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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

30 APRIL, 2014

Perseverance, Self-Transcendence, and the “Slow Churn” of Creativity: A Conversation with Artist Rachel Sussman

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How deep time puts our fleeting human lives in perspective, what it takes to persist, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires sacrifice.

At a recent event at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman about The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — her decade-long labor-of-love photographic masterpiece at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy highlighting thirty humbling organisms over 2,000 years of age, which I’ve covered at length previously. In our conversation, we explore how deep time helps make sense of our fleeting human lives, what the role of the “slow churn” of ideation is in the creative process, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires an act of self-transcendence.

Transcribed highlights below, and be sure to see Sussman’s superb photographs, contextualized by her thoughtful essays.

On the project as a cultural reality check and a personal reminder of our place in the universe:

MP: NPR recently shared a survey that found 40% of the American public doesn’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. We know, of course, that scientifically speaking, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. And yet what’s most striking is that we — all of us, globally, still use Christianity as the basis for measuring and dating time. The year 2014, for instance, is based on the story of Christ, year one being his birth in that story. But when one beholds, say, a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, it’s impossible — impossible — to continue believing such mythology. When you were starting this project, did you have any sense that besides a masterwork of art, it would also be a tremendously important and powerful piece of science communication and a cultural reality-check? And how do you see the project’s role in that regard, now that the book is complete?

RS: One of the things I was aiming to do was to anthropomorphize these organisms as a way to connect and start to forge a personal connection, which really is a philosophical one, when you start to look at, for instance, the 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, and what does that mean. For me, this is something that has taken years to sink in — you get it, on an intellectual level, but by returning to this topic again and again … and making more connections to these organisms and understanding how they are all interconnected, that starts to create a bigger picture that’s both about deeper and broader time that belongs to all of us, but also that our individual moments matter quite a bit and are part of that chronology.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

On finding a sense of purpose, the doggedness necessary for creating meaningful work, and the importance of defining our success in terms more authentic than outside approval:

MP: I want to talk a little bit about this notion of faith — ungrounded, unevidenced faith that carried you through.

A young woman recently reached out to me and asked for some advice, and complained that she had just started working for a major publication six weeks prior. She complained that she was really frustrated that she couldn’t build an audience in those six weeks, and she was ready to throw in the towel.

You’ve been doing this for a decade — you’ve been doing it completely guided by your own inner compass, inner radar, and not having any sort of solid positive reinforcement from the outside. What carried you through it, what gave you that center that told you this was something that had a sense of purpose on the scale of your life and defined success in terms other than immediate rewards?

RS: [Laughing] I certainly wasn’t in it for the immediate rewards.

I couldn’t not do it — that is the simplest answer. I felt so compelled by that idea, and it felt important to me that I see it through.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t terrifying along the way… It was quite a long battle just getting to the point where I felt this is something that really is worth my time and attention, and then I had the idea and I thought, “How am I ever going to do this idea justice?” And I grappled with that for a while. And over the years it just changed and transformed, and I grew more confident the more I looked at it. But it took that time. When I started … I didn’t know what I was doing, and these things revealed themselves to me by having that continued attention to it.

It’s hard to say what the magic ingredient is, other than perseverance. And, certainly, you can’t throw in the towel after six weeks.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

MP: Since you started the project, you’ve been working with the Climate Reality Project as an official presenter doing public outreach. So I wonder how the ecological component of the work accelerated in urgency for you, personally, doing this?

RS: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, for whatever that term means, and it’s something that I think, as an artist, was an interesting thing — because for a long time, I don’t think it was particularly acceptable in the fine art world to be doing work about nature. It’s something that was sort of in a compartment somewhere off to the side…

The problem of climate change is so pressing and actually is something of a moral imperative for us all, and I think artists do a tremendous job of engaging the public on different levels [compared to hearing] some numbers about the C02 levels — it’s hard to internalize that. And I think that’s one of the beauties of being able, as a creative person, to create the parameters of what you want to talk about. The science and the climate science are a very important component of the overall project. That message certainly underpins the whole thing and has been with me and with it from the beginning.

The question has been this idea of making portraits of these organisms and thinking of them as individuals. I think one of the most important things to do when dealing with climate science and climate change is to create a personal connection, and to create some relationship. That was my way of trying to forge a relationship to these organisms.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

On how the project began when Sussman first photographed an ancient tree in Japan, the myth of the Eureka! moment, and how the slow accumulation of combinatorial creativity sparked this decade-long journey:

I didn’t know I was doing the project yet — I didn’t have the idea, and I didn’t have an epiphany standing in front of [that first tree] … It was actually sitting at a Thai restaurant in Soho over a year later that I got the idea — so you never know when inspiration [will strike].

But this is actually something that I think is so vital to the creative process… I didn’t know at the time, but I find it incredibly comforting now — it’s something that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of the “the slow churn” … just following these different paths, the things that intrigue you, and allowing them to simmer in there until something fires in your brain and all of a sudden these connections happen.

I did have the a-ha! moment — but it probably was a year and a half in the making.

Dead Huon pine

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

On self-doubt, creative resilience and making the choice to pursue this project:

I knew I was going to make sacrifices — I don’t think I knew I was going to make as many sacrifices as I did. But that’s okay. There are moments where I felt doubt, because I think every creative person does — and if they don’t, there’s probably an issue [laughing] — but there was never a moment that I wanted to give up.

On the disconnect between exposure and financial success, an important reminder in a culture where artists are constantly asked to do work for free and be “paid” in exposure:

Just because your name is in the paper, it doesn’t mean you have money to pay your rent.

On realizing, while working as a digital producer, that paying work and fulfilling work are not always the same thing:

I had a moment while I was sitting working for some website for some brand, and I thought, “This doesn’t matter. This isn’t how I want to spend my days, this is not the way that I want to put something out into the world that is of significance.”

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

On the notion of the “audience”:

MP: Oscar Wilde famously said that to the artist, the public is “nonexistent” and Hemingway believed that writing is a solitary act which necessitates no witnessing audience until the very end. And for you, certainly, this was a very solitary project… But you wrote in Nature, in a beautiful essay:

“There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum … it is the audience that completes the picture.”

So I wonder how your sense of “the audience” evolved over the course of the project.

RS: When I first started the project, even though I knew it was meant to exist on these different levels and have different aspects, I didn’t really know how I was going to communicate that. So I think that it was just important that I be able to create a connection with these different aspects, but that it would be different for different people. So, if you’re a scientist, you may go straight for the science, and if you’re a visual artist, you might just look at the pictures. But the idea was that I wanted to intermingle all of these things, and let people bring what they will to it. So there’s not a right and a wrong way — it’s not prescriptive in that way…

It’s completed by the person taking it in, and that’s something that I realized over time as well — that I want to have all of those layers there, and I see them as a whole, but I also have an understanding that … there’s just as much value if you get one thing out of it and not the other. My hope is that it sparks some thought or conversation in the audience, and it’s not just meant to be a document filed away — it’s actually meant to engage, and I hope that it will serve as something that is a call to action, whatever that might mean for people.

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

And engage it does — The Oldest Living Things in the World is a masterwork of pause-giving perspective, both cultural and personal. Sample its dimensional genius here.

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

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29 APRIL, 2014

What It Takes to Design a Good Life

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“Busy is a decision… You don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things.”

What does it take to have a good life? That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, wondered when his daughter turned five and he grew tired of reading her fables about the knight who saves the princess to live happily ever after. So he set out to find more empowering stories of existential success from some of the most inspiring women and men of our time, and The Good Life Project was born — a wonderful conversation series, which also gave us Milton Glaser on art, technology, and the secret of life. In this remarkably wide-ranging and soul-stimulating episode, Fields turns the tables on master-interviewer Debbie Millman, host of the National Design Award winning radio show Design Matters and author of, most recently, Self-Portrait as Your Traitor. Together, they explore the question of what makes it possible to design your life — to design a good life. Highlights below.

On the shared humanity of the “impostor syndrome” most creative people feel and what years of interviewing great minds have revealed about the life-cycle of happiness:

The one common denominator [that great thinkers and creators] have shared with me over the years is that they all feel like they have to get up every day and do it again. They all feel like they may very well be discovered as phonies, they very well may never, ever achieve what they had hoped. The only two people in all the years that I’ve done this that have been different, that have had a different experience in articulating who they are and what they believe, are Milton Glaser and Massimo Vignelli. But I think the common denominator that they share is that they’re both in their eighties!

On our culture of entitled impatience and why we should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time”:

I was doing a lecture for a group of students several months ago and I was talking about how long things can take… And a young woman raised her hand at the end of the lecture… and asked for some advice, because she had started a blog and she was hoping to get some pointers on how to get people to come to the blog, to read the blog, because she was feeling very discouraged — she’d been doing it for a while and people weren’t reading it. She wasn’t getting any traction. And so, of course, my first question was “How long have you been doing it?” And very sincerely, very earnestly, she said, “Six weeks.”

[…]

And this is, I think, a really unfortunate ramification from this 140-character culture — that people in their twenties, when they graduate from college, expect that they have to be successful. And if they’re not successful right out of the gate, then there’s something wrong with them. And then that builds into this real sense of hopelessness, because they haven’t achieved something quickly.

On synthesizing our own happiness and making our own luck, and the importance of mental health care:

This is where we run into trouble in terms of being fulfilled… You have to make your own happiness, wherever you are. Your job isn’t going to make you happy, your spouse isn’t going to make you happy, the weather isn’t going to make you happy… You have to decide what you want, and you have to find that way of doing it, whether or not the outside circumstances are going to participate in your success… You have to be able to create your own happiness, period. And if you can’t, then you need to find a good shrink who can help you figure out what it’s going to take.

On finding a sense of purpose:

What I think has helped propel me to live a more purposeful life [is] to feel that what I’m doing is coming from my heart and not my head so much. And it’s still a struggle.

On how our actions, not our words, reveal our true priorities:

I’m a big proponent of “busy is a decision.” You decide what you want to do and the things that are important to you. And you don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things. And if you aren’t doing them because you’re “too busy,” it’s likely not as much of a priority as what you’re actually doing.

On what it means and what it takes to have a good life, adapted from Millman’s remarkable commencement address:

Imagine immensities. Pick yourself up from rejection and plow ahead. Don’t compromise.

Start now.

Start now, every single day.

The entire conversation is well worth watching, as is subscribing to both The Good Life Project and Design Matters (also on SoundCloud). Complement with Millman’s heartening commencement address on courage and the creative life and her illustrated poems and essays.

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25 APRIL, 2014

John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Love, Animated

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“You’ve got to work on it. It is a precious gift, and it’s a plant, and you’ve got to look after it and water it.”

“A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality,” Yoko Ono wrote in her 1964 compendium of illustrated instructions for life. Two years later, and nearly a decade after she had presaged their fateful romance, she met John Lennon and the two became inseparable as they dreamt together one of the most beautiful and tragic love stories of all time. In 1969, the same year that 14-year-old Jerry Levitan taped his now-legendary conversation with Lennon, Village Voice writer Howard Smith sat down with the couple to extract from them the secret of love in a heart-swelling, soul-expanding conversation found in the altogether fantastic The Smith Tapes Box Set — an archive of Smith’s restored interviews with such icons as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jane Fonda, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, and other greats whose names don’t begin with J.

Now, the fine folks of multimedia nonprofit Blank on Blank — who also gave us Janis Joplin on creativity and rejection, David Foster Wallace on ambition, and Maurice Sendak on being a kid — have brought Smith’s conversation with John and Yoko to life in their signature style of audiovisual storytelling. Highlights below.

On the secret of love:

You’ve got to work on it. It is a precious gift, and it’s a plant, and you’ve got to look after it and water it. You can’t just sit on your backside and think, “Oh, well, we’re in love, so that’s alright.”

On being together without stifling one another:

We’re both mind people, you know. So to be apart, we don’t have to physically be apart.

On the myth that there can be too much togetherness:

If you love somebody, you can’t be with them enough — there’s no such thing.

For more insight on the dignity of love and sharing a life, see Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths and these essential reads on the psychology of love. For more Lennon gold, revisit Jerry Levitan’s illustrated interview and Lennon’s own illustrated poetry and prose.

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