A Conversation With DADA’s Beatriz Helena Ramos
This in-depth interview by novelist Eric B. Martin originally appeared at The Rumpus, an arts and culture magazine. Enjoy!
At first glance, Beatriz Ramos doesn’t look like a revolutionary.
Her official bio tells the story of a prolific, accomplished, professional artist who has created illustrations for the New York Times and children’s books, worked on animated series for MTV and Disney, directed commercials for Coca-Cola and Kraft, and displayed work in galleries. Yet she’s also a self-proclaimed anarchist who grew up in Venezuela, doesn’t own a cell phone, and in 2012 launched her third startup company, DADA — a platform designed to democratize art, make it more accessible to everyone, and help artists earn income with the help of technology.
Ramos lives in lower Manhattan with her partner and DADA co-founder, the writer Yehudit Mam, and their dog, Petra. Her friends call her Bea. Small and expressive, yet firmly introverted, she speaks in a quiet, steady voice, with a noticeable accent and fierce convictions. She smiles and laughs a lot, but always with a seriousness and intensity that rumbles beneath the surface.
I spoke to her via Skype about DADA and the future for artists in the fall of 2016, a short time after Ramos abandoned a Kickstarter campaign — focused on developing a mobile platform — that failed to hit the company’s target. (Since then, DADA has been in serious discussions with interested institutional investors and has been accepted to Matter 7, a design thinking accelerator; the company expects to secure funding in 2017.)
The Rumpus: What is the simplest way to describe DADA?
Beatriz Ramos: DADA is a place and a social network where people speak visually through drawings. You make a drawing and post it on our platform. Other people respond to that drawing with their own. The result is a conversation based on drawings instead of text. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the essence.
Rumpus: There’s also a component where the artist can make money, right?
Ramos: [Laughs] I’m crazy, right? I’m a very idealistic person. To me, the idea was that we are going to end the struggling artist myth. How can we as artists use software in a way that works for us, as a community, and to make this community self-sufficient? That’s where my anarchism comes into play. Can we use software to make the commerce part automatic? So artists don’t have to do anything but create, and the work will go directly from the artist’s creations to the people that want to buy it. So in that sense — it’s big.
Rumpus: Let’s come back to that. Tell me how the idea started.
Ramos: I never sat down and envisioned this platform. When I was working as a commercial artist, I had an animation studio in both New York and Venezuela, and we were having a lot of trouble finding talent. This was back in 2005, 2006. I was thinking there was a need for a database of some sort. So it made sense to use a social network as a database.
But what would a social network look like if it was designed by artists?
There were two things I thought it needed to be. It needed to be creative. And it needed to be visual, with a way to do a status with a drawing, or send a status with a drawing. So that was the genesis of it.
Rumpus: It feels totally different from other social networks like Facebook. Can you talk about that?
Ramos: One of the most controversial things was that our scroll is horizontal, not vertical. The Internet developed with hyperlinks and it was all text, and it made sense that everything was scrolling down.
But theater and television screens are never going to change, no matter how many people shoot things with cell phones vertically. The truly visual is always going to be horizontal.
Rumpus: Why is horizontal such a big deal?
Ramos: The essence is that the Web was made with text in mind, with verbal communication as the essence. We’re building something with visual communication as the essence, and everything is designed to optimize that. But when you’re working in tech and web, just to be horizontal — the programmers had to do so many workarounds. Because the web is not made for that. It’s not made for visual people.
Rumpus: But aren’t there a lot of people on the Internet who don’t think of themselves as visual people? How do you explain it to someone who thinks, “I don’t draw; I’m not a visual communicator; how do I interact with this?”
Ramos: The Internet is getting more visual. Because they now know that 93% of communication is non-verbal. A lot of it is visual, right? And the marketers will tell you that the brain processes visuals sixty thousand times faster than it decodes text. So in this era where everyone wants to tell something really quickly because the attention span is so short — I think it’s eight seconds or something like that now — then it makes sense that it is going to be more visual.
Now what is interesting to me is that the visual isn’t used very well for communication. People are just sending emojis and gifs back and forth. It becomes more of a shortcut and people actually say less. It’s not a real conversation.
Rumpus: As a writer who is first and foremost very verbal, I’m the kind of person you need to explain that to.
Ramos: I have a really good friend, a writer in Spain, and she recently started drawing because she felt like she was a visual illiterate. And she was saying that she should be able to do something basic when she wanted to explain something. To me, everybody should have a level of skills where they can communicate visually as well as verbally.
When I had to learn to speak and write, I had to learn a lot, because I am much more eloquent visually. It could take me an hour to compose a well-written email. It takes me a long time. I can do five or six great drawings in that amount of time. It just flows, right? It’s just a different way of communicating and has its own benefits. That I think even if you’re not somebody who wants to spend your life drawing, there’s a minimum that would benefit you. In terms of therapy; in terms of creativity; in terms of basic communication.
The thing for me is that I always felt disadvantaged because I was visual and not verbal. I was introverted; I was really shy. It takes me not just energy but takes me time to use language. I need to process. And it might take a lot of time. So I understand that now, but before I was so frustrated to always be measured and slow about how to articulate things. I call it the dictatorship of the verbal. So I couldn’t believe that we didn’t develop a code or a platform where we could have visual communication.
That’s what obsessed me: how can we create a social network for visual conversations. As compared to just collaboration, where I do a drawing and someone works over it, or many people work on one canvas. I wanted an actual narrative. How do you push that narrative forward, how do you get people to respond to one another.
Rumpus: What does that look like?
Ramos: So you log on and see somebody’s drawing and you decide to respond. To draw. It’s almost like a love letter to that person. Because you are now going to invest your time, your creativity, and your effort, you have to figure out what the other person is trying to say, what you want to say to the person. And you pour yourself into it and let go. It’s like a poem, in a sense, and the process is so creative that it lifts you. And then you’re naked out there. You’re just exposed. And that process makes it really profound. So you become really good friends and come to know the person just by drawing with that person. Because it says so much about you.
Now people who don’t draw can feel challenged. How do we make it feel safe? Not that it’s going to be easy, but it’s safe. We’ve done a really good job, we have a lot of people who are not artists who are drawing.
There’s a woman named María who has over four thousand drawings and she’s a hair stylist. And the drawings get better and better. After four thousand drawings, your skills get better. We’ve got accountants, lawyers, so you see how they start out, and they get better and better and more confident, and we’ve created a space.
Rumpus: Is it more like a meditative artistic salon than a fast-moving social network? Especially in terms of responding to the latest news or developments in the world that dominate the big social networks?
Ramos: Yes, but hopefully it will become a little of both. Today there is a conversation about Latin American protests about the killing of women. There’s a series that just happened about protests in the south of Chile and Argentina. So hopefully that will happen more and more.
Rumpus: You made a conscious decision to make sure that it was going to be original artwork, rather than an existing image taken from somewhere else or a photograph. Why?
Ramos: That was a more practical decision, even though it’s hard to get someone to draw. To me, it was also essential that people create drawings in the platform, not just upload them. In the future it might be a visual conversation where you could answer with a photograph or video that you took. It could happen. I can see it.
But to make it work right now, the actual mechanics to work, it was easier to do it with drawing. Because that’s what I do, but also because it’s easier to control if the concept is original and not potentially copyrighted material. And now, looking back, we didn’t know this would be the effect at the time, but people are really committing, and it’s a lot more effective [than photos or video].
Rumpus: It’s also what allows it to become a commercial platform, right? In terms of creating a place where art meets commerce?
Ramos: That came later. At first, we were just focused on how to create a place where people would spend hours drawing and communicating with each other — and that would actually work as a narrative. Once we achieved that, then we realized they were creating a lot of original content, and that has a value. What can we do with that?
Right now we have more than 100,000 drawings of different quality and styles. There are drawings that work beautifully on a T-shirt or a mug, there are sequences that are perfect for a gallery in New York or a book or a comic. The question is how do we monetize those ideas.
Rumpus: How to you take your strong revolutionary politics and pure artistic aesthetic — and put that together with capitalism? How does an anarchist artist create a sort of e-commerce platform?
Ramos: It’s tough. I always felt that I have a way of seeing the world that is very different from the majority of people that I know and love. Even the most liberal of my friends have very different positions when it comes to the specifics. Yet life is about your conscience and the principles that you follow and it’s also about where you’re at. I decided to be in New York, so I have to deal with capitalism.
Yet it’s a hard position. Investors see me as a true artist and they don’t trust artists. I can understand why. Artists don’t trust capitalism, the United States, a company that is in New York. So you have to be balanced and listening to the other side. That’s what makes it work. I understand investors and where they come from and what they need, as well as what artists need.
If the Kickstarter had worked, that would have been poetic justice. Like we haven’t taken money from investors, now we get it from the community. But it doesn’t always work like that.
Rumpus: You did go out and pitch to investors in California a while ago. What happened out there?
Ramos: There was a competition: five hundred companies were invited, one hundred were pre-selected, fifty were selected. And from those fifty we prepared for two months and went to this competition and they chose from this fifty, the fifteen best. So we were one of the fifteen best in this whole network of companies. So we were very well positioned.
For me, two things happened in Silicon Valley that are very interesting. One is to know that we had something that doesn’t exist in the world. When you come and say that what you’re doing nobody else is doing, that you have no competitors, they laugh at you. And they go to Google and they find fifty people who are the same. We went there and we talked in front of these VCs who get hundreds of pitches every week, the best pitches, they have seen it all. And they said they had never seen anything like it. So that was a huge validation. Sometimes when people don’t understand what we’re doing or our revenue model, to me it’s like we’re doing something that’s never been done before so it’s fine if they don’t get it.
The second thing was that everyone thought it was interesting but they saw it as an art project. So they saw it as this cool, creative thing, but not as a business. And from that moment, it was clear that we have to now show that there is actually a business here. Now I don’t know if there were other forces at work, like if we were other people — meaning, not two female founders with accents — they might have seen us differently. Because Tumblr doesn’t have a revenue model. Facebook didn’t have a revenue model for many years, LinkedIn didn’t, so I don’t know if there are other forces. But also it’s a different time now. Though even Snapchat, they didn’t have a revenue model when they were exploding. Maybe because it’s a creative project they need to see that it’s an actual business. But I don’t know, because there’s this preconceived idea about artists being incapable of making money so there is no money to be made in that space. Which is not true.
[DADA recently turned down a significant investment offer from venture capitalists, and continues to look for the right funding match. –Ed.]
Rumpus: Do you have any competitors?
Ramos: It doesn’t seem like anyone has copied us. We don’t have a huge success yet. But if we have a huge success, most probably the big companies would start, like Adobe, applying the same thing that already worked; they have a lot more money. But I think that it could never be exactly the same. They could copy mechanics, but it wouldn’t be the same. Because what we’re doing is authentic. And the decisions that we made to make it authentic for the community, for what we’re trying to do — those decisions are difficult to copy. A holistic point of view.
So that would be interesting to see: what would be the take of a big company? What people tell us is that this is what is probably going to happen.
Rumpus: Do you have investors out there say “oh you should do this, this, and this”?
Ramos: All the time. Everyone has their own ideas. The first idea is usually advertising and then subscriptions. But we’re saying we don’t want to make money off the artists. We want to help them make money and we make money with them. We’re never going to charge a subscription or premium model or charge five bucks for some brush. And we’re never going to have advertising because they moment we have advertising no matter how much traffic we have we’re going to lose the people that are interesting, because that’s just the way it is.
So for us, we are creating a way of creating value, because it is the integrating of ideas, because we have the people and the content.
Rumpus: Where do most of your users come from right now?
Ramos: A lot of our users come from Latin America because we made a marketing strategy for Latin America. And it was cheaper, and we are from there. And since most of them have PCs, slow Internet, don’t have powerful computers, they don’t speak English, it was a good exercise for us to test it with them. Because if it was going to work for them, it was going to work for people here.
Rumpus: The next step for you is mobile. How is it going to change the art? How does it change your art?
Ramos: Well, you know, I don’t own a cell phone. So the way I see it is always going to be a little bit off from other people. For me the value of mobile is how to create a diary of your life, so you go to a concert and instead of doing a check-in or photo you do a drawing. That’s where it really becomes a part of your life, where you can be anywhere killing time, sitting there, having drinks, you’re just drawing your friends. It will become a more real time real life thing and that will be interesting.
Rumpus: How many users do you have? And what happens on the platform on an average day?
Ramos: We have 160,000 registered users. We do a lot of measuring. We have different dashboards; we measure a lot of different things. And one thing we know is that 80% of our registered users have never made a drawing. 80,000 drawings have been made by 15% of the community. And from those, probably the top 2% who are most active, which is apparently consistent with other social media like Facebook — the top 2% is creating most of the content, and then everybody comes and looks at it or is sporadically active. So it’s the same for us. We have a small group of people who are coming every single day and spending hours in there, and others who may not reappear for a few weeks with a new drawing but are coming to see what everyone else is doing.
When we were doing Facebook ads, we were spending $2000 a month and we were getting 25,000 people a month and 12,000 drawings a month. After that we spent zero on Facebook for a while, because we wanted to see what people did when they go in there and we wanted to grow it organically. When we spent zero, the power users took over, and there were about fifty drawings a day, mostly from this small group.
Rumpus: What have been some of the most interesting threads that have happened?
Ramos: There’s one I like that has about fifty drawings — actually more, because there are branches, but the main part has fifty — and it’s super creative, very free. And we posted this one as a movie on You Tube. So if you see that one, it’s very free and creative, it’s almost stream of consciousness. This didn’t start with a specific challenge, it just started with a drawing, and took off, which happens sometimes, and the whole thing goes in a fury for a while.
There are other ones that are more realistic. But to me the best ones are the ones that are more unexpected. Weird.
Rumpus: It’s like the sketchbooks of talented people all stitched together.
Ramos: Sort of. But here’s the thing It’s one thing to see the end result. A very different thing is to see it in real time. Because you always have an idea of what could come afterwards. And then you see what somebody had in their mind and it always surprises you, always amazes you, because it’s very different from what you thought. Or most of the time. It’s a very unique thing.
So I think we should go more in the direction of real-time. If you could go and see someone making a realtime drawing. We’re actually not too far from that. It wouldn’t take too much time to build.
Rumpus: You’re so interested in process.
Ramos: Yes. It’s very personal. I went through academia, and then I came to New York and spent two years getting rid of everything I had learned. And one of the things that worked for me was to not care about the end result. So I got to a point where my dogs would pee on the paintings because I had them on the floor and I didn’t care. Things would happen. And that made my work more interesting. Now I’m interested in stop motion animation. You spend a month building something and destroy it in one day. Zero respect for the end result; it’s about process. That is more interesting to me. I think that shows here.
Rumpus: Is that an anti-capitalist idea? That it’s not about results?
Ramos: I guess so. It’s about experience. And the good thing is that it seems like millennials have something closer to the “typical” mind of the writer, the artist, the bohemian. More free. More focused on experience.
Rumpus: And somehow also turn that experience into revenue.
Ramos: [Laughs] It’s problematic. Because you’re talking about pure art, and then you’re talking about T-shirts. But the reason is that it can be such an easy way for the artists to make money. Because all we have to do is integrate the API with this other platform, and you can go to DADA, see an image you love, and make a t-shirt out of it.
We don’t have to do anything; the artists don’t have to do anything. They just get the money. We partner with companies that make cool products, and I think as long as the products are cool, the artists are fine with it.
But we know the T-shirts, and things like that, are not going to change anything, really. There’s something much more. I see DADA as an incubator of ideas and a community of talent. I’m a commercial artist, and I’ve always worked for TV and publishing companies, and I know that we as artists make billions for these companies. And we only get paid by the hour, and we lose the rights, even if you are the creator of the show, because they have the funding and distribution. But if we’re controlling the content, how can we partner with distribution channels to control the income? And that’s possible. There are so many platforms like Amazon that are already taking care of that.
For instance, we are talking to companies that sell royalty-free images and content, about what it would mean to just integrate our code and put the most popular drawings of the day into their platform, which has millions of people. And those drawings can start getting bought from their platform without us having to do anything.
Where it becomes more interesting down the road is how can you use the community to crowdsource production? Whether it is for brands or for ourselves. How can you optimize the platform so that it can happen almost by itself? There’s a lot of implementation that needs to be done there.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s possible?
Ramos: I want to do something that will be effective and will work. Where artists’ needs are met. Because in the end, socialism without money is nothing. Our artists understand this. They have no money. If you don’t have money you have no independence, and you can’t do anything. You’re paralyzed. That’s the balance there.
I was brought up wealthy in a country with huge difference in classes. And I was always very conscious of that. I understand the businessperson and I understand the artist. I understand the rich and I understand the poor. The struggle. But eventually… it’s like a sculpture, if you keep remolding then eventually we’ll get to something, I’m not saying it’s going to make everyone happy, but it’s going to be its own thing.
Author photograph © Victor Jeffreys II.
Eric B. Martin is a novelist who lives in Durham, North Carolina. His novels include Luck, Winners, and Donald, co-written with Stephen Elliott.