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Saturday, April 25, 2020
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Suggestions for your senses,
every Saturday at 9 a.m.
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Good morning. We hope you’re staying healthy and doing well.

This week, we talk time with critic and curator Donatien Grau, search for expressive face masks, give FarmBot’s automated farming machine a go, experiment with Landscape’s handheld audio devices, and meet NASA’s “Nasalnaut” chemical specialist.

On our At a Distance podcast, we speak with MASS Design Group founding principal and executive director Michael Murphy, artist Anicka Yi, political talk show host Sam Seder, and Ashtanga yoga teacher Eddie Stern.

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See
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Time Honored
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Curator and critic Donatien Grau—who was on our At a Distance podcast last week—talks with us here about the new book he produced in collaboration with the late couturier Azzedine Alaïa, Taking Time (Rizzoli), a series of wide-ranging conversations on art, time, and creativity. Among the visionary voices featured—most of whom were close friends of Alaïa’s—are Ronan Bouroullec, Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Julian Schnabel, and Robert Wilson. 

How did this project first begin, and what led to the idea of presenting it as a series of conversations about time?

Azzedine always fought for people to be able to make things at their own pace, and he was a paramount example of this. This was something that he had been thinking about, struggling with, and advocating for decades. Then, around 2012 or 2013, it was something he wanted to make people aware of—that there was a need to change how we approach time and creativity, and, progressively, he wanted to bring in some of his friends and fellow travelers from all different disciplines to share their stories, visions, and insights. Initially, he wanted to host great events to discuss the pressures exerted on contemporary creativity, but thought that might actually become a source of pressure. Instead, we began to host these conversations over the course of three to four years, with the idea that they would eventually become a book—his manifesto. 

In a way, what I have been is an instrument for the realization of Azzedine’s project, rather than an author of it. It was Azzedine’s idea and project, and at the time I was very lucky and fortunate that he chose me as his steering partner. After his passing, I made sure that the book would come out and reach the public. 

In the book, you write that each of the interviews is “like a couture dress made of words.” Could you tell us a bit about how you and Azzedine arranged each of the pairings?

Azzedine had this extraordinary community of friends and practitioners that gathered around him, and the basis of this community was really a sense of mutual respect for people who may be very celebrated, and may be famous, but who were also hardworking. This idea that you work your way through life, doing things your own way and making things, was very important to their interactions. 

Every participant is somebody he was friendly with, admired, and respected. As we invited people to join the project, we would ask each of them to come up with somebody that they would like to speak to, and often the person was another friend of Azzedine. That was the case, for example, with the conversation between Isabelle Huppert and Robert Wilson. It was a very organic process of constructing these conversations: Sometimes they had very personalized ideas, and other times they wanted us to suggest people to speak to. From the beginning, it was very important to bring in contributors from different worlds and cultural spheres to really share their own experiences, and, in a way, it was also important that the project be performative, in that we were talking about taking time, but also taking time as we were doing it.

They were all moderated by Azzedine and me, so we were both present, and they were all hosted around his kitchen table, which is a very important and iconic part of his house. He would host his friends and collaborators every day, and easily have twenty to forty people over for lunch and then at dinner—and famously, he always left an empty seat for one of his friends who might show up and want to join them. There was a sense of purpose that animated the whole community—something, I think, that is quite an important message today, which is to claim a form of ownership of one’s time. 

As a critic and historian, you’ve written about art and creativity. How did working on this book for several years change your understanding of both?

Being with Azzedine, as a friend and as a collaborator, has completely changed the way I work and think. The way people talk about creative communities from the 1920s—people around Jacques Doucet or around [Paul] Poiret—what Azzedine did was exactly that, but you weren’t reading about it in books, you were experiencing it for real, and with a level of intelligence and precision, as well as a deep human connection. 

Obviously, everybody who’s worked with him and has been close to him has had their vision completely changed by him. He was somebody who would completely challenge everything you could see. He was an extraordinary creator and maker, as well as somebody who had impeccable taste in other people’s artworks and creations.

With the ongoing Covid-19 slowdown, people around the world are adapting to a new, altered sense of time, taking stock of the present and rethinking the future. How has this period changed your perception of time and relationship to it?

It’s quite fascinating to see the book come out at this very precise moment in history. As Naomi Campbell writes in the foreword, Azzedine was very often ahead of his time, even if you didn’t know it at the time when he was doing it. Obviously, when he passed away, in 2017, we didn’t plan on the book coming out in 2020. We didn’t plan on it coming out two weeks before the Met Ball themed around time [which was supposed to take place next month, but has been postponed], and we certainly didn’t plan to publish it during a world pandemic. The values that Azzedine advocated for—this emphasis on creating one’s space, owning one’s time, and being aware of the industry pressure as something that tends to devour you, and making yourself mindful of the lessons from older generations, as well as from the younger generations—these are all lessons that are really important right now.

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Touch
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Facial Expressions
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Photo: Ben Cope
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For a few weeks now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been recommending that Americans wear cloth face coverings while social distancing, as a measure to slow the spread of Covid-19. In some places, including New York and New Jersey, not wearing one in public may even stick you a fine. With many fashion and product designers shifting their resources to help curb the pandemic—and often donating masks to frontline workers—there are now many ways to express yourself while still staying safe, even if half of your face is covered. 

We searched around for an eccentric grouping of what’s out there. Among the colorful prints, patterns, and textiles on offer, this linen and cotton-gauze mask by Utopia Goods stood out as both practical and cheery. We also noted some of the gutsier options available, such as this fashion-forward take by Collina Strada with long, beautiful bows that can be tied in a variety of ways and are made with deadstock materials from previous collections. For a more rugged aesthetic, Los Angeles–based designer Stephen Kenn makes a durable olive green mask, pictured, with a vintage military canvas exterior and a soft black cotton canvas lining. And, of course, if you have an old scarf or handkerchief lying around, you can easily just make your own

Also, it bears repeating: If you happen to get ahold of medical-grade PPE supplies, please find a way to get them into the hands of the first responders and health care workers who urgently need them the most.
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Taste
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Bot Plot
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Courtesy FarmBot
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Between homeschooling, working from home, and/or cooking at home more than ever, many of us are spending our days staying put. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are more hours in the day. If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden or a plot of outdoor space at your disposal, the task of starting an edible home garden might be a more manageable prospect than you think, thanks to an automated, open-source system called FarmBot that’s been slowly cultivating a fan base of users online. Controlled using an app, and assembled from a kit of parts, the CNC bot uses a series of tools to perform a range of functions—it can seed, weed, and even measure the soil’s moisture content, as well as factor in the weather forecast as it waters on a programmed schedule. Describing it as “a really big 3-D printer, but for plants,” creator Rory Aronson, who began designing FarmBot while taking an organic agriculture class at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has said that he hopes that his contraption might one day become as ubiquitous as any other home and kitchen appliance. “Just like everyone has a refrigerator and a washing machine and a dryer, maybe you have a Farmbot, too... You turn on your faucet and water comes out; you go out into your backyard and there’s food that’s been grown for you.” 

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Hear
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Playback Loops
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Courtesy Landscape
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Brooklyn-based musician Eric Pitra first began tinkering with synthesizers several years ago as part of a D.I.Y. pet project, self-learning his way through the world of audio gear as an artist with an initial background in photography. He’s since run his own workshop under the moniker Landscape, specializing in handheld, analog electronic musical instruments that have found a home among numerous artists—musicians such as Arca and Kid Koala, video game composer Mic Gordon, and the sound design teams at Lucas Films and the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Though just roughly the size of a Walkman, Pitra’s minimalist, compact machines pack a punch of analog sound that isn’t easily replicable among the digital production tools commonly used today. His two instruments include the HC-TT (short for “human-controlled tape transport”), which features a series of knobs that allow you to manually play a cassette both forward and backward with your hands, and Stereo Field, a synthesizer that’s operated by “touch plates” that utilize skin conductivity to create atonal analog feedback and all sorts of organic distortions. Both bring a gratifying, tactile sense of play to the landscape of electronic sounds—and thankfully, wouldn’t take up much space in an ad hoc quarantine studio.

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Smell
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Mission Control
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For chemical specialist George Aldrich, his keen sense of scent doesn’t just make him an expert—it acts as NASA’s first line of olfactory defense. As the organization’s self-described “Nasalnaut,” whose nose is government-certified three times a year, Aldrich conducts toxicity tests on all objects before they’re sent into space. In his forty-odd years working at the agency’s White Sands Test Facility’s Molecular Desorption and Analysis Laboratory, in New Mexico, he has completed more than 800 “smell missions” to detect potentially noxious and unpleasant smells that might harm or distract astronauts from completing their missions—or, more importantly, tamper with the delicately balanced internal climate of a space shuttle’s confined quarters. After all, you can’t just crack a window when you’re hurtling through outer space.

Aldrich has earned many nicknames for his very particular professional duties over the years—including “Chief Sniffer,” “Nostrildamus,” and “Most Smella Fella”—and was deemed the “best nose in the world” by Stan Lee’s Superhumans television series. On the show, Aldrich tested his capabilities against the tasks of a trained K-9 police dog, which can smell 100 times better than humans, and prevailed each time, to even his own astonishment. Nothing gets past his nose, on the job or off, except for the actual astronauts themselves. As Aldrich has said: “Human beings stink, and there’s not too much we can do about it.”

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Until next week...

Today’s email was written by Aileen Kwun.

Editor: Spencer Bailey
Creative Director: Andrew Zuckerman
Producer: Mike Lala
Copy Editor: Mimi Hannon

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