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How art and design can rebuild a community
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
The work consisted of 20,000 small green plexiglass squares, with intricate holes cut in each one, depicting vanished or endangered pieces of global cultural heritage, including buildings, monuments, and sculptures. Attached to fencing about 40 feet high, the squares collectively formed an image of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra, Syria, an ancient treasure destroyed by fundamentalists in 2015.
Lit up at night or shimmering in daytime, this installation — the “Memory Matrix" — was a powerful reminder of the fragility of our cultural creations in the face of conflict and strife. But it also represented human resilience and the strength of collaboration: About 700 people helped construct it, including MIT community members from 11 different departments and programs, and participants from Egypt and Jordan.
“That project was amazing, because of the solidarity-building it created across campus and internationally," says MIT Associate Professor Azra Akšamija, who created the idea for the installation.
Akšamija is an uncommonly versatile artist, architect, and scholar whose work explores cultural identity and conflict. Her own career exemplifies resilience: Akšamija experienced displacement as a Bosnian Muslim whose family left in the early 1990s to escape the war at home. Having spent much of her life in Austria, the United States, and Germany, her work frequently explores encounters between Islam and the West.
Among other distinctions, Akšamija was given the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for her design of a prayer space's symbolic elements, at Austria's first-ever Muslim cemetery, in Altach (the cemetery itself was designed by Bernardo Bader). Some of her best-known designs are wearable art, including her "Frontier Vest" from 2006, a garment that works as a jacket for refugees and can be transformed into a Jewish prayer shawl or an Islamic prayer rug. Akšamija has detailed many of her ideas in a 2015 book, "Mosque Manifesto — Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence."
She has also been a program-builder at MIT, founding the Future Heritage Lab (FHL), which focuses on cultural preservation. At the Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, FHL members, along with their partners at German-Jordanian University, have helped Syrian refugees document their lives through photography, design, and poetry; the work was displayed at the 2017 Amman Design Week.
Over the past three years, camp residents, FHL members, and MIT students have developed a book about refugee inventions, which will be used in MIT's first design studio-based online course, "Design and Scarcity" (co-taught by Akšamija and FHL program director Melina Philippou). The book will also be translated for the camp and the wider region.
The Al Azraq camp refugees, Akšamija says, "design artifacts that are partly utilitarian, but are about preserving human dignity and memory, and keeping the feeling of who you are. It's powerful."
"Making things since I could think"
Akšamija grew up in Sarajevo, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of her grandfathers was an accomplished architect who had studied in Prague and, she says, "brought Czech modernism back to Bosnia." Design grabbed Akšamija's interest from a young age.
"I have been making things since I could think about myself," Akšamija says. "As a child I was completely obsessed with drawing and sculpture, which I would do for hours. Also, to get out of my piano lessons, I would make these plasticine sculptures and then display them on the piano, to distract the piano teacher."
At the time, Sarajevo was part of the larger republic of Yugoslavia. But in 1992, after war broke out in the Balkans, Akšamija and her family moved to Germany, then Austria, to escape the conflict. As an undergraduate, Akšamija studied architecture at the Graz University of Technology. Still, she says, the university "had these awesome art classes," and she wanted to incorporate art into her career.
Akšamija attended graduate school at Princeton University, receiving her MArch in 2004, while becoming active artistically; by 2004, her work had been displayed in high-profile institutions and exhibitions in Vienna, Valencia, Leipzig, and Liverpool. Joining MIT's PhD program in the history and theory of architecture, Akšamija continued to create art; in addition to "Frontier Vest," she produced noted works such as "Survival Mosque" (2005), a wearable and portable mosque equipped with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, earplugs (to block out the insults Muslims might hear), books, and more. Soon her work was exhibited in major art museums in London, New York, and Berlin.
Some of Akšamija's projects from this period went in novel directions. With nine other artists and architects, Akšamija co-curated the "Lost Highway Expedition" in 2006, a trek in which 300 people walked the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity that connects the capitals of the former Yugoslavia.
"After the war I had thought, 'I'm never going to Serbia again in my life,'" Akšamija says. However, for the trek, "we had events in cities and you had to find your own way, you had to make friends. And this is the way I went for the first time to the territories my country had the war with." Though the project was challenging, she says, "It was important to start discussing difficult topics. It doesn't mean they're fully resolved. Unfortunately, there are still many people denying that genocide happened in Bosnia."
For her dissertation, working with MIT professors Nasser Rabbat and Caroline Jones, as well as Harvard University's András Riedlmayer, Akšamija looked at the systematic targeting of cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war, examining how Bosnian Muslims restored mosques that had been destroyed.
"These buildings were attacked because nationalists wanted to revise history and alienate people to an extent that they would never want to live together in the future," Akšamija says.
The questions driving her research apply anywhere, Akšamija says. "From the Balkans we can learn important lessons about how we live in spaces of fragmented commons. When that falls apart, how do you reconnect? What kinds of cultural institutions do we need to bridge divides and hold governments accountable? It is relevant globally. Who has the right to write their history, to be visible in public space, and who decides those things?"
After joining the MIT faculty, Akšamija earned tenure in 2019.
At MIT, Akšamija has found it gratifying to see students gravitate to her classes, to projects like "Memory Matrix," and to the Future Heritage Lab.
"MIT students care," Akšamija says. "They really want to do something to contribute to this world. This place is so inspiring."
At the same time, she notes, the Institute can be an intense academic setting, and instructors need to help sustain the sheer enjoyment of learning.
"You [can] lose sight of why you started doing things and what initially drew you to them, and it can be overwhelming," Akšamija says. "You see it with students. I like to create joy in things, especially in classes. That's why it's so amazing to teach here, because the students are so full of enthusiasm and joy. But also sometimes anxiety, and I think we all have responsibility here as teachers to take care of that. It's not about students performing for someone else, but becoming better versions of themselves."
Akšamija calls the current direction of her research "Performative Preservation." This is an approach to cultural preservation that uses "methods of contemporary arts and participatory art." She emphasizes that participation and co-creation are crucial to cultural restoration; physical structures can be rebuilt, but they will lack meaning without community involvement.
Her work is now on view at the Gallery for Contemporary Art, in Leipzig, Germany, and at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, with a new work slated for the 17th International Architecture Exhibition for the Venice Biennale, in May 2021. Curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, the Biennale's theme is "How Will We Live Together?" Akšamija's project, "Silk Road Works," a symbolic construction site for a pluralist society, will be part of a section at the Arsenale titled, "Among Diverse Beings."
As always, Akšamija hopes for a thoughtful response from her audience, without knowing exactly what that will be.
"When you work in public space, it's not about finding a consensus, where we all have the same opinion and are happily living together," Akšamija says. "It's about accepting and coming to terms with conflicting attitudes and ideas, and making space for them."
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.