Creative briefs, the concept of insight and idea generating.

In October 2011, I was selected to participate in Onedotzero Cascade graduate workshop, where I had the opportunity to attend seminars by Digital Media industry experts and work on a group project responding to a creative brief. As someone trying to move into the Digital Media industry, the main benefit of the workshop was this in-depth training into how to interpret and respond to a brief, the concept of insight and methods of idea generating.

When working as software engineer, I had the opportunity to work on one creative coding project (mathematically generated seascape) where I did both the design and implementation parts and where the design process and workflow was very similar to what takes place in the Digital Media industry. But for most traditional software engineering projects, such a thought process is not required because all user requirements and experience considerations are sorted by Marketing, who then give strict implementation guidelines for the engineer to follow. I was once given the opportunity to take part in the process from the other side and do a marketing research project about ways to prevent hearing loss from personal stereo devices. I had to take into account technical considerations, such as which algorithms were suitable complexity-wise for the chips used by my employer and which algorithms may be adapted to reuse calculations already done by the existing audio system, but also considerations of user experience and psychology: which devices were simple and unobtrusive enough for users to actually bother using them? How to present the hearing protection solution in way that is not patronising or authoritarian, so that the user does not develop an emotional rejection? Research showed that while people tended to react badly to being told to ‘turn the volume down!’, they were more receptive if focus was put on the positive rather than the negative. For example by saying: ‘People usually turn the volume up to compensate for poor intelligibility. Our product gives a better sound quality so you don’t need to turn it as loud to understand everything’ rather than ‘You are damaging your hearing by listening to music too loud’. Presenting the device as providing something extra rather than limiting the user’s behaviour. However these projects were an exception rather than the traditional way of working in software engineering.

As an artist, I was of course very familiar with creative thinking and idea generating but a fine artist defines their own brief. They do not need to understand a third party’s needs, nor to interpret and decode their phrasing of it.

onedotzero cascade brief

The brief we were given was ‘delve living in the layered city: dig, explore, excavate,
interrogate’ with indications to ‘stimulate debate, positive reaction / happiness, encourage participation / collaboration, shared memories, amplify the unseen, brighten London, interrogate’ and to ‘zoom in, explore below the surface’. The brief suggested various potential angles of interpretation and avenues of exploration, including architecture, advertising and the subversion of it, street art, the collecting of data on the population and its movements. The ones that caught my interest most were ‘look at the everyday as extra ordinary’, and the keywords of ‘layers’ and ‘shared memories’.

An industry expert from advertising agency Mother insisted on the importance of cultural reference points in generating ideas that are relevant and likely to make an impact on an audience. He called this concept ‘insight’, which is coming up with modern, unusual or never thought before take/viewpoint/interpretation on an idea, problem or question.

The word ‘layers’ immediately suggested to me the idea of layers of subjective experience of the city. A city in itself is nothing but a collection of buildings and infrastructures. What makes it vibrant, lively, unique is the experience of the people living in it at any given time, their unique individual vision, their subjective viewpoint and values, the emotional relationship they have with their habitat, be it a sense of home or belonging, a wish to escape, or the desire the change or reinvent the place. I remembered groups of people both online and offline exchanging information about landmarks in London connected to alternative music. I remembered travelling abroad and obsessively looking for landmarks in cities connected to artists or writers whose work I admired. Such information cannot always be found in mainstream tourist guides. Mainstream guides indeed appeal to ‘cultural reference points’, to borrow Mother’s words, but they do so by referring to the lowest common denominator of culture. On top of mainstream culture, the most vibrant and cutting-edge cities, including London, have a myriad of subcultures that cohabit on top or beside each others, like so many layers of semi transparent fabric. Sometimes, two or more of these niche cultures meet, clash and merge to form something new, creating a new shade of colour in the complex fabric of the city.

With this basic idea in mind, I did some research to determine whether my insight had the potential to have some cultural resonance with other people. When researching online, I found the website Exploring 20th Century London, a partnership project between 14 museums in London, including the Museum of London, the London Transport Museum and the Jewish Museum. The project’s aim is to ‘link the objects in the collections with the broader history of London’ and ensure that ‘all objects and images featured on the site speak of the real events and experiences of twentieth-century London’. Two topics covered by the project are ‘Youth Culture and fashion’ and ‘Communities’.

About Youth Culture and fashion, the project explains:
‘During the 20th century London’s position as the place where fashions were set remained the same but the pacemakers changed. Fashions were now led by the young [as opposed to the aristocracy before]. From the bright young things of the 1920s dancing the Charleston to hot jazz; through to the punks of the 1970s pogo-ing to The Damned, the young assumed a new cultural importance in 20th century London.’
The website then proceeds to list various youth cultures through the twentieth-century, relating them to landmark places when relevant, and explain in what measure their influence slowly sipped into the mainstream culture of London.

About Communities, the project says:
‘the sheer size of London’s population has always encouraged the growth of smaller communities within it.  Shared experiences bring people together and during the 20th century  shared experiences came to include ethnic background and sexuality, as well as religion, neighbourhood and class. London ended the 20th century  with a myriad of overlapping communities, each bound together by a sense of people having something in common and a distinct identity.’

So a collaborative project between several London museum believed that the shared experience of overlapping communities of people bound together by a feeling of common identity, either born into (‘communities’) or acquired by cultural choice (‘youth culture’), was a key angle to understand 20th century London. It seemed my insight had cultural resonance after all.

Based on this, I suggested the idea of a ‘subcultural map of London’, an interactive map where the public would be invited to submit landmarks related to various cultures, along with personal memories of events associated with them. People could have shared the story of their first punk concert in an obscure pub, memories of a protest they took part in decades ago, told of a temple where their grandmother took them, or described an art happening they saw in the 60s of which all physical traces have disappeared. I suggested the project could be submitted to the group of museums who might express interest in it.

After group discussion where all my team mates submitted their own insights, the consensus evolved into the idea of unlocking the stories or people living in London or passing through the city. To create a platform where these snapshots of ‘everyday magic’ (to borrow the words of the Surrealists) could be captured and made public to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. People would be invited to upload multimedia content (pictures, video clips, sounds, text) about random things they witnessed on the street, and this content would then be put together to be displayed to viewers on the platform, forming a semi-random narrative. The main challenge posed by this idea was to figure out how to put together disparate multimedia content submitted by various people into a coherent presentation, offering both a compelling narrative and aesthetic appeal. To try and solve this technical challenge, I did some research into Lev Manovich’s database cinema, which constructs dynamic narratives from multimedia elements based on keywords submitted by the audience (these research findings are summarised in another blog post). I thought the concept was promising as it would allow people to get a personalised visual narrative of London tailored to their interests.

The process of coming up with an insight into an issue, collating it with the insights of my colleagues and reaching a consensus on a group project was a very enriching experience.

Sarah Turner – Perestroika

In Perestroika, filmmaker Sarah Turner uses documentary footage shot during a trip made on a Transiberian as an Art School student in December 1987-january 1988, and footage shot on the same trip repeated 20 years later. The film explores psychogeography, the unreliable nature of memory and the ambiguity between truth and fiction. The film contains a voice over spoken by a fictional character called Sarah Turner who both is and isn’t the film maker and addressed to ‘you’, who is Sarah’s friend who accompanied her on the first trip but is now dead. However, the use of ‘you’ gives the audience the ambiguous feeling that they are being addressed directly.

As the voice over monologue becomes increasingly hallucinated, psychic reality increasingly replaces documentary reality, culminating in an apocalyptic hallucination where Sarah believes the lake Baikal is on fire. In an interview with Sight and Sound, Sarah Turner explains: “I wanted the indexical and the uncanny to change places by the end of the film. I needed to believe in my stomach that that fictional character ‘Sarah Turner’ believed that the water was on fire. There are real facts of life within a fictional structure, but what is evidence, fact, and what is affect?”

I went to see the film at Cambridge Film Festival and she answered audience questions and commented further on her film. She considers that ‘memory is as much fiction as it is fact’ and the film was a ‘conscious decision to play with the space of fact and fiction’. ‘Everyone that makes some kind of artwork uses their emotional experiences and connects them to the real world.’

About the use of autobiographical material, she considers that the 1987-1988 footage has a quality of ‘unknowing naïvete’: in 1987-88, Sarah Turner realised only after a day that the camera captured sound. So when the students talk among themselves on the recording, they don’t know they are being recorded. Today we are used to the constant presence of cameras, we constantly perform for them. Turner calls our attitudes resulting from our constant expectation to be watched a ‘register of performativity’.

Sarah Turner also seems interested in cinema as a social phenomenon. She considers that, nowadays, ‘our experience of the world is mediated by lenses’. Cinema is ‘a social experience that we have anonymously’, ‘a collective emotional experience, that actually also occurs in public transport’, which she links to her interest in trains. ‘The only two places where people sleep in public are trains and cinemas’.

This idea of constant surveillance is echoed in the sound design where the recurring sound of a shutter clicking symbolises ‘the violence of photography’. Sarah Turner worked on the sound design herself and ‘all the sound in the film is recorded by the tape in situ, including the music’ (people were actually singing in the Church).

Commenting on audience engagement with artworks, Turner considers that ‘the most active experience is reading a novel where people project their own canvas on the frame provided by the author’.

She also gave a technical about how to shoot landscape from a train: one needs to ‘focus beyond the dirt on the window’.

I was interested in this film because of the themes of psychogeography and truth/fiction ambiguity which echo my own concerns, but also because it is an ‘artist film’ almost entirely made by one person with just a bit of technical help from others. It made me wonder how I could introduce some form of narrative in my video art while still continuing to shoot documentary/unstaged footage.

‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’

The ‘Flâneur’ (approximatively equivalent to ‘roamer’, ‘wanderer’) was invented by Baudelaire and was a key figure in late 19th century and early 20th century decadent literary movement. It is a gentleman who strolls the city in order to experience it, as a detached, gently cynical observer. The flâneur is a passive figure, he observes the dynamics of the city from a disengaged point of view. Baudelaire called the flâneur ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’.

The Surrealists reused the concept, putting a greater emphasis on the role of random chances in the activity of ‘flânerie’. The Surrealist version of the flâneur was to devise experiments involving randomness and chances in order to experience the city without being blinded by mundanity. For example, follow beautiful female strangers across the city, or visit a city while guiding oneself using the map of another city. The ultimate Surrealist goal was to reach a higher level of truth by attaining the point where ‘reality’ and ‘surreality’ converge. By playing with random occurrences while strolling the city, the surrealist flâneur expected to gain a higher awareness of the city, beyong immediate reality. Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.

In ‘Theory of the Derive’, Guy Debord defines the concept of the ‘Dérive’ which he explicitly defines as opposed to ‘different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’. The ‘dérive [literally: “drifting”]’ is ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’. The participants of a Dérive must ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’ A Dérive implies the ‘domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’. This phrasing has connotations of the scientific explorer, almost of the military strategist. Indeed, Debord compares the mindset of the Dérive to those of the ‘ecological science’, and the act of ‘Dérive’ is a tool in the Situationists’ revolutionary project.

Debord explicitly takes position against letting chance take a too important role in a Dérive, because ‘the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.’

Place – Tacita Dean & Jeremy Millar

The books surveys different interpretation of the theme “Place” in contemporary art. I found a few relevant critical quotes and artists whose practice is similar to mine.

The Stalker talking about the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film:
“Our moods, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings can bring about change here. And we are in no condition to comprehend them. Old traps vanish, new ones take their place; the old safe places become impassable, and the route can either be plain and easy, or impossibly confusing. That’s how the Zone is. It may even seem capricious. But in fact, at any moment it is exactly as we devise it, in our consciousness… everything that happens here depends on us, not on the Zone.

“a romantic notion that the critic John Ruskin called the ‘pathetic fallacy’, the belief that the landscape might be made to mirror the emotional state of the person found within it.”

P38: Baudelaire on the flâneur
“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of the birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world – such are a few of the slightest pleasures of the independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

P40: Stan Douglas, Canadian artist made a 6 minute film “Le Détroit” that shows a black woman searching for an unknown object in an abandoned house. The film alludes to the economic problems that turned some parts of Detroit into ghost estates and dilapidated neighbourhoods. “The film is projected onto semi-transparent material, while its negative is projected – with a small time interval – upon the screen’s reverse, thereby emphasising the haunting nature of the narrative.”

P68: Sartre on the Fantastic
“The law of the fantastic condemns it to encounter instruments only. These instruments are not … meant to serve men, but rather to manifest unremittingly an evasive, preposterous finality. This accounts for the labyrinth of corridors, doors and staircases that lead to nothing, the innumerable signs that line the road and that mean nothing. In the “topsy-turvy” world, the means are isolated and posed for their own sake.”

P90: a blue-filter produces the day-for night effect from Hollywood films (‘la nuit américaine’)

P98: Rodney Graham took photographs of Aberdeen, hometown of Kurt Cobain, to show the dereliction of the city, and tacky objects of consumerism.

Aberdeen - rodney graham

P138: Chantal Akerman, Belgian film-maker makes documentary bordering on fiction.

“D’est” (From the East, 1993) shows a journey across Eastern Europe, ordinary people and places are filmed.

“From the other Side” explore a small mexican town just outside the USA border where would-be-migrants wait before tempting the crossing, and the opinions of the inhabitants of Douglas, Arizona (on the other side) about the border policy.

P152: Janet Cardiff makes “audio-walks”: she writes a script inspired by mystery/film noir, then go for a walk in a chosen location where she records the script on tape.

P172: J.G. Ballard
“I noted the features of this silent world: the memory earasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilized the nervous system; … the apparent absence of an[y?] social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools.”

Psychogeography in popular culture – rural space

A short post today. I am reading different things and need to leave the information rest before I can really write about it.

To Andy’s suggestion, I am reading about Psychogeography. There is not much reliable source about it. Guy Debord wrote an article in 1955 Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography and made a psychogreographic map of Paris. Then the situationnists seemed to have got disinterested in the idea and did not elaborate on it any further. Later on, different people took the concept of psychogeography and made their own thing with it. The closest to a reference is the book Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley (2006). This book has the merit to study earlier practionners of psychogeography, such as William Blake, who reinvented their cities long before Guy Debord invented the word, and to give an introduction to contemporary psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair. This book is mostly interesting in giving the reader directions for further research. In itself it is quite flawed: city-centric and intellectual-centric, ignoring the long folk tradition of “spirit of the place”. The author only talks about exploring London and Paris as though psychogeography could only be done in the urban landscape. He makes a reference to the term “genus loci” (guardian spirit of a place in roman mytology, that turned into the contemporary concept of “spirit of the place”) but links the origin of the concept to neo-romanticism (late 19th century). No reference to the obvious roman origin of the word, nor to the fact that the same concept is very strong in Celtic mythology, and in folk culture from various places generally.

In “Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge”, Iain Sinclair plays with an esoteric interpretation of how the 6 London Churches of Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor are disposed on a map. This amused me as it reminded me of popular film Hypnotic whose plot was based about churches by a fictional architect forming a pentagram on a London map and being used for some dark purpose … I am wondering whether they ripped off Sinclair’s book, or both took inspiration from similar London urban legends.

I found another reference to psychogeography in one of my favourite book Den amerikanska flickan by Monika Fagerholm (The American girl, no yet translated in English). In the French translation, a reference is made of a teenage character being “à la derive” (going wild) with in brackets the playful comment “(il avait lu un livre)” = “(he had read a book)” which is obviously a reference to Debord’s theory of the “dérive” (wandering, aimless roaming, drifting). The idea behind the pun of wild teenage lifestyle finding justification in obscure avant-garde theories amused me a lot … The whole book itself is concerned with psychogeography. It is set in the early 70’s in a sleepy small town on the south coast of Finland, and observes the slow process by which the remote, boring location is invaded by rich people from the capital (Helsinki) who build summer homes there, and by urban feminist intellectuals and artists living in a commune there during the summer months. In summer, the city invaders clash with the locals. The clash is aggressive and literally an invasion: the whole coast is built up with private posh summer residences, so that the shore becomes private property and the locals loose access to the sea (this really happened on most of the south coast of France, the cote d’Azur). At the same time, it is liberating: local teens seduce the rich invaders into giving them an escape to the big city, or go off by themselves after discovering avant-guarde theories from hanging on with the commune residents. Yet in winter, when the city invaders depart to more hospitable climates, the place reverts to its former self of a harsh self-contained world where time moves slowly. The place identity is strongly infused by the memory of the mysterious disapperance in 1969 of a visitor (the American girl of the title). This local tabloid-type news item takes the scale of local mythology. Bengt, the boy “à la dérive” obssessively draws maps of the place containing obscure symbols referring to his own theories about the American girl’s mysterious fate. During the winter, local teens invade the deserted posh summer house and wreck havoc in them, as a form of radical reappropriation of their stolen territory. I myself grew up in a backward, remote and boring village and recognised the situations described by the author. Teens from backward places develop an instinctive talent for psychogeography, as weapon against boredom. While in cities, places usually have a set purpose (the cinema, the ice rink, the bowling …), teens from dormitory suburban areas and backward villages need to claim their territory and assign a purpose to them: the bus shelter, the supermarket car park become centres of sociability. At the same times, streets rarely have names in small French villages. Common names are assigned to them by the locals, often referring to names of old residents or local landmarks. Getting about in those villages requires to be coopted in the community and educated in the local lore. In small French villages, people tend to stay in place 20 years or a whole lifetime. It gives enough time for local gossip and news to be transformed and reinterpreted into some sort of informal local mythology.