army knife is more useful in most situations than a stale madeleine. Not always. If you’re starving to death, a Swiss Army knife might not be of much use, but I’d argue that considering every possible situation, the set of situations in which a Swiss Army knife’s utility outweighed that of a madeleine would be significantly larger than its opposite.

My goal at the outset was to identify different types of uselessness. My initial impulse was to conflate an object’s uselessness with the inability to extract profit from its production, largely in response to those Winter/Spring Show visitors who watched me heat up ice cubes with a hairdryer to trigger MIDI sound loops of urban noise or leaned over to smell my scratch & sniff television screen only to shake their heads sadly and ask, “So how are you going to make money with it?” That is roughly equivalent to saying that something is useless if no one wants it. That’s all sorts of problematic. Especially since I can (and frequently do) imagine some eccentric art collector finding this aspect of my work highly desirable and worth many buckets filled with money. There’s no accounting for taste, and because every conceivable object/concept has a use, one must assume that at least one person will want it/be willing to pay for it. Neeeext!

JarHacked Table of Contents

What if the emphasis is on make rather than useless? The directive then becomes to take something’s intended use away from it. I glued an empty jar shut. I cut out all the page numbers in a table of contents. I thought about taking the wheels off of my asshole downstairs neighbor’s bicycle. All of these objects retain many secondary uses—the jar can be used as a weapon, the table of contents will serve as toilet paper in a pinch, and the bicycle frame can be melted down and used to make sadistic steel implements with which to torture its owner—but they no longer contain, index, or transport. That seemed like a promising start.

Handle to nothingIf what is removed in this last case is the principal verb that an object or idea accomplishes, another type of uselessness results from removing an object from the context of its usefulness. A handle that is attached to nothing is useless. Similarly, directions received in a language one doesn’t speak are useless, as are democratic institutions in a society structured around clans.

Then there are closed loops of utility in which a thing reflexively uses itself, minimizing other subjects’ possibilities of finding it useful. A website that destroys itself as soon as you visit it. A candle burning in an empty room. The problem is that this reflexivity threatens to become beautiful, and beauty has all sorts of uses.

Porcupencil 1Ultimately, it was this realization, along with my visit to the Bauhaus exhibit at MoMA that so gleefully described the fetishization of function to which we still reverently bow almost a century later that led to the final form of my idea, the Porcupencil.

I combined two archetypically useful objects—the pencil and the razor blade—in such a way as to obviate their principal uses without obscuring them, resulting in an object that discourages its own use. I don’t think I made something useless, but I certainly limited the possibility space and context in which it is useful.

And it looks nice too.

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