Author Archives: Karen Eng

A perpetual tourist who makes his own souvenirs: The intriguing work of artist Jorge Mañes Rubio

Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash

Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash

From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.

Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?

My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.

During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.

What kind of objects did you create?

In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.

The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.

Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.

Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.

You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design? 

Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.

To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”

I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

ISIS, the World Cup and everything in between: a letter from Beirut

Ramadan sale on flags, Brazilian coffee and nuts. Lebanon. Photo: Zena el Khalil

Ramadan sale on flags, Brazilian coffee and nuts. Lebanon. Photo: Zena el Khalil

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, artist Zena el Khalil was on the ground. She coped with her terror by writing an email about what was going on, and sending it to everyone in her contacts. This gave birth to her blog, Beirut Update, which she saw as a “war diary”. When the invasion ended, el Khalil stopped blogging. But last week, as events unfolded in the Middle East and the crisis approached Lebanon, el Khalil opened her computer and began again. Here is a passionate and personal reflection on life in and around war, past, present and future.

A few nights ago, England and Italy went to war over a ball. A few hours later, ISIS went to war for oil, bread and God. Right now, the Middle East — my part of the world — is dramatically changing by the second. The games are great opium for the major crisis around us. By the time the winning team holds up the precious golden cup, I wonder what our world will look like.

If serious research were done, it is more than highly probable that Lebanon would be named number 1 in terms of World Cup supporters. There isn’t a single balcony that is not waving a flag right now. And after wins by big teams like Germany or Brazil, it is not uncommon for a parade of cars to whizz through the city, with cheering passengers precariously hanging out of windows, waving giant flags. No one ever claimed that Lebanese don’t like a good party. A true, but funny story — though most Lebanese support the Italian team, we also get a little nervous when they win the cup. They won in 1982 and 2006, among other years. And in 1982 and 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But in real news, Obama is sending troops and drones into Iraq. Iran has vowed to protect the Shiites there, and has also rejected US involvement. Streams of Sunni militants are flooding the border from Syria into western Iraq. The Mehdi army is on the rise. From Lebanon, Hezbollah is sending more men into Syria and Iraq, leaving the Lebanese/Israeli border very vulnerable. And in what may seem like the craziest move of all, Israel has been elected as vice-chair of the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee — which deals, among other things, with matters related to Palestinian refugees. Yes, you heard me. Occupiers will now have carte blanche over who gets to live in Palestine. All this after three weeks of raids in which so many Palestinian lives have been lost in what seems to be a morbid collective punishment. People who murdered, tortured and displaced locals are going to get to lay the law on what is Palestinian land.

In Lebanon, we have a saying for a big blow like this. “Kaff’ayn.” It means, basically, a double slap in the face. Bam, baaaaam!! With all the news, I keep asking myself when this is all going to end. When will we finally be able to lay down our guns?

I know from firsthand experience that once you experience war, you continue to expect war. It is a vicious and never-ending cycle. In the early 2000s, I had just graduated from an art school in New York City. I had come to do my MFA, and while I was there experienced — rather, saw with my own eyes — the first tower fall. Then in 2003, when the USA invaded Iraq, I was in my shared studio in Brooklyn. I borrowed a TV and watched them drop bombs on Baghdad, alone in the studio, far from my family and friends back in the Middle East. It was the first time such an attack was televised. I stayed up all night painting a portrait of Leila Khalid, the Palestinian freedom fighter. I kept thinking that Iraq was going to become another Palestine — occupied and hopelessly in a state of never-ending war. I thought about the women and children who were going to die for no reason. Since that night, I have only been creating art that is reactionary to war, gender, religion and their place in our bubblegum culture. I see my work as a by-product of political and economic turmoil.

One of el Khalil's portraits of Leila Khalid -- "Beautiful Warrior," 2003

One of el Khalil’s portraits of Leila Khalid — “Beautiful Warrior,” 2003

It’s funny, before I moved to the States, I never thought of myself as “Arab” or “woman,” but 9-11 put me into that box very quickly. I embraced my peaceful political opinions and began to vocalize them. I preached a simple equation: no guns, no wars. I went down to DC to protest the US invasion of Iraq. I joined the world of activism and of course, subsequently, had my phone tapped and undercover police agents come knocking at my door. For several reasons, I decided then that it was a good time to move back to Beirut.

It is now a little over 10 years later, and we find that the battle still rages on. Actually, it has exploded in ways I never thought possible. It seems as if the entire world is at war — weapons are being sold in numbers so many it’s impossible to count. In all corners of the globe people are arming themselves. Borders are being redrawn with disregard to those who actually live on the land, and hundreds of thousands of lives are going to waste, waste, waste.

Apart from the countless deaths, the trauma induced by war is enough to cripple someone for a lifetime. Imagine what it feels like to lose your older brother. Imagine what it feels like to lose your father to a war that’s not even really yours. It was imposed on you by greedy governments. Imagine what it feels like to lose your best friend, the only person you ever truly felt comfortable confiding in — the person you thought would grow old with you, organize play dates for the kids you’d planned to have at the same time, and hold you through life’s unexpected ordeals.

We are all losing, on all sides.

When you think about what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, to name just a few, it seems larger than life and completely unfixable. How is it that we just let all that happen? Just — let it happen.

I used to visit Syria all the time, when I was in my early 20s. I used to drive up to buy art supplies and glittery fabrics at the Hamadiye market a few times a year. My boyfriend was Syrian, and on romantic nights infused by wine and poetry, we’d grab the midnight bus from Beirut to Aleppo and spend the weekends exploring the old souks and Roman ruins in Palmyra, in the middle of the desert. It’s hard to believe that that’s all gone now. The soft sand we once made love in is now stained with the blood of militants seeking revenge and total world domination. The beautiful Syrians who were so soft and gentle have, after having lost their homes and loved ones, transformed into one of the most threatening forces of nature.

Who are ISIS anyways? In Arabic, we call them DAESH — it is the the Arabic translation of Islamic State of Iraq and Shem (the Levant); Dawlet Al Islamiyah fil Iraq wa Shem. I believe them to be of all types of colors, shapes and sizes, amongst which are the leftover of the leftover of the men who have warred and been paid to war and lost and lost and now are ronins in search of their next fix. Just think about those who fought in South Russia, in East Africa… You think these people just go away? Once you have tasted war, you become war. And war is what you will continue to search for. It becomes the only thing you know how to do.

To the world, it would seem that ISIS is a fight to create an Islamic state, but in reality, I don’t think anything is that black and white anymore. We lost our innocence on that sunny and crisp morning back in 2001. The plain truth of it all is that we are in a battle for oil — the most dead of energy resources, but the black gold that controls the world. Call it an Islamic State or the Free Empire of McDonald’s. They seem to be one and the same. It is hard to believe that entire countries — Syria and Iraq, with centuries of progressive civilizations and grand architecture — have burnt to the ground. Damascus, never conquered in history, is now a festering and putrid mass grave.

Those who have fled are now permanent refugees. Permanent because most of these people could never afford to return and rebuild their homes anyway. For many, life in a refugee camp could provide more comfort. But that level of comfort is still nothing close to being acceptable by human standards. Just look at the Palestinians in Chatilla or Burj al Barajni in Beirut — they’ve been there for over 60 years, living in the worst and most tragic of conditions. Cinder blocks rise, leaving little room for sky, and towering garbage, uncollected, gives birth to new diseases. And yet the cycle of violence continues. More lives are lost, trodden on, disregarded, disrespected, abused, humiliated, broken and permanently twisted. The potential of beautifully creative and productive lives lost for nothing — the worst kind of travesty.

We just let it happen. While we were sipping our Frappuccinos ignoring Maliki and his rise to dictatorship, ISIS was arming itself. I read in a recent article in the Guardian that by the time ISIS started their full-scale attack a few days ago, they were already more than $875 million dollars rich. Where does this kind of money come from? I’m asking you, America, Russia, Saudi and Iran.

“It’s A Boy!”, 2008. Photo: Rachel Tabet

“It’s A Boy!”, 2008. Photo: Rachel Tabet

But other than the practical and financial aspects of war, I’ve been thinking about the human factor — the men who get up in the morning, put on their battle fatigues, lock and load their guns and step into the furnace. Last night, I asked my friend, let’s call him Joe, who has served in the US Army and has been to Iraq, why men go to war. I met Joe on social media — we’ve never met face to face. I asked him whether he thought violence is something encoded within our DNA? Can we ignore it, or is it something fundamental to humans? Man is a beautiful and complex being, but from the perspective of one who creates, I wonder how is it that one can carry a gun and take lives away so easily. I was very nervous asking him. We’d only been chatting for a few weeks and I wondered if it was right to ask a total stranger to pour his heart out to you.

Joe sent me an Esquire article titled “I Miss Iraq. I Miss My Gun. I Miss My War.” A year after coming home from a tour in Iraq, a soldier, Brian Mockenhaupt, returns home to find out he’d left something behind. This soldier, who seems like a pretty nice guy in general, missed being in a war zone. The more I read, the more I understood that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of war addiction. Joe told me that with men who go to war, there is a bond that can’t be explained. “It’s not that we like each other, we just know each other in ways that no one else knows us, we know our most raw most beaten most lost selves. That’s something you can only get in war or warlike situations, where incredible stress brings out the best and worst in a human being.” One can only imagine the alienation and depression soldiers feel when they come home and off the adrenalin of the battleground, only to find themselves making monthly car payments and dealing with peculiar hippies like myself.

But you know, maybe I’m no different. I was a very active blogger during the 2006 Israeli invasion on Lebanon. In many ways, I felt like everything I did then had so much more meaning compared to what I’m living now, because in my eyes, I was saving lives. I now know that that state of being was just an illusion — I was in survival mode. It works for a short time, but it is definitely not a way to live.

el Khalil and her very pregnant sister Lana on the famous orange Mini. 2014, Beirut.

el Khalil and her very pregnant sister Lana on the famous orange Mini. 2014, Beirut.

Let me tell you a story. One night in the early stages of the Israeli bombing, my sister’s best friend, Youssef, called her and told her his uncle was refusing to leave his home in Dahiyeh. Dahiyeh is the southern suburb of Beirut the Israelis were targeting the most because Hezbollah supporters live there. Youssef is what people in the West would call a flaming queen. This queen refused to let his uncle perish to merciless Israeli bombs and insisted we save his life. I didn’t think it was a good idea to go and, being the eldest child, felt like I needed to protect my sister, who is really the braver of us. After all, she did hitch a ride on a rickety Coca-Cola truck in the middle of Mexico, through the jungles of Chiapas just to meet Subcomandante Marcos when she was a teen.

While I was typing my nightly blog entry, she snuck out, picked up lovely Youssef and drove through the bombs to pick up his uncle in Dahiyeh. I don’t know how they made it out alive, but they did. They, unlike so many others, were spared. Uncle survived too. The car my sister drove back then was an orange Mini Cooper. Ring any bells? That orange Mini not only saved Youssef’s uncle, but in fact — being that it was a convertible and could pack quite a lot — it was used over and over again during the bombing to transport everything from medical supplies to mattresses for displaced citizens to shuffling people back and forth to check on their homes in Dahiyeh during a day of ceasefire. That was the day Spencer Platt took a photo of it and went on to win The World Press Photo Prize in 2006.

I went off on this tangent only to show how thrilling war can be. The world has plunged itself into a new darkness with a new set of aesthetics and values. War has become the new and normal way of life. You turn on the TV — war! You surf the web — war! You listen to the radio — war, war, war! But let’s hold on for a second. Let’s ask ourselves why we have allowed this to become acceptable? Why are we not listening to more stories about robots in space? Cures for cancer? Prolonging human life? Connections with extraterrestrial species? Long lost Da Vinci paintings? We are capable of all this. Why is it not happening?

I live in Beirut, and in Beirut, we live like there’s no tomorrow — because we’re constantly courting death. It sounds romantic, but it’s not. We have become so immune even to the possibility of stability that we have a very hard time planning for the future. And because we don’t plan, nothing really changes. Living in a country that is festering with terrorists has become normal. Living in a country without a president is the norm. A bomb goes off, we scramble for a few minutes to text our loved ones to make sure they’re still alive, then go back to our beautiful bubbles. The bubble is what has saved us all these years. A few days ago, a suicide bomber detonated himself in Beirut. The wonderful citizens of that neighborhood declared that they will not be fazed, that they love Lebanon and will prevent terrorists from taking over. Maybe that’s how we survived all these years. A most elegant and staunch resistance, guided by love. A most elegant and staunch lust and appreciation for life.

At present, things in Beirut are escalating. Escalating, one of those weird newsy words. Well, the point is that we’ve had suicide bombings and that’s something we’ve never experienced before. ISIS are here and targeting the Lebanese army in hopes of pulling us into this mess. They say they won’t leave until Hezbollah retracts from Syria. Like that’s ever going to happen. In the latest news, the army are conducting raids in all the hotels in Raouche, the most touristic spot in Beirut. Apparently, these hotels have been housing DAESH families for a few months now. A few days ago, one of the militants blew himself up in a final act of resistance, not wanting to be taken in by the Lebanese army — down the street from where my sister and her orange car live.

One of my best friends, Hind, was visiting Beirut last week for a massive artsy mountain wedding. She had quite an adventure looking for a hotel. “The first hotel I called which had no vacancies was actually the Duroy Hotel, in which the suicide bomber exploded himself a few days later. Then I called the Mayflower and was told that the streets were blocked because security forces were raiding the Napoleon Hotel across the street, so I booked another one up the street. It felt very strange to know that a bomb went off in the hotel I almost stayed in two nights earlier.” Yeah. That’s my Beirut right now. All hot and bothered. What amazes me the most is that the hotel staff were kind enough to defer Hind from their terrorist-filled hotel. So yes, even though we don’t have a president, we are good and resilient people opposed to war and terrorism. And we’ll always let you know if there’s a militant or two staying at your hotel. We be good people like that.

You see, the thing no one ever tells you about Beirut is about how loving we are. We love life, dammit! We love it when people visit. We love feeding them our incredible cuisine. We love taking them to visit our centuries old Roman and Phoenician ruins. We love hosting summer concerts in ancient temples — even Nina and Elton have performed here. We are the most hospitable of peoples. All are welcome in Lebanon. And I mean all. But, sadly that also come with a price to pay.

So, here’s another Lebanese saying… Beirut is a whore. She welcomes everyone in and for the right price, she’ll give you want you want. Be it a meeting with the most prominent arms dealer in the world or one of Berlusconi’s henchman or two, or a drink with an exciting young poet or a fashion designer who is in demand by all Hollywood stars. We have it all — art, war, money, real estate, books, prostitutes, water, gas, secret banking, jihadists, peaceniks and pop stars. Beirut, I love you.

At the end of the day, I would say that I’m not too worried about Lebanon right now because God knows we’ve been to hell and back. We are the faded tattoos on your upper arms- they hurt at first, but then gave you so much pleasure… We are Clint Dempsey’s World Cup crotch shot –we will always, always find a way to make you cheer… We are the phoenix that will continue to rise. And burn. And rise. And burn.

What I worry about most are my friends. My friend who have just gotten off that plane in Baghdad. Let me tell you about Ayman, a photojournalist who is wonderful and kind. I wondered at the beginning of his career how he’d be able to make it in such tough terrain with those sweet blue eyes of his. I saw a photo of his on the NY Times just a few days ago, so I know he’s already there. I also want to tell you about Bryan and Maria, two friends who met in Beirut. After years of covering the war in Afghanistan with profound depth, they decided to take an even bigger and more courageous step, to get married. Despite the bombings and killings all around them, they found and chose love. Maria recently posted a picture of her suitcase on Instagram: “Packing for Iraq. Abaya, body armor and helmet. I want a burrito.” These are my friends, and I want them to come home in one piece.


“Packing for Iraq. Abaya, body armor and helmet. I want a burrito.” Photo: Maria Abi-Habib

And what about Joe? He is a reservist. He is brilliant and intelligent and passionate. I want him to live the life he truly deserves. I don’t want him to go back into the monster. I want him to eat, drink, work, smile, love, make love, be love and be loved. He deserves it. We all deserve it. Even ISIS. Even Bush junior and senior. Love is what will save us.

What is happening in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today started 10 years ago on an ominous autumn morning. Millions of people all around the world opposed the invasion of Iraq. We marched in cities, towns and tribes. We tried. But the powers that be seem to be much stronger than we realize. It’s time for our side to step up the game and demand an end to arms trading and use of fossil fuels.

A Salafi Islamic state created through murder and terrorism is totally unacceptable. I believe the only way to stop it from happening is through diplomacy. The larger warring nations — US, Russia, Saudi and Iran — have to stop sending weapons. No guns, no wars. They made this mess, they have to clean it up. But I fear that it won’t end until they finish making all their dead energy deals. However, my family, my friends and I should not have to pay the price for the greed and power of bigger nations. And nor should soldiers.

As for the question of human nature, when I am asked for solution, I always propose love. It’s the one human trait we haven’t really learned to completely harness, but it’s the first step towards a more enlightened and peaceful planet. There is a big shift happening in that direction, but I know it will take a few generations to completely manifest. But to do this, we must use that other essential human trait, free will. Believe it or not, we actuallydo get to choose the world we want to live in.

I would like to have a decent quality of life. To not just survive or merely get by, but to live with dignity. How do we do that, how do we get there? The only way is to first forgive each other for everything we’ve ever done wrong. I’m talking about world amnesty. Courage and honor is what may make us human, but failure, loss and insecurity are equally as important. We have to acknowledge these traits within us. Then we take responsibility for building economic equality — one that invests in a peaceful future, unlike the one we have now. And lastly, we empower a revolution that will transform the human spirit, one which extends way beyond Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street. A revolution based on love, respect and tolerance.

If violence begets violence, love can only bring love.

And as for the World Cup, though I’m not a big fan of competitive sports, it’s nice to see the world coming together and cheering each other on. Maybe deep down inside, I wish every day could be like this… And now that Italy is no longer qualified, here in Beirut, we can all sleep a little easier tonight.

 
To read more about el Khalil and her work, visit the TED Blog >>>

An overgrown asylum, an abandoned power plant and a handmade village on a river: TED Fellows create popup experiences in Berlin’s secret spaces

A crumbling former asylum, a massive brick power station, and an alternative community built by hand by a river. In the hours before TEDBerlin Salon kicked off, three TED Fellows led conference attendees on a treasure hunt through the sprawling streets of sunny Berlin to these locations. Guided by the mobility appMoovel — which recommends the most effective modes of transport and route through the urban landscape – participants departed from the Admiralspalast theater with just an address, and were led into hidden spaces all over the city. There, they were treated by their hosts to performances and discussions around questions that the space inspired for them. We asked the Fellows to tell us more about why they chose these particular spots and what they did there.

Anita conducts an experiment of memory TK. Photo: Anna Kostuk

Anita Doron: Noli Timere
Not far from the modern bustle of Berlin’s city center in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Wedding, a quiet secret garden grows among the ruins of a former asylum. Filmmaker and storyteller Anita Doron chose Wiesenburg — which once served as the set for The Tin Drum – to create an experiential installation about memory, dislocation, and the fuzziness of one’s defined inner borders. Here, Doron on why she chose this space:

“I love abandoned and decaying spaces. Wiesenburg was once a place where people — teenagers, escapees, refugees — were protected from the outside world. It’s been abandoned and taken over by nature. This building isn’t really a building, it really isn’t a forest, and it isn’t really an asylum. It’s a bunch of things coexisting at the same time.

To me, Wiesenburg beautifully evoked the world of the sci-fi graphic novel, Noli Timere, that I’m working on with TED Fellow Jessica Green, who studies microbiomes and their effect on us. If we’re 90% bacteria, and we’re all just overlapping clouds of bacteria, then what is it that makes us human? In Noli Timere, we tell the story of a bacteria that infects five strangers in a Parisian building. The symptom they experience is that they start remembering each others’ memories as though they had happened to themselves, removing the boundaries of what they had once considered ‘self.’ We are not really separate individuals, but organisms belonging to something greater.

So Wiesenburg was the perfect space for a sojourn into a question: Is there such a thing as pure individuality? One proposition is that we’re all made up of our experiences and memories. So I asked participants to share a certain memory that formed who they are now – something that shaped them. Unbeknownst to them, actors listened to and memorized their stories. Then, in the back garden of Wiesenburg, the actors surprised the visitors by retelling their stories as if they were their own, mixing them with snippets of their own memories, then weaving them all together to form one memory. A sound engineer mixed all the memories into an aural art piece — a single soundscape of memories. The idea was to shift perspective: what happens if you’re suddenly not sure, even for a moment, whether your memory is yours?”

To read the full article, visit the TED Blog >>>

Watch out for falling clocks! – Meklit’s brand-new video, “Slow”

Here’s a groovy and playful bump for your midweek slump. Above, check out songstress Meklit’s freshly released video for her recent tune “Slow”, and read all about it below. Sadly, it looks like some clocks may have been harmed in the making of this video – but it’s worth it to stop time!

Tell us about “Slow” — the video and song. What’s it all about?

We had a blast shooting this video! It’s directed by my good friend Kevin Gordon and shot by the fabulous videographer Matt Clarke. The story has me visiting a magical clock shop while on a mission to collect clocks, throw them off a roof, and watch them put themselves back together.

The song is from We Are Alive, an album I released just this past March on Six Degrees Records. The tune highlights the strange reality that nothing takes the time you think it will. Somehow it’s easy for us humans to place expectations on life, thinking that it will hurry up for us…. but it won’t. So give me all the clocks in your house, we can throw them!

I love the clock theme, and the location is so evocative. Where was this shot?

Our location was Smith Clock Company in San Francisco, run by clockmaker extraordinaire David Smith, one of the country’s only African-American clockmakers. He was kind enough to let us take over his space one Sunday afternoon. He even agreed to make a cameo in the video. That’s him at his workstation, taking apart a timepiece. The intricacy and precision of what he does is remarkable.

And now you’re putting out a call for submissions for your next video?

Yes! We are currently hard at work on the video for “Kemekem” (I Like Your Afro) an Ethiopian folk song we reimagined for the record. We are crowdsourcing short afro videos from all over the world to be a part of it. If you have an Afro and would like to participate (no wigs, please), you can send in a 15-30ish second video of you and your Afro representing you however you would like. You can be talking on the phone, cooking, dancing, looking in the mirror, picking out, braiding, unbraiding, smiling, frowning, clowning… It can be a group shot, a selfie, a duo, trio, any matter of Afro beauty! Visit this site for more info. We’re looking forward to including you!

To find out more about Hadero and her work, visit the TED Blog >>>

 

A listening cure: PatientsLikeMe gives patients voice in clinical trial design

Paul_Wicks_Informal_Headshot_Low-Res

Until now, patients have had very little to do with the design of clinical trials — even though they’re key to their success. Online patient networking and research platform PatientsLikeMe, is changing all that. Last week, PLM launched a new service that lets pharmaceutical companies collaborate with patients to create clinical trials that serve their needs — amplifying the chances of success for both researchers and patients. We asked PLM’s Paul Wicks to tell us more about why this is a game-changer for medical research.

Why is this latest development so important?

The most important path to creating new medical breakthroughs is the randomized clinical trial (RCT). Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of patients volunteer to be randomized for either a new treatment, placebo or existing treatment in these large and expensive studies. This isn’t an easy process. It can be bewildering for patients to wade through incomprehensible medical jargon in order to understand what they’re signing up for. Then they have to undergo frequent testing — which includes traveling frequently to the hospital, and undergoing blood tests, brain scans, biopsies, and other procedures, some of which can be time-consuming, painful, or both. They also have to adhere to a strict set of rules while they take part.

All the while, patients don’t know if they’re on a treatment that might help or harm them, or whether they are in fact being systematically fooled by a placebo. Patients have misgivings about how they perceive the experience will be, too: 22% of cancer patients in a survey reported they thought they would be “treated like a guinea pig” in a clinical trial.

So not surprisingly, only 5% of patients take part in clinical trials. While the trials cost millions of dollars, 1 in 5 enroll no patients whatsoever, and half miss their targeted number of participants.

How has PatientsLikeMe solved this problem?

We’ve developed the first rapid, robust, representative system that lets patients have a voice in the design of study protocols. RCTs have been designed by doctors and scientists ever since the mid-20th century — when they first started being used widely – with input from regulators (like the FDA) and the business interests of pharmaceutical company sponsors, but with none from patients themselves. We share patient data from PatientsLikeMe with people designing RCTs to identify exactly the type of patients that might be eligible for a study, and get their input and feedback on every aspect of trial design.

We address everything from the language used to describe the study (e.g., “What does this word mean? Patients would probably say X instead of Y”) to the outcome measures used (e.g., “This outcome measure doesn’t really sound like something that’s important to me. Why aren’t you measuring pain?”), and aspects of the study design that are a “deal-breaker” for patients (“If I have to travel more than 20 miles to come to the study center, I’d refuse to take part”).

How will this help those who design clinical trials, and, more importantly, patients?

By listening to patients in advance, study designers can be proactive rather than reactive. They’ll more likely be able to minimize the burden on patients, and they’re far more likely to recruit enough patients to take part in their study. They’ll also glimpse the types of problems their study is likely to encounter, leaving them better prepared to shift gears or make changes if necessary.

This all seems very sensible. Why has no one ever done it before? 

A lot of people in industry are afraid of listening to patients, worried that there might be legal or regulatory barriers to speaking with them. We’ve also lacked ways to quickly gather systematic quantified and qualitative feedback from a large number of patients. That’s something patient-powered research networks like PatientsLikeMe have only recently enabled.

There have been some smaller-scale attempts to get patient input, but these have tended to be within academia, and still aren’t widely used.

What’s your ultimate goal? 

We’re trying to make it so fast, simple, and downright useful to gather this type of data that we’ll move from the status quo (almost nobody uses quantitative patient research in the design of trials) to it being the norm in the next five years.

It’s all a part of our mission to put the patient voice in the decision-making heart of healthcare — and as you can tell, I think it’s pretty exciting! This year, there will be hundreds of clinical trials that fail to meet their targets because of off-putting study protocols that place too much burden or confusion on patients. By bringing a patient focus into the system we could streamline research, increase recruitment rates, and maybe even get faster cures. Just by listening.

To find out more about Paul Wicks and PatientsLikeMe, visit the TED Blog >>>

A snapshot of recent survey results, based on 1,600 patients' views. Image: PatientsLikeMe

A snapshot of recent survey results, based on 1,600 patients’ views. Image: PatientsLikeMe

 

 

 

 

 

A powerful letter from my great-great-grandfather, who escaped slavery in 1855

Image: Library of Congress

Image: Library of Congress

White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history. On June 19, 149 years ago, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in the United States. In this piece, Kyra Gaunt shares a letter written by her great-great-grandfather – a slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad – and reflects on why so few of us seem to remember slavery and its history. 

According to the Office of Minority Health, in 2012 there were 43.1 million people who identify as African-American. I could lay money that, next year, fewer than 1 percent will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called United States. It was on this day in 1865 that, two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America.

Many African-Americans don’t have detailed stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape. At least, my family didn’t. When I grew up, no one in our community talked about slaves. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner. The talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved African people).

We were property, not human beings whose culture and nationality was stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip. So I was struck to my core with tears when I recently read a copy of a letter written by my great-great-grandfather in 1855. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. When he reached Philadelphia, he sent this note to a friend, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail — left behind as a casualty of his emancipation.

Here is the letter, unedited and in full:

LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.

BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.

No. 2, Change Avenue.

MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.

SHERIDAN W. FORD.

Yesterday is the fust time i have heard from home Sence i left and i have not got any thing yet i have a tear yet for my fellow man and it is in my eyes now for God knows it is tha truth i sue for your Pity and all and may God open their hearts to Pity a poor Woman and two children. The Sum is i believe 14 hundred Dollars Please write to day for me and see if the cant do something for humanity.

I wept deeply when I read this letter and an accompanyingaccount of a merciless whipping before his escape. His writing spoke of options I never, even as a professor, realized a slave could have.

Here was a literate man well versed in writing by 1855, who clearly articulates the value of his freedom, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from theCompromise of 1850 – which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class-ranking Jim Crow laws. He could have been snatched back to Virginia if ever found in Boston by his lawful captors.

This is more than any memory passed down orally and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence of a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned by a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, in his humanity and in the justice of being newly free.

It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone I am related to, someone I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery. Reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather changed something in me.

It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and contemporary youth must be remembered to this kind of inscribed evidence of our cultural evolution. Evidence of owning not just one’s liberty but one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendence from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction.

The cherry-picked popular slave narratives or mediated memories from Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots are like secondhand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all: they are broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.

When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s beloved story of a mother killing her children rather than let them live as chattel slaves. Non-blacks aren’t the only ones who resist remembering slavery.

My great-great-grandfather lives first-hand: “i love my freedom.” We know slaves taught themselves to read and write. In this exchange of ideas written in 1855, Sheridan Ford speaks to not just valuing but owning his own freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Spielberg or Tarantino could ever aptly capture. Now I can’t wait to tell about his second wife, my great-great-grandmother Clarissa Davis, who escaped to freedom dressed as a man.

Ethnomusicologist and Baruch College-CUNY professorKyra Gaunt, Ph.D,. is a 2009 TED Fellow. Her scholarship focuses on black girlhood, with special attention to their offline musical play and online content creation. She’s the author of The Games Black Girls Play.

Maker Fellows storm the White House!

 

TED Fellows Jane Chen, David Lang and Manu Prakash pose in the Oval Office. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Chen

TED Fellows Jane Chen, David Lang and Manu Prakash pose in the Oval Office. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Chen

On June 18, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire – “a celebration of all things built-by-hand and designed-by-ingenuity” – and four TED Fellows were present to show President Obama the inspiring work they are doing. From left to right: Jose Gomez-Marquez, who is designing affordable medical device hardware; Jane Chen, who built a low-cost infant warmer for premature babies; David Lang, who is building a community of citizen ocean explorers using low-cost underwater robots; and Manu Prakash, who has invented a 50-cent paper microscope and a $5 chemistry set inspired by a music box. To find out more, watch Jane’s TED Talk, “A warm embrace that saves lives.” And David’s talk, “My underwater robot.”

 

 

Freebird: Juliana Machado Ferreira leads the charge against Brazil’s illegal wildlife trade

Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira uses genetic data to fight illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil—a $2 billion-a-year business that affects 38 million animals. In 2012, Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to raise awareness of the devastating effects of keeping wild-caught songbirds, parrots and macaws—as well as to release rehabilitated animals and support rural communities vulnerable to wildlife traffickers.

This week, Ferreira was honored as a 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her work. We caught up with her to talk about her passion for conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.

First of all, congratulations on being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer! What does this mean for you and your work?

Thank you! It’s an immense honor to be recognized by my heroes, many of them responsible for me becoming a biologist. I was that kid — reading National Geographic, absolutely in love with every single animal I saw, and awed by every single picture. With this support and recognition, we’ll be able to reach 90 million people through National Geographic’s powerful platforms. This will help us make a huge impact in our battle against wildlife trafficking – especially the wild pet trade in Brazil. I could not be more excited and hopeful!

Tell us how you became interested in wildlife, and in birds, in particular.

During my master’s research at the University of São Paulo, when I was working with the population genetics of sub-Antarctic fur seals, I learned that there was a such a thing called wildlife forensics—the use of science in the legal prosecution of crimes involving wildlife. I was hooked instantly, and I convinced the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory to accept me as a volunteer for three months—a relationship that continued until 2013. Around the same time, I was introduced to Marcelo Rocha, president of the organization SOS Fauna, which combats wildlife trafficking in Brazil. With him, I learned about the illegal wild pet trade in Brazil—particularly the illegal domestic wild bird trade. So my PhD research—developed in collaboration with both these organizations—focused on developing population genetic studies for Brazilian wild bird species exploited by the illegal trade. The idea is that, if we can detect distinct genetic populations within each species, we’ll not only better understand the threat each species is facing, but we can produce data that might help guide future efforts to release rehabilitated animals seized from traffickers.

Ferreira takes a blood sample from an ultramarine grossbeak in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

What is conservation genetics, and how is it related to wildlife forensics?

First, I should say that while I’m often billed as a forensic biologist, I am not one. I’m a conservation geneticist: I use concepts and techniques from genetics to develop studies aimed at understanding the current extinction rate of species—with the ultimate goal of conserving species as dynamic entities capable of adapting to environmental changes through evolutionary responses. Forensic biologists produce data that are used in court, in legal cases. At the moment, my work can’t technically be considered forensic because the genetic data I’ve produced has not been used in court. It may be included in future legal processes—but in order for this to happen, we still need to develop comprehensive databases of genetic profiles from exploited species populations. It will require extensive fieldwork to collect samples of blood, tissue, fur, feathers, and so on from many individuals from different populations.

Tell us more about the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil. What sorts of animals are typically removed from their ecosystems?

All kinds of animals get taken, but the most highly targeted group is birds—particularly song birds, parrots and macaws, which are extremely popular as pets. Small monkeys, sloths, reptiles and amphibians are popular, too. The Brazilian NGO RENCTAS—the National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals—estimates that more than 38 million animals are taken from the country annually by all kinds of wildlife trafficking including zoos and collectors, biopiracy and the pet trade. And that doesn’t count fish or invertebrates.

So this trade is primarily to a global market?

Actually, it’s important to note that, while global illegal wildlife trade is massive in monetary terms—about $20 billion a year—illegal trade between Brazilian states is several times bigger than what gets traded internationally from Brazil in terms of numbers of animals traded. And almost 83% of the seized wild animals in the illegal domestic trade are birds. But yes, a great many animals do get traded out of the country. Bear in mind that not all of it is illegal. Most species can be traded as long as permits are in order, and according to their CITES status. But it is very difficult to have reliable estimates of what gets traded illegally.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

“We Need Us”: Julie Freeman shows new work at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall

A still taken from We Need Us, Julie Freeman's work in progress, being previewed at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall from 14 to 15 June.

A still taken from We Need Us, Julie Freeman’s work in progress, being previewed at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall from 14 to 15 June.

This weekend, data artist Julie Freeman will be showing work in progress “We Need Us” on a 10-meter screen at the famed Tate Modern Turbine Hall. (For a preview, see video below.) The big-screen, two-day preview of data art at the Tate is part of a celebration launch of The Space – a new website for digital art funded by the BBC and Arts Council England. We asked Freeman to tell us about her work, and why The Space is such an exciting new development for data art.

Tell us about your work that’s being previewed this weekend at the Tate Modern.

We Need Us is an animation that explores data as an art material, as an amorphous whole rather than individual values. It works with live user data generated by the Zooniverse citizen science website (fellow Fellow Rob Simpson’s project). The work draws metadata from the activities of Zooniverse’s million+ participants to create a dynamic environment of sounds and animated forms.

The idea is to remind people of the humanity in technology – that we need “us” as much as we need it. The piece requires data from online activities of people to come alive. George Dyson talks of digital organisms, and it seems that data could be viewed as such: creatures that have a function and perform actions as part of our world. I’m looking to expose the idea that as a whole, data have unique characteristics such as growth, momentum and fragility, by creating a framework that comes to life with real-time data.

We Need Us was co-commissioned by Open Data Institute as part of their Data as Culture programme, and The Space.

What is the Space?

The Space is a new website for artists and audiences to create and explore brilliant new data art – to be shared with the Whole Wide World. The preview at the the Turbine Hall celebrates its launch. It commissions new talent and great artists from all art forms, creative industries, technical and digital backgrounds, through regular open calls and partnerships. With around 50 new commissions a year, The Space will be one of the most exciting places on the internet to find new art, free for audiences and artist to explore, express and enjoy.

It’s very exciting as I feel that this has been a long time coming. We need a place to act as a kind of Tate Modern without walls online, a space that nurtures art made with code and with data – a go-to location to experience art that’s comfortable on the web. Imagine a web where we stumble and fall into art as we do in real life. Where are the unexpected Bansky’s we encounter on the Internet? Where are the surprising artworks that we accidentally click into? Where is the space that allows hackers to make art and artists to hack? I’m delighted to be one of the first co-commissioned artists at the Space.

What are some of the other works being shown this weekend?

The works being shown over the two-day hack range from early software art from the 1970s – including from the amazing Lilian Schwartz, who, while at Bell Labs in New Jersey, was experimenting with algorithms and digital imaging – through to recent online works such as Ai Wei Wei & Olafur Eliasson’s Moon project, a participatory global drawing project. Other artists include David Hockney, Sue Austin, and Paul Pfeiffer, among others.

How are you feeling about your Tate debut?

I’m taking the unusual step of previewing an unfinished work this weekend. It’s slightly unnerving, but as the entire piece is being developed in an open source way, with an open license and open data, it seems fitting to continue the trend and just expose the process.

If you’re in London, visit the Tate Modern Turbine Hall to view Freeman’s work live. We Need Us launches in September/early October on The Space. To learn much more about Julie Freeman and her work, visit the TED Blog >>>

 

Enter the drones: Will Potter Kickstarts aerial mission to investigate factory farms

Independent journalist Will Potter’s work investigates how environmental whistleblowing is criminalized as domestic terrorism. Today, as Potter’s TED2014 talk is released on TED.com, Potter is launching a Kickstarter campaign to take his research to the air. He plans to acquire a drone in order to document agricultural abuses in states that are currently debating laws that would make it illegal to photograph or film their operations – begging the question, “What are they trying to hide?” We asked Potter to tell us more.

Why do you need a drone to investigate factory farms? 

Factory farms are doing everything they can to stop consumers from seeing the reality of most food is produced. And they’ve been quite blunt about their motivations: a wave of new legislation in the United States explicitly criminalizes anyone who photographs or films animal cruelty on farms. These “ag-gag” laws are a direct response to a series of damning investigations by animal welfare groups. In Idaho, for instance, the new law came after investigators exposed workers beating cows and sexually abusing the animals.

Satellite photographs have already revealed shocking environmental pollution at industrial agriculture sites— will a drone allow us to see even more? As a journalist, I think the best way to confront attempts at secrecy is to shine a light on the abuses. Corporations are trying to shoot the messenger, and shut down anyone who exposes what they’re doing. But that just means we, as journalists, need to be more creative in our tactics. So for my next investigation, I am going to purchase a drone and photograph these farms from the sky.

What’s the goal of this Kickstarter campaign? And why now?

I have launched this Kickstarter campaign to purchase the drone, and I will share the results of my investigation in both a short documentary and an e-book. This investigation couldn’t come at a better time: multiple states (and countries) are considering ag-gag laws, while voters are considering efforts to eliminate some of the worst abuses on factory farms.

It’s my hope that this investigation will allow us to have a more informed debate. What are factory farms trying to hide? Let’s find out.

To learn more about Potter and his work, visit the TED Blog >>>