Misfit Zeitgeist

Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, culture, making stuff

This fall, my older daughter entered middle school, and I was scared stiff.  This is a child who runs around in the woods with a cloak on, who has always had her own (sometimes very odd) sense of style, a person who has done conceptual art — without any prompting — from the time she was perhaps three years old.  She is intelligent, sweet, and totally unlike any of her peers.  I knew she was doomed: she’d get eaten alive.  I certainly had, at that age — and she was like me, but more so.  (This is the same daughter who took those endlessly popular pictures of tourists at the Tower of Pisa when she was nine).

She was aware of my anxiety, despite my attempts to be calm.  “Mama,” she announced to me in August, after coming back from the be-who-you-are heaven of Camp Winnarainbow, which she says is like a second home for her,  “I’ve decided on a strategy.  I’m going to wear clothes that are totally me, and then see who wants to hang out with me.  If they don’t like it, we’ll both know we shouldn’t be friends.  If they do like it, then I’ll have found people like me to hang out with.”

I was secretly skeptical of this idea, because I felt she had really no conception of how cruel people can be in junior high, but I stifled that part of me long enough to praise her for coming up with a plan.  And then the rest of the month she hit the thrift stores, and went through her clothes, throwing out anything that didn’t fit in with the “real” her, with the exception of some comfy old clothes for around the house.

Then school came, and she wore… well, all of it.  Even the cloak.  And she got no grief for it.  Sure, she got a couple of annoying boys buzzing around, saying, “why are you wearing a cape?”  To which she answered, with admirable aplomb, “It’s not a cape, it’s a cloak.  Capes don’t have hoods.”  And they nodded!  And went away!  And the girls didn’t even whisper about her!  Except for one couple of (potentially interesting) girls who said to each other “Wow!  That girl is wearing a cloak!  How cool is that?”

So either she’s totally insensitive to the giggles and whispers, or middle school has changed inordinately since I was there.  True, that was a long time ago, and true, this is an unusual American town, being an easygoing surf town in California; but I don’t think children that age have changed that much.  Instead, I honestly think the culture has morphed a little.  I think the geeks, by hook or by crook, have begun to inherit the earth.

This is what I arrange as my evidence:  Mulan, the girl who was not supposed to dress like a boy and go to war.  Harry Potter, who went against all that he was told to do, and endured whispers and self-doubt while hanging out with a girlgeek that we all loved.  The Incredibles, where a family of unwanted misfits save the world and learn to let their oddness hang out. Percy Jackson. How to Train Your Dragon.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice movie, which took a whole show you can see live at Maker Fair as a centerpiece of geek creativity.  Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, which turns the whole misfit thing wonderfully on its head.

Lesser known are things like the excellent young adult book Stargirl, and the incredibly inspiring graphic novel Page by Paige, as well as the fine novel A Mango-Shaped Space, and many, many others.  All about people who do things differently than the norm, and who are worthy role models.

Face it, this isn’t the 80’s anymore.  This isn’t Pretty in Pink, where they changed the ending so Andie gets together with the boring jerk guy, simply because the sample audience didn’t like it otherwise.  In this incarnation, Ducky not only wins, but the audience applauds because the misfits are happy being themselves.

In the adult world, we have the Maker movement.  Burning Man.  XKCD.  Steve Jobs (okay, that was obvious).  In other words, the geeks of the last generation got creative jobs, started companies like Pixar, and began to influence culture.  Or they took time off from their dayjobs to go out into the desert and build huge sculptures and hang out with people in an alternate city, where the whole local cultural system is based on the idea of giving, of creativity, of being eccentric.

And what about the Steampunk movement?  Before it was boiled down to gears and Victorian garb, it was a bunch of people making things, creating their own alternate aesthetic, revamping computers and rebooting scooters.  And all the other things people did before you just bought your stuff on etsy from people who still do make things.

My point is, even in the mainstream, it’s all trickling in.  Children are being raised on a diet of misfit heroes, because the people writing the stories and making the films and producing the media were often misfits themselves.  And who doesn’t create stories that are, to some extent, about themselves — or at least about people they identify with?  And, when they get older, if they’re lucky, they’ll discover that a lot of misfits are now having a lot of fun doing weird, fun things they made up out of thin air — and everyone’s welcome.

There are a number of interesting factors here, besides the obvious “geeks growing up and taking over” model.  For one thing, the whole Web 2.0 model of users creating content means that people are taking control over their own creative production.  Communism, if you will, of the culture, where the most outrageously weird person can get seen for their creative genius.  For another, there is the way the Internet has allowed subcultures to flourish: geeks and eccentrics and anyone else can now band together with people of like minds to create a subculture, instead of sitting at home thinking they are the only one in the world who thinks the 17th and 18th centuries were the coolest ever.

And the more this happens, the more the people who learn the technology are the ones who will be producing the creative stuff that influences culture… and on and on.

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that clothes fashions haven’t changed much recently.  Car styles haven’t changed much either, and nor has music.  No one is coming up with the new Punk Rock, or the bouffant hairdo.  Back in the last century, clothes and cars and other things were always very distinct from each other from decade to decade, but we haven’t seen much of a shift in fashion or industrial design, other than fractional differences, for about twenty years.  Why is this?  Some people say it’s because there is too much change: our technology changes so fast and so often that we have had to drop something.  But I think you could phrase it another way — you could say: our attention is elsewhere.  Cars, clothes, songs, these things are parts of our lives that we live with but don’t look at so much.  Many of us are busy with other things, things less everyday.

I am finding, suddenly, that my odd tastes, my weird interests, are becoming the rage.  Everywhere you look, now, references to Wunderkammern and Cabinets of Wonder are popping up, used in every possible way.  Martin Scorcese’s wonderful film, Hugo, based on Brian Selznik’s even more wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is full of things which I’ve been talking about for years.  It’s weird.  I’m finding ideas I already wrote into novels suddenly cropping up in novels I’m reading (for example, there is the fabulous Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which I have just reviewed in the new book review blog Spec Fic Chicks — where people are remade with machine-parts as part of their anatomies, and ultimately, part of their souls — is disturbingly close to something I’m trying to sell in a children’s book right now).

So this is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, something I hold very dear is suddenly seeing a surge in interest — yay!  But on the other, it means that the cool things I am interested in are suddenly under public scrutiny, are being watered down as they enter the media and become part of the ad-cycle; and soon, Cabinets of Wonder will be passe, will — oh horrors! — show up at Costco.  Except… so little of the history will have been truly described, and thus will remain, mysterious and horrific and beautiful, and essentially untouched, the Platonic ideal of exploration and weird magical science.  I hope.

Despite the fact that I could be out of fashion next week, I find this spirit of the times to be incredibly exciting.  Watching my daughter go off to school in a tight leather vest over a cotton shirt, a Steamboy-style cap, and rainbow rubber boots, and knowing that she is doing it safe from severe criticism is honestly thrilling.  Knowing that my people, my kind, are out there remaking the culture from the ground up, even if I don’t always like or believe in the things that they produce… just knowing that they’re there, making stuff, questioning stuff, trying new cultural systems, makes my adrenaline pump as I think about all the doors that are opening.  Thinking about it, I get shifty in my seat.  I get excited, because you know what?

We’re winning.

Lena Herzog’s Lost Souls

Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, museums, neat stuff

I came across this by chance: another photographer, photographing Frederik Ruysch’s amazing birth defect displays from the Kunstkammern of Peter the Great, as well as Vienna’s Federal Museum of Pathology at the Narrenturm.  I have always admired Rosamond Purcell’s photographs, but now there is Lena Herzog.

On Science and the Arts, she does a good job of talking about the true nature of the collectors of the old days, the ideals of morality and aesthetic considerations, the way that art and science were not so separate as they are now.  Check out her narrated slideshow here.

In the meantime, I recommend her book, Lost Souls, which sounds like an amazing meditation on the the abstract beauty of these items of study:

“The arrangements of the fetuses, the specimens, the anatomical skeletons, was highly artistic.  Ruysch was a true artist.  The images I have created, I took special care not to take advantage, not to speculate, on the macabre — on the horrifying.  I wasn’t interested in shocking anyone.  They are shocking by definition because it’s such complicated territory.  They’re dead, they’re children, they were meant to live, they never lived — so I truly wanted to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Ruysch, who took special care.  For example, he would hide the especially frightening parts with lace, revealing it only to his students of anatomy and to himself to study, in order to help humankind.  The morality of the cabinet makers was never in question.  They were highly conscious of the moral and human implications.”

 The preserved fetuses are glimpses into the perils of health and science back when medicine was in its infancy, but she manages to capture some of their ephemeral beauty, and some of the qualities which Ruysch so carefully preserved: that of error and loss, of humanity and the need to understand.


More on Ms. Herzog and the book in the Paris Review,
A rather technique-heavy conversation with Ms. Herzog at the American Society of Cinematographers.

Tyger, Tyger in a Folded World

animation, architecture, art, Cabinet of Wonders, neat stuff, paper, surreal

I just came across this, pretty much by accident.  It’s amazing, a small film by Guilherme Marcondes, a Brazilian filmmaker, based on the William Blake poem. He uses puppetry, illustration, photography and CGI to make a fantastically rich little gem:

Mr. Marcondes is influenced by the pastiche of Brazilian culture and the DIY quality of the Brazilian film schools of which he came.  Clearly, he uses anything he can get his hands on, including things like origami and the ancient Japanese puppet-art of bunraku.  It’s all very stylized and fabulous, and makes me want to know more about his earlier life — did he study all these kinds of art?  He must have.

I went to his website, where he has samples of his work, and I found this, from a movie called Bunraku, the opening sequence of which he was given carte blanche to do:

 I never heard of this movie, Bunraku.  It looks like it was released in France and Canada, but not here…?  It looks like a very violent movie, definitely not my type of thing, but the art direction looks really interesting: the pans through cities seem to unfold like a pop-up book, and the scenery is an odd conglomeration of bits.  Which leads me to the fact that Mr. Marcondes originally studied architecture: 

“I like experiencing architecture, not practicing it. Just as I go to the movies or listen to music, I like to wander around a city, paying attention to how the space is organized, how the transportation works, etc. I’m interested in how the environment we live in changes and conditions our personalities. That’s clearer in Tyger than in any other film I’ve made. That also explains why I like J.G. Ballard so much!”  [link]

And on that note, I will leave you to ponder a world where cities are made to pop up as you move through them, and when the apocalypse comes, flowers of light grow through the cracks of the world.

Prognostications, Ahoy!

Cabinet of Wonders, people, weird science

Whitby.  We’ve heard of the place, on the coast of Yorkshire, home of the madhouse in Dracula, the place with the lightning, the cemetery; the scene of that great Gothic battle against evil.  One imagines it a dreary place, lashed with wind and weather, with dark clouds clinging to the rocky shores.

But Whitby is actually somewhat of a tourist place, and always has been; a place for the people of northern Yorkshire to go to the seaside, an old fishing port (where Captain Cook learned his trade), connected to the North York Moors, where from Georgian times until the present, people go to walk and look.  And Whitby jet, mined there since Roman times, was very popular among the Victorians.

George Merryweather was a doctor living in Whitby, an honorary curator of the Whitby Philosophical Society in the mid-19th century.  His habit of inventing things, so common among the people of the day, led to his invention of the Platina Lamp, a long-burning light source:

“In a communication from George Merryweather, Esq. to Professor Jameson, dated Edinburgh March 5th, 1831, it is proposed to extend the aphlogistic platina lamp, by constructing the body of the lamp, of tin large enough to contain a quart or more of alcohol.  This will be sufficient to keep the platina in a state of constant ignition for thirteen or fourteen days and nights.  Such a lamp, while entirely devoid of glare, affords sufficient light to shew the face of a watch in the dark of night.  … if it be connected with an unfailing reservoir of alcohol, the lamp may be ignited for years.  The spongy platina does not appear to be, in the least, deteriorated by being kept in a state of constant ignition.”

— The American Journal of Science and Arts, Volume 20, under “Miscellanies”

 However, the thing which Mr. Merryweather became truly famous for was his “Atmospheric, Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct,” or, more shortly, his Tempest Prognosticator,” which he built for the Great Exhibition of 1851.  It is a beautiful structure, with a bell at the top designed to look like the dome at St. Pauls.  Around the bottom are placed a dozen glass bottles; threading from tiny hammers around the edge of the bell are threads, which connect to a piece of whalebone just inside the neck of each bottle.  Inside each bottle is poured an inch of rainwater and then — oh happy home! — each bottle is occupied by a leech.  A common, ordinary surgical leech.

Being a doctor, Merryweather had observed that medical leeches responded to barometric pressure or electrical charge in the air, or whatever it is that allows smaller animals to know when bad weather is afoot.  The leeches’ response was to climb — probably a good response for water-dwelling creatures just before a rain, so that they don’t get washed away.  So when Merryweather’s leeches climbed to the top of the bottle, they nudged the piece of whalebone, which caused the string to move and ring the bell.  It’s not clear, but it appears that the more the bell rang before a storm, the worse the weather to come.

Interestingly, Merryweather knew that his observations would come under question.  He set up a system, using the incredibly efficient postal system of the day, wherein he would post a letter to Henry Belcher, President of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society whenever his Prognosticator gave him warning of an impending storm.  Because the postal system delivered mail several times a day, the letters were postmarked with both date and time, proving that he had predicted the storm before it happened.  He did this for all of 1850, and his Prognosticator was surprisingly effective.

The thing that is interesting to me about this invention, which few people actually talk about, is the way in which Mr. Merryweather was working to span that growing gap between the natural world and the newly-ascendant scientific world, using “instinct” as an accurate gauge for something as practical as weather-prediction.  Interestingly, however, meteorology was a very appropriate battleground for this clash, as the scientific method did not always work so well with the chaotic ways that weather systems worked:

“…Faced with problems in constructing meteorological knowledge from the weight of precision observation, meteorologists turned their attention towards kinds of knowledge that stood outside conventional methods and instruments, however extensively situated, however precise and continuous.  The reputation of popular weather wisdom explained how meteorology persistently remained a key site for attacks on the dogmatism of scientific culture, and it forced meteorologists to consider the problem of evidence that seemed to escape the forms of number, weight, and measure.” 
— Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, by Katharine Anderson

In other words, meterologists couldn’t simply get by predicting whether people would die at sea based on simple measurements; they had to rely, in some part, on other things they found to be true:

“Eccentric as it may appear, the Tempest Prognosticator embodied widely shared assumptions about forms of knowledge, instruments, and meteorological science.  Its plausibility was based on two key perceptions: first, the precision and infallibility of sensations; and second, the importance of instruments to modern knowledge.  Both are crucial for understanding the relationship of weather wisdom and scientific meteorology.  The complex instinctive behavior of some “lower” forms of life modeled a natural form of automatic precision.”
 — Katharine Anderson, above

I had never really thought before how much the battleground between accepted wisdom/magic and science was fought to a much later date in meteorology, but it makes sense: for, if there’s one thing Chaos Theory and satellite technology have taught us, it’s that weather is a fickle, far-ranging thing, and telling sailors whether to go risk their lives merely on a barometer is something no one is completely comfortable doing.  Anyone attempting to predict the weather, even today, is likely to come under criticism and even scorn when their predictions appear to be caged in ambivalence; so Merryweather must have thought he was onto something wonderful.  He even tried to convince meterologists that his leeches could be hooked up to a telegraph system, with a minimum of difference in design; but not surprisingly, they did not take the bait.  They already had their feet set on a road in which animal instinct was discounted, and would continue to be discounted, until the late 20th century.

(The Tempest Prognosticator is now kept at the Whitby Museum)

Read more about the Prognosticator

Dragon Hunters

animation, Cabinet of Wonders, children

By pure accident tonight, I watched Dragon Hunters, an animated French movie for kids which was released in America in 2008 with English voices, most notably that of Forest Whitaker as the hugely muscled, sweetly earnest Lian-Chu.

Based on a French TV series which I’d never heard of, the movie is a 3-dimensionalized story about two men, friends from their days in an orphanage, who work as dragon hunters, along with Hector, their blue… dog? dragon? rabbit?. Gwizdo, the unscrupulous brains of the outfit, is a fine foil for Lian-Chu’s stolidly heroic personality, and though they never seem to get the money they need, they have each other. Their quest in life is to make enough money to retire to a little farm, where they will grow — “sheep,” puts in Lian-Chu, whenever it comes up: Lian-Chu is an avid knitter.

The two are discovered by Zoë, a young girl who lives in a vast castle with her blind dragon-hunter knight uncle, who doesn’t appreciate her. She dreams of becoming a knight and dragon-hunter, and has left home to find knights who can help her uncle kill the “world gobbler” dragon who is coming, as it comes every twenty years, to wreak distruction and disaster.

This sounds like a normal fantasy, similar to many animated features churned out by Hollywood. Believe me, it’s not. The art direction, the scenery, and even the premise is actually totally unique. The landscapes are an amazing fiddle of physics, requiring conceptual leaps which are both disorienting and wonderful, because they live in a floating world, made up of fragments of land which float and move, but nevertheless have their own gravity. Moving through this space consists, often, of stepping from chunk to chunk of ground which either floats near you by accident or is held in place by roots or other debris. The opening scene, where Lian Chu is trying to kill a slug-like dragon which drags him around and around a variety of little ball-like floating planetoids, scraping off the vegetation which takes to the air, floating all around them — this is like nothing Hollywood would make. The whole thing has a non-American flavor, from the weirdness of the world to the odd details of character and humor.

It’s these details that are wonderful, funny and awe-inspiring and vivid, like when Hector, in the middle of an action sequence, pulls a booger out of his nose, and in the next shot wipes it, unnoticed, on Gwizdo’s sleeve. Or the passing moment when Zoe comes out from behind a pillar, pulling up her pants. Or when, as they come closer to the end of the world, they encounter the wreckage of some past civilization, looking like Prambanan and Palmyra, all taken apart and floating everywhere, filling space with lost chunks. Or the calendar Zoë’s uncle makes to predict when the World Gobbler will return, which gives the inspiration for some of the best credits I’ve ever seen, full of awesome little clockwork devices that appeal to the deepest part of my clockpunk soul. The details fill out the movie, taking it out of the realm of mere kid’s adventure and putting it up with Carl Barks‘ duck comics or the best of the Asterix books, an endlessly repeatable classic.

Oh, and did I mention the music? I noticed gamelon-ish music going by, as well as some sort of arabesque mix, and I believe there was a Cure song in there somewhere; quite a collection, and very un-Disney.

It was so engaging, so awesomely mind-bending and beautiful in its production, that I found myself looking around for more by the same people. But it seems to be a combined effort of several French cartoon directors and writers, and what they’ve done before is mostly for TV. However, make note of Guillaume Ivernel, who did the really beautiful backgrounds for the Dragon Hunters TV show and was the art director as well as co-director for the movie with Arthur Qwak, the creator of the series. So the luminous anti-gravitational universe through which the characters walk — and which gives the whole thing its surreal style — is his doing, though the original concept came from Qwak. It’s clear that they had a blast doing this movie, and though it may be a one-off, one can’t help hoping for more.

More details about the movie here.