MoMA vs SFMOMA

As regular readers of this blog may have come to realise, any opportunity I have during my overseas travels, for business or pleasure, I always like to visit the local public art galleries. Apart from providing a cultural fix, these institutions can reveal a lot about current fashions, curatorial trends and even technology adoption in the elite world of marquee museums. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit MoMA in New York, and SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Mario Bellini – Olivetti TCV 250 Video Display Terminal (1966) – MoMA New York (Gift of the manufacturer) – Photo by Rory Manchee

Both museums are housed in contemporary buildings which, in keeping with a noticeable trend among modern galleries and museums, emphasise their vertical structure. Compared to say, the 18th/19th century museums of London, Paris and Berlin (with their long, languid and hall-like galleries), these 21st century constructs force us to look upwards – both physically, and perhaps metaphorically, as they aspire to represent “high” art in a modern context?

Although I have been to MoMA many times before, there is always something new to discover among the touring exhibitions and permanent collections. On this latest visit, there were four standout displays: Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age (see illustration above); Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait; Max Ernst: Beyond Painting; and Stephen Shore.

Apart from the latter, there is clearly a statement being made within the format of “Title/Name – colon – concept/context/subtext”. Stephen Shore is obviously an exception to this curatorial technique. Here is a photographer, whose name I was not familiar with, but whose work seemed both familiar (everyday images and popular icons) and exotic (otherworldly, outsider, alien); yet also pedestrian (repetitive, mundane) and alienating (elements of the macabre and voyeuristic).

The Thinking Machines display threw up some interesting juxtapositions: most of the devices and the works they produced were artisanal in approach – one-off pieces, requiring detailed and skilled programming, and not the mass-produced, easily replicated works we associate with most digital processes these days. Plus, even when the outputs were generated by a computational approach, the vagaries of the hardware and software meant the works were more likely to produce chance results, given the large role that analog processes still played in these systems-defined creations.

Louise Bourgeois’ work can still challenge our sensibilities, especially when conveyed through her lesser-known works on paper, even though many of the images are familiar to us from her sculptures and installation pieces (the latter represented here in the form of one of her giant spiders).

The exhibition of works on paper by Max Ernst also reveal another aspect of the artist’s oeuvre, although unlike Bourgeois, I feel there is greater affinity with his more formal paintings because, despite the different media in which he worked, there is a consistency to his image making and his visual language.

Across the country in San Francisco, this was the first time I had been to SFMOMA, so in the available time, I tried to see EVERYTHING, on all 6 levels. But I still manged to miss one entire floor, housing the late 19th century/early 20th century permanent collection.

The main exhibitions were Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing The Rules; SoundtracksWalker Evans; Approaching American Abstraction; and Louis Bourgeois Spiders.

So, less of the colon-delineated concepts compared to MoMA, and more literal titles – and you have to think that photographers, like Shore and Evans, don’t merit these sub-textual descriptions, because with photographers, what you see is what you get?  On the other hand, with Bourgeois’ Spiders, it contains what it says on the tin – giant spider sculptures.

I’d seen the Rauschenberg exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern in London, as it’s actually a touring show curated by MoMA itself. Seeing these (now familiar) works in another setting revealed aspects that I hadn’t appreciated before – such as the similarities between Rauschenberg’s collages and combines, and the mixed media works of Max Ernst and other Surrealists, for example.

The Evans exhibition was an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) career retrospective. In addition to many of his iconic images of crop farmers during the Great Depression, there were more urbane/mundane images of shop window displays, merchandising and branding – not too dissimilar to some of Shore’s serial photo essays.

Wandering through (or approaching…) the American Abstraction display was like immersing oneself in a who’s who of modern US art: Brice Marden, Sol Le Wit, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell…. It struck me that despite the differences among these artists, and their individual mark making and contrasting visual languages, the collection was very much of a whole – the familiarity of many of these works, in close proximity, felt very comforting, even though the original intent was potentially to shock, challenge or disrupt. That’s not to say the works no longer have any impact, it’s just that our tastes and experiences have led us to adapt to and accommodate these once abrasive images.

Finally Soundtracks was probably the weakest of all the exhibitions I saw, pulling together a mish-mash of mostly sculptural and installation works embodying some form of audio element. My interest in this vein of work probably started when I saw the exhibition, “Ecouter Par Les Yeux” many years ago in Paris.

Despite a few banal pieces (too literal or pedestrian in their execution) this current incarnation had some individually engaging and landmark pieces: namely, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Clinamen”, a version of which has been on display at Melbourne’s NGV in recent times; and Brian Eno’s “Compact Forest Proposal”, which I only know of through its audio component – so here was a chance to walk through the fully realised, and dream-like installation.

As 2017 draws to a close, Content in Context will be taking a (much-needed) break for the holidays. Having made 8 overseas trips in the past 12 months, the author is looking forward to spending some down-time closer to home. Many thanks to all the people who have made 2017 such a truly memorable year for me – for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. You know who you are. Normal service will resume in January, and have a safe, peaceful and uplifting festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food for thought at #StartupVic’s #pitch night

There was something of a different flavour at Startup Victoria‘s pitch night for September – including the new beverage sponsors! – which may have been helped by the large crowd, and the more polished presentations (judging by the feedback).

startupvic

Image sourced from Startup Vic’s Meetup page

I will comment on each pitch in order of appearance:

Studio Ninja

Studio Ninja is described as Client Management software for professional photographers. Aimed at the wedding industry, it also holds some appeal for other event planners, DJs, musicians, make-up artists, hairdressers, caterers and florists. But the primary focus is on weddings, and the specific needs of studio photographers, whose workflow is very particular (according to the founders).

Regular attendees at these pitch nights will recall similar CRM/project management tools for other sectors, such as architects and management consultants – which raises questions about how unique each profession really is?

In essence, the software handles lead management, invoicing and cashflow reporting. It is available via subscription, and integrates with payment systems such as Stripe and PayPal, and other service providers such as Uber, and will soon integrate with Xero.

With a reported 40 new sign-ups per day, and around 2,000 members (of which only 300 are currently paid subscriptions), the Studio Ninja team are aiming to grow to 10,000 users and revenue of $4m. Growth is being driven by strong SEO and organic discovery among photographers, and word of mouth referrals.

The panel of judges were interested to know how the software could be sold via peak bodies and professional associations, under a SaaS or white-labelling model, and what potential there is to integrate lead generation and referral solutions. The judges also thought that camera and photography equipment brands could offer a significant sales channel opportunity.

Deliciou

Something of a different pitch came from this bacon flavoured seasoning, which is actually bacon-free. (I should confess that I was once a vegetarian, but when I started to dream about bacon sandwiches, I realised I was missing out… Maybe if this product had been around all those years ago, things would have turned out different. But I digress.)

There was certainly no lack of passion in this pitch, and the founder had even made sure there were free samples to go around, so strongly does he feel about his product. With a 9% conversion rate from website visits, and 2,000 bottles sold this year, there is obviously a niche in the flavourings market for a “guilt-free” bacon experience.

A graduate of the Melbourne Accelerator Program, the founder has cleverly chosen to use a pop-up popcorn stall to generate market awareness, solicit customer feedback, and create visibility for a product that comes in a small jar, and will compete for valuable shelf space in supermarkets.

The business is seeking $100k in seed funding to expand the range of seasonings,
expand overseas, and to resolve issues with production lead times and logistics. But given the challenges in building consumer brands, especially in the food and beverage category, a better option might be to tie up with another snack food or convenience food brand, and use that vehicle for distribution and market reach.

Reground

Reground is another food-related startup, but this is all about recycling coffee grounds. The business turns coffee waste – which otherwise goes into landfill – into sustainable uses, thereby reducing the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere.

With a waiting list of cafes who want to access the service (because cafe owners already pay their local council to take away the waste), Reground will divert part of those waste collection fees and can even help cafes save money. Reground also supplies community gardens with free material for their compost. Other uses for the coffee waste include mushroom production.

As well as offering waste assessment services and potential cost savings, Reground runs a newsletter and provides certification for participating cafes. There is also potential for this Melbourne-based business to go national and even to the USA.

They are also offering a customer app to support logistics around collection, and they operate their own van as there are council limitations on more waste trucks on our streets. Asked by the judges about scaling their business, the founders are considering to build their own waste processing plant. (After the event, I did a quick search, and found a similarly-named business in Canada.)

Allume Energy

Finally, Allume Energy, another sustainability business, this time in solar energy distribution. Or, in their own words, “Democratising access to renewable energy”.

As a social enterprise, Allume offers tenants easier access to cheaper solar energy. Basically, Allume contracts with the property landlord to provide initial funding to install and set up a solar system, and then tenants pay for their energy via a contract licensing system. In addition to working with community and social housing projects in remote locations, Allume also offers a shared system for apartment blocks.

Claiming to provide a 30-50% saving to tenants, Allume requires landlords to commit to a 15 year contract, with a 50% break fee (based on the initial installation and set up costs). Given some of the current challenges in renewable energy (weather events, phasing out of government rebates, and reduction in feed-in tariffs), this scheme to implement very local solar systems will no doubt appeal to landlords and bodies corporate.

And on the night, Reground was the people’s choice – probably because it was a simple but effective proposition, and it appealed to Melbourne’s environmentalists and coffee lovers alike!

Next week: A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Part 2

More In The Moment

In an earlier blog on “being in the moment”, I confessed that I often find the prospect (and practice) of meditation to be daunting and somewhat overwhelming. I forgot to mention that there is a park bench in one of Melbourne’s inner-city gardens which I have found to be a useful starting point. It features a quotation from Dr Ainsley Meares:

“Sit quietly, for it is in quietness we grow”

"clinamen" by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot (2013), purchased by NGV Foundation (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

“clinamen” by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot (2013), purchased by NGV Foundation (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

The significance of this insightful instruction has been driven home by some recent experiences:

  • Through my involvement with the Slow School of Business, I have participated in some Slow Coaching, where I was a Listener. The practice of “deep listening” really does require you to be present in the moment, to focus on what is being said by the Speaker, to observe how it is being expressed, and to give constructive feedback on what you have heard without judging or critiquing. It’s an extension of “active listening”, a technique I learned many years ago as a counsellor helping clients with their consumer debt problems, and I later used it as a manager to provide employee feedback during performance reviews. The key difference is that deep listening is not so concerned with exploring a linear narrative or identifying specific solutions, and is more about giving space to the Speaker to articulate what concerns or issues they are currently facing.
  • At a concert the other week I was struck by the number of people in the audience who were avidly taking photos and videos on their smart phones, or busy talking at the bar rather than appreciating the live performance in front of them. It made me wonder why some people bother going to gigs at all – it often seems like they are not there to watch and listen to the musicians! Apart from being disrespectful to the performers and other members of the audience, the happy snappers and the chatty drinkers can’t really be in the moment because they are too busy trying to capture a transient event for posterity (and who actually watches shaky live concert footage shot on a phone?). Or are they so self-absorbed that they are actually oblivious to what is going on around them?
  • Similarly, last weekend I visited the Twelve Apostles and was dismayed by the ubiquitous selfie-sticks and constant preening and posing at every vantage point. As the sun went down, hardly anyone was actually observing the dusk, let alone being still and listening to the waves below. Instead, everything was being reduced to a diluted digital experience. Again, who goes back and looks at all those photos (and do they do so more than once)? How do these images enhance the experience of simply being there? Did these visitors really appreciate the natural beauty and breathtaking views in front of them? Is a digital camera the only way to interpret the scene for themselves? Is it only “real” when they take a picture? Can it only “exist” as a bunch of pixels?

To underscore quite how significant “being in the moment” can be, I’m reminded of the Above All Human conference in January, where theoretical astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack scared the living day lights out of the audience when she discussed the impact of vacuum decay theory. In (very, very, very) short order, a shift in the current state of the Universe would wipe out life as we know it in a millisecond. It would happen so quickly, that no-one would see it coming. The effect would be catastrophic, but we wouldn’t know it was happening. As Dr Mack so eloquently put it, there would be no point in worrying about FOMO, because:

(a) there would be nothing left to be missing out on;

(b) no trace of your existence would remain; and

(c) in any event, there would be no-one left to miss you….

While I understand the need to validate our existence through “capturing the moment”, if we are too pre-occupied with taking photos, rather than focussing on our actual presence, we risk surrendering our experience to mere digital simulacra.

Next week: Whose IP is it anyway?

Personal vs Public: Rethinking Privacy

An incident I recently witnessed in my neighbourhood has caused to me to rethink how we should be defining “privacy”. Data protection is one thing, but when our privacy can be compromised via the direct connection between the digital and analog worlds, all the cyber security in the world doesn’t protect us against unwanted nuisance, intrusion or even invasion of our personal space.

Pressefotografen mit KamerasScenario

As I was walking along the street, I saw another pedestrian stop outside a house, and from the pavement, use her smart phone to take a photograph through the open bedroom window. Regardless of who was inside, and irrespective of what they were doing (assuming nothing illegal was occurring), I would consider this to be an invasion of privacy.

For example, it would be very easy to share the picture via social media, along with date and location data. From there, it could be possible to search land registries and other public records to ascertain the identity of the owners and/or occupants. And with a little more effort, you might have enough information to stalk or even cyber-bully them.

Privacy Law

Photographing people on private property (e.g., in their home) from public property (e.g., on the street outside) is not an offence, although photographers must not cause a nuisance nor interfere with the occupants’ right of quiet enjoyment. Our current privacy laws largely exclude this breach of privacy (unless it relates to disclosure of personal data by a regulated entity). Even rules about the use of drones are driven by safety rather than privacy concerns.

Since the late 1990’s, and the advent of spam and internet hacking, there have been court decisions that update the law of trespass to include what could be defined as “digital trespass”, although some judges have since tried to limit such actions to instances where actual harm or damage has been inflicted on the plaintiff. (Interestingly, in Australia, an act of trespass does not have to be “intentional”, merely “negligent”.)

Apart from economic and financial loss that can arise from internet fraud and identity theft, invasion of privacy via public disclosure of personal data could lead to personal embarrassment, damage to reputation or even ostracism. (In legal terms emotional stress falls within “pain and suffering”).

Data Protection Law

The Australian Privacy Principles contained within the 1988 Privacy Act apply to government agencies, private companies with annual turnover of $3m or more, and any organisations trading in personal data, dealing with credit information or providing health services. There are specific provisions relating to the use and misuse of government-derived identifiers such as medical records and tax file numbers.

The main purpose of the privacy legislation is to protect “sensitive” information, and to prevent such data being used unlawfully to identify specific individuals. At a minimum, this means keeping personal data such as dates of birth, financial records or hospital files in a secure format.

Some Practical Definitions

The following are not legal definitions, but hopefully offer a practical framework to understand how we might categorise such data, and manage our obligations towards it:

“Confidential”

Secret information that must not be disclosed to anyone unless there is a legal obligation or permission to do so. (There are also specific issues and exceptions relating to “classified information”, public interest matters, whistleblower protection and Freedom of Information requests.)

“Private”

Information which is not for public or general consumption, although the data itself may not be “confidential”. May still be subject to legal protection or rights, such as the right of adopted children to discover the identity of their birth parents, or the right of someone not to be identified as a lottery winner.

“Personal”

Data that relates to, or can specifically identify a particular individual. An increasing issue for Big Data, because data that otherwise resides in separate locations can now be re-connected using triangulation techniques – scrape enough websites and drill down into enough databases, and you could probably find my shoe size.

“Public”

Anything that has been published, or easily discoverable through open search or public database retrieval (but, for example, does not include my past transactions on eBay unless I have chosen to disclose them to other users). My date of birth may be a matter of record, but unless you have authorised access to the relevant database or registry, you won’t be able to discover it and you certainly shouldn’t disclose it without my permission.

Copyright Law

One further dimension to the debate is copyright law – the ownership and related rights associated with any creative works, including photographs. All original content is copyright (except those works deemed to be in the “public domain”), and nearly all copyright vests with the person who created the work (unless they have legally assigned their copyright, or the material was created in the course of their employment).

In the scenario described above, the photographer would hold copyright in the picture they took. However, if the photograph included the image of an artwork or even a framed letter hanging on the wall, they could not reproduce the photograph without the permission of the person who owned the copyright in those original works. In some (limited) situations, a photograph of a building may be subject to the architect’s copyright in the design.

Curiosity is not enough justification to share

My personal view on all this is that unless there is a compelling reason to make something public, protecting our personal privacy takes precedent over the need to post, share or upload pictures of other people in their private residence, especially any images taken without the occupants’ knowledge or permission.

Just to clarify, I’m not referring to surveillance and monitoring by the security services and law enforcement agencies, for which there are understandable motives (and appropriate safeguards).

I’m saying that if we showed a little more respect for each others’ personal space and privacy (particularly within our homes, not just in cyberspace) then we might show a little more consideration to our neighbours and fellow citizens.

Next week: It’s OK to say “I don’t know”