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Feb 21, 2018

My Forrest Gumpy Life

How much farther removed from the mainstream of American life can one be than where I am today?
Montana Logging and Ballet Co. providing cultural perspective.
And yet, I came within a hair's breadth of appearing onstage with the next president of the US. How do such things happen, and why is my life so strangely full of these inexplicable synchronistic events?

The backstory: I am currently recovering from shoulder surgery and am basically under house arrest here at the very edge of civilization, in Helena, Montana, where I live. One could hardly be more distantly positioned from the pulse of public attention. Recently I wrote a song my group was to play for an event, until unforeseen circs cut us out of the schedule. One likely candidate for the presidency in 2020, VP Joe Biden (who had us play for other events years ago) is coming to my little town to appear at an annual Democratic dinner soon.

I've been for decades a member of the Montana Logging and Ballet Co., a political satire group that was active for decades before retiring three years ago. It just so happens that I wrote a song, Alt Facts, that members of our group did for this event last year. It turns out the song was a hit that garnered a standing ovation from a very appreciative audience. This lead to an invitation for us to return this year with a new song. Well, I happened to spawn an idea for a new song, The Great Ship GOP, and the time to develop it while I recovered from my surgery. So by barely lifting a finger we were positioned to appear in this rare event! (I'll post more about the song when we record it.)

The fact that performing the new song before an audience didn't "go through the formality of actually happening" hardly matters to me. The opportunity was there! Whether they did or did not happen it occurrs to me that my life is stuffed with such amazing stories! It seems every few days I run across evidence of some little incident from my life that seems at once both huge and ephemeral. Things like hanging out once with comedian Buddy Hackett in a pool watching him do hilarious tricks with a cigarette, or getting a private concert by (and playing frisbee with) the great guitarist Julian Bream, or my being asked to create a large sculpture to be placed in the center of Vienna. Or meeting people like Jane Goodall, great political satirists Mark Russell and Tom Toles, pianist Van Cliburn, Poncho Villa's wife (at 103 years old!), or giving a speech on the same Earl Lecture roster as Teddy Roosevelt.
What I find so intriguing is that these Forrest-Gump-like appearances on the edges of earthshaking events have been happening all my life. It's almost like I live the most interesting life in the world and I'm only becoming really aware of it just now at this late date as I see the pattern emerge out of my own history. It feels as though I'm involved in a story that begins "How close can you get to historic events without actually leaving a trace?" So I decided to start collecting these very short stories, partly just as a way of remembering because sometimes no one else was there to witness it! This is the first installment in what I'm calling My Forrest Gumpy Life.  Follow along if you like...

Jan 22, 2018

The Meaning of Work

"Finn Cellist" by Tim Holmes
Work has become so central to the meaning of our lives, it presents a hidden danger that we'd be wise to address. This wonderful Andy Beckett article points out many of the problems that seem invisible to much of contemporary discourse. In fact, it's rather strange to me that for all the common talk of the coming digital revolution, the approach of AI in every sector of our lives and the rise of inequality around the world, there is so little attention paid to what work means. Politicians use "JOBS" as shorthand for the good life, never addressing what underlies the concept. We cling to the idea that work gives meaning to life without really examining that concept.

All my adult life I recall hearing predictions that automation and democracy would assure us that work would be gradually replaced as the work week would grow shorter, workers would have more time off for home and family, and the creative pursuits would edge out labor as our prime occupation. But every such prediction only led us all to more work. What gives?

Partly it's our own fault for opting so often for increasing work and money rather than quality of life. But also we are all subsumed in a value system promoted by the omnipresent consumerist culture, exerting constant pressure on us and from which we can never escape. Then there is a secularist efficiency-driven trajectory of modern times that seems to minimize the value of anything that doesn't proceed from empty materialistic thinking.

For being so wise and creative, sometime humans strike me as being incredibly clueless! How can we spend decades of our lives plodding toward a future that, when it finally is achieved, will horrify us? Our relationship to work seems one of those dangerous areas where if we don't think ahead we may end up voluntarily imprisoning ourselves in a mechanical, boring future.

Jan 5, 2018

Beloved Imagination

I live with a wonderful dog named Imagination. He has more talents than you can shake a stick at. He's not a professional dog with a career and a chance to fulfill himself elsewhere; he's a house dog who collects unemployment, lying faithfully at my feet all day, staring longingly into my eyes while I persue mine. This is truly unfair.

I've seen him take a trail off into the woods beyond our garden on a furious exploration, returning only when my whistle becomes tinged less by desire and more by insistence. Yet there's something about his limitless adventurism––well beyond mine––that frightens me. I worry he'd get into some trouble; hurt some neighbor kid or jump a No Trespassing fence (can't read, but if he even if he could that concept would seem silly), or jump a freighter to Taiwan and be gone! It's too frightening to contemplate.

So I keep him close, never letting him beyond my sight. We take walks every day but those are never enough to satisfy him. He'd love to take me on a grand adventure but I'm kind of a home guy.

And yet... those eyes. Those haunting, pleading eyes!

Recently that got to me and I stood up. He bounded to the door as if he knew. I opened it and he whooshed out and spun around for his partner. But I just stood in the doorframe and waved him off. "Go on. It's OK, go." He did a figure eight, raced away and spun again, half crouching to the ground in the universal display of "well?" I was tempted but after a few steps I stopped. "No, you go. Really. You deserve it, Mag." I watched him get up and trot out the gate. He sniffed around in the weeds outside our fence, skimming the headlines, always looking back, tempting me. I waved him on. Go! Sniff, look, wave, sniff, look. Finally he riveted on one fascinating unfolding story and followed it off into the looming woods. I had gone inside.

I hated myself for letting him go like that, against all my fears. But after dark just as I sat down to dinner Mag trotted back to join me as if he'd been merely conked out on the grass. He was tired but those Magical eyes brimmed with the lights of mysterious adventure of Love, while I'd been home piling gifts on the altar of my Fear.

Next morning before Matins I again let him out. Figure eight, crouch, wave, sniff, look, wave, sniff, look, wave. Then Maj vanished into the dark shape of the trees beyond the figure-smeared pyramid of light spilling from the door I closed. I worried, once again, that this might be the last I'd see him and spent the rest of the day in mourning. But again that night Mag returned, this time bringing in a strange object, laying it carefully by my boots inside the door. It was a piece of driftwood, battered smooth and greyed from years abroad but impaled by an ancient, worn bronze spike, the very last word in a long and perhaps tragic tale. It appeared to be a bite out of an antique ship. (To this day it rests on my bookshelf). It seemed like Mag was living a richer life than I was! I had to expand my limits. He was getting all Love, while I harvested only Fear.

So we've reached an understanding at last. I'm working to put my fears to rest in order to move deeper into the life he's so good at engaging. Imagination is a wild creature that I do not understand, intelligent in ways I cannot know. His exuberance frightens me, yes, but he has a life of his own every bit as vital and worthy of expression as mine. I will never know his full story––only the hints that are shared––but at least we can share our quest. So I will swallow my fear and Imagination and I will adventure together. I must breathe deep, let go and trust in the mystery like Imagination does. Like him, I will trust that we're all lavished with equally pure Love. We just have to step out and take it!

Dec 20, 2017

What is Oppressive About Beauty?

What I hear from some women who are important to me is that my art
"Water Wall", pencil, by Tim Holmes
contributes to the oppression of women because of the beauty I find in young, healthy, nubile women. This springs from the same common appreciation that is used to exploit women for commercial purposes (which is exactly why it works!) and therefore my art comes across as being exploitive in a similar way. I'm sorry if that is the case, but please help me understand why. What is my responsibility as an artist?
It's as if there's no difference between soft porn (where the body is raked clean of personal value to foster easy objectification) and what I do, which is emphasize the whole woman. In my mind I am expressing the delight I feel in beauty and there's nothing oppressive about that. I treat the male figure the same way (emphasizing young healthy, well-developed bodies), but there's apparently no oppression felt in that case, probably because there's little oppression of men in our patriarchal society. I recognize all of that but it leaves me unable to understand my responsibilities in light of it. I feel a little bit like––in a world that is overfished––it's bad for me to find beauty in fish because that only encourages people to eat more fish. But I feel that speaks of a lack of imagination on the other's part rather than a failure of responsibility on my own. 

Yes I understand that we need to expand our vision of beauty to include, for instance, older saggy women because they too are beautiful. But I would say that their beauty is not aesthetic, as in young women. I insist that the reason we find young flesh so captivating is because it is true across nature that young, healthy animals are the pinnacle of beauty for that species. If you disagree with me I would like to challenge you to show us images that support your argument. There is a way in which older people look like overripe fruit; a little bit wrinkly and saggy. I would humbly suggest that's because mature beauty migrates inside. It's nature that designed it that way, not me. I'm just a witness to what nature has provided.

There's no difference in worth between those two instances but we talk about beauty all of a sudden there is a value judgment, for the same reason that ripe food is beautiful and the overripe fruit less so. That does not negate the value of the overwrite fruit. Speaking for myself I'm simply registering beauty as physical in this one narrow regard. (The visual sight of ripe fruit is more esthetically "beautiful" than the overripe. Without that sense we'd soon get sick on bad fruit. Do you not agree?)

Oppression is definitely bad, women have been severely oppressed and the beauty industry, like the porn industry, makes huge profits on that abuse. I find that a terrible shame, but it in no way diminishes a woman's beauty. Is that a fault on my part? It makes me wonder if the female objection to my argument isn't rooted in resistance to oppression rather than in appreciation of beauty. I certainly understand if it's the former, and I hope all people take up that struggle. But if the latter is true I'd like to see examples of old, wrinkly people who are depicted in such away that many viewers would find them physically beautiful. What I imagine is not that such examples don't exist, but that most people would see their beauty as inner, not outer; because of nature. That again is not my fault.

Do I have a responsibility to negate my appreciation of beautiful young flesh? Does diminishing the one help enhance the other? Perhaps the argument goes that if we had 100 years of looking at old wrinkly flesh that would become the standard of beauty. But I humbly suggest that if that's the case it would go against nature. Nature has designed young healthy animals to survive and I think that's why we find them beautiful, because their fitness is visible. Is it preferable to move culture away from nature? If beauty is democratizing, does it have any purpose? Does nature have an answer? Or is the solution we seek one that answers oppression rather than aesthetics? Please add your thoughts here. I think it is very important and especially for artists who care about human dignity!


Dec 17, 2017

Jesus Is My Spouse

I shiver, curled in one corner of our bed
"Penetration", graphite, by Tim Holmes
Yet another unyielding night alone
Dreaming of his dank-warm body,
his tender caresses that fired my blood,
     filling me with the light of salvation,
     now some distant recollection.

Every need must feel harsh as mine!
How many lepers would I condemn,
How many tax collectors fall
Were I to request a night of him?
I could've loved a fishmonger
    Who'd deign to share my smelly bed
    My Lord, must you so test my faith?

I heard Mary had asked for you, they say
You answered, Who is my mother?
See, I dare not lift my head in plea!
I prefer this stoic silence to such death
That, night upon frigid night,
     Lies across my trembling flesh
     So intimately I'm called his wife!

I wonder how soon I'll starve
Here in the stark, long shadow
Of the most loving man in time.

-Tim Holmes

Dec 3, 2017

Killer Robots Need to be Addressed NOW!

We cannot delay talking about killer robots. Their time is here! If you've seen the pathetic videos of humanoid robots falling over at the DARPA challenge, it's time to look again. Robots are now very dexterous, like this one doing a backflip! But it's not these termintor-type robots that most concern me.

A recent article captures our attention with the line: "The most terrifying film of the year didn’t come from Hollywood." It's a chilling short video I would encourage everyone to watch, a shocking but realistic depiction (fictional, partly) of what autonomous weapons mean for humanity. The UN just concluded its first ever meeting on autonomous robots with many nations moving into rapid-action mode, trying to curtail the mega-death technology that is now available.  Without a massive public campaign to stop them, we will see them unleashed on humans in the very near future. The technology is already here.

I encourage everyone to sign the letter against autonomous weapons, that circulated at the UN conference. The pace of change is more rapid than even I (an expert of sorts in the developments of AI) can keep track of. I recently spearheaded a series of symposia to try to foster public dialog about the rise of AI among us so more people could understand what is at stake. (Here's the most recent)*. Though they were popular and successful, the thing that struck me the most is how cavalier attendees were about the dangers, most having an understanding of AI that lags years behind current developments. We tend to think of machines being subservient to us. But we are entering a new era of AI where they have their own agenda that we cannot penetrate. Also, many of the dangers I see are quite subtle and would only become apparent to most people in retrospect, after action is futile. No matter how unpleasant, we MUST talk about these issues now before it is too late!

*Ironically, the maker of this film, AI guru Russell Stuart, was scheduled to present at our latest Helena symposium but we didn't raise enough money to bring him!

Nov 10, 2017

The Newest Citizen is a Robot

Humanity has entered a new era. Last week a robot was granted citizenship. This robot, called Sophia, is basically just an articulated head, but unlike anything we've seen before, she is beautiful (modeled after Audrey Hepburn), has flexible skin, and shows about 70 different expressions. You have to see her in action to appreciate how incredible she is. Yes, it's very cool! And it seem rather harmless to grant this pile of bolts citizenship, since we all know no toaster can threaten our civil rights. But there are dangers that have suddenly entered the room and the more we peel back those implications, the more we can see our own future at risk.

When a machine is given the same rights as a person, it both elevates the machine and demotes the human. I find it tragic that the nation that granted Sophia citizenship is Saudi Arabia. I wonder how the Saudi women feel about it since they are second-class citizens to begin with! If she could vote (which she can't because the nation is not a democracy) who is it whose desire is expressed, the machine or the programmer? This question can never be answered. God only knows! (In this case that's the programmer).

AI improves exponentially, whereas the human will only grow at evolutionary speed. Therefor humans are soon to be subsumed. It doesn't feel that way to us because of the obvious distance between the human and the cyborg. But that distance is rapidly dimminishing. There are stratified layers of dangers that will unfold beneath this one, but let me just highlight one: when the robot says she is "sentient", we have no way of knowing. In our slice of time we can be sure she is not, but a learning machine will cross that boundary before long. How will we know when if she's said that all along?

You now share the world with a mechanical citizen. Robots are fighting for "rights" like yours. Is that OK with you? When a machine takes your job in the next few years, how will you convince the world of your value when you become too expensive for employment? How do you feel being a human at this juncture?

Nov 6, 2017

Will AI Erase Human Meaning?

I'm a painter, among other things. So I find myself thinking of the following scenario.
What if I had a smart pallet that knew what color I was going to choose next, and would mix just that amount of color right before I needed it? I'm afraid that the result would be not that I'd appreciate the help, but that I'd suffer from a creeping feeling that I was not the originator of the painting, but merely some kind of servant of some other painter entity who had the idea I was simply carrying out.

The assumption of AI development is that humans want help with everything and that an automated world is a better world. We tend to think of AI in very simplistic terms, like it's all about making our chores easy. It's unfortunate that something as central to humanity's future as the development of AI lends itself so easily to wide misunderstanding. A person really has to spend time studying and thinking about the issues to begin to understand what's truly at stake. I've been doing so for years and even now I keep encountering new and troubling questions.

While some might appreciate automated decision-making, I wonder if the coming of AI will serve to make human life increasingly meaningless. If there's one thing we of the consumerist culture have learned, it's that marketers are masters at instilling in us desires for things we don't need (which incidentally happens to be what they're selling). What they're not good at is asking us what would make our lives more meaningful! And when it comes to marketing AI that could be deadly, producing a world of valueless citizens for whom life would be increasingly empty.

This represents the kind of thing that troubles me about the coming AI tsunami: not so much the overt affect of AI infusing our lives, but the subtle implications of what that will do to the qualities of lived human life that no one is paid to examine but that we'll all be subject to! 

The future of all of humanity is on the line, so we should all be in on the conversation about what it is we want of the future. That's why I've helped put together such a public discussion this week, called Vulnerable Humans, Predictable Machines, the third of three symposia, and written a play showing this week about it. I don't want to wake up one day to a world where our future has been finally determined by corporations. Now is the time to speak up if you agree.

Nov 3, 2017

Facing the AI Threat wth Humor

Experts agree that the biggest challenge humans face with the development of AI is that of keeping the machine from wiping out the humans. (If you're not familiar with this, it's totally true!) While the threat we fear most is a Terminator-type extermination, the one that causes me growing concern is more subtle. It looks more like a human-driven value system that gradually seduces us away from our inborn but flawed human qualities toward a more mechanical response to life (as in my TED talk, The Erotic Crisis). Yes, the machine will be anti-human and have values that will astound us, but the true danger comes not from the machine but from ourselves. I've written a short play, Felix, the Robot Assistant, that explores this.

The danger I see blooms from the person that we inevitably become in attempting to make ourselves invulnerable; we re-envision ourselves as super-humans, minus what we see as the "flaws" built-in by nature . We were designed with and survived millions of years of evolution sporting some the very vulnerabilities that most of us would like to jettison: pain, weakness, indecision; even sickness and death! We figure we are now smart enough to compensate for any disagreeable traits we don't wish to keep among our species.

It's like we are building a suit of medieval armor: first we gird our vulnerabilities, then we make the protections as strong, light and flexible as possible, seeking maximum protection at minimum cost. We then continue to improve our armor, making it increasingly ubiquitous, automatic, even capable of autonomy should we fall asleep in our defended cocoon. There is no end to this process. In seeking maximum protection, we minimize any soft ("human") quality and maximize the powerful, the impressive, the intelligent. In other words we become increasingly imprisoned inside the shell of our technology until one day, we become irrelevant; shriveled, starved creatures wasting away, unable to escape our own creation. This is a very God-like stance and I submit that playing God will only prove fatal for any entity that is not God.

In writing Felix, I kept in mind a number of sobering recent incidents that have indicated our current trajectory with AI. One is the creation of Sophia, a robot with nearly 70 different expressions. She talks about robot rights in this film, (about 6:00 in), or here, where she speaks to a crowd, or here, where her emotions are spoken of (12:00 in). She's quite attractive, but note where your attachment comes from. (Last week Sophia was even granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia! I wonder how the Saudi women feel about that??)

Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, is a robot developer who created an autonomous robot doppelganger of himself. It is quite alarming to see the two of them side-by-side in interviews, like identical twins. In one interview Hiroshi admits he’s undergoing plastic surgery to become more like his android. In another, an interviewer asks Dr. Ishiguro if he doesn't regret the fact that this robot has become his whole life and identity. Surprisingly, he answers that in fact the robot is what distinguishes him in the world. "The reason you are here interviewing me is because of him [the robot]", he says. He has traded his autonomy for notoriety. Is this not the temptation we all face with unfolding technology?

In this case, there is an obvious motivation on the part of the doctor to blur the distinction between the two. The more capable and naturalistic the robot is, the better it reflects on the doctor's skill. So what's to prevent him from appearing himself more mechanical than the robot? This is not beyond imagination as it only serves his greater purpose (as it would serve the robot's purpose if the machine actually became conscious).

These issues are pivital to the future of humanity, a conversation to which we all should be contributing. This is why I've been dedicated to fostering public dialog about AI and humanity. Love to hear your thoughts!

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.

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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.