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Frog's Lost/Last Notebook


Frog's Lost Notebook is a series of seemingly disparate postings that connect perfectly within the logic of Electrical Forest: Made in Troy. Various personages have been invited to contribute from their respective fields such as Troy historian, collector, geologist, and artist Bill Skerrit, guest curator at the Art Center, Lauren Wolk, and filmmaker Ed Kimball. Artist Noah Fischer also records the process of planning and constructing the installation. Readers are invited to comment, and by doing so-join in on the conversation and help to connect the circuits or scatter Autumn leaves as they see fit.

The Life of Hollow Trees

For more than an hour I lay motionless, every possible fraction of my body stretched in the full sunlight, my mind a blank except for the occasional mental nod of agreement with all tropical humanity for choosing to dwell where it does and more especially for refusing to do any but the bare minimum of work. When one's whole soul is approaching an earthly nirvana, one's senses must be considerably deadened, and for this reason it only slowly penetrated my brain that there was a peculiar muffled noise apparently distributed more or less evenly through the heavy atmosphere. Every time I raised my head it ceased; in fact it was the absence more that its presence that betrayed its very existence.
I was most mystified by its quality, once I had definately made up my mind that it was a noise at all. Lazily I turned the puzzle over in my mind, attempting to fit first this and then that cause to the general effect. Nothing that I struck upon seemed in the least plausible in a tropical jungle. Now it faintly resembled distant drumming, but its very irregularity precluded this, then it fell to a mere grumbling as if a giant political meeting were taking place deep down in the ground.
Ah! That was it, underground. I pressed my ear to the soft earth; the noise seemed somewhat more muffled. I became intensely eager to discover the true nature of this phenomenon. Cupping my hands behind my ears, I revolved this way and that like a sound detector. There was no amplification, and yet the disturbance seemed to come from all directions. I even got up and prowled around, all to no avail.
Can you picture to yourself the irritable dismay that this caused me? There were so many strange sounds in the jungle, but one can alway assign to them some cause- doubtless wrong in most cases, but nevertheless sufficient for the day. This was insistent, faint, irregular, and apparently impossible of location. Exasperated, I flopped back down onto the ground sheet to continue my ultra-violet-ray treatment and composed myself with my head pillowed on a large flat root that bulged out of the soil.
Instantly the sounds swelled up into a volume of great diversity. Instead of a gentle murmuring I discerned scratchings, rustlings, very, very small cracklings, and an unaccountable sound like that of soot falling in a chimney. It was all so very unexpected and irregular that I sat bolt upright as if I had been severly bitten. Had anybody been watching me during the following few minutes, I am quite sure that, convinced I was in a really dangerous condition, he would have run for the nearest doctor, despite the fact that the latter was several hundred miles away.
I grovelled on the ground, caressing the root with fingers, nostrils, and ears, for one can often feel or smell a sound better that one can hear it, such are the properties of one's sense organs. Once assured that I had located a faithful transmitter of the sound, I crawled about trying to trace the tree from which it originated, which is not nearly so simple as one might suppose. Two-hundred-foot trees that grow in a land of tornadoes must have substantial anchorage, and where the soil is shallow their roots may spread great distances around their bases. This particular root plunged straight down into the earth. I had half an hours hard digging before I came upon an angle and could judge in which direction it set off. This determined, I still had some thirty woody giants from which to choose and therefore decided that a systematic search with a trapper's friend was the best course to adopt.
I then began stalking trees. Approaching each with the utmost care and the minimum of noise, I listened in by pressing my ear to the trunk. When I was satisfied that there was no sound, I cut a small mark in the bark and proceeded to the next. I had marked eighteen trees when it suddenly struck me that the sounds might have been comming from some subterranean channels through which the root passed. I hesitated just behind the tent, full of doubt, irritation, and mystification.
Without warning there came a "plump" at my side. As I wheeled round, a little puff of rust-colored powder rose from the base of an enormous tree. I dived in among the foliage and discovered a large hole at its base. Peering into the darkness within, I heard all manner of squeaks, shufflings, and movements, and a continuous cascade of rotten wood and dust kept falling from above and rolling out the hole. All these strange noises were instantly explained. There must be animals moving about, scratching and grumbling in the recesses of this great hollow tree. Their activities above were causing an endless stream of dust, chips of rotten wood, lumps of fungus, and small logs to fall down into the base, making there a neat conical mound of considerable proportions. The noise in its cumulative effect was exactly like that of tons of soot falling in a colossal chimney. Close at hand I detected little chirps and squeaks.
Excitement at my discovery quite outdid my gratification upon having my intuition vindicated, but the explanation of one mystery only ushered in another. What were the animals causing all this disturbance?

Excerpt from "Animal Treasure", by Ivan T. Sanderson, The Viking Press, NY, 1937  

Washington Elm Relic

"Piece of the tree under which Washington took command of the Continental Army July 3, 1776. Known as the Washington Elm. Cambridge Sept. 30, 1892.



"Homely as a root fence"-- a devastating characterization that I never fully understood until I acquired this photograph, annotated on its reverse: "Root Fence". Lining some forgotten road, the property this fence protected was rendered nearly inpenetrable by man or large beast. The fence's twisted woody roots project in all directions, intertwine with its neighbors, and present a terrible and hideous challenge to would-be trespassers. Aesthetics aside, the root fence is a wonderful example of adaptive reuse. Unually left to rot in the ground, the enterprising farmer wrested these tree stumps from the ground and built a fence more effective that a fine stone wall. The root fence is indeed beautiful in its functional perfection.



Even though Noah and I have had many conversations about the Electrical Forest throughout its evolution, it wasn't until I arrived in Troy this week and saw the factory line humming with my own eyes, that I truly understood the meaning of the project.
I was amazed to see so many Troy natives (and Troy transplants) eagerly awaiting their chance to participate in Noah's totally high functioning, absolutely Wonka-esque production line. From almost the beginning the piece would have a strong community involvement aspect. However, it felt drastically different to interface with wiling creators/laborers than it did to imagine them.


Volunteers Run the Factory Line

The assembly line in Electrical Forest is literally powered by volunteer labor. Over 150 people signed up for the shifts of nonstop work at our assembly line in the art center. A team consists of 8-12 members and each team has quickly learned to "run the line." Each team expresses its own personality on the line through the spirit of the work and the feeling of product created. Some sing while others work quietly. Below are the Volkslicht portraits of some (not all) of the volunteer teams taken in the last few days.


Portraits of Production

Day 2 of a working assembly line afforded the time to take shots of Electrical Forest in action with the Volkslicht. Note the ghostly image of "plant manager" Marty McCracken managing the line, third down.


A New Factory Opens in Troy

Setting up the factory took a full three days. Well, the story starts before that really, as the artist was assisted by friend Prem Makeig to load out the pieces of Electrical Forest from the Brooklyn Studio onto a Uhaul truck which then made its way north. During the otherwise pleasant ride perfect for viewing Fall foliage, the artist engages in an exchange of emotional text messages related to what seemed to be a failed romance. Upon arriving in Troy, the artist was shown his quarters which consist of a large old church built by Burden, a steel baron of the 19th century. A cast of helpful charactes proceed to come and commit time to install the assemby line such as Ed Kimball of New Hampshire, , Maraya Lopez of Brooklyn, Lauren Wolk of North Adams and potter John Visser or Troy. Below please find the newest images from the Volkslicht Box Camera showing ms. Lopez working on the assembly line, the artist's drill, and a portrait of Amy Williams, president of the Art Center of the Capital Region where Electrical Forest is being shown.


More views of workers in the W. & L. E. Gurley factory

In 1892 W. & L. E. Gurley photographed their factory interior for the pamphlet they gave out at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. The pictures showed rooms full of workers in a grand display of manufacturing capacity. In 1903 they created another pamphlet for distribution at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (1904). The pictures showed individual workers engaged in highly skilled precision work. This apparant shift of emphasis from the grand to the precise in its depiction of the manufacturing process was continued thereafter in their catalogs and manuals. Photographs of activity within the factory taken in the 1920s show the continuation of this emphasis.

Gurley was rightly proud of their factory. When it was built in 1862, it represented a contiuation of a process of refinement begun only a few years previously. Up to that time, surveying instruments were built in relatively small shops in which each worker had a hand in the entire process, from casting and machining the components to assembling and adjusting the precision instrument. Workers who became proficient in the process would eventually leave the shop and start one of their own, often in some other city. The Gurley brothers, William and Lewis Ephraim, revolutionized the process by dividing their shop into departments, each with a particular task. Workers became very proficient in their assigned task, but not in producing a finished instrument. The process was so efficient that Gurley dominated the American market. Only one employee every left Gurley to start his own shop, John Hanna, who started Hanna Manufacturing Co. in Troy (1905). By 1919, he was back in the employ of Gurley.

By all accounts Gurley treated their workers well. Sure, they worked 10-hour days and 6-day weeks, but they put on regular oyster picnics, were very hands-on managers, and, anecdotally, were sensitive to their emplyee's personal problems. Every Saturday the brothers personally distributed the pay to their workers. Most worked on a per-piece basis with an expected quota while the brothers, the managers, and the chief engineer, were paid a portion of the profit.




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Working at W. & L. E. Gurley in Troy

W. & L. E. Gurley was one of Troy’s leading industries. It was America’s leading maker of surveying instruments for nearly a century and its products were sold throughout the world. The company was founded in 1845 and employed highly skilled workers. I have attached some photographs of workers at Gurley to show the conditions under which they labored. One young lad, a teenager, went to Gurley seeking employment in the 1880s. He was young enough that his mother accompanied him. Looking over the slight fellow, William Gurley asked him if could stand at a machine for 10 hours a day. The fellow replied that he had been working at the German Press standing on one foot and operating a machine, so he figured that standing on two feet would be an improvement. He was hired.

9/21: The generosity of Troy locals

Noah Fischer, creator of Electrical Forest: Made In Troy, his trusty assistant, Maraya Lopez, and the curator of the project, Lauren Wolk, all met in Troy on 9/21 to delve more deeply into the landscape, history, and people of Troy.

We were overwhelmed by the generosity of the folks we encountered, such as Jack Magai, arborist and performance artist, who spent an entire morning with us gazing at an analyzing trees. We also spent several hours with Bill Skerritt and Tom Carroll at the Burden Ironworks Museum, discussing bells, architecture, local history, inventions, and the technological legacy of Troy.


View from Studio

I am working in Brooklyn, New York in a literally unnamed neighborhood at the intersections of Gowanus, Sunset Park, Park Slope, heaven and hell. From my studio window you are looking straight up at the bottom of Manhattan (a view that was once dominated by two large towers). Obviously, this view has a huge effect on the outcome of Electrical Forest, being most of the time in my peripheral view. Plus, I am looking at the mouth of the Hudson River on its way to Troy. So I decided to document this view using the Volkslicht. This took quite few tries, with both the convex and pinhole lenses. I also tried a night view of the BQE, images below.


Cell Phones in Studio

Today I felt stressed in the studio, because we are living in the age of distraction and a ringing cellphone kept me from entering the groove. Technically, artists should shut off their cell phones while in studio, but these days its getting harder and harder. In the ago of facebook, being off the grid just doesn't seem ok ( to me anyway). For example, yesterday in studio I was texting with a Middle School friend,Eric, who I reconnected with on FB and literally haven't seen in 20 years! He is on tour with his band and needed a place to crash so what was I going to say? Digital communication prays on people like me who have a hard time letting go of the opportunity to reconnect with people. Basically I love people too much, that's my problem, that's why I got stressed today, and fell into an aweful mood in the studio while trying to tesselate leaves (more on that later). Volkslicht Images below of new developments concerning the money tree-more on that later too. 

old camera

I have finally finished restoring an 1866 Austrian "Volkslicht" box camera and am challenging myself to blog with it, in keeping with the 19th century spirit of the project. There is a color and black and sepia process for the film and my intern is developing the photos using old plates.