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Oct 12, 2017

ART: Vital to Democracy

Censorship is a disease that has always haunted free societies. How does an open nation deal with dangerous ideas? When lawmakers suggest torture of an artist whose art they don't like, we've reached a new low. The easy knee-jerk response is to outlaw stuff we find objectionable. After all, to allow speech that we disagree with takes real courage and self-confidence, and those seem to be in short supply.

American conservatives have become masters of censorship when it serves their narrow interests, from the overpainting of Michelangelo's Last Judgment (er...second-to-last) to the backlash against Monty Python's comedy film "Life of Brian" about the hypocrisy of believers (brilliantly satirized, as I'll detail in a future post), to the Republican "Art wars" following the collapse of the USSR in 1989 (gotta find some enemy, right?). But a new low was reached recently when an artist was threatened with torture when word of his art reached sensitive ears.

The Modern Art Museum in São Paulo, Brazil presented a performance of Wagner Schwartz's piece “La Bête” on Oct. 4, wherein the artist appeared naked before a crowd of viewers who were invited to approach him and move parts of his body. If it were me, I would cherish the opportunity to interact with another human in a brand new way, make possible only in a controlled situation like this.

But if you're a certain religious conservative, apparently you'd be seized with fear that carnage was going to ensue. After the evangelical community went into a tizzy over this event, members of the Brazilian parliament even suggested that the artist be tortured for his artwork! Not for murder, for art!!! Clearly the problem exists not in the event but in some people's minds. It's like suggesting a blacksmith be tortured for sharing his work because we know that blacksmithing leads to knives which sometimes hurt people! The distance between this art and actual danger is enormous. But apparently in the minds of these people there is no distance. In other words, for them there IS no innocent male nakedness, there IS no other possibility in this situation than sex abuse, there IS no art. Never mind that the work was fully curated, that it happened in a closed, limited space, that everyone knew the context and that only those who wished to participated. These people see sex abuse as the only reality. That's very tragic.

I responded to the incident as an artist who loves the possibilities that art opens for us all. The tendency to make ideas we don't like to vanish is no path to democracy. There is no democracy if we are not willing to defend the rights of those we disagree with. That takes real courage! I agree that a lot of contemporary art is hard to swallow (which is why I'm dedicated to facilitating dialog about it). We in the US can clearly see daily what it looks like letting people with arrested development run public policy. We can all rise above that minuscule level of social awareness!

Oct 9, 2017

Living with Petroglyphs

Our cabin just by the petroglyphs, near Guasca, Colombia.
In what must be the rarest of opportunities, we are living for a week right next to a site of ancient petroglyphs! We got a couple-hours tour of the carvings from the landowner (who takes great care of his charges.) These remarkable images were created by the Muisca people (the most prominent culture at the time in this part of the world) sometime between 800 and 1538, when the Spanish came and broke up the party for everybody, and constitute some of Colombia's most important, located just downstream from a natural hot spring that was no doubt popular for hundreds of years.

In pre-colombian times his area (around Guasca, Colombia) was an important confluence of indigenous travel routes and thus was the site of important rituals, some involving as many as 10,000 individuals congregating from all over this part of the continent.
Circle figures refer to stars and are repeated around the world.
This set of petroglyphs are some of the more important ones, depicting the dominance of the sun over the other 4 critical elements, earth, fire, water and air. There appear some standing dancers that honor the sun's power. There are also figures depicting stars (concentric circles with long vertical stems) that are actually common to indigenous petroglyph sites around the world. Spirals (to the left indicate the spirit life, to the right that of the body). Also visible here is the frog figure––an important totem animal––in what is seen as both a festive position and one of alertness.
A frog appears beneath a figure.

These ancient symbols––looming over my days and nights––fills my heart with cosmic thoughts. The plebian modern concerns that so preoccupy us are lost among these powerful, mute reminders of the great arc of time that also forms part of our true story, though vastly more subtle. Here I am connected with these unknown ancestors by their powerful, speaking symbols, peering centuries on end from the cliff-face over the landscape, calling to eternity.

Sep 27, 2017

Who Needs Artists Now?

It happened much faster than I'd have guessed: AI has learned to paint pictures viewers like even better than those made by human artists! The algorithms aren't really so complex: just feed the computer art images of the past, adjust the output between SURPRISE v.s. CONFORMITY and hit print. It's not that the AI knows how to stimulate the human soul, it only learns (very well indeed!) how to simulate the best human results. Since all the hard work of creating creative images to begin with is finished, an amalgamation of such images can be learned and re-formulated to come up with visual images that are pretty attractive. And there's no doubt that the results are very impressive. But the question is, just what are we experiencing?

Paintings created by an AI program called "CAN".
To me this points out one of the frightening invisible dangers inherent in all AI. The computer doesn't need to actually better the work of a human attempting a task, it only needs to be able to fool us about the results. This can be seen most clearly, I think, in the way we do relationships. My friend Steve Omohundro, an AI researcher in Silicon Valley, reports that when the Roomba vacuum first came out, people would insist on taking their machines on vacation with them, (ostensibly to keep their hotel rooms clean!) But really it was about how much they would otherwise miss what they refused to acknowledge was their new pet. Nobody calls their Roomba their "friend", but they insist on their company all the same. It's not that Roombas have replaced living creatures but that the human soul desperately seeks connection, and will find it even in places where there's none to be had. Humans can project our feelings so strongly on nearly anything else, that we will defend its projected autonomy to the bitter end. We can convince ourselves that a connection was made. Bad news? You tell me.

Part of my assessment of abstract art (which the AI is best at replicating) is that it is often intelligent, compelling, visually gripping, even emotional; but it (very arguably) struggles to be truly meaningful. This is where AI cannot really shine, I would submit. Not that AI production of true human meaning won't happen, just that it will take longer. And when it does happen, you can be that we human viewers will defend the result to the bitter end. Connection? Maybe so. But with what?

Sep 19, 2017

Colombia, an Utter Surprise!

Medellin's Botanical Gardens, ringed with memorials to notable women.
Growing up in the US, I always associated Colombia with drug wars, and none more than the city of Medellin. But I'm astonished at how out-of-date my view is now that I'm visiting for the first time! Since last year's historic peace deal ending the 52-year war with the FARC rebels, the nation has plunged into new social development plans that make Western Civilization seem downright sluggish. (Or in the case of the US now, clearly retrograde!)

The new national focus isn't just another cold capitalist dream of economic growth, it's the very humanitarian one of EDUCATION! For one thing, the government has borrowed an idea from Mexico that is transforming that country, the concept of "tutor teaching", in which students choose a subject which interests them, that they then teach to their peers. It's a way of engaging the kids naturally and and keeping everyone involved interested in the process of learning rather than attaining a certain level of test results, as if students were products.

A machine for buying transit tickets by turning in plastic bottles!
Meanwhile, there's a concerted effort to make the country bi-lingual in a few years; libraries are being built in the mountain slums of the city to make the poor feel that they too are important citizens. They are the focus of further social interest with the (relatively inexpensive) construction of escalators and cable cars that give them easier access to the city. The inviting new mass transit system is the pride of Medellin, evidenced by its astonishing cleanliness and safety. You can even turn plastic bottles into tickets! We did and bought cable car tickets into a gorgeous cloud forest park above the city.

In Colombia, I'm astonished how often people greet me on the street. Of course on a crowded street everyone doesn't say hi to everyone else, but when I pass someone, (even a woman at night!) often they will say "buenos noches", reaching out to me, a stranger. What a civil attitude!

With its serious focus on the arts, public value and small business, I predict that Colombia will be a powerhouse in the coming decade because they are focusing development on people, not money. I think we'll see that this is a winning strategy for everyone, and one that the "developed" world had better learn very quickly if we're not to be drowned by the inequalities of predatory capitalism that we so rapidly spread around the world.

Sep 4, 2017

Worse Than Even Genocide

The Krubo were first contacted in 2014 and show little fear of outsiders.
(Image from Izabela Sanchez's original story linked below.)
What do you call it when not only a people but an entire culture is wiped out?  I'm stunned to hear this emerging story about the massacre of two whole villages of indigenous peoples in a very remote section of the Amazon, belonging to a group known as Warikama Djapar.

Evidence of victim's bodies was discovered in Feb. 2017, but there's indications there were previous incidents as well. Investigation is extremely difficult because of the remoteness, the total lack of infrastructure and institutions (like police and judges) and lack of funds. Suspicion is cast on illegal miners, agribusiness, hunters and landowners who have been prepetually infringing into tribal lands.

What's worse, these tribes are specifically protected by the government from contact even by supportive visitors in an attempt to preserve the purity of these "undiscovered" peoples until they choose for themselves to contact outsiders. Investigating official Conrado Octavio says,
Isolated tribes are indicated in proximity to massive deforestation.
[Credits: (Graphic) J. You/Science; (Data) Antenor Vaz and RAISG]
"These pressures are not exclusive to the present moment, although it is frightening the totally shameless character that initiatives of these sectors have assumed in the present, and the freedom with which they have occupied and commanded strategic sectors of the federal government especially affects the indigenous peoples in Brazil. The effects of such pressures on isolated peoples / groups are particularly serious and entail serious risks of contagion and conflict."*

As development encroaches on the protected tribal lands there is little resistance to exploitation and almost no law enforcement. The effects of diseases, greed, and modern weapons on these healthy and happy societies are utterly devastating. Apparently the Warikama Djapar people have been virtually wiped out, along with their language, traditions and customs. The few survivors are not enough to repopulate. This culture will vanish from the earth due to the greed of a few. It's hard to imagine a greater evil than this, but this is the truth of collonization that western "civilization" has visited upon the indigenous world for centuries. We have to own that this is still our legacy.

• Sources:


*Translation is a clucky, mechanical one from original articles in Spanish.

Aug 23, 2017

Get a Load of the Emperor's Clothes!

The fallout from the Charlottesville tragedy is showing the true colors of not only Trump (we knew that) but also some of his supporters, like Evangelical Christians*. The deafening silence from their corner over Nazi violence speaks volumes. As these events demonstrate, the "family values" that has been the slogan of this movement for decades falls apart under scrutiny. Now Evangelicals show their true colors too. It turns out all that flowery talk of standing up for great Christian values––even conservative ones like marital fidelity––has just been a smokescreen for their underlying hateful ideology, which's as unchristian as you can get!

Despite their great PR, their argument has never been very robust. "Pro-lifers" who don't oppose the death penalty or show concern for the poverty that is often the reason for pregnancies to be unwanted. "Defence of marriage" which denies healthy marriage to anyone who's not heterosexual. "Biblical values" which are terribly selective of only the parts of scripture that further their narrow cause. These have always been indications of sly PR that justifies hate and intolerance with Jesus' words, which is a real travesty. But now we can see a blatant evidence that Evangelicals aren't really promoting Christian values as their own narrow, hateful ideology. Christianity is here merely a convenient and honored tradition, used to make this ideology seem legitimate.

A great number of "Christians" seem to ignore much of what Jesus said except for a few choice phrases (Shakespeare reminds us that even "the devil can site scriptures for his purpose"!) The term "Christian" implies those who follow the teachings of Christ. It's not that Jesus didn't say such things as Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” To some this is a validation of their own desire for violence. But it ignores the REST of Jesus's message, the bulk of which is concern for the poor and dispossessed. There aren't very many groups that have the courage to embrace that kind of idea, so instead lazy "Christians" simply cherry-pick the religion they want and stamp Jesus' logo on it. For shame!

I say if it doesn't show concern for the weak, the poor and the stranger it is NOT CHRISTIAN, regardless of what label is on it. The same is true of any faith that sprouts violence: it is an abberation, not a sacred admonition. That is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are slimebags in probably every community. Just because they're loud, don't let them speak for the whole lot!

* Disclaimer: I know that any kind of generalization is always a loose approximation. There are some purely faithful Evangelicals who are as deeply Christian as anyone. No group can accurately be painted with a broad brush. But the group has to take responsibility for their own. I apologize to the world for some "Christian" behavior because they are of my brotherhood. Worthy Evangelicals should do the same, as should any group whose members embarrass us!

Aug 5, 2017

Trump Drains Swamp!

No, really! Over the disastrous months of his reign I've noticed how my response to Trump has become in turn amused, angered, horrified, disbelieving, sicked, and even empathetic (as he flounders like a drowning puppy, clearly beyond his depth). But surprisingly, I've become increasingly appreciative of Trump of late. Turns out he is actually draining the swamp as he promised, and it takes no less than a character like this to do it! Of course it's not the swamp we all had hopes for: that of unsavory characters, which populate the capital like flies in an outhouse––no, these vermin only increased by whopping numbers under his influence. Rather, what's being drained is the healthy ecosystem of our roughly functional socio-political architecture. But here's the thing: As the water level of moral dignity continues to fall, we can begin to see the truly reprehensible moral character of what's become of the Republican Party that continues to support him.

While Trump tries out bald-faced lies with the Boy Scouts or tromps on the values of the constitution, for instance in calling for police brutality, any decent individual serving this government would have lodged their objection. No true representative of the people would allow any power––foreign or domestic––to threaten democracy, being as their loyalty oath was to uphold to the constitution (there's a reason it's called treason!) But as conditions worsen day by day we can see how despicable the morality of the Republican Congress truly is. (Republicans aren't the only slimepails on the hill, but they're the ones being exposed!) Clearly, the GOP is not working for the people.

All this talk we've heard for decades of "family values", "defending the working man" (always a "man") and the "Moral Majority" turn out to be a smokescreen. Instead of serving a decent citizenry they serve the rich, who are making out like the bandits they often are. [I'm not saying that wealth is synonymous with crime, only that it's very hard for any person to get rich without exploiting unfair advantage]. The blessing in this case is that as the waters recede, we can see the swamp creatures for who they are. The patriots stand up and object while the scoundrels only sink deeper, hoping the draining will stop before they're exposed. We could never have seen this clearly the moral character of the GOP had things not to have gotten this bad. They would've been able to keep hiding their immense decrepitudes behind tiny flag lapel pins.

But the jig is up. They are each being exposed! Now it is up to us who still believe in the values of democracy to call them on their hypocrisy, throw these blood suckers out of the government and replace them with servants who well actually defend and uphold the Constitution. The USA is a fine nation, but, as is the case for each of us, our values are what we DO, not what we say!

Jul 12, 2017

"News" Is No Longer Good Enough

In these times of fake news and alternative facts, it's not often that we get exactly what we expected! Case in point: our Dear Leader. Despite speculations of what sort of president Trump would be (having never exhibited any convictions about anything other than his own image), he turns out to be exactly what he presented in the campaign: a caricature of narcissism. Now the US has somehow elected him (through a process we now regret was not more democratic!) and he is the face of the US across the world, embarrassing us all day after day. And we deserve it!

I look back with great nostalgia on the Obama administration. No matter how you feel about his policies, he tackled serious business every day. When you picked up the newspaper (you know, that thing you line the birdcage with) you could read about actual national issues, as has been the case almost always throughout our history, instead of lurid White House gossip that has even conservatives calling for impeachment. Now we've elected (ok, the Electoral College elected) a leader that quite appropriately stars among a true basket of deplorables that we also elected to congress. (Forcing through a healthcare bill that has only 17% approval? REALLY?) What we have here is not a government that can see to the needs of the nation but a reality show that keeps us all riveted to new and surprising plot twists every day!

Meanwhile, there's a reason why political satire has replaced the news: it is a more appropriate response to current events. In fact, the cool, detached neutrality that news assumes simply is not appropriate for dealing with what is happening to us. What satire accomplishes that is so wonderful is that it acknowledges part of the larger truth that is subtext. In a democracy, any anti-democratic news item is actually two items. But it can't be reported that way. Satire reports both truths at once. Of course in comedy you can make stuff up, but in satire that only works if the audience KNOWS you're making it up. It's not that satirists are biased; they are human beings, who tend to outrage at outrageous events! On the other hand "neutral" news comes across as inhuman by not being so, thereby coming across as strangely mechanical. If you are not outraged at what is happening to our democracy, you're either an authoritarian or don't understand the situation!

My solution: please, let's not drain the swamp. Instead let's give them an HBO special, starring Trump! "Tremendous!" Then elect––without the help of the corporations this time, (which only amplify our basest desires as a means of stealing both our money and our government) a new serious government that can represent the people and actually tackle real problems! Satirists should go with the reality show to remind us that yes, this is ridiculous behavior that we would never tolerate in public life. And journalists can return to reporting the real news, where their skills are still as valuable as ever. Wouldn't that be a great America!

Jul 5, 2017

My Beloved Nation

"Corporate Harvest", by Tim Holmes. Predatory capitalism must be stopped!
At a lovely barbeque, eating good food among great friends, I recognized what a hard time I was having celebrating the birth of my nation, the US of A. It's not that I don't love my country, it's that the one I inhabit so dimmly resembles the one I fell in love with as a boy. Lookng at our leader and the quality of recent national decisions, it just doesn't feel to me anything like the "land of the free and the home of the brave" we all sing of.

The US constitution is one of the most exemplary documents in all of history, putting forward the idea of equality and self-determination that has been a model for the 120+ democracies that dominate the world today. With its sexist language and ignorance of favoritism, the document is less than perfect to be sure, but the ideals it enshrines have transformed the world into a much more humane community than anything seen before.

Trouble is that even as our concept of "equality" grew over the centuries to finally include women, people of color and different sexual orientations, we have increasingly lost our ability to spread equality of power along with equal citizenship, allowing the elites to once again take the reins, as they have throughout the wholebloody history of humanity. But this time it's not just the survival of the lower classes at risk, it's that of the whole human race! As climate change threatens many species across the world, including humans, the rich elites are so blinded by their ability to buy their own way into safety that they cannot see the rest of humanity as their equals.  They are driving us to extinction by their refusal to change and embrace sustainability! I believe it is our challenge to force a vision of equality upon all who do not participate if any of us are to survive. Democracy allows us this power, but we have to seize it!

The greed of the few threatens the survival of us all. And the time grows short. If we don't insist on wresting a nation of equal citizens persuing a sustainable future, the newborns among us just may be last generation to enjoy life on this planet! I am willing to sacrifice to a greater vision that includes human survival. It's going to mean radical changes to our relationship with each other and the earth. Are you with me?

Jun 13, 2017

A Funny Story of Design

Being a pretty healthy fellow I've never used a disabled parking spot until this week. I just had a minor knee surgery, shortly followed by a dentist appointment. So driving to the dentist, I did something I'd not done before. I parked in the parking space just at the bottom of a half-flight of stairs (not a real disabled spot, but just close to the stairs), and struggled up them directly into the office. When I was done there, they asked if I took the elevator up. No, I said, I took the stairs. So the nice receptionist guided me to the elevator and bid me farewell.

The elevator spits me out on the ground floor, but in a lobby emptying on the other side of the building. Calculating my options, I decided walking around the small office building on the flat would be easier than taking the elevator back up and descending the stairs on the other side. So I hobble across the lot, around the building and down the sidewalk... Which then ends in a concrete wall between this lot and the one with my car. I hobble across that and a small patch of landscaping, then hop a short wall, traverse another sidewalk and enter the target lot via the driveway as a car would, then scamper over to my car to avoid incoming traffic. Ouch!

For a pretty healthy guy with a temporary condition this is really pretty funny. But designing our cities for cars has an anti-human effect that quickly becomes serious. If a pedestrian ends up in an unexpected place it could be tragic.

I once spent a day trying to walk from a hotel outside Phoenix to a shopping mall and back, less than a mile away. I had time and two really good legs, so I walked. But the obstacle course I had to surmount unfolded like a military training course! I raced across busy highways, jumped retaining walls, scurried from planter to planter to broad sidewalks that suddenly end in an overgrown lot or a sea of parking roads. I truly felt like an escaped pet in a world ruled by cars; where if they caught you loose, they'd kill you! Who built this world again?

Jun 5, 2017

Adventure Seeps Through the Tiniest Cracks!

The last night of our Random Gifts of Art Europe tour found us in Budapest. My buddy Garret and I had spent the day with our new friends Norbert and Niki exploring the small Hungarian village of Szententre, just north of Budapest. Later that night we met Niki for a drink at a bar next to a gallery she's told me about where an artist, Kő Ferenc, displays remarkable paintings that look one way in regular light, and completely different in black light. I'd wanted to visit the gallery but both times I tried to, something went wrong. Now we were right next door but being late at night of course the place was closed and my opportunity was gone.

It was about midnight when we left to walk to the subway. Passing by, I glanced at the gallery door and saw a light inside just extinguishing, silhouetting two heads against the glass. I mentioned to Niki that there was someone inside and just then two men emerged from the door. Niki said just the right thing to them (in Hungarian) and to my amazement, they motioned us in for a tour. What transpired was truly amazing.

The artist and his friend ushered us into a dark room where some music played and then a light came on illuminating a painting on the wall depicting a bejeweled crown. But in a moment the light went out and on came a black light, revealing the same crown, but gripped by a hand! (Painted in special, invisible fluorescent paint!) One by one paintings were illuminated in this way, each one more remarkable than the last. Finally at the end of about 15 such works, we found ourselves looking into a roped-off antique parlor, far past its glory days and falling to ruin. But as we were studying it the light changed again and under black light the faded, cracked and peeling walls were suddenly covered in rich, red velvet fabric. A bursting plant stood in the corner, portraits filled the decrepit, empty picture frames and a fire blazed in the formerly cold fireplace. The transformation was astonishing! I'd never seen anything like this and I told the artist so.

We were very grateful for the special post-midnight tour and I gave Ferenc a copy of our book. He in return surprised me by giving me a copy of his book: reproductions of his works showing the incredible transformations. We thanked our hosts and departed with an overwhelming sense of the magnitude of generosity that seeped out of the one moment of possibility––peeled open–– of recognizing that in the depth of a dark building there were living people! The lesson: always remain open to the unexpected potential that lurks in every crack and crevice!

May 21, 2017

A Gift From the Universe

I'm currently on a Random Gifts of Art performance tour in Berlin, heart of the thundering history of the Reich. (Where it appears this might be the first generation to come up with the idea of trying peace to see how that works! Pretty well, I'd say. And would add that the US and many nations should take the hint!) But not to get distracted...I had nothing to do our first day here but go to a few of the 150 museums, and then check my email.

Nina as a teen, in the 1890's
There I found a message from a stranger named Lisa, a woman who said she's the Rochester, New York historian and every morning she does a ritual of an eBay search for postcards of the city. She wrote me to say there was a touching postcard of Dr. Lee's Hospital in Rochester, written by "Nina" for sale on eBay that she thought might be from my family. But the email was already two weeks old! I immediately searched to see if I could find it. I looked over the eight or 10 possibilities but no, it was already gone. So I wrote to her and said thank you very much, but alas, it's too late.

But it turns out there were three separate emails from Lisa interspersed among the trash! The next one a few days later gave a transcript of the note on the card about Nina's mom's condition, and mentioned that the card was written to Lisa's ancestor, who was Nina's cousin. It very much looked to me like "Nina" was my great aunt! Then the third email, still before my own response, went on to say that Lisa was so moved by the card that she wrote a blog post about it, which posted––totally incidentally––on my birthday!

So here, for your delectation and delight, is my birthday present, Lisa's very touching post; (please don't spill ice cream on it):

I of course wrote back to Lisa with my profuse thanks and my answer to her question: why do we attach to people we've never met? That's a curious thing about people: how easy it is to get emotionally bonded to some stranger, just through some snippet of evidence that drifts through history like a message in a bottle. Of course, I knew Nina in the flesh, but the only reason I find this snip of her life 100+ years later is because a stranger felt she did, too.

So, just to see if this works with you, read the above article and then come back and listen to Nina–– in a taped letter made at 106 years old!––say goodbye. See if you can tolerate this without any emotional hookage!:

Apr 28, 2017

Reasons for Being Here

"Who Gives All Gifts",  by Tim Holmes (detail)
My life has been dedicated to making art. According to my own definition, "Art is any intentional human creation which appears to serve no other purpose".*  In other words, my life is about making totally useless stuff. (If you insist that relationships or spiritual awakening are "useful" I'd say you're confusing doing and being). If one were to ask me "what is the point of your life?" I'd be speechless. You want to avoid such an embarrassment in own life, but it does point out a stark cultural attitude that deserves some scrutiny.

Last night I attended a symposium about AI development I've been working for months to implement. It was a great community meeting and I heard a lot of talk about the smoothness and sophistication and dreams of a human future. But I couldn't shake the feeling that most all the debate about technology and humanity ––not just here but across the globe––simply refers to the capacity of human enterprise. At what point does the conversation turn to the purpose of human life? Do we even think about that any more now that we have defused communal spiritual forces among us like the social influence of religion? There seems to be an underlying assumption that the quest for greater capacity is unquestioningly worthwhile and valid. We're caught in a blind rush to greater efficiency without deeper examination. When do we stop to wonder if increasing capacity is really worthwhile? When a new device appears that allows you to eat your dinner twice as fast or to answer 100 emails a minute, will you be able to ask "Does this benefit me or just feed my assumption that capacity is all there is?" Does a mad rush into technology make us leave behind our joy in being alive?

I believe we in the first world have largely passed the point where greater efficiency truly helps. But we're so fixated on 'progress' that we're unaware of its effects. The joys of human fulfillment seem to have been lost in a struggle for results at ever-greater speed. The business world seems to me mostly fixated on transforming nature into money, individuals on becoming more efficient consumers, and communities on attracting and fostering those impulses. Where is the attention to the question of WHY? We are each left to determine the meaning of life for ourselves with little discussion and almost no attention paid to the quality of life that makes life worth living!

I hope you can seize the courage (yes, I find it difficult myself) to look at every "benefit" presented––faster internet, a brand new item, a faster, cheaper, easier anything that comes along–– and seriously think about whether it just feeds a heartless desire for 'more' or it truly brings joy and makes your life more fulfilling.

* This is not the entire definition, which is one I've refined throughout my life. I invite your comments.

Apr 6, 2017

Owning My Ignorance

In Merida: drawing in the dark- a favorite pastime.
I don't know about you but I realized after visiting Mexico a couple times this winter that I was operating on bad assumptions about it that are at least a few decades old. When I visited there in high school it was really a fairly undeveloped third world country, or at least that was my impression. My recent experience proves that this is not the case at all. I was amazed to see how prosperous, modern and vibrant the nation is. Of course it still has lots of poverty, but I'd been operating on very old, outdated predjudices about our neighbor.

Unfortunately, the discourse in my nation has not helped straighten me out. I know that my assumptions are shared by many in the US who hear nothing but bad news in the press about Mexico (and many other nations!) and expecially from our hater-in-chief president who calls Mexicans "rapists", but in a last ditch effort to appear reasonable, adds "I assume some are good people". I had to own an unfotunate fear of Mexico because all I hear in the press is stories of drug murders and illegal immigrants fleeing economic oppression and nothing else from my environment disagrees.

There is a great danger in being disconnected from reality in any form. While I can't really blame myself for following the assumptions of my fellows, I should know enough to be skeptical about forming opinions without solid evidence. What have I missed as a result? The world is full of creative, loving, vibrant people making their lives better. It shows if you really look! I hope I've learned a valuable lesson.

Feb 17, 2017

On the Body Sexy and the Body Beautiful

We are suffering from the knee-jerk actions of a president who can't be bothered to discover the difference between "Muslim" and "terrorist". A little education would go a long way here! Some of the mysteries that seem opaque to dim bulbs like him are illuminated by Dalia Mogahed appearing on the Daily Show. For instance some of the reasons a Muslim woman wears the hijab are obvious, like expressing her faith. Another that really caught my attention (at about 4;15) is that she's thereby "privatizing her sexuality". Amen to that!

In a culture that splashes on sexy sauce to sell everything from cars to internet services to the state of Israel (really!) that does seem like an affront. In the spirit of the Trans Pacific Partnership, I can imagine corporations suing such women for destroying their right to profit from women's flesh. How dare a woman privatize her own sexuality! (For the irony-deficient that's satire.)

As hard as it is for us to step outside of our own cultural conditioning, I encourage us to try. There is a critical difference between the sexual and the beautiful body. For example, among plains Indians cultures there was a tradition that if you had a beautiful body it was your duty to share it with the tribe as a thing of beauty. (Let me put this in context- the women wore pretty modest clothing, so this expectation most likely referred to men's bodies. Also, in a culture that is not so sexualized as our own, this would not be seen in a context of sex, but of beauty. Can we wrap our heads around that?)

Whether or not our culture recognizes it, there is a crucial difference between sex and beauty! They do often coincide, but distinguishing the difference helps us to appreciate both more honestly. Recognizing and discussing that difference would carry us a long way toward a healthier culture.

Jan 31, 2017

Convictions are Expensive. And Worth It!

"Hitler as an Old Man", by Tim Holmes
Only a fortnight since Trump took the White House, already we're careening off the rails. I can hear the rumble of 1000s of people who died for the lofty dream of democracy turning over in their graves, condemning us for playing so loosely with the ideals they actually died for!

I've often wondered what it must have felt like to be in the court of King Henry VIII or any of a hundred egotistical kings and dictators that plowed shamelessly through history. Now I think I can feel it. It's not so much the brash and infantile behavior we know these truncated people exhibit––the kind of shallow idiocy people like Kim Jong Il are incapable of rising above––to me what's so alarming is the painful acquiescence we see in those around them. We know that powerful narcissists surround themselves with yes men, but you figure there's got to be at least a few reasonable humans among them who are simply overwhelmed by the corrupting and irresistible force of being close to power.

I was heartened to hear folks like Speaker Ryan say banning Muslims has no place in the Republican Party. But the party is not over yet, and Repubs are flocking to endorse this ban, apparently (giving them the benefit of significant doubt) against their better judgment. These are clearly leaders too weak to resist the lure of power, a sign of having conveniences where their convictions should be!

I believe wholeheartedly that the resilient and compassionate human spirit will prevail in the end. I only hope that the US doesn't have to be dragged through yet another stinking chapter of history like McCarthyism before we are reminded that yes, we do have a sense of decency!

Jan 14, 2017

Discovering a New River

San Jose Creek has never run for many decades.
One thing I never thought I'd experience is finding a new river! I have frequented Carmel, California, a kind of ancestral home, all my life. But visiting this week I discovered, unbelievably, a new river that at least for the past 60 years wasn't there before! There had always been a dry creek bed but no running water. When I asked a local watershed expert about this new watercourse, she hadn't heard of it either! Yesterday the two of us went there to gaze at its volume in wonder. Then, having secured special permission, we both hiked into its source. That I even got to see a wild place so close to our homestead for the first time is incredible enough, even without the new river! Within two miles up the beautiful moss-carpeted trail past lupin bushes, pine groves and quite hidden redwoods, the trail vanished into the water and as underbrush was too thick to bushwhack we could go no further. But what a thrill!

The San Jose Creek empties at Monastery Beach, just two miles south of our family house, on one of the most popular stretches of the entire west coastline. It's not like I alone discovered this, Columbus-like, I'm sure that some scientists and officials know all about the creek and its vagaries, but if the watershed expert was stumped, that tells me it's news. Furthermore, it's not just a creek, but all the days I watched it was too big to wade across at its shallowest where it empties on the beach!

We are blessed to live at a time where we've finally outgrown much of the blind consumptive approach to nature that humanity has cultivated (and still rules the chambers of power, I'm afraid!) So my hope is that there is enough public support to preserve this treasure and its waters in the midst of a state with a thirst crisis. Currently steelhead trout, a sensitive species, are being reintroduced to this and nearby waters, which I hope the government is monitoring for preservation. Hopefully we slow humans have finally realized that we depend on a healthy world if we are to survive. Now the question is will we?

Jan 7, 2017

Basic Income: a Must for Equality

From "Random Gifts of Art", ink by Tim Holmes
I first ran into the idea of a basic income in Europe. This is a concept of economic life that gives every person a subisdy for simply being alive. While our Capitalist Drill Sargent screams at the idea, currently every baby who enters the capitalist world is greeted with the same fundamental assumption as a baby seaturtle: you have to sprint for your life to economic safety before you get picked off by poverty. Wouldn't it feel great to live in a world where instead, every baby hears: "Welcome to humanity! We're glad to have you and here is your lifetime grant just for being alive!" The fact that we don't allow ourselves to think like this comes from our firm attachment to the model of scarcity that underlies capitalism: if there's enough to go around, how we be able to get richer than our neighbors?

While Basic Income is no cure-all, it proceeds from a reality of modern life that we've yet to acknowledge: there's enough material comfort now for everyone, but with automation, not enough jobs to provide income. Basic Income proceeds out of the idea of abundance, that everyone is valuable and deserves a small stipend for doing nothing at all but being alive. With most all workers being outsourced by robots in coming years, paying jobs will vanish. So what is an unemployed humanity to do?

Basic Income would force us to grow up and value humans for their authentic gifts instead of the work they produce, which is how we rightly value machines. Social competition teaches us to hate slackers, but in an age of unemployment that becomes meaningless. We'll outgrow that childish attitude as we become aware that people have inherent differences that really do sometimes call for differences in accommodation. Basic Income would not only replace that but would give everyone a chance to work toward their own personal dreams rather than simply stave off social poverty. We'd best be thinking about how to survive in a world without broad employment! Here is a great place to start the conversation. Add your comments below.

Dec 14, 2016

Retroactive AI Takeover Becomes Normal

"We are the Mirror", by Tim Holmes
In my years of studying the dizzyingly rapid and complex approach of AI, I keep circling back to the same two troubling issues. The first is the very unsettling feeling of waking up to retroactive news that AI now runs a new sector of human existence, and has for some time. Case in point: this morning's New York Times article, The Great AI Awakening, begins by pointing out that in a massive leap forward in Google's Translate mechanism a month ago it became indistinguishable from human translation, did so suddenly, and––most alarmingly––secretly. (Gone: all translation jobs!) It seems bizarre that its designers snuck such a monumental accomplishment into the history of human evolution, but the reasons are not surprising. The fundamentals of what we think of as critical to capitalist enterprise, (i.e. clever, intense marketing), are overtaken by the much more coolly sophisticated goals: control and market share. Prepare for an increasing flurry of such retroactive and secretive news, (or rather revelations, if we indeed recognize them at all!)

The second troubling item I keep returning to is the dizzying feeling that we are quickly and unconsciously leaving the human-centered era that has characterized at least 50,000 years of history. What a squinty-eyed reading of recent AI developments shows me is an assurance that without a conscious human intention to hang on to what is unique and spectacular about humanity, the forces of evolution––in this case driven by machine goals––will push us inexorably into extinction as we become increasingly "inefficient" to dominant purposes.  By "us" I mean biological humanity, as opposed to the transhuman cyborgs of the quickly-emerging future. And even this distinction is going to become more prevalent as the great majority of humans simply follow the crowd into a more 'efficient' future; while the few of us proudly traditional bio humans mourn the passing of those etherial qualities that make our lives so rich: the distinctions between outcome and process, progress and purpose, happiness and joy, doing and being, simulating aliveness and inhabiting aliveness!

The hidden goals that underlie the self-learning AI revolution, which as this article points out are strikingly similar to human learning patterns, will have their own effect on evolution. But whereas we now recognize such purpose, in the future both the purpose and the effective trajectory of our evolution will become invisible and even undiscoverable! While now a tiny number of individuals indeed have seized this God-like agency over our future, humanity as a species is rapidly losing both awareness of and control over our own destiny! Now is the time to contemplate what it means to be human and decide if we are going to act, or just relax and fall into the abyss...

Nov 30, 2016

Distraction from a Deeper Crisis

We are entering a new era in the human story. It is a deep trend, one that is hard to pull up into consciousness, but will still increasingly affect our lives. The sooner we learn to recognize and grapple with it, the better our chances will be. And if we learn well, we'll open up new possibilities beyond our fondest dreams!

The election is alarming for some, gratifying for others. But all must recognize that this is a new era. Our new leader will always be able to dog-whistle us into separate camps, but let's not be distracted from the underlying change in our psyche that this represents: we have entered the era of anti-responsibility, and this reality will rule every bit of our future!

Imagine for a moment that you live in a representative democracy, where each person actually gets one vote equal to every other, regardless of age or circumstance. Government reflects the will of the people and life is at least egalitarian if not Utopian. Now let's say that there is a population explosion, pushing the average age into the teens. You would expect more laws like relaxing regulations on sex, drugs and rock and roll. Now let's say this causes another population explosion and the average age further decreases. Soon early bedtime, vegetables and school attendance are made optional. You see where I'm headed. If this becomes your legal reality, how does an adult––one who understands the wisdom of responsibility––respond?

Obviously, there are consequences to refusing responsibility. A kid can get away with it because the adults are in charge of the kid's interface with the real world, slowly giving the kid more freedoms as she takes more responsibility, thus proving she's increasingly capable of staying alive.  But when kids rule, we get Lord of the Flies. When the concept of responsibility is dethroned, some of us––and eventually none of us––really have to grapple with the inconveniences of reality. If you are poor you can always find some con man who will sign you up for a credit card. Without a sense of responsibility you never really have to pay, you just keep mortgaging the future, which buys a little time, but brings the deadline closer and closer.

Faced with some very serious problems, we have collectively and officially decided to sidestep responsibility and take the easy way out. This leads from carelessly popping bonbons while watching our credit score plummet, to fixing the date of our future extinction by plastering over that date a picture of bliss. If the bill ever comes due (it will, but for now let's just eat, drink and be merry!), there is always the fun way out: a drug overdose. Why not? Why do we ever have to pay the piper when there is an easier way out? This is the psyche of a child. And we have accepted it. This now is our future.

The choice is stark: do we become the adults (the bad cop) and try to call our fellows to responsibility? Or do we simply throw up our hands a join the party? As each person jumps ship, the load becomes heavier for those who remain. At some point the burden of responsibility (acknowledgment of our being in relationship) simply becomes too great and the last few adults collapse under the pressure. Then it's a free-for-all over the cliff of extinction.

I truly believe this is where we are. We have a small window of opportunity to call the human family to full responsibility. but we can only do that by calling every attempt to postpone payment for what it is: a threat to us all. We have to acknowledge that we are always in relationship––with each other, our peers, other nations, nature and reality. There is no alternative. We must protect the environment, human rights, democracy, fiscal and moral responsibility and we haven't a moment to lose. The alternative is psychosis. Death will be easy, and in fact fun! Survival will be beautiful and meaningful, and the doorway to a wide open future, but it will be very hard work for everyone. This is our choice.

Nov 23, 2016

We, the Empire, Shall Prevail

World War I, or Standing Rock? You tell me.
It is true that Trump's ascendency has forced us to look at ourselves with a new sobriety. This is indeed who we are! We will never again be able to pretend that this is not OUR face. But even after the stunning results of the election I wasn't prepared for how suddenly the reality would make itself apparent. It was this photo of the military-style police "protecting" the pipeline that struck me. It looks like something out of the unspeakably brutal trenches of WWI. But this is the site of a threat no more dire than people standing up for their own clean water and religious freedoms. In reading this NYT article about the ongoing Standing Rock protest and the tragic response of our nation, we are seeing ourselves in our brutal ancestors!

If you read this account of the protest (or just about any other) and replace the words "pipeline" with "gold", this could be the account of the conquistadors of the 16th century marching across the new world, or the slaughter of these protestor's ancestors with the gold rush onslaught. What could be more stark than this snapshot: the ragged remnants of our indigenous peoples struggling to keep their last little shred of land free from further exploitation in the face of an empire marching mechanically into the heart of their nation to extract the last vestiges of valueable resources, oblivious to their cries? If any one of us faced the destruction of our cemetaries and water source would we not be on that bridge taking those bullets?  Of course the stolen gold is all gone, but a pipeline would move the gold extracted from other more distant victims home more quickly, home to the coffers of the king.

All this is happening under the benevolent reign of Obama, the most compassionate leader we've had in decades. But it's not his fault. It's not the fault of the companies that do our bidding, the figureheads of Manifest Destiny, Inc. This is who we are in the world. This is US, the empire! Now, finally, we must stand up and identify ourselves. There is no more hiding behind the curtain.

But after that––after we have shown our identity––then we have the chance to change. Let's hope it's not too late. A change of heart when the resources are all gone––then or now–– is not going to fool anyone.

Nov 14, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us!

Now at last our nation has proved to the world that we too can do the unthinkable! We have spoken very clearly and openly. declaring with no uncertainty our identity. And now that the smoke has started to clear we are confronted with the very surprising face we see in the mirror. Now when we go into the airport and see Trump in the framed presidential portrait, the name that we read underneath will be our own! Regardless of how we feel emotionally about the election, this is who we have declared once and for all that we really are: Trump is us!

Of course the world is going to be shocked; we expected that. And of course we are very quickly going to try to refute the disgusting charges they pitch at us. We are not really like that at all, it was just posturing for the camera. But the evidence is right there, and––like a sobering morning after––we have to admit that it was us who caused all this to happen. So now what is our response?

Hopefully we will take our portrait seriously and accept responsibility for our actions (I'm with Trump on this one: I am suddenly very tempted to blame the election result on fraud!!) But now we are forced to step up to the witness box. It is incumbent upon us to prove to the world and to history (our grandchildren) that this was all a mistake and this is not actually who we are. Yes, we know about all the incriminating evidence and apparently we really did do the crime. But really; this is not our authentic selves! In fact, we are now going to prove it to you all once and for all, in no uncertain terms! And we are going to do that by...

Nov 9, 2016

Survival Means Collaboration

"Sculpted Camp Path", oil by Tim Holmes
The results of the election really got me thinking a lot about the structure of community. Like a tree, community has two distinct segments. One makes up the roots: solidly fixed into the earth, fairly immovable, fairly unchanging, deriving nourishment from dark and basic elements. This part is very stiff, reliable, and if a hurricane comes along, the most likely to survive. The other part is made up of branches and leaves, growing ever upward into boundless space, seeking the light. This part is flexible, always responding to the slightest gusts from any direction, using the nutrients from below to transform light into food. Both parts of the tree are full of life, expanding into the free space around it by avoiding impenetrable objects. Both have unique aspects that only flourish in working together. This feels like a portrait of community to me, one made up of unique individuals arrayed along a spectrum between these two poles. At one pole people are motivated by fear, and at the other by love. Both are trying to solve the same problems. But they can really only move forward with the critical assistance of both perspectives.

One thing that was screamingly obvious about the election was the nonstop criticism of the opposite pole and its ideas (or lack thereof on the GOP side). Criticism is a crucial aspect of community, but without the balance of new ideas it amounts to mere helpless whining. This makes for great TV and is useful for creating an emotional frenzy, but without a creative impulse this aspect becomes poisonous to the community. It makes me wonder what happens to this impulse in nonliterate societies, like in an aboriginal Sioux tribe. (Plains Indian tribes are my favorite example because they are my spiritual family and I understand them.) In this tribal unit a mere whiner would not be ostracized but would be welcomed into the tribal Council along with the other members. But if half the tribal Council became mere whiners, the tribe would not survive.

Any society faces real problems and has to produce workable solutions. The alternative is extinction. This is exactly the situation we are in. If we don't learn that we are one, that both sides need to provide nourishment, the solutions are crucial we too will go the way of all things. God be with us!

Oct 29, 2016

Can Female Nudity Ever be Empowering?

"Whose Desire Turns", by Tim Holmes
No matter how much feminism liberates the world, we can't seem to escape the inevitable exploitation of women's bodies so rampant in our culture. But to focus on female flesh alone misses a deeper issue. Exploitation is all around us and though it's always more fun to talk about naked ladies, it applies to every element of human life which is commodified and mined for its energy by a capitalist attitude. The same can be said of art, and indeed any other activity which has any spiritual value. Capitalism reduces humans to rather pathetic consumers and in that light we all become mere objects contending for other objects.

In the context of capitalist exploitation there is no freedom and any exposure simply becomes commodified by that cannibalistic system. Some of us see ourselves as spiritual creatures living as captives in a world of products. In this context affirming any spiritual value is an act of rebelion and thereby a person who shares their body, or indeed any intimate gesture, seizes their own freedom. Capitalism creates societies which will NEVER be free! But for every individual bound by that system, freedom is actually quite easy: refuse to objectify any spiritual value or to participate in objectification of others! While capitalism will always reduce you to a cog, you don't have to live that way. Fully inhabit your embodied spirit and although you will be exploited at every turn, this no longer defines who you really are!

Oct 21, 2016

Trump is Only the Demon's Head

We are living in very weird times. It's wild to have watched politics spiral into the gutter over the last several years. Now it's reached the status of outright bizarre. Trump is a very sad case of an extreme narcissist personality that verges on the sociopathic, “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”, according to Mark Singer. He's a pathetic character that has never assimilated the realities that most of us master in adolescence. He is the epitome of the enfant terrible, the "terrible child" who never grows up enough to realize there are real people in the world as worthy as himself.

It's clear that Trump will lose the election, but we fool ourselves if we think this will be the end of the fever! The bigger question for me is: why has our society coughed up this particular image? This phenomenon represents about 30% of the populace that resonates with Trump's infintile psychology. This represents an enormous suthoritarian demographic among us, plenty enough to spawn a Nazi rerun. Something is going to happen and it won't be pretty. We have to accept the fact that as a nation we have this monster inside us and it will emerge one way or another.

I recently came across a cogent article that explains the Trump phemomena better than anything else I've read as a divide between rural and urban worldviews. It's quite sobering, really. Blue collar workers across the US are dumped out of the economy as the world shifts away from the traditional concept of "work". But the vast majority of the rural-minded are not really thinking abut solutions, they are reacting to the trauma they experience. So that frustration and fear is going to manifest in one way or another. Let's hope the Democrats or some more thoughtful institution can start telling the truth about the real problems that we face! The only future scenario that doesn't involve massive violence is going to be some means of broad social support. The best I've seen is Basic Income, a means of supporting human beings while most all work is done by machines. What's wrong with a solution like that? I think it's one we can all agree on, but we must first lose our fears. Let's hope we can do that before the Trump mobs go on a rampage!

Oct 15, 2016

The Deadly Heroism of Environmental Rescue

This summer I was blessed with a visit from a bicyclist (I often host cyclists), a guy pedaling alone from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina!
Luiz Alberto Araujo was excecuted by development forces.

He paused for several days at my studio when he heard of a sudden crisis back home. I watched in astonishment as he worked remotely to save a piece of wetland that was being threatened by commercial development. He and his team of 15 volunteer experts were finally able to save this very sensitive area through sheer intimidation of a powerful company by the threat of exposing the truth of their illegal tactics. The one condition of their surrender was that he keep the incident secret. (He gave me permission to write this very edited version after an hour of removing the slightest indicators of his identity).

This is a guy who several years ago was working on a similar case when he and his research partner had the tires of their car shot out by a pursuing pair on a motorcycle. The car crashed and the thugs pulled them both into the road, pointed guns at their heads and said, "What's the last thing you're going to do with your life?" He replied "I'd like to speak with my mother!" There must have been enough humanity in his reply to cause the thugs to race away, leaving them bleeding but alive. He says, "For some reason the guys didn't shoot us. I don't know any other story of any other environmentalist that had this luck."

Yesterday provided a tragic case in point when he texted me from Utah to say, "You remember I told you that I cannot return to one city in south of Pará in Brazil? Yesterday two guys in a motorcycle shot an friend of mine an environmentalist. He was municipal secretary of environment of Altamira, another city of Para." Luiz Araujo had received death threats because of his efforts to stop deforestation in the region. (Here is the story. A British one.) One of the suspected financiers of this activity is a deputy in the Brazilian congress, now brought into power as a consequence of the coup this summer, which few Americans seem to know about.

Those of us in the first world blithely go about our lives blessed with easy access to a market flooded with the cheapest stuff on earth. We know things are bad elsewhere but we don't ask questions about where our stuff comes from or what policies support our consumption. This is what is left behind. I do worry about my friend. Thank God for the people like him that work silently for the future of our sometimes incredibly stupid species. As he told me yesterday, "I was so lucky!"


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Tim Holmes Studio

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I'm a sculptor/filmmaker living in Montana, USA. I am using art to move the evolution of humanity forward into an increasingly responsive, inclusive and interactive culture. As globalization flattens peoples into a capitalist monoculture I hope to use my art to celebrate historical cultural differences and imagine how we can co-create a rich future together.

I see myself as an artist/philosopher laboring deep in the mines of joy. I've had a good long career of exhibiting work around the world and working on international outreach projects, most notably being the first American to be invited to present a one-person exhibit in the Hermitage Museum. Recently I have turned my attention from simply making metal sculpture to creating films and workshops for engaging communities directly, tinkering with the very ideas and mechanisms behind cultural transformation. I feel that as we face tragic world crises, if the human species favors our imaginative and creative capacities we can cultivate a rich world to enjoy.

For me the deepest satisfaction in making art comes in engaging people's real life concerns rather than providing simple entertainment or decoration. Areas of conflict or tension are particularly ripe for the kind of transformative power that art uniquely carries. I invite any kind of challenge that serves people on a deep level.