Robert Bengston: Art and Inspiration: What Would Love Do?
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May 6, 2017
Pavi: Today our guest speaker is Robert Bengston, someone who embodies the theme of Art and inspiration and the question- what would love do? We have the pleasure of a remarkable moderator Ari today. Ari is a fellow volunteer with Servicespace and wears many diverse hats beyond that role as a husband, a father,a committed peace activist, a real estate developer and the founder of the Pollination Project. He brings an incredible depth of consciousness to our relationship with food and in his own words - "seeks to live his life in alignment with his values and to utilize the numerous privileges he has been given to turn seeds into blossoms and blossoms into fruit."
Thank you Ari for moderating this wonderful call today I will hand it off to you now.Thank you so much.
Ari: Thank you Pavi. Honored to be in this phone call with you. I feel really fortunate to introduce Robert with whom I got to spend some time with week for this call.
I'll tell you little bit about Robert. He believes that a new story in the world is emerging. That art can inspire people to pause and can create new realities, just in collaboration and altruism. He said, "New thoughts create new realities and so the programming that we have of separation, survival of the fittest, are things that are now proven to be not completely true and are subject to re-imagination." I love what I think he said about his recent focus called "Inspiration Campaign". He said, "We activate positive, loving, creative and altruistic places within people. We turn that into tangible ever expanding economic social force. And we'll apply, create with that collective force from the standpoint of - What would love do? We activate a divine realm of human experience, one inspired free will wielding individual at a time." So with that... I get to speak with you Robert and welcome to the phone call.
Robert: Thank you so much. It's so great to be here.
Ari: Tell us a little bit about what you're working on now.
Robert: Well, as you mentioned, this vision called Inspiration Campaign started to come to me about four years ago. And the key piece to it is, I'd say, participation; meaningful participation. So back in 2008 I started to do these art installations. I got these visions to make some art installations. And I've been a visual artist for twenty some years. It was really rooted in this old paradigm about creativity in art, in terms of an artist making something and people responding to what that person made. And what I learned with these art installations, these interactive art installations, was the power of meaningful participation. And I totally added this new dimension to what art and creativity is in terms of using art and creativity to inspire someone to participate, whether it's in a thought or word or an action. And after creating these, I created four interactive pieces and I was just amazed and was in awe, really of how people participated. And I started thinking around, how do I scale this? How can you scale participation in a way that is global? And really through that process, I started getting these pieces for what inspiration campaign is. And over the course of the last few years, we can talk about a little bit more about what happened, the pieces just started to come together. I think the last ingredients in terms of launching the next phase is really starting now. It is really kind of perfect timing in a way that this call was set up back in November and this week was the beginning of creating a new video and launching the next phase. I love that this call is kind of like a coming out for the next phase of this vision, that really started with these art installations and started back in 2008. Which also really dovetails into my own journey as an artist. What is art ? I like the title of this talk, the way this call was titled in terms of art and inspiration. And to me this process that I've been on the last eight or nine years or so, has really expanded the notion of what art is. To me art and creativity inspires inspiration in the form of some type of participation. And so, my impulse as a human as an Earthling and as an artist, is to be figuring out ways that I can help inspire someone's self navigation process and to do it in a way that can harness it and scale it and empower it. That's really the the pieces of inspiration campaign. It is kind of pulling all of those pieces together in making a people powered force that really is driven by the other part of the title of what would love do? That's become a bit of a mantra in my own navigation as a human. Not only in what I create, but just how I try to show up every day.
Ari: There are two things from what you said.
You said in response to the question, what make you come alive: you said synchronicity and serendipity. And so here you are, the same week for which you probably worked for a long time and are at second stage of the campaign, and you have created this new video, and in that same week it seems to align, not intentionally but just by circumstance with this phone call and the Daily Good email, which goes out to three hundred thousand plus people. How do you know when serendipity and synchronicity arrive? Is that sort of guide post in your life? What do you learn from that when that arises?
Robert: For me synchronicity tells me that I'm on the right path. I think that the impulse to be of service to something greater than ourselves, puts us on that path of synchronicity. Last year I read an amazing book called- The surrender experiment. That book really shifted things for me. Because the the author's premise is that the universe is intelligent. That the universe has a certain divine aspect to it. The vision is to be of service and letting the universe guide the way and sort of lead the dance so to speak and to participate with as much heart and soul as I can. I think for the first couple years of inspiration campaign, it was more of process of figuring out these things I needed to do. And it had a lot of struggle in many ways; around it my own personal path of becoming. And as I shift more and more to trusting and having faith in a larger picture, I find that it's a bit like navigating down a river and doing my best to stay within the flow of the river. This call coming together this week and the video and the website, it's a confirmation of being in the flow and just continuing to do my best to participate with as much presence and willpower and guidance of this kind of mantra- What would love do? And trusting in the bigger picture and kind of continuing to follow the dot. So to me, it's a great confirmation always that I'm in the flow of discovery and participation. And I think that's always an interesting gauge. Anytime there's been synchronicity, It's against the backdrop of an emotional feeling of being in flow. So it feels so directly related and points me to a larger narrative about this whole life experience. I mean, I think at a certain level we're really at a time in life where our whole human story is changing. You know these fundamental questions of who are we ? You know we live in an infinite universe. We're in the Stardust configuration. These notions of Newtonian physics and Freudian psychology and all these survival of the fittest, all these things are changing. And for the first time, they're changing in a kind of a global scale and in a way that's underscored by all of our old systems that were created from these old paradigms are falling apart and destroying the planet. So we're getting this kind of double, triple, wake up call. Feels to me like humans all around our are waking up from some sort of Walt Disney kind of dream spell. We have to figure out individually and collectively, how do we get on this new track? What does that look like? I think it's completely new territory and to me this is why this feels so fundamental as something to put our attention on.
It seems to me that we have all the technology. We have all the solutions. The solutions already exist to really change what's happening on the planet. This aspect of our fundamental human story, about who we are, about consciousness, that feels like the new frontier to me. And really, in a way that's at the heart of these projects that I'm doing. I feel the power of embodying a new story. Creating something, creating a people powered movement and a very specific kind of social economic power, that's being guided by this mantra of what would love do. Examples like that feel like breaking the four minute mile to me, as we embody these new kinds of organizations and new kind of impulses about how people participate and why people participate. The ripples that will set in motion are infinite in many ways.
Ari: I love all the things you just said. I am picturing all the normal acronyms like- What would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? And really, what would love do, is more compelling to me. If you're going to think about how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of life, that is more compelling to me. Is that a question that helped guide our nation and the startup of inspiration campaign? If you are asking that question continuously, how would answer change over time ?
Robert: Yeah. That is the light on the bow of the boat for inspiration campaign and for my own life. The reason I like that so much too is that, when I've heard it in the past ascribed to specific people, it doesn't create as much space for each individual and me to interpret that. Because you could have a situation and have ten people there and have each one answering what would love do and they'll be ten different answers based on where each person is. So the answer to that for me, because it's an open ended question, there's not a clear answer. And so it enables me and I think anyone who asks it, to first step out of themselves as a bit of a witness which I think is really important in our own transformation. We're using our free will in three ways as I see it. We're choosing our thoughts, we're choosing our words and we're choosing our actions. And there's really no other choice that we're making besides those three. And so what shapes our choices ? It's a narrative about who we are and what life's about and all these beliefs and stories. When I ask that question, what would love do, it circumvents; it shoots around all the stories. It asks the question that there isn't a clear answer to and it enables me to reach for what I think is the most life affirming response. Because, love would be life affirming rather than life diminishing. And so, it enables me based on who I am and who my character is, to reach for the most life affirming choice I can make. And that's what changes over time. My choices in this moment of being life affirming will be different. I think my choices in the future will be even more life affirming. Because as I adopt these new narratives and as I embody this notion of using my free will in that way, it keeps on expanding. I think the key and what's beautiful about it is that we're all at different places. We've all had different backgrounds; we've all been indoctrinated by different beliefs and stories. And this process of of shifting our consciousness feels like ... the way we do that is in the intention to choose to be life affirming. To me that question is so beautiful because, what level looks like is through the choices of all of us as individuals. I mean that's the beauty of humanity is that, at some future vision that I have of earthlings and humanness, is the evolution of each individual answering that question with their lives and it's going to look completely different.
I mean for one person what love would do would be to teach children. Another person what would love do would be to grow apples. And so that impulse of who did we come here to be? Who did my life force coming into the Stardust configuration on this planet at this time? Why am I here? I think I figured that out by asking that question. And that's the same with inspiration campaign. As we come together and create this force and we figure out how do we use this force in the most conspicuous life affirming way. That question will continue to evolve and to me, it will evolve in the most powerful way by being guided by that question.
Ari: So much of what you said reminds me of the nonprofit I'm part of - The pollination project. which gives small grants for people doing service work around the world. It's this acknowledgement that we all have unique capacity for goodness. And it's in every person. Like you said, you used the word Stardust and how it came to this unique configuration. We're all like in a certain space time with all different privileges and wisdom and relationships that create a unique qualities that allows you to serve in a different way than anyone else.. I'm just reflecting as I say that about how we come up. To too much model and you want the actions that we want to follow as opposed to being inspired by their motivations. We start copying someone else instead of stepping into our own greatness that we're supposed to fall into. And then of course how that changes over time is remarkable.
Ari: Held down by this To Do List of what you have to do. The love aspect of it was maybe lost. I’m curious how do you hold the question “What Would Love Do?” on a practice basis as opposed to an outcome basis?
Robert: Great question I think the essence of the project is to activate, uplift and inspire that quality that you just described within people. And so its whole vision is about that. How that shows up is two fold. One is the process of activating that in the experience of creating Inspiration Campaign in the first place. That’s why the whole premise is crowdsourcing the content that becomes the advertising and creating a model that shows the power of individuals. So we can activate the reality of how individuals and people matter. And celebrating that. And approaching it from the beginning from the standpoint of seeing people in the way that you described. When I think about the culture, our education, our media, when I think about, what do they think people are in terms of a starting point. Do they think people are unique, divine, expressions of the divine, here to fulfill their own embodiment of answering the question of What Would Love Do? And we are wanting to support that in people. That was not my experience growing up. The world didn’t look at me that way. The systems in my environment, in my culture, didn’t address me that way. Our notions about who humans are has really been small, it’s been negative, and everything of our systems is built on that premise. So much of our notions, in my sense of who humans are was really shaped by Freud, who was studying people with mental problems after a major war and came up with his narrative of who people are which was just not really impressive. And I think that’s really set the stage for all the old paradigms. So by creating a power, a movement, a social input that is rooted in a different opinion of who humans are, and what is the life experience, that will ripple out in ways that will be really palpable to people I think. Because as we create these experiences, and these specific creations that are rooted in a whole different opinion about who humans are, and we can do that in the most conspicuous way possible as a way of activating that within people, because it's my belief that most people, the majority of people on the planet, know that truth when they hear it. It just hasn't been modeled much, and so, I think the impulse of what Inspiration campaign is coming here to be is building the movement based on this new premise, and then using the power to activate that in as many people as possible, so it becomes this notion of of harnessing the goodness, the good-heartedness within people, within individuals by inviting them to participate from that premise. And then saying, “Hey let's use our power to give that in some form to as many people as possible.” Which is why the foundation of “what do we want to create together?” will be advertising because, two hundred and fifty good hearted people we can create a billboard that gives, you know, three hundred thousand gifts in the community. And the fact that it's all rooted in this different notion of what humans are and and what we want to activate and cultivate within ourselves and within others, that feels like a kind of magic to me. And it feels like a bit of a social experiment in that way too, because we're not used to participating so much in this way we're usually trying to be motivated to participate, or scared into participating. The more we have creations that are rooted in a new notion of what a human is, that is what's going to change everything.
Ari: I really like that. And you talk about this being an experiment. Moving to an experiment feeling of it, does that inspire a playfulness and curiosity as opposed to an outcome orientation?
Robert: Yeah. That sense of curiosity feels really important because as we figure out you know, what does it look like to get on a totally different track as humanity -- I don't know. I don't think anybody knows because this has never happened before. You know it's such a wide range. Specially with all these factors coming together that are enabling this, I mean the fact that we're on this call with people all over the world is part of that. These opportunities for like-minded and like-hearted people to start coming together. And I think as we approach this with that level of curiosity, and the humility of saying you know, “this has not happened before,” what does it look like to change the human story? When I hear a lot of different ideas about creating change, to me if this new human story, this new aspect of what life is, and who we are, and how did things happen, that to me feels like the very source of the river, you know a lot of these conversations about problems seem to downstream quite a bit whether it's about politics or agriculture or health care or anything like that, to me that's way downstream, and that when we get to the source of our creative act as an individual and as a humanity as we address it at the stream everything else changes. I mean I've been feeling that so much in my own life as I shift my core beliefs about who I think I am, and what how did things happen, and all of that, how I show up in the present moment and what I want to create and what I want to do with my life. It's changed a lot from the past. As I emerge from my culture. And my 20s and 30s and why I did what I did has really been changing so much and my life experience has been changing so much as I've gotten closer and closer to the impulse to get to the source of the river so to speak. And do that in a way that is full of humility and curiosity, because it's totally new territory for me as an individual and when I look at humanity for us as a collective, I think that's never happened in the way that it's happening now on the planet, and we're all here in our way to participate in that because our humanity is the sum of all of the choices, all of these free will choices we're making as individuals, and every moment it's the collective of that that can be defined as our humanity, or ,civilization, and so the other part of inspiration campaign is really recognizing the power that we have as individuals because I think there's a feeling of powerlessness or jadedness about the state of affairs like, “what can I do?” like when we look at the world and all the problems I find it has been hard to feel empowered but the truth is that the good hearted people on the planet are the majority. When we continue to get together against the backdrop of “What would love do?” That's a creative force that can create and change anything.
Ari: One of the mantras of ServiceSpace is this idea of Change Yourself. Change the World, and I'm hearing a lot in your story about how you were at one point very motivated by Freud’s psychology of man and then how your view has changed. How much do you correlate the way you see the world as a reflection of you vs the world changing?
Robert: That’s a good question. I change by two ways it seems, one is life affirming input. Quick little story about a year and a half ago, almost two years ago, my father left Earth and I was back home in the home that my parents grew up in, that I grew up in and wI as clearing out the basement and I was Kind of going through books a book caught my eye and I put it off to the side and it was written in 1908 and it was called The Great within and I was so struck by the power of the words, of these new beliefs about empowering you think this whole notion of who we are as individuals, and it was so it was so fresh. And it was one hundred eight years old. And I was just struck by the power of belief, and the power of story and this notion of who we are because the way I see the human experience are these three pieces which is: The body you know the stardust configurations we are that has this miraculous intelligence that does millions of things every second to keep the body kind of alive and working. The life force that inhabits the stardust configuration which I think of as a soul or spirit or multi-dimensional sort of nonphysical, some kind of energy that is making the Stardust configurations animated, and the last is mind and I see the three of those when they're on the same team so to speak and when the essence of who we are is driving the bus and our bodies and our minds are in service to that in terms of answering the question what would love do and having a faith in the mystery of being here in the stardust configuration, the power of the mind is evident in and how cultures have changed so much and they're changing now almost a decade by decade but the difference in how humanity is looked at is all about all about mind, all about culture. That's shaped by the beliefs and stories of each individual and that's what I think we really have the power to change. The mind to me seems to be the kind of the gate keeper of our life experience because I think by being here on this planet you're looking out at the world through some kind of tinted glasses based on your beliefs and your stories so everything you how you interact with the world is shaped by that and so by my own process of of striving to look at my mind from a witness point of view has helped me just see the beliefs and stories that I have and see them from a perspective that allows me to question them and be curious about them and change them. I mean when I was back East with that process of clearing out the house and I was really reflecting so much with my father in hospice. It's like I had this witness experience of, just acknowledging at a certain level how much I was shaped by this man and not only this man but what was his relationship with his parents like how much was he loved, what were his beliefs and stories and I really had this power of like I was almost just kind of shocked to realize the twenty four seven indoctrination that I had with my schooling and my culture. I grew up on the East Coast and everything seemed totally quote unquote normal and yet it’s full of all sorts of assumptions and beliefs and stories that you know shaped me in terms of how I aspired, who did I think I was? Ands I'm as I'm changing you know it comes back to ServiceSpace’s premise --that’s how change happens. So that's that's what I can do, is to keep questioning and keep witnessing and keep being open to embodying new beliefs about myself and the notion of who did I come here to be? and embarking into that as this curious journey of discovery.
Ari: Love how you brought that all full circle. Am reflecting on some aspects of the Labor of love project of yours the Inspiration Campaign. It aligns with this gandhi 3.0 idea Nipun Mehta talks about -- Gandhi 1.0 was this way that a leader offered his teachings to many. One to 100s and then Gandhi’s spiritual successor Vinoba saw you could have more connections with people on a one to one basis. And the 3.0 is moving to a distributed network. So moving from this idea from plan and execute to search and amplify and from leadership to leadership. And it becomes not about the number but the quality of the connections. There’s one story about how after Hurricane Katrina all these trees were knocked down and the only tree that wasn’t knocked down was the oak tree and they saw that the roots were not only deep but they interconnected with all the other roots of trees around them - so in effect one tree would have 100 miles of roots because it was tied to other roots and it created a resilient ecosystem. Is that an analogy that rings true with the distributed networking you are creating here?
Robert: Yeah that's great I love that analogy with the trees, that's one of my favorite earthlings as well are oak trees. so it really is a great reminder. Yeah you know that is the basis of the vision because it's celebrating the individual tree, right, because the tree that didn't fall down, didn't fall down because of all the individual trees that created the network, so the network’s as strong as the individuals that are participating, so the notion of creating this project, you know creating this force, by acknowledging the power of the participants, because if you have say a million people giving five dollars a month to create this force, you have this amazing power that can be wielded in some way and the power is because of the collective, and if one person says. You know I probably don't need to participate because there's nine hundred ninety nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine people that are doing it, they're not going to miss really my five dollars a month, and what I love about something like this is on the surface that's true. But if everyone has that attitude and doesn't participate, then all the power goes away. So it's this balancing act between on the one hand I don't really matter, and on the other hand I matter immensely, because that's how the power gets created is in the individual person saying I'm going to participate, or in that individual tree with its roots creating the network, and so I'm really excited in this kind of social experiment to blow on those embers, and to remind the individuals that this is all happening because of you, and so the other piece of this which I think is really interesting is that right now we're starting this new chapter, so we're raising money to build the build the website the new Web site that can scale and kind of contain this and turn crowdsourcing and crowdfunding into this power, and into this transforming advertising. So what's going to be part of the process is that, say the first two hundred fifty people that are participating, and they create one billboard month after month,and that billboards going to be reaching say two hundred fifty thousand people. Two hundred fifty thousand moments every month, and so that one person is going to have the experience of of giving two hundred fifty thousand gifts. And then fast forward when there's say ten thousand people now giving So a bunch of other people have come and now you're reaching ten million gifts every month, that first person that started it, the two fifty, every month, their ability to have given more gifts will keep increasing. It's a notion of the power the impact that each individual has will keep increasing based on the same contribution.
And to me that is an alternative to this kind of scarcity model. It sort of feels like the power of an individual seed. To me it's like a seed is infinite because that one seed can create another plant and that plant can create thousands of seeds in each of these seeds can create there thousands of new plants. And I just can kind of go on forever and that's the same with with love. You know love doesn't diminish when you give it away.
And so there is this new story that I think we can tell and activate within someone that celebrates their participation and their choice and reminds everyone that the collective force is only happening because of that individual choosing to participate. And on the back side of that, to have this ever expanding conspicuous force in the community I think will create these two really important book ends that will celebrate how much we matter as participants and then have a way to show the power of the collective force. And I think it's that interplay, I think, of recognizing the power of individuals and then figuring out this way to harness that into this force like the display of all the oaktrees still standing. In that example is the illustration of the power of the individual. And so that's part of the impulse with the project is to celebrate those two pieces because I think that's going to be a part of the news story of the power of individuals and showing those two ends of the spectrum.
Ari: I'm thinking in general how little meaning people ascribe to their wealth, and I think money in general has been more a destructive force than a creative force. And a lot of people think, "what can I do with five dollars? What can I do with this small amount?" And it as you said when a large lump of people come together doing small actions, that's when the sweetness arrives of what is possible, this collaboration. I was watching your video this morning from your website, and it really was just beautiful illustration of how when you get a critical mass in an area of these billboard, how you really feel the difference, how it changes people, how they show up around the community. And be this constant reminder because right now there's all these constant reminders instead of you are not enough; you need more; there is not enough love; that consumption is going to breed happiness. All these things are not true from my experience. And the antithesis is what your video showed and what I just saw when I was at the environmental sanitation Institute which is part of the Gandhi Ashram in India. And they had all these signs and murals all around and it is just this constant reminders of "I'm an interconnected being; there's love within me; there is love around me."
It's sort of like this idea of whatever we paid attention to grows. And I see in this project, the same conscious tie that when my attention was put to these messages and to the people that were showing up around here that those qualities became real. And a new story evolved out of it. I am guessing that what you're hoping to see arising in a small space, but in a much larger realm of experience for people who don't have the privilege of going to the Gandhi ashram, but have the privilege of walking the streets any your city.
Robert: Yeah, totally. I think positive input leads to positive output. Another piece too of this project is that as more and more people come together, there's going to be all sorts of different ways that we can explore and create new conversations, new kinds of input. The vision through the website is to use it. To me the project in this one two combo. One is creating this force and creating a new voice of social input in our communities by transforming part of the problem which is advertising.
So you can have multi level impacts--celebrating the individual, harnessing individual goodness into a power. Using that power to disrupt and transform this old paradigm that we have become so accustomed to. It is like, "that's just the way it is." We're just reconciled to accept this barrage of input because there aren't really many mainstream social forces that are giving us an alternative. And so in the process of creating that that's kind of the one, and then the other part is continuing to create ways of meaningful participation through conversations, community outreach initiatives. How can we support this new story, this new human story? And that's part of the experiment. What are the kind of conversations we can have? I'd love to be able to talk to people who've been thinking about things for a long time. And as five people, ask, "Hey, what is free will?" and share that with everyone participating, so we can start thinking about what is free will? And what does that mean? Because these are the kind of questions that I feel are addressing the source of the river. So part of this process is not only to transform advertising. To me advertising is just the biggest bang for the buck.
As we get together and sort of start creating this new input, there'll be opportunities to figure out how do we how do we continue the conversation. How do we celebrate the different paths that lead to the same castle--the same castle being a new narrative about who we are as a species, as individuals.
Ari: You share with me a story that seems quite inspirational for you. How you read about this African tribe that couldn't see the color blue. I'm wondering if you could share that in a little bit of what you learn from that and how that relates to the work you are doing in the world?
Robert: Yeah, so there was a video that I saw maybe other people saw it too. It was about the fact that they looked at these different texts all around the world, writings, and they found that colors came in sequence. So red came first as a word and then yellow and green and then blue as the last one. And this tribe in Africa doesn't have a word for blue. And they did a test where they had a series of colored blocks kind of like where the numbers on a clock would be. And one of them was blue and the rest were green. And they asked people in this tribe, "which one is the different one?"
And it turns out this tribe couldn't I see the blue. And it just floored me because it would seem to me it doesn't matter if you have a word for blue like it so clearly different. And how can they not see it? But then they showed another schematic of all the squares being green and they looked identical to me, and they said which one is different now to this tribe, and everyone got it as instant as I got the blue one. And they pointed to the one which was different, and I couldn't even see it after they pointed it out. And this tribe has many, many, many, many words for green.
And so the take away from me on this is that I started to think about, "Well, if we don't have notions that speak to this idea of unity or collectiveness or even a notion of an intelligent universe, it's not even a possibility in our life experience. So as we introduce these new concepts to ourselves that we may have not gotten growing up in the culture that we grew up in, in our neighborhoods, and the adults around us, it seems like as we identify these new concepts in these new ideas that we will just naturally live into them. And so in a way, I could see inspiration campaign as just wanting to announce the color blue to to our society. Like each billboard is kind of a reminder and identification of blue which is this new story.
Ari: I love that idea that without having languaging for things that we can't see them. Without having some some story about it that it doesn't necessarily seem possible, even if our experience tells us otherwise. And it brings up all sorts of questions for me. And sounds like the relevancy for what you are doing is immense.
Pavi: Wonderful. And thank you, Ari, for a wonderfully fertile first hour of the call. I want to in a few minutes read some of the comments that have already come in, but before that I wanted to jump in Robert and ask you, you really used art as a beautiful vehicle for transformation and a powerful one and it made me think of this Picaso quote about how every child is an artist and the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. I have this question about how did you hold on to that? When did you first know you are an artist or that eventually that everyone was an artist? Could you speak a little bit about your formative years that led you to this to this past?
Robert: Yeah, thanks. I probably didn't really identify myself as an artist until later in life. I took a photography class at an art school when I was in college. I went to Brown in Rhode Island for my undergraduate, and they have a program with the Rhode Island School of Design, and I took a photography class there--your classic introduction the black and white photography. When I was in the dark room at two o'clock in the morning watching images come up in the developer, that was the first time that some creative component of me got activated. And I was just in bliss of this match in my own creative outlet. And after I graduated from college and I moved out here right after in nineteen ninety and I was in living the bay area and I started to work with a photographer and I started to do my own photography, and it still took me a long time to call myself an artist. I think because of the notion of how were indoctrinated with. An artist is someone who has work in a museum or a gallery or something. And over time I realized that it's the creative act is an artist. Creating anything is an artistic action.
So my concept of what it means to be an artist just has continued to expand. Any creative act to me is artistic, because you're starting with an idea. Like imagination is the heart of creativity and everything that you see starts with an idea. And then we use our free will of our choices to support bringing that idea into life and that is artistry. That to me is creativity, and so it's been really amazing to watch how that's changed.
There was a big shift for me as well when I did that first art installation, and I created this whole interactive piece. and he had these a circle of women and cast and a teepee, and people went inside. The installation asked people to what do you pledge your allegiance and had an opportunity for people to write. And the very first day after it was set up out sitting inside the teepee alone, and I watched this guy come in and poke his head in, and check it out. And it inspired him to come inside and came inside and took his backpack off. And he was kind of taking everything in, and after about a minute or two, I saw him reach for the piece of paper, and it just it was like a lightning bolt hit me. And I realized that was the whole impetus for this piece, like that act, that creative act on his part, to declare something was like magic to me. And that did so much to see the creative act really expand.
Pavi: That's powerful--that discussion and in the visuals too of the photos that you have of that installation online are hauntingly beautiful. I'm curious because you use the metaphor of the seed. What's fascinating to me is that seeds don't turn into just big seeds. They turn into something that you can't really recognize it when you look at the seed. When you look back into your formative early years, what were the seeds that were planted in you? Robert: The first thing that comes to my mind is my mom was drawn by the impulse of spirit of this sort of non physical aspect to our lives. And which is very different. I mean like she was the only one that was holding on or speaking about those beliefs where I grew up. No one in my school no one on the media and no television anything. And my mom really planted that seed in me like a concept of being more than these characters. That there is a whole other wing to the castle--kind of peeking behind the curtain of this culture. And in that way, that seed has been growing in me for my whole life.
Robert: Of looking out at the world that doesn't even acknowledge really that seed. but that seed has been growing in me and one of the trees of that seed is the art that I create, are these installations that I created, and the sapling really right now is the Inspiration Campaign. I love your recognition that you don't know what the tree is going to look like from the seed. I don't know what Inspiration Campaign is going to look like from the sapling. It’s this beautiful mystery of what are our creations going to be? Starting from the impulse of -- there's a great Rumi quote of being drawn by what you love. And to me that's a seed because -- what does that mean? What do I love? And what does it mean to be drawn to it? And what does it mean to be in service to it? And answering that question “what would love do?” that's a seed to me because each of those things are oak trees or any kind of tree you know it'll be a different tree for each person so to speak. And so I really appreciate that with my mom I mean she was a pre-new ager you know back in the seventies in her own journey, and she handed me that baton, and see how I'm standing on her shoulders to embody that because growing up on the East Coast there was no one else talking about that. The fact that she was ended up shaping so much of My cultivating that seed and thinking about that seed and noticing how that seed is not in our society, and now being drawn to bring it into society in whatever way I can through my shifting of what art is and what creativity is. I love thinking about all the things that I'm creating start from that seed.
And in that same metaphor there is an incredible role that these gardeners like your mother who till the soil, play. It allows so much to flourish. There is something poignant about the fact that it is such an invisible role.
This idea of disrupting and transforming advertising is interesting. And in the art world there’s this tension between where the art arises from and the current paradigm of commercialism. What was that journey for you where it became clear that you needed to disrupt this? What enabled you to take on that dragon that for so many seemed just to big to slay?
Robert: You know it's interesting, I think my whole take on this has not been to disrupt what is, but to create something new. The story of how this started is really interesting. When I did the third art installation about belief and it was a birdhouse and as part of that I made up these little cards that had the beliefs on them and when I went to the printer to pick them up, we have a nice relationship, and he kind of gave me a little wink and said, “I made a couple extra here” and he had let ten more sheets kind of go off the press which gave me like five hundred more cards or something. And so after the week of that installation was up I had all these extra cards and I started carrying them around with me, and giving them away and it's evolved into these inspiration cards. I think we've printed up over one hundred thousand and I give them out all the time and it's been this amazing kind of journey of creating meaningful experiences for people. They're like little billboards in a way. And before Inspiration Campaign even existed as an idea, I was down walking with my dog down by the water's edge I live Tiburon and and I saw an airplane banner in the sky, and I never seen an airplane banner in the sky here. When I grew up on the East Coast -- I grew up in Philadelphia and we would go to the Jersey Shore and planes would fly up and down with kind of personal messages, with these banners, and I think I was just kind of nostalgic and I thought that it would be that. But I couldn't see what it was pulling and I was kind of teased by it, it would kind of be in the distance, I couldn't see it at that angle, and I was just walking and aware of this banner because I was kind of excited to see it and then I realize -- Ah -- it's going to come right by me I'm going to have like a front row seat of what this is. As it pulled in front of me and went across the sky, it was that old Geico ad with the stack of money and the googly eyes on it. And I was just shocked and I was kind of embarrassed at how excited I was to see it and I thought, this is just the leading edge of this advertising. Bombardment you know that we’ve experienced and it's like I got used to all the other stuff but now -- not in an Indian summer blue sky, you know down by the water's edge, this thing in the sky it just seemed like it kind of crossed a line or something and I was in a state of kind of agitation, and then you know, where do ideas come from? This idea this thought was, “hey you have a pouch of cards. Like what would it take to pull one of those cards behind the plane instead of the Geico ad?” And that really, that's the seed of Inspiration Campaign, it wasn't about not wanting the Geico ad it was about, what can be created instead. How do we transmute. something that is into something else? And so my whole notion of this is not, I don't have any adversity or agitation so to speak against advertising, it's not about wanting to resist advertising it's wanting to say, “Hey what else is possible? What else can we do -- we have this communication system in place, how can we use it to inspire the human spirit? And so it becomes more forward looking and at the same time it does disrupt this old paradigm that we've just come to accept, so it like has this magic in that, and that's one of the reasons why it'sso powerful is because it immediately changes, “that’s just they way it is,” into, “Oh- that’s not just the way it is. It can be whatever we want it to be.” And addressing something that feels that fundamental to us feels really powerful. But to me the projects and inspiration campaign is really all about, “What's the yes?” It’s not about saying no to a no because that’s activating no. So I strive to have this forward looking creative act. How can we use this infrastructure that's reaching billions of people every day? How can we use it in a new way and totally transform and expand old paradigms into new paradigms in the same moment in the same process.
Pavi: I really appreciate that distinction that you're making in terms of not standing up to slay the dragon but kind of looking at the energy behind the dragon and thinking,”Wow, what else can we do with this?”
Robert: Can we befriend the dragon can we love the dragon can. Can we figure out transmuting the dragon into a friend, into an ally. That's the power to me.
Pavi: For Ari and I and many of our listeners, this is all speaking to a deep resonance within us and our experience of the world. As you take this out what is your experience with sharing this story and this vision with people who are more cynical?
Robert: You know I think the best example of that is found for me in these cards. So like I said I have this pouch of cards and there's a deck of messages that I've curated over the last couple years. I start with fifty four cards in the deck and I put them in my pouch and I carry that all the time with me and I give them out. I see myself as a messenger for the divine cosmic universe you know, like I'm here to give people these gifts, and so I give it to the butcher, or the people who work at my supermarket. The U.P.S. driver that drives in my neighborhood. The U.P.S. driver stops when he sees me to draw a card. As do the brother and sister who are seven and eight years old and when they see me they ask me if I have my pouch, and checkout people at the supermarket, and the cards create this fundamental meaningful experience that I think touches into the human experience. I remember hearing that the oyster needs a grain of sand to make its pearl and I think these cards or these billboards are that grain of sand for some kind of meaningful moment, and my experience has been that nine out of ten respond positively to these cards because that to me is our nature so I haven't received any real cynicism about the transforming advertising. My notion is that the human being, we're all like it seems to me like metal filings and we're sort of waiting for these magnets that can bring us together and align us. My experience has been seeing people that way, like the way I see people when I give them the card embodies this notion, and you know maybe one out of ten doesn't trust me, and doesn't even want to draw a card, but my experience has been pretty much ninety nine out of one hundred that get a card, we have a meaningful experience, and that has given me this glimpse into what I see as this kind of universal experience, because I'm interacting with all walks of life and I'm having meaningful experiences with all of them and the impulse on the cards is the same as the billboards. That's why I think this is powerful because by addressing people that way it creates a certain degree of universality. And I think that's why this is a kind of a powerful way to bring people together because it feels really inclusive as a way to like, “Hey who wants to create positive input in society?” “Who wants to give gifts to people that they don't know?” I remember the Karma Kitchen notion for example is exactly that, you know, you have a meal and it doesn't cost you anything because someone that you don't know paid for it and then you pay for someone that you're not going to ever meet, and I remember reading the article about that and saying, “My God is this even going to work? Is anyone going to do this?” And it turns out to be so wildly successful. In the same way I remember I was asked like, “what's one of my most meaningful moments? And I remember it was the first time I paid for a toll behind me and how much I was so excited and I wanted to zip away so they didn't feel like they had to even thank me, it was the anonymity that was so exciting to me and that to me feels like the human spirit in action. I mean that's what we all long for. T
Pavi: As you’re talking and describing your pouch and the way you go through your day I’m kind of thinking gosh this the Johnny Appleseed of inspiration.
Robert: I’ve been called that. It’s really flattering.
I love that that there's an element of playfulness there's an element of no expectation and an element of being connected to the reward that’s inherent in the action. Sometimes we're thinking so big that we forget to stay connected to the spirit. But these cards and small actions allow you to hold the big vision in a different way. Do you have a favorite story that has come from the people who have seen your billboards?
Robert: You know the one that comes to mind which is really precious was we had a billboard on Polk Street and we got this letter from this woman who had been living there I think for forty or fifty years and she lived right on Polk Street and she told the story of the morning where she got up, just another day, and she opened up her blind and her apartment was positioned directly opposite of a billboard that for years she had just seen as the normal blast of whatever someone was trying to sell and this morning she opens it up and it was our You are Amazing board. And she described what that was like to be gifted that, it was so poignant in terms of her being this older woman, and being in this apartment, and just kind of accepting things as they were and then to see what else is possible. And the way she wrote about it -- that’s the whole point. I do think a lot of people that saw the billboards probably were waiting for the other shoe to drop, in terms of -- maybe next month they're going to tell me what they're trying to sell, you know kind of thing, I doubt many people saw the billboards and thought I wonder if a bunch of people got together and chipped in some money and crowd sourced the message and wanted to give me a meaningful moment in this instant, but that will change I think as the movement grows and people become more familiar and when someone sees the most beautiful rectangle in their community they'll know, “oh look another inspiration campaign came out” and if that happens kind of like when Ari was talking about being you know being surrounded by these other kind of messages and knowing the intention of them, you know then, that changes the person's experience and it will just keep uplifting, but you know this woman had no idea what it was about but because of her perspective and having seen you know this front row seat for billboards for decades, she got it instantly, and it was beautiful.
Pavi: That’s a great story. I wanted to read you one of the messages that have come in from Leanne Christiansen. She says, “I am a believer of "Believe There is GOOD in the world" ( Be the Good), and I am so thankful to see the growing passion surrounding "kindness campaigns", Random Acts of Kindness groups, and FB pages like the Good News Network. When the positive is shared, whether in print, in pictures or in real life, it creates change, a change in our outlook, our hearts and in our behavior... in our homes, our schools, our communities and our world. Thank you, Mr. Bengston for your deeply inspiring work.”
Robert: That’s beautiful
Pavi: And here’s another message from Midd Hunt: I read that you found an image in the cement of a sidewalk. I too found such an image: a single flowering weed about 6 inches tall growing proudly in a seam between two sidewalk squares. Would have liked to send you the photo but don't see h0w on this form. Best.
Robert: Please do I'd love to see it. That kind of awareness, that recognition of beauty in life, like that to me is a great example of someone self-navigating and looking at the world through a certain color glasses, that sees that, and appreciates that, celebrates that. That definitely warms my heart. I love that.
Pavi: I want to ask you a follow up question about because I noticed on your website that one of the projects you have related to your photography is called The Art of Detail and it is about that lens of looking for the wellspring of beauty that we sometimes overlook because something is so familiar to us, or because we’ve developed certain blind spots. Can you speak about the role beauty and tuning into it has played in your own life?
Robert: Yeah, this trajectory as a photographer came to that realization and it was really prompted over the course of four years, this is about ten, fifteen years ago or so. I found myself in these major cities just for two days, just passing through. I was in Paris. I'd never been to Paris and I was there for two days. And I was on my way to another assignment so I had all my gear and I thought I'm going to photograph Paris in two days, and I just thought, Man how am I going to do that? Photographers spend their whole lives in Paris you know, so I'm going to do it? and I got to the Eiffel Tower and it was one o'clock in the afternoon, the light was terrible, and I just wasn't going to get that super Eiffel tower shot, so I shot what I could. In that moment I thought where is the beautiful thing? And and so I shot the two days, and then it ended up I did London the next year, and the year after I was in Barcelona, and the year after I was in Tokyo, and by the third one I was kind of laughing like what the universe is putting me in another city for two days I've never been to? And I was like alright I am going to do it!
And then a year or two after that I had an open studio, I used to have a photo studio in Sausalito right across the Golden Gate Bridge here in the Bay Area. And for the first time I was doing an open studio, and when I was figuring out how to put the images together, I started to understand this idea of this narrative around the details, and how my joy is really finding a detail that would kind of be overlooked, and celebrating that, and I realized, “Oh I like to tell a story of something by a series of images that embody its details. And it was through that really interesting collaboration with the universe, because I don't know if I would have quite discovered that had I not had this impulse and this opportunity to shoot in that way, and I realized how much that became an example of my whole life philosophy, which is finding beauty wherever you are, in whatever circumstance, and it's a matter of the intention to find it so, like my photography kind of became like an Easter egg hunt in a way, where instead of creating something I was really finding it around. So if it's not over there maybe it's up or maybe it's down or maybe it's left or right and so, that impulse to represent that, which is really how I try to live my life became this really wonderful combo of being able to do that for clients. Clients will hire me to come in and say, take the details of their hotel or their house. And I feel like it's the details that speak to the essence of something. Whether it's in the details of our choices as an individual, and what we notice and what we appreciate, and also these things that we create, you know the detail of a tree, feels like, ah, that's how I get to know the tree. I love the overall tree, but only in seeing the bark or the leaves or the insects that live there, you know it's like that's where the essence is. And so it was really fascinating kind of watching my photography career because I realized I didn't really want to be a big advertising photographer, and creating in the studio, and doing all that just felt very uninteresting to me as a creative artist. So celebrating details became this really interesting other facet to a larger approach of life that is also at the heart of Inspiration Campaign and kind of the celebration of the little things, and how the details speak to the greater whole.
Pavi: I love that how all the details in your life actually do the same thing.
Robert: Right. Yeah totally. And all of our lives you know that’s the magic I think. To look to that and discover you know who we are and what life is.
Pavi: Yeah and it reminds us of the Marcel Proust quote about the beauty of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.
Pavi: Before we go to our last question I wanted to ask a quick one before that. It seems like you are aligning your life with the intelligence of the universe. You are stepping into this greater current. And that can bring a lot of energy with it. How do you stay grounded? Do you have a daily practice of some kind?
Robert: Yeah I do. I have a practice starting off my day where I have some lemon water to start my day. And then I have a kind of an acknowledgement, a communication that I say to the universe in terms of just recognizing this mystery that is, and that I'm a part of, and that I came from, and that I'm returning to, and I kind of just strike that as a tone. And then I will sit in the presence of that as part of starting my day. Actually before that, I started a couple years ago doing what's called the 5 Tibetan rites and it’s this series of five movements that really kind of activate the body and acknowledge my stardust, and it feels in a sacred way. I’ve never been much of a gym goer and just the practice of starting the day with the rites is an acknowledgement of the body and the practice of this mantra in this communication, this mystery of the cosmos and then sitting in that mystery helps me strike a tone for the day, and align myself to having faith in that and trusting in what's happening and seeing everything in a form of perfection, as a way of helping me become more of who I came here to be. Seeing everything as a perfect piece of that process. I think that the the the experience of waking up and and setting that tone feels really helpful to me because it’s a way that helps remind me, and ground me to the curiosity and the mystery and the faith and the trust, in the kind of miracle of all this, and for me to be doing what I can in my day to participate in the most life affirming way that I can. And striking that tone to start the day I find really helpful.
Pavi: That’s a beautiful answer. Before we do our closing moment of gratitude, I wanted to ask the question that we ask all of our guests. What can we as a community, as the ServiceSpace ecosystem and beyond, do to help your vision in the world?
Robert: Thank you! As we mentioned this is kind of a coming out call for this new chapter which feels like a fresh start. We've been doing billboards and things for the last couple years but as I took the last year and a half off to be on my own journey and bring these other pieces in, it really feels like a fresh start, so I would invite everyone to go to the Inspiration Campaign website which is inspirationcampaign.org or .com they both go to the same place and watch the video to get an idea about what this, and to climb aboard, there's a way you get on the mailing list, I'm starting to create a launch team, raising money to build the ship, and this is kind of the process of opening it up to that creative act, that curiosity you know, what does this look like, and how do we do it, and who who feels aligned to be a part of it, and you know creating these different opportunities for people to get involved, and so the first step would be to, I think go to the website and watch the video and reach out and sign up and climb aboard and we’ll set sail on this journey together because there's a lot of different pieces that need to be addressed and and the seats are available so to speak around the table for people to participate in ways that they feel inspired and aligned to, so that would be the first step in joining in this journey.
Pavi: Wonderful thank you for that that grand invitation. Robert thank you so much for walking the path that you are and inviting so many of us into the beauty of that vision.
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