Thursday, December 21, 2006

Thing a Day: Good or Glib?

We all have processes by which we create things. Maybe you’re a painter who sketches the scene outside your window over and over to get started. Or the mathematician with half-proofs splayed around the kitchen. The thing is, most of us take pains to conceal these processes and misfires from others. We use these processes to get us to an end goal, then wipe the desk clean and present the finale as an isolated, perfect thing.

I recently had an experience that changed my perspective on this. I have a side-life as a poet, and had been having trouble finishing some poems I’d been working on for months. Rather than continue banging my head against these poems, I took a break and devised a new plan. For one month, I would write a poem every day in under 30 minutes. I would finish each one in one sitting, without revision. So? Just another personal process, right? Well, there’s a twist: I put them on the internet.

I didn’t decide to post the poems on the internet—initially—to be viewed by anyone else. It was a practical decision; I write poems from different locations and different computers, and a googlepages site seemed the easiest way to keep them all in one place, easily retrievable from anywhere. But then, once I’d set up the site, it seemed silly NOT to share the info about it with others. I sent an email to a few friends and family members letting them know, let out a deep breath, and hit send. I was nervous—previously, I’d only shared published work with others—and I knew that my goal with the poems was not quality but quantity. This was not putting my best foot forward; this was me clumsily learning how to swing dance, on camera.

Shortly after starting the poem-a-day project, I became more aware of the extent to which a vast majority of the internet is about this concept—exposing processes, opening up the innards. Some web applications are banal—Twitter being the ultimate example, an application in which you type and disseminate what you are doing RIGHT NOW. Others are artistic projects—Jonathon Coulton’s popular Thing a Week (he writes a song each week), Scott McCloud's "Morning Improv" comics. And then of course there are blogs, in which millions of people are airing their brains out daily or weekly for everyone—and anyone—to watch and comment on.

Is “process exposure” a valuable way for people to communicate and grow their talents, or does it replace the value of the final product with the instantaneously available one? What’s appealing about this, and what’s prurient? How can museums learn from it?

Process Exposure lets people become more invested in great products. I’m a sucker for the “making of”—if the product is great. When I see something truly breath-taking, I want to understand all the bits of it, whether it’s a piece of art, a commercial, or a boxing match. I assume that the people who chose to look at my poem-a-days were people who already had interest and appreciation in the “finished” poems they’d read—and therefore had some reason to want to experience a little bit of “the making of.” But that leads to…

Process Exposure encourages people to reduce greatness into pieces. Which makes me understand why so few magicians will ever spill their secrets. They know that the magical nature of their work demands that their process remain secret, that, in fact, that guarded secrecy is one of their talents we most appreciate. Which leads me to feel that an artist can only feel comfortable exposing his/her process if either a. they don’t care about protecting their image as a performer or b. they have such a strongly defined and loved image that they can now give away little bits, strategically, as they see fit. But for new artists…

Process Exposure may derail people from ever achieving greatness. This is highly debatable. But I’ve taught hundreds of poetry students—kids and adults—who refuse to edit their poems. Except in very rare cases, people who are unwilling to revise and grow their craft are doomed to mediocrity. If you become famous for what you created right now with no resources, why would you want to develop anything more complex?

Where do museums fit in? Many museums have a fascinating relationship with process exposure—lips sealed when it comes to their own final products, megaphones on when it comes to exposing the processes of others. Many museum exhibits focus on exposing the process of greatness—how did Newton develop his theories on objects in motion? How did impressionists re-envision light?—so that people can understand and unlock love and interest in the material. In some museums, this goes too far and I’m left feeling cold—like everything has been explained away. In other museums, I don’t get enough and I feel lost, like there’s something beautiful nearby but I can’t quite see or articulate it.

The new explorations that everyday people are doing on the web with process exposure can—and should—lead to new explorations inside museums as well. One of the most enjoyable process exposure experiences I’ve ever had in a museum was at the entrance to COSI Columbus, where you can control a small time-lapse video of the construction of their building. Would visitors enjoy seeing the iterations of a label, or an exhibit of failed prototypes? If the museum is perceived as great, a disseminator of extraordinary final products, than the “making of” DVDs may fly off the shelves. If the museum is just another slapdash work in progress, well, save that for your MySpace page.

0 comments, add yours!: