September 23, 2013

Cusp Conference 2013: Creativity with a Strong Chance of Thunder

A musician, CEO, and astrophysicist enter a room. Also, an automobile maker and a physician. Add an architect and two comic-book makers with a dash of LEGO-brick artistry. What do all of these divergent disciplines have in common? They converged as speakers at the Cusp Conference 2013 in Chicago on September 18 and 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Cusp Conference is an annual gathering of creative types with a penchant for the eclectic. This year’s conference—the sixth, with the seventh already in the works—was just that: a social meet-up spiked with an eclectic array of presenters, matched by an eclectic array of attendees.

If a welcome mat was tailored for the Cusp Conference, it could say, “Niches welcome.” An eclectic taste for distinct disciplines and subject matter was my expectation. An eccentric experience was my experience. During this wonderfully high-contrast conference, a few action-oriented themes bound some of the speakers’ presentations. Following are some of the most memorable.

“Yeah! I swallow a sword! … This is an art form that is dying.”
—Brett Loudermilk, Sword-Swallower
Each of the following presenters was drawn to a specific craft, at a point in its history, and compelled to extend its purpose, with their respective twist. A storied and cherished craft sounds better “dying” than dead. Champions of a certain craft—loyal to practicing and promoting its importance—are duly noted.

Among the eclectic presentations, the crafts of sword-swallowing and dancing joined the crafts of typography and digital publishing. Spectacle was on full display—in, out, repeat—with Brett Loudermilk’s multi-sword-swallowing demonstrations (above). Members of dance school Big City Swing performed the evolution of early twentieth-century iconic dances like the Lindy Hop that originated with the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Jim Moran, of the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, took his audience on a sentimental journey of the timeless allure and utility of the printed medium, especially the use of wood type’s presence during the 1930s, in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. I recalled my interview with Justine Nagan, who wrote, produced and directed the documentary film Typeface about Moran’s Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum, a “working museum.” Joyce Rice and Erin Polgreen (above) spoke about their work in steering comics toward digital engagement with their interactive platform of Symbolia magazine, dedicated to the storytelling fusion of comics and journalism. Their presentation was in proximity to the printed publication, kindred to their digital publication and announced around the time of Cusp Conference 2013, of Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps that celebrates the pioneering work of comic-book artist and writer Art Spiegelman.

Look up
“This biochemical, environmental choreography is the source of our art, our technology, our inventions, our aspirations, our poetics and greatest challenges.”
—Constance Adams, Architect for human spaceflight
In a couple of the following sessions, we were reminded that the ratio between what is known and unknown is obscene. This and the fact that we are made of stardust. I channeled Morpheus in The Matrix (1999): “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” The cosmic presenters urged the red pill—the anti-human-hubris pill.

Astrophysicist Barth Netterfield gave his audience a tour of balloon-enabled telescopes that capture a smidgen of the perpetual data set from the ever-alluring mystery called Space. When he showed a photograph of deep space composed of a fertile tapestry of galaxies (above) captured by the Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990), it injected a jolt of Earth-bound insignificance. This was compounded by a hearty dose of the unfamiliar, for scientists know very little of the composition of our universe (dark matter and energy still remain inexplicable, that is, dark). This compelled me to recall astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s eloquently blunt description of Earth as a “pale blue dot”, a concept that was felt with gravity. This was also inherent in architect Constance Adams’ presentation about her work realizing human dwellings that tolerate and endure the most severely harsh environment—the Universe. She showed the unique photograph of viewing Earth (above) from the Moon on July 20, 1969. As another eloquent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “We went to the Moon and discovered Earth for the first time … And you cannot even put a price on that.”

“You don’t know what bad design is, until you experience good design.”
—Dr. Joyce Lee
Dr. Joyce Lee (above) was inspired by her son’s acute food allergies to rethink the design of the epinephrine pen. Dr. Gary Slutkin urged his audience to consider violence as a contagious virus and suggested that in order to control it, violence must be approached as a public health issue. From the individual life of Dr. Lee’s son to the lives of many that Dr. Slutkin desires to positively affect for the long-term, caring applies to any scale.

Lee and Slutkin both applied their foundation in medical education to other disciplines: in Lee’s case, “design thinking”; in Slutkin’s case, relief and development. They show that one’s formal education can be tenderized into an informal springboard to enter another world.

“Theater can leave a fingerprint on your soul.”
—Anthony Moseley, Artistic Director of Collaboraction
Actor Anthony Moseley (above, third from right) employed the perennial pair of the stage and the spoken word to perform storytelling about urban abrasion in order to plant and harvest goodwill. A theatrical tone, poignant with moments of humor, was energized by Davy Rothbart, who turned his love of found objects like faxes, to-do notes, love letters and more, into the publication FOUND. These stumbled-upon documents, according to Rothbart, “give a glimpse into someone else’s life.” They provide a unique lens on human behavior and are lent to discovery for their surprising poetry, truly, in motion. Though discarded, they are not forgotten.

I heard poetry in the bagpipe music performed by Patrick Lynch each day at the start of the conference. Though I expected bits of narrative between each instrumental song, the sounds were reminiscent of a past trip I took to Scotland. They piqued my attention about the bagpipes’ form, their masterful manipulation by Lynch and their provocative sound. Within the conference’s context, the bagpipes were a precursor to fight the residual enemy of complacency.

At breaks, the auditorium’s ambiance was imbued by Brian Crabtree playing an electro-sound device he co-created with Kelli Cain. Their shared belief in minimalism translates into an interface that is essentially a matrix of light and sound. An elegant and intimate variation of the electric billboard in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Work can be expressed as music. Musicality is a quality—a sensibility—invoked in the process of making (composing), iterating (fine-tuning) and launching (performing) that what was inexpressible until noticed.

“I love prototyping.”
—Danny Kim, Founder of Lil Motors
Danny Kim (above) relentlessly pursues the creation of a better vehicle, from its concept to consumption. His opening question to the audience was straightforward: “Who here has built a car?” Kim’s mission aligns to Illini EcoConcept team founder Sanat Bhole, who shared his student-led team’s process to participate in Shell’s Ecomarathon Competition. Both reveal the intensity of building a car from scratch. Their visions of the contemporary vehicle personally sparked a cinematic collage of futurist transportation: stories by Philip K. Dick, the artwork of Syd Mead, Anime and Manga.

Both Kim and Bhole identified and furbished a seemingly endless spectrum of moving parts and navigated every piece (of this maniacal puzzle) into a machine—a concert of movement within a shell. In a way, Kim and Bhole are steampunk architects: nostalgic for the original rekindled love of cars, and driven to make it better in these environmentally and economically challenged times.

“Champion creative culture.”
—Maria Guidice, CEO of Hot Studio
Maria Guidice (above) reinforced the problem-clarifying-and-solving role of the designer as a natural conduit to product-making and business activities. Author and educator Warren Berger highlighted design as an inquisitive discipline. His study of designers nurtured his delving into the phenomenon of inquiry, harnessed by the powerful skill of asking “beautiful questions.” From which, there is the potential for invention.


The timing of the conference happened to coincide with rain, thunder and a slice of sunlight. It was the last week of summer, the weekend before autumn commenced. The climate was charged with cusp.


Mike Ivers, the energetic opening speaker of all Cusp Conferences, gave a rallying call for eating from farm to table: “Keep it fresh!” This pairs with a prediction by Justin Massa, of Food Genius, about the future of eating: “It will be really fucking tasty.” The School of Rock (above) closed the conference with a fiercely—and flavorful—concert of classic and modern hits.

Freshness. Tastiness. Rock on.

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During one of the breaks, I met Barth Netterfield, a professor in the departments of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Toronto, and, as mentioned, a presenter at Cusp Conference 2013. Astrophysics is a highly niche profession (though I feel that sword swallowers is far more specialized). If you happen to share the same roof with an astrophysicist, seize this once-in-a-million chance to ask some burning questions. I asked: What is your definition of nothingness? Is the Earth unique? And will there be human spaceflight to Mars in our lifetime? Netterfield’s answers echoed aspects of what I’ve heard before. His response to nothingness was particularly clever.

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View more of my photos of Cusp Conference 2013. The next one will be held October 22–23, 2014.

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Read related blog post: Going to Cusp Conference 2013 in Chicago

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Big thanks again to Andy Eltzroth, principal at Multiple, for generously providing me with a media pass to attend and experience Cusp Conference 2013. To the team of Multiple and all those who helped bring the sixth manifestation of this annual event: Bravo!

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