Happy Year of the Monkey from Foossa. Wishing you a 2016 full of curiosity, serendipity, and play.🐒🐵
I was born on the island of Taiwan, and I currently reside on the island of Manhattan. Both are terra firma, hard and fast granite bedrock.
But I also inhabit imaginary islands: online groups, forums, and other virtual places which bring to mind the dated term, “cyberspace.” Here I commune with like-minded souls with shared interests.
Other imaginary islands exist in the physical realm, but they are ethereal and fleeting in time. Festivals and conferences bring together communities of shared interest for a set period of time. Then we disperse. We may reconvene after an interval or fork forever into smaller cells distributed around the world.
My fellow humans on these imaginary islands are neotribalists. We equally reject the rigidity of traditional tribalism as well as the isolation of industrial individualism.
We form imaginary islands as safe spaces for our freak flags to fly free. Imaginary islands are unbounded by physical distance, as we unite with others of mutual interest and shared spirit across geographies. We form archipelagos of fellowship across expanses. Our imaginary islands can be open to everyone or hidden to all but insiders.
The Truku (also known as the Taroko) people of Taiwan have a saying, “the land is blood, the mountain is home.” The Hawaiians have a related saying, “He ali’i ka ‘āina, he kauā ke kanaka.” The land is a chief; man is its servant. These sayings reflect the indigenous worldview where the land owns the people and not the other way around.
But what happens when the “land” that we inhabit is virtual? What happens when we inhabit imaginary islands, shifting cartographies made up of networks andrhizomes in perpetual flux? We craft our communities, our imaginary islands, with intention. How do we belong to these artificial lands. How do our imaginary islands shape us and own us?
Tupi, or Not Tupi
To answer these questions, we will need new stories, new myths, and new truths. We need new stars to guide our way and to connect the far-flung archipelagos of our imaginary islands. We will need to construct new chimera: new combinations and reconfigurations, new ways of doing and of being.
We adapt, appropriate, and remix from a variety of cultural sources. One of the iconic lines of Andrade’s manifesto is “Tupi, or not to Tupi,” a linguistic pun that brings together references Shakespeare and to the Tupi indigenous peoples of Brazil.
In a discussion of cybernetic cannibalism, Lawrence Lessig explains:
we could describe it using modern computer terminology as kind of read-write culture. It’s a culture where people participate in the creation and in the re-creation of their culture. In that sense is read-write.
In this sense, as we are reading and writing our culture, we are terraforming the imaginary islands that we inhabit.
Lessig’s idea of a read-write culture echoes Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture:
For the moment, let’s define participatory culture as one:
1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).
May the neotribes that we form aspire to be participatory cultures.
Dreamers and Doers
As neotribers, let us dream big but also stay rooted in pragmatism.
Bruce Lee taught us: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
This teaching echoes the motto Wakon-yōsai (和魂洋才 “Japanese spirit and Western techniques”) from Meiji-era Japan. The island nation had just emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation. It found itself vulnerable to Western colonialist powers with superior technology. The motto was an invocation to adopt new methodologies and new technologies while preserving a spirit that was authentic and grounded in “Japaneseness.”
Of course, there are many ways to critique and deconstruct notions of cultural authenticity, but the point I am trying to make is, how do we adopt or create new technologies and new ways of organizing ourselves that reflect the spirit to which we aspire?
The recently-departed activist Grace Lee-Boggs reminds us: “We need to grow our souls.” Activism and philosophy must work together in tandem.
Back in 1977, Marshall McLuhan warned of the violent tribalism of the global village. He derided this tribalism for being “collective and without any individual consciousness.” But we have also seen that individualism taken to an extreme can lead to loneliness and alienation. May neotribes find a middle way in between these extremes.
We can learn from the new nationalisms like the Scottish and Catalan sovereignty movements. While they reject the status quo of the nation states in which they are currently a part, they simultaneously embrace a united Europe and membership in a larger international community. These are nationalisms with more open access to identity and belonging. They eschew the old violent tribalism of blood and soil. Neotribes aspire to be both grounded in the local and connected to the global.
We acknowledge that our blood is mixed, are cultures are mixed. Our destinies are intertwined.
When talking about neotribes, we must be careful not to fall into the old traps of neo-colonial “primitivism.” None of that “noble savage” narrative here please. We must learn to incorporate without (mis)appropriating. We must decolonize and deconstruct ourselves first in order to build something new. We must first empty our cups.
By imaginary islands, I mean “of the imagination.” We are communities of shared interest who dare to dream, who dare to explore, who dare to imagine what might be possible. We must be careful not to allow our imaginary islands to become pure escapism. We must also engage with other communities and tribes outside of our own, to negotiate the global commons and the other shared spaces of our common humanity.
In the Polynesian legends of the Māori of New Zealand and the of native Hawaiians, the ancestral homeland is called Hawaiki. Some anthropologists think that Hawaiki refers to Taiwan. But the truth about Hawaiki is lost to history and immortalized in myth.
In other legends, Hawaiki is also the underworld or the world of the spirits. In other words, Hawaiki is an imaginary island, a utopia, a “no place,” an imagined place. A destination always a bit past the threshold and out of reach, but a perpetually in our hearts and minds.
Our imaginary islands, the homelands of our neotribes, are like Hawaiki. We belong to these islands, and we belong to each other.
An advertising billboard becomes a space for socially-conscious art and then transforms into sustainable bags and accessories.
This is the story of a three-way collaboration between Lamar Advertising Company, the largest out-of-home advertising company in the United States,RAREFORM, a Santa Monica-based producer of bags and accessories repurposed from billboards, and Milton Glaser, the legendary artist and designer famous for creating the I ❤ NY logo.
Last year, Glaser launched the “It’s Not Warming, It’s Dying” campaign to create new urgency around the issue of climate change and to shift the language and narrative away from benign terms like “global warming.”
This year, Lamar Advertising has provided a billboard in Los Angeles at Crenshaw Boulevard and West 59th Place to showcase Glaser’s “It’s Dying” campaign. The billboard with Glaser’s artwork will remain on display until the end of October. After the billboard comes down, RAREFORM will repurpose Glaser’s artwork into approximately 300 limited-edition backpacks and accessories.
Designers and artists like Glaser looking to make a statement about environmental sustainability have the challenge of walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Campaign collateral like buttons, stickers, posters, and billboards all require natural resources to produce and often turn into waste after they have served their purpose. This collaboration between Glaser, RAREFORM, and Lamar provides a system for the sustainable reuse of these materials.
For designers working to be more sustainable, the lesson here is to think beyond creating collections for a single season, and instead design systems for reuse and transformation across the lifecycle of a product.
At the end of November, RAREFORM will host a gallery show in Los Angeles. The exhibit will feature exclusive videos, photos, and products from the collaboration, as well as some of Glaser’s other work.
Learn more at igg.me/at/art-lives.
On Saturday, August 8, 2015, I taught an experimental movement workshop as part of the Sextantworks Placemaking Lab on Governor’s Island.
Every day in New York City we find ourselves interacting in urban space, on crowded streets and subway trains. Crossing paths with strangers, near collisions, conversations without words. How do we decode the grammar to these kinesthetic conversations? Learn how to inject fun, freedom, and a little bit of mischief into your everyday interactions and gain new insights for designing social experiences. This workshop will draw upon diverse disciplines including experience design, social science, martial arts, and choreography. Come ready to move your body. No dance or martial arts background necessary. All are welcome.
Last week, I had a chance to talk about the intersections of music and activism with André Cymone. André is Prince’s childhood friend and original bass player. He later went on to build a musical career as a songwriter and producer. In his recent work, André is working to revive a rich American tradition of socially conscious music. We discussed ways we could all could use our creativity and talents to improve our communities and country.
Start with your own story
When I asked André why he does what he does as an artist and activist, he turned to his life history and that of his family. Talking about “art and activism” in the context of civil rights and social justice can be a big and abstract topic, but André grounded things in his own lived experience. He grew up in Minneapolis in a family of six children at a time when the black community was mobilizing for equal civil rights. His brother fought in Vietnam. His mother was a housekeeper who put herself through school, became a social worker, and was able to move the family to a better neighborhood. For André, music became a way of finding a voice and strengthening social connection.
I learned from our conversation that biographical details matter. As artists or activists trying inspire action and incite action, our own personal stories explains the “why” behind what we do. It helps to situate the abstractly political into the concretely personal. It helps us relate with others in our communities, and others that we are trying to reach. A movement starts with a personal story.
Be an ‘Artist’ that challenges people (rather than just an ‘Entertainer’)
“Maybe it started with Elvis. He started out as being Elvis the artist and being kind of daring and risky, but when he put on that rhinestone suit, he became Elvis entertainer. That changed the way people looked at music, artist, and all of that. People started just going after the entertainment factor. People don’t want to hear songs about trouble and strife, they just want to drive to work and be happy.”
But some people want to be challenged. They want to hear the truth. They want to hear ‘art’ as opposed to ‘entertainment.’
We also talked about artists like John Lennon, who started out an entertainer (a good one at that) in the original boyband, the Beatles, and later transformed himself into an “artist” and an activist to speak out for peace and against the Vietnam War. The world still needs artists to step up to the plate, now more than ever.
Use your gift and be a conduit
“The hope is in people like you. We all have a role in making the world we want to pass on to the next generation. My gift is storytelling and songwriting. It’s up to people like me to step up and do what you were put here for. Music is a healing thing. Music is a spiritual thing.”
Sometimes, realizing one’s role in the world means being a conduit for something greater than ourselves. It means surrendering to some higher force and inspiration, reinterpreting somebody else’s story and struggle, and just letting go of the ego.
“If you are an artist and you have a gift, you will write songs that you didn’t really write, because you are just the conduit. This happens to me and to other artists that I know all the time. You will write a song and then say, ‘I never meant to write that song, but before I noticed it was done, music, words, everything. Take the pain and suffering from the world and turn it into music or art. Take other people’s stories and struggles and elevate those stories.”
We all have an individual gift that we can put forth. What is yours?
“Vote. Make a difference. If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Cymone has been devoting his time to encouraging eligible voters to register and vote. I got to preview his upbeat new track called “Vote,” which sounds like a cross between early Prince and School House Rock.
While art and technology has opened up many new channels to organize, to participate, and to make change, there are still some old-school forms of political power that we must not forget about. So if you are eligible, register to vote, and show up on election day.
Here are some online resources to help you register and vote:
Also check out André Cymone’s interview with Mike Ragogna on HuffPost Entertainment (just after Barry Manilow)