No. 11 • 2020-07-15

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Watch Cunningham Piano Ensemble’s performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (111 performers from 18 states and 9 countries). It was one of the first (March 30) large-scale virtual musical collaborations, which inspired me to start this newsletter.

Tools & Adaptation

Back in March, I think most of us were in the mindset of “use whatever we have on hand to make something (anything!) workable”, whether in education, the arts, business, or just our daily lives. And the tools we had on hand were videoconferencing, smartphones, messaging and social media, and (for some) audio and video editing software. We were highly constrained (by the situation and the tools), but those constraints were also a driver of creativity.

Four months into social distancing and isolation (in the U.S.), we are all adapting and slowly getting better at being productive in the new normal. As I’ve worked on recent creative collaborations, I’ve been thinking about how poorly suited the tools on hand are for the tasks we’re faced with (because they were designed for completely different applications):

  • Zoom (and Google Meet, Skype, etc.) was designed for moderated group meetings, not happy hours, classrooms, or live theater.
  • Social media is great for sharing finished work, but not well suited for distance collaboration or work in progress.
  • Video editing apps are ideal for traditional filmmaking (focusing on one subject), but it’s a pain to work with lots and lots of simultaneous subjects.

This is usually what happens with technology: first we try to replicate the analog medium within the digital (e.g., using Zoom as a direct substitute for the classroom or theater experience). But over time comes greater familiarity, experience, and the ability to experiment, and eventually we arrive at something that is digitally “native”. Some things are already starting to feel native to an online and distanced working world (the ubiquitous Zoom grid, for example, is also the default view for collaborative creative content). Eventually, new tools will emerge that better fit the differently mediated forms of expression and learning. This cycle enables a different kind of creativity, driven less by immediate constraint and more by the possibilities afforded by the new tools.

What will “online native” creative forms look like? We must start by questioning the basic assumptions of a medium. Writing and performing a play for online presentation is very different from a play for the stage. Same for a musical performance or online learning. I suggest we start with the following: What can’tbe done in a live setting that can be done online? Here are a few examples:

As science fiction author William Gibson has written, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. New possibilities are being unlocked by the experiments happening now. While I don’t know exactly what the online native forms will look like, ultimately they will “feel” right. They will make us think it’s been that way all along… Do you remember what it was like before smartphones? Didn’t think so 🙂

I don’t think in-person theaters or classrooms will go away… there’s nothing like the excitement of live performance, and we can’t achieve that experience remotely with current technology. But even when we are able to return to live venues, I’m certain these remote explorations will continue to evolve. There will be more and more adaptation to the new possibilities that the medium offers, and I think that creative output will be exciting to see.

Note: Next week I’m taking a break from the newsletter to focus on other projects. The next issue will be released on July 29.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Being Alive [The Antonyo Awards, presented by Broadway Black in association with The Black Theatre Society] A stirring performance from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, featuring Ayana George, Angela Birchett, Drew Shade, and many others in support of #BlackLivesMatter.
  • To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice.
  • Morning Serenade #songsofcomfort [Pana Percussion Quartet] A lovely percussion arrangement and virtuosic performance of this piece from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet.
  • The Ladies Who Lunch [Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration] From a while back (late April), but more from Sondheim & Company… Stage and film stars Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald performing a socially distant version of this classic Broadway tune for the composer’s 90th birthday (online) gala.

What I’m creating

This week brought the tragic news that Grant Imahara, engineer, roboticist, and Mythbuster co-host, died at 49. He contributed to Star Wars movies, but also worked to bust the Hollywood stereotype of “Asian engineer”. In his appearances, he was not only highly competent, but also brought charm and an infectious sense of excitement and fun to engineering. Learn more about his work here.

In memory of Grant, here’s our lab’s robot music video of The Hubos, playing “Come Together” (from 2012).

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