Meklit Hadero

Singer/Co-Founder, The Nile Project


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What is the role of artists in shaping culture and a healthy society?

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Meklit Hadero to discuss the question "What is the role of artists in shaping culture and a healthy society?"

Meklit is an Ethiopian-born, San Francisco based singer, musician, and 2009 TED Global Fellow. Equally cultural activist and practicing artist, Meklit has been an NYU artist-in-residence, toured extensively throughout North America, and founded a collective of Ethiopian Diaspora artists called the Arba Minch Collective.

This conversation will open at 10 am EST.

This conversation will open at 10 am on Friday, July 8th.

  • Jul 8 2011: Art is a product of culture, it both reflects and determines how people see themselves and the world around them. Because artists are creating something plastic that begins with an idea and feeling in themselves, they are saying here, look at this, look at us.

    Art can reflect the horrid and the harsh. It sometimes makes a society stop and say " wait, no more."

    Art reflects beauty, it calls forth that longing in us to experience that beauty.

    Artists stop, create, recreate, then show what the society as a whole needs to hear, see, feel, and touch.

    A healthy society needs the arts in all forms, written, painted, sculpted, photographed, sung to see and hear itself. It has to make us stop and examine a moment in someone else's life and reflect on our own.
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    Jul 8 2011: For me,artists serve as public voices to bring changes to society(more precisely people's perceptions), they observe and channel their understandings into different art forms which reavels the beauty and the ugly and explores between the known and the unkown.
    Artists are innovators and an true artist to me is the one who awakes me to reality and how i become related with it.
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      Jul 8 2011: Agreed with Amily.
      In my country Artists were always in forefront to fight back any tyranny many times , through their work and even real partcipation of in mass movement.

      George Harrison , Ringo Star, Ravi Sankar did Concert Bangladesh in 1971 against the Genocide going on in my country in London , Newyork please check the link

      A team of young artists of Bangladesh in 1971, during our freedom of fight against genocide , were relentlessly encouraging people and our fighter through there song front to front sometimes walking miles after miles even, which was captured by US young journalist Lear Lavin , later was transformed in to ducumentary called "Muktir Gaan" ( means songs of Freedom)

      Artists are actually Global Soul.
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        Jul 8 2011: Salim, my thumbs up for you have met it's weekly maximum. Just saying what a great sum up - Artists are actually our global soul!
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          Jul 8 2011: Thanks Joe for your compliment :)
          Well don't get about "weekly maximum"
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        Jul 8 2011: Salim respectfully with you and for the Beatles memory...they are not artists. They are singers, popular musicians if you want, but today is so early to named they as "artists" We live in a media confussion world and maybe someones could prefer or not the beatles or any in the same range. All that ideas deserve the same respect than Arts. And art is too far from the beatles. Really I like their tunes. The politycal issues used to present their songs are very different thing.
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          Jul 8 2011: Jaime my friend, understand what you mean some creation to be really time tested one to go into the status of "ART".

          As usual amazed with your sense inner meaning of word and using accordingly. Yes I was a bit superficial or broad in using that in case of Beatles, what's ur thought about Ravi Shankar ?

          Sure I am you know many times it happened in our history, when contemporary time rejected something not being ART finally over time it got the status of ART..... just example DADAist artists...

          With all respect Jaime, the Beatles +Ravi Shankar initiative of 1971 , was a intiative for humanity , when the big powers were supporting merciless Genocide, which definitely has it's politics behind from the super power, but not sure how much politics was from Beatles side to take that initiative.........

          Fully agree what you called media confusion.

          Have a good day Jaime .
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          Jul 8 2011: In the world of arts, there has always been a contested division between low/popular art, and high/refined art. It's hard to say whose impact is greater.....Both have a place. But I also know what you mean about media confusion, which is a huge issue.
        • Jul 8 2011: I agree Meklit
          Both of those are a part of society, high or low...and both still impact though in disimilar ways. We need both.
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      Jul 8 2011: Yes! I love the quote that "Artists are actually our global soul!"
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      Jul 8 2011: Hi Amily, Salim, and Jo,

      I'm always curious to know more about who the artists were that played that role in your lives.

      Salim mentioned both a moment (the concert in London), and the people (team of young artists in the film "Muktir Gaan").

      Who were those artists for you?

      For me there are all kinds of levels of it.... There are personal friends like Marcus Shelby, a West Coast jazzmaster who interprets the lives of Harriet Tubman and MLK through epic librettos, and Quique Cruz, a Chilean multi-instrumentalist and filmmaker who was imprisoned by the Chilean government in the dictatorship times there and has made gorgeous music of healing around that experience. To people I have never met, but who have deeply influenced me, like the sculptor James Turrell, who works with light and lifts everyone who walks into his hall-like open sky pieces.
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    Jul 9 2011: First of all, I know it is off of the topic, but there is one thing that you should clear up for yourself. Your equating of Socialism with the Soviet Union is historically incorrect. I urge you to take a deeper look into that.

    My proposal has been stated. Create art — massive amounts of it. Compare what you perceive so that other people will perceive it more or less the same way. Art is seduction or at least a form of it. We cannot lead others to us with a gun. So a proposal can only be based on that which is pure and subversive art. On a more fundamental level, all acts of perception is a form of art — hence the good and true becoming the beautiful, as Plato suggest.

    As long as we hold true to a social organization as valued in a meritocracy artists will always struggle and hopelessly dwindle. I do not think culture, or at least schlockmeister culture, helps shape culture for the better. Arts task is to create culture, not to consume it!

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      Jul 9 2011: Matt , all the human existence in any possible form is to create culture. Not just the arts (in plural). Plumbers and presidents create culture as the same astronauts and TED commenters as you and me and others here. Culture means "what is to be cured to grown up and enrich the human existence"....arts of course enhance the very existence and being human. The circumstances from the enviroment, natural or economic, techological or cultural are just ephimeral things. As you and me.
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    Jul 8 2011: Thanks to everyone who participated in this live conversation! Much appreciated and hope to talk to you here on TED conversations again soon!
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    Jul 8 2011: We have the tendency to look up to artists. Many people, youth and adults alike, feel let down by their own circumstances, so they look to others for guidance. Artists have this magic about them; enabling themselves to create something beautiful or extraordinary from within themselves and often from within their pain. That's probably why we are drawn to them; because of their volunteered vulnerability. Artists therefore have the responsibility to encourage others who are not easily inclined to create, or to offer up an escape for those who need one.
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      Jul 8 2011: Volunteered vulnerability. That phrase is meant to be used in a song!

      In Ethiopia, there is a type of artist called Azmari's. They are poets and musicians who know thousands of traditional songs and poems, and are superb musical and lyrical improvisors. When you go to an Azmari-beit (the name of the place you go to see them), they sing for you, often a mixture of praise songs and songs that outright make fun of you. And it is hilarious and fun. But they tell the truth about what they see. At the same time, they are generally on the margins of society, almost outcast. Yet, they are the ones who can tell the truth in public. I feel that this is almost the mythological artist..... It makes me think of Cassandra in Greek mythology. She has the gift of sight, but she will never be believed or taken seriously. People go to Azmari's to hear the truth, but then wont be respect them in the light of day. There's a tragedy about it.

      There are of course artists who are made famous and become enormously wealthy. But those are such a small percentage, and the fame comes with different pressures about what can and cannot be said easily.

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    Jul 8 2011: In 2003, a landmark study funded by 37 US based foundations and conducted by the Urban Institute discovered that while 96% of Americans value the arts, only 24% value artists. Somewhat sobering study, but great info inside. Check out the full study here:
    • Jul 8 2011: its also troublesome to see that society tends to appreciate artists later in life and not be supportive at their prime time.
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        Jul 8 2011: I think that time lag partially represents how long it takes for society to catch up with the message.
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          Jul 8 2011: Debra the time lag is also the vulgarization lag or divulgation efforts. In arts , the society time to respond is not important. Van Gogh died in poverty and madness but today is the painter most expensive. The response from society depends on media efforts to divulge or vulgarized the work. In almost all the dentistry waiting rooms you can find a Van Gogh reproduction framed. I dont know if that is a torture or a placebo, but Van Gogh lives for ever.
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          Jul 9 2011: Hi Debra & Jaimet hat lag happens all innovations. But incase of "ART" it seems take more toll on arist's life than other innovations. Van Gogh example of Jaime is a classict example of that, there are many poets, lietrary geniuses as well . Really painful it is.

          In my culture there is a saying pointing out this attitude of culture that " we only know someone was great once s/he dies and then we start honouring him / her". In my early age I use to feel sick about that attitude of my culture later could understand it's more of global.

          One of our poets in his early poetic life wrote .....being poet means

          walking barefoot
          striving for mere food,
          cheapest cheap wine
          night with prostitute
          once in a while

          Fortunately he could shine with honour and money in his lifetime (wishing long life for him), but to have that money he had to write scripts for low taste commercial films , thats the irony.
          But I am happy with that as that's what society looks for so got it what it deserves. Atleast that gave him the opportunity to live a decent life and write more great poetries, dramas and other literary works while also being in forefront of fight against any tyranny in the country all the time.
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          Jul 9 2011: Debra , the general idea about the artist rejected, missunderstood, poor, hunger and sick, is an artificial idea launched in the late XIX century by Paul Gaugin and Ambrose Vollard. Gaugin weekend painter and financial advisor in broke status, to achieve a public simpathy as a advertising form to sell gravures and painting from Gaugin who lives in the paradise islands, Twelve persons buy a painting, they put a twelve part of the cost, one each month. Twelve persons, twelve months, twelve paintings...easy way to put an idea in bored parisians who remains in city. The same with poets. But not with Dumas, Cezzane, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, etc. Maybe some ones believe the legend of poverty and hunger, but Hollywood has done one of the biggest frauds with the film about Modigliani. (and others also). We have to be awared to see the art from the past with the eyes of the present. And the worst part is to see the art of today with the eyes of the future. In arts, time and real genius are all, the rest is just a circumstance.
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        Jul 8 2011: Martha is a non written rule that the real investors in art, buy first the unknown pieces from unknown artists. (Or at least is the method used by The Baronessa). They just have to wait, and only need (in the case of painting) a wall, a nail and hammer. The society is a different human issue than collectors. Of course they buy originals and the society enjoy the copies or reproductions. This is a enviroment that is solved with the aquittance of prototypes and the vulgarization of stereotypes.
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        Jul 9 2011: Hi Jaime et al,
        There is the vulgarization of art and yet I would not want to be elitist in this matter. Sometimes what you might consider the vulgarization has, at least in the past made that art or at least its sensibilites available to all segments of society in many places at once rather than remaining captive to the owner or museum reserved for the elites.
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          Jul 9 2011: Dear Debra its unavoidable to be elitist in matter of Arts, dont feel wrong to be outside from the greedy and ingnorant bunch of , the so-called-society. The society (if exist) receive a grant, a grace, a real favor from the artist. Arts are a lonely devotion not a public spectacle.

          If some person wants to be touched by arts (any form) wellcome. But artist work is not for social response. The society believes that arts as a pretext to said this or that, almost allways with a wrong focus and false positions. I never believe in public opinion about arts.
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        Jul 9 2011: As always Jaime Lubin, I am enriched by your insights! Thank you. Please keep teaching me! You and your friends here are my gurus of learning!
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          Jul 9 2011: Debra you are very kind , please just let us share among us. Thank you but we are not guru of anything.
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    Jul 8 2011: As strange as this might seem, I see artists as somehow the same as Xtreme athletes, Olympic athletes and visionaries. They give us a new way to see the world and its possibiliites. Every time an Xtreme athlete does something that seems impossible (Like those harcourt (sp?) guys that run up walls) we all look and realize what human beings are capable of. Artists interpret and confront us. They show us beauty and horror and make us want to see. They can attack and break our schemas and help us to see a new dawn of possiblities for humanity.

    Sometimes guys like Banksy mirror our society and confront us with our own craziness.
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      Jul 8 2011: So beautifully put Deborah! Anna Akhmatova, the Russian/Ukranian poet from the early part of the 20th century, said that "Artists are vistors from the future." Of course she is speaking in metaphor, but I think that really resonates with what you are saying.
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      Jul 8 2011: Debra the real question the society really receive what artist produce? If you "use" a real work of art to "see" beyond is just your responsability and the artist is out of your playrole in society.
      Not allways the "society" knows or want to receive the artwork. And for artists is not a worry to be received. The society role (if theres some one clear) really doesn't matter to the artist. Maybe for designers is an argument with some consideration, but design is very different task than acomplish the society tastes or claims. Designers work is just for needs.
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        Jul 8 2011: At TED Global 2009, I heard Stefan Sagmeister say that the difference between art and design is that design has to "work" and art does not. Interesting.

        Also, it can often be hard to fully understand how exactly the exchange is happening. So many artists are unknown in their lifetime, but become extremely socially and culturally influential after they pass away. So they are received, but they are not there to engage in the public part of the conversation.
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          Jul 8 2011: Meklit. One of my favourite thinkers on design is Don Norman. He actually did a TED talk and I believe that he has worked for Google but my favourite of his works is a book called 'The Psychology of Everyday things."

          I think design is an integrated and practical form of art. Useful things can be very beautiful and functional.
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        Jul 8 2011: Jaime Lubin, You are right of course in asserting that often societies are not ready for the vision that artists present. I am not even sure that we need to be. I am not sure that all that is presented as art is anything that will stand the test of time or the litmus test of informing our ways of seeing.

        Recently I saw a rendering of some of the statues of ancient Rome suggesting what they might have looked like in their colourful orignal forms based on scientific analysis of their surfaces. I was jarred and it took me some time to wrap my brain around the idea that they were originally quite garish in comparison to the pristine white surfaces we have become used to. It was, however, good for me to realize that my mental version of them was not what the artist intended.
      • Jul 8 2011: Jaime
        I totally agree that the artist is and will be a singular voice, until he is heard by the society. But art does reflect and bend society also. It is often not welcomed or understood, but it does happen. The artist says stop and look...whether we stop or look is our decision, but at least he says something to society.
    • Jul 8 2011: I agree is a great analogy. And Meklit they do speak to us from a future we can now see, hear, or feel.
  • Jul 8 2011: Artists have great privilege to break down barriers and bring people from all walks of life and bring them in one place. They can bring positive energy and open up a dialogue, bring spotlight to a forgotten concept or time period.
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      Jul 8 2011: It is often easier to have a whole host of conversations outside of the purely intellectual spaces, where we can sometimes get stuck in opposition.... artists can indeed open a place where we can look at difficult issues and really seeeeeeeeeeeee them with open eyes.
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    Jul 8 2011: I think that art has the power to capture so much feeling, emotion and culture that it can often provide a view of society and self that no objective way of thinking can. On top of being a fervently emotional illustration of times present and past, art can also serve as a catalyst for real change. Look at Uncle Tom's Cabin, look at the strong ties between music and politics in the American 1960's. Even though the artists aren't writing our legislation, they serve as a unrivaled force to "get the wheels rolling" on any particular movement.
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      Jul 8 2011: Sometimes I think about what the new protest art is.... That we in this place in time can connect to.... I agree that there has been that connection between art and social movement often. The place I see it most strongly these days is in street art or public art, and also in poetry. But it's not so much in music anymore, is it? I wonder why that is?
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        Jul 8 2011: Street art is for me one of the most interesting occurrances of the last while. Some of it is truly great and has something to say. Some of it simply represents astoundingly great and intuitive marketing- in your face and where ever you look.
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    Jul 8 2011: Reminding human of their humane side... *smile*
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    Jul 8 2011: To save our souls.

    But lets us not forget how easy it is for every mode of thinking to become corrupted by the ambitions of capitalism; in fact, most everything sacred has been consumed by this ideological model.

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      Jul 9 2011: Every model has their own faults. Maybe capitalism corrupted ALMOST every mode of thinking, but others like socialism also eroded ALMOST everything. Arts cant live in a polarized sistem that is black or white, bad or good.

      The sacred things are the real things, and all sacred remain untouched and hide while any model corrupts the profane things. We dont forget the absurd of the "arts" in China during Mao, or in USSR while Stalin kills more than 60 million people. In the absurd model from "western culture" Disney corrupt almost every mind, and Hollywood do the same. So if you said "to save our souls" what is your proposal.?
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        Jul 9 2011: Jaime, as usual great point you came out about our systems and place of ART in it !!!
        Well it seems to me when "ART" become part of system it gets polluted. Though many ART can mirror the system, project the system but it shouldn't be part of it to remain pure.

        Real ARTISTs are rebelious to current system. They are soul of future to which society should move. They challenge the status quo, they stand against establishment with their art......

        Result is that time lag as mentioned by Debra..... result is pain to artist being reblious..
        So my proposals seems ARTIST to remain in self excile , embracing pain in serach of greater beauty and wellness of mankind....
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          Jul 9 2011: Salim, arts are a system, arts are not part of any sistem. maybe in our secularized world arts are the strange member of that society. Arts provides a realm for living in harmony,or in rebelion....or revelation,,,,the word is almost the same...; Revelation, rebelion....means "from light". In that sense arts are a gift from divinity, and divinity is not a part of any human production. And the gift are not for all, maybe all persons could be touched, but is a very rare experience that the masificated population be sensible to arts. The power of the art is superior.
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        Jul 9 2011: Jaime Lubin
        1 hour ago: Matt , all the human existence in any possible form is to create culture. Not just the arts (in plural). Plumbers and presidents create culture as the same astronauts and TED commenters as you and me and others here. Culture means "what is to be cured to grown up and enrich the human existence"....arts of course enhance the very existence and being human. The circumstances from the enviroment, natural or economic, techological or cultural are just ephimeral things. As you and me.

        Oh yes sure. What I was inferring to is that art can dissolve boundaries that culture puts up. It can be as much of a paradigm shifter as say science and technology. That is all.

        But like I said, all acts of perception are in some sense the very intimation of the artistic impulse.
  • Jul 8 2011: Nothing.

    If someone likes a person's "art", they should offer them something in exchange for it. If the artist accepts the offer, then that is commerce.

    Commerce is good for healthy societies.

    If someone looks at a "work of art" and it inspires that person to think or do something new or different that is good.

    Inspiration is good for healthy societies.
  • Jul 8 2011: I was recently sent an advance copy of a book called Red Rock by Jon Campbell that will come out in October 2011, about the world of rock and roll in China. The opening quote seems particularly appropriate here: "(Music's) root lies in the human mind's being stirred by external things. Thus, when a mind is miserable is stirred, its sound is vexed and anxious. When a mind that is happy is stirred, its sound is relaxed and leisurely. When a mind that is delighted is stirred, its sound pours out and scatters. When a wrathful mind is stirred, its sound is crude and harsh. When a respectful mind is stirred, its sound is upright and pure. When a doting mind is stirred, its sound is agreeable and yielding... Thus the former kings exercised caution in what might cause stirring." The Record of Music, Yue Ji (c425-200BCE)
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    Jul 8 2011: In 2007/2008, the San Francisco Arts Commission did a two year funding cycle giving grants for social service non profit organizations to collaborate with artists of any discipline to address issues broadly related to the "public good" in SF. It was an innovative challenge to both groups to think more creatively about how to use the creative minds of artists to engage in civic life. I think there are a lot of levels of innovation there.

    There was a planning and implementation phase. Let me see if I can find any results from that!
  • Jul 8 2011: Yes artists and designers are a part of western society. People's brains require art/design to trigger certain emotions and feelings from the environment. We need to make the functions of our manmade surroundings aesthetically fulfilling. It must do to us what nature used to in heavily build up cities; provide curiosity, wonder and interactivity..Creating a memorable experience is a crucial part of this process.

    It is within these settings which I wonder how responsibly we create...

    For my university dissertation, I propose to research the exact role and effects designers/artists have within contemporary society. Whilst fulfilling our human instincts to admire, explore and play, how can/do designers/artists represent the natural world and directly relate to it whilst addressing our social needs?

    Surely there needs to be an equal balance and concentration on the world we live in and maintaining/improving its current state through design.

    How is this gone about with current works and what does the future hold for design and creating a 'healthy society? What provisions are and must be taken?

    Just some thoughts for you all... if anyone has any links or further comments on these ideas and questions that would be great :)
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      Jul 8 2011: Its better some precitions about. Artists are not the same than designers. Artis and designers are part of all humanity in all ages. Art and designers are not exclusive of this or that culture. Artists and designers , sometimes have an ocassional social role but not allways. Really we don't know what are the exactly requirements of the brain to trigger "certain emotions and feelings"(please be precise). If you want to present an "exact" role its better to your purpouses choose science and technology , but not art and design. The artist and designer is not allways a "provider" of anything. Thats a coomon idea that has to be revised deeply. Artists and designers dont have the task to represent the natural world or subnatural or supranatural world. The unique focal point is aesthetic (in case of artists) and functional (in the designers role).
      • Jul 8 2011: In the design world, function and form should come hand in hand... they should coincide and compliment with each other. There are many cases in which this does not happen, such as Philippe Starcks lemon squeezer... which are successful because the industry places the designer on a pedalstool. However, design needs to be refined... we need things that serve a set purpose whilst challenging us intellectually. It is this 'challenge' and 'experience' of a piece that provides us with this trigger... for instance, technology provides us with the opportunity to experience new dimensions and illusory worlds.Technology and design are beginning to coincide with each other, this is the future of design.... exhibitions such as the 2009/2010 decode: digital design sensations at the V&A, London, is just one example of this.

        Everything within society is shaped and originated from nature (or a natural process) in one way or another. Within everything created there is a cause and effect. I do not agree that an artists role is to focus purely upon aesthetics... everything has its purpose and place, there is a meaning behind everything. Yes, we require things to be 'pretty', but this is not what maintains our attention on the piece.

        It is a designers role to guide us in engaging with the world, to remind us the environment is still there outside our hectic lives and for us to treat it respectfully. Creating things blindly for aesthetics is irresponsible... I believe these innovative technological designs will be the future for design...
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          Jul 8 2011: Jade I have the pleasure to inform you that design and technology coincides from the ancient times. Technology is not a bunch of black boxes with buttons and lights. Technology is any techynique addapted from science to enhance our lives. So the design role can be developed in different circumstances but design itself remains allways the same in all eras. The hand, the tool, the material, the need, the idea, the concept, the procedures, the methods, the production, the use, the reuse, the skills, the eye, the body, the was not invented yesterday. Design and humanity are togheter from the begining of times.
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    Jul 8 2011: Just some thoughts... the role of artists is to:
    1) to show the world as it is and make people aware of the problems - anything from social problems to environment
    2) to show how current problems can be addressed - transporting vision into reality
    3) to show what has been achieved - inspiring through change
    4) to educate - some people can't read or write, but they can see and remember
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    Jul 8 2011: Art teaches much, both the learned and the learning. Arts can teach and express our universal values of love, hope and trust and the struggling principles of freedom, justice and truth, all beyond the limits of our words.
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      Jul 8 2011: Equally, I think art can play a role in helping us avoid the pitfalls of the past. To show us how we may have gone wrong and taken a subtle turn that led to disastrous consequences. The pen and instruments of the arts can be mightier than the sword.