The joy of living in the present

14 September 2013

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It’s been about ten years since I gave up my watch. Through college, I was a devoted watch-wearer, and I often checked the time compulsively. Sometimes, I would even look at my watch and then seconds later realize that I hadn’t even registered the time, so I’d have to look again. I was stressing out about the time while not even aware of what time it actually was.

Then my watch broke, and my cousin suggested I try life without it. She had given up her watch and said she didn’t miss it. For awhile, I felt naked. But it didn’t take long to adjust, and after I did, I noticed an interesting effect: going without a watch actually made me more aware of the time. Without thinking about it, I took note of environmental cues — the light, color, and temperature — and of the way time was passing, giving me an unconscious sense of the time of day. I’ve honed this ability by checking myself against the clock so that now my guess is often within 10 minutes of the time even if I haven’t looked at a clock all day.

This ability made me feel like I had a great awareness of time, but recently I had an experience that changed my perception of time yet again. A couple of months ago, I started a meditation practice. It began with five minutes here and there, snatched out of the morning rush of a busy day. Then, while on vacation this summer, I meditated for ten minutes a day. It doesn’t sound like much, but those ten minutes felt endless to me. On good days, where I found a clear mind, the ten minutes felt like a beautiful expanse. On bad days, it was an endless torture; my mind was like a hyperactive child for whom a minute of sitting still felt like an hour.

But good or bad, meditation had the same effect: time was expanding. And suddenly I realized how quickly time races away from me when my mind is focused on the future. Like many ambitious people, thinking about what’s next is a default state for me. I’m always thinking about an upcoming meeting or task. Planning, that great unique ability of the human prefrontal cortex, consumes a lot of my bandwidth. The completion of one thing is barely savored before moving on to the next one. My to do list and my calendar, both tools for managing and structuring the future, are tools I live by. This isn’t always negative: sometimes I’m looking forward with anticipation to a vacation, a wonderful dinner, or a quiet moment to relax at home. But it’s still a focus on the future, and in my experience, it makes time seem to go faster. In that state of mind, there’s never enough time to do everything I want to do. The now doesn’t exist, because it is constantly subsumed by the next.

And yet, when I meditate, time is ample. It’s voluptuous. I can luxuriate in time.

Of course the idea that time expands and contracts is nothing new. People say things like, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” And research now shows that time seems to move faster when you’re older (each moment is a smaller fraction against the whole of your life than it is when you’re young) and time can almost stop for people in a moment of trauma or crisis. I knew that time had this elasticity, but I’d never felt it quite so powerfully. Nor had I ever felt that I was in a position to control it.

In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff talks about how the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is clock time. It moves sequentially. It ticks off in even increments: seconds, minutes, hours, months, years. Kairos is about moments — strictly speaking, moments of opportunity — and there is no clock for kairos. It is felt time, rather than counted time.

So after I got rid of my watch, I did get better at understanding time: chronological time. I became attuned to the tick, tock, tick of the time moving throughout the day, and this was valuable because it meant I was no longer chained to time-counters — I did my own counting. But I was still counting. Meditation is now bringing a new awareness, an understanding of kairos, into my life. These meditations have reminded me just how much can be accomplished in ten minutes: a note to a friend to let them know I’m thinking about them, a bit of exercise, or a small dose of writing. There are opportune moments all around, and they reveal themselves by my being present.

I struggle with being present. Especially when a moment is challenging, it’s tempting to want to rush into the future. And when there’s so much you want to create and do in life, it’s hard not to think about that great, looming list. But recently I read an excerpt of a book on meditation which helped me understand it a bit better. The book talked about two kinds of energy: motivated energy and unmotivated energy. Motivated energy drives towards the future, and this energy is important because it promotes our survival, helps us learn and grow, and ultimately spurs us to achieve great things. Without motivated energy we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, let alone go to work or school, find food, pursue a mate, raise children, or any of the other things that make our lives worth living. A species without motivated energy wouldn’t last long.

But to live one hundred percent in motivated energy is exhausting, and to the point of this blog, leaves little room for joy. The value of unmotivated energy is celebration of the present moment. It is reward, idleness, contemplation, meditation, play. It is truly present, with no directional thrust. And it’s pure joy.

We have much more control over time than we think. First, we can choose to emphasize our kairos over our chronos, our human time over our counted time. And second, we can choose how we live in time. We can be deliberate about when we look towards the future with motivated energy. By being present and aware in those moments, hopefully we can also give ourselves permission to be equally present in our joyful, “unmotivated” moments, without guilt or pressure. We can resist the temptation to try to make every moment “useful.” We can cultivate unmotivated energy, just the right amount, as a ballast for all that time rushing by, to be wonderfully aware of the beautiful now.

And if perhaps we need tools for tuning into our unmotivated time, this silly clock could be one. Designed by Louie Rigano, the About-Time Clock recently won a competition by for new designers. So perhaps I’m not the only one feeling the desire for a new relationship to time.

When it comes to telling you the time, the About-Time seems close to useless. But if you want a reminder to stop looking at the clock and start smelling the roses, I think it’s a good one.

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Images: Louie Rigano

Vibrating color: Jim Lambie

9 July 2012

Glasgow-based artist Jim Lambie creates installations out of vinyl tape that make spaces come alive with an intense energy. Tracing the contours of a room’s perimeter, his work seems to magnify the lines of the structures, surfacing patterns from static-seeming architecture. It’s almost as if he’s liberating the movement from the space, giving it voice through color.

The kinetic force of Lambie’s work may stem from his origins in music. He has said:

You put a record on and it’s like all the edges disappear. You’re in a psychological space. You don’t sit there thinking about the music, you’re listening to the music. You’re inside that space that the music’s making for you.

This is true about music: it’s something you inhabit rather than something you regard. It’s also true that music has an inherent movement, a temporal thrust, a pace and vibration. Music, with its long oscillations, jostles the air around us, scatters its molecules and sends them pinging against our eardrums. We don’t see it, but music transforms a room into a thoroughly kinetic space. Lambie’s color similarly fills the space with vibrations.

While I object to the comparison with Pollock, I feel sympathy with Jonathan Jones of The Guardian when he writes in 2008:

Like Pollock he pours colour and line in ways that liberate energy and suggest the inner structures of the cosmos. Above all, Lambie is a pure artist – his art is totally self-sufficient in its worth and power. It is distilled energy, concentrated life. Marvellous stuff.

Right now I’m steeped in the study of energy – photons, pulsations, valences, spectrums – and thinking a lot about movement at all scales, from the quiver of electrons to the whirl of the planets. But it all comes back to aesthetics for me: how we feel this energy through our senses, and once felt, how it affects us. Lambie’s work is just poppy and irreverent enough to seem like play, but that hides its power. This is potent stuff: bracing, fervent, and vital.

Via: Bjorn’s Randoms

A colorful return

13 June 2012

Friends, I’ve missed you! I hope you’ve had a lovely spring. Mine passed in the blink of an eye through the rounded shape of an airplane window (and the haze of Allegra). I’ve been on the road this spring (and allergic to it)! Back now, and trying to unpack the virtual suitcase of inspiration gathered in Tokyo, San Francisco, Miami, and upstate New York. There’s a lot in there, and I’m processing. (In Tokyo alone I took over 2000 photos!) Sit tight – there’s good stuff coming.

In the meantime, let’s have some color. All the talk of the fashion pages this spring has been that color is having a moment. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we are having a moment with color—basking in pure, saturated hues. Have you been into J. Crew lately? You need sunglasses! It’s no cure for our perpetually dismal economic situation or the many geopolitical troubles we find ourselves in, but it does make the city feel brighter, more optimistic. As a prototypical black-clad New Yorker, I can say it’s been a nice change. Walking out in a kelly green sweater with a hot pink scarf feels so abundant and absurd it just gives you something to smile about.

The thing we forget about color is how alive it is, and how dynamic our relationship is to it. Just seeing a color is an energetic act. I’m reminded of Victoria Finlay’s description in her book Color: A Natural History of the Palette:

The best way I’ve found of understanding this is to think not so much of something “being” a color but of it “doing” a color. The atoms in a ripe tomato are busy shivering—or dancing or singing—the metaphors can be as joyful as the colors they describe—in such a way that when the light falls on them they absorb most of the blue and yellow light and reject the red—meaning paradoxically that the “red” tomato is actually one that contains every wavelength except red.

Color is not an entity, but a performance. We see color because of the light from the sun (or other source) that bounces off an object’s surface towards the light-sensitive cone cells in our eyes. As the light’s photons reach a colored surface, they excite the electrons on that surface, which absorb some of the wavelengths, while the others ricochet outward. And when a few photons of those reflected wavelengths reach our eyes, the cone cells in our retinas with the relevant pigments are stimulated. The energy absorbed by the pigment sends a signal up the optic nerve, and our brains register the sensation of color. We’re not detached witnesses to color; rather, we are part of the experience of it. Some molecules of our being are aroused by color, some cells are stirred into an electrical excitation—literally “turned on.”  Putting it simply, when we have seen color, we have absorbed some small transfer of energy from it. Is it any wonder that we feel energized by its vibrance?

The brighter the color, the more light being reflected, and the more energy that is transferred. So our moment of bright color is a moment of exuberant communication between our garments and our eyes. I think it’s plausible for there to be unintended effects. Who knows? Perhaps you need less caffeine when your deskmate is wearing fluorescent yellow. Or that a bright blue desktop background is as good as a breath of fresh air. Color is more powerful than we realize.

Radiolab has a brilliant episode this month pondering color. Highly recommended. My favorite segment ponders the rainbow from the perspective of animals with a far broader range of color vision than us puny humans. (Go mantis shrimp!) Jad and Krul engage a choir to “sing the rainbow” — very synesthetic, and if I know you, it’ll be up your alley.

Some other color links that have been burning a hole in my inbox:

  • The Color Run: 5k race meets Holi festival. Emerge looking like you’ve been through a spin-art machine. At the rate these races have been selling out, you know the organizers are onto something here.
  • Color Forecast: Why read a weather forecast when you can read a color forecast? Measures the color of clothing of passersby and gives you a window into “trending” colors. Available for Paris, Milan, and Antwerp.
  • Nippon Colors: A gorgeously designed site showcasing traditional colors from Japan.


Thanks, RW, for the Radiolab tip!
Images: J Crew, the Color Run

Exuberant color

23 February 2012

Yesterday the team was searching for some video inspiration and we were reminded of this. One member of the team hadn’t seen it so we all had to stop and watch it together. Then I realized I hadn’t shared it with you all, and I couldn’t believe it. This ad for Sony Bravia, in which 170,000 bouncy balls are released down a hill in San Francisco, remains one of the most joyful pieces of advertising ever created. Pure color and exuberant energy. I smile every time I watch it.

Watch the “making of” video too. There’s a playful spirit that comes out from the director and the crew. It seems there was a real intention to make something joyful and beautiful, not just flog product. It’s a good reminder that you don’t always need to put the product front and center in the ad. If you believe in the value of what you’re offering, then a more emotional approach is not just more compelling, but also more lasting.

PS: Watch for the frog. It’s my favorite part!

Polka-dotted joy

5 January 2012

It’s a good thing on this blog when something like consensus emerges, and so many of you have sent this my way that it seems we all agree: This is joyful!

An interactive installation at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art by the self-described “obsessive artist” Yayoi Kusama, The obliteration room offers a whitewashed home interior as a blank canvas for children visiting the museum to cover with colorful dots. It’s a joyful exercise in participatory art, in abundance, in layering and accretion. Visitors leave their traces on the space. Their experience of the exhibit becomes manifest in the exhibit. And through the innocent randomness of children’s choices, a pleasurable kind of order emerges. The impulses to cover and to cluster — to cover and conquer a new white space or to cluster around a social crowd of others — make the distribution playful and human.

You wonder about the title: obliteration room. Obliteration feels like a word of violence, of emptiness and destruction. How does this jibe with the impetus towards joy? I believe what Kusama is after here is a kind of transcendence. Though the dot has always been a motif in her work (a childhood portrait of her mother shows it covered with polka dots), these vast fields started to become most prominent in her “happenings,” public events designed as protests to the Vietnam War, where people would gather naked to be painted with dots. As Kusama writes in her autobiography Infinity Nets:

Polka dots, the trademark of “Kusama Happening.” Red, green and yellow polka dots can be the circles representing the earth, the sun, or the moon. Their shapes and what they signify do not really matter. I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe.

The polka dots are unifying; they transform individuals and bodies into a larger being. In that process, the self is “obliterated,” so that this sublime feeling of unity can be obtained. You know it if you’ve been part of a synchronized dance, sung in a choir, or participated in another kind of expression of collective joy — for some moments, you cease to be you-in-the-world, and you become an element in a larger organism, a symbiotic cell in a web that sustains and is sustained by you. In this process, pattern and repetition are intensely powerful mechanisms of transcendence (more on this here).

What about the dot itself? Kusama says the shapes do not really matter, but I don’t believe her. The shape of the dot is the cell; it’s the module upon which the whole system is built. A brick of a charcoal is not a block of ice because the atoms of their essence are different. The dot is the atom of the pattern, and it matters. Kusama describes the significance of the dots in her book Manhattan Suicide Addict:

…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.

There’s an elemental quality to the circle, a primal symmetry that makes it naturally joyful. Roundness connotes safety, invites touch and play. (More on the joy of circles here.) Which brings us back to The obliteration room, which is at its heart deeply playful. Kusama is a heady woman, and there’s a darkness at the root of much of her work (she suffers from hallucinations and lives by choice in a mental institution near her studio in Tokyo), but what I love is that play and joy rise up through these struggles to become the overriding impression of her work. What Kusama achieves in her work is perhaps the greatest transcendence of all: the transformation of pain into joy.

Part of a larger exhibit of Kusama’s work (much of it joyful) called Look Now, See Forever, The obliteration room is on view until March 2012. Thank you to @benbob2u, @jacobyryan, and Liz McCarty for the tips.

For more kids and Kusama, check out this joyful video of a child’s delight at discovering one of her dot rooms.

Via: This is Colossal.
Images: the first four from Queensland Art Gallery and photographer Mark Sherwood, others from Stuart Addelsee, and heybubbles.

Joy in the news: Small wonders

26 October 2011

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Last week I was interviewed for this great piece on the trend towards “tiny sweets” by New York Times writer Julia Moskin. In the article I try to demystify why it is we’re attracted to mini-canolis or Baked by Melissa cupcakes (above) and talk about the “Alice in Wonderland effect,” where big changes in the scale of objects around us, either tiny or huge, make us reconsider our scale in relation to the world in a joyful way.

For more, check out past posts on tiny sweets, giant sweets, and the joy of miniaturization.

NYT: “Small Wonders”
Image: Tony Cenicola/New York Times

Color in the crevices

25 October 2011

Color doesn’t have to be poured out by the gallon to create a sense of joy. In fact, it’s often better in small doses, as in these works by Ethan Greenbaum. When people say “good fences make good neighbors,” maybe this is what they have in mind.

There’s also a human equivalent. I’ve featured in the past the kooky performance art of Companie Willi Dorner, a troupe of artists who wear brightly colored clothes and then squeeze themselves into tight urban spaces. I recently came across these images, which I hadn’t seen before, of a performance they did in New York last year.

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Against a field of grey, color means more. It is a spark of something that has its own energy, something dynamic that has the potential to erupt, to bring more color. As Johannes Itten, father of contemporary color theory, put it: “Color is life: for a world without colors appears to us as dead.” Color, even in tiny doses, signals a desire for life.

Images: Ethan Greenbaum via the artist. Companie Willi Dorner via WSJ.

Lollipop law

18 August 2011

What do lollipops have to do with keeping the peace? Surprisingly, more than a little. A recent initiative by a city council in the city of Victoria in British Columbia offered free lollipops to drunken revelers leaving bars to cut down on noise and violence after a night out. Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe explained that the treats make it hard for inebriated partiers to be too loud, and that they minimize dialogue that could lead to brawls. More practically speaking, they also regulate blood sugar and, like pacifiers, have a calming effect.

While there’s no hard evidence that the lollipops worked, councillor Thornton-Joe says that it seemed to be so effective that the city is considering making it a permanent program. It’s a charming idea – that something so childlike and innocent could disarm a rowdy bunch. And it makes for a joyful image, to imagine adults appeased by candies on sticks.

This is aesthetics of joy at their beguiling best. Sugar, color, and a form that evokes nostalgia for childhood – these things have real power. Contrary to so much of what we are taught, they are not just styling or superficial extras. They are phrases in the language with which our stuff speaks to us, quietly shaping our desires and our behavior. It’s a joy to see them applied in a such a novel way, and for such playful problem-solving. I hope to see this idea take off in other places too.

Photo: Beautiful feather lollipops by Abbey Hendrickson of Aesthetic Outburst, via Pinterest
NPR: “Lollipops: Pacifiers for Bar Patrons?” 

Intangible color

16 July 2011

These last few weeks I’ve been steeped in color. Literally, with the effusion of bright summer hues in the city, and figuratively, as I’ve been devoting many a spare moment to researching it. Color is the subject of chapter two and, as evidenced by the colorful nature of this blog, a nearly endless topic when considering design and joy.

Right now I’m reading a very thoughtful, scientific little book from the 1980s called Colour: Why the World Isn’t Grey, which covers everything from why rainbows appear to why flames are orange to why the sky is blue. As the author Hazel Rossotti demystifies these phenomena, she’s reminding me that some color seems particularly mysterious.

Intangible color – the color of the horizon, of an oil slick on a rain puddle, of a match-strike – has a trickiness to it. We perceive the color, but it is either too distant, too evanescent, or too changeable to feel certain in our impressions. The color feels deceptive, yet tantalizing. Though we know that pursuing it will leave us empty-handed, sometimes we go after it anyway. Like burying one’s nose in a magnolia flower only to find the thrum of fragrance all around, but pale within, we find our rainbows and sunsets accessible only from afar. I suppose we should feel grateful that their photons journeyed such a long way to our eyes in the first place.

Maybe there’s more joy to this kind of elusive chroma, or if not more, then certainly a distinct kind of joy – a delight mingled with longing. And that’s of course what joy should be from an evolutionary perspective. Not perfect satiation, but satiation plus motivation to continue seeking that “passage from lesser to greater perfection,” as Spinoza wrote. With its spiritual airiness, intangible color feels something like a promise, a reminder that still greater beauty is out in the world to be discovered.

With these thoughts on my mind, I wanted to share a few works that create a similar kind of intangible color, despite being constructed from tangible materials. The first, above, is a recent piece by Andy Gilmore, whose kaleidoscopic works I’ve long enjoyed and have posted in the past. This piece seems to vibrate in those light spaces where the hues fade out in steps. It’s almost as if it’s moving, and therefore impossible to fully take in all at once.

Below is a kind of 3D counterpoint to Gilmore, from artist Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus 4 and Plexus 5 series. These are similarly vibratory, almost spatial rather than material, like a dense chromatic fog. You almost feel as if you could walk right through them, though in fact they’re constructed from thousands of strands of thread. Like many natural examples of intangible color, these installations seem to radiate their own light, making them even more ethereal and compelling.

I hope you’re out enjoying a colorful weekend somewhere, intangible or otherwise…

Xx Ingrid

Joyful sidewalks, joyful cities

3 May 2011


They look almost like brightly colored mosses, don’t they? Like some new form of street lichen. Or a kind of chromatic filling compound. A rainbow grout.

This set of sculptures by artist Juliana Santacruz Herrera is a particularly striking example of yarnbombing, a form of knit or crochet-based street art that frequently reacts to the urban environment. In Herrera’s case, this means applying braided fabric in looped forms to cracks in the sidewalks of Paris. Like the pothole gardens and lego repairs I’ve written about in past posts, Herrera’s works use delight to call attention to the breakdown of infrastructure in the city. Like other yarnbombing projects, they work with maximal contrast – in color, contour, density, and texture – to catch our eyes and make us take notice. While they don’t actually fix the problems they’re addressing, it’s possible that inducing this kind of positive affect makes people more inclined to act to change their environments. More than an angry letter or a protest, these works create a desire to share with others, creating a kind of social momentum.

Herrera’s works are one more example of a phenomenon I call joyful repair – the act of mending or calling attention to a damaged element of the environment using color, texture, playful gestures, and other aesthetics of joy. It’s a form of joyful activism, which tries to bring about change through positive emotion, and it’s one of my very favorite applications of aesthetics of joy.








Here’s another example I’ve had in my files for awhile. Working at a slightly smaller scale, London artist Ben Wilson uses chewing gum splotches as a canvas for tiny, brightly colored sidewalk art. Wilson has been creating the paintings since 1998, and estimates he’s made over 10,000 of the little works! Interestingly, not long after he began his gum-painting endeavors, people began making requests for particular designs, often commemorative. So what began as litter has become an odd little system of tribute, like plaques on park benches or in front of newly planted trees. People want to be associated with something they feel good about, and with a little color and charm, that even could be improperly discarded chewing gum. The sidewalk at first seems an unusually mundane place for this sort of personal connection, but maybe not. After all, the sidewalk is the most intimate of transitory spaces in a community, the backdrop for so many of our daily dramas and spontaneous joys. Filling its holes, reclaiming its blemishes – in some way these are a deeply integral form of reconstruction.

Chewing Gum Art by Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson

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There’s something else here, too. Projects like this are a signal that someone cares about a place, that the condition of that environment matters to someone. Someone is paying attention to the details. To make something beautiful is to invest time and energy in it, and these two are the most valuable, limited resources we have. We perceive this signal of caring and passion, often unconsciously, and we typically follow in kind. We read our landscape for cues about how to treat it, we draw inferences about the inhabitants, and we subtly alter our behavior to maintain this condition – or enhance it. These aesthetic signals often become a discourse of community, a conversation between the denizens of a place that leads, via a subtle form of one-upmanship, to the organic growth and improvement of our favorite places to call home. Alain de Botton has written (I’m paraphrasing here) that one of architecture’s purposes is to inspire us to be better people, and I would say the same for any of these urban interventions. We see improvements, and they unconsciously motivate us to improve ourselves.

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Joyful repair projects can serve as jumpstarts for this process. This project, though not new, is a great example of this principle applied over a large scale. Called “Favela Painting,” this brightly colored village is the work of Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn. Working in a slum outside Rio, their goal is to use art “as a tool to inspire, create beauty, combat prejudice, and attract attention.” The care and passion embodied by the murals effectively transforms the favela from outside in. Some really thoughtful words about the effects of this project, on the Magical Urbanism site:

‘Favela painting’ affects the aesthetic order of how favelas are perceived from within and outside its natural embryonic growth. Colour brings hope. It brings a different understanding of space and its people, inviting others to co-create and co-represent much more constructively and positively life here. It appeals to our senses in a way that we do not reject but embrace these places and the potential for better life. It articulates a different discourse of social change; of engagement, contributing to improve life for favela dwellers.

It’s hard to say it any more succinctly than “color brings hope.” It suggests energy, and as such it has an uplifting and an attractive power. It’s a harbinger of better things to come. As I think about the phenomenon of joyful repair, I’m reminded of the root of the word repair, the Latin parare, “to make ready.” By repairing things, we are making them ready again. By repairing them joyfully, we’re making them ready for wonderful things to happen in the future.

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Images: Juliana Santacruz Herrera on Flickr via designboom; Ben Wilson via Inhabitat; Favela Painting via The Fox Is Black.

{Thank you Maggie and BD}