Field Notes from the Adjacent Possible: Urban Explorations

I know that I'm at my best when I'm working to make positive social change with passionate people and having the opportunity to learn --  whether about an organization, industry, issue area, community, or geography.  This is why learning is a core part of Optimistic Anthropology's ethos!

One of the things that I love about learning is that it can come in so many forms.  I’ve found that engaging with some resources and experiences prove immediately applicable in the work of social problem-solving, while with others it is not clear what the connections or uses are or will be. Steve Johnson calls this latter set of ideas and experiences the “adjacent possible,” the potential and serendipity created when you notice and connect the unlikely.  I think the power of the adjacent possible is in how it can open up our apertures to new and different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and thus new and different ways of being and doing, embracing possibilities and trying new ways of problem-solving.

At the the end of last year, I shared 18 Resources to Inspire the Adjacent Possible that I had engaged with in 2017,  and folks seemed to like it (it was our most popular blog post in January). So this year, I'm going to try and share some "field notes" about the adjacent possible this optimistic anthropologist is engaging with more routinely.

I spent half of January in California, and the other half in Washington, DC.  Which allowed for some excellent opportunities to be inspired by  nature, culture and history, and art.  Here is my first attempt at sharing my field notes, so please let me know what you think about the concept, the execution and content, and how it might be improved for the future!


Never underestimate the power of a good wander in the woods! I've found the mix of joy, awe, and boredom provides an unparalleled openness to the world which enables all sorts of possibilities to emerge.

During the time I lived in Oakland, the first trail I ever hiked, and the last before moving away were Laurel Canyon to Wildcat Peak at Tilden Park in Berkeley. In the two years, I lived in the Bay, I probably hiked it 25 or 30 times. It’s not a hard hike, though there are a couple of spots with some steep uphills, and the view from the top never disappoints, even when the whole Bay is fogged in. I’ve hiked it when the ground was parched and the plants brown from drought, and I’ve experienced it lush and green. On mornings where it was so chilly, I couldn’t warm up my hands, and on an afternoon where it was so hot that I wished I had brought more water. I’ve mostly hiked it alone, though I did take my brother there when he came to visit. It has served as a place of meditation, exercise, escape. I’ve seen rabbit and turkeys and deer on the trail before, and today a hawk swooped so closely to me that I cursed out loud and skunk crossed my path and I made sure not to give it any reason to spray. It is a place that has given me peace, clarity, and a case of poison oak. It is magical, and surprisingly free of people, which always surprises me because it is so close to where many people live and work. It gotten me thinking about situations and spaces that we always are able to enter into with openness, to bring fresh eyes to. What and where are yours? #optimisticanthro #havelovewilltravel #hiking #hike #hikingtrail #trail #california #eastbay #eastbayregionalparks #berkeley #tilden #tildenpark #wildcatpeak #wildcatcanyon #trees #nature #naturephotography #water #cows #sun #clouds #openness

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Culture & History

I have a belief that places have a psychology.  The infrastructure and architecture and monumental public art in a place communicates a lot about how that psychology has developed over time, because these monuments were built to last for decades or centuries (or even millenia). I often think of street art and graffiti as an indicator of a place's current psychology.  It is meant to be emergent, responsive, ephermal. I think it's one of the reasons I'm so enamored with street art (if you couldn't tell by the photos on the Optimistic Anthropology website) and seek it out wherever I go.

The last series from my recent California urban walking explorations. This outing was focused on street art spotting and architecture eyeing with my friend Christine in Oakland. We had intended to cover more ground, but there was so much packed into a small area, that this was basically all in four square blocks of Uptown. One thing I love about this area of Oakland is that it has some extraordinary early 20th century buildings like the amazing deco of the Fox theater (pic 1) and the emerald green I. Magnin Building and as well as the black and orange tiled Howden building (not pictured). I love that Oakland isn’t scared of street art and murals on iconic buildings. For instance the beautiful piece by Zio is on the backside of the iconic Cathedral Building (pic 2) which is sometimes referred to as the Flatiron building of the West. I’ve shared with people that I see street art as an indicator of a city’s paychology. Oakland’s street art is so energetic and proud and colorful and global, like the city itself. However the loss is there too, a lot of dedications and RIPs scattered throughout the work, a lot of tagging and throw ups as this part of the city is going through a significant period of change and gentrification. It comes through in form too - beautiful throw ups in alleyways versus clearly commissioned murals on buildings. Though, I do think it’s neat to see how Oakland’s iconic mosaic trash cans are starting to get some beautiful painted and decoupaged utility box neighbors (pics 8 & 9). #oakland #oak #theoak #oaktown #eastbay #california #urbanwalk #urbanexploration #uptown #streetart #murals #graffiti #architecture #deco #zio #glass #havelovewilltravel #city #optimisticanthro #throwups

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When I returned home to Washington, DC, from California, I found winter -- cold and grey.  I have a tendency to "den" when I've been away for a while -- cooking and working and reading a lot, and not getting out enough.  So, I decided to check out the Parallel Universe exhibit at DC's Artechouse on a Monday morning in order to make sure I left the house and started my week with a bit different energy.

I've shared a short video clip and some photos I took at this installation, but unfortunately, the sound isn't as all-consuming as it was in person.  This work was mesmerizing and overwhelming -- for me it evoked the micro of the cells that make up life and the macro of our extraordinary universe.  I sat through its full loop (which is about 8 minutes long) four times, intrigued by the art itself, as well as how people engaged with the art.  It was only as I was leaving, that I learned the designers, the design team Ouchhh, who hail from Turkey, created the music first, and then used technology to convert the sound into the images.

Inspiration from the adjacent possible -- an immersive (occassionally oppressive) sound and light installation by Ouchhh called iota at Artechouse DC.

I’m a big advocate of the power of the “adjacent possible,” the potential and serendipity created when you notice and connect the unlikely. So this morning I headed down to @artechouse for a much needed dose of inspiration from their recently opened exhibit - a set of immersive visual and sonic installations - called Parallel Universe. I was particularly entranced by the largest installation, iota, and sat through its Lighetti meets electronic dance music soundtrack and morphing projected light patterns four times. This gave me time to pay attention to my responses to and preferences for certain sections, the connections I was making between the experience and the larger world, and awareness of the culture of how others engage with the new and novel such as art exhibits and tourist sites. Anthropology always weilds its head! So, I snapped some pictures of how others were engaging with the installation. There were couples, friends, families, and other solo visitors like me. There was a small child strapped to his mom’s chest, and the oldest person I spotted was probably in her 50s, though overall the group probably skewed late 20s to early 30s. Not surprisingly, cell phones figured prominently in the room. A lot of folks, myself included captured video of the installation and took selfies. Others staged more elaborate images with the help of friends, poses, props, choreography, and even the staff. Some visitors sat still and let the installation wash over them while others changed position and location to see how it impacted the experience. Overall, well worth the visit. Here are some of my favorite images of people interacting with the exhibit. . . #acreativedc #ouchhh #artechousedc #artechouse #art #installation #immersiveart #immersiveexperience #light #lightart #projection #sound #paralleluniverse #iota #silhouette #artexhibition #havelovewilltravel #optimisticanthro #adjacentpossible #washingtondc #dc

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What in the "adjacent possible" inspired you recently?  What do you think of these field notes? Share your answers using #adjacentpossible #optimisticanthro on social media or in the comments below!.