It’s difficult for those of us who live in urban areas – 82% of us now – to get a good sense of the land on which we live. Its contours are obscured by buildings, its marshes drained, its rivers often diverted or sent underground; what we relate to on a day to day basis are its manmade features, the texture of its surface, and not the land beneath.
Travel was once a way to understand topography, but the modern road network often disengages us from it. Most of the time, all that’s visible from a motorway is fast-moving embankment or a half-mile strip of field. On the dashboard, the satnav tells us nothing about the physical characteristics of the land we travel through – only that we are on the right route.
Think about how negotiating the space of a museum compares to using a reference book. How would you begin? Do you use the index; start at the beginning; let the pages fall open? And how does that repertoire of bookish movements connect to the way we occupy our virtual habitats — spaces where distances are crossed in great leaps of electronic association, minds anticipated by invisible algorithms, thoughts extended by keyword searches that return the unlikeliest affinities?
We find ourselves these days at a strange point in the history of intellection, where the “how” of finding out often looms larger as a form of innovation than the “what.” And so it is fitting that questions of method frame these two new books, each of which begins with an essay reflecting upon the getting in and getting along in a world of information. Brad Pasanek’s Metaphors of Mind begins as a dictionary of key terms — coinage, metal, rooms, writing — in which flipping and searching is facilitated and foreseen as an activity that joins the 18th-century reader of books to the 20th-century reader of data. Sean Silver’s The Mind Is a Collection stages itself as a series of cases stocked with exhibition pieces: cases whose specificity is designed to put generalizations under pressure.
For all that it brims over with diverse, colorful creations, it's fundamentally about a lack: the absence of an artist who should exist, but was never allowed to. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye mourns all the creators who have never been permitted to thrive in Singapore. Liew's own existence seems to be evidence of a change, but only partly. The government withdrew its support from his book, but it didn't ban it outright. That's a kind of progress.
“If you ever try to do something in a science lab that’s not science, people look at you in a really funny way,” said Mr. Coelho, who initially had to schmooze the gatekeeper to the multimillion-dollar microscope, which was designed to repair microchips (the pair settled for access in the wee hours). But once the lab technician saw their surprising results, in which the microscopic contours of the grains resemble mountainous landscapes, he offered more time on the machine and his own ideas for images they could make. “You could see the excitement percolating through the system,” said Mr. Coelho, who spent four years on the “Sandcastles” series.