Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators

The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)

Context

In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.

Contribution

Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*

Compensation

From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.

Creativity

I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.

Conclusions

As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

Banksy – an artist for our times?

Is Banksy the most contemporary of artists? The main medium he works in (spray paint) and the primary format he uses (street art) are synonymous with urban graffiti art. His re-appropriation and re-contextualisation of images and icons tend to both support and subvert traditional notions of art production, the commercial gallery system and copyright law. These same concepts are likewise being challenged via the use of digital technology, social media platforms and creative commons licensing.

Banksy: Laugh Now (2005) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Banksy: Laugh Now (2005) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The current retrospective of Banksy’s art in Melbourne is an intriguing exhibition – part homage, part entertainment, part circus sideshow, part social event. It’s nevertheless a calculated commercial venture, given the local veneration of street artists and their work in the city’s laneways (including some of Banksy’s which have been destroyed in recent times…). Plus, on the way out, there is the gallery shop with mass-produced copies of Banksy’s art, souvenirs and street wear.*

Everything Banksy does is designed to provoke a reaction – even if it’s just a snigger at some of the rather obvious visual gags. Even his (or her?) anonymity is used to reinforce the enigma of the artist as outsider (and sometime outlaw), while potentially allowing multiple artists to operate behind the assumed identity of “Banksy”.

Banksy’s use of a corporate-style logo creates the impression of a brand, and as one of my colleagues noted, it also acts as a meme which spurs both imitators and detractors. Using a distinctive and standardised logo as a signature also suggests there may be a production line process behind the scenes, some factory or warehouse where either minions or wannabe Banksys manufacture art to a predetermined design or theme.

For all his rebellious intentions, Banksy echoes the work of established artists – Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer etc. He parodies, repurposes or references iconic images such as Warhol’s “Marilyn” screen print portraits, Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the US flag being raised on Imo Jiwa in WWII, and the infamous addition of a green mohican hairstyle to Winston Churchill’s statue. And he obviously has an affection for the sayings of Oscar Wilde, going by the aphorisms and witticisms that decorate the walls:

“Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable”

There is every reason to suspect that even this exhibition will somehow be considered just another Banksy art prank, rather than a critical assessment of his work. I suspect that there were hidden cameras and other means to capture the audience engagement and reaction. The website is careful to state that the exhibition is “100% Unauthorised – Guaranteed”, thereby allowing Banksy to disassociate himself with the event.

The exhibition’s public face is Steve Lazarides’s (Banksy’s former dealer and curator), who possibly still owns much of the work (or likely knows the people who do). There are other statements that Banksy does not directly benefit from sales of his work in the secondary market, and in any event, copyright in many of the works is in the public domain – meaning Banksy has either formally assigned his copyright to the public, or does not wish to claim or exercise any copyright over it. In theory, anyone can make copies of the original pieces (there being no copyright protection) but no-body can claim copyright in the resulting image or work. So, for some of Banksy’s prints, t-shirts and other multiples, it begs the question, what is an “original” Banksy – the ones in the gallery, or the ones in the gift shop?

*Not surprising, given the title of a notorious Banksy documentary, “Exit Through The Gift Shop”

Next week: Final Startup Vic Pitch Night of 2016

The arts for art’s sake…

Last week I wrote about the importance of learning coding skills. This prompted a response from one reader, advocating the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools: “Coding and the STEM subjects are our gateway into the future.” I would agree. But, as other commentators have noted elsewhere, we also need to put the A (for art) into STEM to get STEAM to propel us forward….

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased by Tate Gallery in 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

I recently attended a talk by renowned arts administrator Michael Lynch, as part of the FLAIR art event, where he expressed frustration at the state of the arts in Australia, the lack of a public arts policy, and the associated cuts to government funding. It can’t help that from John Howard onward, we have had a sequence of Prime Ministers who, while not total Philistines, have shown little enthusiasm, appetite or appreciation for the arts. And during Q&A, Mr Lynch referenced the conservative and “safe” nature of so much arts programming as evidenced by the lack of risk-taking and the stale and over-familiar choice of repertoire, although he did acknowledge some arts organisations were doing exciting work.

The debate then shifted to whether we need a new method to evaluate the benefits of a strong arts sector that is not purely dependent on economic terms or financial performance. It was not possible in the time available to come up with a suitable indicator, but I suggest we can derive a range of benefits from putting more emphasis on teaching, supporting and sponsoring the arts. This RoI might be measured in such terms as the following:

  • Enhancing creativity among students will benefit individual problem-solving skills and collective innovation;
  • A healthy arts scene is indicative of a balanced, self-assured and progressive society;
  • Participating in the arts can give people a sense of confidence and well-being;
  • Through art we can learn about culture, philosophy and history – especially of other societies;
  • Giving people the means to express themselves through art is an important outlet for their skills, talent and interests.

We agonize about the amount of investment in our Olympic athletes in pursuit of gold medals, and whether the money can be justified (goodness – Australia only just made the top 10!)  But no-one (yet) has suggested it’s not worth doing, even if we don’t win as many medals as is often predicted. And of course, together with the wider popular entertainment industry, professional sports attract more dollars, airtime and support through sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting rights, gambling revenue, club memberships and merchandise than the arts could ever hope to.

Part of the challenge lies in the popular notion that arts are either elitist, worthy, self-important, or simply frivolous – which makes it harder to build an economic case for the arts, but which can also lead to the worst kind of cultural cringe. Also, if the arts are really doing their job, they hold up a mirror to our society, and we may not like what we see. Populist politicians can’t afford to be associated or identified with such critiques – either as the targets or as de facto protagonists – so would they rather be seen shaking hands with gold medalists (or attending a Bruce Springsteen concert…) than maybe attending a cutting-edge performance by The Necks?

Next week: The latest installment of Startup Victoria pitch night