I missed check out, as I had to leave the day before to catch my flight back to San Francisco, but our WhatsApp group chat is still going strong, and I’m excited to see how our paths will cross – either intentionally, or by accident and what we can come up with together. I feel like I walked away from the last 10 days with a new layer to my social perspective, and feel very much enriched and expanded as a result.
On day 9 of Culturistan, we started off the day attempting to dive into the readings but took a left turn because some of the group felt that the readings and the discussions didn’t incorporate the larger narrative of culture and were generally narrow categorically, so we instead decided to discuss the failings of the readings and their lack of representation of major themes outside of a “Tech/Silicon Valley utopia”. As a result, many of us decided to share our reflections about the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of the material we’ve discussed thus far, and our individual reactions to the week and how that has shaped our collective experience. Initially we shared our reflections of the process and the guidelines that were created for the week and whether we believe it worked or not. I cited a Google study about what makes teams most efficient and productive and it was the teams that felt the safest. I have generally felt that we collectively lose so many chapters of the narrative when even one person in a group feels unsafe or left out and decides to refrain from sharing their thoughts. When a person feels psychologically safe enough to share their true opinions, then their ideas become expressed rather than contained. And with that expression, the group is able to respond, internalize and debate these ideas, which is generative for the collective. Further, I believe one major attribute of creating a safe environment is to approach group discussions with integrity. There were definitely times in which I felt that there lacked a level of discernment on the part of the moderator and others when it came to the discussions. At times, the conversations felt more like ad hominem “personal” attacks between people vs a reflection on the content of what a person was saying – which in my opinion – was a major failing of the discussions throughout the week. In the spirit of creating a safe space for people to share feelings, opinions about someone’s personal life pulled into the discussions felt like we had missed the point entirely of what we were trying to achieve. But in the end, I wouldn’t have changed the week because it was, for lack of a better word, authentic. It was a representation of what could go both very wrong and very right when you bring together a group of diverse artists with very strong opinions under one roof. We later had our graduation ceremony outside in a beautiful garden. The beauty of the Culturistan group is that it never felt cliquey and we moved as a collective unit rather than separate subgroups.
Today we read a number of articles about the replication, imitation, or creation of art including “Growing Blind” by Rilke, where Ahmad prompted the group to ask how we show up in spaces. We also spoke about how art reproduction may or may not ruin the way we experience spaces. My personal reaction is that yes, it does ruin the experience because often there is a visceral feeling in time and space that an artist brings to a piece of art that is generally missing if we experience a replica. More to the point, there is a difference between being told something is a replica verse holding back the truth about replicas or lying outright. Outside of the readings, I had some other reflections about day 8 of Culturistan. Oftentimes when I find myself in the middle of nowhere on a retreat or in the mountains, it is because I am intentionally attempting to relax, nourish myself, and turn towards my inner world. It hit me that I’ve never quite experienced something like what we’ve been experiencing over the last 8 days; the juxtaposition between the serene environment setting and the daily requirements of the often volatile discussions and real-time improvisation with diverse colleagues.
Today we read the article “Can Machines Create Art”. What do we mean when we say something is art? What do we mean when we say something is creative? There is a truth to giving something time to reveal itself. Today, we reflected on these questions and the differences between the creative process of art versus the outcome of art which is the manifestation or result of a process. Because machines have entered our world and increasingly been put to use by creating new pieces of art or imitating historical pieces of art, we’re left with a moral dilemma — how can we judge and assign value to this new artistic creation? Is the genius assigned to the creation process or to the result? We spoke about our definitions of both creativity and art and because there is a spectrum of different definitions of each, we all have varying opinions of what creation and art mean. However, I generally agree with the idea that art is creating something out of nothing – and that can be done by both a human and a machine. In dissecting this question, I am left with two more questions, which change my answer to the earlier questions. 1) What is the value of art towards the collective? 2) What is our organizing principle around our purpose as humans and how does art fit into that purpose?
Today is the first day I started feeling a little homesick. I think this is a trick I’ve used whenever I’ve reached close to the halfway mark of something. I want to re-adjust to the finale before the finale arrives and also prepare for the transition ahead. More to the point, I’ve realized that I don’t spend enough time with other artists (since San Francisco has almost entirely pushed them out) and, I also haven’t spent this much time with such a diverse group of nationalities. It’s refreshing and has allowed me to understand myself from a perspective I don’t normally have access to. Before I could go down the rabbit hole of thinking too much about the future, I pulled myself back into the present moment — at the Chateau de Grillemont. We started this day by reading a few poems, including The Bridge Builder, some by Tao Te Ching, On Trees, and later dissected The Portable Phonograph. The poetry by the Tao Te Ching really resonated with me. I started reading some of the Taoist philosophies about a year ago and in particular the ones that have been explained by the late Wayne Dyer. In this particular passage about the Tao, I particularly liked a passage that spoke of the beauty in things that are left unspoken. By labeling something, or chasing or acquiring it, it loses its value. And in order to understand something fully and allow it to reveal and express itself from a source of truth, it requires us to sit back and watch it with complete non-attachment. The next article “On Trees” reminded me how nature, and particularly trees provide lessons without expression, and they provide lessons by simply being, rather than doing. They are perfect and infinite exactly as they are.
Day 5 of Culturistan began innocently, but we took a turn from our original schedule and programming. I woke up with a rather urgent work situation to attend to, so my mind wasn’t totally present when we started either. I was not the only one who walked into the discussion with an occupied mind, as another colleague was also stressed, but about a more personal situation. We ultimately decided to discuss his situation at length before diving into the readings. The conversation became much more personal and the question asked for everyone was “how we can transmute something destructive into something constructive”. You can learn a lot about a person at a point in time-based on how they respond to a certain event or question. But what gives us any right to feel like the world owes us something? Why do we approach life thinking it should go a certain way? Who sold us this packet of lies that we should have any expectations about the way our lives are supposed to unfold? Why do we feel like we “deserve” something? “Life is always in the right” is something I’ll paraphrase from an earlier reading. While we may not understand what is happening to us at that particular moment, it just is happening and will shift our worldview, like it or not. We don’t always have to have explanations or reasons for everything – and sitting with the unknown is a practice that is not popular, especially in Western culture. Our ego has a need for protecting itself from death by acquiring as much knowledge as possible, and sometimes to our own detriment. But not all events are created equal. We all come from different backgrounds and have different triggers based on our subjective experience of reality — and it is impossible to “judge” or “qualify” what level of constructivism we assign to each event in our lives. Afterward, we read “An Open Letter to Eric Schmidt”, and did some role-playing between Google/pro-technology platforms and against Google and technology platforms. I had to argue on the side of Google and pro-technology. Disclosure: While I disagree with monopolies and unfair manipulation at the expense of other companies and organizations, technology and Google has provided us with a tremendous amount of value for human society. Without these platforms, nations wouldn’t have access to each other on the scale or magnitude that is possible today. We wouldn’t have the level of advancement in multiple industries without the open source knowledge sharing that has happened globally because of the internet. We wouldn’t be able to make the same advancement in science and medicine, and transportation. While we can’t prepare for the future in…
Today marks Day 4 of Culturistan, and the schedule today was quite different than any other day. We started the day by reading a poem called “Life While You Wait”. The poet talks about his wish to be able to rehearse before the performance of a day but that he has no choice but to live in the present moment. He touches on the aspect that life is not a dress rehearsal, but instead the live premiere, which captures all of our mistakes and lessons. We talked about whether we wear masks and costumes, whether we’re aware or unaware, in all aspects of our life. I believe this to be true, as each moment requires some amplifying or dimming aspects of ourselves. The human mind has limitations as we’re always primed to survive at our lowest common denominator, and being on the outside of a group creates feelings of fear and even death, so our survival mechanism is to use the part of us that is required to survive in a group. Later in the day, we met the French cartoonist Jul, who was incredibly interesting and funny. He directed us to perform a few minutes of the play Antigone using satire, and it was a lot of fun to experiment with this form of art. It’s not often that we are required to use play in our work, as playfulness hasn’t been rewarded for much of my career as it implies a lack of seriousness. I plan to bring this layer of playfulness and laughter to my work when I’m back in the United States.
Today marks Day 3 of the 9-day Culturistan program. Each day here feels like a month, mostly because time moves far more slowly when you’re contained in one location where we are, which is far out in the countryside. Rather than worrying about jettisoning from place to place or meeting to meeting, we are moving between two buildings that are only 1-2 minutes apart. We start each day by dissecting a series of readings, while our afternoons are filled with different activities and a presentation by one member of the group. These presentations have proven to be wild cards, both for the presenter and audience, because it requires little to no planning and becomes more of a real-time representation of where one literally is with their work and creative pursuits. Today’s readings included one piece of poetry followed by a few pieces of prose. The first piece – “The Real Work” was a rather short poem but smacked of what is known but usually not acknowledged — namely that our real work arrives at the moment in which we are most baffled and unsure about what to do next. The next reading was “Trying Out One’s New Sword” by Mary Midgley. This article felt controversial to me because it could be perceived in a multitude of ways, some of which probably doesn’t add a tremendous amount of value to modern society. However, the idea that our small window of exposure into different cultures doesn’t give us the right to assign any real critiques about it. Cultures are far too complex and dynamic to label or assign judgment against — even for an individual who has grown up within the confines of culture. We are only left to perceive cultures based on our limited perception which is riddled with filters and preconceived ideas of the world. The words of Socrates “I know that I know nothing” seems most appropriate when assessing a new culture or ideology that doesn’t fit within our limited understanding of the world. On the other hand, according to epigenetics, and Freud’s theory of the collective unconscious, humanity has an internal sense of knowing, a shared history that we have inherited from each other. We can tap into this collective unconscious if we allow ourselves the space to communicate without words and instead rely on intuition and feeling. After all, the majority of communication is nonverbal. We next spoke about “The Woman Behind the New Deal” about a social worker, Frances, who starts to compromise certain aspects of herself in order to push social reforms through Tammany Hall. She collaborates, first hesitantly, and then more determinedly with the political leaders whose values are different than her own. She…
Today we read the following articles: “No Future Without Forgiveness” by Desmond Tutu, “Fifteen Lashes” by Anwar Iqbal and “Sand and Foam” by Khalil Gibran. One question that we ruminated about today was around the idea of “personal essence” or personal touch that we brought to our work. I realized that I had no one consistent way of expressing myself and that in fact, I often find that I had vastly different ways of expressing my essence across the multitude of disciplines that I work in because the nature of technology and film and the audiences in each are so different. However, upon further prodding, I found that one aspect of consistency I bring to all projects is compassion. I think that this quality allows others to feel safe enough to express their own vulnerabilities and strengths and weaknesses which adds richness to the output of what we create collectively. In “No Future Without Forgiveness”, Tutu explains how he was able to create a transition from apartheid, given all of the complexities and limitations that existed. He was able to take something so complex and complicated and simplify it enough in order to allow the country to move forward, as gracefully as possible. While he arrived at his conclusion after weighing other options, he acknowledges that what had occurred was unprecedented in many ways, and he had to think through the many possible scenarios for all parties involved. This article and Tutu’s perspective on the matter forced me to ask many questions about how other countries can use a similar framework when dealing with such complex transitions. For instance, how do we fairly move forward from a social construct in a nation that allows for injustices and human rights violations? I agree with a key line from the article: “To forgive is the best form of human interest”. It seems that without forgiveness, we are only pushed backward or toward neutrality, but never forward.
Day 1 of Culturistan kicks off, and my concerns about my daily life back at home are starting to escape me. The location and setting where this deep dive into the world of authenticity takes place really add an extra layer of introspection to my state of consciousness. The Chateau de Grillemont is a 45-minute drive from the closest train station, which is hours from Paris. As a rather non-committal adventurous type who identifies as the hermit/social butterfly, this is a challenge for me. I tend to walk away from being a part of a group for too long. I’m not sure if it’s because I believe that all groups conform if they spend time together long enough or if I’m just someone who likes being on my own a lot. Even more to the point – not having access to a car or a car sharing service is a further challenge for me as I don’t have the freedom to take off and explore on my own. To travel from San Francisco into the French countryside takes a mental and emotional adjustment. In the West, we have so many easy ways to “escape” from our feelings of discomfort and pause. Not interested in doing something? One can find a million ways to numb out or disconnect from turning inwards. The external world is calling and it’s asking for your attention. But one thing I’ve realized since being here is that I am slowly chipping away at having a fully booked professional and social diary. While there are a lot of discussions throughout the day, there is far more free time, and nowhere to go except out into nature and sit with the trees and the plants and the fresh air. I spent some time walking by myself today in the forest surrounding the Chateau and felt so filled with presence, which was a beautiful reminder that where I am is the perfect moment. Today we read articles from “My Soul Has a Hat”, “Letters from a Poet” by Rilke, and “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. All of these articles had a very distinct resonance after reading and discussing them. In short, I walked away with the idea that social conditioning and social conformity makes it difficult to be authentic and go against the group and turn inwards and stay true to oneself. In order to stay true to oneself, one has to question existing social programming and negative beliefs, and dive into the solitude of one’s own mind and heart.