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I’m sidestepping planning for the moment to make some brief comments about Girl Talk’s album All Day.  (If you haven’t heard and are feeling up to the challenge, download here for free.)

Driving back from Ohio, I decided to use one of the (seven) hours to listen to the album.  I had tried before, but was pretty much overwhelmed by the first three minutes of the first track.  The second time, however, I made it through, and I’m listening to it again now in fact.

Here’s my take on the album, or more specifically its style of hyper-mashup:  it’s not so much music, a series of songs, as it is a 71-minute manipulation of the brain to experience music.

What I mean by this is, that it’s not original music in the traditional sense of composition and performance, it’s a collage, like other mashups.  What stood out to me in this work, however, was that unlike other mashups (which generally combine two songs, or take brief samples from a couple songs and other places) the entire thing is just a series of brief references mixed to sound like a comprehensible song.  This creation of “meta art” seems to be a more and more common form of work on the Internet, with mashup videos of all the times Don Draper says “what?” in Mad Men (sorry, it’s not up anymore) or the massive infographics of every kind of beer or the Batmobile.  The skill lies not in inventing something out of nothing, but clever manipulation of found materials, so to speak, by wading through a massive pile of already-known objects of pop culture.

For it to make sense, then, we (the reader, listener, viewer) must already know most, if not all, of its constituent parts – otherwise it’s just noise.  This is particularly true of All Day; if you don’t know most of the songs, it’s almost unlistenable because it just jumps from one short clip to another, chaotic with multiple layers of different genres, sometimes three or four songs at a time.  We enjoy it only because we’ve really heard it all before.

What’s going on, it seems, is that we may like listening to it because of its technical quality, the way seemingly incongruous songs fit together, etc., but we’re really enjoying it because it’s triggering a constant sense of nostalgia in our brains, hearing those songs we recognize instantly and probably know by heart.  Each small sample is enough to make us hear the rest of the song in our heads, making the experience of listening not one that engages with the song actually playing, but one in which we actively play all the songs over ourselves in memory.  The album is basically a rapid series of memory-triggers, and makes no sense unless we already have those memories (songs) stored away for easy reference.

That isn’t to say it’s not a fun experience, even if you don’t know all the songs (I certainly don’t).  It’s just a notably different experience that says something about where culture is going.  Now that it’s technically possible, it’s also artistically acceptable to build something out of a mass of existing data – not simply through influences or lyric references or homages, as has been done for centuries, but by actually constructing a new work solely with the pieces of others, on a scale which would have been imprecise and extremely time-consuming using non-digital methods.

It feeds into some larger questions I have about the Internet and where we’re headed:  Are we really stretching our minds to take in and process more information?  Will we eventually find single-stream information too boring?  What are we giving up in return?  Are we losing the ability to think deeply about one thing because we are pushed to constantly think about so many things?  What are the consequences of our speeding up and layering and augmenting of reality, the real-life equivalent of constant footnotes and marginalia and cross-references?

And, of course, there is a Girl Talk infographic explaining the whole thing.  Actually, there’s one from Fast Company, Wired, and a real-time sampling list from Travis McLeskey.  Not to mention all the people who have populated the album’s Wikipedia page.  Meta squared, if you will.

For a similarly interesting pop song mashup, check this out (via Urlesque).

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Just got back from a showing of the fully-restored version of Metropolis, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra (live!), brought to you by the fine people at Cornell Cinema.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)The music matched the movie pretty well – staccato militaristic drum, mechanical rhythm, scraping metal-on-metal, some kitschy chimes.  Both were melodramatic but pull you in nonetheless.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard the original score, but I’d venture to say this captures the spirit of the film if not the minute detail of historical accuracy.

Just a brief thought on the film itself.

There is the highly dominant message Lang wants you to leave with:  “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!”  And there’s much to be said about the religious imagery, the portrayal of gender and sexuality vis à vis a woman-robot, etc.

Being a planner, however, I was of course more interested in what it had to say about the city.  One could read the “Mediator” as a planner, a community advocate, a voice bridging gaps between city and (disenfranchised) population.  That seems too easy and “feel good,” though.

Metropolis:  the City as Body as Machine.  On multiple levels, this metaphor plays out among the three.  The city has a Heart machine, a Brain, and (many) Hands, not to mention circulation (and a pleasure center).  Human bodies become machines, whether working in the underground city, contorting to move clock hands or gyrating on a club stage.  The actors themselves have a very mechanical quality, holding poses, stumbling rigidly, pointing to their head or heart to indicate feeling.  The transfer of life from Maria to the Maria-robot begins with the illuminated heart, then circulation system.  And the machine itself becomes a body in the not-so-subtle reference to Moloch (had to look that one up!), consuming other (apparently Phoenician) bodies so that the city functions.  And in the end, the city could only successfully function as an integrated body of head, heart, and hand.

I would love to hear a discussion about this movie in the context of post-war Germany, the large-scale industrialization of the U.S. and Europe in the 19th-early 20th century, the Art Deco and Futurist movements, Berlin in the 20s, and especially compared against Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).  Did Chaplin see Metropolis?  Was he spoofing it?  How did the Depression change perception of the City-Machine?  And was Metropolis a particular city?  It looked a lot like New York, and certainly not like Berlin or other European cities at the time!  Did Le Corbusier have a hand (ha) in the design?

I saw this post today on Lynn Becker‘s blog, about building the Nagakin Capsule Tower out of Legos:

via Lynn Becker

Compare with the original building

It’s strikingly similar; and it got me thinking – what influence has Lego had on modern architecture?  Old, ornate buildings like the Taj Mahal require special pieces and a lot of them, but a lot of more contemporary buildings are recognizable even with only basic bricks:

Sears Tower, via Lego.com

Famous skyscrapers, via BrickStructures

Then there’s some buildings that look pretty Lego-inspired.  I searched for an hour today to re-locate a photo I saw of a new art center (or school?) in Chicago, that is basically a short box striped in Lego colors.  (Anyone have any idea what it is?)

[will post photo when I finally track it down]

THEN there’s an actual fusion of Lego and architecture, in which building design is all at Lego scale, and/or Lego bricks are physically integrated into the building.

Exhibit A:  Flickr pool of Lego Architecture and Design

Exhibit B:  Artist Jan Vormann, who “repairs” cracked and damaged buildings with Lego bricks

Lego brick building repairs, via Urban Prankster

Exhibit C:   The (now demolished) Lego House

Lego House exterior, via Daily Mail

How could one go about studying the influence of Lego on architecture – not just its color scheme and blockiness, but its modularity and flexibility?  After all, it’s been around for 50 years now… by now there are multiple generations of architects who have no doubt played with them at one time or another…  Would interviews or surveys work?  Study of Lego sales to architecture studios and offices?  Attendance at Lego conventions?

Hmm… I bet there’s a story there for someone who wants to pursue it.


UPDATE:  I still haven’t found that building I had in mind, but maybe this was it – Blair Kamin just posted about a youth center on Chicago’s South Side.  I think it’s safe to say you could Lego that up pretty handily!

Christ the King School, Chicago

Gary Comer Youth Center, Chicago

Geometric Showdown
or,
How to Make Your Brand-New 3D Printer Cry

Stereolithography
v.

Klein Bottle

GO!!!

Family, friends, and cleaning have kept me from some quality LEGOing during the break, but I will at least take the time to write up a few tips about LEGO photography.  I need to preface by heartily emphasizing that I am not an expert, or even an experienced amateur, in this area.

For more skilled endeavors into taking brick pictures, check out the following links.  Or, just search for “Star Wars LEGO” on Google Image.  I can guarantee thousands of hits.  Thousands.  [Note:  I checked, it’s 2,500,000.]

The Brick Testament – LEGO versions of classic Bible stories

LEGO365 – Day-by-day photoblog of miscellaneous LEGO scenes

via Wired – “Lego Tableaus Re-Create Classic Photos

via Wired – “Historic Moments Recreated in Lego

Based on what I’ve done so far, I can offer a few helpful tips:

Setting the scene

  • Orientation.  Even if you’re taking photos from multiple angles, consider the scene as you would a stage – remove any of the “fourth wall” obstructions, unless you want them to be out of focus in the foreground.  A temptation might be to set up your photo as though it was candid and not contrived, especially something like a street scene or battle, but it won’t appear the same way as you intend from the photo’s single vantage point.  Also, it’s LEGO.  It’s going to look a bit contrived, not to say, plastic.  If you want to show interiors of buildings, consider building a cutaway, as I did in this condo build:

Cutaway of Condo Interior

  • Background.  If you’ve already browsed some of the above LEGO photo sites, you’ll noticed that often the background is very blurry.  This is usually a function of the camera’s macro setting (see below) but can be avoided by using relatively two-dimensional scenes.  Depending on the scene, a background may or may not be appropriate; occasionally the set’s original box will make a decent stand-in for a more complicated scene.  Posters, magazine images, and (for underwater scenes) that plastic “wallpaper” you can buy for the back of fishtanks also work great.  But in a pinch, any colorful surface can be put into the background for a generic non-white or -black background.
    Depending on the scene or scale of your build, using an outdoor scene might be useful.  A blue sky might be a nice “looking up” shot at your work.  Beware, however:  for minifig scale shots, things like grass, concrete sidewalks, or flowers will generally clash with your intended scale.  Unless you’re going for that Alice-in-Wonderland-caterpillar-scene look.

Sometimes just a wood floor is a decent background

For complete scenes, however, a blank background diminishes the effect

  • Poses.  I haven’t put much effort into LEGO tableaus which require a great deal of challenging poses.  The best I can offer here is, even if you’re only taking architectural photos, put a bit of thought into what your minifigs are doing in the scene, besides existing for scale.  Are they sitting or standing?  Talking or alone?  On the phone?  Reading?  Walking or running?  What are their hands doing?  Little details like this can make them more realistic, as it were.

These minifigs, a doctor and a woman of means, are waiting expressively for the bus

Taking photos

  • Use the macro setting.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Every (digital) camera has a macro setting – the little tulip/flower on the menu options.  (Note:  if your point-and-shoot is in “Auto” setting, it may not display this option – switch to “Manual” for more options.)  Not only does it focus on and maximize the sharpness of close objects – and because LEGO builds are small scale, you are inevitably right in front of them with your lens.  It also adjusts the flash so the light does not wash out the nearest objects.  Even if you don’t use the flash, macro mode can improve the clarity of your images.
    The two (potential) disadvantages of macro mode are:  1) extremely close focus tends to make the background very blurry, even when not far from the camera either; and 2) having a close flash will substantially darken the space behind the closest object, making a faraway black or very shadowy.  These can be adjusted for to some degree, but it is somewhat in the nature of LEGO photography to lose some of the depth of life-size photography.  The photos below illustrate the difference in quality between regular and macro mode – I’m still sold!

Bus stop photo, normal focus mode, with flash

Same shot of bus stop, macro (flower) focus mode, with flash

  • Flash or no flash?  As the above photos illustrate, macro mode makes a big difference.  Depending on the scene you want, light levels also make a big difference.  Because the flash tends to be very reflective, even in macro mode, sometimes it’s best to try to use directional light sources to achieve the effect you want.  If you have the option of shooting outdoors, this can also be a great way to light the scene (especially if you can get natural shadows from morning or afternoon sunlight).  Controlled lighting also gives you some crazier options, as shown below.
    While I’m not a fan of flash photography in most cases, I make an exception for LEGO.  Because I have a lot of white building pieces and, from my most recent purchase, even more of those, I tend to build white buildings with a red roof.  Using the flash indoors brings out those bright colors, whereas incandescent or fluorescent lighting can make the white too warm or cool.  This can be somewhat corrected in post-processing software (see below).  Generally speaking, however, a daytime LEGO scene is best lit with directional light with minimum shadows.

Even in macro mode, the flash can add excess glare and odd shadows in low light

I'm still not sure how the camera did this, but dramatic lighting can create interesting effects!

  • Vantage point.  When documenting your creation or setting up a tableau, consider your vantage point.  Shooting from straight above, or at an angle looking down, will produce a photo of a LEGO build; shooting at ground level will make the photo appear to scale for a minifig; shooting too low will be pretty much unrealistic.  While this seems obvious, even subtle changes in angle may make a difference – play around until you figure out what you want your camera height to be.  I am still perfecting this one myself.

Not quite right - the background is too blurry, and the camera is perhaps a bit too low

Getting closer - the height might be a bit off, but feels more realistic

Final edits

  • Adjustments.  Tweaking photos would be a series of posts in itself, so I’ll be brief.  Grab your favorite photo-editing software (both Adobe Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro have their merits, if you can afford either; GIMP is a generally-functional open-source freebie)  Unless the light you used completely washed out the photos, you generally don’t need to mess with saturation or contrast to make them realistic-looking – LEGOs are shiny plastic blocks that come in mainly primary colors, so they don’t need much help in the color department.  In fact, if you’re printing the photos on a regular printer, I’d recommend stepping back the saturation about 15% to adjust for ink levels.
    The main things I would recommend would be increasing some of the lights and shadows to compensate for the flash.  If you took photos outdoors on a sunny day, definitely balance out highlights and shadows.  And finally, you can enhance the difference between a clear focal point and surrounding objects by playing with the sharpen and blur functions in the program.  If the background was already blurry you can’t do much about it, but if you want to enhance the effect it’s easy to do with layers and lens blur.
    Also, don’t forget to crop out the stuff around the edges, especially if you only built the scene to extend to a certain point.  Easier to do in software than with the camera.

Binky's house, pre-retouch in Photoshop

Not a very precise job, but toning down Brightness and using Burn/Dodge adds some color back to the shot

Happy LEGO-ing and photo-ing!

I’m still having residual geek-out episodes, and probably will for the rest of the week.  Suffice to say, Brickworld was awesome.  I took lots of photos, and some video.

Click here to see photo album via Facebook

Click here to see video via Youtube (to see all, search for my other photos via username)

What I learned:

1) Lego is an extremely versatile medium.

2) “AFOL” = Adult Fan of Lego; MOC = “My Own Creation,” i.e. a piece built from a creator’s original design, rather than a specific set (though it may use one or more elements of a particular set).

3) “Dark Ages” = the term for the period of time between when one originally played with Legos as a kid, and the time when they rediscover and/or repurchase a set of Legos and get addicted again.  (By this timeline, I would be in the very early Renaissance).

4) There are other conferences around the US, as well as Lego-building clubs which meet regularly and put on displays at conferences and other events.

5) The closest meet-up to Ithaca, NY is the one in Washington DC, and I need to try to make it there next year.

6) Legos really do make the world a more awesome place.

And a final note:  my especial admiration and thanks to everyone who built for the conference – I’m so glad I was able to see so many awesome pieces of artwork and design!  I haven’t added any names to the pieces in the photos but I am definitely not trying to take any credit for their work – only share it with more people.  Please add comments if you want to include more info about this awesome event and the people who build!

My one "artsy" photo - a close-up of the Sears Tower and Chicago Spire, large-scale (7+ foot) models built by Brick Structures of Chicago

My one "artsy" photo - a close-up of the Sears Tower and Chicago Spire, large-scale (7+ foot) models built by Brick Structures of Chicago

The stars have aligned.

Brickworld, described on its site as “an event created by Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs),” is in Chicago.  Or rather, out in Wheeling IL, a short drive away.

Thursday and Friday are for registered conference attendees (it looks like a lot of building goes on in those days!) but Saturday and Sunday are also open for the public to view their creations.

I am so. freaking. there.

Check out photos from last year’s conference on Flickr (linked from their site)

I headed downtown today to check out the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano and which opened on Saturday.  The opening weekend (and all this week) Target is sponsoring free admission at the museum, which was definitely a mixed blessing, but nonetheless one gets a sense of the space itself even among the throngs of people.

Being somewhat disoriented (see: crowds, above), I did not get a clear picture in my head of how this new wing connects with the existing building, but the collection itself has been pretty neatly integrated into the new galleries – American contemporary and the Surrealists, among other things, are now housed in the Modern Wing.  The daylight-capturing roof was best seen from the outside, but was apparently at different angles when I walked in the wing and later out of it.

The best part by far was the new bridge connecting the museum with Millennium Park.  Although it’s a bit tricky to access it from the museum itself (one elevator takes you up to the balcony level, and the escalators are down-only?  Why?!), I imagine it’s a nice walk up from the park level.  The view is a beautiful one – overlooking the fountains and wading pool, looking east and west at Monroe, and the latticework of the amphitheatre lawn to the north – and very peaceful.  The bridge itself does quiver a bit, which I’d read about and was therefore prepared for, but it was unsettling nonetheless.

Looking north over Millennium Park

Looking north over Millennium Park

Unfortunately, the view immediately below the bridge is mostly landscaping detritus, so just don’t look down!

On my way home, I also (finally) stopped over at the Merchandise Mart to see the installation of Buckminster Fuller’s Fly Eye Dome.  It had some kind of organic chair-pile installation inside it – very cool.

Buckminster Fuller, Fly Eye Dome

Buckminster Fuller, Fly Eye Dome

The inside looks like raw blue fiberglass, and the bottom of the circles sit on the floor at an angle which suggests you could complete the sphere with more sections, if you so choose.

POSTSCRIPT:  The photography rooms in the basement of the Art Institute might be one of my new favorite things.  Also in the corner was the Architecture and Design Office/Library… it was closed, but peeking in the window had its reward.  Note that the drawers are Sudoku-like, not repeating colors in any row or column.

Architecture Library and Office at the Art Institute

Architecture Library and Office at the Art Institute

Overall, Artopolis seemed to be a mixed success – I say this as someone who had zero intention of purchasing anything on display, so I can only hope it was a success for those looking to make and/or spend money there.  Security was up this year, so I couldn’t sneak in for free (sad face) but I suppose it was worth it to support such a large concentration of art in one place.

It could be my imagination, but there seemed to be fewer booths than last year – and many of the galleries, or at least artists’ work showcased by said galleries, were missing from what I remember.  Still, there was some high-quality stuff, and the usual jumble of “things I don’t understand.”  Bucky Fuller was somewhat of a theme in a couple galleries – but I somehow missed the Fly Eye Dome, and will need to stop back at the Merch Mart before June to catch it on display in the lobby.

They got the details right, however.  Not only did I see baskets of hand sanitizer around for the oh-so-topical swine flu scare (side note: if you aren’t supposed to touch the art, do you need your hands sanitized?), but the “Information” stations were whimsical:

"Information" was a floating sign and a little map on a pedestal

"Information" was a floating sign and a little map on a pedestal

Space does not permit me to recount everything I saw, but here’s a good summary – it was almost as interesting to see the people walking around as it was to see the art itself.  Many “artsy types,” old people with money, young students with no money… I wondered what the ratio of buyer to spectator was.  Had to be low.

A nice mix of art and life in the halls

A nice mix of art and life in the halls

I really, really regret that so many of these photos turned out grainy!  For how much light there was in the building, you’d think the camera would have been able to handle the shots without highly accelerated shutter speed.  Sigh.  In any case, the light bulb installation provided some light.  A professor-artist had put together an interactive display of old lamps – turning the lamps on and off would indicate how much energy was being used by the entire grouping, via a screen on the wall with small dots of some kind bouncing around, representing the power level.

Lamp installation, detail

Lamp installation, detail

One recurring theme was that the people manning the booths, possibly having fewer potential customers, always seemed to be texting or messing around on their laptops.   I got some good “inaction” shots.

These two gallery reps were hard at work

These two gallery reps were hard at work

All in all, a good afternoon.  Upcoming: thoughts on my DC and Boston trips (that is, once I’ve finally sorted all the photos and sufficiently reflected on them from an UP perspective).