Tag Archives: Arts and Culture

1.21 Gigawatts: Artist Spotlight – John Conway, Bringing Dinosaurs Back


-Sarah Keartes

London-based artist John Conway spends his time in many walks of life—prehistoric life, that is.

Conway focuses on two genres of art: “paleontological reconstruction and, well, everything else,” a combination which allows for breathtaking imaginative overlap.

“John’s art melds illustrative skill and a variety of approaches with scientific detail and imagination,” science writer Brian Switek, who specializes in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, told Flux in an interview.

The path to creating accurate representations of prehistoric flora and fauna is riddled with challenges—the biggest perhaps being the initial research.

“Things are particularly difficult for artists here, even the most scientifically minded of us,” Conway said. “Scientific literature simply isn’t written with the problems of artists in mind; the crucial information on the appearance of fossil animals and environments can be spread across hundreds of papers, and even then there are huge gaps.”

Reconstructing plant life is particularly difficult as a decent-sized painting might have dozens of species, and gathering information on each is a daunting task.

“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into this over the last couple of years, and I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be,” he said.

Conway’s fascination with paleontology began during childhood. Sparked by Bob Baker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies, his love for dinosaurs quickly intertwined with his passion for art.

“Certainly by the time I was fifteen, I was very into painting—especially nineteenth century landscape painters, and some modernists, as well as the paleontological artists,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Conway to dive into his own paleo-art career. At seventeen, he went to work for a museum in his hometown of Canberra, Australia, where he painted life-sized murals behind the dinosaur skeletons. Six years later, it was time for bigger and better.

“I grew up in a very dull city,” he said. “I left [Canberra] at age 23, while halfway through a philosophy/biology degree, to take up a very glamorous job working in Hall Train Studios making pterosaurs and dinosaurs.”

Hall Train, located in Ontario, Canada, is one of the leaders in the design and creation of exhibit paleo-environments, which are featured in natural history museums, science centers, and theme parks around the world, as well as one of the world’s foremost suppliers of dinosaur animation for television.

Credit: John Conway
“A year later, I moved to London and have been freelancing successfully (and mostly unsuccessfully) ever since…the money is terrible” Conway said.

On occasion Conway is challenged with completely reconstructing animals from the fossils, up. To do this, he must first draw all of the individual bones and assemble the skeleton, then comes the challenge of reconstructing muscles and other soft tissue using relatives through phylogenetic bracketing.

Greg Paul and, more recently, Scott Hartman have done an amazing job recreating dinosaur skeletons—I use those where available,” he said.

Conway’s non-paleo-art spans a vast variety of subjects, from alien life forms, to abstract representations of lyrics and mythologies, to beautifully obscure portraits of musical instruments.

“I’m very jealous of music and its apparently privileged connection to emotion in our brains. I have the rhythm of a drunken caffeinated turkey,” he said jokingly. “It has recently dawned on me that I will not live long enough to become a composer, an architect, a city planner, a singer-songwriter, an academic philosopher, a filmmaker, a paleontologist, a novelist, an engineer, a rock-star programmer, a shipbuilder, and a Lego-set designer.”

Though there is a distinct separation between Conway’s paleontological art and the rest, all of his work shares a similar aesthetic. He has an incredible ability to create life and motion is his computer-native art, much of which is still life recreation.

“He does far more than try to get the dinosaurs right: he gives them a kind of vitality that is sometimes lost in attempts where technical details trump the goal of trying to restore the animals as they once lived,” science writer Switek said. “People want to know what these animals looked like, and so it warms the cockles of my petrified heart to see John and other artists really do their homework while pushing the boundaries of what we can imagine about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals… Their work helps bring new science out to the public, and I am very thankful for that.”

Conway’s art has been featured worldwide, in countless blogs, publications, and in documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, and the Discovery Channel. Most exciting was the internet response to his book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals.

“In 2012 I decided to pursue a direct-to-people strategy of selling my work… All Yesterdays seemed like the most complete, and best suited of our various projects,” Conway said.

The beautifully illustrated book, which was co-written by C.M. Kosemen and Darren Nash, helped define a new paleo-art movement and is recognized as a celebration of Mesozoic life.

“It’s been amazingly well received critically and got heaps of coverage,” Conway said. “Though we are far from the only artists to produce the kinds of reconstructions you see in the book, I think it has come at just the right time, giving articulation and focus to what many of us have been feeling about paleontological reconstruction latterly.”

For Conway, paleontological art is about more than simply science communication.

“Honestly, such a goal would bore me. I think it should also have another goal, which has to do with enriching our lives through aesthetic experiences—shifting our feelings of the world,” he said

Want to know more about John Conway and his art? Visit his website or contact him on Twitter.

Follow Sarah on Twitter!

Ke$ha In The Rye: Notes Toward A Theory

From Redding News Review

– Jacob O’Gara

I begin this post with only the most tenuous grasp on what about its subject I’m going to write. As suggested in the title, the purpose of this entry is to provide notes toward a theory on Ke$ha, one of the more bawdy pop acts in the post-Gaga musical age.

She lacks the faux innocence and self-destructive tragedy of Britney Spears or the post-modernism and wit of Lady Gaga, yet Ke$ha somehow managed to force herself, in all her lipstick-smeared and torn-leggings glory, onto the culture.

As one Facebook page asserts, Ke$ha seems to be like Taylor Swift—the current pop princess of wholesome, all-American innocence—if Swift started using crack cocaine. She’s the dark, demented flipside to the blonde, beauty pageant-ready look. Whereas a Taylor Swift uses makeup to enhance her beauty, a Ke$ha uses makeup to distort it.

When her breakout single, “Tik Tok,” was released, critics immediately compared Ke$ha to Lady Gaga, since they have both sung about clubbing and other nightlife activities. Such comparisons are cheap and demonstrate incredibly shallow thinking. Lady Gaga is more European and introspective in her sensibilities; Ke$ha’s all about, as she says, “boys, boots, beer, [and] boobs.”

However, the two singers do have a commonality: both have a surprisingly rigorous intellectual background. Gaga was admitted into the Tisch School of Arts at NYU at the age of seventeen, and her former gender studies teacher has said her essays regarding politics, gender, and race were brilliantly written and argued.

In high school, Ke$ha had “near-perfect” SAT scores, was involved in the international baccalaureate program, and would drive to the nearby university to listen in on lectures about Cold War history. A strange start for someone who would later sing about using whiskey as part of her dental hygiene plan.

What does this all mean though?

Does her intellectual curiosity during her high school days cast a shadow of a doubt over the authenticity of her “boys, boots, beer” manifesto? Perhaps after going west in search of fame and fortune, she fried her brain on Jack Daniel’s and crack cocaine, and now she’s this glitter-covered party ogre with sun-bleached hair.

Maybe, though, the true message of Ke$ha is that you can be both of these things. You can score well on the SAT and look like a “pimp in [your] gold Trans Am.”

You can know the intricacies of America’s relationship with the former Soviet Union and feel like P. Diddy when you rise from bed in the morning. There’s a little bit of Ke$ha in all of us, mainly because there’s a little bit of all of us in Ke$ha.

I’m going to let you finish, Taylor Swift, but Ke$ha is the best representation of today’s American society of all time. Of all time.

Facebook Official

– Jacob O’Gara

Most generations throughout history have authenticated themselves (usually this is a self-authenticating, since the generation previous will always have something to complain about the next) through combat and calamity. The Baby Boomers proved themselves with Vietnam, the tumult of the 1960s, and the malaise of the 1970s; the generation that spawned the Boomers got the stamp of authenticity through the bloodshed of World War Two and the terrible conditions delivered by the Great Depression.

The generation before that one was forged in the fires of the First World War. And so on, and so on.

This generation has no great war or other strife (though the current Great Recession might count) to assuage its anxiety of validity. 9/11 and the subsequent war against clerical barbarism came too early for most of us, and we were born and raised in the economic bubble of the 1990s, a decade in which the biggest issue was whether or not the President of the United States had sexual relations with that woman. Our greatest problem is with prosperity, and the utter lack of resources it gives us to feel authentic, to feel like a part of the flow of history, to feel real.

Enter Facebook.

Specifically, enter Facebook and the “like” feature. Of course, there were social networking sites that came before Facebook, but none of them possessed that single, remarkable attribute: the ability to pass judgment, to provide a fast ticket to validation and approval.

It’s one thing to go up to your friend after reading a particularly witty status update and saying, “That was funny, bro.” It’s another thing entirely to “like” that status, perhaps joined with an affirming “lol” comment. A single click of a button makes up for missing years of devastating warfare and other crises.

The other strand of this whole “Facebook-as-generation-authenticator” thing is the phrase, one that has snuck into our parlance so easily, “Facebook official.” Entire relationships have been obliterated because one person doesn’t “get the point” of changing his or her relationship status.

Events aren’t really going on unless an event page is set up on Facebook and people are invited. You can tell me in person that I’m invited to your themed shindig this weekend, but where the hell is the Facebook invitation?

But don’t let this mean I’ve come to bury Facebook. Nothing can be farther from the truth; I adore Facebook, even “like” it.

Would I rather gain generational validation by declaring my approval of a bunch of status updates than suffer the slings and arrows of crisis? Absolutely.

But try as hard as we might, I don’t think we can “like” our way into the history books.

The Tears Of A Clown: Gucci Mane’s Pleas For Love

– Jacob O’Gara

A rapper’s swagger is as important to him as his microphone and gold chain. However, if you scratch beneath that layer, inevitably you’ll find squirming insecurity and self-consciousness.

In the case of Li’l Wayne, who has transplanted the slithering rock-star formula to hip-hop, you’d have to scratch for a while. Jay-Z’s swagger comes from surviving and rising from his hustler days; Kanye West tells us he’s “Amazing” as a way to convince himself, and his Good Music protégé Kid Cudi wears vulnerability on his sleeve, which is a kind of swagger in itself.

Gucci Mane is different.

He’s got the swagger of a playground bully, a bully who picks on the other kids because he got picked on, and because negative attention is better than no attention at all. But don’t let that make you think Gucci Mane, born Radric Davis, is some kind of weakling; in 2005, he was charged with murder (he was acquitted), something he references again and again in his lyrics.

But underneath his battle-hardened grizzly exterior is a teddy bear. In the song “My Chain,” Gucci asks, “Don’t you like my chain?”

Of course, Gucci Mane is following a long line of rappers who have bragged about and extolled the value of their chains, but he is the first (to my knowledge) to express a concern for validity from the listener. He is pretty sure his chain is above all others, but do you like it?

Gucci may be a blinged-out alleged murderer, but he has feelings too.

“Freaky Gurl,” perhaps Gucci’s most famous track (coming from the Hard to Kill mixtape along with “My Chain”), contains a similar plea for praise and validity. In the first verse, he inquires the listener/unseen female companion, “Don’t you think I’m handsome?”

In the hip-hop world, that question is never asked; a Li’l Wayne knows for damn sure he’s handsome, even a more introspective Kanye West does. Maybe that’s part of their swagger, that they just know they’re handsome.

Maybe they’re afraid that if they asked, the answer would be “No.” Either way, Gucci Mane is the only rapper out there with the balls (or self-consciousness) to ask such questions.

Hip-hop is a genre that, by its very nature, rejects introspection, even though it is populated by head cases fraught with anxiety masquerading as strutting peacocks. And of all the peacocks, Gucci Mane is the goofiest one.

He looks goofy and sounds goofy when he raps goofy verses. He is hip-hop’s court jester, a pompous, vainglorious, perhaps murderous clown juggling with tears in his eyes.

Far from causing you to shrink away in terror, Gucci’s mush-mouthed pleas make you just want to give the guy a hug.

Is Tyra Banks Insane?

– Jacob O’Gara

Make no mistake, America’s Next Top Model is all about Tyra Banks and the goofy-ass bit of theater she’s been pulling with her co-hosts/conspirators for the last five cycles or so; the contestants and their trials and tribulations are just background noise.

The show, which purports to shoot ordinary girls with a dream into the stratosphere of the modeling world, shifted focus from those “in the running to be America’s Next Top Model” to the skits Tyra & Company do to fill the time between photo shoots, judging, and house drama at around cycle eight or nine. It was then that the participants became less like aspiring models and more like fans of the show and members of the Cult of Tyra who wanted their 15 minutes of fame.

Accordingly, the producers became determined not to let the real stars of the show–Tyra, Ms. Jay, Nigel, the other Jay, and whichever washed-up ex-supermodel they happened to lure onto the judging panel for that cycle–get upstaged by the houseful of fame whores.

The result is a gifted bit of lunacy, manic street theater in the low-culture realm of reality television. The last several cycles have given us Super Smize, a superhero character played by Tyra who teaches the contestants how to “smile with your eyes”; ambiguous words of wisdom such as “look like a cheetah with a secret”; and photo shoot director Jay Manuel dressed like a vampire.

All of this begs the question: Has Tyra Banks lost her mind?

Or is she a genius, streets ahead of everyone else in the business?  Since I am a fan of her work (her turn in Halloween: Resurrection was sublime), I tend to think the latter.

She’s part of the new school of pop persona, along with Lady Gaga, characterized by outlandish behavior tempered with a sense of self-awareness. Both Gaga and Tyra know that their acts are ludicrous, like the backstories and drama that “enrich” the world of WWE wrestling, known as kayfabe.

The kayfabe of the WWE, along with its equivalents in music and reality TV (Gaga’s act and Tyra’s  ANTM), is modern Greek theater. All three present a heightened, pop-saturated version of reality, and wrap us up in the trashy grandeur of it all.

One admirer of kayfabe was Andy Kaufman, one of the original post-modern  celebrities, who called himself a “song-and-dance  man.” When Tyra Banks dons her Super Smize get-up, she’s dancing to his tune.