Arts and Culture

Digital Music Gets Genetic

The band OK Go initially garnered attention for its innovative one-take music videos, using choreographed treadmills, trained dogs, or a mass Rube Goldberg machine, to name a few. But the band’s latest creative endeavor will transcend its endearingly dorky-yet-clever viral videos: OK Go’s fourth studio album Hungry Ghosts—already out digitally, CD and on vinyl—will be released on DNA later this year.

OK Go is working with Sri Kosuri, a biochemist at UCLA who, in 2012, converted a book into DNA. “We are starting to reach fundamental limits of how densely we can store data on microchips,” Kosuri told the New Yorker. “We need new ideas.” And his idea, true to roots, is DNA. “It’s information,” he said. “Our bodies use it to code for life, but it could be anything.”

The process essentially converts the binary code in music files (consisting of ones and zeros) into genetic code (consisting of strings of A, G, T and C bases) using an electrophoresis machine. The end result is a vial of DNA dissolved in water—a few nanograms potentially containing about 100,000 copies of the album. “So, if we sell just one or two droplets, we’ll have the highest-selling album of all time,” Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, told the New Yorker.

This idea, however, has equally sophisticated complications.

 “Legally speaking, it’s unclear whether we will be able to sell the DNA to anyone, or how we would physically get it to them,” Kulash said. “Obviously, it’s an artistic gesture and a scientific project, not the most efficient way to actually buy our album.”

The following music videos by OK Go illustrate the band’s imaginative one-take tendencies, ranging from the largely elaborate to the charmingly goofy.

2006: “Here It Goes Again,” one of the first truly viral videos:

2010: “This Too Shall Pass,” the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine:

2010: “End Love,” spanning three days and captured in one take:

2012: “Needing/Getting,” a Super Bowl commercial gone rogue:

2014: “I Won’t Let You Down,” their latest video, filmed from an aerial drone:

Image by Stuart Cale, licensed under Creative Commons.

Sad Music Causes Happy Thoughts


Broken-hearted teenage girls may find comfort in Taylor Swift’s biting lyrics, or indulge in a much-needed cry as Beyoncé howls from the speakers. But now science can explain why listening to sad music can cause a positive emotional response, even when distressed.

A newly published study by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch, who study music and the brain at the Free University of Berlin, examined the subject of sad songs across the world. Surveying 722 people from Europe, Asia and North America, they found that “music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”

Utne Music Sampler

The study found that participants responded with a wide range of complex yet fairly positive emotions, such as nostalgia (the most popular reaction), peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder. On average, those surveyed experienced at least three emotions while listening to sad music—sadness often elicited by its slower tempos or descending melodies, qualities linked across countries.

People tend to choose sad music when feeling emotionally distressed or lonely: “For most of the people, the engagement with sad music in everyday life is correlated with its potential to regulate moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation,” the study says. Unhappiness expressed through creativity creates a stimulating, imaginative process for the listener.

Three songs were most mentioned by participants: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (below), Chinese composer Ah Bing’s “Moon Reflected in the Second Spring,” and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

Image by Andrew Lyons, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Forgotten Perks of Reading Fiction

The Digital Age has heightened the habit of skimming everything we read—mindless text on the screen to timeless literature to magazine articles. But there are a number of invaluable benefits to allowing yourself to become fully arrested by a narrative, exchanging the day’s trivialities for an imaginary affair.

It may seem like you’re wasting time: Why commit to hundreds of uncharted pages when instead you can be productive toward your to-do list? In truth, books save you time. They introduce you to places, characters and events that would take years, maybe lifetimes, to experience in reality. Within a few books, you’ve become a citizen of the world, exposed to countless alternative realities. That’s not just a romantic notion, either. In a 2009 study, 28 men and women read fiction while researchers tracked brain activity using an MRI. As the participants reached different points in the plot, their brains reacted the same way as if it were truly occurring in their own lives. You’re not just digesting text, but actually living the story.

Utne Reader Bookshelf

It’s also not just for entertainment. Maryanne Wolf, a professor and director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, said reading is also about “connecting information to your own background knowledge and helping you form your own creative thoughts.” The well-written word is capable of providing us with maps of our own minds. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In the words of a great writer, we find our own neglected thoughts.”

You’re heightening a sense of empathy when engaging in other points of views, as well. In a world where money and power dominate our value system, you’re able to sympathize with characters or groups that may not get their due exposure in the real world. And rather than reading books as a distraction, try regarding it as therapy. A 2010 study by MindLab Intelligent Insights proved that reading a captivating book for as little as six minutes can reduce stress by 60 percent.

Real Simple has a few strategies for those trying to get back into the swing of reading:

  1. Choose a book you’re drawn to. Don’t feel pressured to go for what everyone else is reading or something overtly demanding. Cheesy romance, young-adult, detective novels—it’s your call. If you’re out of practice but wanting to try out a challenging author, maybe start with short stories and ease into her narrative style.
  2. Fill your shelves with books. One international study shows that people whose parents’ homes contained about 500 books (regardless of income or educational background) opted for at least 3 years of additional schooling than did those whose childhood homes contained no books.
  3. Don’t wait for bedtime. Leave a book in your car or purse so you’re ready for an impromptu reading session. Show your kids you read so they understand it’s also enjoyable, not just homework.
  4. Be willing to abandon ship. Try giving the book at least 50 pages to win you over; by then you at least have a sense of the author’s style and taste of the plot. Not a fan? Don’t feel stuck—just go for something else. No judgments here.

Image by roeven, licensed under Creative Commons

Finalists for the 2014 National Book Award Announced

The National Book Foundation recently shared the 20 books to make its short list for the 2014 National Book Award. The winners in each category will be announced November 19.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Marilynne Robinson, Lyla
Phil Klay, Redeployment
Emily St. John Michael, Station Eleven

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition
Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant
Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living
John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio
Fanny Howe, Second Childhood
Maureen N. McLane, This Blue

Young People’s Literature
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
John Corey Whaley, Noggin
Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50
Deborah Wiles, Revolution
Eliot Schrefer, Threatened

Image licensed under Simon & Schuster

Film Review: Dorothea Lange – Grab a Hunk of Lightning


The iconic work of photographer Dorothea Lange is thoughtfully considered in a new documentary.

Dorothea Lange – Grab a Hunk of Lightning was directed by Dyanna Taylor, granddaughter of Lange, which gives the film unique insight and access. Taylor traces back Lange’s beginnings as a young girl in New Jersey who was left with a limp after contracting polio. Despite the slight disability, Lange grew up to be an adventurous woman who landed in San Francisco where she opened a portrait studio and became part of the artistic community which included painter Maynard Dixon. They married and had two kids, and the film explores Lange’s deep battle in finding a balance between her work and her family.

The beginning of the Depression marked her foray into documentary photography. Being on the street gave Lange a different perspective than the portrait photography she was accustomed to, and she soon found herself in the middle of breadlines and protests. Labor economist Paul Taylor noticed her images at an exhibit and hired her to document the labor conditions in California (under the guise of a typist). Working together they produced a report on migrant labor—and fell in love. Lange divorced Dixon and married Taylor with whom she worked to document the Dust Bowl and western migration. The poverty they witnessed astounded Lange and along with her photos, she began taking down extensive captions and quotes from the people she captured. She and Taylor were awarded funding by the Farm Security Administration, which is how she came to take her best known photo, Migrant Mother. Of the image Lange comments, “I see it printed all over, prints I haven’t supplied, but it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to the world.”

She went on to document Japanese internment camps (a job the military hired her for and then fired her for after seeing the images she was making) and the construction of the Monticello dam in California, a project that illustrated the destructiveness of progress. Her journal entries expand on an intense desire to document despite many health problems as well as the personal struggles (and victories) she bore a as wife and a mother.

Throughout the film, as Lange’s black and white images flash across the sky, her process, style, and the meaning of the work take shape. She composed people within the frame, many of whom were living in desperate conditions, in a way that was simultaneously representative of an era and timeless. The photos also exhibit a sense of dignity towards her subjects and many contribute to her legacy as both an artist and activist. Reflecting on her work, Lange comments, “I believe I can see, that I can see straight and true and fast.”

The documentary is airing as part of the "American Masters" series on PBS and can be streamed here.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration

Film Review: To Be Takei


A new documentary chronicles both the silly and the serious sides of George Takei's life.

To Be Takei is a surprisingly charming documentary that looks at the life and times of actor and activist George Takei. His humor and likability come across in everyday scenes with his partner Brad Altman as well as in interviews with people he’s worked with throughout his career like Leonard Nimoy, whom he acted alongside in Star Trek.

The film also has a serious side that is important to understanding Takei’s life. As a child, his family was sent to Japanese-American internment camps which were authorized by FDR following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalls the armed guards in the Arkansas camp as well as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the camp’s school. His family was later sent to a high security camp in California. The footage shown is dismaying, revealing the loss of freedom and blatant racism that was present. Following their release, Takei remembers how difficult it was for his father to get a job and find housing for the family. Despite the damaging experience, Takei utilizes the Japanese concept of Gaman (to endure with dignity) to move forward. Decades later, he testified before Congress about the internment and a formal apology as well as restitution for survivors was eventually issued by President Reagan. The documentary also shows Takei’s recent involved in the development of the play Allegiance which chronicles a family in the internment camps.

Another significant aspect of Takei’s life is his relationship with Altman. Although Takei realized he was gay at a young age (fifth or sixth grade he says), it’s something that he hid, at first out of confusion and later to protect his career in Hollywood. Altman was understanding, but when California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, Takei felt compelled to come out. Since then, he’s been a strong advocate for marriage equality and gay rights. He and Altman married in 2008.

Many other elements are covered throughout the film, such as his relationship with his parents and his legacy as an Asian-American actor. Also touched upon are Takei’s feud with William Shatner, his colossal Facebook following, and friendships with people from his barber to Howard Stern. All in all, the film strikes a good balance between the silly and the serious, with its appeal attributed to Takei himself who possesses both accessibility and a unique star quality.

Photo by Scott Smithson, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Evolution of Environmental Artivism


Art with an environmental slant is rapidly maturing.

In the 20th century, the relationship between art and activism became closer with the two spheres overlapping during the civil rights and antiwar movements. Art was found to convey both a message and emotion that helped activists gain supporters and make change.

Now that relationship is being developed within the environmental movement as issues like climate change take center stage. In the 1970’s, eco-art began to emerge, however it was often carried out by individuals working on specific, local issues. And while art genres like outdoors photography had combined the aesthetic with the natural, it usually lacked a message linked to ideas like conservation. Today environmental art is rapidly evolving in a variety of forms, some overt and some more subtle.

At the California College of the Arts (CCA), painting and fine arts professor Kim Anno is leading the way by developing a degree that covers the intersection of art, science, and the environment. CCA was the also first college to participate at the United Nations’ Climate Summits. Anno notes, “There is a distinction between art and activism. They do have overlaps, but they also have differences. Sometimes viewers discount the images of activism if they are too pat, too quickly understood. Art slows perception down and deepens the viewer's experience." And conservationist Carl Safina points out, “Science does a pretty good job of telling us what the world is but not what to think or feel about it. That is the job of art.”

Street artists, world-famous designers, photographers, installation artists, and private companies have worked together to address issues such as Hurricane Sandy, tar sands, and pollution. Some artists are even integrating art and restoration projects. English sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor created underwater works that become artificial coral reefs while Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien made sculptures that act as habitats in waterways for uprooted oysters and salmon. Foundations and galleries are also showing increased interest which bolsters opportunities for artists. Amy Westervelt who writes for the Sierra Club concludes, “Mounting evidence suggests that in the coming decades, environmental art will have the same sort of disruptive impact that social and political art have had.”

Photo by Oxfam International, licensed under Creative Commons.

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