by Dan Cohen
Pattern recognition, as it was practiced before computers:
(Via William J. Paisley, "The Museum Computer and the Analysis of Artistic Content," in Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums, proceedings of a 1968 conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sponsored by IBM. Paisley calls this "empirical connoisseurship," which I rather like. Also, this study made me realize how strange and slightly creepy Botticelli's hands are, which is very odd when you think about it.)
As part of my effort to notice more around me during the pandemic, I took an interest in a mysterious building not so far from where I live.
Behind a row of shops that used to contain a Sushi counter, a jewelry store, and juice bar — all now permanently closed due to Covid — sits a converted garage, constructed from cinder blocks. It abuts the train tracks.
Aside from a small window in the single door, there are two large windows, but they are on the upper floor, and the blinds are often drawn. Two green plastic chairs sit outside, empty.
Most intriguingly, above the door is a blue sign with one word: KIMAT. And a symbol that looks like the cross-section of a wood-framed shelter.
During 2020, my interest became obsession. What was KIMAT? What did the symbol mean? The only signage other than "KIMAT" was small note card taped to the door that read: "VISITORS PLEASE Call". Call for what?
Finally, rather hesitantly, I casually drifted from my morning walk to look as inconspicuously as possible through the door. The place was filled with unusual tools and materials of all shapes and sizes, in a two-story tall industrial lab: giant band saws, electronic devices that were hard to identify or date, a large pulley system with a chain that could be described, accurately, as medieval. Wood, metal, and plastic sheets leaning everywhere. It was mostly dark inside.
Now I was even more curious.
Then, one early winter morning, an elderly man appeared, sitting in one of the green chairs. He was getting some fresh air, or maybe thinking, or probably both. He seemed relaxed. So I asked him about KIMAT.
His name is Dae Kim. He is in his eighties, and he is an inventor. For many years he worked at the Esso Research and Engineering Co., a kind of Bell Labs for the giant oil corporation, filled with PhDs like him. He is best known for his Synchro-Thermal Reactor System, which could clean the emissions of dirty cars by 92%.
When he was 68, Dae retired, with many patents to his name. But he kept tinkering and inventing in his spare time, and hoped to one day launch an "International Institute for Independent Inventors." He also saw that the global problems he wanted to solve as a young engineer had only gotten worse, especially climate change. He resolved to do something about it.
So when Dae turned 80, he bought some old, used equipment and opened KIMAT LAB in the modest structure sandwiched between the tracks and the shops. He found himself reinvigorated. He came up with new techniques for storing paint in bags rather than cans, and applying it to surfaces using a novel spraying method, which would greatly reduce chemical waste. He is working on inventions for addressing other forms of pollution, and new ways to heat and cool that are much more efficient than current technology. Dae Kim has a lot to do, and a place to do it. There's no time like the present.
A few weeks after I spoke to Dae, KIMAT was dark and the curtains were drawn again. The chairs were empty. I was worried.
But then a new sign appeared in the window:
An idea for a digital work of art, an adaptive painting, from J.C.R. Licklider 50 years ago in Computers and Their Potential Applications in Museums:
When an underchallenging painting or a print is first hung on the living room wall, everyone in the family looks at it. It attracts repeated examination and figures in conversation for several days or weeks, but then it gradually fades into the wall until it is actually seen, actually perceived, only when it is called to attention by an unsatiated visitor or by some topical coincidence. Over-challenging paintings are rarely hung on living room walls.
An adaptive painting would change a little each time you examined it. It might be programmed to grow more complex in structure. It might be programmed to grow more abstract. Imagine, for example, a "Mont Sainte-Victoire" programmed to recapitulate in a month or a year Cezanne's long development of understanding and the progressively increasing abstraction of his conception of his most enduring model. I think that such a painting would hold its interest -- indeed that it would motivate a strong involvement on the part of each member of the family in a germinal episode of the history of art.
A scene that changes subtly, but inexorably, over time, and that is worth examining every day — a concept that surely holds true beyond the world of art.
Here's to a new year, friends.