sense-making, with a little help

In follow up to my prior post, have a look at “PTSD Nation: Our Nation Suffers from PTSD after Homegrown Terrorist Acts,” recently post on Psychology Today on December 16, 2012 by social psychologists Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo:

Let’s call upon the hero in each of us and focus on being brave by not allowing people to control us by fear. Let’s conceive of ways to stay safe in a rapidly changing world. Let’s make our decisions based on where we want to go as a nation rather than on past negative traumas – and move toward the light of a brighter future.

And for a little bit of heart-warming, check out BuzzFeed’s 26 Moments that Restored Our Faith in Humanity This Year.

In this same vein, I’ve experienced loss this year, but I will try not to forget all the good things that happened too. I’m thinking about what a personal Top 10 of 2012: moments of joy, accomplishment, and new experiences. What would it look like for you?


Sense-making, self-making

Like so many Americans, I am horrified and saddened by the loss of innocent lives in Newton, Connecticut. I humbly offer my condolences—mere words, and still, deeply felt sentiment—to the families of the victims.

This act of violence was senseless, yet the urge to make sense of such tragedy arises nonetheless. How we explain it to ourselves touches the very core of who we are and what we believe. How we cope emotionally, and how we react politically, shape our futures.

In pondering this sense-making, I’ve also reflected on the NYC man who killed another man by pushing him onto subway tracks in front of an oncoming train last week. I do not intend to equalize these events—they are uniquely heinous, and the loss of especially young lives is especially pathological.

Both of these events, however, made me ask Why did this happen? and What could have been done? In the case of the subway pushing, where strangers apparently stood frozen while the victim struggled to lift himself to the safety of the platform, I wondered, What would I have done?

I know that this reaction may seem like self-absorbed, inward fantasizing, instead of the shared sympathy and solidarity so needed at times like these. But these are two forms of coping, and need not supplant one another. In my grasping for meaning I recalled Philip Zimbardo’s research on evil, contexts, and bystanders. Discussing his book The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo argues

it is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.

Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project aims to redefine

the notion of heroism not as something reserved for those rare individuals who do or achieve something extraordinary, but as a mindset or behavior possible for anyone who is capable of doing an extraordinary deed. We seek to redefine heroism and make it more relevant for a 21st century world in which heroism is no longer the exclusive province of the physically brave, but it is also embodied by any individual with firmly held ethics and the courage to act on them.

The heroic imagination is the antithesis to the ‘hostile imagination’ that fuels a psychology of enmity.

Moving forward, I hope we as a country can minimize enmity across political differences, so that we can take courageous steps and take hard looks at current gun laws and mental health care.



Happiness Is… Research Note #3

For being where you are, and knowing when you are:

Attitudes toward the past are key to the development of gratitude … which allow you to appreciate the present.

Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, The Time Paradox

When we link ourselves to the future, we behave better today.

Shane Lopez, IPPA World Congress, 2010

Happiness: can do / can’t do

In “Averted Vision” (, August 2, 2009), Tim Kreider proposes that happiness is a something like a state of nostalgia for times past — that some of his happiest memories were in fact miserable as he experienced them. He says when he’s lost himself drawing cartoons, he’s happy, though he’s not aware of his happiness or self-consciously searching for it.

This is what Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd called “finding the flow of the activity” in their book, “The Time Paradox.” The psychologists might also gently suggest that Kreider, who already acknowledges the past as a source of happiness, see the present and future in the same light.

Kreider writes:

I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness.

But Zimbardo and Boyd urge readers to shape their present and future to lend themselves to finding happiness. In fact, feeling a sense of control in one’s life — feeling efficacious, and able to actualize one’s plans — is fundamental to having a good attitude and feeling happy. They acknowledge, too, that happiness is too fleeting to be merely achieved, but it can be cultivated.

Kreider continues:

Maybe we mistakenly think we want “happiness,” which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.

In “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Happiness,” Paul Martin delves into the importance of the phenomena of pain in evolutionary psychology. Humans weren’t designed to be happy; they were designed to survive. Creatures living in anxiety and fear tended to ensure higher rates of survival. In this sense, Kreider is right — humans are hardwired to pay attention to that which works against us in life. Yet, our base natures need not dictate our potentials for leading lives rich with meaning and purpose.


Summer Reading List 2009

I’ve taken a break from going to shows in order to hit the books. Some of these books are just food for thought, others will be reviewed in due time here. In the meantime, though, here’s my Summer Reading List so far:

Source: University of Chicago Press website

Source: University of Chicago Press website

Johanna Drucker’s “Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity,” University of Chicago, 2005

I’ve become an acolyte, and I can admit that I can barely restrain myself from evangelizing about this book. Drucker’s an American artist, theorist and art/design historian. She’s currently a research fellow at Stanford U., but she’s typically based at UCLA. “Sweet Dreams” presents Drucker’s critical theory with a refreshing methodology: developing critical theory out of contemporary artistic practice, rather than projecting theory onto art. Her thesis is that the academia’s radical negativity (that criticality = opposition) has become orthodoxy, which is rigid and outmoded. She proposes a position of acknowledged complicity that is better suited for the attitudes of affirmation, engagement with material pleasure, and complexity of art of the 1990s and 2000s.

I’ve only read the first few chapters, but I’d recommend this books to artists and curators interested in theory and new ways of understanding recent contemporary practice. I wouldn’t recommend it to artists allergic to aesthetic theory (though Drucker accomplishes a Herculean task of summing up modernism, postmodernism and aesthetic theory in the first three chapters), but she also writes cogently (it’s not a speculative work of philosophy—it’s precise and methodical).

Also on the list, in various stages of completion:

Source: MIT Press website

Source: MIT Press website

Martha Buskirk, “The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art,” MIT Press, 2003

Buskirk’s investigation into “contingency” in 1980s and 1990s art might be a good bridge between Modernist “autuonomy” and Drucker’s “complicity” for art of the 1990s and aughts.

Source: Tal Ben-Shahars website

Source: Tal Ben-Shahar's website

Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” McGraw-Hill, 2007

Positive Psychology from a Harvard University professor. Hands on, concise, useful for reminding oneself of what’s ultimately meaningful in life.

Source: Lucifer Effect website

Source: Lucifer Effect website

Philip Zimbardo, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” Random House, 2008

The psychologist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment turns towards morality and how humans are highly influenced by their conditions.

Source: Simon & Schuster website, Learned Optimism CD page

Source: Simon & Schuster website, Learned Optimism CD page

Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” Free Press, 1990/1998.

Much of my inquiry into optimism and pessimism has been shaded by skepticism, so I think it’s high time to embrace the attitude/beneficent delusion of optimism.

Source: Princeton Architectural Press website

Source: Princeton Architectural Press website

Ellen Lupton, “Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors and Students,” Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

A concise, erudite read; I will continue to employ this newly gained knowledge for a long time.

Citizenship, Community, Research

Things are grim, but I can’t stop thinking about happiness.

Where my mind’s been at:

Positive psychology — a relatively new field of evidence-based self-help for being happier. Think of it like the shift in medicine from treating illness to increasing wellness. As Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, writes in Happier, pretty much everything we want in life ultimately leads back to happiness.

The idea is to increase happiness in daily life, rather than dealing with unhappiness only during moments of crisis.

[See also Dr. Martin Seligman, Prof. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. Walter Mischel (whose research was the subject of a great article by Jonah Lehrer recently in the New Yorker Magazine).]

Practicing gratitude is one of the oft-cited methods of increasing happiness.

I’m tremendously grateful for friends helping friends. I know, I know, everyone’s hurting now financially. But a lot of artists are freelancers, and while freelancing is typically like riding a roller coaster, it seems like a lot of my peers are feeling lost in a free fall. These are bright, hardworking people doing everything from graphic design, to interactive art direction, to preparator/installation to cooking.

The financial safety nets are being strained, but it seems like social bonds are staying strong… Artists helping artists. Freelancers helping freelancers. I’m so grateful to be in an art community, in which, even in lean times, can exhibit generosity instead of competition.

If you can support the arts in these times, for goodness’ sake, here’s how (and where and when!):

travis meinholf art
Formerly San Francisco-based, now Berlin-based artist Travis Meinolf is in the unenviable position of raising funds for a matching grant (good luck!) for his kind of hilarious but also strangely innovative practice of action-weaving. Like his healthy ‘stache, Travis’ participatory weaving seems impossibly sincere (his last project resulted in 12 volunteer-made blankets being donated to a women’s shelter). He’s a good guy and a hard worker and I wish him the best of luck in sowing his weaving projects ’round the world… Contact Jennifer McCabe, director of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art at to make a contribution towards Meinolf’s exhibition. (Image source:

(In case you missed it, I mentioned Scott Oliver’s totally fund-able project about my beloved Lake Merritt in a previous post.)

This Saturday night is Pop Noir, an auction to benefit Southern Exposure, an alternative art space that’s consistently invested in local artists, community engagement, and excellence in contemporary art. This female-led organization has always pushed the envelope, and I’m very proud to donate a pair of text-based drawings to support their work. Over a hundred and fifty other local artists have donated work too. Countless volunteers are contributing time. But it’s all for naught without buyers. So come on down—with auction prices starting at a fraction of the retail price, the price is right. Look for some really nice pieces by Weston Teruya, The Thing Quarterly by Allora and Callzadia, Michael Hall, Laurie Reid, Jeff Canham, Jamie Vasta, Edgar Arcenaux, Dustin Fosnot, and yours truly (pictured as follows).
weston teruya artThe Thing Quarterlymichael hall artlaurie reid artjeff canham artjamie vasta artedgar arcenaux artdustin fosnot artchristine wong yap art
(Image sources: Southern Exposure’s Pop Noir Auction Artists

Pop Noir will be held at the gorgeous galleries at Electric Works at 8th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. Tix, more info, pics of the auction lots, and absentee bidding details here. Hope to see you there.

Stephani Martinez, Daily Cakes - Extra Fancy, 2009, Variable, Doilies, Plaster, Gold Leaf
(Image: Stephani Martinez, Daily Cakes – Extra Fancy, 2009, Variable, Doilies, Plaster, Gold Leaf. Image source: Intersection for the Arts’ 2009 Benefit Art Auction.)
Of course the other amazing alternative art space in San Francisco is Intersection for the Arts, who is well-respected for the rigor of their programming, and renown for making miracles on a shoestring. Like many non-profits, the downturn is hitting their typically lean infrastructure hard. Intersection’s auction comes up next weekend, on the following Saturday, June 13.

Daniel Tierny, Double Jump, 2009, Tape on lambda print, 23 x 33 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.
(Image: Daniel Tierny, Double Jump, 2009, Tape on lambda print, 23 x 33 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco. Image source: Headlands 2009 Benefit Auction, Artists, Daniel Tierney.)
Wednesday, June 10, the Headlands Center for the Arts holds their auction at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall in the Presidio. I’ve been an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands for a year and a half. The Headlands is an amazing locus for an international and local art community. When I think about relocating, few places compare with the quality of the Bay Area arts scene, partly because of the Headlands’ role in drawing international artists in residence to the area.

So there you go. Support an artist directly, or support the organizations who support the artists. And take home some artwork!

Art & Development

Art and Recession: Outlooks

Following Holland Cotter’s “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” (, February 12, 2009), several more articles on the intersection of art and recession have cropped up.

Overly-optimistic authors suggest that a recession can be good for art and creativity.

In “Creative buds can bloom in a recession,” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 2009), Marcus Westbury reiterates one of Cotter’s vague predictions:

[In a recession, artists] can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again. (Cotter)

Higher levels of unemployment can mean that talent has more time to experiment and innovate… (Westbury)

I don’t know how other people feel about being unemployed, but I find being on a tight budget oppressive, not liberating. While I might have once romanticized Dumpster-diving as a rejection of over-consumption in my youth, I no longer idealize the “poetry of poverty” (author Marlon James on Studio 360), or subsidizing my practice with credit card debt.

So it grates, because when unemployment figures for the general public rise, politicians, the media and the public are obsessed with the stress, risk and instability. But these writers suggest that artists enjoy a magical, innate virtue that transforms penury into dreamy studio lives, with few consequences — financial, professional or personal — to pay.

In “Getting creative to survive” (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2009), Melanie Cox McCluskey wrote about creative agencies:

Being inventive comes in handy in a bad economy, and creative people are finding solutions to sluggish times. They are taking on every project that comes along.

Wrong! For a creative agency to accept every job that comes through the door — even if the client or project is a bad fit for the agency — is not being creative. It’s being desperate and financially conservative.

I think these authors are overestimating the power of creative traits like flexibility and spontaneity. As Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd explain in “The Time Paradox” (Rider, 2008), these traits are helpful in art-making, but they are present-oriented. And too much present-orientation can lead to imbalance and unhappiness:

In a society that is politically and economically unstable, you cannot predict the future from the vantage of the present…. Political and economic instability also causes instability within families…. The less people can rely on the promises of government, institutions, and families, the more they eschew the future and focus on the present, creating a world of yes and no, black and white, is and is not, rather than one filled with maybes, contingencies, and probabilities.

Zimbardo and Boyd advocate a more balanced time-perspective, which includes healthy past- and future-orientation. Planning for the future is related to hope, ambition, health, well-being and a sense of personal efficacy.

I think these realist writers, who argue that artist’s already-fragile positions become more vulnerable in a recession, would agree.

Charles Fleming, “For artists, the picture is bleak.” Los Angeles Times. March 10, 2009.

Matthew Shaer. “Artists in survival mode as market crumbles.” Christian Science Monitor. March 13, 2009.

Despite their optimism, it seems like Cotter, Westbury and McClusky believe that artists belong at society’s margins, where they can happily make work in spite of dire economic circumstances.

I differ.

Instead of encouraging artists to espouse scarcity and self-sacrifice from the margins, I’d rather see artists expressing leadership and generosity from the center. Professionalizing and de-marginalizing artists inspires good ethics, values, and sense of agency.


Some media mullings

Things I’ve been thinking about. I’ll keep this brief:

The Bad at Sports contemporary art podcast is great for frank, in-depth art interviews, even if the hosts often over-indulge in candor and chit-chat.

[Update, 2/24/2012: This podcast’s consistency and audio production, and the prestige of interview subjects, has risen in the past four years. Unfortunately, the original hosts remain dedicated to the podcast’s origins in bar conversations. The quality of dialogue remains informal and joke-y, verging on anti-intellectual and overly self-reflective. When the subjects allow the hosts to lead, it can seem like a college radio DJ interviewing an indie band, both trying hard to look like they are not trying at all. The only full episodes I’ve been able to finish lately has been with subjects who refused to be embarrassed about speaking seriously about their work.]

The Fresh Air episode on extraordinary rendition, with interviews with N.Y. Times writer Jane Mayer and a Canadian citizen sent to Syria for torture and detainment without just cause by the US government (aired Sept. 23, 2008). We really should pay attention and be more outraged. Another case of hubristic American Exceptionalism again…

The damn-the-world, God-chose-us rage of that America has sharpened as U.S. exceptionalism has become harder to square with the 21st-century world’s interconnectedness. How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?

Very exceptional, insists Palin, and so does John McCain by choosing her. (He has said: “I do believe in American exceptionalism. We are the only nation I know that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal.”)

Roger Cohen, “Palin’s American Exception,”, September 25, 2008

Tom Morello (RATM) speaking out in the current issue of SPIN Magazine: in between snarky quotables about the wacky intersection of music and politics, Morello tells it like it is: Bush should be tried for war crimes (including, in my opinion, extraordinary renditions and Geneva Convention violations at Guantanamo and Abu Gharib, not to mention the unconstitutional expansion of the Vice Presidential office into the Legislative Branch). Furthermore, Morello reminds us that while a certain Presidential candidate may be hope-inspiring, in the truest democracy all citizens participate in making social change. Word!

Philip Zimbardo’s TED talk on the principles outlined in his book, The Lucifer Effect. After focusing on evil in his infamous Stanford experiment, Zimbardo wants to emphasize the possibility of good by bucking conformity, taking action, and following one’s own heroic imagination.

That almost-instantaneous meme, “Wall Street/Main Street,” and the dangerously explosive draw of anti-intellectual, common-sense wisdom and Joe-Six-Pack vernacular.

Finally, a quick bailout drawing, after Candyass.

toxic assets

toxic assets