Thursday, October 3, 2013

Focus on Form

I had a delightful day in lab yesterday as my students struggled with finding, defining, and communicating about form. My doctoral work at Harvard and subsequent research focused on lichen form, so I thought I would give them a taste of one of my professional articles. The article was chock full of scanning electron micrographs, some of which I'm including in this post.

A theme of our course this semester has been looking beneath the surface. I'm trying to engage students in thinking about how to interpret the abstract messages that nature (and the world in general) send us. How do we go about interpreting our strange world? If we want to assert our agency in that world, and do it effectively, we have to interpret signals. Lichens with their strange seemingly abstract forms, difficult to put into any kind of familiar context, turn out to provide a great study instrument.

So as a warmup I asked students to tweet me their impressions of the figures in my article. People overwhelmingly wrote, " looks like..."  Bunny rabbit ears, coral, human hands and feet all appeared as descriptors. All focused on "visible" appearance though in nature, most form (I'm thinking molecular form) is observable though technically "invisible." This lab was also intended as a bridge to our next unit, where we will start looking at molecular interactions. If you don't think form is important in molecular biology think water. Or proteins. Or DNA.

After the warmup I asked students to consider a series of questions about form, its relationship to shape, and whether it only applies to living things.

Students put a lot of thought into their answers. I was inspired by all the work people invested in this lab, and I think they were too. As a biology professor I see my role less as a purveyor of biological "facts" and more as a learning coach. Especially focusing on how we solve problems, how we observe, and how we think and perceive. This is all connected with the new Boston University Arts Initiative. And I am a strong proponent as well of S.T.E.A.M., which includes arts in the traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) way of thinking. It follows that the introductory essay I had my class read was "Thinking Critically with Aesthetics," authored of course by me. 

I just spoke with one of my students who's doing a double major in advertising and economics. He reports that his class at BU's COM school is similar to mine. Students are asked to think hard, innovate, collaborate, and communicate, a tall order that goes way beyond the old models of imparting and receiving information. 

Lichens were a fun thing for me to study. They presented a real intellectual challenge. But the work I'm doing now goes way beyond that challenge as I design learning environments for my undergraduates that get them thinking (and performing) in new ways. 

Incidentally I spent my time in lab responding to students' tweets. Instant feedback and thoughtful discourse. Can't beat that for an effective learning environment.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Genius of Landscape: Communal Built Environments and an Architectural Mystery in the Yucatan

Individuals, communities and societies build landscape. How societies form, how communities relate, what people do every day and all their lives reflects and builds landscape. Societies make landscape in different ways. All societies construct landscape communally. In fields, roads and cities, building and maintaining are collective endeavors. Tires, feet, exhaust – all part of a shared action – motion, erosion, corrosion. A pile of garbage, a garden, a coating of soot or fresh paint.

Prelude: Valladolid, a sleepy Yucatecan town, a place of conflict where the "caste wars" were fought by the Mayans, desperate for self-determination, economic and social freedom. Nightmares crawl up onto you from the blood spilled here.

Today Valladolid is cheerful, leafy and lively. Janet suggests we follow the "Route of Seven Churches" to get the lay of the land. First hesitating, then confidently, we follow the tourist information map. We see the spire of one church from the plaza of another churchwe visit. We drink a coke in the semi-shade of a tree filled with birds. 

We consider the flat landscape of Valladolid and its churches, every one replacing a Mayan pyramid. We reimagine the city in its Mayan incarnation, a different place but one still filled with people, markets, roadways and pyramids.

Continuation: Mérida, Yucatán’s capital, a pulsing city of over a million. Valladolid's “seven churches” are replaced by twenty or more. Walking the narrow colonial sidewalks, bathed in fumes from careening buses, this is a grey city for all its vibrancy, coated in the dust of exhaust and baked by tropical light. The buildings squat together in the hot light of noon or in late day shadows. Walking more than in Valladolid, we see more and we see less.

South of the city—a fork in the road. In ancient times, one road led to Ticul and trade in the interior, another to Campeche, the sea and beyond. Ancient geography superimposes itself. The modern place melts onto the bones of the old. Standing here, Mérida becomes real, not just a collection of shops, restaurants, hawkers, buses, trucks, and evening strollers. Mérida is history. What communal efforts built it?

The next day-a cool, rainy bus ride to Mayapán, supposedly the only Mayan ceremonial center that remained active into European times. At Mayapán – after a long ride into uncharted areas teeming with ruined pyramids in the middle of busy villages – we encounter a super deluxe coach carrying Germans, who have spilled onto the site. They are doing yoga on the buildings, kneeling and stuffing notes into cricks in the structures, possibly thinking about human sacrifice.

They leave, almost forgetting the smallest, weakest, oldest member of their group in her wheelchair. We have Mayapán to ourselves. In the wind and low sky of grey clouds, spitting raindrops, it is intense-- intensity of travel, intensity of site, intensity of an encounter with the plain lunacy of foreigners who travel with cognitive maps so clearly clashing with the place they visit. Mayapán looks like it was buried almost to the tips of its pyramids. It reminds us that much lies beneath.

On the bus back to Mérida we are chilled, tired and overwhelmed with the site, hard to interpret. In town we try for a Spanish (not Mexican) restaurant, are chased away by cigarette smoke and steep prices. We wander the downtown streets of Mérida hungry and thirsty, a head above the crowds that pack the workaday sidewalks. 

Janet points out a parking lot raised just above street level. On the far wall of the parking lot are two baroque columns, remains of a Spanish-era chapel. Why the chapel? And why is the parking lot raised in dead-flat Mérida? Obvious. It's sitting on temple ruins.

Is this whole city sitting on ruins? Is Mayapán, ruins itself, sitting on even deeper ruins? What about Valladolid and the surrounding villages? Is there any place in the Yucatán not sitting on ruins? How did they come to be buried? Some we know were recycled—contemporary roadside walls built from the whitewashed sacbeob stones, churches constructed from the rocks of temples and pyramids.

But the puzzle I've been trying to solve since I first came to the Yucatán: stucco walls decorated playfully, skillfully, boldly, with what appear to be random stone chips.

Experiment: Ceramics Studio, Boston University. Up here on the fifth floor I've been venting my creative instincts, finding new colleagues and new ways to play with clay, struggling with a project referencing the pillars of Ake, near Mérida, where I took dozens of photographs of amazing, outsized, isolated, windswept, sculptural stone pillars.

My ceramics experiment is a mixed bag. None of my miniature pillars sing with the energy and awareness of the real thing. I decide to carve, painstakingly, chipping off pieces of my small, imitation Ake pillars, coming to grips with the shape of the rocks I'm trying to depict, building a pile of random leather-hard clay chips—chips that look exactly like the random stone chips of the stucco walls in Valladolid. I return to my Flickr site, where I've faithfully recorded every picture that's worth sharing of my time in Mexico. I stare, breathless, at a wall in Downtown, Mérida, whitewashed but grey with soot and smoke, chock full of tightly packed, random-looking stones.

But those stones weren't random. They littered the streets of Valladolid (not yet Valladolid), and they littered the streets of Mérida (not yet Mérida), when the Spanish arrived. They were the chips left by generations of stonecutters – hundreds of years' worth – who trimmed the stones that built the temples, evidence of collective human work on the landscape. Colonists incorporated the chips into their stucco, and there they sit. Puzzle solved.

The ancestors of today's Mayans built a landscape of glorious cities of worship and power. The by-product: unassuming chipped stones piled in the streets, created over ages by many hands. The collective goal of the Mayan civilization was the building and upkeep of those cities. Every hand in society supported the priests, sacrifices and physical presence of the cities of ritual that became Valladolid and Mérida. Temples and pyramids were built from stones trimmed and chipped near these sites for hundreds of years. Landscape: a collective human endeavor.

Postlude: A visit to New York City and Ground Zero. "Occupiers" are still stationed at Zuccotti Park, a few steps away. The horrible, scarred landscape, the hole, the crowds, the bronze bas-relief of heroes of the NYPD, overwhelmed by a calamity beyond their ken and beyond their means to ameliorate. Yet all around the scene of disaster, all around the milling people, all surrounding the Occupy protesters soars the landscape of Wall Street, which we as a society continue to build with all our focus. Cranes pushing skyward, the landscape of the financial apparatus is the centerpiece of our communal efforts. Whatever we save, buy, eat or “invest” contributes to those buildings, to that financial "community.” I realize with a dollop of shame that these towers are our pyramids, this landscape of greed our bequest to the future.

This appeared as an article in Arcade Magazine 31:4