TIME society

World-Famous Violinist Joshua Bell Performs in Union Station

Joshua Bell performs in Union Station in Washington, D.C. on September 30, 2014.
Joshua Bell performs in Union Station in Washington, D.C. on September 30, 2014. Tessa Berenson

In 2007, Bell posed as a street performer in the Metro, and nobody noticed him. Today, he made sure everyone did.

At first glance, Joshua Bell’s violin performance in Union Station in Washington, D.C. Tuesday afternoon bears no resemblance to his famous subway performance seven years ago.

In 2007, as part of a social experiment for a Washington Post magazine article by Gene Weingarten, the renowned violinist posed as a street performer in the Metro to see if hurried commuters could recognize beauty in their midst. He wore a baseball cap, stood by the escalators in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in D.C., and opened his violin case for tips. (The case, by the way, that normally houses his multi-million dollar Stradivari violin.) To make a long story short: almost no one noticed him.

Today, Bell is once again playing in a train station, but this time he’s made sure people will notice. His publicist Jane Covner said that it was supposed to feel “impromptu,” but there’s nothing spontaneous about this. The performance was publicized; there’s a designated area for press marked off with red velvet ropes, and there are chairs and microphones set up where Bell performs. People begin arriving over an hour before he’s due to play, and by 12:30, there are hundreds of spectators packed into the main hall of Union Station, sitting on the hard floor, trying to squeeze close to the front along the edges of the room, and some even climbing on construction scaffolding to see over the mass of people.

Compare this to the scene in the train station seven years ago, when in his piece about the stunt, Gene Weingarten lamented, “There was never a crowd, not even for a second.”

Today Bell is playing with nine students from the National YoungArts Foundation to promote an upcoming HBO special entitled “Joshua Bell: A YoungArts MasterClass” and his new Bach album out today. So while 2007 was, according to Weingarten, an experiment in “context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste,” today was all about Bell. His documentary, his album, his performance, his celebrity.

Weingarten took the stage first, appraised the hundreds, possibly thousands of people waiting patiently for Bell—some of whom had traveled from well outside the city to come see him play — and said, “This is a lot better than the first time. A lot better, trust me.”

Better, that is, because people were actually paying attention. This performance is “a do-over for the people in Washington,” Covner said. “Not a do-over for [Bell].” And some of those Washingtonians agreed. Weingarten asked for a show of hands how many people in the audience were some of the “morons” that passed by Bell in 2007; four hands went up. “We accept your apology,” Weingarten deadpanned.

Finally, Bell and his accompanists take the stage. They begin with the first movement of the Bach violin concerto. After the 2007 performance, Weingarten wrote, “There are six moments… that Bell finds particularly painful to relive: ‘The awkward times,’ he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment.”

Today, after first movement, the station echoes with booming applause, whoops and cheers. Bell beams as he says, “This is more like it!”

Then, looking out at the impressive crowd, he says, “The only thing I regret is we don’t have an open violin case for tips this time.” (Last time, he made a total of $32.17.)

But how can this performance really be seen as a redo of the last one? Yes, it’s in a train station (albeit a much finer one than L’Enfant Plaza), but the 2007 performance was about whether true artistry could be appreciated without fanfare in ordinary spaces. And while Union Station may not be a grand concert hall, today people came knowing they were going to experience something beautiful, which itself defeats the entire question Weingarten initially posed: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

So today’s performance was not a redo; it was a reimagining. Bell didn’t like the answer he found last time, so today he created a different one. He wanted to prove that art could transcend, if only you give people a little nudge.

“I think the whole idea is that if you give people a chance to listen to music and let them concentrate, then it means something,” Bell told TIME afterwards. “And this shows even in a train station that people can be totally focused.”

Finally, almost a decade later, Bell got the answer he was looking for when he first donned his baseball cap and descended into the Metro.

“I thought of it as closure,” he says. “It was a perfect end.”

Then he laughs: “I don’t see myself ever doing this again.”

TIME Art

@Large: Inside Ai Weiwei’s Unprecedented Exhibit on Alcatraz

As part of his new exhibition, @Large, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei oversaw the construction of 176 Lego portraits of political prisoners, most still incarcerated as of June 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

The Chinese artist's seven installations on America's most notorious island champion human rights and recall America's dark past

Inside the hospital wing of Alcatraz, which is typically closed to the public, there are two adjacent rooms the size of closets. Together they make up the entire space officials dedicated to treating mentally ill prisoners before the notorious penitentiary was shuttered in 1963. And thanks to the Chinese artist and rights activist Ai Weiwei, for the next seven months those rooms will be very loud.

This paltry psych ward now holds one of seven site-specific installations in four locations around the island that Ai – everyone calls him Weiwei – has taken over for a new exhibit opening Sept. 27. Cheekily titled “@Large”, the installations, which remain on view through April 26, are designed to use the setting of an infamous prison to explore issues of human rights, punishment and the loss of freedom.

In one of the two spartan rooms plays a loop of Tibetan chants, in the other an American Indian song intoned by the Hopi tribe—thumping tracks that resonate in one’s ears like voices might in one’s head. Both are meant to remind visitors of how confined and oppressed those peoples have been at times throughout history. The latter is also reminding America, in particular, about the imprisonment of Hopi men at Alcatraz who refused to send their children away to government boarding schools in the late 19th century. “That was the darkest time,” the National Park Service’s Michele Gee says about jailing the island’s earliest prisoners of conscience. Weiwei calls that particular piece “Illumination.”

There are plenty of impressive things to note about this unprecedented exhibition. One is that the 57-year-old Weiwei designed and built his elaborate pieces without ever setting foot on the island. A vocal critic of the Chinese government, Weiwei has not been permitted to leave the country since being detained for 81 days in 2011 on tax evasion charges that were brought against him after he had conducted a lengthy investigation of government culpability in the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in China’s 2008 earthquake, killing thousands of children. Another is the installations themselves, like “Trace,” which consists of 176 portraits of political prisoners fashioned out of 1.2 million Legos; or “With Wind,” an intricate dragon that fills an entire room in the form of some 100 hand-painted kites that hang like dominoes from the ceiling.

This installation, “With Wind,” hangs in the New Industries Building, a place where privileged prisoners were allowed to work, pictured Sept. 24, 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Less obvious is how logistically complex the project was, which not only involved getting architectural plans and videos and photographs to the artist but also seeking the approval of government agencies going all the way up to the State Department. Though the project was first conceived in 2012, the actual assembly of @Large took just nine months. And the person who should be credited for putting all the works together so quickly (sometimes literally putting them together, after carrying them across San Francisco Bay by rented barge at night) is curator Cheryl Haines. Haines is a fixture in the San Francisco art world and executive director of a non-profit called For-Site, which exists to install ambitious art in unexpected places. And she is the person who suggested to Weiwei the idea of doing an exhibition in Alcatraz while visiting him in Beijing. “Of course it’s difficult for him that he doesn’t have personal freedom and that he’s not able to come,” she says, currently sporting blue hair in an attempt to keep her calm through the storm. “But Ai Weiwei is incredibly adept at understanding the built environment … and he welcomed the challenge.”

Less obvious still may be the fact that agencies of the U.S. government, which to some extent is lumped in with more egregious human-rights violators in the exhibit, would work so hard to highlight the dark underbelly of American history, from the treatment of American Indians to the dire conditions of Alcatraz in its days as a prison. Because of the not-always-great relations between the U.S. and China, the National Park Service, which oversees Alcatraz Island and its facilities, made the choice to seek permission from the State Department before giving a Chinese political dissident one of the nation’s most popular visitor sites to use as a stage. “We knew from the get go that his belief in self-expression and his values are part of his art,” says Greg Moore, CEO of the non-profit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy that staffs Alcatraz. “Ai Weiwei takes us beyond the gangster years into something that’s not only part of our history but part of our present.”

In “Blossom,” Weiwei fills hospital wing amenities like sinks and bathtubs with intricate porcelain flower sculptures, pictured on Sept. 24, 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Also in the hospital wing is “Blossom,” which consists of porcelain flower sculptures snugly fit into existing amenities like bathtubs and sinks. The work, the curator says, might be interpreted as an offering of sympathy to those who are imprisoned or an allusion to China’s Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom Campaign in 1956, a time when free expression was briefly tolerated among citizens, before being abruptly and ruthlessly suppressed again. In the Dining Hall, the single exhibition space that is normally open to the public, Weiwei offers visitors the chance to send an actual token of sympathy to political prisoners who are still incarcerated in various parts of the world—via postcards that are covered in symbols and birds of the prisoners’ respective countries and are pre-addressed. Aides working on the “Yours Truly” installation — some of the 47 trained to guide visitors through the exhibition — will put the cards in the mail once they’ve been written.

“Yours Truly” is an installation of postcards that visitors can write to political prisoners, pictured on Sept. 24, 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Weiwei plays with sound again in Cell Block A, where songs and speeches of the oppressed or imprisoned play out of each cell. Inside is a spare stool for a listener to sit, and outside is the name of the prisoner. Installing the speakers required using a hallway behind the block, as Haines and her team were not allowed to remove so much as a screw on the vents from which the sounds of “Stay Tuned” emanate.

One of the most uncomfortable and eerie no-go zones that visitors will be let into for the exhibition is the gun gallery, a narrow hallway where armed guards once walked above rooms of prisoners, ready to shoot if necessary at a signal from an unarmed guard keeping watch on the ground. This is the walkway from which viewers will see “Refraction,” a sculpture that looks like a metal bird stuck in mid-flap, unable to fly under a suffocating ceiling.

Visitors to @Large will be let into the Gun Gallery of the New Industries Building, which is normally off limits, pictured on Sept. 24, 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Much of the challenge in getting @Large off the ground, Haines says, was making sure not to disturb even the broken glass in window frames of the historic buildings as the team installed Weiwei’s pieces. (The park did, however, install Plexiglass to protect people from the shards.) Part of the reason the exhibition is opening in September, after the height of tourist season, is that marine birds like cormorants nest there during the summer, and “ecological resources” were not to be disturbed either. Still, the exhibition has led to change on Alcatraz; for the first time there will be WiFi on the island, which the artist wanted so that people could share experiences of @Large on social media. And Moore says that letting people into the specially opened spaces may prove a “pilot” for permanently opening them in the future. There is also hope, Haines says, that the exhibit will lure more locals to join the roughly 1.5 million visitors who boat to the island each year, Bay Area residents who might have some money burning in their pockets that could go to the National Park Service or local arts programs.

The bright colors and delicate shapes of @Large somehow highlight the drab, sad conditions of the prison, like a child holding a bright balloon in the middle of a blackened, post-apocalyptic landscape. “If you look at the actual objects, they’re layered but beautiful,” says Haines, who previously worked with Weiwei on an exhibition in which various artists crafted abstract homes for native animals of the Golden Gate area. Ai chose sweet, cylindrical blue-and-white porcelain houses, and For-Site hung them temporarily in the forest for screech owls.

For this project, Haines spearheaded the fundraising of more than $3.5 million dollars, so that it would not cost taxpayers or the overburdened Parks Service a dime. It won’t cost visitors anything either; access is free for people who book regular tours to Alcatraz through April. If there’s demand, Haines says, they may also organize a special boat just for Weiwei pilgrims.

“With @Large, the conversation has broadened to encompass more types of human rights around the world,” she says. “We keep upping the ante, clearly.”

TIME Art

Miley Cyrus Is Now a Visual Artist, Too

Her debut collection, aptly titled "Dirty Hippie," was presented at New York Fashion Week during designer Jeremy Scott's show

Miley Cyrus never ceases to amaze. On Wednesday, the 21-year-old pop star debuted her newest artistic venture: an art collection, aptly titled “Dirty Hippie,” as a part of avant-garde designer Jeremy Scott’s New York Fashion Week Show. Models in Scott’s show reportedly wore some of the pieces, which will also be on display at V Magazine‘s New York offices starting on Sept. 11. Details of the collection were also presented in V, whose cover Cyrus graces this month.

The collection features a five-foot-bong, a vibrator with a joint attached to it, and a party hat the singer told V she saw and thought “it might be fun to glue some sh-t onto it.” There is also a piece featuring a pineapple, because Cyrus says the fruits make “yummy c-m.” Sure!

Cyrus is not a formally trained artist, and though the pieces — which the singer has been teasing on her Instagram account — give off a high-DIY-project vibe (mainly because it was a high DIY project), Scott told V that’s what drew him to her work. As for Cyrus, the project was about exploring other artistic avenues so she doesn’t have to “die a pop pop dumb dumb.”

Cyrus’s main inspiration for her work was her fans and her tour, from which many of the pieces (including the vibrator with the joint attached to it) were derived. In the interview, Cyrus said her creations were like therapy, given the rough start she had to 2014.

“At the beginning of this year, I hated 2014 because everything that could go wrong kept going wrong. Being in the hospital, my dog dying…Everything just kept sh-itting on me and sh-tting on me. So then I started taking all of those sh-t things and making them good, and being like, I’m using it. My brother and my friends all said that’s what they felt I was doing. So, that’s how I started making art. I had a bunch of f-cking junk and sh-t, and so instead of letting it be junk and sh-t, I turned it into something that made me happy. “

Welp, so long as she’s happy.

 

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 4

1. The results of the NATO summit and the alliance’s stance on ISIS and Ukraine will define President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

By Jonathan Alter in the Daily Beast

2. Intense boot camps for highly skilled careers may displace costly graduate degrees and get more people working.

By Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly

3. To make a splash in the mobile market despite poor sales of its Windows phone, Microsoft is selling apps to iPhone and Android users.

By Dan Frommer in Quartz

4. The street children of India are publishing a quarterly newspaper, finding a purpose and a passion in telling their stories.

By Mariah Wilson, Chander Bhan and Paul Ewen in Vocativ

5. Harm reduction – versus a law-enforcement focused “war on drugs” – could reduce overdose deaths.

By Josh Eidelson in Bloomberg Business Week

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Arts

Reddit User Makes Greco-Roman Statues Look Like They’re Taking Selfies

The future of art?

In case you were curious, that is the face of a Greco-Roman statue, modeled after those at the Vatican Museum, “posing” for a selfie.

Thanks to some careful camera angling, Reddit user “jazsus_ur_lookin_well” took these photographs of statues at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, as a way to join old art with new… art. (Is a selfie art? What would Kim Kardashian say?)

“The staff in that art gallery were giving me some strange looks,” the user wrote on Reddit.

At least this person didn’t break any of them.

(h/t Bored Panda)

TIME technology

Remote-Controlled Robots Let You Explore Tate Britain at Night Without Leaving Home

After Dark project robot with Jacob Epstein's The Visitation (1926) at Tate Britain Alexey Moskvin—Alexey Moskvin

Great way to beat the crowds

Fancy a trip to the Tate but can’t cross the pond anytime soon? No worries, the venerable British museum is letting anyone with a (Chrome) browser roam its galleries without the pesky crowds or security guards dampening the experience.

Just one catch: you can only do it in the dark. Starting tonight at 5 p.m. Eastern (10 p.m. London time), visitors around the globe can log on to the Tate After Dark website and explore the Tate Britain’s collection using internet-controlled robots. (Think Roomba with a webcam at eye level). The four robots — which were designed and engineered by the London-based consultants The Workers with help from space research firm RAL Space — let remote users explore five centuries worth of British art, ranging from Elizabethan portraiture to video works by Gilbert & George, currently on display.

“It’s about getting lost in the museum,” says Tommaso Lanza, who co-created the five-night interactive event, which runs through Sunday. “It’s also about fun.”

Each of the four robots has seven sonar sensors on board, an off-the-shelf webcam and a hardware encoder. The bots have no sense of direction, so it will be up to the users to navigate the dimly-lit space. “The whole point is that you control it,” using nothing but the arrow keys on your keyboard, says Lanza.

Even if you don’t get a chance to “drive,” you can still join in via a livestream on the Tate website here.

TIME cities

Mystery of Who Placed White Flags on the Brooklyn Bridge Solved

ODD Brooklyn Bridge Mystery Flags
A white flag flies atop the west tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, in New York City, on July 22, 2014 Richard Drew—AP

The culprits appear to have been German artists who are mystified by the reaction the act got in the U.S.

Two Berlin-based artists have taken credit — and provided evidence to back up their claim — for swapping out two giant American flags over the Brooklyn Bridge earlier this summer and replacing them with all-white versions.

After the flags suddenly appeared over the bridge on July 22, numerous people rushed to claim credit for the stunt. But German artists Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke have produced videos and pictures apparently taken from the Brooklyn Bridge that indicate they were, in fact, the culprits, the New York Times reports.

Many in New York City saw the flag stunt as a security breach, and embarrassed authorities rushed to launch an investigation. But Leinkauf and Wermke say they were shocked that the flags were perceived that way. Their actions weren’t supposed to be provocative, they said, but merely intended to celebrate “the beauty of public space.” They pulled off the caper on the anniversary of the 1869 death of John Roebling, the German engineer who built the bridge.

“We saw the bridge, which was designed by a German, trained in Berlin, who came to America because it was the place to fulfill his dreams, as the most beautiful expression of a great public space,” Leinkauf said. “That beauty was what we were trying to capture.”

The pair said that between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. on July 22 they carried the homemade white flags in backpacks while climbing the cables to the top of the bridge, where they replaced the American flags with the all-white versions. They did not see security cameras. They ceremonially folded the American flags, they said, and promise to return them.

[NYT]

TIME animals

Aspen Art Museum Facing Backlash for Exhibit Featuring Tortoises Wearing iPads

A Seychelles giant tortoise walks through its enclosure at the zoo in Duisburg, Germany, on March 31, 2014.
A Seychelles giant tortoise walks through its enclosure at the zoo in Duisburg, Germany, on March 31, 2014. Roland Weihrauch—AFP/Getty Images

“Since when is animal abuse art?” reads an online petition to stop the exhibit

The Aspen Art Museum in Colorado plans to celebrate the grand opening of its newest building on Saturday with an exhibit featuring tortoises with iPads strapped to their backs, but an online petition hopes to stop the installation in its tracks.

At the time of this post’s publication 1,181 people had signed the petition calling New York-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Moving Ghost Town” exhibit “animal abuse.”

“Since when is animal abuse art?” the Change.org petition reads. “We must all rise and stop this now!! There is no excuse for this!”

In the exhibit, three African Tortoises (who go by the names Big Bertha, Gracie Pink Star, and Whale Wanderer), wear iPads strapped to their shells, which flash images of Colorado “ghost towns.” The Denver Post, which reported this story earlier on Wednesday, says the animals are set to roam throughout a part of the museum during a 24-hour event on Saturday. The petition’s authors say the tortoises’ shells are sensitive to impact and they should not be forced to carry the weight of two iPads for entertainment’s sake.

The petitioners also worry the conditions of the turtles’ habitat aren’t comfortable for the animals.

“Please stop this unnecessary exploitation of animals now and do the right thing by getting these iPad of the Tortoises’ backs,” the authors write.

In a statement posted to their Facebook page, the museum argued that the exhibit was constructed with the help of a local veterinarian and the Turtle Conservancy. The use of the iPads was also cleared with the Conservancy, the museum said.

“I have worked with the staff from the Aspen Art Museum since the initial planning phase of the Cai Guo-Qiang project. Without question, the welfare of the tortoises has taken the highest priority in every stage of this exhibition,” veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Kremzier said in a statement. “In my professional opinion, the tortoises have adapted well to their new habitat, and the iPads have not interfered in any way with their natural behavior.”

The museum’s Facebook fans, however, aren’t buying it. “We don’t like this artwork… and to support keeping it is really bad taste,” reads one comment.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 4

1. Making the punishment fit the crime: A better way of calculating fines for the bad acts of big banks.

By Cathy O’Neill in Mathbabe

2. Lessons we can share: How three African countries made incredible progress in the fight against AIDS.

By Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times

3. Creative artists are turning to big data for inspiration — and a new window on our world.

By Charlie McCann in Prospect

4. We must give the sharing economy an opportunity to show its real potential.

By R.J. Lehmann in Reason

5. Technology investing has a gender problem, and it’s holding back innovation.

By Issie Lapowsky in Wired

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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