From ‘Artfully Learning’ – Fröbel’s Gifts, Noguchi’s Playgrounds

A great, well researched article from ‘Artfully Learning’ about Fröbel the US educational pioneer. As early as the 19thC he did some very interesting work with learning outdoors and through the arts, including ‘Foebel Gifts’ shown above, designed for open play.

Visit Artfully Learning here. The site by Adam Zucker in the USA, describes itself as ‘…an experiential and critical cross-examination of the fine art world and the educational sphere’. There is a great article on Joseph Beuys called ‘Experiential Learning: Art Against Colonialism’ and some great links at the foot of the post.

Children playing on Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Piedmont Park, Atlanta. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

If you are not listening to the 99% Invisible podcast, I highly recommend that you start! Two of the episodes from their archives are specifically of interest to the discourse on the complementary relationship between pedagogy and art. The first is a discussion about how Friedrich Fröbel’s architectural wherewithal changed the shape of education; the second episode presents an informative analysis of Isamu Noguchi’s imaginative modernist playgrounddesigns. A follow up blog post by educator and pedagogical researcher, Dr. Louisa Penfold (I highly recommend following her as well!), cites both Noguchi and Fröbel as key innovators of playful learning and modern aesthetics. For those of you who are frequent readers of my blog, you know that I love to write about the benefits that play has on our social, emotional, cognitive and artistic development. 

In Dr. Penfold’s response to the episode on the 99% Invisible podcast, she makes a connection between Noguchi and Fröbel, both of whom influenced modern thinking around art, design, object-based learning and play. Fröbel and Noguchi lived centuries apart, but they were both drawn to exploring ways people learn through their interaction with others, their surroundings and the material world.

Child exploring the 8th Fröbel Gift: sticks and rings 

Fröbel was a leading figure for educational reform during the 19th century. His work with young learners led him to establish the first Kindergarten, as well as a curricula based on socialization and experiential discoveries (his work has been well documented on this blog). Fröbel was inspired by Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Pestalozzi is significant as a precursor to early childhood art education, because his pedagogical methods underscore the importance that drawing has on a child’s development. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional and embodied approach to educating children. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity and cognition. He took Pestalozzi’s aesthetic educational philosophy further by introducing three-dimensional objects, which utilize art and design as active mode of interacting with the world.

Reproduction set of Fröbel Gifts. Photo by Kippelboy. CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fröbel realized that the way to educate the whole child is through mindful and tangible activities, which led to the invention of Fröbel Gifts, a set of material-based educational tools that inspire active learning through playful and critical thinking. Fröbel’s own term for this thoughtful action is ‘freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Fröbel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design, they are highly successful in their intended learning results. The Gifts were revolutionary concepts for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with tangible means to make insightful connections to the world around them. Fröbel Gifts are intended to be used sequentially and under instructional guidance, in order to build upon children’s prior knowledge and experience. Their three-dimensional abstract and geometric design enables the child to construct realistic understandings of abstract spatial relationships by discovering the function of aesthetic forms within natural and material environments. As Penfold explains, “wooden blocks could be used to teach numeracy and counting. Then the same blocks could be used to build a house, allowing children to learn about concepts such as height and size. Finally, the block house could be used to construct a story and teach literacy and language skills” (Penfeld, 2020). This methodology and philosophy of turning abstract thinking into tangible results, is in line with the architectural creed “form follows function.” This simply means that the purpose of a structure should inform how it is physically shaped.

Image from page 53 of A practical guide to the English kindergarten (children’s garden). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The influence of learning via Fröbel Gifts is noted by the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set as a child and has mentioned how playing with the blocks encouraged his groundbreaking work: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (George, 2000). Wright’s innovative concept for designing buildings that adhere to their natural environment, is testament to how using Fröbel Gifts can unlock creative and critical thinking.

Isamu Noguchi, Play Mountain, 1933. Photograph by William Taylor. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

In contrast to the directional and linear intent of Fröbel Gifts, Noguchi’s modernist playground, Play Mountain (created in 1933 as a sculptural model), was designed to be pragmatically challenging and open-ended. Despite the conceptual differences, the pedagogical impetus behind Play Mountain reflects Fröbel’s concept of freiarbeit, or free play. It also utilizes a combination of three-dimensional forms in order to strengthen children’s concrete understandings of the world around them. Unlike Fröbel Gifts, Noguchi’s playgrounds were not meant to be approached in an orderly fashion. Noguchi’s playscapes had none of the traditional playground equipment. He intended for the sturdy surreal objects and earth-like forms to inspire unbridled imagination. His philosophy was that a playground without any obvious guidelines would help children think critically, embrace ambiguity and become more open-minded in how they observed and interacted with their environments and each other (all these elements are habits of mind that the arts teach us, see: Burton, 2000 and Eisner, 2002). Noguchi’s pedagogical outlook is a key tenet of non-directive play, which is a method that educators and mental health professionals alike use to elicit children’s self-expression. 

Blocks, reminiscent of Fröbel Gifts, form a play structure within Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Piedmont Park, Atlanta. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

Noguchi is well known for his abstract sculptures and his modernist furniture. While his fine art is largely non-utilitarian, he struck a balance between function and form through his world famous ‘Noguchi table.’ Noguchi’s liberal explorations into natural, synthetic, abstract and concrete objects, also led to the creation of very unique and astonishing playgrounds. Each of Noguchi’s playscapes are distinctive in that they provide an educational experience for people of all ages. For the youth, they are a whimsical source of unfettered activity, while adults can closely observe groundbreaking public works of art and landscape architecture.

Noguchi created numerous models for play spaces, but only a few of his designs were actually constructed for public use. Play Mountain was one of the initial playgrounds that Noguchi imagined. Around 1934, Noguchi attempted to incorporate Play Mountain into New York City’s urban recreational infrastructure, however, he was unable to convince Robert Moses, the city’s Parks Commissioner. Play Mountain‘s design, which simulated environmental modulations and architectural wonders (like pyramids and ziggurats), would have seemed alien to Moses and other straightforward urban planners. As art historian, Shaina Larrivee explains, “playgrounds, a relatively new priority for New York and other urban areas, were decades away from a renaissance that would embrace experimentation and promote “creative play” (Larrivee, 2011). Noguchi’s playground designs were also ahead of their time from an art historical perspective. The consideration and incorporation of the surrounding landscape within large scale sculptural art was not truly emergent until the Land Art movement of the 1960s (Ibid). 

Isamu Noguchi, Kodomo No Kuni Playground. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

The first actual playground Noguchi realized was only a temporary structure, located outside of Tokyo, called Kodomo No Kuni or ‘The Children’s Country.’ It was built in 1965 for the national holiday, Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Year). In the mid-1970s, Noguchi’s Playscapes was established in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. (see: Lange, 2019). In his design for Playscapes, Noguchi envisioned an all encompassing educational landscape, complete with a shelter, a classroom, art studios and an office space. He intended for the space to be utilized throughout the year by school groups and summer camps, as well as the general public. The playground equipment is more akin to abstract sculpture than the typical jungle gyms, slides and swing sets seen in most playgrounds, however, every abstract and surreal form is highly functional in encouraging self-directed play. As writer Aria Danaparamita describes, “Rather than dictate a play activity, the structures invite creative interactions. Kids can climb, swing, and roll around in the Playscape’s spiral tower, play cubes and modernist geometric structures with integrated slides and swings” (Danaparamita, 2013). 

Isamu Noguchi at the planning of Moerenuma Park in 1988. ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / ARS.

Noguchi’s last major project was Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. The park is a 454 acre amalgamation of Noguchi’s ideas and designs for playgrounds and land art, including Play Mountain. Although Noguchi passed away several months into the project’s planning, his friend, the influential Japanese architect Shoji Sadao, carried on with the logistics and construction. This monumental public space, which includes one of Noguchi’s most elaborate play spaces, opened to the public in 2005, 17 years after Noguchi’s passing. 

Moerenuma Park’s Forest of Cherry Trees, Sapporo, Japan. © Moerenuma Park

Fröbel’s Gifts and Noguchi’s playgrounds are exemplary models for inspiring children’s development within the natural and material world. Their contributions are a testament to how creativity and compassion can inform and benefit social, cultural and cognitive transformation. Both Fröbel and Noguchi were compelled by an array of modern art, design and architecture during their time, and in turn they influenced future generations of artists, designers and architects who work with children and/or develop educational materials.

Education is a form of social architecture and adheres to the adage ‘form follows function.’ Educators are astute and adept in scaffolding instruction and supporting their students throughout the phases of their development. Educators also physically set up their classrooms in order to build strong social, emotional and cognitive frameworks. The tangible classroom space should be a place that welcomes social discourse, collaboration and both guided and self-directed learning. Artists and educators have a unique position as designers of social and cultural blueprints for generations upon generations to explore, expand and renovate. Through the exploration materials and aesthetic experiences, and being engaged in scaffolded instruction and free play; educational infrastructures are developed, which are essential for our society to operate and progress in a holistic and critical manner. 

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 41:4, 330-345, 2000.

Danaparamita, Aria. “Playing with Art: The Isamu Noguchi Playscape.” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 19 September 2013.

Eisner, E. (2002, September) What the Arts Do for the Young, SchoolArts, (pp. 16-17).

Hersey, George. (2000). Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 205.

Lange, Alexandra. “The Story Behind Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes in Atlanta.” WHY Magazine, 2019.

Larrivee, Shaina D. “Playscapes: Isamu Noguchi’s Designs for Play.” Public Art Dialogue, 1:01, 53-80, 2011.

Mars, Roman. “Froebel’s Gifts.” 99% Invisible, 9 April 2019.

Mars, Roman. “Play Mountain.” 99% Invisible, 23 April 2019.

Penfold, Louisa. “Froebel’s Gifts and Isamu Noguchi’s Playgrounds.” Art. Play. Children. Learning, 15 April 2020. EducationEducationFriedrich FröbelFroebel GiftsIsamu NoguchiModern ArtplayPlayful LearningplaygroundPublic Art

About that stroboscope in the attic.

Creating an image showing thinking, doing and making art.

This week two things happened at the same time, potentially in the way Jung talked about Synchronicity, an idea brought to my attention by that Police album of the same name.

  1. I found a need for a single image for my blog which showed thinking, doing and making art. A Google image search for <thinking AND doing AND making> complete with search operators drew a blank. And…
  2. I went into the attic and saw the old stroboscope I got from a car boot sale.

As a 60yrs + person I remember frequently having strobes in discos before their connection to seizures was noticed and they were banned or controlled. For people who don’t know, strobes in discos were seriously cool. When switched on in a darkened room everybody appeared to be moving very slowly and your eyes tendency to retain an image for a few milliseconds and produce traces, made people look like they had many arms and legs.

Using the strobe at night in my garden I had an image of me, mysterious in black, moving in the dark through space highlighted by a series of frozen frames from a strobe.

This image could show thinking, in that I would need to think about how a stroboscope could be used with my camera and a long exposure, it would show doing as I could do this at night in my back garden (hoping the neighbours would not see it and call the police), and it would show making as I would make a photographic image.

A plan was formulated and family warned and I felt sure that if the police were called they would understand as they did do that album called ‘Synchronicity’ in 1983 and they could quietly play a bit of it to placate the neighbours should the need arise.

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The camera was set up on a tripod, the strobe connected to the mains, as dusk came tests were done to give a sufficiently long exposure. I dressed in black and did a few test shots and what became apparent was that even at dusk, a person dressed in black was invisible to the camera. Kind of obvious in retrospect but hindsight always gives you perfect vision. The strobe had to be much closer and I needed to dress in white to be seen.

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A shorter exposure was used with the strobe closer but my expectation that the strobe would be like a flashgun showed that it was not bright enough. Also the rate of strobing had to be increased assuming doubling the speed would double the level of illumination. I had hoped for a set of clear seperated exposures but with a faster rate of strobing the effect was more like that of a non-strobing light. I look like somebody walked by with a vape and blowing a cloud of smoke.

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This image is later, so it is darker. The strobe is fast enough now it appears to be a continuous light and is much closer to me. This is a 30s exposure at f8 and I time a walk across the space to fill the 30 seconds of the exposure. Here the image is more dense the slower I go.

After some experimentation, I can use the speed at which I move to deepen the density of the image recorded. I use the 30s exposure at f8 and a 10s delay for the shutter firing so that I can control my start point and count 30s to control the point at which I finish in the frame. The review screen on my camera provides feedback on what the effect of what I do has on the final image. The image is the review in this experiential learning process.

A powerful and simple function of a photographic image is that it is a re-viewing of experience but also a significant catalyst of director of the experience. The making of the image is the experience and the re-view and as such influence thinking about how the image is made.

After about 50 exposures and an hour and a half of playing around and experimenting with using my movement to control the exposure, I got to a couple of images I was happy with.

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This one has an interesting contrast between different parts of the image of the moving figure. This has some cropping and some modification of the image with dodging and burning to control highlights and darkness. To me this best showed thinking, doing and making.

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This image was most interesting and was made by simply raising my arms fast at first them slowing down over the 30s exposure. As a preview, it looked otherworldly, like an angel was landing, but as a full sized image it was less otherworldly. I did quite a lot of modification to make the full-sized image look like the pleasing impact of the preview.

Summary of this as art as experiential learning.

  • This was all situational. Experiential learning is founded on learning in the here and now.
  • I had an intention and an image in my head of what the final form could look like. This did not happen but something else did, not better, not worse than the original intention, just different.
  • It was a journey of uncertain outcome. I had to change what I did over the time I was working on this. The path emerged from the walking.
  • It was an active process that emerged from an active physical experience.
  • I made something. Poiesis occurred. An image or series of images existed after this that did not exist before. Each image was witnessed by me and through each witnessing, the ideas for the next image emerged. Art is witnessed by an audience in the end but it is witnessed by the artist or maker before this.
  • Making each image was the process. The image is the experience and witness to the experience. Experiencing and reviewing are the same thing.
  • The whole thing could be understood as a form of research in which a hypothesis is formulated and tested, but each iteration of this changes the direction of the research. This makes it different from quantitative and qualitative research and can be best described as performative research. The outcomes of this research are situational, subjective, emergent and personal. This, done as research by someone else, somewhere else would produce a different outcome.
  • Thinking, doing and making art is shown in one image. An attached description or exposition helps clarify this. But without an exposition, each viewer would see a different thing. Words used to describe doing are more objective and more universally understood. But the experience was personal and subjective. The image is closer to the experience but more open to subjective response. The image is more a accurate representation, but more subjective. This is a paradox of how we do and how we show experiential learning.

‘Where there is no struggle there is no progress’ Frederick Douglass

Great BBC Radio 4 repeat of an ‘In our Time’ programme about Frederick Douglass an astonishing man, born a slave in the USA in 1817. Self educated, self made, companion to Abraham Lincoln, what is covered in this programme shows us the historical background to BLM, and thus shows us that when Michelle Obama stated, ‘When they go low, you go high’, this appeal has a long history. Respect due. Entrepreneur, orator, statesman, part of British and US history, how can this man not be a role model to all?


The Other Arts Skill Set

Many schools are overlooking the arts in education, to the detriment of children, discover why arts integration in school is so important…

Sandra Larson • 1 May, 2020

Art education has become less important with the latest advancement in the technology sector. People have started to pay more attention to gadgets and tools than the arts. While schools are seeming to put arts on the back-burner to focus on other activities, this particular subject has immense importance when it comes to developing productive skills in kids. Playing with colours and drawing interesting pictures has always been the favourite activity of children studying in different educational institutions. It helps them give meaning to their hidden talent.

Arts Integration in School: 10 Reasons Why It’s Important

Photo, Taylor Wilcox.

In this article, Sandra Larson explores the then most important reasons emphasising the inevitable importance of arts integration in schools.

Creativeness: You can’t imagine a child to become creative without having art skills. Although art may look like a dull activity, yet it has no parallel when it comes to becoming more creative. This particular branch of study helps children in expressing themselves more than other subjects such as science and math. Art is considered to be a great source of improving thinking creativity in kids of all ages. Therefore, creativity is a significant reason why arts education should be emphasised in schools.

Attention to Detail: Arts integration in school is also important because it helps kids develop attention to detail. They focus on each and every step while drawing something on a paper. Things like acting, singing, and painting improve focus. They start to pay attention from an early age, which is imperative for a successful didactic career. This is a key skill that helps kids succeed in their educational, personal, and professional lives.

Decision Making: Kids having an interest in arts strengthen critical thinking and problem-solving skills. You can imagine a student deciding to express their feelings in a particular character. They learn a lot about decision making while drawing paintings and performing the dance at the stage. Studies have shown that arts play a vital role in reinforcing the decision making process. It becomes easier for students to opt for the best option from given choices. That’s the reason why arts integration in schools is imperative.

Arts Integration in School: 10 Reasons Why It’s Important

Photo, CDC.

Manual Dexterity: One of the core benefits of arts education is the development of fine motor skills. Kids just love playing with instruments. That’s the reason they like holding a paintbrush and scrawling with crayons.

Arts Integration in School: 10 Reasons Why It’s Important

Photo, Enson Renton.

Due to the lack of motor skills, many students don’t have the potential to write an assignment in a flawless way. That’s why you’ll often see a student saying “I need someone to write my essay for me“. Productive activities that cater to motor skills include painting, colouring, cutting, beading, drawing, writing, erasing, and tracing. These are the skills that require small muscle movements of hand, fingers, and wrist. These abilities help kids perform tasks of buttoning, writing, and zippering.

Self-confidence: Practicing artistic activities boost the self-confidence of students of all levels. According to research, students participating in different art activities are more confident than others. Singing and acting performances on stage help kids in feeling confident even in front of the audience. Appreciation from mentors and spectators also aid in improving the confidence level.

Educational Performance: Art isn’t just great for developing creative skills, but it plays an important role in helping your child gain manifold academic achievements. He begins to perform well in all subjects and extracurricular activities. Today, kids have started paying more attention to technological gadgets such as mobiles, tablets, and computers. They seldom take part in physical activities. Arts pave their way to perform better in study-related activities.

Visual Learning: Painting, sculpting, and drawing are considered to be great to develop visual learning I young kids. Researchers have highlighted the impact of the arts. Therefore, children shouldn’t be confined to text and numbers. Painting and drawing things on a paper helps them learn a lot about this world.

Arts Integration in School: 10 Reasons Why It’s Important

Photo, Andrew Ebrahim.

Teamwork: Children sit together and collaborate on drawing projects while attending art classes at school. It provides them with an opportunity to cooperate, share stuff, and create impressive paintings together. Kids start to understand the sense of responsibility and share hands with other classmates to achieve common goals.

Challenges: There can be more than a few challenging situations while creating art. Young kids learn to tackle such challenges and devise strategies to solve the problem. Life is full of trials and tribulations. Arts play its part to prepare students for the upcoming challenges.

Persistence: Determination and consistency can help you achieve anything in life. Although many other subjects play their role in this regard, yet arts has an exclusive to develop persistence in students of all levels.

Arts used to have a big share in the academic field. Students who studied arts developed some of the most productive skills to perform better in their lives. Unfortunately, modern educational institutions are not paying any attention to this deprived subject. However, arts integration in schools can revive the golden learning era and improve students’ lives for the better.

Sandra Larson has vast experience in arts. She is a blogger who likes to share knowledge about the importance of arts education. Her aim is to let the world know about the innumerable benefits of this particular subject.

The modern day flâneur

Theories and demographics are all very well, but to know New York City’s inner life you need to walk and talk

By William Helmreich

June 21, 2013 

When I was nine, my father found a new form of entertainment for me. Whenever our schedules were free, we took the subway from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the end of the line and walked around, exploring the neighbourhood. We saw swampy marshes in Canarsie, Brooklyn, public housing projects in Astoria, Queens, and beautiful, forested Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. One time, my father poked his head into a pub and everyone scattered. We never found out why.

In this way, I learned to love New York City. I still do. And over the past four years, partly in homage to New York, but largely to furnish material for a book-length study, I’ve walked some 6,000 miles across the city’s built-up terrain — that’s 120,000 blocks. The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.

With walking, it’s the journey that’s the destination. The minute you begin observing, you’re there.

Six thousands miles might seem a ludicrous challenge but, like the proverbial mountain, you walk it one step at a time. A marathon runner could cover the ground I walked in 12 or 14 months, but my leisurely pace was both less strenuous, and much more systematic. I used street maps and marked off each street, correcting for haphazardness and habit, since people tend to stick to their routes and repeat patterns. I myself had lived in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, for eight years, and thought I knew its every part. I didn’t. I’d often walked 164th Street, but rarely 163rd. Ditto for 159th, as opposed to 158th Street. Returning to the area as a participant-observer, of the kind valued by urban ethnographers from the Chicago School of the 1920s, onwards, I discovered places I’d never seen before.

I often entered interior courtyards of buildings where I watched children playing games bounded by arcane rules that only they knew because they’d created them. I saw unique architectural details, not visible from the sidewalk. I entered apartment buildings and experienced the smells and sounds of urban life as it is experienced indoors. One time, a man allowed me to see his apartment on the 21st floor of a housing project. Inside, I discovered that the entire living space was done in bright red — the walls, tables, chairs, even the microwave oven and the clothes-hangers in his closet, not to mention the silverware, or, should I say, redware. Why? ‘I’ve always loved red,’ he said simply. The takeaway for me was that we can’t always fully explain human behaviour. My studied trespass brought home the fact that our tools are bounded by the limits of human understanding — ours and that of others.

Walking slowly through NYC, I saw things that a cyclist, threading through crowds, or trying to negotiate spaces filled with automobiles, couldn’t see. Could a cyclist look for more than a second at the fifth floor of a building on a narrow one-way street and notice the large letter ‘M’ carved into its façade, and then explore its meanings for the residents? Or look down at the sidewalk and discover the intricate designs of trellises, flowers, and leaves etched into its surface, without risking life or limb?

One of my aims with this project was to try to comprehend the actual physical process by which a neighbourhood gentrifies. I asked an Asian student emerging from an apartment building in what was once a sketchy part of Manhattan’s Washington Heights area if the neighbourhood’s ethnic population, once poor and mainly Hispanic, was changing. He told me it was becoming much more mixed. ‘But,’ I demurred, ‘the names next to the buzzers in your own building are almost all Hispanic.’ ‘That’s only because we haven’t had a chance to remove them and put our own names in yet,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. And so I learned that reality isn’t always what you see. More important, I realised, you must ask questions, not simply observe.

The Hasidic neighbourhood of Williamsburg abuts the black community of Bedford-Stuyvesant at Flushing Avenue. On one side of the avenue are privately developed apartment buildings occupied solely by Hasidic families. On the other side, the Marcy Houses, a red-brick public housing project built in 1949, loom over the street. I saw three Hasidic children with velvet skullcaps and curly side-locks standing on a balcony, staring intently at a basketball game going on in the playground outside the Marcy Houses. Perhaps they were keeping score. Or perhaps they wanted to join in. This was the childhood home of rapper Jay-Z — so named, according to internet legend, because the J and Z subway lines run nearby. It looks and feels like a ‘don’t cross’ border.

Sociologist William Helmreich takes time out from walking to admire the Centro La Paz Mural on 125th st, East Harlem. Photo by Neville Elder

New York City policy is to not tear down housing projects, but to rehabilitate them. Where will the Hasidim, with their explosive birth rate, go once their area has filled up? Walking through the project, I find out soon enough. They’ve built more apartment buildings deep in the black area beyond the project. It’s sort of like a river that, when blocked, simply flows around the barrier and continues.

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‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff. They wouldn’t dare.’

Walking through the project buildings, I learned something else. In stark contrast to the grim outward appearance from the main thoroughfare, there are beautiful gardens, created and maintained by the residents. Brilliantly coloured flowers grow here, as well as manicured shrubbery, which surrounds statues and drawings done by local residents. No one has vandalised them. ‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff,’ an elderly woman sitting on a bench told me. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’

Walking along the newer structures beyond Flushing Avenue, where the Hasidim are still a minority, black, Hispanic and Hasidic children play ball together in the street. It’s the kind of contact that will probably soften their views about otherness as they grow into adults, working in this multi-racial city. The Hasidim are seen as insular, but are they as insular as children raised in the all-white Bronx community in Edgewater Park? In gentrifying areas, you see who talks to whom, and how comfortable they are by their body language. In taverns or restaurants, you see races intermingle, belying the stark categorisations of town planners, statisticians and theorists.

The delight is in the details. Had I not walked, I would never have met the man standing on his porch in Jamaica, Queens, watering a small, neatly kept garden filled with lovely, unusual flowers. ‘These flowers are beautiful,’ I remarked. ‘Where did you get them?’ ‘I’m so glad you asked,’ he replied softly. ‘They are flowers from my country, Guyana, which I love. I planted them to remind me of home.’

Here was an expression of the pain, even heartbreak, of leaving one’s native land, that no amount of probing dry statistics about remittances to the homeland, residential patterns, or ethnic credit associations could yield. And it opened a window for me on to the deeper struggles and hopes of immigrants.

To really understand the immigrant experience in New York City, you need to encounter immigrants on their own turf. The American approach of respecting, even celebrating, ethnicity can lead to the formation of communities isolated from larger society in ways that make their socioeconomic progress so much harder.

For example, there are neighbourhoods, parts of Bushwick and Washington Heights, where hardly anyone speaks English. You can’t get directions or buy something in a store unless you speak fairly good Spanish. I interviewed a Dominican building superintendent who has been living in the city for 27 years. He spoke no English. Why is that, I asked through his nine-year-old daughter, who was our translator. ‘Because I don’t have to in this neighbourhood.’ His daughter will have an easier time.

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The hot-dog vendor from India explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children

It’s not just about the language, but the importance of success and how it is measured by immigrants. I speak with a hot-dog vendor from India and ask him if this is what he dreamed of when he came here. It isn’t, he admitted, but then he explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children. I found that immigrants are acutely conscious that they’re changing the trajectories of generations to come when they decide to emigrate from their often-impoverished homelands.

In Brooklyn, I came across a gentrifying block lined with brownstone dwellings. One of them featured a simple sign that read ‘P De Rosa — 180 — Grocery’. Underneath were neon signs for two old-time beers — Schaefer and Rheingold Extra Dry. It was clearly not a functioning establishment; so why was the sign there? After chatting with a woman sitting in front of a nearby house, I learned that it had been a grocery store many years ago. I tracked down Mr De Rosa’s grandson who explained that his family had kept the sign out of respect for his grandfather’s saga of immigration and hard work, eking out a living, his native village in southern Italy far behind him.

‘It’s a matter of respect,’ Mr De Rosa’s grandson said quietly. ‘For me it was an important lesson about filial love. Every Christmas and Easter, the neon lights are turned on for the beers that were advertised in the old days.’

And then there’s the ‘Halem Bike Doctor’ (the misspelling is deliberate), a man who fixes bicycles, sells them at unbelievably cheap prices, and then sponsors an annual Father’s Day bike race around adjacent Marcus Garvey Park, open only to ‘children with good grades’. Or the man whose small yard, and much larger garage, featured thousands of memorabilia items from the Brooklyn of the 1950s and ’60s. Memory and lived experience are everywhere layered together, then brought into relief by community characters such as these.

Without walking New York City block by block, I would never have known about these jewels, or had the opportunity to converse with the hundreds of people I encountered on my jaunts. Without walking the entire city, I would never have learned which of the things I found were representative of the city as a whole and which, on the other hand, were uniquely interesting and so worthy of inclusion in my book. Seeing and understanding these patterns and repetitions enables the researcher to see connections from one area to another, and to realise how it’s all part of an interconnected whole.

So often it was the chance encounter, followed by a spontaneous exchange, that led me to important insights. Walking one day through a somewhat hazardous part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, I came across a tall, burly black man walking four pit-bull terriers. What made the sight really unusual were the two boa constrictors curled around his neck. When a woman with a girl of about seven approached, he proclaimed: ‘Here, your child can pet these dogs!’ And when she drew back, he complained in a mocking tone: ‘Now you’re not being a nice New Yorker.’

I fell into step with him, and was surprised to find a man on the next block, also with a young child in tow, take him up on his offer. The man allowed his daughter to pet the dogs and then stood by admiringly as one of the boas encircled the fearless child. No one paid much attention to the black man, the snakes, or what he was saying. In a posher area, a crowd would have gathered, gaped at this menagerie, and most likely have called the police. After all, owning wild creatures in the city is illegal without a special permit. What the incident brought home to me was that the norms of behaviour in New York vary greatly, depending on where you are. ‘Big deal. This is Brooklyn,’ said one man when I asked what he thought of the scene.

I learned a similar lesson outside the Jackson Houses project in the South Bronx, when I asked a black woman if the area was dangerous. She told me that it most definitely was. When I informed her that the murder rate in the area had declined dramatically from about 2,000 deaths a year in the 1980s and ’90s to about 500 today, she retorted: ‘Oh yeah? Well, if the murder rate went down to 500 a year, then 400 of them is happening right outside my building.’ Perceptions of crime are relative. It might be down in overall numbers, but the distribution is what counts to those living in high-crime areas.

In a crowded metropolis, where people are busy, you find that the niceties of communication are frequently ignored. People don’t listen to you because they’re on the clock. That’s what happens in a large city, where, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel said a century ago, time rules the day. Yet when I asked if I could use a photocopier machine, because my daughter was getting married, the answer was ‘Sure.’ Or when I requested permission to use a bathroom, saying: ‘I’m going on vacation next week,’ I’d be told ‘Go ahead.’ As long as you at least say something, it’s fine. Perhaps Simmel overstated his case — since there are times when time doesn’t matter.

Some of my most intense and revealing conversations with strangers took place on the busiest of streets. Waiting for a bus on Brooklyn’s bustling Atlantic Avenue, a woman poured out her heart to me about her ‘mean and crazy sister’ who was stealing money from their joint bank account. Another person railed about how he’d been driven out of the community in which he grew up; while a third explained why his dream was to be a filmmaker.

There’s no question that walking a city, be it London, Paris, or New York is challenging, arduous and, at times, dangerous. Most cities do not have ideal climates. You can’t walk only when the weather is clement, or doing a project of this sort will take 20 years to complete. I walked in all four seasons, in light rain and in snow flurries. Sometimes I’d travel two hours to my starting point, just to walk for a single hour. You grab time when you can. I’d walk early in the morning, late at night, weekdays and weekends. I often had to walk four hours in a day to find, in the last minutes, the ‘gem of the day’. It’s highly intensive labour.

But the rewards make it immensely worthwhile, sociologically, and in human terms. Stride for stride, I believe there’s no better way to really know a city.

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (2013) by William Helmreich is published via Princeton University Press.

Art is Useless

A look at the work of artist Wim Delvoye


Celebrated for his scandalous Cloaca machines, which scientifically transform the cuisine of renowned chefs into manufactured shit, and tattooed live pigs that aesthetically flaunt drawings of Disney princesses and fashion logos while increasing in size, Belgian Wim Delvoye creates art to fascinate people.

How dancing helps me think, and thinking helps me dance

A good article about dance as embodied cognition, the idea that we think with our bodies as much as with our minds, or that they are one and the same.

by Glory M Liu,

I’m a lifelong dancer and a political theorist. ‘Work’ and ‘thinking’ in one part of my life are entirely physical, while in the other part they’re wholly intellectual. For most of my career, dancing and academic research were two separate but equally weighted spheres. However, over the years, I have become more and more aware that many people viewed dance as a less valuable way of thinking and working. Dance, in their minds, was a purely emotive activity consisting of uncritical, spontaneous movement or a purely athletic endeavour whose sole purpose is to defy our body’s physical limits.

Part of the reason why this view of dance persists, I think, stems from a deeply rooted prejudice against embodied vocations. In Aristotle’s ideal state in the Politics, for example, mechanics, farmers, shopkeepers and those living a banauson bion – a life of physical and menial labour – are excluded from full citizenship. Their modes of existence leave no time for leisure, yet their physical labour is essential to support those who carry out the deliberative actions of the city. Today, we continue to stratify work into ‘high-skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ hierarchies. We wrongly presume that those whose work is primarily physical have little to contribute to those whose work is primarily mental, and vice versa.

Dancers exist on the cusp of this prejudice. Our bodies are the primary instruments with which we absorb, distil and produce ideas that are intangible and ephemeral. But, in doing so, we are also seen as high artists. And it is precisely our highly trained capacity to combine physical with mental thinking that makes dance not only possible but powerful.

We dancers learn, maintain and teach what’s possible with physical expression. I, like many, began very young, and was quickly programmed into a world of rules, patterns and habits. Left hand on the barre to start, and always turn towards the barre to switch sides. Close in fifth position, but go through first. Front-side-back-side. Elbows, wrists, fingers; heel, arch, toes. As a dancer in training, you learn to dissociate your self from your body, to relinquish your agency to the structure and aesthetic of the form – whether that’s classical ballet, modern dance or something else. But treating dance purely as a physical form to which we subject our personhood is deeply problematic. As the American choreographer and dance writer Theresa Ruth Howard argues, it ‘romanticises the dehumanisation of the body by regarding it as an instrument, a tool akin [to] clay’. It turns our physical bodies into mere instruments for the ideas, beliefs and expressions from some external source – whether the teacher, the choreographer or even our own ideal of what the technique demands. Where, then, does the dancer find space for freedom, for individual agency in the strictures of this kind of physical practice?

The practice of cultivating agency and autonomy is essential to our physical and moral selves. I learned how to appreciate and respect agency relatively late in my dance career, but relatively early in my work as a political theorist. In 2013, I’d started graduate school and was continuing to dance and perform contemporary works, though the majority of my routine practice was in classical ballet. I had sustained multiple injuries and undergone a surgery. I became anxious that my body was past its prime, no longer suited to the demands of the art form, and that it was time to quit and find a different outlet. But a moment in a ballet class changed my mind.

Muriel Maffre, a former principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet and my then-ballet teacher at Stanford University, called our attention between combinations. ‘Dancers,’ she said, ‘get into the habit of breaking habits. Demonstrate you have agency over your body.’ There was only a brief pause before the accompanist gave us four counts before the battement-tendu combination started again, but the words resonated in my mind and my body for the rest of class. For most of my life, I believed that dancing consisted solely of building particular physical habits – habits that I could unthinkingly execute as soon as I crossed the threshold between the ‘real world’ and the dance studio. But Maffre’s admonition helped me see the wisdom in questioning and even undoing some of the habits, both physical and mental, I’d worked for decades to build. This didn’t mean that suddenly ballet itself – its organisation, combinations, its vocabulary and its grammar – was turned upside down. Instead, it meant that even the most technical, formal structures of the form had to be filled with my own agency.

I scrutinised my movements from the largest jumps to the tiniest gestures, wondering about their origins. An overextended port-de-bras in an arabesque – the iconic ballerina pose – puzzled me: it threw off my balance, but somehow I thought it looked beautiful. Where did the integrity of arabesque come from: my sternum, my standing leg, or my fingertips? Other times, things that manifested themselves as physical ticks or involuntary movements were actually within my control, but had a long physical history that I needed to investigate. I scrunched my toes too much, even when I didn’t need to balance. I premeditatively ‘fell’ out of an additional turn even though I had the physical power for one more revolution. And I thought I cast my gaze downward as a stylistic choice, but really I was checking out my feet. I started noticing and observing dance differently on my own body and on other dancers. The simplest movements, gestures and steps could convey such a wide range of textures, sensations and feelings. Tendus, I decided, were a display not of the arch of my feet but of the floor’s resistance. A renversé – my favourite step – was not just a shape I could make with my legs and arms, but an expression of my back body moving forward in space. Instead of striving for an appearance of weightlessness, I practised giving in to gravity and harnessing the power of my weightedness.

That all these qualities, which constituted the dancer’s artistry, were subject to choice inspired me. Dance, then, was my physical practice of independent and critical reflection – on received ideas, on formed habits, on the basic values and beliefs I held – not just about dance but also on what it means to be a flourishing human being. It was at that moment that I realised that my education as a dancer and scholar were converging and becoming inseparable ways of investigating ideas about personhood and the good life. The knowledge I acquired as a dancer physically expressed ideas about autonomy and freedom that I was investigating as a political theorist. My dance practice was an everyday, real and, above all, physical experience of what it means to have the capacity to direct one’s life, to be able to redirect it, and to see those capacities ‘as testimony of the strength rather than fragility’ of our fundamental personhood, as Rob Reich puts it in his book Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education (2002).

We learn by practice, the American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said. Our practices – both physical and intellectual – can be so much more than routine work and the accretions of habits. By choosing to perform the ‘dedicated precise sets of acts’ that we do, we can access ‘achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit’. We embody our autonomy and our humanity.

A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain

Extract – Coming from the world of outdoor and experiential learning and then the arts and the arts therapies, it seems clear that we think with our bodies as well as our brains. Dancers and climbers both do this. As do joiners and sculptors, painters and decorators and artists. Art as research or art a way of exploring and expressing personal experience connects directly to embodied cognition, but the output of exploration or research is art and experience. If we are seeking models for understanding art-making experiences and or outdoor experiences, embodied cognition is a kind of conduit to shift ideas from one context to another.

Samuel McNerney November 4, 2011

Embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind, is one of the more counter-intuitive ideas in cognitive science. In sharp contrast is dualism, a theory of mind famously put forth by Rene Descartes in the 17th century when he claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.” In the proceeding centuries, the notion of the disembodied mind flourished. From it, western thought developed two basic ideas: reason is disembodied because the mind is disembodied and reason is transcendent and universal. However, as George Lakoff and Rafeal Núñez explain:

Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.

What exactly does this mean? It means that our cognition isn’t confined to our cortices. That is, our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world. This is why we say that something is “over our heads” to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as “I’m warming up to her.”

Embodied cognition has a relatively short history. Its intellectual roots date back to early 20th century philosophers Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey and it has only been studied empirically in the last few decades. One of the key figures to empirically study embodiment is University of California at Berkeley professor George Lakoff.

Lakoff was kind enough to field some questions over a recent phone conversation, where I learned about his interesting history first hand. After taking linguistic courses in the 1960s under Chomsky at MIT, where he eventually majored in English and Mathematics, he studied linguistics in grad school at Indiana University. It was a different world back then, he explained, “it was the beginning of computer science and A.I and the idea that thought could be described with formal logic dominated much of philosophical thinking. Turing machines were popular discussion topics, and the brain was widely understood as a digital computational device.” Essentially, the mind was thought of as a computer program separate from the body with the brain as general-purpose hardware.

Chomsky’s theory of language as a series of meaningless symbols fit this paradigm. It was a view of language in which grammar was independent of meaning or communication. In contrast, Lakoff found examples showing that grammar was depended of meaning in 1963. From this observation he constructed a theory called Generative Semantics, which was also disembodied, where logical structures were built into grammar itself.

To be sure, cognitive scientists weren’t dualists like Descartes – they didn’t actually believe that the mind was physically separate from the body – but they didn’t think that the body influenced cognition. And it was during this time – throughout the 60s and 70s -Lakoff realized the flaws of thinking about the mind as a computer and began studying embodiment.

The tipping point came after attending four talks that hinted at embodied language at Berkeley in the summer of 1975. In his words, they forced him to “give up and rethink linguistics and the brain.” This prompted him and a group of colleagues to start cognitive linguistics, which contrary to Chomskyan theory and the entire mind as a computer paradigm, held that “semantics arose from the nature of the body.” Then, in 1978, he “discovered that we think metaphorically,” and spent the next year gathering as many metaphors as he could find.

Many cognitive scientists accepted his work on metaphors though it opposed much of mainstream thought in philosophy and linguistics. He caught a break on January 2nd 1979, when he got a call from Mark Johnson, who informed him that he was coming to Berkeley to replace someone in the philosophy department for six months. Johnson had just gotten his PhD from Chicago where he studied continental philosophy and called Lakoff to see if he was interested in studying metaphors. What came next was one of the more groundbreaking books in cognitive science. After co-writing a paper for the journal of philosophy in the spring of 1979, Lakoff and Johnson began working on Metaphors We Live By, and managed to finish it three months later.

Their book extensively examined how, when and why we use metaphors. Here are a few examples. We understand control as being UP and being subject to control as being DOWN: We say, “I have control over him,” “I am on top of the situation,” “He’s at the height of his power,” and, “He ranks above me in strength,” “He is under my control,” and “His power is on the decline.” Similarly, we describe love as being a physical force: “I could feel the electricity between us,” “There were sparks,” and “They gravitated to each other immediately.” Some of their examples reflected embodied experience. For example, Happy is Up and Sad is Down, as in “I’m feeling up today,” and “I’m feel down in the dumps.” These metaphors are based on the physiology of emotions, which researchers such as Paul Eckman have discovered. It’s no surprise, then, that around the world, people who are happy tend to smile and perk up while people who are sad tend to droop.

Metaphors We Live By was a game changer. Not only did it illustrate how prevalent metaphors are in everyday language, it also suggested that a lot of the major tenets of western thought, including the idea that reason is conscious and passionless and that language is separate from the body aside from the organs of speech and hearing, were incorrect. In brief, it demonstrated that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

After Metaphors We Live By was published, embodiment slowly gained momentum in academia. In the 1990s dissertations by Christopher Johnson, Joseph Grady and Srini Narayanan led to a neural theory of primary metaphors. They argued that much of our language comes from physical interactions during the first several years of life, as the Affection is Warmth metaphor illustrated. There are many other examples; we equate up with control and down with being controlled because stronger people and objects tend to control us, and we understand anger metaphorically in terms of heat pressure and loss of physical control because when we are angry our physiology changes e.g., skin temperature increases, heart beat rises and physical control becomes more difficult.

This and other work prompted Lakoff and Johnson to publish Philosophy in the Flesh, a six hundred-page giant that challenges the foundations of western philosophy by discussing whole systems of embodied metaphors in great detail and furthermore arguing that philosophical theories themselves are constructed metaphorically. Specifically, they argued that the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. What’s left is the idea that reason is not based on abstract laws because cognition is grounded in bodily experience (A few years later Lakoff teamed with Rafael Núñez to publish Where Mathematics Comes From to argue at great length that higher mathematics is also grounded in the body and embodied metaphorical thought).

As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead 

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

Studies like these confirm Lakoff’s initial hunch – that our rationality is greatly influenced by our bodies in large part via an extensive system of metaphorical thought. How will the observation that ideas are shaped by the body help us to better understand the brain in the future?

I also spoke with Term Assistant Professor of Psychology Joshua Davis, who teaches at Barnard College and focuses on embodiment. I asked Davis what the future of embodiment studies looks like (he is relatively new to the game, having received his PhD in 2008). He explained to me that although “a lot of the ideas of embodiment have been around for a few decades, they’ve hit a critical mass… whereas sensory inputs and motor outputs were secondary, we now see them as integral to cognitive processes.” This is not to deny computational theories, or even behaviorism, as Davis said, “behaviorism and computational theories will still be valuable,” but, “I see embodiment as a new paradigm that we are shifting towards.”

What exactly will this paradigm look like? It’s unclear. But I was excited to hear from Lakoff that he is trying to “bring together neuroscience with the neural theory of language and thought,” through a new brain language and thought center at Berkeley. Hopefully his work there, along with the work of young professors like Davis, will allow us to understand the brain as part of a much greater dynamic system that isn’t confined to our cortices.

The author would like to personally thank Professors Lakoff and Davis for their time, thoughts, and insights. It was a real pleasure.

Some creative ways of confusing AI facial recognition.

See original article here

“ fuzzymiraclebanana:
“ moonlace:
“ prof-vermouthea:
“ missreaddevil:
“ gridbugged:
“Source (x) (x)
I want one.
thought that said angels, which is objectively cooler
This post went from cyberpunk dystopia to fantasy revolution...

I wish we didn’t have to live in any dystopian future but I would rather us slowly grow into a cyberpunk one rather than the shitty one we currently have…

Do you realize how important this is though?! Like, the society-wide social upheaval happening in Sudan, Hong Kong, Lebanon, and Iraq will happen in the US. Not ‘might’ – WILL. And all of us will have to make a choice between sitting out or risking our lives against our government. These designers are giving current and future protestors the protections necessary to fight for their rights without governments annihilating their families and their lives and that’s amazing.

(Source: radical-eve, via smut-loving-bookworm)