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The Hypnotic Power of Graph Paper

Friday, December 21, 2012 - 09:00 AM

Look into this paper. You are getting very sleepy...


With Radiolab's Yellow Fluff on the airwaves last week, I was thinking about these graph paper animations by artist Alma Alloro.

Yellow Fluff begins with a story about graph paper -- how it became the birthplace of wonder and terror for a young boy (who would turn into the grown boy-mathematician Steve Strogatz). Using the squares to plot the swingings of a pendulum, Strogatz saw a spookily familiar shape emerge on the lines: a parabola, from Calculus class. Shivering, the young Strogatz realized there are absolutes out there -- "laws of nature," as he calls them -- that exist, independent of us. It's a beautiful thought: that instead of the world being a picture-show conjured by each lonely one of us -- as 18th century philosopher Berkeley suggested -- there's a reality that stands outside us.

Mmmm. So as for the animations, first of all, aren't they beautiful?

Second of all, it turns out that Alma animated these using a bike wheel (like the spinning disk animation devices of the 19th century, see a diagram of the bike wheel here). Which got me thinking, maybe what we are responding to in these animations is not just the delight of lines coming alive, but the delight of lines coming alive under the very same conditions in which we live -- gravity, friction, air resistance. They wobble like us, do they not? They slump and lumber and slip, just like us, no? Perhaps by using the bike wheel as the animation mechanism, Alma inadvertently spun a little of the universe into her animations!

Alma laughs -- "hehe" -- at my theory. Though she enjoys it when people find deeper meaning in the pieces, for her it is all about the process.

Here's where the winter solstice comes in. Though today is the darkest day of the year, a moment that can mark the apex of gloom and doom for many of us, Alma says this is when her eyes get giddy with inspiration. Freed from the calls of a lovely day outside, she says she can get into a deeper creative trance. She often creates in her pajamas, listening to music that's "f-ed up yet melodic and happy" (like Felix Kubin of Dat Politics), and then just goes to town on the graph paper. For her it's about accessing this state, this "very relaxing, very with 'myself mood,'" and less about the outcome.

That said, I'm not convinced she hasn't inadvertently captured a little of the universe in these. So here's a test -- one of the two drawings below was made in the winter, and one in the summer:

Drawing 1:

Drawing 2:

Can you guess which is which?*

Maybe?? I don't know.

I guess I can't let it go that it seems like there's something more in these drawings. Something that transcends the neato! of animation. Could it be that her emotional state -- anxiety in a fleck, distractedness in a scribble, flow in a thicker line -- got encoded the way sound is stored in the grooves of wax or vinyl on a record? Perhaps it's the pure nostalgic power of graph paper. Have we not all used its lines, while doodling in math class, as a sort of dreamy escape hatch from the world? Whatever it is, I can't shake that there's something very specific being communicated through these movements; that there's some reason why so many folks consistently use the words "hypnotic," "transfixing" or "mesmerizing" to describe Alma's works.

Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's all, as Berkeley would say, in our own minds. But I like the thought that what we're staring into as we watch these pulsing lines, is a pinned specimen of that very wriggly and hard to catch external absolute.

And on that note...


*Drawing 1 = winter; Drawing 2 = summer

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Comments [1]

Keith Sommer from Florida

Using graph paper allows you to easily document information and ideas to give life or form to data by using lines, bars, and shapes. The shapes on graph paper usually have many corners like those created when using an Etch-A-Sketch(TM). Graph paper makes science fun, as if science was like being in art class. I like writing on graph paper because is encourages you to draw figures as well. Science on graph paper seems reachable and personal, not impersonal and cold like an Excel or text book graph. My favorite charts where done on graph paper, even though I did many more on the computer. Graph paper can be taped together end to end and rolled up like a scroll, allowing you to unravel time or some other x quantity, over and over again to revel its contents. To some graph paper my be hypnotic, to others it is fun, which may be the reason why I became a scientist, inventor, and engineer.

Jan. 03 2013 12:24 AM

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