In Conversation with Filmmaker Michelle Davidson

Last night I attended the first day of the AMC Kansas City Film Festival’s short form program.  The films on display crossed genres and ranged from issues of impotence  to tales of the loss and survival of US Veterans.

One of the films of the short program, cumulatively titled People Like Us, was director Patrick Rae’s Hell Week, a disturbing yet captivating tale of revenge, written by the multi-talented Michelle Davidson.

Michelle was kind enough to speak with me by email earlier this month about balancing the various aspects of her career and the tools and technologies she utilizes to facilitate a career based out of Kansas City.

As an actor/producer/writer/reporter/organization leader,  Michelle’s work is emblematic of the multi-disciplinary paths sustained by many Kansas City artists. Michelle began her career as a reporter, graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  While she currently acts as host of KCTV5’s CinemaKC, a weekly series profiling the Kansas City film community, her focus on writing has turned to a more creative form, writing screenplays that have come to life both in festivals and online.

Along with Erin McGrane, Meagan Flynn, Tasha Smith and Jennifer Plas, Michelle created the webseries, The Unreal Housewives of Kansas City, winning a Mid-America EMMY® for Writing/Producing/Acting.

Making her directorial debut, Michelle wrote, produced and stared in the film, Ready to Pop,  co-directed by MileDeep Films‘ Anthony Ladesich and screened in festivals in LA, Houston, Palm Beach, Chicago, Tulsa, Omaha and KC.

More people are seeing our films on their computer than at film festivals.  It’s exciting that I can share a short film on a phone, I-pad, computer or at a film festival.  Either way, it’s showcasing all of the people that came together to make a film.  It makes me proud to create something entertaining that is consumable in so many new and exciting ways.  It’s a great way to market your talents without real limitations.

In our interview, Michelle pointed to the need to differentiate between her job as actor, writer and producer.  “People sometimes get confused when you present yourself in a variety of roles… I try my best to be versatile.”

Michelle is also the current President of KCWIFT – Kansas City Women in Film and Television, “an organization of women and men with the goal of helping women to make films and tell their stories & to promote them in the entertainment industry.”

One of the benefits of the KCWIFT is its ability to help promote its membership through their website.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable promoting yourself online, but I can promote another filmmaker through KCWIFT’s social media without it coming across as bragging.  It’s great to have organizations that support artists’ efforts to promote their screenings and events.

In an interview for the KC Film Festival, Michelle points to the focus of the organization to bring that online discourse, offline.

Our primary goal in the last six months has been to be more visible so that people are talking, that they know the organization exists. Networking is the most important thing that you can do in independent film & TV in Kansas City – the more people that come to events (seminars, workshops, showcases), the more we can introduce female filmmakers to those people.

As President of Kansas City Women in Film & Television, Michelle was recently featured Google’s national “Get Your Business Online” campaign.

The impact of Youtube, Vimeo and other social media sites on the Kansas City film community is not lost on Michelle.

Advances in technology have helped independent filmmakers get their work seen.  People are talking about films they saw on Youtube or Vimeo.  I personally enjoy watching [these sites] stats for viewers of films.  It’s thrilling to see people around the world are watching your film online.  There are great platforms to distribute films to a mass audience, but the problem comes in translating that into monetary success.  

 I utilize social media, my agency’s web site and my personal website everyday to promote myself as an actor and performer.  I’m also booking more jobs without leaving my house, because clients can see my reel and resume online.

While the work being produced in the area does not reach the scale of the major markets, the area continues to supply opportunities for artists to generate their own work and grow the community – opportunities like the AMC Kansas City Film Fest, presented by the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee, which this year is being screened not only on three screens at the AMC Mainstreet downtown but at the AMC Ward Parkway in Johnson County Kansas, a move festival programmer, Jeph Scanlon, hopes will help the films reach a broader audience. ““Kansas City has had a growing arts community for years. The time has come for KC FilmFest to take its place among all the other wonderful arts venues and events.”

The future, it seems, is being dictated by artists like Michelle, who are harnessing Kansas City’s close-knit relationships of artists rather than look at the area’s location as a roadblock to creativity. “Collaboration is the key,” Michelle says, to the community’s success. “We utilize performers, art designers, cinematographers, composers, editors and many more types of artists to create short films and television shows and in order to continue, we need a variety of talented people.”

Fostering this new talent is important to Michelle, who credited Kansas City filmmakers Vicky Bates, Aaron Laue, Patrick Rea and Anthony Ladesich in her film fest interview for mentoring her in her career. “They’ve been so helpful and have given me opportunities to discover my talents, whether they be in acting, writing, producing or directing. I want others to have that experience – I’d like to do for them what so many people in KC have done for me so far.”

“I’m thrilled to be a part of the film and television production community in Kansas City,”  said Michelle, at the end of our interview. “It’s great to see how many people are making films and web series in our community that are entertaining, imaginative and inventive. I have high hopes for the Kansas City art community.”

Resonance and Wonder and The Living Archive

Steven Greenblatt wrote of the difference between objects of wonder and objects of resonance. By wonder, Greenblatt referred to “the power of the object displayed to stop the viewer in his tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention” while resonance was meant to describe “the power of the object displayed to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged.”

It was this description that I kept in mind as I considered my vision for Art Apéritif and later my curatorial contribution to The Frontier, a project celebrating the Charlotte Street Foundation’s 15 year anniversary and “considering the history and future of artist-driven practice in Kansas City and the changing nature of the city’s ‘frontiers.’”

The Frontier aspires to begin to build, in a modest and incremental way, a living archive.  This archive is conceived as a breathing, evolving, inclusive and many-authored endeavor that may encompass documentation of conversations and activities occurring in real time,  timelines, print materials, photographs, film, videos, correspondence, podcasts, creative and critical writing, discussions based in social media, original artworks and more.  In terms of scope, we are interested in materials that relate to the  pioneering roles artists and artist-centered projects/spaces/publications/activities have played in the evolution of our city and culture–again, as a means of regarding and more deeply knowing our history, and with an eye to informing future efforts.

Greenblatt described that it is often the objects intended to contextualize a work of art which can present the most resonance.

 A table, a chair, a map-often seemingly placed only to provide a decorative setting for a grand work-become oddly expressive, significant not as background but as compelling representational practices in themselves. These practices may in turn impinge upon the grand work, so that we begin to glimpse a kind of circulation: the cultural practice and social energy implicit in map-making is drawn into the aesthetic orbit of a painting, which has itself enabled us to register some of the representational significance of the map. Or again, the threadbare fabric on an old chair or the gouges in the wood of a cabinet juxtapose the privileged painting or sculpture with marks not only of time but of use, the imprint of the human body on the artifact, and call attention to the deliberate removal of certain exalted aesthetic objects from the threat of that imprint.

I contemplated how this power of resonance might be translated into a digital form where the texture of a torn old photograph or the smell of a twenty year old periodical is sacrificed for the immediacy and abundance of contextualizing narratives online. I came to the conclusion that one platform will never suffice for the other.  Online space must be shaped differently than the space within the gallery. Linear storytelling that might seem applicable to a physical archive might need to be discarded in order to find the circularity Greenblatt describes. The deluge of data available online had to be culled and mediated in order to bring focus on the discursive value attached to the objects cataloged and the memories they represent. And whatever format is chosen the unique perspective of the contributors must be considered in what is a many-authored narrative.

Kansas City, of all places…In conversation with Paul Tyler

The title of this post came from more than one conversation I have had with “cowtown” passersby who never cease to be stunned by what the city has to offer.

When I first began to conceive of the curatorial effort that would become Art Aperitif, I considered not only a variety of platforms both online and off, but locations. I toyed around with staying in New York or maybe making short stops to a variety of cities. What I was looking for was a space for conversation, for interdisciplinarity; a place where the implications of technology  on arts discourse had real-life, and real visible, applications.

When the idea finally occurred to me to return to Kansas City, it became clear that it was not only the most logical choice but the most inspired.

Kansas City is in the midst of what some consider to be a cultural revolution— a “Golden Age” which came about in 2011 according to KC Star op-ed columnist Hampton Stevens, “mostly because of art.”

Earlier this year, I spoke to Paul Tyler of the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City about Stevens’ commentary and several of the initiatives happening in the metro that hope to shine light on Kansas City as a cultural destination and hub for innovation and creativity.
One of the most notable examples is the building of the Kauffman Performing Arts center which opened in September 2011 and was the catalyst for a discussion which would eventually become the recently launched public relations campaign known as America’s Creative Crossroads.

“We didn’t start out to create a campaign.” said Tyler.  “It started with seeing an opportunity and talking about it.”

Two and a half years ago, when the Kauffman project was still in its infancy, representatives of three disparate organizations, the Arts Council, Kansas City Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Kansas City Area Development Council, came together in conversation to discuss how this building might spur a cultural renaissance for the community at large and how it might be an opportunity to positively further the mission of each of their respective organizations.

This was not the first opportunity to challenge KC’s national and international perception in recent years. Since 2000, Kansas City has invested nearly $3 billion in facilities for arts and entertainment, including the Johnson County’s Nerman Museum, the Sprint Center, the refurbished Midland Theatre, and the addition of the Bloch building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

“We weren’t really prepared to take advantage of the opening of the Bloch building in 2009.” said Tyler. “It is not that we didn’t get much publicity.  It is that we didn’t leverage it very because we hadn’t really looked at it as something that was emblematic or symbolic of a larger reality in Kansas City.”

This time the organizations behind the America’s Creative Crossroads campaign hoped to think about the investments made in the Kansas City community on a larger scale.

How do you describe a community that is driven by creativity and spans multiple generations and multiple industries at the same time?  It is not just about arts and culture. It is how we do business, it is how we think, it is how we approach problem solving, it is how we come together to make things happen. How do we talk about the city in a way that lets us acknowledge the pioneering spirit here that has manifested itself in all of these different ways?

In an interview for a Kansas City Art Institute publication Tyler discussed Kansas City’s legacy of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity, citing Cerner, Garmin and Sprint as revolutionizing the fields of medical support, navigation and telecommunications respectively.  In our conversation, he cited Kansas City’s twenty years of public art, the 1% for Arts Fund, of course, the Crossroads, “which grew up organically over two decades and is now home to not just artists but architects and technology companies, web and mobile app designers.”

They looked to Kansas City’s history as a crossroads.  “It is where the three trails met.  It has this strong history as a hub for transportation, for commerce. There is an energy here that only happens where you have different industries coming together.”  The idea crystallized into the concept of America’s Creative Crossroads which allowed them “to talk about the city in a way that lets us acknowledge the pioneering spirit here that has manifested itself in all of these different ways.”

Photo via @visitkc

Advances in technology and communication have radically changed knowledge production and dissemination particularly within regional markets.  In 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made the claim in The World is Flat: A Brief History of 21st Century, that we no longer have to leave home communities to innovate.  He posited that technology has essentially flattened the world to a digital screen, where “it is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people, on more different kinds for work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than any previous time in the history of the world (sic).”

Richard Florida, on the other hand, pointed to a more nuanced view of the economic landscape.

The main difference between now and even a couple of decades ago is not that the world has become flatter but that the world’s peaks have become slightly more dispersed—and that the world’s hills, the industrial and service centers that produce mature products and support innovation centers, have proliferated and shifted.

He writes that the creative people who sustain both peak markets of innovation such as New York and Los Angeles and “hill” markets like Kansas City do not cluster just “because they like to be around one another or they prefer cosmopolitan centers with lots of amenities, though both those things count. They and their companies also cluster because of the powerful productivity advantages, economies of scale, and knowledge spillovers such density brings.”

For centers of artistic vibrancy much of this concentration is attributed to outlets and opportunities which Tyler claims Kansas City is now able to offer.

“Kansas City is now competing for artists on a national scale, offering opportunities for exhibition, collaboration, resources, training, grants and education… We aren’t missing anything here.”

That is not to say that the developments are without controversy.  Kansas City is often referred to as a “big small town.”  Advocates of the community refer to its quality of life, one that balances opportunities for both work and play with “its welcoming reassuring, friendly, wholesome really accepting Midwestern attitude.”  Yet many see deeply rooted conservative ideologies as being instrumental in the restriction of real creative freedom and constructive artistic criticism (See: The Chicken Controversy).

There also remains a clashing of priorities and promotion between of large scale community investments like the Kauffman, Kansas Speedway or Live Strong Park and support for the proliferation of grassroots endeavors currently flourishing in Kansas City. (Kansas notably being the only state to cut arts funding from the budget, costing the state $1.3 million in federal and regional matching funds as a result.) While independent galleries, social engagement projects or black box theaters will not bring in the tourist revenue or name recognition of work taking place at the Kauffman, Nelson or Sprint Center, they are essential to the creative ecology of the community.  As the Star article noted, “Ultimately, a city is made of individuals who might never get their names in the paper or win awards but whose effect on the life of a city nevertheless grows through time.”

We are now in a position to challenge not only outsider beliefs about the city as a “cowtown”  but our own.  Stevens pointed out that “Kansas City [has] gone almost overnight from a city always trying to convince others how good life is here to a city that simply knows it to be true,”  and while this is perhaps correct, it is not enough to manifest into long-lasting sustainability or broad interdisciplinary collaboration.  The America’s Creative Crossroads team, for example, has now added, Downtown Council of Kansas City, Missouri, Arts Council of Johnson County (Kansas), Central Exchange, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, to its membership. The collaboration between these different missions is important but if we hope to have a clearer understanding of what the community needs and where it is going, we must continue to harness dialogue between disparate economic drivers and creative forces—both large and small, traditional and grassroots.

“There is a do-it-yourself, we can make it happen, roll-up your sleeves quality to the Kansas City spirit,” said Tyler. A spirit, that perhaps more than buildings and PR is responsible for this “golden age.”

Michael Kaiser, Digital Sharecropping and the Walker Redesign

In 1845 Edgar Allen Poe wrote that the mass production of books was “one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

Over 165 years later Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center echoed this sentiment. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Kaiser condemned the “growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards” for contributing to the decline of art criticism, shifting it into a “participatory activity rather than a spectator sport.”

He lambasted cultural organizations who allow audiences to write critiques on their official websites, claiming, “this is a scary trend.” His controversial remarks were rooted in no small part to a belief that the influence of these “citizen critics” was contributing to a growing trend of art that “appeals to the lowest common denominator” and is “measured by a popularity contest.”

Perhaps made unknowingly, Kaiser’s argument was one against digital sharecropping, a term coined by blogger Nicholas Carr to reference the “distribution of [digital] production into the hands of the many and the concentration of [its] economic rewards into the hands of the few.” Sites like Facebook, Yahoo’s Flickr and Youtube are profitable ventures only by aggregating the content of its users “on a massive scale—on a web scale.”

Kaiser saw these bloggers as “workers” creating competitive products, sellable goods that challenge the work of professional critics rather than considering their contributions as “acts of sharing.” As Lev Manovich, author of The Language of New Media notes, the web of the 1990s may have been a publication medium but the current web is a communication medium, in which conversation happens to take place “between users and around user-generated content through “a variety of form besides email: posts, comments, reviews, ratings gestures and tokens, votes, links, badges, photo and video.

Cognitive Surplus author Clay Shirky echoed this sentiment:

As long as the assumed purpose of media is to allow ordinary people to consume professionally created [and curated] material, the proliferation of amateur-created stuff will seem incomprehensible…. But what if all this time providing professional content isn’t the only job we’ve been hiring media to do? What if we have also been hiring it to make us feel connected, engaged or just less lonely?  What if we’ve always wanted to produce as well as consume but no one offered us the opportunity? …The phrase ‘user-generated content,’ the current label for creative acts by amateurs really describes not just personal but social acts.

Indeed, no more are we a generation defined by “we are what we own” but rather “we are what we share.”

When the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, launched a redesign of its website in late 2011, the organization was cognizant of its need to become an “online hub for ideas about contemporary art and culture, both inside the Walker and beyond.” What it actually created was viewed by many including  Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, to be “a potential paradigm shift for institutional websites.”

As of 2006, 43% of museum visits took place remotely, primarily through museum websites.

Few institutions, however, consider their website beyond its function as a marketing tool, “pretend[ing] that the museum is an island unto itself.”, on the other-hand, is the museum, bringing artistic discourse from around the web to a central portal.  Olga Viso, the Executive Director of the Walker explained the impetus for this new focus. “As a pioneer in developing new platforms for scholarship, publishing, arts journalism, and creative exchange with our audiences, we believe we can play an important role in offering alternative media infrastructures as arts coverage in the mainstream media outlets everywhere have been dramatically reduced in recent years (sic).”

Beyond being one of the sites Kaiser condemns for allowing visitors to comment on content, the Walker offers “Arts News from Elsewhere,” which aggregates news stories from other sites and sends readers out beyond the virtual walls of the Walker to explore new forums for learning and participation.

The Walker refers out to content all over the web, placing independent blogs such as Hyperallergic and IndiWire on the same plain as The New York Times and The Atlantic.  In an anonymous post on Artlog, popular blogger, Museum Nerd, commented

Museums no longer need to think of their stakeholders as the people who come through the door. The Walker has positioned themselves at the center of the global conversation about contemporary art. By placing the content of others (as well as excellent editorial content of their own) right there on the homepage, they’ve created a website you want to go to if you have any interest in contemporary art, regardless of whether you’ll ever visit the museum. They’re not just positioning themselves as an arbiter of taste (the connoisseurship thing has long been in every art museum’s bailiwick): the Walker is also placing themselves at the center of the conversation that their mission is all about.

“My dream,” said Nate Solas, the Walker’s Senior New Media Developer, “is of the site to be both the start and also links in a chain of Wikipedia-like surfing that leads from discovery to discovery, and suddenly an hour’s gone by.”

A Plug Projects Follow-Up

The team at Plug Projects is “relentless about meeting.”

Artists Cory Imig, Amy Kligman, Misha Kligman, Nicole Mauser and Caleb Tayor, get together every Monday night to plan for upcoming shows, discuss potential collaborations with outside spaces and artists, and strategize not only about their future as an artist-run space but the needs and aspirations of the entire Kansas City art community.

I find this fascinating.

It was actually the idea that drew me to their space on the eve of their last Critique Night in late January.  So when I finally had a chance to sit down with them, a few days after they spoke with Art Practical’s Patricia Maloney for the Bad at Sports podcast released this week, I asked them why, in an age of Google Docs and online meet-ups they felt it was just so important to maintain the ritual of meeting in person each week.

Amy:  I think it is completely necessary for us because we are so different. And we do somethings online—

Cory: Yeah, we do the Google Docs.

Misha: And we tried doing it more but it just doesn’t work. It gets out of control. 

Nicole: Things get lost in the cracks and this is so immediate. We just blow through our agendas every Monday.

During the renovations of their space that occurred last summer in preparation for their September opening, Nicole received a teaching fellowship in Chicago.  A “defining moment,” Cory said, of whether or not Plug would come to life.  “We were so committed that we were skyping Nicole in. So we would have our meetings and we would sit around a table like this with a computer on the end and Nicole skyping in as a person. But it was so disjointed. It was definitely a moment when technology failed.”

Challenges of technology were, in fact, one of the reasons that I hesitated to post my initial audio recording of our group interview, one that was later deemed unnecessary by the lengthy piece done by Art Practical. It is also the root of my only complaint about their podcast. (Though it is still worth a listen in its entirety.)

There is chemistry between these five distinct personalities, a quality to their repartee, that is difficult to capture online and which says as much about what makes Plug Projects a success as any answer in either interview.

Take for example, when I asked them if they had all aspired to be curatorial or if it was born out of necessity in running a space. Their nuanced answers, with overlapping rumblings and self-reflection on the very definition of curation was challenging for an on-air interview but telling of their individual uniqueness.

Cory:  I think we all aspired to curate in one way or another and that is why we are sitting here together. 

Caleb: Do you think it was that we aspired to curate or that we aspired to interact? I think those are different things.  

Misha: Yeah—

Caleb: One’s a position and one is a—

Nicole:  Conviction?

Caleb: Interest.

Amy: I think it might be different from person to person.

Between the five members of the group, they cumulatively posses a diverse skill set, allowing them to run a space that each believe would be impossible to manage alone, at least at their current scale.  Further still, they showcase a respect and appreciation for each others’ contributions that stops self-deprecation cold.

Me: What are the skill sets that you see that you bring to this process?

Misha: I take Plugs pictures and doodle on the website.

Caleb, Cory, Amy and Nicole in chorused rebuttal:  Doodle!?

Cory: Doodle? You take our photos and you built our website.

Humility be damned.

Misha:  Ahh, well I do appreciate good writing and I think that makes me a good sensor. My main interest in Plug is that it allows me to practice making responsible judgements in art.

Amy: Yeah, I think you are also our resident philosopher, you like to dig down deep and talk about these things.

Amy, the self-titled, “resident nerd,” takes a lead in keeping the group organized.

Nicole: One of the biggest things Amy did for us was the graphic design, which included not just the logo and postcard image but this formated [document] that we insert artists we were interested in and I feel like that really jump started out conversations in the beginning. 

Nicole sees critical dialogue as central to her contribution.  In addition to writing the company’s press releases and prospectuses, she along-side Cory, takes an active role in organizing their expanded programming outside of the gallery.

Caleb, who also acts as Plug’s preparator, describes himself as the “naysayer of the group, the devil’s advocate” challenging his collaborators to really ask “why” they want to show a particular artist, while Cory sees her role, in addition to managing the company’s social media presence, as pushing the group to show “more interdisciplinary and not so easily shown works, and challenging us to grow that way.”

The team was able to launch their programming with the help of a Rocket Grant and a Kickstarter campaign but maintain the gallery by channeling the funds they would otherwise spend on individual studios, towards their rent and utilities in the burgeoning, affordable and newly rebranded Stockyards District. “To be fair,” Amy say, “we have really low overhead.”

And though their unit houses studios for each artist in the back of the building, they see the spaces as two distinct entities.

Caleb: It is important to note that what happens in our studios has nothing to do with what happens in the gallery. Our practices are completely different from Plug. They are two separate things. We don’t promote our own work in the gallery.  That being said, you do become influenced because you meet people through this or you see what work is being shown out there and you extend your vocabulary as an artist. 

Amy: And we do a lot of research. We look at a lot of artists that are making a lot of kinds of work and because there are five of us and we all have different points of view it is not necessarily the kind of work we would be looking at.  But it becomes part of that soup in your head—the stuff that you refer to.

Nicole:  That has been my favorite part of all of this. Being introduced to all of these artists that I would never have otherwise looked at. 

Both in our interview and the Bad at Sports podcast the team repeatedly refers to Plug as a conduit.  “We were really interested in the idea of connecting people.”

“Tell her what [the name] was before,”  Misha jokingly prods the group.  They all laugh.  It was Match—like the dating site.  Though in this case, they are focusing their match-making on artists and communities.

Both concepts were tied to an idea of “infusing energy into things,” Amy explains. “We want to be a catalyst for things. We want to be additional to the scene not redundant to the scene.”

“We focus on bringing artists from outside of Kansas City into the city or showcasing artists from Kansas City that might not have had as active of a voice.”  Cory tells me.

This self-determined advocacy for other artist comes as much from a place of artistic conviction as a reaction to their own experiences in gallery culture.

Misha:  You know the reason we are so nice to people is that we are all showing artists. And we have encountered so much bullshit. We thought lets just do the opposite of what we know to be true. That is all people want.  We are straight forward we keep our appointments, we are organized, we pay them well if we can and we are generous.

Cory: We try to find out what the artists need and at what point they are in their career and say how can we help you.  What can be the most productive move for you at the moment. Do you need reviews? Can we help you meet writers? Do you need really great photo documentation of your work? What do you need?

Nicole: Yeah and based on our correspondence and the way we invite people to show with us, I have been more apt to email artists I respect and say, “Hey come on over. I’d love to meet you. Let’s do a studio visit.” So instead of waiting for things to fall into place, I feel like we are making them happen.

The groups’ vision for the future expands beyond their space or even their individual practice.  They are looking to find a critical growth throughout Kanas City.

Nicole: Kansas City needs editors. And not only editors but editors that are willing to lead. We need a diversity of editors. We need a diversity of artist spaces… We started having these meetings just to get the ball rolling about critical writing in Kansas City and organizing events. There are writers but there is not a lot of feedback. They aren’t getting in touch with an audience, they aren’t getting in touch with each other as peers. There is output but no [critical] input on making things better each time. 

Caleb: And this conversation is really fresh so to say what our vision is is really early.

Cory: And I don’t know that is necessarily our vision.  I think what we want is for it to be a community vision. 

Caleb: We are planting a seed that is using Plug as a venue—

Cory: Or Plug as the organizational element that helps people to create a community to jump off from. 

As they reach their first year the group is looking forward with realistic expectations.

Amy: We said in the beginning that we knew that we wanted to go through this year and then reassess but as long as it was beneficial to us as artists and to the community we want to try to keep going.  

Cory: We are really transparent about how we do things and if someone else does this we would be more than happy. Please do it, and do it better. Because really it is not just about us. It is all about a constant community growing, taking each others’ ideas and moving forward as a whole.

They are learning, from each other and from the growing network that they are bringing into and out of Kansas City.

Nicole: We were told if there is something that you are not sustaining and you need help, put it out there, over and over again and people will help you.

Amy: I wish more artists would do this, reach out to one another… because this experience, working together, has built a ton of community, not to mention everything I have learned! 

Misha: I think this process is making us better people.  I think. I hope.

Why Videos go Viral

With 48 hours of video uploaded to youtube every minute, YouTube Trends Director Kevin Alloca, explains how and why videos go viral, breaking it down to three key components:

  • Tastemakers
  • Communities of Participation
  • Unexpectedness

Worth a watch, if only for the humor of it all, and because online, “no one has to green-light your idea and we all feel some ownership over pop culture.”

Kate Hackman, in and out of the tub.

(Note: Article edited for clarification of subject intent as of 3/1/2012. See **comment** for clarification.)

A few weeks ago, the Charlotte Street Foundation’s Co-Director and self-titled “art lady,” Kate Hackman took time out of her busy schedule to meet me for coffee at Crossroads Coffee House and offer a few words of wisdom about defining this curatorial endeavor, creating my own career, and using what could be a mishmash of ideas to build something that will serve not only my creative interests but will meet the needs of the current artistic community in Kansas City.

This mentorship and sound-boarding was hardly a singular incident. Quite to the contrary.  Both she and Charlotte Street’s Founder and Director, David Hughes, are known for the time they spend nurturing aspiring art makers.

“It is good sometimes to say yes to say things that you could easily say no to.” Kate tells me.

This is how she ends up speaking to a few dozen art enthusiasts from hot tub not 24 hours after our conversation, with good friend and Director/Curator of H&R Bloch ArtSpace, Raechell Smith, as part of Subterranean Gallery’s Hot Tub Dialogues series.

The plot points of our conversation were echoed in her dialogue with Raechell so much that the details of what was said when, evaporated with the steam coming off of the whirlpool jets.

Unimportant really, when you consider that much like one talk blurring into another, so too are the evolutionary issues facing not only Charlotte Street but all arts organizations in the Metro, namely how to be nimble and evolve in our changing landscape.

One of my daily observations—that is also a frustrations—is that at Charlotte Street probably our greatest strength as an organization, in someways, is in our network of personal relationships. These are relationships grounded in trust and shared knowledge and experiences. And what is impossible is that there is just no time.  I make time as much as I possibly can for conversations with people, whether that’s with an artist that just moved here from New York or an emerging curator who wants to open a space or a group that wants to explore non-profit status. But there is this tear because we don’t have a **formalized** structure to address all that is needed. I don’t have the structure in terms of my job description or our organizational priorities.

We [as a community] don’t have a resource people for people to talk things through so it becomes contingent on a personal set of relationships and knowledge base to make connections—when you have time to make connections. **(Note: See Kate’s comment below for an elaboration/clarification of this comment.)** 

What we need, Kate suggests, is a “sort of  agent with a curatorial sensibility.”

She doesn’t make this out to be an insurmountable task, rather an opportunity for the right creative visionary.

My observation of Kansas City over the years is that the real meaningful things that have been built are being done so at first by a singular individual, with a singular vision, making it happen. And then of course people rally around them. 

Perhaps, that is why she continues to personally rally behind  Kansas City’s new generation of curators, many of whom have been recipients of Charlotte Street funds and residencies.

It feels like there are new sorts of glue and chords forming [in and around] our community..Whether it is Plug Projects or Bread! or Subterranean Gallery, the more these things open and are happening, then the more freedom we as Charlotte Street have to go on and do other things and support other needs, assessing what those need are and balancing them with what is interesting to us as individual facilitators and practitioners.

Kate also points to a growing demand for connectivity, “more bringing people in and sending people out,” and delights that there are “more and more people who are are in the position to be facilitators of that.” This includes the local artists who are “just out in the world more and are getting more and more attention.” Artists who are acting first as ambassadors of the city before becoming facilitators of a kind of “in-and-out exchange.”

Kate doesn’t presume that you can get everything you need artistically from one city, but sees the unique opportunity that investing in this type of community can bring.

“Here you can really make an impact. There space to take risks. It doesn’t matter if you fail.”

The Co-opting of Curation and Reconsideration of Expertise

Famed curator Harold Szeeman once defined his role as that of an “administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat.” Hans-Ulrich Obrist added “guard, transporter, communicator, and researcher” and David Levi Strauss listed “advocate, auteur, bureaucrat and cultural impresario,” just to name a few.

There are as many connotations of the word curator as their are disciplines and professionals who employ it. As this title becomes co-opted by more and more art forms, watered down in the jargon of commercialization, and the idea of curation spreads across traditional and digital mediums into the day-to-day playlists, menus and wardrobes of our lives, it is important to examine the concept of curatorial practice at its most basic, fundamental core.  Curation requires the acquisition, preservation and dissemination of something and in doing so implies a level of expertise, the necessity of which is called into question by a shift towards egalitarianism in the arts that is facilitated by the access offered through technology.

The word curator stems from the Latin word “curare” meaning “to care.” Originally used in reference to those who oversaw the care of lunatics or minors, it evolved to mean the “officer in charge of a museum, library, etc.

Kate Fowle, director of Independent Curators International notes that “in each case it has hierarchical connotations – a curator is someone who presides over something – suggesting an inherent relationship between care and control.”

It is this idea of control that has been latched onto by theorists such as Mari Carmen Ramirez, who suggests that “curators are, above all, the institutionally recognized experts of the art-world establishment, whether they operate inside an institution or independently.”

Peter Walsh investigates this idea of the expert in “That Withered Paradigm: The Web, the Expert, and the Information Hegemony,” which began with a listserve discussion about a curatorial project where an artist commented that the “withered, disreputable, often laughable ‘expert’ paradigm is what the Net now displaces.” Walsh hypothesizes that this expert paradigm originated with the dawn of human culture and “evolved as a counter to brute force in human societies. It was a way of creating a value and use for intellectual activity and insights.” The expert paradigm found in the art world, in a sense, functions in the same hierarchal fashion of modern religion. “All members of the ‘expert class’ are still in some sense priests, practitioners of a hermetic cult giving access to divine knowledge. And as members of a priestly class, all experts still have special, quasi-religious status.”

Non-experts are faced by blockades to participation from “tiny ‘mutual admiration societies’” that social scientist, Pierre Bourdieu, describes in his essay, “The Market of Symbolic Goods,” as being “closed in upon their own esotericism.” Bourdieu suggests that pure art is not made for the general public, or in particular, “the non-intellectual fractions of the dominant class” but is for art producers to create, critique and disseminate amongst themselves.

If Bourdieu’s assertions hold true, then it begs the questions how and why do those outside of the insular production-for-the-producer communities ever engage in culture? How and why do artists and those interested or influenced by the creation of art engage in discourse with others outside their given professional fields or predetermined socio-economic pigeonholes? And what does it mean to share knowledge in a non-hierarchal system where ideas are not passed down from the elite to the masses but rather ideas are created through a shared, unmediated dialogue—an organic discourse.

The age of digitization has opened up the channels of communication between the inside and the outside, allowing non-experts to find new inroads to learning and offering them the opportunity to possess independent knowledge becoming active participants in dialogue. The most common objection to this proliferation of shared knowledge and content is the need for professionalism and skill, “an idea often expressed with the observation that you wouldn’t want brain surgery performed by someone who learned their craft from Wikipedia.” The assertion being made in this example is that individuals will always choose the perspective of experienced professionals over amateurs but, as Clay Shirky explains in Cognitive Surplus, “were this preference for the professional universally applied, we would all be patronizing prostitutes — they are, after all, far more experienced in their craft than most of us will ever be.” The point is that the authoritarian voice is not always the most valued position in dialogue. “Sometimes the value of professional work trumps the value of amateur sharing or a feeling of belonging, but at other times people find large-scale and long-lived sharing better. As more people come to expect that amateur participation is always an option, those expectations can change culture.”

Click!  A Crowd Curated Exhibit, Brooklyn Museum, 2008.  Photo via

Whether through installation specific participation, continual civic engagement or visionary insight into the direction of an organization’s mission, the community that supports arts organizations is now doing much more than taking in the work and ideas of the institutional elite. They are providing context and value to the structure of organizations and art discourse. These institutional changes are enabled by and a result of the influence of technology and while the function of the curator within institutions themselves is not the sole focus of this exploration, understanding these shifts contributes to a fuller comprehension of the curator’s role in a new art discourse. It is therefore a goal of this project to consider both the time and space in which we now engage in order to determine the new role of the curator in our ever-changing digital landscape. Does access to limitless information call for the end of an authoritarian voice?  How do we as individuals utilize technology to engage in cultural discourse and do we need a curator to help us define and sift through the noise?  As the curator has worked to provoke participation within the institutional setting, must he or she now extend this responsibility to mediating the discourse around culture on-line and in the community?

Skype Conversation with Celeste Lindell

Celeste Lindell, Social Media Strategist at Barkely and the blogger behind Average Jane, has been navigating the world of online content management and strategy since the first dot-com boom of the late 1990s.

While professionally, she has helped to  launch, develop and maintain social media campaigns for clients including Build-A-Bear Workshop, Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure, the March of Dimes, and more, Celeste claims that she is perfect example of what not to do when it comes to personal branding. “I talk way too much about cats, recipes and other miscellanea”

Still, Average Jane is now entering its eight year, no small feat for a personal enterprise and Celeste shows no signs of stopping. Instead she hopes to branch out, into visual art, most likely craft—as she feels it “gets short shrift”—and continuing to add photography to her site.

Check out more about the Vice President of Kansas City’s Social Media Club in excerpts from our Skype conversation below.

Creativity Steals

I am a big fan of Austin Kleon. A writer/artist/tublogger living in Austin, Texas, Kleon’s projects offer bite-sized food-for-thought that leaves a lasting impact. When I first stumbled upon his book, Newspaper Blackout at one of the many hipster boutiques in my Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, I had no idea that what looked like a fun, though albeit unoriginal concept, would highlight such an innovative idea.

Speaking on the Economist’s Ideas Economy forum, Kleon explained how the backlash he received from critics and online commenters, who said his work was unoriginal, would send him on a research spree, discovering the 250 year old history of his idea that, to his surprise, was derived from the work of Tom Phillips’ visual poetry, which drew on the work of William Burroughs’ cut-up method, who was a friend and follower of Brion Gysin, whose work was pre-dated by French poet Tristan Tzara, and on and on and on.

Quoting T.S. Elliot, Kleon illustrated that it is transformation that is the greatest form of flattery, rather than mere immitation.

“An immature poet imitates, a mature poet steals, a bad poet defaces what he takes while the good poet makes it into something better or at least different.”

I keep returning to Roland Barthes’ idea of the interdisciplinary, a violent coalescence of disciplines or ideas that does not stand to “take a  ‘subject’ and to arrange two or three sciences around it,” but instead creates “a new object, which belongs to no one.”

For Kleon, “every new idea is a remix or a mash up of ideas.” Further still, we all have the capacity for creativity, “a mash-up of what you let into your life” defined by the people, products and practices that influence and inspire us.  (See Art Apéritif: The Exhibition)

I have now had dozens of conversations for this project with invested stakeholders of the Kansas City community who are striving to create conversation with members of our various artistic and entrepreneurial disciplines.  The aims of The Speakeasy, the Think Big Conference, the America’s Creative Crossroads campaign or the Bi-State Innovation Team for the Google Fiber Launch are not terribly different from that of Art Apéritif or one another.

Which is not to say that any of these conversations are either identical or redundant and unnecessary.  Each conversation provides value.  The challenge now is to find a synergistic approach (to steal a word that keeps be thrown about at my meetings with tech folk) which will allow these siloed initiatives to find a forum for shared dialogue and — even if it is only in the transferring of ideas.

Forward thinking is not proprietary.  It is open, permeable and unafraid of conflicting positions.  It steals. And is willing to be pillaged.