The Art of Creativity

Let’s assume for a moment that everyone is capable of being creative. This is a fair assumption based on an egalitarian model of human development. To varying degrees, people respond to complex situations in very creative ways. But is this enough to make the suggestion that everyone can translate creativity into expressive forms with the power and import of art?

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Emily Carr University of Art + Design

For example, art schools are hotbeds of creative engagement and, wherever they are available, their community based creative courses attract a wide variety of the populace. Most people I speak to have a deep attraction to art and to artists. Many individuals harbor a secret desire to become artists. The same is true of the attraction to writing. One thing that is often forgotten in discussions of the period of history we live in is that the proliferation of web sites and blogs is perhaps one of the best indicators of the universal desire to create and communicate. This desire crosses national boundaries, class differences and religions.

The questions that flow from this seemingly superficial assumption about the universal desire to be creative are many, but among the most important is what do we mean by creativity?

First and foremost, creative engagement means producing something new and, most importantly, engaging with the world through less linear and unpredictable means than the constraints of everyday life often allow. The ephemeral nature of discovery combined with excitement of working with ideas and materials, encourages fluidity of thought and an almost child-like excitement about simple acts like shaping paper into a sculpture or creating movement from drawings that are still.

Artists are compelled to create. Their lives are burdened by the fact that there are rarely any alternatives to the depth of desire that they feel — the physical and mental need to explore their chosen craft or medium. Most writers cannot pass a day without engaging with words and sentences. Yet, not everyone is a writer or artist.

So, although everyone is capable of being creative, very few exercise their talent to the point of making creative engagement the centre of their lives. This is because the translation of creative desire into forms or materials requires a further step beyond the spontaneous production of artifacts. The secondary act of speculative and critical thinking that needs to be applied to creative production requires a profound understanding not only of history, but also of our place in history.

Painters come to an intimate understanding of the materials they use in the context of the history of art. The intellectual work that is necessary here far exceeds popular notions of spontaneous inspiration. Take a hard look at the many letters which Vincent Van Gogh wrote, and you see a man devoted not only to explaining his art but also to communicating his intentions. Alternately, take a look at the many letters that Samuel Beckett wrote, and you become a witness to his intense and sometimes violent need to communicate his views of the world.

In all of this, art is produced through action and reflection, through interchange and community. Practice, repetition and rigour transform working with materials, ideas and media into complex acts of communication.

Creativity is therefore about more than what we do or how we think. It is about the application of knowledge to the production of artifacts, ideas and even moments in time. Everyone can be creative, but not everyone wants to spend the time and energy engaging with the demands that creative production requires.

Chevalier of Arts and Letters: Acceptance Speech - Ron Burnett

Vancouver, Canada, June 3, 2010

M. Garcia, Consul-General of France

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good evening and, thank-you so much for coming!!

I stand here tonight feeling both proud and humbled. Proud because so much about culture and creativity is affirmed by this honour, and humbled because I have been chosen to receive this prestigious award from the French government.

Mes premiers mots seront pour exprimer mes sincère remerciements
au gouvernement français, à l'ancienne ministre de la culture et de la communication Madame Christine Albanel, au ministre de la culture et de la communication Monsieur Frédéric Mitterand, à l'Ambassadeur de la France à Ottawa, Monsieur François Delattre, au Consul de la France à Vancouver, Monsieur Alexandre Garcia et à son Attaché Culturel, Monsieur Hadrian Laroche.

Merci pour tout ce que vous avez fait pour rendre possible cette grande distinction.

C’est un honneur d’avoir été reconnu et accepté à l ordre — un ordre qui est unique en caractère et objectif parmi les démocraties occidentales.

Let me express my profound thanks to the French government, the former Minister of Culture and Communication, La Ministre, Christine Albanel, the Minister, M. Frederic Mitterand, the French Ambassador in Ottawa, M. François Delattre, and M Alexandre Garcia the Consul in Vancouver and his Cultural Attaché, M Hadrien LAROCHE. Thank-you for making this award possible and thank-you for the recognition and for supporting awards of this kind, which are unique in character and purpose in Western democracies. My deepest thanks also to my wife Martha and my two daughters, Maija and Katie for their support and love.

One of the central purposes of French government cultural policy in the international arena is the promotion of cultural diversity among all nations. This policy is also at the heart of UNESCO’s cultural platform. 93 nations signed an agreement to promote cultural diversity, including Canada. France led this effort, and among the policy’s key statements are the following:

**Affirming** that cultural diversity is a defining characteristic of humanity;

**Conscious** that cultural diversity forms a common heritage of humanity and should be cherished and preserved for the benefit of all;

**Being aware** that cultural diversity creates a rich and varied world, which increases the range of choices and nurtures human capacities and values, and therefore is a mainspring for sustainable development for communities, peoples and nations;

and finally,

**Recalling** that cultural diversity, flourishing within a framework of democracy, tolerance, social justice and mutual respect between peoples and cultures, is indispensable for peace and security at the local, national and international levels.

These statements and the values they put forward are in many respects, at the heart of my career and articulate far better than I ever could what has motivated me to spend a lifetime creating, promoting and defending culture in all its manifestations and forms.

I was born in London, England in a difficult post-war period of deprivation and familial challenge. My family and I immigrated to Canada in 1952 during a time of economic difficulty for all countries. The struggle of immigrants to find their place has only accelerated since then, not only because of the increasing movement of peoples across many societies, but also because so many cultures have faced immense and sometime insurmountable struggles to survive. Disaporic experiences were fundamental features of the 20th century and will continue to determine the direction of the 21st century.

My career is built upon and is a reflection of what I learned during that formative and early period of my life as we struggled to adapt to living in Montreal.

Over the last forty years, I have worked at a number of positions including a wonderful period at McGill University and five years in Australia at LaTrobe University. During my tenure as the President of Emily Carr University I have learned more than I could ever have imagined when I took the position fourteen years ago.

Seamus Heany, the great Irish poet, credits poetry for teaching him to “walk on air against your better judgment.”

Albert Camus, whom I read in my teens and who had a formative impact on my life, said, “The artist forges himself midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from.” “Et celui qui, souvent, a choisi son destin d'artiste parce qu'il se sentait différent apprend bien vite qu'il ne nourrira son art, et sa différence, qu'en avouant sa ressemblance avec tous.”

When you walk on air, life is a continuous adventure. And, when you immerse yourself in beauty, even the saddest moments are learning experiences. Learning is at the heart of what I do everyday. It is only possible to learn if one remains open, open to change, open to insights, open to difference. Even in this historical period characterized by many difficult challenges, I continue to believe that it is possible to walk on air.

I am privileged everyday at Emily Carr to be among wonderful people and to experience their passionate excitement about creativity, invention and innovation — their extraordinary commitment to the materials of art, to the crafts of making and to the challenges of living and learning about the creative life, their passion for aesthetics, for colour and for form, their intense desire to produce meaning and communicate it, all of this has not only taught me a great deal, but also given me a profound insight into the potential and importance of the creative process.

So, this award means the world to me because it also acknowledges the values of that creative life and the importance of sustaining creativity in every aspect of what we do everyday of our lives.

The other great intellectual mentor in my life is Claude Lévi-Strauss. His work brings together all of my interests in anthropology, sign systems, linguistics and images. It is therefore not without some sense of the ironies of history that we find ourselves today amidst a renaissance in First Nations culture and cultural production.

Because, it was Lévi-Strauss who brought Pacific Northwest native culture into French consciousness and did more than many to signal to Westerners the importance of culture to this extraordinary area of the world. And, it is not without irony that in one of his last books, brilliantly titled, Look, Listen, Read (Regarder, Ecouter, Lire) that Levi-Strauss celebrated the craft of basket weaving so integral to First Nations culture. He talks of craft in relation to myth and of the integrated nature of making, thinking and living. For me, making, thinking and creative engagement are at the core of what I do and how I live.

I will leave it to my other great intellectual hero, Michel Serres to complete these remarks. In speaking about the social and cultural context that we now share, Serres mentions the endless noise of modern life, the sharp points of despair at the edge of chaos, and he contrasts this with art as the means through which we build society, create vision and make peace with each other and with the world we live in. And then, in talking about Lévi-Strauss, he says, Levi-Strauss helps us see what we can’t see, and through his stories he helps us understand the strange and beautiful social forms that surround us. Cheers to that and cheers to you all!! Et Merci encore à vous tous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Avatar, the Movie

It is always fascinating to read critical analyses of popular films when the writer actually dislikes popular culture, which begs the question, why write about something you hate? [James Bowman writes for the journal, [The New Atlantis and his pieces are generally anti-technology and anti-pop culture. His recent article on Avatar follows the usual arguments of critics disconnected from the culture they seem bent on critiquing. Bowman describes Avatar as a flight of fantasy, dangerous because as with all fantasy films of this genre, it is both escapist and dangerously full of illusions not only about society but also about the future. Interestingly, he claims that the film doesn’t follow the Western tradition of mimesis, that is, it makes no claim to imitate reality and because of this, has no merit as art.

Bowman also says that the only difference between Avatar and other films of the same type is the use of 3D as if the medium of film and its transformation is not part of an important aesthetic shift as well as an important shift in how stories are told. Bowman even criticizes James Cameron’s development of a new language for the indigenous people of Pandora, the Na’vi whom Bowman describes as monkeys. Here is what he says: "The natives of Pandora are giant blue monkeys with sophisticated fiber optics in their tails and the natural world they inhabit is filled with floating mountains, huge dragon-birds whom the inhabitants ride like horses, hammer-headed hippos the size of houses, and other fantastical creatures too numerous to mention and impossible to exist on Earth." Of course, the ‘natives’ are constructions and of course they don’t exist. As with all artifice they are the products of Cameron’s rich imagination, but in Bowman’s world imagination is actually a dirty word.

But, enough about a bad review. To answer a question that must be creeping into your mind, why write about something I dislike? Avatar is an experiment in 3D, that is an experiment with images that have a rather wispy feel like the brilliant disappearing Cheshire cat in Tim Burton’s, Alice in Wonderland. 3D creates an intense feeling of pleasure in viewers largely because it is so ephemeral, not because it approximates reality. I have watched viewers try and grasp the images that come close to them. But, the closeness is itself a function of the glasses we are wearing, a function of the desire to be in the image, and to be a part of the experiences the images are generating.

Generating.

3D in its modern incarnation is about generative images, that is about depth, distance and a more profound sense of perspective. 3D continues the long tradition of exploring our rather human capacity and desire to enter into worlds entirely made of images. 3D extends the Renaissance exploration of line, shape and colour. That is why Avatar is so important. Sure, its story has been told many times, but crucially not in this way. The film is an exploration of a new frontier and aside from 3D, its real innovations lie in the use of motion capture technology to create not only a synthesis of the real and imaginary, but also synthetic worlds. Finally, we can be rid of the pretensions that all art must show in the most pedantic of ways some relationship to the real!! Painters rid themselves of this crisis when they explored entire canvases of one colour (Rothko), while filmmakers and film critics still think that a black screen goes against the essence of the cinema.

Of course, 3D is in its early days as a medium for exploring the power of storytelling. And, Cameron actually got much of his inspiration for Avatar from his underwater explorations of the wreck of the Titanic. Cameron is really interested in creating new languages for conventional ways of seeing and describing the world. He didn’t need to invent a new language for the Na’vi but he did. He didn’t have to shoot all those beautiful and magical scenes of Pandora, except that if you have ever swum off a reef, you would have noticed many of the same colours and shapes and why not recreate them if you can?

Bowman doesn’t talk about what the word avatar means. Yet, that is at the heart of the film. Avatars are about substitution, that is about substituting what is missing, be it a body or a mind or a story. Avatars don’t replace their progenitors. That is, unless you decide like Cameron did, that his main character had to be transformed from the two dimensional world of the screen into a Na’vi, through a death and rebirth ritual that actually happens to be at the heart of what nearly all major religions in the world proselytize about on an hourly basis.

Let me switch terminology for a moment and suggest that Avatar is actually a commentary on the illusions of religion and on the impossible dreams of immortality that have haunted humans since they began to paint on the walls of caves. Avatar is about that inner world, our inner world that we keep alive in order to stay alive. It is the reverse of the Platonic cave where those who are blind to reality need to be saved. Rather, the film explores those who have reconciled themselves to their fate and who have created a world that is a reflection of their weaknesses and strengths. In other words, the Na’vi are us when we dream and lest we forget, we spend a good proportion of our lives dreaming.

Architecture/Criticism/Critics

A brilliant article about architecture and the critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times by Alexandra Lange who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

"Architecture criticism cannot simply be about what’s new because that leads precisely to the globe-trotting, star-gazing, architecture-as-sculpture approach we have now. What we need is criticism that treats renderings and buildings as different, since users are the ultimate critics. We need criticism that connects us to a building’s references, emotions and textures, not only its news value. We need criticism moored to place, and to the history of that place, so that the ways forward multiply (and don’t only involve building something curvy). Ouroussoff is not good enough because he reinforces the worst trends in architectural culture, never explains where he comes from and never explores the many different places we might go."

Read more……

Picasso filmed in 1950

Visite à Picasso’ (1950) 20m, dir. Paul Haesaerts A poetic treatment which includes the artist painting on glass while facing the camera, shot at Picasso's home in Vallauris, accompanied by some fairly moody organ music in this very dark, but captivating film. The artist here takes on the character of an eminence-grise, an alchemist engulfed in the "sol y sombra" of his laboratory-studio, filmed in gorgeous black and white.

Research in the Arts and Design (3)

This is the third in an occasional series on research in the arts and design.

Let me begin by suggesting that the term contingency may be a useful way of thinking about research in areas not traditionally thought of as research-based. It is not fair to compare research in the arts and design for example, to the social sciences although they may share more than we realize. We therefore need some new thinking on the meaning of research in the creative areas both as method and as process. This is all the more urgent because artists and designers have had a great deal of difficulty arguing their case with government, the community and with industry. And, as we have seen in Great Britain, research in the creative areas is measured in much the same way as other disciplines and often not to the benefit of creative work. In fact, debate is needed on the policy environment being created in the UK around the Creative Industries because so many of the presuppositions being put in place are being copied elsewhere in the industrial world.

Contingency speaks to activities that begin without a clear sense of their outcome. Artists have always been comfortable with this as have some writers. In the past, some designers oriented their creative process around the expectations of clients and so it appeared as if they were more concrete and less contingent than artists. Now, designers have more fully recognized that they are as involved in the invention of new ideas and processes as artists and so both creative engagements share a similar sense that outcomes are a byproduct of creativity.

A by-product? Yes, if the outcome is largely determined by an ongoing process that may not be linear, then outcomes are by and large as accidental as much as they may be intended. Some artists of course, play with chance and accidents all the time and this was the foundation of the work of John Cage. Others plan their works very carefully and many have those works built by apprentices to specifications they have created. But, for the most part artists and designers to varying degrees learn to combine chance, accident and purpose to produce works that reflect only a small proportion of their intentions.

Traditional research in the social sciences uses a variety of time tested methods from observation to participant observation among many approaches, to try and understand phenomena and in many cases suggest solutions to problems and challenges. The methods range from the quantitative to the qualitative and constitute a vast constellation of strategic choices with the intellectual and practical goal of deepening and enhancing our understanding both of the world we live in and ourselves. I cannot do justice to the range here, its complexity and breadth. Suffice to say, nearly anything and everything can be the object or subject of research.

My point is that the same situation exists in the arts and design. Tim Brown comments on Charles Eames and the manner in which the Eames conducted a series of important design experiments in the early 20th century. (See Brown’s wonderful book, Change by Design published by Harper Collins in 2009.) “From their legendary office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, the Eameses and their associates conducted a series of design experiments that stretched across four decades and covered every imaginable medium: the molded plywood chairs that became synonymous with American modernism; their famous case study house No. 8 in Pacific Palisades; the museum exhibitions they built, and the educational films they produced. Not always visible in the finished projects, however, is the methodological experimentation that lay behind them.” (71)

Crucially, the finished projects of designers and of artists only sometimes reveal their methodological origins and process. Many self-conscious and self-reflexive creators have of course from time to time created works that reveal method in their very materiality. But, for the most part, creative process remains unseen, background chatter as it were, with little seeming connection to method.

Here is an example of a creative project that sees itself within the traditional methods of the social sciences.

“I am a lecturer with the Department of Photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, specialising in the fields of photojournalism and social documentary. My recent projects borrow heavily from the practices inherent in visual ethnography and include hospice and palliative care (Lloyd, Passing Time, 2000), documenting a small regional community outside of Brisbane (Something about Us, Logan Art Gallery, 2001) and, currently, working on a project looking into substance misuse in the Mt Isa district.” David Lloyd.

This is a hybrid of course and one of many works that are challenging conventional definitions of art and media. But, it points out that how fluid the boundaries between creative processes are and how careful we have to be in assuming *lack* of method when they may well be one.

Contingency is about methods that are applied to creative challenges without necessarily linking process to outcome. This is also similar to prototyping which is a process of experimental exploration that is as ideational as it is material.

More on this topic over the next few months.

See the following report from the UK, especially chapter 3 for more debate in this area.

Up In The Air with Avatar

"Being in the air is the last refuge for those that wish to be alone." Jason Reitman) There are profound connections between Avatar and Up in the Air. Both movies come at a time that can best be described as dystopic. From Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries mired in war to the deepest and most serious recession since the 1930's, to the ongoing crisis of climate change, the first decade of the 21st Century has been characterized by waves of loss, violence and instability.

What then allows any individual to compose their identity and to maintain their sense of self as the air around the planet gets thinner and thinner? How does the imagination work within a dystopia?

Up in the Air explores the tropes of loneliness and travel -- the in-between of airports and hotels, those places that are not places but nevertheless retain many of the trappings of home without the same responsibilities and challenges. There are consequences to being on the road 300 days of the year and among them is the construction of an artificial universe to live in like the metal tubes we describe as airplanes. One of the other consequences is that frequent travelers have to build imaginary lives that are fundamentally disconnected from intimacy and genuine conversation.

Ironically, Avatar imagines a world that is for a time dragged into the dystopia of 21st century life and where at the end of the day, a new vision is constructed. Avatar's use of 3D will be the subject of another article soon, but suffice to say that the worlds James Cameron constructs through motion capture and animation are among the most beautiful that the cinema has ever seen.

Hidden behind both films is a plaintiff plea for love and genuine relationships. Avatar explores this through tales of transmigrating spirits and animistic notions that transform animals and nature itself into a vast Gaia-like system of communications and interaction. The N'avi are a synthesis of Cameron's rather superficial understanding of Aboriginal peoples, although their language is a fascinating blend created by Paul Frommer from the University of Southern California.

The flesh of avatars in the film are not virtual but as the main character, Jake Sully discovers, the N'avi are the true inheritors of the planet they live on, a exotic version of early Earth called Pandora. In Greek mythology Pandora is actually derived from 'nav' and was the first woman. The Pandora myth asks the question why there is evil in the world which is a central thematic of Avatar.

Up in the Air asks the same question but from the perspective of a rapacious corporation which sends its employees out to fire people for other companies or as the main character, Ryan Bingham says to save weak managers from the tasks for which they were hired. The film also asks why there is evil in the world and suggests that any escape, even the one that sees you flying all year doesn't lead to salvation.

Both films explore the loss of meaning, morality and principles in worlds both real and unreal. Avatar provides the simplest solution, migrate from a humanoid body and spirit to a N'avi to discover not only who you are but how to live in the world. **Up in the Air** suggests that love will solve the dystopic only to discover that casual relationships never lead to truth and friendship.

These are 21st century morality tales. Avatar is a semi-religious film of conversion not so much to truth but to the true God, who is now a mother. Up in the Air teaches Ryan that life is never complete when it is entirely an imaginary construction.

It is however, the reanimation of the human body in Avatar that is the most interesting reflection of the challenges of overcoming the impact of this first decade of the 21st century. Jake Sully is able to transcend his wheelchair and become another being, now connected to a tribe. He is able to return to a period of life when innocence and naivete enable and empower — when the wonders of living can be experienced without the mediations of history and loss. This of course is also the promise of 3D technology, to reanimate images such that they reach into the spectator's body, so we can share those moments as if we have transcended the limitations of our corporeal selves.

James Cameron's digital utopia, full of exotic colours, people, plants and animals suggests that escape is possible in much the same way as Ryan Bingham imagines a world without the constraints that are its very essence. 3D technology promises to allow us to transcend our conventional notions of space and time but it cannot bring the earth back to its pristine form nor reverse engineer evolution or history. At the same time, Avatar represent a shift in the way in which images are created, in the ways in which we watch them and also in the potential to think differently about our imaginations and about our future. (Imagine a 3D film about the destruction of the Amazon!)

 


 

Create your own reputation

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the many new ways in which aspiring cultural creators can find audiences and also make a living in in the notoriously challenging fields of film and television. "Here is the new way: filmmakers doing it themselves — paying for their own distribution, marketing films through social networking sites and Twitter blasts, putting their work up free on the Web to build a reputation, cozying up to concierges at luxury hotels in film festival cities to get them to whisper into the right ears." Michael Cieply The animation film KHODA by Reza Dolatabadi, below is an excellent example of this new approach to creation and distribution.

My graduation film Khoda.

Pause this film and you will see a painting. This idea inspired Reza Dolatabadi to make Khoda. Over 6000 paintings were painstakingly produced during two years to create a five minute film.


To Read (The Kindle)

Is there a difference between reading and skimming? In some circumstances, skimming web pages for example, a great deal of information can be assimilated quickly and efficiently. The [danger in the digital age](http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/books-special-can-intelligent-literature-survive-in-the-digital-age-926545.html) is that skimming will become the norm for reading and the more detailed and beautiful aspects of the English language, the nuances and shades of meaning found in metaphors and worked over sentences will disappear. Language and the ways in which humans [use writing](http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9906/cfb.html) to express the complexity of thoughts and emotions cannot be reduced to a quick look or a quick read. Language is an elastic and infinitely changeable medium. It can accommodate a wide variety of shortcuts (UR for "you are") as well as abuses. But, the ways in which we use writing in particular to express our deepest as well as most profound thoughts requires sensitive and careful readers. As skimming becomes the norm, the question to ask is whether or not we can slow down the process of reading effectively enough to grab its subtleties.

Ironically, the [Kindle](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Kindle) which is an [electronic](http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/news/2009/02/the-once-and-future-e-book.ars) reader made by Amazon, does just that. The comfort that we have developed with screens is translated beautifully and simply into the Kindle. This light, thin and carefully thought out technology may just create the balance between skimming and reading that will keep the [power and beauty of language from disappearing](http://dlc.org/).

21st Century Student

I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto the Web. He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Cell phones are expensive, but he finds the money. This sounds familiar; an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence. He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

I have been talking about a new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

Creativity, Research and Funding in Canada

I am puzzled. Highly skilled artisans, artists, creators and designers are perhaps among the most sophisticated researchers our society produces. In order to succeed, they have to not only understand the context of their creative work, but also the impact and possible market for their ideas and objects They have to develop sophisticated models and prototypes to test their ideas and they have to be able to translate their research and practice into something that can be understood by many different people often with quite differing interests. They have to have skills that might best be described as ethnographic so as to understand if not sense both the demands of their communities and also the resistances those communities have to change and new insights. They have to negotiate complex collaborative arrangements to produce outputs that will reflect great technical expertise as well as vision.

Yet, for the most part, their work is neither recognized for its research value, nor substantively funded as research in Canada. (Great Britain and Australia have overcome this problem.) My sense is that conventional research in this country has over time become defined in a rather narrow way to benefit those people, institutions and disciplines that have historically received money from governments, foundations and private benefactors. For example, what is the difference between a researcher in political science and one who studies and researches politics in order to produce a film? Does a list of publications and books mean more than a list of well-made documentaries? Today in Canada it is still unusual for a funding agency to accept the CV of someone who has devoted themselves to media and forms of expression that are not traditional. It would be even more unusual to accept a work of art like an installation as evidence of rigour, forethought, insight and inventive thinking. These are among the criteria that are expected by juries in assessing the value of applications for funding.

I cannot go into the history of funding for disciplinary research in Canada, nor examine within this context, the very particular mandates of the funding agencies that have over time developed specific areas of emphasis to the exclusion of many of the creative disciplines. The purpose of this short piece is to raise some issues about the future of research within the conventional boundaries that have been in place in Canada for decades. The secondary purpose is to argue that the models presently in place and in use by the main funding agencies are tired, reductive and repetitive and that the standards used to evaluate research have precipitously narrowed over the last fifteen years.

Qualitative and quantitative research are based on a set of standards and criteria that have evolved over time within the context of disciplines that are for the most part pursued within the university context. Those disciplines range from the hard sciences, medicine and engineering through to the “soft” social sciences and humanities. The fields involved are diverse and often contentious. Some the disciplines are newer than others with the more scientific health-related disciplines receiving the largest amount of money. This is because of their perceived utility to society, the assumption that medical research for example, will have the most immediate impact and the further assumption that innovation occurs in those areas because of their empirical nature.

The common and dominant popular metaphor for research is the science laboratory, an environment of experimentation within which purposes and goals are supposedly clearer than research that might be pursued in a library or through fieldwork. The other metaphor and it is one that also rules the popular imagination, is that research has to have concrete outcomes for it to be valid. In other words, “real” research will produce “cures” in medicine or a better understanding of physical reality or technological innovation. Of course, good research in any discipline will hopefully have productive outcomes. That is a given. But, good research is rarely linear and often (as is the case with AIDS, for example) takes decades to produce results.

In fact, laboratories are notoriously conservative places often using research paradigms that produce little value either for participants or for the public. (See the work of Bruno Latour, but also the work of Thomas Kuhn for analyses of the cultures and working practices of scientific research.) This does not mean that universities should close those labs or shut down those disciplines that show little for the sometimes-massive investment in them. It does mean, however, that policy makers have to look with great care at accepted and conventional assumptions about output, results and their translation into highly specialized journals. In saying this, I am not suggesting that the only model for research is an applied one. In fact, I am arguing the opposite.

Research in all its varieties is fundamental to all forms of learning and the development of new knowledge and is the foundation upon which new, useful and great ideas come into the public sphere. The assumption that there is one method or one way to arrive at results is something that most good researchers would argue against. And yet, that is the reality of the distinctive manner in which research is funded in Canada. It also underlies the assumption that the PhD is the only consistently valid tool of evaluation of researchers who wish to pursue innovative ideas, so that for example, an MFA is seen to be less significant even if it is a terminal degree for some professions.

Part of the challenge, part of the beauty of research is that it trains the minds of learners, researchers and teachers and provides everyone with the intellectual and practical tools they need to pursue their interests and their passions sometimes with important and positive results. Research builds on disciplinary histories and practices, mode of enquiry, crafts and the multi-faceted use of technology.

This potent combination is also at the heart of post-secondary education and learning and is the source of what makes universities and colleges so important to our society. However, value in research can be drawn from many sources and from many different practices. The isolation of research into particular institutions and specialized disciplines slowly leads to practices that are less innovative than they could or should be. This is largely because of the manner in which disciplines develop, their tendency to devolve into silos and most importantly, the departmental and faculty structure within universities, which tends to validate the history and shape of specific disciplines.

In Canada, funding agencies have bought into the argument that excellence can only be found and developed in large universities, which have infrastructures to support their ambitious research goals. Often and ironically, the faculties in those universities are no larger than their smaller sister institutions, but nevertheless garner the majority of the money in any disciplinary competition. Excellence has become a quantitative game. Fund enough research in one place and you will undoubtedly have some winners. Very little research has been done on faculty at the large universities who do not provide research that matches their ambitions, particularly in areas like the social sciences and the humanities.

Public policy in this area has to change. In particular, Canadian funding agencies have to realize that they are not recognizing value, innovation and creativity in most of the institutions across the country. Instead, they are perpetuating a vague notion of excellence based on the capacity of large universities to garner most of the money. All of that would be fine, if the claims about research being made by those large institutions were not based on exclusivity, to the detriment of the quite extraordinary richness of the work going on in many other institutions and as is often the case within the creative disciplines. The latter receive an infinitesimally small amount both compared to the number of people seeking funding and to the growing importance of the creative industries in Canada.

TED Long Beach Days Two, Three and Four

It would be very difficult to summarize the breadth and complexity of the TED experience. There are very few places where you can hear and see and then talk to some of the best thinkers, scientists and artists in the world. TED brings all of this together in what is an evolving community of people dedicated to ideas, change and innovation. Wired Magazine has been covering some of the talks and this one by Elizabeth Gilbert is worth reading. All these talks will be on the Web very soon and in early March, TED.com will change to accommodate subtitles in 25 languages and transcripts that will be searchable. One of the most special of the talks and well worth looking out for was given by Willie Smits who has devoted his life to saving the forest habitat of orangutans.

TED, Long Beach DAY ONE

February 4, 2009

TED meetings are always incredible, but after a day and a bit, I am amazed at the richness and strength, the depth and breadth of the presentations. The other side of TED is defined by the people you meet who to varying degrees have either had a powerful influence on our society or who are about to have that influence. Take the example of Blake Mycoskie who is the CEO and founder of TOMS Shoes. Every pair of shoes that Mycoskie sells in North America triggers the company into giving a pair of shoes away to people in need in developing countries. So far, tens of thousands of shoes have been donated to needy people around the world. Blake is a wonderful and humble individual.

John Breen is the founder of Free Rice which is a web site where you can purchase grains of rice that are then given to the hungry in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Steve Glenn builds modular houses where every part of the house contributes to sustainable practices, reduction of energy consumption and the wise use of water. Carolyn Porco leads the Cassini Imaging Team, which is charting Saturn and its moons and has discovered enough basic building blocks of life on one of the moons that will lead to a transformation of our relationship to our own solar system. Juliana Ferreira fights the illegal trade of wildlife in Brazil, which is an uphill battle to save many species from extinction. Sean Gourley has developed a model that begins to explain the most important patterns of modern warfare. The model will enable researchers to better understand the structures and outcomes of particular kinds of warfare in the 21st century. Katrin Verclass from Mobileactive.org described the extraordinary use of cell phones as devices for change through the use of new modalities of interaction and clustering.

Juliana Rotich explained how cell phones are being used for citizen journalism in places like Kenya. More information on this project can be found at the USHAHIDI web site.

Juan Enriquez discussed the intensity and dangers of the present economic crisis in order to build an argument for innovation and invention and then said, “You manage crisis by using it to keep an eye on the future.” He reported on the extraordinary advances in the use of stem cells and suggested that humans were moving onto the next stage of evolution. P.W. Singer gave a brilliant lecture on the reshaping of war through the use of machines and what that portends from an ethical as well strategic perspective. What happens when soldiers use the images from drones to make life and death decisions without ever seeing the real impact of what they have done? David Hansen has developed a robotic face that is so life-like it is able to respond to your smiles and frowns. Bill Gates talked about malaria and his foundation and the fight against disease in Africa.

Tim Berners-Lee made a plea for a new Web that would tag data so that searches would yield information more directly linked in a meaningful way to the subjects being researched. Al Gore presented more information on the decline of the Arctic and Antarctic as signs that we still have not understood the implications and effects of global warming and environmental destruction. Nandan Nilekani who co-founded Infosys which is one of India’s leading information technology companies talked about his next project which is to re-imagine India in the 21st Century. He made an interesting observation that 8 million mobile phones are sold every month in India and that over the next thirty years India will demographically speaking be one of the youngest countries in the world. Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface made an impassioned plea for new sustainable practices on the part of industry. “Our promise is to eliminate any negative impact our company may have on the environment by the year 2020.”

Jake Eberts introduced a film entitled Oceans, which simply put will change our view of animal life underwater. The extract he showed was breathtaking. In between all of this were a series of performances from a Gamelan group combined with the dance troupe ArcheDream that was breathtaking and a performance by Naturally 7 a rock group that generates its instrumentation without instruments just using their mouths to make the sounds we would normally associate with everything from drums to guitars. Regina Spektor finished off the day with an amazing series of beautifully crafted songs.

All this in one day…

Editing Time (3)

It seems almost heretical to propose that editing is not at the heart of the creative process in film anymore. As my last post suggested meaning creation in the era of new media is no longer dependent on montage, as much as it is on rhythm, sound and layers of multi-faceted images.

The best example of this is that video images are not produced through a series of frames as films are. On the contrary, the CCD array of your conventional video camera is a two-dimensional grid of pixels with sensors that react to light. (“CCD is an acronym for Charge-Coupled Device. It is the image sensor that separates the spectrum of color into red, green and blue for digital processing by the camera. A CCD captures only black-and-white images. The image is passed through red, green and blue filters in order to capture color.”)

The grid is locked and the pattern of pixels is arranged to maximize the subsequent processing of colour. HD cameras are also dependent on this technology and although the images look very rich, they are the result of complex processes of adjustment based on approximations and compression. The point is that nuances are not the strength of video images largely because the computer in digital cameras is working on black and white images and effectively ‘adding’ colour to them based on a set of mathematical formulae.

What then does it mean to edit this material? What is the impact of using Final Cut Pro and other non-linear editing software packages?

 

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Editing Time (2)

I was reminded by one of my graduate students recently that people take so many pictures with digital cameras that the challenge of quality (capturing something unique and beautiful) has been replaced by the challenges of data management, tags and titles.

Read more……

A Torn Page…Ghosts on the Computer Screen…Words…Images…Labyrinths

Exploring the Frontiers of Cyberspace (extracts from a longer piece)

“Poetry is liquid language" (Marcos Novak)

“As a writer of fantasy, Balzac tried to capture the world soul in a single symbol among the infinite number imaginable; but to do this he was forced to load the written word with such intensity that it would have ended by no longer referring to a world outside of its own self…. When he reached this threshold, Balzac stopped and changed his whole program: no longer intensive but extensive writing. Balzac the realist would try through writing to embrace the infinite stretch of space and time, swarming with multitudes, lives, and stories." (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino)

Is it possible to imagine a labyrinth without a defined pattern, without a center or exit point? What if we enter that labyrinth and wander through its hallways, endlessly opening doors which lead to other doors, with windows which look out over other windows? What if there is no real core to the labyrinth and it is of unknown size? This may be an apt metaphor for virtual reality, for the vast network of ideas which now float across and between the many layers of cyberspace.

“A year ago, I was halfway convinced that cyberspaces where you can experience the sensation of hefting a brick or squeezing a lemon probably won’t be feasible for another twenty or thirty years. A month ago, I saw and felt something that shook my certainty. When I tried the first prototype of a pneumatic tactile glove in inventor Jim Hennequin’s garage in Cranfield, an hour’s drive southwest of London, I began to suspect that high-resolution tactile feedback might not be so far in the future. The age of the Feelies, as Aldous Huxley predicted, might be upon us before we know what hit us." (Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, New York: Touchstone, 1992, p. 322)

Sometimes the hallways of this labyrinth narrow and we hear the distant chatter of many people and are able to ‘browse’ or ‘gopher’ into their conversations. Other times, we actually encounter fellow wanderers and exchange details about geography, the time, information gained or lost during our travels. The excitement of being in the labyrinth is tempered by the fact that as we learn more and more about its structure and about surviving within its confines, we know that we have little hope of leaving. Yet, it is a nourishing experience at one level because there are so many different elements to it, all with a life of their own, all somehow connected and for the most part available to us. In fact, even though we know that the labyrinth has borders, it seems as if an infinite number of things could go on within its hallways and rooms. It is almost as if there is too much choice, too much information at every twist and turn. Yet, this disoriented, almost chaotic world has a structure. We don’t know the designers. They may have been machines, but we continue to survive in part because we have some confidence in the idea that design means purpose, and purpose must mean that our wanderings will eventually lead to a destination. (This may be no more than a metaphysical claim, but it keeps the engines of Cyberspace running at high speed.)

In order to enter a virtual labyrinth you must be ready to travel by association. In effect, your body remains at your computer. You travel by looking, by reading, by imaging and imagining. The eyes are, so to speak, the royal road into virtuality.

“Cyberspace — The electronic frontier. A completely virtual environment: the sum total of all [BBSes], computer networks, and other [virtual communities]. Unique in that it is constantly being changed, exists only virtually, can be practically infinite in “size" communication occurs instantaneously world-wide — physical location is completely irrelevant most of the time. Some include video and telephone transmissions as part of cyberspace." (A. Hawks, Future Culture — December 31, 1992)

In the labyrinth of Cyberspace, design is the logic of the system. Cyberspace reproduces itself at so many different levels at once and in so many different ways, that the effects are like an evolutionary explosion, where all of the trace elements of weakness and strength coexist. The architecture of this space is unlike any that has preceded it and we are consequently grappling with discursive strategies to try and describe the experiences of being inside it. The implication is that there is no vantage point from which you can watch either your progress or the progress of others. There isn’t a platform upon which you can stand to view your experience or the experience of your neighbours. In other words, the entire system doesn’t come into view — how could you create a picture of the Internet? Yet, you could imagine the vast web-like structure, imagine, that is, through any number of different images, a world of microelectronic switches buzzing at high speed with the thoughts and reflections of thousands of people. The more important question is what does this imagining do to our bodies, since to some degree Cyberspace is a fiction where we are narrator and character at one and the same time? What are the implications of never knowing the shape and architecture of this technological sphere which you both use and come to depend on? What changes in the communicative process when you type a feeling onto a computer screen, as opposed to speaking about it? What does that feeling look like in print? Does the computer screen offer a space where the evocative strength of a personal letter can be communicated from one person to another?

9/11 Photographs + Imre Kertesz

If you go to Joel Meyerowitz's epic images of Ground Zero some of which are reproduced by The Guardian Newspaper you will be able to read about Meyerowitz's incredible project. He spent nine months on the site of the former World Trade Center.

I was trying to be a historian, to read it and to interpret what I saw. I understood that my reading of this moment was deepened by my personal commitment to it. There were men whose lives I was following; firemen looking for their dead sons. One day, a guy came to me and put his arms around me and said, "I found Tommy. I carried him out in my own arms" and the two of us stood there crying together. That day, I saw everything through the eyes of that father.

(Joel Meyerowitz, quoted in the Guardian Observer, Sunday, August 27, 2006.)

(Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive by Joel Meyerowitz is published on 6 September by Phaidon Press)

I read this article after having completed a longer piece that includes an interview with Imre Kertesz, the great Hungarian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. The interview appeared in SignandSight which is an online German publication. Kertesz says the following:

We try in vain to recount reality "faithfully" - the moment we start recounting it, we alter it. We lend form to our thoughts and experiences that whirl chaotically, or contrariwise, that lurk in the hidden nooks of our consciousness. The harder we try to render them accurately, the more radically we need to interfere. In other words, everything is fiction, most of all life itself. What's more, even a person is a fiction from the time that he invents himself. Because, at that very moment, his life has been decided in a sense. In my case, that happened some time around 1955, when I decided to become a writer. This moment was the start of fiction, as I imagined myself as a writer, which at the time did not make any sense. In fact, it seemed like a downright implausible decision.

This quote links to some of my earlier comments about images on this web site, but also to what I have been saying about communities and identity. Kertesz does not mean that our lives are a fiction, rather that we construct our identities and in so doing build as much of a fictional universe as a real one. It is the balance between fiction and reality that is at the heart of a struggle within ourselves and with the communities we inhabit.

In my previous Blog entry I mentioned how communities are becoming more and more like villages with all the attendant dangers of parochialism and insularity. These villages are no longer defined by conventional boundaries which makes them all the more difficult to analyse and understand. Kertesz discusses the effects of closed communities in which individuals "do not need to interpret their own needs and life any longer." Instead they resist the "spaciousness" of freedom. This is a crucial insight and one that needs further elaboration and exploration.

Hurricane Katrina

The Sunday New York Times Magazine of August 27th has a poignant and profoundly disturbing article and photo essay on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with particular emphasis on what happened to the children of the families that were displaced by the storm. The images are very powerful and the reality of what happened, the incompetence of the recovery effort and the lack of attention to the families struggling to remake their lives is disturbing and shocking.

The images made me angry, but also made me feel quite hopeless. Journalists have still not learned that shocking images achieve their effect, but little else. The personal stories of the children were heartbreaking and I felt the need to do something, but other then sending money to the relief effort or writing this short comment, my options remain limited.

This is indeed the challenge of the next few years. How can the information we receive be translated from our personal experiences into action? I have no pat answers to this question. A disturbing pattern has emerged over the last decade or so. More information has not led to more knowledge. Instead, it has led to increasing and sometimes deadly tribal activity. These tribes range from small groups to larger ones, but their common characteristic is a lack of direct response to crucial issues. Their worlds are centered on their own and sometimes parochial concerns. Globalization, it seems, is actually returning us to a more medieval practice of village life, the only difference being that today's villages are not constrained by national boundaries.

If each village were to become the center of new and imaginative activities directed toward social change and equity, then there would indeed be opportunities to support people in need wth a more determined effect and impact than is presently possible. I will discuss this issue in greater depth over the next few weeks in an expansion of earlier posts on communities within the context of what has now become an image-world — old definitions will have to change.

This short piece is dedicated to Michael Merovitz, a very old friend who died recently — a gentle, sweet and wonderful man whose premature death is a deep loss.