The Beautiful Future of Death: PredicTED by OZY

Death

Most of us will encounter mortality many times before we kick the bucket — be it at the funeral of a loved one or as we walk down a dreary hospital hallway. 

In this installment of PredicTED, we take you beyond grief and into what could be a beautiful world of death. How might we alter our funeral practices so that we may embrace balance while we’re alive? How might the living remember the dead? What will happen to our bodies and our minds? These TED speakers urge us to reimagine death. They argue we can begin to honor our lives all the way through — treating death as the summit rather than the inescapable end. 

How do you want to die?

Screw Gratitude! It’s Holding You Back.

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Everything is awesome! / Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” So goes the most nauseatingly peppy song of the 2014 animated hit The Lego Movie.

Of course everything isn’t awesome. In a plot that’s as much cultural critique as entertainment, the (Lego) protagonist stuffs his feelings deep down inside so that no matter what happens, everything is, well, awesome. Pretty dark for a kids’ movie — and stealthily relevant to parents: After all, they live in a society where thankfulness is the ultimate virtue. Being grateful is supposed to be a solution for everything from a bad night’s sleep to months of grief. To which we say … thanks, but no thanks. Screw gratitude. 

Today’s emphasis on gratitude is part of a massive “cultural movement involving positive psychology” and “strong cultural value on anything that’s positive and feeling positive,” says psychologist Julie Norem, who studies the benefits of pessimism. Studies that purport to empower people also signal that we’re the only ones standing in our own way. All we need to do is stop and smell the roses. While we’re all for thanking lucky stars, we refuse to do it while we’re standing in a pile of shit. 

Gratitude is a privilege for those without serious problems.

The stakes are higher than mere grousing. The thankfulness trend has an insidious dark side. Gratitude is not some magical good or even a neutral feeling; it’s hurting us. It erases a safe space to talk about negative feelings, or to address problems so that they might be fixed. Those who are depressed might feel pressured to cover up their malaise, until matters are dire. With the suicide rate in the U.S. skyrocketing — the highest in 30 years — maybe we should stop telling people they need to be thankful and start asking them what’s on their minds.

Then there’s the matter of privilege. Gratefulness does diddly-squat for a foster kid who’s been shuffled from home to home with little love and a whole lot of rejection. Gratefulness won’t help a woman get out of an emotionally or physically abusive relationship. Gratitude, in fact, is a privilege for those without serious problems. People in “low power” relationships need solutions that can help them change their situations in measurable ways. “What they need to do is to feel angry and empowered,” says Norem. And for people with anxiety, so-called defensive pessimism — focused negative thinking in which you think through negative outcomes and work backward — can help create focus and reduce stress. 

My problem with gratitude goes beyond the dire and depressed — and to people who should be aiming higher. The gratitude push colludes nicely with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” encouraging certain types (e.g., women) to be happy with what they get. No startup became a unicorn because its founder was satisfied with its first round. No athlete has won a Heisman for being thankful. 

Gratitude “tamps down the sense of hunger” and is “like a corporate regulator of employee demands,” says Rachel Bellow, principal at Mind + Matter Studio and co-host of the Big Payoff podcast. Women are particularly vulnerable to the thankfulness trap because “so many women walk around feeling like they’re too much — too fat, big, loud, needy.” We must be able to demand more: more money, more responsibility, more from our loved ones. We need to swap #blessed for #hustle, #drive and #demand. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t appreciate the good things in our lives. But thankfulness is not the endgame, it’s a starting point. Instead of five minutes of gratitude a day, try spending five minutes a day visualizing what it is you want to kick ass for and how you’re going to get it. Maybe then you’ll really have something to be thankful for.

Do you think my attitude about gratitude is insufferable? Or are you grateful for my honesty? Let me know in the comments. Thank you.

When the Beatles Took on Japan’s Right Wing

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Beatlemania was at its peak. It was 1966 — the last year the Fab Four would tour — and the group was so popular that it had to flee a mob after turning down an invite to perform for the first lady of the Philippines. That same year, the band defied a Ku Klux Klan threat and rocked Memphis, Tennessee.

The Beatles had just recorded the rather complex Revolver, but as the Liverpudlians made their way through Asia and America that year, audiences still clung to the easy tunes on Help! and Rubber Soul.  “In the summer of ’66, there were really two Beatles,” says John Covach, professor of music at the University of Rochester. “There were the Beatles that we know from Sgt. Pepper’s, the hippie Beatles, the ones that did music that was more interesting to college students and artsy types.” And then there were the Beatles who appealed to pop-loving, screaming girls. As they straddled both identities, the Beatles arrived in one of the countries that has consistently, occasionally absurdly memorialized them ever since: Japan. 

Half a century ago, the Beatles were scheduled to play five shows in Tokyo. Like almost everywhere else the four performed, they encountered crotchety old people and young people practically jumping out of their skin with joy. In this case, the annoyed elders were postwar right-wingers, frustrated that the band was set to play the Nippon Budokan, an arena in the Imperial Palace’s backyard designed for staging traditional martial arts. 

Built just two years before, as part of the 1964 Summer Olympics, the Budokan emerged when the wartime ashes of humiliation and destruction were still fresh in everyone’s mind. Its creators never dreamed it would be used to host the frivolities of a mop-top-shaking boy band from England. Which explains why then–Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, a man who came into adulthood during the war and was the state minister in charge of the Olympics, found it fruitful to bash the foreign group. Sato, who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on disarmament and become a symbol of Japan’s confused postwar relationship with the rest of the world, was not confused about the Beatles: They were inappropriate for the Budokan, he declared. “I mean, seriously,” Covach explains, “it was like this holy venue, and here come these teen Beatles.”

This was not Manila, though, where a tiff with the political leadership would send the Beatles scurrying to the airport without state protection. In Japan, 35,000 cops lined the streets, according to local reports from the time. The result of all the security was best witnessed at the concerts: People yelled and cried, Covach says, but the relative quiet stood out compared with everywhere else the Beatles had performed, where fans couldn’t hear entire stretches of the show over their own screaming. In Tokyo, security made it feel like a “school assembly,” Covach says, with guards telling people to return to their seats if they got too lively. It was so tame, in fact, that Covach compares it to a 1964 Beatles concert in Paris, where the audience appeared in tuxedos as if they were attending the opera. 

Today, people might not get weepy over the Beatles, but that doesn’t mean their first jaunt into the country is forgotten, says Akitsugu Kawamoto, music professor at Ferris University in Yokohama. It was just the beginning of the love affair between the band’s members and Japan. In ’66, Lennon had yet to meet Yoko; McCartney hadn’t been arrested for possessing marijuana — that would come 14 years later, when he played Japan with Wings. These days, you can still find Beatles cover bands playing Tokyo’s Cavern Club, a joint named for the Liverpool bar where the boys got their start.

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The Fab Four at the Budokan.

Source Getty

And you can still hear strains of the band in modern pop music, Kawamoto says. Before the Beatles, Japanese groups were mimicking Elvis and Pat Boone. Post-Beatles, the cultural affinity for precise imitation turned toward the group’s more complex melodies. Kawamoto traces the Beatles’ sound through the “Group Sounds” era of the ’60s and the arrival of J-pop in the 1990s, a genre that continues to dominate. (He suggests taking a listen to the four-man J-pop band Mr. Children for a whiff of the Fab Four.)

That’s not the only way the Beatles’ summer jaunt through Japan 50 years ago continues to echo today. For one, Sato was current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s great-uncle. And the Olympics are once again fresh in the mind of the Japanese as they gear up to host the 2020 Games.

The debates about the Beatles playing at the Budokan, where everyone from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton to Beyoncé have since played, are long forgotten. On a sunny summer day, the crowds gather outside, giggling and quaking in anticipation of another group: Morning Musume ’16, a gaggle of J-pop girls, is about to hit the stage.

The Grandmothers Murder Club

Grandmothers murder club

The Oscars come, the Oscars go, and along with them, discussions about inclusion and inclusiveness. Maybe midyear, The Hollywood Reporter does a roundtable about who gets cast and by whom, and while this is happening? Someone just comes along and does it without making a big deal about having done it.

Grandmothers murder club

Some seriously savage seniors.

Source Courtesy of GMC Team

“Yeah, so we got Florence Henderson and Pam Grier to agree to be in it, which was a big deal for us,” director Srikant Chellappa says about a fact that is also a big deal for anyone over 40 who ever owned a TV. Because when you’re talking about the pairing of Henderson — America’s Mom, the distaff head of the irrepressible band of cutups called The Brady Bunch — and Grier — star of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, cast mostly on the supersexy strength of the run of blaxploitation flicks that saw her shoot her way through the ’70s — the casting is cutting all kinds of ways to Sunday.

Older actresses who once seemed to be polar opposites playing action parts in a dark comedy that’s equal parts Coen Brothers and Arsenic and Old Lace and has them killing cash-carrying con men? We’re in.

I started thinking, ‘What if all of those grandmothers were murderers and nobody knew anything about it?’

Srikant Chellappa

And indeed Tarantino codified it in a cool way when he took the seemingly past-his-prime John Travolta and huffed big breaths of life back into a career that was all but dead with a prime spot in Pulp Fiction. For Chellappa, though, an indie filmmaker who hails from New Delhi and now lives well off the beaten media path in St. Louis, it was less about some sort of calculation and much more about the right people for the right roles. 

 

“I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and some of her friends,” Chellappa says while wolfing down a late breakfast. “And later, when I was leaving, I started thinking, ‘What if all of those grandmothers were murderers and nobody knew anything about it?’ ” Though we’re unsure what this says about his relationship with his in-laws, we know the screenplay that crawled out of his musings two weeks later couldn’t have starred Jennifer Lawrence. And Chellappa, whose past films (as a cowriter or producer) have been distributed in more than 60 countries, picked up by 20th Century Fox and broadcast on Showtime and Netflix, figured it couldn’t hurt to ask Henderson and Grier.

With principal production wrapped, in January Chellappa leapt into the Kickstarter breach, partly to get his hands on cash to complete postproduction and close out the music rights and partly just to do full-on guerrilla marketing, and asked for $20,000. Two months later, with $20,159 in pocket, Chellappa is gallivanting around town with a trailer that he’s hoping will get picked up for distribution before the year is out.

“Getting the movie made, even as hard as it is, is really just the tip,” says indie L.A. writer and filmmaker Mike Horelick, whose claim to fame was a movie called Mob Queen, about a Mafia boss and his transgender girlfriend that starred a gang of guys from The Sopranos. “But he’s got so many ways to distribute now, this could easily kill without him touching foot at a studio.”

“I just wanted to do something dark and funny, and working with Florence and Pam, well, I couldn’t have asked for much more,” Chellappa says. And after watching the highly droll trailer three times straight, we must widely concur. 

Why America’s Space Renaissance Starts in Oklahoma

Space symposium

This story is part of a multipart series about under-the-radar campaign issues.

Jim Bridenstine’s journey to space began in the dusty plains of Oklahoma. Picking his way through the wreckage left by a horrific tornado that had killed dozens days before, Bridenstine was stunned. Elementary schools and neighborhoods had been “absolutely eliminated,” as the battle-tested Navy Reserve pilot described the scene later. Water spewed from shattered pipes and onto the street as he wondered what a newbie U.S. congressman like himself could possibly do in the face of such lethal force: “Who would have thought there was that much power in a tornado?” 

The answer to that internal struggle is why Bridenstine sits here in his Washington, D.C., office three years later, his desk cluttered with science and technology magazines. The legislator recently proposed the American Space Renaissance Act, the most starry-eyed package since the days of John F. Kennedy. “He’s very smart on these issues,” says the Planetary Institute’s director of space policy, Casey Dreier, who calls Bridenstine a “force going forward.” Even in this petty election cycle, where politics is much more terrestrial, the Republican has gotten attention. “Jim Bridenstine is a rock star,” Ted Cruz posted on Facebook soon after ending his presidential bid. “You could not have a stronger, more principled, more effective conservative fighter in Congress.”

Space is a national security issue.

Jim Bridenstine

When Bridenstine took a seat on both the House Committee on Armed Service and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology shortly after assuming office for Oklahoma’s 1st District in 2013, he was hoping to use satellite tech to better predict the kind of storms that ravaged his state. But since taking the post, Bridenstine has expanded his horizons and crafted a far more ambitious plan for the next frontier. “Friends, this is our Sputnik moment,” the Donald Rumsfeld admirer said in a speech to the 32nd Space Symposium in April. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation.” But at a time when even infamously lofty-aired presidential candidates are cautioning that our focus must be more earthbound, can Bridenstine usher in his galactic revolution?

 

The first thing to know: Bridenstine doesn’t enjoy speaking in sound bites, although he’s had quippy moments, like the time he infuriated Democrats by saying Oklahoma would “accept the president’s apology” for spending “30 times” as much on global warming research as weather forecasting, a claim PolitiFact later rated as “Mostly False.” (Bridenstine’s office says the data PolitiFact included was not relevant to the topic he addressed.) No, the Cornell grad and Rice University triple-major student (econ-biz-psych) has a mathematical approach to discourse, where breaking off the equation early is to invite errors. 

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Former Hawkeye pilot, left, at the House GOP leadership elections.

Source Bill Clark/Getty

“Space is a national security issue,” Bridenstine says, and with rapid-fire certainty he lays out (in 20 virtually uninterrupted minutes) the stakes should America fail to keep its gaze on the heavens. The SparkNotes version: Consider that seemingly everything today uses a GPS signal, whether it’s your iPhone, your gas pump or even your ATM. Now imagine if Russia or China decided to blow that all out of the sky with antisatellite missiles, weaponry both countries are “developing,” Bridenstine says — and in 2007 China acknowledged that it shot down one of its own satellites but said it was not in a show of force.

Bridenstine’s solution? Diversify. The idea plays to both his fanboy conservatism and strategic military background, where he flew E-2C Hawkeyes in Central and South America while waging the War on Drugs. “We don’t want to be dependent on a few multi-billion dollar satellites,” Bridenstine says, insisting that public-private partnerships with commercial-data gatherers would make it harder to cripple American space systems in the event of an attack. Scientists could also use that data to nail down weather forecasts and climate trends, bringing home Bridenstine’s original intent to “move to a day where there are zero deaths from tornadoes.” And it all comes at a discount too, he says, noting that satellite businesses wouldn’t rely just on fed dollars; they would be in competition for contracts, bringing prices down and sharing the cost.

Even with the discount, it’s that cost that has some balking. Sure, it would be nice to pave space, but first we have to mend our roads, the thinking goes. “Right now, we have bigger problems,” Donald Trump told a 10-year-old boy who asked about NASA during a town hall last year. “We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has said she “really really” supports the space program, but experts say it’s unlikely that she’ll add significantly to NASA spending, which has languished at about half a percent of the federal budget ever since her husband’s days.

More cynically, critics suggest Bridenstine’s focus on weather forecasting over climate research reflects less his concern for the public and more his publicly stated skepticism of global warming, in addition to his deep ties to the energy sector. The oil and gas industry was his biggest bankroller in 2014, donating $62,000 to his reelection campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org. Both his chief of staff and comms director, Joe and Sheryl Kaufman, were previously energy pros at ConocoPhillips and Phillips Petroleum, respectively. For her part, Kaufman says, “The energy industry is critical to the Oklahoma economy, and Congressman Bridenstine won’t apologize for supporting it.” And when asked by OZY if he’s influenced by those connections, Bridenstine says, “Absolutely not. There are people who donate to me because they believe in what I’m doing; the last thing I do is vote to appease anybody.” 

In hyperpartisan Washington, even space can become a political land mine, which takes some creative maneuvering from Bridenstine. He introduced the American Space Renaissance Act knowing “full well that getting it passed wasn’t in the cards.” The goal? Find out which of his ambitious platforms — such as giving NASA directors longer terms or authorizing millions for new satellite launches — could have broad appeal before filtering them into other bills. While his strategy isn’t flashy (his name won’t headline the final doc), it’s previously been pretty effective. Ten of Bridenstine’s ASRA provisions were passed in May as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Mission accomplished.

Don’t Let Old People Vote!

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Sixteen years. That’s how much longer the average British voter aged 65 and older will live, according to one analysis, which means that’s how long they’ll have to live with the outcome of last week’s Brexit referendum. Since older voters are estimated to have turned out in huge numbers — and voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union — Britain’s graying generation is partly responsible for the biggest drop in the pound in decades, for the uncertainty in lives of millions of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, and for bringing to power a group of conservative politicians who trafficked in racist rhetoric and outright lies to win. 

There’s a decent argument to be made for denying suffrage to anyone old enough to collect Social Security.

So why do we even let old people vote? After all, there are minimum voting ages — 16- and 17-year-olds fought for the chance to vote in the EU referendum and were denied. Had that 1.46-million-member voting bloc been allowed to contribute, it would likely have swung the vote for “Remain” — 82 percent of them said they’d have voted to stay in the EU. When Scotland voted on its independence in 2014, 16- and 17-year-olds were given a vote, under the logic that it was their future being irrevocably altered. There’s a decent argument to be made for denying suffrage to anyone old enough to collect Social Security. Most are no longer working or raising children. Why should they create the future when they won’t be around to deal with the consequences?

Pragmatic, the idea is not. It’s hard to imagine any legislator introducing such a bill (we hear you, AARP!), or, for that matter, a court diluting or limiting the power of an older-person bloc. For starters, doing so would blatantly violate the U.S. Constitution, points out voting rights expert Nathan Persily: The 26th Amendment declares that voting cannot be “denied or abridged” on account of age, so long as the voter is 18 or older. And apart from that, such a proposal is mean and disrespectful; not all older people are shortsighted (we love you, Mom and Dad!). It also sounds a bit like millennial grousing. Instead of trying to dilute the power of an older voting bloc, why can’t young people turn out in greater numbers? Get thee to the polls, young people! 

Outlandish though the idea of restricting the suffrage of elders is, a reasonable argument does exist that “there is bias against the youth vote in the system as currently constituted,” says Persily. Younger people tend to be more transient than older ones. Not necessarily in a bad way, mind you. Some are attending college and working summer jobs. Others are moving from job to job, or house to house, or partner to partner, in an effort to get settled and put down roots. Mobility, it turns out, is an important predictor of voter registration, and because young people move more, fewer are registered. Indeed, sometimes localities try to dilute the influence of college students by scheduling elections in the summer. 

So why not make voting registration easier? In most countries, Persily says, voter registration is a state responsibility and the default status of citizens is “registered.” Most jurisdictions in the U.S., on the other hand, put the burden on its citizens to register. In 2012, the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that 51 million eligible voters were not registered, a whopping 24 percent of the eligible population. A disproportionate number of those were young people. 

Automatic voter registration is changing this fact — but in the meantime, consider this: Americans don’t get to vote in Mexican elections, and Canadians don’t get a say in who leads France, or whether France remains in the EU, or whether Paris’ arrondissements should be redistricted. The future is a country, and if you’re not going to be there, don’t expect to get to govern it. 

 — Pooja Bhatia contributed reporting to this story. 

A Storm More Violent Than Brexit

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He thought it was just a dream, his being lifted by a force so great that he levitated. But then he snapped awake, finding himself on his bed and in the street, looking up through a gaping hole in the bedroom ceiling. The man, identified only as Mr. Hempson, had been propelled out of his slumber by one of the most violent storms to hit Britain in living memory.

The extreme cyclone’s winds reached 80 miles per hour, tearing across central and southern England on Nov. 26, 1703, and ripping up everything in its path. It killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people, many of whom drowned, along with thousands of cattle and sheep. It flattened 2,000 chimney stacks, crushed church steeples and lifted the lead roofing off London’s Westminster Abbey as if it were paper. Mr. Hempson, who was staying at Bell Savage Inn, in central London, was one of the lucky few to survive the night’s terror. He was, after all, “an accident worthy of remembrance,” according to An Exact Relation of the Late Dreadful Tempest, a collection of eyewitness accounts of the storm. Mr. Hempson had avoided “the eminent danger the Hand of Heaven has preserved him from, when nothing but Death was to be expected.” 

It was a perfect storm of very high pressure centered over England, similar to an average tropical hurricane.

Patrick Nobbs

For two weeks, there had been warnings overhead. A deep purple-gray sky darkened London, and there was atmospheric grumbling and moaning as winds roared, causing a localized storm just the week before. But that night, as the clock approached midnight, something was different: The wind shrieked, homes rattled and approaching gusts “sounded like deep, booming thunder, striking terror into the hearts of all who heard them,” wrote Daniel Defoe in The Storm, which documents about 60 individual accounts of the disaster and is widely regarded as one of the first examples of modern journalism.

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Talk about some rough seas.

Source Public Domain

At around 2 a.m., the storm unleashed its full fury, and multiple tornadoes circled London and southern England, causing mass devastation. Ships were blown hundreds of miles off-course, with several ending up as far away as Norway. “It was a perfect storm centered over England, similar to an average tropical hurricane,” says Patrick Nobbs, author of The Story of the British and Their Weather, a 6,000-year history of Britain’s weather. The sheer number killed exceeds even that of Hurricane Katrina, one of the five biggest storms in U.S. history, which took an estimated 1,836 lives, and it’s been only marginally matched by a widely unexpected storm in Britain in 1987, which caused close to $17 billion worth of damage in today’s currency, but resulted in just 22 deaths. The Great Storm of 1703’s equivalent fatalities today would be a whopping quarter of a million. “It’s so far from anything we’ve experienced since, and so far from what was probably experienced in written records before, that it stands out as the most extreme storm,” Nobbs says.

 

But for the thousands who saw a quite literal rain cloud hanging over them, this was God’s judgment. An undertone of superstition and fear runs through many of the eyewitness accounts, with Defoe including a quote from the Book of Nahum on the title page of The Storm: “The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind, and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.” Many writers of the time understood the storm as a “providential storm, akin to the whirlwind with which God once punished the people of Judea,” writes Alexandra Harris, in Weatherland: Writer & Artists Under English Skies. Poet Anne Finch described the storm with a multitude of biblical metaphors. “[Finch’s] wind is a prowling sleuth, uncovering iniquity, throwing down walls to find inhabitants in various compromising positions,” Harris writes. “There are ‘men in wine, or looser pleasures drown’d,’ who reel in drunken giddiness as their mansions fall.”

A few philosophers — what were called scientists at the time — saw reasons beyond religion for the weather. For all the scientific advancements of the era, including the naming of gases and human organs, and developments in the fields of geology and botany, the sky was the last part of nature to be classified, says Peter Moore, author of The Weather Experiment, an account of the meteorologists who decoded the skies with observation and measurement. “The sky is seen as the last realm of chaos,” he says. “If a storm is over your head, it looks like it’s centered on you, and people interpreted [it] that way.”

It wasn’t until the invention of the electric telegraph in 1835 that the modern age of weather forecasting began and reports of weather conditions from a wide area could be received almost instantaneously. Yet history has shown that despite humanity’s best efforts, atmospheric changes remain hard to predict.

The Song I Listened to a Thousand Times and Still Like

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Some years back, I traversed the American Southwest in a tour bus with acrobats, contortionists and variety-show performers. Elements of this might sound appealing, but it was undeniably one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. Whatever puerile visions I’d had of life as a roadie melted away somewhere along the road from nowhere to nowhere; sipping as I was, birdlike, from a coffee that would both sustain me for the death march ahead but also lead me to suffer the indignities of the bus bathroom.

“Work aids” were dispersed widely to smooth out the rough patches. But they soon had quite the opposite effect and became a commodity more prized than self-respect, or even life itself. The line between functional human being and walking, sometimes talking, skin-bag of organs got thin.

We’d been rehearsing for several weeks — each performer had individual choreography set to an audio track — so by the time we reached New Mexico, everyone had been subjected to the same 10-song playlist for close to a month. I’d heard Purity Ring’s “Bodyache” (I’d say “listened to,” but that implies choice) something like 400 times in three and a half weeks. And yet, though I hated almost everything in the world at that time, from the chills I’d get touching the fake-velvet bus seat upholstery to the very sound of my own breathing, I did not hate “Bodyache.”

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“Why are elves telling me to set the bus on fire?”

Source Courtesy of Purity Ring

Hailing from Edmonton, a city described by two Canadian friends as hands-down “the shittiest in Canada,” Purity Ring make emotionally earnest synth-pop that falls somewhere in the Beach House–Kraftwerk–Vengaboys Venn diagram. The songs are generously peppered with chilling, misery-inducing minor-chord progressions flitting beneath vocals that conjure images of a small female robot trying and largely failing to experience real human emotions — the end result of, say, Vicki, the house-cleaning cyborg from Small Wonder, spending 1985 in a windowless German leather bar and resurfacing to start a band with a friend in her garage.

As I was riding across a desolate landscape, sleep-deprived, drained of feeling, sick with visions of a fiery crash or terrible, Flying Wallendas–style accident, “Bodyache,” and the rest of Purity Ring’s excellent Another Eternity, seemed a perfect audio distillation of the entire tour experience: Am I a robot? Will I feel again? Why are elves telling me to set the bus on fire?

But like all things, the job ended. I emerged more or less whole. And a few weeks ago, I found myself engaged in a strange kind of Stanislavskian real-life sense-memory exercise in the iTunes store. I bought Another Eternity because I needed to feel what not feeling felt like.

All you need is 9.99 and a major credit card.

The Next Artist Who’s About to Get Kicked Out of China

Lu yang by ka 5a s

An artist’s self-portrait: stuffy, vain, easy on the eye. Right? Not for Lu Yang, a scrappy 31-year-old new-media artist based in China. In a computer rendering of herself, Lu is naked and genderless, with electrodes jabbing at her brain like a lab rat. Then comes her callous death, her convulsing body slowly sliding into the charred furnace of a gaping MRI machine.

Lu is no stranger to stirring up strife with her provocative videos and unsettling animations. “Revived Zombie Frogs Underwater Ballet” is exactly what it sounds like — Lu sends electric shocks to dissected frogs to make them dance as they hover in water. Her latest pieces include both a massive floating kite of her head and an animation of her charred corpse flailing about in flames. And for good measure, “Uterus Man” rides a zooming pelvis chariot and flies like Iron Man by shooting blood out of his vagina — not just weird, but explicitly taboo. Clearly, Lu doesn’t do hoity-toity. Instead, she dabbles and dives into thorny themes from biology, neurology and religion, some stuff that, she says, is “too hard-core” for China. As an artist, Lu isn’t just messing around with medium and form; she’s engaging in a struggle against a kind of cultural straightjacket in China that discourages people from openly and honestly broaching these topics.

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Lu Yang in the flesh.

Source Ka XiaoXi

Death and doom aside, Lu is alive and well as she escorts me up to the tenth floor of her dingy apartment building in Beijing. Her art studio is filled to the brim with the canvas of her choice — four massive computer monitors — and she greets me in plaid pajamas and pink slippers, carrying none of the frill from her formal training at the China Academy of Art. But don’t let the nonchalance fool you: She just woke up after an all-night binge of editing on Adobe Illustrator, BodyPaint 3D and Maya. Lu has gained acclaim through several solo exhibitions worldwide and earned the respect of celebrity Chinese artists like Yao Dajuin and Wang Changcun. Back in school, she honed her artistic chops under the tutelage of Zhang Peili, the “father of video art” in China, and just last year, Lu attended the famed Venice Art Biennale. “She’s without a doubt one of the bright lights,” says Martin Kemble, founder of Art Labor, a contemporary arts gallery in Shanghai.

 

If Lu’s work had to be classified, it would go under WTF. The art scene has come a long way in China. During the Cultural Revolution, talented artists were suppressed and banished to the countryside throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Some continued painting or drawing, but only at the government’s behest to disseminate propaganda or mobilize political opinion, much like artists and musicians in Nazi Germany. Fast forward to the present, the communist country still imprisons a handful of dissident artists or shuts down their art exhibitions — Ai Weiwei, China’s most renowned visual artist, languished in prison for nearly three months and under house arrest for four more years. So, how did such an out-there artist like Lu manage to dodge the ire of China’s iron fist? Well, her answer is simple: “I’m totally uninterested in politics,” she says matter-of-factly. By staying away from politics, she avoids the treacherous path of imprisonment and condemnation that China has imposed on renegade artists like Ai Weiwei. 

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Lu Yang’s self-portrait is all doom and gloom.

Source Courtesy of Lu Yang

Lu deeply “explores the meaning of life as well as questions its very existence,” says Wang Wan, with the Beijing Commune, the gallery that represents Lu. But Lu never broaches the legitimacy of the ruling communist party, unlike other contemporary artists. She pays little heed to her own Chinese identity and often borrows from Japanese anime, western horror films and science fiction as her main muses, rather than drawing from her local experiences of growing up in Shanghai. “I’m not a Chinese artist, just an artist who happens to be from China,” she says. Moreover, with a national five-year plan to erect more museums and nurture a burgeoning arts scene underway, her unconventional flair is probably not what China’s stuffy art elite had in mind. She doesn’t even like museums, “because I don’t understand a lot of the works,” she says, without pretense.

But I’m afraid of her. Every artist has their critics, but Lu doesn’t shy away from the controversy — she thrives on it, and it consumes her. When I leave her studio, she disappears behind her four huge monitors, embracing the darkness. While her art is an arresting sight, some still question the depth of her work. She’s grappling with meaty topics — the ethics of torture, gender fluidity, life and death — in which she is self-taught with scant formal education. Intellectually, it all needs to be explored on a deeper level, says Kemble, from Art Labor: “She’s just surfing the net grabbing things” and repackaging them for mass consumption. But Lu says she put in the time — going in and out of hospital emergency rooms for asthma attacks as a child and becoming hooked on the philosophy of medicine ever since. Like a surgeon, she approaches her work with the same precision and cold objectivity. “No one is willing to talk about these topics in China, but I am not afraid of them,” she says.

This is the fourth story in an OZY special series on “The Lady Bosses of China” resisting communist rule. Video by Melanie Ruiz.