Are you a creator? Or just a curator?

My job is to sit and listen. I sit, in the middle of an audience or the back of the room. Except for the person next to me, what I’m doing goes unnoticed.

I do sketchnotes.

I’m not one of those folks who stands up at the front for all to see with a big board and sharpies. I could. I’ve done it once or twice. But it’s not my thing.

I’ve got a strange process by all accounts. Born of a nervousness with all things ink, I work in pencil, only adding ink and color after the piece is done and the talk long over. It’s laborious. It slows me down. But it also gives me the chance to edit, to change my mind, to hone and improve the images. It gives me the chance to be more creative.

I walk a fine line between illustration and documentation. I’m not just recording. I’m interpreting what’s being said by the person up on stage, on the other end of the phone line, who’s written on the page. Technically, this is a no-no. Many scribes pride themselves in documenting exactly what’s said, in having a perfect recall that delivers full quotes amidst their images.

I’m more interested in putting down where the talks lead me.


Copycats and forgers all

Creation – at least by current Western standards – implies that something new is being brought forth. Preferably something never before seen. So, am I creating? Or am I just copying, transposing or translating into another medium?

This question hasn’t always been such a conundrum. The act of creation doesn’t have the rigor of individuality imposed upon it in all cultures, nor in all times.

The process that brought painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt to their status as “masters” was something foreign to today’s art classes. They weren’t off at art school, doing exercises or drawing nudes. Great painters began as apprentices. They mixed someone elses paints and their brushes filled in the outlines laid by the studio master. Once the apprentice was able enough, they made copies. Yes, copies. This is a big deal in the art world, distinguishing the brush stroke of the true master versus the infiltration of an apprentices work. Learning to paint was a process of becoming perfectly invisible, of aping another’s work so perfectly as to be mistaken for the original.

Today, that kind of thing smacks of forgery. Of fraud.

C’est moi l’original!

Breaded cats. Table flip. Nope. Memes bypass judgement usually reserved for art, not even requiring a nod to their original creator.

In fact, the strength of a meme can be measured by its iterations. How often has it been copied, remixed, reposted, reinterpreted? No meme is assessed in a vacuum: they are part of a set. Each retains the potential to have impact when standing alone, but they are always referencing back to the rest, to being a part of a greater whole.

What is it that allows this shift in judgement? Sure, there are always aspects of ‘originality’ to be found. A new sassy headline to go with the same cat picture. But the line has been blurred.

Music has had a carte blanche for a longer time, to a point. Jazz musicians will memorize and then ‘quote’ the improvizations of the greats. But just watch the crowd groan when they find out the rock band they went to see “is just a cover band.” Never mind their talent. They’re not original. They’re playing someone else’s music.

Even I get nervous sometimes, unsure if I’m loving this dubstep album, or if I’m just grooving to the ghosts of the songs they’ve sampled.

Pin It

Pinterest and tumblr have created a new business model from the ashes of curation. Remember magazines? Newspapers? Well, those are acts of curation. Reporting on the acts of others, assembling meaning through a carefully picked sample. Then there was a limit to who could find their way through the ranks to become a curator of culture, dictating ‘coolness’ and determining relevance. Now? All you need is some extra time and internet access.

It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole now. To be so immersed by all that output, easily accessed, constantly inspiring. But if we all fall in, what comes out? There’s a moment when curation needs to beget something. Otherwise, what will be left to curate?

The high that I get when I find something new to tag, or post [or most often tweet] knowing that I am the one who they will thank because I’m the one who turned them on to alt-j, or StuntKid, or Hannu Rajaniemi. There really is something to being the explorer, especially when you get to claim a finders fee in fame …even if not fortune.

Stop. Collaborate and listen.

In March 2013 I did my first sketchnote mural.

Back in my art class days I’d done large pieces. There are a few ‘hidden paintings’ I’ve done over the years as well. But was this big, and this was a contract, and this was something public, and it had to commmunicate a message that was not mine alone to determine.

I was terrified.

I reasoned with myself that this wasn’t much different than the work I do every time I open my sketchbook at a conference. But somehow, without the words pouring out at me from someone else’s mouth, the potential for failure felt MUCH higher.

After all, this was going to be a real act of creation.

I was all alone.

The mural wound up being a tipping point for me. I realized somewhere halfway through [you can watch the video on YouTube]: I’d been creating on my own all along. No one else at a given lecture was doing the same drawings as I was. No one else was getting quite the same thing out of the talks I’d been attending.

This was no different than science.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

When I took my SATIIs, I wrote an essay on Isaac Newton’s quote.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Trying to create something new, ‘from whole cloth’ as they say, is an act of futility. Would science ever advance if every single chemist sat down and worked through discovering each element in the periodic table, organizing them, testing interractions? That sounds like crazy talk. Online we have apps and platforms galore to ease the pain of building a website. Sure, you can go and learn the code, but do you need to? Do you ponder over all the zeros and ones that let you surf the web on your phone? That let you create a word processing document?Imagine for a moment what it takes just to make that one word italic.

We will always be quoting, emulating, aping and remixing that which has already been done. There’s some scary sci-fi out there, particularly Uncompanied Sonata in which a musical prodigy is brought up alone in a cabin by unsinging parents, far from any songs that might render his creations merely ‘derivative…’

Let’s just say the story does not end well.

Time spent obsessing over originality is a bane to creation. It’s a bane to making. My art teacher Rob Logan told us to always stand by three rules any time we picked a pencil or a brush:

Lie, cheat and steal.

All art is a lie. You are tricking someone into a reaction, into feeling something they aren’t really feeling.

All art cheats. That’s not a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe. The singer up on stage is not really talking to their ex-lover, begging them to take him back while you dance along.

All artists steal. I’m not saying you should go out and reprint someone else’s work. But if you see or read something that inspires you? You’re stealing. You’re stealing an idea… and hopefully you run with it. Far enough to create something new and great and amazing that someone else will steal from you in turn.

Creations that curate the curators and creators

The sketchnotes you’ve seen here are all from TEDxDePaulU 2013:

Creators & Curators