Tag Archives: Art

TED Fellow Tal Danino programs bacteria to detect and treat cancer – and make art

Above, watch Tal Danino’s TED Talk, “We can use bacteria to detect cancer (and maybe treat it).”

Did you know that bacteria can be programmed as though they were computers? Bioengineer and artist Tal Danino is working out how to instruct bacteria to enter cancerous tumors — where it can detect and treat the disease noninvasively. And when Danino isn’t tinkering with bacteria’s healing potential, he makes artwork with it.

With Danino’s TED talk recently posted, he tells the TED Blog more about bacteria and how the artistic process drives his scientific research.

Tell us about your work in studying and programming bacteria.

There are two really interesting aspects to this. The first is that there’s this entire universe of bacteria inside of you, and in the last five to ten years, there’s been a revolution in figuring out what your microbiome does. It’s a really big part of your identity as well as a part of how you respond to and digest foods, how you develop certain diseases, allergies, and so on. Historically, we’ve thought of bacteria in a negative light and have and worked to maintain sterile environments. Now a lot of the recent research suggests we’ve been too sterile — and that disorders such as allergies, diabetes and obesity are connected to our microbiome. We’ve realized that basically the bacteria in our bodies are usually good, and that they’re a very important part of our health.

Do we know exactly why bacteria are so important to our health?

We don’t yet. We know a lot, and every week we find out a new fact. For example, we now know that the way that you were delivered when you were born — whether it was by caesarian section or traditionally — affects frequency of allergies, or that if you take antibiotics often in the early years of your life it can affect health processes down the road, such as development of asthma. If you grew up with a dog, for example, studies have shown you are less likely to develop allergies or asthma, because dogs can spread bacteria around that develop the immune system and help it to mature when you’re younger.

In my work, we are not only recognizing the importance of bacteria, but we are changing them. There’s this whole other revolution in which we are learning how to program life, similar to how we program computers.

Our technology has reached a point where we can write DNA like we would computer code. As a grad student, I started genetically programming bacteria to talk to each other, and to produce synchronized patterns. Then, as a postdoc, as this bacterial revolution was happening, I began to think about how we can program bacteria in our bodies. That’s when I started to develop bacteria to detect and treat cancer.

Above, watch “Supernova” — a video of bacteria growing a microfluidic device. Through a genetic program, Danino has created synchronized oscillations that you can see because of fluorescent proteins. Taken from Danino et al. Nature 2010

How does one program bacteria? What does this mean?

What we’re doing is modifying the DNA of bacteria. Without getting into technical detail, we have machines that can print out the letters of DNA, like A-T-G-C, and we’ve studied what sequences produce what function for quite some time. So for instance, there is a specific string of 500 letters or so that produces a purple-colored molecule. I print and cut-and-paste these DNA sequences, and put them into bacteria to instruct them to do certain things. In this case, I instruct the bacteria to make a purple molecule if they come into contact and grow within cancer cells, and the color is visible in urine, creating a noninvasive way to detect the disease.  We’ve also been using this technique to program bacteria to make molecules that treat cancer, causing the tumors to shrink or slow in growth. Researchers like me are thinking, “What can we program bacteria to do if they find a tumor?” We’ve been working on these ideas in mice with liver cancer.

What bacteria do you use to detect and treat cancer? Are there cancer-causing bacteria that you target?

Except for a few really specific cases, there’s not really a bacterium that causes cancer, so whatever bacteria we use simply need to be able to colonize the body’s tumors — we can use E. coliSalmonella, and so on, bacteria that will thrive in anyone’s body. In fact, we’ve also been using probiotic bacteria, or ‘good’ bacteria — like those in yogurt  — for these tasks.  So imagine in the future eating a programmed probiotic that could detect and treat cancer, or even other diseases. That’s the goal of my research.

A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz

A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz

How do the programmed bacteria find the tumors?

If you deliver bacteria orally or via the blood, they land in all of the various organs in your body, as well as in tumors. Normally your immune system is really good at clearing out bacteria, but in cancerous tumors, there’s a weird area called the necrotic core where bacteria can hide because the immune system can’t get in there, and so the bacteria will just happily grow in these tumors.

This was something that people observed maybe 150 years ago, a random interesting fact. The story behind it was that a woman who had a tumor in her neck came into the hospital, and when she got a bacterial infection, her tumor stopped growing. It was the very first time it was observed that bacteria and tumors have this cool interaction.

But it wasn’t really considered safe to treat tumors with bacteria, and we didn’t know how to manipulate bacteria at the time. Today, we are able to program bacteria to be safe — so you won’t actually become infected with E. coli — and program them to do things they don’t normally do.

Why do you use bacteria to make art?

The art I do highlights the science I do in a very different way. I recently did a collaboration with an artist named Anicka Yi. It came out of a conversation where I was telling her about how there are 10 times more bacterial cells in the body than human cells — that’s interesting fact number one. Interesting fact number two is that there are 100 times more bacterial genes. So really, in terms of genetic material, we’re 1% human. The bacteria in your body are a really large and unique part of your identity.

Anicka was interested in doing a piece on how art and bacteria relate to feminism in expressing a woman as a female pathogen or a viral concept. In the project that evolved, she collected bacterial samples from 100 women, and I grew them on petri dishes for a month or two. The exhibit consisted of these petri dishes — bacterial portraits, in a way — as well as a giant petri dish that was 7 feet long, made entirely out of bacteria from all these women, spelling out the name of the show. As bacteria are also responsible for scents, you could smell it as you walked in.

A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino

A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino


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







On the 12th anniversary of Iraq invasion, Matt Kenyon presents The Notepad to Al Gore

TEDFellow Matt Kenyon presents The Notepad to Vice President Al Gore at TED2015, Vancouver.

TEDFellow Matt Kenyon presents The Notepad to former US Vice President Al Gore at TED2015, Vancouver.

Yesterday here at TED2015, artist Matt Kenyon met briefly with former US Vice President Al Gore and gave him a Notepad — an artwork that looks like an ordinary yellow legal pad, but whose lines contain, in microtext, the names, dates, and locations of Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq, which began 12 years ago today.

On the TED Fellows stage at TED2015, Kenyon spoke of this monument of transgressive data, which he has smuggled into the stationery supplies of US and coalition governments. Kenyon also meets one-on-one with members and former members of coalition governments — including Former United States Attorney General and “torture memo” author Alberto Gonzales — presenting them with The Notepad and sharing its meaning with them.

“I spoke to him about the details of the project, as well as two of my oil and gas extraction related art works – Supermajor and Puddle” says Kenyon.

Gore’s response? “He asked about how to read the text, practical questions about type and kind of enlarger. He talked about Indian Prime Minister Modi’s suit, which has pinstripes stitched on it spelling out his name — a smart and witty connection to the work.”

Above, watch Matt Kenyon presenting The Notepad to Former United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Live from TED2015: Alicia Eggert illuminates the future with peace


The Future is hard to read when so few countries in the world are at peace. Photo: Ryan Lash

The Future: installation by TED Fellows Alicia Eggert + Safwat Saleem, TED2015, Vancouver. This piece illuminates the overall state of peace or conflict around the world. Each light bulb represents one of the world’s 206 sovereign states; bulbs representing states at peace are lit, while bulbs representing states in conflict are unlit. The Future is a FineActs.co commission. Photo: Ryan Lash

Anyone headed for the TED2015 Fellows lounge will be greeted by bright lights. Look more closely, and you’ll see the word “FUTURE” spelled out with light bulbs — some illuminated, some not. This installation — created by TED Fellows Alicia Eggert and Safwat Saleem and debuting at TED2015, explores the prospects of world peace, country by country, while interrogating not only what constitutes a country, but what constitutes peace. Here at TED, we asked Alicia Eggert to tell us more.

Tell us about The Future.

Two TED Senior Fellows, Julie Freeman and Yana Buhrer Tavanier, recently launched an initiative to encourage artists and activists to collaborate on projects for social change, called Fine Acts. They put out a call to the rest of the Fellows to submit artworks along the theme of peace. I started brainstorming, and I came up with an idea to make a sign that uses light bulbs to make the word “peace”. Each light bulb would represent a different country, and the bulbs would be turned on or off depending on whether or not each individual country was in conflict or at peace.

The Future debuts at TED2015, at the Fellows Lounge. Photo: Mike Femia/TED

The Future debuts at TED2015, at the Fellows Lounge. Photo: Mike Femia/TED

As soon as I had the idea for the piece, the next question was, “What does peace even mean, and how do I determine the number of countries in the world?” It has raised all these issues that I’d never considered before.

I reached out to the TED Fellows community on Facebook, saying, “Does anyone have thoughts about this, or want to weigh in?” Safwat Saleem started sending me his thoughts about how you might determine the number of countries, or how you would determine the state of peace. He was so helpful, I asked if he’d want to collaborate on it. He’s a designer, and I figured he would do a great job designing the typeface and all the other little things about the work. He said yes, and the piece evolved from there.

For example, we decided to make the word “future” instead of “peace.” As you know, the theme of my artwork is time, and I’d wanted to do some kind of piece about the future for a while. Using the word “future” adds the dimension of time to the concept of peace, another layer of meaning.

How did you end up determining what conflict is?

Actually our very first challenge was to determine the number of countries in the world, which would dictate the total number of light bulbs we would use to create the word “FUTURE.” In the end, we decided to be as inclusive as we possibly could by representing all 206 sovereign states. This number includes some states that are not officially recognized by the United Nations.

Our next challenge was to decide the on/off state of each of those 206 bulbs. One of the prompts Julie and Yana sent to us was a link to an article in The Independent that talked about the Institute for Economics and Peace, an organization that releases a study every year about the state of peace or conflict around the world. This article claimed that only 11 countries in the world were free from conflict in 2014.

The base of each light bulb is etched with the name of a sovereign state. Photo: Mike Femia

The base of each light bulb is etched with the name of a sovereign state. Photo: Mike Femia

But the IEP’s report was several months old, and it only addressed 162 countries, not all 206 sovereign states. So in addition to using data from the IEP, we also consulted websites like warsinthetorld.com, and Amnesty International’s 2014/2015 report on The State of the World’s Human Rights. Ultimately, we had to draw an arbitrary line in the sand to make a distinction between “peace” and “conflict”. For instance, the IEP’s report lists a numerical score for various criteria, such as perceived criminality in society, political instability, violent demonstrations, and homicides. We often used those scores to make our decisions.

Safwat and I did independent research, defined our own parameters, and came to our own conclusions about each and every state. We did this intentionally to see whether there would be any countries we didn’t agree upon. There ended up being only six countries that we did not come to the same conclusions about initially, but it was not difficult to find a compromise.

How does the piece work?

Each individual light bulb’s base has been laser-engraved with the name of the sovereign state it represents. All the light bulbs are wired in, and it’s just about turning the light bulb just a little bit more into the socket to get it to switch on. We’re aware that peace isn’t binary — it isn’t an on-off thing. There’s a continuum and spectrum of peace to conflict.

But if a country’s in conflict, the light bulb will be off. Only the lights of countries at peace will be on. Right now, the future, literally, will be kind of grim and dark. Only 33 of the 206 bulbs are currently lit. But we hope that illuminating the overall state of peace around the world in this way will spark conversation and debate and awareness. And we hope people see the big picture: how conflict happening in some really faraway places affects everyone, billions of people around the world. We might not feel it here, but hopefully this will show how it is affecting us.

Can people look up the data behind the artwork, to get more detail and context?

We’d like to create a website down the line, and make that information available. What’s interesting is that I think different people would make different decisions about what constitutes peace. One of my dreams is to make this project available to people in other countries, so if an artist or an activist wanted to do their own version of The Future, they could determine their own number of countries, their parameters for determining levels of peace or conflict, as well as use their own language and typeface design. I would love to see many different versions of this being made.

TED2015 attendees walk past The Future. Video: Mike Femia/TED


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 >>>

Art that floats: Constance Hockaday plans an immersive experience on a boat

Diagram of Hockaday’s proposed project Always Get on the Boat, a waterborne celebration of the Fifth Street Marina community in Oakland, California. Image: Julie Freeman

Constance Hockaday makes large-scale installations on open water. Identifying as a Chilean-American queer artist, Hockaday creates spaces that celebrate creative freedom and counterculture communities while defying gentrification. Take the Floating Peep Show — in which out-of-work drag queens and exotic dancers performed in the hulls of sailboats in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Now, Hockaday plans to turn a retired Coast Guard vessel into a venue for a huge waterborne multimedia spectacle. Always Get on the Boat will both celebrate and mourn the likely demise of the Fifth Street Marina — a longstanding alternative community on a post-industrial waterfront in Oakland, California, that is slated to be overrun by commercial development.

As she sets the plans for this new work, we talked to Hockaday about the struggle to make space for alternative culture, and why urban access to open water is so important.

In your talk at TEDGlobal 2014, you described the Floating Peep Show, and how it was inspired by two San Francisco counterculture establishments that had closed within months of each other — the Lusty Lady and Esta Noche. Tell us more about what these were.

The Lusty Lady was the nation’s only worker-owned, unionized adult entertainment business. It was a peep show, so you looked through a window at women — and people of actually many different genders, body shapes and looks — and you look at them without their clothes off, or erotic dancing. It was an institution, and it was located in what was known as the Barbary Coast. It felt a part of the old San Francisco, maybe one of the last places that felt like it was connected to that. It catered to the general public and also specifically to feminists, queers and radical sex culture, as well as kink and a very counterculture underground scene that’s played a huge part in the shaping of San Francisco. They shut down this past year.

Then, six months later, so did Esta Noche, a Latino gay bar in the Mission. It was spectacular, very special. It provided a place for gay Latinos who didn’t necessarily have a place in white gay-man world or in Latino culture. Everybody was welcome — it was like a queer Quinceañera every night.

Why did they shut down?

It was partly because clientele had moved out of the city because they couldn’t afford to be there. Social networking has also changed a lot of the way that queer culture interacts with each other. But these were cultural institutions.

So I rafted together four sailboats, and each one was a performance space. I contacted a bunch of Lusty Lady alumni, a bunch of drag queens from Esta Noche, as well as DJs and people from the Center for Sex and Culture. I hired them for four nights to perform inside the hulls of sailboats. We built a wall so that you couldn’t actually walk all the way into the boat: you could just step in. There was a money slot, and you could pay to see the performers. I told them to do whatever they wanted. Some of them did sex shows, some of them did strip shows, some of them did karaoke shows, some of them did super high fashion.

We picked people up in small inflatable boats, and transported more than 600 audience members across the San Francisco Bay to the sailboats in four nights. One night we did it near Dogpatch, in industrial San Francisco, and then three nights we did it in Clipper Cove, on Treasure Island. Everybody was there: all the old, curmudgeonly sailors who were all in charge of the sailboats, plus sex workers, drag queens, friends, art dorks, pervy kink dudes, tech kids. All hanging out in the middle of the water on these boats.

This was great, because it can be lonely and frustrating and confusing to be an artist in a place where artists are losing real estate, and losing a way to survive in that role in society. It’s hard enough to be an artist in general. It’s a scary life path to choose.

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


Fellows at TEDGlobal 2014: Julie Freeman launches new online artwork, We Need Us

Above, watch a sample of Julie Freeman’s new data-driven artwork, We Need Us.

Artist Julie Freeman creates kinetic sculptures, objects, images, compositions and animations from nature-generated data – such as the motion of fish swimming. Today, Freeman announced a new piece of work from the TED Fellows stage at TEDGlobal 2014. We Need Us — an online, data-driven artwork that explores the nature of metadata — has just gone live on The Space, a new website for digital art funded by the BBC and Arts Council England. Here, she tells us about what we can learn from experiencing data, rather than simply drawing information from it.

You are known make art using data from natural sources. Where is the data for We Need Us drawn from, and how is it different?

This metadata comes from a citizen science website called the Zooniverse, which allows people to classify large data sets from all the over the world. Volunteers from all walks of life come together to do this in a very altruistic manner, helping scientists complete extremely labor-intensive tasks, freeing them up for other research and analysis.

Essentially, I use data as an art material. I take the metadata looking at Zooniverse user activity, and how they’re interacting with the site. I manipulate and process the data, and then that’s used to control the animations and sound compositions, which are made of field recordings.

What did you record?

All sorts of stuff – underwater sounds, recordings of the environment, of birds, insects, buildings, machines. Anything.

How is this different from straight-ahead data visualization?

Traditional data visualization is about how we understand data and the information it contains. What I’m doing is a lateral way of looking at data. How can we experience it? How can we feel it, and what does it mean to think about the life of data — how it lives, and what the dynamics within it are?

What is the structure of this piece?

The work is made up of 10 different scenes, if you like, and each scene relates to a project on the Zooniverse website. There’s one called Snapshot: Serengeti, for example, where volunteers look at photographs taken by motion-triggered cameras in the Serengeti, to help classify the animals appearing in the photograph — say a bison or antelope. But I’m not so much interested in the animals as taking the data of the people classifying the data. What do they click on? When do they click on it? Where are they from? Using that data, I animate an abstract illustration drawn from references to the Serengeti. The sounds are things like flies buzzing, grasses in the wind, bison making weird noises.

What was the impetus for collaborating with Robert Simpson and Zooniverse?

Robert and I met at TED2014 in Vancouver, and when he told me about Zooniverse, I thought, “I’ve got a great idea!” At the time, The Space — where We Need Us is hosted and which is a new online platform for data-based artwork — had approached me as a curator. I said, “Actually, I’m an artist that works with digital technologies and would like to make a work with Zooniverse data.” They loved it, so they, along with the Open Data Institute, commissioned the piece.

And as a scientist, what does Robert think about what you’re doing?

He thinks it’s brilliant. Interestingly, a group of scientists are working with exactly the same data that powers my artwork, but they are looking at how communities come together to collaborate, to solve problems. But I’m using the data for art, and they’re using it for proper social science reasons. It’s nice to know that this pot of data is being used by different people for different outcomes. Basically both projects are about the humanity in technology, exposing the altruism of how people use the web, and what we can learn from that.

To view We Need Us, which goes live on Monday at 2pm UK time, visit www.thespace.org/weneedus. And to learn more about Robert Simpson and the Zooniverse, read “You found a planet!: Robert Simpson crowdsources scientific research and accelerates discovery at Zooniverse“.


Orphans of the narrative: Bosnian photographer Ziyah Gafić documents the aftermath of war

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of objects did you create?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living on the outside: Photographer Kitra Cahana documents nomadic cultures from within



After a childhood spent traveling the world with her rabbinical family, photographer Kitra Cahana found she couldn’t stop. With her camera as her vehicle, she began work as a documentary photographer, shooting for publications like The New York Times and National Geographic. When Cahana is not on assignment, she comes home to a life on the road — living among communities of nomads that wander the United States, documenting their reality. Cahana’s TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road,” offers a look into this world. But we wanted to hear more—about her own experiences, about what motivates people to take to the road, and about the history and evolution of American itinerant culture.

We called Cahana up to chat. Below, an edited transcript of the conversation. And to view more gorgeous images of Cahana’s “Nomad” series, check out this gallery on Ideas.TED.com »

So first off, where is home for you?

That’s always been a complicated question. I was born in the United States—my parents are both American, but they didn’t want to raise their children in the States, mainly for sociopolitical reasons. So we left shortly after I was born and moved frequently when I was a child. I grew up in different places across Canada and Sweden where my father held rabbinic positions. That’s what took us from place to place.

It was part of my parents’ ethos to prioritize experiences over materialism. From our infancy, they took us on adventures. When we moved to Sweden, we spent months making our way from North America to Europe via Asia. We were raised with this deep knowledge that the world was open and that the world was ours. It’s a beautiful thing to instill in a child — a sense of curiosity about the way other people live, to explore other value systems, to give a sense of otherness and sameness all at once. The idea was to be able to feel a sense of home anywhere, while simultaneously having a really strong core — a family core. In our family, that meant a spiritual and religious core as well.

Which came first, being a nomad, or photography? Or did both happen at the same time?

When I spoke in the talk about wanting to run away as a child, I think that emotion came from wanting to escape stagnation, never wanting to be still. Always wanting to see the next thing around the corner. When we moved to Canada when I was 12, I went from being in a Swedish Montessori school to the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish day schools. I did well, but I hated it. I didn’t want an outside voice to dictate my day to day. Every piece of me was just yearning to explode outwards and move again, to feel unencumbered by any authority but my own.

That’s why I gravitated towards photography, because it allowed me to always be on the move, to investigate other people’s ways of life and to pose deep questions of political and social import. It gave me a purpose to continue the adventuring I had been exposed to as a child, but it went far deeper than just having an adventure. It put me at the crux of really critical and telling moments in the lives of others.

I left home as soon as I finished high school at 16; my photojournalism career started shortly after. I’ve been more or less nomadic since, in many different incarnations of the nomadic life. I’ve lived in a more sedentary fashion in certain places — especially while doing my undergrad in philosophy and my masters in visual anthropology — more transient in others. The lengths of my stays are usually dictated by the projects I’m working on, by the worlds I’m moving in and out of. So it’s always completely different. No world is like the next. Altogether, it’s been about nine years of being in motion. It’s just slowly become my way of life.

Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana


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


Buono Fortuna: Jorge Mañes Rubio documents lost grandeur and glorious decay


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.