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Brainiac

The ghost of art

A few weeks ago, Brainiac highlighted a sculpture called “Point Cloud”—a sinuous lattice of wire and tiny motors whose slow movements reflected weather data in a very abstract way. Not long after the item ran, we got a surprising e-mail from sometime Ideas contributor Matthew Battles, now at the Harvard digital think tank metaLAB, who informed us that by the time we wrote about it, something terrible had already happened to “Point Cloud”: After an exhibit, he had found the sculpture badly damaged in a dumpster, “where it had been deposited by clueless contractors.”

In highlighting this sculpture, had we accidentally written about a ghost? As it turns out, yes. Reached by e-mail, the artist, James Leng, wrote: “I now have the remnants of it in my possession, the inner structure is largely intact, but to be honest it is pretty much beyond repair (I would be better off constructing a completely new version of it).” “Point Cloud” was Leng’s first foray into sculpture, and he estimates he sank about 800 hours into the piece, which existed for only two months. Now the sculpture survives as a pile in his workspace, and a lovely video on Vimeo.

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In the art world, there’s a charming and mysterious phenomenon where certain old artworks live on only through their appearances in other art—the original is lost to history, but someone else happened to include it in a painting. But this seemed sadder, like a movie star whose image dances across the screen while the real person lies crippled in bed. Leng himself, busy finishing his architecture thesis, didn’t seem too morose. He did take one lesson from the experience: “Basically, don’t leave your valuables where you’re not.”

Ask a prisoner

If you don’t know anyone who is incarcerated, there’s almost nothing more difficult to imagine than what it’s like to be a convict. You know about the irritants—constant surveillance, one-piece uniforms, inedible food—but there are some details that are harder to envision.

Like how it feels to murder someone and live with the crime. This subject was raised last week in a thread on Quora, the message board-style website where anyone can post a question, and anyone else can answer it. The thread prompted a response from one Tommy Winfrey, an inmate at California’s San Quentin State Prison, who offered a thorough, six-paragraph self-analysis.

“When I took another man’s life I was just nineteen years old. Looking back now, I can honestly say I felt immense peer pressure to go through with the murder,” Winfrey confessed. “I felt like I would be seen as a weak punk if I let another man get over on me. I was a drug dealer, and I felt I had a reputation to uphold.”

He went on: “I am ashamed to admit it, but at the time I felt a great weight was lifted off my shoulders when I pulled the trigger. I felt like I had finally stood up for myself. I was completely irrational.”

Winfrey is a participant in a The Last Mile, a new program run out of San Quentin that allows prisoners supervised access to social media. As described in an item at the Atlantic, the inmates blog, tweet, and field queries about their experience from the outside.

The questions that have appeared on Quora have often been more surprising than the answers, less inclined to get at sensationalist details than to learn about the structural realities of an unfree life. “There is a perception in society that inmates spend all day doing nothing,” wrote James JC Cavitt in response to a question about schedules, before walking through an agenda that includes working as a metal fabricator for 32 cents an hour and writing plays.

In the questions, you can see the desire to feel radical empathy for people who have done unthinkable things and lead unthinkable lives colliding with a less noble, perhaps even morbid, sort of curiosity. As an exercise in connecting people who would otherwise never cross paths, The Last Mile experiment promises to expand horizons on both sides, even as it demonstrates just how thin the line is between moral imagination and voyeurism.

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