Launch Express Change: Shirley Rodriguez – Quote about Hope

Do We Like Our Art And Our Economy Top-Down, or Bottom-Up?

Today, we are launching our first full-length ‘Express Change’-podcast episode — a conversation with Shirley Rodriguez, a New-York-based photographer and filmmaker.

There is one idea that Shirley speaks about which reverberates through our entire podcast series:

What is the approach to the subject matter?

Is it collaborative and open, or is it top-down and closed?

During our conversation, Shirley talks about her experience creating her first exhibition, LatiNatural. It was at the time of the so-called “Latin Explosion“, when a number of Latin-American stars rose to prominence in the USA (and around the world). Shirley felt that the people who were celebrated as Latinos and Latinas in the US mainstream media were not the people she knew from her own US-Puerto Rican upbringing. So she created a photo exhibition portraying Latinas in the US who did not correspond with those idea(l)s — women who showed a different side of what a Latina in the US could look like.

The central aspect of her story was how she described the interactions with her models, the women who had come to be photographed. When they arrived, some of them were quite shy and did not want to expose themselves. At the location, they began to interact with the others who had also come to be photographed. There was chatting, laughter, sharing a glass of wine or two: a communal experience, a joint discovery of who these women felt they were, should be, wanted to be on camera. And then — out of this shared experience — some of them suddenly opened up, ready to be vulnerable in front of the camera, and show themselves, and explore with Shirley how they wanted to be seen.

The art wasn’t just the final image. It was the experience in connecting. It was the experience in creating that space for people to talk about things that maybe they wouldn’t have had a space to talk about.

Shirley Rodriguez about the creative process that led to LatiNatural

To her, it all amounts to a central question: Is the artist willing to create the artwork in a shared process with the person they are portraying? Or does the artist have his or her ‘fixed’ idea of what needs to happen, and does it in a closed way, top-down?

My co-host Marina contrasted Shirley’s approach with something she saw at the Brooklyn Museum — an exhibition that critically reviews the work of Pablo Picasso, in a collaboration with the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby (whose Netflix special ‘Nanette’ is one of the best things you will ever find on Netflix). The exhibition talks about how Picasso did the opposite — he did not share the creative process; he portrayed women the way he wanted to, without the subjects having a say in the matter. His approach was decidedly top-down: the genius artist over here — the “lowly” model, posing the way he pleases, over there.

To me, all of this is very interesting — on two levels.

One, I have discovered how my own appreciation of art has changed over time, and how the collaborative process seems to take more and more center stage. My best example is Mark Knopfler. I have been a life-long fan of his music, both with Dire Straits and under his own name. For years, I would go to concerts and absolutely love it. Until one day — I think it was in 2010 or 2011 — I went to see him in Lille, France. Standing in the audience, I suddenly felt that something was not there, missing, painfully absent from the performance: the acknowledgement that the performance is created jointly with the audience. A concert does not happen if the audience doesn’t show up. Sure, the musicians can still play — but it’s only a concert if there are people. Yet Mark Knopfler and band played (and still play) like the audience almost does not exist. As though the process was not a shared one — their approach is top down, all the way. Knopfler is known for his perfectionism, for his attention to detail and sound. I love all that — yet I still felt like something was missing. The pose of the lone guitar hero running the show, taking charge of every second and every element of the concert felt outdated, somehow, belonging to a time in the 1980s when this was still the way to go.

Since that show, my attitude towards Knopfler and his concerts has changed. Today, I don’t go to his shows anymore. (Other reasons came later: I find his latest records surprisingly uninteresting. The ticket prices are absurd these days. And finally, he seems to travel a lot on a private plane, back and forth even between gigs to go home … sure, he is an old man now, who wants to be with his family. But still … I find it wrong. However, the main reason remains that experience in Lille over a decade ago.)

And yet, despite my unexpected misgivings about the concert then and now, I am conflicted about this. I do think that some art deserves — or rather: needs — to be created unseen, in secrecy, without anyone having a say, and then be presented to the world fully formed, exactly the way the artist intended it, period. Then, the rest of the world is invited to perceive, view, experience, love, hate, not care, ignore. But that’s it, in terms of co-creation.

To give an example: Fans who want to dictate how their favourite characters are treated in their next franchise film are an utter absurdity to me. (Fans who demand that good films be made with the characters or universe they love is a whole other story — I think that is a very fair demand. What Disney have done to Star Wars is an absolute train wreck — not because they don’t make the films the fans want, but because they tell really badly written, poorly executed stories.)

But other art needs the sharing of creation, the joint process with the audience. And music is the most obvious example. A while ago, I went to see Madison Violet perform in Berlin. They perform with the audience. At the end of the show, the three musicians stepped off the stage and played their music right among us, in the crowd, dancing and partying with everyone in the room. That alone felt so different. A few nights ago, I saw Enter Shikari play in Berlin. Rou Reynolds, their singer (whom we also interviewed for Express Change), made a tour of the whole concert hall in the second half of the show, interacting with people as he was performing. But it can go way further than that. In his episode of the podcast, Mapumba Cilombo, a musician from South Africa, talks about how the entire shape of his gigs can change depending on the vibe in the room, and on how people react to his playing and singing.

Before I knew it, I was not performing — I was doing a drum circle. That taught me a lot about how to also be flexible, on my part. To remember to come to serve what is needed in this space, versus ‘I had a set-list, and I had a brief’.

Mapumba Cilombo, on how a corporate gig changed with the needs of the audience

My point is: Some art works better if done uniquely from the vision and viewpoint of the artist. Other art works better if co-created with the audience.

And this brings me to my second point, the second level I was thinking about: What does this have to do with the economy?

The economy has that same balance to strike, that same decision to make — to what extent it is co-created, local, small, and collaborative? And to what extent it is centralised, top-down, hierarchical?

These days, our economy has become very top-down. But it wasn’t always like that. And I believe it needs to change again. In the past, the economic strength of a nation often resulted from a plethora of small and medium-sized companies that created value and prosperity all across the country.

This has changed to an astounding degree in many places around the world. The small and medium-sized companies that dot the landscape have given way to large centralised corporations that concentrate wealth, creativity and control in select economic hubs. With their power, they dictate the rules of the economy for the rest of the country — through their lobbying power and through their financial might. In some cases, they do this for almost all of humanity. These juggernauts impose a top-down approach on our economy. Lest we forget: corporations are mostly organised as dictatorships. And the insane subsidies many of them receive come through central planning and exchanges between highly specialised offices in these companies and in governments. A small company or entrepreneur has almost no chance of accessing any of that. I know someone, a lawyer, who specialises in obtaining EU-subsidies for corporations.

I personally believe we need my “Knopfler moment” in the way we see the economy. We need to realise that we are sick and tired of large structures dictating everything for everyone, even keeping governments under their thumb. We need to return to an economy where things of value are made in every neighbourhood. For people who live in that neighbourhood.

So far, the digital economy has proven disastrous for anyone wanting to decentralise the economy. Digital Capitalism is the most rapid form of economic centralisation that the world has ever seen — because of network effects. It reminds me of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For those who have not read it: It’s the story of farm animals rebelling against the humans who run the farm, with the pigs leading the effort, and masterminding the revolution. At the end of the book, there is no difference left between pigs and humans. The pigs — once they have successfully overthrown the human owners — completely take over their roles and eventually become exactly the same, down to the way they dress, deal in business, and sell out their former comrades in the revolution, the other animals. The Silicon Valley seems to be on a similar path: What once began as a liberating force for freedom is turning into the very thing it was designed to overcome — a centralised oligarchic system of mind control.

What can we do to change that? And can the digital space help us move into the opposite direction?

Returning to our podcast, one of the over-riding issues seems to be this: When we look at art, and how it is produced, and when we look at the economy, and how it is designed, we must ask ourselves: How much centralised top-down do I need? And how much local co-creation do I want?


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