can a robot create?

The 12-week artist residency at the Tempe Center for the Arts has come to an end. Most every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon you would have found me working alongside or talking with artist Bobby Zokaites. Today I welcome Bobby as guest writer.


My Name is Bobby Zokaites, I’m a local sculptor here in Tempe Arizona, my tag line is, “Engaging the imagination through the creation of large scale objects and spaces.” This summer I participated in the Tempe Center for the Arts exhibition and residency “Draw.” For those in the know, sculpture cannot exist without drawing, in fact most sculptors are very proficient drawers. However, I was included in the exhibition because of a project that, on the surface, seems to challenge the very notion of what it means to draw.

The premise is simple: can a robot create art?

I began this line of inquiry in 2005 during a sophomore painting class at Alfred University and in response to the ever-ubiquitous self-portrait assignment. The history of art is littered with self-important, foreboding and grandiose articulations of the portrait and myself, being 19, of course wanted to join this history. By asking a robot to make art, I had the idea I was creating a portrait, an expression, an illustration, of a generation growing up within the digital revolution.

And so, I purchased a robot—a Roomba vacuum cleaner. Equipped with propulsion, preferences and aversions, the Roomba was already well on its way to being an artist, but lacked the tools needed for painterly expression. To provide it this, I simply removed the vacuum components and added a very basic foam brush and paint reservoir, creating something akin to a homemade marker. The first painting made was such a rush, my mission after that was to get out of the way to let the Roomba do just whatever it was going to do. Large black brush strokes combined with delicate tire treads on a white background these first paintings, produced using India ink on gesso-ed panels, existed in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism; Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and the like. I felt that reexploring this canonical aesthetic with contemporary technology would be fun, and it was, I thought that updating this aesthetic with contemporary technology would be fun thing to do. Which it is, fun, the public likes it because they have a different way into the paintings. For me however, with every successive painting I lost more of my own control, agency, creativity, my own self-expression; I had given it to a robot and so, the process became very existential and surreal.

I was still a student and incredibly young so I set this project aside to focus on becoming a sculptor. I took work as the site manager at Franconia Sculpture Park, learning the pragmatic skills associated with the production of large-scale sculpture. Sculpture became my way of regaining and developing my voice, and gave me the opportunity to have visible impact on my immediate surroundings. I became an educator, teaching others how to use tools, to manipulate materials, and to develop their own agency. Currently, I’m involved in several municipal projects, in a way I see this as being involved in governance, a way to add a unique flare to the urban environment.

In 2016, I was asked by the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University to readdress the Roomba paintings. I dug out the now-decade-old robots and made a very large painting, this time on canvas. We produced a 4-minute video in which we decided to bring the relationship of artist, human, and robot to the front on the conversation.

“Draw” has allowed me the time to further address this relationship. I’ve broken the process down into its components: where do I have choice, when do I need to react, and when do I hit stop? Conversations with Monica Martinez and Kyllan Maney, the two other artists-in-residence, have helped with the transition back into thinking towards two-dimensional output. Considering aspects as simple as how colors lay on top of each other, composition and line weight, to those factors as detailed as the viscosity of paint and pigments, I’ve become a painter. Although to study these things I’ve had make more paintings resulting in more failures; some winding up so far gone that I’ve painted over them right in the gallery (much to Monica’s initial dismay). Over this summer, I’ve changed how I think about these painterly concepts several times, using different aids and brainstorming techniques. Dr. Seuss has the most amazing grays, and since his books are well-known for inspiration, I made four paintings using his color palettes.

In addition to the ‘shop talk’ between artists, large school groups would stop through providing several other opportunities to re-examine and re-explain the conceptual parts of the story. Now that I’ve identified where my choices are in the process, I have more involvement and the paintings are more collaborative, less reactionary. Engaging a larger community in the process has brought new points of view, new conundrums, new humor. In keeping with some of the light-heartedness of the project, Tricky, TCA’s preparator, even named the Roomba, “Mayhem”.

Though I’m not the first person to use robots as a way to produce art— American artist, Roxy Paine uses robots to produce a variety of sculptural objects and Leonel Mora of Portugal even has robots that sign their own drawings— my own contribution is in the realization that a commercially available robot was, even 10 years ago, sophisticated enough to produce its own paintings; proving the mantra, “any significantly advanced technology is synonymous with magic.” Along those lines, many people are fond of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and the Terminator as cautionary tales of technological advancement and morality. However, with the Roomba project I’ve always gravitated to the earlier example of John Henry, the steel-driving man. His story, is one that pits man against machine, in a race to build the transcontinental railroad. All of these stories present a dichotomy when in reality man is not in opposition with machines. Modernity, with is mechanized metaphor, encourages us to idolize efficiency and progress, and in doing so, reduce individual labor. The paradigm of this train of thought has put me in an interesting head space: on the one hand I can anthropomorphize the Roomba, reducing my own self-importance, or I can claim authorship and be seen as an “artist” and “painter”. Truthfully, my preference is still “sculptor”, though I would accept manufacturer as well; both of these terms place importance and thought on to the tools and processes associated with production. With the Roombas as a tool, I can create an infinite number of composition.

art and science

Creativity is essential to the scientific process.


Do you know there is an International Society for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health?
→ #ISEMPH2018 

Today I know more about Evolution Medicine than I do the Spring day back in March when I meet with Joe Alcock, here in Phoenix. By the time that Saturday afternoon is over, I have an invite to attend ISEMPH’s summer conference in Park City, Utah.

I can’t make it but my compositions will … make an appearance.

Joe selects a number of artworks to use for posters supporting various conference topics. Director Janice Mancuso invites me to send my line of coasters using the specific works (and hands!…she likes the hands with the eyeball embedded into the palm).

I would have learned so much…


Listening to → Joe’s Evolution Medicine Podcasts, I come across this ↑ one morning. Maybe you recognize Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life and to the right is my artwork ‘Portrait of Sara – Head in Profile, Arms Akimbo’. #Cool #WhereArtMeetsScience

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
– Charles Darwin


present and re-present

Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the leading cause of neurodegenerative dementia associated with aging, affects over 5 million adults in the United States and is predicted to increase to 16 million affected by 2050. – Alzheimer’s Association 2017 


Looking at the PET scans  – I recognize his profile. This is my father.

Talking to my sister Mercedes, she reminds me how for years when one of us called out Dad! he’d yell  back, YO SOY EL SEÑOR MARTINEZ! 
I smile. I don’t ask if he still does this.

It’s natural when I make art to think about it as installation. I want some sense of a bigger picture. With this particular work, I imagine a small series of studies and words. Maybe the words are text (as marks) across a wall.

I ask mom, my 4 sisters and brother to jot down thoughts/words about dad, past or present, as I make a small scratchboard series of his PET scans.

Mercedes: His funny sayings – CON UN DIABLO!!

Dad never really cusses in front of us. My guess is this saying is his version of Damn it!

Elisa: He likes to play with words, he always has. Every time we pass a one-way sign or stop at a four-way stop sign he says…”un guey”. “Cuatro gueyes”.

Dad’s humor includes playing with words and the English and Spanish language. 

Elisa: He used to say grocerias for groceries. Now he says, narizona when we get to Arizona Street.

Elisa also sends recordings she’s made of some of their conversation. In one recording she asks dad about his sister Carmen, who died last month at the age of 99.

Elisa: How many years between you and Carmen?
Dad (who is 86): I don’t know, followed by a long pause, she was old enough to scold me.

Mercedes: He liked Gabriel-Garcia Marquez’s, Cien Años de Soledad.  He took us to the Plaza Theater to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein at Plaza…Jaws and Star Wars at Cielo Vista. 

I laugh because within minutes of Young Frankenstein starting, I saw in his face he’d  regretted it. Not a kid’s movie dad!

Mercedes: …summers and swimming, Washington Park and Armijo….with all the neighborhood kids.

Dad, for many years was a summer life-guard for the city summer recreation program. He took us to work with him every day, Monday to Friday (lucky mom). And along with us, he often did have many of the neighborhood kids piled into the station wagon.
He swears he taught me to swim. Maybe I didn’t pay attention. His mouth dropped when years later, as an adult, I told him about the afternoon I almost drowned at my best friends house.

Mercedes: He liked Yoga!

This comment brings back my 10-year old self, skipping over him as he holds Cobra Pose.

Mercedes: …candy apple red Alfa Romeo. Guayaberas. He taught me to make Gin and Tonics. He likes to eat :).

Gin and Tonics?!

Analissa’s memory takes her back to high school:  I went to the library to pick a book, I chose One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia-Marquez. He read it with me. He went on to read everything by him, took a class on the author and later magical realism. I thought that was cool – he made himself an expert just like that. I once went to play cello for a class he was taking. I forget the class, but I played the same program as Pablo Casals did at the Kennedy White House. I sensed he was proud.

Analissa (younger than the rest of us, never knew dad the lifeguard, but does know dad the swimmer):  I would go swimming with him, since I was a little girl. He taught me to swim. I have specific memories: his cadence and body movement and endurance – his swim bag and goggles, flip-flops and little shampoo bottles. The last time we went swimming I sensed it would be our last time at the pool together. So I stopped and just watched him swim the whole time.

…We once looked up the town he was in, in Germany, on Google Earth. It was exciting for both of us. He had 3 memories: The train station that would take him into town, the ‘biergarten’ where they would drink, and the cathedral where they’d go to church after drinking all night on Saturday, then back to the train station. We found all three of those things, they were still there.
Dad is funny. 

Chacho, my brother, notes John Nichols and the Milagro Beanfield War – When I read it, at Cathedral, he told me it was one of his favorite books.  He would read it at least once a year. He likes Hemingway. When I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls he would tell me about it. He had the movie on VHS.
His favorite drink is Negra Modelo.

‘El Sapo High’…He says this every time we pass El Paso High School. 

Clearly Dad read a lot and – he suggested I read Cortázar’s Rayuela and also the English translation titled Hopscotch. The book had instructions in it on how to read it. Apparently it bounces from the past to the present. Instructions?! Too complicated dad!
It’s still on my list.

One of my sisters never responded and mom wasn’t sure what to say. She’s in the thick of it with taking care of dad.

As Artist-in-Residence, I focus on dementia and Alzheimer’s this summer.

I sit at my drawing table at the Tempe Center for the Arts, talking to people who come in and share their personal stories about how dementia touches their lives. I’ve connected with professionals on the issue. And last week a chemical engineer visiting the gallery talked to me about President Reagan, who died of Alzheimer’s. He was known to drink a coke a day. This chemical engineer, who spoke 5 languages, told me about a project he took in Japan shortly after graduating and consequently he never drinks out of aluminum cans if he can help it – only bottles for him.

…I know I want these small scratchboards bigger. I admit, this summer it sometimes feels odd to be working with new materials, mixing colors, and laying out ideas.

Raising awareness…my own and yours.


Tempe, AZ →  Dementia Friendly City
More → The Alzheimers Association
Special TIME Edition June 2018 → The Science of Alzheimers

no woman is an island

I title the post No Woman is an Island because it is about that. But I also want to call it
The Inner Ear Canal – and a Milagro for Barbara.

Interested in a small inner ear study, Wendy explains, My daughter is almost totally deaf. She’s lost her hearing due to Osteogenesis Imperfecta.

Osteogenesis imperfecta means imperfectly formed bone, OI is also known as brittle bone disease. I understand it is a connective tissue disorder that mostly affects the bones. It can also create  imbalance in the heart, joints, lungs, muscles, teeth, and like with Barbara (Wendy’s step-daughter), in the inner ear leaving hearing loss.

I’m sorry to hear this Wendy. Do you communicate via sign language?

I would really like to get this for her. She hasn’t learned sign language. The profound loss has just happened within the past year. She’s had a series of hearing aids, has a cochlear implant and is considering surgery to replace her inner ear bone with a 3D created new one.

I’m already impressed by some technology and learning about the use of 3D printing adds to it. I hope it can work for Barbara.

Inner Ear Study- Front

The word milagro is Spanish and translates to miracle. Milagros are Mexican folk charms. I consider some of my small representations of organs – sort of milagros.

The small anatomy studies I make represent active attention to a subject, and from that point of view are like an offering of prayer or a focused request (focused action) for health and wellness. I am certain Wendy knows about milagros but I want her to know the intention.I particularly enjoy drawing the linear and circular pattern the inner ear presents. I’m happy she wants to gift the small work to her daughter.

Me: Can I post about this?

Wendy: I am perfectly ok with you sharing it. She is actually my stepdaughter. I don’t think she will mind. She posts about the challenges on Facebook.

When Wendy picks up the framed, 2-sided study, I see and hear the emotion she has for Barbara. I am happy she will surprise her with this drawing.

Thank you Wendy.  Barbara, I send my best wishes your way. Your mom shared some photos of you with me – creativity runs in your family for sure.

Inner – Ear Study – Back


I met Wendy, who is also an artist, years ago at an Herberger Theater art exhibit. And since that time if I hear the name Wendy Willis – I always think printmaking and water.  I also think of Feisty (the cat) but that’s another story.
Wendy Willis

 

i visit a brain bank

Much of my research comes via anatomy books and the internet. I make the occasional trip (2 weeks ago in fact) to the Science Center. And I will admit to appreciating the Body World exhibit (as well as Gunther von Hagen’s dissection videos).  I have toured a number of labs, including Barrow’s some years ago. This week I visit a brain bank with new work in mind.

Driving to Sun City where Banner Sun Health Research Institute is located, I think about Kathleen Bartolomei (UrbanLab LLC) who connects me to Maribeth Gallagher (Hospice of the Valley), who directs me to Jan Dougherty (Special Projects Consultant at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute), whom introduces me to Dr. Thomas Beach and his research center -so that I might better appreciate the human brain in full, in part, and under the microscope.

I could title this post No Woman is an Island.

I arrive and meet Geidy, a Neuroanatomist. She will take me through the facility until Dr. Beach, who is in a meeting, becomes available.

She points out workstations each with a dry ice pad and scale, among other things.

Lab workstations

This particular lab is unique in that it requires rapid autopsy (within 3-hours postmortem) to ensure the highest quality tissue. Geidy explains, there is always an on call team to do the work. I assume donors have to live in the area. They do and she emphasizes the need for controlled brains, including enrolling a potential donor and meeting with them. She clarifies the work here is to study the aging process.

A good idea, I think to myself, because we are living longer.

The first area we enter includes a high-powered microscope and large computer screen. I don’t photograph the space because we plan to return after walking the lab. We never do come back.

Geidy announces we’ll make stops in various rooms on our way to the morgue. I’ve avoided morgues my whole life, is all that comes to mind.

I believe she identifies these refrigerators as -80°C lab freezers, which I understand now are ultra-low freezers.

Freezers

We walk through several rooms with rows and rows of tissue samples.

Brain tissue samples

Heart tissue samples

Organ tissue storage

With over 3000 people enrolled as donors, this lab has performed 1400 autopsies since 1987.

We make our way to the morgue.

I ask a particular question and Geidy says … because I am a Scientist, I would not say that. What I will say is…etc. I am aware of her ability for careful listening and mindful answering. Naturally I’m compelled to try to do the same.

Before she brings brain tissue out for me to see, she ends a part of our conversation by noting she believes they are finding better ways of diagnosing insults to the brain.

The brain appears so delicate and so beautiful. She notes pathology in the sample she holds. We talk about gray (not really gray) and white matter. 

Coronal section of the brain

When I later show my husband these 2 photos, he reacts by saying it looks like highly conductive material. Yes it is. I pose a (philosophical) question but he has no response for me.

Cerebellum

Taken aback by the cerebellum (the little brain), I know my renderings are on point.

Below is the left hemisphere of the brain. Knowing my artwork will include the normal brain and the brain with dementia, I ask Do you have diseased tissue samples?  No, she does not.

External structure – left hemisphere of the brain

Geidy points out the Corpus Callosum and notes the area is where the 2 hemispheres connect (center flat horizontal area in image below). I don’t say it out loud but I recall corpus callosum is Latin for tough body.

Midsaggital Plane – left hemisphere of the brain

Surprised that she brings out a heart (below), I see it is unusually large with (too much) visible fat. This prompts a conversation about age, aging, weight gain and weight loss.

Heart

As we exit the morgue I photograph a curtain rack sitting in the hallway. It has an image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. I recall the da Vinci book my father gives me that is currently sitting on my drawing table at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Finding the particular visual here represents for me a nod to timing and all that is right.

Walking back down the hallway, I hope to return to the area where the microscope sets up. I am eager to look at neurohistology. We meet Dr. Beach at the entrance to his lab and introductions take place. I also say goodbye to Geidi and thank her. She tells me she’ll go to the exhibit and she’ll invite her colleagues. It’s the sort of thing they’d all enjoy.

Dr. Beach and I have a very different interaction. He is curious to know what I am doing. I share a few drawings with him and one of his colleagues. I tell him about the artist residency and my father. He shares books and images with me. He explains particulars about dementia and Alzheimer’s. We look over some scans I bring along and he talks anatomy (CAT scan) and chemistry (PET scan). He tells me about glucose and synaptic connection.

We discuss the hippocampus and at one point he explains it is involved in only a small part of dementia (Alzheimer’s). He states dementia is a global loss of thinking. It’s not just about memory, it is about language (input and output), it is about losing ones understanding of abstraction…losing metaphor…and losing mathematics. He emphasizes…the whole of the cerebral cortex…is affected.

I ask about people who specifically use their intellect. I realize quickly everyone uses their intellect but I want to understand how an avid reader and thinker might be affected by dementia.  How (I really want to say why) does it take them (anyone)? Perhaps the root of my question is more emotional than logical. His general response is simple – the more one does with their brain (their mind) the longer it will take for it (the disease) to bring them down (I paraphrase).

Can you see a cure happening in your life time? He pauses before answering and I imagine it is because he is a scientist and wants to answer in a factual way. I suppose he can’t know the duration of his life. His response is firm – Yes. We will find a cure.

In your life time?  He may have answered – within 20 years – and then maybe changed his answer to 10 years. I can’t say for sure. I am listening intently though I forget to write this detail.

I never make it to the microscope to look at histology. It’s after lunch now and we’re both ready for a break. He extends an invitation for me to observe an autopsy. My name would  be put on a call list. I don’t jump at the opportunity. I’m good here and now.

As I make the drive home, I know the brain to be a most extraordinary organ. It is not like a computer. It is not a machine. It is a living thing – enfolding life.

In my artist statement I write about my interest in both the physical body and the subtle body. Perhaps I should use the words gross (what is visible to the eye) and subtle (what is not visible to the eye). Right in this moment I understand the brain to be the best example of this.

Thank you to everyone who helped direct me to the Banner Sun Health Research Center. Thank you Geidy Serrano for the tour. And thank you Dr. Thomas Beach (Senior Scientist and Lab Head) for the opportunity to meet with you.


draw: the art of curiosity and innovation is now open and continues through Sept 1, 2018. I am 1of 3 Artists-in-Residence through Aug 3, 2018. You can find me there every Tuesday, and depending on the week, either Thursday or Saturday.
More info → Gallery at TCA


 

cortical homunculus

This last week artist friend Tim, who has an undergrad degree in Neurobiology, sends me an image of a figure. Cortical homunculus, thought you mike like it, he writes.  He explains…a map of the nerve receptors in the brain as related to scale on the body. I know the 2D version of this 3D form and immediately  make the connection.

Cortical homunculus! Why didn’t I ever look closer and why didn’t I note the cool name (words always pull me)?  Homunculus is Latin for little man, add cortical and you have a cortex man (a man in the brain!). The depiction basically represent a map of the body, more specific, nerve fibers from the spinal cord, that end at various points in the parietal lobe formulating a map of the body. I see mostly male (it is a little man, after all) though I do find female representations.

Initiated by Dr. Wilder Penfield who envisioned an imaginary world in which a homunculi (a very small humanoid form) lived. He and his colleagues set up experiments to produce a topographical brain map and a corresponding homunculi.

I enjoy working out the composition and now that I understand, I plan to draw more of them. No doubt, my versions will include the female in the brain!

I label as best I can considering the space I set up before I know all that I will include. One side of the homunculus maps the sensory nerves, while the other side maps motor nerves. ↓

Sensory Cortex (sensory body map)

Motor Cortex (motor body map)

Scheduled to facilitate an adult workshop in mid July, for my artist-in-residency, I now consider the color, line and text of the Cortical homunculus.

Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

I spend the last few days isolating and drawing the regions of the brain.  The earlier studies I work last winter, the beautiful bones of the cranium, lay out for me basic information connecting to the brain. Knowing I will eventually focus on the organ, I certainly don’t know I’ll be focusing on dementia and Alzheimer’s this summer. I also don’t know, as I begin this study, June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.

I don’t have an outline for how to move through all this. I learn, I draw – I draw, I learn. I begin with basic groundwork.  I work out neurons and glia and now I look at the cerebrum and limbic system. I am looking for the hippocampus as it relates to Alzheimer’s.

I pause here to tell you the brain is beautiful and so full of complexity (form and pattern). I am lost in the labyrinth now.

I start by laying out regions of the cerebrum, using a slightly different color of blue for each area.

The Frontal Lobe in bright blue.

Occipital Lobe (in the back of the cerebrum)

Do you see the hippocampus (the center c-like ↑ structure) buried deep in the center of the image? It’s not highlighted yet.

Parietal Lobe – dark blue upper back

Note the white areas atop ↑ the brain identifying the motor and sensory strips. I leave them color free only to know where they are as I work – eventually I outline them in blue.

Temporal Lobe – center lower right area

As I draw I try to understand something about each area – so much to learn.

In general, the hippocampus processes declarative memories and spatial relationships. This is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Patients begin to lose short-term memory and may also find it a challenge to follow directions.

Called the hippocampus, the organ is said to resemble a seahorse (from the Greek hippos is horse and campus is sea monster).  Living in the desert my whole life, I decide it resembles a Devil’s Claw seed pod.


A side note:
This morning I talk to Ryan, a roofer who is doing some work for us. He tells me about the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona.  Apparently sometime back he sustained a brain injury from a biking accident. He informs me the average helmet lasts about 4 to 5 years and most people don’t think to replace their own. He explains with time the lining hardens.

The conversation is interesting because as I research dementia, I also learn the same defective Tau protein found in Alzheimer’s disease is identifiable in the neurons of athletes who have in earlier years sustained serious concussions.

This week I hear the brain being described as a gelatinous organ protected by a rigid bony skull. It does needs protection from impact and jarring.

I mention I didn’t know June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. I know it  and now you know it too.