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Art History; Art Future

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Why do I so often feel like art is broken? When it comes to how we conceive of arts education, and how we’re taught to practice and recognize art and creativity, I think there’s a whole lot we can do better.

One problem to start with: creativity is still fairly ghettoized in early childhood education — and most all education, for that matter. Kids of all ages thirst for creative guidance, thrive on exploration and imagination; this should permeate the entire stack of learning time and activities, not be tacked on in a twice weekly time-slot.

This may never happen in our current climate, but let’s imagine: in some future world all teachers will have advanced expertise, and make more money than bankers or lawyers. They’ll all be active in some creative field, and skilled at eliciting curiosity in their students, guiding them to explore ideas wildly — not just academic ideas, but creative ones: initiatives to improve their communities, experiences they might design for their friends, mind-blowing experimental meals to cook for their parents.

The biggest problem I see with arts education, art history, and the general public conception of “art” at large, is that it’s regarded as a domain somehow separate from the ecstasy of everyday being and living.

The truth, though, is that most great creative work doesn’t live in museums or galleries, doesn’t come from art schools or artists’ studios. No — it’s put out into the world by regular people who have an itch, who are dissatisfied with how the world currently looks and take it upon themselves to imagine, and then create, something new.

I’ve been to a lot of art galleries, and a lot of art museums, and so much of what fills them — not all, but really, most! — is bullshit. Maybe not at the MET…but your average gallery? Banal, boring, useless, masturbatory, unimaginative. And even the stuff that actually is great and interesting, even that art often feels sterile,  decontextualized from the vitality of real lives and concerns.

As I see it, the future of art is in connecting people, changing how we perceive ordinary experiences, shaping the ways we hold ideas in our minds, and how we form relationships. This future is one of integration, consilience, immersion — bathing everything we think and feel in rich creative plasma.

Art future is not museums and galleries. It’s not even sculpture parks or weird video installations or processor-taxing websites. Rather, it’s a network of creative experiments available for anyone to encounter, explore, and modify. It’s a world where organizations are infused with such creative energy that to separate out business metrics from creative goals would be meaningless.

In this future, kids learn skills and knowledge, sure, but the focus of their learning is synthesis: how to look at the world with wonder, and use this vision to create new and meaningful things. In this world, the highest work of humans is in those areas that can’t be automated — creativity, critical thinking, complex inventions that have the power to reshape of the fabric of reality.

This will entail reshaping our social, political, and economic fabrics too, and these changes may not come easily — but when they do, the world will continue to improve, and we’ll be free to practice creativity in all we do. When that time comes, there will be people who wield these creative powers particularly well. But I don’t know if there will still be those we refer to as “artists”, separate from the rest.

Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.

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The title of this post is a quotation from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The entire book is incredibly compelling. But this phrase, and the section it comes from, struck me on reading it and lodged itself in my memory as an idea worth thinking about further.

This is from a part where Malcolm talks about his self-education in prison, and how he spent hundreds of days reading and meticulously hand-copying the dictionary. He describes how it not only enhanced his vocabulary but also taught him a lot about the world through its inclusion of information on people, places, historical events and more. That’s where this line comes in — his realization that, yes, a dictionary is actually an encyclopedia in miniature.

“I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying. […]

“I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. […]

“I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet — and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.”

The moment is the opening of a world of knowledge, the slow-burn burgeoning of reading and learning as urgent life priorities. The dictionary is a lens bringing into focus a new relationship with these processes:

“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors — usually Ella and Reginald — and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”

I should maybe stop there; I am now about to trample over this elegant passage with analysis. But…a perfect storm swells, of topics that tug my interests: learning, information, systems, knowledge…a collision you might expect to find discussed at great length by Umberto Eco. Too late! The writing is already done!

This idea struck me because it encapsulates something really interesting about the structure of information and knowledge. It makes clear how there can be layers of hierarchy in meaning and organization, how it’s possible to find within one structural shell another, deeper layer, another way of perceiving or interpreting  information.

The conceptual framing of “dictionary as encyclopedia” is interesting  partly because of how each of these structures — dictionary and encyclopedia — are both familiar to us as some kind of Platonic form, and have variously manifested and evolved through the years.

The specific conceptions surely vary a great deal from person to person and culture to culture. Personally, my image of a dictionary is as a contained, if evolving, reference compendium, designed to both document usage and serve up definitive meanings for as many words as may be captured in a given language. I see an encyclopedia as a collection — aspiring to be comprehensive, yet inevitably less contained — outlining factual knowledge, the basic informational shape of everything that can be imagined, though largely lacking insight and analysis and extrapolation.

But these are merely the archetypes; both dictionary and encyclopedia have changed enormously, even over just the past decade. They’ve metastasized to a phenomenal degree, exploding in definition and form, fragmented themselves into infinite subdivisions and niches. Witness the proliferation not only of entities like Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, Genius, Wolfram Alpha — but also, say, topical wikis for fictional universes.

It’s no longer possible to conceive of there being one definitive dictionary and one definitive encyclopedia. I mean, really there never was, but at one point you could at least squint and put on blinders and pretend like the factual world was more or less captured by the OED and Britannica. Now…now we’re irreversibly tangled in some strange quantum environment where the scaffoldings of information and knowledge are legion.

And many of these structures have multiple forms and interpretations, forming a much more confusing tangle, perhaps, than the dictionary-as-encyclopedia relationship articulated by Malcolm X.

Situationally, Instagram can be a reference resource. Facebook and Twitter serve as the news. Google Maps is the most vivid and comprehensive atlas the world has ever seen. Your favorite forum is a guidebook to a self-contained world. SciHub is an open library and Jstor is an archaic lockbox for knowledge. We have massive data sets being open sourced by major governments, crowd wisdom being harnessed like never before, and vast infrastructures of knowledge being made available in all manner of weird and wonderful ways.

My new favorite platform for knowledge organization and storage is Arena — neither centrally-managed nor entirely crowdsourced, but a blend of personal and collaborative, a place for weaving webs between the corners of your own mind, and those of others. I haven’t used the platform a whole lot to create my own idea-networks, but I’ve browsed it extensively, and see it used as both dictionary and encyclopedia — and also as scrapbook, to do list, even as library.

(I will almost certainly use Arena a lot more, and probably write about it more, in the not-too-distant future.)

With the relationships of all these networks and platforms shifting so rapidly before our eyes, it’s no wonder that we connect things in unexpected ways, actively creating (and at times stumbling into) new ways of learning and knowing. Sometimes this is accidental, emergent behavior of a chaotic landscape. But sometimes we know exactly what we’re doing when we use a service or platform in a way orthogonal to its original intent. And, often enough, that’s what keeps us moving forward.

Adding Hidden Layers to Websites via Secret Subdomains

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Random fun idea: adding layers of content and modes of interaction to one’s website — say, for example, mine! What might this look like?

This line of thought was inspired by some convoluted test I did to confirm that my site was up and running after switching hosts a while back. This process had me add an extra test subdomain and do some link shenanigans, and I ended up making one called “secret.brendanschlagel.com” — it was the first thing that came to mind besides “test” and I liked the idea of a hidden space, accessible only to people in the know. Similar to how any city functions differently, and means different things, to visitors and locals, it seems like it would be cool to have a part of my website that reveals itself in layers, perhaps a repository for things I don’t want to be fully public but still would like to share in some capacity.

Or perhaps it isn’t exactly another part of my site, but an entirely different version of it, that only reveals itself in certain contexts or interactions. The concept of responsive web design is simple yet powerful; perhaps this line of thinking could be extended further, and we just don’t play with it enough. Typically it means adjusting page layout based on device size. I’ve seen some that do get more creative, like Liz Danzico’s “Bobulate” which switches color theme from dark to light to match the actual day / night patterns in the viewer’s location — a fun twist that you don’t see very often.

It might be useful to spend some time thinking of other ways a website could either interact with the user and their specific context, or simply provide a greater variety of ways to navigate and interact with it. And yeah, subdomains…a cheap and easy way to create new sites-within-sites; a rich vein for nerdy fun. So, a list of some that might be fun to create for my site(s), as yet entirely hypothetical:

secret.brendanschlagel.com — a semi-private, hidden area revealed perhaps only to close friends/family, or to newsletter subscribers; I could post cool links or half-baked ideas or personal reflections that I don’t share elsewhere.

parallel.brendanschlagel.com — somehow presenting / theming the site in a different way; perhaps displaying a different content structure, or the same basic structure but with extra stuff inserted at the margins, or even certain things rewritten from a different perspective.

yourname.brendanschlagel.com — could be either parlor trick or highly useful and innovative networking device! I could, after meeting someone interesting, quickly put together a one-pager with a personalized curated list of articles or other resources, links to more of my work, and other fun things. I could even have a template for this, making it super simple to make a new one for favorite new people I meet.

inverse.brendanschlagel.com — similar to parallel, except explicitly devised for the purpose of creating some sort of alter ego, or sly paradoxical quasi-refutation of my individual character; a public persona, refactored

query.brendanschlagel.com — this could be interactive; a place for people to engage with things I’ve written, ask random questions, query my personal API (a thing that, to be sure, also does not exist yet, but would be interesting to consider!)

What’s the difference between implementing these sorts of things using subdomains (e.g. secret.brendanschlagel.com),and simply creating additional pages on my site (e.g. www.brendanschlagel.com/secret)? It’s semantic, but I think an important perceptual distinction — secret.brendanschlagel.com implies more of a root-level branching of the site, whereas www.brendanschlagel.com/secret feels more pedestrian, indicating a page named “secret” on the regular main site. Partly it’s just convention; I like the subdomain implementation because it’s less commonly used, especially for this purpose…but I’m not sure the details matter much.

The more general point I’m getting at is that there are a lot of tropes and expectations when it comes to websites, in both form and content, and there’s always more we can explore in experimenting with the medium. Not just on a technical level (though that’s great too) but in terms of weird content structure, subversion of expectations, hidden delights, added layers of meaning…all kinds of potential!

Cataloging My Personal Micro-Habits

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An idea I had a while back — catalog my micro-habits, my movement patterns and granular choices, the small things that make up my daily routine. I figured it might be interesting to aggregate this information in one place, to make myself more aware of the effects, to optimize the flow and activity of my life, or at least the mundane parts (of course not everything should be optimized).

I thought: this should be a good way to find where seams are stressed, where I can improve, insert more life or more fun in to things. At the very least, it’s a form, a shell, a space for poetry.

Also — I wrote this a while back, too, roughly three — no, four? — years ago. I’m taking a quick edit pass now, in 2018, newly motivated to revisit old blog drafts. Just for fun, current me will annotate with any fresh observations and / or flippant remarks in brackets. Here goes:

I wake up, my alarm ringing most mornings at 8:30. More often than not, I’ll pick up my phone, glance at it, put it back down on the nightstand [still my normal wakeup time; the phone now lives in the other room; I usually pick it up, turn it off, and doze a bit more] and waffle on the wakeup, rest for a few more minutes, not (usually) going back to sleep, but delaying things, hugging the warmth. Area number one to improve: make this a regularity, a punctual start to every day. Weekends included. Militant, even — that could be good for me. And 8:30 is an okay time but really it would be nice if it were earlier. This is contingent on the flip side, bedtime regularity, but I think midnight to 7:30, or 11pm to 7:00 or something around there sounds healthy and reasonable.

After getting up, I drink some water. Sometimes the bottle is near-full, sometime empty, my bladder filled instead. Should make it a habit — a full bottle before bed, and another upon waking. That’s supposed to be good for rejuvenation.

I may glance at email in bed, delete a few that don’t seem important. Don’t want to make this a habit that takes much time, but if I get up earlier, then a precise say 30-minute time limit for e.g. scanning news, Twitter, mail etc. could have its merits. Probably best to not get into that sort of thing though. Maybe reading for 30 minutes from a book would be an equally good start to the day. Probably better. [Yes, duh, definitely better. Also should exercise or something. But morning exercise is the worst.]

I use the bathroom; shower. [NB: deleted some TMI details here…] In the shower, I shampoo my hair, then use the suds from my head to wash my body, then rinse my hair and put conditioner in it, then wash my face, then rinse both face and conditioner from hair, rinse the rest of my body, sometimes bask in the warmth a moment or two longer, and step out of the shower. I follow that with application of deodorant, clean my ears with a Q-tip, and (most of the time) brush my teeth.

Sometimes I eat at home, other times I wait and buy something to eat in DUMBO on the way to work. [We moved; I now work in Industry City…still in Brooklyn, similar commute time!] Another area for greater regularity. Not that  regularity rules all…but I think it’s true that removing mundane decisions can ease cognitive overload and give the mind more time to work on the interesting stuff. Making breakfast is actually pretty efficient, even if I don’t do it all the time. I can actually whip up something in just a few minutes: heat a pan, grab some granola and yogurt, crack a few eggs in the pan with some butter, pour the bowl of granola, put away the containers, flip the eggs, grab a plate, plate the eggs, throw on some seasoning, devour the lot of it. Maybe 10–15 minutes for the whole process. I like the feel of efficiency in the kitchen, the kind that comes from having your mise-en-place on point. On the other hand, just buying a bacon and egg sandwich at the deli is faster still, and relatively cheap. [Not the healthiest though! Currently not doing this so much…] Maybe a little variation is okay, but I’d like to try eating a quick and simple breakfast at home every day. And once I finally get to crafting my homemade protein bars that should become easier still. [I’ve done various snack experiments but no perfect protein bars yet.]

So I’m out of the shower — I dry off, dress (jeans, boxers and socks, a t-shirt and sweater, jacket or coat) then pack for work. First my pockets, phone and wallet and chapstick and keys, then my laptop and headphones and mouse in my backpack. [No backpack anymore, unless I’m ferrying gym clothes to / from the laundry.] Then I grab my book of the week and head out, lock the door, walk to the subway, and wait a few minutes for the F to come. I love this reading time, to and from work on the subway, and sometimes the walk from subway to office as well. It adds up to maybe only 30 minutes a day, but that’s enough to get through a book in a couple weeks, and I supplement that with reading at home, too. But subway reading is usually good, uninterrupted reading, save for the occasional annoying passenger. [Still love subway reading. But my subway time is actually shorter now, and I like to bike when I can, so most reading happens at night.]

Once in DUMBO I walk to the office, unpack my bag, set up my computer and things on my desk, and get to work, whatever the day brings but almost all at my computer. Breaks are usually to refill my water bottle and use the bathroom, both frequent and obviously correlated. Around 2pm or so I’ll head out and get lunch somewhere, a food cart or deli/grocery or occasionally restaurant nearby. A fair number of options, but they all grow old, and not a lot of cheap takeout besides the trucks, which can feel overpriced and gimmicky after a while. Would be nice to have some Soylent on hand, or just oodles more money so I can get whatever the hell and not feel guilty…can’t wait until the Calexico truck returns, I could go for their burrito bowl every day and I don’t think I’d grow tired of it. Extra meat, and it’s basically two lunches. [Ha, lots of food options near work now; most still grow old. Daily schedule is mostly the same. I’m resigned to paying a bit more on average for lunch than I used to.]

I leave around 6:30 or so, having worked from maybe 10:15 on, a regular 8 hours or maybe slightly more. Same subway ride back to Park Slope [now Prospect Heights], though if the weather’s nice I’ll bike both ways, which deprives me of the reading time but is a lovely ride in addition to a moderate bit of exercise, so I try to do it often. I’ll get home at 7pm or so, and either cook something with Jinjin or do takeout or something local like grab a banh mi from across the street. Often we’ll watch an episode of a TV show as we eat. Then I tend to retreat to the bedroom for some Internet browsing — one element of the evening routine I’d like to cut down on. I think I need to be more self-critical with my web reading/browsing habits, and also more decisive with my tabs, either making a note or taking an action or reading immediately or saving for later, but not so much leaving-open-for-weeks-on-end. But just generally being more discerning will go a long way to cutting down on the time I spend online. I typically end the night with my daily writing, or maybe that plus a bit of reading from a book in bed right before sleeping. [Yes, the Internet is still one of my top favorite hobbies. I’ve started tracking my reading time; this is now more regimented than my writing time. Though I’m starting to feel it’s time for the pendulum to swing back…]

Sometimes I’ll also enjoy a cup of tea, hang out and watch Youtube clips or a movie with the roommates [no more roommates, thank goodness!], attend a Meetup or other event after work [mostly nah; good Meetups (or meet-ups) are rare; I’m a total homebody], grab drinks with a friend, or hit the gym. These are things that don’t occur every day, but maybe some of them could. I could see a daily tea ritual being fun, either in the morning or evening or both. And some sort of daily exercise habit would be great. Wouldn’t have to necessarily be the gym, but maybe the gym a couple times a week, running or biking some days, a quick home workout some days…would be a great daily habit to get into. [Major benefit of new office location = good gym; I’ve been going more often lately, maybe twice a week on average.]

I realize I’m not going so much into the level of granularity and precision that I’d sort of envisioned for this exercise; much of what I’ve written above is kind of journalistic or diaristic in tone but not particularly interesting. Perhaps it would be best to record these things as they happen, reflect on them in the moment, try in that way to capture some of the situational logic or strange physical poetry and personality contained in them. [Yeah, more poetry and personality is always good! Bbut hey, I’m finding this meta-annotation thing kind of fun.]

I think that way I’d be more likely to notice and include and sketch in detail the smallest details, like the way I fold my shirts [probably not that unique TBH], or how I’ll use my foot to sweep dirt down the bed and off the sheet, or how I’ll eat a few squares of dark chocolate every night at my desk [just did that! chocolate is the best], and how I organize that desk and why, and my philosophy on doing dishes [damn I could probably write another thousand words just on this topic, thrilling I’m sure] — that sort of thing.

I’ll have to keep all that in mind, and return to this, and maintain it as an ongoing project, not a high priority but an interesting form of cataloging my daily experience and attitude toward the things around me and the processes and necessary activity that attends everything I do. [Hmm, not sure how interesting this would really be…but perhaps revisiting someway, many more years from now, when more has changed…]

Antilibraries Kickstarter “Work in Progress” Update, July 2017

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Here’s the second in a series of “work in progress” updates for the Antilibraries “Codex Libri” project I launched via Kickstarter earlier this year. (Note: I’m publishing this as both blog post and backer update.)

TL;DR: majority of book notes complete; organizational experiments underway; overall taking a bit longer than I initially planned but making good progress. Read More

Book Walks, or, The Life Changing Magic of Ambulatory Reading

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I’d like to offer some meditations on a simple practice that I think not enough people do, probably for fear of being hit by a car.

The book walk is in some ways self-explanatory: walking, from somewhere to somewhere else. while reading a books. But, since it’s in other ways a subtle art, I’ll say a bit more!

Many have written about ambulation as aid for thinking, even for “being” fully in one’s body and in the world. Writers, philosophers, wannabe writers and philosophers — legion are those who have enjoyed walking, and chosen to share that experiential wisdom. Walking, simply walking with one’s full concentration and focused efforts, is enjoyable and worthwhile. But throw reading into the mix? Let’s see how the pleasures multiply. Read More

Antilibraries Kickstarter “Work in Progress” Update, May 2017

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I always enjoy when Kickstarter creators post detailed updates that shine a spotlight on the inner workings of their projects and creative processes. In that tradition, here’s the first of a series of “work in progress” updates for the Antilibraries “Codex Libri” project I recently funded on Kickstarter (note: I’m publishing this as both blog post and backer update.) Read More