Visionaries Q&A: Artist Raghava KK on learning to be creative

Raghava KK is an artist, TEDMED/TED speaker and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

Q. In your talk at TEDMED 2013, you showed us your latest work, in which brain wave technology helps viewers shape your art according to their thoughts and moods. How have people responded so far? 

Contrary to what I anticipated, my talk at TEDMED received an overwhelmingly positive response. I thought the TEDMED audience would predominantly think in fundamentals, and there would be a disconnect. But any science taken to a certain level becomes art. It goes into the ability to transcend to abstract the essence of its thing, and apply it beyond a single application. There’s only a limit to which you can be trained in any one thing.

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From doctors to scientists, there are now a lot of people who are in conversation with me about how we can add value to each other’s methods of inquiry. I’m really excited that I’ve gotten to write the forward to a textbook on cultural sensitivity using perspectives in psychiatry that is being brought out by Massachusetts General, Harvard’s teaching hospital.

Did you learn anything surprising about the brain during this project?

Yes! It shocked me the number of emotions we can go through in one minute.

We like to think about ourselves in absolutes, but we are dynamic and continually changing. Also, I’m surprised by the degree to which you can control brain activity. I can manipulate my art pieces on cue. When some people have that feedback, it can make them feel uncomfortable; with others, it helps neutralize their feelings of fear.

You’re working with an education innovation initiative, NuVu, that stresses creative problem solving skills, and have said, in an interview with Dowser, that education now should be about welcoming instability. Your art encourages dynamic perspectives as well. What is it about the world we live in that makes this so important? Can you point to something in your life or learning that led you to embrace the impermanent?

The one thing we know about the world for sure is that it’s constantly changing.  Evolution is not a ladder that’s built on linear progress. It’s more like a round treadmill, where we’re constantly adapting in relation to a dynamic environment.

So it seems appropriate that we learn in a manner that correlates to the state of the human condition and environment. I’ve reinvented myself many times. I’ve always felt that my education was great; it taught me who I am.

But it’s been my creativity that has constantly told me I can be much more. I could have never planned my whole art career and trajectory. I allowed it to unfold by taking an active role in my life and my future. I think that the incident that really sparked this idea was my decision to quit formal education, and to embrace and learn from impermanence. I haven’t had a formal education since high school, so the world has been my classroom.

A screen for POP-IT, an iPad app designed by Raghava KK. Viewers change the characters by shaking the tablet.
A screen for POP-IT, an iPad app designed by Raghava KK. Viewers change the characters by shaking the tablet.

In that same interview, you said, “Even in my own life, I keep putting myself in uncomfortable situations because of the amount I learn.” Can you give a few examples?

Here are three. First, I recently moved back to India, although I was well settled in New York. I wanted to have my third child here, and expose my children to this impossible democracy, which is an experiment in bringing together multiple, dissimilar perspectives and thus gives us so much to experience and to learn from.

Second, I’m starting a company from scratch and learning about entrepreneurship, because I really want to make an impact with this idea, to transcribe it among audiences. It’s a web-based and mobile educational platform called Flipsicle, and it allows you to actually see multiple visual perspectives on any topic. It’s a man-powered Google for images that uses collaboration and crowdsourcing.

We are producing and consuming more pictures than ever before, but desensitizing us to the fact that pictures are only a single view on an event and truth. Even in our schools, we start out with absolutes and go to abstract at a later stage, like high school, which is far too late. We need to disrupt this teaching and go to abstract thinking at a much earlier stage to really teach perspective.

Third: Once my wife and I accidentally found ourselves in a nudist resort.

This is what happens when an Indian books a holiday without knowing the difference because naturist and nature, because in California “naturist” means “nudist.”  We checked in late in the evening; everyone was wearing clothing, because it was cold.  In the morning I opened the window and saw a guy doing yoga in the buff. Then, my wife and I walked out and we were the only people clothed. So – do we stay here, or we go back home and pretend this never happened? But we thought,  ‘What the hell do we have to lose?’ And it led to an entire series of paintings I did on eros and nudity.  I discovered that it’s the continuum that’s erotic, not the absolute states of nudity. The feeling of the weight of clothing is something you just forget; it’s a change of the clothed state you notice.

"Untitled" by Raghava KK, acrylic on canvas, 2011.
“Untitled” by Raghava KK, acrylic on canvas, 2011.

You mention often that you hope your work will inspire empathy. Can you name a piece of art, or an artist, who inspired that in you, or who/that greatly changed your own perspective?

An artist need not look to art to be inspired, but to life. I see a need for empathy in the world, and that’s what inspired me.

Empathy is fashionable word right now, and it can be easy to misrepresent.

To me, empathy is a tool and it has survival value based on context.  For example, sometimes apathy is important. Extrovertism is overrated. Leadership is overrated; not everyone is a leader. We need to understand these things as continuums that have value based on context. So empathy means contextualizing where I come from, where you come from.

For example, I don’t measure myself by the same metrics by which others do, whether it’s the art world or the commercial world or the entrepreneurial world or the TED world. For someone to understand what I – or anyone — does, they have to have an understanding of how I measure my actions. The need for human dignity comes from these factors. It’s a constant need. And I need to be more than an artist. Life is just a tool. Art is just a tool.

Interviewed by Stacy Lu, @stacylu88