Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

06 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Everything Sings: Making the Case for a New Cartography

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What Ira Glass has to do with atlas antagonism, or what plotting carved pumpkins reveals about place.

The most intimate infographics of all may be maps, those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time. Or at least, this is just one of the interesting arguments made by the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, a beautiful exploration of a small North Carolina neighborhood that also provides a platform for much larger ideas, published by Siglio Press in 2010.

We’ve long believed in the transformative power of maps, which was why we immediately fell in love with Everything Sings and its author, Denis Wood. A kind of counter-culture cartographer, Wood has for decades sought ways to call the seeming objectivity of maps into question. In his fascinating introduction to the book, Wood wonders why map-making was an artistic discipline that somehow escaped modernism’s critical overhaul, its conventions barely changing in the centuries since it was first practiced.

Admitting that atlases were narrative — that they were texts — would force the admission that the individual maps were texts too, that maps constituted a semiological system indistinguishable from other semiological systems, like those of paintings or novels or poems.” ~ Denis Wood

His argument for a kind of “poetics of cartography” provides context to the maps that follow, a narrative about how life was in his Boylan Heights neighborhood in the early 1980s.

Everything Sings grew out of an episode of NPR’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass inadvertently came across Wood’s shelved project from a university course he’d previously taught to landscape architecture students. Glass contributes a fantastic foreword that pretty much sums up what makes the collection so special.

These maps are completely unnecessary. The world didn’t ask for them. They aid no navigation or civic-minded purpose. They’re just for pleasure. They laugh at the stupid Google map I consult five times a day on my phone. They laugh at what a square that map is. At its small-mindedness. They know it’s a sad, workaholic salaryman.” ~ Ira Glass

Here are just a few of our favorite images from the atlas, with excerpts from Wood’s accompanying texts:

Wind Chimes

They were all over -- bamboo, glass, shell, metal tubes. Depending on where you stood, the force of the wind, and the time of day, you could hear several chiming, turning the neighborhood into a carillon.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Jack-O'-Lanterns

I rode through the neighborhood on my bicycle--it was 1982--and took pictures of all the jack-o'-lanterns.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Police Calls

All over Boylan Heights, numerous calls to report disturbances reveal a general reluctance to knock on a neighbors' doors and ask them to 'turn it down.' Boylan Heights is small and hardly crime ridden, but this is only a six month's harvest of calls to 911.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Squirrel Highways

Nervous squirrels, afraid of an attack on the ground, use the phone and television cables as highways wherever the tree canopy's broken. Birds rest on the power lines.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Pools of Light

When, in the later 19th century, Americans began systematically to light their streets, it was seen as a wholesome influence to cleanliness, as a deterrent to throwing garbage into the streets under the cover of darkness, and as an inducement to leaving windows open at night for healthier sleep.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Everything Sings may be an antagonist to the traditional practice of cartography, and yet it accomplishes exactly the end that all maps must, if they’re to be of any lasting use: forcing us to see our world, and its many wonders, anew each day.

Images and captions copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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06 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, Possibly His Last

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From Ben Franklin to Qadafi, or what the Egyptian Revolution has to do with Harry Potter.

Christopher Hitchens — legendary self-described “antitheist”, tea master extraordinaire, one of the most opinionated and controversial journalists of our time and despite that, or precisely because of it, also one of the greatest. Last year, his prolific career — which spanned such iconic titles as Vanity Fair, The Nation and Slate — was derailed by a grim cancer diagnosis. (His Vanity Fair essay on losing his “writer’s voice” as cancer attacked his vocal chords is a must-read.)

This month marks the release of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens Hitchens’ first anthology since 2004 — and, as the author writes in the book’s introduction, possibly his last:

…About a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.”

The anthology collects some of Hitchens’ best recent work — including “America the Banana Republic,” “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” “Iran’s Waiting Game,” and “God of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment” — imbued with his signature style of lucid nonfiction written with the passion and narrative enchantment of really, really good fiction. Unapologetically candid, wryly humorous and keenly insightful, the essays examines such cultural icons as Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Pound, Abraham Lincoln, George Orwell, and even Harry Potter in the context of contemporary events, weaving history and present together in Hitchens’ web of timelessness and timeliness as he reflects on the most pressing political and social issues of our time.

From the book’s dedication and introduction:

To the memory of Mohemed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu

The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian street vendor, and Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father. In the spring of 2011, the first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak’s Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi — symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Qadafi regime in Libya.”

Crisp and cunning, Arguably is bound to live on as material for the journalism curricula of the future and a priceless piece of the legacy of one of our era’s sharpest minds.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Spitting in the Face of Creativity?

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Lessons in plagiarism from Polish magazine Przekrój.

I adore the work of Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, whose clever and thought-provoking negative space illustrations and minimalist portraits of cultural icons you might recall. Last week, reader Michal Korsun alerted me to something that angers and saddens me in equal parts — Przekrój, Poland’s oldest weekly news magazine, plagiarized Bar’s brilliant portrait of Hitler, on the cover no less.

I passed the image on to Bar’s representation and quickly heard back from the artist himself, who confirmed that it was indeed a case of plagiarism — Daniel Horowitz, the illustrator who created the image (and who has since removed it from his portfolio site), neither sought permission for a derivative graphic nor acknowledged the very clear “inspiration” for the cover. Besides the very cut-and-dry fact that it’s illegal to steal, creatively or otherwise, what’s most heartbreaking about this is that it takes a clever visual metaphor Bar spent time and thought on, adds no value or commentary, and instead just subtracts from the creative merit of the original work — to sell a magazine, remember.

In Noma’s own words:

‘Take a sad song and make it better’…. In this case, [Horowitz] didn’t make it better. The balance, detail and tension in the face — all lost. I would be a bit more encouraged if I felt that I learned something new about Hitlers face — unfortunately, I didn’t. It’s an obvious trace of photo and a random barcode.”

While I’m a vocal proponent of remix culture, it’s important to understand the line between remix and rip-off. The law still struggles with this distinction and, in many cases, draws the line in such a way that it discourages remix. But as far as I’m concerned — and some of the thought-leaders in this space tend to agree — it comes down to a rather simple litmus test: If a derivative work changes the original in a creatively meaningful way, or offers cultural commentary or critique on it, then it’s a new original work of its own creative merit; if it merely parrots or mimics the original while adding no context or commentary, then it’s a rip-off.

That a publication of Przekrój’s stature and legacy is unable or unwilling to make that distinction is a disgrace to both journalism and creative culture.

UPDATE 9/5/2011 10:23PM: Daniel Horowitz has gotten in touch with me to give his side of the story. Here’s what he had to say, published here with his permission — be your own judge:

Just got back to [Brooklyn] from my trip to Europe and I am quite interested to read the many remarks including your own on the subject of plagiarism and the resemblance of my illustration to that of Noma Bars. A much more interesting article would be how two artists arrived at the same conceptual solution independently, which is in fact what is the case, altogether much less sensational than ‘Spitting in the Face of Creativity’.

With my reputation at stake and working for many of the same international clients as Bar does, why on earth would I care to jeopardize my position by plagiarizing anyone’s work, especially in a such an open way. You also accused me that I had the illustration up on my site and then took it down. I make visual metaphors daily for a living, hundreds and thousands over the course of a career, and in this case I apparently wasn’t the first to think of replacing Hitler’s mustache with a barcode.

I was more surprised than anyone when Mr. Bar’s illustration was brought to my attention, and the similarity is more a comment on the fact that we think and solve visual problems alike than anything more.

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