Austin Kleon calls himself a “writer who draws” and has created modern-day poetry by blacking out all but a few words of a New York Times newspaper page to create seemingly random, but remarkably poignant poems.
It’s a delightful, serendipitous kind of artistic process that yield surprisingly results, which he has previously joked: “The blackouts are like if the CIA did Haiku”.
Kleon is equally well-known for his ideas about how creativity works, arguing that artists are “collectors” not hoarders.
This is an upgrade on the often-mis-quoted Picasso truism that “mediocre artists copy, great artists steal”. It’s something Kleon touches on to describe two kinds of creativity: “vampires” (like Picasso, who sucked his various other halves and the greater Parisian artistic scene of ideas) and “human spam” (self-obsessed, self-promoting spammers who, well, spam you with their achievements, often via social media).
Actually, Picasso never said it, it was TS Eliot, who wrote in 1920 in the Times Literary Supplement: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal… The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn…”
Giving the opening keynote address at last week’s South by South West (SxSW) conference in Austin , Texas, Kleon advanced another theory of creativity, called “scenius”.
Instead of the Picasso “lone wolf idea of genius” which is a model of creativity where Eureka moments seem to pop into the minds of great inventors or artists, who “keep ideas secret until they are ready to unleash them on the world.”
“This genius myth lets you get away with being vampire or human spam because you’re a genius” he said in a witty and president address that was listened to by thousands of people who attend this annual conference that began as a music festival 27 years ago, and has since added film and interactive – and is often the birthplace of new technologies or startups, including Twitter, Foursquare and Airbnb.
But scenius, Leon argues, is a more “collaborative version of genius, an ecology of talent, to quote Brian Eno that is part of a whole scene of people copying from each other, stealing and contributing ideas”.
Picasso, as my father has been telling me for years, stole from other Parisian artists in the 1930s; while Kleon referenced Leonardo da Vinci in 15th Century Florence and how Talking Heads tapped into the fertile musical mayhem of New York in the late 1970s.
As befits this new, so-called sharing economy, he urges sharing. “Don’t just show your finished work – show your process. People connect with your work that way” Kleon said. “When we share, we meet our own kind. Meeting our own kind is one of the points of existence. It’s actually true in life that its about who we know. The people you know can’t do anything for you if you don’t do good work.”
“Scenius is a way we can all move forward without turning into vampires or human spam. It’s a way of listening, of paying attention to what others are doing. The best way of avoiding becoming human spam, is to close your mouth. When you are listening, people tell you things. It’s about the really simple stuff we’re taught in Sunday school. If you want to get, you have to give. You have to listen to be listened to.”
Kleon spoke will glee about how he felt he had reached some kind of pinnacle of art and nostalgia when he was interviewed by the New York Times, only to discover his article wasn’t about his art but about a persistent criticism of SxSW that it’s time has passed; and, to use that great Americanism to describe it, “jumping the shark“.
The 10-day event’s first four days are dominated by the digital part, followed by film and music, all overlapping and culminated with pop star Lady Gage giving her own keynote after a performance the night before where she started her show on a spit being basted with BBQ sauce and invited a “professional vomit artist” onto stage (yes, seriously) to vomit on her.
Anyone who spent the week in Austin – such as I did, including as part of a panel to discuss music in Africa – can tell you it’s not the case.
SxSW has evolved, to be sure, but so too has the technology industry; mirroring the trends of gushing new start-up launches (like Twitter) seen later in initial public offerings with the more weighty concerns in the real world right now. To keep accusing a conference of being “passed its sell-by date” is naive and runs counter to the evolving nature of the world, and industries it covers. It puerile and pointless. SxSW is still the best brain food in the wider tech space, especially because it combines the tech/science with art – as MythBusters presenter Adam Savage argued for science and art as a fundamental necessity for human progress. “Art and science have always been the twin engines driving us forward as a species,” he said, using various accelerated periods of learning linking scientific advances with artistic ones around the same time.
He noted that when connected to a brain-scanning machine, “equations [look like] art inside a mathematician’s mind. The parts that lit up are exactly the same as in an artist.”
“Every generation of scientists thinks that everything has been discovered but they’re wrong,” he told a gleeful crowd, peppering his talk with everything from the successful TV show that has made him into a geek superhero and a household proponent of the power of science and logical thought. See his TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/how_simple_ideas_lead_to_scientific_discoveries
Quoting the famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who also gave a keynote at SxSW, he said: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
He added: “Old media turned down Napster, that’s the stupidest decision of the last 20 years” and threw in Richard Feynman’s immortal quote: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.
It was a tour de force.
South Africa’s parlous education system could learn from the necessary duality of learning both analytic thought (science and maths) and empathy (epitomised by art).
Whistleblower Edwards Snowden chose SxSW this year as the place to do his first public interview (via Google Hangouts) where he warned, as did Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (via Skype), about the very real dangers threatening the world’s privacy and security after the damning revelations about the snooping down by the NSA.
This year’s SxSW mirrored that this darker tone in the industry in general, where Google chairman Eric Schmidt gave a talk on his book “The New Digital Age” and warned about the state of the internet given the revelations about government-sanctioned snooping.
Even though Schmidt calls digital “a one time transfer of power to the people” it has its downsides.
“Governments have figured out that you don’t turn off the internet, you infiltrate it” Schmidt warned after Snowden’s revelations that Google’s secure servers had been accessed by the NSA. “When they turned off the internet in Egypt it just backfired. The same thing happened in Ukraine.”
“We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010 and we were attacked by the US government in 2013” he said. “That’s a fact.”
Referring to Syria, Schmidt said the limit to the kind of people power that saw the Arab Spring flourish “ends at the barrel of a gun.”
Jared Cohen, Schmidt’s co-author, said repressive regimes are cruelly using smartphones, which opponents utilise to warn each other of roadblocks and other dangers.
“If you are captured, the first thing they do is take your smartphone and use it to lure your friends into a trap” while gunmen manning roadblocks often check people’s smartphone at gunpoint to ascertain their affiliation.
Such mobile, cutting-edge technology, instead of being used to prompt freedom is now used for for nefarious purposes. It’s a double-edged sword.
In a more benign context, posts by teenagers have a “digital permanence” where teenage or drunken oversharing posts can wreck havoc in people’s lives later on.
“It might follow her around like a digital scarlet letter for the rest of her life” said Cohen.
The great irony is that Google makes its income via targeted advertising that requires the kind of online disclosure people are now quite comfortable giving away by themselves – something that makes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s reported phone call to US President Barack Obama to complain about digital intercepts filled with irony.
But “Schmidt argues, not necessarily convincingly given how Facebook pushes privacy boundaries despite user outcries, “in democracies companies will find the right balance [of privacy] by themselves”.
Speaking about WhatsApp’s recent purchase by Facebook, Schmidt said: “Let us celebrate capitalism. $19bn,  employees. Good for them.”
But he warned that the progress made by robots in the lower-income work bracket is likely to expand to the top-end, so-called knowledge economy.
“Robots are replacing manual jobs. This has a displacement effect but it is progress. The same thing is about to happened with the repetitive knowledge worker. There is a bad danger that those jobs can be automated by robots and services.”
An estimated 30 000 people came to Austin this year, where they mingled at the convention centre and nearby hotels; spilling into music and film venues, bars and restaurants around it, including the nearby Sixth and Red River Streets. Digerati spoke to filmmakers and musicians, in a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary way that historians might look back at like we do Florence or New York and consider it some kind of modern Renaissance venue.
Southby, as its known by the locals and regular attendees, has a more important role than ever, especially in an age where people are more inclined to solitariness while believing their digital sharing is real interaction – but also because it reminds us of exactly what the state the world is in.
Like Kleon argues, it’s one of the most important “scenius” events in a tech calendar packed with product launches that skirt the real issues the speakers and participants debate in Austin.
It’s not jumping the shark, SxSW is key to understanding the shark.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail on 20 March 2014