I was on transit from Copenhagen to Stockholm. We shuffled towards the gate, slowly forming a queue. There was a friendly-looking couple in front of me, and we quickly started chatting. They were still absorbing all the many impressions and experiences that come from long-distance travel, from their trip to Sri Lanka. I was on my way back from India. We were longing to get home, but we also had mixed feelings about leaving.
That’s how I met Ingrid and her husband.
You can get to learn a lot about people in a short conversation. And those at the gates of random airports always seem to be especially economical in that way, especially poignant and memorable.
Ingrid told me that she is a 59-year-old mother of 4 children. A grandmother. She spent her whole life bringing up her children and working full-time. She loves everything do with nature. She had a pony once, and enjoyed taking care of her pony a lot.
Tommy had worked abroad before he met Ingrid, and had lived in Sri Lanka for a year. He got to know about the charity SOS Barn when he was there, and the great work they do at their children’s villages all over the world.
When Ingrid started to talk about SOS Barn, her eyes welled up.
“I’ve never donated to any other organization before I met Tommy. But he had seen with his own eyes how well the organisation works. I only send 250 SEK per child per month, and that makes such a difference. 250 SEK- for us it’s nothing really. I wish more people would donate,” she said.
“I just want every child to have the same start in life. Every child should have food, and clothes and go to school. Every child should be loved,” Ingrid explained.
When Ingrid’s youngest child finally moved away from home, Ingrid decided to sponsor another child. The children are orphans or have parents who can’t take care them.
Ingrid and Tommy decided to see the children’s village where the two children she was sponsoring live.
“Everything there was beyond my expectations. We spent about 2 hours at each school. It was wonderful. The children were happy and so curious about us. They tried to speak English with us. We met the two kids we sponsored, and they were so proud to have visitors from abroad.”
Each SOS village is made up of small houses where about 8-10 children live. Every house has a housewife who takes care of the children and everything in the house. For 250 SEK a month, a child gets to have a home and an education.
“The trip affected me a lot. I want to sponsor a third child now. SOS Barn has recently opened a new orphanage in northern Sri Lanka. An area that was very hard hit during the civil war that only ended in 2010,” she explained.
The conversation at the gate left an impression on me too.
And her parting words: “I want to tell everyone that just a small contribution every month can do wonders for a child.”
As long as I can remember, I have been drawing. As soon as I could hold a pencil I started scribbling. Those scribbles turned into drawings of my friends, my family, their houses, their cars and other people I saw on the street. It was a way of navigating the world that existed around me. It was my way of labeling things. Drawing was part of my language process, like any child. It helped me categorize the world- and therefore understand it.
I drew a lot of family portraits. People gave me confirmation through those. I got more confidence because they loved my drawings and slowly I started to draw things that I wished to see. A world of my own imagining. A boat with wheels or a man with 8 legs. They were kind of dreams, an imaginary life.
Drawing was also a way to express my moods and feelings and like most kids I used crayons and “wax pastels”. There drawings that were a kind of abstract expressionism. So far it is the story any child might have with drawing. But it was at school that drawing started to have a particular significance to me. Although I was verbally articulate, I soon realised that I wasn’t like the other kids. My imaginary world was visual- not verbal.
I started to have a very hard time in school. I couldn’t keep up with the class work and worse than that, didn’t understand the point of the exercises. Why couldn’t I carry on imagining the world? Why wasn’t I allowed to draw all the time?
It turned out that I am heavily dyslexic. But in those days, the schools and teachers didn’t have the tools or knowledge to diagnose kids like myself. And because my problems were not recognized or diagnosed at school, my situation just became worse. Drawing was my only refuge- my only way of communicating with the outside world and getting some positive feedback from my teachers and peers.
Drawing became my very own language.
The other kids loved it and I was more popular because of it. It helped me compensate for my verbal and written expression – or lack of it. But one day, when I illustrated my thoughts with drawings in a Finnish language test my teacher yelled at me again and everyone laughed at me. On Monday my drawings were great, on Tuesday they got me into trouble. It was a very confusing time.
Somehow I managed to finish school. My drawings meant that I could go to higher education – it got me into university and it was probably the greatest way for me to learn during my university time. I used drawing to make mental notes. It was the most important single media to learn, document, plan and illustrate all the design and architecture I was learning about. Once again I was allowed to dream.
As a student I traveled to important locations, sites and buildings in Rome, Siena, and Venice to make drawings. Once I sat all day in Siena’s main square until late in the evening. Drawing allowed movement, but it also enabled stillness. It let me observe life I wouldn’t normally have seen. I drew all the buildings around the square. I realized that drawing a building or site is one of the best ways to learn architecture.
During the drawing process you learn every detail, you learn about proportions and shadows, and even the daily changes of the architecture in a profound way. It was through drawing that I realized that architecture is not static, but inherently connected to the time and space of its surroundings.
Only later I understood the importance of life drawing. Even if it was difficult and painful to draw the human body, it was a way for me to learn about layers of structure, from what is seen to what is unseen. From the skin right through to the bones. The breathing living movement that is part of every stillness. Light and shadow. What I learned from life drawing I have also taken with me into my furniture design- it has been translated quite clearly into an understanding of the body’s relationship to furniture- and architecture. Ergonomics, use and pose. The emotion of space.
I have always been fascinated by technical drawings. To me they are like abstract modern art. Technical drawing tells me more about something than a photo or realistic sketch. Technical drawings reveal secrets and mysteries: How things are made, how things work. In the end, technical drawings are the final documents we do in my office. They are my work, and my tools to talk with other people about design. They describe my projects more than words ever could.
And my drawings go on teaching me, more than I could imagine. It’s not as if I have an idea and then I draw it. Drawing is a reiterative process, where the drawing itself takes on a life of its own and tells me the questions that need to be answered. Anyone who draws understands this. You can’t ‘choose’ what you draw unless it is already justified. Already correct. The designs in my studio are always based on technical drawings- they are the last defining work done in the whole design process. Drawing from an early age enabled me to develop a process naturally that enables me to ask all the right questions at the right time, again and again until the solution is just right.
When I am drawing today, there are many reasons depending on the time: maybe I am studying a technical detail, maybe I am trying to understand “what if” – or maybe I am trying to find out why something is good. Maybe I am just thinking aloud. I always make several sketches to communicate and discuss ideas with my people in my studio.
When I am bored: I draw, it’s a friend who can be with me no matter where I am. I entertain myself by dreaming about possible products and spaces for a future that is better than one we know today.
I look back at the old masters: my heroes before me- Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen. I look at their drawings and am in conversation with them. In Alvar Aalto’s drawings you can see several scales sketched in a one single piece of paper simultaneously: From a detail of a door handle to the site-plan to the perspective of a house. In a way this represents his holistic view on design. Just one drawing holds all that knowledge.
I meet my heroes in books and discuss design and architecture with them through every line and gesture.
I am still fascinated about the vast variety of problems that Eero Saarinen could try and solve in a one single drawing: I saw a plan of a skyscraper and a evaluation matrix of candidates for his possible future wife in one drawing. For me this represents his opportunistic view on architecture- and how he also used drawing as a thinking process- to think about the future. To dream the future. The drawings are serious, poetic, light and artistic. They are about something that could be or something might not be for centuries.
So when you ask me to explain the importance of drawing, I should in fact, draw for you. Because drawing is not only a strong part of my work and who I am. It is more than that – it has enabled me to be myself, in a complex world ruled by words.
Interesting article in the Guardian about choice and marketing. And a great quote from Professor Tim Jackson, the author of Prosperity Without Growth: “We buy things we don’t need with money we haven’t got to make impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about.” In his book, he describes how the never-ending spiral of over-consumption has led us into never-ending spiral of debt and cultural decay in Western society. And moreover, how “We do not have investment structures, investment markets, investment conditions that are suitable to lay down the infrastructure to allow people to make better choices.”
But marketeers take note: its not all do-goodiness in his message. It’s proven that consumers who are faced with too much choice, make no choice at all. In fact, the biggest luxury of our age is to be totally relieved from the stress of choice making. To check into a Japanese Ryokan, on the top of Mount Koya, to be served a set breakfast and told when to take a bath, and what to wear; what could be a better remedy to the stresses of modern day life?
We are working on a total integration process that we call the Power of X with our friends at Boy’s Don’t Cry. On the highest level, its a cross-disciplinary approach that everyone talks about, but its also a fractal model that can be easily understood and used for every meeting to extract the specialized knowledge and needs of each attendee user, that is fast to facilitate and synthesize into the overall process. It’s about asking the right questions at the right time, and reinterpreting those questions as the project becomes more informed with time. We have started to use this process on ourselves, together with our network partners such as Storylab, and are developing it even further into a user manual.
I’m reading another complex and beautiful Richard Powers novel, ‘Galatea 2.2′. In it, a writer is assisting a cognitive neurologist who is trying to model the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. The writer’s job is to talk to the computer, to ‘educate’ it, in order to construct in its memory that endlessly sweet web of connections which makes for a ‘world’ and from which we humans speak, so that one day the computer may be able to comprehend human language and talk back. Its a virtually impossible task (and one mirrored in similar conversations – semi-impossible or beautifully present – taking place in the worlds of the people around him: an autistic boy, an old woman slipping into dementia, first lovers in a foreign country, a deeply loved professor sinking into death with unbounded dignity) because what makes us human is an infinite yet particularised mosaic of little somethings and nothings, inexpressibly weighted, the somethings balanced against the nothings. Balanced in ways that defy gravity.
Here’s a slice of the ticker-tape sweetness of that computer’s education, the mimicking of the endless immeasurable context that is consciousness:
“…We told her about parking tickets and two-for-one sales. About tuning forks and pitchforks and forked tongues and the road not taken. We told her about resistors and capacitors, baiters-and-switchers, alternating current, alternate lifestyles, very-large-scale integration and the failure of education to save society from itself.
We told her about wool and linen and damask. We told her about finches and feeders, bats and banyans, sonar and semafores and trail markers made of anything the living body might shed. About mites and motes, insect galls and insecticides, about mating for life or for a fraction of a minute.
We taught her about the Securities and Exchange Commission. We told her about collectors who specialize in Depression-era glass. About how people used to teach their children about the big hand and the little hand. About defecation and respiration and circulation. About Post-it notes. Registered trademarks and draft resistance. The Oscar and Grammy and Emmy. Dying of heart disease. Divining with a fresh-cut alder rod.
We told her how the keys on a piano were laid out. About letterhead. Debutantes balls… We showed her the difference between triforium and clerestory. We traced the famous pilgrims’ routes through time and space. We told her about spoilage and refrigeration. How salt was once worth its weight in gold. How spice fueled the whole tragic engine of human expansion. How plastic wrap solved one of civilisation’s nightmares and started another.
We showed her Detroit, savaged by short-term economics. We showed her Sarajevo in 1911. Dresden and London in 1937. Atlanta in 1860. Baghdad. Tokyo, Cairo, Johannesburg, Calcutta, Los Angeles. Just before, and just after.
We told her about revenge and forgiveness and contrition. We told her about retail outlets and sales tax, about ennui, about a world where you hear about everything yet where nothing happens to you. Bar-codes and baldness. Lint, lintels, lentils, Lent. The hope, blame, perversion and crippled persistence of liberal humanism. Grace and disgrace and second chances. Suicide. Euthanasia. First love. Love at first sight.”
And somehow, mixed in with all this and perhaps precisely because of it, I’ve just discovered the social networking site Twitter, a site where communications are limited to two lines of text. An ‘idiotic’ site, or so i thought. But when such limitation is taken up by the right person – such as the MIT researcher and ‘futuremaker’ John Maeda – it becomes a free-floating source of temporary context, some kind of innocent high-speed mesh of intelligence and simplicity.
Here’s a slice of the ticker-tape sweetness coming from Maeda:
The art of asking questions, is art.
Subtlety is a kind of dust in the room of life that shouldn’t be confused with just dirt.
The computer is now an abacus of many minds.
Time doesn’t fly. It travels leisurely by foot.
“If you can think, you can draw.”
Herbert Simon likened how we think to a pair of scissors. The brain is one blade, the other is the environment in which the brain operates
The sound of your heart isn’t a sound effect.
Watching waves break is non-stressful because you know you can look away at any time … and won’t miss a thing.
Art is the inexplicable urge to manifest feeling, intent, or question as a specific experience outside the artist’s mind.
Teaching is the rare profession where the customer isn’t always right and needs to be told so appropriately.
small is not only beautiful, but memorable.
and here’s something flagged by William Gibson about an hour ago, ‘tokyo sky drive’.
watching this, I know I’m never going to make it back to any monastery…
“When spring came, when every crow announced its arrival by raising his cry half a tone, I took the green train of the Yamanote line and got off at Tokyo station, near the central post office. Even if the street was empty I waited at the red light—Japanese style—so as to leave space for the spirits of the broken cars. Even if I was expecting no letter I stopped at the general delivery window, for one must honor the spirits of torn up letters, and at the airmail counter to salute the spirits of unmailed letters. I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid.”
(from Chris Marker’s film, Sunless)
She is standing two steps beside me. We are re-characterising the world. We are tracking the transformation of beauty into exact science. Or so i like to think. But then she does something like this:
I wake up each morning to find busy bees in the L.A. night leaving gems like that in my twitter box. Its like what that one square metre of space next to the front door – where the mail would land – used to be before the white envelope culture took it over.
I live alone – everyone does, one way or another – but the walls of my castle are broad: bands of strangers stroll the battlements or camp out overnight in ten minute segments, wrapped in shawls of golden languages and unique, precise worldviews. More super-barrio than superhighway, it is a new kind of talking and listening, raggedy, discontinuous and a kind of heaven, where the mind can feel distributed yet focussed. I’m happy here..
As a Buddhist monk I no longer use the word ‘battle’, and if I still have a fondness for reading the Art Of War its only to better appreciate the strategies of up and coming artists as they edge their way in from the periphery, from tiny gallery to magazine reviews to mid-career museum retrospective, or FIFA’s breathtakingly semi-conscious attempt to reposition the world cup as a kind of secular kalachakra.
Did you know there are kids – I mean here in our American-European cities – who have never heard of Bugs Bunny or the Soviet Union? (In 20 years we’ll be able to add ‘universities, newspapers, national anthems’.) Their world is changing so fast. Those plastic toys they play with which you think of simply as dinosaurs, they’re actually Winicottian transitional objects representing the whole of culture up to 1992.
We drive ourselves to exhaustion trying to be productive and ‘a little bit famous’ while our 9 year old kids shuffle dreamily around the house, productively playful and famously anonymous. Their one-sock-on-one-sock-off world is awesome in its simplicity, and so new it doesn’t even have a name. But yes: “ordinary is no place to be…”
I think what the web is secretly saying is ‘forget about fame: its just an electronic slum, a leftover from the pre-1980s world of 4-channel tv, soon to be replaced by towerblock forests of web-feeds and URLs.’ Watching the X Factor show highlights just before xmas I couldn’t help thinking of the helicopter evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon in 1974… Its the end of a world, not the start of one; a nostalgia for fame. “And when all the celebrations are over it remains only to pick up all the ornaments – all the accessories of the celebration – and by burning them, make a celebration.” (‘Sunless’)
A typical night of immersion: I read essays on the mathematician Godel while listening to music from Sweden and Santa Fe (the Swedish music brought to my attention via a secondary review from a reviewer of a book on Godel, creating a beautiful strange loop), wander through the last few years’ work of www.raqsmediacollective.net, watch old Russian folk-tale animations and electronic art pieces on Youtube, see a thought-provoking photo on www.designforhaiti.com
… set up a list of future feeds into my Twitter site that extends into the next two months. They will be released at the times given for each tweet, down to the very day-month-year-hour-minute – if i wanted i could make it look like radioshenyen is the monk who never sleeps!
… friends in London take actionmonk photos according to specifications and post them to me in minutes (check ’em out on www.yfrog.com / radioshenyen) while someone who lives half an hour away phones to arrange a meditation sitting for tomorrow. But it takes me forty minutes to walk to the garbage drop-point and back. high-speed super-slow.
I’m working slowly through hours of good responses by 168 ‘smart ‘uns’ interviewed by Edge magazine (www.edge.org) about ‘how the internet is changing the way we think’
I’ve saved the best till last: I watch this video over and over – about the 1982 Brazil world cup team – 5 minutes of immaculate editing and awesome beauty (no, seriously..) made to honour the passing of team manager Tele Santana when he died in 2006. Even the incidental details in this video would have made a medieval painter proud. Check out the Scottish (?) goalie walking back towards his goal like someone in the corner of a Breughal painting.
The video is a measure of what ‘sacredness’ should mean, regardless of – and way beyond – the fabricated limitations we place on the term. And i know of no western buddhist practitioners – individuals or organisations – who get anywhere near exuding this level of beauty in their sense of who they are and what they are doing. Including of course myself. And you will have to decide for yourself just how serious I am when I suggest that one shouldn’t even consider oneself as having a spiritual life if one isn’t asking the painful question ‘why aren’t I as beautiful as this video?’
And maybe that’s what this essay is all about: ‘how the internet is changing the way we think about the sacred’…
“It is in the nature of analogical worlds to provoke a yearning for the past… The digital will wants to change the world.”
– D N Rodowick, ‘The Virtual Life of Film’
“She cloaked herself in the blur of swirled phenomena…”
– Richard Powers, ‘Galatea 2.2′
In Hertzog’s documentary about people living and working at a research base in Antarctica, a scientist watches icebergs via satellite imagery as they make their final drift north to warmer climes and melting. He talks of them so lovingly, like they were baby seals, as if they were little kids growing up in some cosmic suburbia before being tempted away from mom and pop and disappearing into some distant metropolis. Another scientist – a biologist working on the sea-bed beneath the frozen ice – talks about going ‘down into the cathedral’… An American woman takes photographs of people who have been released from prison after serving several years for a crime they did not commit (conclusive new evidence appearing later being the reason for their release). The photos are either at the alibi location (the place where they had been at the time of the crime but were not believed to have been by the jury), or at the scene of the crime (a place where they had never been but which had stolen several years of their life)… Tauba Auerbach, an American artist, is designing mathematical symbols for a Cambridge University logician. Someone else is taking x-ray photographs of childrens dolls, used sneakers, flowers and even buses….
A six year old kid shows me how to change the skin on my email site so that I’m now accompanied by little ninja figures. Give them a couple of years and they’ll probably be climbing about the screen. A couple of years more and they’ll probably be climbing about the screen and reciting passages from Hagakure.
I’m out of the monastery and back in the ‘lab’, that discontinuous space that consists of the houses of strangers, a rolled-up copy of Artforum and TED.COM. And I’m wondering: if Nagarjuna was alive today would he be in some monastery in South India reading the same old texts (“old black Joe still picking cotton…”), or would he be, say, spending fifteen hours a day in some cubicle room in an anonymous-looking building in Columbia University researching cognitive neurology, teaching some computer to speak, writing fuzzy-edged algorithms while headphoned into Arabic rap?
Lama Yeshe: “To help mother sentient beings, you need magnetic energy. Maybe you can call it karma, it doesn’t matter. You have to have a way of making them stay, to connect with you. If you want to help other sentient beings you need, if I say it in a religious way, strong prayer and strong determination – repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. Through building up such energy, that energy automatically catches sentient beings in a magnetic way so that they can benefit, without thought.”
I’ve told the monastery in France that I wont be going back. It was a nice place and all, and there’ll be times when I will miss it, but I know I couldn’t study there in the loopy but focussed way that I want to.
So where then do I watch the world cup? I have 154 days to sort it out… but hey, what is this electronic community thing for anyway if not for a litte feedback when you need it? So: if anyone hears of any interesting soft logic scenarios happening for next June, let me know.