From the category archives:

Inspirations

Words on a Screen

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2010

in History,Inspirations,Meaning,Quotes,Senses

Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.

Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.

True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.

But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.

The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.

Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?

The words.

Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.

It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.

This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

Hmm.

Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?

I could sign on to that worldview.

The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.

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A few days ago, I happened across an old episode of the Guardian Books Podcast which featured authors choosing and contemplating “a key word that opened up the literary territories” they’ve explored in their work.

I particularly enjoyed the delightful obstinancy of Olivia Rosenthal’s exploration of “no” and Anne Weber’s “Attend Attentive” which I quoted on the scrapbook blog yesterday.

And then there was the opening volley of Arthur Japin’s piece about the unreal:

“Reality already exists. What’s the point of describing it one more time? The common place is all around. Why would you want to imitate it? What kind of challenge is truth? It is already there!”

I bristled at that initially — until I understood where he was headed.

Truth and reality would only be boring if we could perceive and understand them in their entirety. And we can’t.

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

Imagine a dozen people whose only experience of the world is wandering through the British Museum. After ten minutes, each in different rooms, they meet out front to compare notes. One person starts enthusiastically describing the Rosetta Stone, another asks “Who are the Egyptians?” and yet another mutters: “Greeks? Never heard of them…”

Common Place

Here’s a less contrived example: Imagine a group of people in the same room for a few minutes. How many details do they each notice? Five? Maybe ten?

Let’s be optimistic and say ten. Do they all notice the same things? Unlikely. And that’s what we have to share with each other.

Reality and truth exist in some physical sense. (I’ll leave philosophical debates about the details for another time.)

But they don’t exist in a way that is always present and complete and comprehensible in our minds. None of us individually can perceive and understand everything.

Ideas emerge from the gaps in our common perceptions, and those ideas become the ingredients of the stories we tell, the art we make and the perspectives we share.

Imagine someone that lives two thousand kilometers (or miles) in any direction from you. Is their daily life so much like your own, do you have so much in common in every thought and action, that they would learn nothing from you, and you nothing from them?

There is no such thing as commonplace, at least not one that we can perceive in any depth or detail.

To the extent that we do perceive a commonplace, it is something we construct by telling each other what we notice about our lives and our work, whether we do that through blogs or tweets or dancing or sculpture or music.

The actual content of the writing on the Rosetta Stone couldn’t be more mundane: an announcement of the specifics of a tax amnesty. That’s right: it’s an Egyptian IRS memo that just happens to be in three languages we find interesting more than 2000 years later.

We learn its significance not from our own direct experience of reality and truth, but by assembling ideas from teachers, historians, archaeologists, and writers.

Abstraction and Truth

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Arthur Japin. Despite my initial reaction, I suspected there wasn’t all that much distance between my own thinking and his.

When I enter a museum or gallery, I usually walk straight past all the figurative work towards the abstract and conceptual, the absurd and surreal.  While my verbal brain defends capital-R Reality and capital-T Truth, my feet follow orders from my deeper aesthetic instincts.

Japin has an explanation for what makes the mysterious so compelling:

“The further characters are from me personally, the more I want to know about them. The less clear they are, the more I strive to fathom them.”

He then imagines stopping a man on a street, showing him a “vague, smudged, coffee-stained daub” and asking: “Is this you?”

Japin describes the effect on the man:

“Before he can seek a likeness, he has to think about himself. And if he eventually decides that he can’t recognize any of his features in the portrait you have shown him, he will still walk on with a different image of himself than the one he had when you stopped him.”

But doesn’t a realistic portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, or a documentary about a devastating hurricane, or even a series of films about growing up do the same thing? Or more?

When we encounter an artist whose exploration of Truth and Reality implicitly asks us the same question — “Is this you?” — and our reaction is similar to what Japin describes,  we haven’t just changed our image of ourselves. We’ve changed our image of the world.

An idea or piece of art that prompts us to perceive our own likeness in unfamiliar pockets of reality and human experience can have a much more important outcome than self-reflection: empathy.

So when Japin demands: “What kind of challenge is truth?”

I respond: The most important kind.

And, from my perspective, it’s far more elusive and illuminating than the unreal.

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For at least half a day earlier this week, a story about clouds was the most shared story on the BBC News website:

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds, something most humans see all the time, were ranked above something quite rare: a jet falling out of the sky over the Atlantic.

Of course, the clouds that were eliciting such excitement were not just any clouds:

Asperatus (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

Asperatus-type clouds (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

That’s obviously not something we see every day.

Why are clouds so compelling?  What can we get from clouds?

The Cloud Appreciation Society, generators of the buzz described above, makes a strong claim in their manifesto:

“Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.”

(Shh, don’t tell the FDA, but that almost sounds like a medical claim! Good thing CAS is based in the UK…)

Are clouds art?

What makes clouds so pleasing to us?

They hit a number of my own aesthetic pleasure points.

Clouds are abstract: There’s no message or agenda lurking inside a cryptic scene. There are no hidden cultural references to miss.

They are dynamic, never finished, rarely even pausing. They are ephemeral, a reminder that nothing lasts. We pay closer attention to what won’t happen again, and to that which requires presence. As Emily Dickinson put it:

“To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie —
True Poems flee —”

Clouds are free — to all who are free to see the sky — and more readily accessible than most aesthetic experiences. Also from the CAS manifesto:

“We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”

And the sky engages multiple senses: rain is a cloud reaching out to touch you. (Well, not really — I’m personifying a bit here.) Lightning, too, though in a more extreme and thankfully rarer form. A good thunderstorm also engages our senses of sound and smell. What would summer be without the scent of the air just before a good soaking begins?

Some Notional Lessons from The Sky

What can we learn from an enthusiasm for clouds? Can a bunch of water droplets suspended in air teach us anything about creativity? How can clouds remind us of what we already know?

The Ephemeral requires attention. We don’t know what we might miss, but we do know we might miss it.

Portland, June 2007

Technology is limited. When not even a tenth of what we see fits within the frame of a photo, we can’t pretend that a camera captures much more than a token reminder of what it was like to actually be there.

Portland, November 2008

Nuance emerges as a result of process, not design. Clouds are the product of a complex, generative system. Instead of trying to meticulously make and fix every detail, set up a system that creates nuance, and hone the results.

Our surroundings set the mood and shape our perceptions.

How does this image make you feel:

Deliberate Underexposure

Portland, March 2007

And this one?

Portland, May 2007

There’s a need for a star. Beauty emerges from interactions. It’s not just the clouds, or the light alone, but the interplay between the two which can make the sky so compelling. A subject without illumination, illumination without a subject — neither alone is as good as their combination.

Osaka Skyline

Osaka, December 2001

A star can also overwhelm. The sun is so intense it blanches everything in its path. Beauty is more often found away from its spotlight, in the shadows, in layers of oblique, indirect light.

Art without an Artist? Are clouds a reminder that the art and Beauty we seek externally are actually in us?  Could it be that Beauty is an attitude? A way we choose and learn to perceive? Are cloud formations art without an artist? Or does observing clouds remind us that we are all artists?

"What's this cloud type called? Who cares..."

Naming is but one of many kinds of knowing. We can appreciate Beauty without learning a taxonomy or a specialized vocabulary, or having the ability to articulate why we are affected.

There are certain enhancements of experience available if we learn what chiaroscuro is or the role a French-sixth chord plays in a harmonic progression.

Maybe a better indicator of Beauty is to be rendered mute: To have an experience so profound we are less worried about the distinctions between stratus nebulosus translucidus and cumulus humilis, and more worried about being hit by a bus because we’ve stopped in the middle of the street, transfixed by the sky’s tableau.

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Am I too word-oriented in my exploration of creativity?  Why do I place such an emphasis on writing, poetry, and language in general?

No matter what we each choose as the preferred medium of our creative expression, we all use language. We all live by language.

Language is the nexus through which most (but not all) thought passes as it transits from mind to mind.  It is the standard intermediate form, and preserves the greatest store of human experience.

Words are probably the most accessible medium that artists and creative thinkers share, and experimenting with words is the most effective way to learn patterns and behaviors and tactics that can then be applied to work in other media. If I was writing about creativity using only terms and processes specific to electronic music, it would be more difficult to translate those ideas directly to sculpture or photography.

This bias is not mine alone: Our computers have keyboards — word capture devices — not paint brushes, uncarved marble, or drumsticks. To work with ideas, and exchange ideas, inevitably and unavoidably, means to work with words.  A greater facility with human language can enhance our work in nearly every domain of human endeavor.

Languages and written words are the jars into which we pour our ideas and perceptions, to store them away, or take them to the market, or mix them with other ideas to share at a table with friends.

Poets and philosophers and linguists and inter-cultural explorers of all kinds discover or invent more intricate containers, or repurpose old ones, or assemble them in exquisite and every-changing arrays, all in hopes of capturing everything between earth and sky and beyond — the totality of human existence.

And that’s the ultimate problem: not all of life will fit in such figurative jars. Much of it doesn’t.

Yes, I love words, but I am equally enthusiastic about what I refer to as the “non-verbal” — the encounters for which words are insufficient. I don’t simply mean those moments when the words we know as individuals, or our own abilities to articulate, are lacking. I’m talking about experiences for which our shared human language — all human language in aggregate — is inadequate.

There is no jar big enough to capture the precipitation of even one thunderstorm. We can catch a little of it. We can drink from it, be rehydrated by it, be cleansed by it. But no matter how well-crafted or expansive the jar, its contents are no substitute for running through the thunder and the rain, the irrepressible storm of life.

As we walk home soaking wet, language and words and poetry are the drops of water we wring from our clothing.

As we seek the uncontainable, the ineffable, and the transcendent, we use words to find our way, and to see where we’ve been.

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“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

– Charles Darwin

Beautiful?

But isn’t Darwin all about brutality and competition and death and extinction?

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He doesn’t have the best reputation, especially in America. The word Darwinian — not unlike Orwellian — has taken on a pejorative sense that maligns the profound ideas of the man. In modern usage, it is often associated with the death of “weak” and “undesirable” creatures, and sometimes people, as in pop culture references like the Darwin Awards.

A dim and destructive view of things, yes, but it’s certainly not the only way of looking at Darwin’s work.

There is another perspective: that Darwin’s natural selection (to be more specific about it) is the means  through which life survives and adapts. Adaptability depends on mistakes in reproduction, some of which make a species better able to carry on despite changes in its local environment. If such a process were not in operation, life might have been extinguished long ago by changing circumstances. How much more dismal and destructive history would have been if everything had stayed as it originated! In fact, there wouldn’t be any living history to discuss — nor beings to discuss it.

Static species die, and nourish the tree of life. Dynamic species adapt and evolve.

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

Darwin’s articulation of evolution was a significant break in the tapestry of human thought, as momentous as the realization that we are revolving around a star, one of many, rather than all the stars revolving around us; that the firmament is not a protective shell encasing us as a kind of cosmic womb, but rather that we are a constituent element of something that is far from firm; that we are a tiny little piece of an immense whole, on a pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan once put it.

If we are not at the center, we began to wonder, then what does that mean?  If Copernicus forced us to think about what we are on the edge of this vastness, the findings of Darwin and other biologists since have us wondering about who we are as a species in the span of time.

If we are designed creatures, each made from a single divine mold, then any attribute that is distinct is a deviation, a flaw, a blemish to be sanded down, or a reason to be sent to the seconds bin by the Quality Assurance team.

But if we are evolved creatures, then diversity and constant variation, the interaction of our distinct forms with our surroundings, and the way we adapt to those interactions all contribute to the ongoing creation of the species. Diversity is the very mechanism through which we have become what we are today, and through which we will become whatever we will be ten or a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Enough of cosmology and biological history: What does this have to do with creative expression?

In our thinking and our work, do we strive to find a single and original expression of an idea, some unreachable urtext or perfect Platonic form? Or do we let our ideas emerge, move into a particular moment and place, gain form through interaction with the minds and ideas and perspectives of others, and be sculpted by time and the elemental forces of history and culture?

Do we hover over our ideas, trying to control and force them towards a particular destination?  Or do we fertilize and nurture and ultimately follow our ideas as they twist and turn and become, recognizing that we are but one factor in the shaping of their future?

Darwin’s natural selection reminds us that even a process without a goal, or a journey without a destination, can produce interesting and useful and meaningful results — such as creatures who evolve to the point of understanding the process through which they became observant and reflective.

On the Origin of Species ends with these lines:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.  This is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Creation is not some dusty fact of history, something that has already happened, something finished.

Life continues to adapt, and we are in the midst of it.

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Travel as Art

by Matt Blair on December 5, 2008

in Books,Inspirations,Senses

By the time I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel I had already seen most of the fifty United States, visited more than a dozen countries and even lived abroad for a couple years. In all those places, and while moving between them, I had a lot of time to think about how and why I felt this urge to see the world.

The ideas in de Botton’s book gave additional nuance to some of my conclusions, caused me to reconsider others, and to re-imagine the act of travel and motion, of physical and cultural transposition, as an act of creativity — an artistic endeavor.

While his book is ostensibly about travel, there are a number of ideas contained in it that speak directly to living a creative life. Here’s a brief look at three.

Transformation and Return

There is an abrupt and inescapable challenge that is familiar to both mystics and creators: to return from the transcendent to the mundane, while maintaining one’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose. If we are working deeply in ideas that matter, we will be changed by the experience, yet we must then re-enter a world that is unchanged and indifferent until we figure out how to share that experience.

de Botton reflects on this after returning from a trip:

“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we are essentially are.”

Or who we aspire to be. The friction of our surroundings can keep us from wild excursions and ill-advised adventures. But it can also constrain our growth, our sense of self, and scuttle our attempts at self-definition and re-invention.

Yawning at the Unthinkable

In 2008, flying is a routine part of life in the developed world. Over the years, there have been many flights during which I’ve buried my head in a magazine or a book before takeoff, and not noticed much else until the plane was on the ground, a time zone or two away.

But de Botton reminds us what we are missing on such flights:

“In the cabin, no one stands up to announce with the requisite emphasis that if we look out the window, we will see that we are flying over a cloud, a matter that would have detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable.”

For most of human history, the distance and difficulty of getting a close look at a mountain peak has made it a rare experience, one that had to be earned by great risk and extreme discomfort. Shouldn’t we be be almost embarrassed that today we can glance out a window, look down on a snow-capped peak, and then close our eyes again, begrudging our inability to fall asleep easily?

Wonder doesn’t require mountains or stars on a moonless night, so much as it requires our attention.

The Mind-set of Travel

Our travel experiences depend on both our attitude and the places we visit. Could it be that physical motion is not required to have the experience of travel? Could we bypass the hassles of the road entirely, and still increase the intensity of our lives by applying a traveler’s mentality to our own surroundings?

The most local form of this idea would be to observe our own room as though it was an unfamiliar and unstudied place, as Xavier de Maistre did in his book “Journey around My Bedroom”.

de Botton summarizes one of de Maistre’s insights:

“…the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt’s South America.”

Travel is a way to develop our perceptive skills, and these skills are the best kind of souvenir: they require no extra space in the luggage, and can be put to use daily after we return.

“Once I began to consider everything as being of potential interest, objects released latent layers of value. A row of shops that I had always known as one large, undifferentiated, reddish block acquired an architectural identity. There were Georgian pillars around one flower shop, and late-Victorian Gothic-style gargoyles on top of the butcher’s. A restaurant became filled with diners rather than shapes. In a glass-fronted office block, people were gesticulating in a boardroom on the first floor as someone drew a pie chart on an overhead projector. Just across the road from the office, a man was pouring out new slabs of concrete for the pavement and carefully shaping their edges. I boarded a bus and, instead of slipping at once into private concerns, tried to connect imaginatively with the other passengers.”

Travel is not only about where we go, but who we might become, and the details we notice along the way.

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Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas

by Matt Blair on November 25, 2008

in Inspirations,Senses

The enormous turbine hall in what is now the Tate Modern museum in London has been the site of annual large-scale commissions sponsored by Unilever.

In 2002, Anish Kapoor created Marsyas in this space, a massive yet simple piece: a blood red PVC membrane stretched between black rings, one at each end of the hall, and a third above the platform off the north entrance.

Entering the museum from the west, there were few hints of what to expect: the multi-story concrete facade hid almost the entire work, with only the lower edge of one ring visible through the glass doors.

The west entrance to the Tate Modern

Entering from the west

As soon as I passed through the door, I had to lean backwards to see the top. There was no immediate sense of how far into the distance the piece went. Instinctually, I wondered if I was about to be swallowed.

I walked past the initial ring, then looked back towards the west entrance:

Marsyas

From the floor of the Turbine Hall, looking west

It was an experience beyond words, and inspired an almost-physical sense of awe. A friend of mine, only a little less speechless than myself, summarized: “A man thought that, and then he made it.”

Of course, it was a little more complicated than that, but it is beautifully put: Marsyas was a profound example of the transmutation of a grand idea from thought to form.

Entering from the north, the middle ring hovers just overhead, and light entering at one end can be glimpsed in the center:

Looking up into Marsyas

Looking up into Marsyas

As the notes point out, it was impossible to see the whole piece from any position.

Sometimes, we can only experience the transcendent in fragments, no matter how quickly we turn our heads or how broadly we perceive our surroundings.

Marsyas

Less than half

Art that arrives in email attachments or short clips on YouTube can inspire us and engage us on an intellectual level. But we still need experiences that envelop us, that are larger than our cell phones or our computer screens or our bodies.

For me, Marsyas was a reminder of how profound it can feel to be overwhelmed — and wordless.

The rest of my photos of Marsyas are on Flickr.

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The Ordinariness of Arnold Schoenberg

by Matt Blair on October 5, 2008

in History,Inspirations

My high-school piano teacher was reluctant to coach me on anything written in the 20th century. It all seemed just too decadent and non-sensical to her church-musician ears, except maybe Bela Bartok, who had the excuse of ‘ethnic’ explorations.

A few years later, I was learning Arnold Schoenberg’s “Six Little Pieces” for piano. Schoenberg was modern, I was told, and to many of my musical teachers and mentors, it was thought he represented an ending: the end of beauty and achievement in the Western tradition. It would be ugly from here on.

As I studied this music, I came to some conclusions of my own. These pieces barely made sense without reference to previous centuries of European musical tradition. Indeed, what was remarkable to me was not how different they were from what had come before, but how similar.

In what ways?

  • The meter was 3/4, the same as the Bach minuets I had learned as a I child.
  • The rhythms used quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. No extremes here.
  • Who was to play the music? A neatly-dressed, serious-minded and well-trained pianist.
  • For whom? An audience seated in the dark, quiet and appreciative — if a little alienated.
  • The instrument was the piano, the same instrument that dominated European music in the 19th Century.
  • How was the piano played? Fingers on the keyboard, just like Beethoven.

So what was different? The harmony and the shapes of the melodic lines.

Schoenberg was an incrementalist, not a revolutionary, and much of the music he wrote was a natural progression, an expected permutation — perhaps long overdue — and not a radical departure or complete reinvention.

Why is this sense of ordinariness still important to me?

It reminds me that the details we pay attention to determine our sense of innovation.

The musical establishment was focused on the particulars of harmony and melodic shape, and any experimentation with those core elements was a radical act. For me, considering the sweep of global music in the 20th century, and anticipating the 21st, these experiments seemed relatively unremarkable.

I always return to this perspective when thinking about how a project relates to tradition: which parts are best left as they would be assumed and expected to be, and which parts could be essentially and profoundly different? And when I’m working with or for someone else who might be more traditional: which aspects are defensibly different, and which aren’t worth fighting for?

It reminds me of the interplay between familiarity and confusion: give an audience just enough of what they know to understand the context, and just enough innovation to surprise and delight.

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Herzog, at the End of the World

by Matt Blair on September 3, 2008

in Inspirations

On Werner Herzog’s film “Encounters at the End of the World”

Antarctica is probably the closest thing to a genuine frontier that I might experience in my lifetime. And I’ve long admired by Werner Herzog, particularly for the tenacity featured both on and off the screen in his film “Fitzcarraldo”.

A few years ago, the National Science Foundation sent Herzog and a cinematographer to Antarctica for six weeks, despite his promise that he would not come back with another cute penguin story. He emerged from this experience with a hybrid: gorgeous sequences of natural beauty paired with the close harmonies of Eastern Orthodox choral music, interspersed with a kind of anthropological study of a land without natives — human natives, anyway.

There are, in fact penguins in this film, but only briefly. While many reviewers seem to focus on Herzog’s attempt to interview a misanthropic penguin expert, I was more interested in the question implied by a single penguin, a question at the core of all our explorations:

What makes us set off for the hills, on a path perpendicular to our known comforts?

Herzog wisely sidesteps any attempts to answer such questions, and simply presents us with the image of this lone penguin headed for the horizon. Headed for “certain death”, he narrates, as though that distinguishes this penguin from any other.

This trailer tries to cram dozens of stunning image into less than two minutes. Don’t let its frenetic jump-cut editing discourage you from seeing Herzog’s actual film, which unfolds at an expansive and contemplative pace.

In between shots of the vast landscapes and languid underwater sequences, we are introduced to a linguist who operates the green houses which provide fresh fruits and vegetables, a climatologist studying icebergs the size of England as they dance across a computer screen, and single-celled organisms that are able to sort sand particles by size to build tree-like shells. We meet an émigré from Eastern Europe who still keeps a bag ready for instant departure at any moment, a pensive cell biologist making his last dive in Antarctica, and watch scientists in those ubiquitous, bulky red parkas, bending slowly to the ground — like performers in a modern dance piece — to press their ears against the ice, and hear the seals below.

These scientists have a perspective of the Long Now, of the ephemeral nature of human civilization, and yet they also have a zest for life, and an enthusiasm for what they are doing that is truly inspiring.

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TED Videos

by Matt Blair on August 16, 2008

in Inspirations

I first heard of the TED conference after reading the book “Information Anxiety2″ by Richard Saul Wurman. The scope of the conference has expanded well beyond the original meaning of Technology, Entertainment and Design.

The basic concept: Invite some of the smartest people on the planet, and ask them to summarize their most important work in 20 minutes or less. There are a few A-listers, such as Al Gore and Bono, who for the most part say what they’ve said elsewhere, but the most remarkable finds are often people I didn’t know much about.

Membership in the organization costs several thousand dollars a year, but in line with their motto (“Ideas worth spreading”) they make video of the presentations available in a variety of formats, from YouTube to iTunes, and directly on their website. The videos are organized by a variety of themes and categories, such as “how we learn” and “jaw-dropping“.

Among my favorites:

There always seem to be more videos in my queue than videos I’ve already watched. If you need an injection of inspiration, a booster shot of great brains doing great things in about the same amount of time it takes to make a decent breakfast, TED is the place to go.

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