PopTech Blog

Eco IQ's, Violas, Mammoths, and Genes that "Seek and Destroy": A PopTech Salon

Last night at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, PopTech brought together four speakers, a performer, and a lively and engaged audience for a PopTech Salon on Science, Living Systems, and the Edge of Change.

Sound Check Salon
Behind the scenes at the House of Sweden before the Science, Living Systems & The Edge of Change salon in Washington, DC. Photography by Kris Krug

Right now our nation and our planet face unprecedented challenges, and the sciences have a more important role to play in society than ever before. As a result PopTech has made a commitment to the sciences through a variety of new programs, including last night’s science salon.

Each of the speakers in attendance is involved in work that has profound implications for positive social change in areas ranging from conservation to medicine; social networking to environmental cleanup, and each had big, actionable ideas to present.

Beth Shapiro is a geneticist who is shedding new light on how species respond to environmental change. She suggested that climate change is key to understanding species extinction, but also concluded that humans themselves share responsibility for much of the most recent extinctions. Beth gathers DNA from mammoth bones to do her research

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro. Photography by Kris Krug

Justin Gallivan is a biochemist who “reprograms” genes to “seek and destroy” toxic herbicides. Justin’s work has huge implications for controlling gene expression.

Justin Gallivan
Justin Gallivan. Photography by Kris Krug

H. Sebastian Seung is a neuroscientist who is helping computers see the connections between the brain’s neurons. Sebastian introduced the concept of connectomes— the mapping of all neurons in the human brain— as the core to understanding what it means to be human. As he put it, there are millions of miles of wires inside your brain— “plenty of opportunity for mistakes.”

H. Sebastian Seung
H. Sebastian Seung. Photography by Kris Krug

Yasser Ansari uses mobile technology for wildlife exploration, and is bringing citizen science to the masses through Project Noah. Project Noah is designed to “boost our ecoIQs” and our knowledge of the wildlife that surrounds us.

Yasser Ansari
Yasser Ansari. Photography by Kris Krug

Christen Lien, is a “viola artist” whose music has been described as "ethereal and otherworldly; a bridge to the divine. “It’s not a violin; it’s a viola!” Christen opened and closed the PopTech Salon with two beautiful dreamlike pieces. Sublime.

Christen Lien
Christen Lien. Photography by Kris Krug

Both audience and speakers alike enjoyed conversing and relaxing together.

Question DC

Q and A

Photography by Kris Krug

During the day, PopTech videotaped several speakers and participants. (Huge thanks for NSF for providing us with our amazing crew, Cliff Braverman and Steve McNally)

NSF Filming in DC
Photography by Kris Krug

Look for more about last night’s salon over the upcoming days. Thanks to to the speakers and participants who participated in this extraordinary night! Special thanks to Intel and the NSF for their sponsorship of this event.

For more images of the salon by Kris Krug visit our Science, Living Systems & The Edge of Change set on flickr. If you have any of your own images, share them in the PopTech flickr pool.

This Week in PopTech: OK Go, Auditory Collages, Ultragreen Packaging


  • We are over the moon to announce OK Go as our first performers for PopTech 2010. OK Go just released their latest music video — we know this one’s going viral.
    WATCH: End Love
  • We released videos from the Chicago Salon that present ideas about how networked mapping and the innovative application of multiple technologies can more deeply reveal the dynamics of problems as well as drive social change.
    READ AND WATCH: Visualizing Data to Drive Social Change
  • We loved this quote by Joel Garreau: “Innovative cultures have in them fables of ‘honorable failure.’ — knowing losing as winning.”

Get Involved!

  • Do you live in the DC area? There are a few tickets left for our PopTech Salon in Washington, DC, which will feature three scientists at the cutting edge of potentially world-changing discoveries. The event is free but space is limited.
  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our Newsletter and subscribe to us here on the PopTech Blog.

Announcing OK Go at PopTech 2010

Photo credit: Edwin Roses

We are incredibly excited to announce that OK Go is performing at the PopTech 2010 Conference in October!

If you haven’t yet seen the band’s incredibly innovative videos — from their Grammy Award-winning “Here It Goes Again” to the amazing Rube Goldberg machine built for “This Too Shall Pass” — check them out. We can’t even imagine what these guys will cook up for the PopTech Conference. You won’t want to miss it.

Check out their new, just-released video, “End Love.”

Register today for PopTech 2010.

Visualizing Data to Drive Social Change

Several weeks ago, PopTech held a Chicago salon that focused on social mapping, and the ability to leverage networked technologies and old-fashioned communication alike to express local knowledge and perceptions as well as economic data and other figures that are often otherwise practically inaccessible to citizens.

Two of the featured speakers offered ideas about how networked mapping and the innovative application of multiple technologies can more deeply reveal the dynamics of problems as well as drive social change.

Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, was in attendance to talk about how the open-source mapping project has used the aggregation of information to respond to emergencies in near real-time.

Patrick Meier at the PopTech salon on Social Mapping and Social Change, May 2010.

The Ushahidi platform relies on distributed data collected via text message, email, and web that is then visualized on a map or timeline. The project first began as a way to help track citizen reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. Since then, Meier suggests in his talk, Ushahidi has been used by numerous organizations around the world for a variety of situations. These include tracking elections in a number of countries, enhancing Al Jazeera’s coverage of the January 2009 violence in Gaza, supporting WildLife Direct’s citizen wildlife tracking initiative in Kenya, and identifying clean up efforts in the wake of record snowstorms in the Washington D.C. metro area this past year. Most recently, a nonprofit environmental health group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has deployed Ushahidi (in conjunction with a kite camera project that PopTech previously reviewed) to monitor the coastline in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Ushahidi had FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) calling in on day five, saying, folks, whatever you do, don’t stop mapping, you’re saving lives."

Around minute 4:50 in his talk, Meier explains Ushahidi’s role in the Haitian earthquake response and recovery. A number of organizations marshaled the assistance of thousands of individual volunteers, who translated and aggregated text messages as well as United Nations situation reports and news stories onto a Ushahidi platform customized for the Haitian disaster. The distributed response also took advantage of the country’s cellular technology infrastructure, which remained operational, to distribute a mobile “short code” that made it possible for affected Haitians to send text messages at no cost. The use of text messages made it possible for crisis teams to handle individual requests – about 1,000 text messages a day – a level of response normally impossible during crises. The Ushahidi platform also made it possible for disaster responders to filter requests by geographic area or type of need. Meier recalls that these affordances made it possible for near real-time communications in devastated Haitian communities on a scale “completely unprecedented in the history of disaster response.”

“Ushahidi had FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) calling in on day five, saying, folks, whatever you do, don’t stop mapping, you’re saving lives."

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh are also part of the Ushahidi leadership team. Hersman spoke at PopTech in 2008. For more on Ushahidi’s Haiti response, check out this video.

Laura Kurgan, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, also spoke at the Chicago salon. The Lab is a “think- and action-tank” that visualizes complex political and social data, such as incarceration rates and financial expenditures, that help re-envision the relationship between architecture, criminal justice, and community investment.

Laura Kurgan at the PopTech salon on Social Mapping and Social Change, May 2010.

In her talk, Kurgan focuses on the lab’s mapping and visualization efforts in New Orleans.

Reconstruction efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina have helped drive the radical transformation of public infrastructures like education, health, and housing. Yet Kurgan notes that the criminal justice system has largely been ignored. In fact, her maps reveal that in neighborhoods like Central City, which has the highest incarceration rates in New Orleans, per capita spending on prisons has increased since rebuilding began.

Kurgan points out, “the predominant governing institution” in neighborhoods like Central City is prison.

Her maps reveal that money is spent “on the neighborhood, but not in the neighborhood.” In other words, Kurgan points out, “the predominant governing institution” in neighborhoods like Central City is prison.

Here, Kurgan’s lab has also served as an intervention, helping to map the work of local organizations working in Central City in order to strengthen the connections between them.

For more on Kurgan’s work in New Orleans, check out the lab’s recent report on the subject.

Laura Kurgan also spoke at PopTech in 2009, watch her talk here.

Graphic visualizations of the Chicago salon by Peter Durand can be seen here.


I heard an episode of The Writers Almanac a few months ago that got me thinking about serendipity. I learned that lots of wonderful things have come about when researchers were looking for something else, including Silly Putty, penicillin, the principles of X-rays and chocolate chip cookies. Viagra was developed to treat hypertension and certain kinds of chest pain; it didn’t do such a good job at these things, but researchers found during the phase of clinical trials that it was good for something else.

“Accidental sagacity” was how serendipity was first described, when Horace Walpole (the 4th Earl of Orford, in case you didn’t know) coined the term after reading a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip (Persian for Sri Lanka) about three royal boys who were always making accidental discoveries of things they weren’t looking for.

Accidental sagacity.

Between now and PopTech 2010 we’ll be exploring the theme of Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs and we want your help. Have you come across any great quotes or examples of the role accidents, failures and serendipity play in success?

Send us what you find (hello@poptech.org), and we’ll post some of them!

This Week in PopTech: Irrationality, Violence Interrupters and Smart Growth


  • We went behind the scenes to learn about the work of Violence Interrupters in Chicago.

Get Involved!

  • Do you live in the DC area? Mark your calendar for a special PopTech Salon in Washington, DC, which will feature three scientists at the cutting edge of potentially world-changing discoveries. The event is free but space is limited.
  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, sign up for our Newsletter and subscribe to us here on the PopTech Blog.

On the Street With Violence Interrupters

Several weeks ago, PopTech held a brainstorming session in Chicago to investigate how social mapping tools can be used to create positive social change. As a test case, we talked with CeaseFire Chicago.

To learn more about CeaseFire’s work to prevent gun violence, PopTech caught up with several members of their team who attended the brainstorming session. What follows comes from several conversations that I’ve had with Dr. Gary Slutkin, Executive Director of CeaseFire, and CeaseFire Interrupters Timothy White and Eddie Bocanegra.

Gun violence in Chicago. It happens over money or a girlfriend or a neighborhood block. It happens over the smallest and most common of things. Someone steps on someone else’s shoes. Someone looks at someone the wrong way. And once it happens, retaliation is likely.

“They’re angry. And they have a reason to be angry,” Eddie Bocanegra, told me recently. “You know, maybe their closest friend just got shot. Or maybe the individual himself just got shot and he’s sitting in the hospital with a gunshot in his leg, and the only thing in his head is I’m going to go back as soon as I’m able to walk.

“Think about it. For the past two or three years, who knows, probably even longer than that, he’s seen his friends getting shot, and it becomes normal… In his mind it’s like Ok, this is how we live."

And that was exactly what went through Eddie’s mind when his close friend got shot and wound up paralyzed from the waist down. He was angry and ready to act on what he’d learned from the streets. “My intention was to go back and shoot somebody and inflict the same kind of pain that my friend was going through,” he told me.

Eddie Bocanegra describes the past that inspired him to support young men who turn to violence as a coping mechanism for anger. Video shot by our friend, Daniel Stephens.

Like Eddie, Dr. Gary Slutkin grew up in Chicago. But while Eddie spent fourteen years and three months in prison, Gary spent a large part of his career in Africa, working on some of the developing world’s biggest health issues – AIDS, TB, and cholera. When he returned home to Chicago in 1995 Gary focused his attention on an epidemic much closer to home.

“People told me about children shooting other children with guns, and I saw the magnitude of the problem,” he told me last year. “I asked people what they were doing to try to address it, and the things that were being expressed to me didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know what we would do, but I knew that what was out there had no chance.”

Gary established a violence prevention approach called CeaseFire. Over time, he says the violence plaguing his hometown began exhibiting to him all the signs of an infectious disease. His work evolved in recognition of this, and today, based on behavior change and health/epidemic control methods, CeaseFire is reducing shootings and violent crime in the inner-city Chicago neighborhoods where it is employed, by an average of 45%.

Part of what makes CeaseFire unique and successful is its use of Violence Interrupters, men and women who have or build a rapport with gang leaders and other at-risk youth, and who intervene in potentially violent situations before anyone pulls a trigger. The Interrupters typically have a background on the streets and have spent time in prison. Ex-offenders usually have an extremely challenging time getting a job after they’re released from prison, yet when Eddie applied to work as Interrupter his background was an asset. Like the other Interrupters, Eddie can read the streets fast, and knows what will or will not work in any given situation.

“Most of the time it’s that anger and the ego…and the friends on the sideline cheering them on telling them ‘go do this, go do that’," he told me. “I might get another Interrupter to calm the cheerleaders down… Then I’m able to pull him aside and have that personal communication with him, and I can feel my way around him. It’s like doing a psychological analysis to decide what approach I’m going to take with him. Every situation is different.”

“A lot of times I’ll share my experience… ‘Hey, everything you’re going through, I’ve been through before. But the difference is that just like you, I didn’t know how to control this anger. I didn’t know how to vent. I didn’t know exactly what avenues I actually had. So I’m here to help you with that. Vent. Talk to me. How can I help you?’”

He talks more quietly, trying to control his emotions, “I didn’t have anybody back then to kind of process this stuff”, he told me, “With CeaseFire, I’m given that opportunity to actually make a difference, to maybe reach out to individuals such as myself… well, just to reach out to individuals…who are living the way I was living at one time.”

I am reminded of talking to another Interrupter, James Highsmith last year. He said, “I helped create this beast, so I feel like I have no other choice but to do something… This is what you’re supposed to do. I be thinking What can I do, what can I do more, what magic thing can I do to make this stop….? This is what I think about every day. What the hell can I do to make everybody stop killing each other?”

Eddie Bocanegra
Eddie Bocanegra

Driving his beat in West Chicago, Minister Timothy White waves to people who frequently call out to him. His charisma is palpable. “This is the area I grew up in,” he tells me. “This is also the area that I ran the streets in, so I’m familiar with this area, and a lot of people are familiar with me.” This is the hallmark of the CeaseFire Interrupter. He tells me that fathers, unwilling to call the police on their own sons, and equally unwilling to have their sons kill someone, have called him in desperation. “My son’s in the basement loading up. Can you talk to him?” And later, both father and son have thanked him.

He tells me that if he himself can’t stop a potential act of retribution, he’ll know someone who can. “I’ll threaten to call his uncle…And he’ll be like, ‘WHAT?! You’re going to call my uncle?’ ‘He the only one you listen to. So I’m going to see what he says about you going out and killing everyone today.’"

Tim has a social fluidity that’s quite unusual. He understands how to do the violence mediation in an effective way because he has real social credibility with people active in the streets. At the same time, he walks into the PopTech brainstorming session with complete ease.

He explains to the group that currently the Interrupters’ use of technology is fairly basic, simple text messages back and forth between Interrupter and the streets that deliver information about the location of a situation that’s unfolding. Most of the real communication happens in person. Like Eddie, he points out that each situation is different, and his work depends heavily on human experience. “It’s almost as if it’s intuition. When you’re out there, there’s no one particular method. You just have to read the situation.“

Driving around, one of the few places at which we slowed down is Tim’s father’s church: “My father is the pastor… My father was a real busy man ministering to other people. Sometimes he didn’t even see what I was doing… until it was too late.” Tim puts his own kids in basketball and football, and tells them who he was and the mistakes he made. And his children have kept out of trouble. He tells me, “God covered them… I slipped through the cracks …Sometimes one or two will slide through the cracks; here and there you get a bad apple. But that wasn’t bad because what the devil meant for evil, God has turned around and worked it for good, so my background became my resume."

With his troubled background as his resume, Minister Tim White now works with Ceasefire to intervene in troubled situations before conflict turns to violence.

Dr. Slutkin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he feels about saving lives, he told me last year. “I keep my mind on the idea of the program. I am interacting with these Interrupters and the outreach workers, and I think I spend more time thinking about them and who they are, and in a way, kind of how much I love them really. I’m really inspired by them and what they’re doing and how much they’re putting into it. So my mind is on how exciting and cool and challenging and brilliant and committed they are…And how much we’ve got to get help to get it to another level…My mind is so much more on the unfinished business.”

I asked him why he does this work. At first he reacted as though the question simply didn’t make sense. Why does anyone do what they do? “At one level, I think you don’t even know.” He hesitated and sighed, “I mean I’ve been working on the largest issues I could find time after time because what else should you do with your time?

“I feel that as a result of the interaction of all of the experiences that I’ve had – you know I’ve really trained under some amazing people, you know, people who lead the smallpox campaign, who lead the AIDS campaign for the world… And now I’m learning from all these guys on the street and… we’ve GOT to do it. It’s an absolute obligation to take this as far as we can take it.”

Check out presentations and more behind-the-scenes videos from our Social Mapping Workshop and Salon in Chicago.

Science, Living Systems, and the Edge of Change: A PopTech Salon

On June 22, 2010 from 6:00pm – 9:00pm (EST) in the Alfred Noble Hall at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, PopTech will bring together three speakers and a musical guest for a special salon event featuring a new generation of scientists who are exploring, mapping, harnessing, and shaping complex living systems. Their work has profound implications from conservation to medicine; social networking to environmental cleanup.

Request a Registration
Seating is extremely limited – Event is free, and an RSVP required. (hashtag: #poptech)

Edge of Change

In this special PopTech Salon you’ll meet scientists and researchers including:

Beth Shapiro, the geneticist who is shedding new light on how species respond to environmental change
Justin Gallivan, the biochemist who is ‘programming’ bacteria to eat pollution
H. Sebastian Seung, the neuroscientist who is helping computers see the connections between the brain’s neurons

Special Guest:
Christen Lien, the “viola artist” whose music has been described as “ethereal and otherwordly; a bridge to the divine.”

PopTech would like to thank the National Science Foundation and the Intel Corporation for their generous support of this program.

Social Mapping and Social Change
Read our Recap of the PopTech Social Mapping Salon

Questions? Let us know in the comments. We hope you’ll join us on the 22nd!

On the Upside of Irrationality: Catching up with Dan Ariely

On the heels of his best-selling 2009 book – Predictably Irrational – about the emotional and social aspects that influence people deciding on financial matters, Dan Ariely has written a second book about his research. Last week, PopTech caught up with the behavioral economist to talk about his new book, entitled The Upside of Irrationality and what the success of his previous book taught him about his own research.

Upside and Dan

Tell me, what drove you to start writing for a general audience?
I have always been a very applied researcher. I started research on pain because of my own experiences in life. [During his service in the Israeli Army, Ariely was caught in an explosion that burnt more than 70% of his body. He spent three years in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Because of his experiences, Ariely later became to study how people experience pain. He learned that people register less pain when the experience is lower intensity, even if it a much longer duration than brief pain that is a higher intensity.] Social science is the science of everyday life. Everyday is an exercise in psychology. Economics has been so successful in convincing people that we’re rational all the time. Yet my research suggests something different, and writing these books has made it possible for my research to start having more of an impact beyond the academic world.

The experience has been transformative for me. I published Predictably Irrational in a good or bad point in time. All of a sudden, people realized that irrationality was important in economics. People might say that [my] experiments are cute but none of this will work out in big markets. The financial crash has really helped to illustrate my point.

In fact, the financial crash presents a lot of interesting problems. It has also allowed me to be exposed to many more people and situations. For example, I met with some people from a big commercial bank. I asked them, how do people decide which loans to pay back first, or faster? It seems it should be the one with highest interest rate. However, I discovered that rather than pay loans with highest interest rates, they pay the smallest loan first. I even thought that financial decision would have a very negative impact over time.

You’ve written that “Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless—they are systematic … We all make the same types of mistakes over and over.” Yet the applied nature of your research also encourages people to make behavioral changes, which is actually quite difficult.

In general, I don’t think people can change completely, but I do think that even changing one thing is significant. I get emails all the time from people who write to tell me that they changed one critical thing in their lives. Every time somebody changes something, it is a great thing.

I also think that we can’t solve everything by ourselves. It’s also about regulation. We need to understand the mistakes that people make and then we need to think about what kinds of regulations we should be making. Think, for example, about the structure of a cafeteria. If you set up the vegetables first, and the burgers and fries at the end, people will be more like to at least pick up a few vegetables on their plates. Or if you think about roads, without speed limits, people are much more likely to drive too fast and take risks. The question becomes how to create regulations that encourage the kinds of behaviors that encourage people to make decisions that take emotions into account.

One thread in The Upside of Irrationality, as well as in your previous book, is the role of failure. Can you tell me more about that?
Failure for me means a kind of success. If you think something will work out a certain way, and then it doesn’t happen that way, you have really learned something. It advances how we should think about behavior.

Does failure play the same role at the societal level?
Too often, it doesn’t. The wrong lessons are drawn from failure. It rarely plays the role it should play. People often push their heels down and pretend that nothing has happened. So far, that’s what’s happened with the banking system. It will be an incredible waste if the recession and the banking crisis do not lead to any larger changes moving forward.

I noticed that the Upside of Irrationality focuses on more deeply personal issues than your previous book.
It is. Half of the book is about irrationality in the workplace, of which the first chapter is the lecture I gave at PopTech, and how we take credit for other peoples’ ideas. The second half of the book is about the home, and about happiness. This half of the book is very personal, and how irrationality has changed how it has changed my thinking.

For example, there is something called “associative mating.” What makes somebody an attractive date? The thinking is that somebody who is incredibly attractive will pick somebody who is also quite attractive. Usually, people get used to where they are in this hierarchy, and it is something they carry with them from such a young age, it feels natural. For me, I had this serious injury and I was less valuable for looks and dating. This made me think very differently about finding a mate. How would I have to settle? How much have things really changed? It changed my thinking about my research. How do people make sense about who they are in the social hierarchy, particularly when that changes suddenly?

I explore another example in my new book. After my injury, I stopped taking Novocaine when going to the dentist. I wondered, do we develop a different approach to thinking about pain? What I discovered was that a people experience [pain] all the same, but they might care about it in a different way. The kind of pain I had was connected to a traumatic injury. I underwent many painful operations but pain was associated with good things, with getting better. In other words, I didn’t care about pain as much because I had begun to associate with positive changes. By contrast, people who have chronic injuries associate pain in a more negative way. Pain reminds them that they are going to die soon; pain takes on a very different aspect.

Writing about the highly personal aspects of my research has been much more difficult to write. I also care much more about what the reaction to the book will be, which so far has been very positive.

Best of luck to you on your book tour.

A list of Ariely’s speaking engagements is available on his website.

Watch Dan Ariely’s 2009 PopTech talk on Irrational Economics here.

Urban Pioneers of Braddock, Pennsylvania

Editor’s note: Inspired by Mayor John Fetterman’s 2009 PopTech talk, Sarah Graalman became fascinated with the vibrant art collective movement growing in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Graalman is a writer and storyteller who performs her original works all around New York City.

Artistic communities often arise from abandon and ruin: artists, always hungry for inexpensive space, are drawn to these centers, and from there you can follow the art-crumbs. Artist finds cheap space. Artist wants good coffee. Artist wants cheese plate. Shops open, others want to live in artistic neighborhood… and presto! Rejuvenation.

These movements also spring from struggling communities’ need for art, and the inspiration so many artists derive from the hidden beauty within devastation and decay – whether it comes from a desire to heal or to educate future generations. Like modern day etchings on a cave wall, art born from urban revitalization and community rebirth is often how we preserve our stories for future generations.

Welcome to Braddock

Which brings me to Braddock, Pennsylvania. At PopTech last October, Mayor John Fetterman told audiences of Braddock’s near-catastrophic struggle, losing 90 percent of its population after the steel industry collapse of the 1970’s and subsequent pummeling by the crack epidemic of the 1980’s. By the turn of the century, the town was in ruins with a population of barely 2,000. Though rebuilding a town nearly left in ruins is certainly more complicated than simply putting up a community canvas, the call for creative thinkers is at the heart of Braddock’s new pulse.

In many cities, rising costs of rent and art-studios are squeezing out those who must work double-time for rent, making time for their passion a nocturnal coffee-fueled endeavor. In Braddock, Mayor Fetterman has called for the “urban pioneer, artist, or misfit to be a part of a new experimental effort” in making Braddock home. Thus far, a few dozen have come into Braddock since its revitalization began.
The result? A small art boom.

Unsmoke Artspace
Gold In Braddcok show, image by Stephanie Armbruster, courtesy of Unsmoke Artspace

UnSmoke Artspace is a gallery/studio housed in a repurposed Catholic school building, which provides studio space to 7 artists and 1 resident writer. Currently, it’s hosting Gold In Braddock, pulling in artists from LA, NYC, Philly, and Pittsburgh. The show, running until June 5th, exploits the polarity between the exterior context (the steel town) and the interior space (the art gallery) to raise questions and inspire reflection. In the spirit of Braddock’s renewal, this show is also an experiment. It asks, “what can art do in this context?” These artists will return to their communities having shared in Braddock’s experiment in renewal.

Image courtesy of Christina Ray Gallery and Fountain Art Fair for a Transformazium benefit show, Idea For the Here and Now

Transformazium was created by four former NYC residents who relocated to Braddock. These artists intend to transform an old church into a community skill-sharing center. They have stated that they want to explore the challenges of the post industrial city, especially the intersection of art and community. Renowned Brooklyn Graffiti artist Swoon, who is part of Transformazium, said recently that part of the work in Braddock “is about trying to understand the world, to gain a consciousness of what’s happening, and then creating a work that’s a document of that process.” They also work with the youth of Braddock, creating site specific out-stallations, breathing life into former ruins. Artworks now cover buildings, bridges, and underpasses, turning Braddock’s abandoned exteriors into an outdoor museum.

Perhaps Braddock will pull in more pioneering artists, drawn to the town’s low housing costs and need for creative, strong minds to rebuild a town that was almost devastated. Mayor Fetterman has often said that rose colored glasses don’t work when it comes to looking at Braddock’s future, where the road ahead is thick with pock-marks (the largest employer, UPMC Medical closed on January 31, 2010).

One could draw inspiration from a speech delivered by Orson Wells in Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Comparing Braddock to pre-renaissance Italy may seem a stretch, but this historic steel town’s citizens are realistically facing their trials and attempting to spin a small town revolution. Who knows what might come from Braddock’s rebirth? A town that is proving, despite the setbacks, it will persevere. One thing is for certain: Some artists are hearing the call of a town that has embraced the spirit of the artistic pioneer.