Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

The Path Ahead

Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were.  People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.

old-town-alexandria

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “The Path Ahead,” on Fluid Cold Press 4″ x 6″ watercolor paper by the Black Elephant Blog author

At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week,  we will be facing a most consequential election .

And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead  couldn’t be more clear.  As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who  hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.”  Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing.  There is no other path ahead.

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Uncategorized

Tragedy on the Promenade des Anglais

Tonight terror struck again in a favorite spot of locals, tourists, and artists alike–the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France.  May the families of those killed and injured find comfort somehow in the days ahead.  In memory of those who lost their lives, may we find the ways to (re)make a world in which our promenades, and our cities and towns, are again evocative instead of joyous and beautiful scenes, as artist Raoul Dufy, for instance, depicted…and welcoming and safe for all people to enjoy.

Promenade de Anglais by Raoul Dufy

Illustration: Painting by French painter, Raoul Dufy, “Promenade des Anglais.” (Source: http://www.raoul-dufy.com/pages/actu01.html)

 

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Bridge Over Colored Water

Spring is finally here. This sketch made just yesterday in a bright and glorious sun is of a bridge with its destination obscured.

Bridge Over Colored Water

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

In other developments, experimenting now with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, converted into an accordian sketchbook, per instructions generously provided by urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes on his blog, Citizen Sketcher; the sketchbook is for an upcoming trip out West later this week and will be featured here in the future.

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Uncategorized

Framing the Global

Illustration:  Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

With the rise of global studies and institutes, a new book has come along that features the research of diverse experts into differences between “global” and “international” studies. Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research (2014, Indiana University Press), edited by Hilary Kahn, Director of the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University, includes a foreword by Saskia Sassen,  a specialist on globalization and human migration issues and Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Centennial visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

Each of its 14 chapters presents research that represents a different “entry point” into global studies.  These entry points are different slices of the reality of global interactions, much as traditional slices, such as economics, political science, and military affairs, have characterized distinct disciplinary approaches to “international studies” (or the studies of relations between nations).

The main point of this work seems to be that traditional disciplines and analytic methodologies do not produce global studies, though specialized regional and functional knowledge are necessary ingredients.  Major inherited categories of analysis can “veil or distort…our epoch…,” according to Sassen.  “The challenge is to make new categories that help us theorize the current conditions,” she writes.  “This book can then be read as an experiment in expanding the analytic terrain for understanding and representing what we have come to name globalization.”

Indeed, writes editor Kahn, global studies “does not have a master concept around which theory and method can take shape, like sociology has in society, or political science has in politics.” The emerging discipline of global studies “is a commitment to empirical research and search for previously unrecognized arrangements, patterns, and productive connections and disconnections,” writes Kahn. Such patterns and connections form the “entry points” for global research. Each heads up a different chapter, including “affect,” “displacement,” “forms,” “frames”, “genealogies,” “land,” “location,” “materiality,” “the particular,” “rights,” “rules, “scale,” etc.

Interestingly and perhaps overdue, this text challenges the methodological sufficiency of state-centric approaches to social sciences and analysis generally.  The concept of “global” as something which lies outside the “framing” of national issues is not accurate, according to Sassen:

“Many of our major current categories [of research and analysis] have inherited their status from a time and place when they emerged out of analytic work…My concern here with particularly with some of the major categories we use in the social sciences–economy, polity, society, justice, inequality, state, globalization, immigration.  They are all powerful in that they are widely used to explain the realities they represent.  Yet those realities are mutants…,” according to Sassen.

The “entry points” in subsequent chapters “have emerged in the course of each contributor’s engagement with existing approaches to global studies…,” according to Kahn.  These offer a “conceptual toolkit for global research in the twenty-first century” while investigating a wide range of themes, including global financial gold markets, transnational labor migration, public art in China, and the global significance of 1968.  Kahn emphasizes that the contributors to the book move beyond comparative approaches to “probe the complex interplay among locales, practices, policies, and people.”  “Relational comparisons” emphasize how entities are formed in relation to one another as well as vis-a-vis broader contexts.  “This shifts the focus from isolated units of inquiry to the transactions and relations in which they are constituted,” according to Kahn.

In a sense, these different entry points constitute alternative ontological frames, or ways of looking at the world.  The chapter on “Reframing Oceania” is particularly interesting for its reframing of the study of the Pacific, including the 28 nation-states considered to make up that region.  All of the chapters reveal sensitivity to issues of scale, flow, and subnational interconnectivity. All in all, there are at least 14 different ways to re-imagine the globe in this unique book.  It is not hard to imagine a whole new field of global scholarship emerging, one that references but does not depend upon traditional international relations concepts for its categories and “units” of analysis.  The entry points approach of this book, as Kahn notes, “slice reality differently, opening up new modes of understanding.”  Much to explore here!

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Positively Negative Spaces

Negative space 1

Illustration: Sharpie pen with black ink by Black Elephant Blog author

To continue on the theme of basic concepts in art–as I am learning about in my basic drawing class–we come now to the concept of “negative space.”    This doesn’t sound too good until you learn that the “negative” in the phrase simply refers to the space around and between the subjects of an image, as also explained here in Wikipedia.  For those who have made it through graduate school and perhaps even an entire career without coming across this concept, this idea is quite exciting…and positive.  (However, “positive space” is something different.  The world of art has its own language, like every other endeavor, with words like “tooth,” “value,” and “wash” meaning quite different things to artists.)

Negative space sometimes means drawing with space to produce a silhouette of the subject.  To produce this effect, we students used a homemade viewfinder (two L-shaped strips of cardboard taped together to form a small rectangle) and chose the composition we’d like to create with negative space.  Note that objects overlapping each other in real life viewing simply become part of the same silhouette, as in the image above.

What is remarkable about this exercise in seeing and thinking is that it focuses on the context in order to define the subject. Just as in Drawing the Light, sharpening our attention to what is around and affecting the subject is important. Just one slip of the pen and we’ve completely changed the look of the subject, and possibly even ruined it altogether.  Context really matters! 🙂

Illustration:  Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author, representing the 1916 watercolor by Charles Demuth at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author, after the 1916 watercolor “Green Dancer” by Charles Demuth at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Seasoned artists often give their images a multidimensional appearance and sometimes even an impression of movement by using light, shadows, and contours.  Every teacher  I’ve had so far in this new venture has said it is important to draw what surrounds the subject at the same time as we focus on drawing the subject. In other words it is a rookie mistake to focus single-mindedly on drawing a subject without considering the context.  This simple advice is stunningly important with so many applications in life, and not just to art.

How can we understand the seemingly sudden emergence of new threats, challenges, or risks without widening the “viewfinder” to see what might be the context around them?  Could one “slip” or failure in the “negative space” to anticipate a requirement have consequences for subjects, or “positive space,” in real life? Alternatively, is there more positive “negative space” shaping that can be done to influence the subject?  The list of relevant applications for the negative space idea seems simply endless…  What would happen if we played with the concept of “negative space,” and  reframed the key issues of the day through our “viewfinders?”  Without context, mistaken analysis, lost opportunities, and unforeseen surprises are inevitable.  Particularly for those instances in real life where the consequences of failing to see repercussions could be worse than a ruined piece of paper, learning to think and see differently about “negative space” seems valuable.

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