October 18, 2019

Food is the Next Frontier for Multisensory Art

These days when we think about multisensory experiences, our first thoughts might start to gravitate towards the audio-visual interactivity of AR and VR, but what about food? As a medium, it remains a rich but comparatively underexplored frontier if we think outside the box of cuisine and restaurant contexts, even if they’re innovative. What makes food so special and why should we use it as a mode of expression?

Why Food Might Be Getting Left Out

A New York Times article written by William Deresiewicz in 2012 argued that despite the emergence of a new dearth of literature, awards and media surrounding food and food culture that mirrors that surrounding art, our efforts to elevate our appreciation for food have only hit a cultural ceiling composed of varying layers of foodie-ism.

“But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion,” he wrote. “An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one.”

While he is correct to point out that in many ways, our obsession with food has not led to art but replaced it as a “vehicle of aspiration and competition,” we’d say there is still strong potential for it as a medium, as has been explored throughout history.

Food as Visual Medium

Let’s start with how we might come to perceive food (still discernible as food) as a visual medium:

  • Food as the subject, where it’s stylized and presented in its raw or prepared-dish form as the primary focus of the work.
  • Whole foods or images of food that are used to complete larger works.
  • Ingredients as the medium such as sculpted sugar or chocolate, and other instances where the ingredients are valued for their physical properties as a working material.
  • Consumable “almost too good looking to eat” items such as cakes incorporating strong influences from other fields such as fine art, architecture and hard sciences.

The point is that however they’re used, so long as we can discern it looks like food, food evokes an immediate understanding and intimacy whether we consume them physically or just visually. For those that understand the context behind certain foods, their visual forms become just as codified and capable of carrying nuanced messages as other mediums.

Experience and “Performance” Revolving Around Food

In the mainstream, we might be put off attempts to “say something through food” with the likes of Dining in the Dark or Ichiran’s ramen-booths-for-one some might write off as gimmicky hedonism. But if art is meant to express and change perspectives, the ability for that to happen through food can’t be ignored when we can directly participate.

We’ve written about Virgilio Martinez’ Central, which takes diners through the layered ecosystems of the Peruvian Andes as well as “Hawai’i” Mike Salman’s Chef for Higher cannabis dinner parties meant to heighten the senses while decreasing inhibitions. These and other unique concepts that are coming out of culture look to reimagine how we approach food from the dining perspective. As with any multi-sensory installation, we pay for admission to restaurant concepts that increasingly resemble galleries, where everything from the serviceware to music is curated from other artists. Here, we’re simply paying to experience the chef’s “set” that encodes history, culture, and vision through their take on genres, their trademark mix of flavor, texture and scent notes.

Even outside of the restaurant context, however, there are plenty of ways artists are exploring themes in ways that are uniquely designed around food as the medium, even if we might not label it as art right away. Take LA-based art collective Fallen Fruit Collective as an example: its Public Fruit Jam encourages strangers to negotiate and collaborate on making a fruit jam using each participant’s respective ingredients. Similarly, their Endless Orchard project allows citizens to plant, map and share fruit trees, making it both public art and social initiative.

Distilling and reassembling flavors and scents

Lastly, we see culture, constantly in search for new experiences, immersed in a phase of experimentation. Whether they’re rooted in the culinary or scientific tradition or both, globally-minded artists and audiences alike are taking to different combinations of flavors, smells, and textures, whether they’re old or new history.

It’s this deconstructed approach to the sensory properties of food — and necessarily, smell — that remains a vast playground for exploration at the individual level. They divorce our existing preconceptions around food and use their elemental flavors, textures, and aromas as emotional notes with which to assemble sensory experiences for different purposes:

  • Isolation: From trending flavors like yuzu-flavored everything to beanless coffee made by the same people behind Impossible Meat, both instances involve isolating the flavors we recognize and like while removing those we don’t.
  • Sense memory: Copenhagen-based “flavor company” Empirical Spirits seek to bottle scenes and memories through its science-influenced approach to taste and aromas.
  • Translation: Oki Sato of Tokyo and Milan-based design studio Nendo created chocolates that embodied Japanese onomatopoeic words to describe texture, effectively using food to translate meaning between formats.
  • Augmentation: Sometimes, these elemental properties are used to add an extra dimension to other art, such as Art of Bloom’s use of scent to support its recent AR exhibition in Long Beach.

The Takeaway

As we can see, food is difficult to frame artistically once it leaves the context of the farm, kitchen, dinner table and restaurant, but we’d argue that yes, it absolutely exists as art we’ve only begun to explore. Whether we get to taste it or not, food can be used as a medium of great depth and complexity as with any art.

If we were to compare it to sound, the next most powerful emotional medium we have, we have the ability to manipulate emotion through food with flavor and aroma notes, textures as timbre, the whole spectrum of color, the Scoville scale, among other factors. Combined in thoughtful ways, they record memories, encode messages, drive narratives and shape culture all the same.

October 14, 2019

Artificial Intelligence Isn't the Creative Savior We All Thought It'd Be

For creatives, automation and AI have already made our lives easier in a lot of ways, but as we further incorporate them into our workflows to tackle the menial stuff, we might only be left with the hardest tasks. We look at an example of how introducing AI into Kickstarter’s approval process took away some of the joy and some of the darker consequences of leaving humans with only the toughest jobs.

No More “Slam Dunks”

For some time, we’ve tried to take a more optimistic stance on how AI will actually free us up creatively by saving us the effort of doing menial “soul sucking” tasks, leaving us to focus on the more enjoyable creative tasks. But an article in the Atlantic by former Kickstarter vice president of data Fred Benenson suggests our optimism might be misplaced. As it turns out, the most creative tasks are actually the hardest ones and enjoyable depends on how much challenge you still enjoy when tackling only these becomes your “one job”.

Benenson talks about how five years ago, it was company staff that were deciding which projects were approved to start soliciting money from the public. But when the number of both investors and investment-seeking creators exploded, they turned to AI to deal with the increased number, including periodic surges in new ideas.

  • Holiday weekends meant the approvals team was backed up with hundreds of proposals and the same number of frustrated creators waiting for a response.
  • Benenson oversaw the development of an automated system that considered each project’s stated purposes and its creator’s track record, among other factors.
  • High-scoring projects would immediately get approval, meaning the system soon took over 40 to 60 percent of the manual approvals for incoming projects.
  • Although it sped up the process, it also meant a dramatic drop in the average quality of projects that human reviewers would see. These were the ones that needed more nuanced consideration.

The outcome? It meant no more “slam dunks” — as in no more instances where a project was so strong or excited staffers so much that approving them was a no-brainer. What was left for them were all the tough calls or others with a dubious or even questionable level of promise.

The Balance of Mastery, Challenge and Enjoyment

In an email to Benenson, author and clinical psychologist Alice Boyes talked about the need for balance: “Decision making is very cognitively draining, so it’s nice to have some tasks that provide a sense of accomplishment but just require getting it done and repeating what you know, rather than everything needing very taxing novel decision making.”

Humans need a blend of mastery, challenge and enjoyment for a healthy mood. The exact mix differs, but all of those ingredients need to be there in some measure. What throws off the ratio is the introduction of AI systems that pass unclear or low-confidence decisions to humans, a trait of the best of these systems, according to Benenson.

Small and regular challenges that are well within our abilities, give us the sense of mastery and continuity (the feeling of progression) over our work as well as needed breaks from harder tasks. On the flipside, if every task we manage to complete is by the skin of our teeth because of exceeding difficulty, we never develop a sense of regularity or that we’re gaining something. We’re constantly fumbling over one finish line, unsure of how to get to the next one or where it is.

The Darkest Implications

To see how bad this could get once there are no more “easy calls,” consider the job of a Facebook content moderator. Where the platform’s AI is pretty adept at flagging certain content that obviously violates its standards, the technology just isn’t up to par. What’s left for the human moderator is to deal with not just a lot of the NSFW or NSFL content that ends up there, but a lot of stuff that isn’t objectionable at first glance, but that needs to a nuanced understanding of different contexts to see if it actually violates Facebook’s Community Standards.

In several articles for The Verge, Casey Newton has written extensively about the misery these contracted workers experience when they constantly need to tackle such tasks that are so granular or downright traumatic and perform them with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency. The issue is less that humans are being made to do these tasks (someone has to do it, to be sure), but the sheer volume of these tasks combined with a lack of ways to off-set that stress.

The Takeaway: AI as Subcontractor

Technology has always been about enabling us to do more, but perhaps this should be clarified to “greater” in the context of creativity whether we’re artists or creatives.

  • There is still some enjoyment in small challenges and some of the menial work because it reinforces our sense of mastery.
  • From plugins to machine transcription, Automation and AI still have a valuable role in saving time on repetitive, menial or low-difficulty-but-tedious tasks. But the question is what we do with the time saved (or gained, depending on how you look at it).
  • It’s tempting to feel obligated to fill that extra time indiscriminately with more projects or tasks (with no direction), but what about the act of distancing, switching to other tasks within your workload, or further refining the work that’s already completed?

To simplify this: where we’re sure we can do so, we subcontract parts of bigger projects to handle the workload. If we treat AI as a subcontractor (albeit a very efficient one), then we retain the power in the relationship as we should.

The problem is that issues arise in “no excuses” scenarios where we are subcontractors alongside AI where “it’s already done the ‘easy’ work for you. Why aren’t you handling an increased load of harder stuff?”

October 7, 2019

Can Creatives Do With Less Travel and Still Help the Planet?

As the environmentally-conscious push to reduce air travel gains traction, some artists are forgoing it altogether which can drastically alter how they work. We attempt to weigh the social, creative and environmental costs against each other to find a middle ground.

Can Creatives Do With Less Travel and Still Help the Planet?

As the environmentally-conscious push to reduce air travel gains traction, some artists are forgoing it altogether, which can drastically alter how they work. We attempt to weigh the social, creative and environmental costs against each other to find a middle ground.

The Choreographer’s Not Coming

In a piece in the New York Times, Roslyn Sulcas highlighted the story of French dancer and choreographer Jérôme Bel who changed the entire scope of his career after realizing that despite other lifestyle changes such as eating organic or reducing heating, air travel was the largest footprint — for him and his full-time assistants flying across the world to stage shows. So he gave it up and had his team avoid it as well.

With projects underway already, including a US tour with French dancer Elizabeth Schwartz, they had to find a to avoid flying the performer there. Schwartz proposed New York-based Catherine Gallant instead. And so began choreography and rehearsal via Skype: suffice it to say, their efforts were hampered by a limited camera view, poor Wi-Fi and mic problems.

“It’s not the same as being in a room together, especially generationally, for someone like me,” said Ms. Gallant, 63. “But I realize that this opportunity exists for me because of what Jérôme decided.”

It’s Not A One-Off

Bel’s example is one where an artist forgoes air travel, even when the nature of his work is highly contingent on being in the same room with the artists he’s guiding. And yet, he isn’t alone. British theater director Katie Mitchell refuses to travel by plane as well.Belgian choreographer Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker and her dance company Rosas recently decided to travel only by train in Europe, increasing travel costs and time. Bel has followed suit, convincing theater directors and presenters to allow train trips for upcoming tours under the reasoning that they’re justified by visits to multiple cities on the way.

Conscience or Culture?

While there is mounting popularity (or flight shame) to change the way we travel for the sake of the planet, it’s also hard to ignore how much humanity has benefited immensely from the ability to traverse large distances. Aside from maintaining close ties to family and friends spread across the world, air travel has enabled us to make new connections and experience new ideas that are instrumental to our creativity. It’s hard to suddenly cancel that dynamic overnight.

In a Vox article highlighting the movement to dissuade people from flying, Umair Irfan sums up the conundrum we’re currently facing perfectly: “Compared to other personal concessions for the sake of the environment, reducing air travel has a disproportionately high social cost. Give up meat and you eat from a different menu. Give up flying and you may never see some members of your family again.”

So, what can we do?

For artists and creatives, we are unlikely to stop flying anytime soon and it’s by no means a call to end a convenience we enjoy simply because someone tells us to. But instead, we can see it as an opportunity to also rethink how we derive the benefits we seek or reduce the costs we want to avoid — all at the same time.

For starters, short-haul flights leave a much larger footprint relative to their flight time with over 25% of a plane’s fuel used in taking off. Then there are the diminishing returns on convenience when we factor in all the extra non-flight time we forget to attach to these flights. Finally, it has to be said we don’t have to necessarily jet off to exotic faraway locales to derive the creative benefits of travel, just that we need to find ways to break up the monotony that leaves us wanting for inspiration.

In the digital age, we’ve found the creative class to be highly adaptable — so long as we have a passport, money, a laptop, and ideally decent internet — we can travel and work under many different circumstances, even if that’s on a bus, boat or train.

Forcing the Future of Work Through Environmentalism

This “future of…” is an interesting topic that we’d all like to have an understanding of. It’s clear that physical interactions are in themselves a precursor to a certain type of work culture. But with the idea of these interactions moving online, we’re now left to rethink how we build a strong decentralized work culture.

There are many nuances that are simply unaccounted for when we’re face-to-face, where subtle moments in the interaction help diffuse the situation. Slack, Zoom, and various communication tools bridge the gap. But in light of these changing scenes, the question becomes: what’s the closest we can come to replicating these experiences without the element of physicality?

September 30, 2019

The “Lucas Effect” in Creativity is a Real Thing

While it might sound strange to read it, there is such thing as “too much” creativity, specifically too much left unchallenged on a large project. George Lucas is considered the father of the Star Wars series with the first film that started it all, but it’s easy to forget the checks and balances that made the first trilogy iconic and that were absent on the trilogy that followed.

What is the Lucas Effect?

On Premium Beat, John Francis McCullagh describes the Lucas Effect — coined after George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars series — as what happens when you allow a single creative voice having overwhelming or complete creative control over the direction of a large scale project. In this case, it refers to a comparison of the iconic first trilogy in the Star Wars film series (episodes IV, V and VI) and its comparatively less popular — and frequently derided — prequel trilogy (episodes I, II, III).

“The Lucas Effect is wild creativity with reckless abandon. It’s not knowing how to edit your story, not realizing when you’ve gone too far — or if you’ve crammed too many characters and subplots into one story,” McCullagh says.

What happened?

The Star Wars universe is certainly the brainchild of George Lucas, but what many might not know is that he actually only wrote the first film, “A New Hope,” and other talented artists were charged with taking that vision to completion over the next two films. Here’s why that trilogy succeeded and the second, modern trilogy didn’t:

  • Juggling: To make sure his story was told, Lucas had to step away from directing and writing to focus on being a producer for the first three films due to financial and technological limits.
  • All in one basket: For the prequels, he wrote, directed and edited all three films.
  • Everyone believed the hype: Because of the success (and track record) of the first three films, everyone believed Lucas would succeed again.
  • No checks and balances: Without the distribution of creative vision and control, there were no voices to challenge Lucas’ ideas, some argue too many of which, ended up in the final films. There’s also a good chance that there was decision fatigue at play too.

To see how this effect pops up again, the Indiana Jones series was another where Lucas played a strong role in the writing process. That said, director of the trilogy Steven Spielberg, acted as a gatekeeper for a lot of his friend’s ideas, but by the time remakes became the formula a full two decades later, he’d given more creative control to Lucas, who also wrote the fourth film.

The Carry Over

We might not all be filmmakers, but the key idea that can carry over to other projects is simply that if you’re the “boss” of a project, it helps to understand (if not try) as many of the other positions involved as possible. For filmmaking, there’s an especially important triangle of the writer, director, and editor, but other large undertakings will likely have a similar key creative structure.

Walking in another artist’s shoes lets you make informed decisions and interact better with other people on the project (read: you know how hard their job is) when it comes time to relinquish responsibility, which will need to happen eventually. This also means you’ll get more value out of input and you might see some good ideas where you might have been tempted to just dismiss it right away with “it’s my vision, my call.”

The Takeaways

  • On bigger projects with more moving pieces and people, there’s no harm in allowing input even if you don’t have to entertain it all, especially from people who understand you and the project’s potential well.
  • But on personal work, there’s merit to figuring things out yourself and finding your vision without overanalyzing, before finally looking to references once you’ve definitively hit a wall.
  • If you don’t have someone to challenge your ideas when you want, find someone or distance yourself from it so you can come back with a less attached perspective.
  • The rush of creative flow is exhilarating, but that doesn’t mean you need to implement your first or even all of the ideas that come of it.
September 10, 2019

Deciding a New Official Definition of the Museum is Divisive


The International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently decided to postpone its decision to update the definition of a museum after a fierce debate between its members. Some believe the definition no longer applies to the 21st century while others believe changing it would be a disaster.

What is the ICOM?

The International Council of Museums is an NGO founded in 1946 that plays a central role and reference for museums and museum professionals worldwide. It has formal relations with UNESCO and partners with other organizations such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, INTERPOL, and the World Customs Organization.

Its international public service mission includes fighting illicit traffic in cultural goods and promoting risk management and emergency preparedness to protect world cultural heritage in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

The 25th General Assembly of the International Council of Museums took place in Kyoto on September 7 with 40,000 members representing more than 20,000 museums attending.

The Words in Play

The council’s definition of a museum hasn’t really changed over the past few decades except for minor amendments: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

Danish curator and museum director Jette Sandhal believes this definition needed to be updated. “As museums become more and more conscious of the strong social role they play, there’s a need for a more explicit platform of values from which we work,” she said. “Saying that museums can only fulfill traditional functions or play these new roles is what I feel we’ve outgrown in the 21st century.”

Sandhal led a commission that proposed the new definition:

Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

The Opposition

After a long debate, 70% of the participants agreed to postpone the decision to redefine the museum. Many have opposed the new definition for a few reasons.

  • The verbiage is too vague, political or ideological
  • It doesn’t distinguish the museum from a cultural center, library or laboratory and more importantly, omits the aspects of education
  • The new definition was chosen from within Sanhal’s committee despite ICOM crowdsourcing proposed definitions

One particularly vocal opponent of the new definition was François Mairesse, a professor at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle who left Sandhal’s commission back in June: “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.”

The Bigger Picture

On one hand, rigid definitions are important because the exact wording does affect legislation, which affects funding. We’ve talked about this before where museums actually do store and display stuff that isn’t necessarily of great value to humanity, but have obligations to other stakeholders to maintain that funding.Further, many highly-regarded traditional museums like the Louvre are not able or willing to fit the requirements of a drastically new aspirational definition.

However, the contentiousness of voting on this also comes against a backdrop where historically underrepresented communities calling on European and U.S. museums to be more accountable, such as the Museums Are Not Neutral campaign in the U.S. Globally, we’re also seeing greater demands to have artifacts plundered during the previous centuries returned to their native countries and have ties severed with controversial donors.

The friction in the council between the sides that are eager or reluctant to change the definition is understandable. Museums, like many other brands, companies, and gatekeepers with long histories, are going through a transition where they have to evolve their roles to meet the changing demands of the period. However, whether we are regular visitors or not, most can agree the museum, like the art gallery, the library and the cultural center is a place where knowledge and inspiration are concentrated, remembered and shared with the public. At the end of the day, what is displayed makes history, what isn’t does not. This central issue is likely to fuel debate and for some time to come after the ICOM re-convenes and makes its decision.

September 2, 2019

Techwear's Still Falling Short of its Vision

At its core, Techwear is all about a skew towards practicality — especially the emphasis on forward-thinking, technology-infused garments that indiscriminately enable the wearer. Put another way, it doesn’t matter what your body type is: you should be able to derive the functional benefits of this kind of garment. The problem is in the execution, as techwear keeps coming up short by over-emphasizing limited styles, fits and influences.

Current Issues

Techwear’s core problems show that its execution and the products that come from it are at odds with its purported principles of inclusion and functionality.

  • Gender: Techwear is still very male dominated in terms of its association with the term as well as its vision and execution, carrying over some faults from mainstream fashion. For instance, androgyny and unisex are marketed as “for everyone” when they’re really “borrowing from the boys.” This hard reference point naturally ignores any female and non-binary considerations that could factor into tech wear.
  • Body Type: Overlapping with gender is an emphasis on thinness. This means a body type without too many curves (“featureless,” if you will) becomes the norm and favors only a limited set of proportions.
  • Performance: Performance and functionality are similar, but nuanced. When we think performance fabrics, we might think of sweat-wicking and odor fighting properties, but functional elements like storage and zippered vents might not fit into the same garment (thus, performance remains nebulous at best).
  • Limited looks: A common issue is trying to buy and wear the functionality of techwear without looking like you’re going to climb a mountain or going to war. Your closest bet right now might be athleisure, but then again, we’re not always “on standby” for the gym, are we? It also goes without saying that there is still an imbalance between Techwear and Athleisure’s respective gender associations.

Sports brands leading the charge

While mainstream fashion is still sorting itself out, there is movement in the space; unsurprisingly, sports brands are playing a large part:

  • Adidas by Stella McCartney: Has been a leading presence in designing functional apparel for women with adidas since 2005.
  • Johanna Schneider x NikeLab: Schneider has also designed for ACRONYM as well as Stone Island Shadow Project.
  • Sacai x NikeLab: Channels Chitose Abe’s design language into garments that carry strong aesthetics in addition to being made of performance fabrics.
  • Aday: Works to create clothing that is technical, seasonless and sustainable.
  • Charli Cohen: Creates technical-wear, born out of a need for evolved clothing and progression within the fashion industry.

A Carton-ful of Chicken and Egg Problems

For techwear to reach its next phase, we might have to figure out a few cyclical issues first:

  • Culture-driven supply and demand: If a common issue is that women’s clothing doesn’t have as many pockets, for example, and designers were to say something like “women don’t need/ask for pockets since they frequently carry purses,” or “the introduction of pockets would ruin the lines,” are these reasons or excuses? Does more vocal demand for more function come first, or more designs including them by default?
  • Sizing: Similarly, designing new fits and sizes takes resources for a brand, for sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a market for it—because in the States at least, there is. Again, this might be another question of whether the cultural shift (media etc.) towards representing different body types or the demand for it comes first.
  • Adjustability: Short of getting things custom made, a perfect fit off the rack is nigh impossible to be fair. This would likely be the case even if there were more diverse fits. Is there a middle-ground between extra stretchy but form-fitting and revealing and looser and adjustable but being overloaded with straps, snaps and zippers?
  • Influence-agnostic directions: The promise of techwear also lies in its shedding of tradition combined with its full-blown sprint towards the future (or what we imagine it looks like). It might take a while before we all hang up our jeans and tees for good and start wearing the latest textile tech, though.

The Takeaway

Techwear shows promise of going in bold new directions that mainstream fashion would be hesitant or slow to. Currently, the segment has made some strides through the work of certain brands, even outside of sportswear, but to reach the next level and truly embody its ideals, diversity is needed: This means more interesting explorations of what the techwear “look” can be beyond the influences of old stylistic influences, gender and physique norms and concepts of functionality.

August 30, 2019

The Ethical Smartphone and The Right to Repair

Fairphone announces the 3rd edition of its “ethical smartphone,” a phone that’s as sustainably constructed as it is easy to repair. If it gains traction, it could lead to changes in the way we approach major purchases like smartphones.

What is Fairphone

Fairphone is a smartphone made by a Dutch social enterprise company of the same name. It released its first model back in 2013, followed by the Fairphone 2 in 2016. The phones are meant to be:

Easy to repair with a “designed to open” approach with clear repair directions for users written on the components themselves that largely don’t need tools.

Sustainable with recycled copper and plastics. Its tin, and tungsten are conflict-free and the company is working to improve its sourcing of cobalt.

Responsibly Constructed by working to improve safety, pay and health for factory workers assembling the phones.

How it compares

Modular smartphones are not a new concept, with both Google’s Project Ara and Phonebloks leading the charge and showing promise a few years back. However, those projects eventually folded and the dream of users having custom phones with interchangeable—not just replaceable—components were put on hold.

Of course, the Fairphone isn’t designed as a powerhouse and its modest technical specifications aren’t going to put it on any power user’s radar. Even modular smartphones from mainstream makers like Motorola (Moto Z) and LG (G5) have failed to turn enough heads with their limited customization with none of the DIY repair freedom.

The movement, not enough people are talking about

The idea that “they don’t make things like they used to” holds true today, especially with regards to keystone devices like smartphones. But the Right-to-repair movement (and proponents like iFixit) are gathering steam and it could eventually change how we buy stuff and how companies make their products. Here’s what you need to know:

It holds consumers have the right to repair products they own—and that manufacturers make parts, software, and information available to do so.

It’s meant to protect consumers’ choice of access to repair services that aren’t designated by the manufacturer. It includes 3rd party services, skilled peers or even the users themselves.

It’s meant to stop consumers from being forced to choose between exorbitant repair fees and a comparatively worthwhile brand new device, and from letting electronics from entering the waste cycle way too early.

The future human cost

Over 20 states have filed legislation for right-to-repair across other sectors other than electronics such as automobiles and farming equipment. But our right-to-repair doesn’t just save us money and environmental damage. The right-to-repair goes hand in hand with the “right-to-tinker.”

There is a human cost when we want to explore how something works—which we paid for and assume the risk for, no less—and we simply can’t. Whether it’s previously removable circuit boards that are now soldered to the case, proprietary screws that can’t be turned by normal drivers or opaque troubleshooting procedures clarified only by visiting (and paying) in person, each is an obstacle that makes us dependent on someone else when we’re actually quite capable ourselves.

Our curiosity and creativity depend on unhindered exploration because when we know how something works inside-out, we can also know how it could work better. We’re already no strangers to asking more about where the food we eat every day comes from and how it’s made. It’s time we had the same conversation about the phones we break and replace every year.

August 27, 2019

Could WordPress and Tumblr bring us back to blogging?

In an interview with The Verge, WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg emphasized the purchase of Tumblr was to try and bring back some of the “magic” of the old days where individuals wrote on their own blogs and websites instead of posting to a Facebook news feed. This social alternative would include the fun, DIY community aspects of many Automattic platforms, but without some of the harmful effects of current social media.

By the numbers

  • Over $1 billion: the current value of Automattic, WordPress’ parent company.
  • Over 35%: Portion of the world’s 1 million most popular websites running on WP (or 10x the number of those using its next closest competitor).
  • $1.1 billion: how much Yahoo bought Tumblr for in 2013.
  • <$3 million: how much Verizon (which acquired Yahoo) is selling Tumblr for to Automattic.

Back to the old days

As we’ve discussed in the past, some users are looking for a return to simpler times before the main social media platforms became as influential as they are damaging. This could be through indie social media or a more mainstream alternative that Mullenweg envisions, one that draws on the strengths of both platforms.

These include WordPress’ over 16 years of experience with blogging technologies and Tumblr’s ability to combine different media types into highly shareable formats: “It’s funny because almost every social network evolved to incorporate forms of blogging. There was microblogging, photo blogging, audio blogging, which is podcasting. These are all kind of forms of things that were originally pioneered on blogging,” he said in his interview with The Verge. “Yet all of these things have become so balkanized. I think it’s very, very interesting to see if you can bring them together a bit, as Tumblr post formats do.”

Is it too late for Tumblr?

Because of Tumblr’s versatility, it made it easy for people to get a visually appealing blog up and running quickly and for free. This created a particular crowd that was as much known for sharing the experimental and provocative work of artists as it was for fandom, dank memes and other internet culture staples. However, this same relaxed content moderation also gave rise to more troubling content that escaped Tumblr’s filters such as hate speech and child pornography. The untamable nature of this community means the platform has experienced rocky transition periods between owners:

  • Yahoo era: CEO Marissa Mayer bought Tumblr hoping to revitalize the aging tech company, which failed to understand its user base. Brands and advertisers failed many times to integrate into the community, which ridiculed them in the process.
  • Verizon era: Even after Verizon acquired Yahoo, things got worse. In November 2018, Apple removed Tumblr from the iOS store, which prompted the platform to enact a wide-reaching ban on all adult content.
  • Ban impacts community: The ban was enforced through an unrefined algorithm and also snared content from artists and marginalized communities including queer youth.

After the ban, Tumblr lost almost a third of its traffic as users migrated to other platforms. Bringing them back from the likes of Instagram will be hard now and the platform is so far behind in the advertising race, it would likely not fair well even if it could convince its mostly anti-ad community.

Free to be itself

Even after acquiring Tumblr, WordPress plans to keep the content ban in place, which allows it to remain in Google and Apple’s app stores. But this also means it might make a play for business again in the future. For now, it’s unclear how that will happen. Mullenweg emphasizes that Automattic isn’t an advertising company, but a subscription and upgrades company (these include the plugins and other paid features that increase functionality for website owners).

This means they have no undue pressure to flood their new acquisition with sponsors, as we saw how that attempt turned out. As new platforms continue to pop up, companies and brands might be scurrying over to other platforms like the youth-heavy TikTok to try and commercialize their presence there.

But seeing as Automattic isn’t running on quite the same culture of chasing sellable metrics and shares like Facebook and Instagram, a WordPress-powered Tumblr might be free to do its own thing, re-grow and take the internet in its own direction—not quite where it went ten years ago, but hopefully somewhere better.

August 23, 2019

Far from starving—Dealers are now giving their star artists luxury residences too


Art residencies give artists the space and time to create and there are over 1,500 art residencies worldwide. Many of these are run by private patrons, nonprofits, schools, art institutions and artists themselves. But recently, commercial galleries are starting more of their own residencies and keeping their artists happy, inspired and coming back.

Why dealers and galleries are starting their own

Until recently, it was pretty uncommon to find private art dealers and commercial galleries starting their own residencies. Hosting their own residencies—and keeping artists happy enough to stay—gives their programs dynamism and a competitive edge in an evolving art market.

As one of the first to do so, Vienna-based dealer Ursula Krinzinger started her first residency in Croatia in 1976 following an inspirational stay there with performance artist Marina Abramović. She later expanded to Hungary, Sri Lanka and Vienna.

More recently, other large galleries have stepped into the fray:

  • Thomas Dane: In late 2017, the London gallery launched theirs in Naples, Italy.
  • Hauser & Wirth: Since 2015, the global mega-gallery started offering 1-3 month stints in the town of Bruton in Southwest England.
  • Catinca Tabacaru: The New York gallery is in the third year of its program, the CTG Collective Residency.

How these new residencies differ

  • They’re more about hosting fewer artists (or maybe just one) at a time, emphasizing the connection to a place versus a group of other artists.
  • This means helping artists disconnect from art heavy cities like New York and London and to provide opportunities at destinations that shake up their daily lives.
  • They pay for just about everything and especially travel, room and board whereas traditional ones might charge fees. Even smaller galleries are helping by donating air miles to fly artists in.
  • Some galleries are located in Brazil or China where import taxes or customs are punitive, something that’s avoided by having art produced there.

They may connect residents with artists outside their roster, students and the community where they’re situated.

If only we could join them

The benefit of a residency is not just a matter of “getting away from it all” and being able to focus on creating. It can also mean focusing on the act of creating without having to produce. Many residencies are okay with artists not producing any finished work by the end, allowing the craft to take precedence over the product. This means artists are free to explore new directions away from both the influence of their original communities and perhaps even their artist peers, but also the sense of urgency of having “something to show for it.” There’s a major and often undiscussed difference between an artist and a creative. The latter has to adhere to (relatively) strict parameters of time, budget, and creative restriction. Artists, on the other hand, are left to their devices and therefore able to create on their own terms which typically allows for the best work possible, and not “the best work, given the limitations.”

August 20, 2019

How Algorithms Replaced Gatekeepers and Lowered the Bar on Quality

The fall of last generation’s analog gatekeepers meant that everyone with an internet connection and the desire to create (and share) their work could potentially make a name for themselves. But the social media giants and the spate of algorithmically-driven content that comes with them may have caused more damage to creative expression than any stuffy executive could.

Pre-social media gatekeepers

Among others, these types of powerful positions would decide what works made it to the public consciousness, which remained in a slush pile, and which were rejected altogether. These titles included:

  • Magazine editors
  • TV producers
  • Publishing execs
  • Gallery curators

How things changed

  1. The Internet and especially Facebook democratized fame by allowing anyone’s work to reach a news feed
  2. Almost overnight, major outlets had to share more work to both keep up with the times and to shake the “bad” aspects of their gatekeeper image
  3. Aside from creatives getting their due, there was also a deluge of content of all types
  4. The social media giants introduced algorithms to sift through this massive amount of content, inevitably pushing the most popular, likeable and shareable content to the top

How that made things worse

For one, the rise of the IG artist and the boosted metrics their content brings has shifted entire marketing strategies to favor a very specific set of aesthetics and content. This means a lot of creatives are focusing on their social strategy over their craft to stay afloat.

This also means that in this new age of democratized media where everyone and anyone has a creative voice that can be amplified via shares and likes, there’s less room for critique. No one argues that content with tens of thousands of likes isn’t successful, but is it good?

The new “gatekeeper” is us

Unfortunately, short of creating our own platforms or opting for indie social media, the onus is back on us as individuals to gatekeep for ourselves. We’ve previously outlined this in the Creator’s Paradigm, but here’s a quick overview of some strategies:

  • Taking our own deep dives into that sea of content to find what’s truly meaningful to us
  • Re-evaluating our sources of content and realizing which ones are merely the “easiest” to digest
  • Concentrating all our preferred sources in one spot using apps like Feedly
  • Taking more time to digest quality content (and archiving the best stuff) rather than simply scrolling through forgettable content that’s recommended to us

Or if you’re feeling like filtering all of the internet, apparently there’s a program for that too.


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