Watchlist People

We assemble a super team ofthinkers, practitioners andadventurers—the contemporaries that inspire us and the stubborn standouts of centuries past.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir

The outside candidate

There’s an outside chance that Birgitta Jónsdóttir might be the next prime minister of Iceland, a country that weirdly always seems to show the most immediate and obvious symptoms of global disruption. So it was with the release of the Panama Papers, which caused untold ruckus for everybody’s favorite magical North Atlantic outpost.

Imagining Jónsdóttir as PM would have been a stretch in 2013 when she cofounded and became the leader of the Pirate Party. The party, after all, barely earned the five percent popular vote threshold for representation in parliament. Since 2015, with only three seats, it has consistently polled at over thirty percent, ahead of all other parties.

It is hard to pin down exactly what sparked the recent surge beyond Icelanders’ well-earned distrust in old world authority figures, but the beginning of it coincides with the party’s campaign to repeal blasphemy laws following the Charlie Hebdo shooting. In the wake of the Panama Papers, the party is well positioned to speak on matters of transparency.

Before all the Pirate Party hullabaloo, Jónsdóttir was a well-known artist, poet, and activist. She produced the Collateral Murder video for WikiLeaks and served as the chief sponsor within the Icelandic Parliament for the International Modern Media Initiative. Others may know her as the one who consulted on the script for The Fifth Estate, even while Julian Assange refused to do so. Even still, she maintains that the film is problematic.

Anita Sarkeesian

Not playing the hate game

Oh, what an ugly species we can be. In 2014, Anita Sarkeesian became an un-fortunate but unapologetic face of the atrocious “gamergate” controversy. Anita is a media critic, speaker, and the creator of Feminist Frequency, a non-profit site originally founded in 2009 while she was a student in Toron-to thatinvestigates feminist issues and representation in the video game and entertainment industry. The ongoing quagmire of gamergate (triggered, sort of, by Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, as discussed in this issue on p.xx), brought to the surface a regrettable culture war that the progressives amongst us naively thought long resolved. In short: games can be for girls too, and as such, they don’t need to be so aggressively anti-woman.

Anita’s YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a work in pro-gress for half a decade, became a focal point for the gamergate protesters. Mostly because it pointed out, through a series of sober but entertaining essays, how women were represented in games as prizes, as objects of sex-ualization, as helpless victims. Her reward for the series? Harassment. Rape and death threats. Bomb scares. A game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. And still she soldiered on.

In March 2016, Feminist Frequency launched a crowdfunding campaign for a new video series called Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History, which purports to highlight “women who defied gender stereotypes but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books.” It reached its goal of $200,000 on April 8.

The gamergate kids in their bedrooms, and their insecure puppetmasters, will disappear into the shadows. Lost to time. Despite the hate storm, Anita keeps going. That kind of bravery is what history remembers.

Beth Simone Noveck

Open data evangelist

Beth Simone Noveck is a modern-day apostle of open government and institutional innovation. As the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer, she led President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, designed with the explicit mandate to foster collaboration across departments, non-profits, the private sector, and society.

She is also the force behind a slew of critical initiatives including, which makes government data sets accessible and discoverable;, a hub for open government prizes and competitions; and The GovLab, a research group that designs technology, policy, and strategy for more open and collaborative institutions.

The availability of data sets through these initiatives has informed the development of apps that actually make sense of all this complex information, at last making it accessible to the general public and ultimately actionable too. A few great examples are apps that integrate restaurant reviews on Yelp with current health inspector ratings or apps that use FDA ratings to warn of recalls.

Noveck is also the best-selling author of Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing (2015), Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful (2009), and The State of Play: Law, Games and Virtual Worlds (2005). Today she serves on the Global Commission on Internet Governance and is the Jerry Hultin Global Network Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

John Herrman

In from the media fringe

Critiquing the media industry requires a careful balance. There’s a feeling that you can’t comment credibly if you’re not intimately immersed in the quotidian realities of the flailing beast. But media critics, ideally neutral in their outlook, are embedded within these very same structures, commenting on the practices of their peers and employers. As Editor of The Awl, John Herrman’s essays embodied that conflict. He is a savvy consumer, rapidly attuned to new platforms—a millennial, after all—and also contributing to the site’s own efforts to experiment and survive. Ever oscillating between these two modes, his perspective is honed precisely to the current state of the industry.

The Awl was Herrman’s sandbox—a young, independent site, founded by Gawker alumni Choire Sicha and Alex Balk. The site’s unassuming appearance feels like a byproduct of a myopic focus on editorial rather than a concerted design effort. Herrman filled those gaps—occupied on other platforms by slick infographics and often-superfluous interactive elements—with his playful use of uncanny DARPA robot gifs, editorializing via run-on tags and, yes, stream-of-consciousness existential dread.

In February 2016, The New York Times announced Herrman as one of three journalists among the inaugural cohort of David Carr fellows. We think Carr would have approved. Since then, his pieces for NYT’s Business section have necessarily assumed a more formal tone. His immersion now goes beyond that of his avid participation as a consumer to include active engagement through interviews and reportage.

Whereas Herrman himself was on display in his Awl essays, embodying the contradictions and anxiety of the industry, he is now forced to let this absurdity speak for itself. Still, his suspicion that the media business has been overcomplicated by those struggling to excuse their flailing and justify their executive bonuses or start-up valuations is as obvious as ever. Such is his natural style, his sincere interest, and his incisive perspective.

Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson

Autobiographers of ancient land

Richard Skelton’s music, under his own name and a pouch full of pseudonyms (Clouwbeck, Heidika, Riftmusic, A Broken Consort), has always been made by careful bargain with the land around him. Initially spurred into creation by the death of his first wife, he turned to the cragged edges of the backcountryies for answers, and he gathered carefully. Things fall-en, picked up, sung back to. Bowed strings, leaves and branches and ancient stone. His music is the sound of loss and lamentation of something passing, but also the sound of something eternal beneath that never left.

With his second wife, the poet Autumn Richardson, he formed *AR, moving into collaboration in music and beyond. With the releases Wolf Notes and Succession, they trace the natural history of the Ulpha region of the UK across text, objects, and music. Succession draws on the work of ecologists and palynologists, who use pollen found in sediment layers to trace the story of plant succession over the millennia since the glaciers melted, long before the humans arrived, to create “A List of Probable Flo-ra.” With their third work, Diagrams for the Summoning of Wolves, they move away from the lamentation of lost things—plants, animals, memories—towards what they call a direct intervention. The work presents as a set of rituals translated to music, to summon back everything gone.

Everything they produce under their Corbel Stone Press banner is careful, inquisitive, and beautiful. In small publications, and even in incense, they dig up lost languages, old lexicons, and forgotten plant life, expressing response through poetry, sound, and texture.

Their collaboration has recently extended outwards, into the publishing of others’ works, and also the journal Reliquiæ—a mix of new work from a variety of artists and writers and a Laphamesque archival exploration on the themes of landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy, and animism.

Richard and Autumn’s body of work inspires us with its unapologetic approach to mystic and ancient forms of knowledge. If we learn how to speak with respect to the land, it can sing beautiful wisdom in return.

Peter Freuchen

1886-1957; Relentless adventurer

Peter Freuchen’s list of wilderness survivalist feats is majestic, but it’s the “shit-knife incident” that stands apart. That, of course, is the time he escaped an avalanche, by way of a pickaxe made from his own frozen excrement. You can read about that in his autobiography Vagrant Viking.

Born in Denmark in 1886, Freuchen was restless from an early age. By age twenty, he had led a 6,500 kilometer exploration of Greenland on dogsled, mapping the northeastern part of the island. At the time, this was a record. Later, in 1910, he and fellow explorer Knud Rasmussen founded the Thule Trading Post at Cape York—a site that would later become the base for Rasmussen’s famed Thule Expeditions and, eventually, the site of the major US military Thule Air Base.

It was not long before Hollywood came knocking. Freuchen’s writing—from an autobiographical, anthropological, and adventure journalism perspective—lent itself nicely to the film industry’s insatiable appetite for harrowing stories. In the ’30s, he was contracted by MGM to consult and write screenplays. The 1933 Oscar-winning film Eskimo, starring Ray Mala and Freuchen himself, was based on his Greenland adventures.

But adventure and glamour were not enough for Freuchen. During World War II he fought with the Danish resistance movement, leading to imprisonment by the Germans and ultimately a death sentence. In true Freuchen fashion, however, he escaped that, fled to Sweden, and later relocated to New York City. Today a regal portrait of Freuchen is hung proudly atop the mantelpiece at the New York Explorer’s Club—a little nod to their late, great member.

Fridtjof Nansen

1861–1930; Polar explorer and refugee advocate

“Here I sit in the still winter night on the drifting ice-floe, and see only stars above me. Far off I see the threads of life twisting themselves into the intricate web which stretches unbroken from life’s sweet morning dawn to the eternal death-stillness of ice. Thought follows thought—you pick the whole to pieces, and it seems so small—but high above all towers one form … Why did you take this voyage? … Could I do otherwise? Can the river arrest its course and run up hill? My plan has come to nothing. That palace of theory which I reared, in pride and self-confidence, high above all silly objections has fallen like a house of cards at the first breath of wind. Build up the most ingenious theories and you may be sure of one thing—that fact will defy them all. Was I so very sure? Yes, at times; but that was self-deception, intoxication. A secret doubt lurked behind all the reasoning. It seemed as though the longer I defended my theory, the nearer I came to doubting it. But no, there is no getting over the evidence of that Siberian drift-wood.”

— Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North

First things first. Fridtjof Nansen was a handsome bastard. After that, there are these things: Explorer. Restless ice warrior. Union divider. Refugee advocate. Nobel laureate. A man who charged on through unimaginable darkness, and found the light hiding in its far corners.

Born in Oslo in 1861, his childhood was spent almost entirely on skis. While studying zoology at the University of Oslo, he would also effortlessly knock off fifty-mile day treks. During his study, he shipped on a sealer to Greenland, making observations of the polar wildlife, letting obsession creep in. In the ensuing years, he would alternate study with epic adventure, eventually taking to the still-unexplored interiors of Greenland. At the age of twenty-seven, he completed the first interior crossing of that landmass, starting in the uninhabited east with the safety of the western settlements as his destination. Which meant: no turning back. Make it there or don’t.

He began his North Pole expedition in 1983 by putting his ship, the Fram Forward, into the Siberian ice pack. The bet, based on new theories of how currents shifted the ice, was that this would take them right over the pole. When the ship emerged in Norwegian waters nearly three years later, he wasn’t aboard. Having realized the flaw in his plan, he’d decided to walk the last four hundred miles to the Pole with only one companion and a pack of dogs. They didn’t quite get there, but they did get farther north than any known human, and their safe return was a profound surprise to everybody but Nansen himself.

The science and adventure were disrupted as he joined the push for Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905. From there he fell into politics, and after the Great War became a key delegate for Norway at the newly formed League of Nations. In 1921, following his efforts to repatriate prisoners of war held in Russia, he was asked by the League to administer its new High Commission for Refugees. His Nansen Passport became the recognized passport substitute for the stateless wandering the world in the fallout of the war. He then turned to rallying support for the millions of Russians suffering a famine that the West couldn’t have cared less about. In 1922, the year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he turned his attention to millions of Greek refugees, fleeing back home with Turkish troops not far behind. He negotiated an exchange for Turks still living in Greece, saving countless lives in the process.

Sadly some challenges were too great even for Nansen. He was asked by the League to develop a plan to save what was left of the Armenian people from total extinction following the brutal genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire. His plan, which drew up a practical roadmap for rebuilding infrastructure and creating a new national home, was never implemented (though it proved an inspiration for what the UN eventually got around to decades later). The Nansen International Office for Refugees, itself awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938, eight years after his death, did manage to settle some 50,000 Armenians in the region.

Europe has been facing humanitarian crises on unimaginable scale for as long as humans have lived there. It takes brave adventurers to carve pathways to human solutions. Getting to the North Pole? That’s the easy part. It’s everything that followed that makes us wish for more Fridtjof Nansens in our modern world.

Reyner Banham

1922–1988; Historian of the Immediate Future

For a variety of reasons, Los Angeles has been a lingering presence and growing fascination in our lives in the years between issues. From outside it is what you think it is—a city we construct in our popular imagination long before we meet it, a wicked beast, its surface soulless (“from no-where, nowhere bound” as we quoted Brecht grumbling over on p.xx). As we walked its endless streets (should have been driving), we told our-selves: somewhere beneath its protective meniscus, there are bigger answers to be found. Eventually, inevitably, its finely manicured claws get under your skin. To make sense, we turned to two texts. The first is Thom Andersen’s staggering Los Angeles Plays Itself, a history of the city’s neighborhoods rising and falling through the backdrops of movies. There is no other documentary like it.

The second is Reyner Banham’s 1972 film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, in which the fantastically bearded British architectural critic sets out on a very of-the-era journey through a city which he says “makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules.” Banham, who died in 1988, was an advocate for architecture as an ongoing popular conversation, not as a catalog of monuments. Nigel Whiteley’s biography of him is appropriately titled Historian of the Immediate Future. Banham’s first book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, is a vital contribution to the understanding of modernism, and also became pivotal in opening up thinking in architecture to move beyond that modernist grounding (though the postmodern was never much for him).

In print, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and in his film, he showed the same love for LA that we now feel, heading off the freeways to the strange amalgam that lays beneath—a brilliant city, hiding in plain sight beneath its iconography.

This was Banham. Whether he was wrestling with Los Angeles or elsewhere, he was attempting to understand how we build our lives around the everyday, and how the easily recognizable monuments of previous generations are replaced by more pervasive and less tangible monuments. A grain elevator, for him, could be learned from as much as a monolith.

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart

1880–1963; The unkillable soldier

One look at that eyepatch and he doesn’t need to say it, you know it: “Just you try it, sonny.”

There has never been a human less killable than Sir Adrian. Over three major conflicts (the two big ones and the Boer before), he lost an eye and a hand. He tore off two fingers from that shrapnel-ruined hand because the doctor refused to amputate them. He was shot in the skull. Shot in the hip. Shot in the ear. Crashed in planes. Survived POW camps.

At the Somme, the apocryphal, unattributed quote goes, the majors and the generals cowered while the strong troops went to their deaths. “No-where have I seen such lions led by such lambs.” Sir Adrian was no lamb. He was observed at that most horrific of battles pulling grenade pins out with his teeth, to throw with his one good arm. They tried to make a glass eye for him, but he threw it out of a taxi window. The eyepatch was his thing.

What he lost in flesh, he made up for in metalware: he was awarded the Victoria Cross (the highest honor for Commonwealth armed forces) along with numerous distinctions and medals, including awards for bravery from Belgium and Poland.

Born into Belgian aristocracy, he went to Oxford to study law, but left to join the army. As he was under twenty-five, and not British, he couldn’t legally enlist. Of course, he faked his age and enlisted under a pseudonym, heading on his merry way to the atrocities of the Second Boer War in 1899. He took bullets to the stomach and groin. He was only just getting started.

Without celebrating war, we can celebrate soldiers, and Sir Adrian and his stiff upper lip embody what should be impossible comic book fantasies. Remarking on his time in the First World War in his memoir Happy Odyssey, he played it humbly. “Frankly,” he wrote, “I had enjoyed the war.”

Sister Corita Kent

1918–1986; Pop art protest pioneer

Stop the bombing! Get with the Action! Enriched bread! Extra soft!


Sister Corita Kent was our favorite kind of revolutionary: the kind who took joy in it. We’ve always had a soft spot for radical nuns and priests, the sort who take the core teachings of their religion and live them fully, casting off the dogmatic shackles that restrain the pleasure of true faith. Even for us atheists and agnosts, there’s something swell about that, and there is no better example than Corita’s work in the 1960s and ’70s. Faith can be grounded in some larger belief, but the faith in her work is, ultimately, a faith in the human. “The future is purchased by the present,” she scrawled.

Corita was a screen-printing pioneer, an unsung inspiration in the postering and protest movement. What set her prints apart was their exuberance. She addressed questions of race, politics and war by mixing text and pictures from philosophy, spirituality and politics, and infusing them with optimism. She would mangle grocery store detritus with quotes from Camus. One time, she worked Winnie the Pooh and Kierkegaard into a single print. Her workshops at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, which must have been a wild playground, featured attendees such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Cage, Saul Bass, Bucky Fuller and the family Eames. But her pop-art dues were never really paid until they were posthumous—nuns by their nature are not wont to demand it. Thankfully, recent years have seen the recognition return.

When everything seems bleak, you need the artists who strive for hope. Who know how to have fun in the thick of the worst of it. As she put it: “It is a huge danger to pretend awful things do not happen. But you need enough hope to keep on going. I am trying to make hope. And you have to grab it where you can.”

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