Photo by Amy Pinard
A couple of years ago I was at my neighborhood nail salon, The Today Show was playing in the background. I was distractedly watching when I noticed a poised, articulate, and wildly stylish version of my childhood friend Hitha Prabhakar discussing Black Friday shopping with Carson Daly. The last time I saw Hitha was probably on an elementary school playground in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but this had to be her. A quick google search confirmed that this glamorous powerhouse was the Hitha I once knew. She is now enormously accomplished, living in New York, and married to comedian Seth Herzog.
Hitha is the Chief Research Officer at H Squared Research LLC, a research firm for investment advisors and is also the Executive Producer and Co-host of the podcast “Divided States of Women”. She has been featured in Vogue India, New York Times, Shape magazine, Glamour magazine, Marie Claire, Oprah magazine, Lucky magazine, The Daily Mail, Style.com, Forbes.com, Huffington Post. She was recently named by Forbes as “one of the most influential South Asian women in the United States.
Her television appearances include NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, Fox Business, MSNBC, Bloomberg TV and CNBC. She has written for Time magazine, MSNBC.com, nymag.com, Today.com, People magazine, People.com, and ELLE India. She advises start-ups in Silicon Valley, Parsons The New School of Fashion incubator XRC Labs, and teaches a class on social commerce.
Hitha is also dedicated to raising awareness about criminal activity linked to the black market and counterfeit products. She is the author of Black Market Billions: How Organized Retail Crime Funds Terrorists and created an app to help people identify and spot counterfeit merchandise sold on the black market. What an honor to reconnect with this remarkable woman.
Your career is strikingly wide-ranging. You are an investigative journalist, teacher, retail analyst, fashion icon, and the wife of a famous comedian. On your website you describe that you live in a world “where fashion, retail, finance, investigative journalism and data research all co-exist in perfect harmony.” How do you balance these disparate interests and roles, and why is it important to you to lead a life of such contrasts?
When I was in graduate school, a professor told me as a journalist, it wasn’t enough to compartmentalize your skills. Meaning- in order to be successful we had to know how to write and edit, shoot video, record on radio, be in front of the camera, etc. His words really stuck with me. I developed an expertise in a specific beat (retail) and was fortunate to be able to liaise it into so many different mediums that all work together. On paper it looks like a big contrast, but in real life it’s more like being a conductor of an orchestra.
Your book Black Market Billions is an in-depth investigation of retail crime rings and how counterfeit goods fund organized crime. How did you become so engaged in this issue, and what was it like to dive so deeply into this world—going so far as to risk personal harm to interview some of the criminals themselves?
I had randomly received an email from a former colleague at a magazine I was working for asking if I wanted to buy a very inexpensive but very “real” Givenchy handbag. We were talking $400 for a $2500 piece. Wary of how sketchy this all was, I asked him why the bag was so inexpensive. He told me it was stolen via an organized retail crime ring at a major luxury store. My investigative senses went off like a blaring alarm. I decided to follow the story, which lead me to the creepy world of black market of counterfeit and stolen goods. My editor at Financial Times Press loved the idea of this becoming a book, so she gave me nine months to write it. Doing the interviews was terrifying at times. At one point, I was following the trail of stolen and counterfeit car parts going from Albuquerque to Palomas, Mexico. The Albuquerque Police Department told me which criminals were involved and what I should be looking for. But for obvious reasons (me being by myself in my mother’s car were a couple) had some reservations about going. Seth [Herzog] was the one who convinced me to go by saying “What would Bob Woodruff do?” So I went. I was terrified but the experience brought the entire book together. As of today the counterfeit industry is a $460 billion industry, and the more we shop online the more we are susceptible to purchasing fake, potentially harmful merchandise. It is so important people know this as they shop, click, swipe away on their phones, computers and tablets.
As of today the counterfeit industry is a $460 billion industry, and the more we shop online the more we are susceptible to purchasing fake, potentially harmful merchandise. It is so important people know this as they shop, click, swipe away on their phones, computers and tablets. If I can help raise awareness in any way, I’ll do it!
You have clearly led an extraordinary life and are enjoying a tremendously successful career. What have you not yet done that you have always wanted to do? What is next for Hitha Herzog?
Ha! It doesn’t seem extraordinary at all! I am so lucky to do what I love. Each day is different and I can’t imagine it any other way! I would love to write a novel or a script for a movie maybe based on the novel I would potentially write. Fiction is such a different beast than non-fiction. You have to use an entirely different more creative part of your brain. I have this ongoing fantasy in my mind where I take off one day, set up in Marfa, TX, do retail research for half the day and write for the rest.
Fiction is such a different beast than non-fiction. You have to use an entirely different more creative part of your brain. I have this ongoing fantasy in my mind where I take off one day, set up in Marfa, TX, do retail research for half the day and write for the rest. Not sure what the comedy scene is like in Marfa, so Seth and I will probably be in NYC for the foreseeable future!
One More Thing...
Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
Wow. There are so many people I could name here. I think the obvious choice is Elon Musk, but Bjarke Ingels is a genius and has completely changed the NYC skyline in the most amazing way. In fashion design, Alessandro Michele completely changed Gucci’s profitability by making street wear aspirational and there are the genius co-founders of ADAY, Meg He and Nina Faulhaber. These women have completely changed the landscape for activewear/workwear crossover apparel that looks fabulous.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Colombian American Artist Yazmany Arboleda at the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit last April. Like his work, Yazmany radiates optimism, élan, and wonder in a world that increasingly seems bleak, fractured, and hostile. He has been engaged in the practice of creating what he calls “Living Sculptures” for over a decade, bringing people together to transform their experience of the world, and in doing so strengthening communities across the globe. Yazmany brings beauty, humanity, new paths of engagement, and a sense of meaning and belonging to cities ranging from Kabul to Johannesburg, Nairobi to New York.
Yazmany is the Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of the creative agency limeSHIFT. He is also Creative Director of the Brooklyn Cottage, Associate Director of Communications for Artists Striving To End Poverty, and a co-founder of the interdisciplinary performance collective Shook Ones. He lectures at UNC, MIT, and other institutions internationally about the power of art in public space. His work has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, UK’s Guardian, and Fast Company. In 2013, he was named one of Good Magazine’s 100 People Making Our World Better.
You are a trained architect, artist, writer (and might I add distractingly good dancer – still jealous of the spontaneous backflip on an Abu Dhabi dancefloor). You have so many extraordinary skills and talents to offer the world, how did you decide to make social practice art your primary career focus?
In 2007, I was privileged to have my first solo exhibition in New York City. The name of the exhibition was ‘The New Vitruvians’, and it was made up of large scale portraits. The people, from all different walks of life, were photographed and made to look like they were made of plastic. The photos were then printed three dimensionally onto 50,000 neon bouncy balls. For six months my family, friends, and co-workers came to my home and office (I was working as a creative lead at a communications and branding agency named Imagination at the time) to push bouncy balls into plexiglass sheets. The night of the gallery opening, I realized that many of the guests who were there to celebrate and experience the work had been robbed of all the late night conversations about skin colors, privilege and beauty that we had all had during the making of the pieces. They had missed out on the journey of getting to know strangers–people like yourself, who thought that going to help out an artist by pushing hundreds of bouncy balls into holes in downtown Manhattan would be a cool thing to do.
From that point forward, I began investigating how people engaging with art IS art. I begin thinking and experimenting with ideas about how the art that hangs on our walls and occupies our space could be more meaningfully transformative. I came to this: to have been a part of the making of the thing, to have told stories while there … THAT is important. It’s a visual manifestation that we are here, we exist and we are interested in finding beauty, together.
In the introduction to the essay “How Colour Replaces Fear” in the recently published book Art and the City: Worlding the Discussion through a Critical Artscapeyou describe how each of your projects aims “to provide the community with new tools to engage in dialogue, rekindle ownership of their environment and generate interactions that inspired love, inclusion, and belonging.” Clearly this is needed in our world now more than ever. Can you speak a bit about the importance of social practice art, what it means to you, and perhaps how that has changed over the years you have been involved in this type of social engagement?
What social practice art does, in my opinion, is that it transforms ‘art’ from an abstract noun into an inclusive verb. It turns the object-based narrative of art into a dynamic collective story that is also personal.
The academic Doris Sommer, who is the director of the Cultural Agents program at Harvard, believes that art is ‘that which has no name yet’. When I began building projects with communities, I attributed many of our choices to experimentation. We were creating, then studying responses, rapid prototyping, and creating again – beginning the whole cycle anew.
When I came up with Monday Morning, the project where local artists and activists give away 10,000 biodegradable balloons to adults on Monday Morning to honor them as they go back to work, I was interested in exploring how different cultures around the world would react to this gesture. In Bangalore the balloons were orange, in Yamaguchi they were green, and in Nairobi they were yellow. By the time we did the project in Kabul, Afghanistan, we had learned so much from our previous successes and failures that we were able to begin to formalize our process.
With time, we learned that one of the critical pieces of creating meaningful social practice art is to have as many of the stakeholders involved from the beginning as possible: governmental leadership, possible sponsors (private businesses that would benefit from the network being built and the visibility of the project when executed), NGOs, and relevant civil society organizations.
If you want people to have a feeling of belonging, then they must be present from the inception of the idea all the way through to the crafting and eventual execution of the art intervention. Working together, the team defines the scope of the work, the schedules, financial requirements, and project milestones. Being a part of the decision making process is critical to connecting with each other meaningfully.
When I began exploring the field of social practice art, I was creating experiments for myself. Organically, the work invited me to bring others into that experimentation and allow them to question, push, and pull the work, shaping it beyond my control. Learning to let go of that control and give it to all the people who bring this work to life continues to be my greatest lesson in life.
Your current project is Espejismo is a large-scale community installation of mirrors, asking people from all walks of life to lend their mirrors and their stories with the underlying assumption that by seeing how others see and by letting them see how we see, we can collectively move the world forward in a considered way. Each Espejismo project becomes a monument to, a reflection of, the community where it is created. It was first shown at Yale University and is now traveling to Carnegie Hall where it will be on exhibition there for a year. Can you tell me a bit more about this project, how you envision it traveling to other communities in the futures… perhaps to Santa Fe?
While we were at the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit, I had the privilege of meeting the inspiring president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices Global Partnership for women, Alyse Nelson. I shared with Alyse that we were looking to borrow reflections in New Haven: we wanted to hear about how people wanted to be seen by others, collect their stories, and literally ask them if we could borrow a mirror from them. We would lay all those reflections down next to one another, and we would tell each other stories. The original thought was that we would borrow each others reflections in hopes of helping the world see itself. Alyse connected me to Dr. Deqo Mohamed who was living in New Haven as part of the Yale Global Fellowship Program. When I met Dr. Mohamed for tea one afternoon she greeted me with a smile and a compact mirror. She shared that she spent a meaningful part of her life as a refugee in Russia and the United States. When I asked about what shaped her early on, she told me that when she was fifteen years old she was helping her mother deliver babies while a brutal war was engulfing her home town and much of Somalia.
“When people see you, what would you like them to know?” I asked. “I want them to include me in their definition of the word refugee. I want them to see me as a survivor of war and thriving physician. As a refugee, I pursued a medical education, came back to Mogadishu and helped build a hospital. That hospital is now a village.” Today, she leads all operations in the Hawa Abdi Village in Lower Shabelle, while ensuring the safety of the 300 families who have found permanent shelter in the community. This includes a 400 bed hospital and a school for all the children growing up there.
There are so many beautiful tales. Dr. Mohamed connected me with a safe-house for East African refugees in Connecticut. They too shared their stories and let us borrow their mirrors. Among the final tapestry of the installation were the mirrors of 14 undocumented immigrants and two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. The wide variety of humans that came together to create this first version of Espejismo was humbling. So the hope is that this idea gets picked up by people who want to see each other: better, differently.
One more Thing…
Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
The scale of this question led me, at first, to think globally. I considered Buddhist nun Pema Chodron and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I thought of countless miracle-working leaders across industries and continents. I thought of London-based aeronautical engineer Ryan Yasin who invented clothes that grow as children grow. Now THERE is a man who knows how to wear his artist hat. I wonder if people ever told him to ‘be realistic’?
Then, I thought locally, about the people who own acres of my own heart because they showed up to make things with me in the name of art. I finally settled on Consuella Lopez, a transgender hair stylist, community organizer and activist living in Washington, D.C. Consuella volunteered to be the hair stylist for a fashion show that I was orchestrating for my Master’s of Architecture thesis presentation at Catholic University. There would be a film, a play, a fashion show with all the clothes tailored from architectural materials, all about a building commissioned to house the Museum of Fashion and Textiles in New York City. I tell myself that less is more all the time and… after many years I have learned to make the gestures more nuanced and simple. But at the time I wanted… Pompadours like Tom Ford’s advertising campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s Fall 2002 collection! Consuella Lopez showed up and showed us what a proud transgender woman looks like and feels like. She was professional, kind and incredibly talented – and the pompadours were fantastic.
Today, Consuella is the chief operating officer of Casa Ruby, a haven for the transgender community in D.C. She is now serving her third term as a Political Appointee for the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. She didn’t have any transgender role models when she was growing up, so when the opportunity came, she readily agreed to be the face of a campaign championing trans-rights. Her smile is on buses, train stations, and billboards next to the words “I am a transgender woman and I am a part of D.C.” As the master stylist for NBC Universal in D.C., she styles media personalities like Anna Wintour, Rachel Roy, Kellyann Conway and Paul Ryan, happily posing with them for Instagram. She shows up as her most generous self, regardless of that day’s TV guest, and shows them what a proud transgender woman looks like and feels like. She is a living example of what it means to live with curiosity, compassion, and courage. I suspect what drives Consuella to do the work that she does mirrors what drives many of us: she lives day to day looking for more people to love who are brave enough to love her back.
Smriti Keshari is an Indian-American award-winning filmmaker, artist, and director. Her work explores untold stories beyond mainstream media. Her approach is interdisciplinary and deeply collaborative, bringing together artists, actors, musicians, scientists, writers, activists, and other creative minds to push beyond traditional constraints of film making.
I first met Smriti in Los Angeles to preview her extraordinary collaborative film/music/art installation the bomb. the bomb is an immersive multimedia experience that the New York Observer describes as “an abstract wonder and a literal nightmare: a dazzling view into the abyss.” The 61-minute video installation places the viewer in the center of archival footage, animation, music, text, and live music performed by the band The Acid. the bomb debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in October, 2017, has since premiered internationally at the Berlin Film Festival, and was featured at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival. It’s available to be viewed on Netflix. In 2018, it is embarking on a global tour starting in Sydney. Here are three questions for Smriti Keshari.
Originally from India, you grew up in Puerto Rico, traveled throughout Australia, produced a surfing series in India, produced the extraordinary documentary Food Chains examining social injustices impacting American farmworkers, and now ‘the bomb’. Your interests, travels, and experiences are sweeping; your projects seemingly disparate. Can you speak to what most inspires you, why you are drawn to travel and adventure, and how that informs the stories you tell?
I recently spent some time in Liverpool, and was telling a friend about how I typically need to be in an airplane and on the road to obtain clarity. On the road comes naturally to me. When we’re on the road or in nature, there’s a lot of waiting and pondering, you just sit there, what we’re really doing is just switching off various kinds of alertness that we don’t have to use. We stop being active, or even, defensive. We just welcome different types of experiences, and in that there are hidden things you’re drawn to discover.
My experience of ‘the bomb’ at the Tribeca Film Festival was vertiginous, uncomfortable, and deeply moving. The room was crowded with people and the range of reactions was vast—tears, embraces, awe, stunned silence—someone near me was physically ill. The bomb provoked a far more profound response than a lecture or a public service announcement could ever conceivably elicit. Why was it important for the viewer to be in the center of this experience, rather than just a passive viewer? Why do you think the arts are an important vehicle to address urgent, global issues?
For some time, I had been thinking about putting people inside of a film, challenging the one-way, one-directional experience of viewing. Whether it’s a film, a theater performance or a live music show — these are always projected at you. But what if you were in the center of the story? How would your perception of it be different, by changing the way you experience it?
Around this time I was reading Command and Control, and it had a profound effect on me. It became evident to me that we’re living under this most awful nuclear cloud, in a world with roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons. Yet, there’s a complete ignorance of them. These weapons are buried underground, they are out of sight and out of consciousness. The idea of nuclear war is abstract and unfathomable. The human imagination is incapable of encompassing all the psychological variants of this reality. And it’s really hard for an individual to have an emotional connection to something that they can’t see, or feel.
I really wanted to create a deeper, visceral experience of nuclear weapons, so people could feel the gravity and reality of living with these weapons. There’s an entire system, processes, timing, reasoning that led us to this reality. In order to understand how we’ve gotten to this reality, we must first recognize the emotions nuclear weapons evoke — their allure, their beauty, their construct, and the ultimate death wish at the heart of them.
the bomb was made to deliberately ignite an emotional and visceral understanding of the nuclear reality we are living in right now. Eric and I brought together the experimental spirit of Kevin Ford, the bold and political art of Stanley Donwood, the technological and visceral viewing ethos of United Visual Artists (UVA), and fused it all together with the haunting live soundtrack by The Acid.
Having The Acid perform live during the installation unquestionably increased the immediacy and intensity of my experience as a viewer. My entire body vibrated to haunting and powerful instruments and vocals in real-time response to the images that engulfed me. How did you come to work with The Acid? Can you speak a bit more about your choice to use such an interdisciplinary, collaborative creative approach for this project?
Adam Freeland and I had met many moons ago through a mutual friend, who had suggested I check out The Acid’s album Liminal when Eric and I were discussing the different sounds for the bomb. Through a powerful underlying simplicity, The Acid propel the listener into an emotional journey. In early creative conversations with Adam while hiking in Griffith Park, he often spoke of the art of a good DJ set in terms of building and releasing tension and then building again. The Acid are adept at creating space, magnitude and depth by holding back where others might want to go bigger.
Silence was certainly a favorite topic of mine that we discussed. Silence can sometimes be viewed as the antithesis of sound, but silence needs to exist for one to experience sound. It consist of it, you need one to experience the other. Kind of like dark matter in the universe. So, we would often debate what silence sounds like.
As a filmmaker, before thinking of any scene I often think first of the music and sounds that would help convey the emotion. In the process of making the film and the original score, we often spoke about how nuclear weapons tapped into different emotions – of adrenaline, of fear, of celebration, of chaos, of sadness, etc… — and how the music can heighten those feelings. In a sense, each aspect of the film inspired the others. There’s a moment during the bomb, where we focus on the seduction of the machine — each entity of the experience, from the film to the animation to the music and the multi-screen configuration, follows a slow seduction, than a build and a climax — ending in almost a euphoric hallucination with the nuclear weapon at the center of it.
One more Thing…
Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
I recently saw Trevor Paglen’s exhibition A Study on Invisible Images on the vision of machines. Trevor’s piece focuses on visual culture and process of machines — how an algorithm or an AI “sees”. I’m creating a new project on artificial intelligence, and the subject matter is quite complex because at the heart of A.I., you’re defining intelligence — which is in itself, an endless pursuit. Trevor’s approach is quite simple, yet revelatory. Also, I’ve been listening to Nordic Affect, an Icelandic group that combines classical and new music — violin, viola, cello and electronics — and has a rhythmical repetition. It sounds like you’ve stepped inside a giant clock, it’s calming yet quite gothic.
Houston-based artist Dario Robleto was recently described by Krista Tippett of onbeing.org as “famous for spinning and shaping unconventional materials — from dinosaur fossils to pulverized vintage records, from swamp root to cramp bark. He joins words and objects in a way that distills meaning at once social, poetic, and scientific.” His art projects bleed fact and fiction, science and art, truth and myth.
Dario’s work, interests, and medium span far beyond the traditional boundaries of art and art-making, as evidenced by his recent participation as a panelist for complexity science research center Santa Fe Institute’s InterPlanetary Project in partnership with Creative Santa Fe. Science fiction authors, scientists, filmmakers, and artists came together for this event to discuss the political, scientific, environmental, and ethical ramifications of what it means to become an InterPlanetary civilization.
As a panelist, Dario discussed his position as Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute, an organization dedicated to searching for extraterrestrial life. He also recently served as the artistic consultant to Breakthrough Message, a multi-national effort that aims to encourage intellectual and technical debate about how and what to communicate if the current search for intelligent beings beyond Earth is successful. I wanted to learn more about Dario’s role at SETI; his perspective on how the arts can shape (or reshape) our worldview; and, of course, his thoughts on the ramifications for our civilization if we ever do make contact.
As an artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute and as artistic consultant to the Breakthrough Message team, you have spent much time contemplating the problem of universal message design as it relates to possible contact with other intelligent life in the Universe. Why do you feel it is important that artists be represented on these teams?
Historically, the problems SETI and Breakthrough pursue have been problems of the natural sciences and mathematics that engage astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, encoding and transmission experts, and more. But because of the complex nature of the problem, the field must embrace a wider knowledge base if it is to move forward. More recently, we have seen the social sciences, through disciplines such as linguistics, anthropology, archeology, psychology and sociology, contribute meaningful dialogue to the field. But for various reasons, the arts have lagged behind when being invited into this discussion.
This has always struck me as odd because art’s ability to create aesthetic experience—the vehicle for communicating complex intellectual/emotional states of one’s existence—is crucial to understanding one of the most profound questions we can ask: are we alone? To ponder the nature of aloneness and the deep need to satiate the longing it inspires—either at the level of an individual human life, or at the planetary scale of an entire species unsure if it will ever know companionship across the cosmos—is a problem the arts have much knowledge to contribute to.
Science and engineering may enable us to figure out how to detect or send an interstellar message; the arts enable us to ponder why we are asking if we are alone in the first place.
While I firmly believe the arts can enrich, even lead the way, on some very practical levels of interstellar message design and detection—how one encodes altruism in various forms, for example—there is important work to be done in communicating to our own species why it continues to be crucial we think of ourselves within a larger cosmological scope. The palpable sense of fresh energy from Breakthrough, and NASA and SETI’s innovation in detection approaches, make it clear to me we are likely on the threshold of finally answering if there is life elsewhere in the Universe. In fact, in 2015 at a congressional panel, the chief scientist at NASA made an announcement, which included a timeline (a few decades) to the discovery of the existence of life beyond our planet. This public statement of timelines on such a sensitive topic by someone of her rank is generally unheard of in her field. It should absolutely be stressed though that she was referring to the detection of microbial life, not the detection of “intelligent” signals of a technologically advanced civilization. Regardless of the type of life we may find, someone born today is likely of the first generation that might live with the knowledge that we are not alone. It would be unacceptable for the arts to not be actively involved with arguably the most profound existential revelation of our time.
What are some of the challenges of designing a message to send to a hypothetical alien world that we know absolutely nothing about? What insights may we gain about ourselves in the process?
On a more conceptual level, the problem of interstellar message detection and design is one of the most interesting thought experiments I have encountered. The problem, as you mention, is how does one communicate with something that they can’t imagine? This is an extremely difficult conundrum when our only examples of intelligent life are of ourselves and other species on Earth. It is extraordinarily unlikely another intelligence on a remote world would have evolved in the same way and thus would present an intelligence different than that on Earth. Besides the particular environmental conditions of each world, which would affect different evolutionary paths, we also cannot assume life elsewhere is even a water or carbon based form that uses DNA as its means of carrying genetic information. How these variations would manifest themselves through biology, sensory experience, logic, communication, even possible aesthetic solutions and the need or not for the equivalent of art, is unknowable. Additionally, one has to attempt to imagine the unimaginable while confronting another impossibility: removing our inherent anthropomorphism from the imaginative process. This problem is so interesting in the extreme “outside-the-box” perspective it requires, that every possible human bias we may unknowingly apply to the problem must be vigorously challenged. Nothing can be assumed, not vision or sound, nor even the way a question would be asked, so tied are our cognitive capabilities to the particular evolutionary structure of our brains. To look up to the eerily silent stars, is to look inward to our own being.
But part of the beauty of this dilemma is that in the act of imagining the non-human through the lens of the human mind, we reveal shadows of our own identities to each other.
This process also becomes a deep meditation on the act of communication itself, requiring us to parse not just the structural side of communication, but the intellectual and emotional reasons as to why we communicate at all. To simplify it to its core, what do artists do all day? We build signs and signals in various formats, embed them with nuanced meaning, and send them out into a world with zero guarantees of ever being seen, let alone unambiguously interpreted or understood. In short, there is a type of poetic “hope-with-no-guarantee” that defines much of our great art and which, I feel, SETI also grapples with. And also like SETI, one of art’s strengths is to embody this spirit not as an exercise in futility, but as one of our greatest human qualities. We are yearning, curiosity-seekers with great perseverance over time; if any problem requires us to remember this about ourselves, it is this one.
One of the primary concerns of sending a message into space, as emphatically expressed by Stephen Hawking, is that attracting alien attention could ultimately lead to the demise of the human race. Elon Musk recently stated that “intentionally signaling other civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy raises concerns from all the people of Earth, about both the message and the consequences of contact. A worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.” Do you think the moral, ethical, or humanitarian concerns about the responsibility of interstellar messaging are justified?
I whole-heartedly agree that interstellar messaging should be challenged on all these grounds. It is a rare class of problems where one decision made by a few in one era, could have global consequences on a generation of people far removed from that time. Because of the distances and times required to send, search for, and potentially find interstellar/galactic signals, the notion of two-way back and forth in one human lifetime is highly unlikely. Like with environmental stewardship, nuclear weapons, or healthcare, we are making decisions that need to be weighed in their immediate self-interest and, more problematically, what we are handing down many generations from now.
With that said, I have always found Hawking and Musk’s position to be as hardline in its approach as the idea of 24-hour, all power, all frequency broadcasting. If these are the two poles of approaches, extreme silence or extreme signaling, I am interested in challenging both to find out what compromise could lie in-between. Just what is the scientific justification, as Hawking and Musk would propose, that we should remain silent, perhaps even hide our technological signals? This is a major point to challenge as Hawking has dominated the public discussion on the matter with his consistent use of a 500-year-old human example of Columbus’ first contact scenario with Native Americans. Why is this position so successful with the general public? Why does it feel intuitively correct to so deeply fear and assume the worst of the “other” even if it is off planet and we have no evidence to support that fear because we have never had such an encounter? Although there is a great deal of anthropological evidence of first contact scenarios on our own planet, there has never been a systematic study that could determine patterns or trends over time about the various ways humans have responded in those moments. For example, is Hawking suggesting that humans, across time and cultures, always had, and always will in the future, behave exactly as the Spanish did in 1492? Even if there were trends we discovered, certainly it would still be pure speculation to apply these trends to an unknown, probably significantlyolder non-human intelligence that has itself had to figure out how to cooperate and survive long-term.
Just as vigorously, I want to know what is the justification that encoding and representing altruism is the reasonable first position to take in message design? Are there biological or strategic advantages to being the first to initiate altruistic behavior rather than fear and aggression? The optimists within the active messaging debate greatly rely on the premise that a ten or hundred thousand, even million-year-old civilization would have had to culturally, perhaps genetically, further evolve altruism and cooperation to an as yet unknown level for such long-term survival; and that it’s more likely “first contact” will be with a cooperative or benign intelligence. Just as I questioned the validity of applying human competitive and colonization behavior to an unknown intelligence, I am also intrigued to think through if and how we could apply our knowledge of biological and bio-cultural altruism off-planet. And from the creative content side of message construction, if altruism were an expected outcome of an advancing intelligence, how would we develop the adequate vocabulary (texts, concepts, images, sound, or something else entirely) to convey this commonality?
I’m not underplaying the deep concern raised in Hawking or Musk’s position, only that, as I mentioned earlier, we can learn much about ourselves through the lens of interstellar contact. There needs to be much more work done on the matter before we take such a hardline approach of silence or pure altruism as we move into an age of possible interplanetary citizenship.
Once again, I would argue that artists are crucial to these conversations as they have much to say about questions of the common good, pragmatic cooperation, the ethics of diversity and representation, altruism and the construction of symbols and objects embedded with the signs of our humanity.
Image details clockwise from top left:
Portrait of Dario Robleto
Setlists for a Setting Sun (The Crystal Palace)
Cyanotypes, prints, watercolor paper, butterflies, butterfly antennae made from stretched audiotape of the earliest live recording of music (The Crystal Palace Recordings of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt,” 1888), various cave minerals and crystals, homemade crystals, black swan vertebrate, lapis lazuli, coral, sea urchin shells, sea urchin teeth, various seashells, ocean water, pigments, cut paper, mica flakes, glitter, feathers, colored mirrors, plastic and glass domes, audio recording, digital player, headphones, wood, polyurethane
60” x 45 ½” x 45 ½”
Fossilhood is Not Our Forever
Fossilized prehistoric whale ear bones salvaged from the sea (1 to 10 million years), stretched audiotape of three centuries of human heartbeat recordings (1865, 1977, 2014), gold paint, concrete, ocean water, pigments, rust, brass, coral, steel, Plexiglas
34” x 47 ½” x 36 ½”
The Dismantled Sun
Cyanotypes of various astronomers’ historical drawings of solar eclipses, watercolor paper, curly maple, gold-mirrored Plexiglas, linseed oil, brass
67 3⁄4″ x 29 1⁄4″ x 29 1⁄4″ (overall dimension with pedestal and vitrine)
All images courtesy of the artist and Inman Gallery, Houston, Tx
While attending the global leadership event CultureSummit Abu Dhabi this past April I was surprised to see a “professional clown” among the roster of speakers. What do clowns have to do with global leadership and addressing some of the greatest challenges of our time? As it turns out, a lot.
Sabine Choucair is a Lebanese humanitarian clown, storyteller, and performer. Through games, laughter, and the power of storytelling Sabine breaks down barriers of isolation, builds trust within and between communities, and brings refugee stories to film and stage. Her projects extend throughout Lebanon, The United Kingdom, The United States, Brazil, Mexico, India, Canada, Cyprus, Tunisia, Belgium, France, Cameroon, Morocco, Jordan and Dubai. Sabine was recently among the 40 cultural leaders chosen to share their work at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January 2017
Watching videos of the work you are doing in refugee camps throughout the world, I am struck by the amount of pride and trust you engender through the power of games, play, performance, and laughter. Why is clowning such a powerful tool to encourage connection, compassion, and conversation – both within and between communities?
Clowning is all about truthfulness, transparency, hope and joy. Four key things that I think are very important to have in life and they are the main ingredients for finding the right honest connection between people.
When I, as a clown, am out there and open to people around me, I am offering them the true side of myself with all the good and bad parts that I have, I open the space for everyone to be like this as well. Laughter is a great way for people to feel more relaxed and less anxious, to be more open to accepting themselves and to talk to others about deeper things especially in a non-judgmental atmosphere. Moreover, we often perform in public spaces for different communities and the best thing is that we end up having people who are laughing together as a homogenous group and enjoying together regardless of whether they usually talk to each other or even stay in the same place with each other. Laughter is a universal language that we clowns take advantage of.
In all of your projects you engage with communities on an extremely intimate scale, you are embedded within the very fabric of their lives. This year you attended both The World Economic Forum at Davos and the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit. While in Abu Dhabi, I heard a lot of (often heated) discussion about the tension between the wealth, access, and power represented at these types of global convenings in contrast to the impactful work being done at the local level. Do you think there is a need to better align high-level, often exclusive conferences with work being done on the ground?
I have to say that being at both World Economic Forum and Abu Dhabi Culture Summit this year I saw that the will is there and that this kind of work is starting to happen but would definitely need more effort from both sides. We need everyone in this life to be working towards a better world and a more just one, actually.
We need to take advantage of the wealth and power and direct it toward the impactful work being done on the ground.This will only happen by creating conversations between these two and working together.
It can happen but we should definitely put more effort to meet more and listen to each other more. I would definitely like to have 1% of the money put into these conferences for some projects I am doing with communities though.
In his most recent book Thank you for Being Late, Thomas Friedman asserts that “In this age of tightening global interdependence and intimate contact between more diverse strangers, the bridges of understanding that we have to build are longer, the chasms they have to span much deeper. And that only makes the need for community building and healthy communities that can anchor diverse populations greater.” Can you speak to the importance of working at the local level to bring about global change?
I can talk about the awesomeness of meeting real honest people on a daily basis, of getting to know them and them me on a different level that is deeper and more joyful than anything else in the world. These communities, I believe, are the ones who make a difference in life. They’re doers and not talkers. They’re inspiring and they are always in the state of becoming; which is one important thing we need to achieve global change.
I feel honoured and lucky to have the opportunity to learn from their resilience and to be part of their inspiring world. I work with the poorest and most disadvantaged and they never fail to show me the importance of action and hope, how change starts from within and from small initiatives instigated by communities.
One More Thing...
Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
There’s a lot of inspiring great work being done for the good of this world. I would be very unfair to many by answering this question. All I know is that all these projects are what is keeping us going and giving us hope. This is how we are all fighting injustice, extremism, wars, and much more.
In April I attended CultureSummit Abu Dhabi, an international summit hosted by Abu Dhabi Tourism, Foreign Policy Magazine, and The Canales Project Ventures. The Summit brought together leaders from the worlds of government, the arts, and the media from 80 countries to address the role culture can play in addressing some of the great challenges of our time.
One of the remarkable attendees was curator Nadim Samman. Just named one of 7 Rising Curators to Watch in 2017, Nadim’s approach is collective, audacious, irreverent, and pushes the boundaries of the role of curator, artist, and the arts in shaping contemporary culture.
This past March, you curated the inaugural Antarctic Biennial – an international group of artists, scientists, architects and philosophers that has been described as “a paradigm-shifting phenomenon in biennale culture”. How do you think the function of the arts is changing today and why is your role as curator crucial to that paradigm-shift?
We are living through a Fourth Industrial Revolution that is altering every facet of life, from economics and politics, right down to biology. The impact and potential of this upheaval needs to be addressed. To do so effectively, to encompass the multifarious conditions of the contemporary, requires a new regime of interdisciplinary image making – one that employs both emerging technologies and historically ‘artistic’ strategies. We also need to approach any given cultural project as the actualization of a network in which institutions are mere nodes, rather than central control regimes.
Truly revolutionary art stitches together different constituencies, social and economic organs into new bodies – creating hybrid organisms that are capable of more than their individual parts.
My challenge, as a curator, is to facilitate artists who are already working within this rubric, and to develop collectives that operate both within and beyond the artworld – to ‘curate in the expanded field’; to commission images that, in visualizing otherwise unpictured complexities, change the space around them. The Antarctic Biennale was one such network; one that sought to reimagine the stakes of south polar enterprise, exploring the question of (global) Antarctic culture and perhaps even a new model for political subjectivity.
You have said in past interviews that there is a need to widen the scope of what is considered ‘cultural’ and that relevant art must cultivate deep engagement with cutting edge science. Can you speak more to that need? How should what is considered ‘cultural’ expand and why?
The march of scientific achievement is such that previously untouchable things are now grasped. Moreover, things that were once unseen (or unthinkable) now stand on full view. In opening up new spheres of action/design, in developing new media (including biological media), science sets the scene for creations that will define our cultural life. But questions regarding the human self-image, desire and structures of belief, are peripheral to this enterprise – afterthoughts, most of the time. Art is the historical repository of such questions. We need artists to help us better visualize the topography of this new landscape, to inspire us with visions of what we can create, what we should create, and what we must never create.
Answering neither to national commissioning programs nor industrial agendas artists can, at the very least, offer independent perspectives that are not confined to standard interpretive frames. The alternative is art as mere decoration, to embellish corporate lobbies or serve as a speculative financial vehicle. I think we want more than this. If you believe in such a thing, i’d say the soul demands it. We need to lead the way in fashioning a new language for our times – not just one that reflects our current excesses or anxieties, but one that speaks to our greatest opportunities, despite the challenges that we face.
In addition to the Antarctic Biennial and the pavilion at the Venice Biennale, you have pushed the bounds of exhibitions globally with projects including music festivals, the Marrakech Biennale; a site-specific exhibition of “buried treasure” on the remote Pacific island of Isla del Coco; and the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art focusing on works dealing with ecological collapse. What is next and why?
It behooves cultural agents to develop visions that address society and ecology as connected. As part of this, to draw visions of an outside, a beyond, into the analysis of everyday life. We need to lead the way in fashioning a new language for our times – not just one that reflects our current excesses or anxieties, but one that speaks to our greatest opportunities, despite the challenges that we face.
As we know – a change of scene can be extremely helpful in stimulating a creative mindset. Radically new contexts can allow you to look at problems – or what you think you know – using fresh parameters. Sometimes the new context may supply those parameters. After Antarctica, where next? I think, for me, it is time to take on the great big outside – space. I am looking to develop a project investigating the utopian hopes and dystopian potential of space colonization – critically examining humanity’s ability to remake the environment, and the question of how its needs and desires develop in tandem with this remaking. I’d like to program an exhibition or performance in a prototype Mars base, to picture our planet from the ‘outside’ supplied by a technological interface – an exhibition asking what we learn about living on earth by imagining what it would take to live in space.
One More Thing…
Who, (aside, of course, from you) do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
The Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), in Berlin, under the curatorship of Anselm Franke, has been extremely ambitious in recent years. Their program of exhibitions and events is truly interdisciplinary, and has engendered – to a large degree – the current interest in the concept of the Anthropocene in contemporary art circles. Beyond this, their exhibitions have explored the image of animals in contemporary cultural life and, more generally, the post-digital turn. I would urge your readers to check out their recent exhibition catalogues. In the sphere of philosophy and media theory Benjamin Bratton’s recent book, The Stack, offers the first comprehensive analysis of political sovereignty in the age of planetary computing. It is an incredibly important analysis.