Being Creative with What Is Available

This is a quote from Simon Dale’s website who has built several eco-friendly ‘Hobbit’ houses. It reminded me of the cave house built into lava bubbles by Lanzarote’s most famous artist César Manrique:

Lava bubble room, César Manrique foundation.
This is very a truly 1970s living room – a ‘The Flintstones’ experience on many levels. (Image: mine)

Being creative with what is available has an appeal beyond economical necessities.

As a teenage hobby astronomer I built a mounting for my small telescope from pieces of wood and metal I found at home. It allowed for rotation about two axes. (I don’t have an image which is probably good.)

As a scientist at the university your labor is cheap but professional equipment is much too expensive. So you have to tinker. My experimental apparatus included a toy motor moving an optical lens, and a water-cooled projector’s bulb was the radiative heater mounted inside my vacuum chamber.

We investigated the growth of superconducting thin films deposited from a vapor ‘plume’ caused by shooting very short UV laser pulses onto a ceramic sample. There was no fancy high-speed device: We took photos of that plume using a normal camera and called it Time-Integrated Photography in scholarly lingo. We found some interesting scaling laws though.

Plasma Plumes – Time-integrated photography of laser-induced plasma plumes. S. Proyer, E. Stangl. Applied Physics A. June 1995, Volume 60, Issue 6, pp 573–580.

Maybe the desire to build something from anything and to use whatever tool is at hand is the true connection between my diverse activities.

Most IT infrastructures are historically grown and you hardly ever find that green field people would like to install their solutions in. If you don’t like bottom-up tinkering it is just a source of endless frustration. Otherwise it is a noble Apollo-13-like challenge.

The same goes for tinkering with an old house. In the moment we are puzzling about an underground tank powered heat pump system for a house that will be built on top of a high-rise bunker:

This is not uncommon in some German cities  where unused building land is scarce and thus expensive. Here is an example of a musician’s studio built on top of a bunker in Frankfurt:

… a World War II bunker in Frankfurt that had been previously disguised as a house because it was too expensive to demolish. In a crappy part of town, “a no man’s land between heaps of gravel and dumps, piled-up recycling-products and containers that await their shipping”, the architects decided to rise above it all …

I believe in true innovation driven by necessities and constraints (only). Nassim Taleb’s derision of Soviet-Harvard-style planned ‘research’ struck a chord with me. He challenged the alleged causation usually invoked by politicians and people working in taxpayer-funded committees that ‘steer’ and ‘manage’ innovation at three meta-levels above the ground of honest hands-on work: It is plausible that bottom-up tinkerers trigger innovation which in turn allows countries for building prestigious universities and think-tanks; not the other way around.

Having finished my PhD I saw a report on TV about a mechanic – a craftsman without a degree who was introduced as an inventor. I forgot what the invention actually was but I do remember his apparatus very much reminded me of the vacuum chamber I had worked with – when doing Time-Integrated Photography. I figured: Wow, he calls ‘tinkering’ what we would have written academic papers about! Fast-forward 20 years, I read conference papers on heat pumps and think: Wow, they call research what we call tinkering!

Exit the scientist and enter my subversive, poetic subconsciousness. They are perhaps not that different.

Isn’t this question – What is research? – remotely related to What is art? Or am I just too fond of satirical submissions to academic journals – both art- and science-related ones? It is maybe not an accident that an artist’s cave house came to my mind.

I have called our solar collector Art from Plastic and Wood tongue-in-cheek, here shown in behind another object awaiting further art-ification:

Organic space probe
An organic space probe, sending signals from a distant, ecologically minded, civilization.

Search Term Poetry and Spam Poetry are just another way of tinkering with something at hand. I was recently baffled by academic articles on so-called Flarf Poetry – so there are at least some experts for whom my so-called art would qualify as such. Don’t worry – I don’t insist of this. But I do wonder if ‘serious’ art is always driven by some sort of necessity, too.

By the way, right when I had the linked post on flarf poetry in the making I was invited to contribute some – to a real serious (?) art project. And so I did – consider this a cliffhanger.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting. I’ve got a very good friend (a fiber artist and deep thinker of culture). She was talking, the other day, about a colleague who referred to art as ‘Radical Play.’ The subversive side of you will like that definition, I think. I guess he uses radical play to mean a chance to have any idea you’d like and to give it form and see if it ‘works.’ Art is a place where there should be no consequences. Perhaps your science is really art? Perhaps your engineering work is really art. Perhaps your solar collector is really art. Art that works. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave – yes I can totally relate to this: “Art is a place where there should be no consequences.” It is also interesting to think about art that had or was intended to have cultural impact. I guess its impact ought not to be planned – or it matters if its impact is just a side-effect.

  2. What a great post. Using what’s at hand is a restriction that encourages creativity like the fixed form of a sonnet. Christian Bok published a book called Eunoia, so titled because it contains all the vowels. There are five chapters, and each exclusively contains one of the vowels. The U chapter is kind of raunchy, which I suppose isn’t all that surprising. The book is a great read, I really felt as if I were experiencing the thought that went into it. Creative, funny, art.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Steve! I has always thought about the creation of art as if it were equivalent to painting on the stereotype blank sheet of paper – and I had always found that overwhelming. I can related so much more to “hacking” constraints.

  3. Great post, and really great comments. It’s (a bit off topic, but) interesting that two similar activities–tinkering and researching–are loaded up with such highly charged emotions, often involving legitimacy. A while ago I read an English Ph.D. post on the anxiety she was feeling, no longer having a term or adjunct teaching position in a university, and whether or not this gave her the credentials to write, research and publish. The comments she had received showed a discomfort with the question, perhaps suggesting that many of us doubt ourselves too readily… and it also suggests that we tend to think that no matter what we do or learn, it is never enough.

    One would think that in art there would be greater freedom to play than there is in other areas, such as those described in Maurice’s anecdotes. But this is not the case. We have built walls around artistic legitimacy as well, and the flip side is, very little of the artistic work that reaches the public seems to be innovative. Indeed, a considerable amount of it is uselessly inaccessible to most people with standard (basic) education within those fields. Yet, I’ve myself been struck with the “you can’t do that because how do you know it’s right?” or “what about ethical responsibility; do you have any idea how to address the morality of a work [without a graduate degree]?” It is scary, probably on purpose. And it keeps culture firmly out of the hands of almost everyone who is, by right of their birth into human society, entitled to active participation.

    It reminds me of something: over the past year I’ve noticed a few news stories in Canada about homeless people challenging the right to shelter. Some of the stories include building homes without permits, or using public lands, and so on. I think one home was made from a converted garage, without water or sewer, and it was only about 400 sq feet. Municipal authorities have seized the dwellings, but people are questioning it. I find myself wondering where the balance point will be, in a population where all the space is claimed and owned, and ownership is protected by laws and rules, what the responsibility is among us to ensure everyone has access to the basic needs of animal survival?

    Your posts always strike so close to many of the questions that are urgently troubling me in the moment. Thus, the musings I’ve shared are a little off topic to your post, but heavy on my mind.

    1. elkement says:

      Wow – great comment, thanks!

      I have often seen questions in STEM graduates discussion forums like “If I am working as X, may I still call myself Y?”
      I have dealt with this in two very different ways: 1) By over-fulfilling requirements, and trying to formally (re-)learn stuff in order to prove I am willing to start again from the bottom – my “post-graduate” degree in renewable energy was of that kind. But actually, I never mention it to clients, and people are only interested in the system we have built, and not in any certificates and papers. 2) By following hacker ethics – thus judging only by skills people demonstrate to me in real time, irrespective of degrees or the like. Perhaps this is much easier in STEM than it is in art. Could it be that criteria in art are probably harder to meet just because skills cannot be quantified to easily?

      I share your concerns about inhabitated space … and I believe the same thing is happening to virtual space … nobody can escape the lawyers.

      1. I think I will borrow heavily the hackers ethics. Do it by doing. On the flip side of all this, I also just finished reading about how a biomedical Ph.D. working as a science recruiter has encountered job applicants with doctorates trying to pass as mere bachelors degree holders so they can finally get entry into the field and gain some needed job experience. She referred to this as unethical, one which demonstrates a user’s interest in a company’s system with the intent of ending the employment as soon as their own needs are met. There is a shortage to entry-level workers while top level employees are over-supplied. So, a very interesting thing to ponder, in relationship to all this.

        1. elkement says:

          I agree – I read the same in discussion forums for physics graduates: Job applicants were more successful when they removed some of their academic credentials from their CVs. I can also remember a recent article about the lack of skilled workers in the US (… like plumbers, welders,…) versus an abundance of academic graduates. One hiring manager quoted in that article said they could cherry-pick any ivy-league graduate they wanted for management posiions but they are desperately searching for skilled workers.

          I think the more academic credentials you have the more you have to pro-actively fight the stereotype of being arrogant, an absent-minded nerdy “professor”, or not willing to work hands-on and pragmatically.

          1. You’re right about fighting stereotypes. There is a strong belief (in the culture in which I live) that educated people are practicality-deprived, and lazy workers. Sometimes I wonder, though, if that stereotype is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for some people. Which comes first: the chicken or the egg?

  4. howardat58 says:

    “An organic space probe, sending signals from a distant, ecologically minded, civilization”.
    I did one of these, it was not as inspirational as yours. We called it “The Triffid”. In three years it was completely destroyed by termites.
    Your two questions are the killers !
    “What is research?” and “What is art?”
    It does rather depend on who is paying, while the doer is alive, anyway.

    1. elkement says:

      Showing off my alien elsewhere people let me know there are already perfect weapons against them:
      Being destroyed by termites is sort of apt – like steel space probes destroyed by futuristic nano-bots.

  5. Improvisation–one of my favourite activities. See something that’s not quite right and then deal with it using materials that you can find at-hand. It’s important not to go too far, though–as these pictures show:

    On that note I vividly recall a time around 35 years ago when I was walking home from visiting a friend. The walk would be around 1.5 km and it was raining heavily. I was getting soaked. A car pulled up alongside, “want a ride,” asked my friend Bernard. “Sure.” I got in. Eddie was driving his brother’s car. He was holding one piece of string which was attached to one windshield wiper arm. Bernard held another tied to the other wiper arm. That’s how they were operating the windshield wipers. Wiper motor’s Motor’s broken.” explained Eddie.

    From 1992 to 1998 I shared an office with fellow distance education physics instructor Lloyd. Lloyd being 17 years my senior was a a valued mentor, but that’s another story. He told me of the first car he had when he was just starting out. Raising a young family, paying off student loans and such all meant that money was tight and all he could afford was an old car. When the accelerator cable gave out he fixed up a jury rig by running standard 1/8″ cable through the firewall to the throttle he would pull o it to accelerate. To ensure that it functioned correctly he attached a set of springs from ‘chest expanders” to the other side of the throttle. Safe, Huh? Later when the chassis rusted and cracked off he fixed it by fixing wood to both sides to the broken part and then attaching U bolts to parts of the wood, tightening them until all became straight. Safer huh?

    Finally there’s my other physics teacher friend Bruce. A wasps nest got built under the deck at his cabin. The deck was around 0.7 m of the ground and surrounded by lattice and he pondered how best to rid himself of the pesky nest. ‘I’ll douse it with gasoline and burn it!” was the brilliant solution. Safety first though! To protect his skin he donned his diver’s wet suit and for his face he wore his motorcycle helmet. In he went with a small bottle of gas and a cogarette lighter, crawling along. He doused the nest carefully with the gas and then lit it. Unfortunately he’s accidentally spilled some gas on his diving suit so it, too, lit up. The helmet did not afford complete protection from the angry wasps either; some got inside the helmet and started stinging him. All the while, there he was under the deck which was, by now, starting to singe from the fire beneath. Long story short–the fire dept. dealt with the fire and Bruce spent some time in the hospital dealing with some burns. He’s just fine now, though, but i don’t think he ever tried that again :-)

    1. elkement says:

      Great stories, thanks for sharing, Maurice!

      It is interesting question how to define “to go too far” – it depends on the culture you come from. Here (in middle Europe – maybe specifically Austria and Germany) you are on the edge of utmost subversion if you don’t look up several standards and laws and sign up for three different kinds of insurances when you try to decide on how many nails to use to tack your low-risk books-shelf to the wall.

      1. That’s a very good point. As you’d expect we have quite a few restrictive yet still absolutely necessary building codes that many are not aware of. These would exist here because they are needed here but not necessarily elsewhere, even close by. For example, roof shingles need to be laid on top of a plastic barrier called ice guard, else in the winter, owing to the extreme amount of variable precipitation we get here, ‘ice dams” can form at the edge of the roof and drive water up under the shingle where it makes direct contact with the wood and, over time, rots the roof. Inexperienced do-it-yourselfers often forget this and pay a hefty price down the line when major roof repairs are in order where none at all would have nee n needed if just that silly plastic sheet had been used!

        1. elkement says:

          In Austria there are nine different building codes for our oh-so-different nine small “counties”. Simplifying those (and lots of other administrative 9-folds) is the holy cow never slaughtered by politicians.
          I wished all of those standards would make as much sense as the one you describe. For example, following the local version (but only the local one – toooootally different 30km to the West…) we need to have an “emergency chimney” – though not necessarily a heater connected to it.

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