There is lots of advice everywhere about how to run your business, and build a “career,” develop your craft, your art, and so on. But if you’re someone like me, you won’t readily find advice for the sort of work you do. The majority of advice out there is for people who do things with things that already exist. You write screenplays for films? Sure, plenty out there. You direct theatre productions? Plenty out there. You design videogames? Plenty out there. What if you work with artforms that don’t exist yet? This article is for you.
I’ve always seen myself as someone who works on “new” or “innovative” things. I was the first to direct a theatre production that combined slide projectors, televisions, and UV lights at Monash University. The first female crowd controller at a pub on the Peninsula where the city boys go to run amuck at their family mansions during the summer. The first to write a transdisciplinary PhD on Transmedia Practice, an academic piece from the perspective of a creative rather than a critic, scholar, or fan. The first to create a web audio adventure, for the iPad…(coming soon). I’ve tried to understand why I do what I do, because it isn’t easy. In fact, it is quite lonely and quite hard. I’ve always thought that I like doing things that haven’t been done before. It is that. But I’ve realised something else recently about what it is that appeals to me. I like working in spaces that don’t have existing rules.
In startups, they talk about a difference between founders and CEOs. As professor Noam Wasserman explains in his book The Founder’s Dilemma, the skills needed to run at start-up at the beginning are not the same as the skills needed when the company grows. Some founders can make that transition, but many times a new CEO is brought in to take over management. There is a skill-set for those that initiate things, and those that maintain them. I initiate things.
At present I’m working on a digital installation at The Cube, QUT. It is “one of the world’s largest digital interactive learning and display spaces.” I’m the first digital writer in residence in the space, doing a rare digital writing residency in Australia, and the first of its kind in the world. I’m figuring it out as I’m going. I’m working out how to use the screens to create an experience. I’m figuring out how to work with the infrastructure at the venue; work with the staff; work with the visitors to the space; negotiate the stakeholders; talk to the press about this weird thing; and manage a team who has never worked together before, and never worked on a digital installation before. I’m sharing the experience on how I’m doing it on the web, with the stakeholders, in public presentations, and with internal reports. By the time the next resident comes along next year, there’ll be an understanding of the space, the technology, processes that work, what the residency is, and so on. I would not have found the experience as exciting as I do now, because it would have been mapped.
When something is new — whether it be a new media, or an unusual combination of artforms, or rare genre-bend — it is open to exploration. Almost anything goes. Importantly, there aren’t standards or processes, there isn’t an ecosystem of providers, suppliers, consumers, reporters, reviewers, and so on. There isn’t a set of structures and systems telling me it has to be done this way. For many, this is the least appealing environment or stage. But for me, I don’t find such rules stimulating. That doesn’t mean I work without rules. Of course not. I draw on principles. But when I’m working on something truly unique, I’m not surrounded by a million voices saying “this is how to do it.” The air is clearer. It also means I need to have a nose for finding the quality. I can’t draw on or even build upon quality practice. I have to find it using my instincts.
There is no-one to really call on, no guides. No-one understands just what you’re doing until it is done. So you spend the development process in a netherland, where some may hope you’re doing something wonderful and most probably presume you’re creating something hideous. They tap the glass every now and then, but mostly you’re alone. But in the end, initiates aren’t afraid of the muddiness, of the unknown, and even of being misunderstood. Initiates are used to not being understood. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explained: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Initiates are around for the scorn and misunderstanding, and by the time acceptance comes along they’re off in a new space.
I therefore always thought I had an affinity with so-called “alternative” artists, or “new media” artists, and even some “game” artists, because I thought we were all working in things that are new. We shared a common enemy if you like: misunderstanding. But I’ve come to realise that we’re working with new in different ways. Some of the “alternative” and “new media” and “game” artists I know are quite conservative. They aren’t interested in trying “new” things and I couldn’t get my head around it. Aren’t we working in the same space? Then I realised they work with existing artforms and try to subvert them and us with them. They’re provoking through working with existing tools. They’re innovating vertically if you like. A term I heard a few years ago comes to mind: “intrapreneur.” They are entrepreneurs within a company, within an existing artform. They change things from the inside, where there is already a crowd. Whereas I create forms that don’t yet have a crowd.
How Initiates Attract a Crowd/Map New Spaces
Definitions or framing devices are very important for initiates. They’re not just naming the terrain, they’re saying whether it is rocky, smooth, how to walk through it, what to bring, what you could do here. Map making. People come in later and change the name, and then change the terrain. But who comes first and what they do and what they see depends in part on how the initiate relays it to people.
For this reason, the language of an initiate is inclusive rather than exclusive. The language of inclusion is difficult. The territory is described in a way to appeal to many, and facilitate a variety of uses. It is multifaceted and complicated. There are warnings or judgements against this sort of approach: if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it; keep it simple stupid; complicating it means you don’t grasp it. Fuck off. It is fucking simple to people who live it. The sort of simplification you want is one that distils it down to a fucking knob of nothingness. You don’t get it. You want the front porch for an opportunity that involves the whole fucking town. So, um, this is why initiates aren’t the ones who take care of the language of the “new threshold.”
The New Threshold Workers
What happens after a territory is known, is new people arrive to translate the new threshold. Space Mapping and now rulesets are in the hands of evangelists, educators, and exploiters. The new threshold workers emerge. They’re the ones that make the new territory palatable to newcomers. They create smooth roads with language that guides the new tenants in. No rocks to negotiate, just smooth paths. Unlike the initiate, they are very specific with their language. This territory is an investment opportunity, or the next big trend, ripe for branded entertainment, the only future for storytelling, or something you must have or you will die. The territory is defined through the language of exclusion. It is specific to a certain market.
The initiate finds this difficult. The territory is no-longer perceived as a land of opportunity where different things can happen. Instead, is has a small set of functions, and some of them have nothing to do with the nature of the space. The territory is for using, for projecting onto it whatever. This new threshold work is where the majority of education work is and if done properly, can help a beautiful new territory thrive.
So the initiates map the abstracts of new territory, and this attracts the new threshold workers. come in. How it develops from here depends on what researchers G.M. Peter Swann and Tim P. Watts explains as the issues around a “pre-paradigmatic” market (Swann and Watts, 2002). In the context of virtual reality (VR), Swann and Watts explain that despite the exciting allure and potential of the technology, it hasn’t become a strong market. This is because, they argue, VR is “pre-paradigmatic”:
“It is not an issue of technological failure or lack of potential demand. Rather it is because of a lack of coordination of expectations and vision between diverse technology developers and diverse users. Even if VR has the potential to meet real user needs, vendors and users do not manage to focus on the same paradigm for VR. At present VR remains in a pre-paradigmatic stage and until that stage is passed diffusion will remain slow. VR lacks a coherent vision and is, in a sense, a victim of its own ubiquitous potential.” (p. 42)
VR, they continue, has so many things it could achieve and so many users of all of these potential uses. This is what they call the paradox of ubiquity: these diverse possibilities work against market success. So there are many people working in VR exploring and evangelising different uses (and therefore disagreeing on the definition of VR), and likewise many users championing those different uses according to their interests. Just as we see in transmedia, where some people champion audience-interaction, others franchise management, others pervasive art, and so on. This represents a diffusion, a lack of coherent foci that thwarts ‘leading designs,’ and therefore market success (they argue). Everyone doesn’t have to agree on a foci in order for market success to happen though, as sometimes a product leader can emerge and unify vendors and users alike. (It looks like this has just happened in transmedia.) New threshold workers have their various interests in a new territory, and can play an important role in steering towards a paradigmatic. But it isn’t a territory, role, and use that initiates are interested in.
Initiators have their work to do. Because we’re working with a lot of “new,” it is good to draw on the familiar where possible. I learned this from writer Maureen McHugh, who I worked with on Cisco’s The Hunt. I apply this principle to both my production processes and the end-product. For instance in my web audio adventure for the iPad, I adapted a screenplay format to communicate the web-based audio experience to the cast and crew. It is a familiar (to some) script format that helped combine all these disparate elements together. When it comes to the end-product, I include elements in both the script and interface that are familiar to the user. I draw on tropes from detective fiction, for instance, and use visuals to evoke sentimental memories of devices.
Another aspect of initiate work is that no-one on the team will ever be experienced in the project you’re creating – because it hasn’t been created before. So I’ve found I need to employ people who are open to exploring, to not knowing. If they’re scared of not knowing they’ll add unnecessary anxiety to the team vibe. They need to be interested in problem-solving more than being right.
What I’ve also learned is that while no-one will be experienced in exactly what the project is, I need to be careful what related skill-set I contract them for. At the beginning of development I may not know which skill-set I’ll draw on the most. For instance with my web audio adventure, it is a project that draws on audio drama, audio tours, and game audio, as well involve recording, editing, sound effects, composition. At the beginning of the project I didn’t know what artforms I would be drawing on most, and of course in the end had a crew member that was more versed some than others. What also happens as you develop the work though, is that what is the primary skill changes too. This is why I think unique projects may involve or actually benefit from changes to personnel than non-innovative projects.
The creation process for unique projects can be muddy. Innovative projects look ugly for a long time. I’ve tried to keep the ugliness away from outsiders and insiders (team members) as much as possible. Team members need to feel confident in what you’re doing. They’re taking a big gamble on the crazy idea, and so can potentially have more moments of fear and doubt than other projects. Another approach is to surround yourself with people that trust you. As creative directors Ken Levine and Amy Hennig talk about when creative directing games: things are experimental and iterative up to the last minute, and so you need people around you that trust that process.
Unlike creatives who create in known terrains, I think initiates are best served by having worked in many areas. They do MacGyver work in the fringes. I draw on tools from screenwriting, game design, startups, art theory, literature, theatre and so on. I have a weird toolkit that has spanner for just about any situation. I’ve heard some people snark now and then about how a project on Kickstarter “has been done before.” Sure, nothing is entirely new. But even if there is an example here and there in the past of something similar, it sure hasn’t become pervasive. So there is no shared understanding and systems for how to create it, no defined users of it, and no shared usage models. We have to design it for newcomers. This is interaction design for the fringes.
But this is part of what I love about this kind of work. And when I say work I just mean what I do, not some paid job. There is certainly no-one paying the wage of an initiator. I do it because what I love about it is that I get create something down to its very core, and context. I create not just the content, not just the interface, not just the code, but a whole ecology of processes in the creation and delivery. Each project involves imagining ways to do everything. To lay the ground as we go. It is this type of creation that excites me, and is a responsibility.
How can you help an Initiate?
What is the best thing you can do to help an initiator? Get out of their way. Learn how to recognise them and draw on them at appropriate times. Don’t call on an initiate to write rules for narrow usage. Call on initiate if you’re sparking something new, or if you want to mix up the area and include more than exclude. If you want to fund innovation? Be prepared to not understand it, to have it go against your indicators of success, and to find it ugly for a while.
How about you? What is your experience of living on the frontier?
Christy is a writer-designer-director who works on digital and transmedia projects. She is about to release her first major app: a web audio adventure for the iPad. She is also currently digital writer in residency at The Cube, QUT, where she is working on a digital installation about robots. She has worked on award-winning global alternate reality games for Nokia, Cisco, and the ABC. She wrote a PhD on Transmedia Practice. @christydena