Category Archives: Arts in the Digital Age

An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambitious Elegy for Tesla is a high-tech, dreamlike and heartfelt meditation on Nikola Tesla, the legendary scientist and inventor. Jaffe’s multimedia installation fills the Rowan University Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D printed models of his iconic inventions, and animatronic, motion-activated figures of Tesla that move and, in some cases speak.

Tesla stands as an avatar of massive creativity, with his hundreds of patents, and basic breakthroughs in alternating current, radio, robotics, and even computer circuitry. Jaffe pays homage to his achievements, while embedding them in the medium of a life that had strangely mythic elements. She’s particularly sensitive to the poignancy of the older Tesla, the eccentric loner who fed and cared for pigeons, whose limitless imagination had run up against the limits of the public’s reception of his work.

This aspect of Tesla is part of what drew me to work with composer Jon Gibson on Violet Fire, an opera that tried to capture the inner life of Tesla in all its strangeness through music, movement and video. So I was delighted to be asked to write the catalogue essay for this exhibit. One part of the Tesla mythos is the white pigeon he befriended, and who triggered in him a vision of blinding light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds herself, surrounds Tesla with a flock of tenderly modeled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as carriers of his ongoing inspiration, and markers of his intense, intuitive connection with the natural world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Elegy for Tesla, gallery view

But Tesla, in the form of his motion-activated doppelgangers, steals this show. Curator Mary Salvante coordinated an NEA-funded collaboration between Jaffe and students and faculty in Rowan’s Engineering Department to create the systems that animate her sculptures. They stand, and move, in a perfect salute to Tesla as “magician” of wireless electricity.

I’ll be at the reception on Thursday – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through January 30.

Elegy for Tesla, an installation by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan University Art Gallery/West, Glassboro, NJ, through January 30, 2016

Reception Thursday, October 8, 5-8 pm, starting with artist presentation and panel discussion at 5 pm.

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Upholding Isis

Relief carving of Isis with horned moon headdress
Relief carving of Isis with horned moon headdress

During a hiatus from feline companionship last year, I daydreamed about naming our next cat Isis—after the goddess Isis so central to the religion of ancient Egypt, which is also known for its reverence for cats. Then came the news reports from Iraq and Syria about the horrifying actions of a terrorist militia calling itself by the acronym ISIS—or ISIL, or IS; but the first name seemed to stick. I silently shelved my thought, but couldn’t come up with a better name.

Ancient Egypt has fascinated me almost my whole life, and Isis makes an appearance in the novel I’m working on, which takes place partly in ancient Alexandria. Isis was worshiped in ancient Egypt as a kind of world-mother. The hieroglyph of her name includes the image of a throne, and it was believed that Isis was the source or “seat” of the Pharaoh’s power. Here’s a wonderful discussion of the meaning of her name. As the sister of Osiris and mother of Horus, Isis played the lead in the primal drama of Osiris’ death and resurrection. Her grief for her dead brother Osiris made her an emblem of deep feeling for others’ suffering, as her worship spread through the late Classical world.

Last summer, my husband Steve told me about a kitten he’d noticed at our local cat rescue: a beautiful, self-possessed little black cat, who might have some Siamese in her. And, he mentioned, her name was Isis. The woman who fostered her after she was found had given her the name. I knew we had found our next cat.

Our Isis in Sphinx pose
Our Isis in Sphinx pose

So Isis entered our lives with her name already bestowed. She wears it well: when she sits at attention, she’s the regal image of the Egyptian cat represented in statues, reliefs and paintings. Telling people her name leads to a variety of responses, often reflecting discomfort with the terrorist-militia association. I may answer with something like, “We’re trying to uphold the good feelings around her name.” The truth is, it pains me to think of the Goddess being overshadowed by a group that represents the most heinous actions of which humans are capable. Google doesn’t distinguish very well between the acronym and the ancient Goddess, and I’m afraid humans can get mixed up too.

On the other hand, I keep thinking that those who cover the news may have settled on the ISIS acronym out of the various choices, partly because of its lingering mythological resonance. We need our myths and ancient stories, as a storehouse of symbols to help us move forward. Maybe it’s a good thing that when people hear the next shocking news from that terrorist group, they feel the breath of Isis reminding them of something else.

 

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Asteroid Sighting

Asteroid shooting across skyThe Asteroid Belt Almanac celebrated its launch yesterday, at a great event put together by the publishers, The Head & the Hand Press. Great venue too – Indy Hall, a loft-style co-working space in Old City Philadelphia for tech workers, startups and other creative folks.

I’m so happy to be part of this forward-thinking project. This beautiful little Almanac re-imagines Benjamin Franklin’s iconic format, bringing together contributors who share an interest in the intersection of technology and science with our lives today. There are essays (including mine), a graphic novel script, some actual science fiction, art and more. In a nod to the old almanac form, this one even includes a guide to 2014 meteor showers, and a Weather Glossary – but this one’s geared toward climate change literacy. (Do you know what anvil zits are?) Really, it’s a must have!

You can order the Asteroid Belt Almanac direct from The Head & the Hand, or from Amazon.

contributors
Three Almanac contributors, l-r: Christine Neulieb, me in my vintage Star Trek uniform, and Sarah Grey
Nic Esposito, founder of H&H
Nic Esposito, founder of The Head & The Hand Press
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Mark Twain & Crowdfunding

Mark-Twain-Nikola-Tesla-Laboratory-1894
Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s Laboratory, 1894

I’ve just written a guest post for The Head & The Hand Press, considering how Mark Twain’s innovations in publishing could be seen as a precursor to the growing trend of crowdfunding for books. Twain/Clemens thought outside the box not only in his writing, but in the business of books. You can read the post here.

Twain’s passion for innovation and invention led him to admire the work of Nikola Tesla. Here’s a picture of him in Tesla’s New York laboratory, holding what looks like one of Tesla’s wireless light bulbs. You can just make out Tesla on the left.

And speaking of crowdfunding, the preorder campaign for The Head & The Hand’s Asteroid Belt Almanac is in its final week. Order a book, support a great independent press, and get a beautiful anthology of new writing and art, all at once!

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The Asteroid Belt Almanac

ImageWhat if Poor Richard’s Almanac were reimagined for today? The Asteroid Belt Almanac, coming soon from The Head and the Hand Press in Philadelphia, is all about using this homey literary form to help us imagine the futures we’re moving toward. The old Farmer’s Almanac offered stories and interpretations of the stars to help farmers with their planting. The Asteroid Belt Almanac is a place to consider the strange intersections of creativity, science and technology that we’re experiencing now.

It will include my essay, Gravity and the Cloud, an expansion on my blog post Gravity and the Noosphere (both inspired by seeing the movie Gravity), as well as the script for a graphic novel about travel to Mars, thoughts on music in the digital age, star charts, and much more. The publishers hope that it will “help to measure the kind of atmospheric pressure felt between daring hypotheses, between small steps and giant leaps.”

Preorder the Asteroid Belt Almanac! For $15, or more if you would like extra rewards, you’ll get a beautiful book, craft-printed on recycled paper. I love how with this project, The Head and the Hand Press is linking its commitment to fine artisanal printing with a new way of funding, via Pubslush, a site dedicated to crowdfunding for books.

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