Arts and Culture

Film Review: Mission Blue


The remarkable career and mission of oceanographer Sylvia Earle is profiled in new documentary

In the Neflix documentary Mission Blue, oceanographer Sylvia Earle says, "If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things others do not." Throughout her career, Earle has explored oceans teeming with life— from studying seaweed for her dissertation to diving at record-breaking depths to behold bioluminescent creatures. But in her lifetime, she has also witnessed the manmade consequences the oceans have endured including the destruction of coral reefs, overfishing, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. 

The film documents Earle's life starting with her fascination with nature as a child and the effect her family's move to Florida has had on her life. With the Gulf in her backyard, she became an explorer and eventually a scientist which led her to expeditions from the Indian Ocean to the Galapagos to the Great Barrier Reef. That she was a woman in a field dominated by men was often noted by the media who at times questioned how she balanced the personal (she had three children) with the professional, and at other times acknowledged the glass ceiling she was breaking through. Technologies also played a role in her career as diving instruments were developed further, taking explorers to never before seen depths for longer periods of time. Earle even played a hand in improving the design of the manipulator arms on one of the suits, to improve underwater dexterity.

Another important part of Earle’s life was her role as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she became known as the “Sturgeon General.” In the position however, she found her voice censored, with politics and bureaucracy stifling efforts at protecting the oceans and marine life. So she resigned, opting for life as a citizen who could speak freely rather than a government official with talking notes.

The footage and statistics that the documentary reveals is telling, from Earle’s grim trip to a Tokyo fish market to the fact that we went from one dead zone in 1975 to presently over 500. The assault on the ocean has led Earle to advocate for its preservation in the form of "hope spots"—areas that are protected from fishing and dumping. Her goal is to get 20 percent of the ocean protected by 2020 (currently less than 3 percent is protected). Although she recognizes the vast challenge in such a mission, she also knows that with "No oceans, no life; no oceans, no us."

Photo by wanderlasss, licensed under Creative Commons.

Review: The Antlers - "Familiars"

the antlers

“Meditation has been pretty influential. I became really interested in the structure of it—the way you are led into it, the way you sink deeper and deeper into it, and the way you are pulled out of it, back to reality.” –Peter Silberman, The Antlers

The depth of that into which Silberman finds himself sinking, we may never know; but one thing is for certain: If there exists a suitable soundtrack for life’s most tranquil doings—meditation, yoga, getting properly stoned whilst cooking breakfast tacos on a Sunday—it is The Antlers’ new album, Familiars.

Never before have The Antlers utilized more space or shown more patience in composition than on Familiars, not even on its chilled-out precursor, Undersea—an EP that arguably sounds better rotating at 33 RPM’s than the prescribed 45. Familiars is an expansion on the trio’s most recent work, yet more ambitious and cohesive in vision. “It’s important that we had long instrumental passages to have room to improvise, experiment, and let the mood develop,” Silberman explains during an aimless stroll around the Westport neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, moments before the band melted a sold-out Riot Room. “But it comes down to taking risks for the right reasons. You have to have solid intent going into the creative process.”

Subtle risk-taking has remained a vital component of The Antlers’ approachably experimental aesthetic since the release of 2009’s Hospice—an album that struck a near-perfect balance of diverse musicality and raw, relatable lyrical content. Hospice’s inevitable, yet unexpected success acted as a springboard, bequeathing unto The Antlers a myriad of new opportunities, the most fruitful being an enlarged road map for touring. Whereas many spirits are broken on the road, the influx of live shows served as a gelling mechanism and catalyst for true collaboration amongst The Antlers, a project that was initially launched as the sole effort of Silberman. 

By the time Burst Apart was released in 2011, multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and drummer Michael Lerner were making sound-shaping contributions to the band’s music, a trajectory that would eventually land them in their current state of interdependency. Silberman described the effect of this dynamic on the writing process during Familiars: “A faith has developed from playing together for so long that we sort of know how to imagine the others while writing. I think that’s why the songs have become more spacious, because we’re leaving room for each other to coexist while writing.” This trust has broadened The Antlers’ creative scope by allowing the strengths of each member to grow individually. Evidence of this mutual development is found throughout Familiars—Silberman no longer defaults to his usual falsetto, Cicci has created a voice of his own with the trumpet, and Lerner’s approach to the drums is as cleanly complicated as any.

On July 2nd, The Antlers stopped in Kansas City to share a live interpretation of their new album with an anxious and at-capacity crowd. Each audience member nodded in unison to an hour of deep-cutting new material, peppered with old favorites. The Antlers played with the brand of energy unique to veteran bands just a few dates into a touring cycle—nothing to prove and everything to give. Allowing the ground to acquiesce beneath their audience and helping them to sink, deeper and deeper, to unfamiliar depth. 

Watch The Antlers perform songs off the new album for an in-studio performance at KEXP in Seattle: 

The Hilariously Off-Kilter Comedy of Neil Hamburger

neil hamburger

Comedian Neil Hamburger is back with an album of jokes and music that showcases his acerbic approach to making people laugh.

This one’s for all the shut-ins, diabetics, and people with uncomfortable foot conditions.

“America’s Funnyman,” comedian Neil Hamburger, has been known to rattle off a near-encyclopedic list of ailments (such as the aforementioned maladies) that might prevent people from coming to see his stand-up shows. With that in mind he’s bringing the laughs to you with First of Dismay (Drag City), a collection of his usual acerbic jokes about celebrities and one-liners that seem poorly constructed or like non-sequitors on the surface, but are brilliant in their simplicity. And, as any student of comedy will tell you, delivery and timing are just as important as the material. Hamburger is the type of comedian that can make a crowd laugh with excessive throat clearing and knock-knock jokes about the Red Hot Chili Peppers; in other words, his delivery is finely polished. 

First of Dismay opens with Hamburger berating a heckler who loses his courage to interrupt once he’s called out. From there he turns the vitriol upon himself with the disc’s first song “Your Town U.S.A.” A country-western lament about a busted career and self-loathing, the tune tells us your town—yes yours, dear listener—is the one in which laughter grows on the vine and gives a broken down comedian all he needs to keep going. While the songs may be written off by some as novelty, they are far from pointless indulgences. Delivered by a rock solid band, dubbed “The Too Good For Neil Hamburger Band,” the songs draw laughs but would be right at home on a dance floor full of two steppers. “Nickel Candy” and “Endless Roll” are the highlights, the latter a disco-funk complaint letter about a huge box of subpar trash bags. 

But of course, the biting celebrity jokes are Hamburger’s bread and butter. The celebrities here are some easy targets such as Steven Tyler and Carrot Top. Others are a bit more innocuous, such as Bobby McFerrin, who finds himself in the middle of a joke about buying used toilets on Craigslist. And lest one thinks Hamburger is a one-trick pony who tells jokes about easy targets, “He Spoke” is a five minute exercise about an historic Hollywood theater in which countless legendary entertainers performed, all wrapped up with a delightfully vulgar bit about world-famous mime Marcel Marceau. 

Neil recently took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us over the phone about the new record, his hard life on the road, and his utter disdain for Pringles and Steven Tyler:

Photo courtesy Rich Jones, licensed under Creative Commons

Preservation Through Biocultural Diversity


Tackling endangered species and languages together may be an effective strategy.

Nature and culture are deeply intertwined; just think about the act of gardening which takes into account scientific elements like climate and human values like beauty. Biocultural diversity is a field of study that examines these sorts of linkages and has found a number of surprising parallels. One of these is in the relationship between endangered species and endangered languages. Species and languages both have long evolutionary histories, heavily influenced by geography. They can also be organized in a similar way with species as the key category in terms of biology and languages as a key representation of culture, with subspecies and dialects furthering the parallel.

In recent times, both nature and culture have also been dramatically affected by globalization which has caused habitat loss, climate change, and homogenization. Languages and species are now threatened in alarming numbers. In a report entitled “Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages,” researchers concluded that a minimum of 25 percent of the world’s languages are threatened along with 21 percent of the earth’s mammals. Looking further into these numbers, they created the Index of Language Diversity which surveyed the homogenization of languages. They then superimposed their findings with the Living Planet Index which measures biodiversity and found very similar trends between the two—between 1970 and 2009, both dropped approximately 30 percent. 

While the statistics convey an urgency for the survival of both species and languages, biocultural diversity, by combining the two fields, offers some guidance for strengthening conservation strategies, especially given that places where the environment is threatened is often also where indigenous communities are threatened. In a series of interviews conducted in Canada with tribal members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (whose Tlingit language is critically endangered), each were asked to come up with habitat models for the endangered woodland caribou. They compared these answers with ones gathered in a Western model and found that the tribe members had a better understanding of the animal’s habitat. Researchers David Harmon and Jonathon Loh conclude, “If biodiversity organizations joined forces with advocates for linguistic and cultural self-determination, there would be a double payoff.”

Photo by Patrick M., licensed under Creative Commons.

Sounds Earthy


Wind and clouds inspire musical renditions.

Musician Will Bates and artist David Bowen have taken note of philosopher George Santayana’s statement, “The earth has music for those who listen.” Each has taken the sounds of the natural world to create musical pieces. Bates’ project was initiated by the company Siemens to promote the 448 wind turbines that they are installing in Iowa (the leading state in wind power in the U.S.). The new turbines will generate power for 317,000 homes. Using the sound of wind generated from turbines and recorded through an assemblage of PVC pipes and microphones, Bates recreated the Blue Danube waltz. The musician commented, “We had first envisioned creating an original piece but felt the scale and style of the Blue Danube waltz was well suited due to its recognizable sound and the quality of the tones. It is haunting when translated." The song accompanied by scenes from Iowa can be seen here.

Cloud Piano is an installation conceived by Bowen who has previously experimented with the sound of ocean waves. Bowen set up a camera on the roof of L’Assaut de la Menuiserie, a museum in France, which tracks clouds. A computer program translates the appearance of the clouds into 88 segments (for each of the keys on a piano) which are sent through sensors to a piano that is housed on a stage inside the museum. The keys are then pressed based on the shape of the clouds. Bowen says, “If a dense cloud is detected, the key is pressed hard. If it is a light cloud, the key is barely pressed at all. In this way, the intensity and speed at which the piano is played is determined by the intensity, speed, and shape of the clouds.” What makes the project especially unique is Bowen’s philosophy of literalism. Nothing is added or mixed to the compositions – the shape of the clouds creates the final sound.

Photo by rsvstks, licensed under Creative Commons.

Cultural Collateral Damage


Institutions invest in preserving Syria's relics.

One of the affects of conflict that often gets overlooked is the destruction it wreaks on cultural sites and artifacts. In Syria, UNESCO World Heritage sites and religious structures have been looted or in other cases, destroyed unintentionally. To stem the losses, various institutions are stepping up in myriad ways.

The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk was developed by the International Council of Museums. The list includes categories such as coins, instruments, and vessels and is intended to be used as a guide to educate collectors and customs agents about items that dealers may be trying to smuggle or sell.

Another initiative is through Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian who have teamed up with The Heritage Task Force, an organization established just last month which is working in Syria. So far the collaboration between the three institutions has resulted in a three-day training program that educated Syrian participants on how to safeguard museum collections. Of particular concern were Byzantine mosaics housed in the Ma’arra Museum which had come under attack. Attendees were given direction on how to deal with the situation and provided with packing supplies they can use to prevent damage to various objects. Brian Daniels, Director of Research and Programs at Penn Cultural Heritage Center said, “While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage. This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts.” The team is now working to document what artifacts remain in Syria and plan future preservation initiatives.

The value of preservation is manifold. Despite the ongoing civil war in Syria, antiquities represent a shared culture. Such sites and objects, which entwine both place and time, express what it means to be human—to have identity, history, and memories. They are also symbols of creativity and human development. Additionally, Anne Richards, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration who announced the release of the Red List, points out the economic benefits. Museums and heritage sites made up 12 percent of Syria’s GDP before the war broke out. While this benefit may not be a reality in the immediate future, Syria only has to look next door to Iraq, which has worked to recover looted objects now displayed in the renovated Iraq Museum.  

Photo by James Gordon, licensed under Creative Commons.

Film Review: Anita ā€“ Speaking Truth to Power


The new doc Anita—Speaking Truth to Power is a powerful reminder of the change that can take place when one person speaks out and how far we have come from 1991 in terms of gender equality.

Knowing only the general gist about Anita Hill, I was interested in hearing her story as I watched the documentary Anita – Speaking Truth to Power. The film’s focus is the 1991 testimony she gave before the all-white, all-male judiciary committee and its aftermath. Hill was subpoenaed to testify following a leaked interview she gave documenting sexual harassment she had experienced working for Clarence Thomas from 1981 to 1983. Although Hill is repeatedly scrutinized by the committee, which included then Senator Joe Biden, she remains poised as she answers uncomfortable questions surrounding Thomas’ behavior and her own motivations for bringing up the incidents. She says, “The issue became my character as opposed to the character of the nominee.” Other people interviewed in the film include Hill’s lawyer Charles Ogletree and former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who provide commentary on the media storm surrounding the case and what Hill’s actions meant for the nation.

Following the testimony, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court in a 52-48 vote. Hill ended up receiving death threats and threats of sexual violence. Fortunately she also received thousands of letters of support (which she keeps filed in cabinets) from people thanking her for her courage and relating their own experiences.

The trajectory of Hill’s life as an Oklahoma law professor was forever changed and she eventually took a teaching position at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She also embraced a public role of advocating for women. Hill comments, “People misunderstand that harassment is about the sex. It’s really about control and power and abusing it.” She sees sexual harassment as just one part of gender inequality which spans many different spaces from the workplace to public sidewalks to inside the home. The film also shows her involvement as an educator and speaker which contribute to her legacy as an advocate for equality.

The documentary is a powerful reminder of the change that can take place when one person speaks out and how far we have come from 1991 in terms of gender equality. However considering recent decisions such as the Hobby Lobby case by the Supreme Court, it also reminds us just how far we have to go.

Photo by The Opportunity Agenda, licensed under Creative Commons.

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