July 16, 2012
Buzzy titles like these now populate the TED talks website and attract thousands of viewers the same day they appear. Few people haven’t been told they “have to watch this one lecture on TED” by friends amped on a new idea. But the very first TED conference back in 1984 was a relative flop, according to its creator Richard Saul Wurman.
Though Wurman led TED into more prosperous times, still enjoyed today, he tired of the format and sold the enterprise to Chris Anderson in 2001. He is now preparing to unveil his newest project, WWW, calling it the conference of the 21st century. Wurman, this year’s winner of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Lifetime Achievement Award, is known both for founding the blockbuster conference series and for his propensity to grow restless and move on to the next thing.
Starting in architecture, he hopped from book writing to conference organizing. With each venture, whether he was writing a guide to investing or a foreign city, Wurman used new ways to visualize and communicate information. Sometimes called an “intellectual hedonist,” his work follows his curiosity as it zigs and zags across media.
“I am an unusual choice to win the lifetime achievement award,” insists Wurman. His path to success doesn’t trace the typical vertical route up the hierarchy. Instead, he says he’s worked horizontally on disparate ideas united by his impulse to design and explain.
Along with this year’s nine other Design Award winners, Wurman had a packed Friday dining at the White House with Michelle Obama, but began his day at the Cooper-Hewitt’s third annual Teen Design Fair. Students from New York City and Washington, D.C. were invited to talk with dozens of experts working in architecture, fashion, urban and landscape design, industrial design and communications.
Students circled around Wurman, whose craft was listed as “Architecture/Interiors.”
“I don’t own a suit,” he tells the students. “I don’t own a tie. I never dress up.” Wurman delights in the iconoclast role and drew the students in with his frank way of talking. It’s no coincidence his TED conferences were modeled on the same kind of frank, anti-establishment thought.
Wurman began with one of his five methods of innovation: subtraction. “I subtracted panels of white men in suits, CEOs and politicians, lecterns, long speeches,” recalls Wurman.
By now his signature 18-minute time frame is familiar and the diversity of speakers he attracted introduced new voices to the spotlight. These bite-sized, personal lectures, though held in a very exclusive setting, make online viewers feel they are part of the idea and not just hearing about it. But even that format has grown cumbersome in Wurman’s mind.
On the move yet again, Wurman is working on a new project called WWW, which he describes as the conference of the 21st century. TED now falls squarely in the 20th century, according to him. Subtracting both set presentations and time constraints, WWW will create “intellectual jazz” between two “of the most extraordinary people” Wurman knows. For good measure, musical directors Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma will add improvised contributions. The whole project is driven by the experimental whims of its creator; “When I’m tired of listening to them, I pull them off stage.”
The first talk is set for September 18-20, but he says he has no clue who the participants will be yet. Once he settles on guests, Wurman will help build an app for each conference allowing viewers to learn as much as they possibly can about each speaker. If the speaker is Frank Gehry, “They’ll see Frank Gehry talking about 30 buildings he never got to build,” explains Wurman, promising interviews, baby photos and even a look at the personal notes and work of each subject.
Branded as the future of conferences, WWW actually draws inspiration from 19th century salons with Wurman playing the role of Gertrude Stein. As TED moves further into the realm of lectures and ideas that “make a difference,” Wurman seems more concerned with the very nature of an idea as a social product.
And, of course, he’s concerned with staying curious. As soon as something fails to hold his interest, he’s on to the next project.
It’s Wurman’s salon, after all, and we’re just stopping by.
March 22, 2012
The Huichol, a native people in the Sierra Madre mountains of west-central Mexico, are known for their elaborate beadwork. Typically, the community’s artisans adorn bowls, masks, animal skulls and gourds with brightly-colored glass beads. The tiny beads are arranged in geometric patterns as well as to represent fanciful depictions of animals and crops that carry spiritual significance.
However, in 2010, two Huichol families—the Bautistas from Jalisco and the Ortiz from Nayarit, Mexico—embarked on a project that gave a contemporary spin to the traditional art form. In no less than 9,000 hours, eight family members used resin to adhere more than two million beads to the exterior of a 1990 Volkswagen Beetle, on display at the National Museum of American Indian through May 6. The eye-catching work of art is called the Vochol, a name derived from a combination of “Vocho,” a slang term in Mexico for a VW Beetle, and “Huichol.”
In this video, Kerry Boyd, assistant director of exhibitions, operations and program support at the American Indian Museum, describes the car and its vivid imagery. The Vochol was given a grand welcome Tuesday evening by Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough, Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, museum director Kevin Gover and the Washington, D.C.-based mariachi ensemble Mariachi Los Amigos.
The art project was made possible by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, the Association of Friends of the Museo de Arte Popular, the Embassy of Mexico and the Mexican Cultural Institute. After its stay at the American Indian Museum, the car will continue on its international tour, and will ultimately be auctioned off with the proceeds to go towards promoting the work of other native Mexican artists.
July 20, 2011
Calling all Martians from across the galaxy: celebrate Mars Day this Friday at the National Air and Space Museum. The annual event pays homage to the red planet with a variety of fun and educational activities for extraterrestrials and humans alike.
Perhaps no other planet in our solar system is surrounded with as much mystery as Mars, so we have put together a list of facts to help you prepare for the party:
1. Mars features the largest volcano in the solar system. Olympus Mons is located in the Tharsis Montes region, which is the largest volcanic region on Mars, and is approximately 2,485 miles across. Volcanoes in the Tharsis region are up to 100 times larger than those anywhere on Earth.
2. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, and both are shaped like potatoes. Named after the mythological sons of Ares, the Greek counterpart of the Roman god, Mars, the moons are among the smallest in the solar system. Because Phobos is spiraling inward and coming 3 feet 2 inches closer to Mars each century, it will either crash into Mars or break up and form a ring in about 50 million years.
3. Scientists have found proof of water on Mars. NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft found water in the form of ice below the surface of the planet. Due to the planet’s lack of an atmosphere, water simply cannot exist for very long. Channels can be found all over the planet where running water used to be.
4. Mars appears red because its surface is consists of iron-rich minerals that oxidize. That dust is kicked up into the atmosphere and gives the planet its reddish hue. Discovered in ancient times, both the Romans and Egyptians named the planet because of its color. Mars was the name used by the Romans for their god of war because of the planet’s bloodlike color. The Egyptians named the planet “Her Desher,” which means “the red one.”
5. The annual event marks the July 20, 1976 landing of Viking 1, the first spacecraft to operate on Mars. Since the first landing, many missions to Mars have failed for a variety of reasons leaving some to speculate that a “Mars Triangle”—similar to the “Bermuda Triangle”—exists.
Check out the Mars Day celebration on this Friday, July 22 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the National Air and Space Museum where NASA will announce the landing site for their next Mars rover, and where you can see an actual piece of Mars!
April 12, 2011
The space shuttle that has flown more missions than any other is coming to the Smithsonian.
Announced just moments ago, Discovery will be coming to the National Air and Space Museum to be preserved in the collections with the 1903 Wright Flyer, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega and the Spirit of St. Louis. Before Discovery can kick off its shoes and relax in space shuttle retirement, scientists must first inspect the aircraft and gather valuable information from its many trips into space. It may take months before Discovery is ready to go from highly dependable space shuttle to museum exhibit.
“An acquisition of this importance happens rarely in the life of a museum,” says Air and Space curator Dr. Valerie Neal in an email interview. “It is an honor and privilege to welcome Discovery into the national collection, where it will be displayed, preserved, and cared for forever.”
Discovery accomplished numerous milestones during its 27-year career and 365 total days in space. It was flown by the first African-American commander, Frederick Gregory in 1989, as well as piloted by the first female spacecraft pilot, Eileen Collins in 1995. The space shuttle also served as a return-to-flight vehicle after the Challenger (1988) and Columbia (2005) tragedies.
The design of the Discovery was unique for its time and made these achievements in space travel possible.
“The shuttle orbiters were the first vehicles to launch into space like a rocket, return on wings and wheels to land like an aircraft, and fly over and over again,” says Dr. Neal. “They made an entirely new style of spaceflight possible and greatly expanded the scope of human activity in space.”
From its design, history and crowning achievements, Discovery will make a great addition to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. Be sure to check back with Around the Mall for future updates on when you will be able to see Discovery in person. In the meantime, check out the video below of Dr. Neal as she highlights Enterprise and its impact on manned space flights.
April 7, 2011
It’s fitting that legendary jazz songstress-extraordinaire Billie Holiday’s (1915-1959) birthday today falls during Smithsonian’s Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM). “Lady Day,” as she was known, made songs her own, lazily wrapping her emotive voice like wisps of smoke around passages with distinctive horn-like phrasing. Her trademark songs like “God Bless the Child,” which went on to sell over a million copies, and the haunting tale of lynching, “Strange Fruit” still resonate today. Unfortunately for Holiday, the rock star lifestyle was not a recent invention. Drug abuse and drinking took its toll on her voice, and her limited legal ability to collect royalties left her with $.70 in the bank at the time of her death from cirrhosis at age 44 in 1959. To learn more about the life and times of Lady Day, Smithsonian‘s Ryan Reed corresponded with John Edward Hasse, the American History Museum’s curator of American music and a founder of Jazz Appreciation Month.
Who gave Holiday the nickname “Lady Day?”
The great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who was a musical soulmate of Holiday’s. She, in turn, gave him the nickname “Pres,” short for “President.”
April is Jazz Appreciation Month. How did Holiday influence the genre?
Like Louis Armstrong, she influenced other singers to take familiar songs and make them their own, changing the melodies and rhythms to match the singer’s artistic sensibilities.
What made Holiday unique?
Billie Holiday ranks close to Louis Armstrong among the greatest jazz singers. Acknowledging great inspiration from him, she practiced an instrumental approach to singing as she ranged freely over the beat, flattened out the melodic contours of tunes, and, in effect, re-composed songs to suit her range, style and artistic sensibilities. Her voice was physically limited, but she achieved shadings, nuances, color and variety by sliding along the thin line separating speech and song.
Smithsonian Folkways has the recording “Mean to Me.” What can you tell us about this particular song?
This recording marks an early stage of a remarkable partnership, one that Holiday forged with tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
In contrast to Coleman Hawkins’ big sax sound of the time, Young took a new approach. Young’s sound was a feathery, almost vibrato-less, lightly swinging style that moved improvisation away from the underlying harmonic sequence to focus more on the possibilities of melody. He personified ‘cool’ and influenced the bebop, cool jazz, and rhythm and blues that were to come.
The elegant pianist Teddy Wilson introduces Mean to Me, Young takes the three eight-bar A sections, with trumpeter Buck Clayton taking the B section or bridge. Holiday sings the second chorus, and then the band returns to play the second half of the chorus—Wilson solos on the bridge and Clayton on the final eight bars.
Holiday recomposes the melody of the A section, flattening out parts of it. In the bridge, she largely sings the original melody but makes the rhythms and phrasing her own. For her, such rhythmic conventions as eighth notes, quarter notes, and bar lines were merely guideposts, not fences. Holiday leans on the beat, then catches up, demonstrating her impeccable sense of rhythm. She makes a then-familiar hit song into something personal and fresh.
What made you choose an image of Holiday for the poster of the 2nd annual, national Jazz Appreciation Month in 2003?
I wanted a major figure who was widely considered one of the greatest on her instrument (the voice) and felt it was important to represent women, who have often been undersung in the annals of jazz.
Is there an artist today that reminds you of Holiday?
Holiday has influenced generations of singers, but one in particular has captured some of her style uncannily, and that is Madeline Peyroux.
What is your favorite song by Holiday and why?
“Mean to Me,” because it well represents Holiday as well as Lester Young and Teddy Wilson.
–Additional reporting by Ryan Reed