Big data

20130824-180221.jpgInformation. The world is just jammed with it. I’m not talking about Facebook posts and texts from your besties; I mean the sort of analog information that is constantly flowing into the holes in our head and all over our skin.

But how much exactly? What would be the equivalent in terms I am familiar with — dpi, mexagpixels, gigs, etc.?

Well, the Internet has loads of answers but none are really definitive. The best I can make out is that if our eyes were digital cameras, they would each have the equivalent of around 600 megapixels and the resolution of the images we receive is about 530 pixels per inch (as a reference, the resolution of images we get on the internet is 72 dpi). Our ears are also constantly receiving sound data, and we can distinguish differences in the ~160kbps range.  Our skin can feel vibration, touch, pressure, temperature and of course, pain. We have 20 square feet of skin, all studded with zillions of receptors — Our fingertips alone have 2,500 receptors per cm2.

In short, our bodies are getting a huge amount of data every second. A commonly quoted estimate says that our brains receive 400 billion bits of information each second. That’s 400 gigs, enough to fill my laptop’s hard drive, every second.

But…we have this enormous data stream coming in, and what are we doing with it? According to a recent study in the MIT Technology Review, our brains can only process 60 bits of information a second. And we are only conscious of about 2,000 bits per second. That means that .000000000015% of what comes in actually gets responded to.

Wow.

Obviously, the vast majority of the time, we are screening out almost all of what is around us. How is that even possible? Well, we are living in the preconceived patterns we built for ourselves long ago, the patterns that put most things into categories that require very little data. We simply don’t need to see every pixel of every face we encounter because we know immediately, “that’s Mary”.  We may not notice that Mary is wearing a knee-length, ocean blue floral print dress with six pearl buttons, etc. because that data has no immediate value. It wouldn’t help us to survive in the wild.  Those of our ancestors who couldn’t quickly form observations into categories would have been overwhelmed by data and couldn’t have responded quickly enough if Mary turned out to be a pouncing saber-toothed tiger.

Relying on these quick sorting algorithms has been a useful way to survive, what with terabytes of incoming data and the fairly slow processors in these 3-pound, neck-top computers we were all issued.

But … over time, the price we pay for this has grown higher. As the data becomes more intense (iPhones, laptops, 2000 channels, etc), we have retreated more and more into categories and preconceptions and further and further from all the stuff that’s going on around us in what we oldsters quaintly call “the Real World”. The problem is what happens when you decide that your Facebook stream is so much more manageable than the 400 gigs of real data. You will be utterly oblivious as you cross the street, lost in your smartphone, and a saber tooth tiger pounces or an SUV squashes you flat. End of your gene line.

Which brings me to drawing.

A few days ago, I was walking on the Lower East Side and I saw this building festooned with painted signs. I sat down on the pavement, leaned against a wall, and pulled out my Lamy Safari. I spent the first hour or so just drawing the building underneath the signs.  I started to see that the building itself was quite interesting, that it had curved windows and lots of interesting brickwork. I discovered how the building was constructed, how the windows lineup, where the structural underpinnings were arranged. I noticed all the stores on the ground floor, their merchandise and the ways that their awnings were hung. It seemed I was tapped into the full data stream (though oblivious to my dehydration, cramped buttock, and sleeping right leg).

Finally, I pulled out  a white pencil and start to letter the signs.

Here’s the thing. I had spend a couple of hours starting at this building but now I realize how much I still wasn’t seeing. Yes, I had studied its structure but I had skipped over a lot of the details, I had missed air conditioners, reflections, broken bricks and more. I had approximated so many things based on the patterns I could divine. And I had not observed the perspective or the lighting at all.

But what really blows me away was this weird mistake I made. I misspelled “Entrance”. It’s certainly a word I know how to spell. And I was looking right at the letters on the wall, paying careful attention to the letterforms, to the kerning, the condensed type, the wear of the paint, and then I misspelled “Entrance”. I can’t explain it (Oh, and to cover my goof, I purposefully misspelled it again on the left).

My brain, despite all the time and care I was taking, still had to jump to conclusions. And to a conclusion that I knew was wrong. I somehow drifted away and came back to see my hand adding that ‘E.’ Some other thing was inhabiting my skull, hands on the controls, driving along, a barely-literate lizard brain that just took over while my conscious floated away and debated what I should have for dinner. It’s literally, mind-boggling. Maybe it was a full blown right-brain thing, drawing what was in front of me and disengaged from the rational world of letters and numbers. But then why the mistake? Was I just overwhelmed by the raw data flow?

All this information. And all this human frailty. What we really need is a little wisdom.

On drinking the water.

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As our plane swooped down over Mexico, endless green filled the windows. My first instinct was to wonder what sort of farming this could be, dense, unbroken and stretching to the horizon in every direction. As the wheels touched down, I saw it was jungle, an impenetrable mass of unruly, complex life. The runways had been cut out of the wilderness but no attempt had been made to cultivate the creepers and trees. Nature was too vast, man too small.
Mexico is a mostly modern country with drive-through Starbucks and TGIFridays. But many Mexicans accept the unrelenting power of nature, impossible to dominate completely when the air is humid and the sun shines brightly all the live long year. Grasshoppers the size of iPhones, careen through the sky with chartreuse scales and hot-pink wings. Raccoons wander into four-star restaurants and take corn chips off the bar. Cars are sun-faded, concrete is cracked, donkeys walk slowly. It’s not a rich country, but that’s not the reason things seem shop-worn and resigned. It’s because Mexicans accept the inevitable encroachment of Nature, that it’s pointless to be fastidious when geckos will wander onto your kitchen counters and carpets of kelp will wash onto your freshly grouted patio.
I like it.
In New York, we have been beating Nature back for 500 years and we think we’ve won. So we can’t help but freak out when mice nibble on the organic granola box, when mosquitos find their way under our 600 thread count sheets, when Hurricane Sandy knocks out our wifi for a week. If Nature gains the slightest foothold, we take it as a sign that our entire civilization is crumbling.
I like that in general Mexicans are so much less uptight about perfection. They are cool if you do things that are a little risky — but hardly dangerous. Things that would have flocks of lawyers descending anywhere in the States. Unsecured seatbelts don’t have those annoying warning alarms. There are packs of cigarettes in the minibar. People build restaurants out of driftwood and light them with masses of candles. Some cars are missing fenders or bumpers and are painted patchily by hand. Most streets have no sidewalks or street lights so walking at night under starry skies can be an adventure.
We sat in a beachside restaurant that served food that would have been the envy of any entry in the NYC Zagat. But before our appetizer arrived, the waiters patrolled through with smoking pails, emitting clouds of burning citronella so chokingly dense we could barely see our $12 artisanal margaritas. The mosquitos and gnats were barely dissuaded but no one bothered to complain to the Health Department, pausing only to reach under our designer linens to scratch the welts.
Mexicans don’t value their lives less than their Northern neighbors. They just accept that we can’t control everything all the time. And that this acceptance makes life easier and preserves resources for more important things. Insisting on perfection makes thing a lot less interesting and spicy. It’s also a losing battle.
Maybe it was the heat or the Negro Modelo but my pen line was a little looser in Mexico. I did a number of scrawled pages in my journal, drawn half lying down, book propped against my spreading gut, mango juice on my unshaven chin. Maybe this was how Gauguin felt.
I am sloppy as a rule, but I’m not always loose. I value looseness because it feels more organic and expressive, more human, more natural, more the way life is. Less uptight, less gringo. Jack tells me his drawing teacher insists they draw standing up, with their pads on an easel, and that they draw from the shoulder, not from the wrist, to make bold and sweeping lines with their whole bodies. Flat on my back on my chaise, I am far from that, but I feel integrated, natural, in tune with my surroundings. My body, immersed in sweat and heat and verdant richness, feels sensual and at ease. My inner critic, the monkey is dulled too. He is chewing lazily on a mango in the shade, indifferent to my drawing. He can’t be bothered to nag me when we have the jungle at our doorstep. In Mexico, monkeys sit on your roof, squat on your car, hoot from the trees above your hotel window. But it seems they stay out of your head.
Over this past week in Mexico, I haven’t been as insanely productive as I might have been. But I have been more in tune with my nature. I’ve dismantled waves, I’ve counted grains of sand, I’ve listened to grackles eat French Fries, and I’ve felt the walls of perfection erode. Rules, goals and expectations, it turns out, may not help me make as much stuff as simply sitting in the sun and letting the world grow on around me.

FOM (Friends of the Monkey)

3-monkeys

While your inner critic, that churlish monkey, sits glowering in your head, he has allies all around. They are camped on the hill and are riding in from all points of the compass, waiting for their colleague on the inside to lower the gates and let them flood in and maraud.  Most of these confederates are unwitting. They don’t know they are part of the army that can bring you down. But the monkey knows.

Some of them are driven by monkeys of their own. When you share your creative plans, your intention to start making art or to invest in yourself, they will start chattering from the trees, gibbering in fear. Fear for themselves. When you announce your brave decision to reverse the course of your life, to begin to make things again as you haven’t since third grade, you will set a shining example that will reflect back their own failures to live up to their dreams.

This isn’t universal of course. Many will applaud you and offer you encouragement. But skulking in the crowd will be those who are resentful and bitter and frustrated. And they will begin to lob suggestions, improvements, cautions, and advocacy for the Devil, designed to make you balk and backtrack.

Creativity is a particular magnet for this sort of monkey convocation. In my decades as a creative professional, I have encountered this spirit time and again. When I am awash with excitement at a new project or the possibilities of an assignment, these monkeys slink into my office, slump on to my couch and start to tell me the latest gossip, the latest management bungle, the latest reason to lose faith. They will complain about the assignment, the industry, the market. They will try to drag me into long sessions of venom and bile. They will splash me but I work to remain unblemished. Better to get up and leave that be infected with their toxicity. They are creative at coming up with reasons to stall and malinger, such is their monkeys’ gift of gab, and my own internal monkey howls with glee and joins the chorus.  These voices get me nowhere and need not to be heeded. Cut the chat short and get back to work.

And, while I am busy pointing fingers, let me point them at the mirror too. For in my own moments of weakness and doubt, I have been equally capable of joining or even initiating these grumblefests, feeling insecure in myself, acquiescing to the primate within and dragging in to a colleague’s office, leaning on my hairy knuckles. It’s a toxic affair that makes everyone feel, not purged, but depleted and sick.

Another band of accomplices are the media. The monkey loves the mindless vegetation of watching TV, numbing you with celebrities and gossip. Not the stories of artists and creative inspiration but the mindless doings of fabricated and often malignant chitchat. Besides being a time waster and anesthetic, the media can also skew your perception of art, artists and the true nature of success.

The banker is another friend of the monkey, cajoling you to focus on the bottom line. So is the electric company and the credit card company. They can make you do the monkey’s bidding, downscaling your ambitions because you feel trapped. They don’t deal in might-bes, they want theirs and now. They warn you not to take risks, to keep your day job, to be sensible. Of course, they have the right to get paid. But not to decide your future.

If you are a creative professional, you had to overcome the monkey just to get your career started. The monkey probably warned you and your parents: Don’t be a designer, an art director, an illustrator, an architect, a programmer, a musician, etc. It’s too risky, too competitive, etc. but you did nonetheless. But maybe now you see that the monkey finally let you follow this professional path but now won’t let you pursue your true passion — making art, speaking in your own voice, being your own client. The monkey giveth and he taketh away.

If you are wrestling with this issue, stop thinking. The monkey wants to engage you, wants you to obsess about his heckling and turn your creative energy into a response ego him. Don’t. Focus instead on what you want to do. Draw something. Write something. Then don’t look at it. Don’t judge it. Don’t show it to anyone else. Turn the page and write some more, do another drawing, dream another dream. When the books is done, fill another. Just keep going. Don’t ask for feedback from anyone who might derail you. Better to work alone in a cave than throw your work to the monkeys. Distance and perseverance are the best antidotes to this scourge. Build up your ramparts and lock the beast in your darkest, deepest dungeon.

Then get back to work.

Do you find your monkey has allies? What do they say? How do you deal with them? I’d love to know.

Tragedy in the Art world.

burnt-picasso

I just finished reading a horrible story in the paper. Apparently a Romanian woman’s son stole a number of works of art from a museum in Rotterdam, paintings and drawings by Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Lucian Freud and more. Convinced that if the paintings no longer existed, her son could not be prosecuted, the woman burned them all in the stove. Experts analyzed the ashes and concluded that her grim tale is almost certainly true. These masterpieces are lost to the world forever.

As I sat in the kitchen reading this sad story, my mind wandered off on a tangent. How many works of art have I destroyed? Not literally in my kitchen stove, but in the furnace of my mind. How many paintings have I not done? How many drawings have I aborted? How many pots have I not thrown? How many films have I not made? I thought of all the times I thought I should do some drawing and instead watched “Real Housewives”. I thought about that etching class I was thinking of taking last year and didn’t. Poof, all those would-be etchings went up in smoke. Or that three-week trip I took to Japan when I didn’t do a single sketch in my book. Or that Sketchbook Film we planned to do about a fashion illustrator but never got around to.

This isn’t the monkey talking, brutalizing me for my indolence. It’s just a fact. Every time I find a reason not to create, the art I might have made doesn’t exist. It may not have all been great art, worthy of Rotterdam, but it would have been another step on the path to better art, more fluid, more expressive, more fun.

What have you not made? And how can we fight the fire?

Fresh wisdom to trump the monkey.

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I was served two giant helpings of insight this morning, both in my email inbox.

First, this note from Evelyn:

Hi Danny,

I recently ran a drawing class for adults – a sort of introduction to urban sketching, really. On the first day I shared the story of my own rediscovery of drawing, a rediscovery largely fueled by Everyday Matters. I talked about letting go of attachment to the outcome, focusing on seeing and the connection that is made with the world around us as we draw. I said don’t wait for it to be perfect before you share what you draw.

One of the participants then told me, ” I don’t have much confidence and I have no experience. The reason I signed up for this class was because the drawing on the flyer was not that good.”

It was a drawing I’d done with a bamboo pen and ink I didn’t know was water soluble, so the watercolour kind of ran into the ink and there are some pretty messy bits.

This woman’s words made a big impression on me. There is so much value in modelling joyful imperfection!!

When I teach in high schools, I don’t teach art, but the same principle holds. We need to help people to be able to love themselves unconditionally. To be self critical without anxiety and to create fearlessly.

With gratitude for all you have given, and my best wishes, Evelyn

And then, on a different but somehow related note, this blogpost from Jennifer: Live up to your full potential. It’s a lovely perspective on how to judge whether you are making the most of your gifts.

What if we redefined what this whole potential thing really meant? What if, instead of having to prove our creative selves in a particular area of art, we could reach our potential by simply living artfully? What if, instead of striving to make lots of money with our art, or show just how technically perfect we could draw… what if we engaged in our everyday lives with an artful eye, probing the moments for beauty? What if, we reached our potential by daily living the life WE HAVE, the good and the bad, the mundane and the magical, with open arms and full hearts, celebrating and capturing some of it in an artful manner along the way? What if living up to our potential as artists had MORE to do with seeing the beauty in all of life and sharing it with one or more persons, than with being able to say we have devoted our whole lives to making a career of x or y or z.

To me, these are both conversations about the monkey, about how we can cope with the incessant jabber of our self-doubt and -criticism that wastes so much energy and time. As Evelyn points out, our ‘failures’ are in fact our richest lessons. The most important things is just to start, to make, to move forward, and to shun the wimper within that woud keep us forever in the starting blocks. That voice isn’t just an impediment, it’s a cancer that chews on us, winnowing us down to smaller and smaller versions of ourselves, as we brutalize ourselves with doubt and recrimination. Be kind to yourself, and be creative.

Jennifer’s lessons comes from outside, from the larger world that uses the dollars as the only true yardstick, from the golden monkey now internalized. This monkey voice is just one of the sheepdogs of economics and really has nothing to do with us.  It barks the simple cry of the market. For art to be valued financially, it must be a limited commodity. If everybody made art, it would be so common it would have no financial value. So our society is geared towards making art an exceptional behavior created by the few, a meager supply managed by the system of galleries and museums that turn human creativity into a market.

So it’s not surprising that when you graduate from crayons and want to continue creating art as part of your everyday life, you are discouraged from making at every turn. The only way that art can be sanctioned is if you pass through the system of art schools, galleries and critics that will cull the herd and protect the market.

Fortunately, the Internet has made it possible to share your creativity with other people and to get positive feedback and constructive criticism without financial transactions. The Internet has liberated us from the marketplace of art. It has restored the impulse for creative expression that has existed in our species since we painted bison on the  walls of caves.

This isn’t anti-capitalist. It is pro-self-expression. And it is optimistic. Because no matter whether it is stifled by the government, by religion, by the marketplace or by snobs and bores, ultimately that impulse will return and prevail. Now more than ever.

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that value and scarcity are no longer inextricably linked. Now good ideas are what are valuable and good ideas can be copied over and over and shared with billions and still retain their value. We live in the golden age of creativity, a new renaissance. Now making art will no longer be discouraged. it will be essential.

art with a small a is not a product. It’s a point of view.  It’s a way of life.

art isn’t for museums. art is for everyday.

The Art world is about money. art is about passion, love, life, humanity — everything that is truly valuable.