Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

22 JUNE, 2011

The Beekepers: Artful Documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder

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What Aristotle’s hobby has to do with the future of agriculture and our best defense against disaster.

I love bees. My grandmother, who essentially raised me, is a beekeeper and instilled in me a deep respect for these gentle and amazing creatures, so it breaks my heart every time I hear of new evidence for colony collapse disorder and the vanishing of the honeybee.

The Beekepers is a fascinating experimental documentary by filmmaker Richard Robinson, exploring the cultural history of beekeeping, from Aristotle to medieval monasteries to Darwin to the U.S. Army, and looking for answers to the CCD crisis through a near-expressionist blend of black-and-white archival footage and voice over narration. Equal parts artful and thoughtful, the film is a genre-bender with an uncommon creative angle, offering an illuminating glimpse of the intricate mechanisms driving a complex and all-permeating ecosystem.

Now that the environment is changing, the beekeeper has taken on another role: that of the environmental monitor. It turns out that bees are better at telling us what’s going on in the environment than just about anything else. They’re better than NASA’s satellites at tracking global warming and they’re the most efficient way we know of testing toxic waste sites. The government has even studied them as a way to alert us to environmental disasters. So when colony collapse disorder started killing bees mysteriously, it wasn’t just the food supply that concerned scinetists — it was the environment itself.”

For more on colony collapse disorder and what it means for the future of our civilization, I highly recommend Rowan Jacobsen’s Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

via @Jake_Barton; image via Wikimedia Commons

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22 JUNE, 2011

Iron Fists: A Design History of Totalitarian Regimes

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What Mao’s poetry and Mussolini’s pulp fiction have to do with crimes against humanity.

The role of design in political communication is something I’ve always been fascinated by. Hardly does the power of design spring to life more vividly than in iconic images that rally the masses around an ideology, from the prolific design output of the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. to the vintage Soviet propaganda of the mid-20th-century to Shepard Fairey’s now-iconic Obama posters. Today, we turn to Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State — a fascinating account of how last century’s four most notorious and destructive totalitarian regimes used design and brand strategy to claim, retain and enforce power by Steven Heller, often considered today’s most prominent and prolific design critic. (You may recall his Graphic project, a peek inside great designers’ sketchbooks, from earlier this week.)

The book looks at Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and China under Chairman Mao, exploring in 240 pages of stunning vintage artwork the role that visual language, typography and color palette played in hijacking the minds of millions. Heller looks closely at a wide range of logos, symbols, monuments, postage stamps and other relics of those regimes to expose the striking similarities between such political propaganda and the advertising strategies of today’s consumer culture.

The design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar.” ~ Steven Heller

What’s perhaps most striking is that almost all of the dictators Heller examines considered themselves artists and took active control of marketing their respective brands. Mussolini wrote pulp fiction in which he portrayed himself as a male sex symbol, Chairman Mao took pride in his poetry and calligraphy, and Hitler was a budding architect and watercolor painter before he became creative director of his own twisted “brand,” keen on controlling everything from the use of the swastika to his own likeness, mustache and all.

Some images courtesy of Project Projects

Equal parts visually stunning, intellectually illuminating and emotionally unsettling, Iron Fists sits at the intersection of political history and graphic design, offering an unprecedented look at the design of politics as we head into another election season.

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21 JUNE, 2011

Shapes for Sounds: A Visual History of the Alphabet

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What the anatomy of your tongue has to do with ship flags and the evolution of human communication.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the intersection of sight and sound and have a well-documented alphabet book fetish. So I absolutely love Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson, exploring one of the most fundamental creations of human communication, the alphabet, through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.”

While the tome is full of beautiful, lavish illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets — it’s no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

The alphabet is one of the greatest inventions; it has enabled the preservation and clear understanding of people’s thoughts, and it is simple to learn. It still has great significance; while the advent of type — printed alphabets — has curtailed any real development of the shapes of letters, the alphabet has been more greatly utilised in the last 500 years than ever before. Typography is the engine of graphic design, and writing is the fuel. But more than that, the alphabet has been the enabler of mass communication technologies from Morse code to the internet.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Though the Latin alphabet is the focal point, Donaldson explores an incredible range of related history, from ancient calligraphic traditions to semaphore, to bar codes and binary code, exposing the magnificent cross-pollination of disciplines — design, typography, anatomy, phonetics, sociology, linguistics, psychology and more — that gave birth to one of our civilization’s oldest and most powerful technologies.

I would love to have the experience of having envelopes drop through my door with no address, just a picture of me and my house on the front. I would like to buy a newspaper full of nothing but pictures and graphic devices, and to find my way home using road signs that are just arrows and drawings, but I think these events a re a long way off. To cross national borders still requires a textual document; a passport is not just a picture of your face. The obligator tax-return, a document that, if ignore, will make you a criminal, contains no images. The highway code features many image-based signs, yet must be explained with words. The interent is 95% text.” ~ Timothy Davidson

Shapes for sounds comes as yet another gem from the fine folks at Mark Batty, my favorite indie publisher, who brought us such excellence as Notations 21, Cultural Connectives, Drawing Autism and more.

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20 JUNE, 2011

Everything is a Remix, Part 3: The Elements of Creativity

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What Gutenberg has to do with Thomas Edison and the secret sauce of Apple.

Kirby Ferguson’s excellent Everything is a Remix project is, as I’ve previously written, one of the most important efforts to illuminate the mechanisms, paradoxes and central principles of creative culture in modern history — an ambitious four-part documentary on the history and cultural significance of sampling and collaborative creation, reflecting my own deep held belief that creativity is combinatorial. Today, Kirby releases the highly anticipated third installment in the series, titled The Elements of Creativity.

Enjoy — this is a cultural treasure:

The most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together, creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

From derivative work in art to incremental innovation in technology, Kirby tells the lesser-known stories of history’s greatest innovators to illustrate the point that creativity builds on what came before rather than crystallizing from thin air under the touch of a mythical muse.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb — his first patent was “Improvement in Electric Lamps,” but he did conduct trials with 6,000 materials for the filament until he created the first commercially viable bulb. Apple didn’t invent the first desktop computer — it copied Xerox (oh, the irony…), but was the first to combine the computer with the household appliance, sparking the personal computing revolution.

What started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance. The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.” ~ Kirby Ferguson

The fourth and final episode, coming this fall, will tackle the most complex question of all: How our legal, ethical and artistic burdens are hindering our collective ability to embrace technology as a true enabler of creativity. You can support the project here — I happily did.

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