Middle C: On Hitting the Right “Creative” Note

Developing Creativity In the Today’s Digital Age

Creativity can be developed in more ways than one. A life as an artist was once essentially an academic career path, in which one would train extensively with masters and then find one’s own patrons, whether individuals or institutions, and possibly later train others. Now that lifestyle can only be achieved by an incredibly small number of artists. Today artists may have academic training, or might train themselves using available tools and materials, then set about finding and marketing themselves to their own audience–which is no small task. Is there contention among these approaches, and what can be said of elevating a non-academic arts education?

According to Jeffrey Davis, author of “Creativity Is Not About Amateurs or Academies” for Psychology Today, there are two camps in creativity. On one end are those who evangelize self-expression and see the digital world as a beneficial conduit for that expression. Davis calls this the “small c” creativity camp. On the other end are those who advocate the canon over personal expression, whom Davis refers to as “big C” creativity camp. While both may have a sense of the universal and historical, the latter focuses more on making a contribution to the traditional medium.

Davis sums up the challenge for the amateur. “The Artist, in the conventional sense, ultimately seeks inclusion within a very exclusive set of conventions, organizations, and institutions, which approve, rate, and fund the Artist. Or not. You’re either chosen and brought in and funded, or not. You either get ‘sold’ to your medium’s respective institution, or you remain a bohemian juggler.” Simply put, it’s more difficult for the amateur to win the opportunity to make a living producing creative work.

In response to this cold fact, Davis puts forth what he describes as a “bridge” option, one in which the amateur can develop a creative professional orientation. I would refer to this as a plan for hitting middle C, or a professional but non-academic approach to a creative career. Davis’s tips:

  1. Take advantage of digital media, but do not rely solely upon them.
  2. Seek out “apprenticeship” opportunities to adopt a deeper understanding of your chosen medium.
  3. Infuse sound business strategy into your art form to create a flexible and profitable creative practice.

This article resonates with me and my work with creative professionals of all backgrounds. I would even argue that whether one is a self-taught filmmaker or film school grad, a first film festival experience can be similar. More than ever before, the economy demands more self-assessment, differentiation and promotion of filmmakers and other creatives. On the bright side, while there’s less public funding available for independent artists, there’s unprecedented access to the means by which we can reach our audience and tell our own story. By taking time to learn and ultimately elevate ourselves from amateur to practicing artist, we truly win the right to broadcast our story and accomplishments, and ask our audience for support.

Photo: Courtesy of Elliott Billings via Creative Commons.


Prune to Grow: How writing in a second language can promote development

There’s no better way to feel fresh and awakened than to shed what’s old and familiar. For this reason, some writers take on writing–and publishing–in a second language. In her piece “Writing in a New Language, Writing Anew” for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lucy Ferriss discusses several writers who follow this ambitious path.

Our native tongue leads us to common ideas. Do we favor styling of affect over creating meaning? Do we become lethargic about achieving what we intend to convey? Ferriss paraphrases several writers who describe writing in a second language as going “without style”. In a new language, we are stripped bare of the comfortable spaces we can hide–among idioms and other devices that might obscure clarity and originality.

Ferriss says of the collected quotes from writers in a second language “What these comments share is an appreciation for what’s left out of the writing when composing in a second language: style, or description, or sophistication — all

things we tend to strive for when we try to write eloquently in our native tongue. I do think we tend to lose sight, in a language that has shaped our world since we were born, of language’s central task: to make meaning. We take for

Jhumpa Lahiri

Author Jhumpa Lahiri has turned to writing in Italian. Photo: Courtesy of Random House.

granted the multiple choices we have; we ramp up the prose; we lose sight of the roots of the words we’re making flowers with.”

It is as if this pruning of the familiar language encourages new vitality, much like a flowering shrub benefits from pruning back its old growth. Ferriss describes author Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian: “Using the metaphor of Daphne from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she adds, ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.'”

As a lover of literature and a student of French and Italian, I have been humbled by the experience of trying to understand–and be understood–in a foreign tongue. It’s ambitious but rewarding for one to practice her craft assembling the childlike blocks of comprehension gathered in a nonnative language, and seeing what she can build.

What Defines an Artist? Should Architects Be Included?

UK Turner Prize Awarded to Architecture Collective Assemble

The Turner award, a major UK art price, has been awarded to Assemble, a collective known for its architecture and community improvement projects. The news has swept the art world, with critics taking notice of the first time an architecture collective has won in the 31-year history of the prize. It begs the question: What Defines an Artist?


Assembly, 2014. Photo courtesy of Assembly.

For many of us, “Who is an artist” simply isn’t a question we face in our everyday lives. Even as we interact with architecture in the world around us, we might not acknowledge the creators’ intentions behind those spaces. According to Mark Brown in his piece “Urban regenerators Assemble become first ‘non-artists’ to win Turner prize” for Guardian, the collective itself does not claim to be comprised of artists. One Assemble collective member, Anthony Engi-Meacock, said: “It’s just not a conversation we have. I mean what is an artist? There is no answer to it.”

Looking at these events in the media I sense the media engaged in changing attitudes toward the arts. To satisfy my own curiosity about what the award says about the existence of margins between architecture and “art”, I conducted my own survey of the Assemble website. It’s apparent the collective offers much more than traditional building projects. Their CV includes play spaces, performance spaces, and several other interactive (again, play being key) installations. In these examples, Assemble elevates “space” in a thoughtful, meaningful way.

Assemble create spaces that make people think and bring people together, and thoughtfully employ many clever ways of encouraging new behavior in those spaces. Transformation on some level–in thought, in action–is to me the optimal outcome of interacting with any work we may deem as art. In this way, architecture by Assemble proves to be somewhat more accessible, though no less persuasive, than many of the traditionally “prize worthy” art forms.

Congratulations, Assemble, on the work and the award!


 Top Image copyright and courtesy of Sophia Evans.

Filmmakers: Get Ready for Film Festivals

On December 9, 2015, I did a seminar for the filmmakers whose movies have been accepted to Slamdance 2016. This seminar will be useful for all filmmakers getting ready for film festivals anywhere and hoping to take maximum advantage of the opportunity.

Adam Leipzig

Adam Leipzig talks with Slamdance filmmakers. Photo by Peter Baxter

Slamdance founder Peter Baxter joined us (you’ll hear his voice in the intro). We did the seminar in the CreativeFuture offices where I serve as COO.

In this 75-minute seminar, you will learn the answers to these questions:

  • Do I need marketing materials, and if so, what would they be?
  • Should I hire a publicist?
  • How do I pick the right sales agent?
  • How to pick a sales agent?
  • Should I stay for the whole festival?
  • What kind of deals are being make for independent films?
  • What can I do with my short film?
  • How do I answer the question I will be asked most often?
  • What about other film festivals?
  • How can the festival leverage my career?

Congratulations to all the filmmakers, and I hope you find this useful.

We did an audio recording of the seminar. Listen or download here:

Top photo: Adam Leipzig (l) and Slamdance founder Peter Baxter discuss indie film strategies in a film noir-ish parking lot. Photo by Deron Williams.

Food for Thought: E.A.T. and Today’s Tech-Art

Recently Amy Keyishian (@madfoot) wrote “Art and Tech Have a Really Cool Baby at a San Francisco Museum” for re/code. In it, she covers a recent digital media exhibit in San Francisco, and makes a compelling claim–that collaborations between engineers and artists, such as the historic E.A.T. project, are no longer necessary, because artists have direct access to technologies they can leverage in their work.

Known as E.A.T. for Experiments in Art and Technology, this long-term project was initiated in 1966 by a pair of Bell Labs scientists and a pair of prominent artists– Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman (respectively). They instigated technology-oriented artwork by organizing as a nonprofit that planned several exhibitions and introduced new scientist-artist pairs open to creative collaboration. As Raschenberg famously stated (as quoted in Frank Rose’s “The Big Bang of Art and Tech in New York” for The New York Times) the combination of technology and art crystalized immediately. “If you don’t accept technology, you better go to another place, because no place here is safe. Nobody wants to paint rotten oranges any more.”

Today artists certainly do have access to powerful technologies at their disposal, and technology is even integrated into many art programs. An artist might use any one of many new languages and frameworks that make it easier than ever to develop software, inexpensive devices to power projects, such as mini computers (think Raspberry Pi) and 3D printers, as well as warehouses of specialized data available via APIs. So is there still an opportunity for curated collaboration to bring art and technology to what Keyishian calls the “bleeding edge”?

I do think opportunities remain for engineers and scientists to meld minds in a valuable way. While end-user technologies are readily available, direct collaboration can bring out rich points. As a member of the über-collaborative film industry, I am a firm believer that when it comes to brilliant minds at work, more is better. Artwork created by artists and scientists with the deepest understanding of the latest of all aspects of culture (including technology) deliver new layers of meaning, commentary–and even beauty.

Eulogy for Akram Raslan, Political Cartoonist

Akram Raslan was a Syrian political cartoonist. As Asher Kohn (follow him on Twitter @AJKhn) writes in his Slate Roads & Kingdoms piece “Drawn in Blood“, his voice was silenced by the Syrian Assad regime.

“In October 2015, Raslan was confirmed to have been killed by Syrian police. A pseudonymous fellow prisoner said that Raslan died in a prison hospital, possibly after torture. It had been three years since he was first taken into custody and four since the Syrian civil war began. Raslan had been one of Syria’s best-known cartoonists before the war began. His colorful, almost optimistic scenes mocking corruption and senselessness set his work apart from his colleagues’. (…) Raslan’s style was more straightforward, almost insidious.”

Following the Paris attacks, it seems the last and best refuge of Europe is now an unlikely haven for dissenters like Raslan. It is a dark time to live in a world where a regime targets political cartoonists for torture and execution. Worse, it’s shameful that terrorist acts by the few restrict access to life-saving asylum for so many. As in all cases, art imitates life, yet it also intimates life–political cartoons and other types of open dissent make apparent what is known about corrupt and unjust regimes. Let us listen to the voices of reason from within conflicts such as that in Syria, and better understand the will of the people, by what the artists and journalists will have us know through their courageous acts of storytelling.

“Any haven would be too late for Akram Raslan, whose name now graces a magazine that acts as a eulogy. It is a haunting toast to a man who, a year into the Syrian civil war, seemed so sure of his ability to bring change to his country. Few changes since his death have been for the better, and it is hard even for an optimist to imagine Raslan’s pristine blue skies showing up again anytime soon over Syria.”

Image courtesy of the Freedom for Akram Raslan Facebook page. 


The Novelization of Corporate Strategy

Why Companies Need Novelists” is a fascinating piece by Michael Grothaus about an unusual title appearing in select corporations–that of CSO, or Chief Storytelling Officer. The poster boy chosen for this curiosity is Mohsin Hamid, an acclaimed author-turned-corporate strategist.

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid

I know what you’re thinking–how is this a thing? The best answer comes from Hamid himself, as he explains the value this role delivers. “How do you empower people inside a company to do their own thing, to try to innovate, to not be a completely top-down organization, to be an organization that is creative and inventive?” he says. “You can’t do that as a CEO by telling everybody, ‘Here is your set of marching orders.’ It’s just too much. You don’t have the capacity to do that.”

Grothaus goes on to elaborate: “Instead, Hamid underscores the importance of a clear narrative, one that allows others to appreciate the overall vision of where the company is headed and allows them to use their own creativity and approach to help it get there.”

In my own experiences working with and within creative organizations, including during times of massive change, I can attest to the prudence of this statement. Surely leaders do not want to tell people how to do every aspect of their daily job. Storytelling can persuade them–enlist them, even, to help enact a compelling narrative, one that takes the team from here to a better place, and unifies a complex environment to a single, clear mission.

According to Hamid, there are three times in the lifecycle when corporations need to engage storytelling: upon launch, when the world needs to know who you are, during acquisitions and leadership changes, when the world needs to know who you are becoming, and in slow growth phases, when the world needs to know you’re still dynamic.

Hamid recommends ground rules for companies interested in upping their storytelling game:

  1. Tell it like it is
  2. Put the audience in the center of the action
  3. Allow the audience to experience and label emotion
  4. Be plain
  5. “Hire a novelist”

Like Grothaus, I think that the barriers between people in the arts and business have more passages, and there is a true need for a dialog. In this case, it’s exciting to see a creative profession called upon to motivate and catalyze the business world.


Amazon Offers Grants with Low Application Barrier

As Steve Kolowich reports in his The Chronicle of Higher Education article “Amazon Offers Up Research Money for ‘Crazy’ Ideas That Just Might Work”, tech and retail industry leader Amazon recently announced a grant program that “takes ugly-duckling research projects that have a big upside but are too nascent or implausible to win the attentions of federal grantmakers or venture capitalists.”

Grants will range from $10,000 to $100,000, and will have a surprisingly short list of requirements. Anyone associated with University of Washington may apply, Kolowich reports, pointing out that such industry-supported grants are often directly related to efforts related to the grantmaking business.

However, as Kolowich points out, Amazon isn’t just giving away the farm. “That does not mean Amazon does not stand to benefit strategically. While all copyrights and patents that grow out of the research will be owned by the university, Amazon will have permission to reproduce, modify, and sell any of the work relating to a grant — including any ‘pre-existing work’ that a grantee incorporates into a project.”

In a world where there seem to be few resources for ‘crazy’ projects, but where funding a unique idea can bring so much good—financial and otherwise–this funding program offers up a powerful opportunity for researchers to bring new inventions to life. It’s an unusual and bold move by Amazon, which stands to enhance its reputation for being benevolent among the scientific community, as it positions itself to improve and increase the roster of its own products and services. I think we can all agree that more private-public sector grant opportunities such as this would certainly benefit in kind teaching institutions, researchers and the grantmaking organizations. When you really think about it, greater funding for developing ‘crazy’ ideas really makes a great deal of sense.

Photo courtesy of Sea Turtle, as share under Creative Commons on Flickr.

Writers, Please Stop Romanticizing Rejection

In her Atlantic article “Why the Literary World Shouldn’t Romanticize Rejection”, Kavita Das skewers the idea with a multi-pronged argument. Too often, it’s difficult to be heard in the literary world, especially if one is a minority or woman. The industry has also proven to be resistant to change, and continues to pass over talent without evaluating their virtues based ostensibly on marketing to the American public.

“Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.”

Where many will laud the persistence of the few who can endure the rejection and find a place for their work in the mainstream publishing houses, Das argues we should critique the zero-sum thinking driving these trends. Who says there can be so few minority and female voices heard? And why do publishers underestimate our desire to hear these and other diverse narratives?

In my opinion, publishers can and should expect more of American readers. We want to see the warp and weft of contemporary life and perspectives, rather than just the embroidery emblazoned on top. So what can be done to end the excessive rejection so many talented writers face? Publishers can publish more (and more diverse) first-time writers. Agents and publishers can forgo the old market segments, urging crossover. And finally writers can begin to draw their audience in channels outside of the major houses, including smaller publishers and online self-publishing.

Photo Credit: Francisco Puente. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Jason Mayden and Cultural Alchemy: What Creatives Can Learn From Youth Culture

What does it take to pick the next big trendsetter out of a crowd? How can these cultural leaders be developed? These are the problems Jason Mayden, former top Nike designer, is working on solving.

In Mayden’s case, as Mark Wilson writes in his Co.Design article “Ex-Nike Designer On How To Cultivate Tomorrow’s Top Creative Talent“, he’s repeated a common pattern by going from design house to venture capital firm. Among his roles, he’s on the lookout for dynamic young people who have already defined themselves and have diverse but complementary interests. These youth come from “middle American urban markets” but would be able to hold their own on leading college campuses. Mayden uses the term “cultural alchemists” to describe this segment.

“It’s not just coding talent. The cultural alchemists have a very specific profile,” Mayden says. “They fall between 14 and 25. They’re focused on immersive experiences, deeper engagements. They’re not people who want to pick a lane, they want to be a lane. They’re drawing from different influences. They have access to a planet. Their favorite food ranges from empanadas to sushi. Their music ranges from EDM to classical. The alchemist is a DJ, a coder, she grows a microfarm, she plays sports.”

While I concern myself with a slightly different problem set, including answers to the question What does it take for us to supercharge our own creativity and bring our work to new audiences?, I think we should add this definition of the cultural alchemist as an essential creative archetype. As creatives, we must sample broadly and deeply as we continue to discover—whether it’s a new mode or matter for our work. Sure, we may not meet the age criteria, but the call to action knows no age limit. We can continually curate ourselves to the most rarified state possible.

Photo above courtesy of Jason Mayden.