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Clifford Ross is trying to find the longitude

Clifford Ross is an artist who has found himself becoming an inventor. His talk, “Finding the Latitude – The Art of Invention, the Invention of Art”, begins with the history of the naval chronometer. Ross tells us his hero was John Harrison, who won the 20,000 pound ($20 million in current dollars) prize offered by King Charles the II in the 1714 Longitude Act. A chronometer was a critical ingredient in accurately determining longitude – if you’re in a ship and have a clock running on London time, you can check the time at high noon – the difference between the time on the clock and noon will tell you how far east or west of London you are.

Harrison was an uneducated carpenter who lived ourside of London. He built a grandfather clock entirely our of wood – for fun – in 1718, and took on the challege of the shipboard chronometer in 1730, completing his first clock – commonly called H1 – in 1735. It was an immense technical challenge – a clock that could keep time accurately on a moving ship, through extremes of temperature and humidity.

H1 was followed by three new designs – H2 took five years, and Harrison realized midway through that it wouldn’t be good enough. H3 was under development from 1740 – 1759, and made radical steps forward. But H4 was the miracle – a handheld chronometer which looks like an overgrown pocket watch. All contemporary watches follow this basic mechanical model. Ross offers that Harrison changed time and space on the planet.

Ross believes the neccesary ingredients for invention and art are:
– curiosity
– persistence
– readiness to embrace the unexpected
– collaboration

He walks us through some inventions in the history of art – the progression from stylized greek Kouros from 590BC, to lifelike sculptures in 390BC. Jan Van Eyck invented oil paint – with many collaborators – with the intent of making flesh tones more lifelike in paintings likeThe Arnolfini Wedding. He shows us Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, both working in the same year in the same style (abstract expressionism) with very different tools and results.

The quick tour through art history is a way of thinking about tools that help us make art. Ross fell in love with a mountain in Colorado and has spent much of the past decade trying to figure out how to capture it. The first attempt was a huge, high-resolution bellows camera, which shoots on 100 foot long rolls of film, making 9×18 inch negatives. He’s taken only 13 images with the camera, and the negatives took over a year to turn into prints, as no enlarger exists in the world to print 9×18 negatives.

Ross began working with Danny Hillis and the other folks associated with the Long Now Foundation. He shows us the Clock of the Long Now, quoting Stewart Brand, who termed it, “The world’s largest Fabergé egg”. Plans are underway to place a 60-foot tall version of the clock inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, and Ross wanted to photograph a panorama from the very top.

Panoramas have a long history in the art world. Eadweard Muybridge – a man so weird he changed the spelling of his name five times as he “evolved” – shot a beautiful panorama of San Francisco in 1878. Other panoramas were installed in Cycloramas, immersive theatres where viewers are encouraged to move around the image, looking at it in detail and chatting with other viewers.

Working with the Long Now folks and Danny Hillis’s Applied Minds group, Ross is trying to create new video panoramas that can be viewed in a cyclorama. In the process, he’s built – with the collaboration of a brilliant machinist – a new camera: R2. It’s got eight high resolution video camers and microphones and looks a bit like a Dalek from Dr. Who. It records at 9 gigabytes per minute, and requires 1.5 tons of gear to operate.

Logically enough, he decided to try it out in Brazil. And he thought he’d hang it from a balloon while he was at it.

The results are, in my opinion, somewhat mixed. We see a set of videos that have perspectives from multiple cameras. They look very rich and detailed, but it’s hard to tell from the back of the opera house. We see a hot air balloon floating over a green plane, and men or horseback cantering towards the camera. (This is a homage toward Muybridge’s motion capture experiments…) It looks a lot like an IMAX film – perhaps there would be a very different effect if we could see the film as presented in the round.

Ross notes that “finding the Longitude” became a catchphrase for the pursuits of fools and lunatics. Perhaps we’re meant to see his pursuits in this light.