Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

12 OCTOBER, 2009

Journalism Redefined: The Photographer

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A photographer, a graphic novel, and the remarkable story behind the headlines.

As we observe the eighth anniversary of Afghanistan’s latest occupation, the world would do well to reflect on the history that brought us to this most recent impasse. That complex history deserves a fittingly complex treatment, which it gets in the genre-breaking masterwork The Photographer.

First published in 2003 in French, The Photographer was reissued in English this year. Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, it tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s journey through Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour in 1986 from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story.

The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage unlike anything else in modern journalism. Through hybrid forms of history, The Photographer tells one tale of what is of course an ongoing narrative in a part of the world we usually hear about in abstract headlines. We were moved by the courage and strength of the Afghani people and the MSF doctors who risk their lives to help them under exceedingly difficult conditions, especially the team’s young, female head of mission. Although we know how this particular piece of the story works out—against long odds Lefèvre makes it back to his native France, and MSF will stay until forced to abandon its operations temporarily in 1990—that does nothing to diminish the book’s suspense.

The Photographer is a true hybrid of artistic approaches. Frames of photos run in succession to provide parallax views of a scene, and Lemercier’s coloration of the drawn panels enhances the immediacy of the experience. (The Persian script in several scenes was even penned by Persepolis artist/author Marjane Satrapi.) Moved along by interwoven panels of photography and illustration, we were completely absorbed by the action and had to be pulled away to tell you about it.

For a singular storytelling experience, let The Photographer take you on a trip through time to a place we still need to understand better.

Kirstin Butler has a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter. For more of her thoughts, check out her videoblog.

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09 OCTOBER, 2009

Color and the Brain: Beau Lotto’s Optical Illusions

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What tsunamis have to do with online banking, public transit and better street cred for geeks.

We’re deeply fascinated by both the inner workings of the brain and the essential role of color in design thinking. Which is why we raved about Beau Lotto’s TED talk when we first saw it live at TEDGlobal this summer. Lotto is founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art studio and science lab, and his fantastic talk is now available for all to see — a remarkable journey into how we see, by way of optical illusions, plays on color and light, and some curious neuro-factoids.

Illusions are often used, especially in art — in the works of the more contemporary artists — to demonstrate the fragility of our senses. This is complete rubbish. The senses aren’t fragile — if they were, we wouldn’t be here. Instead, color tells us something completely different: That the brain didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is — we can’t. Instead, the brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see it in the past.

Much of this, of course, isn’t new — many of the illusions Lotto demonstrates borrow from the famous Ishihara color test, developed by Japanese researcher Dr. Shinobu Ishihara in 1917.

But what we find most interesting is the notion of translating color into sound as it’s closely related to the work of a dear, dear friend — Israeli animation artist and jazz musician Michal Levy, who actually sees music and hears color — a rare phenomeno known as synesthesia, a neurological crossing of the senses that occurs in only a tiny fraction of the population.

Her brilliant short films, Giant Steps and One, embody many of the principles used in Lotto’s translation of children’s paintings into music. (Needless to say, we hope to see Michal speaking at TED one day.)

For a deeper illumination of the brain’s incredible relationship with color and light, check out Lotto’s fantastic book, Why We See What We Do: An Empirical Theory of Vision — a compelling exploration of the visual history of our species, the historical significance of visual stimuli, and the wide-spanning consequences of how our brain sees.

Meanwhile, we’re anxiously awaiting the emergence of more synesthetic projects across the arts and sciences as multimedia environments evolve and interaction artists continue to experiment with the intersection of technology and the senses.

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01 OCTOBER, 2009

30 Years of Innovation: Happy Birthday, ITP

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Mud, paparazzi, and what rodents have to do with the bleeding edge of interactive technology.

A self-decapitating squirrel-as-clock, voice-activated tug-of-war games, and anti-paparazzi fashion aren’t typical student thesis projects, but then the program for which they were created is no typical program. NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) celebrates its 30th anniversary from October 1st through 3rd this year, and belying its ’70s-era name, the ITP is the go-to place for the newest in new media.

A cross between experimental arts studio and R&D technolab, the ITP is a two-year degree program and self-described “center for the recently possible.” The current course catalog reads like some kind of avant-hacker’s dream: Cabinets of Wonder, Design for UNICEF (taught by faculty member Clay Shirky), and Sousveillance Culture are among the many electives available.

ITP’s bi-annual thesis shows have become must-see events for talent recruitment and pure geekdom alike. The artists, designers, engineers, theorists, and technologists that make up the program’s community of alumni/ae, faculty, and students include a current MacArthur Fellow, numerous TED presenters, and Ze Frank — in short, a who’s who of high-minded cool.

With equal emphasis on hardware and software, student projects push the boundaries of new technology but with a distinctly user-centered focus. Some, like Plott by Thomas Chan, have immediate real-world application—as applications (of the iPhone variety). Others, like Tom Gerhard’s Mud Tub, take a more theoretical bent. All draw on life as their laboratory, and we love how they augment our experience of interacting with the world.

As it turns 30, the ITP’s mission—to explore creative applications of communications technologies—is more relevant now than ever. The program’s immersive approach to learning excites us not only because it approaches the classroom as playground, but also because it’s a great example of design within social contexts. (And consistent with this collaborative ethos, ITP has set up a wiki so that its current and past students and faculty can assemble a timeline of the program’s history.)

With concentrations in design areas such as assistive technology, mobile computing, and sustainability, the program has not only kept pace with the times but seems poised to lead the way into the brave, new, mediated landscape we live in. To see what makes ITP such a cool place, check out a project portfolio and a few additional videos.

Kirstin Butler holds a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter.

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