Most of us will, at some point, face a life crisis — divorce, job loss, illness, eviction. In the United States, 95% of social safety nets are provided by charity organizations and NGOs, so finding help in a crisis situation can be confusing and distressing. Erine Gray is the founder of Aunt Bertha, a free-to-use online platform that makes it easy for anyone in the US to find and apply for social services — anything from Medicare to food stamps to housing — just by typing in a ZIP code. Aunt Bertha serves people in all 50 states, with in-depth coverage in Texas, Colorado, Central Florida, and Richmond, Virginia. Starting this week, Aunt Bertha has added New York City to its in-depth coverage list. We took this moment to talk to Gray about how Aunt Bertha was born, how it works and how it’s shaping up to be a valuable tool not just for families and individuals in need but for policy makers, advocates and community workers as well.
Aunt Bertha started as a response to an illness in your own family. Can you tell us about your experience?
I grew up in a small town called Olean, New York, an hour south of Buffalo. When I was almost 17, in the summer of 1992, my mom, who worked as a janitor at the community college at the time, caught a rare disease called encephalitis. She needed to be rushed to Sayre, Pennsylvania, which was a four-hour drive. She flatlined twice on the way there, but made it to see a brain specialist. She went into a coma and survived, but she suffered brain damage. Her memory was essentially wiped out — everything after her childhood and the first few years of the birth of her first daughter was gone. She had no memory of me and my little sister.
She was released from the hospital three months later. It was me and my dad and my sister, just trying to figure out how to take care of her. Obviously you don’t get a certification for these types of things. Nobody is ever really prepared. She recovered, to some extent, but she suffered from seizures on a regular basis—they would sometimes knock her out for the day. My dad did the best he could to take care of her, and he did, for nine years. He did it alone for the most part. We didn’t know what services were available. And when we did find programs, it was difficult to get through the application process.
I went off to college, studied computer science, but ended up getting my degree from Indiana University in economics. I was working as a contractor in Austin, Texas, when I got a call from my dad. He needed help. My mother was getting older and started to have early-onset dementia. I flew up to New York and packed her things, and moved her to Texas, and became her legal guardian. So there I was—unprepared—trying to figure out how to navigate a system for somebody who needed help.
What kinds of services are available with people in this position?
Unfortunately there are not a lot of resources available for older adults with mental illness in the US. There are private care facilities, but these are financially unattainable for many. All too often, people either end up in the prison systems, homeless or, if they’re lucky—in a nursing home.
I went through a long process of looking for a nursing home, but many of them discriminated against people with signs of mental illness. If you think about it from their perspective, they don’t want people who might want to run away, or people who are difficult to deal with. We must have been rejected by 15 to 20 nursing homes. I had a social worker give me advice on how to find a place that would take her. She told me to dress up, wear a jacket and go meet the administrators in person. I’d be invited to submit an application—but the only response I would get would be very concise rejection letters that said, “We can’t meet your mother’s needs.” It seemed at the time to be a legal form of discrimination.
It was navigating this system for somebody who’s disabled that made me see how broken the system really is. So I went back to graduate school and got my masters in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs here in Austin. I ended up working as a contractor for the state of Texas, essentially looking at improving the way people find out about social service programs like food stamps, the food subsidy program in the US, Medicaid, the US welfare program and how they apply for them. The company I worked for also ran a call center that helped people get enrolled into these programs.
During those four years, 2006 to 2010, there was a big economic downturn. Texas is the second largest state in the US—a huge, huge economy . Enrollment levels grew significantly, but the state didn’t have the capacity to deal with that much growth. So it was a challenge to figure out how to get everyone connected with what they needed. On most nights, my car was the last car in the parking lot. I’d analyze calls, and realized a lot of people were ringing just to say, “Hey, did you receive my application for food stamps?” “Or I sent you a fax, can you confirm you got it?” We figured out pretty quickly that this information was stored in the system, so our team redesigned the menu, allowing much more self-service. This meant people in need could get answers in 30 seconds rather than having to wait on hold for 30 minutes.
We worked on several big projects like this that made things more efficient. The number of calls and the amount of time spent taking them went down. These efforts helped turn the project into an operation that could scale.
It was this work, as well as my family’s experience caring for my mother, that led to the idea for Aunt Bertha. I thought to myself, “Well, if we can visualize data for complex programs like the food stamps program, would more self-service options in social services be cheaper to implement and less frustrating for the person in need?” And that was the a-ha moment—the big idea.
Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
How do you build a civil society that functions in the midst of civil war? Lessons from Syria.
Last week, forty Syrians took the risk of leaving their homes and crossing the border into Turkey. Unlike many who cross, though, these Syrians planned to return. Their goal in Turkey: an intensive week-long workshop on how to rebuild their society.
Leaders in their communities, they came from Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Dara’a to talk with a group of conflict-resolution experts in Istanbul, including me, about the toughest leadership challenge of our time — helping people not only survive day to day in the midst of civil war but create a vision for the future in the face of government collapse and unbelievable human suffering.
Syria’s population before the civil war was about 18 million. Today, more than 8 million people have been displaced within Syria or are refugees outside the country. Those who remained in their homes have many reasons not to leave; among them, the high cost of leaving, risk and dangers on the road, fear of humiliation as refugees, and the international community’s inability to provide services to the millions fleeing the violence. The risks are very real: Two years ago, I met an older man in a hospital in Turkey who had lost nine members of his family while trying to escape from Syria. He was in the hospital to be near his injured daughter, who lost her leg. She was the only other survivor from his family.
For those who cannot flee, town committees strive to fill the gaps in social services. Since it’s not possible to hold elections, the success of such committees depends on the respect its members have in the community. Once it’s formed, its first task is to map the community to figure out the needs and priorities of its residents — and the human and material resources they can tap to solve problems.
Our project’s goal is to support Syrian communities by helping the local committees that represent these cities, towns and villages. The project started two years ago, when a team from the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) was tasked with supporting local Syrian leaders. The group included Hind Aboud Kabawat, Abdul Jaleel Al-Shaqaqi, Riad Issa, Nousha Kabawat, Dr. Marc Gopin, and me, as well as many others. Together, we represent every religious and ethnic group in Syria. Our mission: Support local leaders as they learn how to function in the absence of government services, by building civil society organizations and finding creative ways to provide social services in the midst of continuous violence.
For example, since the vast majority of doctors and nurses have either fled Syria or are overwhelmed working in the field to help the injured, villages and even some cities are facing major healthcare shortages. In one village beset by bombings, there were no nurses or doctors to help with nighttime births, and the route to the nearest hospital was too dangerous. The local town committee worked on this problem by creating an emergency response team to help in the aftermath of airstrikes, and found a doctor who could train a few locals as midwives.
Schools and educational systems also tend to break down in times of civil war. A year and half ago, for instance, I visited a Syrian school with my colleague Nousha Kabawat. The school did not have a first-grade class, simply because it didn’t have materials for the first-grade level. Other schools had been destroyed, closed or moved, or were faced with an absence of teachers. In such situations, community members must be mobilized to find safe locations for children and to volunteer as teachers. In the case of the school we visited, Nousha worked with the community to provide the materials they needed to teach first grade. We also worked with communities nearby to offer trainings for new teachers.
Food quickly becomes a vital issue. Fresh meat, vegetables and perishable dairy products vanish, leaving dry food as the major source of nutrition, and some towns even have to plan how many meals each person will have per week. Depending on their resources, they might implement a strict plan for the whole town. Worse, some cities and villages are directly under siege, facing starvation; local committees and emergency response teams must help distribute what little food they have.
One of the riskiest jobs of the leadership committee is politically navigating between competing factions, since declaring support for any one group could be devastating if that faction loses the area. However, staying “objective” can be equally problematic. In these cases, negotiation and communication skills have been extremely important for Syrian villages trying to manage their relationship with the Syrian regime’s army, the Islamist militants, and the Free Syrian Army.
Despite these dangers, it has been rewarding to see leaders come together to save their communities. In the past two years, we have worked with more than 160 local leaders who are now helping and advising one another, sharing strategies that worked in their towns. One of the cities we worked with was Manbej, a city led by a group of young people, mainly in their twenties and committed to democracy. While under air strikes, the city held elections. The leadership of the town negotiated with the militants to keep them from interfering in civil issues, and meanwhile created a police force of men and women. And in a moving display of solidarity, after the city fell to the Islamist terrorist group ISIS, hundreds of thousands of city residents launched a strike, a nonviolent action that forced ISIS to negotiate with the town.
As these forty community leaders head back to Syria, I find myself on one hand afraid for their lives, and on the other motivated almost beyond words by their courage. There is nothing more moving than a group of dedicated human beings who believe they can change the world. While these leaders are not able yet to change the political and violent conflict around their homes, they are able to save and inspire many people. They are the true hope of Syria, and I remain hopeful because of them.
TED Fellow Aziz Abu Sarah is a Middle Eastern American peace activist and founder of MEJDI Tours, a travel company that offers intercultural, bridge-building tours led by both Israeli and Palestinian guides.
Alanna Shaikh at TED2013, a year after her powerful talk about Alzheimer’s disease.
Global health expert Alanna Shaikh gave an unexpected and moving talk at TEDGlobal 2012, called “How I’m preparing to get Alzheimer’s.” In it, she told the story of her father’s struggle with the disease, and outlined some strategies she’d devised in case dementia struck her later in life, too. The TED Blog was curious: How is her experiment going?
While most of Shaikh’s goals haven’t exactly gone as planned, in the process, she’s had a lightbulb moment about how to think about dementia—and learned to be a better person, to boot. Here, a conversation about the relationship between kindness and health, and living an enjoyable life in the present while planning for the future.
What have you been up to since your talk went live two years ago?
I talked about three things I was trying to do to prepare for Alzheimer’s: physically preparing by becoming stronger and more flexible, cultivating hobbies that would stick with me through the illness and trying to change who I am to be better and nicer. What really succeeded, weirdly enough, is I honestly think I am a better person. By deliberately choosing to be kind over and over again, it seems to now come naturally to me.
What were you like before?
Very judgmental and critical. I was committed to being a good person, but I wasn’t particularly worried about being a nice person. One of my friends in college told me that his favorite thing about me was I always had something bitchy to say about someone. This is someone who loves me—he meant it as a positive. I don’t think anybody who’s known me in the last couple of years would say that now. Dealing with my dad made me realize how much nice actually matters. And kindness. I had never really thought about what kindness and niceness have to do with each other.
I’ve never thought about that. What is the difference between nice and kind?
Being nice is not making a fuss and letting things happen to you. Not protesting. Whereas kindness is about deliberately giving the best of yourself, and deliberately looking for ways to find the positive in things. The example I give sometimes is this: the office building I used to work in didn’t have enough elevators. So if you wanted to leave the building at any time between 5 and 6pm, it was just packed—the elevator would stop on every floor, it would take forever and it was all sweaty. There were these people on the third floor, and they were always laughing and flirting and holding the elevator for each other, and you’d end up crammed in the corner for five minutes while you waited for them to stop saying goodbye to each other and hugging and whatever.
At the beginning, I was like, “Those damned idiots on the third floor—why can’t they just take the stairs?” And then I started deliberately thinking, “No, these are young people enjoying life.” And so I started to think of them as the happy people on the third floor, and then realized that they are just thinking about their lives, not necessarily thinking too much about what it meant to be crammed into the elevator while they said goodbye. I started to try to take that approach to everything, to really look for the positive perspective.
Sounds like generosity of spirit, in a way.
I guess so. Because I’m an expat, I move a lot. So each new place you live is a chance to be the person you are right then. I realized that people who know me where I’m living now in Kyrgyzstan think of me as this very funny, positive, kind person. I love that. It doesn’t feel fake. I think I really am that person now, and I love that I was able to do that. It was the hardest thing for me, thinking, “I can pretend that I’m nice, but can I really become nice?”
Have you thought about kindness and its role in healing and health? Do you think it’s better for us to be kind?
I’ve never thought about that before, but I’m sure it is. For one thing, I think it takes a lot less emotional energy to be kind. Think of me getting off that elevator thinking about the happy people around me, versus me getting off that elevator being all, “Grrrr.” It has to be better for my heart. It has to be better not to get all that cortisol revved up inside of me.
There’s also the question of kindness in the healing professions — the idea that patients are more likely to respond well to compassionate doctors and healers who touch their patients.
I think that’s probably true. In my day job, I’ve been part of a lot of different trainings for physicians, and one of the amazing things we’ve discovered is that the part physicians really love is the interpersonal skills, learning how to talk to their patients gently and kindly. We started including that in basically everything we teach, whether we’re teaching infection control or HIV care or breastfeeding support or whatever. The first component is always, “How do you talk to patients so they’ll listen?” The doctors absolutely love that, because it turns out they’ve been yearning to connect kindly; they just didn’t have the tools. That is the first thing they see results from: talking to their patients differently brings them different results as medical professionals. It seems to bring better outcomes. Often, doctors are afraid that if they are kind they’ll lose their authority, or patients won’t take them seriously, so it’s valuable to have an outsider validate the idea that you can be a respected professional and still be kind and generous to people, and that you don’t have to be stern and harsh to be an authority figure.
Sri Lankan blue whale researcher Asha de Vos works for the ocean. Not only does she research a unique population of blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean, she also works as an educator and speaker to ramp up public conversation about marine conservation. Her hard work has not gone unnoticed: de Vos has been selected as a finalist for The JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World 2014 award, which recognizes individuals under 40 who provide extraordinary service to their communities.
But she needs your help. To cast your vote of support, visit www.jci.cc/toypvote, click on de Vos’s profile and hit the LIKE button at the bottom. Deadline is August 15.
This week, East African singer Somi releases her first major-label album, The Lagos Music Salon, in the United States. Already, it is #1 on the iTunes Jazz Chart, #1 on the Amazon Jazz Vocal Chart, and #1 on the Amazon Pop Vocal Chart. The TED Blog caught up with the jazz-soul vocalist and songwriter—who was was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents and traveled frequently to East Africa—to talk about taking risks, navigating creativity within a multicultural life, and the artistic promptings that led her to explore the city of Lagos.
Tell us about your new album, The Lagos Music Salon. Does it refer to a real salon?
It was inspired by a recent 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. I called it a “salon” for a number of reasons — including a regular performance series I began while collaborating with fellow artists I was meeting in Lagos. But it’s also about creating a space for reflective conversations I was having with myself and with the city itself.
The idea for the performance salons came out of what I thought was a lack of intimate cultural spaces in Lagos that allowed for real artist-to-audience engagement. Even though Nigeria has this huge culture and music and art scene, the performance spaces are limited — shockingly so. I found that the performance spaces were mostly either these tiny places where the performer served as background music, or these hyper-produced, overpriced spaces, most of which were hotel conference rooms. At the time, I couldn’t find anywhere that regularly allowed for and encouraged the fundamental conversation between artist and audience.
While creating this new music, I wanted to be able to have that kind of concert and conversation with the Nigerian audience. At the time, I was writing my experience of the city, and I wanted to get critical feedback from from Lagosian people to know whether I was appropriately representing the experiences of Lagos living. I wanted my work to be something that Lagosians could be proud of, too. So I began producing salons. The very first one was more of an atelier — a showcase of work in progress. A friend of mine owns an art gallery, the African Artists Foundation, in a neighborhood called Ikoyi. We set up 66 chairs, had some hors d’oeuvres, organized a reception, and I performed all of the new material with my newly formed Lagos band. We were surrounded by all this beautiful artwork. Afterwards, we had champagne and cupcakes.
What was the initial response?
The initial response was wonderful — many people in the audience told me they connected with the work and really appreciated it. That feedback was critical for me, as was the experience of hearing it myself in a live context—experiencing how the work lived in my own body. I decided to produce more salons. I invited local artists to participate, and it just grew into this thing that happened every few months. It was a wonderful space for me to work through the music before going into the studio to record it. It also was a wonderful way of engaging the local arts community and establishing relationships with fellow musicians who were there. It was also an incredible learning experience in terms of taking off my often overly-cerebral, New Yorker jazz head to experience and create music on a more visceral level. I got to work with African musicians who have a very different kind of creative process than the New York-trained or conservatory musician might.
Above: watch the album teaser for The Lagos Music Salon, Somi’s major label debut on Sony’s OKeh imprint, released this week.
Why Lagos, specifically, and not a city in Uganda or Rwanda, where your parents are from?
There are a number of reasons. One, I was always very curious about the cultural energy there. I had been before to visit and to perform, and I realized how many parallels there were between Lagos and New York, in terms of size, energy, pace. It’s actually bigger than New York — 20 million people — and it’s always been a cultural giant on the African continent in terms of music, literature, fashion and visual arts. They’ve got the third largest film industry in the world.
So I was curious: Why is there so much cultural production in Lagos? What is it about the place that makes it such a cultural force? I mean, it’s partly a numbers game, because one out of every four Africans is Nigerian, but there’s something really special about the place. It’s not just about this moment, when everybody — no matter what industry — is looking at Africa as this new, emerging market to invest in. It’s about generations of cultural export and leadership. In the ’70s, every major label was actually in Lagos. Everybody passed through there, whether you’re talking about a Miles Davis or a Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone or Hugh Masekela.
I also moved there because I was curious about how, as an African woman, being in an African city might affect my lyrical, musical narratives and impulses. I decided not to go to my home cities of Kigali or Kampala because I didn’t want my experience colored by familiarity. I also thought I might have felt pressured by cultural expectations and obligations. The discovery of Lagos afforded me the privilege, and maybe freedom, of being a foreigner, and with that came a number of opportunities. Basically, I wanted to go somewhere that gave me enough Africanisms to help me feel at home, but enough “foreignness” to keep my perspective totally fresh.
There are also substantial financial resources that the Nigerian government has committed to investing in the cultural sector. That was the first time I’d seen that in an African context. The World Bank came out with a report some years ago about how, in the global recession, creative economies in the developing world were the only place that they saw remarkable growth. The Nigerian film industry alone created about 100,000 jobs in 2011.
Did you have a residency there to start with?
Initially, I was invited to teach a residency at a university about five hours north of Lagos. I used that as a soft landing. After the first month I decided to stay for 15 months. While completing the residency, I found partnerships that gave me the support system necessary to set up there for the additional months. But I had no agenda when I moved. I just wanted to get out of New York, after having been there for a decade. I’d just lost my father, and I wanted to heal my heart. I also just walked away from my label, my management, my agent — all at once. I felt either I’d outgrown them, or we still just hadn’t gotten to this understanding of the larger story I’m trying to tell.
Artistically, I had so much more I wanted to say. As an African woman living in the United States, I have to negotiate my identity as an African and a Westerner, whereas on the continent, I am in a more transnational cultural space. I was curious how my work would shift once I was no longer culling over my cultural heritage through a diasporic lens. It’s a very romantic lens because you’re always sort of celebrating or privileging a longed-for place. Now, when I listen to Fela Kuti in Lagos, for example, I understand and hear it completely differently. That understanding could only have come from here. I loved his music from the perspective of an East African in New York. But now that I’ve experienced where the music is from, I realize there’s so much more that I had not heard or identified in the music before. So I think what I’m most proud of with this record is that there’s a keen sense of place that’s so fundamentally inside of it. I hope when people hear it, they feel as though they’ve traveled with me.
Theoretical physicist Shohini Ghose has two great passions: physics, and advocating for gender equity in the sciences. This week, her passions converge as she chairs the 5th IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Canada – the first time this prestigious conference will be held in North America. Why the focus on women? “There are still relatively few women in physics – and the higher up the ladder in academia or industry you go, the fewer women you find,” says Ghose. “Yet the laws of physics themselves are gender neutral, and the beauty of the universe is equally accessible to everyone. So why so few women, and how can we change that?”
For the next four days, delegates from over 50 countries – including astronomer and TED Prize winner Jill Tarter – will gather to showcase and celebrate scientific work in all areas of physics, and build a strong, diverse and inclusive worldwide physics community. To celebrate the conference launch today, we asked Ghose to share her favorite facts about women and their contribution to physics. “Women have made many important contributions in science, including physics, and have personally inspired me to become a physicist myself,” says Ghose. “Here are just a few.”
Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie won in 1903 for her studies of radioactivity. She shared the prize with her husband Pierre Curie and with the other discoverer of radioactivity, Henri Bequerel. Originally, the Nobel prize committee had only selected Pierre Curie – but he refused to accept it without proper acknowledgement of Marie’s contribution. In 1911, Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery and studies of radium and polonium. To this day, she remains the only person – male or female – to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines.
Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for her model of the structure of the atomic nucleus. Goeppert Mayer faced a great deal of gender bias in her career: she had to work in unpaid positions at Columbia University and University of Chicago, where her husband was employed.
British astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – one of my all-time favorite physicists – established that the sun and other stars are all composed mostly of hydrogen. Payne-Gaposchkin later became the first woman to chair a department (astronomy) at Harvard.
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner first developed the theory explaining the process of nuclear fission, but she was overlooked by the Nobel Committee, who instead awarded Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn the prize in 1944. Meitner came to be known as the “mother of the atom bomb,” although she refused to work on the Manhattan Project after fleeing Nazi Germany. Element 109 is called meitnerium in her honor.
Albert Einstein called German mathematician Emmy Noether – author of Noether’s Theorem, a fundamental idea on which much of modern physics is built – a creative mathematical genius. Her theorem, published in 1918, states that if an object has symmetry – i.e., if it looks the same regardless of changing locations or times – then this leads to conservation laws in nature. A simple example is a movie of the motion of a ball when you throw it. The motion looks the same if you run the movie backwards in time (time symmetry). This means that the total energy of the ball remains the same (conservation of energy) – the energy just gets converted into different forms as the ball moves. This is a simplified example, but the theorem is widely applicable and is a real workhorse of modern physics.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 >>>
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, thatI’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?”