Saturday, October 27, 2012

Some Thoughts on We Can Create

I'm not a graphic designer, by trade or even by skill, but when my flatmate won tickets to We Can Create, I thought I'd check it out, both as a window into a world I don't know much about and under the theory that creative people, regardless of their endeavor, can offer insights to other creative people about process and attitude. Plus it wasn't entirely non-filmy: Taika Waititi, director of BOY and EAGLE VS. SHARK, was speaking, and The Light Surgeons were performing a live VJing work called SuperEverything. So: why the hell not?

The seminar was absolutely worth it for the first two speakers alone. Sarah Maxey came out of the gate a bit goofy - my third note is "apparently (this presentation is going to be) nothing but bear jokes" - but once I clicked into her mode of presentation I found her both entertaining and inspiring. Her field of hand-drawn lettering fits into what she calls the "awkward space between art and design", but she doesn't limit herself to that - her project "World Animal" was about finding unexpected appearances of animal simlucra in the manmade world. Perhaps the most exciting was a joint project called "Sentimental Journey", where she and another lettering artist independently handled half of 20 two word phrases, which were then combined to sometimes incoherent and sometimes astonishing results. "Productive tension as result of inconsistent aesthetic", I noted. It also underlined one of her major points: "talent plays less of a role than persistence".

Creating first and analyzing second was a pivotal message of the morning, and one brought fully into perspective by the even more inspiring duo of Thomas and Martin Poschauko, twin Bavarian designers who showcased their thesis project NEA MACHINA. They limited themselves to two elements - a picture and the words NEA MACHINA - and, with that strict brief, created 10,000 artworks over four months, a thousand of which are showcased in their (currently German-language only) book. Their philosophy also extended to free flow between computer and handmade - so, after reaching a certain point manipulating an image in Illustrator, they'd realize it looked like yarn and built a simulation in yarn, then photographed themselves playing it. Or, radically simplifying the number of vectors in a hand drawing scanned into Photoshop until it looks like an expressionist woodcut, then making the woodcut. "Doing is a precondition of thinking", they stated at one point, and whilst much of their work didn't appeal to my personal aesthetic (and perhaps sometimes to theirs), it was clear that the result for them was one of expanding a toolkit, challenging one's selves, and refreshing their creative world view.

Neither "Sentimental Journey" nor NEA MACHINA were particularly economically-driven works, which left one wondering how applicable this was to day-to-day operations. NZ advertising agency Assembly, who described themselves as working at the boundary of art and science, came out after the lunch break with work deeply committed to creative challenges while fully embedded in a capitalist structure. Their advertisement for the NZ Herald involved printing the visual material they wanted to shoot (HUGE rolls that took multiple days to print in color), then putting it through a printing press (which has a tendency to take anything on it that's not as strong as unprinted paper and rip it to shreds), then photographing it (whilst not having anything resembling a registration system). Meanwhile, the V Motion Project (linked above) used XBox Kinects to create an interactive music system - my favorite hack in this was discovering that overlapping Kinects cancel each other out, so they attached a motor to one so that it would be permanently shaking slightly, thus obviating the cancellation. It was great to have such an in-depth look at the processes for these projects, even if they weren't particularly personally applicable.

Having said that, there was something deflating about the level of passion, dedication, and commitment going in to create something that was meant to sell energy drinks. (Note to self during presentation: "I saw the greatest minds of our generation working 70 hour weeks to increase share prices by 1/8th of a point.") Assembly spoke about their moral limits in the work that they'd take on forthrightly (no cigarette advertising, for instance), and intimated that they saw a future where they weren't doing advertising work, even if they were vague about the path: "it's like we're training for some other event; we don't know what it is yet".

This is getting remarkably unshort, so: Jonathan Barnbrook, graphic designer (most famous to many for his work on David Bowie's HEATHEN, with Damien Hirst, and Occupy London). After some prefatory remarks on the relative place of the artist and designer in societal perception, he launched into a career retrospective of his work, in both font design and more conventional graphic design. He was perhaps the most well-spoken presenter of the day, and the mixture of his work (focusing quite extensively on non-economically driven work, such as pictograms critical of the Olympics, which stood in effective dialectic to Assembly) was hugely impressive, as was his closing admonition that "the important thing is to be happy". (Also interesting: him drawing a line between himself and artists in that the work he did for the Olympics e.g. was free, whilst everything artists do is monetized.) I'd have liked a bit more process, but it was a full and worthwhile hour, so basically I'm probably just complaining that it wasn't longer.

A short break, and then followed perhaps the most colossal miscalculation of the day, or perhaps a strategic provocation. I won't link to Rockin' Jelly Bean for those of you innocuously reading at work who would be unexpectedly confronted by boobies shooting energy bolts, but: well, that's how we spent the next half hour and change, with the Japanese designer basically showing page after page of variations on huge-breasted women in various situations. Oh, there's one with a tail. There's one riding a fish. There's one who has an entrance to a circus between her legs. etc. I wasn't personally offended (tho many were - I was in the front row, but heard of walkouts later), but I did find it a rather odd inclusion to the day, especially when somebody whose work was so provocative was unwilling to speak much to its provocative contents other than "I like strong women, and this work celebrates women's bodies". (Anatomically impossible bodies that help reify an impossible ideal for women whilst monomanically positioning them as sex objects, no?) To add to the general discomfort (already high because of his positioning after Barnbrook's socially engaged work), he spoke in Japanese and had a female translator, whose role became exceptionally awkward during the Q&A when issues of sexism and portrayal of women's bodies came up. I'll give WCC this, though, it definitely added some great grist for the mill for conversations for the remainder of the day. There's a wonderful discussion to be had around the free expression of individual sexuality vs. the role of creators in controlling a mediasphere and the responsibility that in turn engenders in re: the depiction of female form, even if it didn't happen on stage.

Am I a horrible person for finding AdBusters equally problematic? Perhaps. I found myself taken aback to recognize an early image in their slideshow (shown above) as being from an old friend Lyza Danger Gardner. Whilst everyone else's work was either about creating something new or creative reappropriation and transformation, much of what AdBusters does is nick imagery in service of creating a narrative. I was more than somewhat appalled when Ellen, a graphic designer there, basically said she went through Tumblr, grabbed images they like, and had gotten in trouble because of using images without permission ... and then, when I thought this narrative would end "and now we're more considerate of using pictures of 17-year old girls that their friends might have posted on Tumblr without permission", instead ended by saying "we think it's easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission. To which I say: fuck that. There's plenty of images in the world, and no shortage of options. It's one thing to subvert a piece of art or corporate branding that's in the public space, and another to take somebody's image to use for your political narrative. And it's a narrative that they're advancing in disingenous ways: in introducing their new book about economics, their editor stated "it's about emotion, not facts". The slide that they used, whilst difficult to discern in complete detail seemed to underscore the point. The left side of the page had a graph that represented population growth as suddenly spiraling out of control, while the right side had a graph of gross domestic product (IIRC) that was growing at .2 slope or so. Only trick is, it appeared that the graph on the left spanned 2000 years, the graph on the right spanned 200. Don't get me wrong, I generally agree with these guys more often than not, I just wish I could support their mode of behaviour, one I suspect they would find repellent in an organization that they ethically opposed. I don't know if a Q&A would have engaged these more problematic issues; sadly, for time reasons it was axed.

If you've seen the above, you've basically seen Taika Waititi's talk. He dicked around for five minutes in some inexplicable combination of awkward comedy and flat-out awkwardness - to the point where people walked out - then finally got into it and provided the most laughs of the day. The main new material was hysterical examples of the drawings he's been doing for his Kickstarter rewards (famously delayed in delivery, as noted in the papers lately; "Never do a Kickstarter", advised Waititi), and some clips from his new vampire film shot in Wellington and co-written with Jemaine Clement. The presentation space wasn't very forgiving to the darkly-shot material, but it seemed like his signature mix of cleverness and stupidity, much less polished than BOY. He's self-funding the film and will own it at the end; I got the impression that BOY was a bruising process, and that this is a retreat to safer, more nurturing creative environment.

The Light Surgeons closed the day with their piece SuperEverything. I'm largely unfamiliar with VJ culture, but apparently they're big names in it, and having seen snippets of their work and being fond of split-screen composition I was quite curious to see how it played out. In theory, the two-screen depth-based setup - a scrim in front of the stage, the performers in the middle, and a second opaque screen in back - seemed appealing as a unique way to experience projected imagery that couldn't be simulated at home. In practice, I was a bit disappointed in both form and content. In terms of the former, there were moments of beauty, but overall the design of the piece felt overly cluttered; as if to make up for this clutter, the actual content was excessively didactic. I'd been bemoaning the inevitability of narrative in films like BARAKA and KOOYANISQATSI earlier in the day, where beautiful natural images are contrasted with highly deterministic factory images to create a pointed political message. If you like that, this will be up your alley, I guess. I'm still glad I experienced it, but I doubt I'd see them again, unless other projects have a radically different spin.

Overall, despite being generally less positive on speakers/performers as the day continued, I did enjoy the hell out of it, and even the criticisms of the presentations that I've brought up are, I think, equally important to challenging and developing one's ways of thought and practice. (Those criticisms should not be taken as criticisms of the event itself: my only criticism on that level - apart from not running on time and thus losing Adbusters Q&A - is that the sound seemed to be a recurring problem throughout the day.) Would I pay whatever the hell tickets cost next year? Maybe ... while I'm wary about falling into the trap of going to seminars to get inspiration instead of actually, you know, DOING THINGS, it's certainly given me a lot of inspiration.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go make something.

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