Beyond Flash is a talk I gave as the closing keynote of the 2008 “Flash on the Beach” conference (now called “Reasons to be Creative”), in Brighton, UK.
The talk challenges the digital art community to start making more meaningful and longer-lasting work, so that our creations may resonate more deeply with the rest of the (non-technical) world.
The talk was controversial, and drew a mixture of boos and applause. In a bar later that night, one of the other conference presenters tried to punch me, and he had to be restrained.
It is not often that I am invited to a Flash conference, and I seem to operate more on the periphery of the “Flash community” than from within it, so what I am about to say might be difficult for some to hear, but it has been on my mind for some time, and I feel it needs to be said. I’m going to talk about some things I have observed over the past eight years, and about some things I see as important going forward.
New mediums tend to evolve in more or less the same way. They tend to begin with a spark, a technical innovation, usually coming from the fringe, often from the world of science. At first there are just a handful of practitioners of the new medium, experimenting with and testing it. Photography, film, and the Internet began this way.
The second stage is an awkward adolescence, defined by lots of groping. Businesses grope with how to use the new medium to make money. Hobbiests grope with how to use the new medium to have fun. Artists grope with how to use the new medium to say something about the world.
In the third stage, a number of visionaries and virtuosos emerge, who have learned the new medium so completely that it has become an extension of themselves, and they are then capable of using it to produce incredible beauty, insights, or riches. Robert Frank, Stanley Kubrick, or Steve Jobs would be good examples.
When I look at our medium, not just Flash but the broader world of online self-expression in general, it seems to me that we are still in the awkward adolescence (which can be a good thing – think of the opportunity!).
Language is basically a system for expressing ideas.
There are all sorts of languages. There are obvious ones like English, Spanish, and Mandarin, and less obvious ones like dance, music, photography, film, politics, and programming.
Learning a language is important. Without a language you cannot say anything, and I believe it is important for us as humans to speak and to say something.
But languages can be dangerous too, for they can become addicting, and it can be easy to forget that learning a language is not enough.
Once you have learned a language, then comes the far more difficult and far more important moment when you have to decide what to say. And this might be the only decision that really matters.
Otherwise, you can end up like the schoolboy who spends his whole life memorizing the dictionary, occasionally forming the odd sentence, sometimes a paragraph, but never a poem or a play, not to mention a novel.
When I look at the Flash community today, I see too many of us who are stuck like that schoolboy.
And believe me, I've been there too.
When I look around this room and see the audience, and some of the people who have graced this stage over the last few days, I see some of the most amazingly talented communicators alive today.
The blending of math, design, programming, physics, practicality and poetry is amazing.
We speak a language that is capable of producing messages that reach vast numbers of people, and that expresses those messages in ways never before possible.
I believe our community can create some of the great poets of the next 50 years.
The talent and potential is incredible and inspiring.
But I am saddened by how that talent and potential is being wasted.
Because I also see a community whose true capacity for self-expression is largely kept at bay by the people who pay our bills, expecting us to continue to pump out mediocre projects of other people’s mediocre design. There is incredible pressure, from clients, employers, and even companies like Adobe, to stay up to date with the latest and greatest developments to the technology. This impulse is fine in spirit, but in practice, when the technology evolves so quickly, staying up to date becomes a full-time endeavor. Furthermore, I see a community that is distracted by relentless experimentation (experimentation is great, in moderation), constant tinkering (tinkering is great too, in moderation), advertising, games, purely aesthetic design, but most of all by the dizzying evolution of technology. Technology is just a language, just a tool. And tools will always evolve. There will always be stronger chainsaws, faster computers, newer plugins, better features, and the faster these improvements occur, the more distracting they can become. But it is important to remember that tools are just the language – you still have to decide what you will use the language to say.
When I look at the Flash community, I see an incredible amount of output, a ton of production, but not a lot being said.
I define a masterpiece as a beautiful idea, fully realized, taken as far as it can go.
In my view, there have been no masterpieces yet in the online world, my own work included. Time might prove me wrong, as masterpieces only reveal themselves with time, but this is my sense.
With a number of notable exceptions, most of the work I see coming from the Flash community is largely devoid of ideas. There is great obsession with slickness, surface, speed, technology, and language, but very little soul at the core, very little being said.
I believe that in the long run, ideas are the only things that survive.
I know many of you might not agree with these claims, so I’d like to pose a number of questions to help illustrate my frame of mind. These are questions I often ask myself about my own work (and to which I can rarely answer yes). They are difficult questions, but I believe they are worth asking.
Finally, I’d like to share a few insights I've picked up along the way. These are partly about work and partly about life. Maybe you’ll find them interesting or useful.
You will become known for doing what you do. This may sound obvious, but it is a useful thing to realize. Many people seem to think they must endure a "rite of passage" which, once passed, will allow them to do the kind of work they want to do. Then they end up disappointed that this day never comes. Find a way to do the work you want to do, even if it means working nights and weekends. Once you've done a handful of excellent things in a given way, you will become known as the person who does excellent things in that given way. And that's the person you want to be, because then people will hire you to be that person.
The personal is powerful. Trust your own experience. It’s the only thing that’s really yours, and that’s really unique. Putting yourself in your work can be powerful.
Do your own thing. If you imitate, you’ll only ever be a bad example of the thing you’re trying to imitate. An artist I like very much, Donald Judd, said that what you have to do is to find the same level of inventiveness as the person you’re trying to imitate. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t incorporate elements of other people’s work. As Picasso said: “Bad artists copy; great artists steal.” What he meant is that it can be OK to steal an idea from somewhere else, as long as you steal the idea and do something new with it, make it your own, and move on. If you copy it outright you’ll only get stuck in the past.
Ideas are the only things that survive. Execution is important too; a good idea poorly executed probably won’t go anywhere. But if something is going to last, it’s because there’s a good idea at its core. It’s got to start with the idea.
Experience is the only way to learn. Pain, joy, fear, risk, love, firsthand experience. You can learn so much from these things, and the experience will end up affecting your work in ways you don’t even realize. But it’ll be based on a real thing.
Only fools get trapped by tools. Tools exist to serve you. Not the other way around. There is a long-standing unspoken pact between tools and their owners, which says that tools should disappear the moment you stop needing them. This is the way that pencils, hammers, and leaf-blowers behave. But many of our technological devices – iPods, cellphones, laptops, Blackberries – have violated this pact and overstepped their boundary, asserting themselves onto the lives of their owners, becoming constant distractions. Don't let your tools trap you. Tools are not the idea. Tools are tools.
Go outside. It’s important to get away from technology and experience the world. You've got to see your world, see your community, see what's not being said what needs to be said. That’s probably the best way to figure out what you’re going to say. For me at least, it’s impossible to have any good ideas while sitting behind a computer. Ideas come from life. As Hemingway said, “I have to live to work.”
Once you have learned how to speak, what will you say? This is really the central question. If I can leave you with one idea from my talk, this would be it.
Postscript: a video of this talk is here.
On blogs and in bars, I have read and heard much speculation as to my motivation for giving this talk, and most of that speculation is wrong. My objectives have been described as selfish, arrogant, myopic, unfeeling, unempathetic, close-minded, fame-seeking, intentionally controversial, and all sorts of other unsavory things, but the truth is that I gave this talk simply because I felt it needed to be given, and it wasn’t clear to me whether anyone else was going to give it, or if so, when. For some of the best traits of the “Flash community” – enthusiasm, playfulness, experimentation, and mutual support – can also become weaknesses, if overdone. Too much enthusiasm can become an opiate, too much playfulness can inhibit serious thought, too much experimentation can distract from making finished works, and too much mutual support can lead to codependence. As in all things, a balance is best. But in the prevailing climate of blind positivity and technological exuberance, it seemed that a dissenting voice was missing and needed.
I believe the community of online artists / designers / creators, while still marginalized by the mainstream world (my Mom, my sister, my neighbor), is approaching a moment when the work we create may be taken as seriously as novels, movies, music, photographs, and plays. I believe our medium – the online medium – has the potential to become the next great way of processing and expressing our world. Some would say it has already reached this point, but I believe it still inhabits an awkward adolescence, with no real virtuosos and no real masterpieces, and that the only way for it to mature is for its leaders and practitioners to push themselves to make better work, which will, in turn, reach a larger and less insular audience. If the work is purely technological, it will be less likely to reach this larger audience, for it won’t resonate with as many people. If it connects on a more human level, on the level of ideas, it stands a better chance of touching people deeply and spreading widely, like a Toni Morrison novel or a Steven Spielberg movie. My reasons for wanting all this are partly selfish – it is my medium and I want it to flourish – but also inherently communal, as rising tides raise all ships.
I believe that everyone has something important to say (even programmers), and my talk was aimed at reminding a community largely unaccustomed to expressing opinions and ideas through their work that doing so is possible, and will probably one day be common.
Of course this path is not for everyone. There will be many who prefer to be purely technological pioneers, hired guns, salaried engineers, or weekend dabblers. This is only natural, and these people play an important role too, especially in advancing technical innovation. But there will be a few who love the idea that the poets of today and tomorrow can write beautiful and provocative poems in code and publish them online. And this talk is really for them.
This talk is not meant to be scolding, condescending, or belittling to anyone in particular. It is simply a challenge to myself and to my peers to keep pushing ourselves to make more meaningful and relevant work. This talk is as much for me as it is for you. And it comes from a place of (admittedly tough) love, from wanting to see all of our work be the best it can be.
Several people complained that the talk came across as rudely "professorial", condescending, or arrogant. I apologize if it did. I was trying to talk straight. And I'm not a funny person. So I humbly ask you to focus more on the message, and less on the delivery, which probably could have been better.
Several people asked for the slides from the talk, so I have posted them along with notes (above) on each slide, summarizing approximately what I said with each one.
Thanks for your time and interest.