What Shakespeare’s unanswered questions have to do with Einstein’s unkempt hair and Britpop.
By Maria Popova
Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, he of Negative Space fame, is a longtime Brain Pickings favorite. Turns out, our friends at Mark Batty (previously) have had a soft spot for him for a while as well. In 2007, they released a fantastic volume of Bar’s most iconic negative space portraits of cultural icons. Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar features over 50 minimalist vector illustrations that encapsulate, with brilliant subtlety and visual eloquence, the essence of famous politicians, philosophers and pop culture legends — a masterpiece of capturing character and sentiment with uncanny precision.
The book is divided into four parts — Cultural Icons, Hollywood Heads, Political Figures, Britpop Stars, and The Musicians — with an introduction by Steven Heller. (Previously: IIIIII.) Though the captions for each image leave much to be desired in tone and style, they do give an appropriate context of allusions and symbolism, making Bar’s creative feats all the more palpable.
[‘The Search for Shakespeare’] revolved around new biographical discoveries and all the questions these raised. I received this commission about 5 hours before a flight to Italy. All of a sudden the question mark idea linked the theme of the program to one of the most significant philosophical questions of all time: To be or not to be? I chose ‘to be’ and sent the final portrait off about two hours after receiving the assignment.” ~ Noma Bar
Delightful and timeless, Guess Who? captures some of modernity’s most famous and infamous characters through the eyes of one of the most original artists of our time.
A poetic reflection on the human condition, or what fiscal responsibility has to do with freedom.
By Maria Popova
It doesn’t take long to realize fiction isn’t exactly a fixture on Brain Pickings. But A Field Guide to the North American Family, the literary debut of Garth Risk Hallberg, is a genre-bender that makes it delightfully uncomfortable to classify it as strict fiction. Through 63 interlinked fictional vignettes, each accompanied by a visual interpretation by a different artist, Hallberg tells the story of two struggling suburban Long Island neighbor families, the Hungates and the Harrisons, who are forced to adapt to a new reality when the patriarch of one family dies unexpectedly — but he uses the allegory of their specific circumstances to explore general, universally human concepts like love, happiness, belonging, freedom, and a wealth more, with equal parts poetic contemplation and ironic humor. Part photoessay, part Choose Your Own Adventure novel, part meditation on human nature, it’s a fine piece of literary innovation rare to come by and bound to stick around, the kind of book you keep returning to over and over again until it begins to feel like an intimate part of your own family.
Each double-page spread covers a specific facet of the human condition — from mortgage to mythology to midlife crisis — and features a short, poignant textual vignette on the left, with a cleverly captioned image on the right, treating each phenomenon as the subject of a National Geographic nature documentary for an effect that’s both humorous and deeply human.
Almost as interesting and thought-provoking as the book itself is Hallberg’s discussion of the economics of Amazon reviews over on Slate, triggered by his discovery of a strange subculture of power-reviewers through the Amazon page of his own book, namely one Grady Harp.
What emancipated penguins have to do with digital archives, propaganda art and the future of remix culture.
By Maria Popova
Antarctica is a strange kind of no man’s land — a territory owned by no single country, with no government, formally uninhabited and hardy inhabitable, and yet of endless allure to researchers, explorers, artists and curious minds from all over the world. It’s also the closest thing we have to a geological clock, its ice sheath reflecting the transformation of our atmosphere and climate with striking precision. In 2007, fascinated by the enigmatic continent’s peculiarities, artist, thinker and musician Paul D. Miller — whose investigation of remix culture and collaborative creation you might recall — traveled to Antarctica to shoot a film about the sound of ice. That was the start of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica — a larger multimedia project aiming to capture a dynamic portrait of this rapidly changing microcosm. The project’s latest incarnation, The Book of Ice, arrives this month — a poignant reflection on humanity’s relationship with the frozen neverland and climate change at large, by way of poetic visual and textual meditations ranging from archival images of historic exploration on the continent (including these rare photos of the first Australian expedition in 1911) to maps to timelines to hypothetical propaganda art for an imaginary Antarctica liberation movement.
Perhaps most compellingly, the project is a living testament to cross-disciplinary creativity, touching on disciplines as diverse as history, information visualization, music composition, propaganda art, media theory and more, with influences as varied as Emory Douglas, Rodchenko, Mirko Illic and Alex Steinweiss.
Today, I sit down with DJ Spooky to chat about the creative impetus behind the project, its most compelling insights, and the longer-term vision for Antarctica’s future.
How did the idea for The Book of Ice, and the larger project to which it belongs, first emerge?
The Book of Ice started as graphic design music scores taken from my Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica project. I wanted to fine-tune the book as an extension of some of my obsessions with climate change. The first soundtrack and symphony written about Antarctica was by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1948, but other composers — Handel’s 1717 AD composition entitled simply “Water Music” or John Luther Adams Arctic compositions, or even more close to home John Cage’s 1936 first composition for turntables “Imaginary Landscape,” Charles Ives “Central Park in The Dark,” or Cornelius Cardew’s graphic design scores — are all influences.
I guess you could say The Book of Ice is an inter-connected, hyper-expandable/scalable museum/gallery show, book, and symphony. Simple!
Antarctica – a place that no one owns, with no government or law, yet belonging to everyone – seems to be a beautiful metaphor for remix culture. Given your background, was this in any way part of the allure? How did you incorporate your work on and beliefs about remix culture into the Antarctica project?
I wanted to show the Utopian/Dystopian aspects of how graphic design interacts with geopolitics and propaganda. Me, Shep Fairey (an old friend) and Steve Heller spoke at Phaidon books a little while ago about this, from the beginnings of “The War on Terror” you can go back to stuff like DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and other texts that give people a feigned sense of oppression. My Antarctica remix project would have to include how people despoil the planet, our “commons” and what if people started to say everyone has a right to clean air and water, to having food untainted by mercury or nuclear isotopes?
What has been the most startling, unexpected insight that emerged for the creative process on the project?
I guess I always naively think that if you put information in front of people, they’ll get it. They don’t. This project is Utopian in that it seems like the bleedingly obvious fact that our species might not get out of this century in too good condition is being ignored. Ice sheets are melting. Water is scarce. Global weather patterns are the most complex phenomena we’ve encountered.
Adam Smith wrote, ‘all money is a matter of belief.’ The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real. I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.
Can, and should, Antarctica liberate itself from the rest of the world? If so, how?
The title for the Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica comes from a science fiction book of the same title by John Calvin Batchelor. OK: nation state rises from the ruins of world geopolitics. Check. Environmental collapse, even though we know we can do better and avoid it. Check. Dumb politicians run all major nation states into the ground. Check. It’s great material for propaganda prints, but it could just as easily be a video game like Vice City or Halo. People like to have ‘narrative,’ so I thought, let’s give them something different. It would be cool to have Antarctica as strictly a “commons.”
What’s next for the project, and for you as an artist and explorer?
And I’m writing a group of compositions about the North Pole. Both are in development now. One of the first media spoofs of the 20th century was when Frederick A. Cook, a Brooklyn milkman who, made a film that claimed he was the first person to discover the North Pole and a fake story got put on the front of every major newspaper. There’s something very Orson Welles to that idea. I found the film, remixed it as a component of the Antarctica project DVD. You can see all of this and the material used to generate the compositions as extensions of my obsession with sampling. It’s just taken me a little further into the realm of info-aesthetics.
After all, I can basically just say music for me isn’t just music. It’s information.
What ancient Japanese castles have to do with costumed gadget-sellers and the legacy of anime.
By Maria Popova
It’s no secret I have a soft spot for children’s books, especially ones with a grown–upspin. So I love Fuzz & Fur: Japan’s Costumed Characters — a quirky compendium of Japanese fur-suit mascots by Tokyo-based designer and illustrator duo Edward and John Harrison. The costumes, known as kigurumi in Japan, have been used to promote anything from bridges and castles to water purification plants to the police to, most notably, prefectures.
Illustrator Jun Miura eventually coined a new word, Yuru-kyara, to classify this new breed of characters — from Yuru, which means “loose” or “weak,” and kyara, the word for “character,” to describe the mascots as somewhat imperfect or non-serious, an eerie intersection of the age-old Japanese love of anime and contemporary marketing tactics.
Fuzz & Fur features photographs of over 100 kigurumi, each profiled with text that explains the mascot’s origins, its likes and dislikes, and its unique personality.