Jason Weaver goes in search of the creative city and loses himself in the collective mind
Where does creative work originate? Anybody who has worked collaboratively can tell you about the mysterious processes at play. The excitement and flow of a creative project appears psychic at times. When things are going well, serendipity seems predestined. Participants will remember events in a different way, a different order, with different emphases and agencies at work. Even with clear notes and documentary evidence, there will be gaps in recall and it is not always clear who thought of what. It is a sobering lesson in the partiality of human cognition. During such periods of concentration, individual differences give way to something ‘other’ – a product of distinctive input but catalysed into an utterly new synthesis.
In 1977, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs collaborated on a book called The Third Mind. This series of essays and experiments explores this idea of a shared consciousness, riffing off T.S. Eliot’s line “Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ (and citing Ezra Pound’s editorial influence on ‘The Waste Land’). For Gysin and Burroughs, collaboration introduces mutually unpredictable elements, taking each individual to a creative territory they would not have reached alone.
Whilst such collaboration is central to certain art forms, musical improv, for example, there is an economy of scale at work here. Larger creative communities can coalesce and even catalyse at particular points and in particular places. The Italian Renaissance in Florence, Paris in the 1920s or the Weimar Republic are obvious examples. Matt Ridley explains this in terms of exchange. Ridley is a controversial figure, trained as a zoologist and non-executive chairman of Northern Rock bank in the period leading to its collapse, he is also the author of The Rational Optimist and his engaging talk ‘Deep Optimism’ outlines his argument that exchange allows ideas to ‘have sex’: “The effect this had on cultural evolution was exactly the same as the effect the invention of sex on biological evolution. Because the invention of sex accelerated and made cumulative for the first time genetic mutation and evolution… What sex does is it allows the species to draw upon the genetic inventiveness of the whole species, not just its own lineage. And exchange has the same impact on human culture”.
As with The Third Mind, this collaboration takes invention into some surprising places: “Every technology we use is a combination of other technologies, other ideas. The pill camera is my favourite example. It takes a picture of your insides as it goes through. It came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer”. A parallel in the arts would be the Siobhan Davies’ 2006 dance work In Plain Clothes, choreographed in collaboration with an architect, a linguist, landscape designer, and a heart surgeon. In fact, Ridley’s notion of exchange is quite radical, and demonstrates how many acts are unconsciously engaged in a giant collaborative effort. To illustrate, he compares two objects sitting on his desk: an ancient axe he keeps as a memento and the mouse he uses for work.
The axe was made by someone for himself. The mouse was made by a team of people for me. They got together one day and said ‘Matt Ridley needs a computer mouse, let’s make him one’. How many of them were in that team? There were hundreds, thousands, I think there were probably millions. Because you’ve got to include the man who was growing coffee in Brazil to feed the man on the oil rig who was drilling for oil, whose oil would be used for the plastic, etc, etc. They were all involved in this cooperative enterprise to make me a computer mouse. They were all working for me. In the old days, you got rich by having people work for you, quite literally. Louis XIV – it’s a fair bet he didn’t make that silly outfit for himself. Louis XIV had 498 people to prepare his dinner every night. But here’s a bunch of tourists going round his palace in Versailles. And each of them, when you think about it, has 498 people preparing his dinner for him tonight. They’re working in bistros and cafés and restaurants and shops all over Paris, but they’re ready at an hour’s notice to drop everything and prepare a meal for one of these people. They’re working for him in just the sense that people were working for Louis XIV.
This resonates with Brian Eno’s idea of the creative potential of the collective, which he has dubbed ‘scenius’: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of genius”. The brilliant loner is inserted back into the cultural context that made their work possible. Shakespeare is the conduit for England’s expanding wealth and horizons in the late 16th century, whilst Beethoven’s exhaustive exploration of form was made possible by the patronage of the Austrian Empire. As Kevin Kelly says (in a short essay ‘Scenius, or Communal Genius’): “Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work”. Kelly cites literary examples like The Bloomsbury Group, but also the mountaineering ‘hackers’ Camp 4 and the MIT engineering lab Building 20. He concludes that such environments share four nurturing factors:
- Mutual appreciation – Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
- Rapid exchange of tools and techniques – As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
- Network effects of success – When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
- Local tolerance for the novelties – The local ‘outside’ does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.”
In spite of these discernible trends, collective collaboration remains a fragile and mysterious chemistry, on a larger scale, perhaps, but still reminiscent of Romantic theories of inspiration: “The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers… What Camp 4 illustrated is that the best you can do is NOT KILL IT. When it pops up, don’t crush it. When it starts rolling don’t formalize it. When it sparks, fan it. But don’t move the scenius to better quarters. Try to keep the accountants and architects and police and do-gooders away from it. Let it remain inefficient, wasteful, edgy, marginal, in the basement…”
I’m reminded of Talk Talk at work in the studio, as recalled in Phill Brown’s book Are We Still Rolling? With sufficient finances from previous sales, the band locked themselves into the studio for months at a time: “At this stage only Mark appeared to know exactly what the desired result was. As with Spirit of Eden, we worked in almost complete darkness, with an oil projector in the control room and the odd red light in the studio… Also, as nothing was planned and we were playing by the rules of chance, accident and coincidence, we needed to try out almost every idea and combination of sounds before we knew we had the right part or texture”. Record companies were kept at bay with the inevitable backlash once the albums were finished: “Much later in 1997, we discovered that the album Laughing Stock had been deleted in the UK a few months after its initial release”.
However elusive creative communities may be, it hasn’t stopped people trying to establish and plan them. There was more to ‘Cool Britannia’ than embarrassing photo opportunities. It signalled New Labour’s commitment to creative industries in the UK and a recognition that British culture was a hugely successful export. In fact, successful post-punk record labels like Rough Trade had been the very epitome of the Thatcherist small business revolution – an irony gleefully explored in the quasi-corporate image of PiL, BEF, Scritti Politti and other bands of the early 80s. By 2007, UK creativity had become the model for how the entrepreneurial business should operate, something local governments were keen to encourage. The question became ‘how do you turn a city into a creative hub?’ In my home town of Brighton and Hove, 1 in 5 of local business was involved in the creative sector, as a slew of reports testified. Richard Florida began to talk about a ‘creative class’ that migrated to where the action was.
The business of culture and the culture of business were beginning to blur. Venture capitalist Paul Graham was also in search of that magical collaborative community in his 2009 essay ‘Can you buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe’. A startup hub, it seems, shares much of the same traits as its cultural counterpart and Graham’s guidelines are similar to Kelly’s. Invest but don’t impose too many rules: “If you want to encourage startups in a particular city, you have to fund startups that won’t leave. There are two ways to do that: have rules preventing them from leaving, or fund them at the point in their life when they naturally take root. The first approach is a mistake, because it becomes a filter for selecting bad startups. If your terms force startups to do things they don’t want to, only the desperate ones will take your money”. Attract talent to your city to seed and influence subsequent generations: “Don’t try to do it on the cheap and pick only 10 for the initial experiment. If you do this on too small a scale you’ll just guarantee failure. Startups need to be around other startups. 30 would be enough to feel like a community”. Encourage the free exchange of ideas. “For the price of a football stadium, any town that was decent to live in could make itself one of the biggest startup hubs in the world… Interestingly, the 30-startup experiment could be done by any sufficiently rich private citizen. And what pressure it would put on the city if it worked.” Graham also emphasises the necessity of a good university as the incubator of collaborative culture. We might think of key art institutions such as the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College and their enormous influence on culture as a whole.
However, despite the focus on the creative industries over the last 15 years, reports repeat the same problems with investment. Business models break down because art is not subject to the same economics as other products and services. Whilst Warhol’s Factory was an efficient production line, creative output is rarely so functional and cannot guarantee a sufficient rate of return. Investors and producers are completely at odds with one another. In fact, art is often precisely antagonistic to wider economic values, being a space to question and examine them. The appeal of Berlin or Leipzig or Warsaw as creative communities is the inverse of investment, it is cheap accommodation and empty spaces to colonise, just as it was in the New York of the 70s. Commercial and cultural hubs can look very different.
If exchange of ideas is equivalent to the invention of sex, coming online means we’re at it like rabbits, cross-fertilising like the last days of Rome. However, some habits are yet to change. Certain art forms are more inherently collaborative than others but novels are still a somewhat onanistic activity. Gysin again: “While the history of painting and the plastic arts shows them generally to have been a collective affair in their conception and their realization — even after the notion of the artist-paradigm came to dominate every other mode of representation — literature has been a solitary practice, an ascesis, a withdrawal, a prison of words. Collaborations in this domain were rare. If we except certain accidental associations, the value of which is open to question, we find that few works have been composed as the result of a joint effort”. Furthermore, whilst authors see the internet as a brave new platform for marketing, the loss of editors and the whole network that previously contributed to the writing of a book makes it perhaps even less collaborative than before. Although widely criticised as a crude and exploitative exercise in branding, I’m rather intrigued by the James Patterson franchise. It may have broken the norm of the individual author. Things change in unpredictable ways.
It is often said that we live in a golden age of television. The attraction and potency of writing for HBO, AMC, even The Simpsons could be exactly down to the collective experience of working around the table with the very best, the scenius. As Deadwood reached its final series, you could practically sense the writers urging each other to greater daring, to push television dialogue into places it had never been before. I’m convinced that the poor state of cinema this year (overwhelmingly remakes, sequels, and spin-offs – production-led scripts) is the result of this. Hollywood’s loss is TV’s gain.
Communal creativity is neither as sublime nor as elusive as Kevin Kelly implies, but pimping ideas online and through meet-ups is not collaboration either. It’s gossip. The time of heavy investment in the arts may be behind us (at least in the UK) but the creatively curious owe it to themselves to seek out and connect with others. With pooled resources and in shared studios, collaboration is simple and it is everywhere. Three heads are better than one.
Matt Ridley’s ‘Deep Optimism’ talk at The Long Now
Kevin Kelly’s ‘Scenius’ essay
Paul Graham’s essay ‘Can you buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe’
A literature review around the culture and creative industries by Justin O’Connor