When presented with a thought or idea that challenges or even changes what we hold to be true, no matter how well we listen, if it doesn’t affect what we say or what we do, what does it matter? Ultimately you have to own what you say, not what you hear. What we hear can’t be recorded, only what we say. So for how important listening is, it means nothing unless it affects what you say and does with what you now know to be true. The first of our last two readings of Culturistan titled “What Will You Do?” by Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed this in the context of what will we be remembered by when we’re gone. Will we be remembered solely by what we’ve said or by what we’ve done? In terms of authenticity, in my case I certainly hope for the latter. I’ve strove for a level authenticity in my work throughout my life. Even if it isn’t something tangible, I know my intention was such. The last reading of this journey was titled “I Stopped to Listen” by Leonard Cohen. I had quite an emotional reaction to this not so much because of its content but that it was the end of our Culturistan experience. I was in tears as I was asked to read it aloud, thinking less about what I was reading and more about to whom I was reading it. Each of my fellow residents has affected me deeply, in some ways known and some which have yet to be revealed. It does indeed feel like a dream. We all agreed that it will take some time to process and see how we will be affected in the long term. I’m sure some of us will be more affected than others, but at the very least I feel a very deep sense of kinship with everyone who was here. In that sense, for me, Culturistan was a success. To my fellow residents Gelareh, Iason, Yasmeen, Estephania, Tara, and Fayaz I thank you all for showing up. The connection I feel with you all is as authentic as can be. And to Ahmad and Taha… thank you for bringing us together at such a beautiful location and giving us all the chance to contemplate and hopefully evolve all the ways we approach what we do. It was an honor to be part of the inaugural class of Culturistan I.
Our last full day here at Culturistan. We began our discussion, as usual, with a poem. Today it was “If” by Rudyard Kipling. As with the Khalil Gibran poem earlier in the week, the discussion quickly concerned itself with authorship and contemporary meaning of empire and patriarchy rather than discussing the ideas presented in the writing. This seems to be something unavoidable in a time when we can Google the history of any author or artist and base our feelings and opinions on who they are instead of what they have created. And after this experience, I am certain it is by no means a binary topic. But this could be a reason as to why we are so easily willing to give up artistic human capabilities to machines and A.I. Are we so disillusioned by the actions of some of our Icons and Idols, both historically and contemporary, that we accept an unfeeling completely programmed source as safer? Since we can’t enjoy the music of a fallen pop star anymore, why not just let a machine do it? This leads us to the other articles for today that dealt specifically with A.I. and it’s an influence on pop music. There have been many articles written on the topic of A.I. generated music but few seem to be written by actual musicians who make a living solely as a musician, such as myself. And as with most musicians, the discussion about the credibility or authenticity of machine created music happened long ago. We’ve had no choice but to accept for decades now the fact that machines have dominated all genres of music. But we also know it started as much less of an aesthetic choice… it was financial. When Napster was demanded to actually pay for the music it was sharing it broke the company and framed the idea of music being free by creating a misinformed and false narrative of evil record companies and the music business overall. Now a decade later we’re having the discussion of musicians even being necessary at all to create music. It’s a tiresome dialog to have with those whose lives are not affected by the financial reality of a musician’s work being taken over by machines. I’m also sure it’s a tiresome dialog for someone who just wants to listen to music for free to hear about how difficult it is being a musician. And here we are. There was still a time when we felt duped as an audience if performance wasn’t real and in the moment. The classic case of Milli Vanilli having their Grammy taken back in 1990 when it was found out they were lip-synching in concert and were not the…
Is authenticity an inherent human quality? Does any other thing in nature concern itself with being authentic? The concept of authenticity then seems to be solely a human intellectual concept of more concern today because we now have to quantify who we are and what we do in relation to computers and machines. We started our discussion with a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke titled “Growing Blind”. The poem’s narrator faces a misjudgment of a seemingly shy and meek woman who was actually a singer preparing for a performance: “Restrained, like one who must be calm and cool Because she soon will sing before a crowd; Upon her happy eyes, without a cloud The light fell from outside, as on a pool.“She followed slowly, hesitating, shy, As if some height or bridge must still be passed, And yet – as if, when that was done, at last She would no longer walk her way, but fly.” An authentic artist must first face their own vulnerability before ever presenting it to an audience. How do we program vulnerability, insecurity, and doubt into an algorithm, as these are inherent qualities of the artistic process? In the larger context of how this poem relates to why we’re here, the title “Growing Blind” then becomes a warning of what we may be doing as humans in relation to A.I. and art. The next five readings of the day were about A.I. creating paintings in the style of Rembrandt; an A.I. program that signed it’s “art” Algorithm. The fact that we spend millions of dollars to create these programs to recreate something that humans had already created hundreds of years and then discuss its authenticity is where I get lost. The article titled “Inside ‘The Next Rembrandt’: How JWT Got a Computer to Paint Like the Old Master” by Tim Nudd talks about a computer that painted a new Rembrandt painting. The whole thing just seems absurd. Imagine those millions and millions of dollars used to create a “new Rembrandt” going to art programs for young artists instead of an algorithm to create one work of “art”. I think humans have shown without question that we got the art thing covered! After the unveiling of the portrait by JWT Amsterdams creative director Bas Korsten, some felt it was indistinguishable from a ‘real’ Rembrandt. But the end of the article seems to agree with the view of most artists, stating that one human, in particular, would find the whole thing a bit farcical: “I think Rembrandt would laugh himself silly,” Korsten says, “if he saw there were a team of 20 people, really clever people, working for 18 months and this is what they come up…
Deep Listening is a way of listening to everything possible to hear, no matter what you are doing. This includes the sounds of nature, of daily life, or of one’s own thoughts. “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda was our first reading of day 7 and expresses this idea beautifully. “Now we will count to twelveand we will all keep still.For once on the face of the earth,let’s not speak any language;let’s stop for one second,and not move our arms so much.” The last two readings of the day begin to address ideas of authenticity in the digital age. “Art Forgery: Why Do We Care So Much For Originals?” by Milica Jovic and “Can Machines Create Art?” by Mark Coeckelbergh open up these discussions. The first of these two pieces look at a museum dedicated to artist Etienne Terrus in Elne, France, where it was recently discovered that 60% of its collection was deemed fake. So why do original works of art matter? For decades, some forgeries have not only fooled museum visitors but well-known art historians as well. My fellow Culturistani’s and I seemed to concur what researchers have found: That our appreciation of an artwork heavily depends on one’s sense of connecting to the artist as much as the painting. When we find out it’s a forgery, we feel personally cheated in some way. We still believe that the essence of who the artist is can somehow be infused into their art. The article “Can Machines Create Art?” was a bit tedious for me in that I honestly think this is a question that is impossible to answer intellectually. Not surprisingly to the rest of the group, I answered with an emphatic no. I do think machines create things that could be considered artistic, but I stop short of calling it art. This is not because of the actual “artworks” themselves. For my own work, and I think for most authentic artists, art lies in the creative process much more than the final work. Often times this can be a polarizing view but I find most who consider a machine to be able to create “art” are solely judging it on their idea of the final work and haven’t really engaged in a life of creative practice. There, I said it!I’ll now defer to the last line of the Neruda poem we began with: “Now I’ll count to twelveand you keep quiet and I will go.”
Sometimes it’s better to not use words.Our readings from today: “The Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu “On Trees” by Herman Hesse “The Portable Phonograph” by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
There is a saying amongst Indian musicians that all a musician wants is an audience who listens. As we hit the half-way mark of our Culturisatn experience, what I have to say is being given the space to speak may not be as important as being given the space to listen. The majority of our communication is not heard but read. I doubt we’ll ever lose the ability to speak but I fear as a culture we may be losing our ability to listen. Not just listening to each other but listening to ourselves. Today hit a personal wall for me where our discussion became centered around a topic that was too close to home for me to ignore, and I had to leave abruptly. As it became too painful to continue the discussion in the abstract, I never felt I wasn’t being heard but I had to walk away to hear myself. Our first reading of the day summed it up for me after I returned. It was a poem titled Shadow by Denise Vargas.It begins: Ponder for a momentwhat a shadow is,a space without light,presence in absence,the shape of anything but itself. Instead of turning the abstract into reality, I had to walk away from the group to turn my reality into the abstract. At that moment it was impossible to do so with anyone but myself. I opted for presence in absence.
Does a mask only hide us, or can it actually allow us to reveal who we truly are? This was a question that arose for me as we discussed a poem titled “Life While-You-Wait” by Wislawa Szymborska. The poem starts with: Life While-You-Wait. Performance without rehearsal. As a musician, my initial interpretation was that of a musical performance. But as I continued to read the lines: I have to guess on the spot just what this play is all about. Of course, I connected it to Shakespeare’s famous lines “All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This idea of life as an improvised play that we are all playing a role in, is something I’ve connected to since I was young. As a musician who prefers an improvisational performance over one that is rehearsed, I realized it’s much easier to improvise with music than in a play. This was brought to life for us by our guest speaker who joined us today, the well known French comic book artist and animator Jul. Among many other things, Jul is currently writing and creating an enormously successful and popular animated series here in France called Lucky Luke, which was known by most of the non-westerners here at Culturistan. Jul also had worked many years at Charlie Hebdo and many other projects. He shared his unique approach to humor where no subject or topic is off limits. He felt comedy is the best tool to neutralize issues that would be considered taboo to most. Hearing about his process of creating his work was inspiring as well as absolutely hilarious. It was such a nice respite from our deep philosophical and introspective discussions we’ve been engaging in here. One of our readings in preparation for Culturistan was the Greek tragedy Antigone. Not something anyone would consider having any comic overtones. But Jul showed us differently. We were broken up into groups of two or three and given about thirty minutes to create a skit as a contemporary comedy. Jul gave us each theme that was, of course, hilarious and sent us on our way to write and then ultimately perform it for the rest of the group. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be pursuing any acting gigs anytime soon! But it was nice getting out of my comfort zone and to be reminded not to take it all too seriously. And as the last stanza of the poem states: The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.The farthest galaxies have been turned on.Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premier.And whatever I do will be forever what I’ve done.
One of the first major shifts of thinking for me that has happened here is realizing I can have a relationship with a person but have a different relationship with their opinions. I think so much of what we feel about topics and subjects are based on our own experience and personal history. I used to base my sense of someone first on what they think rather than seeing who they are. One reason for this is we are given the space to feel completely safe sharing anything with the group without fear of being chastised, dismissed or ignored. Each of is given the opportunity to fully express our ideas and interpretations without being interrupted. Another is that we start from a place of mutual respect. Once we leave the discussion group, even if some of us have offered views that may challenge others, we see it’s nothing more than that. Given the time to process, I see that being challenged is very different than feeling threatened. In an age of constant news feeds of ideas and information, we can no longer assume to be true, we may feel that our opinions are something we need to protect rather than expand. As we feel things we have held to be true being challenged, we instead feel threatened because we are told we just don’t know what is true anymore. This is the result of our digital news culture. If there is something that challenges our core sense of belief, we are told it’s fake news. Though this can be true, it seems that now if our ideas are challenged from even an authentic source, instead we feel threatened and now have to protect our core beliefs at any cost instead of engaging in dialog. So we surround ourselves with those who feel the same way while designing our constant flow of news and information to only reinforce what we already feel to be true. Even if that information turns out to be completely untrue. Instead of just being challenged to expand our own belief systems, many of us now shut that option down and instead feel scared that our sense of truth is being threatened. How this has happened was conveyed brilliantly through an article we discussed today titled “The Unbelievable Story of the Plot Against George Soros” by Hannes Grassegger. It’s a fascinating breakdown of how we have we have arrived at a place where even a universal truth is no longer accepted as absolute. Where truth can be manipulated and strategized as long as there is a common enemy to protect ourselves from, making us scared of not just what we read but what we think and feel.
Although it’s only our second day, I feel as if we have all known each other for a lifetime. The format of our schedule balances between our discussion groups and our own time allows us to continue aspects of the group conversation one-on-one with each other. The grounds of the Chateau de Grillemont are miles from the nearest town and I am relishing in the silence and limited WiFi and cell phone reception. The lack of being inundated with the frequencies of the grid is tangible for me. Today we discussed three pieces from our reading. The first, a poem from Kahlil Gibran titled “Sand and Foam” quickly veered from its content into a discussion of the author and his controversial history. I wondered aloud to the group how we might have reacted to the content had we not known the author and it opened a discussion on the topic, comparing it to other examples where we have to question the writings, music, and films of so many disgraced icons. The second piece was an article by Anwar Iqbal, a Pakistani actor, and director who was an apprentice newspaper reporter in 1977. His piece “Fifteen Lashes” offered a raw and graphic account on witnessing his first public flogging during the military coup of Pakistan at that time. The third was by Desmond Tutu titled “No Future Without Forgiveness” which looked at the fascinating process of creating a new Constitution for South Africa after the fall of apartheid and how to deal with and punish the perpetrators of such a horrific system. As I get to know my fellow residents, I’ve realized an interesting point today that connects us all. Each one of us communicates in more than one language and has either traveled extensively or has lived somewhere other than their homeland. Fayaz is of Indian descent but grew up in Kenya; Gelareh is Iranian but also grew up in U.A.E and Toronto; Tara is Indian/Tajik but raised in America; Yasmeen is of Iraqi descent but raised in Chicago; Iason is Greek but speaks many languages and has lived throughout the Middle East; Estephania is Colombian but lives in Barcelona; Taha is Iranian but lives in Paris; and Ahmad is Iranian but lives in San Francisco. Acknowledging this connection between all of us, I then saw that all the authors in our readings also traveled extensively. Is that the way to authenticity? To become a true citizen of the world and to find a career or calling that not only allows but demands traveling to places not always by personal choice is for me, definitely what brought me to my authentic self. And here I am. Though I am an…
Our first full day. Ideas shared. Some accepted some rejected. Opinion became interpretation; debate became dialog. I feel a sense of mutual respect from everyone here, which is the basis of authentic conversation. I’m not sure what else to say now. I want to stay in the moment, not demanding immediate reflection before fully processing.