Japan, Part 3 & the Takeaways

Japanese-Garden Kyoto Alleyway
Naoshima ferry

Naoshima Ferry

Toyko Alleyway

It’s unconventional to share this part of the story now, instead of first, but yet here we are. When I talked about doing this there were raised eyebrows and whys. Alone, really? What for? And why Japan of all places? A few people said they could never do something like this, or they were afraid or intimidated to try. Let me pull back whatever imaginary cobwebs there are around this and explain it further.

Just as I collected dollars for the trip, I collected reasons to go. Art research provides a professional claim if it involves continuing education and/or marketing content. And I guess a vacation too – like why not?! Who wouldn’t. But it needed to be more than that.

It’s because of my dad that I came to appreciate Japanese culture in the first place, and so this was in part in honor of his memory since he never got to go. So that was a major factor. There’s much to love about Japan, in general, of course. But there was also this primal need to absent myself from everything and everyone familiar for awhile. That mostly came as a reaction to the pace of every day life, the speed at which things move seems to happen in permanent escalation forever now and I wanted to get off the carousel for a little while. I also knew I was using this busyness as a cover for avoiding exploring parts of myself like what’s next for my work, for myself, for my life, and relationships.

It’s real scary to flip on the lights of one’s interior self and let the chips fall as they will, but there’s no way to avoid this when everything’s all scrambled up from culture shock, jet lag, language barriers. I definitely had to face parts of my personality I don’t love. Like for example, it took me a long time to feel comfortable speaking up about having gluten issues while there. Or the homesick, intimidated, or lonely moments. The hope was the would rip the band-aid off of everything and promote that much more growth in life and work.

It definitely feels like a feminist move, because women generally aren’t encouraged to show up in a foreign country alone. Also it comes with the implication that things are not alright at home, or the concern she’s running from something. As if that’s the only reason a person would want to do this. Clearly, a woman traveling alone for her own self-investment, or even just to have an adventure and make some good stories is a bold move. So you could say I did it for the raised eyebrows, to challenge them.

In the end the big takeaways are further vision about where I’m going with my work, more acceptance and self-love for my body and brain, renewed confidence overall, deeper understanding of a new culture in addition to my own, and more empathy for those less fortunate as well as immigrants and refugees. It is incredibly humbling to be immersed in a culture where you know no one, don’t speak the language, and the food is not yours. I have such respect for people and families who make this leap. It’s more important to me now than ever to show this and continue to fight for immigrant and refugee support, less hostility between nations as a whole. I’m also interested in helping others figure out how to get to have an experience like this, whether it’s through moral support, offering resources to retreats, grants, or even student-focused initiatives, whatever it is. If this is you, let me know how I can help.

So! This concludes this portion of the Japan diaries. As of now, I do not have plans to travel beyond the Midwest for the next few months. But who knows what’s next!! Lay it on me, universe. We got this.

Kyoto Dentist Office

Kawaii dentist office in Kyoto

Margot in Japan: Naoshima & Kyoto

Back home and recovering from the last dredges of jet lag! Taking the time to commit these words before I’m completely re-absorbed back into life and it seems as if this trip never happened.

———————————————————————————————————-

Seto Inland Sea motor assist bicycle

After leaving Tokyo, I journeyed to the tiny island of Naoshima, a short ferry ride off the south coast of central Japan in the Seto Inland Sea. This area and a couple other surrounding islands are known for their artistic attractions. Here, a large, spotlessly designed and impeccably presented contemporary art complex lives housing several museums, in addition to a cluster of galleries and non-traditional art spaces in the island’s town areas. I rented a ~$15 motor-assist bicycle while there, the island itself is very hilly so this was helpful, and zipped around to the various attractions over the space of three days.

Tadao Ando Bennesse House tadao ando

Here I learned about the work of self-taught architect, Tadao Ando, one of the most famous architects from Japan. He designed many spaces on the island and there’s a delightful little museum about his work. I like his style a lot, he uses unusual angles, interesting windows, and has a particular way of manipulating light. But there were moments the concrete blocks felt bunker-like, fallout shelter oppressive, not a place I want to imagine lingering long.

James Turell and Yayoi Kusama are other artists who are featured prominently here and their work was also a highlight for me. Turell’s work is impossible to photograph, with the way he uses light and color to shape, play with space and dimension. It’s incredible. Even if I had the skill to capture it, these museums ban photos. But, I will say, if you ever find yourself in this part of the world DO NOT miss his pieces on Naoshima and neighboring island, Teshima. For me, it was definitely worth traversing half the globe.

Yayoi Kusama

Kusama’s work is an excellent role on the island, adds a level of silliness and play when much of the art in the area is austere and contemplative. She’s also one of the few women artists being shown, they haven’t found parity here, just like the rest of the art industry. The only other tricky part was there was minimal info on the installations and artists written in English, this was true of most art spaces I visited in Japan. I got what I could, but will still need to supplement with additional research on my own.

Outside of the island’s museums, there were the tiny art houses, which I found the most fun overall. Small former homes converted into tiny displays featuring more local and up-and-coming artists. However, overall I realized I wanted to be challenged by the art a bit more, or educated somehow. Granted, I’m not the typical art consumer, but none of the work addresses the environment, historical events, politics, or social issues for example. Seems like a lost opportunity given how many people visit here from everywhere else. I suppose there’s this assumption that people are on vacation and want to turn their brains off, but I challenge that idea. Because people come here for an experience. And there are ways difficult subjects can be accomplished in a thoughtful, hopeful, or uplifting way so people will get it but won’t be, like, broken by it. Anyway, it’s still awesome.

Following this, back to Kyoto (omg high-speed trains!!), where I spent 7 nights. Here my goal was about trying to grasp more of Japanese deep history and traditional art and craft. Kyoto is FULL of shrines, temples, vintage shops, beautiful nature, and traditional artisans of every stripe. Papermakers, knife makers, weavers, ceramicists, anything. I even walked past a shop peddling gorgeous handmade brooms, mats, and bristle brushes.

kyoto-maiko

Kyoto is the best place to find Geisha culture, which I was extremely lucky to stumble upon by chance after randomly selecting a sushi spot for dinner one night. There brought conversation with another patron in broken Japanese-English. He was very curious about me, but kindly so. In classic Japanese fashion, he was exceedingly polite and honorable despite being jubilantly drunk. As the restaurant began to close, he and the restaurant owner invited me to a traditional Geisha house where we had another round of drinks. I did have a moment’s hesitation but decided to trust them, and I was rewarded. Ten minutes later I’m sitting across from two gorgeously appointed 18-year-old maiko, or geisha-in-training. We talked about Disney movies, Sanrio characters, and our favorite foods in Japan and Chicago. Too soon we exhausted our mutual language skills and the wine and they dispatched me to my hotel in a taxi. This was like finally cracking into Japan’s true self for a second, a true prize I will hold onto forever.

Eri Yoshihara Eri Yoshihara

It was at this point I felt most at home, having grasped a bit more language skills and settled into the culture more (bowing, so much bowing). Kyoto is small enough that I found myself in similar areas, even walking down the same lanes and alleys again. On my second-to-last day, because of research help an artist friend Leah Mackin provided before I left, I found a small art space, Gallery Morning and the trompe l’oiel work of printmaker & painter Eri Yoshihara. We spent a lovely few minutes chatting about art and Eri and as I was preparing to go, Eri & the gallerist pulled out a Kyoto art guide and circled all their favorite spots. And with that, I occupied myself for the rest of the day poking around to small galleries and learning about what Kyoto artists are up to these days. I loved that it didn’t have the same big-city or highbrow feel of Toyko, much like how Chicago feels small and easy to engage with compared to New York City.

And, here I am, the marvel of travel being you generally end up back where you started from in some capacity. I’m still unraveling the full, long-term effects from a trip like this, and struggling to articulate the compulsion behind why I chose to do this. But this post is long already, so this I’ll discuss either in another post or my monthly newsletter which is out next Thursday. So! Until next time, friend!

Margot in Japan: Tokyo Update

Margot! In! Japan!

I’m nearly mid-way through a two-week adventure here. This post is a small recap of what’s happened so far, as well as how I’m dealing with the loneliness of traveling alone in a country where I don’t speak the language and am unable to eat much of the food.

yoichi umetsu watari

Watari Museum of Contemporary Art
Definitely the most “contemporary” and wackiest art space I’ve visited. This show by artist Yoichi Umetsu blends sculpture, material design, and traditional painting techniques. Overall felt like a play space, chaotic and silly, with small moments of quiet throughout. Animatronic sculptures brought life and humor, whirring and clicking to life making their presence known like household pets. Pleased to see a contemporary space that mimics how I understand the rest of the contemporary art world, and I greeted it like an old friend.

muji textiles


Muji Gallery

Muji, if you’re not familiar, is a wildly popular minimalistic “un-branded” lifestyle company offering classically styled chic clothing, household goods, interior design services, amazing stationery, books, food, and cool kid stuff. It’s a bit like a Japanese version of Ikea. Anyway, I visited the flagship location in Tokyo and was delighted to discover a gallery in the space as well. This show showcases the stories behind the Indian-made textiles which are used in the store’s current collection. Walking through here swaths of fabric caressed my head and shoulders, with a delicate fluttering in the air was peaceful and serene.

pigment tokyo

Pigment Tokyo
Pictures don’t do this place justice. Imagine a whole wall full of nearly a thousand jars of powdered pigments in every possible spectrum of color. Then another display full of the most artful brushes I’ve ever seen. They were presented like magic wands, and it’s true even handling them I felt power rush to my hand. These beauties, handmade with real feathers each cost well over my monthly rent. I did pick up a few other brushes though, as well as a new ink set to replenish my stash at home. This visit was a healing salve on a rainy day and gave me some rainbow Pride month feelings which I’m missing very much in Japan.

tokyo street art

On loneliness
I knew going into this I’d have feelings of isolation and otherness, but I chose this because I was craving a space where I could reconnect with myself and be my own main focus. To feel what the Japanese call mono no aware, which is that feeling of being a tiny speck in complete awe of the universe, and temporariness of all things, even the self. It’s a great feeling, briefly, but turns out it’s not somewhere I can inhabit for long. Sends me rushing to commune with other humans, which also presents other barriers. Many tourists aren’t interested, I don’t speak Japanese well enough to strike up a chat with the average person, and most Japanese people don’t speak English either. I did find one meet up in Tokyo that was super fun and helpful but still working on finding one in Kyoto. Tonight’s challenge: seek out a music show. Perhaps I can find friends there.

On being gluten-free in Japan
Woof. This has been the hardest part of every day so far. I thought I might tolerate it better here due to different processing and pesticides and whatnot, but yeah nope. I think I’m actually more sensitive to it than at home just because of all the different everything and the acclimation that’s still happening. I’m still working up the courage to try a typical Japanese restaurant yet, knowing what awkwardness awaits trying to clumsily explain the modifications I need to the staff. Alas. I’ve been making due with raw & health foods, fusion places, or eating outside Japanese cuisine altogether like last night’s delicious Nepalese Tandoori. There are a couple gluten-free spots in the cities which, very handy, but it gets boring only going to the same restaurants over and over.

Planning around dietary issues and the ensuing worry on how my body is gonna handle everything I put in my mouth leaves me with less time to research the art I came here to see, as well as taking time away from actually going out and doing things. Getting over that and doing it all anyway seems to be the real work of the trip, and well also life, to be totally honest. To accept and love these parts anyway. It’s humbling and gives me much more respect for others who endure more significant physical challenges. If nothing else it fosters a greater sense of empathy, which is so crucial to a good life. That may be what makes me become a greater artist more than anything else I experience here. Wouldn’t that be interesting! Time will tell.

Here’s to more adventures ahead! 8 days left in Kyoto and 2.5 days on the island of Naoshima. That’s where things are going to get even more interesting. More up-to-the-minute posts on my Instagram and stories if you’re inclined.

Onward, until next time! Arigato gozaimasu, my friends!!

Ux Camp Talk: Design Tools for Social Justice

The purpose of this talk was to review and compare/contrast the various tools that have come out recently to help us improve our political engagement. Which it does, but I realized when speaking about these things talking about the tech itself is only half the issue, the other is how people are using it and why/why not. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of the chatter, options, recommendations here so I wanted to really sit down and consider what I’ve found and offer some sort of method to the madness.  Cause this is what it feels like now:

When we should be aiming for this:

First, a caveat. There is no one size fits all here. There is no one thing we can do right now and have it fix everything that feels wrong about our country’s current dividedness. Lots of people are calling for bots to filter news or create data-driven fact checkers, but I’m skeptical of those. Because that puts a ton of trust in that technology in a way that I’m uncomfortable with. What if the person who created that tool stops updating it? What if another news source emerges that replaces the news sources the bot relies on? Technology doesn’t always think in the same shades of gray as our brains do, and as humans we will always need to be able to read and synthesize various sources to challenge and allow our beliefs to evolve, so we are our own best tool for this at the moment.

But. There are some pretty darn helpful things we can look at. They allow us to make waves slowly though many small moves.

Many.

Small. 

Moves.

 

Aka. High-level tech for the people.


Data Refuge is an org created by people at Penn State University for the purpose of saving, cloning, and storing climate change data in various locations around the country and the world. So if this data that people have spent years studying and collecting becomes compromised or corrupt, it will be backed up in several locations. This is a volunteer-run initiative with developers, scientists, and coders working together to preserve this critical science. They also have an artist residency program specifically designed to find new ways to make statistics and facts more visual to emotionally engage people who aren’t technically inclined. What I like best about this is that it’s a multi-faceted org, providing entry points to all sorts of people interested in slowing climate change. They work really hard to make their data and technology accessible to people, regardless of one’s skill level.

More locally is Chicago Hacknight, which is every Tuesday from 6-10pm on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart. Every week a whole slew of people who are interested in using technology for civic and socially minded projects converge. It’s like tech church! They’ve produced a number of interesting projects, such as Chicago Nursing Home Search which uses the statistical rankings of nursing homes as provided by Medicare and presents them on a map in an understandable way.

Countable logo

And then there’s Countable, which is non-partisan start-up based out of SF that breaks down congressional legislation in plain language. You can up/down vote bills, and sent both text and *VIDEO* messages to your members of congress. Like, you can basically Snapchat your public service boos at Capitol hill. What a time to be alive!

Security is a slippery topic and could be a whole story in itself. But there are a couple extremely easy things you can add to your browser to help scramble your identity. These are things that run in the background and are about as set-it-and-forget-it as they come. In theory, you could even install them guilt-free on your loved one’s computers while they aren’t looking and they wouldn’t even notice, buuuut I’m not here to tell you how to do your life.     

HTTPS Everywhere, by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) a 26-year-old non-profit dedicated to defending civil liberties in the electronic world. Pretty great source, if you ask me. HTTPS Everywhere automatically replaces the HTTP in a URL with HTTPS (the S stands for “secure”) which adds an additional level of encryption between the server and your browser. Boom, easy, finito!

Also by the EFF, we have PrivacyBadger for both Firefox and Chrome on the Mac. Similarly, there’s Ghostery for PC. Among several helpful things, this buddy removes the trackers that record your browsing behaviors and send them the third parties without your consent. They make browsing clearer, faster, and safer without requiring you to switch to a more secure or private browser.

There’s several tools that make calling elected officials easier. 5calls.org is great because they give you a script, but these and a a few others I looked at all require you to jump from your browser to your phone and make you dial in the telephone numbers manually. A slightly more streamlined version of this is DailyAction.org. You give them your number and they text you with the issue of the day, and a phone number and all you have to do is tap the number and you’re already doing it. 

The failure of all of these calling services is that it still puts the onus on *us* to work this into our day. It’s amazing how hard it is to actually do it. DailyAction.org has shared their numbers, as of this month they have ~250k subscribers and of those only about 10% actually follow through with calling. Which leads me to believe the actual numbers of people calling overall are still pretty low. How can we improve on this? Accountability? Incentives? Can we simply bootstrap our way through it? I see it very much like going to the gym or volunteering. It’s super hard to get people to go (myself included here) but everyone feels AMAZING after. We gotta focus on that while we rip the band-aid off.

Further, we have Drive the Vote and Carpool Vote. Both are new tools that mimic car sharing apps like Lyft to help get people to the polls for free. I’m expecting a big push for these services when the midterm elections come around, especially in areas with voter restriction laws, or places with unreliable or no public transportation. Also curious if they will let people book rides for the elderly who may want to vote but aren’t going to use a smartphone app to book themselves a ride. A good service to keep an eye on, regardless.

Surprisingly, older technology is showing a strong resurgence these days. For many congresspeople with perpetually full voicemail boxes, and unchecked email, there is always faxing. SAY WHAT?

You can send up to 5 free faxes A DAY with FaxZero.com, and pepper your elected officials without picking up the phone. I’ve a mental picture of the fax machines in these offices just constantly spitting out paper that slowly starts to fill the room, makes me smile every time.

Google Docs are also becoming a real tool for the people. Google groups, shared spreadsheets, and sign-up forms have been popping up wildly. It’s wonderful when we don’t have to download or learn and entirely new interface to get involved, since a very high number of people have at least a passing familiarity with Google’s tools. Though, these require a person-to-person referral. This one, for example, is a sign-up form to be a proxy for a person who is unable to use the phone themselves. Reserved specifically for the disabled, it’s wonderful that something so simple can help amplify these voices.

All this is to say that you don’t necessarily have to be on the front lines of tech to also be on the front lines of change. Simple technologies or technologies that haven’t changed much in recent years are still just as relevant, no depreciation when it comes to these.  I mean, even an oven is technology.  And can be used to make snacks for a group of civic minded friends, bc who doesn’t love snacks?!  

In summary. Make a routine for yourself. Decide what kind of bandwidth and resources you have, and we all have SOMETHING to offer, and bring it out there. Getting family & friends involved makes it less work and more social. If you come from a family with widely differing views, is there a neutral cause you can both get behind? For example, food donations are generally always non-partisan, as are book drives. Start with the causes you DO agree on and improve your bond with those before attempting to dialog about the more complex hot button issues that maybe driving a wedge between you. This is where it’s especially important for small steps, patience, and consistency. With continued openness and exposure it’s possible to find more common ground.

Because it doesn’t require a certain level of hard-won life experience to get involved with social justice initiatives.  You are already enough. Just by being here. 

Just by being here. 

Further reading:
+ Indivisible Guide
+ Tech Forward
+ Code Corps
+ Social Roots
+ Sister District
+ Swing Left

Additional image sources: GiphyHealing Schemas / The Establishment 

New Items in the Shop!

Pitch Design Union Gift Wrap

What shop you say? Well, mine. It’s only about 37 seconds old. And it’s right ova here! And it’s got paper for sale! Heavy-weight (for wrapping paper at least) stock that comes in two colors per order so you can layer and mix-n-match for a look that’s different AND helps you use up those pesky scraps that are always leftover. I’d love it if you bought some, don’t forget 25% of sales go to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, so you’re also helping them as well as me. Be sure to order this week to receive in time for Christmas!

If this ain’t your thing (fair enough) still sending all sorts of good vibes your way. And, you can always sign up for my mailing list instead for early notifications & discounts for future items. Even your eyeballs on this post mean so much to me. Let’s toast to that and here’s to getting fired up for 2017 too!