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World AIDS Day Spotlight: Interview with Travis McCoy

What a pair of sneakers has to do with a bridge in Manila and mobile cinema in South Africa.

When Gym Class Heroes front man Travis McCoy traveled to South Africa, India and the Philippines last June, he met the leaders of three projects funded by the Staying Alive Foundation, MTV’s global grant-giving organization fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS by empowering young leaders. Inspired by his incredible experience, Travis launched the Unbeaten Track project and wrote the single One At a Time, which drops today — World AIDS Day — with 100% of proceeds going directly to the Foundation to fund even more AIDS-fighting projects around the world.

Today, we sit down with Travis and pick his brains about the Unbeated Track project, how social entrepreneurship differs from philanthropy, and whether there’s a shift in the economy of cool.


Hey Travis, good to have you. Straight to the point — what’s your story of getting involved with the Staying Alive Foundation?

I first became involved with Staying Alive back at the Europe Music Awards in 2008. I was asked to do some filming on the red carpet on behalf of Staying Alive where I would ask fellow artists questions on their attitude towards HIV and AIDS, and other related issues like relationships, cheating and condom use. After spending more time with Georgia — the founder of the Foundation — and seeing what amazing work they did, I immediately asked what else I could do to help. They asked me to be their next Ambassador, and that was that.

It’s a cause that’s important to me because I lost somebody close to me to AIDS when I was younger. At the time I was uneducated about HIV and AIDS so I was afraid. I’d shared the same cutlery as this person; we’d used the same shower… I had so many questions — and looking back — a lot of what I thought to be true about the virus was incorrect. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people out there still don’t know enough about it and that’s why I think it’s important for those of us in the public eye to educate and set a good example. My life has taken me to a point where I am in the position to influence my fans, and if I can influence the way they dress, the music that they listen to and so on, why can’t I get them to think and be more aware about more serious issues like HIV and AIDS?


It’s often the littlest things that give you the greatest a-ha moments. Do you recall any such seemingly small but monumentally telling anecdote from your travels in June that really opened your eyes to the impact of the Foundation?

Getting to actually meet the young projects leaders and get to know them a bit better, for me, was a definite highlight. Bulelani, Alex and Mandakini are three of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Their work is tireless, their attitude selfless.

There are few real standout moments though… In South Africa, Bulelani took me on a tour of Site B in Khayelitsha, which is where he lives. It’s the second largest township in South Africa and has an incredibly high HIV infection rate. Bulelani spreads HIV prevention and awareness messaging through a creative filmmaking process with local youth. He then shows the films produced using his Mobile Cinema, which is funded by the Foundation.

I was walking along with him chatting about his work and I asked him what he’d do if Hollywood came knocking with a million-dollar deal… His response cemented my original thoughts about him — without hesitation, he said that he’d turn them down because his work as a filmmaker is in Khayletisha where he sees a problem that needs to be addressed. I love the fact that the Foundation is able to find and fund these dedicated and motivated individuals who are really making a difference in their communities.

Another moment on the trip that really affected me was visiting Kaybuboy Bridge in Manila.

There were around 80 families living under this bridge in absolute poverty, and it made me think of all the people who publicly pride themselves on coming from “the hood” and the fact that where they grew up is so tough; and I just thought, ‘live under a bridge for two years, and then tell me how hard your life is.’

I came out from under that bridge a different person — it made me realize that we really need to stop being selfish and start thinking more about not only our community, but also our world as a whole.


For the past two decades, MTV has been a powerful merchant of cool, shaping much of what youth admires and aspires to. All throughout, it has faced criticism – especially from academia – for promoting superficial belief systems and lifestyles. But in recent years, MTV has championed a number of socially-conscious causes, from sustainability to anti-smoking to AIDS. How do you see celebrities’ and the media’s responsibility in reframing of the concept of “cool,” shifting it from the ownership of cool things, a.k.a. “bling,” and towards the doership of good deeds?

I think it’s important that anybody who has the power to make an impression on others must use their role wisely. Sometimes artists are naïve and stubborn and think they don’t have a responsibility in inspiring youth. I hate when artists take the attitude of “Oh, I’m not a role model. I’m just a young person just trying to live my life.” Well, of course you are, but at the same time, you can’t deny that in this position you’re very influential to the kids who are coming out to see you and buying your CD. I was stubborn for a long time. I’m human. But in time, I ended up seeing right in front of my face the effect I have on kids, whether it’s influencing the way they dress or the music they listen to. And if I can have that effect on kids, I hope I can have the effect or urge them to educate themselves and practice safe sex.

If I can get them to spend however much money on a pair of sneakers, hopefully I can get them to spend three dollars on a box of condoms.

No celebrity can deny it, kids look up to us, and we have to make sure that we’re setting a good example when they do look to us.


Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift from a philanthropic model – the dishing out of aid to passive recipients — towards social entrepreneurship and microfunding, where capital ends up in the hands of active local leaders, empowering them to facilitate change from the inside and growing exponentially as they build on what they’ve been given. How does the Foundation’s mission differ from the traditional aid model?

The Foundation is definitely a believer in this newer business model. If you compare the funding from the Foundation to that of an angel investment, it’s pretty much the same deal. The Foundation funds those who would otherwise find it very difficult to get funding.

That’s what makes the Foundation so different. It only funds small projects that have had little or no funding at all. These projects must also be run by young people. The Foundation gives these young people a chance to get their projects off the ground and develop them into stronger, more independent organizations. The Foundation has recently developed a training scheme whereby grantees get training to allow them to continue developing even after the Foundation funding stops after a maximum of four years.


There’s no question music offers a universal language and has been incredibly successful in generating awareness with efforts like LiveAid and Playing For Change. But as an artist, how do you think musicians can help tackle the quintessential challenge of moving the needle from mere awareness to actionable, tangible change?

Wow, that’s a great question. I think the first step is for us, as artists, to make sure we live by our lyrics and what we’re asking of people. It’s no use me putting this track out there and that being it. I need people to take action and buy the track to show their commitment to the cause.

I think the reason that the Unbeaten Track project works so well is that it goes beyond just raising awareness. The documentary, which is going out on all MTV Channels today, as well as to hundreds of third party broadcasters, will do an amazing job at raising awareness for HIV/AIDS as well as for the Foundation. But the track is really where the action happens, that’s where we can make a real tangible difference by raising money for the Foundation so they can carry on empowering and enabling these young leaders to continue making changes within their community. Moving forward, I think that it’s really important that these awareness-raising projects that artists lend their names to have to have a fundraising elements included.


AIDS is such a colossal problem that it can get overwhelming to think about our capacity as individuals to make a difference. Got any words of wisdom for how a single person can have impact, particularly on World AIDS Day?

My motto is “Each one, teach one.” People need to educate themselves about HIV/AIDS and then pass on that knowledge. Imagine if every single person in the world knew that protecting themselves from the dangers of HIV is as simple as wearing a condom. Imagine how much stigma it would lessen if people knew that you cannot catch HIV/AIDS from sharing cutlery or from touching. Educate yourself and then spread the word. And today, if YOU want to make an impact, help me support the Staying Alive Foundation by buying my track One At A Time from Staying Alive Foundation. Every single cent will go to funding current and future Foundation projects.

You can buy One At A Time for just ¢99 on iTunes in the US and from BandCamp globally — that’s ¢99 going straight to the fight against AIDS in parts of the world where many people live on $1 a day.


Interview with Illustrator Christina Tsevis

What Coldplay, Oscar Wilde and Plato have in common and why the commodification of art may be a good thing.

Today, we’re picking the brains of Athens-based visual artist Christina Tsevis, a.k.a. crosti, whose illustartion is among the most whimsical we’ve seen in years, and whose scope of inspiration ranges from German literature to Greek philosophy to The Beatles, embodying the very cross-pollination of ideas and disciplines that we so try to foster here at Brain Pickings.


Hey Christina, good to have you. Tell us a bit about your background and your brand of creative curiosity.

Thanks so much for having me.

I’m a 26-year-old illustrator/visual designer from Athens, Greece, working as a freelancer.

I guess you could say I was the type of kid who sketched on everything. I was lucky because my brother, who had a big influence on me, left Greece to study graphic design in Italy when I was only 8 years old, and I inherited design for life. I never really had to wonder what I was going to do with my life — I always knew it would be something in arts.

What inspires me? People I love. Music. Books. Movies. Daisies. Bugs. The 60’s. Traveling. Memories. Dreams. My family. My dogs. Everything! Anything could trigger my interest and imagination.

oh, take me back to the start
Coldplay – The Scientist

My favorite artists range from William Kentridge to Radiohead, from Woody Allen to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.


Your illustrations embody a curious duality of vibrancy and melancholy, innocence and burden. What inspires this interplay?

Life! It’s never black or white, is it? It has its ups and downs and it’s that perfect balance we look for, to be complete. Our dreams are our guidelines in life, but then again we must always be in touch with reality.

There’s no way to prevent bad things from happening to you, no way not to get your heart broken. There is a way to make sure it’s worth it though. It’s so much better to live life to the fullest, than to be cautious all the time.

To rephrase Oscar Wilde, “you might fall down in the gutter, but when you rise, you’ll be floating among the stars.”


We’re particularly taken with your series based on Kafka’s 1915 novella, “The Metamorphosis.” It’s a story that dabbles in the darkness of death, but is really about fantasy and light and the whimsy of life – a relationship that seems to define much of your work as well. Tell us about the inspiration for the series and what you hoped to capture in the illustrations.

This series was made in 2006 as part of my thesis.

To me, Kafka is a genius. His work can always be elucidated on several different levels and its philosophy can apply to many aspects of life.

pages 03-04

His writing reminds me of Plato’s — the moment you think you completely understand, you realize you have much more to explore.

Everyone who has heard of The Metamorphosis knows that it describes a man (Gregor Samsa) who woke up to find he was transformed into a bug-but I quickly gave up the idea of trying to depict that.

pages 13-14

Having read the book in its written language — German — I began to concern myself with how much of the book is lost in translation.

In reality, Kafka uses a more vague word to describe what the main character was turned into and I hated the idea of contributing to that “misunderstanding” by drawing weird bugs.

pages 19-20

So I decided to try to portray this metamorphosis in a semi-scenographic way, defining the character through his absence and setting forth the distortion of Gregor’s personal space — his room, which was as much a shelter as it ended up to be a prison.


Most of your characters are kids, your color choices are bold and vibrant, and your graphic style has a certain lightness reminiscent of children’s books. Why this fascination with childhood?

I guess it’s because I haven’t come to terms with the fact that I’m a grown-up (ha-ha!)

Jokes aside, I envy children and their emotional immediacy. The tiniest of things can provoke a massive explosion of sensitivity that we learn to give up very early on in life.

That is such a shame and I often find myself wishing I could experience happiness and sadness to that extend. Other than that, some creators might at first seem to be addressing children, but in reality their target audience is a lot wider than that.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of those examples, or even Hans Christian Andersen’s books. Sometimes it seems this is the easiest gateway to pass on some thoughts and ideas that are easily mistaken as naive or childish. This is another reason why my work seems to be about children.


The red-haired girl character in your more recent work has her eyes closed in almost all of the illustrations. Is there a symbolism behind this?

That’s Chloe. She made her first “appearance” in June 2009.

This entire series of illustrations isn’t commissioned and was created out of my need to express things that I couldn’t or didn’t want to put in words.

John Lennon wrote, “Living is easy with eyes closed” for Strawberry Fields Forever and I guess that’s a big part of why Chloe always has her eyes closed — she doesn’t want to face reality and prefers to live in her own dream world where things are still the way she remembers them to be.

Waiting for Spring to Arrive

In some of my work we see this “dream-world” of hers depicted all around her; but sometimes, as much as she wishes it all away, she can’t escape reality.

mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix

I have had people ask me if Chloe is ever going to open her eyes and I really have no idea what to tell them. They’re going to have to ask her themselves!


Digital platforms are making it increasingly easy for artists to get their work out there. And we’re beginning to see massive amounts of talent, often from “amateurs.” But this golden age for creativity is also making art a bit of a commodity, making it harder to craft a distinct, memorable creative voice as an artist. How do you feel about the future of art in this era of creative commodification?

I think only good things can come out of this. Art should be a commodity! Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in an even more artistic world, full of new talents?

reach out…i wonder where you are now

Personally, I find education extremely important in any field. However, even though imagination and feeling can be generated when studying, they can in no way be taught. And this is why, in my opinion, some amateurs can aim towards what some professionals can’t.

I’ve always felt the only thing that can make your work stand out is how successful you are in the art of communicating your feelings through what you do. Regardless if it’s illustration, theatre or music, people will only relate to what you do if you’re honest, consistent and responsible.

Are there any exceptions? Of course. But I don’t believe they stand a chance in time.

Explore more of Christina’s work and find yourself swept up in a wonderful world of whimsy and visual philosophy.


Social Justice with a Twist: Ctrl.Alt.Shift

Blurring the boundaries between activism, advertisement, and art, or how you can get hand grenades to hang on your Christmas tree.

More often than not, you can tell the age of a social institution by its name. The NAACP’s etymology clearly has its origin in the early-20th century. Friends of the Earth? Obviously a late 1960s lovechild. So you might guess that Ctrl.Alt.Shift, an organization whose name refers to computer keyboard commands, almost certainly harks from recent years—and you’d be correct.

A UK-based social initiative, Ctrl.Alt.Shift is a formally incorporated social movement for global justice. In an interesting departure from traditional anti-establishment associations, Ctrl.Alt.Shift locates its arena of action as much within prevailing systems as outside them. This approach has come to define millennial movements, in fact; these days the phrase “by any means necessary” could refer equally to change initiated within the boardroom or protests led by bullhorn from the street below.

Whether you’re into music, fashion, politics or direct action, photography, design, dance, art or journalism, there’s a place for you within our movement to fight social and global injustice.

(Okay, maybe business is missing from that career list—but you get the point.)

The movement’s most recent incarnation took the form of a comic book called Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption. Launched this month, the limited-edition anthology collected original political work from artists and satirists including Dave McKean and Peter Kuper. The cleverly subversive comics, currently on view in the Lazarides Gallery in London, take on subjects such as imperialism (in “Reagan’s Raiders,” featuring the former President’s face superimposed on Captain America) and race (in “I Am Curious, Black!” with Lois Lane transforming into a Blaxploitation-style character).

Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s efforts so far have focused on governments’ HIV travel bans (with a campaign cleverly entitled “Nothing to Declare”), Latin American conflict, and broader issues of social justice such as gender inequality. Taking notes from the provocation playbook of TEDsters (and Brain Pickings favorite) The Yes Men, Ctrl.Alt.Shift has staged media-savvy public interventions like demonstrations outside foreign embassies, and a planned march through London to raise awareness of female infanticide in India. And like another urbane media brand, VICE (with whom it has co-sponsored exhibitions), Ctrl.Alt.Shift publishes an eponymous magazine, which it makes available in clubs and shops throughout the UK.

Other strategies seek to engage participation through competition, like a short-film contest held earlier this year (the winning entry was HIV: The Musical) as well as other targeted actions and social networking features on its website. And with a roster of hip collaborators like musician Estelle, photographer Nan Goldin, and the environmental group Plane Stupid, Ctrl.Alt.Shift seems well situated to bring its high-profile brand of activism to greater global attention. We say if a slick sell will get people talking about rape as a weapon of war, or greater buy-in around climate talks, then sell, sell away.

Have a look at Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s videos and blog to see if you’d literally like to buy into their program.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.


Interview with Mary Tomer, Brains Behind

Fashion, politics and how to live every blogger’s dream.

Today, we’re picking the brains of Mary Tomer, creator of the uber-successful blog-turned-book following the fashion of Michelle Obama. Mary’s book, Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy, is out today and we sit down with her to talk about the inspiration behind the project, culture’s conflicted relationship with fashion, and the notion of high-low style.


Hey Mary, good to have you. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, what inspires you and your brand of creative curiosity.

Hey Maria! Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you a bit. I’m a 28-year-old account planner at BBH New York. I moved to New York to work at BBH four years ago, an ambition that involved repeated trips on the Fung Wah bus from Boston and back.

Before working in advertising, I spent a few years at a Boston-based private equity firm. Advertising appealed to me as a field that mixed business with creativity, and in that respect, would better suit my strengths.

What inspires me? Fashion bloggers Tavi and Jane Alridge (of Sea of Shoes), tea and chocolates with my mom at the MoMA cafe, foreign travel, glossy fashion magazines, and, of course, Michelle Obama, Mrs.O.


What was the original inspiration for the Mrs. O project?

Michelle Obama’s style was on my radar for most of 2008, but it was during the Democratic National Convention in late August 2008 that I became captivated. By the second night of the convention I was googling to learn more about Michelle Obama’s style — details on what she was wearing and what others thought. I expected to find a blog dedicated to her style, but surprisingly, it didn’t yet exist. I thought others had to be as interested as I was, if not more so, and that a blog was in order. I approached BBH to help me create it, and a less than three weeks later, launched.

If I take a step back, I see a few other influences that were more subconsciously at play. Through the years, my mother has imbued a fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy’s style. In Michelle Obama, I instantly felt that my generation had found its Jacqueline Kennedy.

At BBH, there was a definite appetite for new types of creativity, particularly in the digital space. That was coupled by past experience working on Zag — BBH’s brand and innovation unit — that invites everyone at the agency to propose ideas. I wanted to be as stylish as its inspiration, and knew that BBH would help me to achieve that.


Over the past few years, many street fashion blogs have emerged as champions of decentralized, democratized, power-to-the-people fashion. Mrs. O is similar in a lot of way in its overall mission of “fashion democracy,” but opposite in going about it through centralized focus on a very famous public persona. How do you see Mrs. O relate to street fashion beacons like The Sartorialist?

Through both the first lady’s style and street style blogs, I think we see an increasing value placed on creativity in fashion, as well as a kind of reappraisal of luxury. The latter became apparent to me while working on Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy and interviewing various figures in the fashion industry.

Repeatedly, designers spoke of their customers rejecting an empty facade of luxury that they might have bought into a few years ago, instead choosing garments that are of genuine, real value, whether priced high or low. That seems to be the underlying driver behind high-low style, embraced by the first lady as well as the muses of street style blogs.


You’re a fellow planner — a rather complex, hybrid discipline that lives in the epicenter of the ad agency environment of cross-pollination of ideas and skills. What role has this played in fostering the Mrs. O idea and bringing it to life?

The idea for was born out of a personal passion and interest in Michelle Obama’s style. But in many respects, I was also planning on autopilot. For example, the idea required recognizing a gap in the market coupled with a growing consumer need, defining a clear voice for a brand, etc. It just all happened a bit more intuitively and with less process than usual. And actually, before I was a planner, I started out at BBH in account management. I think the hybrid skill set has been an asset here.

On the flip side, this experience has also taught me a lot as a planner. I never considered the value I would get from moderating a blog, but things like stimulating and steering conversation, and listening to your audience all feel quite applicable to planning.


There’s always been an interesting social tension about fashion. It’s surrounded by an air of glamor and creativity, but there’s also a lurking perception that it’s a somewhat superficial, inferior, non-serious thing to revere. At the same time, politics is a space to be taken seriously, there’s even a certain solemn reverence about it. And Mrs. O lives at the intersection of the two. How do you balance that tension?

I’m continually trying to wrap my head around this. The oft asked question is: Are you selling Michelle Obama short by focusing on her fashion? In truth, I don’t know anyone who’s only interested in Michelle Obama’s style. But at the same time, I think that the clothes bring their own kind of substance — as part of our culture, and in shaping our social history — that is often overlooked.

The dress codes that accompany politics do make it all the more complicated. On both the blog and in the book, I’ve tried to present a balanced perspective, by acknowledging the story behind the clothes themselves, but also presenting the context in which they were worn.


Almost four decades ago, another Mrs. O became the first First-Lady-turned-style-icon. If blogs were around then, who would be writing the then-version of Mrs. O — Peggy Olsen, Betty Draper, Joan, or Sal? (You didn’t think you’d slide by without a Mad Men reference, did you?)

Ah yes… Probably Joan. She seems both interested in fashion and a bit enterprising. I almost chose Betty, but she might consider blogging to be improper.

Mary’s wonderful book, Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy, is out today. It takes a closer look at America’s modern style icon with more than 120 photographs of the first lady, placed in a rich historical and biographical context that captures Michelle Obama’s revered charisma, intelligence and substance through a fascinating journey into her personal style.


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