Miriam Suzanne: ideas, process, obsolescence & the iterative

Interview with multimedia artist, Miram Suzanne, by Mél Hogan, Digital Curation Postdoc, Brakhage Center for the Media Arts curator, and Media Archaeology Faculty Fellow. November 2013.

This interview serves as a follow up to Suzanne’s performance “The Obsolete Book in a Post-Obsolete World as Represented by a Post-Obsolete Book About Dance” at the MAL, September 27th, 2013. Her performance was part of a MAL Open House held in conjunction with the &Now Festival at CU Boulder September 26th-28th. The piece is available through SpringGunPress. Photos and a video of Suzanne’s performance are also available online.

Following this, Suzanne gave a talk at the Brakhage Center for the Media Arts where she spoke about ideas, design, art and performance. Captivated by his talk, I proposed a follow-up by email so that her ideas could be documented and also expanded upon.

MH. For those who don’t know you and weren’t able to attend the performance/talk, tell us how you spend your time and what your trajectory has been that’s informed your creative process.

MS. I work as a designer and web-developer with OddBird, a firm I founded with my brothers in 2008. I also write music and poetry with Teacup Gorilla, performance art with Vicious Trap or the Denver Poet’s Theatre, open-source software for Sass and Compass, and anything else that sounds interesting. I like to build things for other people: art or software, it’s all the same to me.

I started as a writer, director, and designer in the theatre — where good process is central to handling collaborative creativity on a deadline. When I began building websites, I found that the same systems applied, and web designers are even better at talking about their process. Before that, I thought of creativity-for-hire as “selling-out”, but it really is the best way to hone your craft. Concepts like “writer’s block” just don’t work in a professional setting. You can’t pretend your creativity is magic — you have to study how it works, and learn to control it.

MH. Ideas. Who do ideas belong to? Where does an idea come from? How do you begin your creative process?

MS. There’s some good research showing that new inventions tend to happen at several places simultaneously — the result of a broader cultural need, as much as any individual genius. But someone still had to sit down and put it all together. They had to explore the options, fail, adjust, and try again. In Everything is a Remix, Kirby Ferguson suggests that creativity boils down to “copying, transforming, and combining” what’s there. Ideas don’t come to life in a vacuum, they are the result of an interaction between people and their environments.

The idea of “owning” is really a legal concept that comes after the fact, and I’m not qualified to say much about that. My sense is that our current legal framework for owning ideas is overly simplistic — something is either original or it isn’t — while creativity is a bit more complex. Systems like Creative Commons or various open-source software licenses attempt to address that by offering copyright customization. I’d also like to see us re-consider “plagiarism” as a culture — with more focus on giving credit, and less on being original.

My own process starts with mental notes on things that excite or anger me, then making associations between ideas. If an image or idea catches my attention, I play with variations of it. What happens if I turn it upside-down? What happens if I combine it with something else? How far does it bend? Where does it break? If the results are interesting, I file them away until I have two or three ideas that fit together in interesting ways. Copy, transform, combine. One idea makes an interesting essay, but it takes two or three ideas to make interesting art.

My upcoming novel Variations on Riding Side Saddle started from a quote about transvestitism, a scientific article on out-of-body research, a touch of Greek mythology, the poetic voice of Jacob Liechty, and an idea for “modular” (rather than linear) storytelling. I gathered those “seeds” over the course of two or three years before combining them into a single project.

MH. Design process. You mentioned that you approach by siding with the client ‘against’ the work. Can you explain how you came to this tactic, and how it helps to remove design from ideas of taste and preferences into the realm of expertise and strategy?

MS. Design is a process of problem-solving, and every solution comes with trade-offs. Bright colors achieve one thing, for example, while dull colors achieve something else. Design, or art-making, is the process of choosing one solution over another. I used to handle that entire process internally, and present client with my favorite solution — having already resigned myself to the tradeoffs. But clients didn’t have any context for understanding those decisions, and their pushback would create an ego battle — me defending the work against their attacks.

The solution came to me from an article about the Pixar process. According to the article, Pixar teams gather every morning to critique their own work from the previous day. They nitpick their own work in detail, creating a list of every problem they have. Then they start looking for solutions. It’s a different mind-set for creativity. The artists job isn’t to defend the work against critique, the artist’s job is to be the first (and harshest) line of critique.

It’s one thing to do that on your own, but I really wanted to bring clients into the same mindset, so I changed the format of my presentations. Instead of defending my work, I’m always the first to attack it, and then I invite the clients to attack it as well. There’s no reason for anyone to defend the work: we are all here to make it better, and that means finding the flaws.

Now my role is to explore all the options, and help clients understand their trade-offs. The client’s role is to tell me which trade-offs matter most. What is actually a problem, and what isn’t. Then I can go back to work with better context. During that process, it’s important that no one is jumping to conclusions. Brainstorming doesn’t work because it’s too easy. When any answer will do, no one is pushing deeper to find the best answer. So we keep clients focussed on problems. When a client does offer solutions I re-focus them by asking why, so I can get to the problems underneath.

I use that same approach in my art-making, with the audience as my allies against the art. They are experts at knowing what worked and what didn’t, but their solutions tend to be generic and uninteresting. So I listen to their complaints, and continue to ask why until I find the root problems. When the audience complains about chapter three, the solution is often hidden in chapter one, but they can’t see that. My job isn’t to defend the work, or to do what I’m told. My job is to make the work better, and if I listen closely, the audience can help me do that.

MH. Iterative process. Can you tell me more about the place of experimentation in your work. How does the experiment work differently in design and theatre, for example? Is the idea behind the experiment that it allows for revisions and iterations?

MS. We often use “experimental” in art and design to talk about things that are strange or new, but experimental process is a well-defined set of steps based on scientific method, and it’s iterative by nature. It would be a stretch to say I use the scientific method directly, but the structures translate pretty well for creative work, and I use roughly the same techniques in theatre, writing, design, or music.

At the heart of the experimental approach is the idea that all your variables can be adjusted individually — and the experiment happens by studying how different variables affect the outcome. That means you have to closely consider each element of the work, adjust some aspects while not adjusting others, and then learn from the results. Artists are already familiar with the first part. We talk about the “Elements of Design” such as color, shape, texture, size, etc. In dance and theatre we talk about gesture, tempo, repetition, architecture, and so on.

For me, experimental process means that each element should be isolated and explored in detail. Rather than assuming the sun “should” be yellow, I can try all the colors and decide which one is most effective. But “trying all the colors” is not art — that’s just the process. The art is in critiquing the results, and making decisions based on what you learn. Doing something strange or new is only a stepping-stone towards doing something better.

MH. Obsolescence. One line that stuck out for me in there was something to the effect of how obsolescence frees us from the expectations of its intended use. Can you tell me more about the place of obsolescence in your media arts work?

MS. Technology isn’t a competition. The new is not an insult to the old, and we don’t have to choose one over the other. Something is only obsolete if you don’t want it any more. It doesn’t matter how great e-readers become, if people still like books, we’ll always have books. In fact, I expect books will only get better.

I think of technology in terms of social psychology and role theory. Technologies don’t exist in isolation, they act out cultural roles. When a technology is new, no one is yet sure what role it will play. Early adopters experiment, first trying to fit it into existing systems. What is the internet? Is it like a book, or a calculator, or a telephone? Eventually they discover that the internet is like all these things, but different too. It’s the internet. Based on those early experiments, the new technology takes on a role, where it becomes mainstream. When another technology comes along, all the roles have to shift. There’s a time of experimentation again, while we discover how the new pieces fit the puzzle.

For a long time, books have carried the full burden of information-storage and communication. Giving up that role is not the same as dying. My act of growing-up doesn’t make my parents obsolete, but it does free them from the daily act of parenting. Books aren’t gone, they just don’t have the same heavy cultural weight to carry. What will books do next? This is a great time to experiment with the form.

I use my work as a way to constantly question and re-examine the roles we’ve assigned to objects. Sometimes we forget that objects can be anything we want them to be. The rules are arbitrary. We made them up because they worked for us a hundred years ago. If they don’t work for us now, we can change them.

MH. Medium. You mentioned performing your novel (without words) with your band, Teacup Gorilla, which is also a work in progress in html5. Can you talk about the role of the medium in your work?

MS. Medium is just the way you turn an idea into an experience. Any medium can turn any idea into an experience, but it will be a different experience. The media we use are just tools, like shape or color or gesture. The categories are arbitrary, more useful for looking back than looking forward. When does theatre become dance, and does it matter? Where’s the line between poetry, song lyrics, and a novel? Who cares?

You can buy different themed Lego sets, but in the end it’s all just Legos. When you want to build something new, the specific pieces are more interesting than the sets they came from. We invented theatre and novels and pop songs, so we can destroy them and invent new categories any time we want. Underneath, it’s all just words and sounds and movement.

One time I decided to write a novel, but then I added pictures to it, and I put it online with animations. Not because I set out to make Web Art, but because I thought the web could be one interesting way to explore the story, characters, and aesthetic values. Music is another way to express that same material. But the choices that work online are not going to work on stage, so I make different choices. If the words have to change or disappear for the novel to become music, that’s fine with me.

When I’m asked to be part of a poetry reading, I approach it in the same way. What works on the page is not what works out-loud. It’s not the words themselves that are important, but the experience they create. If the words need to change to make the experience work, so be it.

Maybe I get this idea from theatre, where we perform the same scripts over and over in different ways — sometimes for generations. It doesn’t stop being “Romeo & Juliet” just because you put it on film and add music. Would it stop being Romeo & Juliet if you made it a silent film? Why?

MH. What are you working on next?

MS. I’m currently working to complete the two novels. Into the Green Green Mud is coming together online, and Variations on Riding Side Saddle will be published by SpringGun Press next winter. I’m also working on a layout toolkit for web developers (Susy), and a collaborative writing tool for artists. Vicious Trap is slowly making progress on an opera, Teacup Gorilla has just started playing regular gigs, and Denver Poets’ Theatre is about to start rehearsals on a new piece.

That ought to keep me occupied for a while.