Saturday, April 03, 2010

DIY Days - Reinventing Innovation Speech

I just wrapped my DIY Days speech (ok, hrs ago) and people have asked for the text and slides. So here they are. I am kinda commenting on the slides, and some slides are counter-points to what I am saying so the video will  be much easier to follow, once it is up.

Here's the text, after the fold:

So, I think I should give some background on how this presentation came together. This year, I was a juror at Slamdance, where I spoke at the Filmmakers Summit, where many good conversations about the future of the field took place and while there I stayed at a condo with Lance Weiler and Scilla Andreen of IndieFlix. Lance and I would often come home at night and catch up about the day - what we’d seen, been to, what party was cool, what panel we’d attended. You know, get some quality time together, relax and what not.

Our talks kept circling back to all of the distribution panels going on. These were in one sense good, because filmmakers need to be talking about new models of distribution. But we were frustrated because everywhere we turned that’s all anyone was talking about. It was the entirety of the conversation, on panel after panel and the information was rarely new. Now, this isn’t to pick on the particular panel I’m showing on-screen, in fact that’s the only photo from any of the panels I could find while searching online for hours, as I attended it and tweeted that it was actually useful. But as Lance and I kept talking we kept circling back to the notion that these were getting oh so boring.

After telling Lance about another distribution panel I missed, and how no, he hadn’t missed anything by not attending, he asked me one night - where’s the innovation? I mean sure, some people were talking about things like transmedia, but usually in terms of being multi-platform or marketing their film. With a few exceptions, it was clear that we were taking this really innovative world of digital and were trying to stuff it into the old world way of thinking, cramming it into a box for which it wasn’t designed and doesn’t fit.  Instead of thinking about the new ways we could go and all the marvelous possibilities brought by digital technology, we’re stuck thinking about the world in terms of how it used to be, not how it could be. While everyone talks about innovation what they were really talking about was how to bring the same old film to audiences through new tools, when they should be asking how do these new tools enable me to tell stories differently and engage audiences differently. Solving distribution is an interesting dilemma, but it’s not innovation. As artists, we know that getting stuck in such repetitive ruts brings about stagnation. So how do we ramp up innovation, not just in delivery methods but in all aspects of our art? What would be successful strategies for innovation?

Well, there’s a lot of theories about innovation out there, some of which seem almost like self-help books - “how to become an innovation machine” and what not. I’d prefer to look at what has historically been the arena of innovation and change in the arts. It may be too early in the morning for quoting Apollinaire, but in addition to being an artist, he pointed out that it was better to tear things apart through innovation than to get stuck in repetition and that at times like these we most need the avant-garde. So let’s take a brief tour of the avant-garde.

This was innovation. For those of you who don’t know your art history, it’s Claude Monet’s “impression:sunrise” It was the painting that gave the movement its name, which was a put down actually (looks like an impression of a painting). Now the Impressionists weren’t the first to innovate because of technology and theories, but we’re going to start with them. First, and most importantly, nothing they did was completely new. Many of the techniques you see here had been done before, but they were the first to combine them all together.

The first innovation was premixed paints in lead tubes. As Renoir said, without this new technology there would be no impressionism. You used to have to grind your paints yourself and keep them in dried animal stomachs, among other things, but now you could get outdoors and take your paints with you. They also took the latest scientific theories of optics, spectrography and the study of light and optical realism. This was also the time of the rising popularity of photography, but note that they weren’t using the actual mechanism of photography, but rather the idea of the realism it allowed. All of this (and more) combined for important new art.

So by combining the latest technology and the things those technologies allowed, with the latest cutting edge theories, they created a new form of art. They weren’t the first or last to do this. This mind-blowing piece of technology, the typewriter could be coupled with the latest theories of psychoanalysis, the rise of an entirely new genre, the detective story, and you get Surrealism. Andre Breton believed that the typewriter allowed your unconscious to flow more quickly and unimpeded revealing true unconscious thought - making automatic writing the style of the first surrealist art and soon after automatic drawing and painting, and of course soon after, this was coupled with the latest technology, the cinema to make Surrealistic films like Un Chien Andalou.

Again, it was a coupling of technology and theory. In fact, Robert Ray has proposed that the avant-garde is actually continual research into the consequences of new communication technologies. There are other examples, but I’ll give just one more. In October of 1966, Robert Rauschenberg and the engineer Billy Kluver of Bell Labs created E.A.T.  - experiments in art and technology. 10 artists: Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, among them, and 30 engineers collaborated on a series of art events. Their collaboration produced many "firsts" in the use of new technology for the arts. Closed-circuit television and television projection was used on stage for the first time; a fiber-optics camera picked up objects in a performer's pocket; an infrared television camera captured action in total darkness; and a Doppler sonar device translated movement into sound.

So what would this look like today? Well, what are the big things in technology right now? Here’s a partial list that I’d submit for consideration (here you need to look at the slide). There’s a lot of other ones you could, and should, consider, but I thought I’d just name twenty that have some obvious relevance to our thinking about story-telling and audience engagement through new technology. And here’s some candidates for some scientific theories that are pretty hot right now. (again, must look at slide) So the question becomes what happens when you mix all of these technologies and theories with your story-telling and audience engagement. If you do that, what might it look like? I haven’t the foggiest. That’s what I’m hoping you, as artists will discover next.  I also hope we as a community keep these in mind. I’m not saying every filmmaker should be embracing this, but all of us should keep in mind the practice of the avant-garde as we move forward. No one knows what the future of story-telling looks like, but as Alan Kay has said, the best way to predict the future is to build it.

We stand now at a moment of multiple, endless possible futures. What is coming next is anyone’s guess, but if we look back over the history of technology and what it allows, we see a repeated story where endless possibilities were quickly narrowed down to one option. The phonograph was originally intended by Edison to be participatory, not to just sell you pre-recorded albums. But along came the men in suits an all of the future possibilities for recording were reduced to one - selling recorded music - in very short time. If utopian dreams for participatory technologies panned out, Ham radio would have brought democracy to the world a long time ago, but of course that didn’t happen either.

So this is my plea to those of you in this room. There are endless possibilities for the future of media, but if we want to really think about what’s possible, we can’t leave it to the suits. They won’t be thinking about the art in art & commerce. They’re busy speaking to Congress saying, please stop the internet from doing what it’s been doing and let us go about our business. Many of you in this room probably think of them as aging dinosaurs, threatened to extinction by the evolution of digital. But they aren’t dinosaurs, they are vicious, blood-sucking beasts, hell bent on staying alive and they will use their money, their power and policy to wrest back control. We’re living in a wondrous moment of change; it can be scary, but it’s really not. What’s scary is what future that might be built instead of the one that could. Their version of the future is based on the old way that media made money.

If all we get from this revolution is a fancy, internet connected TV set that allows us to watch any film ever made, anytime we want, on demand we will have failed to innovate. Yeah, like Memorex, it will really blow our minds, but it’s not mind-blowing. It’s easy to get caught up in this and think this is the goal, but TV Everywhere will just be annoying things like being able to watch whatever we want and comment on it via Twitter or FourSquare, and buy whatever the characters are wearing, or make catty comments about it.

But at the end of the day, that’s a pretty boring vision for the future. That’s not the innovation we want or deserve. If all we get is that fancy TV set, or if we just settle for getting our films on VOD or Netflix, we’ll have failed to live up to the potential of digital and the internet. This is dangerous, because we let our vision of the future be limited by our views of the past. We as artists must get involved before this settles into what Jaron Lanier calls “lock-in” where we design the entire system in such a way that to change it at a later date will be impossible.

If we are to progress as a society, we need to embrace this change. We as cultural producers and arbiters, as curators, exhibitors and audiences need to lead the innovation, because if we don’t, the wrong people will.

And that would be a catastrophe. So that’s my challenge to you as artists. Don’t settle for the current conversation. Don’t let your vision for innovation get clouded by the suits. Don’t think of the future in terms of the past. Instead, Invent the future we deserve.


Mark said...

Hey Brian,

I was not able to make it to DIYDays today, so am very glad you put this up.

I've had similiar complaints myself, and in fact it was a conversation with you at the TransmediaNY meet-up that inspired this NEW BREED post.

Thanks again for always being thorough and articulate and not afraid to push back.

joeshays said...

Great thoughts on the temptation to tilt toward the suits. I think of Andy Warhol as I ponder the collision of art and commerce. He used the suits to fund his art. He wore a suit to get it done. Would love to hear your take along these lines. Meantime, I'm creating my 5000th 10 years old film maker this month.
From my perspective the future is bright...

BNewmanSBoard said...

Boy, this suit thing sure inspired both good and bad feedback. I leaned more heavily towards an anti-suit perspective because of the nature of the crowd, DIY, and also because it's an easy short-hand when you are presenting 50 slides in 13 minutes! I wear a suit probably 3 times a week. I've worked with many suits - at companies big and small and seen good work from some of them, and in conjunction with them. I'm all for more exploration of artists working with suits too. I'm a big fan of art/commerce applications, when done right or with innovation. I just wanted to point out that the future of media is being decided now by a particular set of powerful suits that don't have indie interests in mind - and they shouldn't as it's not in their corporate mission, but we need to fight this. I'm all for watching a future enhanced TV, but that shouldn't be all we get to do, and that's where we're increasingly moving. I'm also just generally calling for creatives to be...more creative. Think about how to be more innovative.
This also leads to my response to the (mainly twitter) critique that I didn't offer solutions to the suits - sorry, but that was the point, as one tweet said from the day - I was trying to not dictate where the discussion should go, but leave it open to your own creativity. As I mentioned briefly, I have clear thoughts on where I think things are going, but if I say you should do X, Y and Z and I don't mention A, B and C, that leaves a lot off the table that should be thought about. Creative folk will figure it out without me telling them - you know, empower the (DIY) audience and all...

Steve Gammill said...

Here's a thought. Why not get people to tell a series of short stories about themselves and their lives; stories that capture the essence of the person and reveal the tapestry? I just did that and published a book called, Success...Swimming in a Sea of. How do 14 different people define success in their lives? I'm always interested in your thoughts on something like this.Email comments to me. Here's a web link: