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Conversation with Helen Sword

Writing With Style

Helen Sword is a scholar, award-winning teacher, and poet who has published books and articles on modernist literature, higher education pedagogy, digital poetics, and academic writing. Born and raised in Southern California, she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and now teaches in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.  Her latest book is Stylish Academic Writing.

Can I start by asking you for your definition of style?

Yeah that’s an interesting one. In academic writing, style is quite a neutral word. That’s why I tend to use the word “stylishness” when I’m talking about what, probably in a more design and creativity context, you would just call style, but there are all these academic style guides that are really about rules, and not about style. So when people talk about academic style, often they just mean how do you cite sources? Where do you put commas to be correct according to this style or that style. That’s not necessarily my definition of style, but that’s the definition in the context I’m working within. Calling my book Stylish Academic Writing was an intentional oxymoron because people so often don’t associate anything academic with being stylish. The point I was trying to make is that everybody has a style.

When I was working on the book, I was thinking quite intentionally about comparisons with style in architecture, style in furniture, style in clothing, where we can probably all agree that there are a lot of different styles and we might have different opinions about what styles we like, or even what we would call stylish, but we generally agree on what is and isn’t an attempt to be stylish. To just kind of push the metaphor a bit further, a lot of academic writing, to me is kind of like the person who rolls out of bed in the morning, pulls on a pair of track pants and goes to work dressed like that, or worse yet, goes to a black tie reception or something. Whereas if somebody came decked out and a Mohawk or a bunch of piercings, you would at least say, well they’re being self-conscious about how they’re dressing. They’ve got a sense of style, even if I don’t necessarily like that sense of style myself. There’s a broad range of possibilities of what could be stylish writing, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all self-conscious. There’s a self-consciousness on the part of the writer. They’re making an effort. They’re making conscious choices.  They’re not doing the writing equivalent of rolling out of bed and putting on the dirty clothes from the night before that just happened to be lying there.

So, stylishness, by its nature, is deliberate?

Yeah, it’s a deliberate effort to dress for the occasion. If you look at academics lecturing, some people really dress up. Some deliberately dress down. They don’t want to invoke that sense of authority. And then some will not think at all about what they’re wearing. And they’re the ones we’d probably associate with the absence of style. Same thing with writing—there are so many people who write the way they do because they’ve kind of unconsciously absorbed the style of the discipline. And not because they’re making conscious choices about how to communicate effectively.

Why, in academia, is convention so often taken almost as if it is physical law?

 I think there’s a certain amount of resistance to stylishness in academia, not by everyone. But the idea that somehow, if you’re dressing things up, you’re therefore dumbing things down or you’re somehow not doing full justice to the ideas. One thing I found really interesting, researching the book, was the idea of ‘elegance.’  I could’ve called the book ‘Elegant Academic Writing’ and it would have sort of meant the same thing. In elegance, when we think about it in terms of again, clothing or furniture or something, we tend to equate it with a sense of style. Some indefinable sense of style. But in science and mathematics, it has quite a precise definition. Which is that it’s the shortest solution to a complex problem. That’s an elegant solution. So if you think about elegant writing in that way, it’s not necessarily shorter sentences, but it’s the best possible way of expressing what you need to express. And if you put that definition in front of academics, they’re very receptive to it. But if they think that what you mean by stylish is dressing things up, then they’re very resistant to that.

Is stylish academic writing always synonymous with clarity or might it also be more decorative?

Yeah, for me, it’s the gamut. And I come out of literary studies myself, and people who work in English departments will often value complexity. They’ll actually say I write these long, difficult sentences because there’s a kind of mental discipline that’s needed then, to be able to work through that complexity. I have some resistance to that—to the idea that you’re intentionally making things more complex to your reader, but I can understand the argument and I would like a definition of style or stylishness that allows for that choice. 

I love this example in your book of the Formula-1 pit stop crew that helps reinvent the organizational design and workflow of a hospital, making procedures more synchronized and efficient.  Can you speak to the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration? Does style has everything to do with thinking across disciplinary lines?

I think it does. It allows you more choices and it makes you more self-conscious about what you’re doing, so it fits perfectly within that overarching definition of what it means to be stylish. What I really noticed, when I went out to read books and articles by people who have been identified to me by their own peers as stylish writers, or exemplary writers, was how again and again that they were making references to ideas from beyond their own disciplines. That just seemed to be such a component to their way of thinking. And that goes way beyond writing in style on the level of how you construct a sentence. It’s really a mode of thinking that shows intellectual curiosity and voraciousness. Does that mean that interdisciplinarity is a component of stylishness? Not necessarily, but I would say that you have a much wider range of styles or ways of thinking at your disposal if you have an interdisciplinary bent. 

Conversation with Nadine Chahine

*This conversation was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012

Designing Dialogue

What are some key words in the type designer’s style lexicon? 

In Latin type design the word style is often used to distinguish between structurally different models of reference. The roman and italic are two different styles that can be related as part of the same typeface family. Style can also be used to refer to other references such as serifs, sans-serifs, slab-serifs and so on. Some key concepts relating to style are the style of the serifs, the axis direction—changing it gives you variations from a Garamond to a Bodoni, the contrast—how much variation you have in the thickness of the stroke, and rhythm—a condensed style will have a tighter rhythm.

 Besides readability, what are the ‘ingredients’ of a great font?

It is very important to have well-drawn outlines and a visual impact that can fulfill the function that the typeface is meant for. A great typeface needs to work in its intended setting whether that is book, newspaper, and mobile. It is not about how good the individual letters look, but rather how good the words and texts are, and how the letterforms work together. 

What would you call that element - how the letterforms work together? Flow?

Yes that would be the flow of reading movement. Imagine driving on a highway, the less bumpy then the more enjoyable the ride. Each letterform creates a black and white element. Together, letterforms combine to create the text pattern. If these black and white elements flow smoothly together then the pattern is enjoyable and smooth.  

How do you describe your own style? What boundaries are you playing across?

Very function driven, and realistically experimental. I like to play within the boundaries of different styles and to create hybrids that feel authentic and are readily acceptable to those who are meant to read them. 

Tell me about some of those different styles and the challenges of creating hybrids from them.

We have many different calligraphic styles and the main two are the Naskh and Kufi styles. The first is round and organic, and the second more squarish. A hybrid blends the pen-based movement of the first with the rhythmic simplicity of the second. Frutiger Arabic is a good example of that. 

How do you set the limits of how far you’ll take your experimental work?

You design and test it out and see how people react to it. It’s a lot of trial and error, as well as the deep study of how letterforms are shaped and the logic behind the aesthetics.

How do stylistic variations of Arabic scripts affect the written text? 

The effects are as dramatic as the differences between an italic and a Fraktur. There is a wide range of visual expressions and the purely calligraphic references in Arabic are a good starting point to study. However, we have a lot of things to say that cannot be told in the traditional calligraphic nomenclature. So we need to mix styles and to push the envelop within the limits of public acceptance in order to be able to express concepts that were simply not present during the times of Arabic calligraphic innovations.

How have you successfully transferred elements of style from other disciplines to your own work?

I am very interested in international politics and cultural exchange and this has shaped my approach to design in general. I do not see a separation between typefaces and the environment they live in. Everything we do is shaped by how we live and that has been the strongest driver for me. I grew up in the middle of an ugly civil war, and the ability to engage in dialogue between opposing parties (political, typographic or otherwise) has been the guiding principle in all my designs. 

The Lebanese Civil War - Can you talk more about the different ways that dialogue shows in your work? Is it about making opposing ideas or styles appear complementary, or can it also work as more of a tension or clash?

The first typeface family that I designed is Koufiya, which is the first typeface family with Arabic and Latin companions meant for each other and designed simultaneously for the express purpose of harmonizing two scripts that are so different. Koufiya is the embodiment of my political beliefs, that we need to accept our differences, and that dialogue is possible even when those engaged in it are very different. We do not need to morph one to another in order to create harmony. Real equal dialogue comes through the understanding and acceptance of what makes us different. This is true for both typographic and political landscapes. Koufiya is also a statement of the relationship between the Arabic world and the western world. I prefer that we engage in equal-footed dialogue rather than hide behind stereotypes. It is the only way forward.

Nadine Chahine is an award winning Lebanese type designer with a special interest in Arabic typography. She won the distinguished Award for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008 and 2011.

Conversation with Chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

The Twenty-Three Year-Old Chess Grandmaster on Sport, Strategy and Style

How do you talk about ‘style’ in chess? Give me a sense of the vocabulary that comes up in a conversation between two chess players about their ‘style of play.’

For me, more than style, the main thing is to try to make the best move in any position. Having preferences regarding a certain style can be a weakness as you need to cope with any position. That said, most people have certain preferences. In the early time of modern chess, it was considered more prestigious to have an attacking, almost a romantic approach to the game. Today the level is very high and all top players found their game on positional principles.

How have you had to adapt your game over the course of your career as you faced increasingly elite opponents?

I was more aggressive in my early days. As the level of opposition increased, I had to adapt as they constantly showed deeper understanding and outplayed me. I try to be a fighter, but at the very highest level you can’t expect to win in great fashion very often.

How has training with the help of technology changed players’ styles over the years?  What’s been lost? What’s been gained?

I learned chess the old fashion way by playing a lot as well as reading magazines and books all the time. I think this was helpful for the development of my understanding of the game. Now the engines and databases are extremely important tools, also for me, especially when it comes to opening preparations. It’s also very useful to have the opportunity to access information of games played all around the world constantly to keep track of new ideas. As all players have access to the same computer programs and databases, it’s not enough to just try to copy lines. You need to develop own ideas, and use the computer to check if they are sound or not.

You’ve said that you have no preference of playing style. Talk to me about the benefits of stylistic versatility. Does your playing style adjust according to your mood, or do you only adapt in alignment to your opponent?

I try to find the best moves all the time, but it’s obviously easier to think if your mind is fresh. For me mood and energy are important, and physical training and the right food help me feel energized. A former trainer encouraged me to try new openings all the time when I was young. I think this advice helped me in developing a versatile style. It’s very easy for many to be stuck with a few openings and patterns that work well for them. 

How else do you keep your style unpredictable?

There are no tricks or easy routes, as all my competitors know all openings very well. I just try to keep putting pressure and force my opponent to be very precise. I try to steer the game in a direction where it’s hard for my opponent to do so.

Where in a game, the opening, middle or end game, does one’s playing style shine through the most?

All top grandmasters play the opening very well, and it’s not possible to obtain a decided advantage in this phase of the game any more. This is mostly a result of the strong computer programs that all use for their preparations. This is quite new in chess, as just 10 or 15 years ago this was different. As a result, chess has become a more fighting game. You need to really fight, often from even positions after the openings, to be able to squeeze out a win in the late middle game or the ending. I think the ability to be precise through a complete game is what divides the very best from the very good. The best players very often pick up points from games that seem to be drawish, as their opponent cracks in time trouble or loses concentration at some point.

What is the relationship between strategy and style? In chess, how do these two elements of your game work in conjunction toward the ultimate goal of defeating your opponent?

 I’m looking for opportunities in all phases of the game. Often I’m a bit too optimistic about my own chances, but in chess, I think it’s way better to be too optimistic rather than the opposite. Of course fighting abilities combined with skills is important if you want to be the best. For me it’s always the most interesting to play the very best grandmasters in the world. Then the battle of ideas are really challenging. A weaker opponent often allows you to complete your plans without too much resistance, and that’s actually not so interesting from a sporting point of view.

Chess is frequently used as metaphor for other situations in life. How does an understanding or the mastery of chess, inform other life situations?

A lot of people have views on this. For me, I think I have an understanding of what it takes to achieve something. And the importance of being precise in planning and execution. In my private life I follow my intuition and gut feeling.

How has your chess game been influenced by other disciplines? How have you integrated outside influences into your game?

I think the most important influence is from other sports. And how to be professional in all aspects of my career.

Magnus Carlsen is a Norwegian chess Grandmaster and chess prodigy. At the time of this interview he is the number-one ranked player in the world.

 *Thanks to Adam Rubin for contributing questions and helping to shape this interview.


Sep 01 2013
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Conversation with Perfumer Carlos Huber of Arquiste

*This conversation was originally printed in MISC Magazine’s Style Issue; December 2012


What does ‘style’ mean to you? 

For me style is a manifestation of someone’s personality, it’s how they define themselves and choose to present themselves to the world. It can be anything from the clothes someone wears to the manners and attitude they have to of course, the fragrance they choose to wear.  

How does someone’s scent define him or her? 

Scent goes hand-in-hand with style. The scent that someone chooses speaks volumes about their personality. If you choose a scent that is sweet, bright, floral, musky, citrusy or smoky, it automatically defines your personality and feeds into your personal style.  

How do you articulate the ‘style’ of a fragrance? Is it about a region and moment in time? What are some of the other ways to describe the style of a fragrance? 

As far as fragrance types or ‘styles’, there already exists very objective categories, like florals, gourmands or woody fragrances, however, our fragrances all aim to capture a moment in time, and it’s true that the emotion a certain fragrance evokes comes from the elements that inspired it. For example, L’Etrog is inspired by the harvest of a specific citrus type from Calabria, Italy, the citron. It recreates the burst of citrus within a cabin built of palm leaves and woody branches, and contains elements of the Etrog citron, Myrtle and Date Fruit, among other things. The scent of all of those elements together are what makes up the particular “style” of that fragrance. In this case, it is a “citrus chypre” meaning a green, refreshing, zingy fragrance. The story behind it matches this happy, light feeling.

How has your background in architecture informed your current work with fragrances? 

 Architecture, like fragrance, captures certain periods in time and makes them stand still. A building built in the 1800’s tells you a different story than one built, for example, in the 1930’s or the 1990’s. When I think of when and where our fragrances take place, I study the architecture of the time, analyze the materials, if they have any olfactive properties, and the process becomes organic from there. I also focus on the people, weather and vegetation that are tied to it.

What are some surprising sources of inspiration that you’ve been able to sapply to your craft?  

 The Arquiste fragrances are inspired by very specific time periods and places. Infanta en flor is inspired by the day that the Spanish Court and the Infanta Maria Teresa encountered Louis XIV and the French, in order to cement peace between the two nations. She was perfumed with Orange flower water, but there is also the mingling of an accord known as “Peau de Espagne” a scented leather used by the men in her entourage. Fleur de Louis takes the opposite side of this event, recreating French formulas that were used to wash shirts, powder faces, perfume spaces…It also incorporates Pine and White Cedar wood, materials used in the construction of the pavilion where they met. Being from Mexico, I focused my research and curiosity to study different Mexican plants, extracts, and recipes as well.

How else have you successfully transferred elements of style from other disciplines to your work?  

I like to think we infuse style into all aspects of Arquiste. Each bottle’s labelling is done in a different font that relates to the story on which the scent is based. Arquiste’s logo is meant to look like an imprint that has been there for a long time; like the memory of perfume, it might be slightly faded, like a piece of history, but it is forever inscribed in memory. I’m very thankful for all previous work experiences, but it is not a done process; my work, my ongoing career and what I learn from friends and colleagues continue to feed the aesthetic and brand identity of Arquiste. 

Smells are often associated with history and nostalgia. What will the future smell like? What scents do you predict will be desirable in 5, 20 and 50 years? 

 It’s difficult to predict what the future will smell like and what scents will be desirable years from now. However, in working with the fragrances that evoke the past, I was surprised to find that the scents were actually also very familiar. They were actually more relevant and modern than I had even thought. As long as we maintain a connection with nature, there will be continuity in what we experience, and that is very important to predict our future.

 At one point, you designed historically-informed commercial spaces for Ralph Lauren. Tell me about that experience.  How were the environments styled to complement the clothing? What did this experience reveal to you about people’s behaviors in shopping environments? 

Ralph Lauren has a very particular approach to style. It is grounded in Americana, but feeds off of different cultures and influences. The concept behind the store environments is to create a story—some sort of narrative that fits in to the setting, the neighborhood, city or the culture. The clothes that are thought for that space are part of the story, so it’s literally like walking into someone’s world. The brand also looks towards “classic” periods, moments in time that are in a way “gilded eras”.  When people are shopping in a space so rich in details they are there to participate in this dream, the story being evoked. This is part of the magic of design. When designing a space, a garden, a dress or a perfectly crafted fragrance, you can overlook the power of the story.

Carlos Huber is the founder of Arquiste, a line of five unisex perfumes is meant to “transport you to another place and time.” Prior to his fragrance work, he has been an architect, historical preservationist and retail space designer.

Dec 27 2012
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Marketing Magic and Illusions of Simplicity

 “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke

From the introduction to the back-story to the execution of a particular set of events and techniques, a myriad of factors must go exactly right to successfully perform an illusion. This calculated multiplicity is key to the illusion’s power to fool the mind; Illusion is complexity veiled, and made to appear so simple that its appearance can only be construed as magic. It can have the effect of transforming people’s perception and definition of what is possible. It can create trust, while inspiring disbelief. Above all else, illusion makes people believe, even when they don’t trust what they are witness to.

 For centuries, magicians have passed bits and pieces of this intangible power on from generation to generation. The brotherhood and trust that has formed among illusionists is reflective of the power itself. There are always elements and intricacies of the execution that are held back and the greatest illusions of all are left for each individual, magician or not, to decode on their own.

Along with the magician’s code of secrecy though, there has also been a tradition—or sense of responsibility passed down through the world’s greatest illusionists—for skepticism and demystification. Harry Houdini debunked spiritualist séances and commissioned a book called, “The Cancer of Superstition.” While the Canadian illusionist James Randi exposed faith healers, wizards, psychics, prophets and more. Today, that tradition is upheld in the work of Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller who have been amazing and enlightening audiences with their mix of illusion, comedy, and skepticism since 1975.

Describing themselves as “a couple of eccentric guys who have learned how to do a few cool things,” their approach to magic and their populist success as magicians is strengthened by subversion. Penn and Teller thrive on debunking pseudoscientific ideas, they undermine their craft by making tricks look easy and, without breaking the magician’s code of secrecy, they continually invite their audience to discover the magic of magic. As Penn has said, “One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we’re in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality.”

In marketing, the distinction between fantasy and reality can be a trivial one—particularly in tech, where consumers willingly engage with new and mystifying products though they may not understand the backend processes. Illusion relies on this tendency—misinterpretation of the total activities occurring. Illusionists often appear calm, cool and collected with many of their movements subtle and undetected, much the same as a duck crossing a pond – graceful and steady above water, but hidden beneath the surface is a flurry of movement necessary just to keep it afloat and on course. To this end, marketers can use illusion to distract and excuse the consumer from his unfamiliarity with new products and technologies. The power of illusion is to make an entire system of activities and channels materialize as one simple and magical experience for the consumer. Principles of design thinking enable brands to synthesize their many features and capabilities as a captivating narrative—an illusion. By creatively locating the illusory magic of their products, brands can leverage the power of amazement to shift perspectives and compel consumer activity. 

Apple, for example, officially describes the iPad not with a long list of technical jargon but as a “magical device.”  The illusion, in this case, plays up magic to obfuscate the complexities. The language, like the interfaces themselves, becomes a veil of illusion. The operating systems show only the top layer of their framework, making the user experience feel like magic. As Apple designer Johnny Ives contended in the iPadʼs original promotional video: “When something exceeds your ability to know how it works, it sort of becomes magical.” Behind the veil, of course there are innumerable processes occurring, but emphasis is placed on the visual and sensual rather than the technical—“It’s like holding the internet in your hands.” Instead of dwelling on practical features or the ‘technical how’ of the product, the strength of illusion is such that audiences are contented to wallow in a state of amazement and disbelief.

Similarly, Sergey Brin likens Google to ‘the mind of God’ – and it can seem that way sometimes with its uncannily accurate responses to keyword queries. While behind the scenes, transport agents mine the data and return with results algorithmically sorted by relevance, the product works so instantaneously and accurately as to seem magical, predictive and productive in the sense that it brings something out of nothing. In fact, it is the aggregate effect of aggregate activities showing forth as illusory magic, a product of faith and awe. Or as Teller reveals, “to fool the mind, you must combine at least two tricks.”

 Illusion’s ability to confound the senses buys the illusionist a currency of sort. This currency can be used throughout the duration of the spell to help reset the audience’s understanding and is something that magicians can capitalize on. For brands, that sense of spellbound infatuation translates as a unique opportunity to close sales and secure extended loyalty. For Apple and Google, the mysterious nature of magic plays on people’s need to believe, creating a cult-like following.

The magician’s oath promises “never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless he swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn.” Exposure of the secret is believed to remove the element of amazement. The tricks lose their ‘magic’ and instead function as intellectual puzzles. Penn and Teller however, debunkers that they are, frequently reveal their methods using transparent props. They reason that an understanding and appreciation of the mastery and cleverness of the illusion actually enhances the audience’s experience. Furthermore, Penn and Teller add twists and unexplained effects into the exposures that are even more astonishing than the original trick. Rather than ruining the magic by revealing the simplicity of the secret, they raise the stakes by educating their audience, and proceeding to astonish them still more. Entertaining an informed audience is more ambitious and rewarding than going for the cheap thrill. As consumers become increasingly technologically literate and curious—not to mention suspicious of sales jargon—brands too can benefit by demystifying their own magic. When James Dyson revolutionized the vacuum with dual cyclone technology, he made the dust container transparent so people could see how it worked. In the innovation economy, value is made not only from the ‘magical’ effects of a good product but also from the beauty of that product’s inner workings, the processes involved, and the methods that lead to it.

 To truly mesmerize his consumers, a savvy brand magician plays first into their faculties for astonishment and disbelief, and then engages their curiosity.

*originally published in M/I/S/C Magazine’s Simplicity Issue

Simple Wisdom from 9 Design Thinkers

For M/I/S/C Magazine, I recently produced this special feature, wherein I interviewed a theoretical neurobiologist, 2 artists, 3 writers, a cartographer, an MIT chemist, and the guy who built a robot replica of himself as a means to study the way humans interact with machines.

The format was sort of experimental; Leaving out my own questions and comments, I attempted to crystallize a series of standalone quotes that would do two jobs, 1) tell each person’s story and 2) offer un-obvious life aphorisms.

M/I/S/C Magazine’s Simplicity Issue is available on newsstands now.

Epiphany: Notes on Design Thinking

A more arousing word for insight is epiphany—sudden revelations of truth, from aggregate experience, and triggered by the something trivial in the present. The feeling is part of what motivates and fulfills us as thinkers. Its surprise is its power, that the thankless labor will make itself worthwhile, in a sudden and unexpected instant. The labor though—the time spent trying to make sense of the problem, rather than the moment of unfolding—is what’s important. Waiting for moments, one loses sight of motives.

Scott Berkun, in his book The Myths of Innovation, dismisses the something-out-of-nothing epiphany as naive romanticism. “The most useful way to think about epiphany,” he advises, “is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems… When a powerful moment does happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. Even in the myths, Newton had one apple and Archimedes had one eureka. To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point.” Epiphanies are moments of synthesis, which bring to surface and purpose, the disparate chords we had already suspected would interrelate in meaningful ways. They’re the product of extensive and diverse efforts. And there are other electric ‘moments’ along the way: the hunch before, the study toward, and the articulation after that gives the epiphany its value.

The French mathematician Poincaré saw epiphanies as the accumulation of a life’s effort. He suggested that ideas become like “mobilized atoms in the unconscious, arranging and rearranging themselves in endless combinations, until finally the ‘most beautiful’ of them makes it through a ‘delicate sieve’ into full consciousness, where it will then be refined and proved.”

With cognitive frameworks like design thinking, we’d like to think we can somehow design our cognitive processes in a kind of rube goldberg mechanism arriving finally at a powerful insight, or epiphany. Can we? Part of that comes down to exposure. How do you bring together your influences? What do you spend your time reading, looking at, listening to, and discussing? How do you intuitively pull together the right bits of data and sparks of inspiration to maximize the quality of your output? I think of this as strategic or controlled exposure—creating a deliberately polymathic environment as the ‘studio.’

*A version of this piece was published in M/I/S/C Magazine’s Insight Issue.

Oct 27 2012
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In Conversation with Saul Williams, 2004

Recently bumped into Saul Williams at a hotdog stand in Toronto and was reminded of a conversation I’d had with him in 2004. At the time, he was a huge influence on my writing and thinking. Looking back - I see this as one of the formative points where I began to see the interview as an art practice in itself. Rather than just a promotional means. Below is a excerpt from the piece, originally published in HipHopCanada.

Robert Bolton: In SHE, you wrote, “We are left to make magic of our own names given to us through the love of our parents” You found the sun in your name. Why was it relevant for your new album to be self-titled?

Saul Williams: It was right before I went into the studio to finish the album, my manager and I had a discussion and it boiled down to like, “Yeah, it would be cool to have a self-titled album.” And it kind of frightened me because all of a sudden I was like, “wow I think that would be cool but now that makes me listen to the music and have to make sure it represents me fully. All the sides of me. So I think that this album successfully shows more sides of me then someone might be used to. I think people usually associate me with some type of intellectual anger. This album shows other sides of me like my sense of humour. It’s a fun sounding album. Although the subject matter can get interesting at times, I had fun doing it.

RB: For those who don’t know, could you tell us about the Not In Our Name initiative? Who was involved in it and what does it stand for?

SW: The Not In Our Name initiative basically was sent out to the world to say that there are people primarily in America that do not agree with American foreign policy. We wanted to send out the message to the world to just say, “Look, I know that CNN and what have you is telling you this, but I need you to understand that we realize our connection to humanity and we realize that we are human first regardless of what our current administration says.” And so there was a lot of celebrities involved in the movement. (Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Ossie Davis, Gloria Steinhem, Sean Penn and Kurt Vonnegut) It was really about raising awareness here in the states, but it was also about sending that message out to the rest of the world so that people who were protesting against what was happening in America knew that there were people in America protesting against what our own government has been doing.

RB: Bush said, “You’re either with us or against us,” referring to terrorism. Can u comment on this with respect to your initiative?

SW: Well I did a book called, “Said the shotgun to the head and that book is one long poem that’s the voice of a man that’s telling of the coming of a female messiah. What’s interesting about this book is that it deconstructs western ideals and values and the difference between western and eastern ideals and values. It does so under the context of religion. I played with religion a lot primarily because religion has often been the cornerstone of a lot of wars that have been fought including this war in the Middle East. So what’s interesting is that if you look at an eastern religion like Hinduism, it teaches that the universe is composed of a unified duality, which they call Shiva and Shakti energy, which correlates to male and female energy. They say that those 2 sides compliment each other and form a unified whole. Buddhism, another eastern religion, asserts that the universe is composed of a unified duality, which they call Yin and Yang energy, which correlates again with male and female energy. Then you get to the west, which teaches that there’s god and devil, right and wrong, and the woman’s on the side of the devil because she bit the apple. It’s pretty interesting because when you look at these eastern perspectives that embrace the left and the right, the male and the female, the yin and the yang, the Shiva and the Shakti and you look at this western philosophy that says its one or the other. It’s right or wrong. It’s god or the devil. It’s black or white. You’re either with us or against us. And you see right there why it is that we have been the perpetuators of so much warfare not only outside of America but the history of slavery and racism and all these things. Its like wow! That’s it right there! It’s the cornerstone of it right there. That mentality that says that it’s one or the other. Because it’s not one or the other. It’s one and the other. And then at some point you come to the realization that there is no other or as Hafiz the Sufi poet says, “the other is a lie.”

RB: You have a recurring role on the UPN’s hit sit-com Girlfriends; this is probably the last place most people would expect to see Saul Williams. How did this opportunity come about?

SW: I knew the producers and they approached me the day before they started auditions like, “Yo we wrote this roll kind of based on you. You would never do it right?” I’m like, “What the fuck? I wanna see. I’ll do it!” I just thought it would be fun. And it was, I had a lot of fun.

RB: How do the art of poetry and the art of acting relate? Do they go hand in hand?

SW: I think the best person to ask that would be Shakespeare. Many of our great writers and playwrights have often been poets from Shakespeare to Amiri Baraka. So a poem, in many cases is as dramatic as a good piece of drama, be it a play a monologue or what have you. So those two can come from the same source.

RB: Many people including myself were introduced to Saul Williams through the film Slam. How important was it that SLAM be set in Washington DC?

SW: Initially, it wasn’t very important. However, at the time we were about to start shooting, the governor at that time decided that no cameras would be allowed in New York prisons. And so, the documentarian I was working with at the time, who directed Slam, Mark Levin was working on a documentary in a DC jail so we thought, “well that makes perfect sense if you think about it. Look at all the symbols.” I loved it. As a writer of poetry, I was like, “This is awesome. All these symbols.”

RB: Yeah, the reason I asked that is because the architecture in DC seemed to fit very well with the Isis and Osirus Myth that you allude to in some of the pieces you spit in slam.

SW: Exactly. And all that stuff was in there before we decided to shoot in DC. So it was perfect.

RB: You often allude to the myth of Isis and Osirus. What is it about this myth that relates to your work so much?

SW: I’ve just spent a great deal of time interested in alchemy and Egyptology and and I think it’s very connected to the founding principals of even this nation. (USA) If you look at a dollar bill, you have these Egyptian symbols including the pyramid and the eye of Osirus and all this stuff on the dollar bill. It of course has everything to do with masonry and all this stuff. I think that there’s a great many esoteric and mystical truths and strengths and powers held within those teachings. So, I study them and connect them to our present.

RB: You’ve collaborated and performed with some legendary MCs, poets and producers. Is there any experience in writing, in the studio, or performing with a particular artist that is especially memorable?

SW: I remember being in the studio with KRS-ONE and just being completely intimidated and I was like, “There’s no way I’m gonna rhyme.” I did a track with him for the soundtrack to Slam. I literally stood in the vocal booth and read from my journal. I could’ve written a rhyme for the song but I was like, “I’m not gonna rhyme on a song that KRS is rhyming on.” I was just completely intimidated. (Laughs) When I did my last album (Amethyst Rock Star), I worked with Rick Rubin. The first song we produced was Penny for a Thought and I fucked up like 30 times in the booth. I was tripping on LL Cool J and all these people that he’s worked with. And Rick was like, “What’s the problem?” And I asked him like, “Well yo, how many takes does LL need?” and he answered me, “One.” I’m like, “Oh.”

RB: What is the state of hip-hop right now?

SW: Georgia. [Laughing] No, I don’t think we need to get rid of any artists or anything. I just think hip-hop needs balance. My two favorite albums of the past year were Mars Volta and Outkast. I love the success of that Outkast album. Outkast sold more than 50 Cent, which just goes to show that the truth is prevailing. I like 50 Cent too.

RB: Your song “Purple Pigeons” makes some interesting comment on creation, calling artists ‘little gods’. It’s also a very unorthodox song. What and who was involved in its creation?

SW: First of all we had Divine Styler engineering the track. He put out an album in ’91 called Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Life. He was down with Ice-T and all these people and that was the only hip-hop album that was done on acid before Del. It was so far left. He even interviews the Devil on that album. So that was crazy. My man Orko produced it. I’m having a conversation on that song with Wood Harris, an actor. He was in Paid in Full and played Hendrix in the Hendrix movie. He’s the one who makes the comment about, “Little Gods.” And that whole story in that conversation was true at the beginning of the song. I was in Belize, just me and this guy. I was lying in a hammock. And he just read this page from the bible. Both sides. And ripped it out and rolled a spliff.

Jul 29 2012
M/I/S/C Magazine Text

Shaking Up The Establishment: Six Innovative CEOs Reimagine Idle Brands

A piece I produced for M/I/S/C Magazine with graphic designer, Sarah Chung.

Brand reinvention is about a lot more than softening the edges of your logo. It can necessitate full-scale organizational and business model transformation, adoption of new technologies, process redesign, and often the addition (and removal) of personnel to evolve culture. 

As an exercise in imagination, MISC challenged a group of creative and enterprising CEOs from pioneering companies to reinvent established old-world brands. Each CEO chose the brand they would reinvent from a short list of our recommendations, then they told us exactly what they would do if given the reins of that company. Stepping out of their usual categories to act in the theatre of the conditional, each CEO boldly reveals us what they would do differently if put in charge of another brand.

Read what they had to say here.

Scanning the Canon: Reading Generational Insights from Pop Music

Originally printed in M/I/S/C Magazine, and later published at Noodleplay.com

Pop music has always informed and expressed our understanding of the everyday. It’s a tricky job; the song means to transcend the cultural moment, but depends on imitating it to do so.

By examining changing genres, new lyrical constructions and trending images, critics reveal insights about people’s activities and attitudes. It’s no secret that songs are rich artifacts for analysis. Look to the endless citations of Dylan and Cobain for past examples of how musicologists have read into cultural codes and conventions. As for this generation, the Millennial one that so much business literature seems to characterize as ‘elusive’ – well – song lyrics have never interpreted culture so exactly as they do right now of us. Take a listen. You’ll find the work of interpretation is already done for you. Where yesterday’s lyricists communicated a sense of the day by collaging its metonymic parts – juxtaposing timely images and references that piece together the generational spirit – today’s pop performers just state it outright. The gap between the text of the song and the activities it imitates thins out of existence.

Cultural commentator Sarah Liss draws attention to this trend in songwriting, specifically in those lyrics recounting the party. Citing Lady Gaga’s Just Dance and LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem as examples, she calls it “Absurdly Literal Party Pop.” In the more manufactured-feeling, top-down pop, it’s a trend that seems to have resisted the generation defining ‘indy-fication’ of everything else. Formally, it tends to be house or electro music, restructured to the traditional verse-chorus format, usually with elements of rap. There are clear conventions of content too, as evidenced in the similarities among Katy Perry’s heroic couplet “yeah we danced on table tops / and we took too many shots,” Gaga’s inquisitive “I’ve had a little bit too much…what’s the name of this club?” and Ke$ha’s determination in “pulling up to the parties / trying to get a bit tipsy.”

Conventions? Yes. Codes? Not so much. Millennials like to think we’re authentic. We are just so comfortable sharing our lives with everyone, including our ‘peer-ents’, that we no longer feel the need to encode our party. So instead of titles like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, we get Shots (shots, shots, shots … shots, shots) and Rihanna’s Cheers (Drink To That). The literal lyrics are not just designed to describe what Liss calls “great feats of partying” though. They also relay the more mundane details. Why do we need to know that Miley Cyrus “pulled up to the club in a taxi cab?”

These songs aren’t composed of symbols so much as they are of tweets, the sort of banal ones that are the reason you haven’t been on your Twitter account in months. ‘Absurdly Literal Party Pop’ reflects the greater trend that makes life easy for those marketers trying to understand Millennials: our unprecedented willingness to share. We go unashamed of our social activities. We self-actualize by being honest (proud) about our recklessness as well as our ordinariness. And we leave nothing to interpretation about our shot-drinking rituals.

The absolute directness of poetic intention is telling in itself and reveals insights across the pop-scape. Contemporary R&B had its last golden age around the turn of the millennium with Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Aaliyah. Since then, the genre has been more or less static with the exception of megastars Usher and Beyoncé dominating the 2000s. But recently there’s been an R&B resurgence disrupting some of the conventions of the last decade. The new performers are mostly male, the sound is uncharacteristically dark for the genre and the mood is altogether maudlin.

Associated with the down-beat and down-tempo sounds of The Dream, How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, the Dark R&B trend owes much of its woozy vibe to UK dub-step/R&B acts like Burial and SBTRCT as well as mid-west drag artists like Salem – and on a deeper level the Texas chop-and-screwed movement that’s influenced all of the above.

In contrast to Usher and Beyoncé’s at-the-club records and the sweeter bedroom-ballads of the 90s, Dark R&B is distinctly ‘after-hours party music.’ Characterized sonically by deep, synthesized base, skuffing syncopated percussion and eerie disembodied vocals, it’s a mopey take on subjects that musicians usually celebrate as part of the good life: sex and drugs.

Take, for example, The Weeknd. His music is centrally about his numbness to and from sex and drugs. It serves as a mood enhancer for the regret and anxiety one feels as his high comes down. Read this as an effect of the value system so bluntly expressed in our first trend, the fact that Millennials are over-partied. As a result, we have a whole genre of sinister pop music padded by a bassy motif of numbness. Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” is about painkillers only so much as it’s about not feeling anything about anything. It contains elements of humor, but there is an underlying awareness that I would generalize is held across our generation. We’re worried about the numbness of our own apathy, our apolitical tendencies and our nihilism.

On his song We All Try, Ocean croons with hope and concern, “I just don’t believe we’re wicked, I know that we’re sick, but I do believe we try.” The signs behind the genre are entangled with complex and contradictory Millennial attitudes and behaviors. If you’re looking for an insightful and actionable takeaway, here it is: For Millennials, ‘being cool’ falls at the recognition of our own alienation, loneliness and disaffected  yearning…and freaky but meaningless sex. In other words – Millennials like vampire stuff (but you already knew that).

Whether it was the open-air festivals of the 60s and 70s, the park parties of the 1980s, the block parties and roller-rink revivals of the 1990s or the post-rave mega clubs of the 2000s – music and party events have long been set in massive spaces and attended by masses of people. Today, we’re seeing a distinct shift in that relationship to size and space with an apparent shift in Hip Hop from the club to the dinner table. Call it the ‘miniaturization of the party.’ Artists like Drake and Kid Cudi (who also partake in the Dark R&B trend) are delivering images of fine dining with their curated friends. Their respective videos for Headlines and Pursuit of Happiness feature small groups of people arranged around long, elegant wooden tables that are set with silverware and bottles of wine – a far cry from 50 Cent’s 2004 In Da Club.

Gone are the days of inclusivity, the makeshift Bronx block parties, the fridges full of forties and bikini girls for all. And going are the days of grotesque mega clubs. Hip Hop is the litmus test, and today’s celebrations in that genre are taking place in private rooms with very short guest lists. They’re as decadent as ever and still about displaying access to resources, but doing so with an air of grown-up sophistication that has upped the ante by once again switching the currency of cultural capital. Anyone can go to the club and act
out a circa 2005 rap video. Not everyone can get a private table on an intimate hotel rooftop. Who really wants to swag-surf in crowded public spaces anyway? That’s what the Internet is for. Life is a photo shoot, not a live show. Millennials are both model and photographer, eager to broadcast every moment through TwitPic and UStream.

Conspicuous consumption persists in the age of social media, but that’s not particularly unique to Hip Hop or Millennials. If there’s an insight behind the shrinking of the party, it’s about cultivating meaningful relationships. We want to spend our time with our real friends, not strangers, acquaintances or ‘contacts’ in big anonymous nightclubs. So when Drake brags about making “reservations for twenty” or blowing “like 50K on a vacation” for all his pals, it’s about more than advertising the benefits of being part of his exclusive tribe. It’s about spending quality time, a personal expression of gratitude and reciprocation for the loyalty of best friends. And, in typical Millennial fashion, it’s one that you can experience for yourself on his blog.

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