The Art of Bus Stops

The Soviet regime might have been repressive and stultifying in a lot of areas, but one place where it exercised a considerable amount of boldness and innovation is public infrastructure — including the humble bus stop.

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

The photos were taken by Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig, who has spent over a decade travelling through most of the former Soviet Union to document these neglected architectural marvels. You can see a larger version of each photo by clicking here.

With their unusual colors, shapes, and themes, these otherwise functional structures look more like art installments than bus stops. As Foreign Policy explains:

The Soviet Union ascribed an outsized importance to public transportation. Buses, trains, and metro lines were a sign of progress; they were also a powerful symbol of connection and unity, as the Politburo worked to build a communist society throughout 15 ethnically diverse republics that covered a landmass stretching from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Pacific. Perhaps the most famous legacy of this Soviet fixation on transport is the Moscow Metro system, with its glittering chandeliers and its elaborate murals depicting scenes of proletariat glory. But Moscow was dressed up in order to be shown off — to serve as a demonstration of socialist power and might for visiting foreign dignitaries. Most citizens lived outside the capital, and for them, buses were the predominant means of transportation, accounting for nearly 44 percent of traffic throughout the country by the mid-1980s. What makes the extravagant, eye-catching nature of the common Soviet roadside bus stop all the more surprising is that these were often tucked away in hidden corners of the empire, far from the eyes of foreigners.

Soviet architecture is best known for its overpowering conformity and functionality: The term conjures up images of rows of low-slung buildings and mass-produced apartment blocks. These bus stops, however, were an unlikely outlet for creative expression. Local artists were given unprecedented freedom to experiment with design, color, and material. Many of the designs were commissioned at the local level, which allowed for artists and architects to reflect the character and history of their individual republics. What came about was thousands of unique creations, covering a range of shapes and sizes.

Artists still worked within the confines of Soviet art, employing communist imagery of peasants in wheat fields and relying on austere, minimalist structures. But the more flamboyant bus stops reimagined this aesthetic, twisting standard outlines and incorporating local elements into their design. For instance, a bus stop modeled after the Silk Road-era Arystan Bab mausoleum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan sports a minaret and crescent moon, while one in the Black Sea coastal town of Gagra takes the shape of a breaking wave, decorated with purple mosaic tiles.

These are just some of the amazing examples from Herwig’s collection. You can find more in his newly published “Soviet Bus Stops“.

An Amazing Time Lapse of Video of Austria

After two years and about five terabytes of footage, Thomas Pöcksteiner and Peter Jablonowski have created an unforgettable time lapse of their country. In less than three minutes, you can really appreciate the sheer natural and cultural beauty of this alpine nation of 8 million.

Courtesy of Gizmodo.

How Awe Can Heal

Among the feelings and experiences that transcend all cultures, languages, and civilizations is the sense of awe and wonder one has upon reflecting on the beauty of nature, a masterful work of art, or some other emotionally captivating sensory experience. While we all enjoy such feelings, most of us would probably never imagine that they could be good for our health.

But according to recent study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, embracing the beauty of the world — be it artwork, music, wilderness, etc. — has a measurable positive impact on both mental and physical wellness. As The Telegraph reports:

In two separate experiments on more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride.

Samples of gum and cheek tissue – known as oral mucosal transudate – taken that same day showed those who experienced more of these – in particular wonder and amazement – had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6 which is a marker of inflammation.

Psychologist Dr Dacher Keltner, of California University in Berkeley, said: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Cytokines are chemicals necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma but too many are linked with disorders like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.

Dr Jennifer Stellar, of Toronto University who was at California University in Berkeley when she carried out the study, said: “Our findings demonstrate positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”

This is also one of the first studies to explore the role of cytokine in depression as well as autoimmune diseases; people with clinical depression also tended to have higher levels of inflammation, showing yet another correlation between physical and mental health. By feeling awed, curious, and captivated by something, individuals who would otherwise be withdrawn from the world’s beauty and left to wallow in self-perpetuating sadness and poor health can enjoy a palpable respite.

To be sure, these are the results of one relatively small study, involving a little over 200 young adults, and the researchers are by no means advocating nature or art as a substitute for medication, therapy, and the like. But this does confirm a long-standing observation of how a sense of awe of the world around us — be it natural or human-made — is good for mind, body, and soul (whether you define the latter in secular or spiritual terms).

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to feeling at my calmest and least depressed when I am listening to a brilliant composition or immersing myself in nature (even at a park or my own backyard). It has not always worked, nor should be expected to, but even the mere thought of all the beauty there is to embrace and experience is enough to comfort me during some of my darkest moments. Our species needs more than just the basic needs of survival to truly live and flourish. Together with diet, exercise, social support, and a sense of purpose, the fulfilment and stimulation that comes from all the natural and humanmade beauty of the world cannot be understated in importance. It all comes together.

Next time you are feeling sad or otherwise off in some way, consider giving this a try. Again, it is by no means a cure-all nor viable for everyone, but it is a shot. We all need to escape from our heads once in a while, especially if there is a lot despair and sadness stewing around. Never underestimate the sense of inspiration and comfort that well placed wonder can have.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

On This Day in 1793…

The Louvre officially opened in Paris with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Built in the 12th century as a military fortress, the building now housing the Louvre was a royal palace and then a private museum before the National Assembly, in the midst of the French Revolution, decreed it should be open to the public to display the nation’s great works.

Through centuries of government support and private donations, the Louvre’s world-famous collection has grown to nearly 35,000 objects, spanning almost every civilization, art style, and historical period from prehistory to the 21st century. The museum spans 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres) and is the world’s most visited museum, receiving over 9 million visitors annually (about 15,000 a day).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Man With the $10 Million African Art Collection

Brooklyn native Eric Edwards has amassed a collection of over 1,600 pieces of art from all 54 countries of Africa. Needless to say, as an aficionado of history and African culture, I am quite jealous — and not just because it is worth an estimated $10 million.

Check out the four-minute video by Mark Zemel, courtesy of The Atlantic. (Click to see full-screen version; sorry, WordPress cannot imbed certain videos.)


The Town Where Guns Are Mandatory

Since 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, U.S. has required the head of every household to own a working firearm with ammunition. In this 12 minute short film, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque profiled the small town of about 30,000 and captured their perspectives about the intersection of guns, culture, and American identity.

Click below to see the fullscreen version, or click here. (Sorry, videos sometimes do not embed properly.)

Courtesy of The Atlantic.

How Doodling Helps The Brain

From The Atlantic:

For most people, the big question isn’t “when did you start drawing?” but “when did you stop drawing?” Virtually everyone drew and doodled at one point in their lives. For artists and non-artists alike, drawing is about more than art—it’s about the very art of thinking…

…”Drawing with pencil, pen, or brush on paper isn’t just for artists. For anyone who actively exercises the brain, doodling and drawing are ideal for making ideas tangible. What’s more, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers find it easier to recall dull information (even 29 percent more) than non-doodlers, because the latter are more likely to daydream.

While drawing is definitely the artist’s stock and trade, everyone can make doodles, bypassing the kind of refinement demanded of the artist. Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone. Just think of all those napkins (or Post-Its) on which million-dollar ideas were sketched out.”

As a frequent doodler myself, I never really considered any palpable mental and emotional benefits. But in retrospect, there was something relaxing and self-affirming about it — hence why so many people, myself included, tend to doodle during times of boredom.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.

The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved (Vardo, Norway)

Norwegian Town Honors Centuries-Old Victims of ‘Witch’ Killings

It may be too little too late, but there is tremendous symbolism and educational importance in recognizing, and atoning for, the baseless killing of dozens of innocent people. That is why the small town of Vardø, once known as ‘the witch capital of Norway’, has commemorated those loss with an intriguing and beautiful monument.

The Daily Beast provides a background to this atrocity, which was part of a continent-wide campaign that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Four hundred years ago, Vardø embarked on a crusade to rid itself of witchcraft. For more than a century—between 1593 and 1692—there were more than 140 witch trials in the small village.

At least 91 people, both men and women, were found guilty of sorcery and burned at the stake or tortured to death.

The number may not be as large as elsewhere in Europe, but in northern Norway’s sparsely populated landscape it touched a disproportionately large chunk of the population.

About a third of these trials were specifically targeting Norway’s indigenous Sami population who arose suspicion by practicing traditional healing rituals.

The killings came in spates—one in the 1620s and another in the early 1660s, when 20 of the 30 people were put on trial were killed.

The proceedings were meticulously recorded, giving modern historians insight into the accusations and reasonings that fueled the witch hunt.

As in most other instances of persecution against alleged witches, a combination of ignorance, fear, desperate circumstances, and sometimes even politics were contributing factors. Daily Beast provides more context to the case of Vardø:

Testimony from the time revealed that witchcraft was believed to be something one consumed—it came in the form of magically tainted milk, bread, or beer.

According to an article by historian Rune Blix Hagen at the Arctic University of Norway, the sudden spate of sorcery accusations came after a particularly brutal Christmas storm that killed 40 fishermen in the early 1600s.

It took three years for legislation that allowed mass prosecution on suspicion of witchcraft, but with that go-ahead, Vardø prosecuted with fervor.

When a woman arrived in the court and described how witches had tied knots and cast spells that caused the wrecks she was swiftly tossed to sea. When she floated, she was dubbed a witch and killed.

That year, in 1621, many more women followed in her ghostly wake after being accused and found guilty of sorcery. Many were burned at the stake, others were tortured to death.

The geographical remoteness may have had been related to the vengeance with which witches were persecuted in northern Norway.

According to historian Liv Helene Willumsen, speaking with Deutsche Welle, there was an theory “that evilness could be found in the north and that even the entrance to hell was in the north. There was an idea in Europe that in the north people might be more inclined to witchcraft and evilness than other places”.

I can scarcely imagine how horrifying life must have been at this time; to live in an environment so fearful and miserable that even a small, close-knit community can tear itself apart with cruel hysterics. Norway, and indeed much of Europe, have come a long way from those times.

In 2011, these victims were granted official recognition. The Steilneset Memorial was unveiled by Norway’s queen on the same spot thought to be the execution site of the 91 so-called witches.

It was built as a collaboration between two world famous artists: Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.

Zumthor’s “Memory Hall” is starkly simple: a long cross-hatched frame containing a corridor filled with 91 lamps. Each one illuminates a window and a plaque that tells the story of the men and women killed with testimony from their trials.

Zumthor described their creative process to ArtInfo magazine: “[T]he result is really about two things—there is a line, which is mine, and a dot, which is hers… Louise’s installation is more about the burning and the aggression, and my installation is more about the life and the emotions [of the victims].”

Next to the hallway is Bourgeois’ piece: a black glass box with a constantly burning chair in the middle. Above it, three mirrors reflect the fire. She gave her contribution a fittingly dramatic title: “The Damned, The Possessed and The Beloved.”

Wikipedia provide a more detailed description of this cleverly designed memorial. It is clearly designed to do more than inform and commemorate; one cannot help but feel reflective and contemplative.

The Memorial comprises two separate buildings: a 410-foot-long wooden structure framing a fabric cocoon that contains Zumthor’s installation; and a square smoked glass room, its roof 39 feet on each side, that contains the work of Bourgeois. Zumthor’s structure is made from wooden frames, fabricated off-site and assembled to create sixty bays in a long line within which, suspended by cable-stays, is a coated fibreglass membrane that tapers at each end. Inside is a timber walkway, 328 feet long but just five feet wide, and along the narrow corridor are 91 randomly placed small windows representing those executed, each one accompanied by an explanatory text based on original sources. Through each window can be seen a single lightbulb, intended to evoke “the lamps in the small curtainless windows of the houses” of the region.

The building that houses Bourgeois’ installation stands in stark contrast to its companion. Its square structure is fabricated from weathering steel and 17 panes of tinted glass, forming walls that stop short of the ceiling and floor. Inside, Bourgeois has set a metal chair with flames projecting through its seat. This is reflected “in seven oval mirrors placed on metal columns in a ring around the fiery seat, like judges circling the condemned.” Writer Donna Wheeler, reflecting on Bourgeois’ sculpture with its fire burning within the solitary chair, observed: “The perpetual flame – that old chestnut of commemoration and reflection – here is devoid of any redemptive quality, illuminating only its own destructive image”

Here are some photos of the full memorial, courtesy of The stark yet tranquil environment offers an appropriate backdrop.

It says a lot about the people of Norway that they would honor these 91 historically-inconsequential individuals, providing future generations with a reflective and informative memorial that details each victim’s humanity.