Brain Pickings

Project Documerica: A Portrait of the 1970s Environmental Movement


Tie-dye jeans, soda can houses, and what Thai Buddhists have to do with American cowboys.

In 1971, as the environmental movement was reaching critical mass, the Environmental Protection Agency hired a slew of freelance photographers to capture the environmental problems, EPA activities and everyday life of the ’70s. For seven years, the 81 photographers traveled around the country, producing what became known as Project Documerica — a fascinating and deeply insightful cultural portrait of one of the most important decades in modern history.

Thirty years later, The U.S. National Archives have digitized more than 15,000 of these photographs and made them publicly available in the Archival Research Catalog, as well as on the National Archives’ impressively excellent Flickr library.

From the booming industrialism to the ripening of hyper-consumerism to nature’s ever-more-timid cameos in daily life, the series captures the beginning of our industry-driven environmental demise — with the earnest lucidity of an era that can’t even begin to imagine what’s to come.

Subsets of the series tackle specific themes and issues — like this striking visual record of the car culture boom, which is a bit like looking at the can-tell-it-will-be-hideous-but-can’t-tell-just-how embryo of Godzilla.

Still, some of the photographs offer a welcome respite from the avalanche of consumerism — like this clever experimental wall construction, using empty soda cans to build housing in New Mexico, which reminds us of the Buddhist bottle temple in Thailand.

You can also browse the archive by state for a broad-reaching look across vastly different locations.

Despite the clumsy site navigation and appalling interface, Project Documerica is a rich and impressive record of the patterns, processes and cultural forces that shaped our current era — dig in.

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Strange Worlds: Miniature Condiment Landscapes


Spicy aliens, furry fields, and how a domestic accident can spark creative genius.

There’s hardly a greater feat of creativity than portraying something ordinary through something mundane, to a cumulative effect of pure whimsy. That’s exactly what 26-year-old artist Matthew Albanese does in his fantastic — literally — Strange World series, incredibly detailed small-scale models of emotive landscapes made out of unusually usual everyday materials.

Tornado made of steel wool, cotton, ground parsley and moss

It all began in 2008 with an appropriately mundane domestic accident.

'Paprika Mars,' the very first landscape Albanese created, made of cinnamon, thyme, chili powder, and charcoal

One day I knocked over a tub of paprika. As I was cleaning up the mess I began to daydream and found I was playing with the paprika more than cleaning it up. I thought it was a great shade of red and it reminded me of Mars. So I figured I would bring Mars to me. I went out and bought 12lb of the pungent spice and created my first landscape – ‘Paprika Mars’. My studio smelled of paprika, but ever since then I have been interested in finding new materials and pushing myself to find out through experimentation what they could represent in my models.

Another Martian landscape, made out of 12 pounds paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder and charcoal

Through immaculate lighting and meticulous curation of tactile materials — faux fur for grass, cotton wool for clouds, bottle brushes for shrubs — Albanese creates uncannily realistic miniature worlds of wonder.

'Sugarland,' made out of 20 pounds of sugar, jello and corn syrup. Albanese grew the crystals in his studio over the course of two months.

'Burning Room,' made of wood, nylon, plexiglass and purchased dollhouse furniture. The model was actually set on fire to achieve this effect.

Perhaps most remarkable is Albanese’s incredible art of perspective — in less than three feet of length, he manages to evoke a sense of immensity and vastness, transporting you to heart of these whimsical landscapes.

'Aurora Borealis,' made by photographing a beam of colored light against a black curtain to achieve the edge effect, with holes in cork board to create the stars

'Fields, After the Storm,' made out of faux fur, cotton and sifted tile grout, with a shift in white balance to create the lighting effect

Albanese’s work reminds us of Matthew Carden’s Small World series of miniature food landscapes, with a hint of David Trautrimas’ Habitat Machines.

Explore the full Strange World series and let your jaw drop even further with the impressively laborious making-of.

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Wayfinding in Wittgenstein’s World: 88 Constellations


A non-linear tour of philosophy, or what Carmen Miranda has to do with the Vienna Circle.

How do you represent one of history’s famous philosophers, a man who wrote abstruse texts about the nature of representation itself? If you’re Canadian artist David Clark, you create the ambitious online art piece 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand).

Clark wrote, produced, and directed the Flash-based site 88 Constellations, a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative-as-game and an ingenious treatment of some of the 20th century’s greatest cultural touchstones, from the highs to the lows. Navigating its universe is like playing a Choose Your Own Adventure with one of history’s greatest philosophers as the protagonist. The best part is that you can play without any prior knowledge of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which makes the work a bravura feat and great fun all at once.

You start out with the introductory animation, which invites you to “join the dots together; make pictures in the sky. Connect the muddle of our thinking to these drawings in the sky. This story is about a man named Wittgenstein. He was a philosopher. His life was a series of moments, and our story is a series of constellations.” From there, you’re presented with a celestial map and an intricately interlocking set of ideas and images that unfold from the central point, Orion, the constellation chosen to symbolize the philosopher himself.

“Who is Ludwig Wittgenstein?” asks the narrator in a voiceover.

There were so many… He was a boy who didn’t talk until he was four years old. he was an engineer who designed propellors. He was a schoolteacher in rural Austria. He was an architect who designed an elaborate modernist house for his wealthy sister. He was one of the richest men in Europe after his father died but he gave all his money away and lived off of his wages. He was a whistler and a lover of music. He was an aesthete. He was a homosexual; he was an exile…”

All that and we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy yet.

Like its subject, 88 Constellations is in fact many things: an interactive online film, a biography of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a selective history of Europe over a period spanning both World Wars. Whatever you call it, it’s a satisfyingly rich, fully realized experience that could be used as a case study in maximizing the web’s narrative capacity.

From Orion, you can branch out in any order to other stellar clusters on topics ranging from Godard to the Twin Towers. Each constellation launches a short animated film, from which point you can connect to other stars along the same vector. This is how, on one particular journey, we learned such arcana as the fact that Psycho was the first film ever to show a toilet flushing, and that the widow of the film’s lead actor, Anthony Perkins, perished on American Airlines flight 11 when it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Such a seemingly random connection is typical of 88 Constellations, a quality that makes it a very clever conspiracy theorist’s dream; because the cumulative effect of these pieces is the feeling of a system that’s not so random after all. Perhaps, we found ourselves at one point thinking, there was some heuristic as rigorous as Wittgenstein’s philosophical logic that could illuminate all of the connections — if only we could figure it out. Clark skillfully plays to this sensation of mastery just beyond our reach.

For example, on the significance of the number 88: the number of constellations in the night sky; the number of keys on a piano; a component of the year 1889, in which Wittgenstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler were born within days of each other; the age at which Chaplin died; and an integer no longer found on the back of German athletic jerseys (the eighth letter of the alphabet is H, and so the number 88 could be taken to symbolize “HH,” or “Heil Hitler”).

Sometimes the revelations provide pure entertainment. On constellation number 55, Leo, the narrator tells us the following:

[A] lion appears on the screen and roars. if lions could talk then we wouldn’t understand them,’ Wittgenstein wrote. ‘Language is about sharing a view of the world. A lion and a man could never share their world view.’ Leo, the mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got this name from Samuel Leo Goldwyn, one of the founders of the studio. Goldwyn, a Polish emigre, was famous for his propensity to mangle the English language in paradoxical ways, something that became known as Goldwynisms. ‘A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.’

The piece, which was started in 2004 and finished in 2008, brings the ideas and life of a commanding intellectual figure from another era into our own digital one, while retaining all of his complexity. You can learn more about 88 Constellations on the project’s blog, including the meaning of its ambiguous southpaw-referencing subtitle.

Take a trip down the rabbit hole that is 88 Constellations — and find out why the rabbit itself was an important part of the philosopher’s seminal treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Thanks, @melissa_djohnst

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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Fresh Stuff from Michel Gondry


Swarms of shiny happy people and some cinematic magic.

This is the first time in Brain Pickings history we’ve used an exclamation mark — but there’s a new Michel Gondry video out!

This time the maker of cinematic gems is casting his poetic spell on the equally remarkable Mia Doi Todd‘s “Open Your Heart” — enjoy.

Fab, fab, fab, fab, fab.

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