I’m writing a short paper at the moment on one of the Eames lesser known films, ‘Blacktop’, made in 1952. While chasing up Gene Youngblood’s ‘Expanded Cinema’ as a reference in my paper, I came upon his website and this gem of a video of a public art work by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitzof from 1980. (Here’s a little bit more info on the work) I’m mentioning it here on the Communicating Communications blog because of the way this art work is framed within the video representation of the work. ‘The US is rapidly falling behind other Nations in US connectivity’, the voice says. The voice over talks about the higher standards of bandwidth availability across Korea, Japan, China, and other parts of the world. The Bandwidth infrastructure is better because they have a fiber based infrastructure – the inference is that therefore the ’emotional’ capacity for human communication is improved also.
A couple of weeks ago there was a talk given at the Science Gallery by Susan Crawford, ‘Leading advocate of net neutrality and former Obama technology advisor‘. Crawford was clear that she only had one message to share, and that was ‘connectivity‘. Internet connectivity specifically, through Fiber based infrastructures. Joined up infrastructures for information and communication systems and technologies. Fiber to every home that would result in a productivity enhancement which she equaled to Electrification early in the 20th century. But this was a revolution in infrastructure which could only be brought about through renegotiating the status quo for big business telecoms. Development in visual/video literacy would be a reward but also a contributing actor in this renegotiation, she seemed to say. She stated during her talk: “We only make progress when we see things”. (The Rhetoric was powerful, if not a little unnerving for someone experienced in the subtleties installation art and education.) Crawford argued, ‘We need tools to imagine with’, and she seemed to suggest that the Internet, this notion of technological connectivity reciprocated with emotional connectivity, was the way to fashion these tools. Achieving this new fiber-to-the-home infrastructure means renegotiating relationships with big business and cable corporations through policy reform and lobbying. She seemed to me to emphasise that ‘visual literacy’ was the way to negotiate this change, a nod to the millions of video sharing subscribers/authors on youtube and other sites, but would also be a great reward of this change – greater fiber bandwidth = deeper emotional bandwidth?
Though the message, that one message of connectivity, seemed painfully simple at first – it was interesting to see how the material complexity of the global communications situation was actually articulated and opened out by someone as politically influential as Crawford. The simplicity was a deliberate device… and it worked on the audience it seemed.
For me, what was most interesting was the subtle but direct emphasis on visual/video literacy… and this is where my research with Eames films comes in. The medium of film, through to video, is relatively young, it is extremely flexible and still hardly understood in its effects, its power, its possibility. I am working to understand this medium, and its possibilities, both as an art form and/or as a tool for communication and reciprocal human understanding, and I am using the Eames films as a starting point to think through this.
What is all the more interesting is the context of this call for improved or progressive visual/video literacy – the fight for fiber and the negotiations for placing the power back in the hands of the people to organize and construct what is ultimately a highly physical and material infrastructure. It’s interesting how these are two seemingly disparate areas – that of language, rhetoric and reciprocal human communication/understanding, and telecommunications engineering, are articulated as co-dependent through what looks like a systems thinking approach to policy reform. Certainly, there’s a lot to work through and understand better, from all points of view.
In 1961, Charles & Ray Eames were approached by IBM to create an exhibition for the California Museum of Science and Industry. The exhibition became ‘Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond’, and that exhibition has now been reconfigured into an App for the IPad:
Here’s an example of the kinds of explanatory animations the Eames developed with their Team at 901 Washington Boulevard, California:
Here’s an excerpt about the 1961 exhibition from ‘Eames’ by Gloria Koenig (Taschen, 2005, p.75):
“A Sign over the showcase model at the entrance to the exhibition read, ‘Take a good look at these models – it can suggest the richness and vitality within the discipline of mathematics.’ Translating the rigors of math for the general public was a prime objective of the Eames Office, and Charles, in keeping with his philosophy of ‘serious fun’, wanted to ‘let the fun out of the bag’ for the show and ‘follow all the rules of the concept involved’.”
You can find out more about the Ipad App here.
The Einstein Theory of Relativity (link to Vimeo, couldn’t embed for some reason, grrr)
While digging about in the history of film and animation, for the purposes of getting a bit of perspective on the talents of the Eames’ in their skillful creation of ‘A Communications Primer’ (1953) I came upon this example of early animation & live action cinema, created for educational purposes by Fleischer Studios (brothers Max & Dave Flescher) in 1923 – here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the matter:
In August 1922, Scientific American published an article explaining their position that a silent film would be unsuccessful in presenting Albert Einstein‘s theory of relativity to the general public. They argued that only as part of a broader educational package including lecture and text would such a film be successful. Scientific American then went on to review frames from an unnamed German film reported to be financially successful.
Six months later, on February 11, 1923, the Fleischers released their relativity film, produced in collaboration with popular science journalist Garrett P. Serviss to accompany his book on the same topic. Two versions of the Fleischer film are reported to exist – a shorter two-reel (20 minute) edit intended for general theater audiences, and a longer five-reel (50 minute) version intended for educational use.
The Fleischers lifted footage from the German predecessor, Die Grundlagen der Einsteinschen Relativitäts-Theorie, directed by Hanns-Walter Kornblum, for inclusion into their film. Presented here are images from the Fleischer film and German film. If actual footage was not recycled into The Einstein Theory of Relativity, these images and text from the Scientific American article suggest that original visual elements from the German film were.
This film, like much of the Fleischer’s work, has fallen into the public domain. Unlike Fleischer Studio’s Superman or Betty Boop cartoons, The Einstein Theory of Relativity has very few existing prints and is available in 16mm from only a few specialized film preservation organizations.
It’s very interesting to discover this film as it reveals how advanced the use of cinema/moving image was at this early point in the 20th century. Indeed, animation seems to have been a common media form since the 1800’s, with Vaudeville shows combining live performance, animation sequences through zoetrope, thaumotrope and phenakistiscope devies, ‘chalk talk’ and ‘lightning sketches’. As Mark Langer of Carelton University writes:
One must understand that the earliest films that a modern spectator would regard as animated were shown quite differently than today’s theatre presentations. Early cinema exhibition owed a greater debt to vaudeville for the structure of the film program than it did to the conventions of middle-class theatre. The earliest movies were shown in programs mixing together short films on a variety of subjects, sometimes interspersed with live acts, in much the same way as a vaudeville bill of performance would have been organized.
It’s interesting to view the Eames’ technique with a sense of the historical progression of animation & film since the 1800’s. The Eames’ were largely self-taught, and learned through their peers rather than through ‘formal’ indoctrination via studios, or as part of the industry. They learned from the fringes in a way, in an amateur but entirely serious manner. (And perhaps they had the freedom of the amateur in that regard… not being self conscious of the canon… the attitude of the transdisciplinary?) It will be interesting to learn more about their association with Billy Wilder, he being a close friend of the Eames. (They designed their famous lounge chair for Billy Wilder, to suit his midday napping patterns!)
More on this subject of early science communication through cinema anon…
The Eames’ took the paper by Claude Shannon and the supporting text by Warren Weaver and wove together these two iterations on a mathematical theory of Communication through the use of film, thus collating & scripting ‘A Communications Primer’. This practice of artists/designers working with relatively raw scientific research and shaping it into another form, a new iteration, for the purpose of clarifying the message and communicating it more effectively to a wider audience is one that seems to be continuously emergent, growing more common day by day. Today visualisations and iterations based upon scientific research & data are taking many forms, predominantly digital some might say, but often too manifesting in more traditional, even theatrical ways – through sound walks, installations, and interactive experiences (for example, take a look at Duncan Speakman‘s Subtle Mobs).
Recently, CTVR took two secondary school interns on board for a 3 week period. Amongst other things, they were set the task of ‘mapping’ and ‘visualising’ in some way the electromagnetic wireless signals around the Trinity campus using ‘detektors‘ created by Martin Howse and Shintaro Miyazaki. The two interns created ‘Prezis‘ of their research, an account of the kinds of actions they took with the detektors, how they recorded the sounds of the electromagnetic signals through the detektors, and supplemented these sounds with visual maps and photographs. They made assumptions about the wifi signals based on how audible they were through the detektors, ultimately determining that a wide open space with few buildings or objects and few people is an ideal condition for obtaining a strong signal.
Essentially the exercise was set in order to catalyze (not prescribe) a communication of their perceptions of the field of wireless telecommunications research, that might in turn lead to an enlargement of their thinking, and perhaps, in some small and particular way, the thinking of researchers at CTVR. This kind of thing is being done all the time, albeit on a grander scale, across the fields of science & humanities. For example, earlier this morning I came across this short video about musicians who are making music with radiation (via Brainpickings):
Edward de Bono (who I’m sure I’ve mentioned in this blog somewhere already) has written a book called ‘Teaching Thinking’ – and in it he calls into question the assumption that one needs language in order to think. He says:
It would be wrong to assume that a skilled language-user is a skilled thinker. It would be wrong to assume that a person poor in verbal expression is therefore poor in thinking. We need a language in order to let other people know what we are thinking, but gramatical coherence is not of itself the same as thinking…. Thinking does not have to take place in words. Nor are concepts limited by the availability of words to describe them. Thinking can take place in images and feelings which are quite definite but too amorphous to be expressed in words.
[De Bono, Teaching Thinking, 1976]
What have all these items got to do with each other? Well, I’m not sure exactly, but I think there is a relationship to be made here. We have means now more than ever to re-formulate & re-iterate information, concepts and ideas from one particular context to another – we can translate things with more and more efficacy through various appropriate media. We are largely more fluent in our use of Media phenomena, they are more common, but what is the effect? Is the effect an illusion of generative thinking? De Bono says elsewhere in his book “Fluency and the power of coherent expression are tools of thinking, not thinking itself”. There is always a danger of mistaking the cart for the horse, and getting stuck wondering about the chicken & the egg… so the problem here may lie in a series of conflations & misguided definitions between the concepts of information, knowledge, thinking and communication.
Claude Shannon’s idea of communication is one which he defines as distinct from semantics – the meaning of the message does not have any bearing on the problem of delivering the message intact.
The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.
[Claude Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, 1948]
The problem of direct & unaltered deliverance is the priority, it seems that it is almost an entirely physical matter. The Eames’ seem to circumvent this distinction somewhat in their film ‘A Communications Primer’, by integrating a visual poetics (film) into the verbal rhetoric (narrative), and by drawing together again & again the metaphor of physical transference with a kind of alchemical or spiritual transposition. They use the idea of the feeling of Love to annihilate redundancy. They mercilessly incorporate the technical with the emotive. And they use film to do this. They use a medium naturally riddled with gaps in order to communicate their understanding of the Mathematical Theory of Communication.
So, to end this ramble rather shoddily & incoherently, the fact remains that there are rising numbers of ‘trans-disciplinary’ projects happening, particularly across the sciences & arts, projects supposedly to explore & transfer meaning, technical expertise, and innovations from one set of perceptions to another, with a view to an enlargement of the view on everything. The Eames’ made ‘A Communications Primer’ off the back of a task based project centered around improving teaching methodology within the Art School (Art X). They went on to make the ‘Primer’ out of sheer interest, one imagines, and out of a determination to, well, communicate their understanding effectively & appropriately.
They created their film quite independently, it seems, from the mathematicians and scientists (no evidence has been found yet of correspondence between the Eames & Weaver/Shannon, but it could indeed emerge from the archives yet). The question is, I suppose, whether there is a formula for the kind of ‘technical poetics’ that the Eames’ seemed to develop in their films, particularly in the ‘Primer’. Where the Mathematics & the Poetry are combined in such a way as to complement each other in a truly symbiotic manner. The Eames’ might have been on to something. De Bono hints at what might be the holy grail of communication – the transposition of thought & meaning, lamenting:
If only we could translate all situations into definite symbols & relationships we should never need to look beyond mathematics for our thinking. One day we may be able to, but that day is a long way off because any problem involving human perception and values will always contain a lot of unknowns and unknowables.
[De Bono, Teaching Thinking, 1976]
It’s been mentioned here before, and at the Screenings too, that A Communications Primer emerged from a collaboration between the Eames’, George Nelson, and Lamar Dodd, known as ART X. In one of my many online searches for more information about ART X or Sample Lesson for a Hypothetical Course as the Eames’ liked to call it, I came upon a very informative site, under development by Séan Mills:
It was on this site that I came across the video above which is captioned thus:
This is a sample of real audio taken off of Reel-to-reel audiotapes from an Art X lesson. The visual component is simply a placeholder as the original slides and their sequence is lost. The imagery is from a PowerPoint lecture given at Cine in Athens, Georgia in 2008 as a part of The UGA Art Department’s Talk 20 series hosted by then graduate student Brian Hitselberger.
ART X was a project to push Educational Methodologies to their Limits, via an appropriate and compelling use of Media, Narrative, and Cinematic Experience. Here’s what Ray Eames had to say about their approach to ART X:
“It was a way of studying the problem. We were asked to do a thing about the Georgia Experiment; did you know about that? How to improve the teaching of design, and art, really, it was art. George Nelson and ourselves were involved and, instead of making a report, we made a film. Or rather, we put together an hour program made up of film and slides and words and clips of other films. It was intended as an example of how material could be used to give a base for student and teacher from which to develop and expand — not use up all the time, step by step, all of the teacher’s time and the student’s time. And that was shown. But we wanted examples. For instance, we chose the subject of communications, because we were all interested in that and thought we would find little clips of things that would explain it and help it. We couldn’t find any. We had just a terrible waste of time looking at catalogues, trying to find films and finding that it took forty-five minutes to get to a point which was not made clearly. So that’s when we decided we’d have to do something ourselves. And then later, Alexander Girard was called in and put on this — did you ever hear of the “Sample Lesson?” It was shown first in Georgia, then at U.C.L.A. You know, it’s like a club, the people who have seen it and the people who haven’t seen it.”
The above image is of a machine – The Ultimate Machine, or The Most Beautiful Machine – inspired by Mavin Minsky, and created by Claude E. Shannon. I haven’t found any concrete references to its origins as yet, but there are traces & images, and a YouTube video:
A recent enough exhibition at the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn entitled Codes & Clowns – Claude Shannon the Juggling Scientist, gives an insight into the kinds of gadgets and play that Shannon created as part of his daily scientific work, which was developing what we know today as ‘Information Theory’:
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think that Shannon’s personality and his approach to work, where there seems to be no clear separation between play/leisure and work per se, is an attitude that marries well with the Eames’. As Ray Eames would say: “You’re either working or you’re not working”.