Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

13 APRIL, 2010

Leave Your Sleep: Natalie Merchant Sets Victorian Children’s Poetry to Song


Musty libraries, otherworldly storytelling, and how dead poets wrote the year’s most moving album.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, which is the seedbed of some of humanity’s greatest creative achievements, hardly gets more bewitching than the intersection of literature and music. (An intersection I hold particularly dear.) That’s what Natalie Merchant accomplishes with great elegance and genius in Leave Your Sleep — a brilliant and beautiful musical adaptation of near-forgotten Victorian children’s poetry, a decade in the making.

The album, her first studio recording in seven years and co-produced with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and creator of the eclectic Red Hot charity series, samples from the entire spectrum of literary fame and obscurity, including poets like Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti and — our favorite — e e cummings, as well as little-known geniuses like Brooklyn poet Natalia Crane, who published her first book in 1927 at the age of ten.

What I really enjoyed about this project was reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life. Bringing them to light.

What makes the album all the more special is that in the six years Merchant spent researching the poets, sifting through newspaper microfilm from the 1800’s and spending countless hours in musty Victorian libraries, she grew increasingly curious about and inspired by their lives and decided to write a book about them. Poetry inspiring music inspiring prose, a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of the arts. Coupled with Merchant’s unforgettable powerhouse of a voice, the album is one of the most inspired projects to come out this year.

We were fortunate enough to experience Merchant’s absolutely breathtaking live performance at TED earlier this year, which, though not doing justice to her live stage charisma, you can sample below. The rich emotion oozing from Merchant’s voice as her melodic storytelling unfolds is just otherworldly.

Sophisticated, playful, bittersweet and utterly haunting, Leave Your Sleep spans as rich an emotional spectrum as it does a musical range, leaving us dangerously close to infatuation in a way that no single recording has managed to in longer than we can remember.

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12 APRIL, 2010

Art for the Age of Transparency: BBC DataArt


Layman geekery, or what documentary footage has to do with 3D and Brian Eno.

We’re big proponents of data visualization and believe it’s a potent tool for making sense of the increasing amount of information we’re being bombarded with. But despite a slew of fantastic work in this space over the past few years, there’s still relatively low public awareness and understanding of data viz as a creative discipline and a sensemaking tool.

That’s why we have high hopes for DataArt, a new project out of BBC Backstage aiming to offer examples of using data visualization in artistic and informative ways. Educational in nature, the learning portal is as much a showcase of compelling work as it is an introduction to the storytelling power of information visualization and a toolkit for joining this growing movement.

The DataArt project aims to introduce people to the power of information visualisation as a contemporary media form of increasing importance.

In an age where institutional transparency is no longer a courtesy but a demand, and companies, governments and other public entities are opening up their data to the public, the DataArt project offers a promising toolkit for understanding how ordinary people fan use data visualization to do anything from making better-informed decisions to expressing themselves creatively. With tools, tutorials, sample computer code and access to copyright-free data sources, the site is both a starting point and a destination, catering to a wide range of technical expertise levels and creative inclinations.

In blurring the boundary between art and information we hope this site will appeal to audiences interested in data visualisation in general, digital art and design, those interested in the BBC and those looking at data visualisation from an educational perspective.

Though currently pulling only from BBC data, the idea is to eventually sample other public sources as well. Four projects have been released so far: Flared Music is a simple Flash visualization displaying the relationships between musicians using the BBC Music API; 3D Documentary Explorer is an experiment in interactive storytelling, allowing you to look at the source material used in BBC documentaries in 3D; SearchWeb offers a tree-style glimpse of how BBC site search results are distributed across different categories; News Globe lets you search the BBC News & Sport website by keyword, with results plotted on a globe.

The project also encourages participation and collaboration, urging users to contribute and share their own work on the site. Part VisualComplexity, part GapMinder, part Processing, DataArt offers a promising wide-angle view of data visualization as an exploratory tool and a creative discipline.

We do hope to see more user-contributed work as well as a wider array of public data sets to play with.

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09 APRIL, 2010

The Art of Book Sculpture


Surgical typography, a beautiful ghost, and why the reading of art is the new art of reading.

We’ve already seen artists make magic out of materials like paper, cardboard and even toilet paper rolls. One related creative trend we’ve been seeing lately is that of book sculptures. (We wonder if it has to do with the speedy demise of print as artists try to find new ways of engaging with these analog cultural artifacts whose core function digital platforms are deeming obsolete.) Today, we spotlight five of our favorite book sculptors.


Artist Nicholas Galanin‘s What Have We Become? series offers incredible, haunting 3D portraits hand-carved out of several-thousand-page tomes.

A North American indigenous artist, Galanin’s work is inspired by Native American culture and reflects a certain layered authenticity difficult to capture in words.


Paul Octavious takes the concept of book sculptures quite literally — his typographic creations, sculpted out of piles of books, are a brilliant example of richness in simplicity.

Both playful and sophisticated, defying the laws of physics, the sculptures are a wonderful celebration of everything a good book stands for: imagination, balance, and delightful escapism from the constraints of reality.


For the ultimate meta-conceptual book art, look no further Royal College of Art graduates Hanna Nilsson, Sofia Østerhus and Markus Bergström, a.k.a. Bygg Studio, who have created an entire alphabet out of stacked books.

As bonified typography geeks, we’d love to see the series turned into an actual, usable font.


The great gift of literature is its ability to make incredible scenes spring up from the barren black-and-white landscape of the printed page and come to life before your eyes. British artist Su Blackwell does pretty much the same.

From Pandora’s box to Alice to Margaret and Marjorie, Blackwell’s brand of storytelling plays on stories we know and love but tells them in infinitely imaginative new ways.

The intricate, whimsical scenes reconcile serenity and urgency in a palpably delicate way, almost as though they set free the characters and settings trapped inside the books for centuries.


Brian Dettmer is a surgical sculptor with a penchant for the esoteric, obscure and near-obsolete. His remarkable book sculptures are meticulously carved into vintage volumes using a variety of tools — Xacto knives, surgical clamps, pliers, tweezers — and are painstakingly cut away one page at a time.

From atlases to dictionaries to paperbacks to encyclopedias, his artistic ingenuity — as well as his scalpel — knows no boundaries.

An intersection of pop art, ancient craft and scientific fascination, Dettmer’s creations are the epitome of architectured whimsy, precisely measured to tell a story yet artfully flamboyant in a way that makes the story wildly captivating.

Rather than trying to subvert things and impose his own message, Dettmer aims to play on and reveal hidden undertones of the books themselves through his sculptures.

I try to reveal some of the undertones and unconscious stories books tell. If I’m working with a book that was full of information, the book becomes a sculpture and the information can become concrete poetry within the sculpture. With certain books like medical books, the text itself can become a metaphor for love and relationships rather than strictly the physical body. A lot of images and different types of field-specific language can be exposed in different ways to make it more universal.

Print may be dead, but its ghost is a thing of beauty.


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08 APRIL, 2010

WPA: Lessons on Design & Government


What the digging of ditches has to do with design history and the recession.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Works Progress Administration — a controversial New Deal government agency created by President Roosevelt in 1935 as an answer to the Great Depression. Though considered by some near-communist in nature, the WPA generated a staggering number of public artifacts and initiatives in its eight-year run — roads, buildings, parks, bridges, libraries, schools, housing programs, food redistribution efforts. Investing nearly $7 billion in these projects and providing some 8 million jobs, the WPA became the largest employer in the country, offering the most competitive hourly wages within its areas of employment. Among its claims to fame are iconic landmarks like the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, the great mural at West Point military academy, Maryland’s Camp David, and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

But one of the greatest contributions the project made to contemporary culture comes from its visual heritage. The WPA funded the Federal Arts Program — a large arts, drama, and media project that had two central goals: To create artwork for non-federal public buildings, and to provide jobs for unemployed artists. And it did both — it employed thousands of artists, actors and musicians, which resulted in 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 easel paintings, 2,566 murals and 240,000 prints.

These artworks were incredibly influential in shaping the visual language of that era and eras to come. We are particularly taken with the remarkably rich WPA silkscreen, lithograph, and woodcut posters designed to promote anything from public health and safety programs to art exhibitions to travel and tourism.

Today, only 2,000 of these posters remain in existence and the Library of Congress has the largest singular collection, featuring about 900 of them. We’ve uncovered this fantastic Flick set, a digital archive of 324 of these brilliant artworks, brimming with the bold typography, vibrant color palettes and rich art direction of mid-century aesthetic sensibility.

While we are all for liberalizing, democratizing and de-institutionalizing the arts, we have to wonder whether a centralized effort to employ artists and creators in the economic recovery process may have some merit, if only for the sake of fostering widespread visual literacy and establishing the aesthetic legacy of the era. We just wish the political powers of the day would consider investing in such art-driven efforts the way the WPA did. What would $7 billion be, adjusted for inflation? Roughly $160 billion. And how does that compare to what today’s government is investing in war? As the kids say, just sayin’.

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07 APRIL, 2010

You’re a Horrible Person, But I Like You


Dating advice from Sarah Silverman, or how to live your life like a bonified hipster.

Over the past few years, hipster humor has had a field day across media — from cult TV shows like Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to quasi-indie comedies from the likes of Judd Apatow to blogs like Stuff White People Like, many of which have been so successful they’ve even gotten book deals.

This week, The Believer Magazine brings us You’re a Horrible Person, But I Like You: The Believer Book of Advice — a compendium of never-to-be-actually-followed-yet-delightfully-amusing advice from 45 of the comedic masterminds behind many of these projects.

From how to swap one addiction for another to how to tell your conservative father you’re a lesbian, take it from the producers, writers, and actors of The Office, Arrested Development, Saturday Night Live, Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and other hipster entertainment darlings — pop culture offers an unsuspected existential blueprint. Or, at the very least, some solid comedic relief.

You’re a Horrible Person, But I Like You: The Believer Book of Advice features Aziz Ansari, Judd Apatow, David Cross, Jim Gaffigan, Amy Sedaris, Sarah Silverman and many other postmodern jesters we’ve come to love-hate. Grab a copy for a chance to cringe, chuckle and crack the code of the hipster lifestyle.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.