Sparks, spies and space: 12 surefire holiday gift ideas from the TED Fellows

‘Tis the week before Christmas, and still looking for stocking stuffers? In the nick of time, we’ve rounded up a dozen charming and original offerings, sure to delight your hardest-to-please people. There’s something for everyone — fine-art photographs, rugged mobile wifi gear, plenty of world-class, cutting-edge music, games, sweetly satiric tees, a chance to save blue whales, and much more. Happy holidays from the TED Fellows!


1. The gift: Fine-art photographs of faraway ruins
Perfect for: The armchair adventurer
Spanish artist Jorge Manes Rubio seeks out the world’s abandoned places and creates art that memorializes them. His project Buona Fortuna, for example, celebrates the lost churches in the mountains of the Parco Nazionale del Cilento in the south of Italy, abandoned after a series of devastating earthquakes and landslides decades ago. Rubio is working to make these beautiful ruins safe and reopen them to the public in 2015. And to fund the project, he is selling limited edition, large-format color photographic prints of the sites.
Get it: Order directly from the artist (Between €1500 and €3000, depending on size and frame choice)


2. The gift: Sunken Cathedral
Perfect for: The vinyl fetishist
Bora Yoon’s epic sonic odyssey Sunken Cathedral is a multimedia treasure-trove ready to be explored. The album can be experienced as a CD, as a 12-inch, two-disc limited edition blood-red vinyl LP, and as an interactive app. Seven years in the making, Yoon’s project is on the first-round ballot for the Grammys — including best classical solo vocal, and best-engineered classical album of the year.
Get it: Order it from the artist. ($12-$35)

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3. The gift: Nikko & the Spark
Perfect for: The kids
Energy-efficiency entrepreneur Jen Indovina moonlights as an app-creator for kids, making engaging with science history and concepts exciting and fun. Her interactive storybook app Nikko & the Spark introduces young people to electrical energy via a story of a child inventor, based on the life of inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur Nikola Tesla. Once the story’s over, you can dive into action with selected labs and interactive games based on Tesla’s work in electrical engineering.
Get it: Download from Play and iTunes ($2 – a steal!)

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4. The gift: Existential casual wear
Perfect for: The romantically world-weary
Designer Safwat Saleem’s world is populated by the characters who are fed up with bullshit — but in the funniest and sweetest possible way. “Coupled” is a series of designs depicting somewhat complex relationships between random objects. We love this one of two people floating off into space. And it’s available in a variety of colors and sizes.
Get it: Order through Safwat Saleem’s shop at Society6 ($22), and while you’re at it browse a huge selection of his greeting cards, mugs, prints and pillows!

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5. The gift: Animal Madness
Perfect for: Cat people (and dog people, and donkey people, etc.)
Part-memoir, part history, part research adventure, Laurel Braitman’s book delves into the wild world of animal psychology. From depressed and anxious dogs and cats to traumatized elephants, distressed zoo animals and beyond, Braitman not only sheds light on animals’ emotional responses and coping mechanisms, but reflects on what they tell us about human mental health.
Get it: Order from Amazon ($19)


6. The gift: BRCK
Perfect for: The road warrior
When the folks at Ushahidi get fed up with unreliable power and internet infrastructure in Nairobi, they responded by creating BRCK: a rugged, rechargeable, mobile wifi device with a battery that lasts up to 12 hours and can be shared with 20 people. BRCK is currently taking the device to rural schools in Kenya to give kids access to the internet. But the ultraportable BRCK is equally good for anyone who needs to stay connected in remote areas.
Get it: Order from BRCK ($199)

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7. The gift: Lonesome Roads
Perfect for: New-school classical music fans
Dan Visconti is breaking new ground as a 21st-century composer who uses classical music as a tool for social justice and community interaction. Lonesome Roads is the first full-length album of his works, a blend of American folk and pop and classical avant-garde — recorded by members of the world-class Berlin Philharmonic and the Horszowski Trio. One reviewer calls it “just plain rapturous.”
Get it: Order from Amazon ($17)

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8. The gift: So the Arrow Flies
Perfect for:
The politically intrigued
Actor and writer Esther Chae’s So the Arrow Flies is a political thriller about an alleged North Korean spy and the FBI agent who interrogates her. Written and performed as a solo piece by Chae, the play explores complex political and social issues, including America’s national security apparatus, global identity and gender roles. This volume contains both the English language script and its Korean language translation.
Get it: Order it through Amazon ($10)

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9. The gift: Ouya
Perfect for: The gamer
Award-winning game creator Kellee Santiago left thatgamecompany to throw her weight behind Ouya, an Android-powered wireless console and controller that you can plug directly into your TV. The huge variety of games available — shooters, RPGs, action games, and so on — are downloaded directly to the console, and are free to try before you buy. You can also use Ouya to stream music and video, and surf the Web.
Get it: Order it from Target ($90)


10. The gift: We Are Alive
Perfect for:
 World-music lovers
Ethiopian American singer and cultural activist Meklit Hadero’s music is imbued with poetry and multiplicity. Her hybrid sound draws from her Ethiopian heritage, jazz, folk songs, hip-hop and art rock, soulfully and intimately bridging frontiers between language, tribes and disciplines. (Check out the title track on YouTube!)
Get it: Order it from the artist ($10)

Photo: Erik Olsen/NYTPhoto: Erik Olsen/NYT

11. The gift: Saving blue whales
Perfect for:
 Animal lovers, conservationists
Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos is setting sail for her native waters to undertake crucial research to prevent blue whales getting killed by ships. To fund her journey, she has launched a campaign on Fellow David Lang’s new science-funding platform Open Explorer, where supporters can follow her adventures. Fund her research in the name of your recipient, and they may get the chance to name one of these endangered giants!
Get it: Visit de Vos’s page on Open Explorer to donate


12. The charitable contribution: Embrace Baby Warmer
Perfect for:
Those with hearts of gold
Every year, millions of infants around the world die due to conditions related to premature birth and low birth weight — including hypothermia. This is especially a problem in developing countries, where families have little access to hospitals and incubators. In response, Jane Chen created the Embrace baby warmer — a low-cost, portable, easy-to-use, sleeping bag–style infant warmer designed to regulate the temperatures of infants, without the need for a power supply. Embrace has already reached 144,000 infants in 105 countries, but needs help to continue rolling out its life-saving work. Bonus: donations received by December 31, 2014, will be matched by the Peery Foundation.
Where to donate: Visit Embrace to read about the program and to make a holiday donation.


TED Fellow organizes blood donations for victims of the Peshawar tragedy

Image by TED Fellow Usman Riaz. "No one should be made to suffer, especially innocent children."

Image by TED Fellow Usman Riaz. “No one should be made to suffer, especially innocent children.”

As the world comes to terms with the horror of Tuesday’s school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, health care workers are tending to the scores of wounded survivors. Pakistani tech entrepreneur and TED Fellow Faisal Chohan and his team at BrightSypre have responded by creating a Web-based app to connect potential blood donors with hospitals and health care organizations.

“The scale of the Peshawar tragedy is huge,” he says. “Everyone in Peshawar is directly affected. Masses of people are gathering outside hospitals and blood banks offering to donate blood to the victims, but they are being turned away because of lack of capacity.”

If you are in Pakistan and wish to donate blood, Chohan asks that you visit the Web app and enter your name, contact details and blood type. BrightSpyre is currently working to forward this information to hospitals and blood banks, so that donations can be collected as and when needed.

Meet the 2015 TED Fellows!


We are thrilled to announce the new class of Fellows for TED2015. These 21 game-changing thinkers represent 15 countries—including, for the first time in our program, Vietnam, Romania and Tunisia. They work across disciplines, at the forefront of their fields. They include a South African physicist using lasers to target HIV and cancer; a German/Moroccan paleontologist who discovered the first semi-aquatic dinosaur, the spinosaurus; a Vietnamese entrepreneur who is helping rice farmers use biowaste to earn a living growing mushrooms; and many more.

Below, meet the new group of Fellows who will join us at TED2015, March 16-20 in Vancouver.

Trevor Aaronson (USA)
An investigative journalist who reports on the FBI’s misuse of informants in counterterrorism operations, Trevor asks the question: Is the United States catching terrorists or creating them?

Benedetta Berti (Israel + Italy)
A Middle East policy analyst, Benedetta researches political violence, focusing on issues of human security and conflict resolution.

Laura Boykin (USA + Australia)
Laura is a biologist who uses genomics and supercomputing to tackle food security in sub-Saharan Africa. She’s especially interested in figuring out what to do about whiteflies, which are devastating local cassava crops, a staple food in many countries.

Camille A. Brown (USA)
Camille, a choreographer, explores and exposes cultural, gender and social-justice issues through contemporary dance, musical theater, arts education and community outreach.

Tal Danino (USA)
Tal is a bioengineer who uses genetically programmed bacteria to create a cancer diagnostic tool. After it is ingested, this bacteria changes the color of urine to signal the presence of a tumor in the body.

Jost Franko  (Slovenia)
A 21-year-old documentary photographer who focuses on forgotten populations, Jost Franko is interested in the loss of traditional values in the modern world and the often-unseen consequences of conflict and war.

LaToya Ruby Frazier (USA)
LaToya uses photography to investigate issues like Rust Belt renewal, environmental justice, communal history and the line between private and public space. Her works often blur the lines between self-portraiture and documentary.

Tharanga Goonetilleke (Sri Lanka + USA)
A Juilliard-trained Sri Lankan opera singer, Tharanga has sung internationally — including with the New York City Opera and the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka. She is committed to sparking love of opera in both South Asia and the United States.

David Hertz (Brazil)
A popular chef, David is the founder of Brazil’s first socio-gastronomic organization, Gastromotiva, which brings culinary education to favela residents, to create employment and empower communities.

Jonathan Home (Switzerland)
Jonathan is a physicist working to build a quantum computer, attempting to achieve high-precision control of individual atoms in order to build up quantum systems, atom by atom.

Nizar Ibrahim (Germany + Morocco)
Paleontologist Nizar scours the Sahara Desert and Northern Africa for clues to what things were like there in the Cretaceous period. He has spearheaded the search for the semi-aquatic dinosaur spinosaurus.

Jedidah Isler (USA)
Jedidah is an astrophysicist who studies blazars — the hyperactive supermassive black holes at the center of massive galaxies. She is also working to make science, technology, engineering and math accessible to new communities.

Matt Kenyon (USA)
Matt uses sculpture and a wide range of media to explore the effects of global corporations, military-industrial complexes and the line between human and artificial life.

Danielle N Lee (USA)
This behavioral biologist researches the ecological and evolutionary behaviors of African giant pouched rats. A popular blogger for Scientific American, she uses hip hop to teach science.

Cosmin Mihaiu (Romania + UK)
The CEO and co-founder of MIRA Rehab, Cosmin has developed a software platform that engages patients in interactive, therapeutic games. The goal: to make physical rehabilitation fun.

Lerato Mokobe (South Africa)
Lerato is a 19-year-old slam poet who explores social injustice and gender identity issues through fast-flung words. She is the founder of Vocal Revolutionaries, a volunteer-run literary organization that empowers African youth.

Patience Mthunzi (South Africa)
A “biophotonics” physicist, Patience is working to discover medical applications of laser technology, including the targeted treatment of HIV and cancer.

Sarah Sandman (USA)
Sarah uses design to create social experiences that bring people together. Take for example, the Gift Cycle project, through which she helped neighboring communities exchange gifts of art.

eL Seed (Tunisia + France)
el Seed blends the modern art of graffiti with the ancient art of Arabic calligraphy, all with an eye to encouraging peaceful expression and social change.

Aomawa Shields (USA)
This astronomer and astrobiologist studies the climate and habitability of planets around low-mass stars. A classically trained actor, Aomawa also engages young girls in astronomy using theater and writing.

Trang Tran (Vietnam)
A social entrepreneur, Trang is the co-founder of Fargreen, which empowers local rice farmers to use biowaste to grow high quality mushrooms. The goal: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods.

For the full article, including an introduction to the new class of Senior Fellows, visit the TED Blog >>>

How mega-landscaping might reshape the world

“I believe that this boundary we’ve created between humanity and our environment is artificial,” says Bradley Cantrell, a computational landscape architect. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

“I believe that this boundary we’ve created between humanity and our environment is artificial,” says Bradley Cantrell, a computational landscape architect. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Picture a spillway gate that doesn’t just release water from an overflowing river, but manipulates sediments to create new streams, islands and wetlands. And imagine that the gate does this autonomously, guided by ecological data and shifting needs — essentially allowing nature to “evolve.” Computational landscape architect Bradley Cantrell is figuring how to do this by applying environmental sensing, machine learning, predictive modeling and robotics to environmental engineering.

The TED Blog asked Cantrell to talk to us about his ideas, how they would work, and how computational landscaping may change the relationship between human beings, machines, and nature.

What is our current relationship to the natural environment, and how do you envision changing it?

Right now, human beings are really good at saying, “We want this river to move very quickly, and we want it to always be predictable.” So we can engineer a predictable river. Take the Los Angeles River, which is a simple example. It’s basically a concrete channel. We’ve taken all the unpredictability out of it because it used to jump its banks and flood a large part of the Los Angeles River basin. We said, “We want it to be within this 20-meter-wide zone and to never move, and we want it to always run at the same velocity so it never backs up and floods anything.”

But that’s not the way an ecosystem or river works. It actually has a whole range of behaviors. We currently don’t allow these systems to have a range of behaviors. I would like to change this so that our infrastructures allow the creation of evolving and changing ecosystems.

A diagram of landscape monitoring and synthesis. Image: Joshua Brooks, Devon Boutte, Martin Moser, Kim Nguyen

A diagram of landscape monitoring and synthesis. Image: Joshua Brooks, Devon Boutte, Martin Moser, Kim Nguyen

Where does the idea of computational landscape architecture fit in?

Computational landscape architecture is the idea that, using computing and machine learning, we can build physical infrastructures and natural landscapes that relate symbiotically with our cities and natural systems.

In theory, what we’re doing is embedding the complexity that exists in natural ecological systems into our own manmade environments. We do this by feeding computers data from natural historical records. So, for example, you might have a set of records about how a particular ecosystem performed, such as the behavior of a river’s water levels and velocity. Then you might have a series of predictive models, about how sea-level rise due to climate change will affect this local ecosystem, for instance. These predictive models are used to develop a computational logic which allows them to make autonomous decisions about how it uses infrastructure — like spillway gates — to prevent possible problems.

This means that computers end up having a life of their own, within our design goals. Machine learning can be compared to how we make decisions: we make choices for the future based on data from experiences we’ve had in the past.

In your talk, you offered the example of the Mississippi River, for which you’ve prototyped a computational infrastructure. Walk us through the process of how it would work.

The example I most often give is a system of spillway gates that, instead of simply allowing river water to flood a lake when it gets too high, precisely controls the flow of water to create landscapes that benefit biodiversity or protect cities from storms — and does so in an automated way.

A prototype of the robotic spillway gate, which automatically distributes sediments according to computational instructions. Project: Bradley Cantrell, Justine Holzman, Prentiss Darden

A prototype of the robotic spillway gate, which automatically distributes sediments according to computational instructions. Project: Bradley Cantrell, Justine Holzman, Prentiss Darden

The Mississippi River has always jumped its banks. If you look at the shape of Louisiana, its shape is the result of the sediments in the floodwater building out land. Left to its own devices, once the river finds its longest route, it jumps its bank and tries to find a shorter route. Rivers naturally do this kind of cycling.

In the last 100 years or so, we’ve built levees all the way down the river. If you look on a map, you’ll see the Mississippi River now has this really long route, and it’s just continued to build and build and now its dumping dirt off the continental shelf into deep ocean water. There’s actually a shorter route for the Mississippi river: it naturally wants to jump its banks and go down what’s called the Atchafalaya Basin. The US Army Corps of Engineers built a structure where it wants to jump, forcing it to go the long way.

Why? Is it because people are there?

No. The Atchafalaya Basin could easily be flooded, with few consequences. But New Orleans sits further downstream, and if you change the route of the Mississippi River, suddenly New Orleans becomes completely irrelevant in terms of a city. It would be sitting out in this exposed area with no river next to it. So for the sake of commerce, we still want ships to come through. There’s all kinds of mega-engineering going on to keep that river the way we want it to be.

The problem was, in the past the levee would just break down in certain areas and start to flood out into the bayous. This happens whenever the river is very high. It breaks free in certain areas and it just floods, and all of this dirt carried down from Iowa and St Louis dumps out into the area, basically replenishing the land there. People have said, “Well, we should just begin to build massive gates on the river, and whenever the river gets to be too high, we’ll relieve the pressure by flooding these areas.” So the safety aspect is already in place. There are two spillways: one of them floods the whole Atchafalaya Basin, and the other one floods Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.

Those projects were both built in the ’50s and ’60s, right after they forced the river into its current configuration. But these solutions haven’t been about pushing water into land we want to build. They’re pushing it into places that we then have to go back and dredge out so that the Ponchartrain can still be a lake, and the Atchafalaya Basin can still be a river.

Above: Watch Bradley Cantrell’s spillway gate “print” a landscape by controlling the flow of sediment-laden water.

With your solution, what would happen?

I’m adding a layer to this. Let’s say we go ahead and open up these spillways in a range of new locations that are already being proposed. What if each of those spillways had a whole range of things it could do, rather than simply flooding or not flooding? And how can we speed up or slow down the velocity of the water coming through? The answer is by opening these gates in different sequences. Think of the way you put your finger over a water hose. When we slow the flow down, sediments fall out of it, and by speeding it up, it carries sediments further, or breaks obstacles down and pushes beyond them.

So just using those two mechanisms, we plan to push the water and the dirt to go where we want it to go. If we have control over the land-formation process alone, we can start making choices about whether ecosystems should evolve in a certain way, and we can help nudge things in that direction. Once the system is fully functioning, it would form landscapes on its own, but it will have had our curatorial help.

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


The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you: Catherine Crump

A very unsexy-sounding piece of technology could mean that the police know where you go, with whom, and when: the automatic license plate reader. These cameras are innocuously placed all across small-town America to catch known criminals, but as lawyer and TED Fellow Catherine Crump shows, the data they collect in aggregate could have disastrous consequences for everyone the world over. Watch this talk and prepared to be shocked. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Crump, coming soon.

Let’s kickstart Science in America – David Lang


Science funding is broken. To fix it, we need to empower a new class of makers, citizen scientists and explorers

The troubling state of science funding in America goes by many names: sequestration, the profzi scheme, the postdocalypse. Because it can take extensive planning over years in academia to gain research funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, “nobody takes risks anymore,” writes one researcher in his “Goodbye Academia” letter. “Nobody young jumps and tries totally new things, because it’s almost surely a noble way to suicide your career.” The result? We are on the verge of losing a generation of scientists at the exact moment we need to embolden them. Biologist Michael Eisen sums up the effects of the funding crunch: “It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.”

It’s not all bad news for the thousands of science and conservation ideas that fall outside the traditional funding rubric. Fortunately, new citizen science models are emerging — along with a new class of philanthropic backers to fill the funding voids left by the NSF and the NIH. Our experience developing OpenROV (an open-source underwater robot) into one of the largest (by volume) underwater robot manufacturers in the world is illustrative of this shift.

Looking back at the sequence of events, it seems improbable that such a small amount of initial funding could have made such a large impact, but it makes perfect sense when you break down all the contributing factors. Two years ago, we weren’t even part of the oceanographic community. Our ideas and techniques were outside the playbook for experienced ocean engineers. And since we only had enough money to test the first thing, not the whole thing, we started by creating a prototype. Using TechShop equipment in San Francisco, we able to create several iterations of a low-cost underwater robot that was suitable for our purpose: exploring an underwater cave and looking for lost treasure. After sharing our designs online, we found a community of like-minded developers. Together we raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter to do a first run of manufacturing.

This experience made us think: How can we make more microsponsorship opportunities available in science, exploration and conservation?

OpenExplorer was our response. Instead of providing seed funding, we’ve created a model that gives everyone a chance to sponsor new ideas, research and expeditions in science and engineering. One success: TED Fellow Asha de Vos‘s work on preventing the ship strike of blue whales in the Indian Ocean.

In a world paralyzed by apathy and inaction, this is a first step. Where will it lead? Let’s find out!

This piece was originally published in the


Fighters & mourners of the Ukrainian revolution: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Earlier this year, when photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself at the epicenter of Ukraine’s Independence Square protests, she decided to record not the unfolding events but the people living them. She set up a makeshift studio and began making portraits in the midst of fire. The result is a set of haunting and intimate photos that tell a human story of the men who fight wars and the women who mourn those lost. In this talk, given at TEDGlobal 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she shows us the faces of revolution.

For an in-depth conversation with Taylor-Lind about her experiences in Ukraine, visit the TED Blog >>>

Brave new weird: Inside the funhouse art experiences of Gabriel Barcia-Colombo

Gabriel Barcia Columbo creates immersive experiences that raise a chuckle—and make you think. Photo: Ryan Lash

Gabriel Barcia Columbo creates immersive experiences that raise a chuckle—and make you think. Photo: Ryan Lash

Vending machines that sell human DNA. People trapped in jars and blenders. Bottles of perfume that smell like burning books. You have to expect the unexpected with Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, a New York–based artist who works with film, electronics, performance, biomaterials and more to create mind-bending interactive artworks.

His latest piece, “New York Minute,” confronts commuters in a subway station with slow-motion, large-screen portraits of New Yorkers at play. As this work debuted in the Fulton Center subway hub in New York, we asked Barcia-Colombo to take us on a tumble down his own private rabbit hole — past dreams of derailed roller coasters, mummified spaghetti brains, and other weird wonders.

Tell us about your latest work.

I just launched “New York Minute,” a 52-channel video art piece. It’s a 60-screen installation at a new subway station in New York, and it features super-slow-motion portraits of New Yorkers. It’s about trying to get people in this new subway station to slow down and look at art on the wall. The characters that you see on the street when you used to look at people on the street. So every ten minutes, all the screens in the new Fulton Center play all 60 of my 30-second videos of New Yorkers doing a slow-motion dance, all at once. I’m doing a lot of performances in New York, and a lot of larger public works. I decided just last year that I want to focus on public pieces.

“New York Minute” features 52 slow-motion portraits of New Yorkers doing everyday things. This subway installation points out the things we miss when we rush around the city at a frantic pace. It was commissioned by the MTA Arts & Design program.

And you recently created a public performance about banned books at the New York Public Library that was written up in The New York Times. What was the idea for it?

That was an installation in the mid-Manhattan branch called the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature.” There were two components. First, I put LED signs in the windows that played lines from famous banned books, viewable from 5th Avenue. And then I made custom perfumes, based on the plots of famous banned books. So I made a Fahrenheit 451 perfume that smelled like burning books, and a Lolita perfume that smells like teen romance (a lot of candy and fruit), and a Brave New World perfume that references a passage about a machine called the scent harmonium, which creates smells for the future. I created the smell they describe in the book for Soma perfume. It smells like metal and spice.

For the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature” at the New York Public Library, Barcia-Colombo created perfumes from passages in once-taboo tomes. Lolita’s essence is of young love — fruit and sweets. Photo: Gabriel Barcia-Colombo

For the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature” at the New York Public Library, Barcia-Colombo created perfumes from passages in once-taboo tomes. Lolita’s essence is of young love — fruit and sweets. Photo: Gabriel Barcia-Colombo

Then, for one night, we gave a performance. I collaborated with a theater director named Benita de Wit for the piece, in which each member gets a fake library card, gets initiated, and takes a vow to protect the banned books. Then each person was assigned a book. A character would come out and pull each audience member into the library somewhere to perform a scene from the book, as a character from it. It was a one-on-one performance. In fact, we conceived the idea as a sort of literary lap dance.

Above, sneak a peek into the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature,” an immersive performance by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo and Benita de Wit about the history of banned books in the New York Public Library.

That sounds like an amazing experience. What were some of the characters?

One was a kid from Lord of the Flies, who built a little tent for you, you’d huddle inside together pretending you’re on the island, and he’d recite part of the passage to you. For A Clockwork Orange, a doctor would grab you and take you into an elevator. As you went up, she’d ask all these questions, and then put you in front of a window, and give you headphones playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. And when you looked into the street, you’d see a guy dancing perfectly in sync with what’s playing in the headphones.

For Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar would hand you a pill: “One of these will make you smaller, one of these will make you taller.” It was just a Tic Tac, but people were unsure whether they should eat it or not. I like the idea of doing immersive projects where there’s no boundary between audience and the actor.

The overall idea was that in the secret society, they’d found other ways for you to ingest books, whether through propaganda — the LED signs — or via the sense of smell, or through sound, in the theater component.

Under a tent in Lord of the Flies for the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature.” Photo: Yu-Ting Feng

Under a tent in Lord of the Flies for the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature.” Photo: Yu-Ting Feng

Where do you get such wacky ideas?

I get them usually from walking around the city and looking at people, and then seeing all the things that people seem to miss in the city — street interactions, that kind of thing. Most people are looking at their phones nowadays, where they don’t notice there’s all this crazy drama that’s happening around them. I’m also influenced by dream imagery. I have a lot of crazy dreams all the time. I go to these places that don’t exist, but I go to them over and over again in the dreams. I have a dream where I go to the same amusement park over and over again. There are these different rides. But every time I go on them, something goes terribly wrong — they’ll catch on fire, the track won’t be finished.

You should make that.

I’ll work on it. I could all it “Danger Park.” I grew up in Los Angeles—that could be why there’s all these amusement park dreams too. And I go to Coney Island every weekend in the summer. I’m actually teaching a class right now on how to make a haunted house. It’s my favorite class to teach, because it’s part acting and part immersive theater, using technology — remote control lighting, soundtracks for spaces, interactive motors — to create immersive effects.

Above, see “Animal Chordata,” a collection of Barcia-Colombo’s friends captured in jars. 

Where did you get the idea to capture people in the jars, blenders, and so on?

I went to film school at USC and made a bunch of films – but the medium felt very static. It’s this experience where you’re sitting there and watching this art form take place in front of you. You have emotional interaction, but you don’t have any physical interaction with it. I wanted to make filmic experiences, but things that you could actually interact with physically in some way — whether that’s touching something, or affecting a material by moving in front of it, or using sound sensing.

So I started thinking about what you could do with characters in 3D space, in real life. As a graduate student, I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where I now teach. There, I learned to work with sensors and microprocessors. I started incorporate the technology into film, creating pieces that were half cinema, half interactive-art hybrids. I filmed my friends, and then I projected them into these jars. Then I used a proximity sensor that would trigger different reactions, so it’s as if the people can see you from inside the jars. I worked on  this series of pieces for about five or six years. Now I’m doing different pieces that are similar in style, but not with projection into glass.

I have those pieces in my house now. It’s funny, because none of the group of people I filmed in that first series live in New York anymore—a lot of them have moved away. So it’s this nice memorialization of them—and of my life—at that time.

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

Watch Somi’s new video “Brown Round Things” – a stirring stroll on the night streets of Lagos

Above: Watch the video for “Brown Round Things,” from Somi’s latest album The Lagos Music Salon.

When Somi went to Lagos, Nigeria, for an 18-month creative sabbatical, the singer immersed herself in the life of the city, exploring its culture and people and writing about what she experienced – resulting in her major-label debut album The Lagos Music Salon. One of the ballads from this album, the haunting “Brown Round Things,” attempts to imagine and explore the humanity of the city’s prostitutes, who are so stigmatized in society that there is silence around not only their rights or well-being, but who they are. In her recently released video for the song, Somi inhabits the role herself, walking the streets in their shoes. In this Q&A, she tells us about the thoughts and experiences that led her to create the song and video.

What prompted you to write this song?

You see prostitution everywhere around the world, but for some reason, every time I saw these women on the road in Lagos, I realized it always shocked me a little more in the African context.

Why is that?

I think it’s just because of the conservative nature of African values. I am blessed to come from this massive, loving, always-in-your-business but beautiful family. And by that, I mean we’re always accountable to each other. Even when it’s uncomfortable, it’s coming from a place of love. Everybody wants the collective to be thriving, to be well, to be safe. So when I saw these women, my knee-jerk reaction was to judge them, to assume things about them. But then I realized that, like me, each of these women is somebody’s daughter. Each of their stories is the evolution of a girl-child.

I recognize now that within a traditional African values system, a lot of people harbor prejudice towards sex workers and their life choices, without at all understanding the context and the circumstances that brought them to that point.

How is this different from how you’ve seen prostitution treated in other parts of the world?

When I was in Paris last year, there was a sex workers union strike happening. And I just thought, there is no way that could happen in an African city, in an African country. Those women were on live television saying “We’ve chosen this path. We have rights.” And I was thinking, yes, rightly so. If this is the life that they have chosen, why shouldn’t they be protected? Why shouldn’t they have those rights?

But there is a certain kind of privilege that accompanies those perspectives. I am assuming, again, because of strict social stigma, that most African women who find themselves in prostitution are not making the decision out of the most comfortable life circumstances, or making that choice. I think you would be hard pressed to find an African woman that would choose that lightly. But at the moment, it’s not even something that is discussed in the public sphere, much less advocated for.

So the song is also kind of about instigating a conversation. If we can talk more openly about the humanity of those women and the circumstances that led them to prostitution — whether they be social, economical, or political — we might be able to empower women and girls to make safer life decisions. And hopefully we can include all of society in the conversation.

If a woman works as a prostitute in Lagos, is it possible to recover from the cultural stigma?

I can’t speak to that because, again, there isn’t enough of a discourse around it. But I can say that I usually see two types of prostitutes in African cities. There are those on the street, as you see in the video. And then there are the less conspicuous prostitutes that frequent high-end lounges or hotels, generally looking for foreign clients.  Some of those women are then able to get into relationships with these men, and end up in a relationship with an older, western guy who is then able to provide a much more comfortable life.

There is a lyric in another song of mine, called, “Four African Women” — inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Four Women” — which talks about the struggles and strengths and difficulties of African women, not only in Nigeria but all over the continent. In one of the lines I sing, “I hope this European trick can get me a visa not get me sick.” A lot of the time, I think prostitution is used as a way to get out of difficult economic and social circumstances. I assume some of these women are looking to struggle less and take better care of their families.

Why did you decide to inhabit the role for the video?

Deciding to “be” the prostitute was about my own personal decision to find the humanity we have in common, about remembering that sameness between us. I was trying to reconcile my own prejudice against them by literally walking in their shoes.

We shot on a street in Victoria Island, a very nice part of Lagos. During the day, the street is a part of a normal unassuming business district near a law school. But at night, it becomes a red light district of sorts. So when I decided to do this video, I called some friends to accompany us because otherwise it was just going to be myself and the filmmaker, Mariona Lloreta, who is a Spanish woman and clearly a foreigner.  Some of my friends were quite concerned and mostly came along to offer protection. “Somi are you crazy. You’re going to where and going to do what?”

During the shoot, there were moments of fear, when cars slowed way down and got close to me, for example.

Were the women upset you were there?

No. I had initially hoped some of them would participate, or talk to us, but of course they didn’t want to. They mostly didn’t want their faces to be seen in the video. But if they were upset, I wasn’t told so, or given that impression. With the camera rolling and my friends in tow, it was obvious that I wasn’t there to compete with them. I still think a lot about these women: where are their families, what are their circumstances? I can’t know what the story is, so I just decided to try to imagine and, for a moment, live it. It just seemed like there was no other way to tell the story.

The house is a witness: Zena el Khalil makes art from the rubble of her homes lost to war


Zena el Khalil poses in the midst of her new exhibit, which makes the rubble of her mother and father's destroyed homes in Lebanon into art. Photo: Eva Zayat

Zena el Khalil poses in the midst of her new exhibit, which makes the rubble of her mother and father’s destroyed homes in Lebanon into art. Photo: Eva Zayat

Artist Zena el Khalil doesn’t have the family home she remembers from childhood. Her mother’s house in Lebanon was destroyed in a U.S. bomb attack in 1983, while her father’s house was occupied by the Israeli army for 22 years, until its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. “Every home my grandfathers built was destroyed, bombed or occupied,” says Khalil.

This realization has led her to a notable turn away from her previously flamboyant work, like running around Beirut in a big pink wedding dress to spread a message of love and peace, and creating hot pink glittery sculptures mocking gender and political stereotypes. Her latest work soberly examines one of the harshest realities of living with war — displacement, and the loss of home.

In her current exhibition, “From Mirfaq to Vega,” el Khalil explores and mourns the physical and emotional repercussions of the destruction of her parents’ ancestral homes over decades of war and occupation in Lebanon. She does this through paintings, poetry, sculpture and sound. The exhibit is on view at the Giorgio Persano Gallery in Turin, Italy, through January 10, 2015.

Here, she tells the TED Blog the story of her journey into her family’s past to retrieve the broken pieces, in the hope that art can transmute conflict and suffering into peace.

Tell me how you made this new work, and what it’s about.

This work is about home — those we’ve had and those we’ve lost — and the people who destroyed them. It’s about land, boundaries, walls, breaking walls down — but ultimately, it’s about forgiveness and compassion and love.

My starting point was the idea that I don’t have a home that still exists from my childhood, because my parents’ houses were both blown up in two different wars in Lebanon. So I started by investigating this idea of a very personal and intimate space being taken away by force.

I’ve always grappled with the ongoing wars in my country. Now, with Syria so close by, I’m also thinking a lot about what’s happening there, and the refugees spilling into Lebanon that may not be able to go back and rebuild, possibly for decades. But the process of making these particular works took place on the sites of my own parents’ physical homes.

I began with my mother’s home, which was blown up in 1983 by the USS New Jersey when they came to Lebanon. It was just a random shelling: they were striking the mountains where my mother lives and her house was blown up. It was immediately rebuilt, because my grandfather happened to be a construction worker. But I found a house next to it that was never rebuilt — and that’s where my journey started.

I spent a few months in this abandoned house. I spent a lot time in it — weeks — drawing, talking to the walls, experiencing the space. These buildings stand as silent witnesses to the destruction around them. The house becomes a witness, in a way, both when it’s occupied and when it’s abandoned.

“From fire, we create life. From destruction, we find the strength to construct meaning in our lives. If stars destroy themselves, then maybe it’s only natural for us to do the same. We are obeying the fundamental laws of our universe. Churning each other up, and spitting out starstuff. Constantly. Effortlessly.”

I started trying to connect to the energy in this house. I did some paintings and little drawings, but the turning point was a performance where I dressed in the black and white religious clothing of the people of my region, the Druze. Then, I set fire to the white veil. I burnt many veils. From their ashes, I created an ink that I used to paint with — an ink that investigates the absence of light — and started making site-specific paintings where a great violence took place. I worked outdoors, directly on the land, and I dipped the veils that I hadn’t burned in ink, pounding the canvas really hard. They are energy-based paintings. I would have a period of meditation in the beginning, and then I’d hit the canvas with the veils. So all the paintings are both the imprints of the veil and the land underneath the canvas. At the last stage, I embroidered the poetry on top.

Where is your father’s house?

My father is from the south, close to the border with Israel. Our house there was occupied for 22 years by the Israeli army. It was on top of a hill, so it was a military strategic point. They appropriated the house and turned it into their headquarters. It was used as an interrogation center, and they were holding prisoners there.

I never actually saw this home until 2000, when the Israeli army left the south of Lebanon. The day I arrived was literally a few days after the Israeli army left. I documented it, took a lot of photographs. But until now, I’d never talked about what happened in it, or worked with the material I gathered there. So this summer, I started painting down there, too.

What kind of shape was it in when you got there in 2000?

It was disgusting. It had been used as a detention center, so I remember when I first walked in, the entire floor was covered in feces. They were keeping prisoners there. We eventually blew up the house and built a brand-new one. But when the army left our house, they left behind many “blast walls,”, each one being two meters of reinforced concrete that serve as a shield. Those are the only things we kept.

There was an oak tree my father used to play in as a child. When we arrived, we found the area covered with these blast walls and also little bunkers where they used to have snipers. Some of these bunkers were near the tree. The challenge was how to dismantle the bunkers without harming the tree. It took a few years, but eventually we got rid of them, and the tree survived.

Above: Watch this short film to see footage from el Khalil’s family homes in Lebanon, as well as experience the gallery installation, including the poem tree and ambient sound pieces.

You brought pieces of the blast walls to Italy as part of the exhibit.

Yes. The centerpiece of the exhibition is two of these walls from the house. I shipped them from Lebanon to Italy, and each weighs close to two tons.

I also decided to make a kind of homage to the tree. I made some rotating sculptures that resemble trees. But where the branches are, there is calligraphy I sculpted out of wood and plexiglass. It’s a poem, and the whole thing turns, so that the shadows of the letters are projected on the wall. In many ways, they resemble prayer wheels or whirling dervishes. The trees rotate slowly, filling the space with light.

The text that I used in the trees is the poem “Ya Dirati,”  written by a distant relative, Zayd Al Atrash, who was escaping the French in the 1920s. My great-grandfather fought alongside him and contributed a line of the poem. It was a different war, with different occupiers, but it’s the same idea about land and loss of land. We have a tradition of oral storytelling passed down through poetry. My grandmother used to sing this poem to me as a child, when she’d tell me stories of her father and my ancestors.

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