Monday 31 January 2011


For the first time in my life, I'm feeling the itch to visit Tasmania. Why? I want to check out MONA, the just-opened private museum of professional gambler and art collector David Walsh.

There's been a shit-load of coverage of the museum leading up to the opening; someone's done a marvelous marketing job. One piece that really caught my eye was from this December article in The Observer:

Moving through the windowless voids is deliberately bewildering. A personal audio device is both the only guide to the art and a way for Mona to track you – it can tell how long you stand in front of each work. Walsh thinks he will swap around the 10 most popular and least popular pieces each week.

What Walsh is suggesting here is effectively exhibition A/B testing. I find it fascinating, and hope to god MONA publishes stats based on this data.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Book review: Steven Johnson's 'Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation'

I tend to avoid reading this kind of book. The Cluetrain Manifesto, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, The Black Swan. They all hit the web, and they all pass me by in a largely undifferentiated wash of bold typography, sentence-length sub-titles and (too) easily summarised central points.

I'm not sure now why I ordered 'Where good ideas come from' at the library, but having done so, I dutifully picked it up and settled in to read it over the long weekend. The double line spacing immediately gave me the sense that I was reading an extended blog post, and by and large, reaching the end of the book hasn't much changed my first reaction.

Johnson identifies seven key situations or characteristics and one key context that foster innovation. The introduction defines that context: the city. In the same way that a coral reef nurtures a vast biodiversity compared to the same square meterage of empty sea, closely packed urban environments nurture in one discipline are more likely to come into contact with ideas from another. From here we tumble through the seven situations/contexts:

The adjacent possible The phrase comes from scientist Stuart Kauffman, and describes the situation in which life originated on Earth. At one time, Earth was awash with a small number of simple molecules. Each of these could combine with the others in a finite number of ways, given certain catalysts, and then go on recombining and catalysing. This handful of simple molecules couldn't transform over night into a dandelion or an ostrich, because a whole bunch of innovations have to happen before then (like respiration). But surrounding each instance of each molecule was the adjacent possible - a slightly hazy boundary of what might happen. With each combination and transformation, the boundaries of the adjacent possible become bigger. Innovation fuels innovation.

Liquid networks Information and ideas travel best in liquid networks. Scientific breakthroughs occur not just in the lab setting - perhaps not even most often in the lab setting - but in discussion groups and cafeterias, where different perspectives can be brought to bear on a set of findings, or the 'error' in an experiment can be revised into proof for another concept. From here we move into modular office design, blah blah blah.

The slow hunch Ideas brew over time. Evidence is slowly gathered. Hunches work when they're connected to other bits of experience and evidence: this is why the Phoenix memo about 'suspicious persons' enrolling at American flight schools in mid 2001 didn't trigger any alerts that might have prevented 9/11 :it was filed into the FBI electronic black box, which is structured to prevent pieces of information from rubbing up against each other

Serendipity The chapter heading pretty much sums it up, although Johnson does a nice job of rebutting the argument that the web, and in particular being able to search for information, has driven serendipity out of our lives. Also - stop working, go for a walk, it might help you process information better than labouring over it.

Error Some inventions are the outcome of wrong outcome after wrong outcome after wrong outcome. The guy who invented vacuum tubes did so without ever figuring out how they actually worked. Xrays and daguerreotypes were both accidental discoveries. You get the picture.

ExaptationThis is where Johnson draws heavily on the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Exaptation is when an adaptation is further utlised for another end. Feathers were originally evolved to provide insulation: down feathers continue to perform this function, whereas flight feathers act as airfoils. An idea or finding from one field can be adapted into another. It's like the notion of weak ties ("popularised by Malcolm Gladwell") but somehow better

Platforms Stacked platforms don't just help information move; they recycle and amplify it. Coral reefs, beavers' dams, satellites and APIs. Government as platform. Twitter twitter twitter. You know the drill (or you don't, in which case this chapter might be a real eye-opener for you: the kind of thing you make your dumb-ass Web Strategy Advisory Group read so they'll go hey, yeah, go ahead, API everything!)

In the final chapter, 'The Fourth Quandrant', Johnson proposes two ways of investigating and visualising the history and conditions of innovation. One is the deep drill-down into a single case-study, where you hope the reader will take the points you're making and extrapolate them out. His book on Joseph Priestly and the 'invention' of oxygen is such an example. The second is to go wide, and try to categorise millennia or centuries of innovation and look for trends (as Johnson does here, looking at the speeding up of innovation before and after the establishment of cities, and looking at the last 500 years of invention in terms of individual vs. collaborative/distributed invention, and market vs. open contexts).

The book is subtitled 'The natural history of innovation', and Johnson like to reach down into the primordial soup* of neurons and evolution to draw parallels to human innovation. Darwin is his key motif; his musing on coral atolls open the book, and he is returned to frequently, on topics like slow hunches, serendipity and error. The thing is, I know my Gould. I've got a bit of a grip on Darwin. And recently, Nick Lane has thoroughly schooled me on evolution. While it's always a satisfying feeling to play 'snap' with an author (ah hah! I know that reference. I see your observation, and raise you this contradictory hypothesis!), I felt like all this bolstering was (a) a bit of a stretch - are neuron networks really like well-planned open offices? and (b) light weight compared to the reams and reams and reams of information that are out there - Johnson's few pages on the advantages of sexual reproduction compared to Lane's chapter, for example.

As a result, a lot of the book felt familiar, and often a little thin compared to richer examples of many of the topics that I've read elsewhere. Perhaps ironically then, the one theme I wish Johnson had focused on in more depth - perhaps even written about exclusively - was that of the commonplace book, the tradition of writers and thinkers keeping notebooks full of passages and quotations, mixed in with observations and recordings of their own. The commonplace book lay somewhere between self-help book, memory tool, encyclopedia, and meditative device. (Montaigne kept one, naturally, and also had his favourite passages inscribed on the rafters of his library.)

The English philosopher and physician John Locke started his first commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over time he developed a method for indexing these books, a method he felt sufficiently important to warrant writing up as an appendix to his major work, 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding'. Working within the limits of two pages in each commonplace book being reserved for the index, which had to swell to encompass whatever he transcribed into it, he structured his index in this way:

When I meet with any thing, that I think fit to out into my common place book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example that the head be EPISTOLA, I ook unto the index for the first letter and the following vowel which in this instance are E.i. if in the space marked E.i. there is any number that directs me to the page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first vowel after the initial letter is I, I must then write under the word Epistola in that page what I have to remark.

Even I recognise the 'if X, then Y' pattern of storing and retrieving data going on here. The commonplace book both stores information and allows one to retrieve it, and in the process of doing so, revisit and enrich the ideas once has already had.

From Locke, Joseph Priestly, and Erasmus Darwin, Johnson steps through to 'Enquire Within Upon Everything', a hugely popular Victorian how-to guide for everything from making flowers in wax to burying relatives. Tim Berners Lee named the first iteration of what would the world wide web 'Enquire' after a copy of this manual he remembered from his childhood.

Johnson himself uses DevonThink, an app that allows him to store and search texts, which has a search algorithm that forges relationships between them. It's interesting to see him recounting using Devon Think as a writing tool:

I write a paragraph about something - let's say about the human brain's remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask DevonThink to find other passages in my archive that are similar. Instantly, a list of quotes appears on my screen ... Invariably, one or two of these triggers a new association in my head ... and so I select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of passages similar to it. Before long, a larger idea takes shape in my head, built upon the trail of association the machine has assembled for me.

[Apropos this, I found a lovely article over summer called The Theatre of Memory, about libraries as more than data storage, you should totally read it.]

So all up: I think this might be one of those reviews that means you don't need to read the book yourself, unless you having a burning desire to do so. Instead, go out and read Nick Lane, and Steven Jay Gould, and all sorts of other people writing about all sorts of other good things - that's where the good ideas come from.

*I read an essay recently by Michael Chabon where he talked about how he'll get obsessed with a word, and for days on end he'll have to fit the words 'monkeys' or 'washer' into conversation over and over again. He said this slipped into his published writing - an unusual word, say 'shrivelled', will appear twenty times in a single book, and occasionally get picked up by readers. Someone needed to go through 'Where good ideas come from' and edit out every second instance of the phrase 'primordial soup'.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Three takes on the VIP Art FAir

From Over the Net

... on balance VIP did feel like the future. The future in much the same way early laptops and brick-sized mobiles phones did back in the day. Awkward and a bit cumbersome but, once you'd had a taste, impossible to live without.

From Art World Salon

The VIP Art Fair is not Facebook. It’s not a social media platform and was never billed as one. Rather, it is the first successful attempt at bringing something like an Art Basel or Armory Show to your browser. But here’s the thing: “Users are fickle.” And VIP learned that lesson the hard way.

From Art Fag City

Since the fair launched this weekend (it runs through January 30th), the first and only online art fair, has been riddled with problems ranging from connectivity to disappearing chats and navigational problems. I’ve heard rumblings from many dealers wanting their money refunded, and many collectors claiming they aren’t going to deal with the site any longer. “[It] was a complete day of collector torture,” collector Mike Mao told me over Facebook the day of the fair’s debut.

[VIP Art Fair was a week-long online-only contemporary art fair, an experiment in moving the art fair experience into the digital/social medium]

Mostly unrelated: How Artists Must Dress

Whereas a dealer must signal, in wardrobe, a sympathy to the tastes and tendencies of the collector class, an artist is under no obligation to endorse these. Rather, the task of the artist with regard to fashion is to interrogate the relationship between cost and value as it pertains to clothing, and, by analogy, to artworks.

Wednesday 26 January 2011


Every so often a New Zealand collecting institution - mostly likely Te Papa - will get a bit of a bash in the media for only having X percentage of its collection on show.

Every year, institutions' collections grow. In general, their floor space doesn't. Also - don't tell everyone - these collections aren't made up of 100% bona fide masterpieces and startling evidence of the snowflake-like uniqueness of every member of our species. Rather, all collections include their portion of dross (gifts that had to be accepted; things that seemed good or important at the time - and may seem good or important again in the future; things that are useful adjuncts to more important pieces, but not exhibition-worthy on their own; things whose value is in their potential for research rather than display) and the job of the curator (or exhibition developer) is to winnow their way through the stacks and the boxes, seeking to tell us a story with selected collection items.

I was reminded of this when reading the BBC article 'London museums urged to show more 'hidden' artefacts' recently. The article describes the Museum Association's call for museums to do-more-with-less and get more stuff on the floor despite funding cuts. It also reveals that "A BBC Freedom of Information request found the British Museum had spent £86,280 in 2009 and 2010 keeping 99% of its collection in storage." It continues

A statement from the British Museum said it "maintains a large collection of objects from across the globe from two million years ago to the present day".

"The preservation of this unparalleled collection for current and future generations is a key purpose of the British Museum, we therefore make the safety and security of our storage facilities a paramount aim."

In March 2010, caught up in the (justified) adoration surrounding the British Museum's 100 Objects project, the BBC ran a more sympathetic article about going into the stacks and understanding why the institution holds 30,000 stone hand-axes. The short answer, is, of course, that this is museum's jobs: to create and maintain comprehensive collections of whatever it is they're charged with creating collections of. We as taxpayers and ratepayers and voters have, tacitly, endorsed this.

In one of those coincidences, the Wall Street Journal came out this week with an article about museum storage, this one looking at the major New York museum's offsite locations.

The museums are tight-mouthed when it comes to these art warehouses. They all declined to give The Wall Street Journal access.

"The Met has never—not in my 18 years here, anyway—publicly discussed…its storage facilities, either on- or off-site," spokesman Harold Holzer said in response to a request for access to its warehouse. A spokeswoman for the Whitney said it "doesn't participate in stories on its storage facility mainly due to security issues."

But through interviews with current and former museum employees familiar with the sites, as well as property records and other public documents, the Journal can for the first time paint a landscape of New York's secret Museum Mile. To accommodate security concerns, addresses aren't being published.

Addresses might not be published, but descriptions like this are:
The Met quietly maintains a six-story warehouse near the FDR Drive on the Upper East Side. Steps from a specialty-foods shop and a sports facility, the building hints at its art trove only via two small security cameras and a swipe-card mechanism installed on its exterior.
I have to say, I was unsettled like this. Yes, I'm curious about the parts of collections that aren't on display, and interested in how we, the public, can gain more access to them, through open days, study rooms, publication and digitisation.

But I can't see any benefit to the WSJ publishing this information, and I do see a small amount of risk. Sure, it's unlikely that a dashing international art thief will read visit Midtown, WSJ in hand, and scope the joints. I'm sure the dashing art thief would have far better sources of information. But still - where's the gain?

Friday 21 January 2011

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Once hidden

I didn't see a lot of art over the break, but I was very glad to catch Taryn Simon's 'An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar' at the Govett-Brewster (it's on until 6 March - still time to plan a trip).

The photographs in the series document guarded materials and places (nuclear waste, cryo-preserved bodies, an avian quarantine) alongside some of those sideshow spectacles that seem to stand for America (an interbred white tiger in captivity, a Braille edition of Playboy).

Each photograph is accompanied by Simon's commentary, a short explanatory text. While it's a relief to be spared from convoluted curator-speak, and nice to be given an insight into just why an artist chose to seek out and document this exact thing, I do wish the texts had not be pasted up in 8pt font (although this matches the book and Simon's website).

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility
Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy
Southeastern Washington State

Submerged in a pool of water at Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless-steel nuclear-waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. Combined, they contain over 120 million curies of radioactivity. It is estimated to be the most curies under one roof in the United States. The blue glow is created by the Cherenkov Effect which describes the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light through a transparent medium. The temperatures of the capsules are as high as 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States.

Chromogenic print, 37-1/4 x 44-1/2 inches framed (94.6 x 113 cm), Edition of 7

Big glossy photos of off-limits locations are nothing new or unusual. For me it's actually Simon's texts that set this series apart - her matter-of-fact approach, her willingness to engage with these people and places on their own terms, and not fetishise them.

Monday 17 January 2011

On artists' estates

An article in the Art Newspaper caught my eye last week. In 'The Sleeping Giant of Philanthropy' András Szántó reviews the findings of a recent report about American artists' estates.

Some of the facts and figures in the report (based on a survey of 239 estates):

  • at the most recent count, there are nearly 300 artist estates in the States
  • they have a combined worth of approximately $2.7bn in assets
  • the 30 most active foundations disbursed $52.5m in grants in total in 2008
  • The average age at which artists set up foundations rose from 64 prior to 1986 to 74 in 2005
  • "Foundations established by artists tend to be quite small, with 73% reporting assets under $5m." (I love America).

Once again, one of the differentiators between the US and New Zealand (beyond sheer scale) are the tax rules and incentives. An interpretation of the finding that the proportion of foundations founded after the artist's death is rising is that:

Living artists can deduct only the cost of materials for charitable contributions of their works of art, while US laws permit a fair market value charitable deduction from the estate tax. In other words, there is a greater tax advantage to being philanthropic for artists after they die.

All this reminds me that I must get round to loading and reading the Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce report, which was released late last year. Peter Dunne was quick to congratulate the group on congratulating the Government on its recent tax changes to charitable giving. Meanwhile, back in July 2010 the IRD identified cracking down on abuse of this tax incentive as a compliance focus.

Friday 14 January 2011

Reading about writing about reading

Book reviews are one of my favourite kinds of reading matter. I read reviews for books I've read, books I plan to read, books I'll probably never read.

I spent a lovely afternoon on a couch during my holiday on a rainy Hamilton day, browsing reviews from a stack of London Review of Books. I love the LRB, TLS and New Yorker for reviews that don't simply recap the plot and tell you whether the reviewer liked the book. Instead, they use the book/s as a starting place for the reviewer's own piece of work - an essay that stands alone, regardless of whether you ever read the book in question.

The Guardian and the New York Times book sections are two of the places I visit most frequently online. The Times in particular provided me with hours of enjoyment over the break. And the review I enjoyed the most was Dwight Garner's piece on Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud, her account of building a home on a parcel of land in Wyoming.

At first, I wasn't sold on Garner's angel and devil approach:

There are two ways to describe Annie Proulx’s memoir, “Bird Cloud” ...
The angel on my right shoulder suggests something like this: “Bird Cloud” is a mildly animated and knotty book about displacement and loss, about a late-life longing to carve out a place that’s truly one’s own. Ms. Proulx, who is in her mid-70s, finds that longing frustrated at almost every turn. Admirers of her fiction will find much of this memoir to be not uninteresting.

The devil on my left shoulder whispers this: “Bird Cloud” is an especially off-putting book about a wealthy and imperious writer who annoys the local residents (she runs off their cows), overwrites about nature and believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved in getting her Japanese soaking tub, tatami-mat exercise area, Mexican talavera sink and Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.
But as I read on, I realised this was quite a special piece. It's easy to ridicule a book you hate or find risible, or gush about a book that impresses you. It's harder to steer a middle course that isn't a middle course - to describe what you admire and what fails to impress you, and why, and then take a stance. Which is what Garner does here.

It turns out I'm not the only person to be impressed. Both Ian Crouch on the New Yorker's book blog and Timothy Noah on Slate wrote their own pieces about Garner's review, both noting how Garner turned the review into an opportunity to show the reader the reviewer's job.

And what is the reviewer's job? Well, that's a vexed question, which the Times' Why Criticism Matters' recruited six critics to answer.

My favourite response came from book critic Sam Anderson:

The membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable. That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.

The critic’s job is to help amplify that conversation. We make the whispered parts of it audible; we translate the coded parts into everyday language. But critics also participate actively in that conversation. We put authors who might never have spoken in touch with each other, thereby redefining both. We add our own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions and modes of expression — and in doing so, fundamentally change the texts themselves. Balzac’s “Sarrasine” is a new book, or set of books, now that Barthes has written “S/Z.”  “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is radically redefined by Hugh Kenner’s “Dublin’s Joyce.” Updike’s career is a different thing in the wake of Nicholson Baker’s “U and I.” Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s “Nox.” In the grand game of intertextuality — which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era — critics are not just referees: they’re equal players.

Wednesday 12 January 2011


Over the weekend, Wellington's CBD was very subdued; it's always like that over the summer holiday period. The busiest place in town - to my gratification - seemed to be the public library.

If I got one thing out of working at the National Library, it was a renewed appreciation for public libraries. It's a cold person who doesn't like libraries, but it's not until you get into the sector a little that you appreciate just how much the people who run these places care.

Of course, this care is expressed in different ways, and funded to different extents. New Zealand libraries range from the architecturally exquisite to the shabbily run-down; the service ranges from brilliant to indifferent.

With the creation of the Auckland supercity, Auckland City Council now has 55 branch libraries. Wendy, a keen Auckland reader, has started the new year with a new mission, the Auckland Libraries Super Tour, visiting one of the libraries and reviewing it each week. She's kicked off with her local, Albany Village Library, and will cover ground from Wellsford to Waiuku.

I'm interested to see what Wendy's tour unearths. I imagine she'll be eagerly followed (perhaps even feted) by Auckland's librarians, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was a invitation to the LIANZA conference in her future.

Monday 10 January 2011

Holiday reading recap

Just before the break I (along with some Twitter friends) blogged my holiday reading list. Here's how I did.


I stayed bang on track here.

I finished Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which I thought was astounding. I particularly enjoyed the way Lane shows us the process of science - the areas where things aren't settled, the places with scientists disagree, the ways that personalities can conflict with credibility. He sketches out both theories and the people who devised them. The last para of my GoodReads review:

With the idiotic debates that continue to be pursued around evolution and 'intelligent design', I think it is crucial that society understands that 'gaps' in the evidence, and disagreements among scientists, do not weaken the case for evolution (which should, really, not have to be made). Lane does an elegant and enjoyable job of laying out the current state of research, focused on topics he cares about and finds intriguing, and even though I'm going to have to read the book again in order to fully understand it, I am truly grateful to him for doing so.

I also read Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's Why Does E=mc2? - large chunks of it on Pakiri beach. Cox and Forshaw are on a mission to make the reader not just recognise but understand the equation:

If Marcus Chown is magical cellulite cream, this is physics bootcamp - no corners cut, no let's-take-it-easy-today-shall-we. Cox and Forshaw don't just want to explain this equation - they want you to understand it, to understand its power (predictive and descriptive) and understand how, despite being just a diminutive collection of letters and symbols, it underpins nearly a century of contemporary science, and captures some of the most fundamental characteristics of the universe.

I feel like the target market for this book - a person who gave up on maths in fourth form, and stumbled through sixth form physics before escaping the next year to classics class, my natural home. Cox and Forshaw are punctilious in their care for the mathematically challenged, to the point where even I wished they'd quit apologising for bringing the maths in to it - because for once, I was following it.

Somewhere between non-fiction and fiction, while at home I picked up a copy of James Herriott's The Lord God Made Them All. I read bajillions of his books when I was a young teenager on a dairy farm, and this was a rather lovely exercise in nostalgia:

Herriot's world is one where every person has a redeeming feature, and every day has a lesson that can be extracted from it. He manages this without preaching though, and his observations are utterly engaging. As an adult, the sameyness of the stories takes some of their shine off, but I also had a new appreciation for the theme of how his profession changed markedly during his career - where all the arcane knowledge drummed into him at university about diseases of the horse and mixing medicines from glass bottles etched with Latin phrases had to be replaced with post-war drugs and the shift of focus to domestic pets. Herriot, thankfully, is one of those people who is intrigued and delighted by change, not threatened and resentful.


My prediction: "A buck three way - the first three books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the music of time in one chubby edition, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-up Girl."

I read the first book of Powell's 12-book series, 230 pages in which minutiae is minutely observed. Give me Evelyn Waugh any day.

Blood Meridian is wrenching - so visceral you almost have to read it through your fingers. If I had of read this first, I would probably never have dared to embark on The Border Trilogy (which I adore). Amazing, but utterly relentless.

I didn't make it to Bacigalupi, because ...


... I went a bit nuts here. I also didn't make it into the final book in Patrick Ness's 'Chaos Walking' trilogy. Instead, I read:

Frances Hardinge's Fly by Night, a dense rich Christmas cake of a book, not original in its coming of age theme, but, as with The Lost Conspiracy, a lovingly constructed setting.

Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Dash & Lily's Book of Dares - a very professional, pretty engaging, rather irritating teenage-misfits-in-New-York story.

Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead - I blogged Jolisa Gracewood's interview with Healey last year, and was really impressed by this book, in the tradition of Margaret Mahy's supernatural teenage books, and Maurice Gee's halfmen of O.


50% here. I made it through E.B. White's One Man's Meat but not Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs. I put the White anthology down a few times, but it worried away at the edge of my mind and I ended up finishing it. I don't know if this was the right place to start reading White's essays; perhaps his New York essays, rather than his small farm in Maine essays, would have been a better launchpad. But this collection does add up to more than the sum of its parts - deep concerns and steady affections run beneath the small daily happenings.


I was blessed with an iPad for Christmas, and I put it to good use with dozens, if not hundreds, of saved articles using Instapaper from my own and friends' accounts. I'll round up some of the highlights here over the next week.