04.17.24
Carrie Mae Weems | Audio

S11E1: How to Throw a Party to Change the World with Carrie Mae Weems


Carrie Mae Weems burst into the art scene in 1990 with her landmark Kitchen Table photo series, establishing herself as a fearless observer of intimacy, power, and Black life, especially her own. “History is not created by winners; it’s created by people trying to survive,” she says.

Throughout her career, Weems has been a constant innovator, melding multidisciplinary art forms — video, performance, installation, social practice — into important reflections of identity, race, gender, and justice.

And one thing Weems knows better than almost anyone: how to throw a party that matters.

In this episode, Weems talks about her work, her role in public life, the intersecting crises in the world, and the power of convening people through art to confront big truths. “Whatever the crisis is, whether it’s social-political, or it’s in the artistic, how to articulate the question, then I think becomes important,” she says. “And it’s not simply made for women and it’s not simply made for Black people. It’s made for people who are interested in having the conversation.”

This season of DB|BD is powered by Deloitte.

To learn more about Carrie Mae Weems and her work, check out:

- Her website
Varying Shades of Browna project featuring her major installations and programs across Brown University
A write-up of her Cyclorama in the New York Times

If you enjoyed this conversation with Carrie Mae, check out Jessica and Ellen’s Season 9 conversation with Avery Willis Hoffman, the artistic director of the Brown Arts Institute.

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Episodes are produced by Design Observer’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.





Transcript

Carrie Mae Weems As much as I love men and I like working with men, I don't think they like working with me all that much /laughs 

Ellen McGirt /Laughs. 

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. 

Carrie Mae Weems You know, men don't know what to do with women. And then don't know what to do with women like us. 

Ellen McGirt Welcome to the Design of Business,

Jessica Helfand The Business of Design. 

Ellen McGirt Where we introduce you to people from all over the world, from different industries and disciplines. 

Jessica Helfand Who are here to talk about design, business, civility and the values that govern how we work and live together. 

Ellen McGirt This season we are observing equity. 

Jessica Helfand I'm Jessica Helfand. 

Ellen McGirt And I'm Ellen McGirt. This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is powered by Deloitte's DEI Institute. Deloitte believes that bold actions can help drive equitable outcomes, and conversations like this can fuel the change needed to continue to build a more equitable society. Visit Deloitte's DEI Institute site at. Deloitte dot com slash US slash DEI Institute for more of their research and perspectives on equity. 

Ellen McGirt Jessica! 

Jessica Helfand Ellen. 

Ellen McGirt How are you! I cannot believe it. I'm so happy to be back with you. 

Jessica Helfand As am I, as am I.  

Ellen McGirt Do you believe that this is the first episode of the 11th season of the DB|BD podcast? I cannot. 

Jessica Helfand I cannot believe it. This season is special for so many reasons. For one, we get to be side by side again, co-hosting every episode. So listeners, be prepared, brace for impact. And more importantly, two — this season is focused on something very special, highlighting what Ellen, you have called and wisely, the re-designers. Tell us something about what this is and why you came up with this beautiful word to describe what we're doing. 

Ellen McGirt Thank you so much for asking since I do talk about it a lot —now, we all do. Basically, one of the things that people like to talk about when we discuss issues of inequity in society and the workforce and all the systems that touch our lives, is that these systems are functioning as they were designed, that if black women are dying in childbirth in numbers greater than their white counterparts, if Latina women are paid less than everyone else, the education system is failing kids of color, creditworthy black homeowners, all the things, right? All these systems that are in play are working as they were designed. Now it gets complicated. The specifics aren't easy to find. It's rooted in the past and may be largely invisible, but it's ultimately design problem. And that's why I brought it to you and I brought it to us. So if you agree with this premise, and I do, then it seems to us that the only way to address these huge, ugly, systemic problems is by tackling it as a redesign brief. And that also means that everybody gets to bring their wisdom, their expertise, their training, their soul, their perspective, their vote to the table as redesigners. And that means, you know, everybody has a role to play. We started down this path with Design Observer Twenty, our now annual list of the people and ideas changing the world for good. And that was 2023. And if you head over to Design Observer dot com you can see that list. And I'll tell you that package was by far the most successful and popular content that we'd posted in a number of years, so it felt like we were on the right track. 

Jessica Helfand We are on to something, and you in particular are onto something here. I think for a long time now, design has been co-opted by owned by, I think appropriated by everyone. Why shouldn't redesign be I think in the same way? And an even more trenchant observation, which you have brought to Design Observer is the degree to which we are all redesigning something. Why not do it in a way that is commensurate with a more productive, proactive, promising future for everyone? And here's where I want to say that one of the best things about the redesign package and this year, and you coming on as our Editor in Chief, is maybe for longtime listeners and longtime readers, a little bit less focus on design as it was and more focus on the observer part, which is, of course, intrinsically visual but also deeply human. Our first redesigner is an icon who has been redesigning what she calls "the field" for over 40 years. For her, the field includes many things: photography, dance, film, art, sculpture. I'm talking about the incomparable and deeply multidisciplinary artist Carrie Mae Weems. 

Ellen McGirt Deeply multidisciplinary. Carrie Mae Williams needs very little introduction, but for anybody who needs a bit of a primer, here we go. Carrie started her artistic career in the 1970s as a dancer, studying under modern dance legend Anna Halprin when she was just 17 years old. When she was 20, her then boyfriend gave her a camera as a birthday gift,And what a gift to the whole world that was. She describes it as: "her tool to see the world". Weems exhibited her first collection of photographs, family pictures and stories in 1983, exploring the migration of black families from the American South to the North, thus marking the public's introduction to one of the most prolific artists of our times. Her body of work stretches over four decades and across many mediums, but with a singular focus—  depicting the reality of Black life. 

Jessica Helfand And just thinking of her body of work, this immense, comprehensive, really kaleidoscopic perspective on so many things. Why do you think Ellen, she's such a perfect fit to kickstart this season of the redesigners? 

Ellen McGirt Well, you said it so perfectly in our intro, Jessica. She has become one of the world's greatest observers. And that she was observing a portion of life that was misunderstood, misrepresented, often willfully and by design, misrepresented by popular industry and entertainment. You know, the Black family, Black women, Black life. It seemed like a perfect time to not only enjoy what she has learned of over 40 years of being an artist, which is a difficult job under the best of circumstances, but what she's learned about observing the unobserved. 

Jessica Helfand We recorded this interview several months back,Ellen, right after you were here in Providence attending a convening here at Brown called the Varying Shades of Brown Conference, where, Carrie Mae Williams was finishing up her semester as the inaugural Agnes Gund Professor of Practice of Arts and Social Justice. So here's what makes this really a global, moment of miraculous coordinates coming together all at the same time. I live in Providence. I'm not in Providence. You're in Providence. Carrie Mae Weems is in Providence. I am in France, where my partner has COVID. And so we are — if you have to have Covid, you should be stuck in the south of France, where it's beautiful —and there happens to be, wait for it, a Carrie Mae Weems show in France, 30 minutes from where we're staying in Arles. And so I get to see the identical exhibition that you are seeing here in Providence, so that when it all came together and all three of us are in different parts of the world having this conversation, you and I had both seen the show the same week in different parts of the world. 

Ellen McGirt Varying shades of connection. I love—. 

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. Varying shades of COVID. 

Ellen McGirt  It's incredible knowing you're across the ocean having the same experience, particularly the Cyclorama that really left an impression on me. And we get into it a little bit with Carrie and we talk about it after the episode as well. 

Jessica Helfand Tell us and our listeners a little bit about how this experience was for you. 

Ellen McGirt You know, Carrie Mae Weems is known for her convenings. This is the first one I'd been lucky enough to attend, and it is a cross between the best dinner party that you've ever wished you could be invited to, it's like she's opening up her family album and just friends from decades. 

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. 

Ellen McGirt Are just showing up. And there's music. Everyone in the audience is a member of the convening, so it just joy and music and potential just— and I'm amazed at the people who came, who are from the community, who clearly felt like this spoke to them. And all of the people who flew in from around the world to participate. It felt like I was in a womb, a world that she created just for us. And I'll tell you, Jessica, I know that you know this about me. I, I go to a lot of convenings, you know, as a person who, you know, I only eat conference food certain months of the year. 

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. 

Ellen McGirt Like, that's what the job is of a journalist. I wish I had the capacity to throw something a third, a quarter, a fraction as wonderful as what this was. And, I I'm just so grateful to everybody who was able to pull it together. And she is, of course, a spectacular figure. And she just walked among us. She just walked among us. 

Jessica Helfand She has a really spectacular notion of what community means. You pointed this out to me early on when we were preparing for this interview, Ellen, that she she's really someone who pays it forward, who gives back, who mentors others, who who has humility in the face of her own ability to convene, and listeners in apology. Normally I record in this wonderful studio in Providence with expert producers, but the Carrie Mae Weems conversation for me meant being in France with COVID recording on my phone, so I'm asking you to throw me a little clemency for this one. 

Ellen McGirt And with that, that was beautiful. Jessica, let's jump in. And here is our conversation with the Carrie Mae Weems. 

Ellen McGirt If there is anything that I've learned about you over the years, but particularly over the weekend when I lived in the space that you created for 48 hours, was how extraordinary you are at bearing witness to the condition of others, to the pain of the world, and you're really almost ineffable ability to hold space for other creative people. It was someone on stage, I'm looking at my notes here, talked about-acknowledged you for your, artistic practice and how inspiring that's been, but very specifically your practice of convening, particularly as it cues generosity and generativity. And I was astonished that to live there and to miss you, Carrie, when I was gone, and to miss that feeling of feel of being safe. Partic-I'm a Brown alum. I'm not used to feeling safe at Brown. And, I just wanted to start by acknowledging that, it must take a lot out of you. 

Carrie Mae Weems Well, you get what you give. 

Ellen McGirt See, yeah. 

Carrie Mae Weems You get what you give. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Carrie Mae Weems You know, you know, sometimes you think that you're giving and you're just receiving. And so-and so, you know, I had this, somehow early on, I developed an ability to bring people together. I don't know where it comes from. All I know is that it's something that I'm able to do, and I, and I do it well, and I do it actually with with with ease. You know, I'm very comfortable with people, and very comfortable in the world. And I have a sense that, people are very comfortable with me. People trust me. What a wonderful thing that I am trusted. And so within that space of trust that I'm able to do all of the work that I do, you know, that, you know, it's, you know, as judgemental as I am, people somehow still trust me to really good and get it right. And I think that in part, you know, some of that trust comes from, the way that, that I ask certain kinds of questions. 

Ellen McGirt Mhm. 

Jessica Helfand Mmm. 

Carrie Mae Weems I ask questions because really, you know, we're all, you know, every morning you get up and you're trying to figure out what you're doing on the planet. Every morning you are confronted with what you're doing on the planet, right? And what matters, you know what matters and how you're actually going to make it through the day, and what you're going to do from the time you get up until the time you go to bed, what you're going to and what's actually going to be meaningful in the course of the day. And what do you contribute ultimately, right, to whatever it is that you care about? And I think that often people are confused about what they care about, right. So, you know, it's like going over to the school and then being in this, this, you know, dynamic moment where, where this everything is so unsettled. And, and if you say anything positive about Palestine, it means that you're saying something negative about Israel as well. This is not where I am. It's not where I sit. I refuse that. And yet-and yet-and yet everyone feels as though they're being forced to take sides. I think that the most courageous thing to do is to pose questions to both sides about all things, right? Because everything needs to be questioned. And so, how to articulate the question that I think becomes important and, how to present it and how to make people feel at ease around it. And so I think that probably in some ways, you know, one of the things that I've always been very interested in is sort of like the notion of conflict resolution. How do we resolve crises? How do we resolve crises? And I think, you know, whatever that crises is, whether it's in, you know, the sort of social, political or within the artistic, right. They're all sort of the same. It's just sort of different modes of articulation, right. And so, you know, what are the questions that artists are trying to tease out and then-and then how can I offer a platform for that teasing out whether you are a writer or a visual artist or a dancer or a scientist, you know, or a political economist or an environmentalist? I'm sort of interested in all of it because it's all interwoven and it's intersected, right. And the most fascinating work, you know, I think, really makes use of all of it. And so, my convenings have always had a very broad mix of people coming from many, many different, spaces and and, Brown is-is, Brown is probably the smallest one that I've actually done, but, but, but the great thing is, is that I'm always, fundamentally nourished by what others are doing. So I feel as though, again, I get, as much as I give, and, everybody I know who there is exhausted. Everybody I know is laying down /Laughs/ so it's gotta be true. 

Ellen McGirt I was.

Jessica Helfand I was wondering, as you were talking about discovering your ability to be trusted and discovering your passionate belief in the input of others, and-and these things to know about oneself are so epic. They're so huge, and they're so fundamental to the work, you make, the voice you have, the impact you've had in the world. Were there moments when you were coming of age as a young artist? Were there people who gave you opportunities? Were there institutions that didn't give you opportunities that made you realize, look deeply in yourself? Can you can you pinpoint moments when or people who made you see things in yourself that you now see in others? 

Carrie Mae Weems My father. My father. 

Jessica Helfand Oh, beautiful. 

Carrie Mae Weems I'm so lucky. My father. At very young age, I think. I think it's so it's, you know, and as I had grown through the years, it's the one constant. It's the one thing that is constant. This, great, — his extraordinary ability to to gift his children. With the notion that they had the right to be any and everywhere in the world. And that there was no one better, or rather bigger, or better than I. And I was better than no one else, right, that we were equal. And having that from from that from as early as I can remember, from as early as I can remember. Having that instilled I think has been very, very, very, very, very important. And, and so it does sort of give me a sense of confidence in myself and in the world. That, that has been very important. And so, I'm very grateful for that. Of course I've had other-other- other friends, other colleagues who have been important, who have been important um in different ways, who, introduced me to, introduced me to ideas to introduce me to to politics early in my, in my life. And so I, and I was always very thirsty, you know, always very thirsty. So I was very lucky to, to meet these kind of people very, very early. You know, it's been-it's been, a very interesting thing as a, as a woman, sort of moving through space. You know, there have been a few men along the way who, who who encouraged me, who encouraged me. But for the most part, I think when I really unpack it and I really look at it very closely, it's really been the women in my life, the women around me, who've been really the ones who have quietly supported me. You know, and, sometimes, you know, something happens, you know? You don't know where the support is coming from, but, you know, it's coming from somewhere, right? And if you dig deep enough, you know, you discover that it was —Oh. That that woman. That-that woman who was the director of that institution, that woman who was the director of that institution, that person who's the director, or the curator of that institution, right. And, and, you know, and it's still, for the most part, very, very, very true, right. And so even even today, when I look at the, the vast majority of-of-of curators who are really interested in my work, who are writing about the work, who are processing the work, and I'm going to tell you something even more interesting in a few minutes. — I look at those names, 90% of them are women. 

Ellen McGirt Mmm. 

Carrie Mae Weems 90% of them are women, whether they're working on their PhDs, whether teaching, whether they're teaching in university or colleges or-or grade schools. They are the women who are really carrying my, the name of  Carrie Mae Weems forward. And the idea that I might be of importance to the field and that I think is very interesting. And so, as much as I love men and I like working with men, I don't think they like working with nearly all of that much. /Laughs 

Ellen McGirt Yes yes yes. Yes yes I would I aspire, yes, challenging to the men in my life as Carrie Mae Weems, I do. That is that, that's an energy that will bring me forward. Thank you for that. 

Carrie Mae Weems You know, I mean, it's really just sort of the truth. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Carrie Mae Weems And it's. And and indeed, I have to say, it's with a certain sadness. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Carrie Mae Weems It's with a certain sadness, you know, because I've supported a whole lot of people and a whole lot of men in my life. And, and not to, you really have their support in a serious way has has been meaningful to me and sad to me, and I've called them, I've called a few of them, some of my, my closest colleagues, to ask them why. You know? You know, men don't know what to do with women. And men don't know what to do with women like us for the most part. And they don't know what to do with a woman like me. They don't know how to meet my needs, and they assume in some way that I don't quite have them because I'm not asking for it, right. And so — as opposed to making the assumption that we're all in need, and therefore you offer what you have to offer because you can offer it /Laughs. 

Jessica Helfand /Laughs. 

Carrie Mae Weems You know, it's pretty basic. It's really basic. And so, so I've had to have a talks and talks with a few of my male colleagues in the last couple of years about, about this, because I think that it really does matter. On the other hand, things are changing and, and women are stepping up and out in the field, I think, in new ways. And they're making their voices heard and the things that they care about heard. And-and so I'm a part of so I'm a part of that mix as well. Right, so it's not just about about sort of resistance to change. It's also about how change is taking place and who is at the forefront of that change. 

Ellen McGirt To me, it's also about longevity. You know, I, we're-we're sort of generationally very connected here and haven't lived this long to see the kinds of things, that mean real change for people. I, I was very moved by your conversation with Lena  Waithe. 

Carrie Mae Weems Wasn't that lovely?

Ellen McGirt Wasn't that lovely? It was like the reverence and the just the truth telling, which I think is part of why people trust both of you. But I love the fact that you included, images from your scenes and takes photo project when you ask the really poignant question across the generational divide — the: Why now? And what does it feel to be to have been to early? She had arrived in Hollywood on a wing and a prayer, and the clock was ticking. I mean, just transfixing moment. So I was wondering if we could we could talk a little bit about what price we pay when we are too early, and to build on your calling people and asking them, where are we supporting the people in this new moment? Who is too early right now that we need to be paying attention to, and how do we engage them? 

Carrie Mae Weems That's a that's really kind of a wonderful that's really a wonderful question. I'm not really sure really how to answer it, but I think it's a really wonderful question. You know, I mean, I don't know, I don't really know the answer at the moment. But I but I do know that, that we've got a long way to go and that, that in this field that we have a long way to go and that and that, you know, even while, there has been this, flourishing flurry of activity around Black, Brown and women artists in the last few years, it's only been the last few years, right, out of-out of the hundreds of years out of hundreds of years. It's only been in a couple seconds of attention given to contemporary women and, people of color in the arts. So, so, I think that we still have a lot of work to do with mining where we are right now. And it seems to me that the thing that becomes really important with the thing that I've always been, very interested in is how do we and how do I, as a- as an individual, as an artist, as a practitioner, as a convener, as a as a thought leader— how do I simply, by my action and by the questions I raise, and by what I do, how do I, broaden the field of possibility? For-for art in general. And then for people of color in particular and then women as well, right. That, I think is is always a question its- I'm always looking, which is why I always invite younger people to, to participate as well. 

Ellen McGirt Right. 

Carrie Mae Weems You know, you know, they always say that, you know, you need at least three generations of data. 

Ellen McGirt Mmm. 

Jessica Helfand Mhhm. 

And, if you can do that, if you can do that, then you know that you're always reaching back, even as you are reaching forward. You know, this morning, early this morning, at this very interesting conversation—  sort of with both with myself and with, and an art historian, and, you know, like, I can I can see, you know, as I look out on the horizon, I can see change coming straight at me. And, and part of the change that I see, is- is, you know, is, is is, you know, part of that change has to do with the way that I, happened to be, how I am being written into history. 

Ellen McGirt Mmmmm. 

Carrie Mae Weems Whole set of young historians, curators and art historians and writers and social critics, etc., who are writing the into history. Now, this is sort of phenomenal to witness in my own time. I mean, it's really kind of remarkable, right. So so I started to, to, to sort of understand for myself. That something that something transformative was happening in relationship to the idea of who Carrie Weems is and what it is that she has done in the field, and what it means to a generation of of practitioners. And so this morning when I, opened an email and, two women had written me about investigating and doing major projects around my-my early work. Two women, two different fields. Right. But doing work around my early projects, I thought: Ah, that is what it is. I am actually being written at this very moment into the historical document as an artist. And this is just sort of amazing and I don't know, how- so it's just of, it's, and I and I say this really with-With great surprise. This is not, like, something that I wanted. It's not something that I ever thought about. It's not something that I've encouraged. It's simply something that I am observing, something that I'm observing. 

Ellen McGirt I'm here with Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's chief purpose and DEI officer and good friend and sponsor of today's episode. Good to see you, Kwesi. Thank you for joining us. 

Kwasi Mitchell It's good to be here, Ellen. 

Ellen McGirt So I want to talk about the individual employees are often looking to leaders to fix the big systems and address systemic biases. But you've got upcoming research that says that every individual within an organization can make a difference. I want to believe. Can you tell us more? 

Kwasi Mitchell I am a firm believer if it makes you feel better, Ellen. And our research, and this specific piece is titled The Power of AI in Equity. 

Ellen McGirt Ok. 

Kwasi Mitchell And it's really driving the notion that we all play an individual part, you know, in addressing DEI and driving change within our organizations. And in fact, our research shows that almost 76% of employees agree that everyone should play a role in advancing equity. However, where you have a breakdown is 79% of senior leaders believe that they have a role, whereas only 56% of staff believe that they have a role. And that substantial gap that exists there is what we fundamentally need to address to drive better and more equitable outcomes within the workforce. 

Ellen McGirt So we've learned that inclusion belongs to everybody, regardless of where you are in an organization or even just not in an organization, just walking through the world as a person who cares about others, people go to the DEI institute website. What are they going to find there? 

Kwasi Mitchell They're going to find leading research that really boils down some of these really complex challenges into actionable, tactical steps that leaders can take on a daily basis to transform their workforce. So what you'll see is thoughtful research that puts you into a position of acting rather than observing and sitting on the sidelines because we need everyone to act. 

Ellen McGirt Always great to hear  concrete ways we can move forward. Thank you for your time, Kwasi. 

Kwasi Mitchell Thank you for the opportunity. Ellen. It's been a pleasure. 

Jessica Helfand When you talk about the field, the field,  I look at the incredible, prodigious output of in many different dimensions of the field. When you began as a photographer taking photographs, were you already thinking about dance and film and sculpture and installation and environment and space? And imagining this sort of expansiveness, and as you did— because the second question is, do you think that working in those many kaleidoscopic dimensions also becomes points of entry for all the contributors and all the collaborators and all the voices that you can give access to? I thought everybody that I mean, I think that's such an incre-for me, such a visually, the bravery of being able to work in so many dimensions is really perhaps the big question. 

Carrie Mae Weems Oh, well thank you. But I do know that, for instance. My, my the cyclorama itself is a is a forum. It's a it's an arena. It's an arena. 

Jessica Helfand Mmm. 

Carrie Mae Weems So, so, it's a container for the containment of certain kinds of ideas, and it can carry with it then performance and music and theater. It has the potential as a structure to carry all of these, all these disciplines along with it. It's really sort of wonderful. And something that I have, been interested in for a very long time. I've been interested in the notion that a circus in performance for years. For years and years and years and years. And so my cyclorama is really a way of dealing with or containing this idea about, about the circus, starting with the circus of politics and the politics of circus, using that as a kind of metaphor for dealing with lots of different ideas in the same way that you would across like a circus performance. I had already been involved a little bit with theater, I had already been involved with dance, when I came to photography. So I'd already done those things, but I didn't understand, really, you know, what choreography was. I mean, I didn't really understand it as a discipline, so I understood it as a dancer, but I didn't understand it as as a choreographer. And I think that probably had I understood choreography really as a field, maybe I would have stayed much longer in dance, right. So it just sort of forms, you know, so, you know, like I'm sort of like a I'm a natural, like I'm a natural mover. I'm a natural dancer. So dance wasn't necessarily challenging. It was something that I just sort of did naturally. And so people, people would ask me to, to, you know, to participate, you know, I'm a character. So people would ask me to perform. So I was never really interested in acting, right. I think I've always been interested things and and things were slightly quieter. I was always interested, more interested in the visual, was more interested in painting. I was more interested in, poetry. Something that was smaller, that was a little bit more, solitary, solitary. You know, I seem to be like, an extraordinary, like, extrovert. But I really I really require an enormous amount of solitude. 

Ellen McGirt Mhmhh. 

Carrie Mae Weems So, it takes an enormous amount of solitude to really think about, a number of other artists and how to bring them forward. 

Jessica Helfand The most delicious answer. And there's so much here. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Jessica Helfand Thank you so much. That's really generous of you to answer all of my questions in one beautiful way. Ellen. 

Ellen McGirt In the time we have remaining, I know that you've got so much on your plate, I wanted to attempt to thread the needle between trusting you, the way you show up and your your now essential component in the historical record through your work. Because it's not just practitioners who need you or who are understanding you, it's it is the world, you know, that is— we, we need the world to understand this work and that there's two things I wanted to share with you. One, I wanted to flag The Usual Suspects, which is an extraordinary exhibit of the photographs, the young men wearing hoodies and their police records, destroyed and murdered by police violence. As a long time business journalist, which is a-I'm going to say it's going to sound like, hilarious to your ears, for the last seven years, I've focused on the intersection of race, equity, leadership, and business life. And that has been a strange and lonely beat. And one of the things I did for my audience who desperately need this information was watch every single police shooting so they didn't have to, so that my reporter's voice could tell them, this is valid, you should be upset. Here are the components. Don't watch, I did it, it will leave a mark, right? I mean, it will leave a mark, but I see The UsualSuspects. And what do I see? I see you giving a way for us to engage as viewers together with this material, which are human lives, human lives in a way that feels emotionally sustainable and in fact nourishes us, to use your word. I mean, it was just an extraordinary thing for me to be there. The other one was in that the other experience I had was in the cycle-cyclorama. Every single Black or African-American visitor who walked in while I was there. I went through a couple of cycles, lay down. We didn't even realize that we were doing it. Went from sitting, we went from reclining and we lay down. And then it was just this moved away from the microphone. Sorry. And then suddenly, you know, we were in the experience of going through with the courage where you were taking us and the the white or non-Black or African-American visits, didn't they didn't lie down. And I feel like there is something there about the way you have shown up over a number of years. You're so candid about your life, you're so candid about your experiences. You're-you're very funny. Your virgin birth, I just learned about that this weekend. And really extraordinary stuff that over time has given us access to the way that you think and the way you want us to look at the world and exist with each other. And, gather courage and energy from that. And I think that the fact that you're being woven into the historical record and a variety of of entry points. Is so essential to maintaining that energy and momentum wherever we can grab it, wherever we can find it. It's really important that was that was more of like a soliloquy. So I apologize for that Carrie, but I just wanted to make sure that you that you got a sense. 

Carrie Mae Weems That is so, so, powerful to to here, you know, and we, you know. I just, I think that what I really tried to do, through this work is to provide a space. A space of habitation, a space of consideration, the space of-of beauty. And humor. And peace and comfort. Of asking very, very, very difficult questions in a way that, don't sound so difficult. That actually sound very warm. I think I think the tone is everything. You know, tone is- you can say anything you want in the world. And it can be heard, I think often if we say it and we use the right tone. And, and so how something is made esthetically, I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what something looks like. Something sounds like, you know, you know, how do I open it — how do I open space? How do I open space for me? For, for for all of that, that I'm feeling and know that I can bring an audience with me because they're feeling exactly the same thing, that they need exactly the same thing that I need, right? So I'm making the work first and foremost for me. And then it becomes the, the, the, the, the gift, if you will, the, the sharing, that I can offer to my audience, offering it in a way that allows them to step into the work and to see themselves reflected back without it necessarily being representational, right. And it's not simply made for women and it's not simply made for Black people. It's made for people who are interested in having the conversation. 

Ellen McGirt Mmm. 

Carrie Mae Weems People that are interested in being challenged. Who are- who were seeking. Who are curious or asking questions. You know, so that it has a great deal of compassion and charity loaded and located I think, in work. And that, I think, is the thing that allows people to negotiate these very difficult subjects, and very difficult terrain. It's embodied in it. And so these ideas about design, what you are designing what you're putting in the world, building and shaping it, constructing for the world to, to, to inhabit along with you is the house, you know, that's the roof. You know, it's the it's the it's the container. And it's the protection. You know, it allows you to stand in the conditions and not be ruined. Yeah, to stand in the conditions and not be ruined. And that is that is indeed the challenge of the work. Because looking at, you know, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of murders. And still be able to get up in the morning and walk out of your house and love your family and say hello to the world, is a challenge. That's not easy to do. You know, when we're working on these kinds of projects in my studio, sometimes we have to leave the studio early, right. If you're, you know, trying to aestheticize, you know, the murder of, you know, Laquan McDonald being shot on the streets of Chicago. Well, you know, we're trying to edit this, you know, trying to create a rhythm right to that so that we can have, like, you know, so we can carry our audience. Well, this is complicated material, you know, painful, horrible material that, you know, that you witnessed, that we witnessed and that we then, you know, bring forth into the into the world. So, it is, it is, a challenge by all means at all measure. But the thing that is resounding is, is that of hope. You know, you only do it because you are hoping that something can be better. You're hoping that something can be better, that you're hoping that if I do this, if I make this action, that maybe I can change the outcome of that, what a glorious day, right. that's the thing that keeps you going. That's the thing that that that says, I can do this work, I can cry, I can, I can, I can, I can be angry, I can be upset. But at the end of the day, I know that I am doing this work because something has to change. So thank you very much. 

Ellen McGirt Thank you. Thank you so very much. 

Jessica Helfand Truly, for all the time and and the thoughtfulness and your compassion about all things great and small. It's really, an honor. 

Carrie Mae Weems Peace and love. 

Ellen McGirt Peace and love to you, my friend Jessica. 

Jessica Helfand Peace and love back to you, Ellen. 

Ellen McGirt That was a conversation. 

Jessica Helfand One of the incredible things about talking to people, for a long time, like we did this was a long conversation. Was where we started, wasn't where we ended, right. She's she's, you know, and I'm so particularly taken with the fact that the dimensions of her practice let her just slide seemingly effortlessly from— she calls herself a visual artist, but make no mistake, this is a dynamic, historically accurate, culturally relevant, you know, just, I think, multifaceted way of of meeting the world. 

Ellen McGirt Oh my God. Absolutely. And I think it- because she is so effortless, because she it feels so seamless. It masks the extraordinary amount of work that she does to prepare and the extraordinary amount of work that she has done over that time, through the barriers, through the difficulties, while being rejected, while having to constantly sell and market the themes of what you're doing, which are uncomfortable for the audience anyway, to turn herself into the kind of artist that is working at the level that she is, she she really is incredible. 

Jessica Helfand And you and you look at the work and you know that this is not I mean, it's it's visionary, it's skillful. It's consistently highest of high level. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Jessica Helfand In terms of the output and the insights,. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Jessica Helfand But it demands, the participation and coordination of people besides herself, which comes back to how to be that person, how to have that vision and how to wrestle to the ground your ideas, but work with others, play with others, get along with others in a field that hasn't always been so hospitable to people that look like her, sound like her, think about the things she's thinking about. 

Ellen McGirt It's the ultimate stakeholder approach, you're absolutely right, and I hadn't really thought about it that way. It's the ultimate redesign approach. Many of her exhibits were part- were at at the campus as part of her residency there. But the Cyclorama was extraordinary for for several reasons. One, it's you are literally walking into a circular room surrounded by screens with extraordinary jumbo size images of people, Black, not all Black people but people in various stages of reacting to what's around them — it's completely, it completely envelops you and, it to your point, Jessica, it requires you as a viewer to drop everything you're doing and thinking and just let the images wash over and the music wash over you. 

Jessica Helfand It didn't occur to me till this moment because you told me when you saw it about the laying down, and in hindsight, I'm reminded of other work she's done where she thinks about place, she thinks about the home, she thinks about the living room. The exhibit where I saw Cyclorama in France, she had some of these many installations from previous work she'd done as part of the larger exhibition. And I think if she doesn't tell you to lie down, and it's interesting that you're pointing out that only the African-American participants were lying down. But the but the idea that you would actually think about your viewer in terms of sight and comfort and gait, g-a-i-t gait, and choreography. 

Ellen McGirt You've hit it exactly, exactly right. You know, you're in the Cyclorama, this this circular theater in the round, in the film that is being played is called The Shape of Things, which she completed in 2021. And it's it's both newly shot and found footage of Black violence and resistance and historical events. It is the perfect film, or perfect artistic experience for the moment that we find ourselves in. She- you hear her voice as a narrator. So again, you're in a world that she created. It's 40 minutes long and there are some really challenging images and and there's some challenging themes. We are compelled to look at black bodies, at Black people. We're compelled to look at people. But the effect was every single Black or African-American person who went in and was experiencing it, stayed the entire time, which is asking a lot in a modern age and ultimately found themselves just sort of lying down. There was just and I don't know what it meant that I did that. I noticed it because I did that, and I can't tell you whether it was exhaustion or overwhelm or the beauty of it, but, or just the surrender. 

Jessica Helfand Oh, this is a beautiful idea that one would surrender before a work of art, and that way where you would stop for a moment. Forget all those meditation tapes, just go look at Carrie Mae Weems's work, and stand there for 40 minutes. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. 

Jessica Helfand It's good for what ails you. Seriously, I'm actually serious. You know, I just want to add that I saw this in a completely different, moment in a different country in the middle of the week. We were the only people in the exhibit, and I was struck with something very different, which was, well, just the power and the poignancy of something that was so immersive, which you, Ellen, point out, which is there's something about theater in the rounds at the, again Cyclorama, the title of it, the arced wall, the certainly the scale of the images. But what dawned on me and this I say this from the perspective of someone who has logged a lot of hours in the studio, how hard it is for any artist at any point to make something that is both timely and timeless. And that's what struck me, was that you could walk in, you could walk out, you could stay 40 minutes. You could see it in France in an empty room where you could see it in Providence. And this thing is going to resonate and it's going to resonate wherever she does it for, I hope, many, many years to come. 

Ellen McGirt I hope so too. I hope so, and we spend a lot of time, you know, in, in cultural circles talking about lenses, the gender lens, the white lens, the Black lens, this is clearly a lens of Blackness. And I don't think that I would have been able to describe it or think about it in the without having experienced it. And she has really mastered it. And she is she's been a master the entire the entirety of her career. But this felt like a pinnacle moment. Timeless and timely. Beautiful. 

Jessica Helfand So, Ellen, my dear, speaking of redesigning. Here, Db|BD has a new segment this season. 

Ellen McGirt Yes we do. It's called big swings and small wins. 

Jessica Helfand Okay, tell me more about this phrase. I've been hearing you say it all over our digital newsroom over the last few months. And you know, I love me a good Ellen-ism. This is what's coming up in your conversation. We wanted to do something special for our listeners at the end of each episode. And this is it. 

Ellen McGirt Yeah. You know, just to our last conversation and talking about, you know, all the, all the, challenges in the world, it's pretty clear that 2024 is going to be, really challenging. And for all the reasons we're you're talking about war and political division and misinformation, climate change is terrifying. Like all of it is terrifying. The full on attack on ideas and inclusion. So I was looking for a survival strategy for myself, of course, but also for as at Design Observer, you know, how do we think about the world? Where are we useful, what's important, where can we weigh in? And so big swings and small wins just felt like a good operating principle, a good organizing principle. Big swings require you to take risks, to make room for yourself in this frantic world. Speak a little louder. Take a little more space. Dream big. They're supposed to be scary. But I'm reclaiming the term from, you know, tech bros and marketing gurus for it to work. I think particularly this year, it has to be linked to a broader purpose. Joyful, bring people along and speaks to what the world really needs now. And because they're really hard and often hard to achieve, and you have to pivot a lot and you have to get very comfortable with failure, small wins. Collect the things that matter to you in the moment, no matter how small they are. Refer to them often. There's the tiny signs that good things are happening, tiny signs that you're on the right track and that you deserve to be where you are. These little breadcrumbs. I live for them, and if you have enough of them, they're a trailing indicator that you're on the right track. So that's what we're doing this year. 

Jessica Helfand You are the most beautiful of cockeyed optimists. And I just want to say that I just had a little moment, light bulb moment that we need to have a new podcast called Getting Comfortable With Failure. 

Ellen McGirt Oh my gosh. 

Jessica Helfand Right. Because we do. 

Ellen McGirt Yes. 

Jessica Helfand In an age of uncertainty. 

Ellen McGirt We do. 

Jessica Helfand So with no further ado. Let's get into it. Big swing, small wins. What do we have for this week? 

Ellen McGirt So our big swing, by popular vote of you and Alexis Haut, our producer, is the redesign of Brown and Providence. 

Jessica Helfand I love it, I love it. 

Ellen McGirt It's a wonderful city. It was lost to the ages for a long time, and it is a far different place now. 

Jessica Helfand So tell us what Providence was like when you were a student at Brown? 

Ellen McGirt You know, if you can have a Rust Belt city on the East Coast, I know that's typically a midwestern thing. You know, Providence was just barely a blip on the road between New York and Boston. There the the industry that it was known for, the jewelry industry was still chugging along, but sort of in decline. The city itself was gray, even on a sunny day. And there just was two wonderful, institutions sort of anchoring it, Brown and Rhode Island School of Design. There jsut— it just felt like a failing city. And there was no relationship between these institutions and the community at large, which was really a shame. And the institutions themselves, I can only speak for Brown, felt like, they had never made it past the civil rights and the gender rights movements of the 60s and 70s, and we're just sort of stuck. And it is not that way now. And it's one of my favorite cities. It was a city that, I lived there after college, I went to, I started in business there. I had real relationships. I'm always rooting for it. And you moved there! That's a good sign.

Jessica Helfand I did. It's- I want to say, I mean, colleges and universities particularly now. It's a very difficult moment for the intellectual and cultural elite. I was on the phone the other day with, I'm on a board, and one of my fellow board members is Valerie Smith, who's the president of Swarthmore. And she said recently that a friend had said to her that she was the smartest president in America. And I said, well, you are smart, Val. But why? And she said, Because I'm on sabbatical this term and, you know, we're all under fire, right? Cities are under fire. Town-gown relationships — I came from New Haven, where Yale had not played this particularly well. Browns done something, RISDs done something, Providence has done something special. And to come back to your flagging this, Thank you for our season nine interview with Avery Willis Hoffman. This was an exciting moment for us. You and I were interviewing her. She had come from the Armory in New York, where she had been the director. She came to Brown. They gave her a budget. She had a vision. They built this beautiful theatrical center. And I just a few weeks ago went to see a William Kentridge play there. And she introduced the play. Kentridge was there at the end. It felt like something had come full circle. I think Brown is doing this, in a beautiful way, in an important way, and to come back to redesign and the community of followers that Ellen you bring from RaceAahead days, from all the work you've done all these years. I think what Browns done that's really smart is they've really included everybody. They've included different points of view. They've included artists and academics and participants and politicians. A friend of mine is here for a few months shooting a movie and is having, I think, a really great experience coming from L.A. during and after the strike, because it has become actually a welcoming place for people of all stripes to come and do their work and do their best work. 

Ellen McGirt And I don't want to give Brown the only credit for the redesign of Providence. There was there were tremendous inputs. The people, the business community, the political community, which is strange, that's another podcast, but amazing long history, Buddy Cianci, I will always miss you strange, wonderful man. But, it's oh my goodness. But the transformation of the city is just something to behold. It is a small coastal town with an extraordinary history, and I just I'm so happy to see it shine. And I'm so happy that you live there. And I know we got to go. But I, I am going to take the small win for this episode. And this small win that I would like to nominate is my my darling friend and partner, Jessica Helfand, who has had seven amazing acts as a professional, as an artist and as a designer. And now, after a long period of striving and very hard work, she's turned herself into a working painter. Please head over to Jessica Helfand dot com and see what she's working on. It's extraordinary. And Jessica, I am so very proud of you. 

Jessica Helfand Oh thank you. I didn't see that coming. I didn't expect it. And I've never been happier, doing this podcast with you. But also, the minute this is over, I go back to the world of linseed oil and fumes. It's an exciting thing to, at my advanced age to have a new career. And, I couldn't be happier. Thank you. That's very generous. Thank you.

Ellen McGirt Well done. Small wins. Sometimes they're all you get. All right, so that's all for today. We're going to see you back here in two weeks with another redesigner who is transforming their community, their field and our world. 

Jessica Helfand In the meantime, for more conversations like these, keep up with Design Observer on our observed column, really, it is just the gift that keeps on giving, it's a rich repository of all things design. You can find it right on our homepage at Design Observer dot com. You can also find a link to the Avery Willis Hoffman interview we did in season nine, along with every episode from seasons one through ten of DB|BD. 

Ellen McGirt See you next time. The Design of Business | the Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer. 

Jessica Helfand Our show is written and produced by Alexis Haut. Our theme music is by Warner Meadows. Justin De Wright of Seaplane Armada mixed and mastered this episode. Thanks to Adina Karp, our new friends at Focus Forward Podcast Studio in Providence. And Ellen, you got anybody to thank? 

Ellen McGirt I can't think of anything. Oh my God, my poor brain. 

Jessica Helfand Okay then. 

Ellen McGirt I can't think of anything. And for more long form content about the people redesigning our world, please consider subscribing to our newsletters, Equity Observer and The Observatory. 

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is produced by Design Observer's editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcasts speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the podcast. 


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