Archive for March 2019

Human arm tattooed with the word fur

Short story as body art

Here in urban California, if you want to appear inconspicuous in public, the best way to do so is to wear leather, dye your hair in fluorescent colors, and have all your visible skin tattooed, pierced, or both. I exaggerate, of course—but I think we can all agree that in much of the western world, body art is big these days. Personally, I find the notion of permanently altering my appearance unappealing. My tastes in clothing, hair styles (and colors), and so on change over time, so I don’t want to lock myself into a look I might feel less enthusiastic about in a few years. There’s also the whole issue of pain, which, all things being equal, I prefer to avoid. If I ever were to have a tattoo, though, it would have to be both discreet and very meaningful—something more than mere decoration.

One artist is using tattoos on human skin as a medium for literature rather than images, and in an extremely unconventional manner at that. In 2003, New York author Shelley Jackson wrote a 2,095-word story titled “Skin,” which she refers to as a “mortal piece of art.” By the time the project is finished, each word of the story will have been tattooed on a different person’s body; over 500 of the tattoos (and possibly many more) have been completed, using participants from around the world.

Jackson last updated the project’s status page in April 2011, and I don’t know what progress has occurred since then. However, in March 2011, just before that last public update, Jackson had an exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum featuring a video of a subset of the Skin Project’s participants—each person saying their word (in some cases, multiple times) and showing their tattoo, with the words cut together into a different story of about 900 words.

I Give You My Word

Someone who encounters one of the “words,” as she calls the participants, will be able to read at most one word, along with any adjacent punctuation. Volunteers must sign a contract stating that they will receive a tattoo of whichever word Jackson assigns them (in black ink and in a classic book font) and that they will send her a photograph of the finished tattoo as well as a portrait of themselves that does not show the tattoo. Jackson further stipulates that if a volunteer receives a word that could be considered a body part (“back,” say), that word must be tattooed on another part of the body. Only after the tattoo is finished does the participant get a copy of the entire story, which, according to the contract, must be kept secret.

Jackson’s intention is that the complete story never be published or revealed to the general public in any fashion; only those who receive the tattoos get to read the entire piece. However, when the work is finished, Jackson hopes to arrange portraits of the participants (not showing the tattoos) in the order in which their words appear in the story, complete with paragraph breaks. When a “word” dies, according to Jackson, the story will change—and she will attempt to attend the funeral, though she expects most of the words to outlive her. When all the words have died, the work as a whole will be dead.

Going With the Flow

The idea for Jackson’s human work of literature came partly from the art of Andy Goldsworthy, the subject of the 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy uses only natural materials for his pieces, including icicles, leaves, rocks, and dirt. Many of his works melt within hours, disappear with the next tide, or float away in the river (hence the film’s title). And yet the ephemeral nature of the art is precisely what he means to explore. In Jackson’s story, meanwhile, not only is the work as a whole temporary, but all of its components are also autonomous.

Although my tastes in art tend toward the conventional—and I still do not have the slightest interest in getting a tattoo myself—I find something about these organic works of art strangely compelling. If Jackson decides to do an even more ephemeral sequel called “Nails” or “Hair,” perhaps I’ll volunteer to become a word myself.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 14, 2005.

Image credit: Logan Baird [CC-SA 3.0], via Wikipedia

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An external hard drive

Every year, March 31—the day before April Fools’ Day (so it’s easy to remember)—is World Backup Day. Speaking as someone who has written quite a lot about backups (like Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac) and Wirecutter’s redundantly titled The Best Online Cloud Backup Service, this is an annual observance I can truly get behind. If you aren’t 100% positive that all your data (files, photos, contacts, email, etc.) could be completely restored even if, say, a space station fell on your house, now’s the time to get your digital life in order. There are lots of ways to back up your devices, and some are better than others, but something is better than nothing.

Save 67%! This weekend only (through April 1), my book Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac is on sale for just $5—that’s 67% off the $14.99 cover price! If you’re a Mac user, I hope you’ll take advantage of this occasion to learn the best ways to keep your data safe.

Image credit: Marco Verch [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle.

Going Postal

Cheval began collecting rocks on his rounds, eventually adding about 5 miles (8km) of walking per day. At first he kept the stones in his pockets, then moved on to baskets and, finally, a wheelbarrow as the size and quantity of the stones he collected increased. Back at home, he set to work arranging the stones into an ever-larger structure. He also made numerous figures of people, animals, and plants out of concrete and blended these into the creation, which was held together with the help of cement and wire. Despite ridicule from his neighbors, he continued working on the project for 33 years, and it became his full-time occupation after he retired from the post office in 1896. By the time he declared it finished, in 1912, it had grown to roughly 85 feet (26m) long, 40 feet (12m) wide, and 35 feet (11m) high. It was dubbed Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (or Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace).

And it looks like…well, no one can really say what it looks like. Cheval’s vision had been that of a fantastical structure incorporating elements from many different architectural styles. Part of it was intended to emulate a Hindu temple; part of it is supposed to look like a medieval castle. There are also influences from numerous other cultures from all over the world. And yet, the final product—a pastiche though it may be—has an odd sort of coherence that evokes (or possibly even inspired) Dr. Seuss.

Dying for Recognition

By the time the palace was complete, it had begun to draw international attention. Famous artists visited and drew inspiration from it; it was featured in media from postcards to magazines; and people came from far and wide to see this astonishing building. Public opinion about the work and its creator eventually shifted, and Cheval himself came to be regarded as an artist of some renown.

However, even though Cheval had essentially put the town of Hauterives on the map, the city government denied his request to be buried, along with his wife, in the palace. Not to be deterred, he went back to work in 1914 on a second, smaller structure in the local cemetery. He spent eight years building what he called the Tomb of Silence and Eternal Rest. Two years after its completion—and just days after he finished writing his autobiography—Cheval died and was interred in this new structure.

Set in Stone

The Palais Idéal was declared a cultural landmark in 1969, and underwent extensive renovations from 1983 to 1993. Today, the site draws more than 100,000 visitors per year to Hauterives. An exhibition at Paris’s Musée de la Poste (Post Office Museum) in 2007 showcased artwork inspired by Cheval’s palace, and included numerous artifacts relating to its history—including the original visitors’ log begun in 1905. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a detailed one-tenth-scale model of the palace.

I wouldn’t call this structure a work of architectural genius, and its artistic merits (or lack thereof) have been much debated. But no one can dispute that it’s audacious, wacky, and impressive. Whatever drove Cheval to spend half his life collecting stones and building bizarre monuments, it earned him a place in history as one of only a few truly famous postmen.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 15, 2007.

Image credit: Marine69 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Doctor talking with a patient

National Doctors’ Day, first observed in 1933, was made an official U.S. celebration in 1990. It’s observed on March 30 in commemoration of first successful use of anesthesia in surgery on that date in 1842. We all know how badly screwed up the health care system is in the United States, but even so, we’d all be in pretty serious trouble without the hard work and dedication of doctors everywhere—and especially of primary care physicians. Think kind thoughts about your doctor today! Oh, and as a favor to yourself as well as your doctor, get yourselves and your kids vaccinated.

Image credit: National Cancer Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Detail of an 18th century engraving of Scotswomen waulking (fulling) cloth, and singing.

Music without instruments

When I was young, my Dad had a record featuring songs and comedy sketches by the comedian Peter Sellers (formerly of “The Goon Show”). I loved to listen to it so much that even today, I can recite nearly the entire album from memory. One sketch in particular sprung to mind when I sat down to write this article. Sellers plays a German folk music aficionado, who is rather stiffly introducing his field recordings. “Ziss recordink is of Scottish mouth music.” He pauses. “Played on ze mouth.” Actually, what followed wasn’t mouth music at all, but a drunk Scotsman singing on a street before getting run over by a bus, but it was the first time I had ever heard the term. I didn’t hear real mouth music—or puirt-a-beul in Gaelic—until many years later.

Isn’t That Just Singing?

Surely music “played on the mouth” is just what most people refer to as singing? Well, yes and no. Genuine puirt-a-beul (pronounced porsht-ah-buhl) has a number of distinctive features which mark it out from standard singing. Mouth music is a primarily rhythmic form of song, where the words are chosen for their rhythmic qualities and the patterns of sound they make. Consequently most of the lyrics are more or less nonsense, but sometimes they take the form of puns or tongue twisters. Some songs contain syllables called “vocables,” which are chosen to sound like a particular instrument, or as a kind of sound effect to fit in with the meaning of the song. One of the reasons that I love mouth music is that it is a truly representative form of folk song; even the poorest of people can afford to use their own voices, so the songs record the everyday lives of ordinary people. The music itself is really striking to listen to, with a driving, toe-tapping rhythm. Expert mouth music singers will tell you that the hardest thing to learn is when to breathe, because the rhythm can’t be broken. Listening to Talitha MacKenzie singing “Sheatadh Cailleach” on the album Sòlas, and reading along with the Gaelic lyrics, I always marvel at how she can possibly fit all of the words in, such is the speed and complexity of the song.

Dances Without Instruments

Mouth music served three distinct functions, the first of which was to provide music for dancing. The majority of people would have been unable to afford musical instruments, but there was also a ban on the pipes after the 1745 Jacobite uprising, which ended in the notoriously bloody battle at Culloden, and victory for the English king, George II. Anything associated with the Highland clans or Gaelic tradition was ruthlessly suppressed, but by using their own voices, the people could still enjoy dances and traditional tunes, while leaving no incriminating evidence. The words are chosen to represent the dance steps of traditional dances, and the rhythm is so strongly ingrained in the structure of the words that it can be used to accompany dancing even if it is spoken rather than sung. This type is thought to be the most technically difficult form of mouth music to sing because of the fast tempo and complex rhythms.

Singing While You Work

The second function of mouth music was to alleviate the tedium of manual work. These songs—known as “waulking songs” or orain luaidh—were sung as tweed cloth was “fulled” or “waulked.” When tweed is newly woven, it is rather loose and not at all wind-proof. Since Harris tweed is supposed to be able to stop a Highland gale, the cloth needs to be worked to plump up the fibres and shrink the weave. Traditionally this was done by soaking the cloth in stale urine, and then sitting around a table, pushing, pulling and pounding the cloth around (always passing it clockwise), until the fibres shrank. The whole process could take hours, and as you might imagine was a tiring, boring and—above all—smelly process, and singing while you worked helped to pass the time. The waulking songs usually took the form of “call and response,” with one person singing the verses, while everyone joined in on the choruses. In Scotland, waulking was done exclusively by women, so the songs tend to be light-hearted, teasing each other about their sweethearts, and including a fair measure of ribald gossip. In Nova Scotia, Canada, waulking was done by men and women together. I’ve never heard any Nova Scotian waulking songs, but I’d be fascinated to know whether the tone of the songs was changed for mixed company. Many countries have similar forms of work songs, like sailors’ sea shanties, or West African work music. In fact, waulking songs have a very similar feel to traditional West African music and an odd affinity with them, which probably accounts for the popularity of bands like Mouth Music and Afro Celt Sound System, who blend the two styles.

Editor’s note: The album Mouth Music (the debut release by the band of the same name) features Talitha MacKenzie as vocalist, and it actually does contain mouth music (puirt-a-beul), as described in this article. However, later albums by Mouth Music adopted a different style and a series of other vocalists.

Remembering Tunes

Finally, mouth music was used to help musicians to remember and pass on traditional tunes, or to practice the music when they did not have an instrument available. Most traditional musicians would not have read music, so they would learn songs by playing with others, and by singing the tunes. A further style of mouth music (more often employed in Ireland) going by the charming name of “diddlage,” uses vocables sounding like the fiddle to represent the tunes. For many fiddlers, the sounds of the mouth music are inseparable from the tune actually played on the fiddle. There is even a form of mouth music—called canntaireachd or cauntering—in which the singer imitates the sound of the bagpipes to learn the tunes. Given the limited volume of the human voice, this can be a much more pleasant way to hear the bagpipes than the real thing! Again, these traditions are not restricted to the Celtic people; in India, players of the tabla (a small, expressive drum) learn and pass on tabla rhythms via a spoken notation called bol, in which onomatopoeic words stand for particular strokes.

Take Your Music with You

One of the most striking things about mouth music, when you come to look into it in detail, is the way that it reveals the migration, inter-mingling, and social history of people over time. Many people of Celtic origin in Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany, France already shared a similar tradition of music. In the 17th century, French peasants (including those from Brittany) were “cleared” from their land by rich landowners, and had to emigrate to Eastern Canada. Around a century later, Scottish highlanders were also involved in clearances, and many also ended up in Canada, in the region now called Nova Scotia. The French settlers (Acadians) got moved from place to place by political problems, and settled successively in Cape Breton, the Appalachian mountains, and eventually Louisiana, where they became known as Cajun. So there is a local version of mouth music found in Nova Scotia, and a rich gumbo of vocal tradition in Cajun Louisiana, where French and Celtic mouth music met the traditions of African and Caribbean slaves.

So, no—it isn’t just singing.

Guest author Jackie Chappell is a biologist at the University of Birmingham (UK).

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 4, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on March 16, 2005.

Image credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day