The Long View: Creativity

This is part of an ongoing series I’ve been posting over at Daily Kos that I thought might be interesting to post here as well –Julie

Sometimes it’s complicated to talk about creativity in terms specifically of activism.  So today I’m going to talk a bit about creativity of other sorts: artistic inventiveness, creativity and exploration, with a nod towards the end about how it applies to activism and political work.

But first, about the picture.  There is no Photoshop effect at work here.  This is a light sculpture (see Eric Staller’s work for the original concept of light sculptures– the man’s a genius) which I created through a fairly simple process using long exposure shutter work.  For technical explanations of long exposure work, I’ve written two pieces, one for digital SLRs and another for non-digital SLRs.  The much shorter explanation is that you set the camera up in very dark settings and leave the shutter open for a long time, allowing the light that hits the camera’s film to take prime focus in the frame.

In this case, I was in a parking lot that had very little light surrounding it and pulled out a couple of those glow-sticks you see people selling at fireworks displays and similar events (believe it or not, I keep some in my trunk for just such an occasion).  I moved them into different positions, would hold them there for a moment to get the exposure, and then move them again.  First I did them around my head, curving them, and then straightened them out to do form the lattice work grids.

My intent is to do a lot more of this, using all sorts of light sources: sparklers, torches, light-up toys.  There are tons of possibilities here and lots of room for experimentation.  Winter is perfect for this: when the nights are long, the darkness is my friend for this sort of shot.

So how does this apply to politics & political movements? 

Read on…There’s a concept I teach my students called “functional fixedness.”  The idea is that we often think of what we’ve got in front of us as being fixed and rigid in its purpose.  A butter knife is for a specific set of tasks, but when you find yourself without a screwdriver, it might do in a pinch.  A lot of us simply don’t think of this, because we don’t think beyond the obvious.  Realizing that I could use a camera to take pictures not only of what’s there at the time I click the shutter and what’s going to be there ten seconds later has transformed my sense of what photography is.  My camera is no longer a way to document and capture moments.  It’s a way to render the passage of time; not through animating images but instead through capturing the whole path of light, and the way that light reflects off of mist, and how that light curves and bends.

In the picture shown, I captured the same light source multiple times, in different positions.  You see very little of the movement of the light because it’s such a low-strength source that it wouldn’t capture it except when still for long enough to show up on the image.  In politics, we often can’t see the effect that what we’re doing is happening.  We don’t know how much of an impact we’ve had until we see the whole picture.  But with experience, we can get ideas as to what works and what doesn’t. 

With politics, however, our greatest enemy can be the expectation that comes with experience: not knowing how to move beyond expectations because we’re so used to them.  A variation on that functional fixedness keeps us from thinking of new and different ways to approach people about issues. 

And before I continue, I will explain that I fully admit to bias here: I’m personally oriented towards creativity and my willingness to expand my own ideas beyond the obvious is probably my primary survival skill.  For a living, I find ways to take complicated concepts and integrate them in fashions which make them clear to people who don’t need to fully understand them but need to understand the basics.  I’m one of the few people I know who can translate easily between geek and non-geek.

So for me, being creative is key to everything.  I’m drawn to works that challenge my assumptions and I’m drawn to works that inspire me to create new material.

So, to politics: as activists, we’re often stuck in a bad situation: we have numbers, but not nearly the resources of large, multi-national, corporations.  We can’t afford to launch high-profile PR campaigns and because we’re smart people who like to think, we don’t just fall into line with daily talking points, so it’s harder for us to get a coherent, specific, and simple message into the media meme the way that conservatives (who, preferring to just repeat the same talking points over and over again, because it presumably shouts out the screaming voices from deep inside the recesses of their blackened, dying souls) are able to do.

But here’s the thing: if we approach these problems with enough inventiveness and creativity, we don’t need to act like conservatives in order to get our messages out there.

Three years ago, global warming was viewed by the mainstream media as just a theory but it doesn’t take an advanced degree in climatology to realize that when “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, it really did change things for people.  It didn’t do this through just providing good, solid, information.  It did this through providing it in an creative and engaging fashion.

Think about that for a moment: people paid money to go see a lecture about climate change presented by a guy who, when he ran for President in 2000, was just not a particularly engaging presence on the campaign trail.  Don’t get me wrong: I like Gore, but prior to an Inconvenient Truth, I would never have thought I’d be able to sit through more than ten minutes of Gore speaking without falling asleep. 

It was creativity that took this presentation of his and turned it into something much bigger.  It was looking beyond the message itself and thinking about the delivery system that changed things.  Now we’ve got a transformed debate.  No one’s pretending its not real any longer.  We’ve got people pretending it’s not bad but now no one’s pretending it doesn’t happen. 

For me, what this boils down to is that we’ve got a lot of really smart, clever and sophisticated people on our side.  But we don’t use those skills well enough.  We write.  We argue.  We fume.  We seethe.  But what are we going to do that’s going to step outside of the comfort zone?  What are we going to do that draws attention to big issues in a way which engages people without scaring them off?

There aren’t easy answers to this but it does sometimes involve a lot of patience.  Daily Kos started small, and started primarily because Markos and his merry band of Orange Heathens were willing to speak truths that no one else was willing to do at the time.  They were representing a voice which was seldom heard at the time.  This separation from the norm helped garnish enough attention and power to be derisively attacked by Bill O’Reilly.  Admittedly, being attacked by O’Reilly is a low bar, but clearly he’s in some fashion threatened by ‘Kos.

And really, although I joke about it, it’s pretty amazing that this site has attracted some major attention from high-profile (even if insane) media figures.  It’s not because ‘Kos is backed by large finances or a strategic ad campaign.  It’s because ‘Kos set up something which gives people the ability and choice to contribute in whatever way they see fit and allows us the choices to promote, recommend and/or ignore whatever content we so desire.  We use it to get informed, to inform others, to share ideas and it’s free to use for those of us who don’t chose to purchase a subscription.

There’s something revolutionary about this that pushes it to a new level of creativity.  Anything we can place online we can include in Daily Kos.  Think about  the youTube video that Ms Laura posted which outlines the writers strike.  It’s simple.  It’s clear.  But it’s funny and clever.  And I know about it because of Daily Kos.

Back to art: how many of you viewed this diary because of the unusual photo on the preview?  I included partially to talk about art and creativity, but I also included it because I knew it was something most people don’t see every day and I knew it would intrigue some people.

This isn’t something surprising or original; I used a hook.  The only unusual part is that I’m not trying to sell anything.  I’m just trying share my own experience and hope that someone finds it useful.

I think, for me, it’s that I see so many people who are afraid of trying things that will make them look foolish– I see us all wanting to find ways to create change but not having the resources to do so.  We’re stressed out, tired, not sure where to turn and our representatives capitulate to the Bush administration too often. We try things and fail and we get discouraged.

All of this is valid and understandable.  But sometimes we try so hard against those brick walls without thinking that maybe we’re seeing a wall where it doesn’t exist or that it just doesn’t look like it really appears.  We push and get frustrated and discouraged and feel isolated.  We get lost in the morass of corruption and insider politics and don’t know how to break through to the people who are supposed to be representing us.

And we forget to give ourselves the room to look at problems in new light.  We forget to give ourselves the mental space to find new and creative ways to look at the world around us.  We get so caught up in the day to day struggles that we forget that so much change happens through art and exploration and that change happens in subtle ways that aren’t obvious on the surface.

Look at that picture again.  Each of those lines of light that appear in it took time.  No one watching me create that picture would have imagined what it would look like after the fact.  I wasn’t even sure myself.  I was experimenting.  And out of the two dozen experiments I tried that evening, that’s the only one I liked enough to post.  People watching would see me hold a light then move and then hold it somewhere else.  Over and over again.  People watching would probably think I’m a bit odd and have no idea what the hell I’m trying.  But that’s because you can’t see the big picture when you’re in the day to day struggle. 

So we work.  And learn.  And experiment.  And explore.  And sometimes it works.  But when you try to get a message across, and do so in a creative fashion, somewhere with someone it probably takes hold.  That makes the message more available to people the next time they hear it.  And then when it gets presented again in a different fashion from another venue, they’re a little more ready to hear it.  And again, they may not be ready to take it in yet.  It takes time. 

I will end this with a summary of a story that most of us know, to show just how presentation can change how it impacts our recollection of the story:

A work of fiction which was written, which has been presented as a musical, has shown up in many movies, has experienced many parodies on sitcoms, has appeared as multiple plays, including a one-man play in which Patrick Stewart plays every part:

When Scrooge was first visited by Marley, he was unable to take in what Marley had to say.

When he was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, he chose to ignore his history and did not want to hear it.  He left the better part of himself behind, unable to learn from his mistakes.

When he was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, he was affected, but not enough to influence change.  He still resisted.

When he was finally visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, he was forced to come face to face with the direct consequences of his own behavior and his own choices.  It wasn’t until that path was drawn for him that the connections were made. 

What we’ve done that can not be changed.

What we’re doing now that we can change.

What will happen in the future should we refuse.

And what happens to others when they make the wrong choice.

Until we find ways to tie these messages together in ways that the rest of our country can understand, we’re still, as a nation, heading towards an abyss.  But we can influence the messages.  We can convey to our people that there is no question that waterboarding is torture.  We can communicate to our friends and colleagues that with our decisions on the environment come consequences that we’ll only escape by not surviving long enough to bear witness to them.

We can learn from our mistakes, but we have to be open to learning and we have to be open to finding new and unusual ways to communicate those mistakes to others and draw on the motivation that comes from wanting to change.

And when we harness that interest in change, we have to be ready to present real and meaningful alternatives.  In “An Inconvenient Truth” we were not just presented with information about the horrors of global warming.  We were presented with alternatives and things we can do right now to reduce the damage to the planet.  When we find creative ways to change our world, we also need to present ways that people can tap into that change and be part of the solution. 

What’s all this take?


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