My practice is all about displacing people and ideas from their natural habitats, prizing them out of their comfortable environment to see what they really look like. I work with people who are already outsiders to the commercial machine, but I also create outsiders, by decontextualising people and ideas – taking artists, writers, hackers and scientists and putting them into challenging new contexts. If innovation is, as a thousand stock photos would have it, about ‘thinking out of the box’, then my stuff certainly qualifies at the most conceptual level. (We’ve forgotten the box. The box is in the recycling.) But it’s beginning to feel like innovation is something else, and the more that big brands try to claim the trendy word for themselves, the more sure I am of this truth: the only way to be an innovator, authentically, is to detach the claim from the question of finance.
Innovation needs genuine NEED (and not yours)
As artists, we must do the things which feel difficult, because there is comfort in familiarity, it instils confidence and ultimately complacence. But we approach new things more sensibly. So long as we’re doing the very difficult thing of trying to solve an external problem in a new way, we’re reasonably protected from the emo knots that go along with doing what we want.
However, novelty is not as commercially popular as you might think. Money hates risk, and risk (or perceived risk, which is usually the same thing) is lower wherever there is experience and similarity. Commercial society, whatever it claims to want for its innovations, does not want explosive lightening bolts of novelty. It wants is repeatable, proven money-spinners.
I’ve noticed that commerce doesn’t seem to mind novelty if it arises from decoupling and shuffling of skills and contexts – it’s still sufficiently familiar. People, not ideas, are the real raw material of innovation. The courage to take ourselves out of context is key. Just don’t tell the money people how much we’re prepared to do for each other without any of their cash.
The UK has a lot of big talk about innovation and culture, for such a little place. It’s rational to assume our elected handful of cultural influencers must be the best. Those without much power or influence literally can’t afford to question the system.
But you don’t have to go far to realise what a nonsense it is. In February this year, with my project ‘Hack Circus’, I was one of the successful applicants for the ‘Global FUTR Lab’ programme pilot, a co-production of FutureEverything, consultancy Strange Telemetry, the British Council and the Arts Council. There are some really good posts already on the British Council and FutureEverything blog from the other participants so I won’t repeat the details, but it kicked off some fundamental changes for me. I went to Manchester, and the world turned up.
The ‘Global FUTR Lab’ was a sort of package of hot-housed opportunities laid out for us in a banquet – one foot in the global scene, one in Manchester itself and a third foot (maybe a kangaroo-like tail-as-foot?) in the future of our own work. We were treated to a walking tour of Manchester, some workshopping of ideas around the critical urban environment, and an opportunity to methodically analyse our processes and present our work at the festival.
There was genuine innovation in the stuff my new colleagues were doing – these creative entrepreneurs from around the world were not ‘disrupting’ in the school rebellion sense we gleefully embrace in this country, they were almost doing the opposite: equalising. They were a voice of sense, using their tools to calmly resolve the chaos they’d grown up with, through bootstrapped ingenuity and bloody hard work. I realised with a jolt: real disruption is a glamorous and foreign thing to many in the UK, a shorthand for ‘authentic’, and just as distant. In post-revolutionary Indonesia or the Ukraine, a hack space is a critical centre for development and education, a spark that might reignite an economy or at least charge a community with hope. In the UK, hack spaces are (to some extent) a place for the privileged to indulge hobbies and just like 19th century hobby farms, perhaps they are, to some extent, an expression of our craving for the more meaningful life of an exotic ‘profonde’.
Change your context
Through our own displacement, our origin stands out in relief. We can only show others who we truly are when we place ourselves in total contrast to something. It’s like wearing red in a red house all your life, then suddenly finding yourself in front of a green wall.
So it was that I found myself heading to Berlin the other week to lead an ‘intervention day’ at the ‘School of Magic, Machines and Make-Believe‘, an annual summer school run by Rachel Uwa. A group of students from around the world, many simultaneously managing professional art and design careers, are taking the summer out to improve their technical and creative skills and try to build some new stuff.
I invited them to think about the city as a place of invisible limits and forbidden behaviours, and things developed from there. Some of us ventured outside, carrying heavy sandwich boards through the searing heat, offering strangers tours of everything from the police station to a local Lidl. Rachel and I stood in front of a shop window where dust-covered builders could be seen mid-renovation, and handed out tickets to passers-by to ‘watch the men for one minute’.
Some teams thought about influencing routes and trails of breadcrumbs. They followed unwitting pedestrians over bridges, trailing a chalk on a stick. Others stayed behind and considered fantastical scenes beneath the street, so that we might mount projectors onto CCTV cameras and transform them from Orwellian harbingers into beams of magic that moved when the cameras did. We found ourselves in the park collecting childhood fairytales from a group of drug dealers, and left them, smiling, with our hamfisted gang signs (actually Rachel was very good).
And that was when I realised what all this was about. Putting yourself in a different context is an intervention and an innovation. And the more publicly you do it, the more completely you embrace the challenge, the more your experience will impact on your surroundings. So creatives, hackers, anyone keen to make a difference but feeling by the overwhelming influence of the status quo, I urge you: do the difficult thing and use your freedom. Get away from the red house and head to the green wall, at every opportunity. You won’t regret it.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 2nd July 2015. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.