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.

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

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.

Any Of Us Could Be Kindred Spirits

I witnessed something so strange and powerful the other day on an evening walk with my dog before going to bed. The experience has stuck in my head for a few days. This happens sometimes – I’ll encounter something that feels bigger than me, and unless I write it down it nags at the back of my head. Like it’s not supposed to stay within me but is meant to be shared. (So thank you, whoever is reading this.)

It was September 11th, and I had been out all day working at an event in honor of September 11th, at the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald – a company which lost 2/3 of its employees in 9/11. I got home after a long day out, picked up my dog and met some friends for dinner. On our way home, we passed by a church where I saw a couple of people were sitting on the stairs with sleeping bags and clothes and crates and crap. As my dog and I approached, a seated man started cooing over Betsy.

My immediate reaction was to ignore it and keep walking, but then looked at the man and for some reason changed my mind. I thought to myself “He’s not dangerous; I don’t know anything about this person or why he’s on the street. If petting my dog makes him happy, why not let him?”

Betsy went up to him as if she knew him, and he greeted her warmly, exclaiming: “I haven’t seen you in a week! How have you been!?” I can’t explain why but I got the chills. We were on a block we don’t normally walk down; there was no way this man had actually seen my dog a week earlier; she wasn’t even staying with me in the city that much recently. And he definitely hadn’t seen her more than once or I would have remembered the interaction. He was looking directly into her face, as if he was recognizing something deeper inside her. I felt like he wasn’t actually speaking to Betsy, my dog – but to her spirit.

As we started to walk away he said to me “They’re the best, aren’t they?” To which I replied, “Yup!”

The fact that he first spoke directly to my dog as though they knew each other — and then to me as though they’ve never met before — seemed to confirm what I had already concluded. He identified with some aspect of my loving, affectionate, judgment-free animal, who nuzzled up to him and didn’t make him feel dirty or different. He seemed to be addressing the presence of love and kindness that he recognized within her; it saddened me to think he hadn’t seen that in a week.

A poetic way to end the day on September 11th.

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

A Slightly Less-Jewish Fall Feeling

Fall is here, and so is that “Fall feeling”. I keep thinking of this insightful line by blogger OriginalTitle:

“. . . it is now the very early beginning of September and Halloween decorations, sweaters and pumpkin paraphernalia already decorate all venues of mass consumption meant to make you think you discovered the season including Halloween and Thanksgiving on your own when really it is fully by design.”

Totally get that.

I started work last week for the first time in 9 months. My 1st day happened to fall on September 11th, which made the day feel particularly meaningful and in a very solemn way. My new office is not far from the Empire State Building, and walking by there at 9AM on 9/11, just weeks after the shooting that happened at that very spot, was surreal.

the exexpat - empire state building

Empire State Building, up close and personal

The Jewish High Holidays always usher in that Fall feeling – but it’s very different here than it was in Israel, obviously but for a number of reasons:

(1) I love this permanent Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card I’ve given myself. I figure: I lived in Israel for 4 years, therefore I don’t need to go to synagogue on the High Holidays. I never went while I was living there – so why should I go now? I never considered myself religious but I feel like living in Israel expunges me from any guilt I would otherwise feel for not going to temple.

(2) That said, I sort of miss hearing Shana Tova a million times during the weeks leading up to the Jewish New Year. A storekeeper wished me A-Happy-And-A-Healthy-New-Year today as I thanked him for popping the lens back into my sunglasses, and I sincerely welcomed the sentiment. I felt like I hadn’t received it enough.

(3) In Israel, it’s very common for companies to give their employees some sort of gift in recognition of the holidays: wine, gift cards, days off. The holidays are acknowledged and celebrated at work, with a company toast or small party. In America, with its separation-of-church-and-state, this would never fly.

(4) Israel shuts down from the High Holidays through the end of Succot. Everyone leaves for vacation, banks close, it’s impossible to rent an apartment since brokers and owners are completely out of touch. The whole country seems to adapt this freedom from accountability for like 3 weeks. It’s a bit ridiculous at first, but this is actually pretty awesome.

My last employer in Israel, a web start-up in Tel Aviv, gave us a few extra days off so we had a straight 11 days out of the office, even though technically the holidays consist of Rosh Hashana (2 days), Yom Kippur (1 day) and Succot (a holiday shortly following the first two, but not as important and requiring only 1-3 days depending on your personal observance).

My new job isn’t giving us any of this time off as paid vacation. I’m not complaining; it’s just such a stark difference from what it was like last year. It feels a little less Jewish and more American.

But the fact that I’m thinking about that and not sure I’m entirely happy with it sort of reverses it. I think I just did an inception on myself. Hate that. But also love it. 🙂