29 May, 2012

29 May - Space + Grit in Montreal

Last week I attended the first C2-MTL conference in Montreal, Quebec. The conference organizers created a distinctive event to explore the relationship between commerce and creativity through non-traditional experiences including talks by leaders across the globe, special exhibitions, presentations, and collaborative events.

A temporary “Innovation Village” was constructed in a district of Montreal currently undergoing significant renovation and gentrification.  The Innovation Village consisted of a large temporary structure housing chic bars, seating areas for discussion and workshops, interactive installations, and themed lounge areas curated by local Montreal artists and designers. The temporary space opened to a central outdoor courtyard populated with food trucks, pop-up cafes, lounge tables and chairs, and ongoing art projects.
The New City Gas complex was located directly across the courtyard, a stately nineteenth century brick edifice that once provided light for the entire city of Montreal. As the conference organizers described, “C2-MTL is transforming this industrial heritage building and its surroundings into a hub of creativity. From networking plazas, brainstorming zones and collective worktables to intimate conversation rooms and exclusive content lounges, each space is designed to evoke collaboration and ignite creativity.” New Gas City was inaugurated as a new concert venue for the city of Montreal at the week’s end.
The conference featured a stunning roster of speakers for the three-day event including internationally renowned architects, filmmakers, business magnets, neuroscientists, and producers Jonah Lehrer, Arianna Huffington, Francis Ford Coppola, Rex Jung, Michael Eisner, architect Winy Maas, Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Director, Dreamworks), Patrick Pichette (CFO, Google), Daniel Lamarre (CEO, Cirque du Soliel), Robert Safian (Editor, Fast Company). Lectures ranged in subject such as  “The Eureka Moment: How do New Ideas Take Form?” to “What’s Next: How can design and architecture contribute to solve global challenges” to “The Perfect Day: What inspires and defines the perfect day?” About halfway through the second day, disparate talks on a wide array of topics began to interlace into a handful of distinctly recurring themes.
One topic that surfaced in nearly every talk is the importance of making time each day to engage in activities that upon first glance appear “unproductive.” Lecturers emphasized again and again that breaking from the intensity and concentration of the work environment can foster seemingly stray thoughts and random connections. Invariably it is during these moments new insights and breakthroughs arise. Neuroscientists Rex Jung and Jonah Lehrer each discussed that the human brain –specifically the frontal cortex – must get out of its own way to resolve strenuous intellectual challenges. The only way to find new solutions is to explore our worlds and ideas with fresh eyes.
In Lehrer’s words (quoted from his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works) “Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease… we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights”(31). Traditional logic dictates that if we simply remain focused at our desks for a few hours longer, extend our meetings until we come to a resolution, focus more intently on the problem at hand we will muscle our way to an epiphany. Neuroscience and the experience of creative leaders across the globe strongly assert otherwise - in the words of Albert Einstein “creativity is the residue of wasted time.”
Patrick Pichette, CFO of Google, described in his talk that Google’s campus in the Silicon Valley is outfitted with long walking and biking paths, ping pong tables, laundry machines, lounges, bars, and gyms. He described their policy of Innovation Time Off, in which employees are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something that interests them personally. This policy has given rise to such innovations within Google as Gmail, Adsense, and the most energy efficient bus system in the country.
Arianna Huffington used her time on stage to introduce her new app, GPS for the Soul (soon to be downloadable from the Huffington Post site). This app utilizes music, images, quotes and a heart rate monitor to slow us down, give us iPhone Zen moments (the irony of the concept is not lost on her). Citing Roman philosopher Plotinus’ notion that “knowledge has three degrees -- opinion, science, illumination" Huffington described that the hyper-connectivity of our information society makes access to opinion and science abundantly easy to come by “but has also taken us further away from that illumination, or wisdom, or intuition, or whatever you want to call it that is so essential to living a fulfilling and meaningful life.” GPS For the Soul is a meditative tool to create space for relaxation and inspiration, a dedicated moment to unwind and daydream in an otherwise information and speed-saturated life.
Once that “aha” moment arises and the epiphany is clear, what does it then take to make the leap from idea to implementation? A second clear thread among all of the speakers in Montreal is the importance of passion and tenacity in pursuing an idea even in the darkest hours of doubt, ridicule, frustration, dead ends, and even repeated failure.  Jonah Lehrer calls it “grit.” To use the famous Thomas Edison line, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
It is the dark underbelly of the creative process and one often glazed over when stories of innovation and success are recounted. The blockbuster movie that forever changed the industry, the invention of the light bulb, an innovation in social media that forever alters the way we interact. Yet over and over each presenter at the conference discussed the critical importance of failure. It is no coincidence that among the inspiring mottos of many of the world’s most successful and creative companies including Pixar, Google, 3M, and Apple include such concepts as “Fail Faster” and “Be Wrong as Fast as we Can.”
Peter Sims of Fast Company stated in an interview that, “finding ways to fail quickly, to invest less emotion and less time in any particular idea or prototype or piece of work, is a consistent feature of the work methods of successful creators. Despite the myths, it's hard work.”  Maybe the most apt description for the delicate balance between creating the space to dream and play and having the tenacity and grit to relentlessly pursue your idea can be summarized by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm... in the real world all rests on perseverance.”
Photo via Grazia Magazine
Francis Ford Coppola described his infamous years of failure, debt, and universal skepticism while filming Apocalypse Now. He faced bankruptcy, chaos, studio pressure to quit, and an actor’s heart attack on set. Apocalypse Now is considered one of the most important and innovative films in the history of film making.  In Coppola’s words, "the things you get fired for when you are young win you lifetime achievement awards later in life. Keep an eye out for anything that rubs you the wrong way and stick with it. If it seems wrong to everyone else at the time it is probably right."
Highlighting just two of the multitudes of fascinating and though provoking themes of the conference, there is no question that the C2-MTL conference was an enormously successful and inspiring event. The conference was curated and designed by an organization called SID Lee. Their mission is to help companies recognize and unleash the commercial potential of creativity and boasts an international roster of clients including Adidas, Dell, Cirque du Soleil, MGM Mirage, and Red Bull.
The atmosphere of C2-MTL was small part business conference and large part late-night dance club. Strobe and LCD lights blazed reds, blues, oranges, and pinks throughout the village. Live DJ’s and musicians started at 9:00 each morning and extremely loud techno music reverberated across the highly stylized, dark, and frequently hazy (I never saw a fog machine but they had to have been running nonstop) sitting areas, cafes, lounges, and exhibition venues. Each speaker was announced like the start of a monster truck rally, which proved as disorienting to the speakers as the audience (Arianna Huffington nearly jumped out of her skin after a serene and meditative talk when the monster truck MC wrapped up her talk with searching strobe lights and bumping bass from the live DJs onstage).
On the opening night of the conference, Montreal-based performance troupe Cirque du Soleil performed in the courtyard of the Innovation Village. An opera singer on a 30-foot rise sang before the backdrop of the New Gas City building. It was gorgeous, inspiring, and utilized the history of a 19th century Montreal edifice and the internationally acclaimed talent of a homegrown organization. The evening was a shining example that C2-MTL can inspire collaboration and ignite creativity by focusing on Montreal’s distinctive cultural legacy. I hope that next year’s conference becomes more opening night and less clubby darkness, DJ, and fog machine. As conference speaker Jonah Lehrer described, “scientists speculate that any open, sunny space can lead to increased creativity. Architecture has real cognitive consequences.”
For more information on the conference: http://c2mtl.com/

26 January, 2012

26 Jan - Phenomenal in Southern California

Last week I was in Southern California for the final week of Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and La Jolla. The three-venue exhibition was part of Pacific Standard Time (PST), the six-month visual art extravaganza that is now the largest cultural collaboration in the history of the region.
The project’s mission is to commemorate the dynamic history of art in Los Angeles from the 1940’s through the 1970s. In the words of Deborah Marrow, Director of the Getty Foundation and one of the mastermind’s behind the project, “through Pacific Standard Time, the region’s enormously creative history has been preserved and re-examined, narrative by narrative. Now, for the first time, the full story of the genesis of the Los Angeles art scene is finally available to the public at exhibitions throughout Southern California.”
I repeatedly heard that of the 185 exhibitions (and counting) in the region, Phenomenal was the one not to miss. The exhibition explored the preoccupation among a handful of Los Angeles artists the 1960’s – 70’s of light and sensory phenomena as artistic medium. These artists, sometimes described as the Light and Space movement, created paintings, installations, sculptures, and atmospheres to shift and exceed the viewer’s capacity to experience and perceive art through basic manipulations of light and space. As described by Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times “whether by directing the flow of natural light, embedding artificial light within objects or architecture, or by playing with light through the use of transparent, translucent or reflective materials, these artists each made the visitor’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work.”

Phenomenal featured 56 works by 13 artists: Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Bruce Nauman, Eric Orr, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, De Wain Valentine and Douglas Wheeler. The impact of the exhibition outstripped all of my expectations and reinforced my conviction that art can profoundly inform and expand the way we see and process the world.
One of the most important aspects of Phenomenal is the time it requires to literally see and then experience the impact of the works in the show. Upon first blush, many of these works appear to be an empty canvas, a room with nothing inside. In Irwin’s biography Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Wescheler describes witnessing a couple literally "not see" one of Irwin's 7-foot dot paintings hanging in a museum. Standing with the work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Weschler describes that "a couple walked into the room. The young woman, gesturing with a sweep of her arm, sighed in mock exasperation 'See, this is what I mean.' Her friend smiled knowingly... and the two moved quickly on. They had literally not seen a thing - one does not, one cannot in that amount of time. She was just sick and tired of having museum walls cluttered with empty white canvases."

Experiencing these works requires the patience of time and attention, the leap-of-faith conviction that experiencing an “empty white canvas” might actually be worthwhile. And the works do unfold. With time and patience entire rooms, materials, light, and color that were literally invisible upon first glimpse are revealed - visual assumptions are shattered. In the words of Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times, “the eye opens, the buzzing mind lets go. A spectator arrives at a perceptual base point. As your body begins to feel the space it occupies, the rational brain shuts off. The effect is sensuous and exciting.” Or perhaps more aptly, in Irwin’s words, "at the very best, a few people will walk in and it will change their lives.”

Dramatic though that statement may sound, Weschler describes that this level of visual engagement turns our perception inward and facilitates a heightened awareness or our own ability to perceive. "Engaging the picture, we in turn engage the wonder of our own perceptual facilities. As in so much of Irwin's later work, for a few moments, we perceive ourselves perceiving." It is within that fresh perceptual space that we are able to see nuances, ask new questions, and make room for new opportunities.
The impact of Pacific Standard Time upon Southern California has also created an opportunity for profound shifts in assumptions and perspectives. PST created a new paradigm in large-scale collaboration.  The project successfully fostered a sense of place and time through community consensus and the shared direction of powerful non-profit leaders in the region. In a time when so many non-profits dread collaboration and are loathe to share resources, Pacific Standard Time serves as a wake up call that a broader impact can result from a unified long-term community vision and a thoughtful and strategic combination of forces. Janet Lamkin, California State President of Bank of America, described the long-term impact of this project is that it “will bring together people of every neighborhood and background, and involve virtually all of this region’s arts institutions….(and) contributes to a climate where innovation flourishes, economies grow, and people, business and communities thrive.”