Archive for the ‘Columns & Essays’ Category

Of Artists and Entrepreneurs

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

I had lunch with a friend today who, like me, went through the art school mill and now teaches at a university. He came to talk about a business idea that he had been working on. We noted that business in general and entrepreneurship in particular were variously ignored, frowned upon, or downright despised in contemporary art circles. Of course this is complete bullshit. Art itself is a business - one with it’’s own peculiar and quite elitist economy - and artists spend a good deal of time pretending that it is not a business.

brewery los angeles dean terryThe denial is wrapped up in the whole mentality of being a modern or contemporary artist. Get your MFA, work some crap gig, and live in a dirty, dangerous urban environment, preferably an industrial park. I did it for a year or so in the
early 1990’s in downtown Los Angeles and then discovered the beautiful canyons
of Sierra Madre. It didn’t take much to burn down that mythological house. Living in squalor did not give me the warm fuzzies. I had enough grime, chaos, and noise in my own head and didn’t need the inner city to make me feel “authentic”or “connected.”

Early on, I too had the view of business that it was just evil, pointless, greed driven piggishness - and sure, much of it is. During the 1990’s when I ran a serious of businesses I often had the feeling of my soul draining to the floor as I sat in a meeting, a visceral feel of time slipping by in the wake of crushing meaninglesness. But at least I could sit down while my soul drained away. At art openings they make you stand up.

But as with so many things, I hated what I didn’t understand.

What I learned is that the same processes involved in “creating” in the fine arts are present everywhere in society, including and most especially in entrepreneurship. Many of the fine artists I have known are totally spineless. They are beholden to a power structure - critics, curators, collectors (the 3 C’s) - that they rarely question. The fakery is no less thick than the most tasteless marketing pitch from a mattress company. The difference is that business lies right to your face while art pretends it isn’t lying.

I’m completely devoted to the creative life, but I have learned not to restrict it out of ignorance to things traditionally labeled “the arts.” It’s everywhere. That feeling of wanting to create something new is the same whether it’s a film, a recording, a virtual island, or a start-up. You just begin with different constraints, established methods, and expectations.

After being burnt out from the dot-com era, over the past year I’ve been feeling more and more like there may be another run to make. Creating a business requires you to bounce your ideas against the unbending nature of physical reality. Of practical, economic reality. It requires you to use the materials of real time, real people, and to create something that works in the face of enormous uncertainties. This is especially true in technology where the ground is shifting beneath you constantly. It is exactly like studying metaphysics, or painting.

descartesHopefully a lot of the way people in the arts view entrepreneurship will change. There are signs. The fact that you can build your own network and market yourself
with various Internet strategies is a major change. It’s an unstable and evolving scenario, but the “long tail” effect is a real one, and the opportunities for a significant level of creative independence for artists with a strong, personal , authentic voice are promising.

Yes, it’s easier to give your cultural product to “the man” - music label, gallery, publisher, etc. - and then let them market and distribute while you stay completely in the dark about the process. But the ability to control the entire enterprise is much more empowering, interesting, and liberating. The whole idea about “marketing yourself” changes from fake cheek kiss networking with those who would present you to the world to using distributed networks on the web to connect directly to an audience.

My friend thought up a way to make money from the backwardness of the art system. I wish him the best in his entrepreneurial and yes, creative endeavor.

Destroy All Paper

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

We’ve been searching for a new place near the university where I teach for over a year. (For the reasons why we are moving, see Subdivided - an entire film about life in my current cold, uptight suburban neighborhood.)

destroy paper!After looking at fifty or sixty homes, we found one. (Remember, when you are looking, its a home, when you are selling, its a house; one is a place, the other a property. This distinction is supposed to provide the proper emotional distance depending on your situation).

We put in a bid on a remodeled sixties era traditional with plenty of room for (more) kids and (future) dogs. Lots of colleagues around, a 10 minute walk to the office and classrooms, and fairly walkable streets. All good. The search for a happy suburban existence that I thought was lost had been given new life.

The problem came when we went for the loan. We gathered documents, sent emails and faxes, scanned things, remembered all ten places we’ve lived in the past twenty years, sent blood, hair and fingernail clippings, etc. The loan was approved - except for this little matter of a tax lien from California from 1995.

Yes, 1995.

This had never shown up before on any credit report. And it only shows up on one of them.

After two days of phone mazes, automated robotic recordings and real people who sounded like automated robotic recordings, screaming, and testing the physical limits of all the phones within reach, I discovered that the entry was an error. And worse than an error, it was a fart of confused data.

The item on on the credit report - pay attention now - was for a lien from 1995 for a traffic ticket from 2003.

Yes, you read that right.

First I got to thinking it’s either some distracted data entry person playing havoc with my file or some entropic database gumbo. Then I realized it was a new kind of credit reporting - a new “product,” a feature: Premonition Based Credit Reporting.

We anticipate your future missteps by peering into the future. We know you are going to do something stupid pretty soon so we are going to punish you now.

So if you are a bank or an auto dealership or a furniture store looking to establish credit on customers, here’s the pitch: Want to know someone’s credit history? We’ll not only tell you the past, we’ll let you in on the future. Should you give Janet Whatever here a loan for this mini-van? No, because she’s going to bounce a check for $38 in seven years.

One of the credit reporting agencies has a website that invites you to call them if you have questions or need help, so I called them. They promtly direct you to the website, which then suggests you call them, and on and on. An infinite loop of nothing. Minimalist corporate avoidance.

You would think after these kinds of machine loops and phone trees I’d be pleased to talk to a human being. You’d be wrong. They were just as automated and performed with a bewildering level of inhumanity. Scripted, mechanical, routinized, policy driven. I’ve always wanted to develop my own policy in these situations. I would say something like “I’m sorry but in this situation it is my policy to tell you and your entire company to eat shit,” and then, in a polite voice, ask “would you like for us to email you a copy
of the policy?” (”Us” in this case representing me and my various and contradictory mental states, but that’s another story.)

I live in the 21st century with it’s blistering pace and always on culture, but in some places like state and city offices and credit reporting companies I have to slow to an aching crawl, search for things with my hands, and savor the adhesive glue on my tongue while waiting for weeks for a piece of paper to arrive from some musty beige filing cabinet in Norwalk California.

And where the hell are our electronic signatures?

While waiting for them, and for a noxious truck to deliver a piece of paper across the Western United States, we nearly lost the wonderful house we thought would give us a fresh start.

So, I say burn all paper documents. Make a deadline and burn them.

(Remember the last scene in Fight Club? It’s starting to look like a very good idea.)

Proposition 2 in Texas: Reluctant Comments

Sunday, November 20th, 2005

Here’s the question I have for those who voted for Proposition 2 in the
recent election here in Texas: How many gay people have you been friends with?
Any family members? Have you ever spent appreciable time with anyone who is
gay? Enough time to understand them in a thorough way? My guess is that answers
in the positive to this question number in the low single digits.

Gay marriage affects very few people, but its emotional appeal is the heart
of the conservative republican strategy to get out the vote. The real agenda,
of course, are the economic policies that get passed quietly while all the noise
is being made about the issues that make us uncomfortable. (Thomas Frank has
done an excellent job of outlining this strategy in What’s
the Matter with Kansas

When I left Texas for graduate school in 1989 I had little experience with
anyone who was openly homosexual. Though I liked to think of myself tolerant
and liberal, I had no direct experience.

The first thing that happened to me upon arriving in Southern California was
to end up living with a gay man in a rent house in Claremont. I was literally
walking the streets looking for a place to live and this guy put me up in a
room in his house. For nine months I took part in parties, dinners, and general
lounging about. Whatever was different from straight culture was learned and
became a matter of course. There was never any issue about me being straight
and him being gay.


Fragile Cities: The Price of Living Large

Sunday, October 16th, 2005


Published in the Dallas Morning News Points Section Sunday October 16, 2005


Rising gasoline prices have many people questioning their commuting lifestyle,
and with good reason. Will working downtown and living fifty or seventy five
miles away still make sense when gas prices are $4, $5, or $6 a gallon? Maybe
“Big D” is a little too big.

Katrina and Rita have demonstrated for us just how delicate the situation is,
and Bush himself has called it “fragile.” A blip in our energy supply
threatens the entire system, dependent as it is on enormous amounts of cheap

This calls into question basic ideas about how to build and organize cities.
If everything is separated from everything else, continually further away and
totally dependent on automobiles to make it function, what happens if there’s
a problem with the energy supply? The whole idea rests on the assumption that
oil will always be cheap and abundant, and both of these assumptions are no
longer valid.

Gasoline is up 72% in the last year. Natural gas, used to heat the new homes
that are twice the average size of homes built in the seventies, has risen 143%.
This is not a temporary situation. Oil is no longer abundant, and many of the
largest oil fields are “maturing.” Chevron has acknowledged in a
recent PR campaign that “the world consumes two barrels of oil for every
barrel discovered.” And even president Bush, in rare form, has asked Americans
to conserve in the aftermath of hurricane Rita.

The truth is that we’re drunk on oil and intoxicated with scale. The
imagined “bigness” we pride ourselves on here in Dallas is in actuality
a weakness. The city marketing slogan “Live Large” is really an
invitation to live precariously in a world that depends entirely on the exploitation
of fossil fuels.

And insofar as our national security rests on financial stability, this dependency
is dangerous. It destabilizes us politically, and we are obliged to compete
globally for energy resources. With an energy hungry consumer class rapidly
emerging in China, is this a game we really want to play?


The iPod Generation: Born to be Separated

Saturday, October 1st, 2005



I came across this advertisement while the newest version of iTunes was installing in to my computer.

At first I thought these two healthy specimens were listening to two different iPods, which is probably how they met. But they are sharing a single device. Both walking along, audible world turned off, matching Gap denim. Nature and marketing taking their course.

The young woman looks at you, and has her hand gently and suggestively on the thin cord. They are outdoors – a rarity nowadays. But the sounds of the world are coming in mono, sans the production value of the sounds in the other. The suspension bridge intersects with her eyes and the kiss being delivered to her ear by a mostly obscured male interest. Maybe he’s trying to whisper the words of the song, or smells the sea in her hair.

She pinches a little tighter on the cable, the absurdity that dominates the image. Creating a snaking white line from her ass, traversing the belly and into her shaped hand, it then appropriately splits, traveling to opposing ears of the two supposed lovers.

In a few years this advertisement will date itself very precisely. Not because of the clothes or the graphical design. It will date itself because of the cord. Like the decayed plants and animals that run our cars, the cord shows just how crude the technology still is. A cord? But as the cable and the product disappear into chips in our heads (or asses), the image becomes all-important. Who it allows us to be, since most of our personalities are the color of moldy brown Play-Doh.

The image seduces. It says: we’re carefree. We’re outdoors; we’re in San Francisco, not some craphole like Atlanta or Houston, where it smell like pesticides rather than herbal essences and salt water.

If we accept this condition, this splitting, this dual monaural soloing, maybe there’s something we can make of it. Musicians could start making recordings for people who share their iPods. Maybe both channels are the same. Maybe they are completely different, like in early stereo recordings by the Beatles.

Maybe they are themed, or simply reflect different tastes. The guy can listen to something abrasive, the girl can listen to something romantic. Or they can switch, or mix and match. Or they can hear pre-recorded versions of things they would like to say directly but are too shy to perform. Or maybe some expert communicator can record appropriate phrases for them. Little nothings.

At least that way they will remain in their comfort zone of mutual isolation, back to when they were just silhouettes in the previous ads. Indistinct, separate. Random. Dancing alone.


Out of Gas, Into the Darkness

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

An emptiness crept northward up the state from Houston in advance of Hurricane
Rita evacuees last week. It spread like blood leaching from veins.

People are starting, ever so slightly at this point, to panic about gasoline.
But filling up should be the least of their concerns. Modernity is kept alit
by the fumes of a funeral.

On Friday night at stations all around my area fueling stations were being
emptied. With a quarter of refining capacity for the U.S. near the gulf area
currently closed, people are trying to fill up. Rarely used covers and makeshift
plastic bags hide pump handles at most stations. When the juice is gone, the
machinery of society stops right where it is. People are left camping along
the interstate and stuck in their far-flung suburban homes, powerless in even
more ways than they were before the cord was cut.

A huge city of oil and pesticide and haphazard zoning was evacuated. An Escalade,
the emblem of American gigantism, still sits empty along I-45. Its shininess
is a loud reminder of inward looking selfishness and an outward insult. It is
starving for fossil fuels. Carcasses. Decay. How very prestigious.

That god-damned spiraling red satellite image that dominated all media this
past week has seared itself into our minds along with the watery horror of Katrina.
Words like "monster" bring back all the midnight spooks of childhood.
Base fears that are raw and instinctual.

And when we needed him most, daddy left us abandoned. The hand of government
- supposedly benevolent - left us to starve, drown, and prey on
each other in New Orleans. And now it feigns competence and caring while maintaining
an excellent haircut and looking for openings to enable policies paid for by
campaign contributors. Vouchers. Tax Cuts.

The thing is, there is a darkness out there, just below the human crust of
pavement and progress. Black and sticky it is. But when the drug is gone and
the syringe goes dry, a panicky withdrawal sets in. A twitchy nervousness looks
for a fix, but it’s not there.

It’s in Saudi Arabia. And it’s running out.

It’s time to be scared of the dark again.


Model Citizen or Model Consumer?

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News August 14, 2005

Parking LotIt comes as no surprise that Americans are under severe stress due to crushing debt levels and a savings rate that is basically zero. It’s not surprising because we are encouraged to over-consume by nearly every facet of culture and media. Worse, we have internalized consumerism to the point where it has become our value system.

As media critic Mark Crispin Miller told me recently, we have been reduced to being “receivers of messages that constantly tell us that the only thing that matters in life  s to go shopping and then stay home with your stuff.” Which is, as he says, “profoundly anti-democratic.”

We have replaced the model of “citizen” with the model of “consumer.” The citizen model encouraged group involvement, debate, and community. The consumer model encourages immediate gratification and personal indulgence. It replaces the real empowerment of civic engagement with a fantasy of empowerment enabled through consumer products.

And not only has the role of consumer become our primary function in society, it has, in large respects, become our religion.

The new Ikea is like the big blue consumer cathedral of Frisco, dominating the landscape like the pyramids (except much uglier). And the hype surrounding its opening is like any new blip on the shopping landscape: its novelty arouses us for a short while, but then we’re on the hunt again for the next promise of material salvation.

And if consumerism is our new religion, one aspect is conspicuously absent: the ethical one. We shop without considering the larger ramifications of our purchases. How and where was this product made? Who and what am I supporting by paying for this thing? How are the workers treated? (The difference between Wal-Mart and Costco, for example). We are encouraged to isolate the buying experience into how it will make us feel in the moment and to ignore the larger effects.

These days the effects reach all around the world.

And as Americans we like to think we have a system and ideas worthy of exporting to the world. If the American Dream has degenerated in to a consumer dystopia, we might want to do some rethinking. Here in the wealthiest county in Texas we serve as a kind of model. It is an unsustainable ideal. Our hyper consumptive, supersized lifestyle is a disastrous example for the rest of the world. Especially in booming places like China, where if everyone drove the aptly named Suburban and bought oversized houses the environment would literally collapse.

Some say “personal responsibility” is the answer. True enough when it’s a fair fight, but it’s not. As individuals we are grossly outmatched by enormous propaganda campaigns, market studies, Ivy League psychologists, and “perception managers” who do just that – manage our perceptions
of everything. Sadly, they also manage the perceptions we have of ourselves.

This is especially offensive when it comes to our children. The marketing most of us were subjected to growing up seems quaint compared to the industry that is aggressively targeting the youth of today.

Our kids are being trained to be good consumers, which is certainly not the same thing as being a good person, or a good American. Girls get shopping mall games and boys get mini-Hummers, the very symbol of excessive, wasteful consumption.

And everything is branded. Few well-designed toys exist that are not cross-selling something else: sugary snacks, sugary pop idols, animated characters.

Walking through a mega toy store you get the sense that life is nothing but a series of acquisitions. That basically childhood is a matter of working your way through the different departments, front to back. Then you get to head to the big box stores and the SUV lot. Then you get a starter castle. Your identity is defined by what you have, even if it’s the same thing everyone else has.

If consumerism has replaced citizenship, then the more stuff you have the higher your status. And as long as status is equated with stuff our personal, financial, and civic lives will continue to deteriorate. It’s good for the marketers, but it’s bad for democracy.

The American philosopher William James said that worship of success was our national disease. The problem is, in order to cure the disease, we have to admit that we are afflicted in the first place.

Photo from the film Subdivided courtesy of Jim Wark / AirphotoNA

Dallas Video Festival Catalog Essay

Thursday, August 11th, 2005

The following is a short essay written for the catalog for this year’s
Dallas Video Festival. My friend Laura
kindly invited me to write it.

A War Worth Fighting

The arguments over whether artists are obligated to respond to contemporary
events are as old as art itself. And though the pressure to deal directly with
political issues is often intense, filmmakers and artists need not feign being
political, nor should they feel obligated to become so. In an age of suffocating
political and commercial propaganda, simply telling a story that rings true,
where the characters are honest and the situation feels authentic is in itself

Media viewers are so accustomed to a high level of artifice and simulated sentiment
that authenticity strikes us as jarring. The depiction of richly felt, complex,
even contradictory emotions is effectively revolutionary, radical even. And
when you deal in deeply felt human emotions, not their cartoon counterparts,
you speak to everyone, not just those of one political party or another.

Failing to question one’s assumptions may win elections, but makes for
poor art. The propagandists can’t stand it when we’re honest, meaningful,
and complex - where things are often grey, murky, undetermined. Clarity comes
from the truthfulness of the experience as interpreted by the storyteller, not
from a focus group tested slogan. Where the bad guy has more than one dimension,
and where the “evil” is spread around, as it always is.

The biggest insults are movies that attempt to comment on the current political
situation with a few throwaway lines, and then quickly return to the wooden
dialog and simulated explosions. And waste a hundred million dollars in the

Independent film and video makers have an obligation, in my mind, to not do
what Hollywood or Washington are doing. And they can start by being authentic
to who they are, by telling stories that make sense of their corner of the world.

Simply refusing to deal in stereotypes and cliché’s in our own
stories is political because it flies in the face of most political speech.

We know now there really isn’t a difference between fiction and nonfiction,
because there is no objectivity, and all stories are manufactured. But there
is a difference between authenticity and propaganda. They are enemies. And that
is a war that is worth fighting.