Why is this Interesting? – The Dam Edition

This year in honor of World Water Day (Monday, March 22nd) I returned once again to a favorite newsletter, Why is this Interesting? to guest author on how the once-polarizing attitudes toward dams in the west are shifting as new environmental and economic priorities emerge.

(Previously, The Paquete Edition and The Fermentation Edition)

On infrastructure, water, and nature

Nick Parish (NP) has been a friend of WITI since his days as a junior reporter on the NY Post’s sports desk. He has since worked in editorial, strategy, product, and org design, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s a fly-fishing mentor to Noah, and is focused on raising awareness around conservation and sustainability issues central to the sport. – Colin (CJN) 

Nick here. Dams have always divided. 

Some see them as technological marvels, helping communities flourish by putting water to work. Some see them as a marker on the vainglorious trail to ecological collapse, monuments to the belief that behind tons of concrete and steel, our civilization can conquer nature.

Along with the railroad, barbed wire, and the reservation system, across the American West dams have measured the cost of progress to nature and culture. Traditionally, the answer to “What good is a dam?” has fallen into one of two camps: authority or outsider, empire-builder or no-hoper. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid portrays one such struggle, between the Sierra Club and Bureau of Reclamation. It’s a contest between cutoff jeans fringing free love-tanned thighs and Stetsons topping polyester action slacks. The empire’s hell-bent on “flooding the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get a better look at the ceiling,” the hippies on saving it. In fiction, Chief Brompton of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestexperiences the fracturing of his culture at the mechanistic levers of the Combine. A dam subsumes his identity and voice along with the traditional economies around Celilo Falls—the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America—as they are inundated by the Columbia. 

But this divisive portrayal may not be shaping the future of water—water meaning agriculture, economies, and life—in the west. Recent developments have moved former foes beyond political ideology and outmoded stereotypes.

Keep Reading…

AdLeaker: Seeking Digital Advertising Whistle Blowers

Digital advertising has been sick for a while. Beyond duopoly politics and profit from hate, it’s become a breeding ground for all manner of scams. From rebates and kickbacks to straight up fraud, it’s rough out there.

I’m really looking forward to Tim Hwang’s new book, “The Subprime Attention Crisis,” to catalog all designer-jeans chicanery. But for now I’ll have to settle for AdLeaker, a site he launched to help whistle blowers come forward and share evidence of the toxic behaviors that have become too commonplace in the advertising ecosystem.

I hope it’ll ascend to the ranks of Sleeping Giants and other activist groups pushing positive change in the ad industry.

Take a look, pass it along, and share a story, if you have one.

https://adleaker.biz/

A Warm Worn Wear Welcome From Patagonia

These old friends went to meet their maker today, part of Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative, a marketplace for used gear and support for customers to mend and sew to make their garments last longer.

I wrote about the initiative when it was announced in 2017 and thought the repair part was strong. I was more skeptical about the repurchase-resell component. How could it work, when there’s a good eBay market for high-end vintage fleeces, but not as much for some schlub’s shirts, that flap on him like prayer flags after his quarantine diet?

Turns out I was wrong. The Worn Wear event tour primed the pump with activations, and got people stoked about their right to repair, creating the market. A few years later, it feels robust.

I got an email prompt yesterday, which liberated these from my closet, and ultimately maybe a landfill. Hopefully they’ll see some more adventure.

I’ll probably get $50 in credit for these shirts—not enough for a single new shirt—but it’s the belief that I can be part of a holistic system that tempers my consumption institutional courage that’ll keep me with the brand for decades.

Why is this Interesting? – The Fermentation Edition

This week I had another chance to contribute once more to one of my favorite newsletters, Why is this Interesting? on one of my favorite topics: how home fermentation can help create the foundations of resiliency that will make the world a better place.

Give WITI a look, it’s a great daily perspective-shifter for me.

(Additionally, The Paquete Edition and The Dam Edition)

On kombucha, waste, and culinary applications

Nick Parish (NP) has been a long-standing friend of WITI since his days as the junior reporter on the NY Post’s sports desk. He’s since worked in editorial, strategy, product design and currently lives in Portland. He’s a fly fishing mentor to Noah, and he last talked about fermentation/Kombucha way back in NYC at 2008’s Interesting New York conference, a strange precursor to this very newsletter. – Colin (CJN) 

Nick here. I love fermentation. At its core, it’s the story of how the human species has ridden out boom and bust cycles of nature, uncovering tasty treats and useful new materials in the process. It’s a story of magic and alchemy.

My love of fermenting at home started over a decade ago with kombucha in a tiny uptown apartment, glass jars from a Harlem dollar store, and a mother culture gifted from a car service driver.

Now, I’m looking after a big urban garden in Portland, Oregon, with a fair chunk of shed space for experiments. Our overgrown lot features several dozen varieties of edible berries, tree fruits, perennial vegetables, and other items you’d find in the farmer’s market, in addition to a big seasonal vegetable garden and a leech-filled pond. On good days, time spent in the garden is a feast, where we wander and graze on whatever looks ripe. On (rare) bad days it’s me fretting over soil health, pest management, and the future. 

Keep Reading…

Why is this Interesting? – El Paquete Edition

Friends Noah and Colin are doing a great new newsletters project, Why is this Interesting?

I wrote about El Paquete Semanal, which you may remember from my deep dive earlier this year. (Give WITI a look, it’s going to be big!)

On Cuba, digital media, and sneakernets

Nick Parish is an old friend of ours. He escaped the city for Oregon a few years ago, but we can always rely on him for incredible cultural observation. Nick started as a reporter on the sports desk at the New York Post and went on to run the excellent comms magazine and strategy consultancy Contagious. He currently looks after product strategy at Uncorked Studios. – Colin (CJN) [He’s also the one that introduced me to fly fishing! – Noah (NRB)]

Nick here. Back when our foreign policy was more generally oriented around becoming better neighbors, I had the chance to visit Cuba a few times. I was part of a quasi-diplomatic delegation, kind of a junior ranger State Department, a privatized mix of tech dweebs, investors sniffing after policy changes, and government types in various stages of obfuscation and denial. Between visits with officials and community groups, meeting ordinary humble Cubans and the less-than-ordinary elevated Cubans (the ones trying to swap mansions and art for Bitcoin and boltholes in Miami) I had a chance to take a side quest to track down el paquete semanal. El paquete semanal (the weekly package) is a 1TB folder on a hard drive, curated by enterprising Cubans, passed hand-to-hand in the darker part of the island’s grey economy. In that big, hot hunk of drive you can find pretty much all the pop culture you might need, from Game of Thrones to all three games of the latest Marlins-Reds series. 

Keep Reading…

Rhüb Goldbab: A Country-Style Dry Rhubarb Wine

Rhubarb wine? I’ve been into fermenting ever since my Harlem kombucha-making days, but now that I’ve got a little more land to work with I’ve made smoked, fermented hot sauces, sauerkrauts, and beer with self-grown hops.

Most recently, though, I’ve been interested in wines, specifically country wines. So what better way to celebrate the first year of your child’s life than a sassy vintage of a dry country wine?

The garden threw off a substantial surplus of rhubarb, so I fermented it and bottled a few cases of a dry country rhubarb wine. I followed a hybrid of John Wright and John Seymour recipes, both loosely. Fiddling with InDesign to illustrate and design the label was probably the hardest part.

Con El Paquete Semanal

Illustration by Baimu for Yorokubo

Well, my research project on El Paquete Semanal is finally out in the world, and I’m happy people are digging into the content. I got to know EP and understand the cultural context over the course of two trips to Cuba, and really appreciate how the system has grown up under the island’s unique constraints. Take a look at the report and some more analysis from Quartz, which featured it as an “Obsession,” or Reddit, where it came up

Meanwhile, if you read Spanish, the artsy-future magazine Yorokubo hit me up for an interview, from which I nabbed the neat illustration above, as well as Cuban-ish1 site Isla Local. The work was also cited in an r/science discussion on Reddit, and caught the attention of Czech publication Technet.

Meanwhile, loads of cool folks tweeted about the project. Thanks for the support, everyone.

  1. I’m not sure where on the Granma Spectrum it falls []

Walk On Air Against Your Better Judgement: Some Epitaph.

heaney_headstone

That’s what the epitaph on legendary Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s headstone, erected recently in his home village in County Derry, advises.

The lines come from his Nobel Prize speech, delivered in 1995. He explained more:

That line is from a poem called “The Gravel Walks,” which is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.

There’s more at Irish Central.

In Person: Story Hour

notes

A few weeks ago I was able to make good on a promise and participate in the second installment of the Design Museum of Portland’s Story Hour series. The premise is quite simple: a group of storytellers have a short period of time to tell a story around a specific prompt. There are a few constraints, though: the time period is very short, either four or eight minutes, and you get a single image as your background, no slides or other a/v trickery.

The theme was ‘invisible design’ and while a bunch of kind of pop-design podcast fodder (Can you see the arrow in the FedEx logo?) came to mind I felt the constraints and format leant themselves to a little bit of meta tomfoolery.

So the whole thing was series of stories inside a talk inside an elaborate setup.

The effect was better experienced in person, but I’ll try to set it up here for you before sharing the substance of the speech.

Continue reading “In Person: Story Hour”

Are you familiar with sharing?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about customer experiences.

We’re kicking off our U.S. Now / Next / Why swing on Wednesday in NYC (followed by May 16 in Chicago and June 11 in San Francisco) and the event is all around the idea of “obsessing experience.” And there’s a ton of stuff to talk about around your typical Brand Experiences, but I wanted to isolate one specific instance that might not feel immediately relevant but is.

My wife, Juno, is passionate about food. You could say she obsesses the experience. Whether it’s going out to try new restaurants, reading about chefs and cooking, organizing an intricate weekly meal plan and now writing about food and nutrition full time, Juno’s got it covered.

One of our running chuckles is around an entirely condescending phrase we’re becoming accustomed to hearing in variation, when we eat out:

“Are you familiar with the concept of sharing?”

Forget about the fact that we all learned to share at age four. When a server asks this, it’s a snapping flag to me that we’re in for a less-than-perfect experience. Because it validates something very important in the restaurant power dynamic: that the kitchen rules.

It doesn’t matter if we’re eating together, and each of us order one thing that we want to eat exclusively: the food comes when it’s ready. And Juno’s even experienced instances where her dining companion has finished her meal before Juno’s even arrives. It’s becoming commonplace to put the food before the people.

To me, this is emblematic of the celebrity-chef-obsessed, ego-driven foodie culture that’s bred a new generation of restauranteurs. Many careers have been launched and pockets have been lined by the idea of the kitchen as altar.

But it annoys me, needless to say, and I wanted to pass along an attitude that’s the antidote, one I hope more restaurants will adopt, and one that might be relevant to how you view edge cases, or needy customers, in your work, whomever your literal or metaphorical customer might be.

Brooks Headley is the executive pastry chef at Del Posto, a fine dining restaurant in New York.

He’s a fun writer, too—loose and confident. And in February Bon Appetit ran a column by Headley in which he wrote about accommodating people with allergies.

Our mission is to make people happy—think of us as your surrogate grandmas for the next few hours. I want you to come in to Del Posto and have the grandest, amazing-est time of your life, shooting the breeze with your date, the mom, that boss you’re trying to impress, swirling the wine in your oversize goblet, utilizing your purse stool. And if you’ve got some dietary issues you wanna toss my way? Bring ’em on!

 

It’s a great little essay, and an even better attitude. You can say what you want about the identity politics of food, which tires me to no end. But this isn’t about identity—it’s about humility and service.

And the reader responses agree:

It is a sigh of relief to read of a mindful, creative, and enthusiastic approach to what can be a stress laden experience for the food allergic diner.

What a treasure the patrons of Del Posto must experience, knowing that they are safe and also no burden at all.

I’ve been following Brooks’ career for a while. He was the drummer of two of the best American hardcore bands ever, Universal Order of Armageddon and Born Against. And it’s no surprise that he’s got the sort of level head around making diners feel cared for and safe—that’s not far cry from the life of an independent underground musician. Community. Hospitality. Giving all your energy away to those your performing for.

I know this small strike against the haute pretension of the chef-as-universe’s-epicenter won’t change any “concept of sharing” irritation.

But it will help me line up my values with those of the restaurants that do–and don’t—behave like Brooks.

 

Poem: Dinosaurs in the Hood

Dinosaurs in the Hood
BY DANEZ SMITH

Let’s make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood.
Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness.
There should be a scene where a little black boy is playing
with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window
& sees the T. Rex, because there has to be a T. Rex.

Don’t let Tarantino direct this. In his version, the boy plays
with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives,
the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.
Fuck that, the kid has a plastic Brontosaurus or Triceratops
& this is his proof of magic or God or Santa. I want a scene

where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl, a scene
where the corner store turns into a battle ground. Don’t let
the Wayans brothers in this movie. I don’t want any racist shit
about Asian people or overused Latino stereotypes.
This movie is about a neighborhood of royal folks —

children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles — saving their town
from real-ass dinosaurs. I don’t want some cheesy yet progressive
Hmong sexy hot dude hero with a funny yet strong commanding
black girl buddy-cop film. This is not a vehicle for Will Smith
& Sofia Vergara. I want grandmas on the front porch taking out raptors

with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses. I want those little spitty,
screamy dinosaurs. I want Cicely Tyson to make a speech, maybe two.
I want Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick
through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck. But this can’t be
a black movie. This can’t be a black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed

because of its cast or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor
for black people & extinction. This movie can’t be about race.
This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain.
This movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt.
This movie can’t be about race. Nobody can say nigga in this movie

who can’t say it to my face in public. No chicken jokes in this movie.
No bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills
the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. Besides, the only reason
I want to make this is for that first scene anyway: the little black boy
on the bus with a toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless

his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.

 

 
Source: Poetry (December 2014).

Appearing in La Petit Mort: River Talk

rivertalk_petitmort

A few months ago my buddy Michael Ventura asked me to write an essay for his new publication, La Petit Mort. Just last week I got the glorious, big-ass newsprint edition and found my piece, “River Talk,” reproduced faithfully. The design looks great, the illustration I cooked up wound up translating well visually, and I’m really grateful to have been involved and appearing alongside articles ranging from an ethical look at slum tourism to a primer on how to eat clean while traveling. The essay’s mostly about fishing, so head over to Current Flow State to read the whole thing.

Tetraethyl Lead and Pure Inquiry

I just finished a standout investigative piece that’s aged very well, Jamie Kitman’s look into leaded gasoline’s terrifying public health legacy, published by The Nation in 2000.

A few things struck me.

One is the continued prevalence of the cascading uncertainty rule, described here:

By relying on what Jerome Nriagu of the University of Michigan has called the cascading uncertainty rule (“There is always uncertainty to be found in a world of imperfect information”), the lead industry and makers and marketers of TEL gasoline additives were able to argue in 1925: “You say it’s dangerous. We say it’s not. Prove us wrong.” (Or, as Nriagu prefers, “Show me the data.”) They still do.

This is an almost classic misdirection that’s affecting how we judge huge dangers to society and public health, like vaccinations and global warming.

Meanwhile, a crusading scientist used techniques for determining this age of the earth to hypothesize how badly we were screwing it up by blanketing it with lead. Clair Patterson then gave what stands as a lasting caution against undue influence in research. This has recently been in the news, with Wall Street and academia cozying up.

“It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered,” Clair said. “It is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations.”

I tend to use a lot of others’ research to make points; often, I can be lazy about sourcing. Was it the federal government, or a non-profit organization that’s providing that figure, or is it an entity motivated to make a specific commercial point? Research, both good and bad, can be easily manipulated. This served as a great reminder that concrete, civic-minded fact-finding is always going to serve the truth better than interested parties’ ‘findings’.

The Contagious Holiday Zine Exchange!

contagious_zines

A while back I read a post somewhere, I think on the IDEO blog, about their experiment with a saddle stapler. There was a story about how they furnished an alcove at the back of the office, and put out the stapler, commonly used to make crude staple-bound zines, and lo, amazing rainbows of creativity happened.

We ain’t them, so I decided to steal part of this idea, with 100% more <shudder> forced creativity, and lo the Contagious Holiday Zine Exchange was born. Everybody had a few months to conceive and execute a zine, using the tools at their disposal, and we’d swap them at the end of the year.

Counting our own issues of Contagious, Most Contagious, and all the the client-commissioned stuff, we made probably 10+ print publications this year. But not everyone has the chance to get dirty with pagination, design, concept and all the other fun parts of making their own magazine. Hell, I’m an editor and I don’t feel like I always do.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was when we exchanged them today. Writers, sales folk, whoever, it didn’t matter. The publications were from the heart and fun, which is all you really need for a good zine.

Here’s a quick rundown:

Noelle: Drink More Whiskey, a primer on everyone’s favorite brown liquid, its characteristics and varieties, where to drink it, recipes, etc., with samples
Kyle: Pittie’ful Zine, a look at the pit bull terrier’s origins, evolution and characteristics, including info on pits in American history
Erin: les hashtags en francais, a study of this year’s top celebrity Twitter arrivals, with hashtagged critiques of their work in French
Arwa: Notes From Goats: A pun-filled literary magazine, as authored by goats (ie critique of The Great Goatsby)
Chris: A Hell of a Lot of Mice: Music and miscellany, including an article on Willis Earl Beal, photos from NYC venues and part of Chris’ top 52 albums of 2013 summary.

I did a short sci-fi photonovela called PATRONYM on the JP Morgan of the clone era coming to terms with his legacy.

Methods as far ranging as In Design and Comic Life and even old fashioned cut-and-paste and hand-lettering brought these to life.

Best of all, they really did what every good solo publication should do: convey something about the creator.

I was having lunch today with a guy who runs the innovation department at a really large package goods company, and one of the things he said stuck in my mind. “We have the tools,” he said, “we just don’t use them.” Sometimes you have to figure out a way to get people to use the tools.

Project Healing Waters in The New York Times

project healing waters in the new york times
A scan from The New York Times’ November 11th 2013 edition featuring Project Healing Waters

 

It was very exciting to see an organization I do some volunteer work with profiled by Helen Coster in The New York Times this year on Veterans Day. I would have never guessed the modifier that arrived along with my first appearance in the old grey lady would be “fly fishing guide,” but I’ll take it. I guess it’s a good impetus to finally get my casting instructor certification in order.

Please give the article a read to learn more about the sort of work we’re doing, and do get in touch if you’re interested.

We’ve had a huge outpouring of support since, including a bunch of people donating vintage fishing gear, which we resell to collectors to fund trips for vets.

There’s currently a great auction of vintage fiberglass and bamboo rods happening on eBay, from the collection of a man named Ed Travers. Ed’s rods, all in great condition, would make a wonderful holiday gift for the angler in your life, and a great way to give back to a worthy cause, so why not check them out? I’m helping administer the auction, and will be posting new rods every Tuesday for the next few weeks, with five sets in all available.

Writing elsewhere: Nicolas Jaar in Flaunt

flaunt-jaar-parish

Wow, a celebrity profile!

Pick up this summer’s Flaunt, the Context issue, to read a piece I wrote on Nicolas Jaar, one of the more interesting figures in dance music today. I tried to give a sense of the big ideas Jaar’s grappling with, and his perspective as an artist.

To get a sense of how that’s coming through in the music he’s making, check out his page on SoundCloud. The second issuance from his DARKSIDE project is out now, so you can give that a listen, too. That’s probably my favorite work of his.

Tetsuharu Kubota shot him quite well, I think. Apparently it was a cover story, but one of four. The cover of the copy I got has Beyonce. And includes a poster! Fancy.

Serendipity, Memory and Technology: Ted Chiang, Jack London and me

One of the benefits of living in my part of Brooklyn is you can essentially pick up a graduate-level humanities education in books your neighbors discard on their stoops. I’ve been working my way through a stoop find, the collected stories of Jack London, and was earlier this week on “The League of the Old Men,” about Imber, a tribesman from the north who confesses to slaying dozens of pioneering whites to stem their corrosive effect on his culture.

Imber goes to town to present the white authority with his list of crimes, and finds that Howkan, a younger member of his tribe, is the chosen translator. The way Imber comes to understand Howkan’s literacy is exceptional; he relates it to the signals he reads from the land.

Howkan shook his head with impatience. “Have I not told thee it be there in the paper, O fool?”

Imber stared hard at the ink-scrawled surface. “As the hunter looks upon the snow and says, Here but yesterday there passed a rabbit; and here by the willow scrub it stood and listened and heard, and was afraid; and here it went with great swiftness, leaping wide; and here, with great swiftness and wider leapings, came a lynx; and here, where the claws cut deep into the snow, the lynx made a very great leap; and here it struck, with the rabbit under and rolling belly up; and here leads off the trail of the lynx alone, and there is no more rabbit,—as the hunter looks upon the markings of the snow and says thus and so and here, dost thou, too, look upon the paper and say thus and so and here be the things old Imber hath done?”

Meanwhile, I live for Ted Chiang’s work. His sense of how to mesh the prosaic of the everyday with the fantastic elements derived from possible futures is always totally enthralling. And, on the train yesterday, I dove into his newest, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” published here.

There are some thematic similarities in the two stories: memory, cultural dominance and the inevitable march of technology. Chiang’s is more about augmenting memories, and the possibility that technology will remember it for you, wholesale (couldn’t resist). It’s not quite virgin territory1, but Chiang covers it with the mastery he usually displays. But largely what jumped out at me was this description of literacy. Jijingi, from a tribe that’s without literacy, is learning from the missionary, Moseby, how to read. But first he must understand written language.

The missionary spoke as if his tongue were too large for his mouth, but Jijingi could tell what he was saying. “Yes, I understand.”

Moseby smiled, and pointed at the paper. “This paper tells the story of Adam.”

“How can paper tell a story?”

“It is an art that we Europeans know. When a man speaks, we make marks on the paper. When another man looks at the paper later, he sees the marks and knows what sounds the first man made. In that way the second man can hear what the first man said.”

Jijingi remembered something his father had told him about old Gbegba, who was the most skilled in bushcraft. “Where you or I would see nothing but some disturbed grass, he can see that a leopard had killed a cane rat at that spot and carried it off,” his father said. Gbegba was able to look at the ground and know what had happened even though he had not been present. This art of the Europeans must be similar: those who were skilled in interpreting the marks could hear a story even if they hadn’t been there when it was told.

The coincidence struck me as a bit ironic. No doubt I’ve read and forgotten other connections, other expressions of writing described to the illiterate. And no doubt, if I couldn’t forget, it would have only further lessened the impact of Chiang’s story, as I would have been constantly comparing variations on the same theme, a bizarre mental loop. Sometimes, like both authors contend, it’s better not to know.

Go read the Chiang story2 and tell me what you think.

  1. Charlie Brooker trod similar ground with “The Entire History of You” in Black Mirror’s first set of sketches []
  2. And all of his stuff, really. This Metafilter post is a great start. []

Jonathan Glazer’s Newest, Under the Skin

I really hope Jonathan Glazer follows in Neill Blomkamp’s footsteps1 and brings his special breed of moodiness evolved through ads and music video to tangential future scenarios. Under the Skin is described on IMDB as “An alien in human form is on a journey through Scotland.”

The inimitable Ben just dug out his canned Flake ad which I’m glad to see is still online. I remember frantically saving the source when it came out and have been showing it to folks we work with at Kraft / Mondelez as an example of something envelope-pushing, dramatic stuff that at least got partially made through previous incarnations of their organization. Lovely. Someone out there wants to make more of this stuff, right? A guy can dream?

Flake – Jonathan Glazer from David Nichols on Vimeo.

  1. For my money, Neill’s slightly dingy, surveillance state aesthetic is the best one going in contemporary sci-fi. I talked to him about it way back in ’07. []

All Folded Pages: The Shape of Content, by Ben Shahn

All Folded Pages. Blogging the corners I’ve turned down while reading a book. It’s a fun format which I’m happy to respectfully copy. Here are a few notable passages from Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content.

While the title would be at home in a 2013 thought leadership seminar, the topic area is on the shaping and governing of a mindset related to the appreciation and creation of good art, specifically painting, and came from a series of lectures Shahn gave at Harvard. The relationship between form and content, noncomformity, the education of an artist—all are key elements in Shahn’s talks.

The first passage is about novelty and motive as ascribed to judgement of art (p. 102).

So we have begun to accord to scientific terms and phenomena an almost mystic potency. When we read of the quaint and ancient practice, as described by Cennino Cennini, of saying specific prayers for the mixing of specific colors and paints, we are charmed and amused. But we are not at all amused by the claims to scientific potency which run along the side of our toothpaste tube, or which herald the latest hormone cream for the arresting of old age. We perceive little humor in vitamin-enriched bread; we take the idea of personal travel to the moon as a matter of course; we carefully guide our automobile toward the nearest gasoline station that happens to advertise super-octane gas, although I doubt that many of us have the slightest notion of what super-octane is—I am sure that I haven’t.

In our contemporary criticisms of art we are not unlikely to read of the time-space continuum as a property of painting at hand; we come upon such terms as entropy and complementarity; and a number of modes of painting take their names from biology or psychology. Still others take their cue from these sciences, and we have “automatic painting,” “therapeutic painting,” and the like.

I do not mean to imply that an interpretation of the sciences, or an evaluation or even a participation, is out of order in contemporary art; indeed I think all that is very much the point. But at the moment I am speaking of the present tendency of art to borrow glory and to borrow value by a purely romantic self-association with scientific terminology. And one can imagine how ill fares that kind of painting, devoted to capturing the modes of nature or to some idea of craftsmanship, in the hands of those critics who are schooled in the terminology of Biomorphism, or Geometric Expressionism, or who look upon art as compulsive or unconsciously motivated.

On complexity (p. 106):

But it is not the degree of communicability that constitutes the value of art to the public. It is its basic intent and responsibility. A work of art in which powerful compassion is innate, or which contains extraordinary revelations concerning form, or manifests brilliant thinking, however difficult its language, will serve ultimately to dignify that society in which it exists. By the same argument, a work that is tawdry and calculating in intent is not made more worthy by being easily understood. One does not judge an Einstein equation by its communicability, but by its actual content and meaning.

What lasts (p. 110)

If any single kind of value or evaluation has tended to survive the many tides and reversals of taste, belief and dogma, I imagine that value consists in some vague striving for truth. … Whatever our momentary concept of it may be, it seems as through truth itself is that objective which awakens the purest passion in man, which stimulates his mind and calls forth his heroic endeavors. It is in pursuit of truth perhaps that we are able to sacrifice present values and move on to new ones.

What I loved most were Shahn’s exhortations to younger artists, clearly the audience he was addressing. Here is his “capsule recommendation for a course of education,” which remains one of the more inspiring passages of the book (p. 113):

Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle — yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber. Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists. Go to and art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw. Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular — mathematics and physics and economics,logic and particularly history. Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn signboards of furniture drawings of this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters. Talk and talk and sit at cafés, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them. And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye. Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silk-screen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions. Never be afraid to become embroiled in art of life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.