14 Mar 2013

Street art can be beautiful and/or fun

This says : "Reciprocity is a mystery". I like that...

Actually this is on a window and not a wall, but I am sure that you get the idea. Most graffiti (sometimes pompously called "street art") that I see is ugly and garish and has been inflicted, undesired, on public places, just adding another layer of ugliness to areas which are already blighted, and sometimes acting as acne on otherwise quite acceptable faces of architecture. But there are occasional graffiti artists whose works I see on walls here in Paris that make me smile, or think, or laugh, or indeed several of these. The one above is on the window (in the window?) of the tourist office near where I live, and it is clearly signed by someone going under the intriguing pseudo of Miss-Tic.

The first "street art" of this type of which I have a clear memory were the finely-drawn posters of the french poet Rimbaud that I saw stuck on dilapidated walls in Paris's 14th arrondissement in the late 1970's (see below).

These were my first contact with the remarkable work of the French artist Ernest Pignon Ernest, about whom I have written on this blog here.

With perhaps more humour, but a lesser sense of history, more recent street artists have done some fun things on the walls of the Butte aux Cailles district in Paris' 13th arrondissement. It should be remembered that this district is still a bastion of artists' studios and was a hotspot for rebellion during the Paris Commune movement in the 1870's, as well as during the "events" of May 1968, almost 100 years later.

Spontaneous and involuntary forms of sculpture are also a feature of what can loosely (and sometimes pompously!) be called street "art". The two photographs below are taken on the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge across the Seine that links the Louvre to the Ecole de Beaux Arts. There is another bridge similarly decorated with lovers' padlocks a bit further upstream. I find this far more interesting than most so-called "installations" that one sees in galleries. The locks shine like gold in the sun and are densely packed on either side of the bridge. This has an interesting optical/kinetic effect as one walks across the bridge. Of course the scale and the site help a bit!

On a recent visit to the Slovenian capital of Lubljana, I saw the beginnings of a similar installation on a bridge there, so perhaps there will be, at some point, an international circuit to be followed of lovers' bridges. Better than that damned da Vinci Code circuit that seems mercifully to have died out. Love is eternal after all...

And if you go to this article, you will discover another good piece of graffiti that I spotted in Lubljana (one picture of it is below).

3 Mar 2013

Pigeons as art critics

It seems that pigeons are able to recognize styles of paintings, so when will we see our first pigeon art critic? And, when I read some of the elucubrations of those who describe themselves as art critics, I wonder whether this might not be a peck forward.

Professor Watanabe with a jackdaw, NOT a pigeon. Are jackdaws better art critics than pigeons? We will just have to wait and see.

I was both fascinated and amused recently by an article in the Science & Techno supplement of Le Monde newspaper that informed about the experimental work of Shigeru Watanabe concerning pigeons and paintings. For some time now, this professor of psychology at Keio University has lead various experiminents that revolve around the visual and cognitive capacities of pigeons with regard to painting. 

Monet and Picasso. I have no idea which paintings by each artist were used in the experiment, but the difference here is clear enough, including for a pigeon (or an art critic)

The first published study of Watanabe and his colleagues on this subject dates back to 1995, when they trained pigeons to descriminate between colour slides of paintings by Monet and Picasso. After an initial training period, the pigeons were then shown works by these two artists to which they had not previously been exposed and they were able to discriminate them. They were not persuaded to spell their names however. Even more surprising perhaps, they were also able to categorize styles between different painters. Monet, Cézanne and Renoir were grouped together by the budding art-critic pigeons, whereas Picasso, Braque and Matisse were placed in another group. It is also interesting to note that when Watanabe presented the pigeons with a painting by Monet upside down, this disturbed their discrimination, whereas the same operation with a cubist painting by Picasso did not. The probable implication here being that a more realistic representation of an object can more easily be disturbed in the visual discrimination process than a more abstract one.

Chagall and Van Gogh might well have been a harder task for the pigeons, again depending on which paintings were used in the experiment

Then, in another article published in 2001 by Watanabe in Animal Cognition, he attempted to compare the relative capacities of pigeons and human beings in distinguishing the works of one artist from another. In this instance the two artists were Chagall and Van Gogh. Watanabe trained his pigeons to distinguish four paintings by each artist that were projected onto a television screen. The training was effected by feeding them grain when they pecked a button when a Chagall painting was shown, and nothing when a Van Gogh came on the screen. Then the process was reversed, with the Dutchman's paintings providing the reward. When the pigeons became 90% proficient in identifying the right painter, Watanabe introduced 3 paintings (2 by Van Gogh and 1 by Chagall) that the pigeons had never seen before. This did not notably phase the birds, neither did the removal of colour from the images, or indeed hiding half of the pictures. Watanabe then turned to human beings, just skipping the grain feeding part. I was quite relieved to read that the humans were as good as the pigeons in distinguishing the style of a Van Gogh from that of a Chagall. Were they fed biscuits instead?

Another study was published in 2009, again in Animal Cognition. This is where we get to the point in my title about pigeons as possible art critics, as this time Watanabe introduced the notion of "good" and "bad" art. He had human observers classify several children's paintings as either "beautiful" or "ugly". Pigeons were then rewarded for pecking at the "beautiful" paintings and not rewarded for pecking at the "ugly" paintings. They were then presented with new sets of paintings of both aesthetic categories and the results showed that they were able to discriminate between the two. In another experiment, pigeons were also able to discriminate watercolour paintings from pastel ones. 

Then, to determine which cues the pigeons used for their discrimination, Watanabe conducted tests of the stimuli when the paintings were reduced in size or reproduced in black & white. In addition, he tested their ability to discriminate when the painting stimuli were mosaic, and also when they were partially occluded. The pigeons maintained their discrimination performance when the paintings were reduced in size, but this decreased when stimuli were presented as black & white images or when a mosaic effect was applied to them. Watanabe concludes from this that pigeons use both colour and pattern cues for their discrimination, just as humans do. That partial occlusion did not disrupt the discriminative behavior suggests that pigeons did not attend to particular parts, namely upper, lower, left or right half, of the paintings. The overall results suggest that pigeons are also capable of learning the concept of a stimulus class that humans name "good" pictures. 

My question to this is "who decides which paintings belong to each category", which takes us back, more or less, to square one! I am also slightly alarmed at the idea that we should let loose flocks of pigeons in galleries to see which paintings they peck at the most. This might of course help to destroy a lot of the junk that passes for art in many places, but, then again, they may decide to peck at all of it, "good" and "bad", in their search for grain. So maybe we are stuck with art critics after all. Perhaps we should try crossing them with pigeons, or else feeding them grain?

2 Mar 2013

Promoting wine in retail outlets

My work and other inclinations lead me to travel a bit and I am often struck by the fact that France, where I live and which is one of the major wine producers in the world, seems to singularly lack imagination, and even elementary good sense, when it comes to encouraging people to try and enjoy its wines in bars and restaurants. 

One of the best examples of this is what happens (or rather what does NOT happen) in the major rail-stations and airports in France, when compared with what I see in other countries. I have already spoken on this blog about the comparison that is to be made between the way wine is treated at both ends of the Eurostar rail link between Paris and London, as well as here about the too-often appalling way some restaurants and bars in France treat what should be a source of pride, customer satisfaction and revenue for them. Such people (and unhappily my example is far from unique!) are ignorant about the produce they sell and very poor at serving customers.

In London's St. Pancras station one can try up to 44 wines by the glass (and in proper wine glasses) in the wine bar, not to mention the separate Champagne bar. At Paris' Gare du Nord the wine selection is miserable and unworthy, and is served in glasses better suited to cleaning one's teeth. In Rome airport one can taste a good selection of wines by the glass, well served and with delicious snacks. I have yet to find anything like this in a French airport. Why this carelessness and lack of interest? A mystery! And one should remember that airports and rail stations are often people's first and last points of contact with a country and hence tend to leave a strong impression on tourists. And France earns big money from tourism. So what the hell are they waiting for?

If someone wants an idea, I tried out a wine bar in Atlanta's international airport a few months ago that has some good ones. Not only is this place well sited, but it has comfortable chairs for clients, a very decent and truly international wine list with a good selection by the glass, and quality glassware to match. And also a great additional promotional idea which is to propose small themed tastings of three different wines that use the same grape or come from the same region, or have some other link to make them comparable. There was a choice of four or five different themes the day I went through and I selected the syrah theme, which included an Australian, a Californian and a Chilean wine. The wines are presented on a small wooden tray with a paper undercloth that explains each wine and its origins. And the wines were excellent too. A perfect way to while away an hour between planes or when waiting to board. Wake up you French restaurant people!