Divided Sky, by Michael Sherwin

September 2, 2010

Michael Sherwin’s exhibit Divided Sky is on display at the Melwood Gallery through October 17th.  A reception will be held on September 30th from 6:00 to 9:00 pm, at which Michael Sherwin will discuss his art.

Filmmakers interviewed Michael Sherwin on August 31st about his art, his process, and this current exhibit.

A variety of series created by Sherwin explore the theme of the change inherent in nature. “Everything is in a constant state of change,” he says. “It’s what connects us all. Even the inanimate, at the microscopic level, is changing.” Everything is in “a perpetual state of entropy. Cars, computers, buildings are all alike.”

The interaction of art and science is a theme in many of Sherwin’s works. Art and science overlap in that “artists and scientists are fascinated by wonder and mystery and the natural world.” The main difference is that “scientists are seeking answers; they aren’t content until they get answers.” Whereas, “artists are asking questions, presenting questions to the viewer to come up with their own answers. My work is about the mystery.”Collective Direction by Michael Sherwin

A variety of scientific insights have influenced Sherwin’s work. One of his compilations is a set of arrows from the parking lot of a mall. They are all clearly of the same species, but no two are exactly the same. This relates to evolution and the nature of animals and species that is greatly different from our platonic common sense about the categories of life.

Another major theme in Sherwin’s work is the connection between the macroscopic and the microscopic. Instances of such connections include his work Minor Planets, in which he photographs small rocks against a black background, causing them to look like asteroids and planets. “Deliberately placing clouds with bubbles from waves” is another way in which he deals with this theme. He visually compares the tangible with the inaccessible. “There is just as much going on in your backyard, just as much mystery and fascination, as in the solar system.” Sherwin calls it “the cosmic in your backyard.”

One influence on this way of thinking is his young daughter. “Her relationship with the natural world has infused my work.” The childlike wonder of a world in which everything is new and moving, mysterious and intriguing, is apparent in his art. Sherwin is also interested in the Butterfly effect,the causal relationships between separate things. The web of relations.”

Some of Sherwin’s works involve the appropriation of videos and images from webcams. This is due to his “fascination with the everyday and the ordinary. Webcams are designed and intended to be objective instruments for scientific purposes.” However, often, “objectivity fails” when they are “recording an abstraction.” As an example, Sherwin cites his work entitled True North. This work from True North by Michael Sherwinconsists of images from the webcam situated at the North Pole. “The true North Pole is under water, so the camera is placed on a floating chunk of ice. It is bombarded by extreme weather and can only photograph three months a year. Sometimes the camera is hanging from its mount, or caked in ice. Every few minutes to an hour, an image is transmitted. It is of no real use to scientists.” However, it has an aesthetic appeal. “To me it is really attractive. I have a visceral response to the abstraction.”

Currently on display at Filmmakers’ Melwood Gallery is Divided Sky, a work which includes the combination of photographs by Sherwin of the sky with appropriated images from webcams and the internet. One piece of the work is entitled In The Clouds and contains photographs of the sky that are broken up by Facebook status updates. The sky represents the universality of human experience, and the appropriated images from the internet represent the divide that our technology creates between ourselves and the natural and social world we all inhabit. “Webcams, youtube, internet, social media, and technology have divided us from the natural world, separated us from each other.” The title works “literally for some pieces,” because the sky is overlaid with grid or text. Sherwin says of the work, “it symbolizes the feeling I have about our society and the effect media has on us.”

Sherwin chooses to draw his his images from webcams that depict abstractions. This way, “the viewer has to work,” and can participate in the artistic/scientific processes of observing phenomena and asking questions.

Included in the exhibit are three books derived from Google image searches. Sherwin googles phrases in quotations and collects the images that emerge. When performing the searches, he has an intent, but not an exact vision of what the final outcome will be. The work arises based on the images that are out there on the internet. These books are “commenting on human society’s relationship to the natural world.” In so doing he shows a variety of subjective visions of what we tend to consider objectively describable phenomenon.

The internet has changed our sense of place, time, and physical mapping. According to Sherwin, this is both positive and negative. It has upped our connectivity, but “the process of connecting via wires has separated us from our desperate need for physical connection.” Although Google Earth is an excellent educational tool that gives us perspective on our planet, “it has taken away from our internal compass. The more we rely on GPS and maps, the less independent we are, the more automated we are by machines and technology.” Sherwin says he is as guilty as anyone of this reliance. “I don’t mean to critique society because I am an active part of it. I want to explore.”


American Independents: An Interview with Kyle Stevens

August 24, 2010

“Any contemporary study of independent film should start with Cassavettes,” says Kyle Stevens, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who will be teaching a class at Filmmakers in the Fall Semester entitled “American Independents: Cassavettes, Todd Haynes, and the Coen Brothers.”


Stevens’ class will cover the history of independent film, using these three filmmakers as case studies to illuminate the economics, aesthetics, and techniques of independent film. Cassavettes was the first modern filmmaker to work outside of the system, and to create “new forms of narrative” that challenge the expectations of viewers. He “pioneered the style,” bringing in new ways of filming and acting and incorporating improvisation, allowing his films to “capture the present moment.”

Todd HaynesStevens finds Haynes an exemplar of independent film because he “made us rethink ways we watch,” particularly the way we watch women, and how we identify with characters.

The Coen Brothers are the models of modern independent film. Stevens asks, “how independent are they if they are winning Oscars?” Yet they have their own style, and he lists one of their movies as among his favorites.

Stevens feels that independent films are accepted by the mainstream because “we enjoy having our expectations played with.” As life gets more complex, we are able to accept, and we often desire, “more complicated forms of storytelling.” Independent films are better suited to deliver this than mainstream films based on stock narratives. They also “speak to our senses of identity,” and are likely to deal with issues such as race and sexuality, which are of interest to a wide audience.

Coen Brothers

Stevens’ plan for the class is to have students watch films, cogitate, then spend class time analyzing and discussing. Themes that are of particular interest to Stevens are the ways people interact, the ways they present themselves, and the politics of identity. These topics, among many others, will be discussed in the class.

When asked about his favorite independent film, Stevens noted that he had recently seen the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” which he likes because it is “deeply funny” and, unlike other Coen Brothers movies, not cynical. It accomplishes being “sincere, but not trite.” In particular he is fascinated by the prologue, and says he “can’t wait to discuss it with the students.”


Paper Politics

August 19, 2010

Paper Politics , on display at Space gallery until October 24th, 2010 , is an exhibit of grassroots political posters from around the world. The images depict and react to political and social issues of the past ten years. The messages are of solidarity, revolution, and empowering communities and individuals against capitalism and war.

paper politicsTopics of the posters range from war to evictions, pollution, genocide, Abu Ghraib, women’s issues, health care, transgenic foods, and labor history in Pennsylvania.

Many images play on corporate imagery, essentially uncoopting youth culture from corporations. One shows the McDonald’s arches upside down, reminiscent of the upside down flag, a symbol of maritime distress.

One striking image shows Jesus driving an SUV that is equipped with a rocket launcher.

Many posters show images from war, or from the streets, accompanied by facts or quotes.

Why must these images be put on posters and hung in community spaces? These are images that are not shown in the mainstream media because they show an America that many are uncomfortable with.

Let’s take a minute and talk about our current national discourse. What images and ideas are given to the people? What facts are presented? What phrases are repeated? Our national discourse tends to involve one person or organization proposing legislation. An opposing group claims that said American discourselegislation is being ‘shoved down our throats.’ In order not to seem too overbearing, the legislation is nixed. If a party or organization makes unpopular legislation, blocks popular legislation, or suffers from corruption, they take some other story and blow it up into a media frenzy. The media reports on the emotions of people, and facts are left at the wayside. So, if you want to present information and images about the world we live in, a world with an undercurrent of violence, a world with poverty, unchecked capitalism, war, genocide, greed and weapons, what can you do? You can make a poster and hang it in a public space. Space has a collection of hundreds of such posters, many of which show real images accompanied by facts. All the posters show what we the people are concerned about, and what the media doesn’t address.

Let’s talk about what ideas are considered unacceptable in mainstream America. Marxism is taboo. It seems heretical to many Americans to say that workers should own the profits of their labors. One American mantra is that the rich create jobs, and should thus profit heavily and be taxed lightly in order to incentivize them to create more jobs. I apologize for using the nasty word ‘incentivize’. The fact that that word even exists shows a fundamental believe that people only do things in order to reap a tangible reward.

In America, another entrenched thought is that we are all at the will of the economy. The economy is our ultimate boss, the force that shapes our lives more than any other, and one we cannot control, but can only mildly affect. However, as the posters at Space point out, the economy is a social construct that exists because enough people believe in it to make it manifest. It should not control us. We should control it. If we, as a nation, decided that poverty must be ended, we could end it. We could improve housing, distribute healthy food, and give everyone health care. But these things, although doable, are seen as impossibilities in a capitalist economy. The poster makers at Space are angry about this situation, but also hopeful that given a sea change of opinion, this circumstance can be changed.


Another common notion is that war can make the world better. People are killed because of their political beliefs, or because they happen to live in an area governed by people with unsavory political beliefs. It seems obvious that guns cannot bring peace, but somehow that is not part of our national discourse. The media argues how many guns and tanks are necessary to secure an area for democracy, but no talking head ventures that zero might be the ideal number.

The posters in the Space Gallery present images that address these issues. They represent ideas that so many of us agree with, but that are never presented in the mainstream. Seeing these images is refreshing, engaging, and provocative. The best advice I can give you is to turn off your TV, never turn it back on, and go out into the world and see what ideas are floating around in our free, shared, public space.

Space gallery is free and open to the public.


Countdown to Zero

August 7, 2010

Quick quiz:

  1. How many nations have nuclear weapons?
  2. How much highly enriched uranium has been stolen?
  3. What was the access code to the minute man missile launch site?
  4. If the order were given for the currently online nuclear weapons to be fired, how long would it take for 500,000 people to die?                        (Answers at end)

In observation of the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film Countdown to Zero is currently playing at the Harris Theater. The film is a documentary about the current status of nuclear weapons around the world today and consists of three main parts: it describes how easily nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of nongovernmental terrorist organizations, how the weapons still on ready-alert since the cold war could easily fire by accident or miscalculation, and how many nations around the world are developing, or have recently developed, nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

countdown to zeroThe message of the film is that the common sense of the people, the majority of whom want to see nonproliferation and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, should be heeded. The film describes the dangers of nuclear proliferation and non-disarmament using facts about accidents, miscalculations, the commonplace occurrence of theft of highly enriched uranium. Interviewees in the documentary include Mikhail Gorbachev, Valerie Plame, and Jimmy Carter. Historical footage of Robert Oppenheimer, Ronald Reagan, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before the showing on Friday night, Dr. Dan Fein spoke about nuclear proliferation. He referred to the US as the “avatar of nuclear militarism,” and cited that nuclear weapons are often seen as “the poor man’s deterrent against imperialism.” Indeed, in the film, Kim Il Jung is cited as saying that North Korea was not invaded by the United States on account of her nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once stated, “we’ll eat grass, but we’ll make a nuclear bomb.” (On a side note, it has been much in the press that Pakistan, in theory a United States ally, has been providing weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

minute man missileThe film also discusses MAD, mutual assured destruction. This situation is known in mathematics as the prisoner’s dilemma, a situation where, when everyone works in what he sees to be his best interest, the worst possible situation for everyone comes to pass. When nations choose to build nuclear weapons as a deterrent to being invaded, or to having similar weapons used on them, then every nation eventually has nuclear weapons. And then we’re all in big trouble. Whether on purpose or by accident, an existent nuclear weapon is one that could be activated.

Because the probability of a nuclear accident is above zero, the inevitability of a nuclear accident is ensured. Given infinite time, that which can happen will happen. The questions then become: how probable is a nuclear accident, and how much time will nuclear weapons be around? As for the first question, there have already been a series of near-nuclear accidents, including planes taking off unknowingly carrying nuclear missiles, and the subsequent accidental dropping of nuclear missiles, once with five of six safety mechanisms malfunctioning. (That particular one fell in the Carolinas.) A number of planes and submarines carrying missiles have crashed and sunk in the oceans, the weapons of which have never been recovered. So, let’s go ahead and say the probability is not astronomically small. To reduce an accident, it is thus necessary to reduce the amount of time nuclear weapons are around, i.e, they should be dismantled.

The showing on Friday was sponsored by Remembering Hiroshima 2010 www.rememberinghiroshim2010.org, who promoted the signing of START, a disarmament treaty that is up for renewal. Before the film, Jo Schlesinger described the organization and its mission. She also invited Jasiri X to perform, and he wrote a piece especially for the occasion. The song was a conversation between a mother and her son taking place on the morning of August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima, the son questioning what was happening and why. Before he performed, he stated that he wanted to “humanize individuals.” We often speak of war in the abstract, as I have done for this article, and don’t look at what war means for the individual people who are the victims of it. I highly recommend his work, which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/jasirix

Countdown to Zero will be playing through August twelfth at the Harris Theater.

Answers to quiz:

  1. 9 nations, with a combined total of over 23,000 nuclear weapons on Earth.
  2. It is unknown how much has been stolen. In all cases that uranium has been confiscated from thieves, it was originally unknown that the uranium had gone missing.
  3. 0000000000 – All employees at the facility were aware of this code.
  4. Half an hour.

Pittsburgh Bike Fest 2010

August 4, 2010

August 6th- 15th

The ultimate goal is a multi-modal, safe, sustainable transportation system for Pittsburgh. The proximate goal is to have fun, meet folks, and ride bicycles.

Bike Fest 2010

Bikefest begins on Friday and consists of a variety of bike related activities. There are scores of organized bike rides, ranging from light, family-friendly rides around town, to arduous, uphill, 90-mile bikeathons. There are bike games such as polo, rodeo, and a scavenger hunt. There are classes on bicycle maintenance and repair. There are lectures on sustainable transportation. There are midnight rides, early morning rides, rides that cross bridges, historic rides, and city tour rides.

The best thing about Bikefest is that anyone can organize an event. Bike Pgh is acting as the hub for planning and information distribution, but the festival is essentially a people’s festival in which anyone can create or attend any event. So, if you want to, say, sponsor a naked bike ride, or a Halloween costume bike ride, a spray paint my bike pink and cover it with glitter activity, or what have you, feel free!

On Wednesday the 11th, Filmmakers will sponsor a free showing of The Great Muppet Caper, the greatest adventure ever to involve a frog, an elegant pig, and bicycles.

Muppets on bikes

Pennsylvania has been rated as one of the worst states for bicycling. In order to raise the ranking, the state needs to have more bike lanes, better maintained roads, larger shoulders, etc. It also needs more bikers. It may seem odd that increasing the number of bikers will increase biker safety, but there are a few reasons. First, if there are more bikers, drivers will expect them and take precautions. Secondly, there is safety in numbers. If ten people bike together, they are an easily noticeable force. Also, the more bikers there are, the stronger the biker lobby. Even if it is an unofficial lobby, one with no central organization or money, it could still be a powerful.

So, to make Pittsburgh a better place for all bicycles, for the environment, and for the future of mankind, get out there and play pick up bike polo!


Hot Stuff: John Miller at Pittsburgh Glass Center

July 28, 2010

Seeing an everyday object in gigantic proportions helps you see the absurdity of it. This is apparent in roadside statues, the giant chickens and insects and Muffler Men who line the highways. It is also apparent in John Miller’s Hot Stuff, now being exhibited at the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

Miller has taken Martini glasses, cigarettes, fast food, and car keys and made perfect, oversized renditions of them out of glass. The works have evocative titles, such as “Breakfast of Champions” for a giant beer and cigarette, or “Do Not Duplicate” for a set of car keys. Many works feature the coupling of tobacco and alcohol, while others relate to fast food. They poke fun at our consumer culture by simply being what they are, only larger and well-crafted.

A martini, a cigarette, and a pill are all units of consumption. They are quantifiable, and we often describe our day by saying “I took two aspirin,” or “I had three martinis,” or “I smoke a pack a day.” These little consumables are symbols for greater and less definable forces in our lives, like pain, pleasure, the desire for social acceptance, and addiction. Seeing these items separated from the emotions and situations with which they are usually entangled, and seeing them as sizable, exposes both their power and their silliness. It is silly to allow a unit of alcohol or tobacco represent a day or a night or a life. I’m not sure if this tendency toward metonymy is something bred by commercials, or if it is an inherent psychological principle to narrow ideas and feeling into symbols. Either way, Miller has fun creating and displaying these large objects, and his joy is easily perceivable.

Hot Stuff will be on display at the Pittsburgh Glass Center until September 26th.



July 12, 2010

Who manufactures the weapons used in Darfur? Who makes the bullets?

According to Amnesty International, the majority of weapons flowing into Darfur come from China and Russia. Data from 2005 show that Sudan imported $83 million worth of arms, ammunition, aircraft, helicopters, and parts from China. AviChina, a corporation tat specializes in aircraft, has provided Sudan with aircraft and helicopters. China Aviation Industry Corporation I’s subsidiary Beijing Aviation Science and Technology Co. (BASC) sends flight simulators for K-8S jets to Sudan.

In 2005, Sudan imported $33 million worth of aircraft equipment and helicopters from Russia. Belarus signed a military cooperation protocol with Sudan in 2006 and has continued to send armored personnel carriers, 122mm guns, and howitzers. Sudan does have a domestic arms production industry, but much of their arms are made from parts imported from abroad.

One vehicle of war in Sudan is the Land Rover, a vehicle made by the UK company called Land Rover, which is a subsidiary of Ford Motors. Executives at Ford Motors claim that, upon becoming aware of the uses for which their rovers are being used, they have stopped exporting them.

Sudan is not the only place where weapons are deadly. Indeed, there is no place where there are casualty-free weapons. The nature and purpose of a weapon are to quickly and messily dispossess a person of his existence. Apparently, existence dispossession is a growing market. Hundreds of companies manufacture firearms, ammunition, powder, and accessories for weapons.

The question remains: how can weapons manufacturing be stopped without violence? This question is addressed by the surreal artistic genius Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the maker of Amelie and City of Lost Children, in his film Micmacs. He takes on the horror of weapons manufacturers with beauty, humor, and imagination.

Micmacs is about Bazil, a man whose father was killed by a land-mine and whose livelihood was lost after being shot in the head. He is kindly adopted by a band of salvagers with circus talents who help in his quest to take down the manufacturers of the weapons that destroyed his life. By setting two executives against each other, and by playing off their fears, paranoia, and own evil behaviors, Bazil and his friends are able to destroy them without violence of malice.

Micmacs is playing through Thursday the 22nd at the Regent Square Theater.

References: Sudan: arms continuing to fuel serious human rights violations in Darfur; Amnesty International; http://www.amnestyusa.org/document.php?id=ENGAFR540192007&lang=e