Mumbai Bombings and Social Media

There will be time for more thoughtful analysis later. For now I wanted my students in particular to check out how today’s bombings in Mumbai are playing out in various social media.

I suggest you search Twitter using hashtags such as #MumbaiBlasts, #Mumbai, and — believe it or not — #here2help. You should also look for other video and accounts on YouTube and Facebook.

And remember: this flood of messages is inevitably packed with everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, from false claims to painful and urgent truths. When I suggest that you get a feel for the role that social media can play in events like these, I am not making any claim about accuracy. They simply are a fact of global social life in the 21st century.

The sad fact is these types of tragedies do seem to reveal so many of the potential uses and abuses, opportunities and dangers, of social media. And every so often, some truly profound development finds its way through the confusion and crowd of the digital world,  and quickly commands global attention.

The trick will be for all of us to give up our passivity and see the flood of messages from social media as a resource that requires us to actively be our own editors — to evaluate, curate, edit, and ultimately accept or reject what we discover.

It’s worth a look.

The Taxi Takes on Terror

Some of you who occasionally read Media and Mayhem know that I often think about the often troubling and strange place where media and culture meets  tragedy and catastrophe.

That is why I want to call your attention to The Taxi Takes  on Terror,  an ambitious effort by a talented young artist to confront terror and  find  common ground between diverse people through the surprizing lens  of a taxi in crowded Mumbai.   Vandana Sood is a graduate student in our MFA program in Integrated Media Arts at Hunter College.  Her thesis project is a mesmerizing use of both video and other new media tools  to examine the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre.

What makes the project so fascinating is that the “frame” she chooses for her exploration are the taxi cabs of Mumbai, spaces both public and private in which drivers and passengers — surrounded by the passing tumult of street life — try to make sense of such painful events. As Vandana asks on the home page of her web site:

“What happens when people from different class backgrounds, literacy levels or religious faiths sit across from each other in a taxi and take a journey together? Can this setting provide fertile ground for a rich dialogue about modern terrorism?”

The results of her  journey through the tumultuous streets of Mumbai are at once profound and beautiful.  And the temporary coming together of diverse people in a taxi does turn out to be an extraordinary moment for reflection and expression.  She captures a number of these interactions on film and also gives us a fascinating glimpse at the taxis themselves, vehicles that — inside and out — are extraordinary objects of art.

I invite you to take a look at Vandana’s The Taxi Takes on Terror.  It is a work intended to stimulate discussion and debate. Feel free to leave comments and engage in the discussion she has initiated.

And see just what is possible when a talented video-maker and digital artist  — working in the aftermath of an epic act of terrorism —  chooses the unique context of a taxi  to explore matters of conflict, violence, hope, life, and death.

The Aesthetics of Unbearable Grief



It is hard for me to look at a photograph that fuses tragedy and beauty without some guilt.  The thought that I might feel any kind of pleasure or aesthetic satisfaction at an image of horror seems almost instinctively wrong.   

Of course, at the same time, I know that beauty is a complex concept. It is not necessarily, nor even typically, “pretty.” We all have found pleasure in gazing at images depicting moments of unbearable sadness and pain.

So what is beauty?

I will always be haunted by a renowned virologist who tried to explain to me why he found the HIV virus – in its complexity and brilliant resistance to being destroyed or even tricked — a thing of beauty. Perhaps sometimes we describe something as beautiful, not because it gives us conventional pleasure or joy, but because we are humbled or stunned at what it reveals of our profound humanness and vulnerability.  Humanness — stripped of artifice and faux gentility – can be sublimely beautiful, even when it leads us to horror.  It is who we are.

To be sure, this is a different kind of beauty, rooted not in pleasure but in awe. If we see beauty in moments of fury, angry crowds, acts of violence, and even death, perhaps we are simply in awe of such unflinching glimpses of ourselves.  Maybe we even find it titillating to see ourselves so nakedly human, so capable of evil, so overcome with grief?

Which leads to this picture from the front page of today’s New York Times by AP photographer Gurinder Osan.

This is a crowd in the midst of unbearable grief; a heaving, surging, human crowd surrounding the grieving family of terror victim Haresh Gohil. It is living the shared pain of a community brought together in a volatile mixture of anger and sadness. It is a swirling and kinetic crowd that —  from the unusual angle chosen by Osan — has formed a human tapestry of grief. The wailing and moaning even seems audible, yet it only takes a moment to recall that this is a silent photograph.   

It is human. It is deeply sad. It is horrible.

It is beautiful.