Monday, September 28, 2009

Modernity: Things are Riskier, But Artists & Creators Have More Opportunity

The Modern Age, along with its perks,  increase the riskiness of things (the global financial crisis a "great" case study) - using Nassim Taleb terminology, modernity is increasing our exposure to "Extremistan." From Niall Ferguson's review of Taleb's The Black Swan:
Perhaps the most provocative of all Taleb's many provocations is his hypothesis that, as a result of globalisation and the speed of electronic communications, the world is becoming more like Extremistan and less like Mediocristan.

Yes, the integration of international markets seems to reduce economic volatility. But by magnifying the effects of herd-like behaviour (another of our evolved traits), it also increases the tendency for winners to take all - the Harry Potter phenom-enon - and for disasters, when they strike, to be comparably huge. Just as there will be fewer but bigger bestsellers, Taleb argues, so there may also be "fewer but bigger crises" in the realms of finance and geopolitics.
Mediocristan is where failures or successes have a smaller impact. In Extremistan, the impact is huge (often global). More and more of the world is becoming like Extremistan - "winner-takes-all" - the more interconnected and interdependent we become.

The internet is one of the defining offspring of Modernity as well as a major reason for this global interconnectedness. Though, as Kevin Kelly's concept of 1,000 True Fans shows, the Internet can also serve as a leveling tool.

Artistic fields like film, visual art, music are subject to Extremistan-like tendencies: winner-takes-all tendency, high degrees of randomness as far as which participants in these fields will achieve "Superstar" level (the rare but dominating leaders of the field). since the distribution isn't even but extreme, high success is rare.

"1,000 True Fans"
, on the other hand:

Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail? One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author - in other words, anyone producing works of art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans....Let's peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years...The technologies of connection and small-time manufacturing make this circle possible...You don't need a million fans to justify producing something new. A mere one thousand is sufficient.

But the point of this strategy is to say that you don't need a hit to survive. You don't need to aim for the short head of best-sellerdom to escape the long tail. There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for.
The opportunity for escape - to an alternate path of success for a creator - is something the internet is beginning to usher in (I don't believe the 1,000 True Fans model has yet reached  near its full potential).

My previous post on the internet highlights another leveling factor. Modernity brought the means of mass communication (1984-style), but the web allows the option of less "clumping" around a few, most prominent voices. Experts (and varied opinions) are easier to find - hopefully also lessening our exposure to Extremistan (in the form of singular, top-down instead of bottom-up guidance).
More on this point in a later post.

(Click for larger - source: Flickr)
"Clumping." You know, like an efficient kitty litter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Berlusconi and a Blurb

A heads-up to historians out there wanting to get ahead of the game:

"I sincerely believe I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150 year history (since unification in 1861)," Berlusconi said in televised news conference in Sardinia with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
(Unrelated) blurb:
"A tailor at work resembles the poet cutting, trimming, and stitching his verse. The needle is the sudden penetration of insight, while the flexible thread, assuring continuity and shape, is dragged in the rear as a secondary process. The result is “my misshapen son”: Art-making by men is an appropriation of female fertility. The end product, like Frankenstein’s “monster” with his stitched-up face, may seem ugly or distorted (in an avant-garde era). But the artwork is the artist’s true posterity, a child of the intellect rather than the body—a distinction made by Plato. "
- Camille Paglia
Thanks to Foreign Policy Passport blog for photo

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Improvise: Be Obvious

There are two things to do to improvise: generate, and justify. Both of these things are instinctual (i.e., our brain can do this for us without us forcing it to do so). First, the improvised item must be generated ("improvised"), and then justified within the context of the scene/environment. Here's how to do both (though you already know how to?):

As to the generating, (and the expectation of having to create something "original"): Keith Johnstone writes in Impro:
"The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really 'obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some 'original' idea because they want to be thought clever...
'What's for supper?' a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original...he'll finally drag up some idea like 'fried mermaid.' If he'd just said 'fish' the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears."
The mind can immediately generate a response for what something (imaginary) is - it is more one's desire to appear imaginative (or the fear that an immediate, subconscious response will negatively reflect on oneself) that slows its expression. Our imagination, then, (*without prompting*) is a near-infinite generator of what something could be. Johnstone again:
"...I explain that I'm not interested in what they did, but how their minds worked. I say that either they can put their hand out, and see what it closes on; or else they can think first, deciding what they'll pick up, and then do the mime [of the object]. If they're worried about failing, then they'll have to think first; if they're being playful, then they can allow their hand to make its own decision."
Johnstone goes on to show this at work - having a student repeatedly take something from an imaginary box, continually changing the context so they can't plan what (potentially 'clever thing') to take next. J-stones:
"If I make people produce object after object, then very likely they'll stop bothering to think first, and just swing along being mildly interested in what their hands select. Here's a sequence that was filmed...I said:
Keith: 'Put your hand into an imaginary box. What do you take out?'
'A cricket ball.'
'Take something else out.'
'Another cricket ball.'
'Unscrew it. What's inside?'
'A medallion.'
'What's written on it?'
'Christmas 1948.'
'Put both hands in. What have you got?'
'A box.'
'What's written on it?'
'"Export only."'
'Open it and take something out.'
'A pair of rubber corsets.'
'Put your hands in the far corners of the box. What have you got?'
'Two lobsters.'
'Leave them. Take out a handful of something.'
'Feel about in it.'
'A pearl.'
'Taste it.' What's it taste of?'
'Pear drops.'
Take something off a shelf.'
'A shoe.'
'What size?'
'Reach for something behind you.'
He laughs.
'What is it?'
'A breast...'
Notice that I'm helping him to fantasise by continually changing the 'set' (i.e. the category) of the questions."
Note this student is not planning these things, but they are being supplied instinctually. I've done this same exercise as a director and the results are the same - eventually the mind supplies its own items without them being consciously planned or strictly supervised.

If that's the Generating, then where does its counterpart Justifying come in?
We'll call this instinct The Justifier, which responds to the question "why" of "why do i have this thing/how do i justify it's presence?" This is instinctual in a scene because it's the same one we use in everyday life to situate ourselves.*

This Justifying instinct can be nearly as responsive and usable as the generating, particularly following Johnstone's creed of "Be Obvious! Don't try to be clever" -
if in a scene you partner asks why you're holding takeout, the "obvious" answer is because you just got from a restaurant. No clever "an alien from Saturn gave me this doggie bag, its got soup recipes in it."

'The obvious' serves as a much stabler, stronger platform to build the scene on. The takeout's presence could lead to revelation of having eaten with someone, which could cause tension upon returning home, which could lead to something all the more dramatic. An interesting scene has been created with minimal stress or 'i have to be clever!' pressure on the part of the performers.
That is all that is needed to improvise - generating, and justifying. Johnstone also recommends the use of 'reincorporation' - using what's already been introduced in the scene - tobuild a story and find an ending. This, combined with Johnstone's concept of Status, mentioned in this previous post, are additional concepts that can be plugged into the base that's created by the generating and the justifying. The fact that improvising is simply what our brain does on its own, means that anyone can improvise. It's not about your funniness, cleverness, or brainpower - all it takes is awareness and using what you have already.

*The Justifier is, I believe, our innate pattern-searching and pattern-recognition mental instincts. "Why would i have this?" is searching for a pattern, and Johnstone's 'Be Obvious' injunction reminds one to be comfortable picking the obvious pattern.

One and Another Plunge

"To live is to crochet according to a pattern we were given.
But while doing
it the mind is at liberty, and all enchanted princes can
stroll in their parks between one and another plunge of the hooked ivory needle."

-Fernando Pessoa
from The Book of Disquiet

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What the Internet Facilitaties: Expertise

Worthwhile excerpt from an article on a presentation by
Chris Anderson (editor of Wired Magazine) to the Smithsonian on how best to confront and utilize the digital age:

Anderson:"If you're given infinite choice and the tools to help you find stuff, then we will start to diversify our choice, and define our communities of interest," he told the audience. "It often turns out that the stuff we love the most is the stuff that's not the blockbuster. The stuff that we all like collectively -- the Super Bowl -- are things we don't feel as passionately about. Less popular things are actually more meaningful to us as individuals."

Anderson's fetish, for example, is Lego robots. In what might be a mammoth understatement, he revealed that there is no place for this interest in his magazine. But online, he has found a community of people like him.

..."The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich," he said. "The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, 'We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We're not perfect, but we get better over time.' "

The problem is, "the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them," Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. "Not only that, but you can't find them. They can find you, but you can't find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out
there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert."

Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian's got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, "If you know something about this, tell us." Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. "I'll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job" in authenticating it and explaining it. "It would be the best free labor that you can imagine."
As Anderson points out, the "Passionate Expert" on a subject is not necessarily the most visible or easiest to find. With the connectivity that's now facilitated by the internet, that platform allows an opportunity for others interested in a topic to find their way into communities (such as the Smithsonian archive) instead of the Smithsonian having to necessarily seek them out.

Not only are 'expert types' easier to find, contacting and working with them is simpler too. Expert Example: Col. Pat Lang - Green Beret, Vietnam Vet, Middle East Intelligence Specialist. His knowledge and insight on M. E. topics (and of course, viewpoint) is openly available to those interested.

PhotobucketNorth America's City-to-City Internet Connections via Chris Harrison