Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cassiopeia Does the Twist


Drawing has been fetishized in the modern period. Drawing--the act of marking a surface, not the imitation of an appearance--is an extraordinarily ancient activity, as old as tracing a path through the dirt with a stick, or even the early human equivalent of "drawing" pass routes on the palm of one's hand while in the huddle of a pickup football game:

"You streak left, you run a five step out, you run a buttonhook--like this --curl to the inside and look for the ball."

The idea of a drawing that serves as a work of art is a new and somewhat peculiar thing.

That is, drawing is first and foremost a tool to facilitate the acquisition, consolidation and communication of knowledge, typically in the service of an anticipated action.

Case in point: The star drawing at the top of this post grew out of my own lack of knowledge. While in Utah I spent parts of an evening out on the patio. It was apparent to me that the stars were moving, and of course the most basic understanding of the solar system and Earth's operations in it anticipate the rotation of Earth. The stars rise and fall. But on the night in question my intermittent viewing created a little confusion about just how much they had moved, and where.

So I resolved to gather a data set the next night. I drew in the murk in color-coded colored pencil, and added the paint later to make it clearer for the viewer.

All day on August 10th I was excited, anticipating my observations. Ultimately, the data I gathered was minimal, just enough to establish basic patterns. I was surprised to discover that the effect of polar rotation was so pronounced at Moab's latitude, a little above the 38th parallel, and south of Washington DC. I thought about the ancient astronomers from "primitive" cultures who tracked the heavens, and about their hunter-gathering friends. They would have been so alert to their environments, so knowledgeable about plants, animals, rocks, stars. Fascinating, in certain ways, how much we know today--the rate of knowledge acquisition since 1700, 1800 and 1900 has been much commented upon--but we know very little in other respects. We observe little and poorly. Mostly we look at screens, at representations of things, not things-in-and-of-themselves, or things truly in situ.

Something about tracking these positions brought me joy, and repositioned me in the physical world as well as in the history of human culture. I could have Googled it, and in fact I did, just long enough to identify the constellations. The "chaise lounge" shape is Cassiopeia, and the house-shaped one is Cepheus. The Big Dipper (a chunk of Ursa Major) starts off left and slowly works its way into the visual field [at least I did not have to look that up]. With that modest amount of knowledge I was in a position to group some stars and answer my basic question: what is the patter of movement looking north from my patio?

The product of this activity might be called an "infographic." But the reason it exists has to do with my need for information, not the viewer's. The same is true for Leonardo's water drawings. Knowledge acquisition is often at the root of drawing. The formatting of that data into something a viewer can understand is often a second step. But you can't present something you don't actually know.

2 comments:

Dan Z. said...

I really love this image! I want to see (and hold) how bursting at the seams your sketchbook must be.

DB Dowd said...

Dan: Thanks for the note! Guess we'll have to have a beer sometime soon, eh?