Many years ago, while at sea (literally though perhaps also metaphorically) as an oceanography graduate student, I had a chance to visit the hold of the ship where two portholes provided an underwater view for the scientists on the cruise measuring bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is a fascinating biological process in which a pigment, luciferin (bringer of light), interacts with an enzyme, luciferase, and oxygen to release light.
Sea creatures that emit light often do so when they’re disturbed, like when a wave breaks or a ship passes. Marine bioluminescence was an active area of research during the cold war because each side wanted to detect the other side’s submarines, and for their own to navigate undetected.
As I stood in the small room at the bow of the ship, I watched constellations stream by, pinpoints and contrails of light. It was mind-boggling.
Inside or out?
I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the work of Joana Vasconcelos in person, but the images of Trafaria Praia in the 2013 Venice Bienale swept me into an ocean that is both familiar and alien, both deeper than I can remember and more intimate than I could possibly imagine.
Combining the traditional crafts of crochet and embroidery with ultra-modern LED lights, she populated the interior of a classic ferry boat of Lisbon, a cacilheiro, with, well, the exterior: an oceanscape of sea creatures. Any concept of scale is confused as microscopic organisms expand to larger than human dimensions.
So many contrasts…
The soft woolen texture of the crocheted and sewn textiles versus the cold hard LEDs. The inside of the ship and the water surrounding it. The womb-like dark studded with light. A symphony of shades of blue. And all the while, like a heartbeat, the very ground heaves gently with the motion of the waves.
A myriad of fantastical creatures, with counterparts captive in nets and under microscopes and swimming throughout the seven seas, hang around the viewers inviting them to consider their role in the ship, in the ocean- and to question, again: inside or out?
Of time and origins
All the elements of Trafaria Praia conspire to make us see, and think. The cork lining that softens and rounds the sharp edges of a utilitarian metal structure. The use of crochet and embroidery- predominantly female endeavors, to populate a boat- historically not welcoming to women. The futuristically small LEDs. And, always, the ocean waters right outside, their sound muted, their inhabitants often invisible to the naked eye.
Jellyfish are over 90% water, but is that so different from us, apparently so much more solid, at 60%? Our very blood is salty, we come from the sea. The moon pulls the tides, and if we get very quiet, it speaks to us, too.
Trafaria Praia reminds us of our marine origins and of our kinship with saltwater and brine. It speaks to traditional roles and how we imagine ourselves, to our concepts of beauty versus utility. It suggests that not thinking about where we come from can imperil where we want to go. Most importantly, it challenges us to think.
What happens when you run into an imaginary animal, who has been used for centuries as a metaphor?
I’m fond of metaphors (isn’t everybody?) and I’m particularly fond of imaginary creatures. On a cloudy Sunday I ran into…
a black swan. This black swan. No, it isn’t Nessie! Really! If you don’t believe me look at the great video posted by Andylamen in January 2012.
Black swans have been used as a metaphor since Roman times through the present.
Because they’re very rare. To be precise, there aren’t any. In the northern hemisphere.
Since it was common knowledge that all swans are white, the Roman poet (~55-~138CE) Juvenal used the black swan as the ultimate rare bird in his Sixth Satire:
rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (6:165)
Which translates to
a rare bird in these lands, much like a black swan
For now I’ll ignore the fact that he was referring to “a perfect wife.” The Sixth Satire is a diatribe against Roman women, and more generally against marriage. It tells us quite a bit about Roman gender roles of the time. More about versions of perfect wives another day.
Juvenal coined several other expressions that are still used today, such as panem et circenses and mens sana in corpore sano.
In much of Europe, black swans were a metaphor of something that didn’t exist. You know, an imaginary creature.
Oops, black swans do exist…
In 1697 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Australia, where they are very common. There are also white swans in Australia, but they’re less common. (Interestingly, of the seven species of swans, the two species from the southern hemisphere have black plumage over all or part of their bodies.)
The assumed non-existence of black swans and their subsequent discovery made them an excellent example to think about what can be verified.
What is a scientific statement?
According to philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1944), a scientific statement is one that can be falsified. Not verified, but falsified.
Because verification and falsification are asymmetric.
“All swans are white” can be falsified, by finding a black swan.
No matter how many white swans we find, we can’t be sure we’ve seen them all. However, as soon as we find one black swan, the statement has been falsified.
Time for another metaphor: black swan events
More recently Nassim Taleb used black swans as a metaphor in his work on uncertainty (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile) .
A black swan is an event that:
is an outlier, far beyond past experience or expectations
has huge impact
is subsequently explained as predictable
Black swans can be positive (like the invention of the internet) or negative (the 9/11 attacks or the Fukushima disaster). Taleb notes that most positive black swans make themselves known gradually — especially compared to the suddenness of negative ones.
As a former earth scientist, I wonder at the relationship between black swans and extreme events, such as intense storms or prolonged drought. Extreme events are very unlikely but have huge impact.
Taleb’s whole point is that normal statistical distributions don’t apply in the realms he discusses, which are human and societal or in the interaction of natural and societal.
Height and wealth
An example he uses is the difference between the distribution of height and of wealth.
Heights follow standard distributions, which he refers to Mediocristan. A valid prediction is possible with partial information in Mediocristan.
But in Extremistan, the few very very large values overwhelm the distribution. The net worth of the very very very rich (the infamous 1% of the Occupy movement) dominate estimates of total wealth.
Our need for cause and effect narratives
I’m particularly intrigued by the post hoc claims of predictability. This goes directly to the common adage of “hindsight is 20/20 vision.” In a nutshell, after something happens, it’s easy to build a causal narrative which conveniently leaves out anything that isn’t consistent with what actually occurred.
The desire for causality is inherent to human nature. It’s why we crave fiction, be it films or novels or television. E. M. Forster’s famous definition of plot versus story alludes directly to causality and the search for meaning.
The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. Aspects of the Novel (1927)
It’s not quite the same as encountering a unicorn, but by running into a black swan, I was given an excuse to find out more about an (non) imaginary creature and why it’s become a metaphor for thinkers for over 2000 years.
Have you ever run into an imaginary creature? What happened?
To spin a tale… To weave a narrative… These common metaphors spring from the essence of language. The word text comes from texere, the Latin word for weaving. Spinning and weaving go hand in hand with metaphor and storytelling.
Spiders, who weave webs to capture their prey — much as an artist or story-teller aims to capture the attention of the viewer or reader, are the daughters of Arachne, who challenged Athena, the goddess of weaving and wisdom, to a contest of skill.
In his Metamorphosis, Ovid (43BCE-~17CE) tells us that Arachne, daughter of a humble shepherd and wool dyer, weaved so wondrously that the nymphs themselves came out to watch her work, creating tapestries that seemed alive.
At first glance, the story of Arachne is a cautionary tale of hubris: yet another mortal daring to scorn a god’s superiority and being punished for her arrogance. Even when Athena appears as an old woman to warn her, a scoffing Arachne re-issues her challenge.
And so the two weavers set to work. Athena weaves the story of her own power, how she prevailed in the naming of Athens, the twelve gods in their glory, and, in the four corners: the dire fates of humans who presumed to confront the gods.
Speaking truth to power
Arachne starts weaving Europa’s rape by Zeus in the form of a bull who carried her across the sea to Crete, a picture so vibrant you can hear the waves and feel the heat from the bull’s flank. She continues with other rapes using deception and force by Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus, and Chronos.
Athena is furious- at both Arachne’s skill and her insolence. She tears at Arachne’s tapestry and loom, raises her hand holding the shuttle, and strikes the weaver three times in the forehead.
For some reason, Arachne now backs down
Perhaps because it’s one thing to best a god and another to be at the receiving end of their wrath. Perhaps because the blows confuse her, or are somehow magical.
Perhaps because she’s proven her point.
Arachne slips a noose around her neck to hang herself.
But Athena lifts her up…
and sprinkling her with poison, curses her and her daughters to live, always hanging, always spinning.
Arachne’s arms and legs shrink. Her hair spreads to cover her body with stubble. Her thumbs stick to her sides and her fingers grow and grow and grow until she becomes a spider.
Enter the spider
Notwithstanding Ovid’s origin story, arachnids evolved at least 400 million years ago. As did Arachne, her daughters spin. They’re not the only ones. Other arthropods (the phylum that includes arachnids, insects and crustaceans) build cocoons with their silk- a poetic word for protein fibers.
But like Arachne, who is thought to have invented fishing nets and traps for hunting, spiders use their silk to protect their eggs and as draglines, and also for their webs.
Spider webs do many things
They’re used for courtship, to regulate temperature, and as defense, but mostly, they capture prey. The web has to intercept, stop, and retain the flying insects which make up the bulk of a spider’s diet.
To meet these needs, spiders produce up to seven different types of silk with diverse properties. For example, draglines and the outer portions of the web are built with silk that matches the tensile strength of steel. The silk used in the web’s center can reversibly stretch as far as rubber.
Spider silk isn’t just hard to break– requiring 7 to 10 times the strength used to fracture Kevlar- its healing and anticoagulant properties have been recognized since antiquity when it was used to bandage wounds .
The interest in medical and military applications comes as no surprise. However spiders are small and produce proportionately small amounts of silk. (Check out this video from the American Museum of Natural History about an amazing golden cloth woven from the silk of a million spiders.)
Instead of leaving their structures behind, they eat their webs to reuse the material. Attempts to “farm” spiders are challenged by their individualism and their tendency to cannibalism when there’s not enough food. Like Arachne, spiders aren’t meek and subservient.
For now, like in the past 400 million years, Arachne’s daughters sit and spin, endlessly building and re-building their webs.
So what does Arachne tell us?
Like spiders re-creating their webs each day, there’s always more to the story of Arachne. Over the years and the many re-tellings and re-visionings, Arachne’s tale has inspired discussion of arrogance versus ambition, art versus craft, myth versus reality, the teacher-student relationship, and the place of common people and of women.
In The Spinners (Las Hilanderas), one of the last paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), he takes the role of Arachne, while also using her story to examine these topics.
What is happening and who are all those people?
Good question! Interpretations abound, thanks to the many figures and objects, and the action in a split composition. Initially, the prosaic and unpretentious figures of women spinning in the shadowed foreground suggested a direct representation of the tapestry studio of Santa Isabel.
But then, what about the background? In a brightly lit alcove a few steps above the foreground, a woman presents a tapestry depicting the rape of Europa while facing an armored figure with raised arm.
In the 40s, Diego Angulo Íñiguez proposed that the painting was the story of Arachne and Athena: the two spinning in the foreground, the punishment in the background. Others have argued that Penelope is in the foreground , or that it represents the tale of Lucretia.
Within the story, more stories
In a feat of meta-fiction that would make Arachne proud, Velázquez seeds the painting with references to art from the past, from the visible whir of the spinning wheel in the foreground (a direct response to the challenge of artists to depict movement as noted by Jan Baptist Bedaux) to the reflection of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the woman holding the curtain and the spinner in the white blouse.
Arachne’s tapestry in the background is a copy of Titian’s Rape of Europa, part of the Spanish royal family’s collection at the time. Here again, Velázquez acknowledges the masters that came before by making a copy, as Rubens had done years before.
Velázquez goes one step further by placing his copy within a story about paying obeisance to teachers -or not, and about the role of art. He also obscures it with figures, but not so much we can’t recognize the tumbling headlong putti.
And in the foreground, larger than life: the everyday work of spinning women. Ortega y Gassett said of Velázquez that he managed to
convertir lo cotidiano en permanente sorpresa
That is: He turned the everyday into permanent surprise. In doing so, he showed us that surprise – and beauty and art– is also to be found in the day-to-day.
From Velázquez’s Arachne to today
Arachne will always signify the human desire to excel and the courage to speak out. She also tells us, like her daughters the spiders, of the endless everyday work of making, consuming and re-creating. Invention and re-invention.
According to Ortega, Velázquez discovered that
… la realidad se diferencia del mito en que no está nunca acabada.
Reality is distinguished from myth in that reality is never finished.