Brain Pickings

Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour, a BBC Documentary


Exploring the role of art as an agent of change, or what 100 million porcelain seeds have to do with Twitter.

Creative visionary, political activist and post-modern Renaissance man Ai Weiwei is China’s most widely known and politically vocal contemporary artist. His now-legendary Sunflower Seeds installation for the Tate Modern in October 2010, which took 2.5 years and 1,600 Chinese artisans to produce 100 million hand-crafted sunflower seeds from the finest Chinese porcelain, offered powerful commentary on consumerism, Chinese industry, human rights and collective labor. In February 2011, a 220-pound pile of the seeds sold for $559,394 at Sotheby’s in London. On 3 April, 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained under harsh conditions for over two months without any official charges being filed, on allegations of “economic crimes.”

On June 22 2011, following a large and sustained outcry by international human rights organizations and prolific Western media coverage, the Chinese government released Ai Weiwei on bail, under a number of conditions. But the controversy surrounding his work and the provocative political questions raised by his arrest remain an important part of the global dialogue on art, activism and freedom of speech.

He uses the publicity he gets in a very knowing way, and he uses exhibitions and projects, like the Bird’s Nest stadium, as a platform to be visible and to be able to turn them against themselves. And that’s extremely interesting, and a very sophisticated way of being an artist.”

This fascinating hour-long documentary titled Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour, released by BBC One’s Imagine program earlier this year and recorded shortly prior to Ai Weiwei’s arrest, helps contextualize his work, its cultural significance and its implicit political tensions. Ironically, the film — which deals with issues of openness, censorship and accessibility — is not viewable outside the U.K. thanks to BBC’s restrictive digital media policies, but it’s available on YouTube in its entirety, at least for the time being, thanks to what seems to be Ai Weiwei’s own Chinese YouTube account. Enjoy.

Ai Weiwei is, to my mind, the most significant Chinese artist we are aware of in the West. He’s articulate, he’s passionate, he goes to the edge, he’s unafraid of criticizing the politics and the situation in his own country, nor indeed is he afraid of criticizing Western capitalism.”

For more on Ai Weiwei, his work and convictions, look no further than the excellent Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, culled from the salvaged archive of the artist’s blog, which was taken down by the Chinese authorities in 2009. Courageous, honest and effusively eloquent, Ai Weiwei’s writing offers a rare lens on the mental and physical state of present-day China, the role of contemporary art in politics, and the role of the artist as an agent of change.

via +Mel Exon

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A Brief Visual History of Vintage Typographic Scripts


From Victorian letters to modernist lettering, or what Venice has to do with children’s penmanship.

Iconic design writer Steven Heller has previously delighted us with a peek inside the sketchbooks of famous graphic designers and a fascinating look at the design and branding of dictatorships. Now, he and his partner of 28 years, acclaimed designer Louise Fili, are back with Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age — a treasure chest of typographic gems culled from advertising, street signage, type-specimen books, wedding invitations, restaurant menus and personal letters from the 19th to the mid-20th century. Ranging from the classic to the quirky, the 350 stunning images are unified by a common thread: All the typefaces featured are derived from handwriting or symbolic of the handwritten form, and the letters in each touch each other. And in a day and age when pundits are lamenting the death of handwriting as a much deeper cultural death, there’s a special kind of magic about the celebration of beautiful scripts.

We started gathering materials for the book by just going through the shelves of my studio: the stunningly timeless black, white and red St. Raphael enamel sign, French button cards, type specimen books and of course my albums of sign photos. While many of the selections were obvious, some were serendipitous: For example, while teaching a summer masters workshop in Venice, two of my students gave me a composition book they had unearthed from a recycling bin on the Grand Canal. It was from 1923 with verses written in perfect Italian school children’s penmanship.” ~ Louise Fili

At once sentimental and visionary, Scripts is a living capsule of the near-forgotten beauty and allure of vintage lettering, but also of books themselves — lavish, vibrant, tactile, with lush typography winking at you from the page in come-hither seduction unlike the screen ever could.

Images courtesy of Felt & Wire

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7 Celebrations of Nelson Mandela


What Apartheid has to do with Victorian poetry and using peace as a weapon of mass reconstruction.


In 1961, Nelson Mandela became leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and government targets. On May 21st that year, mere months before being arrested for sabotage and other charges and sentenced to life in prison, a 42-year-old Mandela gave his first-ever interview to ITN reporter Brian Widlake as part of a longer ITN Roving Report program about Apartheid. At that point, the police are already hunting for Mandela, but Widlake pulls some strings and arranges to meet him in his hideout. When the reporter asks Mandela what Africans want, he promptly responds:

The Africans require, want the franchise, the basis of One Man One Vote — they want political independence.”

Towards the end of the interview, Mandela tries to reconcile the difficult dynamic between peace and violence, suggesting that the full force with which the police had gone after him might have triggered this shift from nonviolent to violent protest means — violence, it seems, does only breed violence.


On 2 February 1990, President F. W. de Klerk reversed the ban anti-apartheid organisations, announcing that Mandela would shortly be released from prison. Nine days later, after 26 years in prison, Mandela reentered the free world and gave a seminal speech to the nation. The event was broadcast live all over the world, and this recording from the BBC archive is the only surviving footage of the momentous moment. Here, a deeply overwhelmed Mandela shares his first impressions of the new South Africa he had just brushed up against and revisits the complex relationship between peaceful means and armed struggle.

I have committed myself to the promotion of peace in the country. But I have done so as part and parcel of the decisions and campaign that have been taken by the ANC . . . The armed struggle is a defensive act against apartheid . . . There is not a single political organization in this country, inside and outside of Parliament, which can ever compare to ANC in its total commitment to peace.” ~ Nelson Mandela


On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first multi-racial elections in which full enfranchisement was granted. The ANC won with a 62% majority, and Mandela, as leader of the organization, was inaugurated as the country’s first black President on 10 May, 1994. His inauguration address was as much a vision for South Africa’s future was it was a declaration of humanity and justice for a new global era.

Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all. All this we owe both to ourselves and to the peoples of the world who are so well represented here today.” ~ Nelson Mandela


Released last fall, Conversations with Myself is a timecapsule of (an) extraordinary character if the world ever saw one — a remarkable anthology of materials that capture Mandela’s essence with equal parts humility and heroism. The Guardian‘s Peter Godwin eloquently called it not “so much a book as a literary album,” with its varied snippets of Mandela’s life — letters, calendars, prison diaries, vignettes of personal life, and transcripts from over 50 hours of audio recordings by TIME magazine editor Richard Stengel, who ghost-wrote Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. With a foreword by Barack Obama and an introduction by Verne Harris, head of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the book is an absolute treasure about an absolute treasure, reminding us, as Godwin puts it, that we often see history through retrospectacles that lead us to think what happened was somehow inevitable, whereas in fact it, not unlike human character, is a series of conscious and not always easy choices.

The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.”


For the biographically inclined, this short documentary from The Biography Channel manages to cover the essential Mandela, from his birth in the small African village of Mvezo in the Thembu tribe to his early interest in political activism to his imprisonment, release and eventual rise to presidency, in just under 7 minutes.


Andrew Zuckerman’s fantastic Wisdom project is a longtime favorite. Driven by the insight that the greatest heritage of a generation is the wisdom gained from life’s experience, Zuckerman went wisdom-hunting among 50 of our time’s greatest thinkers and doers — writers, artists, philosophers, politicians, designers, activists, musicians, religious and business leaders — all over 65 years of age. The resulting brilliant book-and-film, Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another, features remarkable interviews with and portraits of icons like Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall and Desmond Tutu, among a treasure trove of others. (Zuckerman subsequently divided the great tome into four smaller, more digestible sub-volumes, each with its own thematic DVD: Wisdom: Life, Wisdom: Love, Wisdom: Peace, and Wisdom: Ideas.)

Nelson Mandela

Image copyright Andrew Zuckerman |

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another. Peace is the greatest weapon for development that any people can have.” ~ Nelson Mandela

More on the project here.


Say what you will of Hollywood, but they certainly know how to send chills down your spine. In 2009, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, starring Matt Daemon and Morgan Freeman as Mandela, swept the awards circuit to great acclaim. Titled after the short Victorian poem of the same name, published by William Ernest Henley in 1875, the film captures Mandela’s journey and character through the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted there immediately following the dismantling of apartheid.

In the closing scene, Matt Daemon’s character visits Mandela’s prison cell as Morgan Freeman’s voiceover reads Henley’s poem, which Mandela has professed to have inspired him in prison. The vignette is nothing short of an emotional tour de force — try, if you can, to stop the goosebumps from enveloping your whole body.

(In true Hollywood fashion, the studios seem to have disabled embedding on all clips of the Freeman-narrated poem floating around on YouTube.)

Invictus is based on John Carlin’s excellent book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.

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