4. a single person for all

Isaac Newton’s apple tree, in the back garden of the Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge

The model where an individual begins to produce artifacts (conceptual rather than physical) to satisfy the needs and desires of the whole world has an excellent reference in the book by Gustave Flaubert, “Bouvard and Pecuchet“. The idea underpinning the two Flaubertian characters is the one of the world potentially dominated by the individual (well, in this case, two individuals). A specific person who, from time to time, applies his intelligence to an incredible and diverse range of disciplines. Here the purpose is to find definitive solutions to be used by humanity as a whole.

Apart from our passion for the nineteenth-century French novels, it is clear that this class is devoted to the typical Western artist as well as his cathartic inventor counterpart.

Richard Buckinster Fuller with one of his geodesic domes

Whether it is Thomas Alva Edison or Guglielmo Marconi (rather than Erno Rubik or Richard Buckminster Fuller), the dream is always the same: a single person being able to reach a solution improving the lives of humanity as a whole. Or if you prefer, to invent a new problem that nobody had thought of it before. Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Zeno of Elea are the ancestors of a famous breed of people arriving to our days.

For the purposes of our classification, is not so relevant the specific area of action, but rather to focus on the relationship between the ‘I’ and the world.

Erno Rubik’s cube (1974, in production since 1980)

Gutenberg and Newton are important not only because they invented the mobile print rather than a significant portion of the physical theories upon which we run our today life. They are foremost important as vectors of imagination. Taking a shower in the morning we dream about Newton under the apple tree and we imagine what kind of incommensurable theories and/or discoveries we might find later on during our day. Are we going to be dwarfs on the shoulders of giants? If Isaac Newton is a dwarf, let’s be dwarfs and might fame be with us. Our ego wants to be satisfied, we want to get the spotlight. We want the UN Secretary General shaking hands with us, thanking us on behalf of humanity for our great invention or discovery (finally, this is what our ego wants and demands).

The original Korean Chikchi mobile typeface (invented some 100 years before Gutemberg ones)

Worth to be mentioned is this fact that this kind of attitude (being the single person able to meet the needs and desires of “all”) is generally bound toward endless personal and existential disasters. Still, given the extraordinary importance of this kind of figure in the collective mind, this is a phenomenon that cannot be underestimated.

Present times we have a lot of examples to nourish our dreams and our imagination. Jack Dorsey and the controversial invention of Twitter. Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (who use their spare time at PayPal company to invent YouTube). Steve 1 and Steve 2 (Jobs and Wozniak) who (in most obvious Californian garage) build up the first prototype of the Apple I. The examples are endless and each of us can fall asleep dreaming about his favorite example.

Twitter webpage (2006)

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The only caveat (not to be forgotten): remember that for every Alexander Graham Bell, there are thousands and thousands Antonio Meucci (who ended up in ruin or – when lucky – in a very dignified oblivion). The books by Henry Petroski (between severals you could start from: “The Evolution of Useful things: How everyday artifacts – from forks and pins to paper clips and sippers – came to be as they are“) explain us the evolution of every day things. Petrosky underlines how history generally remembers just a happy single inventor, squeezing into the blurry category of “precursors” people who did most of the work before the final hero. Think for instance to the case of Apple iPod. Here we are in front of a case where we understand advantageous is to let others invent a category of products (mp3 player, the portable computer, the interface in windows) and to arrive later in the market in order to colonize and dominate with objects mature and perfect.

Alexander Graham Bell speaking into prototype model of the telephone (ca. 1875)

Before proceeding on to next class, few paragraphs on two other areas rich of examples related to this case where the individual invents a “thing” able to change the course of human history.

The most obvious example is art (in all its forms and declination), so obvious we shouldn’t say much about it. In this short essay, we might find some interesting elements in that chapter of contemporary art called: “Land Art“.

James Turrell in front of his vulcano in Painted Desert, Arizona

Land Art is an art movement of the postwar period of the last century where the artists use the territory as a medium, moving from traditional brushes and chisels to less common tools such as bulldozers (take Michael Heizer for instance) rather than craters of extinct volcanoes (typical medium of someone like James Turrell). The gap in terms of common perception and understanding is quite wide and rather significative. The names of the most celebrated popular icons of this special branch of contemporary art have become famous and known even by the broad public: say Christo, everyone understands and recalls his wrapped things all over the world.

Michael Heizer, “Rift”, 1968

Being the chapter devoted to the “single for all”, we should have a special mention for Robert Smithson and his “Spiral Jetty” (built in 1970 on the north-east of the Great Salt Lake in Utah). A huge effort in an almost solo condition, to build a spiral of rocks, five hundred meters long, three meters wide. One of the most remarkable icons of the XXth century art in the shape of a roll of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks and earth (peeping out when the lake falls below a certain level).

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty”, 1970

We could go on with countless examples, but is perhaps more interesting to talk about some less-known references.

Take the Russian physicist Leon Theremin.

In 1919, he completes the first electronic musical instrument in history, called (without much fantasy) “Theremin“.

The Theremin works by the interference between a human body and electromagnetic waves. The thereminist plays the instrument with one hand controlling the frequency of the sound and the other controlling the volume: an experienced musician is able to extract from the instrument a great deal of vibrations and sound.

Leon Theremin and his instrument (circa 1920)

The theremin is completely analog, and gives the operator very few visual cues and no tactile feedback at all: the instrument is played by moving your hands in the air. It is very particular, perhaps because of its limited range and timbre as well as for his remarkable difficulties in “how you play it”. Yet it is the first electronic instrument. The theremin is perhaps a perfect example of “bad luck of the pioneer”, which we mentioned earlier. The pioneer is rarely successful: All those who come after the pioneer they are the one exploiting his discoveries and reaching broad success. Synthesizers will be the first real electronic instrument. In this extent it is not a coincidence that the first synthesizer to have a substantial commercial success is developed by Robert Moog (who was a passionate producer of Theremin).

Before moving on to the next class we should mention the special relationship between the individual and the mass found in the world of organized religions. A universe that can start from Buddha and Jesus all the way to Ron Hubbard and Dianetics. Religions, sects, niche esoteric cults, gurus and all the rest.

If you think to the final chance of success, if you have an innate attitude for the “individual vs. the masses” dynamic, you are more likely to succeed trying to be the Mormon prophet Brigham Young rather than Albert Einstein inventing the theory of relativity. Whether you are working in theoretical physics rather than mass religion, your chances of success are incredibly low. However, setting up a religion (or becoming a holy prophet) seems to be much more fun than making a career within the Zurich Polytechnic. Another possibility is to try to overlap the artistic layer with the religious one, trying to become the Bob Dylan of the third millennium (but even this hypothesis may be too ambitious, especially in a moment when the record industry is shattered).

Holy Sepulcre, Jerusalem

Finally.

In 1967 when the Beatles revolutionized music with the rich psychedelia of “Sgt Pepper”, Richard Long revolutionized the art world because of a simple walk in the high grass of the English countryside ( “A line made by walking “). A picture of such a promenade and contemporary art was no longer the same.

In 2010, there is still a chance to work this way? How?

Richard Long, “A line made by walking”, 1967

PS.

As an appendix to this class, to the students interested in exploring the history of those “things” belonging to the subgroup generally called “art” we would recommend to start from Arnold Hauser, “The Social History of Art“, Cambridge University Press, 1971. Followed by: Ernst H. Gombrich, “The story of Art” Phaidon, 2009.

Name and things useful and important to be remembered:

Johannes Gutenberg

Theremin

Richard Buckminster Fuller

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