Johanna Blakley

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Embracing Blur

JBEmbracingBlur

Z Holly, the former vice provost for innovation at USC and host of the first TEDx ever, sure knows me well. A newcomer to the prestigious TTI/Vanguard Board, Z thought I would be good fit for their next conference on Embracing Blur.

Um, she couldn’t have been more correct. I have long been fascinated by the interplay between representations and reality (my last TEDx talk dealt with this pretty directly). And I’d venture to say that the majority of my work at the Lear Center explores the cultural and commercial ramifications of this blur.

What Z didn’t know was that my dissertation was actually about “betweenness” – something I saw as a key formal and thematic characteristic of avant-garde modernism. Many of my friends and colleagues wondered how a high-theory English PhD ended up in a think tank studying the impact of media, but it all seems quite rational to me: isn’t the key formal and thematic characteristic of 21st century media the blur between representation and reality? What we considered avant-garde in literary Paris at the turn of the 20th century is the (often unacknowledged) cultural dominant of contemporary global pop culture.

And so the description of the TTI/Vanguard program couldn’t have been more appealing to me:

A flood of technologies is washing away traditional boundaries between work and play, companies and governments, war and peace, near and far, virtual and physical, society and the individual. In its wake, a global nervous system is emerging as we connect billions of people with each other and with billions of newly smart objects. This unbounded organism is developing an unsurpassable intelligence, resistant to human control. Where is it taking us? Can we hope to understand it, control it, contain it?

Z had to warn me though – there’s one thing about this conference that is very atypical: every attendee (and there’s over a 100 of them) has a mic and can interrupt you at any point during your presentation.

This wouldn’t be quite so nerve-wracking if you didn’t know that the crowd would be composed of carefully vetted C-level folks from Fortune 100 companies and an engaged board that includes Alan Kay, Eric Haseltine, Gordon Bell, Nicholas Negroponte, and John Perry Barlow (never a guy to sit back and listen to anything he thinks is bullshit). Read the rest of this entry »

When Life Meets Art: Dinah Lenney at TEDxUSC

One of my favorite performances at TEDxUSC this year was by the actress and writer Dinah Lenney, who explored the connections between life and art. I can’t help but think that her training as an actress has made her a bit more sensitive than the average writer is about the “reality” of fiction and the visceral connections it forges between representation and material existence. Through a series of poignant and funny tales, Lenney explains why it is that she is more awestruck by a painting of a tree than the tree itself. To her, it’s the human intervention, the longing to capture in art something that simply occurs in nature, that gives her a sense of awe.

I was reminded of Jean Baudrillard‘s infamous formulation of the simulacrum: he argued that a really compelling representation of something (a picture of a sunset, for instance) may all too easily become the primary referent for the real thing (e.g., the actual sunset). Whenever you find yourself saying, “Hey! That looks just like a postcard!” then you have become subject to the allure of the simulacrum. But while Baudrillard bemoans the dehumanizing aspects of this displacement — this re-placement, as it were — Lenney celebrates it. She sees how important the witnessing of that sunset actually is: a human tried to tell us about it through a postcard, and the message was received.

Viva la simulacra!

Mash-Ups in Fashion, Music & Literature

Mashup Compilation from Eduard Minobis on Vimeo.

When I think about mash-ups, I can’t help but think about Julia Kristeva and her notion of intertextuality.

The term has been used in many, many different ways since she first coined it, but, quite generally, she was using it to talk about literature and the way that it exists within not only a network of language but a network of texts. Every text, even something you wrote on a sticky note, is in dialogue with the entire linguistic system – you’ve just selected a few words from that system. Those words, of course, are weighted with meaning: they have a long history of being used by lots of other people, for lots of different purposes – both constructive and nefarious.

Now a literary text – something that’s trying to assert or achieve the status of a cultural object that deserves a reader’s consideration (something more refined than your sticky note) – is part of a network of language and also a network of previous texts. Kristeva was very interested in how it is that the meaning of a piece of literature is produced in the mind of a reader, who cannot help but situate their understanding of that text in a larger context, one that includes what they’ve read before and what the writer is both self-consciously and unconsciously referencing.

If you think about it, the process of writing anything could be described as the process of sampling. Read the rest of this entry »

Pacific Standard Time Unleashes Its Video Outreach Campaign

I can’t wait for Pacific Standard Time, the massive art-fest extravaganza, to begin to take over 60 art venues in Southern California beginning October 1. I love the fact that they’ve harnessed the youth-skewing rock star appeal of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frontman Anthony Kiedis to jump-start their marketing effort. In this charming little video, Kiedis drives Pop Art superstar Ed Ruscha around LA, the city they mutually adore. Their discussion about making art out of words as they drive through the texty corridors of  Los Angeles is a perfect introduction to the sprawling art scenes of SoCal.

Let Me Infotain You

Click on the image to see an animated version of this art by Sykotik Scarecrow.

In April of this year, I attended Fractal’11, a truly unique conference in Medellin, Colombia, that explored the convergence of fiction, art, science and technology. The event was the perfect forum for me to talk about my winding career path, which began in an English PhD program, meandered through a Web start-up and an international multimedia company and deposited me, quite happily at the Norman Lear Center

One of the many fascinating themes of the conference (I explored several others here) was the appeal of infotainment, material that serves two seemingly unrelated purposes: to occupy attention agreeably (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines “entertainment”) and to transmit practical information that may just contribute to your survival. 

My talk about Entertainment as Virtual Reality focused on the ways in which entertainment – catchy pop songs, video games, movies, opera, toys, etc. – could be understood as simulations, little virtual reality machines that allow us to test our ideas about the world in safe, artificial spaces. Regardless of how distracting a cultural object may be, it is also a powerful transmitter of information about our world, and it can have a surprisingly profound impact on our lives well outside the movie theater, concert hall or American Girls store. Read the rest of this entry »

Fractal: A Science Fiction Conference That Might Just Blow Your Mind

I was a little surprised by the invitation I received from Hernan Ortiz and Viviana Trujillo to speak at their annual Fractal conference . I couldn’t figure out how they knew that I was interested in all the things their conference was about: science fiction, technoculture, music and the porous boundary between fiction and real lived life. I knew that my current work at the Norman Lear Center was informed by these interests – which I’d cultivated while I was earning my English PhD in a theory-heavy program – but it was hardly obvious in any official bio you might find online.

The conference was in Medellin, Colombia, and so I immediately contacted my friend, who has lots of family in Colombia, and asked her whether it was safe for an American gal to travel alone there. She assured me that things had improved tremendously: Medellin was now safer than it had been in decades, and it just happened to be one of the most beautiful places in the entire country.

Boy, she wasn’t kidding.

Hernan and Viviana were clever enough to include in their original invitation links to two glowing reports about the two previous conferences in 2009 and 2010. Science fiction writers John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly wrote this about the first Fractal:

The festival blithely crossed boundaries in the arts, exploring the literature of the fantastic, music, art, science, technology, and fashion. It was Colombia’s first national science fiction conference. Dedicated to presenting different ways of imagining and creating the future, the conference took its mission from a quote by J.G. Ballard. “I believe in the power of imagination to rebuild the world.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Free Culture Forum

I was very excited to attend the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona last October: the event was quite unique in its effort to bring together a broad range of scholars and activists from all around the world to work together to develop guidelines for sustainable models for creativity in the digital age. There were some pretty noisy fights, let me tell you, but at long last, we’ve produced a great brief which, so far, has been endorsed by 69 organizations and key players in the field. Please take a look at the document and be sure to watch this fun video about the Forum and its annual entertainment showcase called the oXcars.

Interactive Music Videos

My advice to kids growing up in my hometown . . .

I’ve been utterly smitten by Arcade Fire ever since I saw them live five years ago at Austin City Limits. I’d heard their music on the radio for a year or two but I didn’t care for the Springsteen bombast, the cloying Irish folk undercurrent or Win Butler’s brittle voice. But live was another matter. It wasn’t just that the band made some effort to actually perform for an audience (all too rare these days); it was the audience’s response that I found intoxicating. In Los Angeles we have, shall we say, spoiled audiences who find it gauche to show any inkling of excitement about a musical performance. But even this chilly bunch was set afire at the Shrine (the old Academy Awards venue) by this wacky Canadian collective.

So I thought it was appropriate that Arcade Fire used interactive technology to continue that powerful exchange with their audience in their music videos.  Their latest, The Wilderness Downtown, allows viewers to enter data about the location of their childhood home: images from Google Earth are integrated into the song “We Used to Wait” to haunting effect. At the end, you can scribble a message to children growing up in your old hometown. I knew exactly what my advice would be . . .

The Strange Appeal of Well-Worn T-Shirts

Should you wear this shirt if you weren't there?

I got a call for an interview from NPR’s Planet Money and so it gave me an excuse to revisit a great presentation that Rose Apodaca, formerly of Women’s Wear Daily, gave at the Ready to Share conference.

One thing that Apodaca talked about was the huge black market for t-shirts, particularly rock t-shirts, some of which can fetch $1,000. Now that the exchange of digital music files has put a big ol’ dent in profits in the music industry, it’s sort of odd that t-shirt sales at concerts have become a much more important part of the financial pie. Every major rock concert that I’ve gone to over the last few years has featured a more diverse array of t-shirts than I’ve ever seen before. Inevitably, the one I like best is far more expensive than the others . . . and it also looks more worn in.

Why is it we’re willing to pay a premium for a worn-in look? Apodaca talks about the quest for authenticity, which is right on the money, but with concert t-shirts in particular, there’s another valence as well.  A music concert is a collective experience in one particular place at a certain historical moment. Now that we have the ability to grab and sample from the history of music (whether on P2P networks or iTunes) any time we like (asynchronously), I think we have a pretty deep desire to get back on the same page with one another, to experience music in the moment it happens. Buying and wearing a t-shirt that memorializes that moment signals to the world not only what you like, but where you were one night . . . and maybe they were there too . . .

A Little Smiling Summer Night Music

I just saw the fantastic production of A Little Night Music on Broadway (with stellar perfromances by Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch) and it just so happened that I’d recently watched Smiles of a Summer Night, the Bergman film upon which it was based. It got me thinking about adaptation and how stories move across generic boundaries and media and literary forms. I was struck by a profound similarity in spirit between the film and the musical play, which I had assumed would be radically different from its 1950s predecessor. The recent New York Times review emphasized the differences between the film and play, but I disagreed: both works found a way to explore the idiocy of romance and the surprising ways in which such silliness shapes lives. Both Bergman and Sondheim are geniuses at revealing how canny and idotic humans really are.

I was curious to find out what Bergman himself thought about the play, which hit the stage in 1973. I didn’t find anything right away, but I did come across this quote, which helps to explain Sondheim’s attraction to the film and the powerful consonance that I felt between the two works:

I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.

I would beg to differ about the intellectual component of movie watching, but I love the idea that Sondheim made the underlying music of Smiles of a Summer Night audible.

Henry Jenkins, a colleague of mine at USC, is at the forefront of transmedia studies and I couldn’t help but think of his work as I was trying to piece together the relationship between Night Music and Smiles. Jenkins argues that the most successful transmedia properties take advantage of the unique affordances of each new media platform. What’s surprising about the transformation of Bergman’s movie into Sondheim’s musical is not the fundamental differences but the weirdly synesthetic similarities.

P.S. As I mentioned above, I thought Elaine Stritch was marvelous: you could never tell whether she was forgetting her lines or just pretending like she was ready to drift off into an octogenarian haze. I guess I wasn’t sitting close enough to tell that the long pauses in her delivery (according to The Village Voice) were because she was, indeed forgetting her lines, and some production assistant was yelling them out to her from backstage. Don’t you love how brutal reality can enhance a work of art?

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