Brain Pickings

Carl Warner’s Whimsical Food Landscapes

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What the London skyline has to do with asparagus, rhubarb, and Pink Floyd.

British photographic artist Carl Warner, whom you might recall as one of our favorite architects of edible landscapes, is a master of food and form, crafting astounding fantasy food landscapes that are part Ansel Adams, part Anthony Bourdaine, part your childhood daydreams dreamt from the counter of your grandmother’s kitchen. These miniature vignettes are painstakingly hand-crafted with only minimal Photoshop involvement and exude a kind of vibrant whimsy that stands in stark contrast with the mundane, dully ordinary ingredients Warner uses. Food Landscapes collects Warner’s most magnificent work, alongside detailed production notes and ingredient lists for each scene.

Making landscapes out of food seems like a rather unusual thing to do for a living, and people often ask, ‘What made you start doing this?’ It seems that the burning heart of this question is really the curiosity about what it is that motivates any human being to do something out of the ordinary, and my short answer to this is usually a simple, because I had the idea and I chose to do something about it.” ~ Carl Warner

Salmon Sea

Smoked salmon sea, dark soda bread rocks, sugar and pinto beans sand and pebbles, foreground rocks from new potatoes and parsley; pea pod and bean sprout boat, side of salmon sky

Coconut Haystacks

Parsley trees with horseradish trunks, red cabbage sky, toasted almonds as distant haystacks, and loaves of bread for hills

Chinese Junk

The roster of ingredients includes dried lotus leaves for snails, noodles for the wood floor, physalis lanterns, and the obscure wild green yamakurage for the rope.

And since we’re on the subject of influences today, Warner traces the kernel of his inspiration to the work of Tessa Traeger, a food photographer who in the early 1990s published A Visual Feast, a collection of painterly, two-dimensional pictures composed using food. Warner wondered whether he could take this a step further and create three-dimensional vignettes with food. Then, one day, as he was strolling through the fruit and vegetable market, he noticed the curving trunks and parasol canopies of portobello mushrooms were reminiscent of trees in the African savannah. He quickly grabbed the mushrooms and some grains, and headed back to his studio to create a tabletop scene that would photograph like a larger landscape. The rest was creative history.

Of his start with photography, Warner recounts:

For me, drawing and music were a means of escape into other worlds and alternate realities, and this provided the means to stimulate and exercise the muscles of my imagination. This went on for years, until I discovered photography. I found that I could photograph the real world but make it surreal by the techniques and the processes I was able to use in the camera and in the darkroom. I soon realized that this was a lot quicker than drawing, and I was able to develop ideas and concepts with more ease… At the same time, album cover art was in its heyday, and graphic designers such as Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis were creating amazing surreal images for bands like Pink Floyd. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Celery Rain Forest

Canope made of okra with dried chili oarsman, tiny mushroom hat and a cardamom pod; path: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and lentils

Cart & Balloons

Balloons made of red onion, apple, garlic bulb and other fruits; balloon baskets: nuts; hills and fields: bread, cucumber, string beans, green beans, corn, asparagus

Broccoli Forest

Broccoli trees, chopped parsley ground, fresh herb plants, small foreground rocks from Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes, cumin, turmeric and fennel seed pathway, crusty bread rocks, sugar waterfall, cauliflower clouds

London Skyline

Riverbank walls: panini; lamppost: mackerel, asparagus, onion, vanilla pods; London Eye: green beans; courgette, leek, lemon, rhubarb supports; The Dome: green melon.

A pinnacle of finding magic in the mundane, Food Landscapes is an absolute treat and a living manifesto for the power of truly running with the seemingly crazy creative ideas that take hold of your imagination.

Images courtesy of Carl Warner / Abrams Books

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Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors: The Physical Underbelly of the Internet

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An anatomical tour of the Internet by way of 60 Hudson Street, a nondescript epicenter of global data traffic.

We keep thinking and reading about the Internet as a cultural phenomenon, but what about its palpable physicality? In 2010, it was estimated that the world produced over one thousand exobytes of new data, or one trillion gigabytes. Most of it doesn’t stay put — instead, it travels through the world’s servers, but where exactly does it go? That’s precisely what Ben Mendelsohn set out to answer in Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a fascinating short documentary for his masters thesis at The New School. The film takes us inside 60 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan — a deceptively nondescript building that houses one of the world’s major nodes of the Internet. The rest…well, you’ll have to see for yourself:

It’s really vital to remember that the Internet is physical. The Internet can be touched, it is material and it exists — because so much of the rhetoric surrounding current concepts of ‘cyberspace’ suggests that it’s somehow just this sort of magic, etherial realm that exists ‘out there’ almost on its own.” ~ Stephen Graham, Professor of Cities and Society, Newcastle University

Technology does not exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by the many people and institutions that extract value from it. With all this infrastructure, all this sunk capital, there is obviously much value to extract from 60 Hudson Street… A combination of historic, technological, and economic forces has embedded this concentrated piece of Internet infrastructure in the dense urban core of Lower Manhattan.”

(Bonus: At 0:20, you can see a shot of our view at Studiomates.)

via The Atlantic Video

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The Ecstasy of Influence: Jonathan Lethem on the Author as a Public Intellectual

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A self-conscious reflection on literary self-consciousness, or what David Foster Wallace’s true gift really was.

If you’ve ever aspired to write a book — and let’s agree that ‘book’ is not a diagnosis of medium — or understand those who do and have, then Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is for you. It’s part anthology of Lethem’s finest longform writing, part meditation on what it means to be what Lethem calls, not without a good measure of self-conscious self-consciousness, “an intellectual” — and even what it means to be an intellectual reader of an intellectual. He terms this the “white elephant” role of the author as a public intellectual and goes on to explore its burdens, blessings, and cultural responsibilities. (And he welcomes you to the conversation with a “bias spoiler alert” that forewarns: “I think I’m an intellectual, and I think you are too, whether you like it or not.”)

The zesty collection of “uncollected” writings includes some of Lethem’s best-known nonfiction pieces, exploring everything from cinema to graffiti to cyberculture to Bob Dylan, lined with a layer of metadata — epigraphs, quotes, reviews. But, above all, the anthology is about what Lethem calls “negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive.” He writes:

I want to bite the hand that feeds me, even if that hand is sometimes yours, reader.

The book’s title is based on Lethem’s excellent 2007 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Curiously, Lethem appears preoccupied — whether in self-conscious jest or in heartfelt reality, the line between which is always elusive in the heart of the novelist — with these “plagiarisms,” “lifts both acknowledged and unacknowledged, both conscious and (surely) unconscious.” Curious because he gladly lists his many influences in writing his newest pieces — Renata Adler, Mark McGurl, David Foster Wallace, to name a few, alongside “usual suspects” like David Shields, Geoff Dyer, and Annie Dillard, as well as his life’s obsession with Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Given this very book is essentially a florilegium of writings and ideas by both Lethem himself and his literary influences, to slap the label “plagiarism” on the fundamental dynamic of what I’ve all too frequently referred to as combinatorial creativity is, at best, a semantic slip in the age of remix culture and, at its most unwholesome, an affront on the very mechanism that fuels creation, literary or otherwise.

(You can catch more of Lethem’s thoughts on influence in the excellent documentary Walking on Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age.)

For a taste, here are some favorite quotes that capture the mischievous irreverence and deep reflection with which Lethem approaches his subject.

On David Foster Wallace and self-consciousness:

David Foster Wallace deserves to be remembered as a great writer not because he was capable of doing PhD-level philosophical speculation as well as shunting fictional characters (slowly) through a well-described room but because he mastered a certain area of human sensation totally: intricate self-conscious remorse at the fact of self-consciousness. Wallace’s way of loading up this indistinct area with scrupulous depiction made a lot of people feel less lonely; meanwhile, the possibility that being the depicter made Wallace feel more lonely has become a widely circulated armchair-shrink’s allegory for the usefulness of self-consciousness. Because it doesn’t help. Doesn’t help the depressed person feel undepressed, doesn’t help the storyteller tell the story.

On language and self-consciousness:

Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place.

On language and abstraction:

Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream.

On influence itself:

Influence is semiconscious, not something to delineate too extensively, except when we’ve patterned our latest book on a literary monument of the past, at least a half-century old, by a master with whom we’d never dare compare ourselves, only hope to be ‘worthy of.’

On the curse of micro-celebrity:

If you want to drive a person mad in a fame culture, offer him only a little fame, the very least amount you can scrape up. This happens every day, but it happens in slow motion for novelists. We’re like the guy who gets voted off first on Survivor, except instead of departing the island we walk its beaches forever, muttering.

On the crux of writing:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’

On Vonnegut’s famously bitter retort to critics he thought wanted to see him vanish from the literary landscape — “I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books” — and the meta-irony therein:

Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep it in circulation shows he was wrong.

With its meta-commentary and its passionate urgency, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is at once a collection of some of our time’s best longform writing and a welcome reflection, if a self-conscious one, on the writer’s fate in contemporary culture.

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