Friday, October 10, 2008

Artist Reception

They have a new sculpture display in the campus gallery.

The center of the display is a wooden boat, painted white, hanging
from the ceiling. There are hundreds of mechanical birds clinging to
the sides and bottom of the boat. When the viewer turns the sculpture
on, the birds all start pecking on the boat for a couple minutes.

It sounds silly, but it is an effective and mesmerizing piece of art.
And the more you see it, the better it gets. Each time you activate
it, the pattern of pecking is randomized, so the experience is unique.

Yesterday the artist was giving a presentation on his work and this
piece. People were asking him about the art:

Guy: "How many birds are there?"
Artist: "279"
Gut: "Is there any significance to that number?"
Artist: "Yes, I chose that number for a very specific reason." He
paused, looked at the boat, and continued, "This looks right."

Later, he was talking about how he randomized the birds:

"I have a computer running in there with a random number generator.
But the thing about random number generators is that they are not
completely random. Sometimes the same sequence can repeat itself. I
didn't like that, so I added analog circuits between the computer
output and the birds. There are capacitors and resistors to modify
the signals sent to to the motors in the birds. And if you use really
cheap capacitors and really cheap resistors, their performance is
unpredictable. So that gave me the true randomness I was looking for;
each activation is guaranteed to be completely unique."

I got a chance to chat with the artist for a while. He asked what I
was studying; being an economist at an art gallery is usually a good
conversation starter. Here is one random snippet from the

Artist: "I always thought economics was just random and chaotic, but
then I saw a movie about some guy who was always seeing patterns in
everything, what was his name?"
Me: "John Nash"*

The artist was a clever guy; anyone who knows about electrical
engineering knows that getting analog circuits to do what you want is
always a tricky task. But he always seemed to say that he wasn't very
smart, or that the best things in his art were just random accidents.

It was a good conversation. I usually enjoy talking to artists. Most
of them have a good understanding of how complicated the world is and
how limited our knowledge often is. They are interested in new ideas,
open to new knowledge, and are relatively free of the dogmatic
intellectual arrogance that you often find in academics.

*I have not seen 'A Beautiful Mind', but I know its effect on popular
and artistic culture. It seems to be the source of the few accurate
things that artsy types know about economics. One of these days I
will have to watch it, so I can talk about it.

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