Waack

Via Wikipedia:

Waack/Punk is a form of dance created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles, during the 1970s disco era. This dance style was named punking because "punk" was a derogatory term for gay men in the 1970s. Naming the style punking was a way of turning this negative term into something positive. Within punking, a whack was a specific movement within the punking style. Although the heterosexual dance community enjoyed punking, they did not want to associate themselves with the negative, violent, and sexual connotations of punking and therefore called the dance genre "waackin". Later, Tyrone Proctor added the "g" to waackin to make it "waacking".
 
Waacking consists of moving the arms to the music beat, typically in a movement of the arms over and behind the shoulder. Waacking also contains other elements such as posing and footwork. Waacking puts a strong emphasis on musicality and interpretation of the music and its rhythm. It also took inspiration stylistically from movie stars such as Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and James Dean.
 

Sometimes a rabbit hole just wanders across your path and you stumble in. I had never heard of waacking until I tried an episode of Steven Universe in which one of the characters Garnet dances that style to, well, it's hard to explain and I'm not sure I understand what's going on in that show.

A YouTube search turned up videos like this one, which is like...wow. I can't even fathom dancing like that to Prince (or some weird cover of Prince, license fees are a bitch) but the world is richer for the fact that someone can. Also, I don't know much about dance and even I could tell that Ibuki is a master of the form. At times it seems as if the footage is sped up, she moves so quickly. Amazing, and plenty more of her work on YouTube, including many examples of her destroying her competition. Is there such a title as best pound for pound waacker in the world?

If so, maybe Ibuki's competition is Yumeki, who also has quite a body of work on YouTube, including plenty of duets with and face-offs against Ibuki. They call themselves Bad Queens. Indeed.

I asked my sister, who loves dance and So You Think You Can Dance, if she had heard of this style. Of course she had, courtesy of an SYTYCD audition tape.

I'm very sad that such performances aren't available for me to attend in person here in the Bay Area.

Magic iPod

Everyone has been passing around the Magic iPod this month. First Deep Blue beat Kasparov, then AlphaGo beat Lee Se-dol, and now we have Magic iPod taking down Girl Talk.

When you read stories about how artists come up with mashups (finding works with compatible BPM and keys, among other things), or how the Swedish pop factory mad scientists like Max Martin conjure pop hits, it seems inevitable that in our lifetime we'll have algorithms creating real pop hits.

How such work is received by a human audience is about more than its intrinsic qualities, however. In an objective competition like a game of Go, or when considering a mashup which is simply the synthesis of existing creative works, I suspect humans will be comfortable with acknowledging the achievements of an algorithm.

With original creative works, however, like music, novels, movies, I suspect humans will recoil from even intrinsically appealing creation if it was written by a computer program. Call it some variant of the uncanny valley effect.

We have a romantic attachment to human creation, and it may take a generation of people passing on before we overcome that cultural aversion. When a waiter places a beautiful dish in front of you at a restaurant, we like to imagine that a chef toiled over the plate in the kitchen, conjuring that beautiful, delicious entree from raw ingredients, fire, and ingenuity. When we read an engrossing novel, we picture a tortured writer banging on an old typewriter in a cabin by the sea, stopping from time to time to put out a cigarette and gaze out the window at the ocean waves trying to claw up the gentle slope of the beach.

When Beyonce drops Lemonade or any one of her jaw dropping awards show performances on an unprepared world, I like to believe the work was birthed from what is surely a vagina with mystic powers, belonging as it does to our modern icon of feminism and black empowerment.

It's not quite as appealing if the truth was that an algorithm finished processing in some computer lab somewhere. A progress bar on a monitor finally reaches 100%, and a file is deposited into a directory.

That's why if humans ever comes up with algorithms that are capable of creating popular works of culture, it's financially wise for the creators to claim the credit themselves, at least until many years of critical and popular embrace have accumulated. Then, and only then, spring the truth on the world.

We live in a Skinner box, and it was of our own making.

Style transfer

Frank Liu developed a technique he calls “style transfer” in which he renders an image in the style of another. 

Bhautik Joshi riffed off of that for video, resulting in experiments like this rendering of clips from Blade Runner in the style of Van Gogh's Starry Night. 

Prisma has capitalized on this technique by taking it mobile. I've enjoyed using the app to render some photos in my camera roll in a variety of styles. I had previously found expensive apps and plugins on the desktop that could do something like this, but now it's available in a free mobile app. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a free app on your phone, eventually.

I'm looking forward to when Prisma can handle video, it's only a matter of time before style transfer videos like the one above are flooding your social media feeds.

A market opportunity for human ingenuity remains, however, for those who can actually transfer not just the visual style but the entire cinematic grammar of one artist to another. What if Werner Herzog directed Toy Story? What if Stanley Kubrick directed Star Wars? Who wants to see Terrence Malick's take on Captain America?

I draw much too much pleasure from style transfer in prose, like imitations of Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and the such. James Wood once wrote of McCarthy:

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

The art of the auction

Of all his crafty sales tactics, the one used to greatest effect by Christie’s 52-year-old global president – the auctioneer on top of the wave of wealth in the world’s art market – is the query: “Are you sure?” He asks it as one of the last two bidders in an auction drops out, threatening to finish it. As he halts the action for a few seconds – what he calls “the auctioneer’s pause” – pressure builds on the reluctant bidder.
 
Perhaps he will deploy it on Monday, as he stands in Christie’s saleroom in New York and attempts to sell a 1917 Modigliani nude for more than $100m at the start of what Christie’s and its biggest rival Sotheby’s hope will be another record-setting week of art auctions. 
 
It is a deft inquiry for it is impossible to dismiss – of course the bidder is unsure. No one is certain because no one knows what a work of art is worth – perhaps a few dollars more, or a few million.
 

Short, fun profile of Christie's top auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen.

Auctions are unusual in the 21st century – most things, even luxury items such as watches and clothes, sell at fixed prices although there is some room to haggle. Even many items on eBay, the electronic platform, are sold at fixed prices. In The Dynamics of Auction, Christian Heath, a professor of work at King’s College, London, describes them as “a somewhat anachronistic method of selling goods, more common perhaps to traditional agrarian societies than post-industrial capitalism.”
 
They are still used for art because every painting is different and has no intrinsic value – it does not yield anything and the cost of manufacture is usually tiny. They are also a good way to get high prices – when buyers compete against a deadline, they behave differently. The desire not only to acquire it but to beat others causes what Deepak Malhotra, a Harvard professor, terms the “emotional arousal” of auctions.

Age of abundance: oil painting edition

What is technology's greatest achievement if not putting what was once only accessible to the rich into the hands of the masses? Whereas you once had to be a nobleman to commission an oil painting self-portrait, Noblified not puts that within your reach with prices starting at $99.

If you're curious how one might look, here's a recent one Noblified produced for Snoop Dogg for promotional purposes. Snoop as Cesare Borgia. (h/t @kenwuesq)

I'd like to hear Snoop find some rhymes for Medici.

Kubrick posters by Tomer Hanuka

I'm a huge fan of Tomer Hanuka's art, and several of his prints hang in my apartment. The ones that don't are the ones that sold out before I could get my hands on one of them, much to my grief.

He's working on a series of posters for Kubrick's movies, four of which are done already.

The Divine, a graphic novel by Boaz Lavie with art by Tomer and his brother Asaf, ships next week. Looks great.

Hanuka also created one of my favorite New Yorker covers, the Valentine's Day cover in 2014, titled Perfect Storm.

Blue is the new orange

A data analysis of paintings across the decades shows a market share gain for the color blue at the expense of the still predominant color, orange.

Orange and blue happen to be the two most popular colors in Hollywood's palette as well. Part of the predominance of orange is because human flesh tends to fall somewhere in that spectrum. There are many theories as to why color correction suites everywhere lean this way.

One explanation is that it's an over-adherence to complementary color theory.

This screenshot from the excellent color theory and exploration site, kuler, shows what happens when you apply complementary color theory to flesh tones.  You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land?  Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal.  And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate.  So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background.  I mean, people are really important, aren't they?
 

Knowing a bit about the Hollywood blockbuster movie production process, it's not that surprising that a particular color palette would come into vogue. The whole idea behind franchises is risk mitigation and building off of what has worked before. The same colorists probably work on many of these movies, at this point they've probably got the orange and teal color palette saved as a preset. What's the economic incentive to innovation here? How many viewers go to such movies for the distinctive color palette?

Lost avant-garde painting shows up in Stuart Little

A long-lost avant garde painting has returned to Hungary after nine decades thanks to a sharp-eyed art historian, who spotted it being used as a prop in the Hollywood film Stuart Little.

Gergely Barki, 43, a researcher at Hungary’s national gallery in Budapest, noticed Sleeping Lady with Black Vase by Róbert Berény as he watched television with his daughter Lola in 2009.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Bereny’s long-lost masterpiece on the wall behind Hugh Laurie. I nearly dropped Lola from my lap,” said Barki. “A researcher can never take his eyes off the job, even when watching Christmas movies at home.”

Crazy story. Berény was said to have dated Marlene Dietrich and Anastasia, the daughter of Nicholas II.