IN DIALOGUE // Nikki Silva

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Nikki Silva is a radio producer and museum curator, best known for her work as part of the duo, The Kitchen Sisters, as well as her extensive production background with NPR. Having been a past guest at our Dialogue ‘On Storytelling’, we sat down with Nikki to get her thoughts on the future of radio, life on a commune, and work with collaboration partner, Davia Nelson.

 

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NPR RADIO PRODUCER & STORYTELLER, NIKKI SILVA

Nikki at DIALOGUE Vol. 5: On Storytelling -- Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

Nikki at DIALOGUE Vol. 5: On Storytelling -- Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

 

Rimma Boshernitsan: How did you grow up?

Nikki Silva: I grew up in Oakland. I’m an only child, but I come from a big, extended Portuguese family with lots of cousins. My grandmother came over when she was twelve and by the time she was twenty, had five kids. She was married off to a man who worked in the shipyards. It was kind of rough and tumble. I don’t know how she got the nerves, but she just kind of picked up and walked out with her five kids.

She got a job at Mother’s Cookies. I remember always having dish towels, growing up, that were made out of flour sacks from my grandmother’s work. She re-married and I used to go over there every day after school. It was a tight-knit, emotionally complicated type of family, but that’s how I grew up. I was the first to go to college.

My mom was a great influence on me - she was a great storyteller. She could type a hundred words a minute without a mistake. She would tell stories and keep me on the edge of my seat with the skeletons in the closet and the goings-on in the neighborhood.

RB: How did NPR discover you?

NS: Davia Nelson and I were doing a live radio show on a small community radio station, KUSP in Santa Cruz - it was very eclectic. We played old jazz and had live interviews with filmmakers and authors that were coming through town. We would come back with 30 hours of tape from these oral histories and quickly we realized that nobody was going to listen to 30 hours of tape. We taught ourselves how to cut quarter-inch reel to reel audio tape with a razor blade and Scotch tape. Nobody at the station where we were volunteering was doing that kind of work, but we figured it out and cut things down to ten minutes.

One of our friends said, “You should really send this over to NPR.” We had never heard of NPR. Because NPR was only about ten years old and not being broadcast in our area, neither of us had ever listened to it. Somebody sent in a tape we did about the Road Ranger. One day, Alex Chadwick calls and says, “Hi, I’m from NPR.” and we said, “Oh, yeah sure.”

He said they loved the work we were doing but asked what equipment we were using, because the sound quality was pretty rough. That was the beginning. They played our piece on Morning Edition, and they encouraged us to get some training to improve our skills. We were pretty much self-taught, but that experience upped our game a lot.

It was a great time for NPR - they were trying to figure out who they were. They were taking a lot of chances on independent producers.

RB: How would you say you impacted storytelling and these long-form documentary style interviews?

NS: We were just making it up as we went - it just felt right, sounded right. We knew Jay Allison, Ira Glass, Joe Richmond, Dave Isay and all that first wave. At that point it was so new and it was an open field. Everyone was influencing everyone else. We were women - women on NPR were really breaking ground in news. As far as independents, there weren’t that many women. There were a few, but because there were two of us, it was a novelty, and we were collaborators. I think that influenced a lot of younger women who found that partnership possibility in their own lives.

RB: What feels different about your work?

NS: When you look at formal oral history - we’re not very formal. We definitely have a plan going in, but we’re willing to go all over the map. We do really long interviews which makes it a lot of work in terms of transcription.

 
If you’re going for a certain stream of information, it is not the most efficient way, but the approach has always been out of curiosity. That’s what we like to do.
 

RB: How did you meet Davia?

NS: We met in Santa Cruz. We both went to UCSC but never met while we were in school. After college, I got a job working at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History doing exhibits about local history and art - oral history without a microphone. Davia was interested in doing oral history with a microphone. She was very into radio and audio ever since she was in high school. She had done radio at the college station at UCSC. And she was doing a live weekly show on KUSP Santa Cruz. We were both doing the same kind of work but in different mediums. People started telling us about each other.

We met at the museum one summer afternoon. We sat on the porch from about 2 pm until sunset. We just sort of “fell in love”,  talking about all the things we wanted to do and about everything in life. It was an instant friendship. We started going out on oral history expeditions and I started doing the weekly show with her, and things evolved.

RB: How is it working together? What is that dynamic like?

NS: It’s just better. It’s hard. It’s like a marriage, like any relationship. You have to pay attention and work on it. We both have strong ideas and personalities, but they complement each other. Ultimately we are both very good at what we do, and we do things by ourselves as well. But when we work together there’s something more -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We are each bringing our own sensibilities to it. One of us will love a certain line or character or story and say, “Over my dead body, this has got to be in this piece!” Then we’ll argue it, try to convince each other. In the end, we often switch positions. This is an interesting editorial process. I think it makes our work deeper, richer, broader, with the two of us bringing our sensibilities to it.

We live two hours apart now, so we text constantly or pick up the phone. It is different from the early days of being in the same room with one another for 24 hours a day and cutting tape together shoulder to shoulder. That’s very different now. But there’s still a lot of that feel. We know what each other thinks. Anticipate how the other will react. It’s like having another conscience hovering over your work.

Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

RB: What did the trajectory of your projects look like over the years?

NS: In 1998, Davia was on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, and people were gearing up for the millennium with all these projects. She later came back and said -- maybe we should do a project about 100 years of recorded sound. We always used archival sound in our stories -- early news broadcasts, old home recordings made on 78 records. People were making home made records and sending them back and forth overseas during World War II. In one, a woman made a home recording in her kitchen and sent it to her husband overseas. It was so revealing --  it captured the language, the feel, the pathos, the pause, the heart, and the emotion of things. It wasn’t a written thing. It wasn’t a letter. It was the sound of the voice and it had so much impact.

We wrote a grant and suddenly NPR wanted to do it, ten stories at the turn of the century. Then NPR decided they wanted to do it weekly! We ended up doing a big national collaboration with producers around the country and it was a moment of going from analog to digital. It was a frightening moment where we had to teach ourselves new technology. At that same time, I had had breast cancer, was going through chemotherapy, and had two kids at home. It was a life-changing moment. We went for it and that began Lost and Found Sound, which led to the Sonic Memorial Project for 9/11. We went on to the Hidden Kitchens project, which was about bringing together communities through food, then Hidden World of Girls, The Making of, our podcast Fugitive Waves, and it goes on.

RB: How did you decide to live on a commune? What’s that community like?

NS: Charles, my husband, was the head of the museum where I worked [laughs]. He hired me and we were really great friends. I went away for a fellowship to NY and was gone for a year. When I came back, he was separating from his wife at the time, and then we fell in love and got involved. I met Davia around that time -- it was time of real change. We were all living together at some point, and Davia and her boyfriend were looking at properties with some of their friends. At that time, nobody could afford to buy property on their own, so we looked at what we could do together.

The thing that has kept it all together all these years is that we eat together every night. Every night one person cooks. Tonight, I’ll go shop for my stuff and cook, Charles will help me. We’ll do all the dishes and clean up. Everyone has Friday nights off.

We sit down at the dinner table, and we may fight, but then we have to come back to the table together the next night because we don’t have kitchens in the individual little houses. We all have to eat, so we are forced into the big house and forced to deal with it.

We get people from all over who want to come and see this place and get ideas for doing it on their own. They want the blueprints, but it has to evolve. And that means time and energy spent and experimentation on the part of the individuals. You can take hints and ideas from this place, but so much of it is investing with each other like in any relationship. That’s what’s going to make it work.

RB: What do you think is better, cooking together or eating together?

NS: We do a lot of cooking because there are so many of us. We have huge Thanksgivings and Christmases. Every weekend someone has some friends over, and during those times people pitch in and help cook. The way the kitchen is designed, is that it is in the center of the main house so even if you’re just visiting, you’re there in the kitchen, you’re there when everyone is cooking.

Cooking together is great, but that is pretty tough to do every night of the week. Knowing there is a meal there every night has allowed me so much latitude in my life and career and knowing that for my kids, there is another mom here.

Cooking and eating together are kind of the same thing because even if it is not your night to cook, you can just come in and sit down around 7 o’clock. There’s no cleanup - you can do whatever you want. We’re all incredibly dependent on each other.

RB: What are you excited about right now?

NS: This is a fascinating time, what is going on with technology and radio. The whole podcasting world is very interesting. It’s a lot like when we started. The readiness to experiment, the ability to push the boundaries of subject matter and time, as well as how we are supporting ourselves because we’ve been so dependent on grants.

Ten years ago, when we were teaching at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, I didn’t know what to say to all these excited young people about the prospects and the potential of being involved in audio or documentary storytellings. Now I feel like it is such a game-changing moment with all that’s happening. All the tools are so accessible and the platforms for storytelling are exploding.

There was a big shift when it went from analog to digital, but that was just a real technological shift. This is a social shift - it is a huge communications shift in the biggest possible way, trying to use the new technologies to expand storytelling.

When we started with NPR it was 22 minutes - that was our time on. All Things Considered. Now, we are fighting for six and a half minutes when you take into account intros. Getting our stories down to six and a half minutes is often so limiting, but with a podcast, we can bust them out! Do other things, talk our way through, and mess around. We can go off on a tangent, which we used to do on our live shows, two hours a week, we would play music and interview people. It was very free-form. I like that, I like that potential. I like staying on as many platforms as possible and pushing things out in different ways. That’s really exciting.

RB: What’s next for you?

NS: We are doing more live performances, and that to me is scary but good - it keeps me on edge! That’s been fun, keeping us involved in new communities of younger people. I like teaching -- I assume we will be doing more of that. There’s lots going on, and the family and commune keep me busy. We are working on another book. I like writing but I hardly have any time for that.

And I’m interested in community radio -- helping to redefine its potential for our communities in the 21st century. There is a real place for community radio, it just needs to be re-imagined like libraries are currently being re-imagined. We need to figure out what the role of community radio is, because everyone is going to be able to access everything online. The need for a radio station in the old sense is just changing, and I want to help redefine that.

 

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On Place

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In our recent Dialogue, On Place & the Future of Urban Living, we brought urban designers, artists, and planners together at Oakland’s 16th Street Station. Our conversation centered around the juxtaposition of Place vs. Space, in a building that was once the hub of community, providing transportation and a place of gathering. Now, the station remains underutilized in the wake of the Lomo-Prieta earthquake.

Our leading question of the night’s Dialogue was, “Where do you feel most alive?” With answers ranging from beaches and nature to foreign countries and adjacency to loved ones, the answers demonstrated that we all experience the nuances of place and space in different ways. Each guest brought perspectives from their own work and experience of placemaking in the 21st Century.

Continuing with our series of reflections from Dialogue guests, Architectural and Urban Designer, Eleanor Pries shares additional thoughts on what Place and Space bring up for her in her work.

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ON PLACE // ELEANOR PRIES

Golden Gate from Lands End, San Francisco -- Credit: Frank R. Tindell

Golden Gate from Lands End, San Francisco -- Credit: Frank R. Tindell

At the recent Dialogue: On Place & the Future of Urban Living, Rimma asked: “Is there personal meaning for you when you think of ‘place’ vs. ‘space’? What shapes your experience of each?”

As someone interested in philosophy and phenomenology -- a follower, though casual, of Merleau-Ponty and the “primacy of perception”[1] -- I would answer: my experience of place is related to, if not based entirely upon, the senses: sights, sounds, feels, smells, and dare I say tastes. Sensory experience. Or that slippery word, atmosphere.

Take San Francisco’s Golden Gate. It is filled with perceivable and contrasting phenomena, the heavy briny air, strong wind, brilliant sunlight, thick spilling fog, tiny winged boats eclipsed by hulking container ships that glide incongruously. It is an experience framed by the Bridge -- massive piers from below, and from afar that slim slip of International Orange that arcs from the cliffs and just floats across. It is robust and invigorating, piqued with a measure of mystery. And is yet somehow still quite benign. This overall benignity is supported by the accepted story of the area, a narrative crafted around optimistic real estate expansion, bold industry magnates, gems of civil engineering, civic-minded recreational facilities, art museums, and tourist destinations with their rugged beauty, iconic bridge views and cypress groves.

As part of a design endeavor, I recently collected more wide-ranging information on the Golden Gate, and more perspective. This information is less about the Bridge and more on the structure, systems, and flows of the strait itself. [2] It shows another, more complex, side — a precarious, changing, and wild past and present of sharks and shipwrecks, suicides and sandwaves. The Golden Gate is more sublime than its arcadian image. This is not about fear; it is about complexity and maybe about the role of information in experiential empathy. 

Information does not wholly transform personal sensory perception and experience. But it can re-situate it along a spectrum of other, or collective, experiences.

A set of terms create a new sketch:

artillery - batteries - bunkers - cemeteries - currents - faults - forts - great white sharks - gunblocks - lighthouses - mines - missiles - mutinies - paleochannel - poachers - radioactive waste - railroad - rescue - riptides - robberies - rookeries - rum-running - sea lions - shipwrecks

Imagine...

(cemeteries) An estimated 18,000 San Franciscans were interred at Golden Gate Cemetery (now Lincoln Park and Land’s End), some of whom may never have accompanied their headstones in the mass relocation to Colma.

(poachers) Opportunistic scavengers once scoured the rocky cliffs of the Golden Gate and even the Farallon Islands by hand to poach prized seabird eggs (auklets, cormorants, guillemots, murres, oystercatchers, puffins, and storm-petrels), carting millions of these delicate and speckled orbs back to the City.

(sandwaves) 300 feet below the surface, the floor of the strait is still sculpted by ocean swell that has brought hundreds of “sandwaves” (300’ long and 70’ tall”) up to the mouth of the Gate.

(shipping) 8000-9000 container ships pass through the Gate annually.

(shipwrecks) The Gate is an underwater nautical “graveyard” of 19th century ships.

The Gate is a paragon of beauty and a harbor of engineering marvels. The bridge is the essential, narrow lynchpin connecting the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay, its thousands of acres of estuary with all of its ecology and economy. It is a confluence and epicenter of perpetual forces and isolated movement — from atmospheric to geological, from natural to industrial, from the banal to the life event. It is also a tomb, literally and figuratively.

Add fault lines, prohibition rum-running, postwar radioactive waste disposal, great white sharks and fog to its arcadian image and the Golden Gate is re-situated as a sublime place and space. For some tragic and formidable. At a minimum, messier.

In my own work — and especially within San Francisco’s contested spaces — the complexity of additional and contradictory information cultivates inclusion and erodes hardened individual stances. I imagine experiential empathy as a kind of sixth sense. Fueled by information, it both expands and bounds a range of collective experience, revealing the atmosphere, the complexity, of San Francisco.

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[1] French existentialist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote The Phenomenology of Perception in 1945.

[2] Common knowledge tells us that architects are interested in the visible and material. But since our task is to create new spatial experiences, we find design inspiration in many forms. There is among us a profound obsession with forces and systems — invisible or hidden or ephemeral. Systems with an inherent and describable logic can support concepts, or methods of ordering space, or inspire atmospheres.

IN DIALOGUE // Kevin Kelly

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Kevin Kelly, founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine joins us in a dialogue on the evolution of technology, the future of Artificial Intelligence, and his new book, The Inevitable.

His lifetime of world travel, publishing travel books, and being a key player in the early days of the Internet, provide us with a forward-thinking perspective on the momentum of technology, yet keeps us highly aware of the importance of staying present to really be able to ‘see.’

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DIGITAL CULTURE AUTHORITY, AUTHOR, & EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF WIRED MAGAZINE, KEVIN KELLY

Photo credit: Christopher Michel

Photo credit: Christopher Michel

 

Rimma Boshernitsan: How did you grow up?

Kevin Kelly: I was born in Pennsylvania and graduated high school in New Jersey. My father worked in systems analysis for Time magazine, which piqued my interest in cybernetics. 

I dropped out of college after my first year, and spent about nine years backpacking all over Asia with a friend from high school. The experience of travel was my Bachelor's, Master’s, and my Ph.D. degrees. 

When I came back in 1979, I lived in Georgia and began writing a monthly travel column for New Age Journal and launched several other publications about travel, because no one was doing that at the time. After that, I had this urge to see my brothers and sisters who were living all over the country, and I decided to venture out west and see them along the way. I spent three months riding 5,000 miles around the country. In 1984, I moved to California to co-edit Co-Evolution Quarterly, published by Whole Earth Catalog, which was owned by the non-profit, Point Foundation, and founded by Stewart Brand (the magazine then changed its name to Whole Earth Review). By 1992, I was hired as the co-founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine.

RB: In your book, you talk about, ‘Protopia,’ or the state of ‘Becoming.’ How would you say your travels have influenced your own process of ‘Becoming’? 

KK: I didn’t set out with any particular agenda in my travels other than to go somewhere that sounded very different from where I grew up. The motivation, in the beginning, was simply to transfer to a different place. When I got there, I was confronted with a level of ‘otherness’ that I was not expecting nor prepared for. Dealing with a type of process, which later on became a habit, proved to be useful, because among the things you get when you travel somewhere, you get to look back at your own home and see it from a difference perspective. This proved pretty formative when technology came along—also a different country, and a different culture—so that I could look at it with new eyes, allowing me to internalize and assess on a new level. 

One of the first articles I wrote was for New Age Journal on travel, about this ‘Online World,’ as if it was a new country, seeing it through a traveler’s eye, and these happenings as a cultural phenomenon. That’s where Wired stemmed from—it wasn’t a magazine about technology, but a magazine about the culture of technology. That came, in many ways, from my time on the road, and it was one major aspect of being able to put on a perspective and use otherness as a way of thinking.

RB: How did you come to the realization that you’d be considered a futurist, and be able to step back and look at societal trends and their impact on the trajectory of tech?

KK: I wouldn’t really refer to myself as a futurist. Most of what I think can be done is describing the present without any blinders. Part of what I am trying to do is to remove some of those assumptions and counter those expectations to see technology as what it is right now. That’s what people might call ‘unlearning’ or ‘unseeing.’

Sometimes it’s more valuable not to know something. That kind of Zen beginner's mind, where you are trying to see what you’ve been immersed in for 20-30 years as brand new. That often is a good starting point of where we can begin to extrapolate, and is why I find the edges of things to be more revealing. Once the awareness is there, it’s easy to remove those assumptions and to get a better glimpse of natural tendencies. That hunt for what I call “naked technology...” technology that is not cloaked in assumptions in what the designers or companies had for it. Getting to that image is often half the battle in thinking about the future. 

RB: You mentioned reading a lot of history. Does that help you see the flow, the opportunity for confluence and convergence?

KK: I would also say that you get to see the momentum of where things have been going. You see a trajectory. It’s like a battleship—even if it’s running—if you change course slightly, it’s still going to continue along that same path to some extent. 

General rule: if you can’t tell how long something is going to go, all things being equal, you can usually assume that you are statistically and probabilistically in the middle. There is a principle that you’re likely to be in the middle of something if you don’t know how long it is going to last. We did this at the Long Now Foundation—statistically the universe is 10,000 years old and so probabilistically, we are in the middle, and it will last another 10,000 years. 

For example, Neuronets, the software algorithm for the current AI has been around for about fifty years, and I would say there are about another 50 years in it. That could be wrong, but probabilistically that is likely to be true. 

RB: How were you involved in the early stages of the Internet?

KK: I first logged on in the early ‘80s. At that point, it wasn’t the internet that was available to the public, but these online worlds called bulletin boards. It was restricted to those who had some facility with programming, the arcane typing of code to get in and a lot of familiarity with network technology just to hook up a modem. Bulletin boards were servers run by individuals. A modem was needed to connect to a phone. You would dial in directly to someone’s server, individually, and if there were too many people occupying the ports available, you couldn’t get in. We passed these bulletin board numbers around as a good place to visit. It was like a bar or a coffeehouse, or cafe, where you would go for connection.

There were a couple experimental online systems that would have many people dial in with many things going on at the same time. It was like a city, where there were multiple conversations going on in multiple threads. I got invited by a friend to get on to one of these early experimental systems, and it was very clear from the very first day, that something important was happening. The way in which virtual relationships and communities were being born there were real communities in a virtual place.

An entrepreneur named Larry Brilliant was working with the Seva Foundation to cure blindness in India. He became interested in telecommunications and wanted to set up something that would allow his organization all around the world to communicate cheaply and exchange information. We set up several experimental systems, bigger than bulletin boards, called The WELL. It was kind of like the early days of America Online—these were closed systems—and you could only email other people on the system.

We were inventing virtual systems where you could start a conversation on a wide open, blank slate and form things. I was involved in engineering how we were going to form this and what it would look like. 

As part of the team at Whole Earth Review, we were not allowed to be connected to the internet, which was a curious thing. I tried to get us connected for many years, because at that time, the internet had very strict rules around commercial activity. They saw this as a pure, noncommercial area and were policing that. We were run by a nonprofit and allowing anyone to pay $8 a month to be in this world, and they were afraid of that. Eventually, we engineered a little hack and had them sign a meaningless disclosure to agree not to use this for commercial purposes. Then, The WELL was connected to the internet, and we became the first public access to the internet. When you got on The WELL, you got an address and you could send an email to anyone else on the internet. That was a first—the public ramp onto the super highway.

RB: In your recent book, you mention that the twelve inevitable actions are rooted in the nature of technology and not in the nature of society. What role does human connection play in an increasingly technological space of business?

The way individuals respond to technology is in the way that they are trying to optimize it in their life. The beauty, to me, is that there are seven billion answers to that question. We are trying to create things and remain the created.

KK: The more powerful a technology is, the more likely it will be abused. There is an inherent, erasable, and inevitable paradox of conflict within technology due to the fact that we are the masters of technology and slaves to it. We are the creators and the created, we have full control over how we utilize technology, and how it utilizes us. We are trying to navigate our personal relationships with technology. It is baked into the nature of our own curated humanity. We shape our tools, our tools shape us, and we are the tool.

We tend to use technology like we tend to a garden—there are things we weed out and there are things we choose to select. We are conscious of the way they interact with each other. We can imagine that we are gardening the technology of our lives. 

There are several religious cultures that are balancing technology and their worlds in a smart way: the Amish, the Hasidic Jews, and the Jain in India. All three are very deliberate in their use of technology and are able to focus the connection to their lifestyles and the optimization of technology in a good way. I think it’s important to be open to the realm of possibility that there are people that show us that there are different answers to this, that being a minimalist with technology is an option.

RB: How do you see the role of nature affect the way in which we experience our lives in cities?

KK: The truth is, nature in the wild, every single acre of it, has been already affected by humans. We will continue to affect it, bring it together with the digital and technological realm. We are domesticating nature. The wildness of it has long been transformed into something that we will have more of a hand in. We will use it to make it serve us and the other species. The relationship of technology to nature is to not harm it further, and is to make it more compatible with our own civilization. I see technology as derived from evolution. It’s not antagonistic to life in general, it’s inherently compatible. 

To that end, urbanization and concentrating people into cities is something we can do to benefit nature. Cities are the most complex technologies that you make. We will continue to improve them, make them better, and move more people into them. 

 
What we get in cities are opportunities and possibilities. The density of cities is one of the best things that can happen for us. More technology and more people together, means more choices. It isn’t the bright lights, but the choice that attracts people to the urban environment.
 

RB: AI has made significant progress over time—what do you see as the role of AI in the future?

KK: One of AI’s major roles in the next 20-30 years will be to be a probe to understand what our own brains do, not by opening them up, but by trying to model them and replicate them. This is what I call the third way of knowledge. 

There’s the ‘humanities’, which figure out how things are, by looking at human expression, going inside themselves, and doing what artists do. Then there’s the ‘scientists’, the second way, who run experiments and probe by trial and error. Then there’s the third, the ‘nervous’, the technologists. In the ‘nerve way’, you investigate something by trying to make something new. Which means, the way you investigate intelligence is not to probe it or not think about it, but to try to actually make artificial intelligence.

The way to study AI is not to probe it, but to try to make artificial intelligence. You study reality by creating a virtual reality. In the same way, you study democracy by creating a virtual democracy. The way in which you try and probe the basis of this state of being is through making something so that you learn by making, and that is what AI is. This is actually the Third Culture, the third way of knowing, the way in which we render the human condition is by making things.

RB: What are you most excited to explore moving forward? What new projects are coming for you?

KK: Well, as I mentioned above, I enjoy reading history. I enjoy correlating the findings, the directions, and seeing the flow. 

I’m particularly fascinated with the idea of a “World Government.” I think we have not just global climate issues, but immigration issues. These are planetary skills we need to have. This is an idea that nobody on the right likes, nobody on the left likes, but I think is a good idea. I have no idea how that is possible.

What interests me is, how do you even have a representative democracy for 8 billion people? What are the mechanics of that? Is that even conceivable? How would that possibly work? So I have no idea how to do it, other than I think we do need it. It would be really helpful in tackling some of the biggest problems we have. 

I’m also excited about my recently published book, The Inevitable. It’s about the deep trends in the next 20 years that will shape your life. I suggest we embrace these changes, including ubiquitous tracking, accessible artificial intelligence, constant sharing, getting paid to watch ads, VR in your home, etc. I am very excited by the book; I’ve been told it is my most readable work yet. 

RB: Is there a philosopher or a thinker that has impacted your work the most? 

KK: Stewart Brand is someone who is a long-time friend and someone I look up to immensely. He is an enlightened person—he enables people to see in a different way. We’ve been working together over the past 30+ years on the Whole Earth Catalogue, The WELL, The Long Now Foundation, and I’m still so impressed by him and his thinking.

He’s doing some amazing things in the realm of wildlife conservation and the Genetic Rescue Mission: some of the most radical ideas that will enable us to bring back species that have been extinct, to regenerate a species like the woolly mammoth, which will generate ecosystem changes capable of altering adverse climate change on a global scale. It’s fascinating what they are working on. 

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FIVE QUESTIONS WITH... // VERONIKA GEORGIEVA & STEPHEN J SHANABROOK

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Veronika Georgieva and Stephen J Shanabrook join us in our new series ‘Five Questions With…’, a short-form dialogue created to spark curiosity and connection in bite-size form.

From colorful childhood memories of the former Soviet Union, to the new concept of “useful usefulness,” Veronika and Stephen—collaborators and partners in practice—tell us about their backgrounds and inspiration around their work...

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VERONIKA GEORGIEVA & STEPHEN J SHANABROOK

Photo credit: Veronika & Stephen

Photo credit: Veronika & Stephen

Tell us a little bit about your background(s) and where you grew up?

VG: I was born in and grew up in Moscow, Russia. I had a wonderful “pioneer” childhood, known all-too-well to the children of the former Soviet Union. I sharpened my skills dismantling Kalashnikov weapons in 30 seconds in school and during my later years, graduated from Moscow Architectural University—one of the most liberal colleges in the country.

Meanwhile, Stephen, the son of an obstetrician and the town coroner, spent his childhood working at a chocolate factory and building robots in the basement of his house in rural Ohio. He received a BFA from Syracuse University and studied in Florence, Italy. He has participated in residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and De Atelier in The Netherlands.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually, and/or emotionally?

SJS: I walk. I like to walk a lot, and from moving and seeing, I get inspired.

VG: I love the sea and forest and hiking, but it never inspires me. My mind is fully at rest when I’m in nature. However, what does inspire me, is any form of communication / connection with people, personally or through their art: books, sculptures, paintings, movies.

What was the impetus for you to start your artistic practice and how did you decide to do it together?

SJS: I wanted to contribute and communicate, but in a way that was “useless”—a sort of useful uselessness. I don’t try to make sense of what I do, organize it, or give meaning to it. It’s like my diary, but in a sculptural way. I call it “emotional conceptualism.” And with Veronika, as life partners, over time, it became apparent that our mutual attraction to the combination of destruction and beauty was something we share on many levels.

Who are you most inspired by (together and individually)?

SJS: The Arte Povera artists’ methods and process in how an endless amount of material can be adapted into an artwork, had a big influence on me.

VG:  I am inspired by people who have a strong sense of “being alive.” Those who constantly work on “being alive” like Henry Miller, Bukowski, Tolstoy, Brodsky, and Anna Akhmatova. Not necessarily optimistically alive, but who are sincerely trying to get to the core of themselves, to the core of who they and we are—turning the sufferings into the tool for search. Rilke, Rothko, Proust…

I refuse to be part of modern day’s strong competition in search of success, where artists are demanding to be understood and are willing to kill you with their bigger-than-life description of concepts and explanations. The more it’s unclear to you, the more you are trying to explain your ideas to others. The truth is simple, that’s maybe why we call it artWORK—one’s artwork either works or it doesn’t. By itself. Without you. Get to the core of yourself, work on yourself. The others will follow. Or not. Why does it matter so much anyway?

How would you want to be remembered?

SJS: As I am.

VG: As a piece of cake. A Russian one, not the horrible American sponge one.

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IN DIALOGUE // Spencer Bailey & Trent Davis Bailey

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Earlier this month while on a trip to NYC, we had the pleasure of sitting down with brothers, Trent & Spencer Bailey. Trent is a San Francisco-based artist and photographer & Spencer is the editor-in-chief of Surface Magazine.

Below in our candid dialogue, we discuss their connection to one another, their photo/interview subjects, and the evolution of their individual work.

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Artist & Photographer, Trent Davis Bailey & Surface Magazine’s, Spencer Bailey

Trent Davis Bailey & Spencer Bailey in NYC -- Photo Credit: Jonno Rattman

Trent Davis Bailey & Spencer Bailey in NYC -- Photo Credit: Jonno Rattman

 

Trent: I think a lot of the creativity that Spencer and I have started when we were really young. Because we grew up in a single-parent household, we didn't have someone supervising us all the time. We would bang on things, we would draw on things, we would make our mark all over the house. Our dad would eventually find our creations and get a little upset, but he never reprimanded us for expressing ourselves.

I remember a specific moment when we moved out of our childhood home. Our dad moved all of his file cabinets in his office revealing that he had placed them in front of these crayon drawings we had made probably 10 years earlier. We obviously didn't remember the drawings were there, and our dad had probably forgotten about them at that point, too. I think that impulse has always been there.

RB: To create?

Trent: Yeah. That impulse to create, to express ourselves, whether it's with a crayon or a camera or a pencil.
 

RB: Would you say you had similar experiences growing up?

Trent: As twins, we shared a lot of our childhood together. We were often conjointly referred to as Spencer and Trent or Trent and Spencer.

Spencer: Our dad called us the ”Gruesome Twosome” or “The Terrible Two.”

We made a lot more trouble when we were younger. There was always this want to be seen as twins, but also as individuals. We were really only able to do that when we turned 13 and convinced our dad that it would be a good idea for us to go to boarding school.

RB: Did you attend the same one?

Trent: We left Denver and headed all the way to two small towns in Connecticut to attend different schools. Our dad wasn’t shipping us off to boarding school; we both really wanted to go.

Because of that experience, I had unique access to a darkroom as a teenager. All of these things came out of a bit of luck and a mutual desire to seek out these opportunities. That's what we've constantly had to do in our lives: find ways to pursue our own interests. It also helps that our dad has always encouraged us to forge our own path.

RB: What prompted your focus on photography versus painting, or another medium?

Trent: I'm interested in how a photographic image can render something real, yet become something completely different. This notion relates with photography that dives into the human imagination. However, there are so many different options with whatever tool you're using. I find it exciting to be working in a medium where the technology is shifting, and as a result, my relationship with photography is shifting.

As an artist, I question how am I contributing to the lineage of photographers who have come before me, as well as the artists who have come before me. It's about innovation and figuring out new ways of using [the medium], or putting together a picture. It's a tall order sometimes, because there is so much history, but it's good to give yourself those challenges.

RB: Spencer, how did you come to be interested in journalism?

Spencer: It really happened in high school studying fiction and poetry, and then in college, realizing I was never going to make a living writing fiction or poetry, and that I needed an outlet. I eventually ended up working at my college's alumni magazine, Dickinson Magazine. It was there that I got to work with an editor, Sherri Kimmel, who really showed me the ropes. I also had a few professors who made me realize I wasn’t that good of a writer and had to push myself to become that much better. I was able to learn the craft of writing a story.

After college, I went on a trip around the world with Trent for two months, and then arrived in New York City to find a job in media. The day after I signed the lease on my first apartment, Lehman Brothers collapsed.

RB: Did you have a job yet?

Spencer: No, but I had experience. I had previously interned at Harper Collins Publishers, spent a lot of time working for the alumni magazine, worked at a music-news website in London and also at a literary agency in New York. I felt like I had built up a decent resume. Still, I was a 22-year old kid in New York without a job and entering the worst recession in decades.

After a couple weeks in the city, I landed a position at this arty, highbrow magazine called TAR, which was a good experience in learning the dos and don'ts. I eventually finagled my way into an internship at Esquire, which trained me for a big office environment. During that time, I got into Columbia Journalism School and thought that that would be a great way to ride out the recession as well as get the bootstrap-reporting chops I lacked as an English major. During my spring semester, I got an internship with Vanity Fair, which opened the door to a lot of opportunities. My mentor there, Jon Kelly, was hugely influential and hired me as a freelancer when he went on to work at Bloomberg Businessweek and The New York Times Magazine. Another boss of mine there, Claire Howorth, helped get me my first full-time job, at The Daily Beast.

RB: Did you have any other mentors in the industry?

Spencer: My biggest mentor has been Kate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. While a junior at Dickinson, I came into her office’s conference room on a trip sponsored by the college’s career center. It was just 15 people, 13 of whom were women. I stood out in that room. She and I ended up having this great connection, and I just kept in touch. Coincidentally, her son, then a student at Dickinson, was in my fraternity, and my dad happened to be a freshman at Union College in the ’70s when she was a senior. She continues to give me great advice. Meeting her was such a fortuitous thing. I've never had aspirations of working at Cosmo, but our passion for magazines and big ideas was shared and it continues to be.

RB: What's your favorite part of being in this business?

Spencer: The collaboration, getting to meet all the different people, whether it's who you're interviewing or who you’re working with. There are so many incredibly smart, passionate people in this industry and specifically at Surface. Journalism and editing is a passion, not just a job—it's something you live and breathe.

Trent: I remember when I first moved to New York. Spencer and I moved in together into an apartment in Brooklyn. He had just started working at Surface. Every Sunday he would be reading Paul Goldberger. I don't know which book it was, but obviously it was about architecture. I kept questioning him, saying, "Spencer, don't you do that all week long? Aren't you tired of reading and writing about architecture?" And he's like, "No, I can't get enough of this stuff."

Spencer: I could name five architects when I started at the magazine. I discovered design through journalism, through Surface. I happened to really love the name of the magazine. I thought Surface was an incredibly smart name for a publication because the word itself can be played with on a lot of different levels. There's the metaphorical level, where you can say that you're “going beyond the surface.” There's also the idea of the literal surface, and everything that we cover, whether it's a painting, a building, a car, a piece of technology, it's almost all a hard surface. We're starting to cover some software, but everything has its own surface, it's own sort of layer. The word itself, I nerded out on, and that became the reason I ultimately wanted to work at the magazine.

RB: It sounds like they wanted you for your fresh perspective, and you weren't in the design world at the time, so your ability to ‘see’ was totally different, fresh.

Spencer: I think being trained as a journalist does that. You put your radars up and you just want to find out about the story, and oftentimes that means the human side of the story: Why should our dad in Denver care about this? Why should anyone care about it?

Over the next 20 years, you're going to see design become a huge word in our culture. Already, we’re increasingly thinking as a society about how we interact with the street, how cities are built, and how our lives are led by design, whether it's landscape architecture, building architecture, computer architecture—it's all design.

RB: It sounds like part of the reason that you're in journalism is because you like to understand people and how they think. What's been the most effective way for you to connect with your interviewees?

Spencer: It's always doing your research. You learn everything you possibly can about the person before you meet them, and come in and ask them a question that you couldn't have answered from what was already written or on the Internet.

RB: Say you're interviewing someone high-profile you’ve followed for years and now you got to meet, and they're difficult? How do you get them to open up?

Spencer: You start with a question that they've never been asked before and you usually find that question out by reading and reading and reading to the point that your eyes might want to fall out.

I've interviewed some people who haven't been super easy, but the second you get that first question out showing that you've done your homework, whether it's referencing something specific about their work or their life, or something that is so clearly a part of who they are, it all of a sudden becomes easy and they open up. Tone and demeanor is a huge thing.

RB: Surface is a platform that serves multiple industries: art, fashion, architecture, design. Which of those is your favorite, would you say?

Spencer: Architecture. It’s what I gravitated to the most when I started here six years ago. I wasn't into fashion back then. I was really interested in art and business, and where art and commerce collide. To me, that was the most ripe area for tension, which means the most ripe area for storytelling. If you could capture that, the creative side of what art is and the business side in a way that seems real, and isn't just PR fluff, then you can serve the reader, you can serve adding to a greater conversation, which, in turn, can shift culture.

RB: That's where your Design Dialogues talks come in too, right?

Spencer: Yeah, those have been great. We've done 27 of them so far (the 28th is on May 31, with Robert A.M. Stern and Larry Silverstein). We launched the talk series three years ago. It's been really interesting to see it grow. Basically, the whole concept is you take two different speakers, sit with them, and moderate a conversation, letting them riff off of each other.

RB: Moderating is really difficult to do well, for some people.

Spencer: It's a challenge, but it's an exciting challenge, and it's one that, when you get the right chemistry and people together, it can be really exciting to see what transpires on stage.

Part of what is different about events, as opposed to creating a physical magazine, is that it brings people together in a real, physical, tangible way. It's not just about bringing people together on a stage, it's about bringing people together in the audience. All of the sudden you have a real sense of community.

RB: What about you, Trent? What brought you to photography and how you work now?

Trent: The first time I ever became interested in photography, I was the subject. My older brother had been assigned by his high school art teacher to make pictures that included a rope, and so his response was to tie me — then 12 years old — to the old cottonwood in our family's backyard.

I loved that experience. Photography gave us an excuse to enter this imaginative space. I still strive for that when I'm making pictures today—with or without people.

RB: Is there something particular that you do with your subjects [to get them to open up], when you have people as subjects?

Trent: Every picture I make is different, so there's not a formula that I follow. That's part of what I like about photography. For me, it's constantly changing. It's how I feel about a situation, how I feel with the camera in that moment. It's very rare that I have an idea and then I go out and find exactly what it is that I'm looking for. Actually, that never happens. I'm much more drawn to photography that is less calculated.

Obviously, if every person with a camera or every artist had that ambition to just say, "Oh, I'm going to go out into the world and see what I find," it wouldn't actually be all that interesting, so you have to give yourself some constraints. It's not that different than putting together a magazine [looking at Spencer]—you have to choose constraints, too.

For me, those constraints have been geographic as well as the types of pictures that I make, and then understanding how those pictures work side-by-side. I’m interested in how photographs can work in tandem with each other to say something bigger.

RB: Is there a body of work that stands out for you, as your most favorite, for a particular reason, or was impactful to create?

Trent: I've been working on this series The North Fork for the past four years. It's been extremely impactful ... Every time I make a trip to that valley to make new pictures I learn something new about what I'm doing there. I first started the project when I was the studio assistant for photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. They taught me that first you make photographs, and then later on the photographs tell you what you're doing. I think that that's a really refreshing way to work—letting the work guide you.

RB: Do you find that similar in your work, in any way?

Spencer: Not necessarily. I have two very different jobs. One as an editor and the other is as a journalist. They can work in tandem, but they're also very different. Interestingly, I learned from a really great editor who taught me a similar sort of thinking, at least when it comes to slowing down, and how that can be applied to the written word.

The summer of 2009, before I started at Columbia, I took this 12-week long workshop with Gordon Lish, who had been a fiction editor at Esquire in the ‘70s and after that a book editor at Knopf. He was most famously Raymond Carver’s editor, but also worked with writers like Barry Hannah and Don DeLillo. Every class started at 5 p.m. on Monday night and was supposed to end at 11, but sometimes ran until midnight or 1 in the morning. We began the class with probably 35 students at the beginning of the summer, and at the end of the summer there were around 20. It was everyone from a neuroscientist, to a New Yorker fact-checker, to Columbia MFA grads, The whole concept of the class was basically to learn how to write a story, period. What this class did was basically strip everything down to the barest essential, which was a sentence. Really, a word, actually, and then a sentence, and then you had to build everything from that first word. The idea was that by the 12th class, we would be able to have a full story. Very few people made it to a full story. For some, it was really humiliating.

RB: Did you have a full story?

Spencer: I made it to two and a half pages.It was more than a sentence, but I never finished the story. I was inspired by Lish, but also sort of terrified of him.

RB: Maybe that's a good thing.

Spencer: What it taught me, really, was the power of language, thinking of words not so much as a poet but really on a base level, making sure everything you put out there counts. That's how I approach the magazine, asking "Why now?" and "So what?" Those two questions all the time, which is Journalism School 101. Then also on a microscopic level, down to the sentence, down to thinking about words, which becomes a little more challenging. I still think it is that mentality of, "Why should I be putting this in the world? What does this contribute? Does this add anything?"

I think there's a little bit of that parallel between what Trent's doing and what I'm doing in the sense that we both really care about not putting more junk in the world. Nobody needs more french-fry content. A couple years ago, I wrote an editor's letter about the notion of “Slow Design,” similar to the idea of Slow Food.

Why I got really passionate about Slow Design is, you think about Slow Food as a movement, and yes, it's a complicated movement that's become a billion-dollar industry and has a lot of issues, but there's a lot of good about it too. A lot of the good has to do with the fact that it's promoting a healthier, more balanced lifestyle and not just thinking about the food we eat but where it comes from. I think about that in the context of media and in the context of design. Not about the content that you read, but where it comes from, how it's made. When you think about how things are made, all of a sudden you begin thinking about the world in a much different way. How is that skyscraper made, how long is it going to stand? You know, how is the magazine made? Should I throw it out or should I keep it? Should I put it on my coffee table or should I put it in the waste bin?

RB: With intention, too.

Trent: Yeah, exactly, it's about having a clear understanding that every act is part of a greater process. If you slow down and think about every single thing you're doing, every mark you’re making, it subsequently makes your work more meaningful.

It has taken years to learn the technical skills that have gotten Spencer and me to where we are, but technical skills only get you so far. It has a lot to do with patience, perseverance, and being willing to fall on your face. It's been helpful that we have had each other. We pick each other back up when we fall. Even when we're apart, we find ways to maintain that level of support.

RB: Is there something that you're curious about right now? Anything particular, it could be work, maybe not work, that you're exploring for yourself? Spencer, do you have any post-Surface plans?

Spencer: No, I'm along for this crazy ride at this company. Six years ago we were doing a totally different magazine.

For me, this is my future. I work day-to-day with the CEO. The company went from being Surface magazine to Surface Media. We have four haloed companies within the umbrella that is Surface Media. One of which is this magazine; our sister magazine, Watch Journal; the Design Dialogues talk series; and then we just launched Surface Studios, a custom-publishing and native-content division, where we'll be able to work directly with brands to produce content for a design-conscious consumer.

Trent: I am curious about taking on some editorial work, but I've really persevered before taking that step to work for a magazine, or to work on a commission basis. I want whoever is hiring me to understand my vision for my work. A commission should not compromise the integrity of one's work.


RB: Is there something specific that you're both seeing from your individual vantage points in your worlds that's influencing the way you view your work? Are there trends, or ideas that have surfaced for you in the past that are influencing the way you are viewing the evolution of Surface, or the evolution of yourself within your medium?

Spencer: I don't tend to like to think in terms of trends, because I like to think in terms of real, tactile ideas. I'm much more interested in the "Why now?" Kind of thinking about things that are very much in the present, not asking, "What's it going to be like in five years?" We're very much capturing the moment as opposed to five years ago or five years from now.

The power of what we're doing, which includes photography in a huge way and specifically portraiture, is that it’s also the storytelling and really getting to the heart of who these people are, what they do, what makes them tick.

I've gotten to interview some really incredibly creative people. One example that just hit me really hard recently was Zaha Hadid, who passed away in March. It was the second time that a subject that I had interviewed had passed away, and it just totally shook me to the bone. I spent only an hour and a half with her three years ago, but that hour and a half was enough to really get this profound experience. I felt that we, as a magazine, were able to showcase her in a way that she hadn't been presented before.

Trent: Spencer is seeking a lot of what I seek in my work. It's as if I go out and ask, "Why now?" before I go and make work. I want it to be relevant now. I want it to be in conversation with what other artists are making right now. Best case scenario, I go out in the world with my camera, and I end up in that imaginative space that’s also creating a dialogue.

RB: Has there been one person that stands out to you, similar to Zaha Hadid for Spencer?

Trent: Yeah, the farmers that I've been spending time with on the Western Slope of Colorado. They create their own worlds on these small farms. They're artists in their own right. We share the fact that we’re all dealing with the problem of form. I hope that as I move forward with each new project, I can be working in a fertile terrain—conceptually, not just literally. I want to be in a place that I can become engrossed in.

I think, more than anything, it's just about following one’s own intuition and that's something Spencer and I have both embraced.

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