Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

15 AUGUST, 2011

7 Essential Books on Street Art

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What Japan’s manhole covers have to do with Brazil’s favelas and the timeless tradition of Arabic calligraphy.

Street art is a frequent fascination around here. Today, we turn to seven stunning, intelligent books that examine street art from a variety of angles, from the artistic to the sociocultural to the political and beyond, to glean holistic understanding of the ubiquitous, important but often misunderstood medium for public dialogue and civic self-expression.

TRESPASS

WoosterCollective is among the most authoritative blogs on street art. Last fall, its founders, Marc and Sara Schiller, poured years’ worth of expertise and insight into Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — a gorgeous and thoughtful anthology that covers everything from Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee that’s as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech. And since the lavish 320-page volume comes from Taschen, easily the most visually ambitious publisher today, it’s an absolute treat for the eye.

What makes Trespass different from other street art books is that it’s not a street art book. It’s a book that certainly includes street art and graffiti but goes beyond that to also address performance, protest, sculpture, and the whole goal of the book was to really look at the context of street art in a much larger historical perspective.” ~ Marc Schiller

Originally reviewed, with video, here.

STREET SKETCHBOOK

One of street art’s most characteristic features is that it’s so fundamentally public and in-your-face. But what goes into the private creative process of a street artist? That’s exactly what Tristan Manco examines in Street Sketchbook: Journeys, the follow-up to his 2007 Street Sketchbook: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists — a rare peek inside the sketchbooks of 26 of the world’s hottest new artists, and one of our 5 voyeuristic peeks inside the notebooks of cross-disciplinary creators.

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

ARABIC GRAFFITI

It’s no secret that the the majority of street art coverage in the media, from blogs to books to films, has a severe geographic bias, with a tendency to focus on Western lettering and imagery. Arabic Graffiti is a breath of fresh Eastern air in the global dialogue on street art. The ambitious anthology by Berlin street culture tastemaker Don Karl and Lebanese typographer Pascal Zoghbi explores the use of Arabic script in urban context, curating graffiti artists and typographers from the Middle East and around the world who incorporate Arabic calligraphy styles in their artwork — a beautiful intersection of tradition and contemporary creativity.

Part cultural anthropology, part study in creative ingenuity, Arabic Graffiti is also a timely and needed cross-cultural bridge of visual communication in the context of today’s global political climate. (For more on the subject, see the fantastic Cultural Connectives.)

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

STREET WORLD

What makes street art so fascinating is that it isn’t an isolated discipline — rather, it’s the confluence of a myriad cultural phenomena, offers commentary on countless social issues, and borrows inspiration from a multitude of other creative domains. In Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents (which you might recall from this old piece on Beautiful Losers, the excellent documentary about contemporary street art culture), Roger Gastman, Caleb Neelon and Anthony Smyrski examine street art culture from a holistic standpoint, as it relates to other forms of urban expression — skateboarding, bike messengering, DJing, fashion, gang politics, music, design, photography — and explore how the advent of the Internet has fostered a new global street culture in less than a generation. From New York’s back-alleys to Brazil’s mega-cities to South Africa’s townships, the hefty tome is divided into more than 50 topics, each illustrated with dozens of photographs.

STREET KNOWLEDGE

Today, street art is so ubiquitous it’s easy to forget it’s a fairly nascent form of urban dialogue. But where did it begin and how did it make its way around the world? That’s exactly what King Adz explores in Street Knowledge — a fascinating encyclopedia and insider’s guide to street art culture around the world, tracing the evolution of the movement from its groundbreaking days in 1980’s New York to the bleeding-edge work of modern-day Middle Eastern artists. From old-school graffiti legends to modern street art icons, including film-makers, designers, DJ’s, writers and poets, the book reveals the deep and lateral propagation of street art across just about every aspect of contemporary culture.

From interviews with some of world’s most influential street art talent, including Banksy, Quik, Shepard Fairey and the Obey crew, Martha Cooper, David LaChapelle and Tony Kaye, to profiles of up-and-comers from across the globe, Street Knowledge also places the featured street art in the context of the cities where it appears, doubling as an underground guide to the hottest art, culture, music, fashion, dining and film spots in some of the world’s most exciting cities.

Originally reviewed last year.

URBAN IRAN

In 2008, our friends at Mark Batty released the excellent Urban Iran — a gripping, visually stunning anthology by photographers Karan Rashid and Sina Araghi exploring the rich spectrum of street art across Iran’s cities and countryside.

Alongside the lavish visual spreads are illuminating essays that examine the artwork in a sociopolitical context, bridging this faceted visual landscape with the cultural undercurrents that power it.

What makes the project particularly intriguing is that it came mere months before the 2009 Iranian uprisings, but the content and context of the street art themes featured in the book — censorship, rebellion, political disillusionment, a yearning for justice and democracy — presage what was to come.

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

DRAINSPOTTING

Street art is considered a subculture in and of itself, but the fact remains that it’s divisible into a great diversity of subgenres itself. Among the most fascinating is Japan’s unusual style of manhole cover graffiti, cataloged in Drainspotting — a stunning photographic anthology of the remarkable street art gems found across nearly 95% of the country’s 1780 municipalities. With their bold colors and dramatic motifs, from doves to dragons, the book’s 100 photographs capture the best and most visually compelling of Japan’s 6000 distinct manhole cover designs, part of a 20-year beautification program, orchestrated by what’s essentially Japan’s version of the WPA, aiming to make manholes reflect the uniqueness of each city — its mythology, its aesthetic sensibility, its legacy and essence.

The cherry on top? There’s also a Drainspotting iPad app, a beautiful homage to the classic Japanese intersection of art and technology. The app uses geolocation, inviting users to drainspot Japan, scavenger-hunt-style, and discover more examples of this unique visual subculture that didn’t make the book.

Originally featured here last spring.

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11 AUGUST, 2011

The Homosexuals: A CBS “Documentary” from 1967

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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.

Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:

The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”

When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:

I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.

But, hey, one thing we’ve made unabashed progress on is gay rights sign design.

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22 JULY, 2011

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery & Thermogeddon: Lexicographer Erin McKean’s TEDBook on New Words

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How to spot wordishness when you see it, or what serendipity has to do with digital publishing.

As a hopeless language lover with a soft spot for words, I was thrilled by this week’s release of a new book by lexicographer Erin McKean of Wordnik fame. Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook comes from TEDBooks, the ambitious low-cost imprint we featured as one of 7 platforms changing the future of publishing, and, for just $2.99, offers a wonderfully fascinating look at a slew of a new words and phrases across science, politics, technology, social life and other facets of our ever-changing cultural landscape.

And, in the year when neo-words like “lifehack” and “unfollow” were officially inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s safe to say the techno-tangle of formal language is so pervasive it might necessitate professional untangling. McKean does this with equal parts wit and rigor, making the understanding of emergent language as exciting as it is necessary.

Why these words? I haven’t picked the newest words (or the older), the funniest words, or the most scientifically advanced words. Instead, these are all words that have struck me with their ‘wordishness’ — that quality a word or phrase has of packing up an idea into a handy carrying case, making it portable, accessible, and (most important) transmissible — among speakers of English. Wordishness doesn’t imply elegance, grace or even clarity, but we know it when we see it.” Erin McKean

Sample McKean’s linguistic genius and charisma with her excellent 2007 TED talk, in which she redefined the dictionary:

Online dictionaries replicate almost all the problems of print, except for searchability. And when you improve searchability, you actually take away the one advantage of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult.” ~ Erin McKean

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon is an absolute treat of insight at the intersection of linguistic timeliness and timelessness, served with the kind of passion that makes TED TED.

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18 JULY, 2011

Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour, a BBC Documentary

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Exploring the role of art as an agent of change, or what 100 million porcelain seeds have to do with Twitter.

Creative visionary, political activist and post-modern Renaissance man Ai Weiwei is China’s most widely known and politically vocal contemporary artist. His now-legendary Sunflower Seeds installation for the Tate Modern in October 2010, which took 2.5 years and 1,600 Chinese artisans to produce 100 million hand-crafted sunflower seeds from the finest Chinese porcelain, offered powerful commentary on consumerism, Chinese industry, human rights and collective labor. In February 2011, a 220-pound pile of the seeds sold for $559,394 at Sotheby’s in London. On 3 April, 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained under harsh conditions for over two months without any official charges being filed, on allegations of “economic crimes.”

On June 22 2011, following a large and sustained outcry by international human rights organizations and prolific Western media coverage, the Chinese government released Ai Weiwei on bail, under a number of conditions. But the controversy surrounding his work and the provocative political questions raised by his arrest remain an important part of the global dialogue on art, activism and freedom of speech.

He uses the publicity he gets in a very knowing way, and he uses exhibitions and projects, like the Bird’s Nest stadium, as a platform to be visible and to be able to turn them against themselves. And that’s extremely interesting, and a very sophisticated way of being an artist.”

This fascinating hour-long documentary titled Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour, released by BBC One’s Imagine program earlier this year and recorded shortly prior to Ai Weiwei’s arrest, helps contextualize his work, its cultural significance and its implicit political tensions. Ironically, the film — which deals with issues of openness, censorship and accessibility — is not viewable outside the U.K. thanks to BBC’s restrictive digital media policies, but it’s available on YouTube in its entirety, at least for the time being, thanks to what seems to be Ai Weiwei’s own Chinese YouTube account. Enjoy.

Ai Weiwei is, to my mind, the most significant Chinese artist we are aware of in the West. He’s articulate, he’s passionate, he goes to the edge, he’s unafraid of criticizing the politics and the situation in his own country, nor indeed is he afraid of criticizing Western capitalism.”

For more on Ai Weiwei, his work and convictions, look no further than the excellent Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, culled from the salvaged archive of the artist’s blog, which was taken down by the Chinese authorities in 2009. Courageous, honest and effusively eloquent, Ai Weiwei’s writing offers a rare lens on the mental and physical state of present-day China, the role of contemporary art in politics, and the role of the artist as an agent of change.

via +Mel Exon

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