How can examining psychological distress in animals help humans rethink our own mental health issues? TED Senior Fellow Laurel Braitman’s recently launched book – Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves explores how nonhuman animals struggle with varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. Learn more about the new book in the adorable video above – in which Braitman and her furry friends reveal a few gently fractured psyches. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Braitman, coming soon!
This is an abandoned tobacco factory just outside Salerno, in the south of Italy, where several villages were destroyed after a devastating series of earthquakes and landslides in the 1980s. With his project Buono Fortuna (“good luck” in Italian), artist and TED Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio hopes to reopen the abandoned spaces in these villages to the public, replacing stolen icons and looted artwork with new fictional symbols, inspired by Southern Italian folklore. To a full gallery of Jorge’s Buono Fortuna photos, visit the TED Ideas Blog. And to read about Jorge’s work creating a micronation in a neglected Amsterdam neighborhood, visit the TED Blog.
Experience art with your eyes closed and ears open at Artisphere’s recently launched exhibit Fermata.
The show is centered around a wall of speakers of every conceivable shape and size, and is dedicated entirely to the celebration of sound. Curated by TED Fellow Ryan Holladay, Fermata features the work of almost 30 artists each working with audio in some way, including sound artists (Alvin Lucier, Annea Lockwood), musicians (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Forest Swords, members of Swans, Fugazi, Future Islands), engineers, storytellers and scientists — all working with the medium of sound.
Fermata unfolds in three parts movements each featuring a different combination of six to ten sound works that cycle continuously for a month. Each movement plays on a continuous loop, with no two works playing simultaneously in the gallery. Fellow TED Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz will have work – music composed using the rhythms of starlight and planets – during the third movement of the show, from June 25 to July 20.
Ears burning? Make haste to Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery in Arlington, Virginia, through Sunday, 10 August 2014.
“If this were my last song, would you hum along? If this were my last song, would you try to remember everything?”
Somi, American vocalist & songwriter of Rwandan and Ugandan descent, has just released her hauntingly beautiful new single “Last Song” on iTunes, ready to download here.
This haunting, delicate track is from her about-to-be-released album The Lagos Music Salon, inspired by a 2009 journey to Lagos after the death of her father. Of the music video, above, Somi says, “It was shot at the very end of my time in Lagos, just over a year ago. It takes me back to the sun, people, and inspiration that filled my heart.”
The album will be available internationally on May 24, 2014, on Sony’s historic imprint Okeh Records. Watch this space!
Artist and writer Sharmistha Ray explores the metaphysical emergence of gender identity through her paintings and drawings. Now, she has partnered with author and art promoter, Anupa Mehta, to create a blog called “Politics of Art,” which will serve as an alternative platform for fostering conversations around contemporary art trends in India and internationally. Check it out here. You can also follow the blog on Twitter @politicsofart. To discover more about Sharmistha, read a full interview with her on the TED Blog >>>
At the age of 19, Eman Mohammed became the only female photojournalist based in Gaza, breaking longstanding cultural taboos around the role of women in society. Three weeks into her career, the Gaza War began. Now 26, Mohammed continues to document harrowing and intimate stories of war and its aftermath in Gaza and beyond. Here, Mohammed tells the TED Blog her extraordinary story of battling professional bias and sexual harassment from male colleagues — while simultaneously documenting the battle raging around her.
How did you end up on the battlefield as a photographer? What was your inspiration?
My inspiration is my mother. My father’s Jordanian with Palestinian roots, and my mother is a Palestinian — Gazan. When they separated when I was 3, my mom went back to Gaza and raised me there. In those years, I saw how the community mistreated her because she was divorced and raising her kids alone, an unknown thing. In that culture, if you get divorced, mothers aren’t supposed to raise their kids. You leave the kids with their dad. It’s a punishment. And if you don’t, you can’t remarry, by law. My mom didn’t want to remarry because she didn’t want to give away her kids.
It’s always the woman’s fault?
Always. Even when the husband is clearly in the wrong, divorced women are despised — or neglected, or the black sheep in the community — one way or another. You have zero chance of remarrying if you keep the kids. This is because, in a lot of cases, women don’t work. They can’t afford to survive. They can’t afford to raise kids alone. Nowadays, people are questioning this custom.
My mother struggled, but we still managed to travel. If she couldn’t afford much, she went to the poorest countries on Earth, and she dragged us all over the place with her, which was really fun. We visited cities in Romania, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. Travel changes everything. When you get exposed to different cultures and places, you just gain a lot of information and a way of thinking that schools don’t teach you. It was life-changing: we got to learn English, we got to learn about a lot of things that normal people in Gaza would not care about.
Meanwhile, my mother sent me to a church school, because it was one of the top schools in the city, then I went to the Islamic University of Gaza, which is owned and operated by Hamas. Both of them were extreme, in a way. It gave me a wider perspective on things.
You started doing photojournalism as a teen. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t know that there were a million fields of journalism to choose from. At university, we don’t have photography as a subject. It doesn’t exist. I knew from the start that it would be hard to get a job in journalism in Gaza. I took internships, starting with radio stations, then newspapers, news channels on TV. Eventually I was trained by a local agency — it was a secular agency, but my boss was Islamic Jihad. He offered me a staff position — amazing considering I was 19, and still in my second year of university — as an editor in English and Arabic, and a producer. I made a condition that I would carry a camera with me, so that I could take photos. But I didn’t say that out loud: as a woman, you can’t say “I want to be a photojournalist” without being heavily criticized for it and in most cases forbidden.
Why would you be allowed an internship but not be allowed to be a photojournalist?
It’s OK to be a reporter as a woman, working in an office. TV reporters are OK, too, because they are only in the field for the final part of the report. As long as you spend most of your time inside the office, it’s fine. But to go into the field full-time with men as your colleagues is different — and you can’t be a photographer and work in the office. As a field photographer, you’d be the only woman with a lot of men. Just the idea was fascinating in a very negative way for me. Why? I didn’t get it, even though I’d lived all my life in Gaza. I know how conservative people can be, and how they mix tradition with religion. Religion has nothing to do with these very conservative, extremist traditions they have.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
Scientific research is generating far more data than the average researcher can get through. Meanwhile, modern computing has yet to catch up with the superior discernment of the human eye. The solution? Enlist the help of citizen scientists. British astronomer and web developer Robert Simpson is part of the online platform Zooniverse, which lets more than one million volunteers from around the world lend a hand to a variety of projects — everything from mapping the Milky Way to hunting for exoplanets to counting elephants to identifying cancer cells — accelerating important research and making their own incredible discoveries along the way.
At TED2014, Simpson took us through a few of Zooniverse’s 20-plus projects (with more on the way), some of which have led to startling discoveries — including a planet with four suns. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.
Are you a scientist?
Well, I’m a distracted astronomer. Yes, I’m an astronomer at University of Oxford. But I’m there to create crowdsourcing projects where we put data — usually images, but sometimes videos or sound — online, and ask the public to do research tasks that we used to ask postgrads to do. This helps us go through lots and lots and lots of data very quickly — which means scientists are free to concentrate on the hard, analytical parts of the problem.
So you’re giving volunteers the grunt work, basically?
Yeah, but what’s weird is that people love it. And not only do they enjoy it, and engage with each other online, they make discoveries, too. That’s what’s so special about it. We don’t just get the scientists’ science done. We open up the possibility for everyone to start participating in creating their own science projects using data.
We have really sophisticated computers. What can the human eye detect that a machine can’t?
A lot. I mean, a lot. With Zooniverse’s original project, Galaxy Zoo – which asked volunteers to discern between spiral galaxies versus elliptical galaxies — that was something that computers really couldn’t do at the time. Actually, they still really can’t do it unless we use the human data that we’ve gathered to train them. The computer can get it right maybe 85 percent of the time. But the 15 percent where it fails are the most interesting objects. So the reason it fails is they’re weird, funny shapes or funny colors. There’s something about them that’s slightly abnormal. These are the objects people can identify that the computer can’t — and those are precisely the ones that are scientifically interesting. So by definition, the computer isn’t doing the bit we want it to do.
Having said that, we’ve been able to train the computer to do a much better job based on the human answer, which is great news. But still, we want to ask for more — we want to cover weird, harder galaxies. So that project will just keep going, because people will always be looking at the harder set.
In another example, our project Planet Hunters has people looking through light curve data from stars, gathered using Kepler. So we stare at 150,000 stars, and watch the light from them. The whole point of doing this is to occasionally catch a planet passing in front of the star, and see a dip in light as it goes past. That dip can tell you how big the planet is, how often the planet’s going around the star, all sorts of stuff. You’ve just got to stare for long enough, and you’ve got to do it with a really, really, really good instrument.
Now, NASA and the Kepler team have used computer algorithms to look through this data for years, and they find lots of planets. But based on our experience with galaxies, we thought there must be stuff in this data that people will see that the computer can’t, because a computer is trained to look for certain things. It’s programmed by a person. Sure enough, we found planets that they didn’t find. And we found ones that are in weird, amazing configurations — some of which don’t make any physical sense — but they exist. For example, we found a planet in a seven-planet system around a sun-like star. That was an amazing discovery, because the more planets you have, the more crazy and chaotic all these dips get as they go back and forth.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
As TED Fellows arrive from all over the world today to Ed Ou’s hometown of Vancouver for TED2014, Ou himself is far away in Ukraine, where he has been since February, documenting the civil unrest and growing political tension as a freelance photographer represented by Getty. Today he writes in to give us an inside view at his experience on the field, sending us a cache of his work to date, including links to video segments produced for the New York Times and to his own Instagram feed.
How does the situation feel from where you are?
The situation here is very fluid, and the political stakes are very high. But at the end of the day, the most interesting thing for me is seeing how ordinary people come to terms with extraordinary things happening around them. Many feel empowered, like they now finally have a voice. Others feels like they are at the mercy of politicians in Moscow or Kiev who may or may not represent them. Regardless, everyone has a say in the direction that Crimea — and Ukraine — will go.
Tell us about the videos you’ve produced for the New York Times.
The first video was a look at a short confrontation between the Ukrainian military and the Russian military. When I spoke to the Ukrainian military being slowly pushed out of their posts, trapped in their bases, they told me that any confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is a tragedy because it’s brothers up against brothers. Since this was all part of the Soviet Union, Russians have family in Ukraine, and Ukrainians have family in Russia. The word they would use to describe any war would be “fratricide.”
The second video looks at Crimean Tatars. They are a Muslim minority group who have Turkic roots, and make up 12% of the population here. They have historical reasons to fear Russia. In the 1940s, Stalin deported most of their population to Central Asia on the pretext that they collaborated with the Nazis. Many died along the way — and only in the last few decades did most return. Many are unsure what will happen if Crimea secedes to Russia.
The Instagram feed is like a personal diary. It’s my own space where I get to be my own editor and show my own take on what you see in the news. Interestingly, I think the people who are looking at my images on Instagram may be a completely different demographic of people who read newspapers, magazines, and so on. So I find that Instagramming photos of international news events — whether it be conflict, political unrest, or social issues — can reach people who would otherwise not seek this kind of information out. I’ve had high school students email me asking me to explain the conflict in Gaza that I covered because they followed me on Instagram and saw a photo I posted. I was happy to oblige. Journalism is all about reaching the widest and most diverse audience, and if I can use this medium to inform someone who would otherwise not read a newspaper, then I’m all for it.
When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.
Do you think of yourself as an activist?
I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.
What happened with the FBI?
At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.
A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.
Did they not realize that you were a journalist?
They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”
And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.
Did they bother you after that?
Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.
Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.
How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?
I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.
So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio is an artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places — Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining — creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations. Here, he tells us about his latest art project, in which he created a “new nation” in response to the social struggles of a small neighborhood in Amsterdam.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is a pioneering project that aims to research the impact that designers and artists could have if working together with governments and other political/social organizations. I was asked to team up with design studio Muzus and come up with a new proposal for Columbusplein, a public square in Amsterdam West. Politicians and social workers from the area were looking for a different perspective on how to tackle several social issues in the neighborhood, such as bullying among the youngest ones and the lack of a community spirit between all the neighbors.
The first thing we found out during our research is that the demographics in the area are quite unique, with a very multicultural and multiethnic population. Even if the new generation is born Dutch, they still find themselves growing in between different identities (Third Culture Kids TCK), creating a great deal of confusion specially among the youngest ones.
It is also important to say that more than 20 social organizations have been present in the neighborhood for many years, helping those families that struggle the most, and arranging all kinds of activities for kids and their parents. I was overwhelmed to see how much is done by them. But these organizations are also very heavily structured, with little interaction between each other, and showed very small room for changes.
We thought that whatever we would come up with should not only involve the neighbors, but it should also be welcomed by all these social organizations, and somehow reframe their work in a new way, bringing them all together under a common purpose. It all sounds great, but how do you do that?
The answer came to me while walking around Columbusplein’s sports field on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful effect that all the lines and colors created on the court. The analogy between this space and the plurality that inhabits the neighborhood was the spark that initiated everything. That image would later become the flag of a new micronation, a rich mix of cultures, colours, identities — all different but nevertheless intertwined as one. The neighbors would have the chance to create their own nation, their own history, their own identity, all from scratch, and the different social organizations would finally have a strong story that would tie together their hard work.
Amsterdam West received the idea with enthusiasm, but they also remained very skeptical about the viability of the project. A new micronation sounded like an utopia, lots of work, plus how this concept would address social issues such as bullying was not clear.
In order to give shape to this micronation, we created several events, the first one being a competition to create a national secret sauce for fries, the favorite local snack. There was a great response from the neighbors, both adults and kids, coming from all kinds of backgrounds (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Netherlands) and the inherent freedom of the event allowed us to observe the behavioral dynamics of the kids from a completely different perspective. Columbusplein was writing its own history for the first time, the winner of the secret sauce contest, a 9-year-old named Sophie, was featured in the nation’s first stamp, and now the secret sauce is being used in local restaurants and markets.
For the second intervention, I decided to step up the game, think big and create Columbusplein’s first Space Program. We thought space exploration and new technologies will be very important for future generations, plus all the important nations have a Space Program right? And we don’t want to stay behind! So together with some young national astronauts, we went to visit the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, where we learnt everything about the International Space Station, the way astronauts live up there, and got ourselves ready for our first mission, which I called Mission Kite.
One day later, kids were creating their own tyvek kites, featuring drawings from lunar modules, planets, space ships… After customizing and assembling them together, it was time to start the mission, and kites were flying in Columbusplein for the very first time. The reaction was great, and even police officers and social workers spontaneously joined the event. After a few minutes, a small group of kids who were mocking the participants had to sit down and watch the rest have fun, wondering why they didn’t join the workshop themselves. The Space program was important not only because it played with kids’ ambitions, but also because for the first time, social workers took ownership of the art project.
More ideas such as an alternative currency featuring social workers on the banknotes or a passport to keep track of citizens’ involvement with the micronation are already on the table. Social workers are being invited to readapt their activities under the Republic of Columbusplein’s perspective, and a new approach based on positive potential instead of problem-solving has been shaped. Amsterdam West recognizes the value of the energy and excitement that the fictional micronation’s concept has created in the neighbourhood, but is also asking for more time and a more detailed plan to evaluate if this new approach could be the right path to follow, and how to fully involve all the social organizations active in the area.
My work as an artist is to imagine a different world, and create little bits of it. The micronation concept allowed me to do so, and allowed the kids and the workers in Columbusplein to be part of it. The micronation of Columbusplein is an art project for the neighborhood, but that doesn’t turn it into community art. Projects like this open new possibilities that might expand the future impact of artists on social issues, going beyond the pre-established white cube context.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is an initiative by the New Institute, Twynstra Gudde, social designer Tabo Goudswaard and Doen Foundation.
The micro-nation of Columbusplein was created by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Muzus with the support of Amsterdam West.
All images are by TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio. To find out more about his work visit www.seethisway.com