Finding Meaningful Work Part II: Activist Art & Organizations

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.

 

 

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.

 

The Brooklyn Night Bazaar: Tagging Nostalgia

Brooklyn Night Bazaar

At the Brooklyn Night Bazaar the other night, I traveled to Thailand, Berlin and Israel. Three places I’ve actually visited relatively recently. You walk into this warehouse in Williamsburg, where illuminated paper lanterns on the ceiling offer a warm glow to a large, one-room space. Aisles of vendors extend back into the darkness.

A dark-light miniature golf course with celebrity cardboard cut-outs sits to your left. To the right is an art installation in another room with ping-pong tables in the middle. “Never-ending trails of color” create a 4-wall, floor-to-ceiling graffiti piece by Brazilian artist Raphael a.k.a. SLIKS. His work comes from a lifelong sense of loneliness. Puma sponsors the exhibit, and there are glass cases of brightly-colored sneakers which add a dash of corporate flavor to the site. Instagram is in full use, with iPhone users snapping photos from creative angles. They’re tagging photos of tagging. How meta.

Night Markets in Thailand

I felt pretentious telling my friends how much the place reminded me of the night markets in Thailand; in Chang Mai, where the biggest night market stretches for what feels like miles; or in Pai, where the night market is more manageable in size but not in terms of the endless variety of creative wares, produced by artisans and craftsman you hope are local. (It was a running joke, seeing the same fabric elephant coin purse at literally every market and souvenir store across 3 different South Eastern countries. The first time I encountered the elephant, the woman selling it said “I make, I sew.” My travel companion and I loved commenting on how well that woman must have been doing, to have such a robust distributor network.)

Bars in Berlin  

A beer garden shoots off the main room, where low wooden tables sit facing a white wall loosely covered in black-outline illustrations. The casual intersection of art and alcohol and the reminded me of a 5-story place in Berlin calledTachlas. The place is covered floor to ceiling in decades of graffiti, with 5 different types of music on each floor and a sand-covered outdoor beer garden on the bottom level.

Street Art in Tel Aviv

We left the bazaar and walked down a quiet street. The light of a street lamp illuminated a drawing of a crouched, girl-like figure done on the side of the 2nd story of a building – and for a second I felt like I was in Jaffa. The quiet road, the ubiquity of art in odd places, the subdued yet powerful presence of an underground art scene brought me back to the backstreets of industrial, southern Tel Aviv.

Brooklyn Street Art

These comparisons and memories and nostalgia all feel good and bad at the same time. I make these comparisons yet don’t know for what purpose, or what to do with them. My gut reaction is to share them with others, yet I instantly feel pretentious; “Have any of you ever been to Thailand?” is a question usually met with silence.

The silence echoes inside my own head as I ask myself what to do with those comparisons and memories. Tagging them – on Instagram and my blog – makes them seem captured and categorized.

 

Watching the War from Across the World

I don’t want to sound dramatic. I used to hate when I was living in Tel Aviv and American friends and family would call me and act as though the world was coming to an end, due to the latest border skirmish between Israel and either the West Bank or Gaza. I remember being there during December of 2008, when Operation Cast Lead conducted 2 weeks of IDF air strikes into Gaza as a defense tactic against Hamas firing rockets into southern parts of Israel, going as far north as Ashkelon.

I remember feeling totally confused, and powerless, watching both domestic and international media reporting the situation. Tel Aviv is only 25 miles from Ashkelon, and 48 miles from Gaza. That’s nothing. That’s a 1 hour drive. Israel is a tiny country, surrounded by enemies. These are facts.

Now, Israel is once again at war with Gaza, in a very similar situation as for years ago. Only now, Tel Aviv was hit. And I feel just as if not more powerless than I did four years ago. Now I’m far, far away from people I love, in a city I miss every single day, that’s actually experiencing incoming attacks.

~~~

I know of 3 reasons for a siren to go off in Tel Aviv:

1. The army conducts drills a couple times a year, to prepare citizens for what this morning was a reality.

2. Every spring, on the morning of Holocaust Remembrance Day. At around 10 or 11:00am, a 5-minute period of silence is observed by everyone on the street – in the city, on the highways, in buses, cars, bikes and on foot. Drivers stop their cars and get out and stand in the street in total silence. Traffic stops.

I remember my 1st time experiencing this, during my 1st spring in Israel in 2009. I was on a bus on the way to work. I didn’t hear the siren, but my bus stopped, the driver got out, and I had no idea what was going on. It took me a second, and then this feeling washes over you: everyone else is observing a ritual. They knew what day it was, and realized what that meant for their morning commute. From the perspective of an “outsider” (an American), it seems as though everyone is suddenly connected through a shared experience as Jewish Israelis. Yes, I’m Jewish, but as an American, I had never experienced a national observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

3. To announce a real attack.

~~~

I never heard this third type; only the first two. I know that so far no one in Tel Aviv has been hurt. That 3 Israelis have been killed, and 12 Palestinians (or 19? I’m hearing conflicting reports). What’s so hard to digest is that a missile actually struck the city I lived in. Israel’s largest city. Four years ago, no matter how confused and emotional I was, I never truly feared for my safety. I was never afraid to be on the streets, to ride a bus. Once that war ended, and things went back to normal, I ventured all over Israel without much hesitation.

I hope that Israelis can return to their “version of normalcy” as soon as possible.

NY Silent Peace Walk

NY Peace Walk

I went on a silent walk for peace last week.

It was organized as a demonstration to show support for Israeli-Palestinian solidarity. Designed with Buddhist principals, there was to be no shouting, no posters. Just walking and peace. About 500 people showed up, and after some introductory remarks by event organizers and peace leaders, we walked in a single file around Central Park for almost 2 hours. We were given white sashes to wear over our raincoats. The walk concluded inside the park where we split into small groups for discussion.

I met other like-minded people, which felt surprisingly more rewarding than I would have thought. I don’t go to things like this just to meet people who already agree with what I feel; I don’t really know strongly how I feel about certain things, but when you meet people who affirm certain notions you have but aren’t yet sure how to express them – it’s a actually a really beautiful thing.

NY Peace Walk

The experience was powerful in a number of ways for me personally. One of which involved me deciding to stay involved with the organization that coordinated the walk. It was also very meditative, and I enjoyed the deliberate pace at which we were walking and the deep reflection it lent itself to.

Coincidentally, the date of the walk, October 7 2012, happened to fall on the date of Simchat Torah – the final day of Sukkot, traditionally celebrated by circling the Torah 7 times. We happened to be walking around Central Park on a holiday that’s celebrated in pretty much the same motion . . .

NY Peace Walk

This Feels Pointless Sometimes

I don’t know why I’m keeping this blog really. My last post was not written in “my” voice. My mom wrote in the comments that other than my comparison to myself as a pedofile (as a reference to how I’d feel going to dog parks without being a dog owner), the post was “warm and heartfelt” — something syrupy like that.

I don’t like syrupy bullshit (a term coined by my dad recently), and I immediately called into question my purpose in blogging when I saw I had oozed the very substance I loathe into the blogosphere.

I just don’t know what the point of this is.

I have this need to “record” my experience in Israel – but I like the idea of recording it as a series of experiences, with common threads perhaps, but not necessarily so they all lead to one underlying message. I could just write this in a journal or on a file on my computer.

But I have an urge to get this out – beyond just me.

I just hate how wishy-washy this feels. And what is “this” anyway?

Part of me just wants to preserve the feeling of having recently lived in another country – that felt so much like home sometimes . . . but also not like it at all. I learned more about myself and the world in the last 4 years than in all the other years of my life combined. More than in college, by a long shot. More than the years right out of college. And I just hope I continue to feel that way, regardless of where I am living. I think my insecurity stems from an anxiety I feel, that if I’m within my comfort zone, I’m not testing myself. And if I’m not testing myself, I’m not affirming myself. Is this a condition? Do other people experience this constantly? Would it be alleviated with more creative expression?

That’s another huge problem of mine. Art. The constant berating myself for never making any. If there’s one thing that makes me attain a higher sense of self other than travel, it’s participating in the creation of artwork that feels as though it’s beyond my control. That I’m the one creating it, but it’s not just me – there’s something coordinating my eyeball and my hand in such a specific way that everything just makes sense.

OK that’s it. From now on, this blog will be my own voice. I’m worried of sounding too liberal or naive – but I kind of like being liberal, and a version of “naive”. . . there’s actually a Hebrew expression that means “false naive” but I can’t think of it at the moment, but that’s me. False naive. I know better, but like to challenge what exists by assuming ignorance.

So it’s decided. This blog will contain a selection of “false naive” pieces composed as a result of my living in Israel. Yofi.