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TED in the Field

Tom Shannon, John Hockenberry: The painter and the pendulum

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Views 435,508

TED visits Tom Shannon in his Manhattan studio for an intimate look at his science-inspired art. An eye-opening, personal conversation with John Hockenberry reveals how nature's forces -- and the onset of Parkinson's tremors -- interact in his life and craft.

- Sculptor
Tom Shannon's mixed-material sculpture seems to levitate -- often it actually does -- thanks to powerful magnets and clever arrangements of suspension wire. He designed the TED Prize trophy. Full bio

- Journalist
Journalist and commentator John Hockenberry has reported from all over the world in virtually every medium. He's the author of "Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence." Full bio

John Hockenberry: It's great to be here with you, Tom.
00:15
And I want to start with a question
00:17
that has just been consuming me
00:19
since I first became familiar with your work.
00:21
In you work there's always this kind of hybrid quality
00:24
of a natural force
00:27
in some sort of interplay with creative force.
00:30
Are they ever in equilibrium
00:33
in the way that you see your work?
00:35
Tom Shannon: Yeah, the subject matter that I'm looking for,
00:37
it's usually to solve a question.
00:40
I had the question popped into my head:
00:42
What does the cone that connects the sun and the Earth look like
00:44
if you could connect the two spheres?
00:48
And in proportion, what would the size of the sphere
00:51
and the length, and what would the taper be to the Earth?
00:54
And so I went about and made that sculpture,
00:58
turning it out of solid bronze.
01:01
And I did one that was about 35 feet long.
01:04
The sun end was about four inches in diameter,
01:07
and then it tapered over about 35 feet
01:10
to about a millimeter at the Earth end.
01:13
And so for me, it was really exciting
01:16
just to see what it looks like
01:18
if you could step outside and into a larger context,
01:21
as though you were an astronaut,
01:24
and see these two things as an object,
01:26
because they are so intimately bound,
01:29
and one is meaningless without the other.
01:32
JH: Is there a relief
01:35
in playing with these forces?
01:37
And I'm wondering how much of a sense of discovery there is
01:39
in playing with these forces.
01:42
TS: Well, like the magnetically levitated objects --
01:45
like that silver one there,
01:47
that was the result
01:49
of hundreds of experiments with magnets,
01:51
trying to find a way to make something float
01:53
with the least possible connection to the ground.
01:56
So I got it down to just one tether
01:59
to be able to support that.
02:02
JH: Now is this electromagnetic here, or are these static?
02:04
TS: Those are permanent magnets, yeah.
02:07
JH: Because if the power went out, there would just be a big noise.
02:09
TS: Yeah.
02:12
It's really unsatisfactory having plug-in art.
02:14
JH: I agree.
02:17
TS: The magnetic works
02:20
are a combination of gravity and magnetism,
02:22
so it's a kind of mixture of these ambient forces
02:25
that influence everything.
02:28
The sun has a tremendous field
02:30
that extends way beyond the planets
02:32
and the Earth's magnetic field protects us from the sun.
02:34
So there's this huge
02:37
invisible shape structures
02:39
that magnetism takes in the universe.
02:42
But with the pendulum,
02:45
it allows me to manifest
02:48
these invisible forces
02:51
that are holding the magnets up.
02:53
My sculptures
02:55
are normally very simplified.
02:57
I try to refine them down
03:00
to very simple forms.
03:02
But the paintings become very complex,
03:04
because I think the fields
03:06
that are supporting them,
03:08
they're billowing, and they're interpenetrating,
03:10
and they're interference patterns.
03:12
JH: And they're non-deterministic.
03:15
I mean, you don't know necessarily where you're headed when you begin,
03:17
even though the forces can be calculated.
03:20
So the evolution of this --
03:23
I gather this isn't your first pendulum.
03:25
TS: No. (JH: No.)
03:27
TS: The first one I did was in the late 70's,
03:29
and I just had a simple cone
03:32
with a spigot at the bottom of it.
03:34
I threw it into an orbit,
03:37
and it only had one color,
03:39
and when it got to the center, the paint kept running out,
03:41
so I had to run in there,
03:44
didn't have any control over the spigot remotely.
03:46
So that told me right away: I need a remote control device.
03:49
But then I started dreaming of having six colors.
03:52
I sort of think about it as the DNA --
03:55
these colors, the red, blue, yellow,
03:58
the primary colors and white and black.
04:00
And if you put them together in different combinations --
04:03
just like printing in a sense,
04:05
like how a magazine color is printed --
04:07
and put them under certain forces,
04:09
which is orbiting them
04:12
or passing them back and forth
04:14
or drawing with them,
04:16
these amazing things started appearing.
04:18
JH: It looks like we're loaded for bear here.
04:20
TS: Yeah, well let's put a couple of canvases.
04:23
I'll ask a couple of my sons
04:25
to set up the canvases here.
04:27
I want to just say --
04:31
so this is Jack, Nick and Louie.
04:33
JH: Thanks guys.
04:35
TS: So here are the --
04:38
JH: All right, I'll get out of the way here.
04:40
TS: I'm just going to throw this into an orbit
04:42
and see if I can paint everybody's shoes in the front.
04:45
(Laughter)
04:48
JH: Whoa. That is ...
05:01
ooh, nice.
05:06
TS: So something like this.
05:10
I'm doing this as a demo,
05:12
and it's more playful,
05:14
but inevitably,
05:17
all of this can be used.
05:19
I can redeem this painting,
05:22
just continuing on,
05:24
doing layers upon layers.
05:26
And I keep it around for a couple of weeks,
05:28
and I'm contemplating it,
05:30
and I'll do another session with it
05:32
and bring it up to another level,
05:35
where all of this
05:38
becomes the background, the depth of it.
05:40
JH: That's fantastic.
05:43
So the valves at the bottom of those tubes there
05:48
are like radio-controlled airplane valves.
05:51
TS: Yes, they're servos with cams
05:54
that pinch these rubber tubes.
05:57
And they can pinch them very tight and stop it,
05:59
or you can have them wide open.
06:01
And all of the colors
06:03
come out one central port
06:05
at the bottom.
06:07
You can always be changing colors, put aluminum paint,
06:09
or I could put anything into this.
06:12
It could be tomato sauce,
06:14
or anything could be dispensed --
06:17
sand, powders or anything like that.
06:20
JH: So many forces there.
06:23
You've got gravity, you've got the centrifugal force,
06:25
you've got the fluid dynamics.
06:27
Each of these beautiful paintings,
06:33
are they images in and of themselves,
06:36
or are they records
06:39
of a physical event
06:41
called the pendulum approaching the canvas?
06:43
TS: Well, this painting here,
06:46
I wanted to do something very simple,
06:48
a simple, iconic image
06:50
of two ripples interfering.
06:52
So the one on the right was done first,
06:55
and then the one on the left
06:57
was done over it.
06:59
And then I left gaps
07:01
so you could see the one that was done before.
07:03
And then when I did the second one,
07:05
it really disturbed the piece --
07:07
these big blue lines
07:09
crashing through the center of it --
07:11
and so it created a kind of tension and an overlap.
07:13
There are lines in front of the one on the right,
07:16
and there are lines behind the one on the left,
07:20
and so it takes it into different planes.
07:23
What it's also about,
07:27
just the little events,
07:29
the events of the interpenetration of --
07:32
JH: Two stars, or --
07:35
TS: Two things that happened --
07:37
there's an interference pattern, and then a third thing happens.
07:39
There are shapes that come about
07:42
just by the marriage
07:44
of two events that are happening,
07:46
and I'm very interested in that.
07:48
Like the occurrence of moire patterns.
07:51
Like this green one,
07:54
this is a painting I did about 10 years ago,
07:56
but it has some --
07:59
see, in the upper third --
08:01
there are these moires and interference patterns
08:03
that are radio kind of imagery.
08:06
And that's something that in painting
08:08
I've never seen done.
08:10
I've never seen a representation
08:12
of a kind of radio interference patterns,
08:14
which are so ubiquitous
08:17
and such an important part of our lives.
08:20
JH: Is that a literal part of the image,
08:23
or is my eye making that interference pattern --
08:25
is my eye completing that interference pattern?
08:28
TS: It is the paint actually,
08:30
makes it real.
08:32
It's really manifested there.
08:34
If I throw a very concentric circle,
08:36
or concentric ellipse,
08:39
it just dutifully makes
08:41
these evenly spaced lines,
08:43
which get closer and closer together,
08:45
which describes how gravity works.
08:48
There's something very appealing
08:50
about the exactitude of science
08:52
that I really enjoy.
08:54
And I love the shapes that I see
08:56
in scientific observations
08:59
and apparatus,
09:02
especially astronomical forms
09:04
and the idea of the vastness of it,
09:07
the scale,
09:09
is very interesting to me.
09:11
My focus in recent years
09:13
has kind of shifted more toward biology.
09:16
Some of these paintings, when you look at them very close,
09:19
odd things appear
09:22
that really look like horses or birds
09:24
or crocodiles, elephants.
09:27
There are lots of things that appear.
09:30
When you look into it, it's sort of like looking at cloud patterns,
09:32
but sometimes they're very modeled and highly rendered.
09:35
And then there are all these forms
09:38
that we don't know what they are,
09:40
but they're equally well-resolved
09:42
and complex.
09:44
So I think, conceivably, those could be predictive.
09:46
Because since it has the ability
09:49
to make forms
09:51
that look like forms that we're familiar with
09:53
in biology,
09:55
it's also making other forms that we're not familiar with.
09:57
And maybe it's the kind of forms
10:00
we'll discover underneath the surface of Mars,
10:02
where there are probably lakes
10:04
with fish swimming under the surface.
10:06
JH: Oh, let's hope so. Oh, my God, let's.
10:08
Oh, please, yes. Oh, I'm so there.
10:10
You know, it seems
10:13
at this stage in your life,
10:16
you also very personally
10:18
are in this state of confrontation
10:20
with a sort of dissonant --
10:23
I suppose it's an electromagnetic force
10:26
that somehow governs your Parkinson's
10:28
and this creative force
10:30
that is both the artist
10:32
who is in the here and now
10:35
and this sort of arc of your whole life.
10:37
Is that relevant to your work?
10:39
TS: As it turns out,
10:42
this device kind of comes in handy,
10:44
because I don't have to have
10:46
the fine motor skills to do,
10:48
that I can operate slides,
10:50
which is more of a mental process.
10:52
I'm looking at it and making decisions:
10:54
It needs more red, it needs more blue,
10:57
it needs a different shape.
10:59
And so I make these creative decisions
11:01
and can execute them
11:04
in a much, much simpler way.
11:07
I mean, I've got the symptoms.
11:09
I guess Parkinson's kind of creeps up over the years,
11:12
but at a certain point you start seeing the symptoms.
11:15
In my case,
11:18
my left hand has a significant tremor
11:20
and my left leg also.
11:23
I'm left-handed, and so I draw.
11:26
All my creations
11:29
really start on small drawings,
11:31
which I have thousands of,
11:34
and it's my way of just thinking.
11:36
I draw with a simple pencil,
11:38
and at first, the Parkinson's
11:41
was really upsetting,
11:43
because I couldn't get the pencil to stand still.
11:45
JH: So you're not a gatekeeper for these forces.
11:49
You don't think of yourself as the master of these forces.
11:52
You think of yourself as the servant.
11:55
TS: Nature is -- well, it's a godsend.
11:58
It just has so much in it.
12:01
And I think nature
12:04
wants to express itself
12:06
in the sense that we are nature,
12:08
humans are of the universe.
12:10
The universe is in our mind,
12:13
and our minds are in the universe.
12:15
And we are expressions
12:17
of the universe, basically.
12:19
As humans,
12:21
ultimately being part of the universe,
12:23
we're kind of the spokespeople
12:26
or the observer part
12:28
of the constituency
12:30
of the universe.
12:33
And to interface with it,
12:35
with a device that lets these forces
12:37
that are everywhere
12:40
act and show what they can do,
12:42
giving them pigment and paint just like an artist,
12:44
it's a good ally.
12:47
It's a terrific studio assistant.
12:50
JH: Well, I love the idea
12:52
that somewhere within this idea
12:54
of fine motion and control
12:56
with the traditional skills
12:59
that you have with your hand,
13:01
some sort of more elemental force gets revealed,
13:03
and that's the beauty here.
13:05
Tom, thank you so much. It's been really, really great.
13:07
TS: Thank you, John.
13:10
(Applause)
13:12

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About the speakers:

Tom Shannon - Sculptor
Tom Shannon's mixed-material sculpture seems to levitate -- often it actually does -- thanks to powerful magnets and clever arrangements of suspension wire. He designed the TED Prize trophy.

Why you should listen

Artist and inventor Tom Shannon's sculpture has been exhibited in galleries and institutions all around the world, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His clever orchestrations of hidden magnets and tiny suspension cables make otherwise inert materials such as steel and wood take on a truly otherworldly quality -- bringing objects like planets, stars and atoms to a scale you can understand (and touch).

Shannon also holds the patents for the first tactile telephone, a color television projector and a synchronous world clock that is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. He is developing a spherical helium airship whose entire surface is an LED video screen.

More profile about the speaker
Tom Shannon | Speaker | TED.com
John Hockenberry - Journalist
Journalist and commentator John Hockenberry has reported from all over the world in virtually every medium. He's the author of "Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence."

Why you should listen

Three-time Peabody Award winner, four-time Emmy award winner and Dateline NBC correspondent, John Hockenberry has broad experience as a journalist and commentator for more than two decades. He is the co-anchor of the public radio morning show “The Takeaway” on WNYC and PRI. He has reported from all over the world, in virtually every medium, having anchored programs for network, cable and radio. Hockenberry joined NBC as a correspondent for Dateline NBC in January 1996 after a fifteen-year career in broadcast news at both National Public Radio and ABC News. Hockenberry's reporting for Dateline NBC earned him three Emmys, an Edward R Murrow award and a Casey Medal.

His most prominent Dateline NBC reports include an hour-long documentary on the often-fatal tragedy of the medically uninsured, an emotionally gripping portrait of a young schizophrenic trying to live on his own, and extensive reporting in the aftermath of September 11th. In 2009 Hockenberry was appointed to the White House Fellows Commission by President Barack Obama where he participates in the selection of the annual Fellows for this most prestigious of Federal programs. Hockenberry is also the author of A River out of Eden, a novel based in the Pacific Northwest, and Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence, a memoir of life as a foreign correspondent, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996. He has also written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, I.D., Wired, The Columbia Journalism Review, Details, and The Washington Post.

Hockenberry spent more than a decade with NPR as a general assignment reporter, Middle East correspondent and host of several programs. During the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), Hockenberry was assigned to the Middle East, where he filed reports from Israel, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. He was one of the first Western broadcast journalists to report from Kurdish refugee camps in Northern Iraq and Southern Turkey. Hockenberry also spent two years (1988-90) as a correspondent based in Jerusalem during the most intensive conflict of the Palestinian uprising. Hockenberry received the Columbia Dupont Award for Foreign News Coverage for reporting on the Gulf War.

 

More profile about the speaker
John Hockenberry | Speaker | TED.com