Are Paradoxes Trending?

Digital detox.

Authentic brands.

Advertising for social good.

Each trend contains an undeniable tension almost to the point of oxymoronic. For culture enthusiasts and market researchers these concepts are ubiquitous, provocative and irresistible. To read about online. To dream about. To wait for some form of acknowledge on a grand scale, that would enable modern culture to progress to the next chapter. If only Walter Benjamin could help us navigate this stuff.

At a macro level, these trends may connect to the rate of change we’re experiencing in the Digital Age. Perhaps the tension it all creates with human nature is finally coming to a head. Maybe Steve Jobs underestimated how dramatic the 2007 iPhone launch would become in hindsight. He introduced it as an iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a “breakthrough internet communication device” but back then who knew what that truly meant?

Watching visions of the future from the past is a trip.

Watching the 2007 iPhone launch in 2016 feels like watching a sequel to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. I remember meeting at the library one night in college to watch it for a Literature course — Modernity and Fin de Siècle. The psychological and emotional gymnastics of watching a 1927 dystopian film as a college junior a few years post-9/11 was disorienting. I remember leaving the library in tears I was so disturbed, and called my mom for comfort. It took a few days to shed the strangeness the film cast over me.

The mindfulness movement, the struggle for brands to sound authentic, Michael Porter’s idea of “shared value” to fix capitalism, the interest in B-Corporationsall of these trends align with a rising need for meaning. The kind of meaning that escorts the realization that you’re small and the world is large. It’s hard to grasp this when instead of contemplation we insert social media and apps into any down time.

According to an upcoming trend report by JWT, 78% of  respondents “believe that we’re losing some important human qualities by spending so much time immersed in technology”.

I’m inspired by this statistic. It will exist as a benchmark. Which means we can propose solutions to lower it. To start, I will unpack each apparent “paradox” from the top of this rant in a weekly post…as soon as my graduate thesis is done. Stay tuned!

 

How “Surround Audience” at The New Museum Blew My Mind Twice

Oh hey. I’m going to write a blog post about the most recent mind-blowing cultural shit I’ve seen in New York because it makes me feel like I’m getting more value for my rent.

Frank Benson, "Juliana"

Frank Benson, “Juliana”

My first impression of the New Museum back in 2007 was of dismissal; it felt too conceptual, postmodern and obnoxious. The art was not accessible; it made me feel dumb for not “getting it” – for not having any emotional response to “artwork” made of children’s toys and colored planks of wood with pieces of garbage tied to a string.

Last year I gave it another shot for Chris Ofili’s “Night and Day” exhibit. Massive, colorful, collage-like paintings and intricate, obsessive pencil drawings showcased an impressive range of materials. Infamous for his elephant dung paintings, Ofili is more than shock value and envelope-pushing. He is inspired by the human experience and his contemplation of socio-economic inequality. The New Museum redeemed itself for me with that exhibit. It was edgy, modern and relevant – but was also authentic, relatable and accessible. I appreciated it.

Then I heard about this year’s Triennial. I assumed it would include more of the earlier kind of art: conceptual, postmodern…and obnoxious. I then discovered this video online by artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison. I highly recommend watching it and her entire series, “Touching The Art”.

I had to see for myself what was going on here. I ultimately visited the exhibit twice because I couldn’t absorb it all in just one visit. I felt more inspired and connected to not only the artwork but the concepts and motivation behind the artwork, that I only made it to two out of the four floors of artwork on my first visit. The work, collected from 51 artists from 25 countries around the world, explored how digital technology is connecting and separating us as a society more than ever.

Surround Audience intro 

My Favorite Pieces

Each floor of the exhibit was introduced with a warped, enigmatic poem. A choppy yet effortless stream-of-meta-consciousness meditation. It expresses the way we communicate today, with common anxieties, typos, symbols and misspellings marked by our text-based culture. 

Ryan Trecartin, "Time Pend"

Ryan Trecartin, “Time Pend”

 These poems saved me. They made me think “OMG someone else gets how ridiculous everything is.” I smiled while reading each one.

Indian artist Shreyas Kahle’s work left the biggest impression on me after my first visit. He explores “the distorting effect of the male gaze” as seen in the marble sculpture below: are they mountains or boobs? I love his cerebral sketches and “pseudoscientific” symbolic drawings; they evoked a Magritte-esque surrealism in a more raw expression. (“Surround Audience”, New Museum Triennial, Feb-May 2015, p. 188)

Shreyas Kahle, "Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn't Matter"

Shreyas Karle, “Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn’t Matter”

The shameless honesty and self expression of artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison made me laugh out loud while watching a video installation of her avatar performing a standup routine. (Her YouTube interview series, which got me to see this exhibit, was playing on a flat screen TV in the museum lobby.)

Casey Jane Ellison, "It's So Important To Seem Wonderful"

Casey Jane Ellison, “It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful”

These dreamy, haunting paintings by Chinese artist Firenze Lai left me breathless. These figures with warped proportions, to express the way our relationships with others (and ourselves) are often similarly warped with modern technology. We’re always available, we’re always able to connect with everyone everywhere…yet we don’t fully feel “connected” at the same time. I think this is a universal symptom of modern life and I loved every minute I felt like there are others who feel this way – and can creatively express the ennui of the digital age.

Firenze Lai, "Tennis Court"

Firenze Lai, “Tennis Court”

Firenze Lai, "Argument"

Firenze Lai, “Argument”

Firenze Lai, "Alignment"

Firenze Lai, “Alignment”

 

The perfect mix of truth, beauty and intellect.

Art that explores how disconnected we are as society has the effect of subverting that very feeling; it makes you feel connected to the brave artists who felt compelled to visually express their own dissatisfaction with the state of things. It’s all very cerebral and conceptual, but not overly so, with just the right balance of meta-consciousness and visual aesthetic.

“Surround Audience” ends today…but good news! I bought the coffee table book of the exhibition so if we’re friends IRL I’ll let you look through it if you wash your hands and tell me how cool my apartment is both before and after looking through my cultural coffee table book of cool-ass, mind-blowing artwork.

#100Signs Project: No. 2

“Legends Of The Hidden Temple” was one of my favorite shows as a child. It was an adventure-soaked game show with an Aztec-inspired theme: team names were based on alliterative animal names and a setting grounded in natural, earthy textures and structures. The essence of the show was a mix of adventure, history and myth.

As contestants entered their final feat – to enter the temple in search of tokens – the following message emanated from the rock figure known as “Olmec” – a message limited to the context of the challenge at hand.

It’s possible that the show’s producers were communicating a larger message to its childhood audience. The connection between imagination, creativity and childhood has been celebrated by artists (e.g. Picasso) and writers (e.g. Robert Fulghum). It is this connection that is evoked by Olmec’s message set in the context of an adventure-themed game show. It’s a message we can carry past childhood.

100 Signs - No 002

“Beauty Is Power”: How One Woman’s Entrepreneurial Taste Redefined ‘Beauty’

helena rubinstein "beauty is power"

A strange sense of familiarity welcomed me while I stood on line for the coat check. I felt obligated to internally review the reasons that fueled my visit.

I had gone to the Jewish Museum to see the exhibit “Beauty is Power”, a look at the legacy left by Helena Rubenstein (1872-1965) on the beauty industry.

I was also there to check out the aesthetic of the museum itself, which underwent a rebranding this year by the design firm Sagmeister & Walsh.

Yet waiting on the line for the coat check, I realized another layer of significance embedded in the place itself. The lobby evokes a modern, minimalist synagogue, with a list of donor names carved into the white walls. The gift shop sells Judaica, with a modernist edge. It’s a very secular space, with delicate hints of tradition, like a mosaic made of mostly white with a few specks of rich, bright colors.

This is a very special space.

A Dramatic Entrance

The cherry on top was the free iPhone app, a custom-designed exhibit audio guide. A blended experience of art, culture and technology? Let’s do this.

Rubinstein-Mosaic

I pushed open the heavy doors to the exhibit and was immediately swirled into a slow-moving current of fellow museum-visitors: heavily perfumed ladies, decked out in furs and covered in layers of makeup and jewelry. None of them was using the iPhone app…yet their presence played a role in the experience of the exhibit.

The rooms were as luxuriously designed as the crowd they contained. Lavender walls with velvet tuffets in a deep shade of crimson produced a sense of decadence. The moment you enter the exhibit it is impossible to not feel transported into a sort of parlor, where an appreciation for style and taste is celebrated.

Eclectic Taste & Multiculturalism

interior

Rubinstein left Poland and moved to Australia where she opened her first beauty salon in Melbourne in 1903. Later, she expanded her business into London and Paris and eventually New York. “Beauty Is Power” includes over 200 objects taken from Rubinstein’s personal art collection (which included work by Picasso, Matisse and Ernst) in addition to travel keepsakes, jewelry and a few garments. Her exposure to and appreciation for a diverse aesthetic led her to expand definitions of what made something “beautiful”.

She “delighted in mingling ‘western and nonwestern works’.

She appreciated African art around the same time it was inspiring Cubist artists, like Picasso and Braques. She opened salons in Paris, whose clientele included Josephine Baker, a personification of the new “beauty” and a sort of muse for Rubinstein. In Mexico she met Frida Kahlo, with whom she felt an “immediate personal connection”.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

fini-and-me

Left: “Two Women” by Leonor Fini (1939); Right: Self-reflection in mirror owned by H.R.

In early 20th century Western society, beauty was something to “aspire” to. It wasn’t something you could capture; it was an ideal against which you would measure yourself. The wealthy and the powerful determined what was in style, and makeup was deemed appropriate only for actresses and prostitutes.

Rubinstein challenged this by championing the cosmetic use of makeup for the everyday woman – as an expression of femininity, power and individualism. She democratized beauty, celebrating it as limitless and undefined.

Rubinstein stated,

“There are no ugly women – only lazy ones”.

Rubinstein built an empire selling products and beauty advice to women everywhere. She envisioned salons as places of education, where women could study color, makeup application techniques, as well as general health and beauty advice. Her line of cosmetics, which was eventually bought by Lancôme, included the first waterproof eyeliner, and the introduction of the mascara wand.

My grandmother, who has a strong eye for the aesthetic and is herself an avid art collector, recently shared that in sixty years of marriage, “Your grandfather never saw me without my makeup on.” Nana stated this as a proud declaration, describing a daily decision she made out of a place of strength.

Rubinstein’s eclectic style and taste, cultural sensitivity and business prowess made her a key player – almost a composer – in the symphony of 20th century beauty, art and fashion.

The “Beauty Is Power” exhibit is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City through March 22, 2015.

The Power of Art on Social Consciousness: Social Media & Peacebuilding – Part II

Last week I wrote about discovering meaningful work and left off with an allusion to social media as a peacebuilding platform. I want to try and explain my vision for this path through a series of well-timed events I attended/watched/discovered this week. I’m a big believer in synchronicity and “connecting the dots”; noticing patterns and trends of concepts that seem to pop up from various directions is not something I attribute to coincidence. It signifies a deeper meaning.

 

I. Ai Weiwei at the Brooklyn Museum

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” – Ai Weiwei. This quote eloquently summarizes Ai’s view of his work and the world.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most (in)famous contemporary artists. He’s a multi-medium artist who is as controversial as he is hard to categorize. He’s a sculptor, photographer, architect and activist who forces us to reconcile ugly truths about political and cultural values and the rights of the individual in modern-day China. He’s an avid Twitter user and a staunch supporter of digital and social media as a massively powerful platform for activism and raising social consciousness.

In 2011, he was detained by Chinese authorities and held in a secret location for eighty-one days, with no official charges filed. The arrest caught the attention of international human rights groups and art institutions who fought for Ai’s release. Despite this and his continuous surveillance by the Chinese government over his daily life (his phone is tapped and there are cameras outside his house monitoring his every move), he continues to produce confrontational art focused on themes of freedom of expression and social (in)justice.

II. Graphic Advocacy: International Posters for the Digital Age

Think creative advertising at its very best — in terms of deeper purpose.

Graphic Advocacy

This exhibit of 120 posters is on display at the Art Director’s Club of NY through August 13th. They were created to raise awareness around a variety of causes: a series was dedicated to aid for Japan following the 2011 earthquake, remembering 9/11, global warming, geo-political issues like landmines, oil control in the Middle East and the Occupy movements…each totally unique and visually impactful with inventive compositions often articulating a message through creative, subversive elements. An apple with a worm inside represents the “hidden disease” of cancer. A dove covered in oil representing the fight over oil control in the Middle East destroying lasting attempts at peace.

Two aspects of this exhibition stuck with me:

  1. I noticed a pattern in the little blurbs next to each piece by the artists: doubt in the power of a poster to elicit any real change. For instance, one of them said she knew her poster wouldn’t cure AIDS. Yet, she felt it was better than doing nothing and just standing by. These artists expressed hope in the power of messages and images to raise consciousness over important issues. Their raw honesty inspired me. These artists chose to express something important to themselves, despite the probable helplessness of their efforts. They felt compelled to act, using their creativity and power of expression to make something rather than sit back and remain silent. It reminded me of this insanely powerful op-ed piece by Israeli author David Grossman on choosing hope, not despair.
  2. There was no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were posters about the control over oil in the Middle East, protesting tyranny in Iran and Russia…but nothing about the Palestinians’ lack of a country or about Israel’s right to exist free of rocketfire – issues at the forefront of media today. I’m sure there are artists who focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I intend to research them, but I was somewhat disappointed to not find that issue represented here. I am curious whether this was intentional; the exhibition was dated 2002-2012, but there were skirmishes between Israel and Hamas (and Hezbollah) during those years.

 

III. “Countering Violent Extremism: A Peacebuilding Lens” Forum

I attended (virtually, via live streaming) a discussion panel at Johns Hopkins University held by the Conflict Resolution and Prevention Forum – a collection of organizations dedicated to conflict resolution and public policy.

I signed up for the forum on a whim and was glad I woke up early to tune in. Rather than preaching to the choir (promoting peace to the peaceful), the discussion was focused on engaging influential leaders who have the power to change the narrative within their respective communities.

What struck me about this discussion was the similarity between peace building efforts and social media marketing for brands (what I do for money). Some common obstacles to peace-building efforts include: How do you measure success? What metrics do you use? How do you find and engage with influencers? How do you inspire them to promote your message? All of these concerns are integral to devising solid social media strategies, and are the types of tough questions asked by savvy strategists throughout a project. We’re dealing with strategic communication, a fascinating and highly relevant area of expertise. See Columbia University’s MS in Strategic Communications, a relatively new program and the first advanced degree of its kind among Ivy League universities. I’m sure the tools and methods taught in this program are highly applicable to conversations about constructive peace-building efforts.

 

IV. Joining Seeds of Peace & Soliya

I recently became involved with two organizations focused on dialogue and communication among young people in areas of conflict as a peace-building activity:

(1) Seeds of Peace provides leadership training for young people and educators around the world in areas of conflict. Each year since 1993, they’ve sent “Seeds” from 27 countries to an International Camp in Maine as an opportunity to meet one’s “enemies” face to face and work together toward a better future. I will be visiting Camp in August for two days (blog post to follow!).

(2) Soliya provides cross-cultural exchanges by hosting weekly online group discussions among university students from different countries. Each week for a semester, a small group of eight to ten students meets with two facilitators in a virtual group video chat. Soliya’s Connect Program teaches “21st Century Skills” to university students, like the ability to see things from the perspective of others and engage in cross-cultural dialogue. I should be starting Facilitator training in a few weeks (and plan on sharing my experience there as well).

These two organizations are inspirational for their peace-building strategy: cross-cultural communication among young people. Starting to see the pattern here?

V. Starting Classes at Pratt

This feels like one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself professionally and personally.

Graphic Design at Pratt

I am beginning classes at Pratt toward a Certificate in Graphic Design in the fall. I’m beyond excited to start this new chapter and to find ways to integrate it with my digital strategy work for clients, as well as my personal interest in conflict resolution.

It also feels like the most serious declaration of myself as an artist I’ve made so far. I have always used words and images to “connect the dots”; it’s about time I celebrated rather than shied away from that ability.

 

VI. Operation Protective Edge on Social Media

Facebook is overflowing with visual messages from both sides of the Israel/Hamas war, churning out what looks like “branded content” complete with hashtags and logos.

Operation Protective Edge

Pro-Israel examples include the #IsraelUnderFire hashtag, the IDF’s Facebook Page and Stand With Us. Pro-Palestine examples include the #GazaUnderAttack hashtag, this Tumblr account and Ads Against Apartheid.

I’m interested in analyzing those visual messages in order to create ones that bridge the gap rather than encourage polarization. Which ones receive the most engagement? What types of content are most successful? Is it the ones that educate? Enlighten? Cause controversy? Or inspire hope? How much does aesthetic value add? Do posts made from creativity and beauty perform better than straightforward, hate-infused content? What principles from traditional advertising and branding can be applied to maximize the reach and impact of socially conscious content?

 


 

What This All Means

By fusing together things like creative advertising, digital strategy, cross-cultural communication and graphic design…I think I’m onto something. These are the topics I’m fixated on these days, and “these days” are actually months and years worth of contemplation, work experience and personal interest. Stay tuned to watch as I unfold exactly what that entails.

As always, please feel free to leave comments/criticisms.

 

 

Finding Meaningful Work: Peacebuilding & Social Media Part I

Home office with Basquiat portrait in top left.

Home office with Basquiat portrait in top left.

Finding Meaningful Work

Meaningful work shouldn’t be so hard to find. Meaningful work that also pays the bills seems like finding a needle in a haystack next to a group of horses who haven’t had any hay in a long time (horses eat hay right?) and don’t care about you or why you don’t just order a new needle online.

There is one line of work that holds promise in terms of longevity and sustainability, in an ironic kind of way: global conflict resolution. There’s a ton of conflict out there. At the risk of sounding opportunistic — or as one friend called it, “industrializing” the issue — there is more work than there are jobs in the field of peace-building.

Information Anxiety in a Global, Digital World

You know that self-righteous attitude your co-worker assumes when he or she enlightens you with a major news story you haven’t yet heard about? Working in digital communications, the noise of the internet makes its way into IRL conversations constantly.

“Did you hear about Facebook’s new algorithm that detects when you’re about to sneeze and advertises a brand of tissue based on the type of fabric softener your mom used to use? No?  Good luck making it in the media industry without staying ahead of the curve. Even if the curve is actually a line Mark Zuckerberg peed onto the sand somewhere.

This anxiety can be multiplied when it comes to national tragedies. We all have constant access to information, so there’s no excuse to not be informed. It can feel like you’re a bad Jew if you haven’t heard about the latest horrible skirmish with Gaza. This leads people (and the media) to focus on obtaining the most heart-wrenching nugget of information to share with his or her social circle; it’s like tragic currency.

Remember the stories from 9/11 about the phonecalls made to loved ones from the planes? They were exchanged like trading cards. It’s human nature to narrow in on such stories because they are how we relate to the human aspect of otherwise overwhelming, complicated events.

Peace In The Middle East ?!?!

The Middle East conflict doesn’t impact the daily lives of your average American. And yet discussing it can feel like an important form of gossip. This “tragic currency” phenomenon runs rampant in conversations (more often arguments) about the issue. It’s like watching ‘Keeping Up with Israel’ on Fox and NBC. It’s sad, frustrating and unfair. It’s tragic.

It’s also scary to voice my opinion on the subject, because I want to be part of the solution. Which means I want to participate in conversations about the topic without coming across as biased. I’m a Jewish American who lived in Tel Aviv for four years, but I am also many, many other things at the same time. I also want these words to be read and not glossed over, so I’m going to stick to short pieces and see where the feedback takes me. Like the conflict itself, several challenges present themselves.

I have tapped into some “meaningful work”.

Stay tuned for Part II: Peacebuilding & Social Media!

Thoughtful comments/arguments welcomed.

How Passover Led To The World’s First Humanities Lecture

In keeping my new weekly tradition (and not getting too mad at myself for skipping a couple of weeks), I listened to the Torah portion from Passover and have attempted to apply the teachings from it to modern life. Skip to the bottom for a Too Long; Didn’t Read synopsis. 

Library Walk in NYC, Midtown

Plaque from the “Library Walk” in NYC, Midtown

The Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and entered Israel only after enduring years of slavery and humiliation at the hands of the Egyptians, followed by an exodus through the desert. By receiving the Ten Commandments (i.e. the first written laws), they were invited to a higher plane of spiritual existence.

God used Egypt as a cautionary example of how not to live – incest, debasement and cruelty were the norm. We’re introduced to the concept of the “Other,” as the Jews were instructed to not be like the Egyptians, and were given a set of principles to define a brand new nation. We’re also introduced to the concept of conscientious living.

A modern-day parallel can be drawn between the Jewish people receiving the Ten Commandments and college students receiving a liberal arts education.

An article in this month’s Harvard Magazine titled “Toward Cultural Citizenship” explores the decline in humanities concentrations among college students, and why this is detrimental to an individual’s participation in society. Harvard’s Dean of Arts and Humanities, Diana Sorenson, describes culture as “a dense conversation through time” – and the pleasure one experiences from participating in this conversation. The economic recession has led many students away from the humanities in favor of more strategic, career-focused concentrations.

I myself deliberated for three months during my undergraduate sophomore year between choosing the business school versus a liberal arts major, interviewing essentially everyone who crossed my path about their opinion on the matter. (This was pre-crash of 2008, so there was a little less pressure back then.) Ultimately I decided to become a better citizen of the world; I chose a double major in Anthropology and Comparative Literature – and never looked back.

The gift of knowledge has been valued in Judaism, as a path toward a more spiritual life. It can be argued that the Torah helps us live more “successful” lives, as well, through its lessons regarding humanity, relationships and even health. Today, students of the humanities are offered an even broader course on ways to live. The Jews who received the Torah had never heard of Descartes, Freud, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. (Interestingly, in some form, all of what those leaders have recommended can be extrapolated from the Ten Commandments.)

TL; DR

Receiving the Torah from Mount Sinai was like the earliest humanities lecture. Abandoning the Ten Commandments in favor of the golden calf is akin to today’s college students foregoing an education in history, psychology, anthropology and sociology in favor of business and economics.

Passover is one of the most important, sacred holidays in the Jewish calendar. It’s actually kinda “meta” how the retelling of “the story” each year is part of the story; if Passover didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have a story to tell.