Image courtesy of One Of Us Is Lying

It’s taken me far longer than usual to write up my response to Firestarters 7, and I don’t only mean getting around to it.

If this post has ended up a bit rambly, then it’s because I’ve trying to find a way through a bunch of thoughts that seem related (at least to me), but haven’t quite settled into a comfortable shape until now.

I’ve chunked it up to order my thoughts.

This is stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, but it’s useful to start back at Firestarters last Tuesday.

The premise

At Firestarters this week Kirby Ferguson told us that Everything Is A Remix.

Planners tend already to be either students or proponents of combinatorial creativity, so it maybe wasn’t that revelatory.

But Kirby’s story was wonderfully researched and beautifully rendered.

It was a warm bath of cultural references and a gently iconoclastic tug at that Romantic thread that stretches from Beethoven to Dylan to the modern-day ECD.

He believes that creativity is more a function of discovery than it is imagination, and can therefore be accessed by anyone.

New ideas are already contained within familiar ideas. They are revealed through an unending and exponential process of re-contextualisation, waiting to be chanced upon by those curious and insatiable enough to copy, transform or combine what already exists.

Kirby’s apparently throwaway phrase “talent is simply interest” seemed initially to encapsulate his position.

On reflection it has also been his most contentious statement.

I liked it at first. It was provocative. I’ve defended it on Twitter. But some very smart people have questioned it as an over-simplistic reduction and I’d be foolish to ignore them.

Because new ideas don’t just happen.

Creative people do need something other than a pre-disposition to smash disparate elements together in the hope of something new.

As an MEC colleague said to me afterwards, someone can be as interested as they like in becoming a singer, but without the talent it simply won’t happen.

And, as Phil has argued, there is more to idea creation than mere curiosity in things that already exist.

So, to concede the point formally, talent ISN’T just interest.

But perhaps, to flip the phrase, interest is actually a talent.

This feels to me like it has more value in achieving what Kirby wants to do – which is to elevate interest, not do down talent.

What do I mean?

Three reasons interest might be a talent

First, while creativity is a process which can be identified and described, taught and applied, I believe that interest (or curiosity) is more of an impulse, a behaviour.

It comes from within and is difficult to inculcate.

That could make it a talent, couldn’t it?

Second, interest has a qualitative side to it.

Some people are just better at it than others. They’re interested in more things, in more diverse areas.

We are all of us now curators and combiners of the world around us.

We are all natural remixers. We curate, combine and re-contextualise everything.

We curate our own music albums, TV schedules, photos and films.

We share, link to, pin, filter and tumble things we like, things we don’t like, things we want people to think we like.

We effectively curate our own lives for others through the way we represent it digitally.

And, to quote The Incredibles, if everyone’s special, then no-one is.

So if we’re going to do this stuff professionally then we’d better be better at it than everyone else.

Which is presumably what we mean when we look for people who are talented at spotting trends and patterns (as opposed to fads and stuff on our own doorstep).

Third, and most importantly, while it’s never been easier to catch hold of new and interesting stuff via the internet, the very abundance of information now places a premium on the variety and quality of stimulus that you choose to play with.

As the internet’s ‘filter bubble’ continues to exert its influence, it becomes ever hard to, in Maria Popova’s words,

leave room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are

Coincidentally, on Wednesday, the day after Firestarters, Radio 4 broadcast a lecture from Maria called The Architecture of Knowledge, on just this subject. The introduction hailed her as someone who can help guide us through a world where “everything’s available and nothing’s obvious.”

Digging deeper, further out, is the only choice we have if we want to get beyond the supposed wisdom of friends.

And this is why interest is a talent.

Really? Who says? (Part 1)

There’s a few useful comparison arguments to draw on.

While it feels like a default setting for most planners and creative types, curiosity – and the impulse to curate the world – requires commitment, inventiveness and something else innate, not particularly definable.

In fact, the line between creativity and what we might as well submit to calling ‘curatorship’ is becoming impossibly blurred.

In a key phrase, Maria says in her lecture that

the quality of our creative output depends on the breadth and diversity of those mental resources.

This requires what she calls ‘associative indexing’ – the meta-data of memory, information and stimulus of any kind that enters our realm.

She quotes Charles Eames, who said that “everything eventually connects” given time. (So Kirby’s Remix idea isn’t new – but then, he has his defence built-in.)

Eames said that what counts is the quality of connections.

And the convergence of knowledge across multiple domains.

So, curiosity feels like something we should celebrate.

But perhaps more precisely, we should celebrate the discernment and creativity with which people pursue their curiosity.

This is central to why flipping Kirby’s contentious phrase started to help me work out why I’d been so attracted to it.

First, I’ve realised I believe that taste matters. And it matters more than ever.

Second, most exploration and curatorship is largely pointless at the time we find things out, because the application of knowledge is largely unpredictable.

We don’t know when and why the most fruitful collisions of ideas will take place.

It’s a great irony, but in order to put knowledge to use, we have to spend our lives continually acquiring entirely useless knowledge.

That kind of vision beyond the immediate here and now is also something you could call talent.

Really? Who says? (Part 2)

Kirby used some musical examples at Firestarters. In thinking about this post I’ve been thinking again about the creativity in hip-hop and how it offers a fantastic model for what I’m talking about.

Hip-hop’s magpie mentality made for innovative music that existed entirely of re-contextualised recorded performances. Records are comprised not composed; lifetimes’ worth of listening with the snippets and shards of other people’s are re-imagined to make something new.

Paul’s Boutique. Three Feet High And Rising. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

But more than that, hip-hop had built in its own ‘discernment curve’.

Because fresh sources of inspiration were imperative. Ever more esoteric and imaginative samples became re-contextualised. Interests that had originally had nothing to do with being a hip-hop fan became relevant, valuable.

Not for nothing was there an underground collective called Diggin’ In The Crates – that was the literal job in hand.

Influences became more disparate. The domains got more diverse.

Like Shaolin Kung-Fu philosophy, movie soundtracks, library music.

Or this, for example.

You”ll remember Sour Times by Portishead.

Well, now check out this piece of incidental music from the Mission Impossible TV series. It’s by  Lalo Schiffrin. Listen to the first 10 seconds, and the five seconds that start at 1m 33s.

Sounds inevitable now, doesn’t it? But spotting the potential of those two breaks takes time, skill, recall and a breadth of soundtrack knowledge.

Of course, it requires the kind of creative ‘diagonal’ leap that Phil talks about.

But you have to be listening in the first place.

You have to listen to enough music, first of all, to know that using it would be ‘new’. You also need to listen to enough source music to know what will work and what won’t. Most of us think in relative terms, and artistic innovation is no different.

In short, it takes the sort of attention and interest you can only call talent.

Joining it together, sort of

Appropriately, the last question from the floor on Tuesday night was about an idea from Simon Reynolds’ Retromania. It came from Glyn.

(Digression: as a fellow Reynolds nut I introduced myself to Glyn immediately. It’s the sort of lovely serendipity for which I’ve come to cherish Firestarters.)

The question was about the diminishing quality of remixes in a culture where remixing has been made easy.

Joining the dots to all this, I went back to something Brian Eno said, quoted by Reynolds in Retromania. In a 1922 interview for Artforum, Eno said this:

“Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times: it is the task of re-evaluating, filtering, digesting, and connecting together. In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta-author.”

This is Eno’s vision of the artist as “the connector of things”, analogous to “the editor, the compiler and the anthologist.”

The contemporary artist is someone who

“perpetuates a great body of received cultural and stylistic assumptions, he re-evaluates and re-introduces certain ideas no longer current, and then he also innovates.”

This is the line between curatorship and creativity blurred forever.

Does this mean that ‘diagonal’ thinking is less needed? No, of course not.

But the more self-conscious our remixing tendencies, the more judicious and discerning our connection points need to be.

We need to become connoisseurs at curating our chosen realm of culture.

In hip-hop/music terms, very few have been better at this than Massive Attack. Not for nothing did The Guardian recently call Blue Lines the blueprint of UK music.

And, of course, their own magpie brilliance makes them ripe for deeper engagement in the information age.

Because you can now hear directly where their inspiration came from, thanks to Spotify and other, ‘interested’ listeners.

In other words, the curated, curated.