There's Art Right at Your Fingertips!

Two fascinating documentaries explore the kind of creativity that sets some artists apart from others. The conceptual gifts these artists have managed to harness put them in another realm of creativity.
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Imagine three overlapping circles like the ones below:


Now, suppose we rename them.

  • Circle #1 will be labeled Art.
  • Circle #2 will be labeled Science.
  • Circle #3 will be labeled Mathematics.

What should we call the area where all three circles overlap? Some might choose the word inspiration. Others might call it genius. Whatever you choose to call it, there's little doubt that it applies to fewer individuals than the total population being considered.

  • Many artists are very good craftsmen who can learn a skill and apply it to their work. The number of people with a unique artistic vision is much smaller.
  • Many scientists are great at analysis, forensics, and processes of elimination. The ones who can conceptualize a new idea are the ones usually credited with achieving breakthroughs.
  • Many mathematicians are great at crunching numbers and examining theory. The ones who can postulate an entirely new construct or application are few and far between.

Two fascinating documentaries explore the kind of creativity that sets some artists apart from others. The conceptual gifts these artists have managed to harness put them in another realm of creativity -- the kind that sees things where no one else does, that hears things no one else can, and that very much plays by its own rules.

  • Each is a source of wonder and fascination.
  • Each shows how genius inspires people to create, and how creativity further inspires geniuses.
  • Each contains a surprisingly strong ecological message.

* * * * * * * *

Written and directed by Vanessa Gould, Between The Folds is probably the first documentary I've ever watched that I hoped would never end. When the credits started to roll, I was surprised to hear myself let out a sigh of disappointment that such a wondrous experience had come to its conclusion. In her director's statement, Gould notes that:

"At its heart, Between The Folds is a film about potential. The potential of an uncut paper square. The potential of a wild scientific idea. The potential to see things differently. For as long as I can remember, the driving impulses behind art, science, sculpture, and math have seemed deeply connected -- all ways of interpreting our experiences in a language that's universal.

When I first learned about the curious phenomenon of fine artists, scientists, and mathematicians from all over the world working in the very same medium of origami, I knew there had to be something special about it -- that in the simplicity of a square must be hiding some untold potential for creativity and new ideas. All of us involved in this project have been incredibly energized by the challenge of making a documentary film about ideas. And all along, we knew its central themes would speak to different people in different ways, as any film about ideas should. Therefore, it was of great importance that its themes be presented subtly and flexibly, so that every viewer can experience the film in ways that are both universally resonant and personally meaningful.

For me, as a filmmaker, this has also been a project about transformation -- not only of paper squares, but of people and lives. Most of those featured in the film left traditional lives to devote themselves to the thing they love most -- paperfolding: the magical process of transforming two dimensions into three dimensions. And their remarkable stories resonated so strongly with me upon abandoning my own former work, that I was determined to bring their inspiring stories to light. My devotion to this film rests in the hope that others take inspiration from these incredible stories of transformation as well."


Pangolin by Eric Joisel

Among the origami experts featured in this documentary are:

  • Dr. Erik Demaine, who won the MacArthur "Genius" Grant for his work in computational origami. He presently has artwork in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 2005, he was also named as one of Time Magazine's top scientific innovators.
  • Dr. Robert Lang, who has been featured on numerous television networks across the country and was a featured speaker at the 2008 TED conference.
  • Eric Joisel, who is an acclaimed French origami artist.
  • Vincent Floderer, another French origami artist.
  • Miri Golan, who teaches origami to students in Israel.
  • Satoshi Kamiya, who is considered by many to be an origami genius.
  • Richard L. Alexander, who is a paper maker and origami artist.
  • Akira Yoshizawa, who is considered to be the man who elevated origami from a craft to an art form.
  • Jonathan Schneider, an origami artist and mathematician at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Dr. Tom Hull, a mathematics professor at Western New England College.
  • Paul Jackson, an origami artist.
  • Michael LaFosse, an origami artist and co-founder of Origamido Studio.

Paper sculpture by Chris K. Palmer

Gould's documentary doesn't just focus on the artistic aspects of origami. It also shows how origami has been a great problem-solving tool for industry (how to pack a car's airbag into as small a space as possible) as well as medicine and genetics (understanding how protein structures fold over on themselves). The process of documenting the power of origami led to some surprising new insights for Gould as a filmmaker:

"Never did the truly democratic and versatile qualities of paper as a creative medium ever seem so clear to me as they did during the week our crew spent in Israel with Miri Golan and Paul Jackson, two of our film's primary subjects. We began at Melawe'er, an all-girls Muslim school in the Old City of Jerusalem. Later we visited Gilo, a hard-line co-ed Jewish school. The children at both schools took to the paper instantly: first as something to explore, but also as a tool to learn basic math -- part of the teaching program created by Miri Golan, and briefly presented in the film. Not long after, we visited Ein Kerem, a location where both Muslim and Jewish children met to fold paper together. The creative activity created new bonds between the children -- children who were otherwise most likely taught that they had nothing to share with each other. Here, however, the folding transcended language and religion, and they laughed and helped each other, demonstrating with their hands, smiles, and body language how to do the folds. As I watched, the power of this abundant and simple medium struck me. Paper is everywhere. And people -- regardless of age, race, religion, wealth, or skill -- can access it. Everyone can create something unique out of it -- whether an object or an experience."

A surprising element of this documentary is its haunting musical score (performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra), which initially evokes memories of Thomas Newman's Grammy award-winning score for 1999's American Beauty. As Gould explains:

"When our composer, Gil Talmi, suggested using paper in our soundtrack, I was speechless. On one level it almost seemed obvious -- we're making a film about the incredible versatility of paper and its ability to encourage and embolden creativity -- a film about paper's qualities as both a technical and totally freeing medium. But it also seemed like it would be so hard to pull off well! But so it went . . . and the next time Gil and I met we were in a custom-fashioned sound booth (courtesy of Gil), made just for making noise with paper -- paper of all textures, thicknesses, grains, and timbres. We made it up as we went along -- learning the sounds of paper by ripping, crumpling, hitting, flicking, drumming -- and, of course, folding. It's been a thrill to be able to supplement the amazing original score that Gil is writing with paper sounds. So many of the ideas about paper that the film aims to convey visually are now also being communicated through sound. It's such a fitting score for our project, bringing origami to life through music, finding inspiration in the complex and the simple, the restrained and the boundless -- like the art form itself."

Because so much of the joy created from this film comes from watching origami in action, it's often hard to describe it in words. "A taut, beautifully-crafted documentary with jaw-dropping visuals?" That might be a good place to begin. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * *
Another mind-blowing documentary focuses on inventor/musician [Gerhard] Trimpin, who uses only his last name. In Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, the audience meets a genuine eccentric who creates musical instruments and sculptures from junk he has "reclaimed" from scrap yards and waste sites.

As a child growing up near Germany's Black Forest, Trimpin found great delight in the sounds made by wind rustling through the leaves, by water running over rocks, and by the frozen ice of the Rhine as it would crack and shift under pressure. He started tinkering at a very early age and "didn't give a shit" about his teacher. His sister thinks he has a mind like Einstein or Mozart.

The main reason Trimpin moved to the United States was his astonishment at all the things Americans throw away. Inspired by America's junkyard riches, he uses all kinds of devices in his sound sculptures (ranging from duck calls, toy monkeys, and juice dispensers to turkey basters, typewriters, and wooden shoes). Some of his inventions are based on the technology used in cuckoo clocks, mechanical toys, piano rolls, and player pianos.

Whether he is fascinated by techniques of glassblowing or the use of perpetual motion, part of Trimpin's genius comes from transforming junk into giant pieces of art that can produce acoustic music. Among his more noteworthy creations are:

  • A six-story-high microtonal xylophone that can produce smaller intervals between achievable tones than are heard when playing conventional Western musical scales. This installation runs through a spiral staircase in an Amsterdam theater as computer-driven melodies ripple through the sculpture.
  • A seismophone that uses giant marimbas to convert the data from earthquakes around the world, thus demonstrating how different regions produce different harmonic patterns.
  • A water fountain in which drops of water, timed in complex rhythmic fugues, fall into glass receptacles.
  • If VI Was IX: Roots and Branches, a 60-foot tower made with 500 self-tuning, automatic used guitars (that was commissioned for Seattle's Experience Music Project Museum by Microsoft's Paul Allen).
  • A dance piece in which small bellows located in the dancers' shoes play duck calls while air blowers triggered by sacs under their armpits help to create the musical score.
  • The Klompen, a musical sculpture made with wooden shoes that contain mechanized hammers.

In his director's statement, Peter Esmonde explains that:

"More than anything else, this is a film about creativity and creative processes. We deliberately set out to document an accomplished artist working closely with a variety of media and materials; collaborating with people from many disciplines; and creating work that could not be evaluated by any single set of aesthetic criteria. Following Trimpin around for almost two years, we captured more than we'd hoped. With Trimpin, it soon became obvious that a handheld 'direct cinema' approach would serve us best -- and not only because the style emphasizes his spontaneity and energy.

Given that Trimpin is perpetually moving, it really would have been impossible to set up a tripod and expect him to stay in the frame. Trimpin was quite wary of being filmed -- mostly because his previous experiences with film crews had been awful. TV producers seemed only interested in ridiculing the 'crazy artist.' It took some time for me to gain the artist's trust, to convince him that I was truly and deeply interested in his working process. Over time, Trimpin's openness, curiosity, and sheer delight at the world around him all made the filmmaking process a joy. We sincerely hope the audience will find the joy contagious, and that you may hear the world a little bit differently after watching/listening to the film. As always, the term 'documentary' remains problematic. Suffice it to say that this nonfiction film is a constructed representation, as stringently produced as any cinema verité.

I shot the film over the course of two years. Because I don't live in Seattle, I'd fly up every four to eight weeks, walk into Trimpin's studio, and always find the artist/inventor doing something strange and astonishing. After awhile, I learned to enter the studio with the camera running. Many times in the film, the camera just follows Trimpin -- then something odd or unusual happens. He'd walk into someone's kitchen and start banging on pots and pans; he'd drop glass into a dumpster and delight in the sound it made; he'd confuse his assistants and collaborators completely. Shooting Trimpin was truly a journey of discovery; my assumptions and expectations would always be knocked sideways."

One of the most fascinating segments of Esmonde's documentary follows Trimpin's collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. As cellist Jeff Zeigler moves about in a "Life Shirt" (or with sensors attached to his body) -- or a musician uses a bow to stimulate electronic sounds, the viewer is drawn into a bizarre new style of composing based on performance. As Esmonde recalls:

"Trimpin and the Kronos Quartet's artistic director, David Harrington, had been friends for over two decades. Each clearly trusted the other implicitly. David wanted to 'turn the concert inside-out.' Trimpin was only too happy to oblige; and conflict and anxiety ensued. From the outset, Trimpin's fly-by-the-seat-of-your-conceptual-pants approach conflicted with Kronos' studied virtuosity. Trimpin encouraged perpetual brainstorming; the group needed written music. Most of the time, there was no real score for the quartet to rehearse -- only Trimpin's cryptic conceptual plans and changeable blueprints."

As an inventor, Trimpin (who also received a MacArthur Genius Grant) is fascinated with the creation of acoustic and electronic music. Notably influenced by the work of Conlon Nancarrow,
he's the kind of eccentric who likes to try devising a gimmick that can retune a piano during a performance.

Trimpin laughingly shows filmmakers his collection of rejection notes for grant proposals that have ended up in a huge file of "fuck you letters." And yet, it's hard not to be left in awe of his achievements, his insights, and his blazing creativity. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape.

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