Contortionists, negative space, and what Claymation has to do with the Kama Sutra.
We love books. And we love nontraditional takes on the traditional. Recently, we’ve looked at hypertextual books, ambitious carved-out reproductions of history books and Pictorial Webster’s. Today, we look at three inspired examples of innovation on the most rudimentary gateway to language and literature: The alphabet book.
THE HUMAN ALPHABET
In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting the phenomenal Pilobolus dance company, an incredible group of choreographers and dancer-athletes who produce some of the best original work in modern dance today. So imagine our delight when we discovered photographer John Kane‘s The Human Alphabet — an ambitious and striking alphabet book, using the bodies of Pilobolus dancers to construct each of the letters through ingenious grips, bends and twists of the human form.
With its superb photography, vibrant colors and jaw-dropping acrobatic contortionism, The Human Alphabet is bound to astonish. If language had a Kama Sutra, this would be it.
THE HIDDEN ALPHABET
Curiosity is the fundamental fuel of learning. Mix that with children’s boundless imagination, and you’ve got a powerful recipe for inspiration-education. That’s exactly what illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger does in The Hidden Alphabet — a visual gem of a book, where a black mat frames an object on each page, then peels away to reveal its starting letter.
Risking to live up to a designer cliche, we do love our negative space. And The Hidden Alphabet plays with it brilliantly — when the black mat is lifted, each object becomes a significant building block of the letter’s negative space, with a clever perspective shift from foreground to background that plays on the popular figure-ground optical illusions.
Besides the innovative visual format reinterpreting the traditional approach of matching each letter with a word, Seeger’s choice of the words themselves — “inkblot,” “partridge,” “quotation mark,” “yolk” — is equally refreshing and adds a whole new layer of sophistication to the artwork.
We’re suckers for a good pop-up book, but Marion Bataille‘s ABC3D takes it to a whole new level.
Slick, stylish and designerly, it’s hard to capture its tactile, interactive magic in static words — you have to have it in your hands to truly appreciate it.
The Washington Post hit the nail on the head:
Does for paper what Claymation did for mud. It’s a three-dimensional, interactive, cinematic treat for the littlest fingers right up to the oldest eye [...]
A perfectly architectured A sets the pace from the very first page.
A neat pop-up with the i and j sharing the same dot.
As the spread is opened, the two vortices in the S rotate.
And just when you think ABC3D couldn’t possibly delight and surprise more, it does: We’ve seen a trailer for an album, a trailer for a typeface, but a trailer for a book?
Bonus points for the track (which reminds us of Squirrel Nut Zippers, our favorite quirk-swing band) — and even more bonus points for offering it as a free download on the book’s equally well-designed website.
From the lenticular cover, which changes by the angle at which you hold it, to the metamorphic X, which becomes a Y as you flick your hand, ABC3D is an absolute treat for kids, industrial design junkies and the typeface geeks alike.
UPDATE: We’ve just been alerted (Thanks, Coudal!) to an absolute gem we had no choice but to include here.
From Animal Collective to The Zombies, by way of Joy Division, Tom Waits and ?uestlove, the book is written by Paste editors Kate Kiefer and Rachael Maddux, and brilliantly illustrated by so-indie-he’s-off-the-Google-radar artist owen the owen.
An Indie Rock Alphabet Book is a get-’em-while-they’re-young necessary tool for engineering tomorrow’s musicologists. After all, the first step to that Rolling Stone internship application is spelling your name correctly. And, really, who wants to learn with “cat” when you can have “Cat Power”?
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What a pair of sneakers has to do with a bridge in Manila and mobile cinema in South Africa.
When Gym Class Heroes front man Travis McCoy traveled to South Africa, India and the Philippines last June, he met the leaders of three projects funded by the Staying Alive Foundation, MTV’s global grant-giving organization fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS by empowering young leaders. Inspired by his incredible experience, Travis launched the Unbeaten Track project and wrote the single One At a Time, which drops today — World AIDS Day — with 100% of proceeds going directly to the Foundation to fund even more AIDS-fighting projects around the world.
Today, we sit down with Travis and pick his brains about the Unbeated Track project, how social entrepreneurship differs from philanthropy, and whether there’s a shift in the economy of cool.
Hey Travis, good to have you. Straight to the point — what’s your story of getting involved with the Staying Alive Foundation?
I first became involved with Staying Alive back at the Europe Music Awards in 2008. I was asked to do some filming on the red carpet on behalf of Staying Alive where I would ask fellow artists questions on their attitude towards HIV and AIDS, and other related issues like relationships, cheating and condom use. After spending more time with Georgia — the founder of the Foundation — and seeing what amazing work they did, I immediately asked what else I could do to help. They asked me to be their next Ambassador, and that was that.
It’s a cause that’s important to me because I lost somebody close to me to AIDS when I was younger. At the time I was uneducated about HIV and AIDS so I was afraid. I’d shared the same cutlery as this person; we’d used the same shower… I had so many questions — and looking back — a lot of what I thought to be true about the virus was incorrect. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people out there still don’t know enough about it and that’s why I think it’s important for those of us in the public eye to educate and set a good example. My life has taken me to a point where I am in the position to influence my fans, and if I can influence the way they dress, the music that they listen to and so on, why can’t I get them to think and be more aware about more serious issues like HIV and AIDS?
It’s often the littlest things that give you the greatest a-ha moments. Do you recall any such seemingly small but monumentally telling anecdote from your travels in June that really opened your eyes to the impact of the Foundation?
Getting to actually meet the young projects leaders and get to know them a bit better, for me, was a definite highlight. Bulelani, Alex and Mandakini are three of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Their work is tireless, their attitude selfless.
There are few real standout moments though… In South Africa, Bulelani took me on a tour of Site B in Khayelitsha, which is where he lives. It’s the second largest township in South Africa and has an incredibly high HIV infection rate. Bulelani spreads HIV prevention and awareness messaging through a creative filmmaking process with local youth. He then shows the films produced using his Mobile Cinema, which is funded by the Foundation.
I was walking along with him chatting about his work and I asked him what he’d do if Hollywood came knocking with a million-dollar deal… His response cemented my original thoughts about him — without hesitation, he said that he’d turn them down because his work as a filmmaker is in Khayletisha where he sees a problem that needs to be addressed. I love the fact that the Foundation is able to find and fund these dedicated and motivated individuals who are really making a difference in their communities.
Another moment on the trip that really affected me was visiting Kaybuboy Bridge in Manila.
There were around 80 families living under this bridge in absolute poverty, and it made me think of all the people who publicly pride themselves on coming from “the hood” and the fact that where they grew up is so tough; and I just thought, ‘live under a bridge for two years, and then tell me how hard your life is.’
I came out from under that bridge a different person — it made me realize that we really need to stop being selfish and start thinking more about not only our community, but also our world as a whole.
For the past two decades, MTV has been a powerful merchant of cool, shaping much of what youth admires and aspires to. All throughout, it has faced criticism – especially from academia – for promoting superficial belief systems and lifestyles. But in recent years, MTV has championed a number of socially-conscious causes, from sustainability to anti-smoking to AIDS. How do you see celebrities’ and the media’s responsibility in reframing of the concept of “cool,” shifting it from the ownership of cool things, a.k.a. “bling,” and towards the doership of good deeds?
I think it’s important that anybody who has the power to make an impression on others must use their role wisely. Sometimes artists are naïve and stubborn and think they don’t have a responsibility in inspiring youth. I hate when artists take the attitude of “Oh, I’m not a role model. I’m just a young person just trying to live my life.” Well, of course you are, but at the same time, you can’t deny that in this position you’re very influential to the kids who are coming out to see you and buying your CD. I was stubborn for a long time. I’m human. But in time, I ended up seeing right in front of my face the effect I have on kids, whether it’s influencing the way they dress or the music they listen to. And if I can have that effect on kids, I hope I can have the effect or urge them to educate themselves and practice safe sex.
If I can get them to spend however much money on a pair of sneakers, hopefully I can get them to spend three dollars on a box of condoms.
No celebrity can deny it, kids look up to us, and we have to make sure that we’re setting a good example when they do look to us.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift from a philanthropic model – the dishing out of aid to passive recipients — towards social entrepreneurship and microfunding, where capital ends up in the hands of active local leaders, empowering them to facilitate change from the inside and growing exponentially as they build on what they’ve been given. How does the Foundation’s mission differ from the traditional aid model?
The Foundation is definitely a believer in this newer business model. If you compare the funding from the Foundation to that of an angel investment, it’s pretty much the same deal. The Foundation funds those who would otherwise find it very difficult to get funding.
That’s what makes the Foundation so different. It only funds small projects that have had little or no funding at all. These projects must also be run by young people. The Foundation gives these young people a chance to get their projects off the ground and develop them into stronger, more independent organizations. The Foundation has recently developed a training scheme whereby grantees get training to allow them to continue developing even after the Foundation funding stops after a maximum of four years.
There’s no question music offers a universal language and has been incredibly successful in generating awareness with efforts like LiveAid and Playing For Change. But as an artist, how do you think musicians can help tackle the quintessential challenge of moving the needle from mere awareness to actionable, tangible change?
Wow, that’s a great question. I think the first step is for us, as artists, to make sure we live by our lyrics and what we’re asking of people. It’s no use me putting this track out there and that being it. I need people to take action and buy the track to show their commitment to the cause.
I think the reason that the Unbeaten Track project works so well is that it goes beyond just raising awareness. The documentary, which is going out on all MTV Channels today, as well as to hundreds of third party broadcasters, will do an amazing job at raising awareness for HIV/AIDS as well as for the Foundation. But the track is really where the action happens, that’s where we can make a real tangible difference by raising money for the Foundation so they can carry on empowering and enabling these young leaders to continue making changes within their community. Moving forward, I think that it’s really important that these awareness-raising projects that artists lend their names to have to have a fundraising elements included.
AIDS is such a colossal problem that it can get overwhelming to think about our capacity as individuals to make a difference. Got any words of wisdom for how a single person can have impact, particularly on World AIDS Day?
My motto is “Each one, teach one.” People need to educate themselves about HIV/AIDS and then pass on that knowledge. Imagine if every single person in the world knew that protecting themselves from the dangers of HIV is as simple as wearing a condom. Imagine how much stigma it would lessen if people knew that you cannot catch HIV/AIDS from sharing cutlery or from touching. Educate yourself and then spread the word. And today, if YOU want to make an impact, help me support the Staying Alive Foundation by buying my track One At A Time from Staying Alive Foundation. Every single cent will go to funding current and future Foundation projects.
You can buy One At A Time for just ¢99 on iTunes in the US and from BandCamp globally — that’s ¢99 going straight to the fight against AIDS in parts of the world where many people live on $1 a day.
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What fallen checkpoints have to do with a generation of artists.
Twenty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the course of world history as November 9, 1989, marked democracy’s most politically and socially consequential win. When the checkpoints between East and West Berlin burst open, two world that had been kept apart for nearly three decades finally came together, each with its unique tradition of art, ideology and cultural heritage.
Today, Words Without Borders, the international nonprofit working to promote international communication through translation of the world’s best writing, celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the release of The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain — a gem of an anthology of fiction, essays, images, and original documents, tracing the evolution of this revolutionary spirit from its 1989 origins to the present day.
Unlike traditional historical accounts of that era, The Wall in My Head goes straight to the grittiest, rawest source — the generation of artists and writers who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain first-hand. Shaped by this monumental event, their life and work offer profound memories, reflections and insight into that incredible era of frustration, optimism and epic change.
Through this incredible spectrum of stories, voices and accounts, The Wall in My Head paints a rich and powerful portrait of the event that made possible so much of what we take for granted today.
You can read about the project on the book’s blog and sample it with this free chapter [PDF].
The Wall in My Head is out on Amazon — who made the book possible with a charitable donation — today.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.
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