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.


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.



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.

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

Mark Twain & Crowdfunding

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!


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.