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.

“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.

 

 

Bright, Floating Buses of Skeletons: The Paradox of the East Village

Rick Prol-1

Part of the charm of the East Village lies in the paradoxical nature of its identity. It’s defining characteristic is the struggle to maintain its 1980’s, “authentic” version of itself. There’s this angst associated with the nostalgia of the area. Veteran storekeepers and residents proclaim “…it’s not the same anymore” or “…it’s changed so much, I don’t recognize it.” This mournful description has become part of the neighborhood’s identity, and a badge of honor worn by card-carrying tasters and makers of the original neighborhood flavor. The result is an interesting mosaic of art, culture and attitudes quite distinct to the area between 1st and 14th Street, from 1st Avenue to the East River.

The Dorian Grey Gallery, a tiny space on 9th Street, is currently showing works by Rick Prol – dubbed the “Veteran of Gothic Angst” by Art in America. The exhibition presents a dark, macabre look at the neighborhood from above and within. Floating buses of skeletons amidst a Manhattan sky and cramped, decrepit one-room apartments paint a picture that’s as off-putting as it is romantically-nostalgic…and pride-inducing. The scenes are depressing yet vibrant at the same time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and captures the old East Village brilliantly.

We’re all headed on a floating bus to death. Yet we are doing so in one of the coolest, most culturally-influential neighborhoods in one of the world’s most culturally-influential cities. Yes, there’s a 7-Eleven on 11th and Avenue A, but there’s also Empire Biscuit 2 blocks north, with its friendly husband-wife pair serving an exotic menu of sweet and savory biscuit-sandwiches, with an impressive variety of cheeses and jellies (try the Snuggaboo!). Yes, the Annual Tompkins Square Park Dog Halloween Parade now has a commercial sponsor (Purina), but it makes for an even bigger celebration of the creative and compassionate dog-lover community, that it’s hard to see a downside beyond the principle. Artists like Rick Prol preserve the paradox of the East Village, and its struggle between mourning and appreciation for the old and the new, preservation and flux. At least, that’s my interpretation. Live in the area? Would love to hear your take.


dorian2 dorian3 dorian4 dorian5

$100 Million in Life Advice

Today I learned some valuable life advice tonight at a celebration in honor of Wix’ IPO, at their NY office. Lots of the original employees from the Israeli office were there. I wound up smoking on the roof with a bunch of the senior developers (felt just like old times) and one of them gave me some really legit advice on leading a balanced life:

  1. Find something you don’t despise doing and aren’t morally opposed to. This can be your job. Or, you can work at a gas station.
  2. Set strict limits on how much of your time/energy is devoted to work (sorry Joe, my manager, if you’re reading this-slash-obviously you’re reading this you love me hello hi I’m coming in late as usual) but make the most of that time and work smartly and quickly.
  3. Work on art projects with other people. It will force you to complete things, is a valuable learning experience and can be extremely rewarding.
  4. Do small, hassle-free things you enjoy during wait times, at work, etc.  like 5-minute sketches

This came from someone with 30 years of development experience (or maybe 12, one or the other). OK sleep time bye.

6 Spooky Tacos, Lobsters & Dinosaur (Dogs)

Stegosaurus Dog Costume

This year was the 23rd annual Tompkins Square Park Dog Halloween Parade, the biggest dog costume event in the country. There were a lot of dinosaurs, lobsters and tacos.

I handed out flyers for a client who produced an iPhone app for dog parents (hiPancake!), so I got to bill time while taking pictures of dogs dressed up in taco costumes.

Things could be worse.

tacoThat shnauzer’s expression is priceless.

 

Turtle Dog Costume

 

 

Chef and Lobster Dog Costume

 

 

Lobster Dog CostumePhotobomb: My dog, uncostumed.

 

Dinosaur Dog CostumeThis guy’s name is Rex.

Comparing Tragedies May Be Fruitless…Or Opportunity for Perspective

Comparing tragedies is taboo. But this is my blog. And the point of my blog is to examine aspects of life in NY after having lived in Israel for a bit. And this week’s tragedy feels like one of those aspects worth examining.

In the past month:

  1. Israel and Gaza were at war
  2. Hurricane Sandy blew through NY and NJ
  3. Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting

I can’t help but view these events in light of one another.

Hurricane Sandy was a natural disaster that more or less couldn’t have been avoided. The other two are man-made. And as complicated as the Middle East Conflict is – at least it has a story. There are reasons why people on both sides feel so strongly about the situation, whether justified or not.

Friday’s shooting has no defense or explanation. Not a single aspect of it. Friends of mine who are teachers (including my mom) are going to their jobs tomorrow, and will have to have some form of conversation with their students about the event.

I’m looking forward to hearing about it, because I think there can be an opportunity here for one of two conversations: one of healing, understanding, and peace – or one of anger, negativity and hostility. There’s no such thing as revenge or retaliation to be had. We need our teachers and legislators to be PEACE proponents here. We need strong leadership with a proactive agenda that seeks to understand and help – as opposed to blame and punish.

Having metal detectors installed in schools seems to be a band-aid, and a slippery one at that. Israelis are used to security measures at public places; I stopped noticing the guards at shopping malls and restaurants after awhile. I don’t want metal detectors to become so commonplace that they’re accepted as a fixture in our public spaces. The problem is larger than that, and requires a more sustainable solution.