Some thoughts about life as a creative individual

As some of you may know, Karin and I are moving from Australia to Germany next week for at least a year. I don’t usually do “dear diary” posts on Playpen, but this is something I wrote and read out in a lecture a couple of years ago and lots of students have often asked me about it since.

To my students – some thoughts about life as a creative individual

I went to a private boarding school in the UK. I’m not quite sure why my parents sent me there, after all, my Dad was an artist and my mother always wanted to be a vet. They probably assumed (quite fairly) that I would get better academic education than at a state school.

Most of the people I was at school with are now accountants or lawyers, investment bankers along with the occasional cricket star. My school, like most others of its kind didn’t really cater for people who were interested in the arts. So it caused me a lot of confusion and a real problem deciding what my purpose in life was – it still does to some extent. When people ask me what I do, aside from teaching, I don’t really know what to say. I usually say something like “interactive designer, you know websites and stuff”. They usually tell me about their 12 year-old nephew’s computer skills and how he makes websites too. I sometimes yearn to be in a trade and craft that is hundreds of years old that everyone understands. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy writing so much these days, except that everyone still thinks it’s easy. It’s not.

[UPDATE: By coincidence, I have recently been in touch with David Smith, my art teacher from my school, and I had been thinking for some time that I didn’t give him any credit here. He was a real breath of fresh air at my school and did make a real difference to the way I thought about making art. Sadly, he arrived right at the end of my time at school.]

I don’t know what most of you plan to do with the skills you’re learning here. Many of you may not know yourselves. But it really is a golden time, even with all the financial pressures, because you have the safety of trying things out, without someone telling you it’s not right for their brand, or they haven’t got the budget but they still need it yesterday.

Not knowing what your future is doesn’t change. It is rare for a day to go by when I don’t wonder what an earth I’m doing this for, or whether I have the skills to do it. I stand up here and lecture to you and worry that you’ll ask me a question that I don’t know and think I’m an idiot, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I took on the head of school role with the same worries – there’s no manual or online tutorial for it.

That fear of the future, of the unknown, is inside everyone in this room, and it often rears its head when you present your projects and ideas in tutorials. When you are timid or afraid of being wrong, as if there were a right answer. So the best thing you can do is to support each other by giving fair feedback and criticism as well as encouraging compliments and accepting praise.

In my first lecture, I talked about this being a young medium with a limited language compared to literature or film. It will change, and it is maturing. You are of a generation that will discover and create that new language, and that means that most of what you are doing will be new – and that’s a really scary prospect.

Don’t be frightened of making things that are simple. Things that just entertain, or just communicate a single idea, just make sure you do it well. We’re often educated to believe that complex things are inherently better. They’re not always. Football is essentially 22 people kicking a pig’s bladder around a field – it’s come a long way.

We also taught that to being creative person is self-indulgent and not a ‘proper job’. People say ‘you’re so lucky to have that talent’ or ‘ah yes, I think I’ll take a bit of time off and do some art’. These attitudes sting and they sting because they are really saying ‘what you do isn’t hard work’. You’re either talented and it comes easily to you, or it’s something that anyone could do given the time off their ‘real work’ and you ‘chose’ the ‘easy’ road.

Certainly governments don’t support the arts and our school systems hardly recognise it. Mine didn’t. Rugby captains were the heroes of my school, not musicians, artists or designers. I imagine, in Australia, that the emphasis on sport is even worse. Some of you must have had a hard time being the sensitive ones who weren’t into competing on the track or field. Art, after all, is for the thickies isn’t it? I even know of one school art teacher in Australia who got into art because he was made to do it at school as a punishment.

When you leave here, you will suddenly find that you have reached the point you have been aiming for all your life: getting your degree and getting out in the world. Of course, the next dilemma is that, having spent all that time becoming skilled, every thinks you know nothing. It can be scary – I spent 6 to 12 months in a blind panic. What could I do for a living?

It isn’t something that goes away. My father had a promising career as a painter and sculptor in his mid-20s. He had to do national service, and by the time he got out, all the people who knew him in galleries around London had moved on. He became a graphic designer and formed an ad agency. The agency went under in the recession of the late 80s, sending my Dad back to the same fear of the unknown that you will all experience when you leave Uni. And so the whole process starts again and it is important you understand how to deal with it.

My dad is now 68 and has started painting and printmaking again. I’ve not seen him happier for years. 40 years later he’s had more work accepted into the Royal Academy – it is a whole lifetime he might have spent doing what he loves. He did enjoy being a designer and the ad agency, but for a long time he lost that spark passion and sense of himself when it went under.

Coming here and teaching you every week, and watching you all come up with new ideas are a great reminders of that spark and, I have to tell you, it is a constant inspiration to me. It always makes me look at what I am doing and want I want to engage in.

We all need to make a living, but always keep something of your own in your work. If you are designing something for a client, at least put a spin on it that you are truly interested in.

You have a new medium in front of you. Explore it, find out what it can do that no one has seen before. Don’t be afraid to show people your experiments, especially the ones you are most afraid of showing – they’re usually the good ones.

If you ever wonder if it’s all worthwhile, or whether making something that just makes someone giggle for 5 minutes is enough, try this thought: Imagine a world without investment bankers and lawyers, without politicians and middle managers, without accountants and money. It doesn’t seem too empty does it?

Now imagine a world without artists, musicians, writers and performers. There would be no newspapers in the morning, no book to read on the bus, no music to listen to on the train. No TV in the evening, no cinema, no art, no design. No one I know would want to live in that world and all those other people take it for granted.

Remember, being a student isn’t a rehearsal. A Zen master once said, “You are today what you have done in the past, what you will become is what you do today.”

Thanks for all your hard work, keep at it.

Digital media discussion after the horse has bolted

Anyone would think owning a TV station was a good idea.

The Australian’s Mark Day wrote a couple of insightful articles today about Senator Helen Coonan’s media reform discussion paper. (Coonan is the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts here in Australia for those of you overseas). In particular Day’s piece, “Coonan plan prepares to usher in the digital age” highlighted how out of date the hysteria and discussion paper already seem. As Day says:

Also immediately clear is the hysterical nature of some commentators’ predictions that the reforms will result in more power to the Murdochs and Packers and in the demise of democracy. These are the rantings of deluded and embittered outcasts from mainstream reality.

In a digital world, power devolves from the proprietors of old, as Rupert Murdoch pointed out in London this week to the consumers of tomorrow. They are demanding new ways of accessing information and new forms of packaging, so much so they have spawned the concept of snack news: small bites of info on the go.

The age of downloadable, personalised media is already here and the idea that one media owner is going to dominate opinion is absurd. The real problem is likely to be the opposite, that it’s impossible to create much of a local community and shared ideals because of overwhelming diversity. After all, if you can download any TV from anywhere in the world whenever you like, what’s left to gossip about at school or work?

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with something the present Government is up to, except that this was the discussion paper that should have been published at least five years ago, but that was when the brain-dead Senator Richard Alston was asleep behind the wheel.

The digital media horse has well and truly bolted – by the time any deregulation comes into play (probably not until 2012), TV’s dominance will have significantly declined and the advertising dollars are going to plummet rather than be set for price gouging by the networks, which some media buyers are moaning about (like they don’t gouge their own clients anyway). Networks will be desperate for ad dollars because their audience will be watching downloaded content, with no ads.

As we’ve seen with ABC2, having to deliver content for another channel is a chore and it spreads meagre production budgets even more thinly. Why anyone would want to own yet another channel is beyond me. Surely they’ll be better directing their funding to content that is delivered online where they don’t have all the regulatory mess? Yes, of course they will, which is why the smart media companies are already buying up web services. Fox (owned by Murdoch’s News Corp, publisher of The Australian – you know, that online news source that I just linked to up there. They publish a paper too, on dead trees, remember?) recently bought the social network, MySpace and as Day points out, Fairfax (who own the Sydney Morning Herald – another online news source with a diminishing paper on the side) just shelled out $625 million for New Zealand auction site Trade Me.

Day describes the demise of his own medium (okay, he’s online too):

The platform for this kind of news delivery will be mobile: TV capable phones, hand-held personal assistant devices and soon-to-come gizmos such as Foxtel’s IQ2Go mobile TV. These add up to new services and choices, and under the Coonan plan they will find a home on the so-called datacasting spectrum.

But the thing is this, it doesn’t matter if they don’t de-regulate the datacasting spectrum because no Australian Government is going to attempt to regulate the Internet and even if they tried they would fail.

As a final anecdote, some of my digital media students’ final works have had enormous downloads and they weren’t even trying. 270,000 and counting for a pretty well-made music video initially just posted on the student’s blog and a massive four million of a game another three of them made (their news is out of date). That’s a decent whack of Google Ads.

I haven’t even had the time to thoroughly read the discussion paper because, well, I’ve had too much other media to look at.

Guardian launches ‘Comment is Free’

Guardian Unlimited has just launched its new multi-writer blog and communtiy called Comment is Free. Not only are the writers of high calibre (which will make for an interesting concentration and selection of ideas), but also the community, so far, seem to pretty sharp (if terse) with their comments.

It will be interesting to see how it goes and obviously the Guardian have a pretty long history and wealth of knowledge in the online arena, they were there very early on and have been doing it well (perhaps better than their new print re-design) for some time. I wonder what kind of moderation is going on? On that subject, you can report any comment, so perhaps it will police itself.

Via Dan at CityofSound.


Check out Retrievr – it allows you to search the Flickr image archive by drawing a sketch (or uploading another picture) instead of by tags. A kind of visual tagging/search idea. It’s surprisingly nice, and nicely surprising – as it is doing image matching in terms of hues, patterns, tones, etc. it doesn’t see images as things (e.g. a face is a bunch of blotches, not a face) so it makes some interesting associations. I, of course, uploaded a picture of myself and ended up with a picture of an apple in return. Nice. That’s what baldness does for you. It’s built by some clever folk at System One.

(Gosh, Flickr started a trend with this whole no ‘e’ before the ‘r’ business didn’t they?).


My ‘Time Sketches’ on display at the Powerhouse Museum

Time Smear Finger in the Ear  Time Smear Long Punch

I’m very pleased to announce that two of my interactive works are currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum thanks to the wonderful people over at the Creativity and Cognition Studios at UTS and their beta_space project at the Powerhouse.

The official beta_space site has all the info (and just got launched yesterday ), but here is an excerpt of the blurb:

Time Smear and Time Slicer by artist Andy Polaine are part of a series of live video works called Time Sketches that experiment with interactivity and the viewer’s image. Using video processing technologies these works play with time; chopping it up into fleeting moments and stretching it out across space. The result is a digital hall of mirrors, where you can see warped versions of yourself.

I’ll be joining up with Alexa Wright who hails from my old university at Westminster to give a short seminar on Emotion and Interaction. The details of how to register are on the beta_space website but here are the dates and times:

Wednesday 22nd March 2006, 4.30 – 6.30, Powerhouse Museum

Andy Polaine and Alexa Wright will discuss the relationship between emotion and interaction in their art practice, followed by discussion and then some light refreshment.

4.30 – 5.00pm
A chance to see Time Sketches, Andy Polaine’s new work installed in beta_space, in the Cyberworlds area of the Powerhouse Museum

Artist talks and questions in the Education Rooms. Staff will be on hand to direct you.

Drinks and light refreshment

(Is it me or does the name “Education Rooms” sound a bit too S & M for the Powerhouse?)

I wrote a little while back about the Time Smear piece and that you could download the short demo paper from the ACM website. But I’m having trouble accessing it, so you can also get it from here on my site.

Essentially I’m interested, at least in these pieces, in the moment of interaction more than the images that get produced. I am perfectly aware that the whole slit-scan thing has been done in different ways, but I’ve never experienced one working live like this and wanted to try it out myself. There is another work in there called Time Slicer which, much like an 80s video mixer I suppose, freezes frames in a sequence and keeps doing so over and over. I noticed when I was playing with this and showing others that people really started to have fun and try out different ways of chopping up their bodies and faces with the camera frame. I’m often dissatisfied with the level of interaction that many “Big Art” interactive piece illicit as most people tend to stand in front of (or in) the “art object” and not really interact. I wrote a whole paper about this if you are into this line of thinking and you can even watch the presentation of it I gave in Banff. So, I wanted to make some smaller pieces that just concentrated on one single aspect of interaction without trying to say anything too weighty. They are, I hope, playful above all else.

Thanks to Lizzie, Greg, Matthew and also to the other folks from the Powerhouse that made such an art-form out of drilling holes in walls.

Also to the twins in the photos above (thanks to Greg for these again) who generously larked around in front of the work and created some very amusing images.

Last, but not least (this is sounding a bit like Oscars night), thanks to my lovely wife, Karin, for prodding me to make some interactive works again and putting up with me spending more time in front of the computer than is healthy in any relationship.

Flagr – tagging all over the world

It had to happen: Flagr is a combination of Google Maps, Flickr and Delicious wrapped up in a nice AJAX interface.

Basically it allows you to ‘bookmark’ the real world by adding location bookmarks in a social network/bookmarking service. So when you find the best cup of coffee in the world you can tag it and share it. Obviously you can do it online, but the more sensible use of it is that you can do it from your phone and even upload images.

All so far so good. I can see lots of great uses for it, but it may also be prone to a few problems such as massive amounts of “cheap computers here!” type spam, vigilantism (“pedophile lives here”) and (though this is good or bad) general badmouthing (“the service is crap here, this waiter sucks, etc.”). I’ve already noticed “Kingsleys Chicken” over there in Australia… sigh.

Oh yeah, the AJAX interface doesn’t show the contents of the balloons in Safari either… But that probably Apple’s fault.

You can check out their blog here. Thanks to AlwaysBeta for the original story.