Khipus, the portable information archives created by the Inca, may stir up memories of 1970s macrame with their long strands of intricately knotted, earth-toned fibers, but their function more closely resembled that of a densely plotted computerized spreadsheet.
As Cecilia Pardo-Grau, lead curator of the British Museum’s current exhibitionPeru: a journey in time explains in the above Curators Corner episode, khipus were used to keep track of everything from inventories and census to historical narratives, using a system that assigned meaning to the type and position of knot, spaces between knots, cord length, fiber color, etc.
Much of the information preserved within khipus has yet to be deciphered by modern scholars, though the Open Khipu Repository — computational anthropologist Jon Clindaniel‘s open-source database — makes it possible to compare the patterns of hundreds of khipus residing in museum and university collections.
Even in the Incan Empire, few were equipped to make sense of a khipu. This task fell to quipucamayocs, high born administrative officials trained since childhood in the creation and interpretation of these organic spreadsheets.
Fleet messengers known as chaskis transported khipus on foot between administrative centers, creating an information superhighway that predates the Internet by some five centuries. Khipus’ sturdy organic cotton or native camelid fibers were well suited to withstanding both the rigors of time and the road.
A 500-year-old composite khipu that found its way to British Museum organics conservator Nicole Rode prior to the exhibition was intact, but severely tangled, with a brittleness that betrayed its age. Below, she describes falling under the khipu’s spell, during the painstaking process of restoring it to a condition whereby researchers could attempt to glean some of its secrets.
Children are the perfect audience for The Nutcracker.
(Well, children and the grandmothers who can’t wait for the toddler to start sitting still long enough to make the holiday-themed ballet an annual tradition…)
Maurice Sendak, the celebrated children’s book author and illustrator, agreed, but found the standard George Balanchine-choreographed version so treacly as to be unworthy of children, dubbing it the “most bland and banal of ballets.”
The 1983 production he collaborated on with Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell did away with the notion that children should be “coddled and sweetened and sugarplummed and kept away from the dark aspects of life when there is no way of doing that.”
Sendak wanted the ballet to focus more intently on Clara, the young girl who receives the Nutcracker as a Christmas present in Act I:
It’s about her victory over her fear and her growing feelings for the prince… She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.
Balanchine must have felt differently. He benched Clara in Act II, letting the adult Sugarplum Fairy take centerstage, to guide the children through a passive tour of the Land of Sweets.
It’s all very, very pretty and very, very beautiful… I always hated the Sugarplum Fairy. I always wanted to whack her.
“Like what kids really want is a candy kingdom. That shortchanges children’s feelings about life,” echoes Stowell, who revived the Sendak commission, featuring the illustrator’s sets and costumes every winter for 3 decades.
In lieu of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Sendak and Stowell introduced a dazzling caged peacock — a fan favorite played by the same dancer who plays Clara’s mother in Act I.
The threats, in the form of eccentric uncle Drosselmeier, a ferocious tiger, and a massive rat puppet with an impressive, pulsing tail, have a Freudian edge.
The Sendak-designed costumes are more understated, thought Pacific Northwest Ballet costumer Mark Zappone, who described working with Sendak as “an incredible joy and pleasure” and recalled the funny ongoing battle with the Act II Moors costumes to Seattle Met:
Maurice’s design had the women in quite billowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the studios, and Kent started rehearsing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They ended up, for years, twisting the legs in their costumes and making a little tuck here and there. It was a rite of passage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t forget to twist your pants around so you won’t get stuck in them.
Rent a filmed version of Maurice Sendak’s The Nutcracker on Amazon Prime. (Look for a Wild Thing cameo in the boating scene with Clara and her Prince.)
Origami artist Juho Könkkölä spent 50 hours folding an origami samurai from a single square sheet of paper, with no cutting or ripping used in the process. He describes his process on Reddit:
Folded from a single square sheet of 95cm x 95cm Wenzhou rice paper without any cutting. The finished size of the work is 28cm x 16cm x 19cm. Only dry and wet folding techniques were used to fold the model. It took 2 months to design and 1 month to fold, although I was working on few other projects during that time too.
It took some effort and experimentation to fold the texture for the armor, while trying to simplify it to be somewhat manageable to fold. I folded 4 rough test attempts in total, and all of them took 3 days to fold each. There are several hundreds of steps to fold it from the square and there are probably thousands of individual folds. The asymmetry in the design allowed me to include sword on only one arm, while being able to make the character look symmetric.
Find the finished product below. Watch the creative process, from start to finish, above.
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If you’ve ever run a marathon in costume, or for that matter, boarded public transportation with a large musical instrument or a bulky bag of athletic equipment, you know that gear can be a burden best shed.
But what if that gear is your first, nay, best line of defense against a fellow knight fixing to smite you in the name of their liege?
Such gear is non-optional.
Curious about the degree to which 15th-century knights were encumbered by their protective plating, medievalist Daniel Jaquet commissioned a top armor specialist from the Czech Republic to make a suit specific to his own personal measurements. The result is based on a 15th century specimen in Vienna that has been studied by the Wallace Collection’s archaeometallurgist Alan Williams. As Jaquet recalled in Sciences et Avenir:
We had to make compromises in the copying process, of course, because what interested me above all was to be able to do a behavioral study, to see how one moved with this equipment on the back rather than attaching myself to the number of exact rivets…we knew the composition and the hardness of the parts that we could compare to our replica.
The accomplished martial artist tested his mobility in the suit with a variety of highly public, modern activities: reaching for items on the highest supermarket shelves, jogging in the park, scaling a wall at a climbing gym, taking the Metro …
It may look like showboating, but these movements helped him assess how he’d perform in combat, as well as lower stress activities involving sitting down or standing up.
His armored experience sheds light on those of early 15th-century knight Jean le Maingre, aka Boucicaut, whose impressive career was cut short in 1415, when he was captured by the English at the Battle of Agincourt.
Boucicaut kept himself in tip top physical condition with a regular armored fitness regimen. His chivalric biography details gearing up for exercises that include running, chopping wood, vaulting onto a horse, and working his way up a ladder from the underside, without using his feet.
Jaquet duplicates them all in the above video.
(Reminder to those who would try this at home, make sure you’re capable of performing these exercises in lightweight shorts and t-shirt before attempting to do them in armor.)
Like Boucicault’s, Jaquet’s armor is bespoke. Those who’ve struggled to lift their arms in an off-the-rack jacket will appreciate the trade off. It’s worth spending more to ensure sufficient range of movement.
In Boucicault’s day, ready-made pieces of lesser quality could be procured at markets, trading fairs, and shops in populous areas. You could also try your luck after battle, by stripping the captive and the dead of theirs. Size was always an issue. Too small and your movement would be restricted. Too big, and you’d be hauling around unnecessary weight.
Jaquet describes his load as being on par with the weight 21st-century soldiers are required to carry. Body armor is a lifesaver, according to a 2018 study by the Center for a New American Security, but it also reduces mobility, increases fatigue, and reduces mission performance.
The legs alone were carrying an extra 15 to 18 pounds, so the muscles had to work that much harder to overcome inertia to set the legs in motion. There is also evidence that the thin slits in the face mask, and tight chest plate, restricted oxygen flow even further.
American inventors never met a phenomenon — natural, manmade, or otherwise — they couldn’t try to patent. From impossible technologies to possible evidence of aliens visiting planet Earth, everything’s fair game if you can sell the idea. After highly-publicized UFO sightings in Washington State and Roswell, New Mexico, for example, patents for flying saucers began pouring into government offices. “As soon as there was a popular ‘spark,’” writes Ernie Smith at Atlas Obscura, “the saucer was everywhere.” It received its own classification in the U.S. Patent Office, with the indexing code B64C 39/001, for “flying vehicles characterized by sustainment without aerodynamic lift, often flying disks having a UFO-shape.”
Google Patents lists “around 192 items in this specific classification,” with surges in applications between 1953-56, 1965-71, and an “unusually dramatic surge… between 2001 and 2004.” Make of that what you will. The story of the UFO gets both stranger and more mundane when we learn that Alexander Weygers, the very first person to file a patent for such a flying vehicle, invented it decades before UFO-mania and patented it in 1945. He was not an American inventor but the Indonesian-born son of a Dutch sugar plantation family. He learned blacksmithing on the farm, received an education in Holland in mechanical engineering and naval architecture, and honed his mechanical skills while taking long sea voyages alone.
In 1926, Weygers and his wife Jacoba Hutter moved to Seattle, Ashlee Vance writes at Bloomberg Businessweek, “where he pursued a career as a marine engineer and ship architect and began inking drawings of the Discopter” — the flying-saucer-like vehicle he would patent after working for many years as a painter and sculptor, mourning the death of his wife, who died in childbirth in 1928. By the time Weygers was ready to revive the Discopter, the time was ripe, it seems, for a wave of technological convergent evolution — or a technological theft. Perhaps, as Weygers’ claimed, UFOs really were Army test planes: test pilots flying something based on the inventor’s design — which was not a UFO, but an attempt at a better helicopter.
Sightings of strange objects in the sky did not begin in 1947. “Tales of mysterious flying objects date to medieval times,” Vance writes, “and other inventors and artists had produced images of disk-shaped crafts. Henri Coanda, a Romanian inventor, even built a flying saucer in the 1930s that looked similar to what we now think of as the classic craft from outer space. Historians suspect that the designs of Coanda and Weygers, floating around in the public sphere, combined with the postwar interest in sci-fi technology to create an atmosphere that gave rise to a sudden influx of UFO sightings.” In the 1950s, NASA and the U.S. Navy even began testing vertical takeoff vehicles that looked suspiciously like the patented Discopter.
Weygers was livid and “convinced his designs had been stolen.” The press even picked up the story. In 1950 the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article headlined “Carmel Valley Artist Patented Flying Saucer Five Years Ago: ‘Discopter’ May Be What People Have Seen Lately.” Although Weygers never built a Discopter himself, the article goes on to note that “the invention became the prototype for all disk-shaped vertical take-off aircraft since built by the U.S. armed forces and private industry, both here and abroad.” Just how many such vehicles have been constructed, and have actually been air-worthy, is impossible to say.
Smith surveys many of the patents for flying saucers filed over the past 75 years by both individuals and large companies. In the latter category, we have companies like Airbus and startups created by Google co-founder Larry Page currently working on flying saucer-like designs. The history of such vehicles may not provide sufficient evidence to disprove UFO sightings, but it may one day lead to the technology for flying cars we thought would already have arrived this far into the space age. For that we have to thank, though he may never get the credit, the modern Renaissance artist and inventor Alexander Weygers.
It’s so crazy and vigorous in its execution, so breathtaking in its vision, so brilliantly eccentric.
Malkovich, who’s not shy about taking potshots at the city’s “violence and filth” in the BBC documentary short above, rhapsodizes over Detroit industrialist Walter P. Chrysler’s “latter day pyramid in Manhattan.”
Malkovich’s unmistakable voice, pegged by The Guardian as “wafting, whispery, and reedy” and which he himself poo poos as sounding like it belongs to someone who’s “labored under heavy narcotics for years,” pairs well with descriptions so plummy, one has to imagine he penned them himself. (No writer is credited.)
After showing us the open-to-the-public lobby’s “delicious Art Deco fittings,” ceiling mural, and intricate, veneered elevator doors, Malkovich gives us a tour of some off-limits upper floors.
Unlike the Empire State Building, which bested the Chrysler Building’s brief record as the world’s tallest building (1046 feet, 77 stories), you can’t purchase tickets to admire the view from the top.
He also has a wander around the barren Cloud Club, a supper club and speakeasy for gentleman one percenters. Its mishmash of styles represented a concession on architect Van Alen’s part. The building’s exterior was an elegant modernist homage to Chrysler’s hubcaps and hood ornaments, but between the 66th and 68th floor, the Cloud Club catered to the promiscuous tastes of the rich and powerful — Tudor, Olde English, Neo-Classical…
The New York Times reports that it boasted what“was reputed to be the grandest men’s room in all of New York.”
A Duke Ellington soundtrack and vintage footage featuring Van Alen costumed to resemble his famous creation supply a taste of the excitement that heralded the building’s 1930 opening, even if those with a fear of heights may swoon at the sight of pretty young things reclining on high beams and performing other feats of derring-do.
Malkovich, ever the cool customer, displays his lack of vertigo by casually propping a foot on the rooftop’s edge to commune with the iconic eagle-headed gargoyles.
The building’s unique flourishes caused a sensation, but not everyone was a fan.
Malkovich clearly savors his swipe at critics who decried the new building as too shiny:
Fortunately these critics are long dead so we can’t even call their offices and taunt them as they should be taunted.
He’s more temperate when it comes to author and social philosopher Lewis Mumford, whose beef with the skyscraper is understandable, given the historic context — the stock market crashed the day after the secretly constructed spire was riveted into place:
Such buildings show one of the real dangers of a plutocracy: it gives the masters of our civilization an unusual opportunity to exhibit their barbarous egos, with no sense of restraint or shame.
Nearly one hundred years later, barbarous egos continue to erect skyscraping temples to their own vanity, but as Malkovich points out, they’re far blander, if taller.
The Chrysler Building is now widely recognized as one of New York City’s most magnificent jewels, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently approved plans to construct a public observation deck on the Chrysler Building’s 61st floor, just above its iconic Art Deco eagles, though it’s too early to tell if it will be ready in time for a centennial celebration.
Until then, the general public must content itself with exploring the Chrysler Building’s lobby during weekday business hours.
Students are far less likely to be conversant in the 42 earlier works comprising Dorothy’s literary Classics stamps, though musical and movie adaptations of Little Women, Dracula, and Les Miserables should provide a toehold.
Our ignorance is such, we may need to reread Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jane Eyre … or at least Google the significance of a spoon and all those orange and red triangles.
(Back in our pre-digital youth, Cliff’s Notes were the preferred Philistine option…)
Dorothy’s stamp prints of Classics and Modern Classics are available for purchase on their website.
Access to technology has transformed the creative process, and many artists who’ve come to depend on it have long ceased to marvel at the labor and time saved, seething with resentment when devices and digital access fails.
Musician Nick Cave, founder and frontman of The Bad Seeds, is one who hasn’t abandoned his analog ways, whether he’s in the act of generating new songs, or seeking respite from the same.
“There has always been a strong, even obsessive, visual component to the (songwriting) process,” he writes, “a compulsive rendering of the lyric as a thing to be seen, to be touched, to be examined:”
I have always done this—basically drawn my songs—for as long as I’ve been writing them…when the pressure of song writing gets too much, well, I draw a cute animal or a naked woman or a religious icon or a mythological creature or something. Or I take a Polaroid or make something out of clay. I do a collage, or write a child’s poem and date stamp and sticker it, or do some granny-art with a set of watercolour paints.
Last year, these extra creative labors became fruits in their own right, with the opening of Cave Things, an online shop well stocked with quirky objects “conceived, sourced, shaped, and designed” by the musician.
T-shirts, guitar picks and egg cups may come graced with doodles of frequent collaborator Warren Ellis‘ bearded mug, or the aforementioned naked women, which Cage describes to Interview’s Ben Barna as “a compulsive habit I have had since my school days”:
They have no artistic merit. Rather, they are evidence of a kind of ritualistic and habitual thinking, not dissimilar to the act of writing itself, actually.
Of all of Cave’s Cave Things, the ones with the broadest appeal may be the pencil sets personalized with thematic snippets of his lyrics.
Put them all in a cup and draw one out at random, or let your mood or feelings about what said pencil will be writing or drawing determine your pick.
Meanwhile Cave’s implements of choice may surprise you. As he told NME’s Will Richards last December:
My process of lyric writing is as follows: For months, I write down ideas in a notebook with a Bic medium ballpoint pen in black. At some point, the songs begin to reveal themselves, to take some kind of form, which is when I type the new lyrics into my laptop. Here, I begin the long process of working on the words, adding verses, taking them away, and refining the language, until the song arrives at its destination. At this stage, I take one of the yellowing back pages I have cut from old second-hand books, and, on my Olympia typewriter, type out the lyrics. I then glue it into my bespoke notebook, number it, date-stamp it, and sticker it. The song is then ‘officially’ completed.
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