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Food For Thought

The Global Brain

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Although the idea of a Global Brain may sound like something you’d read about in a 21st century science fiction novel, it is in fact a concept that first emerged in the social and biological sciences in the late 19th century, when an increasing number of evolutionary and social theorists began to realize that the entire human system was, in a sense, “behaving.” As scientists began to identify underlying patterns in global human systems – that appeared to be structured and self-organizing, in the same way as are those of any biological organism - scientists hypothesized that our species could, in fact, be understood as a “superorganism” as opposed to a random collection of individuals, families, groups, cities, or nations.

One of the first things to alert scientists to this possibility was the very nature of human, animal, and plant metabolism itself – which is the mechanism by which individual biological organisms process matter and transform it into energy, allowing us to live, reproduce, and function on a daily basis. The metabolic process is a highly complex one, and it is probably safe to say that no one understands it in its entirety. We do know, however, that metabolism consists of eight primary functions or “functional subsystems,” all of which have been identified and discussed by cyberneticist Francis Heylighen in his 2007 paper on the Global Brain:

• Ingestor - i.e., eating, drinking, inhaling
• Converter - i.e., digestive system, lungs
• Distributor - i.e., circulatory system
• Producer - i.e., stem cells
• Extruder - i.e., urine excretion, defecation, exhaling
• Storage - i.e., fat, bones
• Support - i.e., skeleton
• Motor - i.e., muscles

We also know that within our very own global society, we can find an analogous mechanism that perfectly mirrors the metabolic function of biological organisms, and in which we can identify the following “functional sub-systems:”

• Ingestor - i.e., mining, harvesting, pumping
• Converter - i.e., refineries, processing, plants
• Distributor - i.e., transport networks
• Producer - i.e., factories, builders
• Extruder - i.e., sewers, waste disposal, smokestacks
• Storage - i.e., warehouses, containers
• Support - i.e., buildings, bridges
• Motor - i.e., engines, people, animals

If we take the time to look at the world in this light, it is easy to see that human systems - taken together – can easily look like a giant, planetary superorganism.
But, if this is true, then where is the brain in this superorganism?

Most complex multicellular organisms have some type of nervous system, and many have centralized brains that allow them to process information, to learn from past events and experiences, and to non-randomly predict the future. Do we see evidence of this type of activity in the human superorganism? Do human systems, examined globally, display the ability to process information, to learn from past events and experiences, and to non-randomly predict the future?

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists could not identify a global nervous system. And it is no wonder. During this period in human history, our communication systems were quite primitive, with most of us relying on postal services, physical meetings, and landline telephone systems to interact at even the most basic level. Only toward the mid-20th century did computer scientists, evolutionary scientists, physicists, and a few science fiction writers begin to suspect that a global nervous system was developing or emerging. Some came up with the idea that a "noosphere" could explain the organized, behavioral nature of human systems, that evolution was, in fact, pushing us towards a kind of planetary consciousness. Others saw the possibility that a global world knowledge center consisting of all human thought – was in the process of being created.

But what could create such an entity?

Well – the Internet, of course.

With the development and widespread use of the Internet, scientists could finally identify the emergence of a nervous system. From the very beginning, humans have been quick to adapt to its many uses, to rely on the Internet to store, catalogue, and process vast quantities of information – and most importantly, to facilitate communication and data transmission, breaking down more and more physical and geographical limitations as time went on, and in so doing, changing the very way humans relate to one another on a daily basis. Very few would disagree that the Internet, still in its infancy, has already completely transformed our planet and our species. With the advent of the Internet, there is nothing to prevent humans from forming connections, building social groups, and collaborating with one another, regardless of where we are on the planet.

Thank you Internet.

But is this nervous system comparable to the nervous system of a biological organism? Again, the patterns and functions seem eerily similar. In an animal’s nervous system, the following functions can be identified:

• Sensor i.e., sensory organs
• Decoder i.e., perception
• Channel and net i.e., nerves, neurons
• Associator i.e., synaptic learning
• Memory i.e., neural memory
• Decider i.e., higher brain functions
• Effector i.e., nerves activating muscles

In the global nervous system, the following functions can similarly be identified:

• Sensor i.e., reporters, researchers, etc.
• Decoder i.e., experts, politicians, public opinion, etc.
• Channel and net i.e., communication media
• Associator i.e., scientific discovery, social learning, etc.
• Memory i.e., libraries, schools, collective knowledge
• Decider i.e., government, market, voters, etc.
• Effector i.e., executives

All that said, the question remains: Are we in the process of building a Global Brain?

To answer this question, it would be a good idea to back up a little and define what we mean by Global Brain.

Right now, the idea that a Global Brain may exist in the future is merely a hypothesis, according to which scientists have posited that a higher distributed intelligence may, in fact, be emerging from an otherwise complex network of people, machines, and ideas. According to this hypothesis, a Global Brain would, through our continued collective action and/or consciousness, eventually have the ability to mediate and to regulate all human activity. Now, before we begin comparing the idea of a Global Brain to that of an Orwellian Big Brother, let's remember that the Global Brain is a “distributed” intelligence. Such an entity would not be controlled by any one agent. In fact, the Global Brain's existence would depend exclusively on the behavior and existence of its neurons (i.e., us). Just as your own “global brain” (i.e., you) is produced by the collective behavior of your neural networks, the Global Brain’s behaviour would be dependent on the collective thoughts and wishes of individuals and organizations around the world.

In my opinion, the evolution of a Global Brain is – in the very least - theoretically possible. After all, many technological and system-level trends appear to point towards the emergence of such an entity sometime during this century.

Consider, for example, the following trends:

1. Everyday, humans around the world continue to provide increasing amounts of data to the Internet, including information that we had once considered personal and private.

2. Everyday, humans around the world are spending increasing amounts of time on the Internet.

3. Everyday, humans around the world have increasingly easy and cost-effective access to the Internet.

All of these trends are likely to continue. It is not difficult for most of us to picture a world – in 2030 - when all humans are on the Internet, all the time - sharing, liking, tweeting, hash-tagging, commenting, discussing – generally outsourcing our lives to a medium that has access to all of our personal and collective information. Assuming that these trends will continue, one can easily hypothesize that at some unfixed point in the future, most or perhaps all human interaction will take place there.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that a Global Brain does, in fact, exist – or is in the process of development - and that we are simply the neurons that make up this vast nervous system. Using the analogy of a human brain, we know that a Global Brain could not function if its neurons were not fully connected with it, if its neurons were not engaged in a continuous stream of communication with one another. A Global Brain, after all, could not exist if its neurons were disconnected from it or from one another.

In the last decade, we have seen computers shrink in size and weight, becoming increasingly portable, accessible, and user-friendly. Whether in the form of laptops, tablets, or other mobile devices, we are using computers in more intimate ways. We have come to rely on computers on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons and they, in turn, have become ubiquitous in our lives. In the 1970s, computers could be found only in laboratories, research facilities, and universities. In the 1980s, they invaded the work place. In the 1990s, computers found their way “en masse” into our homes. In the 2000s, they found their way into our pockets in the form of mobile gadgets, portable phones, and listening devices. In this decade, we are already beginning to witness the emergence of "wearable" computers (i.e., Google Glass, Smart Watches). In the 2020s, computers will make our homes, businesses, and transportation grids intelligent, and in the 2030s we will probably begin to allow computers into our own bodies, so that they can interface with our organs, including with our brains.

In this light, it is easy to see that a global nervous system may indeed be coming to life, and that once the Internet is connected to or somehow integrated into our brains, we will have given it the power to mediate everything we do, say, and think, and that we will be able interact with it as seamlessly as we currently do through the medium of spoken and written language.

The Global Brain refers, in short, to the Internet at its full maturity. It will be an intelligent planetary network of people, machines, and ideas – a collective system within which we will probably spend most of our existence. Will it be conscious? Well, WE are conscious. So if all human consciousness on the earth is merged together on one planetary communication medium, my guess is that this will give rise to a meta-consciousness. Evolution, taken to its natural next step, will permit us to create an all-encompassing global consciousness endowed with its own intelligence and its own nervous system, opening doors to innumerable possibilities that could never have existed otherwise.

If you’d like to know more about the Global Brain, come see me at Microryza.com where I am attempting to raise money to fund my research, and where I have included additional information about this very exciting project. I look forward to answering your questions at: https://www.microryza.com/projects/is-the-internet-evolving-into-a-global-brain.

Photo Credit: Istockphoto

Cadell Last is a science writer and evolutionary scientist with a Master’s Degree from the University of Toronto, with experience in the fields of anthropology, biology, cybernetics, and history. He is in the early stages of his doctorate research at the Global Brain Institute in Belgium, working under cyberneticist Francis Heylighen. If you are interested in supporting Cadell’s groundbreaking research, or would like to find out more about it, please visit Microryza.com or contact him directly via Twitter (@cadelllast).

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Living Among Shadows

by David Philip Norris

Lately, I’ve been watching American author and educator John Green’s “Crash Course: World History,” a series of forty-two videos that basically covers all the world history you should have learned in high school, but probably didn’t, in about eight hours. There are a number of different courses on this particular YouTube channel, ranging from psychology to U.S. history. One of these courses is on literature, and in one video, Green discusses the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I was particularly struck by the following excerpt, in which Green addresses the tragedy of suicide: “Dear Suicide, you are a permanent response to a temporary problem, and you are a solution to nothing. I just want to say at the outset that there is nothing good or romantic about you, Suicide. You are a tragedy. You are also, in almost all cases, preventable… So, it’s very important to me whenever we talk about a writer whose life ended with suicide that we note that people survive depression—and also that Sylvia Plath wasn’t a good writer because she eventually committed suicide. In fact, her career was cut short, and I mourn all of the many wonderful books we might have had.” ***** I live in the shadow of suicide. My grandmother committed suicide in 1960. As a writer, I am aware of the corpses that litter the landscape of our profession: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Yukio Mishima, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Sarah Kane. To most, these names represent words on a page, a collection of letters and dates. But each of these human beings lived entire lives between the bookends of their birth and demise, enduring what must have felt like an eternity of bleakness and torment before finally gasping out their last breaths, whether head first in an oven or staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Up until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t fathom the idea of suicide. For one, it was—in my then Christian mind—an appalling sin, the ultimate act of rebellion against God. For another… well, I couldn’t even bring myself to prick my finger during the unit on blood type in biology class. Plus, it seemed like such a cowardly way out, an option for those who just didn’t try hard enough. Somewhere in my adolescence, probably around the time I started to become aware of my sexuality, but possibly as early as the age of eight or nine, I found myself experiencing periods of darkness. As an Evangelical, I believed that these slumps in mood had a spiritual cause. The cure was more Bible and more Jesus. It wasn’t until I took a course on psychology during my junior year in high school that I learned that my dark moods had a name: depression. And it was different from “the blues.”* ***** Most people associate depression with sadness, but it’s much more than that. In a 2013 TED Talk, writer Andrew Solomon described his downward spiral into depression: “Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, “But I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it,” and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.” Over the years, I’ve come to understand that depression is more than a condition. It’s fundamentally shaped how I view the world. In addition to affecting my moods, depression alters my perceptions. The smallest setbacks are magnified into megaliths of personal failure, and tiny inconveniences set me off as if they are crimes against humanity. It’s like having lenses in my eyes that pre-filter the light, dramatically changing how I see people and events. Everything is distorted, like in a funhouse mirror. When I am in a depressive state, I feel worthless. Powerless. Hopeless. Disconnected from everything and everyone in my life. Even happy moments are colored with gloom. The flavor of celebration comes across more like sand than sugar. Well-meaning friends try to cheer me up and lend support, not understanding that the problem is within, not without. At its worst, it feels as if I’m shut up in a glass box, able to see everything going on outside but unable to touch or be touched by anything or anyone. Things that would otherwise bring me joy seem gray and uninteresting. I can’t concentrate on anything. Even sex doesn’t interest me. ***** In June of 2008, just months away from my decision to finally come out as a gay man, I abruptly began having random and intense thoughts about death. While sorting my recycling one afternoon, I suddenly realized that it was almost July, which meant that the year was nearly over, which meant that I was a quarter of a century old, which meant that I was going to die someday. Gradually, thoughts of suicide began to creep in. I would think of driving my car into oncoming traffic. Slitting my wrists while working in the kitchen. Overdosing on pills I’d take for a headache. As an atheist, I have come to terms with the reality that death is merely the cessation of brain activity and that consciousness just fades. The more I struggle with the loneliness and exhaustion of dealing with the emotional minefield of my past and present, the more alluring these thoughts of suicide have become. ***** Setbacks or disappointments that might merely discourage a non-depressed person appear catastrophic and calamitous to me. For example, a few weeks ago I met a guy on OkCupid who seemed decent. We went on a date, had dinner and a wonderful talk. A few days later, we went on a second date that seemed to go equally well. After that, I heard from him less often. Then on Sunday night, he explained that his ex-boyfriend had recently contacted him, and he was pondering whether they should get back together. I asked whether he missed him. He said yes. They had been together for eighteen months before breaking up. I gave him a few days to collect his thoughts, and then texted him to ask if he’d come to any decision about whether he wanted to pursue things further. He apologized, saying that he hadn’t been ready to start dating again and really hadn’t thought things through when he first contacted me. But yes, for my sake, I should move on. Now, here’s how a normal person might view this situation: We went on two dates. It was fun, but it wasn’t meant to be. Just try again. This is how it looks to a person who is depressed: I am crushed. And disappointed. Not so much by the loss of a prospective boyfriend, but rather by a persistent and growing realization that this is how my entire dating life has gone so far, and probably will for the rest of my life—I meet a guy I like, and things might seem to go well for a bit, and then something like this happens. Rinse, repeat. So that night I made a decision—one I’ve contemplated many times over the years: “If I’m still single when I’m thirty-five, I’m going to kill myself.” Because, I reasoned, if I don’t meet anyone by then, there’s no way it will ever happen, and I don’t want to be one of those single, older gay men constantly getting passed over or used as a one-night stand. Again—that’s the depression talking. It is frightening to think that after all of the years of struggling, the idea of simply not existing, of not having to worry about anything anymore, is so comforting. Then my reason snaps into gear again, like a bucket of cold water to the face. After all, who knows what tomorrow will bring? And the day after. Maybe I’m about to meet my future husband. If I kill myself, that future will never be written. It’ll be like an O. Henry short story, where an ironic twist of fate causes two people to just miss each other at a train station. ***** Depressed people do not kill themselves simply because they are sad. Depressed people choose to end their lives because they are tired—tired of waiting for things to get better, and of listening to friends and family members tell them that it will get better if they just hold on. Tired of hurting all the time when everyone says they should be happy. Tired of the guilt of feeling like a burden or drain to everyone around them. As I write this, I am in the midst of a depressive episode that has lasted almost five months. On even the best of days, it can take an enormous amount of energy just to get out of bed in the morning. Deciding whether to leave the house or even to see a few friends is like balancing my checkbook, making sure there are enough funds in my emotional bank account to attend even a small gathering. Most days I avoid seeing people because the anxiety about what we might talk about or what we should do or what we should have for dinner is overwhelming. Even finding the energy to finish this article is exhausting. ***** The best advice I’ve received for living with chronic depression is to chart my moods and look for patterns and cycles. This helps to remind me that, no matter how bad a depressive episode seems, it will eventually come to an end. When I am depressed, I am intellectually aware of this fact, but I still find myself thinking that the present situation will last forever. No matter how much I remind myself that the light at the end of the tunnel will eventually appear, the depression is always there, casting its Edward Gorey-esque shadows over those hopeful thoughts. I see the world as it is, but also a shadowy mirror version. There’s a shadow double of everyone and everything—friends, family, strangers, billboards, television shows. Even a potential relationship that fizzled out. “Who are you kidding?” the shadows sigh, the sum of their voices drowning out the messages of the real world. “You’re holding out for a dream that might not ever come true. Your future husband or your future career could always be just beyond the next hill. Or the next one. Soon, you will be wrinkled and gray, and your whole life will have passed you by, and you’ll have nothing but white-hot regret to warm you…” It’s like having a Dementor for a roommate. ***** Over the years, I’ve learned an important lesson about depression. In the words of Andrew Solomon, “Shutting out the depression strengthens it. Talking and writing about my own depression in recent years has taken away some of its power over me, and by acknowledging it I have been able to seek out help and support to manage my dark moods when they inevitably come around." And yet, despite scientific evidence of the physiological nature of depression, there is still so much stigma in our society surrounding mental illness. We continue to stigmatize and alienate those people who are suffering from depression, who already believe that they’re alone, that no one cares, that they have no right to feel bad when they have it so good, that everyone will think they’re a failure, and that their friends will abandon them if they find out what’s going on. A few years ago, I was with a group of people, and I mentioned that I was seeing a therapist to help treat my depression. One woman exclaimed, “I’m so glad you said that! I’ve been seeing a therapist too, but wasn’t sure if I could mention that here.” I think we treat mental illness differently from other physical conditions because there’s no easy solution. And that makes many people uncomfortable. ***** In interviews, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has stated that the Dementors, the dark creatures that guard the wizard prison of Azkaban and feed off human happiness, were inspired by her own bouts of depression. As fans of the books and movies will recall, the only method to repel a Dementor is by way of the Patronus Charm. In the third Harry Potter book “The Prisoner of Azkaban” we learn that this charm is cast “with an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.” (Rowling, p. 176) As events in the story unfold, we see that the Patronus charm is a difficult one to master, and at the end of this book, thanks to a plot twist involving time travel, Harry is gifted a second chance to cast the Patronus charm to save both himself and another character. This is a scene I’ve been thinking about lately. It is a reminder to me that the Patronus charm is an elusive one, that on some days I simply won’t be able to conjure a happy memory. On these days, I know that I’ll have to call on friends and family who love and care about me to provide me with the strength I will need to hold back the darkness. It is a tremendous act of courage to call upon the people in your life for help, to tell them how you’re feeling, to defy those voices that tell you that it’s hopeless and that everyone would be better off if you were dead. Our greatest strength is each other. ***** I will close with one final quote from Andrew Solomon’s TED Talk: “The question is not so much of finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It’s of seeking that meaning and thinking, when it comes again, “This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it.”” “… I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I’ve found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment's reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.” ***** *Note: Depression differs from “the blues” in one significant way: depression is persistent. Everything could be going perfectly for a person’s job, relationships, and personal life, but the ability to enjoy these things is impaired. The DSM-IV defines Major Depressive Disorder as: “Depressed mood and/or loss of interest or pleasure in life activities for at least two weeks and at least five of the following symptoms that cause clinically significant impairment in social, work, or other important areas of functioning almost every day.” These diagnostic criteria include symptoms like fatigue or loss of energy; feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt; diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness; recurrent thoughts of death; insomnia or sleeping too much; and diminished interest or pleasure in all or most activities. Along with major depressive disorder, the American Psychiatric Association’s revised fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) outlines six other depressive disorders along with their subtypes. These include dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder, substance-induced mood disorder, adjustment disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders. From a clinical standpoint, all of these must be considered as possibilities when approaching a depression diagnosis. References: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (n.d.). Appendix D—DSM-IV-TR Mood Disorders. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved June 28, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64063 Rowling, J. (1999). Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury. Solomon, A. (2013, October 19.) Andrew Solomon: Depression, the secret we share. http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_solomon_depression_the_secret_we_share/ ***** Image Credit: Istockphoto/sokolovsky

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Finding Peace, Part 2

by Selina Uglow

I became pregnant with my first child in my senior year of high school, but attended my prom and graduation with pride as the ‘Outstanding Senior of the Year’ – which I find a bit hilarious considering the times back then. Needing to work, I took a job in office administration after I graduated. I could do a lot of things well, but men were a different story. I wasn't always proud to talk about it, but I own it now. I have three great children who don't share last names, but you would never know it. Although I was a single parent, I quickly took on management and leadership positions, and maintained this type of success until 2007, at which point you could say I finally got smart about the ‘men’ thing. At the time, I was working as an office manager. I left my job to go to Edinboro University so that both of the soon-to-be graduating children in my house could have an opportunity at a college education. One day, I went home to spend time with my partner, only to discover that he had actually been sleeping with his ex-wife for some time. This would be the fourth broken relationship that my children would witness, and I decided that I would no longer rely on a partner to help me take care of myself and my family. If I wanted something more for my children, I knew that I would have to do it alone. I made the decision to invest in a formal education. The shortest route to the greatest pay in a field that I was very much attracted to was the Licensed Practical Nursing Program at Mercyhurst College North East. It would require me to work twenty-five hours on the weekend and attend classes forty hours per week, but it would only take three hundred and sixty-five days. I was awarded a Clinical Excellence Award, together with pompoms at graduation – the pompoms a result of my desire to ‘count it down’ for everyone everyday, even when it was difficult. Over the years, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by great people who supported me and believed in me. Without the help of these individuals who recognized my existing potential, I am not sure that I would have become the person I am today. Upon graduation, I was blessed to work with two of the best physicians in our area. They specialized in both Sports and Integrative Medicine, and treated patients who hadn’t experienced any improvement in the care of other specialists. These patients needed an environment in which they could be heard and paid attention to. The more I learned, the more I wanted to pursue additional education in this area, thinking this would become my lifelong career. I enrolled at California University of Pennsylvania Online and obtained my BS in Sports Management & Wellness. Other than the birth of my children and grandson, the greatest moment for me up to this point in my life was graduating from college with my oldest child standing behind me. We received our degrees at the same time. I still cry when I think about it. While I was earning my degree, I worked as a Clinical and Office Administrator, and became very involved in the care of our patients. I also had the opportunity to work in management and electronic medical record training. But I was working fifty to sixty hours per week to handle the workload and my additional responsibilities, and the situation quickly became toxic. At the time, I made another important realization. I saw that the health care industry really did not serve its customers very well and that with all of the changes that were expected in the future, it would only get worse. I felt that this problem was due primarily to administrative inefficiency, and to the clinic’s failure to educate the entire staff in the big picture. So I began to structure my own consultation business. I called it Medical Office Management Solutions or MOMS for short. After all, we all need a mom to guide us on the right path. ***** I couldn't really tell you when the shift happened, but I truly believe today that I was somehow led in this direction. At this point, I had put together a circle of individuals whom I trusted, and who were also involved in holistic health. In our discussions, we reflected on what people really needed in terms of wellness. From our perspective, we saw that no one started at the same place. So, in an effort to share these ideas with others, we put together a community wellness program and negotiated with a local country market to allow us to set up on their premises on a monthly basis. The series was called ‘From the Pharm-A-Cy to the Farm-I-See’. The program featured everything from ‘Renewing the Spirit of Wellness’ to ‘Extending the Life of your Garden’ to ‘Understanding the Benefits of Knowing that Stress Happens at the Holidays.’ Just as we were about to launch our series, I received a telephone call from one of my previous supervisors, Dr. Gregory Coppola, who specializes in Sports and Integrative medicine in Erie, Pennsylvania. He told me that he was scheduled to speak in Warren but that his wife had fallen ill. He explained that I was the only other person he could trust to speak about Integrative Medicine on his behalf. ‘Could I go down there this afternoon?’ he asked. We met, and I agreed to speak to an amazing group of women who go by the name ‘Running Revolution.’ (With the encouragement of Charles Gray, a woman who has since become a great friend and inspiration, these incredible women are empowered through learning to run a 5K race.) Two days after the talk, I was informed that some people were looking for me. One of these people was an individual whose family member was suffering from cancer, and felt that he just needed to hear my story. Would I agree to speak with him? I agreed. And so it began. People were inspired by the fact that I would share my story with them, and I realized that sharing my story could perhaps help change people’s lives. ***** Today, I have a wonderful husband of five years who is a fifth grade science teacher. I also have three beautiful children, two stepchildren and a grandson who are all creating their own journeys. I also care for my in-laws to help them live independently, despite the limitations that come with Alzheimer's. In my weekly blog, for which I do all of the writing and design, I try to encourage individuals to embrace small and simple changes that can be made in their lives. Many people think that in order to have what you want, it takes a great sacrifice or a drastic change, but the lasting changes really come from incorporating small ones into your already intact life and schedule. I am also a wellness coach. That means that I am constantly chatting with people about finding a better way. Where others see things as complicated or difficult, I tend to see things as uncomplicated, and so I share when given the opportunity. The funny thing is that although this is my business, it is not unlike me to be on the floor of a dress shop teaching someone how to ‘unload’ their back and reduce their pain. As a service provider, I try to meet people wherever they happen to be in their lives, and help them incorporate the simple changes that are needed to live a better quality of life. Sometimes, I’ll send my clients a morning motivational text, or I’ll spend time with them on a one-on-one basis to go through the information I’ve asked them to journal. In other cases, I’ll suggest that they join me in a fitness program two to three times per week. I have elected to avoid a "brick and mortar" office because the flexibility in terms of cost savings and improved service seems to work for those I hope to assist. By collaborating with others and by offering my services to some in trade, I can make arrangements for ‘host’ locations, and I can meet people in their homes. My schedule can be flexible, and I feel that I can help a greater number of people this way. ***** The Internet has provided us with access to a vast amount of information with regards to what is healthy, but it still doesn't help people apply this information to their own lives. It doesn't address personal needs, and is mostly generalized based on recent fads or studies. A healthy lifestyle is so much more than diet and exercise. It’s about balance. It’s about finding a balance in your life that can bring you peace. This doesn't necessarily mean getting it all done all the time. It really is more about recognizing and rewarding yourself for what you DO get done, and finding ways to do those things a little better. It’s also about resting, and about doing so in a quality fashion. This can mean everything from learning to let go, to taking some time to create a sanctuary in your bedroom, instead of using it to store things you don't want other people to see. It’s about exercise and changing your attitude towards it. Motivating more movement is my goal. But, a healthy lifestyle is cumulative and comes in many forms, not just in what you find in a gym membership. Diet is important. It doesn't have to be organic, gluten free, or low fat. But it’s important to be mindful of what you are eating. Why do you eat? Do you really taste your food? Do you breathe when you eat? How often do you chew your food? Most importantly, do you plan and dedicate time to eating or is a meal just another task? When you approach your habits from all of these different angles, you can begin to make a change that will lead to a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle is one in which you can live peacefully and enjoy activity without restriction. It is not based on the size of your clothes or the number on a scale, or even on your physician’s evaluation. Being healthy means that you have the ability to truly embrace life to the fullest possible potential so that you don't miss out on how good it can be. ***** I think that we all have the ability to change the direction or course of our journey. Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us we can. This is what I try to do. In my life, I have lived through difficult times and have made poor choices. I have witnessed and experienced circumstances at an early age that children really shouldn’t have to deal with, and I have survived abusive relationships. I have been diagnosed with colon cancer and told that I had only five years to live. And despite everything, I am alive and well today. I believe that it is my attitude that has made all the difference in my fight and determination to live. I hope that by sharing my story and my perspective with others, I will help others live their lives to the fullest. ***** Image Credit: Istockphoto

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Finding Peace, Part 1

by Selina Uglow

My childhood experiences were challenging, but afforded me a great sense of compassion for people. When I was a child, I attended something like fifteen different schools by sixth grade and grew up much sooner than I should have. My mother was an incredible woman with a lot of demons, an alcohol problem and a circle of friends that didn't help either. She was, however, the most giving individual I will ever know. When my mother was sixteen years old, she became pregnant with me, and dropped out of high school. My mother didn’t talk much about her childhood, but she did say that she had done better than her own mother and her grandmother before her. I do know that my grandmother had left her children when they were very young, and that my mother and her two brothers had been raised by my grandfather. When I was growing up, family members told me that my mother had been molested as a child. For my entire life, she had battled with alcoholism, and while I don’t have much information about her childhood, I can only imagine the things she was trying to forget. After I was born, it didn’t take long for my parents’ relationship to come to an end. My mother was young, and although she participated in many programs from Alcoholics Anonymous to Serenity, she struggled with her own insecurities and alcoholism throughout much of my youth. Over the years, we relocated several times to different places in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio for many reasons, including broken relationships, lack of money, or lost jobs. My mother seemed to choose partners who had substance abuse issues or who were physically abusive towards her. When she was single, she often tended bar or took jobs as a caregiver and we would live in places where someone was close by for daycare or available if I needed something during the night. I spent a lot of time as a kid in situations that involved drugs and adult circumstances. I remember one incident very vividly. My mother’s husband at the time made me sit in a chair and watch as he kicked, hit and threw my mother down a flight of stairs, threatening to kill her if I moved. The beating she got resulted in a broken jaw and damaged ribs. My memory is a bit spotty, but I have many small recollections like that of growing up. As a rule, I’m pretty good at letting things go. I was told once that this beautiful gift is my way of coping with the challenges that have been thrown my way. Please understand that my mother was not a bad mother. She did a great job with the tools that were at her disposal. She was a very caring and generous individual, often opening our home and giving her last dollar to help another person. It was not uncommon for me to wake up to a stray animal or a new person in our home that my mother felt needed help. My father was a spotty presence in my childhood, but he worked hard to do the best that he could. I remember that he would pick me up and take me to the Peninsula. We would go swimming or he would teach me how to spot deer. My father was very young at the time, and my mother didn’t exactly make it easy for him to be a part of my life. Today my father is a union representative who is an advocate for good pay and for the fair treatment of employees. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and is always seeking ways to make a difference for others. Both my parents set a great example for me in what they did and didn't do. ***** In some respects, I made the same poor choices in relationships that my mother had made. I sought out people who at first made me feel that I was valued, but then quickly walked all over me. Like my mother, I fell in love and became pregnant with my first child, Christopher, when I was a teenager. I was insecure and immature at the time, and I felt that my child’s father would much rather be with his friends than with me. Three children and two broken relationships later, I found myself in my second marriage at the age of twenty-six. My husband at the time was very abusive towards me. Because of my lack of self-esteem, I was convinced that I simply needed to be a better wife. Because of the choices I had made, I felt that I had to make this relationship work for my children. Standing at 5’2”, my husband was two inches shorter than I was, but this didn’t prevent him from contributing to my feelings of worthlessness. He had assured me that our marriage could only end in a pine box, and I didn’t feel that a lot of other options were available to me at the time. And then a miracle happened. I was diagnosed with colon cancer. ***** During a regular checkup for my youngest child, I decided to ask the doctor a question. I had been experiencing slight abdominal pain that was becoming increasingly worse – which I had attributed to having being punched in the stomach. I asked the doctor if this could cause scar tissue. In response to my question, the doctor ordered a battery of tests. The tests came back negative, but my symptoms continued. When I had my first colonoscopy, I awoke in a room surrounded by my physician, my husband at the time, and my cousin who was a nurse at the facility where the procedure had been performed. I knew something was wrong because I was well aware that post colonoscopy, I should be sitting in a room with a bunch of other people waiting for flatulence. Instead, I was in a private room, and my physician was telling me that I had to go directly to the hospital, that I needed surgery, and that part of my colon would have to be removed. He told me that in most cases, what they removed was cancer. I put everything on hold, went home and prepared for surgery. After all, I had to make arrangements for my three children, and I was working as a manager for a major landscaping company. We were in the middle of a busy season. ***** Two days later, I smoked my last cigarette in front of the Metro Health Center. Thanks to the colonoscopy, the doctor had discovered that a tumor was blocking my colon by 98% and that it had broken the colon wall to enter the lymph system. After a resection was completed, I met with the surgeon who gave me a straight up answer to a straight up question. “What could I expect?” I asked. The doctor replied, “Go home and plan for five good years.” When I heard these words, I realized that my children needed me in their lives. The choices I had made in the past had not necessarily equipped them with better opportunities. I was regretful more than anything else, and I was determined to set things right. I was in a marriage with a man who has since been diagnosed with Bi-polar Disease. He was unloving and abusive towards me, and I was doing everything I could to hide my situation from my children. So I said to those who were providing me with medical care, “Tell me what I need to do to overcome my illness.” I didn’t decide to change my life then and there, but when my sentence was handed down, I decided that from that moment on, I wasn’t going to let anyone put limits on my life. For my first course of treatment, I tried an experimental drug. I didn’t want statistics. I just wanted to do what was necessary to raise my children. One week after I was released from the hospital, I went back to work. I was determined to live. There was an irony to all of this. On the same weekend I prepared for the colonoscopy, I attended a Christian marriage retreat with my then husband because I thought things could get better between us. But following my diagnosis and well into treatment, I realized that things were not getting better. In fact, they were getting worse. I was tired from all the chemo, and according to my husband, I wasn’t there for HIM. So when I found out that he was sleeping with another woman, I knew that this would be the final straw. I finally made the decision to leave. I see now that my cancer diagnosis was my second chance. ***** After meeting with the oncologist, to whom I am entirely grateful because he was a “No BS” kind of guy, I was set up for treatment. At the time of my diagnosis, there was an ongoing trial to test the drug Oxaliplatin, and I had decided that I would participate in this trial. My first appointment at the cancer center was an informative one. I found myself in a private room watching videos regarding my diagnosis and what I should expect from treatment. Afterwards, a nurse came in to discuss my medication regimen. I explained immediately that I was not interested in knowing about the side effects or the statistics with regard to the success or failure of the drug. So, we proceeded. I remember that a warm blanket was placed on me beforehand, and that the medicine burned when it entered my body. It wasn't long before the toxicity of the drug treatment required that a mediport be surgically placed. I had hated needles prior to this treatment, but I had to get comfortable with them very quickly. Truly, my mindset at the time was that I was ready to do whatever I needed to do to resume life as I had known it, so that I could be there for my children. I returned to work a week or so after I was discharged from the hospital. I wore sweatpants because staples were still holding my incision together, and my employer was kind enough to let me do what I could under the circumstances. My chemotherapy sessions were set up on Fridays after my morning meetings at work. The treatment was administered over the course of a few hours, and then I would drive home where Little Caesar's pizza and my wonderful children would make sure that everything was low key. I spent Friday nights on the couch mostly. I really didn't ask about the efficacy of the trial until much later in November when I went to an outdoor shopping center and a gust of cold wind resulted in the temporary paralysis of one side of my face. After discussing the situation with him, my oncologist relayed that this could be a permanent side effect. He wasn’t sure. By then, I had made the decision to discontinue the trial. I resumed a regular regimen of chemotherapy instead. My Fridays were glorious, sitting in a recliner at the cancer center meeting others who also struggled with their condition. I met some wonderful people, and came to know the staff. During these sessions, I learned that many relationships dissolved after a cancer diagnosis, simply because caregivers are either not acknowledged or because the stress is too much for them to handle. My husband was my caregiver at the time, but I believe that he resented the attention and concern that others were showing me. The chemotherapy caused extreme pain in my hands, and he took advantage of this situation to remind me of my ‘bad behavior’ in public. He provided me with a cue to correct myself by reaching over and squeezing my hand, causing pain. I knew I would leave my husband when I finally sustained a black eye after discovering that he had rekindled an interest in another woman. Later, he would stand in the cancer center during my treatment and make a scene, telling everyone that the only reason anyone cared about “this piece of shit” (me) was because I had cancer. I decided that the next step in my life was to dissolve this relationship. Bernie Siegel's book, “Love, Medicine & Miracles” had given me the hope that I needed and the realization that my cancer had definitely been induced by stress. In order to fight it, I knew that I would have to eliminate the stress from my life. ***** My husband had assured me that I would have to die to escape from my marriage, and so I set out to find the help I needed to get out. But the night I left, my husband found me. His intention was to kill me. He was arrested. ***** When I left my husband and my history of abusive relationships behind me, I also decided to make some immediate lifestyle changes. I addressed the following: 1. Honesty. I knew that I had to be honest with myself and others. I had to accept that I had made some poor choices in my life, but I could take pride in the fact that I had made some good ones along the way. 2. Stress reduction. I realized that it was time to reduce the stress in my life, particularly the stress that I had created for myself. 3. Weight management. I realized that it was time to take better care of myself, and to make better choices for my health. In the next six years, I would learn to read the labels on food packages, to prepare my own food, and to meditate. I have always maintained a positive attitude in my life. It was the one change I didn't have to make, but it was probably the thing that saved me in the end. I have always worked to build people up and to help them see the gifts with which they have been blessed, regardless of their situation. A wise woman once said to me, “take the best, leave the rest,” and that’s pretty much how I have lived my life. I believe that every circumstance, even the ones we don't want to think about or remember, can make us better people. Once my treatments were completed, I put the cancer diagnosis behind me. It took a year or so for me to regain my energy. Since then, my health has been great. I have some residual neuropathy, but several colonoscopies, two brain scans, and twelve years later, I’m feeling pretty awesome and am now considered ‘cured.’ I understand the value of holistic living. I eat fresh, enjoy the outdoors, and read everything I can about spiritual and physical wellness. My entire life has been a journey of learning and growth. My diagnosis was definitely the “exit” I needed to take my life to the next level for myself and my children. Sometimes I feel my life would make a Jerry Springer special look mild, but I am proud of my ability to overcome. (To be continued...) To read Part 2, click here http://thepeopleproject.com/category/people/finding-peace-part-2 ***** Image Credit: Used with Selina Uglow’s permission

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Terri Kelleher

Visual artist and children’s book illustrator Terri Kelleher was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Galway, Ireland for the past nineteen years. Terri is a busy stay-at-home mom to her four children, and is the author of several children’s books, including her most recent work entitled “Where Do Monsters Hide?” ***** Q. When did you start creating art? And why? I have been drawing since I was very young. When I was six or seven, I remember reading through a book my mother had by Betty Edwards called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and trying out the exercises myself, especially the one where you look at a photo of something and turn it upside down - so that your brain doesn’t label the parts – and try to draw it just as a series of lines. That was really the earliest memory of my interest in trying to create art. When I was ten, the teacher introduced the class to art history by teaching us about a new painter every week and showing us photos of their work. That was my first experience with art history and art appreciation. As far back as I can remember I have been drawing and painting. My family was always very encouraging of my artwork, and I used to love to visit my two grandmothers’ homes. One of my grandmothers was a nurse, and the other was a music teacher, but both created art as a hobby. My mother's mother only had a couple of her own paintings on display in her home, small still life paintings in oil, but my father’s mother filled her home with framed paintings she had done and sculptures her sisters had made. I remember that a lot of her paintings were of botanicals in watercolour. I remember that I loved to just sit and look at a few of my favourite pieces. I suppose in that way, both my grandmothers were very inspirational to my own pursuit of an artistic career. Q. How did you learn about art? The only ‘teacher’ training I had in art was what I had in high school. I chose an art class for each of my four years, so that included art history, painting and drawing, commercial art, and advanced studio art. When I left school, I took one watercolour painting class that was one evening a week for six weeks. Everything else, I learned from reading. I have read many art technique books, art history books, compilations of artworks, etc. Also, I loved books as a child and have bought and kept some from my youth, which I purchased because I loved the illustrations. Now, I have many books that are specifically about children's book illustrations. Q. Do you earn a living with your art? I have been freelancing mainly children's book illustrations for the past eighteen months and have been fortunate enough to have had consistent work in that time. This kind of work does allow me to express myself and create art with imagination. Sometimes, it can be more difficult than just painting a series of paintings for myself, as I often have to make alterations or small edits to suit an author, whereas if I were just painting for my own project, I could do it however I wanted. I also do the occasional portrait or one-off commission, as well as the odd interior mural. I am a stay-at-home mother as well, so hopefully in time I can devote more and more of my day to painting, but presently, there are huge demands on my time and the only real time I get to work on art is in the evenings and at night. I would like to become more involved in my community, but as I have so many demands at home at present, it just isn't something that I can do now. In a few years, I would expect to have more time on my hands. Q. How did you first obtain work as a children’s book illustrator? In my final year of high school, I had to do a project of my choice as the final exam, and I chose to create a children's book. This was my first real taste of illustrating a story and although I kind of rushed through it, I did enjoy it. A few years later, when I was at home with my two oldest children – who were toddlers then - I wrote and illustrated my first book. I sent it to many publishers only to be rejected again and again. Finally, I was accepted by an Irish language publisher. I met with the owner of the publishing company and he said he was going to translate the text to Irish. Time passed and nothing was happening with the book, and after a year of little communication and no publication, I took back my artwork and told him to forget it. I had more ideas for other books, but after that experience I was a little disillusioned. I got a little job making a few small illustrations in a couple of issues of a local magazine. Then, I did some commission work for paintings from photos, and wall murals for interior design projects. Finally in 2012, somehow, I came across an ad on the Internet for a self-publishing company that was looking for new illustrators. I just filled in the application, not really expecting anything from it and actually forgetting about it all together. A few months later I received an email telling me that they liked my work and wanted me to illustrate a book for them. I was really excited and I did the illustrations. I absolutely loved the job, and knew at that point that it was the career path I wanted and needed to follow. I thought that they would contact me regularly for more work, but they didn't. That was when I decided that I was going to pursue my career on my own, and I started writing my own books and building my portfolio. I came across a website for freelance workers and signed up. After writing and illustrating three of my own books, which formed the base of my freelance portfolio, I began applying for illustration jobs on that site. Within a couple of months of applying, I got my first freelance job in January 2013. Since then, I have illustrated twelve books for other authors. Some of these authors have written second and third books which they have asked me to illustrate for them. I have stayed in contact with the majority of the authors, but I don't like to seem too pushy or aggressive, so I usually let them initiate contact. Q. Is it satisfying for you to see your illustrations in the pages of a book? Yes, absolutely, it is satisfying to see the finished work. Some of the authors I have worked for have not published their books for whatever reason, and others have. Of the ones that have published their books, sometimes they send me a copy and sometimes I have to order it like everyone else, but I like to have the finished copy in my hand - like part of my portfolio. Q. I understand that you have written a children's storybook called "Where Do Monsters Hide?" Can you tell me about this book? This was the fourth book that I self-published. I wrote one for each of my four children using their first name as the name for the story’s main character. “Where Do Monsters Hide” was a fun book for me because, although it was for my fourth child, it was inspired by my second. When my son was young, about seven or so, he was a terror for getting out of bed after bedtime, and night after night, he would repeatedly come downstairs for an excuse like a drink or something. Finally, I got sick of this routine and told him that he’d better get back into bed because at ten o'clock monsters go around peeking in all the windows to make sure girls and boys are all in bed. I know this sounds terrible when I hear it now, as my son – who is now fifteen - laughs and recounts the tale himself. But that was the inspiration behind the story. The book is written in rhyme, and it’s about a little boy who wonders where monsters are when he looks for them in the daytime, but can't find any. His mother tells him different places they like to hide, but that if he is a good boy and does all the things he is supposed to do, he won’t see them and the monsters will stay away. And if he is naughty, the monsters will come looking for him to take him away to their monster land. The illustrations in the book are not scary, but light-hearted. Q. Does the work of other artists inspire or influence your work? M.C. Escher is one of my all time favourites of the famous artists, and was probably the first introduction I had in my life to illusions in illustration. My dad brought home a PC in the late 1980's. Microsoft Paint and some images had been pre-installed on the computer, and one of these was “Waterfall” by Escher, and I absolutely loved studying it. Then, a few years later, when I went to high school, two of my teachers had Escher prints hanging in their classrooms. One was “Reptiles,” which depicted lizard tessellations, and the other was “Bond of Union.” This one was in my English class - which I wasn't too crazy about - and I would spend a lot of time looking at the picture rather than paying attention in class, to my teacher's dismay. When I realized that both were by the same artist, I became very interested in learning more about him and his work. Q. How about contemporary artists? I love to look at the work of new artists. I find as much, if not more inspiration in their relatively unknown works as I do in the masters and the famous pieces. A contemporary artist that stands out in my head is George Callaghan whose work I had the pleasure to view on display here in Galway a few years ago. I first saw Callaghan's work about ten years ago when I was walking down a street in the town centre. I passed a gallery, and his work was in the window. I had never actually been in the gallery before, but I had to go in to see the painting on display, which I believe was called “Finnegan's Wake.” The painting was stylistic and colourful, and there was so much going on with the characters. There was a corpse in the centre, laid out in the coffin with one eye open looking at the carry on of the others. There were people with pints and sandwiches and it was just one of those pieces I could spend hours looking at. Then, when I was inside the gallery, I saw the other work he had on display. There were fabulous landscapes with round trees and more stylized houses and colours, and they were just wonderful. I left the gallery and have never stopped thinking of his paintings, and from time to time I look them up on the Internet just to see them again. Another new artist whose work I just adore is Connor Maguire. I only discovered his work recently - last year, but again, like with Callaghan, his work stuck in my mind. Not so much his realistic portraiture, but his stylized pieces especially. I love his charcoal drawing called “The Honest Banker.” I think this one is my favourite of his. Also, the vibrantly coloured oils like “Coming Home” and “Calm Before the Storm.” I just love the movement and colour in the work. Q. What do you hope to achieve with your art? I have found that creating art fills a place in my life that brings me peace and contentment, and if for no other reason than that, I would continue to paint. It is nice to have work and think that other people like my work, but ultimately I create art for me. What I mean by this is that I used to try to think about what other people would like to see or what might sell. I would do paintings of local landmarks and landscapes and try to create them with techniques that I thought people would like, but it wasn't satisfying to me as an artist because I felt that this kind of art wasn't ‘mine.’ When I decided in 2012 to follow the illustration path and write my own books, I decided to paint the illustrations the way that I liked to paint them, and to make people and landscapes the way I wanted them to be, not the way I thought other people would like them to be. This finally gave me satisfaction because I was creating art the way I liked. I know that means other people won't necessarily like my artwork, but that's finally okay with me because I know that I am creating in a way that makes me happy. Q. How have people responded to your work? Some people like it and some people don't. Frankly, I'm always a little bit shocked when someone says they like my work or chooses me to do a particular job. Of course it pleases me to think that someone likes it, but I guess I am always a bit skeptical that they are just being polite. Q. What kind of equipment and materials do you use? For the illustration work, I mainly use watercolour and acrylic inks on hot pressed smooth paper. For portraits and commissioned pieces, I use acrylic on canvas. I use the watercolour and ink for the illustrations as I can get a lot of detail into the pieces. I like the acrylic paints too because they give a different look and textured appearance which is fun for a change. Q. What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to an artist who is starting out? I would say create art in a way that you find pleases you. Don't get caught up in trying to please someone else. In so doing, you will develop your own unique style which is far more important. To view Terri’s work, please go to: http://www.terrikelleher.com/ ***** Image Credit: Terri Kelleher

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Andres Serrano

by Udoka Gabriella Okafor

In the following interview, contributing writer Udoka Gabriella Okafor talks to acclaimed photographer and conceptual artist Andres Serrano about his life, his career, and his art. In his most recent work entitled “Residents of New York,” a series of large format portrait photographs, more than eighty-five men and women who live on the streets of one of the busiest cities in the world are brought into sharp and candid focus against the gritty workings of an often unforgiving urban landscape. Thirty-five of these photographs, commissioned by non-profit organization MoreArt, will be on view until June 15, 2014 on the streets of New York City – around Washington Square, on phone booths, and inside the West 4th Street subway station – inviting all of us to take part in a larger discussion about the “invisibility” of homelessness in the United States and elsewhere. ***** Gabriella: Can you tell me about your background and your life? Andres: Besides being an artist and a New Yorker? I think that about sums up most of it. I was born at Columbia Presbyterian in Manhattan and lived in Morningside Heights until I was seven, when my family moved to Williamsburg. It was the late fifties and my uncle bought my grandmother a brownstone on Havemeyer Street where I lived through childhood and some of my teen years. I dropped out of Bushwick High when I was fifteen, and attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School two years later. Gabriella: When did your interest in photography begin, and at what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue it professionally, as a career? Andres: I started taking pictures after attending the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where I studied painting and sculpting when I was in my teens. After I left art school, I decided I wanted to continue as an artist but I couldn't really paint or sculpt. I was living with a girl named Millie who owned a camera, so I figured I could be an artist with a camera instead of a paintbrush. I didn't make money from my work until I hit forty. Gabriella: In the beginning, what kinds of photographs did you take? How did your photography evolve or change over time? Andres: My first photographs were black and white. I shot black and white for two years before I tried color. After that, I stuck to color. The early photographs were still lifes and street portraits. There's a connection with all my work, including my early work. I've always been interested in reality and fantasy, or what you create in the studio. I see myself as a conceptual artist with a camera rather than a photographer. Gabriella: Given your experience at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, do you think that art school is necessary for young artists? Is it something that you recommend? Andres: Art school was great for me. It was non-accredited and the atmosphere was very relaxed. Having dropped out of high school because I didn’t like it much, I felt very much at home in art school. I think art school, like anything else, is a matter of choice and if you want it then it’s certainly something that can help you. Back then, many of those in my class were there not because we thought it would get us into a gallery but because it was fun. We didn't even know about galleries then. Gabriella: Can you tell me about your likes and dislikes? Andres: I like to keep busy, whether it's making art, taking pictures, gardening or antiquing. I always like to be doing something instead of standing still. I dislike traveling without a purpose. I travel for work, to do a project, for exhibitions, lectures, something. I’ve always fantasized about going cross-country by car, traveling from town to town to the West Coast and back. But in reality I don’t have the time, money or motivation to make such a trip. Gabriella: I read recently that you have a musical alter ego, ‘Brutus Faust’. Can you tell me about your musical interests and aspirations? Andres: I've always loved music. I grew up in the era of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the British Invasion, Motown, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. I would have wanted to be a singer but I didn't know anyone with a band and never learned to sing. A few years ago I decided to study singing with a music teacher and later hooked up with a band called Blow Up Hollywood, and we recorded an album. Music, like art, needs to be practiced often. It's something you have to immerse yourself in completely. Sometimes, I wish I could be Brutus instead of Andres Serrano, but you need to have a reason to reinvent yourself and being Andres Serrano is easier than being Brutus Faust. Gabriella: Can you tell me what you mean by this? Andres: I spent many years practicing my art whereas Brutus has not done the time. It takes a lot of work, practice, and money to do things, especially when you get older. It’s not like I have a young band who wants to work many long hours for free. It’s the same reason I don’t write my memoirs. I’d like to but I need a reason, a book deal, an agent, a publisher to inspire me. I'm good with goals but I need a deadline. Gabriella: Your photographs have incited a lot of controversy and protest, most notably because of your use of bodily fluids against the backdrop of religious symbols. Can you comment on their relevance in your art or on the message you are trying to convey? Andres: I distrust anyone with a message. The best artistic intentions are usually cloaked in mysteries and contradictions. It wouldn’t be interesting for me if the art were not “loaded” in some way. I always say my work is open for interpretation and that’s why I prefer not to read many of the “interpretations” out there. Suffice it to say, the work is like a mirror, and it reveals itself in different ways, to different people. Gabriella: One of your most controversial works is “Piss Christ” which portrays a crucifix submerged in urine that is alleged to be yours. Is there a message that this photograph is trying to convey? Andres: The only message is that I'm a Christian artist making a religious work of art based on my relationship with Christ and the Church. The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning - the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning. There was a time prior to the seventeenth century when the only important art, the only art that mattered, was religious art. After that, there were very few contemporary art pieces that were considered both art and religious, and “Piss Christ” is one of them. Gabriella: How did you feel when you saw how people were responding to “Piss Christ”? Why do you think people continue to respond so strongly to this particular work? Andres: I was flabbergasted when I was denounced in Congress. After all, I was completely unknown and to be cast in such a public light seemed very Kafkaesque. You wake up one morning and you're brought up on charges on the Senate floor. I remember seeing my name appear several times in the Congressional Record of May 1989 and each time it was spelled differently. I realized early on that the controversy was the result of the campaign the American Family Association mounted against “Piss Christ” and politicians like Jesse Helms and Alfonse D'Amato jumped on the bandwagon. But it had little to do with me or my work. I think the reason the work continues to be a subject of debate is the same reason it fueled some Christian Fundamentalists years ago. It’s open to interpretation and can be read any way you like. I'm a Christian and an artist and don’t feel the need to explain or justify myself as either. I also believe that people of color - I'm Hispanic - are easy targets as the bad guy. From the moment he was elected until the day he leaves office, President Obama will be hounded and vilified by Republicans and Fox News, but of course, many people believe it’s politics not race. Gabriella: Your art has sparked a very important conversation about the tension that exists between freedom of religion and the artist’s freedom of speech and expression. Can you comment on the tensions between these two values? Andres: Freedom of religion and freedom of expression have something in common: they both have the power to polarize people. Everyone has an opinion on these freedoms and those opinions often clash. It’s the result of living in a democracy where the people don’t always share the same values or opinions. That’s why it’s called a democracy, because you are free to choose. Gabriella: In a democracy, do you feel that the artist’s ability to express himself or herself should be protected at all costs? Andres: Of course, otherwise why call it a democracy? We would have to call it something else. Someone like Ann Coulter can say whatever she wants because a democracy gives you the right to be idiotic. If we're going to call ourselves a democracy then we have to defend it as such. It’s in the Constitution. Gabriella: I am fascinated by another work of yours entitled “Cabeza de Vaca.” Do you mind telling me more about the photograph? Andres: The picture is of a cow's head on a pedestal and is called "Cabeza De Vaca" which means ‘cow's head’ in Spanish. It’s also the name of a fifteenth century Spanish explorer. I’d say I was being both literal and figurative with the title. Gabriella: Your latest photography project is a series of photographs portraying homeless people in America. Can you tell me more about the project? Andres: It’s called “Residents of New York” and the photographs are portraits of homeless people I took on the streets in January. It’s a public installation currently on display at the West 4th Street subway station and in several phone booth locations around town. More Art, an organization committed to bringing art to public spaces, sponsored it. I chose not to use the word homeless in the title, but to call them “Residents of New York” instead, in order to acknowledge them as being residents who are very much a part of the city. Gabriella: Could you tell me about the experience of photographing homeless people in New York City? Andres: Frankly, working with the homeless was not very different from working with anyone else. People know you're an artist and they let you do your thing. What was different was that it was in January and February. And it was bitter cold. It was particularly hard on my assistant, Ed Watkins, who needed to use his fingers to operate the 4 x 5 camera. But many of these people are on the street day and night and so spending six or seven hours on the street looking for people to photograph was light by comparison. We always had the option of ducking into a café for warmth. As an artist, it’s always a great satisfaction when you get a project done, and the more difficult the project the more satisfying it is. I think there was an initial surprise that I wanted to take their picture, but maybe not. We have no idea what the homeless encounter on the streets so maybe an artist who comes up to you with a camera and tripod is not strange compared to other things. I think what they took away was that someone wanted them for something since most people don't ever seem to want them for anything. Gabriella: You have done several projects now about homeless people. Why are you drawn to this issue? Andres: I identify in some ways with the people and things I photograph. I see myself in them. It could be the homeless, the dead, the Church, Jerusalem, etc. I'm a good guy, a bad guy, any kind of guy you want me to be. The homeless are seen in a similar way. You see what you want to see in them. I see them as human beings who’ve hit rock bottom. I've never been homeless but when I lived on the Lower East Side in the seventies, I huddled around a burning garbage can during the winter months to keep warm like you see the homeless do in movies. I wasn't homeless, I was selling drugs. When they say Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the streets, they’re probably talking about people like me. Gabriella: In your opinion, why are the homeless so invisible to most people? Andres: It’s not something that most people can do anything about apart from giving some food or money and so it makes us uncomfortable to see it. When problems overwhelm us we tune them out for as long as possible. It’s a coping mechanism. It enables us to go about our business without feeling pain. Gabriella: Are you currently working on other projects? Andres: I was invited by The Jerusalem Foundation and the Musrara School of Photography to go to Jerusalem to do a project there. I went in late February immediately after finishing “Residents of New York.” I spent four weeks and worked even harder in Jerusalem working up to sixteen hours a day. I'm now talking to a publisher about making it into a big book. A picture is worth a thousand words and I took thousands of pictures. And it's film, not digital! I love working in the summer, and have no projects at the moment. Maybe someone will invite me to do something. Gabriella: What message or advice do you have for young artists, and young people in general, who are trying to pursue their dreams? Andres: Keep your dreams no matter what. When I hit my twenties I turned my back on being an artist and became a drug addict instead. I stayed a drug addict until my late twenties when my biological clock told me that if I stayed in that life in my thirties there’d be no turning back. There are all kinds of ways of being an artist and there is no right way or wrong way, only your way. Gabriella: Can you talk about your experience with drug addiction? How did drug addiction affect your life and your art? Andres: I started experimenting with drugs when I was sixteen. It was 1966 and the whole world had discovered marijuana and LSD. I remember I bought my first acid trip from some thirteen year olds in a children’s park I had gone to when I was a child. I didn’t hit the hard stuff until I was about twenty-one. I started with pills, ups, downs, and later went to cocaine, heroin and lastly, Methadone. Methadone was a killer. It was the toughest drug I ever kicked. I was in several Methadone clinics before I got completely off the stuff in 1978. I was twenty-eight at the time. One of those clinics, on 2nd Avenue and 26th Street is still there. I think everything, good and bad, affects you and your work. I've made a lot of decisions in my life and that’s what makes me the kind of artist I am. I always feel like an outsider. Even when I was a drug addict, I felt like an outsider knowing that I was just passing through. It’s like saying, “I'm with you but I'm not one of you.” Gabriella: What inspires your work and your art? Can you tell me about the ideas, events, and people that inspire or influence your life and your photography? Andres: I’m inspired by things in general. Things that are all around us but we sometimes take for granted. But I’m also drawn to things that come to me by some other force. Several years ago, I was asked by the New York Times Magazine to photograph some Cycad plants at the Fairchild Botanical Garden in Florida. Cycads are among the oldest living plants and are a protected species. A dealer in Italy saw the pictures and decided to show them and make them available as editions. It’s not a subject I would have chosen for myself but once I photographed them, I made them mine. The same thing happened in 1996 when I was preparing a big exhibition at the Groninger Museum in Holland. The curator, Mark Wilson, invited me to go to Holland before my exhibition to do some new work that would be included in the show. When I told him I didn’t have time to go to Holland because I was working on a new show called “A History of Sex” he said to me, “if you’re doing sex pictures, why don’t you come to Amsterdam?” It made sense and I spent five months in Amsterdam creating images for the show. One of them, “Leo’s Fantasy,” was chosen by the museum as the poster and became very controversial. It’s a picture of a woman pissing into a man’s mouth. Gabriella: In your opinion, what is the role of art in society? What purpose does it serve? Why is it important? Andres: I never understood the purpose of art on a practical level. It doesn't provide food or any physical nourishment necessary for our survival. It’s never had a practical application like science, technology, medicine or agriculture. There are many who think it’s pointless, meaningless, irrelevant and not the stuff of everyday living. Millions, if not billions of people do without it. And yet it’s been around since the beginning of time. We see it in the cave paintings of early man. It sustains us, nourishes us, gives us hopes, dreams, something to do and to look forward to. It can get us from one point to another and many believe civilizations cannot thrive without it. It’s a challenge, a goal and a destination; a way of seeing life and living it.” ***** Image Credit: Irina Movmyga

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Aaron Schwartz

Fascinating. Thanks, The People Project.

11 days ago

Eduardo Ribeiro Alves

I like (very much!)

10 days ago

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