Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘cities’

14 NOVEMBER, 2013

An Illustrated Field Guide to Biking in 8 Major European Cities

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Across the Old World on two wheels.

The invention of the bicycle is easily one of the greatest human achievements, one credited with everything from the spread of urbanism to the emancipation of women. City Cycling: Europe (public library) is a beautiful new boxed set by Thames & Hudson — who previously gave us the visually stunning Cyclepedia — in partnership with high-end cycling brand Rapha Racing, presenting a series of field guides to happiness on two wheels in eight of Europe’s biggest cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Milan, and Antwerp/ Ghent. From adventurous itineraries to neighborhood curiosities to complete cycling maps to training tips, these backpack-friendly paperback treats feature 400 color illustrations reminiscent of mid-century travel pamphlets and children’s books:

Complement City Cycling: Europe with this charming vintage bike safety manual, handy as ever.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2013

Before I Die: A Global Ethnography of Anonymous Aspirations in Chalk and Public Space

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“Thinking about death clarifies your life.”

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.

Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers

Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:

Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.

Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.

[…]

Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.

The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.

Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.

The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Candy Chang (Photograph by Randal Ford)

And just for good measure, here is a wall on which I wrote myself hours after it was installed in Austin in March of 2013:

A beautiful and moving ethnography of aspiration, Before I Die is an enchanting reminder that we’re ephemeral and yet we matter, that we’re singular and yet united in our deepest hopes, that the simplest building blocks of our inner lives are also the most profound and eternal.

Images courtesy of Candy Chang

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11 OCTOBER, 2013

Drawn to New York: Counterculture Cartoonist Peter Kuper’s Illustrated Chronicle of 34 Years in Gotham

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“This city is change. That’s its glory — it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.”

New York City isn’t wont for love letters (and, okay, the occasional hate mail and breakup letter) — from the illustrated to the poetic to the cartographic to the photographic to the literary, and even the canine and the feline. And if this tells us anything, it’s that the ultimate portrait of the city is a collage of a myriad subjective impressions and private experiences. In Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City (public library), celebrated illustrator and counterculture cartoonist Peter Kuper contributes his own, which he calls a “portrait of this city I love, both its darkness and light … a city whose story is ever being written.”

In the introduction, painter and graphic novelist Eric Drooker — who contributed to some of Gotham’s dystopian dreams — ponders the city’s enduring, ineffable mesmerism:

Like moths to a flame, millions are drawn to New York … but why?

What’s the attraction to the big city — the eternal Babel — with its endless confusion of tongues? What’s all the hubbub?

What is it that draws so many people — particularly artists — to Gotham?

Is it the buildings? The lights? The sound? The fury?

The wailing sirens at 3 A.M.? The incessant rumble of nonstop express trains on rusted subway tracks?

Or is it simply the seduction of anonymity in the big city … a chance to reinvent oneself in the rush hour crowd?

Many come as a career move, hoping to be discovered by others … or at least to find themselves.

Many self-appointed New Yorkers, of course, can only connect the dots of how and why we ended up in city, as Steve Jobs poignantly noted of life’s general dot-connecting in his timeless Stanford commencement address, by looking back and never by looking forward. When Kuper packed his own midwestern bags at the age of eighteen to make Gotham his adopted home, he had just an abstract sense of why the city — vertical, gridded, stark — drew him. Only decades later would he capture this abstraction in the concrete, stark grids of his cartoon strips and graphic novels.

Dazzled by the city’s glamor on a childhood visit — with his family, at the age of nine, to see his uncle perform on Broadway — young Kuper also witnessed the inevitable sight of New York’s gruffness, involving a gas truck, a drunk man in a Pontiac, a cacophony of blaring horns, and his father leaping into action to save the drunk from an inevitable explosion. That experience shaped his entire understanding of the city. Kuper recalls:

Clearly New York was a dangerous place where terrible things could happen, but also a place that could turn ordinary people into superheroes. On that sweltering August night, amid the roaring swirl of Manhattan’s manic energy, I decided I wanted to move to this city as soon as possible.

It took him a decade, but in June of 1977, he set fateful foot on Gotham soil at Grand Central, set on becoming a New York animator. The city he arrived in — bankrupt, with decrepit subways, a ghostly Times Square at night, and streets lined with towers of uncollected trash from a garbage strike — sounds to the onlooker almost nightmarish, a nightmare made all the grimmer by the famous Blackout that hit only a month later, unleashing rampant looting. But Kuper was in heaven, living his dream.

That, perhaps, is the sign of a great New Yorker, and especially a great New York artist: The ability to love the city not despite its grit but because of it, to inhabit its struggles with dignity rather than disgust, with empathic curiosity rather than cruel gawking. And that is precisely what Kuper has been doing for thirty years in his drawings of the city at its most real yet its most affectionate, and above all its comforting mutability. Kuper himself puts it beautifully:

This city is change. That’s its glory — it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.

Though all of Kuper’s work is remarkably dimensional, brimming with social, cultural, and political commentary, among his most striking pieces is this irrepressibly unsettling, viscerally disquieting image of the raw, debilitating trauma that 9/11 inflicted on the city:

Pair Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City with 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC.

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