From getting down and dirty in London, to the rarified art world. From the steaming heart of UK global warming, to a crumbling city quietly sinking into the sea. From art to advertising and back again. My contrasting experiences of the last month have been bordering on sensory overload as I pitched, exhibited in Do The Green Thing’s ‘Man-Made Disaster’ exhibition, and spent time at the Venice Biennale - immersing myself in the world’s only remaining country-curated art fair.
All the while I have been thinking about what it means to be creative in a time of active responsibility, and what other colors we can add to our storytelling palette to make more of a positive impact in the world.
In the industry, we like to pat ourselves on the back for being ‘creative’, but art is where the real shit happens. Art is the other side of the coin. They are the people that think we’re using our creative powers for evil, and who in turn, we see as irrelevant and full of privilege. But the differences and parallels between our two worlds are fascinating. The feeling I took away from the whole experience, is that maybe we’re the ones coming from a rarefied position. Perhaps we don’t always effectively communicate because we’re so quick to believe that simplicity is the only answer.
Yes, we have the ability to tap into those vast audiences that art can’t always reach, but do we move those audiences as much? We see immediacy as the only thing that makes ideas clearly understood, and that important messages can be only be conveyed in soundbites. Art turns all that on its head, for the better. Propaganda vs emotion. Preaching vs feeling.
Some of the best works at Venice felt like they didn’t need an explanation. However, the works of real power, such as the winning Lithuanian pavilion, were those that required you to really watch and listen. In this case, to an hour-long opera, that made a powerful and chilling statement about the environment and the apathy of humankind. You could dip in and out, or watch the entire beach scene unfold from above as 40 actors sunbathe their way into climate change oblivion. Or you could join them on the sand. Step outside, and water literally laps at your feet. The impact floors you. It’s visceral.
Tavares Strachan, representing the Bahamas told the story of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first black astronaut - who died in training. This poetic and beautiful piece was punch-in-the-guts powerful. The stories of the racism surrounding his appointment and untimely death stole the air from your lungs, the message it offered about the state of lived experience in the time of #BlackLivesMatter was clear.
The New Zealand pavilion was an incredible example of data poetics. Dane Mitchell’s work, ‘Post Hoc’, takes thousands of data sets of things that are defunct or have disappeared from the world, and broadcasts them throughout Venice from replica tree cell towers. Or, you can stream the strangely hypnotic voice reading over extinct animals, depleted minerals and abandoned technology and villages over your phone. It presented a somber, mesmerizing message about the scale of loss in the world.
Much of the work was dense. The explanatory text beside each artist stretching to pages that required interrogation and translation. It asked a lot of my concentration in a hot and crowded environment. However, the most incredible thing is what happened in conversation out on the city streets. Complexity bred discussion. It encouraged arguments! Passion! Knowing the audience and giving them something they love (or hate), made for action; heated voices over dinner, disagreement turning into deeper understanding. New ideas and opinions were formed - and changed. Understanding went deeper than a tagline. Camus famously said: “If there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue.” I think we can all learn something from our creative brethren.
I fully believe in what we do, and the power we have to communicate complex ideas in ways that people understand. But I learned a lot from my experience immersed in living, breathing art. We all know that the broadcast world is twisting in favor of creating real meaning for smaller and more engaged audiences. It’s why personalization works and what digital advertising is built on, but this messaging often kills creativity in favor of correctness and clarity. The Biennale made me question whether the era of simplicity might be twisting in these complex times too, to be only half the story. By focusing in on a specific audience and what they want, and by giving them more to play with, the creative energy was electric, and the impact was undeniable.
Let’s not be so quick to get to simple and explore a broader range of creative expressions instead. It doesn’t always have to make sense to feel right or to be deeply understood.