Monday, November 29, 2010

New thinking on the arts - 20 Under 40

Just over a year ago, I heard about a nifty new project to collect essays about new directions in the arts from twenty leaders of the arts under the age of 40 - called, appropriately enough, 20Under40. Having just stepped down as the leader of a nonprofit to go in new directions, and being just under the cut-off age, I had more free time than before to write a longer essay, and submitted my proposal for a chapter on ten important trends in the arts (which I wrote about on this blog in the link). My chapter was accepted, I finally got it written and edited (with some great editing help) and the book is now set for sale on this Wed, Dec 1 from the project website. 

We received our author's copies not long ago, and after a quick perusal (to be sure my chapter actually made it through), onto the shelf it went, behind a stack of other books I need to read. Then came the Great Flu of Thanksgiving...okay, maybe just a cold, but I was laid up this entire past weekend, and had more free time to watch movies and read books, and I decided to read the entire book.

I'm glad I did. There are some great chapters in here, with some pretty cool ideas. I'm not going to review the entire book here, but I can say that if you have any interest in the arts, arts participation, arts education and/or new ideas for the arts and arts education it is a great read. I liked many of the chapters and will likely be bringing up these ideas on this blog, and in my practice, in the coming months, but here's a quick shout out to a few that struck a chord, as a way to possibly stimulate your interest in the book:

1. David J. McGraw - writing on The Epoch Model - the idea being that we should make room for organizations with an "expiration date" instead of thinking every new nonprofit needs to last forever. Oh, how I wish this would become prevalent!

2. Ian David Moss and Daniel Reid - unveiling a fabulous idea for crowd-sourcing philanthropy. This one is gold. Their idea goes well beyond the simple crowd-funding models we have now (such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) and envisions an entirely new system for philanthropy....and they even write the chapter as a proposal for a foundation to adopt their idea. I'm not sure if anyone will, but I've already used this chapter as fodder for some new ideas in the film world. Ian has a great blog post about the idea and this project here.

3. Kylie Peppler - on how learning to "creatively code" is fundamental to the "future of arts education in a digital world." Right on. This one really spoke to me, as it touches on ideas of what it means to be electrate (literate in an electronic world), and because the author makes it clear that coding can be done by anyone - and should be done by everyone - because it is "essential to communica(tion) in a digital age."

4. Bridget Matros of the Boston Children's Museum closes the book's submissions with an amazing chapter about the need for new thinking about teaching arts to very young kids (under 5) if we are to build a more creative society. Matros uses real examples from her time in the Museum to show how adult's fear of arts/creativity impacts youth - and sets their thinking into rigid boundaries that are the opposite of art. It reminded me of an old quote from David Lynch, about how his parents wouldn't give him a coloring book because they didn't want him to feel bounded by the lines on the page - he needed more freedom to create. Matros says much the same, and her anecdotes about frustrated parents limiting their kids creativity to "paint a flower for Mommy" (because of their own fears and preconceptions about art) are poignant. Reading her chapter, it becomes clear that if we want to change public perceptions on the arts (and arts education, importance, funding, etc.) we need to focus on how we teach art to 3 year old kids!

Readers interested in seeing brief blurbs on every chapter can find them here. Fellow authors not mentioned here, don't despair - I learned something from every chapter, but feel the ones mentioned here resonate most with what I write about on this blog, and I couldn't review every chapter here! I'll likely have more here soon on the other ideas in the book. Kudos also to editor Edward Clapp, for putting this all together!

You can also support a crowd-funding campaign for the book (a very DIY effort, worthy of support), and while I've already found the books on Amazon, buying it from the project website will support the effort (and I say this not expecting any revenue from this, just to support the idea of the project).  There's an all day launch party in Boston on Dec 10th and one will be scheduled in NYC soon. I'd love to see a similar book just about film. I've suggested my own 20 under 40 in film, and would love your thoughts on this in the comments.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Etsy rocks the docs...and should be in a fest near you

Going along with this earlier post on the need for new thinking about docs.....I have another pet theory:

It's a crime that none of the major documentary festivals have bothered to show the Etsy short docs. What are these? Etsy has hired a team to make short docs about the artists and crafts-people who sell on Etsy, and while your gut reaction might be that this isn't art, they are pretty well made.

I think they’d have been perfect for the mission of DOCNYC - blurring the lines/acknowledging the changes in the field. If I ran a Doc fest, they'd be featured content on my website...and if you disagree with me, trust me, this would be in the spirit of provocation. But I can’t single this fest out - err, I guess I just did, but I like them and they seem open to ideas so....but really, this is about all fests

Guess what? There’s a few changes afoot in the world: Shorter content; the web; commercially supported films (this is a huge phenomenon barely acknowledged in the fest panel world); an interest in the DIY/Maker community; a slowly changing of forms due to technology...and a few other things. All of them are perfectly encapsulated in the Etsy docs. They raise ethical and other issues for the field - no more so than some other practices, but a good conversation could be had, for example, on the ethics of selling the products of the artisan you are documenting - and this alone makes it worthy of inclusion in a doc line-up. Plus, they work. Short, sweet...and money making. They may fail with this experiment, but mark my words, some version of this is the future of the doc, and we should be part of the conversation - instead of excluding them from the party, they should be welcomed.

Disclaimer: I know one of the makers of these docs. Have for a long time, but no other ties. I bet this is part of the problem - she knows many people in the doc world, and if you aren’t making a doc for Toronto or HBO (etc) then you just fall off their radar.


Some of the best content I’ve seen all year.

Here's some faves:

Handmade Portraits: Old School Tools from Etsy on Vimeo.

Some more:

Handmade Portraits: Wood Mosaics from Etsy on Vimeo.

Lucky Duck Press:

A Letterpress Legacy with Lucky Duck Press from Etsy on Vimeo.

Pets with Fez:

Handmade Portraits: Pets With Fez from Etsy on Vimeo.

 A note: I had commented here that their Flash cookies were problematic to me (thus the Vimeo link), but after emailing with some Etsy folks I feel comfortable that they aren't rabid data gatherers, so I removed that comment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Piracy Helps Potter

There was a story in today's NYT about the phenomenal opening weekend of the new Harry Potter movie - taking in about $330 million at the box office. Midway through the article there's a nice little paragraph about how this was accomplished in spite of some recent piracy of the film:

Early last week, the first 36 minutes of “Deathly Hallows,” about a quarter of the movie, leaked onto the Internet, prompting a fresh round of hand-wringing about piracy and leading to some worries that the movie’s opening weekend would suffer as a result. Mr. Fellman said that the studio was investigating but that the pirated footage did not appear to hurt the release. (If anything, the news media coverage of the leak helped.) 

Good to see that piracy has once again helped a movie find success! Hollywood (and the RIAA, etc) keep wringing their hands about how piracy is ruining the business while more sober people keep pointing out that if anything, piracy seems to correlate with success and not hamper business at all.  But really, I'd be surprised if Dan Fellman wasn't smart enough to purposefully leak those first 36 minutes - what an excellent teaser to get you to the theater and what pirate stops with one quarter of a movie?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Stop making docs

Yo, you. Shut up, listen. I don’t want your (feature) doc anymore.

I know, you are offended. So what?

Make me a really interesting website, that happens to have maybe 20 minutes total of video. In 3 minute segments. Let me trade it, use it, share it, on my phone. Let it actually have an impact instead of just stroking your and your funder’s egos. Let it be interesting and aware of today’s realities. Let it be useful. Let it never play a film festival. Ever.

Do this, and I will love you. And so will everyone else.

I’m not saying everyone should do this, but you should. Yes, you. Thanks.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Montreal, Restaurants and the need for better social networks

Anyone following my Tweets lately knows that I just took a trip to Montreal - I tweeted about the conference, the food, the Bixi bikes...everything. I was there to speak at RIDM, a great documentary film festival that has a new director and that is poised for some really great things. It was my first trip to Montreal, and my wife was able to join me so we added on a couple of days for exploring the city.

This post is not directly about film - but I'll get there by the end, trust me. My wife and I are foodies, and make a point of searching out the well- and not-so-well-known restaurants in all of the towns we visit together. On this trip we had some amazing meals. I'll list them all below the fold, for those who are interested, but what I learned on this trip was that how we discovered them, researched them and finally picked where we ate was not what I expected. The web influenced this, and so did the food sites - to some extent - but much less than I would expect. What it taught me was that in spite of years of development of trip and food sites, they are all woefully inadequate and there remain some golden business opportunities out there for anyone thinking about how to use technology to better "consumer experiences." I think this extends to cultural experiences as well - and thus film, music, theater, books....pretty much anything.

We had plenty of options out there for finding info on restaurants in Montreal - Yelp, Zagat, Gayot, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Twitter, the websites of the restaurants themselves, ChowHound....there's a plenty endless list. All of the places we ended up going to were listed on these places, and there were tons of reviews. But the reviews were pretty all over the place - good, bad. Who knew whether that stellar review of a restaurant was from a real foodie, or just someone who'd just fallen for the hype? Was that bad review from someone who is just anti-meat eating generally, or perhaps they had a bad relationship with the waiter? Sure, some of the sites let you see their other reviews or rate the reviewer, but generally speaking all these sites could do was help us narrow the field just a little bit - and we only started feeling comfortable when we compare these listings to those in more traditional sources - travel books, old NYT reviews, a 4 year old Gourmet magazine featuring Montreal that my wife hung on to, and of course...people.

We narrowed down the list of possible places to 15 or so restaurants, and then did what we always do.....turned to a trusted source for some help. We are lucky to be friendly with a VP at the Beard Foundation, so we always check in with this person for advice on the best restaurants and food wherever we travel. Within seconds, he'd emailed our list to two foodies he trusted in Montreal, and they conferred (via phone, within minutes, foodies are obsessive fans) and sent us back comments on all of our potential places and a small list of a few we hadn't heard about, or that we had removed from our list because of bad reviews online (judged wrong by these experts we still hadn't met, but had a lot more trust in because of who recommended them).   We then confirmed with the brother of another friend in NYC who is from Montreal - a double check that we in fact had the best list we could.  This was our ultimate guide - the recommendations of strangers we could trust because of who they knew.

This is why I am excited to see the launch of new social networks like Path, announced this week, that focus more on smaller groups of people you really know. I want more of them, and I hope someone builds them for me, because I don't have the time. I don't care what some person says on Yelp. Okay, I do care, but only a little bit. What I really want to know is what do my friends recommend. My real friends, not just all the people I talk to on Facebook, which includes a fair amount of people who I trust for film recommendations, but not for food (or wine, or book) recommendations.

I want to be able to walk down a street in Montreal and see a map of every restaurant nearby and have a rating based on just my friend's reviews. Mitchell ate here and liked it. (He's our James Beard friend) You are standing in front of this Persian restaurant, but three blocks over is one that someone else you know recommended much more highly. And there's a table open now (via Open Table). Here's the dishes they recommended. Mitchell liked this restaurant two years ago, but the Chef has moved on to another restaurant across town, and while Mitchell hasn't eaten there, three of your friends have and gave it good reviews. You starred this as a place you want to eat at when you read an article in the NYT three years ago, it still gets good reviews and your Bixi bike just broke down a short two blocks away from it.

These more personalized options don't exist yet, but they will. You don't have to think hard to imagine how this could also work for film, or theater or book readings or just about anything else. Simple example - I should be able to "check in" to Montreal when I arrive and be told that four films were playing at RIDM that I've been wanting to see because I read about them on Indiewire, two are playing that Basil watched at the Toronto Film Fest and liked and because I trust him I might want to see them as well. I should also be told that Lucy Walker has a new film there, and that because I liked her last film, I might like this one, and I should be able to buy the ticket and if I can't make the show...add it to my Netflix queue for when it is released, with a note saying who recommended it and why. Or just let me know she is speaking on a panel.

So, that's my request for today - someone build me all this stuff. Soon, or I might get bored one day and do it myself.

For those of you interested in the restaurants, here's the list with quick comments, below the fold:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Making the impossible possible

I went to hear the brilliant theorist Slavoj Zizek speak at Cooper Union last night. One part of his speech was especially interesting to me. Forgive me, Zizekians for paraphrasing his very smart argument, but the short version will have to suffice as it was a 2 hour speech. One of his main points was about how ingrained ideology is in our culture - we don’t think twice when people call certain things impossible and others possible. His critique was coming from the left (the still proudly Marxist left, in his case), but is pretty poignant nonetheless.

Why, he asked, is everything possible under capitalism and technology? We can go to the Moon, photograph a comet, build a social network that can connect the world, decode the genome, possibly upload our conscious someday to a machine, make space flight available to the rich, we can keep polluting the earth with no major changes because we’ll make up for this by paying for the carbon offset... etc etc, add your favorite new possibility here.  Yet, say we want to have health care for all....impossible. Say we want to build a more equitable distribution of wealth. Impossible - that would lead to totalitarianism.

Instead, he argued, we need to look at all these impossible scenarios and realize they are the only places available for real change. Most of what is “possible” is a false utopia. Most of what is “impossible” is very possible and we can find examples buried all around. What is utopian is not to believe that we can have a different society, but rather to believe that the current paradigm can continue.

Now, you don’t have to subscribe to his overall political agenda, but I think that last point is pretty interesting when thinking about film. I got out of the meeting, and found this post from Mynette Louie, who was on the same wavelength:

"Wish ppl would stop telling me what's impossible b4 even trying. Indie film is inherently impossible--we have to try to make it possible!"

She's correct. What’s needed now is a big dose of radicalism. We need to stop accepting the current stru(i)ctures around what it means to make and distribute a film and see them as false paradigms. We need to reject the false utopianisms and design something radically new. This means that not only does traditional distribution not work, but....wake up...neither does DIY distribution if at the end of the day you are working for free to get your film out. You might just be indentured to yourself, but that’s still no better than being sold to “the man.”

Nope, a radical change will mean something much more. I’m not going to prescribe that solution here - I may not be capable of that ever - but I would hazard a guess that the answer lies in imagining the impossible as possible.