How “Surround Audience” at The New Museum Blew My Mind Twice

Oh hey. I’m going to write a blog post about the most recent mind-blowing cultural shit I’ve seen in New York because it makes me feel like I’m getting more value for my rent.

Frank Benson, "Juliana"

Frank Benson, “Juliana”

My first impression of the New Museum back in 2007 was of dismissal; it felt too conceptual, postmodern and obnoxious. The art was not accessible; it made me feel dumb for not “getting it” – for not having any emotional response to “artwork” made of children’s toys and colored planks of wood with pieces of garbage tied to a string.

Last year I gave it another shot for Chris Ofili’s “Night and Day” exhibit. Massive, colorful, collage-like paintings and intricate, obsessive pencil drawings showcased an impressive range of materials. Infamous for his elephant dung paintings, Ofili is more than shock value and envelope-pushing. He is inspired by the human experience and his contemplation of socio-economic inequality. The New Museum redeemed itself for me with that exhibit. It was edgy, modern and relevant – but was also authentic, relatable and accessible. I appreciated it.

Then I heard about this year’s Triennial. I assumed it would include more of the earlier kind of art: conceptual, postmodern…and obnoxious. I then discovered this video online by artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison. I highly recommend watching it and her entire series, “Touching The Art”.

I had to see for myself what was going on here. I ultimately visited the exhibit twice because I couldn’t absorb it all in just one visit. I felt more inspired and connected to not only the artwork but the concepts and motivation behind the artwork, that I only made it to two out of the four floors of artwork on my first visit. The work, collected from 51 artists from 25 countries around the world, explored how digital technology is connecting and separating us as a society more than ever.

Surround Audience intro 

My Favorite Pieces

Each floor of the exhibit was introduced with a warped, enigmatic poem. A choppy yet effortless stream-of-meta-consciousness meditation. It expresses the way we communicate today, with common anxieties, typos, symbols and misspellings marked by our text-based culture. 

Ryan Trecartin, "Time Pend"

Ryan Trecartin, “Time Pend”

 These poems saved me. They made me think “OMG someone else gets how ridiculous everything is.” I smiled while reading each one.

Indian artist Shreyas Kahle’s work left the biggest impression on me after my first visit. He explores “the distorting effect of the male gaze” as seen in the marble sculpture below: are they mountains or boobs? I love his cerebral sketches and “pseudoscientific” symbolic drawings; they evoked a Magritte-esque surrealism in a more raw expression. (“Surround Audience”, New Museum Triennial, Feb-May 2015, p. 188)

Shreyas Kahle, "Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn't Matter"

Shreyas Karle, “Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn’t Matter”

The shameless honesty and self expression of artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison made me laugh out loud while watching a video installation of her avatar performing a standup routine. (Her YouTube interview series, which got me to see this exhibit, was playing on a flat screen TV in the museum lobby.)

Casey Jane Ellison, "It's So Important To Seem Wonderful"

Casey Jane Ellison, “It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful”

These dreamy, haunting paintings by Chinese artist Firenze Lai left me breathless. These figures with warped proportions, to express the way our relationships with others (and ourselves) are often similarly warped with modern technology. We’re always available, we’re always able to connect with everyone everywhere…yet we don’t fully feel “connected” at the same time. I think this is a universal symptom of modern life and I loved every minute I felt like there are others who feel this way – and can creatively express the ennui of the digital age.

Firenze Lai, "Tennis Court"

Firenze Lai, “Tennis Court”

Firenze Lai, "Argument"

Firenze Lai, “Argument”

Firenze Lai, "Alignment"

Firenze Lai, “Alignment”

 

The perfect mix of truth, beauty and intellect.

Art that explores how disconnected we are as society has the effect of subverting that very feeling; it makes you feel connected to the brave artists who felt compelled to visually express their own dissatisfaction with the state of things. It’s all very cerebral and conceptual, but not overly so, with just the right balance of meta-consciousness and visual aesthetic.

“Surround Audience” ends today…but good news! I bought the coffee table book of the exhibition so if we’re friends IRL I’ll let you look through it if you wash your hands and tell me how cool my apartment is both before and after looking through my cultural coffee table book of cool-ass, mind-blowing artwork.

Writing For Online Audiences? Say More. Write Less.

It’s a humbling experience to realize that while you enjoy writing, did well in school and aren’t afraid of expository essays – it’s a whole other world when writing for the web. Social media, email newsletters, company blog posts…these should be considered channels to produce “copy” – not tomes.

Compelling copy is written economically.

Less is more, no matter how long the supporting body copy should be. Twitter imposes a 140 character limit….but Facebook doesn’t. Neither does email. Long-winded social media posts and emails bore readers; too much copy that takes too long to get to the point sacrifices attention – and ultimately sales.

Consider theSkimm, an email newsletter that raised $6.3M in Series A funding this past December. It recaps top news stories, pared-down into informal, easy-to-digest snippets. Created by two former NBC News producers, theSkimm excels at explaining why those top stories are considered important. This layer of meta-value is created thanks to an appreciation by the editors for their audience’s time and intelligence: busy professionals who want to know not just what’s happening in the world, but why it matters.

Another example of the value of sharp content is Blinkist, an app that summarizes nonfiction books into 250 words or less chapters, including a Final Summary chapter. Their tagline is “A smarter you in 15 minutes”. Brilliant. For free, you get access to one pre-selected book a day. I recently upgraded to receive unlimited “Blinks” for less than $40 per year. Classics like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Emotional Intelligence and Getting Things Done are broken down and digested in a way that feels intravenous.

This trend is also part of what makes Medium so compelling as a blog publishing platform; each post has a “read time” next to the title, allowing the reader to mentally prepare before making any investment of attention or time.

Read time on Medium

Image of a “5-min read” article by Medium author @amarchenkova

theSkimm, Blinkist and Medium are examples of how to make online content compelling. They’re both modeled on providing “hooks” – a reader gets a taste of something he or she can then decide to further investigate. theSkimm links to original sources; I’m waiting for Blinkist to offer integration with Amazon’s “Wish List” if not a direct link to the book’s product page.

Brands interested in grabbing and retaining attention need to say less.

Which requires smarter writing. Which involves more thought. To understand the target audience. What’s the value of the content. How to communicate smartly and effectively.

For more on writing crisp, concise copy for the web, Copyblogger is a great resource on the topic. Pair with “Hey Whipple Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan, a guidebook on creating effective ad copy. You could even read it in 13min on Blinkist. 😉

Embracing The Process v. The Product of Creative Expression

3 min read

One of the hardest parts of working for yourself is managing your time. Especially if you’re in the business of helping to manage web content that is goal-oriented and likely to produce positive results.

Pitching work as packaged deliverables with deadlines is a skill. It requires organization, foresight, planning, experience and discipline. You’ve got to communicate the deliverables and the deadlines clearly, and ensure you meet them. If the project involves other team members, this also includes follow ups and budgeting for the kind of “stuff” that “happens” and slows projects down. Toss on top of that things like staying on top of industry news, learning new tools to improve your work, networking, sales calls. Prioritizing and reprioritizing. Maintaining your online presence. Updating your portfolio with new work.

Creating work to pay the bills

To produce impactful digital content takes time. It takes thought and planning. Research and analysis. Creativity is the key ingredient and good creative requires direction, purpose or constraints. Creative briefs are great for this, but you may be the one responsible for creating those as well, depending on project resources.

Self-imposed structure is hard to enforce. You’ve got to stick to the schedule you created. Be realistic about commitments. Communicate with clients and friends in a purposeful yet positive manner.

Creating work for personal expression

When getting paid to produce creative work, it’s often necessary to separate your ego from the work to move projects along. But it leaves you feeling in need of a creative outlet elsewhere – and who has time for that? If you’re going to invest on creating something it better be worth it, because time is money…right? As a self-employed creative, making time for personal creative expression can feel like an irresponsible squandering of your most valuable resource.

Solution: Process v. Product

Show Your Work” is a practical approach by Austin Kleon for putting creative work out there – which in today’s world means putting it online. Sharing influences, inspiration, rough sketches, etc. It’s about embracing the “process” as part of the work.

Show Your Work, Austin Kleon

“The only way to find your voice is to use it,” says Kleon.

The same advice is found in “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron – the Bible of unleashing creativity and transforming potential into practice. Cameron says to enhance the quality of the work once must first increase the quantity. To create better work – you’ve got to create more of it. Kleon’s book focuses on placing one’s work into the public domain. This sets a process in motion, as you’re more likely to get discovered by those who share your interests, which can inspire more work.

So, starting today I’m taking this advice to heart by implementing a routine in which I sit down and write for 25 minutes, first thing in the morning, every day of the week. Even before I take my dog out. (She values creative expression, and is a creature of habit so I’m confident if I stick to this routine she’ll get used to Mommy sitting at the desk for a bit before we go downstairs. I think she’d agree that Mommy needs to find her voice on this damn blog once and for all.)

Day 1: Check!

#showyourwork

BOOK REVIEW: Global Content Strategy: A Primer by Val Swisher

I discovered this handbook on Twitter through a discussion with The Content Wrangler, a member of the content strategy community. This is a group of writers and strategists dedicated to improving the stuff we see on the web. Specifically, the stuff that brands and businesses put on the web, in the hopes that it’s seen by an intended audience. In a way, we’re all in the business of turning hope into reality. How beautiful.

TL;DR

Global Content Strategy: A Primer is good crash course on a complex topic. Ideal for pitching senior management on a strategic approach to large-scale website translation.

Global Content Strategy by Val Swisher

I’d recommend Global Content Strategy as a useful handbook for anyone working with global audiences in need of a multi-lingual website. Specifically, anyone tasked with managing the translation of multiple languages. The information is not relevant for small sites with a few pages or sites translated into just one or two other languages; it’s for companies with large websites and a global audience, interested in translating web content using a cost- and time-efficient approach, without sacrificing on quality. If you want your content understood by lots of people in lots of different languages, here’s a breakdown of how to manage that process.

It covers the basic tenets of content strategy (audience definition, voice and style considerations, having a multi-cultural approach to icons and symbols) as well as technical, project management advice (choosing translation vendors, maintaining a central database of TM, which stands for Translation Memory, and more). It was a good refresh of the basics and a succinct overview of the complexities of large-scale translation projects. Val Swisher definitely knows her stuff when it comes to executing and managing (wrangling!) what can seem an insurmountable mess, known as Global Content Strategy.