Cafe Witness

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Who Determines the Shelf Life of "Modern" Art?

I saw a very cool play last night at the Bricolage summer reading series: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, by Jennifer Haley. It's an ultra-modern parable about communication, expectation and the nature of reality, cloaked in the guise of a horror film spoof.

The story centers around a fictional MMORPG (the titular "Neighborhood 3"), in which disaffected teens lose themselves -- literally -- for days on end. The game is a complex quest to eradicate the zombies who threaten to overrun a picture-perfect suburb -- which, the players notice, is a mirror image of their own suburban housing plan...

I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the play's themes and politics (or you can read this review of a prior performance in Louisville, which unfortunately seems to have missed out on so much of the play's dark humor). As I consider my own feelings about the play -- which I very much liked but am still processing -- a few thoughts enter my mind, such as:

* How well will hypermodern works of art age in an era of ever-increasing nostalgia, when the millennium bug already seems like it happened a generation ago?

* Can a work of art be judged a success or failure by a critic whose frame of reference doesn't encompass the ability to appreciate / process / understand the work of art?

* What's the cutoff age for understanding irony? (In my experience, irony seems to have a self-contained 30 year "generation," give or take, which suggests that the basis of humor / irony 'shifts' every quarter century or so.)

* What are the artistic reasons to create something "in the now," vs. something of an indeterminate time? How does that choice affect the audience's experience today, or in 100 years?

* How do you assign merit for a collaborative work in which the author or creator is separated from the audience by a wall of actors, interpreters or players? In these cases, who determines where the success or failure of the idea's execution lies?

* What is an artist's proper recourse when an audience or a critic misses the point?

* Which of our current cultural touchstones will still be memorable -- or even recognizable -- in 20 or 50 years?


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why Should We Care?

Brian Conley (right) with Jeff Jarvis at the
2006 Video on the Net conference in Boston.

Brian Conley, creator of the videoblog Alive in Baghdad and a tireless campaigner for human rights, was reportedly detained in China after filming (and webcasting) a street protest for Free Tibet.

This comes just days after internationally famed artist James Powderly was arrested and detained for a similar display of pro-Tibet dissent during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

As of this blog post, I don't believe either man has been heard from since his detention.

And yet, if you read the comments from either link above, you'll notice that the majority of the commenters make the same case: these guys are either too dumb to realize they'd be jailed for protesting in China, or they simply got what they deserved.

Funny, I always thought the ideals of the West were built on the concept of freedom of speech and sticking up for the oppressed.

So, in a cultural climate of zero support... why bother?

And, more importantly, why should we care?

Technology Trumps Humanity Every Time

The world has always had its fair share of corruption, violence, war, famine, human rights atrocities and general self-destruction. But now, thanks to the internet, news of these disasters and tragedies can travel around the globe instantaneously.

Instead of making us all give a damn, however, this overwhelming surge of negative news is simply making us all more jaded.

Now, instead of caring about how one person (or government) is destroying the lives of innocents, we lament that this negativity is ruining our day. Harshing our mellow. Making us aware that the world is not always a bright, shiny (and stark white) iPhone commercial.

We resent that.

We're now so much more aware of just how shitty a place the world can be, I think we're all subconsciously tuning out anything that doesn't provide us with an escape from that reality.

We also have to earn so much more money during this troubled economy just to keep up with our comfortable level of consumption, we don't have the time, energy or resources to care all that much about anything that isn't adding to our coffers or providing us with relief and amusement.

And, even if we did develop the urge to care about something, we still have to cultivate the strength and awareness to take action -- and to know HOW to take action. That requires research, which is time intensive, and often requires sacrifice -- none of which really fits into our modern schedule.

This explains the proliferation of impassioned blogs and tweets about every meaningless technological ripple under the sun -- every new iPhone model, WordPress plugin, or beta test invitation -- and the comparably deafening silence whenever the subject changes to sociological issues. (Except politics. Every LOVES to let the world know what they believe, even if that belief doesn't necessarily translate into action.)

So where do we go from here?

Web 3.0 as Lightning Rod or Escape Clause

As the web gets more intelligent (both the services and their users), we have a choice: we can use this worldwide connectivity and instantaneous data transfer to accomplish more progress faster than any other generation has previously...

... or we can use it to distract ourselves from the horrors of reality, which seem to be ever-growing in number and degree.

I don't blame people for not caring. I don't even blame them for thinking that we should string up the people who DO care. After all, the people who care make the rest of us look bad.

When we hear about the actions taken by people who care, we run the risk of realizing that we probably could have done something more productive with our day than whatever it was we actually did do -- populating databases, animating spinning logos or selling goods to be purchased solely with discretionary income.

If only everyone would just settle down and stop caring, we could all get on with our lives.

And yet...

... would we need to distract ourselves from the terrors of the world if there weren't quite so many?

And would there be so many if those of us who did care actually... took action?

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Social Media: The Problem With Being Free

One of the endless questions surrounding social media is: "How do I monetize?" Meaning: how does one person convince other people -- whether it's that person's actual audience, or advertisers eager to reach that person's audience -- to pay that person to do what he / she actually wants to do for a living?

Common Cents

In most cases, a person simply seeks out a job that other people already publicly admit is worth being paid for. Garbage collectors, graphic designers and accountants are all worth paying for a job well done, or so we believe. So why not bloggers, podcasters and other social media creators?

The catch: people have long been used to paying garbage collectors, graphic designers and accountants. They're also used to paying for records, movies and live entertainment. And they'll sit through commercials on TV as long as they get their shows for free.

But no one is used to paying for web content, because the web has always been "free."

"Free" Is in the Eye of the Beholder

In truth, we all know the web was never "free," so much as it was "subsidized." People were willing to spend their time and effort creating a network of information and entertainment, often for no financial gain, simply because they enjoyed it or saw value in the existence of such a network.

But no one can do that indefinitely, and people capable of producing professional quality work (or at least work that resonates with audiences of a size similar to those of the professionals) are not going to produce their work for free forever.

Parking Is Like Sex...

... or so goes the Seinfeld joke: Why should we pay for something that, with a little effort, we can get for free?

But that logic applies to everything in life. Why pay for CDs when you can download them for free on filesharing sites? Why pay a landscaper traditional wages when you can employ day laborers for far less?

No one is exploiting web content creators (yet) by *not* paying for their work, since few web content creators are currently charging a reasonable fee -- or any rate, for that matter -- to engage with their work. In that regard, web content creators are exploiting themselves by not attempting to charge for their work in the first place.

Having grown up using the internet, the concept of charging for information that's always been free could be seen as the death of the very ideals that the internet was founded on.

Or it could be seen as a very necessary step in the maturation of thousands of prospective artists and business owners, to realize that what we do is worth getting paid for.

If I Don't Like You, and YOU Don't Like You...

The bigger question -- WHO will pay for it -- can't be asked until each of us admits that what we're doing is worth something to someone, somewhere. Since most of us create content for free, we're used to it. We have the POV that even making a few hundred bucks a month is probably "more than we deserve," all things considered. After all, we know the cost involved in our work, and we've been willing to shoulder it ourselves for so long, it's become part of the process.

Wouldn't getting paid for what we do be equal to "selling out"?

How can we compare our work to the work of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, etc.?

What's our work actually *worth*?

The Short Stick Economy

Advertisers are leaving print publications in droves, leading to magazines and newspapers cutting costs and closing doors. But that ad revenue isn't being reassigned to the web, because the web doesn't charge the same amount for ads that print publications do.

That's because the web still prices itself as an inferior product, across the board, compared to every other mass medium.

As a result, those of us who create content for the web have horrible benchmarks to judge ourselves against. We can't aspire to earn as much as content creators in other media because our own medium gives itself the short end of the stick at all times.

Asking a web content creator to evaluate the value of his / her work is an impossible task, because we're trained to think that:

A) What we're doing MUST be free to be online,
B) What we're doing is online, and therefore amateur, and
C) What we're doing is being created for a medium that has yet to create a sustainable economy in the creative sector.

Therefore, all aspirations to get paid are pipe dreams until each of those realities changes.

And guess what: the sustainable economy that will provide realistic benchmarks for individual financial success among web content creators CAN'T be created until we get past those first two roadblocks -- and those are roadblocks we set up for ourselves.

Photo by Emdot

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

5 Things My New Puppy Is Teaching Me

Ann and I just moved apartments so we could get a dog, because our old place didn't allow pets. During the week of our move, we went to volunteer at the Animal Rescue League, where we saw an adorable black cockapoo puppy named Roo. He was in a two-dog household, but the owners decided they could only afford to keep one dog during this down economy, so Roo was given away.

After thinking it over, we decided to adopt him, even though we'd always presumed we'd adopt an adult dog from the ARL instead. It's turned out to be a great decision, because Roo -- now renamed Rufus -- is a wonderful puppy with a great attitude and a temperament that complements our lifestyle. (It'll be even better once he stops mouthing everything in sight and can be alone for longer than 5 seconds, but hey, we're all learning...)

In that vein, here are 5 Things My Puppy Is Teaching Me:

1. Being Responsible for Others Comes Naturally

My long-standing objection to having a dog was that Ann and I lead fairly active, freewheeling lifestyles. She's never sure when she'll be home from work, and I tend to zip all over the city during the day. Having a dog would require us to be home more often, stick to a schedule, and spend valuable amounts of time training him -- even moreso now for a puppy.

Despite the fact that my autonomous days have been disrupted, I find that I've almost automatically adjusted my daily routine to accommodate the dog. I'm always hyper-aware of where he is in the apartment, I strive to make sure he's content (and not chewing on something he shouldn't), and I even take faster showers (so he has less time to steal the bath mats).

It's a sobering moment when you realize you could probably add a child to the equation and still maintain your sanity AND productivity (or most of it).

2. Success Isn't Dependent on a Schedule

These days, I definitely lose time during the day due to potty walks, playtime and training. And yet, I've managed to keep up with all of my freelance work and still engage in (slightly fewer) social obligations. How?

Part of it is adjusting the schedule that had been working for me to a new one that works for all of us -- even if it does include an early AM potty walk. The other part is realizing that I *have* to get things done in the time I have available, which means I spend less time on meaningless fluff during the day and more time plowing through to-do lists while the dog is asleep. Had I not been willing or able to adapt my workday, I'd be miserable AND unproductive, while the dog would still need his potty walks.

3. Always Plan Ahead

When I do go out, I usually have to bring the dog with me, which means I need to pack everything he needs in advance. This means I need to keep everything in an orderly place, so I can grab it and get out the door with minimal hassle.

Oddly, I've found this observation is starting to trickle into my daily workflow too. For example, if a client needs a video edited differently, I find myself providing two or three versions of the change instead of just the one I like best. I find it saves time to give them choices up-front, rather than making each possible change one-at-a-time and slowing the review process to a grinding halt.

4. Cleanliness Is Crucial

Puppies will eat almost anything, so we have to keep our floors clean of debris - food, trash, shoes, fabric, etc. Fortunately, we were already clean people, so this isn't an issue -- although you never realize how messy or disorganized you are until you notice how many things you've naturally left laying around for your dog to get into. (Couch cover pull-strings, anyone?)

A clean apartment also helps me notice when something is out of place or missing -- and helps me discern whether this was something Ann moved, or something Rufus moved. (One of those causes is preferable to the other, because it means I may need to do a mouth sweep to pry loose some plaster / caulking / sandal straps...)

5. Never Stop Adapting

Since we moved apartments, we're also still in the unpacking stages, which means our place looks slightly different almost every day. That's something both Rufus and we are adapting to, as we collectively decide where the best "home" for everything will be. Sometimes what works best for us humans turns out to be a bad idea when the dog is involved -- like noticing his habit of eating through the cell phone charger when it's (conveniently) left plugged in.

Likewise, every day has been a cavalcade of new experiences for Rufus. We don't want him to get mired in a routine that robs him of interest in new places / people / experiences, so we try to introduce him to someone or something new several times a day. This, in addition to traditional training and play, keeps him active and alert, and ensures that he'll always be open to new people and ideas.

How many of us can say the same thing for ourselves?

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