Sunday, October 19, 2014

Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is still searching for the perfect job title. In the meantime he’s making do with “experimental philosopher,” though he’s also been called a conceptual artist and a poet of ideas. His chosen form is the Gedankenexperiment, brought to life and acted out. In his decade-plus career he has “genetically engineered God,” made porn movies for plants, built a church to science and hustled extra-dimensional real estate. His latest venture: a consulting firm that trains bacteria for careers in corporate management. Microbial Associates has its public launch event at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco on October 21st.

Ludic, yes, but not ludicrous. For all the funning there’s a serious intent at the heart of Jonathon’s antics. By taking ideas to unreal extremes, Jonathon aims to explore the very real implications of our beliefs.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

image
One-room schoolhouse: under the banner of Microbial Associates, Jonathon Keats is teaching business principles to bacteria in classrooms like this one. But his real hope is that we’ll learn from them. Photo courtesy of Modernism Gallery, San Francisco.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Polar Photographer and Storm Chaser Camille Seaman

Maybe it’s not so surprising that someone named after a hurricane and whose Shinnecock Indian grandfather taught her that “it’s your sweat up there in the clouds” would have a special feeling for meteorological phenomena and the cycles of nature. But there were miles to go and a lot of serendipity before Camille Seaman found her calling as an acclaimed photographer of ice and storms. She was an at-risk teen when a teacher gave her her first camera. Then there was an impetuous trip to the arctic years later, and the emotional jolt of 9/11, and some mentoring from a National Geographic photographer…

I caught up with Camille as she was finishing up a Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford U. (she’s also a Senior TED Fellow). We spoke about her sinuous and chancy career path, the lives of icebergs and clouds, the allure of storm chasing, nature photography as portraiture and her next project, an ambitious experiment in urban reclamation. Plus a bonus online segment of photo-geekery: film vs digital, SLRs vs rangefinders, Photoshopping vs au naturel.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download arrow on the upper right to get your own mp3.

image

image

See more of Camille’s work at her website.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Show for Nov 3, 2013. Learning to Live While Doing Life in Prison.

Filmmaker Michel Wenzer isn’t interested in the lurid fare that typifies popular depictions of prison. He is interested in how some inmates manage to find a way to live and to grow in a place of desolation. For the men profiled in Wenzer’s documentary At Night I Fly: Images from New Folsom, salvation comes in the form of self-examination and artistic engagement, helped along by the remnants of California’s once-thriving Arts In Corrections program.

Michel has a very personal connection to his subject; it was his immersion in reading, literature and music that sustained him while growing up in the foster care system in Sweden. We talked about his experience filming in New Folsom (younger sibling of the original Folsom Prison) and the life lessons we could all learn from some of the lifers he met. I played some clips from At Night I Fly and also some bits of interviews I’ve done over the years with prison artists, including the poet Spoon Jackson, who was the inspiration for Michel’s film.

At Night I Fly has its west coast premiere Wednesday, Nov 13 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, Ca. in a benefit for the Prison Arts Project. More info here.


Spoon Jackson in New Folsom (photo from At Night I Fly by Michel Wenzer). My 2010 interview with Spoon is here.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Show for Dec 2, 2012: Yael Kohen on Women in Comedy

Of the many fields in which gender equality has been a long time coming, comedy might not seem as important as, say, high political office or corporate captaincy or astronaut-hood. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the power and centrality of humor in modern-day America. The fact that comedy – especially stand-up – was until recently considered mostly a guy’s game and the speed with which funny women have closed the gap are matters worth pondering. Why the disparity in the first place? What changed, and why does it matter? I spoke to Yael Kohen, author of the recent oral history We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.

image

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Show for Aug 12, 2012. Errol Morris Confidential, Pt 1 of 2.

Errol Morris’s relentless search for answers – philosophical, psychological, forensic – has led to a vast and ever-growing body of work that includes his celebrated documentaries, dozens of short films, weighty essays and cognitive experiments in the NY Times, books, actual criminal investigations and some pretty fetching commercials (example below). The backstories are often as interesting as the finished products, and Errol shared some of them with me in a very illuminating look at his career, his preoccupations and motivations. Topics discussed in this first of two installments include:

  • His interest in serial killers and his recent re-investigation of a famous murder case.
  • Why he started making movies.
  • His early films and stylistic development.
  • The many projects that haven’t come to fruition – mostly for financial reasons, but in one instance because of brute force.
  • The influence of Werner Herzog and their legendary bet.


Errol Morris’s latest mini-doc for ESPN.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Show for Aug 5, 2012: Filmmaker Eva Soltes on Lou Harrison’s Musical World.

An hour-long interview wasn’t enough to cover but a fraction of Lou Harrison’s many accomplishments, but Eva Soltes and I did our best to hit some of the high points. Her new documentary, Lou Harrison: A World of Music, uses footage she shot during her decades-long friendship with the eminent American composer, musical innovator and political activist, who died in 1982. The film was recently screened as part of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which Harrison helped found and which is honoring him this year with a performance of his Third Symphony. Details on the concert here. More information on Eva Soltes and Lou Harrison: A World of Music here.


Lou Harrison and life partner Bill Colvig, with one of their original instruments.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Show for June 17, 2012. Jonathan Gottschall on the Storytelling Instinct.

I’ve been nipping at the edges of this subject for a while, and in a recent show I mentioned that I was seeking someone who could tackle it head-on. Well, I found him: Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Jonathan and I discussed the central place of narrative not only in art and entertainment, but in our deep understanding of the world and ourselves. With us humans, it’s story time all the time, or at least much of the time. Jonathan and I talked about storytelling’s pervasive influence, possible evolutionary explanations, its hazards and if/how we ever escape its constraints.

Bonus points to listeners who caught Jonathan’s passing reference (“ignorant armies clash by night”) to Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Substitute the notion of “story” for “love” in the last stanza, and the poem nicely captures some of the Jonathan’s thoughts on the psychological necessity of storytelling.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Show for April 29, 2012. Facts and the Finicky Folks Who Check Them

Mike Daisey’s fibs on This American Life and their unmasking got me thinking about competing definitions of truth—artistic and journalistic—and the way they get blurred by storytelling. In part 1 of today’s show, I spoke to Craig Silverman, who’s written about fact-checking and who monitors journalistic accuracy in his blog Regret the Error. In part 2, erstwhile fact-checker Jim Fingal, author of The Lifespan of a Fact with John D’Agata. The book recounts the many arguments the two had when Fingal was an intern at The Believer magazine, tasked with vetting one of D’Agata’s essays.

 
Craig Silverman                                      Jim Fingal (L) with John D’Agata

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Show for Oct. 23, 2011: Filmmaker Errol Morris on Photography and Truth

Errol Morris’s passion for sleuthing dates back at least to his days as a private detective and runs through his work as a documentary filmmaker in movies like The Thin Blue Line and his most recent, Tabloid. In his new book, Believing is Seeing, he turns his magnifying glass on photography. Through close inspection, Morris shows how much photos can mislead, and how much we tend to misread. He and I discussed (and occasionally debated) the veridical nature of photography, the impact of digital retouching and the truth value of his own films. Then, in the second half of the show, an excerpt from my 2009 interview with documentarist Jonathan Stack on his film Iron Ladies of Liberia. It’s about the presidential administration of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who shared in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The film’s title refers to the gutsy resolve of Sirleaf and her female colleagues, not their governing style, which is more velvet glove than iron fist.


Two versions of photographer Roger Fenton’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” from the Crimean War. In the more famous image at bottom, cannonballs litter the road. In another shot (top), they don’t. Historians have long disputed which is the earlier, more “authentic” image. Errol Morris offers an ingenious solution in Believing is Seeing.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Show for Feb. 20, 2011. The Past Isn’t Even Past: Kinan and Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez, playwright and founder of El Teatro Campesino, and his son Kinan, also a writer, actor and theater director, discuss Luis’s play Mummified Deer. The play is currently being directed by Kinan for the Theater Arts Department at U.C. Santa Cruz. It’s a story of family secrets, the return of the repressed—including a bloody and little-known chapter of Mexican history—and the complexities of identity. Luis and Kinan also talk about their own family history, their lives in the theater and Luis’s aesthetic of rascuachismo (listen to the interview for the translation).

Click the “play” arrow above to listen to the interview, or download the MP3 here.

 

More on Mummified Deer performances at UC Santa Cruz.
Visit El Teatro Campesino’s website.
Bonus info: during the interview, Kinan Valdez mentioned the influence of the carpa tradition. Read about it here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Show for Dec 19, 2010: Crafting with Amy Sedaris

We first had Amy on the show a couple of years ago, when she was touring with her book I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. She recently paid us a return visit with her latest book of demented domesticity: Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People. Also, a brief excerpt from our Christmas 2005 interview with John Waters.

Click the “play” arrow above to listen, or download the MP3 here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Show for Oct. 17, 2010. From Prison to the Stage: The Poetic Justice Project

The Poetic Justice Project is a theater company for the formerly incarcerated, presenting stories of prison and jail by people who’ve been there. Members of the project discuss their lives behind bars and after parole, the impact of prison art programs and their performances in a new musical drama, Off the Hook, that’s been touring California.

Click the “play” arrow above to listen, or download the MP3 here.

Poetic Justice Project website.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Show for June 20, 2010. The Computer As Creator: David Cope’s Algorithmic Music

It’s been almost 30 years since composer David Cope began teaching computers to write music. His experiments remain some of most startling examples of machine intelligence treading on traditional human turf. Cope’s programs can analyze and replicate the styles of actual composers, from Bach to Rachmaninoff, and also create original modernist pieces. His experiments have delighted some listeners and enraged others, who say he is mechanizing music. In any case, his work raises serious questions about creativity, inspiration and human uniqueness. In this interview,  Dave Cope shares his music (including his latest CD), describes his methods and aims, and speculates on why some people find it all so very unsettling.  

Click the arrow above to listen. If you don’t have Flash player or have other playback problems, click this link for the MP3.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Show for June 13, 2010. Psychologist Paul Bloom: How Pleasure Works

Developmental psychologist Paul Bloom investigates the nature of human pleasures, from sex and food to art, music and fantasies. He says that what we like depends on what we think, and there may be no such thing as purely physical pleasure. He discusses his new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.


Click the arrow above to listen. If you don’t have Flash player or have other playback problems, click this link for the MP3.