Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Hans Ulrich Obrist’

18 AUGUST, 2014

An Atlas of Alternative Maps by Tim Berners-Lee, Ed Ruscha, Yoko Ono, Damien Hirst, John Maeda, Kevin Kelly, John Baldessari, and More

By:

“Maps are errors to arrive at truth.”

For all the spiritual benefits of getting lost, we humans are habitually driven to orient ourselves to the world and find our place in it. It is no surprise, then, that maps captivate our imagination so powerfully. We’ve found in cartography a tool of propaganda and a springboard for philosophy, a canvas for art and a vehicle for idealism. We’ve applied it to everything from understanding time to ordering the cosmos.

Just when it might seem like the world doesn’t need another book about maps, Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies (public library) — a magnificent compendium envisioned and culled by legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist — proves otherwise. With more than 130 maps by a wide-ranging roster of luminaries spanning art, science, technology, literature, architecture, film, and more — including John Baldessari, Tim Berners-Lee, Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Kevin Kelly, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, John Maeda, Sean Carroll, Douglas Rushkoff, and Marcus du Sautoy — the book offers a living reminder that rather than objective representations of reality, maps are invariably projections in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, projecting onto the world the mapmaker’s subjective, abstract, psychoemotionally charged ideas about what is real and meaningful.

Carved atlas by artist Étienne Chambaud

(Image courtesy of Étienne Chambaud)

The volume’s greatest gift and highest point of differentiation is, in fact, precisely the sensibility for which Obrist is known and celebrated — the bold cross-pollination of disciplines, which invites the various fields to enrich one another, a beacon whose aggregate beam illuminates the landscape of the unknown. Obrist remarks on this approach in a companion essay titled “You Are Here”:

Dialogue, conversation and exchange between different fields is the only way we can chart a course through the increasingly complex terrain of contemporary life… Maps produce new realities much as they seek to document current ones. Maps are always a going-beyond the space-time of the present.

In 2009, Wired magazine founding editor and digital culture sage Kevin Kelly asked people to draw a map of the internet as they pictured it, illustrating what he had in mind by drawing his own map.

(Image courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

(See more of Kelly’s Internet Mapping Project here.)

'Map of the Future' by designer John Maeda

(Image courtesy of John Maeda)

'Wen Out for Cigrets' (1985) by artist Ed Ruscha

(Image courtesy of Ed Ruscha)

Obrist points to the particularly appropriate situationist concept of dérive — a term from psychogeography connoting an unplanned, wanderlust-driven journey through an urban landscape — citing his conversation with the Belgian writer and philosopher Raoul Vaneigem:

The dérive is not merely a spatio-temporal drift through urban landscapes, but a drift through the spaces of the imagination in order to arrive at an invention of reality. This is why Joyce’s Ulysses takes the simultaneous form of a dérive through the environs of Dublin and a drift through the mind of Stephen Dedalus. Wandering and drifting can be a geographical and a psychological movement, a migration across borders. Maps are errors to arrive at truth. To paraphrase the words that Joyce gives to Dedalus, these “errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Obrist touches on this element of psychological wanderlust in the opening chapter:

Maps are often an abstraction of the physical or conceptual world — a symbolic depiction of a space or idea that allows one to understand and navigate an unfamiliar topography or complex topology. But while most conventional charts, plans and diagrams claim to offer an accurate, even objective picture of the world, each one is bound by the specific agendas of its creators and users… Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities, hierarchies, experiences, points of view, and destinations.

'Flight Patterns' by artist Aaron Koblin, a visualization based on airplane location data.

(Image courtesy of Aaron Koblin)

'18th Century Königsberg' and '21st Century Kaliningrad' by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy

(Image courtesy of Joe McLaren)

The prominent Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy points to the unsolvable 18th-century puzzle “The Seven Bridges of Königsberg,” a groundbreaking “map in mathematics” asking whether it’s possible to cross all seven bridges only once, as a kind of metaphor for how maps reflect multiple dimensions of cultural change:

Rather than the physical geometry of the city, it was the way the city was connected together that was important. Topology was born. Topological maps are essential in navigating the plethora of networks that map the modern world: from the London Underground to the Internet, from neural networks to social networks. Although the eighteenth-century version proved an impossible puzzle to solve, it turns out that in modern-day Königsberg, or Kaliningrad as it is called today, you can cross the seven bridges that currently span the Pregel River once and only once.

'Map of Media Power Over Time' by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff

(Image courtesy of Douglas Rushkoff)

Artist Yoko Ono contributes a textual piece, originally published in her 1970 gem Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono:

MAP PIECE

Draw an imaginary map.
Put a goal mark on the map where you
want to go.
Go walking on an actual street according
to your map.
If there is no street where it should be
according to the map, make one by putting
the obstacles aside.
When you reach the goal, ask the name of
the city and give flowers to the first
person you meet.
The map must be followed exactly, or the
event has to be dropped altogether.

Ask your friends to write maps.
Give your friends maps.

1962 summer

Artist Pae White admits to a chronic difficulty in reading maps and writes, 'Shapes don't automatically register as places, and cropping or figure/ground ambiguity only makes things worse. For me, a void is also a place.'

(Image courtesy of Pae White)

Computer scientist and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's 'mapping analogy for explaining to people the mingling and evolution of influences in the World Wide Web technology' (2007)

(Image courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee)

Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies is a stimulating delight in its entirety. Complement it with Umberto Echo’s chronicle of the greatest maps of imaginary places and E.F. Schumacher’s superb vintage guide to philosophical maps, then revisit Obrist’s compendium of famous artists’ instructions for art anyone can make.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson

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14 APRIL, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World: A Decade-Long Photographic Masterpiece at the Intersection of Art, Science, and Philosophy

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What a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree reveals about the meaning of human life.

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Indeed, it is this capacity for questioning that makes Sussman’s perspective particularly powerful. She herself, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art, considers it the supreme responsibility of the artist:

The role as an artist [is] to answer some questions, but to ask many more.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Bristlecone pine detail

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Sussman writes in the preface:

What does it mean when the organic goes head-to-head with the geologic? We start talking about deep time and the quotidian in the same breath, along with all the strata in between. All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected — and in turn, inextricably connected to us all.

[…]

The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

Baobab

2,000 years | Limpopo, South Africa

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

To be sure, the project has resonance far deeper and wider than a purely artistic pursuit. In a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old — a kind of faith-washing known as Young Earth Creationism — Sussman’s work brings to light tangible, irrefutable, gloriously alive evidence of the scientific reality. After all, when beholding a majestic 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, how can human arrogance dare deny its reality under the blindness of dogma?

Indeed, the exploration of deep time is one of the most powerful elements in Sussman’s work — certainly a scientific concept, in terms of being concerned with biology, geology, and astrophysics, but also very much a philosophical one raising enormously important, if unsettling, existential questions: Why are we here? How can we matter if we’re gone in the blink of a cosmic eye, the metaphorical minute of a Bristlecone Pine’s day? And, most importantly, what gives us the arrogance to consider ourselves atop the hierarchy of living organisms? We extol our intelligence as the uniquely human faculty that sets us apart from other animals, but even our definitions of intelligence are narrowly anthropocentric and based on things we humans happen to be good at. Surely there’s a special kind of biological and existential intelligence in an organism capable of such remarkable resilience — an organism that can outlive us by millennia and witness all of our fleeting struggles while it remains unflinchingly rooted in its particular corner of the ecosystem.

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria

400,000-600,000 years | Kolyma Lowlands, Siberia

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Because of its unique cross-disciplinary slant and dimensional scope, the book comes with two introductory essays — an art one by art-world legend and curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist and a science one by Carl Zimmer, one of the finest and most respected science writers working today.

Obrist elegantly applies the late and great philosopher Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “the protest against forgetting” to Sussman’s work and celebrates it as a living archive of remembrance. He writes:

The oldest living things may well not be a clear category science-wise, but it is a category that is defined by curiosity, humane character, a fascination with deep time, and the courage of an explorer.

In the science essay, Zimmer explores how lives become long and why the remarkable timescale of these organisms’ lifespans matters — not just scientifically, but also culturally:

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

Lower slope leading to Palmer's Oak

13,000 years | Riverside, California, USA

Box Huckleberry (Bibleberry) branches stripped by deer

8,000 to 13,000 years | Perry County, Pennsylvania, USA

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Even more fascinating than how much we know, however, is how much we don’t — many of these organisms stand as a testament to the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science. In a book chapter exploring the 2,000-year-old Stromatolites of Western Australia — a species composed of bound cyanobacteria that formed about 3 billion years ago and undertook the Herculean task of oxygenating our then-oxygen-poor planet — Sussman observes:

It’s remarkable that we know so little about the origins of life on our planet. We know more about surfaces of other planets than we do about the beginnings of life on our own.

The Senator (bald cypress)

3,500 years | Seminole County, Florida

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of the Senator tree in Florida, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, which Sussman originally wrote for Brain Pickings a few years ago. She had photographed the Senator in 2007, but upon developing the film — Sussman shoots with a medium-format film camera for her high-quality fine art prints — she found herself unhappy with the result and resolved to return to the tree down the line. Since it was one of the most easily accessible organisms in her stable — what’s a sunny flight to Florida next to a harrowing weeklong voyage to Antarctica’s icy cliffs? — and since the tree had been around for 3,500 years, she figured it could wait.

Then, in January of 2012, news broke that a mysterious fire had burned the Senator to the ground. Unsettled and full of unease, Sussman immediately got on a plane to shoot the charred remains of the mighty tree, the only sign of its former brush with Forever. She poignantly observes:

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a complacency in my return to the Senator.

The charred remains of the Senator Tree, February 8, 2012

The most devastating part? It was later discovered that the cause of the fire was a group of twenty-somethings who had broken into the park after dark, high on meth, climbed inside the tree, and lit matches or a lighter to “see the drugs better,” setting the Senator ablaze and erasing thousands of years of natural wisdom under the influence of synthetic senility.

But this story, too, is one of optimism. Sussman writes:

For the Senator, there is a chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. In February 2013, after a careful root-stabilization process, a forty-foot grafted tree was successfully transplanted back into the Senator’s original spot and has already sprouted fresh growth and gained in height. Four artisans and several institutions were selected to make works honoring the Senator’s legacy. The stump has been incorporated into the playground area.

In this beautiful short trailer by filmmaker Jonathan Minnard offers glimpse of Sussman’s extraordinary world:

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

The Oldest Living Things in the World is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true masterpiece of compassionate curiosity and cross-disciplinary brilliance. A limited collectors’ edition is also available, housed in a gorgeous handcrafted, cloth-encased box, including a signed print of the Spruce image on the cover.

For more, see Sussman’s 2010 TED talk:

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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31 JULY, 2013

How to Block a Surveillance Camera: A DIY Art Tutorial from Ai Weiwei

By:

A wine opener usage George Orwell would approve of.

“When things get tough,” Neil Gaiman advised on in his fantastic commencement address on the creative life, “this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art.” One could easily extrapolate, “Big Brother on your ass — make good art.” Amidst recent outcries against the present-day surveillance state we live in, what else is there to do but make good art? Cue in celebrated Chinese artist, provocateur, and human rights champion Ai Weiwei. From Do It: The Compendium (public library) — the fantastic collection of famous artists’ wide-ranging instructionals for art anyone can make based on 20 years of legendary curator and provocateur Hans Ulrich Obrist’s project of the same title, which also gave us David Lynch’s tutorial on how to make a Ricky Board — comes this antiauthoritarian creative project from Ai Weiwei, a DIY way to stick it — spray it, rather — to Big Brother:

CCTV SPRAY

How to make a spray device to block a surveillance camera:

Do you feel uncomfortable, confused, disgusted, or even irate because of a surveillance camera fixed at the wrong place? To block its view, spray-painting would be the best choice. It is highly accessible, inexpensive, and effective. Moreover, it is a perfect gesture in presenting street culture.

It is difficult to spray on a surveillance camera at a high place directly by hand. Instead of carrying a ladder on the streets, it is more practical to make an adjustable, easy-to-carry, and low-cost spray device.

It is best to use materials easily found from daily life to create this tool.

He goes on to list the materials needed — a spray bottle, a wine bottle opener, a bike bottle cage, a bike brake bar, a screw, and a stick — with the instruction to “choose materials that are as practical and reliable as possible” and are also “cheap and easy to obtain.” He then moves on to the step-by-step “Production Procedure”:

First find a long stick of suitable height. Considering portability, a collapsible tree pruner is recommended. Then select a stable frame that can secure a bottle or a can. For example, a bottle cage for bicycles would be a good fit. After that, find a trigger and fix it at the top of the stick. A wine bottle opener is a good choice, because its flexible lever structure can reduce the force and distance needed to press the spray nozzle.

We also need a linkage device to control the wine bottle opener at the top. A bicycle brake bar is an excellent choice.

Finally, prepare screws and nylon ropes as needed.

Under “Usage,” he instructs:

First fix the wine bottle opener at the top of the tree pruner (a.01).
Then set the spray can into the bottle cage. Make sure the handle of the bottle opener is affixed to the right position, where it gives easiest nozzle control. Use screws to secure the bottle cage (a.02). Fix the brake bar at the other end of the tree pruner (a.03).
Secure the spray paint can and use a nylon rope to fasten the flexible shaft (a.04).
Adjust the height of the stick. Then connect the handle of the bottle opener to the shaft of the brake (a.05–a.06).

The homemade adjustable spray device is now complete.

Complement this exercise in creative civic disobedience with BBC’s excellent Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour.

Do It: The Compendium is superb in its entirety, brimming with similar irreverent gems by some of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. Sample it here.

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