My first computer was a 1981 Radio Shack TRS-80, commonly known as a Trash-80, with a whopping 5-megabyte hard drive. Thirty years later, my cell phone has 32 gigabytes of flash memory, and it’s practically full.
I have always had the geek gene and the creative gene working in perfect harmony. My superpower is having my right and left brains equally engaged, with the ability to fluidly transverse the worlds of art and science.
As a child, I was drawn to toys like Slime® or the Mattel Vac-u-form® machine, which could never be sold today thanks to the exposed burning-hot metal plates and a liability risk that would cause any corporate attorney’s hair to explode.
Art history has always intrigued me; early in my teens, I became fascinated with the Zürich (1916–1922) art movement known as Dada. Samy Rosenstock apparently wanted a more “avant-garde” sounding name, so he adopted the stage name of Tristan Tzara and went on to become one of the founders and central figures of the antiestablishment Dada movement. Poet, performance artist, journalist, playwright, composer, and film director, he fashioned a relationship between cubism and futurism and successfully tied them to the Beat Generation, situationism, and various influences found today in contemporary rock music.
In the primitive days of money orders and snail mail, I would order various gadgets and potions from the Edmund Scientific catalog and ultimately use the magic of mail-order science to create my supposed works of art—conceived in the spirit of the Dada invention of “assemblage,” which employed a three-dimensional interpretation of what is commonly known as “collage.”
In the 1970s, I followed a fine-arts major and physics minor in college. I had the good fortune of catching the trickle-down academic acceptance of what was known at the time as the Intermedia or Fluxus movement. Popularized in the 1960s by the artist Dick Higgins, the term denotes the indefinable and perplexing interdisciplinary mashups that exist between genres—areas like those found somewhere between painting and poetry or between sculpture and theater. For me, it was physics and art.
However established the genre was, my art teachers and my science teachers stood little hope of understanding my intense passion, each missing key information about the others passions.
My crowning achievement was the 1978 interactive work I presented as both my art-class finals project and a physics project. Titled Eggstatic (ecstatic), it consisted of a 7-11 egg-salad sandwich poking out from its triangular plastic container while lounging amid a generous dusting of yellow toilet paper that had been pulverized in a blender to the point of becoming yellow fuzz.
Eggstatic was exhibited on a four-foot-high kiosk inside a 20x20x10-inch Plexiglas case with four small woolen cloths, one hanging on each side. I had wandered through every plastic supply store in Los Angeles with a wool cloth and a pocket of fuzz, trying to find the perfect material that was most susceptible to the buildup of static electric surface charge. I built the display case using a sheet of poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) and assembled the items inside.
Participants of my interactive assemblage would rub the case with the woolen cloth—easily creating enough static charge to draw the toilet-paper fuzz to the inside wall of the case and move the fuzz in magnetic attraction to the motion of the cloth. The moist egg-salad sandwich acted as a “ground” and created a “fuzz bridge” from the sandwich to the location and motion of the cloth.
Although I dutifully arrived at the gallery every morning to swap the sandwich with a fresh and juicy replacement, people soon complained of the smell, and I was asked to remove my art from the show, thus ending my career as a world-famous artist.
But let’s fast-forward past my various life experiences as an advertising art director, producer, director, editor, and designer to the 1990s and the commercial birth of the Internet.
I caught the wave early. The web was the perfect connection between the many isolated studies in my life—art, technology, and media—all fused together, working in harmony and rolled into one.
With the help of my brilliant and wonderful business partner Mike, I started a web development company and enjoyed many early successes. For as much as I love technology, I am not an engineer; fortunately for me, Mike was—and to this day is—one of the best engineers I’ve ever met. Formerly a rocket scientist at McDonnell Douglas, he proved to be the yin to my yang, and, together, we made magic happen. Any company is only as strong as the people inside, and I must say that our team, our employees, and our culture were smart, talented, vibrant, and dedicated. We all liked and respected each other, and there was abundant joy permeating our little family. We shared our passion, our excitement, and our ingenuity and, together as a team, created amazing and wonderful things that were far bigger than we could or should have accomplished. I hold everyone dearly in my heart who made our dream come true; to this day, it was one of the best times of my life, despite the utter pain and torture of birthing a small start-up company with no discernable funding.
I’ve signed far too many nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) to ever write a tell-all book about my dot-com years, but suffice it to say that it was a rollercoaster ride including all the thrills to spills of a start-up, while hanging onto the bleeding edge with every ounce of strength I had.
We worked in the early days of streaming media, before broadband, when 128 kbps was considered a fast Internet connection. We focused on big media companies and designed and built websites, applications and media players for the likes of AOL/Time Warner, Viacom, Microsoft, Intel, and Disney, to name but a few.
When the dot-bomb crash happened, we refocused our energies on software development to enable authoring, management, publishing, and syndication of media content, as well as moving to (TV) set-top box implementations and, ultimately, mobile devices.
Many of our media customers were grappling with what this new multiplatform, broadband promise really held. So, in addition to our software business, we provided a digital services practice, including creative, brand strategy, business strategy, and technology strategy.
We became the only company to be an eight-time finalist and go on to win two Emmy® Awards for interactive television. With the help of our CEO, Robert—our grown-up, as we called him—we sold the company to a large multinational technology company in 2006, just before the economic meltdown, and consequently realized the proverbial American Dream.
I remember the moment I got the call that the deal had closed. I was sitting on a porch swing on a tiny island in Lake Geneva (Wisconsin, not Switzerland) next to Henry, my friend Sunny’s dad. Henry was getting older and had been retired for quite some time, but, in his day, he was a power broker in Chicago and a very successful business tycoon in his own right. I turned to Henry and said, “It’s done. We closed the deal.” He looked at me, and his face was alive and full of emotion. I could tell he was remembering the many times he’d experienced the same adrenaline rush back in his day. We ran into the house and I announced "you're heard of the term 'nouveau riche,' well, I'm about as nouveau as you can get." It was a great moment I’ll always remember.
Having run a successful digital-media company and worked on so many incredible and varied projects for technology companies and media companies alike, I now find myself rewarded with a business brain to wedge between the geek and art lobes that have served me so well.
So what, you might ask, does one do with a three-sided brain? Good question—it took me a bit to connect it all up and apply my experience and my gifts as a digital strategist.
A good digital strategist must take into account many facets of business rules, marketing research, competitive analysis, distribution, design, interface and user experience, technology, application, available equity and assets, team composition, and budget and increasingly consider physical assets, such as any real-world synergy with physical spaces or offline capabilities. As my friend Tim likes to say, “It’s an Easter egg hunt.”
Understanding so many diverse angles allows the strategist to see connections, opportunities, and exploits in the ‘tween areas—things that fall between the technology and application, design and brand, or marketing and content. I’ve come full circle to my roots of Intermedia, and, somehow, my life has realized itself in a way I’d never planned when I had apparently brought my own rotten eggs to my big launch as an artist.
Maintaining a solid 360-degree view of the digital world is no easy feat. It requires constant engagement with periodicals, mentors, conferences, and, most importantly, a robust network of peers who share intelligence and research with each other. My peer network rocks! I’m so lucky to have such amazing people in my circle; in so many ways, I truly stand on their shoulders. To all of you, thank you!
Since the sale of my company, I’ve done many keynotes, attended several innovation labs, and sat on various advisory boards and industry committees, and experienced a nearly two year engagement with Disney Movie Studio, which by the way, was not the happiest place on earth. As my friend Marjory says “Disney doesn’t have a stick up their ass, they have an entire enchanted forest.” Indeed this is where I learned to become not just a consultant, but an insultant in an effort to deliver on the stated goals. All kidding aside, I cherished my time there, and our team did some ground-breaking work which I’d tell you about, but the Disney lawyers would kill us both. One experience I cherish above all others was my decade of involvement with the American Film Institute’s (AFI’s) Digital Content Lab (DCL).
AFI DCL was one of the most exciting think tanks in the digital world. It was an innovation lab, a mentoring program, and a project incubator, and the substance and quality of the people, the projects, and the policy that emerged were second to none. I was an AFI mentor for more than nine consecutive years and hope someday to find other opportunities to rub shoulders with the kinds of great thinkers, artists, and technologists that were part of AFI DCL. Much of the inspiration for this blog comes from my involvement in so many of the great projects that have emerged from the lab. Sadly, in March 2010, AFI DCL was terminated due to funding issues, a truly great loss for both AFI and the interactive media community it inspired.
I continue to work in various strategy, advisory, or consulting roles for media and technology companies—and even a bit in politics—but, having the freedom I now have in my life, I can afford to be picky, so I’ve focused a large amount of my contributions on the arts.
Artists are the content makers, and content is the key to audience engagement. Audience engagement is the key to artistic success. In a world of millions of channels of media, it’s all about the content, the creativity, and the vision that artists bring to the world around us.
To this end, I began a five year accounting of YouTube. YouTube is a convenient repository for cultural research because it contains film, television, music, art, and mashups of all those media types and more.
I started to notice some defined trends and new, well-defined genres spawned from the Intermedia mix of so many creative efforts.
I began to collect and classify works that took the form of a document that tracked and categorized the various schools—culture jamming, subvertising, detournement, dubtitling, mashups, scratch video, and mode shifting, to name but a few. Additionally, I followed the patterns of influence of certain trends, such as Rick Rolling (a bait-and-switch trick using a Rick Astley video), or the practice of mashing a remix song with a cutup vocal track extracted from an iconic YouTube rant video. These and other practices grew and flourished to become major branches in the living tree of YouTubian content.
As the project deepened, I realized that no one had ever placed this incredible microcosm of crowd-sourced culture against the larger backdrop of historical art classification or the even larger backdrop of the overriding über mindset that exists within the first millennial decade of popular culture.
In fact, there was a distinct lack of definition as to what happened, or what is—or now, what was—the overriding ethos that represented a decade of our contemporary culture.
I asked several people who should or would know, “What is the name of the contemporary period of art?” With surprising frequency, the answer I got was “post–post-modernism.” Post-post? It sounded more like a placeholder than a period. Did that mean we are entering the post-post-post decade to something that happened 30 years ago? Now here is a challenge, my friends.
My strategist brain began seeking the hidden Easter eggs that contained the valuable clues. Cultural forensics, while not my field, proved to be gripping. The undefined “it” had something to do with the enormity of referential art forms— mashups, remixes, collage and assemblage, multiplatform, multichannel, and . . . multigrain? Bacon and cheese flavor? Hybrids? Gene splicing? Nintendo Wii® posing as exercise equipment? A floor wax and dessert topping?
What similar evidence is found across so many diverse areas of our contemporary culture and yet is utterly unique to the first millennial decade?
This blog is the result.
Miximalism, like modernism and minimalism, is a term seeking to be transparent in its meaning—and, hey, the dot-com was available. Go figure.