“In order to save the human-race,
we need to become better story-people”
Tall orders don’t come any bigger than an invocation to “save the human-race”, as weaved into Matt Checkowski’s presentation on the end of the first day of Semi-Permanent in Wellington (SPWGTN) – and such invocations, for obvious reasons, shouldn’t be taken lightly.
One of the natural risks with design-centred speaking events however, is that they can easily turn, no malice intended, into a parade of portfolio-munching slides.
The first instalment of this event reportage, played off an undercurrent of looking back; this second instalment mixes it up some more and dwells momentarily on the points where vocation meets story telling, leading to a pertinent question we should all keep asking from the back seat: Are we story-people yet?
Los Angeles contrasts:
MATT & SCOTT
While Matt Checkowski (The Department of the Fourth Dimension) and Scott Harris (Mistress Creative) may not be California natives (Matt’s originally from Massachusetts and Scott’s a Sydney-born Australian) they both brought a big dose of a vibrant LA vibe with them to Semi-Permanent.
Working out of studios in downtown Industrial Street and coast-side Venice Beach respectively, they also presented a number of reasonably stark contrasts in their commercial endeavours: the boutique contrasting with the entertainingly bombastic; subtle and elegant framing, contrasting with shameless in-your-face advertising with a twist.
Like any city, LA begins with the sum of its parts and they’re constantly overlapping.
In Matt’s case this was manifested in his gravitating from design to working on feature film sets, and although disavowing the tag ‘Movie Director’ he had a turn at the helm of a 2006 flick starring Steve Coogan (Lies & Alibis, a timely tale of infidelities).
Having subsequently carved out a niche in short-form documentary format films and experience design, Matt confessed to a long struggle with the buzzword phrase ‘story-telling’.
“When I went into film making I was tossed into a world where design and story had to co-exist. I adamantly believed I was a designer, as a calling. It was about ideas for fuck’s sake. The word ‘story’ felt like dressing up, it felt like a scam”.
Gradually he ‘started over’ in his thinking. “I had to figure out what this word was all about it. I didn’t know how to wrap my head, or my heart, around it. (Then I considered all the) weird ways for people to plug into stories that we can’t predict”.
By way of illustration Matt took SPWGTN on a piece of backwards time travel: Charlie Chaplin; the first heliographs; the birth of opera (when audiences were rowdy not poncy); the Greco-Roman epoch; way, way back to cave paintings.
Matt posed a genesis scenario for story-telling as a key part of human evolution and survival. Adopting good Californian vernacular it went something like this: “Dude gets bored, dude goes on an adventure over the hill, dude survives and returns to tell his tribe what he saw… perhaps even to warn them there’s a nearby sabre tooth tiger ready to eat them all”.
Considering all this Matt said he had largely overcome his wariness of lazy over-use of the phrase story-telling and had become more intent, personally and professionally, on encouraging people to protect the heritage of story-telling and to become ‘story-people’ through three ingredients.
Quoting a famous Stanley Kubrick line that “the emotions of people are far more similar than their intellects .. the common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction” for provenance, the first ingredient is to accept that stories are a flight simulator for life.
Next up is a belief that craft empowers storytelling (demonstrated via Matt’s work with passionate baristas, butchers and brewers), followed by the third ingredient: New experiences make new stories (a platform for showing an olfactory-bending D4D project known as the Sephora Sensorium).
Matt: “The core of it all is that story-telling builds culture. and shapes conversations. There’s a unique opportunity for designers to seek out creative new ways to find stories and to uncover environments where people are comfortable being themselves”. And the final gist is to leave room for “people to plug their own stories into the stories”.
Scott Harris, 43, has been in the advertising game since he was a teenager. After scaling up from BMF to Ogilvy New York and then Mother London, you get the sense that making the move to found award-winning small agency Mistress, along with creative ally Damian Eley and three other partners, is all at one with a desire to be in the driver’s seat towards making everything larger than life.
Scott’s preferred modus operandi is fuelled by doing whatever he can to avoid “brand zombies” – so-called brand icons such as the Michelin man (tyres), Mr Clean or the Green Giant (peas).
Here’s his guide on how to spot a brand zombie:
1. Kind of alive – but not really.
2. Don’t exist in the real world.
3. Don’t talk to you – they just talk.
4. Don’t listen to you.
Scott hadn’t realised till recently that he’s created a lot of characters over the years. And the difference between characters and brand zombies?
1. Characters are real.
2. People care about them.
3. They live and interact in culture.
The spiel is that once you have a great character they can talk to people, and people can talk to them.
Cue Pablo the Drug Mule Dog (a character with its own Wikipedia page). The (former) British Government wanted to turn people on the fringe of having a cocaine problem – a demographic called contemplators and dabblers – away from and off cocaine. Having a taxidermic version of a dog killed in transporting the drug was a different type of hook. It took on a life of its own in tackling an issue with such a dark side.
As did two talking nostrils used to drive home the message of cocaine’s effects (said one nostril to the other: “Man I wish I was one of the other orifices…”). As did the renaming of an advice line to talktofrank.com And meanwhile Pablo kept on occupying a life of his own, playing out video chats and interviews with a cop, a parent, a toxicologist, a custom official, an ER doctor… even the Columbian Minister for the Environment.
Then there was the story of taking “a bit of a nothing product” (Pot Noodles) and adding two male slacker characters to the mix. So successfully it all ended up in a ground-breaking musical comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. All because Scott and Damian didn’t run away from a supposedly limited proposition, but embraced it for what it was, crossing various borders with lines like “I wish that girls were more like Pot Noodle”, and “Pot Noodle … more fun than throwing a poodle”.
As Scott said you’d be surprised just what will result if your character is well-enough liked and lives on, and on, and on. Enter two more corroborations of that truth: the Cactus Kid (also with a Wikipedia page, this one carrying an accusation the subject is being promoted in a subjective manner; lol) and Rubber Duckzilla, both used to float the message that people who don’t like drinking water have options.
To borrow a saying, the back story Mistress created to propel toymaker Mattel and its Hot Wheels property back into popular consciousness makes these characters seem like small beer.
Production involved constructing a life-size Hot Wheels facility, with everything riding off the interest shown in the super-sized incarnation. When you’re setting about breaking authentic world records (a Double Dare Loop at X Games Los Angeles) the trifle of “buying eye balls” takes care of itself, minus the media spend.
But wait there’s more… Hot off the press Scott announced at SPWGTN that the whole approach is now on its way to being made into a major movie. This could be seen as an out-of-the-park home-run for product placement, or more generously a continuation of successful audience-based stories taking on a successful life of their own.
Matt and Scott doubtless measure their successes differently.
Scott described his mantra as hitting a truth, adding “as much as people like to think advertising is based on smoke and mirrors and lies, I prefer truth”. Truth as a proxy for ‘keeping things real’, however unreal the scale of fictional story telling.
For his part, Matt’s finely tuned higher-end branded content is produced in a completely different capacity almost akin to creative non-fiction.
These guys aren’t in direct competition. What they both represented at SPWGTN were two directions from the crucible of LA that will yet again influence how we take part in consuming information and entertainment. The choices are ours.
Getting away with it:
JONATHAN & FARZIN
With Jonathan Kneebone of The Glue Society and Farzin Lotfi-Jam, director of his own architectural fête at the eponymous farzinfarzin.com , SPWGTN gained access to two roving minds that couldn’t be put in a box.
Jonathan is an absolute exemplar of the triumph of free-wheeling, free-spirited creative talent; blessedly so.
After finishing a degree in electronic engineering that he owns he was really badly suited for, Jonathan plucked advertising from the dictionary of qualifications starting with the letter A. He then had the good fortune to study at the feet of John Gillard at the School of Communication Arts in London.
At SPWGTN he fondly recalled one of his first jobs, an auspicious brief to make people interested in using the postal service of the Royal Mail – “something that would be an impossible brief now!” The work this inspired was a series of postcards in the late 80s that Jonathan commented “are almost so ‘out’, they’re ‘in'”.
Fast forwarding through the 90s he highlighted a novel campaign for selling cars in the days of VHS recorders, and, on arriving in Australia as a pale Englishman, a controversial campaign for UV sunscreen – so controversial it was pulled off the airwaves (the ironic lines were “Mother Nature must be Black. For Whites who want Equality” – out there on Youtube here).
By 1998 he, along with colleague Gary Freedman, was ready to attempt to put Idea and Execution ahead of the advertising agency model. The first piece of work was naming the venture, with some “terrible names” (Cancer, The Blood Committee) fortuitously avoided.
There were early concerns as to whether anyone would use an independent creative collective committed to project work, but these were soon allayed when Virgin Mobile happily hopped on board for a round of viral marketing that stamped their “reason to exist” on the market.
Next followed a phase of being highly sought-after guns for hire in directing projects around the world, from Iceland to Argentina. Enter characters like Esteban Ortega, The Dip Desperado.
This was strong story-telling, but also from Jonathan’s point of view added a confusing set of strings to the bow of The Glue Society. Which is the point at which he shared a bit of angst at SPWGTN about the work that The Glue Society had to do “in defining ourselves”.
“In terms of Art v Commerce there’s a view that you’re either one thing or the other. We thought maybe we can blend these two things together and get away with it”.
First there was the advertising for an Australian television satirical comedy series – The Chaser’s War On Everything – leveraging the cheapest billboards in the world (such low-traffic advertising non-spots as found in Estonia and India).
Now there is Watch With Mother – The Glue Society’s very own app-enabled experimental “sketch horror show”, a non-gaming, non-animation way to have audiences freaking out to the point of figuratively pissing or crapping their pants.
Where Jonathan himself identified a defining strand it is probably that The Glue Society consistently applies “principles of slightly disorienting people”, in the cause of prodding people to react and respond in ways they haven’t done before.
Given this restless mission, it was fitting that Jonathan had to depart SPWGTN early to wing his way to the Adelaide Festival of Ideas (17-20 October). He was there both to speak and also to oversee progress on an educative public awareness project destined to provoke much-needed debate about food waste.
Titled “More Than Ten Items or Less” it featuring a fruit shop in the middle of Adelaide where all of the produce was being left to rot within plain sight for more than ten days.
Jonathan’s patent glee at the prospect of seeing just how rotten the fruit had become was a testament to the enthusiasm he places on being an ‘agent provocateur’.
Farzin Lotfi-Jam (29) conveyed equal enthusiasm in a completely different field of activity – architecture.
Unlike many other SPWGTN speakers Farzin’s portfolio in the realms of academia and practice possessed more of a slow-burner aspect to it, being more theoretical and less filmic.
Farzin’s biggest challenge stems from wanting to argue for a “fuzzy architecture – one that embraces the complexities of a complex world”.
Set against this challenge is the fact that “architecture is notoriously slow and has a tendency to reinforce the status quo”.
His own touchstone for grappling with indeterminate design strategies remains his alma mater, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Indeed much of his talk was in tribute to the mainstays of RMIT, particularly Peter Corrigan for “refuting the international style and challenging (Australia’s) cultural cringe”, as well as to the studio spaces formed by his formative peer group (see also Architecture Now).
Heads were nodding around SPWGTN as Farzin talked about being suspicious of traditional practice environments that often mitigate against creating spaces that meet the “need for autonomy and mutual exchange”.
Emerging from RMIT, Farzin has had a frenetic globe-trotting career, is currently residing as the Sanders Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning near Detroit, and is continually refining his methodologies around a framework of Collecting, Sorting, Plotting.
A fan of counter-disciplinary history and techniques removed from conventional architecture, he presented several examples where to the naked eye building facades were reskinned with hazy thresholds, facades pushed into buidlings and fractal tiling patterns allowed full expression.
In a built environment designed by Farzin and collaborators we could expect to see instant high-rises and permanent pavilion armatures at special venues such as the Venice Biennale to be resurfaced as a cyclical feature of the event.
A competition entry winner for a public space surrounding the venue for the world cycling championships in the Columbian city of Medellin is a likely precursor of more radical designs to come, designs that strive for the most efficient structures with as little volume as possible and that will tend to mimic nature.
The denouement to Farzin’s presentation was a graphic lesson in bringing new logic to reassembling the disassembled spectacle that is the Parthenon, perhaps the world’s most iconic structure yet one that is “totally exhausted in its current use”. By adding metadata and other computational variables Farzin showed how the Parthenon could be lifted from its time-locked pedestal into multiple narratives.
This was a presentation punctuated by ‘selfies’ that Farzin has snapped or been tagged in over the last decade. In part his reason for injecting these unguarded and party-mode snapshots was to “destablise” his own presentation.
In a further reflective mood Farzin noted that he has yet to get hitched, yet to become a dad, and as an architect, yet to build things.
His motivations are in big, fuzzy, unanswered (sometimes unanswerable) questions. “By what criteria do you assess or judge what you’re doing? When you make something ‘new’, how do you know it’s new? Does it respond to something bigger?”
Then, surprisingly – because Semi-Permanent is all about surprises – Farzin took consolation from an article that appeared in 1992 in Sports Illustrated.
It’s an article about a running coach named Tom Tellez. It’s titled “The Art of the Sprint” and is still available to read in the archives of the Los Angeles Times.
At one juncture the story focuses on a 28-year-old sprinter by the name of Mark Witherspoon. Mark has had it drilled into him that running relaxed is the ticket. After the coach’s repeated insistence to “Slow down! Slow down, and you’ll go faster,” he adopts the mantra of “Don’t get quick. Slow down.”
As well as an element of zen, there is a scientific breakdown that must appeal to Farzin and his own speed dial for how best to hit “peak velocity” and still cross the line at your personal best.
Thanks for sharing this with us Farzin:
1: React to the gun (1%)
2: Clear the blocks (5%)
3: Accelerate to peak velocity (64%)
4: Maintain peak velocity (18%)
5: Decelerate (12%)
Are we story-people yet?