Tuesday, December 25, 2012

PRAGMATIC: Things I've Learned From Business, Vol. 1

I may be a producer, a performer, a director, and a writer (all at different times), but I am also someone else -- I'm a salesman of IT software to businesses. Yes, that's right, when I'm not scheming about how to create fake people and kill them or how to create new rituals in America, I'm telling C-level executives at large New York based companies how they can better improve their processes.

Part of the reason I've stuck at this job and continued to enjoy it is that it gives me some secret all-access pass into large companies and how they work -- from notable media companies, to financial services, to non-profits and higher education organizations. I am, of course, not going to use any names (to protect the innocent), but I figured I might as well share some of the things I learned.

The area of IT technology I work in has to do with process optimization, which is why I find it so broadly applicable. Really, it has to do with how do groups of people work together to get things done.

ITIL (or the Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is the framework of processes that IT organizations have to deliver service. At the end of the day, it's just a common language to make sure that IT people have an understanding of the different parts of their job.

One of the advantages of ITIL is that the focus of ITIL is on service. All of the IT processes are put together from the perspective of improving service to "customers" -- where customers can be within the company or outside of it.

When you see bad processes, it's probably because they're not service-oriented. Nobody is thinking about the end user. For instance, here's a video that Google Analytics put together showing what some e-commerce websites do wrong:

In this hypothetical online check-out, it's clear that nobody has looked at it from the consumer's perspective -- it's not service oriented.

So ITIL preaches that you need to be service oriented. Another way of putting it is that you need to create value. Their way of looking at value has two levels:

  1. Utility; Is it fit for purpose? (i.e. does it do what it is designed to do?)
  2. Warranty; Is it fit for use? (i.e. do you have enough of it, is it available enough, etc.) 

A little handy logical diagram that they use:

It's a little jargon-y, but they're being specific around it: does it help you do more ("performance supported?") or is it helping you do what you do easier ("constraints removed?"). Those measures of utility and warranty are more technology specific (after all, the arts are not exactly worried if someone hacks into them and distributes them on the internet...), but I think it helps demonstrate what has to come together for a work to create value: the right thing, and access to it.

That's it for tonight. More to follow.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

POLICY: We Are Not Lawyers But We Need To Be

If you were paying attention to the internet today, Instagram rolled out some upcoming changes to Terms and Conditions, and got slapped around because of the perception that it would allow them to sell your photos to companies for use in advertisements. They've put up a notice explaining that this was not their intention, and that they're going to rewrite the language to make it clearer:
The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question. 
Ownership Rights Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed. We respect that there are creative artists and hobbyists alike that pour their heart into creating beautiful photos, and we respect that your photos are your photos. Period.
I'm curious about how this will turn out after the rewrite -- after all, it's all well and good for them to talk about intentions but the proof is in the pudding -- but I have two thoughts coming out of this:
  1. Instagram users, and Facebook users, and iTunes users, are not lawyers, but they need to be. The issue is that legal language is not the same as the English language as it's commonly used, and it's especially confusing because it looks like English. One of my colleagues at my day job who deals with contract language all the time said that "Grammar has nothing to do with contracts" -- it all has to do with the consistency of the way the words are interpreted. A lay person can probably understand most of what they read in a contract, but may not. But each of these seemingly dry changes to legal languages may have deep impacts on your actual rights as a user of these platforms.
  2. Our legal system is built adversarially, and it doesn't quite work in this space. Contracts, usually, are agreements between two parties. That means that lawyers from both sides work on language that they both feel comfortable with, and that both sides have a similar understanding of. (When they fail, we have lawsuits). Having listened to corporate contract negotiations, verbiage and wording is something that both sides will put in input on -- trying to imagine the ways the wording could be interpreted and refining the verbiage until both sides are comfortable. When it comes to social networks, we're not really at the table. The only example of another model is Facebook's governance votes, but again -- it's not from a perspective of equal footing. Certainly, users are not proposing their own language to Facebook. At best, we can only revolt when it goes too far.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Ray Mark Rinaldi writes in the Denver Post to describe the vacancy at the top of the NEA:
[Rocco Landesman's] departure gives President Obama a chance to put someone new in the job, a leader who can operate less in fear of being called to the Capitol to explain a grant for an offbeat performance art piece and more toward carrying a banner that puts culture back at the forefront of American identity. 
Some actor who can flash a smile on behalf of arts education, some tech guru who can dazzle with ideas about how the Internet can bring Shakespeare to rural areas, some corporate executive who can convince us that our art economy can rise through public-private partnerships, something Landesman pushed effectively, but never got any juice from. 
Our next NEA chair needs to make the fine arts trendy, return talk about poetry, literature and classical music to the national conversation. He needs Twitter followers.
I think the areas of substance are what we need to drive. Although our next head of the NEA should be a great face of the agency, I think he needs to drive controversy by proposing to change the face of the NEA.

Oh you know what, why pretend. I'm really writing this blog post to repeat that Adam Huttler should fill the vacancy.

PLUG: Cool Opportunities

Cool opportunity number one:

Fractured Atlas is seeking a full-time Program Specialist for a newly-created position.  The Specialist will manage components of Archipelago, Fractured Atlas’s cultural asset mapping tool, along with the organization’s participation in the Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America.  This position reports to the Research Director. 
This is an exciting opportunity to join a cutting-edge nonprofit organization working at the intersection of culture, technology, design, and data. The successful candidate will be a creative “doer” who takes pride in delivering to the highest standards of performance time and time again.
The "Research Director" is Createquity's Ian Moss, and the goal is something I'm very passionate about -- how good data enables the arts and arts organizations. I've also been vocal about creating arts infrastructure. That's what Fractured Atlas does when it creates the technology for data.

Wait a second, speaking of Createquity's Ian Moss, here's another cool opportunity:
Are you smart? A good writer? Interested in how the arts fit in to the bigger picture? Why not join this blog? The Createquity Writing Fellowship was designed to continually bring new voices into national and international conversations about the future of the arts. So far we’ve introduced eight bright, (mostly) young writers to the world, and we’re just getting started. You could be the next to join them, all while receiving mentorship, research assistance, and guidance on your writing from yours truly. Think of it as your very own virtual graduate practicum in arts policy. Details and application instructions, as always, are available at the Createquity Writing Fellowship page, and applications are due January 8.
Two great ways to contribute to arts policy and the arts community, in truly professional environments.

PRODUCING: Yet Another New Model For Funding

In addition to fundraising through Kickstarter/IndieGoGo, Kiva (the microlending organization) has a new thing called Kiva Zip, which they wrote about on Fractured Atlas' Blog:
Kiva Zip is a new development from Kiva, which aims to extend access to capital for entrepreneurs in the United States. They are offering 0% interest loans up to $5,000, which are crowd funded by individual lenders from around the world. Since they launched at the beginning of this year they’ve funded over 80 entrepreneurs across the country, with businesses ranging from hot dog vendors to yoga instructors. A number of independent artists have successfully fundraised on Kiva Zip over the year and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
I hope artists are judicious with this. A 0% loan sounds very much like free money, but it is not. Even a 0% loan must be repaid. I would never, for instance, take out a Kiva Zip loan for a theater production, because theater productions lose money. Loans are good for things which will, in the future, make you more money. A new camera for a photographer is probably a good candidate for a loan -- the outlay is once but the profits recur.

ARTS POLICY: Shared Arts Infrastructure

Leah Hamilton at ArtsBlog asks "Has Endowment Become A Dirty Word?", by examining a successful model, the Springfield Arts Collaborative, which supports arts organizations the following:
Seventy-five percent of funds raised are divided equally among the five founding arts organizations (Springfield Ballet, Springfield Regional Opera Lyric Theatre, Springfield Symphony, Springfield Little Theatre, and the Springfield Regional Arts Council). 
The remaining 25% is allocated between three shared funds designed to benefit the Springfield arts community as a whole: the “Arts-In-Education” fund (which will fund the action goals in the Any Given Child plan), the Creamery Arts Center Fund, and the Landers Theater fund (an historic theatre in downtown Springfield). The Community Foundation of the Ozarks manages the funds and their distribution. 
That "Creamery Arts Center"?

In the arts community, more than 30 local groups share The Creamery Arts Center. The 35,000-square-foot building, once home to the Springfield Creamery Co. and later the first distribution center for O’Reilly Automotive, includes administrative offices, as well as an exhibition hall, board room, arts library, arts classroom, film editing bay, a shared costume shop, and set design/fabrication studio.
I'm interested to hear from Springfieldians about what the impact of this has been. Are costs for arts organizations lower? Are more independent art organizations able to start up and remain viable?

Still, on the face of it, this seems like a great structure to multiply the value of any donor contribution in the community, and to help make the maintenance of arts more efficient. I don't know if "Endowment" has become a dirt word generally, but the National Endowment of the Arts certainly has, and if it focused on arts infrastructure like that, 

NEWS: Small Shoots of Good News

“DoD needs to demonstrate that it can improve the management of clandestine HUMINT before undertaking any further expansion,” the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a report on the new legislation. 
Longstanding problems with defense human intelligence cited by the Committee include:  “inefficient utilization of personnel trained at significant expense to conduct clandestine HUMINT; poor or non-existent career management for trained HUMINT personnel; cover challenges; and unproductive deployment locations.” 
The Committee noted further that “President Bush authorized 50 percent growth in the CIA’s case officer workforce, which followed significant growth under President Clinton. Since 9/11, DOD’s case officer ranks have grown substantially as well. The committee is concerned that, despite this expansion and the winding down of two overseas conflicts that required large HUMINT resources, DOD believes that its needs are not being met.” 
Instead of an ambitious expansion, a tailored reduction in defense intelligence spending might be more appropriate, the Committee said.
While in my home country:
Facing indictment for breach of trust and fraud, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned his post Friday afternoon amid mounting political pressure, upending the campaign landscape five weeks before national elections.
Lieberman is best known as running for the Knesset on a platform of banning Arab parties (which passed the legislature but was struck down by courts), or for trying to require Arab-Israelis to swear a loyalty oath to a Jewish State, or for flushing the toilet while being interviewed for the radio, and for his deputy foreign minister who forced the Turkish envoy to sit in a small chair to humiliate him. The party he created just merged with the Likud to create a super-majority for super-conservatism.

Unfortunately, much like the similarly respectable Silvio Berlusconi, Lieberman is already predicting he'll be back to his job soon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

REVIEW: Hearts Like Fists

Flux Theatre Ensemble
at the Secret Theater

November 30 - December 15
Tues - Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 7pm

What's a heart? Fortitude? Love? Arteries to choke with donuts? In the new play Hearts Like Fists running at the Secret Theater through the 15th, all of the above.

If that's a schmaltzy intro, then I have to apologize -- I don't have playwright Adam Szymkowicz' ability to tightly wind sap around action and produce a surprisingly hilarious, kinetic production that meditates on the subject of fear, bravery, and love in between.

In the world Flux Theatre Ensemble has deftly woven, Doctor X (Gus Schulenberg) - a mad, jealous evil genius - is on the loose. He's slaughtering young lovers as they sleep, stopping their hearts as they lay vulnerable. The only thing standing between him and a terrorized city is an undercover crime-fighting organization called, aptly, the Crime Fighters. Meanwhile, Lisa (Marnie Schulenberg) is a head-turning young lady falling in love with a young doctor, Peter (Chinaza Uche), who is in process of creating an artificial heart. When Lisa collides with Doctor X and is drafted into the Crime Fighters, she -- and everyone around her -- need to decide exactly strong their hearts are.

If the play -- which features monologues and conversations about what love is like and how it feels to be in it -- seems like it's headed for sap-town, it very well could be, if it wasn't for three things: the strong crafting by both Adam's script, the energetic direction by Kelly O'Donnell, and most especially by the invested, deeply felt performances by the ensemble.

One of the finest example is Chinaza Uche's Peter. I commented in my review of Obskene on how the sometimes ridiculous news stories in that plot were salvaged by performers who imbued them with every bit of passion and seriousness, without forcing or pushing. In Obskene, Uche vividly rendered how extremely hot it is in the fake news stories -- and it carried the imagery into being new and unexpected.

Here, Uche brings that vivid, earnest performance to a young man afraid to pursue the love he truly feels, worried of his own weak heart. A worse playwright would give Uche weaker, less interesting material to work with -- but even with Adam's sharply written and intelligent writing, without Uche's powerful performance, we would be tempted to dismiss it as just another waffling young man.

Gus Schulenberg's Doctor X is in a similar boat. As the stock mad scientist, he could be consigned to a witty version of the trope crowded with figures from Doctor Robotnik to Doctor Evil to Doctor Horrible (and a thousand cheap imitations in between). But with Schulenberg's invested performance, Doctor X slides seamlessly and honestly between mad murderer, young lover, and sad wanderer.

Connecting to these characters allows Szymkowicz' script to hit very open, naive notes without ringing false. It lulls us into being open to hear those monologues about what it feels like to be in love, and how scared we are by it. Because what Szymkowicz is saying is definitely true, and new -- but without the care taken, we wouldn't be ready to hear it.

Of course, this is only half love story. The incredible fight choreography by Adam Swiderski and Rocio Alexis Mendez keeps the action flowing, and the script have plenty of punchy one liners and understated comedy.

The ensemble, Jennifer Somers Kipley, and Chester Poon, are also worthy of a stand-out call. I have a pet peeve about walk-on characters that have just one line to say -- it's impossible for me to ignore the time and effort that every member of the cast puts into a show, even for the smallest part. Luckily, the ensemble here is used well -- from the pre-show, where Poon sets the stage with fight choreography, and through the rest of the production. There aren't a lot of times where ensemble gets their own round of applause during a scene change, but this ensemble earns it.

Go see it. Because you need to be laugh really hard. Because you need to connect with well-fleshed, three-dimensional characters. Because, as Hearts Like Fists puts it: "The world is dangerous. Love is scarse. Crime is prevalent." 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

PERSONAL: Good Week for the Internet

It has been a great week here in New York for the internet reaching out and fostering human connection. First, thanks to Ian Moss for organizing Createquity Office Hours -- it was a great opportunity to meet some of the other great writers for Createquity, and other sharp people in the New York arts community. It's great to remember that there are innovative people at all kinds of organizations, from visual, musical, and performing arts.

And then, on a wholly different note, went to the live show of the Earwolf podcast How Did This Get Made at the Bell House, where a packed crowd of hipsters all tried to figure out why the movie The Devil's Advocate is as bad as it is:

At any rate, that's something people should consider when they go on about how live performance creates community and the internet makes people alone. I think together they make a powerful couple... like peanut butter and jelly when you fry it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

RESPONSE: Batman the Movie

By which I mean the Adam West feature film. After having read some pretty gritty late-Batman material (The Killing Joke, Knightfall, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns), it's worth a visit back to the time when Batman was inherently funny. Exploding shark bites his leg? Of course he has shark repellant spray! (He also has Manta Ray spray, which I presume he was saving for a sequel). Every enemy, every question, has a gadget waiting to be used. 

The current wave of comic book movies seem to want to bring this Batman-grit-machine  to every other super hero. I'm just curious whether that rehabilitation machine is ever going to reach deeply silly comic heros like Aquaman.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

PRAGMATIC: Art Is For Lovers

RVCBard has a great post on writing theater for fandom. Meanwhile, Seth Godin is writing about creating products for customers who care. These are related ideas, in my mind. If you're going to imagine someone outside of yourself engaging to the work you create, you should imagine someone incredibly excitable and passionate -- who, given the right consumption, will come out swinging for you.

That's all. Go read those posts.

REVIEW: Proprioception

The Shop Theater
Nov 29 - Dec 2

As a final project of a student of the Experimental Theater Wing, you'd be comforted to know that Proprioception's is open about the experiment on display -- probing very specifically into the reason that time slows down between two people in love. Here, the question is neurological: how peoples minds inexplicably sync up through love, and through music.

The format of the performance is this: two Johns (Keenan Jolliff and Trevor Salter) each play out moments in their relationship with Daniella Rivera) Meanwhile, John's roommate played by John Gutierrez is being driven by John (Keenan Jolliff) to pursue a relationship with a girl he has a crush on. Woven through this, Andrew Guay MC's a television program, channelling a doctor whose research addresses the notion of time on the mind. Guay also directly addresses the audience and engages them in thoughts of memory and connection.

The description above may make you believe that this is a philosophical play, full of musing. And I'm not going to lie -- sometimes it goes there (sometimes a bit too much). But what keeps the play moving and vital and grounded is the physical body in space -- something that creator Keenan Jolliff and his company of performers understand well.

The body is used abstractly and realistically; for huge sweeping emotions and the depth of the tiniest moments. For example, at one point early in the play, John (Keenan Jolliff) comes home with a new "boner jam" (definition 3) to rock out with his roommates. His dance with one of his roommates (Devante Lawrence) is hilarious and sharp, but when the moment transitions into John berating his other roommate (John Gutierrez) for not following up on his desires, the dancing continues fluidly -- with John jumping onto a table and fluidly gesturing while continuing his angry rhythms.

This kind of use of the body strikes home for me -- when I was in college, a few years into my movement training, I volunteered at a local middle school (Thompkins Square), and I vividly remember being shocked at how evident the physical traumas and explosive waves of puberty are on young men and women that age. Teenagers are fidgety and neurotic because their bodies are enflamed with chemicals -- and there's something truly transparent and endearing about a performance which leverages that kind of vibrant energy.

And yet, while John's dance on the tables and sofas of his apartment manifest explosive emotion -- a very Grotowskian use of internal impulse -- the movement of Andrew Guay, during his conversations channeling the Doctor, comes from a different world of movement -- the abstract, post-modern vocabulary of symbolic movement. 

Unlike Keenan's fun, over the top dance movement, this abstract world of movement does not spring from deep impulses, but rather from a gestural language -- it adds to the punctuation and the rhythm, helping transform what could be philosophical chatter into something more musical.

Guay is not the only one to enter this world of movement, but he wears it best.

A third realm of movement comes into play in a touching and poignant movement piece on a couch between two young, new lovers; starting from those little hand movements and adjustments you do in the presence of your crush, eventually finding their way to synchronistic, mirrored -- but still naturalist -- movement.

As with every other aspect of the work, what pulls it off is the fact that it is genuine, and heart-felt. In these moments, these performers are transparent, and you are in the same place as these people -- because it ties into your memory.

The real accomplishment, however, is not how any one of these modes of movement are used by the ensemble, but how fluidly and comfortably they can move between them. 

The moment on the couch culminates at the height of connected realism, and then leaps into moments of abstract gestural dance between the two. Daniella Rivera's character is slow-dancing with John (Trevor Salter), and it explodes into moments of expressionist, fluid duet. A monologue by the mostly-silent Devante Lawrence -- rapid-fire, serious, into the microphone, contemplating how impossible it is for two human beings to truly understand each other -- culminates in a hilarious run of implied Halo slaughter.

One of the tough parts of trying to dramatize the feeling of being in love -- especially amongst the young -- is trying to create something that doesn't fall flat, feel small, or shrink in the face of the experience. The fact that Keenan and company have brought together a broad palate of the human body's response is indicative of how deeply felt this work is; no single mode of expression is good enough, but they're all united in the same place.

As I said, the experiment is about whether our relationship with time is subjective; whether love is truly the moment where our relationship to the world around us syncs up with that of another person. A meditation on mirror neurons.

In a way, it's also a meditation on why performance works. After all, watching other people do things, talk about things, etc. is not necessarily a replacement for doing it ourselves. The theory that music, or love, or theater can make you sync up to the experience of another person is the whole reason to practice those arts -- to build a connection to others. 

Whether through the direct address conversation to the audience (asking them to supply their own cherished memories, even in safe anonymized format), the narratives presented, or -- most engagingly -- through the physical movements sparked, Proprioception is a bold gamble toward that noble cause.
Are not words and sounds rainbows and illusive bridges between things which are eternally apart? - Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

UPDATE: Proprioception is sense that the body has of itself, also known as Kinesthesia.