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Re: Emerging Ideas: March 2015 Discussion


Memo Akten <[log in to unmask]>


Memo Akten <[log in to unmask]>


Tue, 17 Mar 2015 21:34:12 +0000





text/plain (537 lines)

Hi everyone, thanks for the invite Suzy, and apologies for coming to the 
discussion so late, I've been very tied up these past weeks. In an 
effort to make up, I wrote all of the below quite quickly in one 
afternoon almost as a stream of consciousness dump so again apologies if 
it's a bit long.

NB I've actually been on crumb for a few years (since 2009/2010 I think) 
but I believe this will be my first post.

I'll talk about my work and experience in context of the primary 
discussion theme, also reflecting on the themes mentioned so far. 
There's a lot to be said so I'll try and keep it brief (though I'm sure 
I'll fail). The text below could perhaps be complemented by a brief talk 
I gave at Digital Utopias a few months ago, about production models 
(under the disruptive innovation umbrella 

My experience in this field (collaborations between the Arts and 
Creative Digital Industry sectors) is perhaps a bit different to the 
partnerships mentioned so far. I have exhibited work and have had work 
commissioned by partnerships with corporate sponsors. But I've also 
ridden this wave all the way into the firey pits of hell - working 
directly with brands and ad agencies - and back.

-= A brief history of time =-

First a bit of background information, as this might help shed light on 
how or why I ended up on this slippery slope. I grew up in Turkey, and 
completed a degree in Civil Engineering. Not at all something I was 
interested in, but somehow found myself in due to the education system 
and my environment etc. (in the late 80s, early 90s). As soon as I 
finished university I escaped to London, to pursue a life that wouldn't 
involve being a civil engineer, or going to the army.

I was so naÔve and ignorant to the models of production available to 
artists, that I thought the *only* way an artist could make art, is if 
they found ways of financially supporting it themselves. I most 
definitely am not a businessman or an entrepreneur, but I found I had no 
other choice to try and find ways of self-funding my work.

-= The Mega Super Awesome Visuals Company =-

So in 2006 I setup The Mega Super Awesome Visuals Company - a 
micro-studio which consisted of just myself, and was a channel through 
which I could sell my services, and in return gain experience, skills 
and of course the funds to develop my own work.

I did that for quite a few years e.g.

Commercial work:

Depeche Mode music video 
<http://www.memo.tv/depeche-mode-fragile-tension/> (2009)

Wombats music video <http://www.memo.tv/wombats-techno-fan/> (2010)

Blaze <http://www.memo.tv/blaze-the-streetdance-show/> (2010)

Cascada <http://www.memo.tv/cascada/> (2011)

The above gave me the time, funds and technical skills to realize 
personal self-initiated and self-funded work such as

Body Paint <http://www.memo.tv/bodypaint/> (2009) and Gold 
<http://www.memo.tv/gold/> (2009) toured with the V&A's Decode exhibition.

Simple Harmonic Motion <http://www.memo.tv/simple-harmonic-motion/> #5 
(2011 - ongoing) was part of Ron Arad's Curtain Call at the Roundhouse, 

And publicly funded work such as

My Secret Heart <http://www.memo.tv/my-secret-heart/> (2008) premiered 
at the Royal Festival Hall and won a number of awards.

Forms <http://www.memo.tv/forms/> (2012) won the Golden Nica at the Prix 
Ars Electronica.

Of course these self-initiated / self-funded or publicly funded work 
also fed back into the commercial work that I was doing. So there was a 
constant feedback loop supporting itself.

-= Marshmallow Laser Feast =-

I had no ambitions of owning or managing a large company, so I didn't 
try to grow MSA Visuals. At the same time I was thoroughly enjoying 
collaborating with friends I'd made on this journey. So in 2011, with 
two friends I setup a new company called Marshmallow Laser Feast. Again 
we didn't have aims of growing the company. We just wanted to be able to 
independently do the work that we wanted to do. We wanted to 
artistically explore new mediums, new ways of expressing ourselves, and 
not limiting ourselves to any particular genre, output, discipline, 
mediumor context. Whether it be visual, sound, dance, theatre, film, 
live performance or commercial. This was the ethos I had with MSA 
Visuals, and now carried on into MLF (and even though I've now left MLF, 
I still carry to this day).

Prior to MLF, the commercial work that I was doing on my own was through 
music labels, event agencies, creative agencies etc. With MLF we slipped 
into working with ad agencies and even directly with brands, and that 
opened up the doors to a whole new world of opportunity and pain.

It's worth mentioning a few inspirations or 'role models' when we were 
setting up MLF:

BMW Kinetic Sculpture (2008) by Art+com, commissioned by BMW


Absolut Quartet (2008) by Jeff Lieberman & Dan Paluska, commissioned by 


Giant Xylophone in Forest (2011)by Drill Inc, commissioned by NTT Docomo


These were examples of what we were hoping to achieve. Ambitious, 
genre-busting, anti-disciplinary work that were crossing boundaries, 
reaching large audiences, inspiring others and not compromising their 
integrity through brand funding (this last point isn't entirely true 
actually, especially in the BMW / Art+Com case; Iíll talk about this below).

With MLF we made a lot of work that I am very proud of. Work that - 
judging by the number of clones they've produced, other works that cite 
these as references, conferences we've been invited to as a result etc - 
has had a significant cultural impact.

Sony Playstation 3 Video Store virals (2011)

A live projection mapping of a living room.


Meet Your Creator (2012)

A live theatrical performance / kinetic light sculpture with quadrotor 
drones, LEDs, motorized mirrors and moving head spotlights dancing in a 
joyous robo-ballet celebration of techno-spirituality.


McLaren P1 light Painting (2012)

A stop-motion, long exposure photography light painting animation, 
driven by real-life wind tunnel data and motion control rigs.


Laser Forest (2013)

A large interactive musical laser forest


Just for hits (2013)

A provocation on creativity, memes, cultural evolution and internet 
culture; featuring Professor Richard Dawkins.


I am very proud of this work. I think we explored interesting new 
territory - and quite importantly, inspired others. E.g. I know for a 
fact that the Sony PlayStation videos inspired a lot of work which went 
on to win many awards. And to me that is much more important than 
winning awards for my own work.

But I of course I wouldn't call the Sony Playstation project 'my 
artwork'. It's a commercial, for Sony Playstation. Likewise with the 
McLaren P1 video. And the BMW Kinetic Sculpture.

-= Artistic R&D and motivation =-

I value projects like the Sony Playstation mapping, McLaren Light 
Painting etc as *Artistic R&D*. They allow me time, space and facilities 
to investigate modes of communication that would perhaps otherwise not 
be possible for me. These investigations operate on many levels: Visual, 
sonic, physical, interaction, storytelling, technical. I learn from them 
and will hopefully be able to inject what I've learnt into further work. 
And like I mentioned above, hopefully these projects are also a stepping 
stone for *others* to learn from, be inspired by and fuel *their* 
further work (which in turn will hopefully inspire and fuel *my* further 

However where it gets tricky is when motivations are not aligned; and 
this is the biggest issue I find when working with commercial 
organizations vs cultural organizations - motivation. Often while *we* 
are motivated by artistic R&D, commercial commissioners are motivated by 
something else - getting more hits on youtube, more shares on facebook, 
selling more products, winning an award, getting a promotion etc. And it 
can be very tiring trying to pull a project in one direction, while 
those who are commissioning you are trying to pull it in another direction.

So there's a delicate tension here. With the Sony PlayStation project, 
or the McLaren project, on one hand the brand / agency gave us the 
opportunity, facility and possibilities of exploring what we wanted to 
explore; but with strings attached in that we had to deliver something 
which communicated what they wanted us to communicate. We had to have a 
PlayStation in there, or a McLaren.

This model works, but it is very tiring.

But it's not all doom and gloom (more on this in the Learnings section).

-= Perfection =-

"Meet Your Creator" was a very different beast. To me that project is 
perfect. Not that it's perfectly conceptualized or realized. But that as 
an experience working with a brand (Saatchi & Saatchi) it was in no way 
compromised. On the contrary - the creative directors at Saatchi & 
Saatchi Jonathan Santana and Xander Smith; the producer Juliette Larthe; 
all the way up to the Head of Global Operations Norma Clarke were so 
absolutely fantastic and aligned in vision with us. They were not only 
aligned in vision with us, but collaborators, they were pulling the 
project forward in conceptualization, ideation - and of course 
production. There were no strings attached, just a shared vision and 
determination to realize that vision.

So while this performance is obviously still promoting the brand Saatchi 
& Saatchi,there isn't a single decision made in the design of the 
performance, that was made because it suited the brand better. Every 
single decision was made becausewe thought it was the right decision for 
the performance. And S&S realize that in the long run, that was better 
to promote their brand, than attach strings that would force us to stick 
their logo in there or some corporate message. Instead they saw the 
value in simply being able to promote the finished piece as commissioned 
by S&S. (you wouldn't believe the number of emails we still get from 
brands wanting us to fly quadrotors in the shape of their logo :/ )

So in my mind the way that project came about was perfect. The work 
itself of course is far from perfect, but then again what work is 
perfect? The outcome is true to our vision, it is perfectly 
representative of what we set out to achieve, limited of course by what 
we were technically and financially able to achieve - but at least we 
were not crippled by having to make compromises due to the brand 
funding. In my mind it is no different to making a personal artwork.

-= The End =-

That project happing in 2011/2012, got me very excited and hopeful about 
the future. Unfortunately I never experienced that kind of brand 
relationship again (except for in 2013, again with S&S for the "Just for 
hits" performance).

More on this in the Learnings section, but as the years went on I became 
more and more disillusioned by the work we were doing.

The last commercial project I worked on with Marshmallow Laser Feast was 
a U2 music video & super-bowl commercial for Bank of America / RED. A 
collaboration with legend Mark Romanek (which was probably the highlight 
of the job for me).


This project summed up everything that I was not happy with about the 
commercial world. We spent about 3-4 weeks pitching (which is actually 
very short, some pitches can last months, if not years), and then we had 
3 week development time (yes, I know that's crazy - especially because 
it was over christmas / new year). The basic idea ended up being taking 
what I had done 6 years earlier, and throwing a whole bunch of money at 
it, to make it BIGGER, and MORE WOW, because BIGGER IS BETTER.

Over the years this is what I feel I (and MLF) had become. Maker of 
spectacles. Every day I was receiving emails from some ad agency who 
wanted the next big thing. It had to be "bigger than before", "never 
before seen" (at least "never before seen" in the ad-world, it was ok if 
only a hand-full of people had seen it in an art-context), and a "be 
there moment" which everyone would want to share on facebook etc. Taking 
something small and throwing money at it to make it big was a very valid 

So I resigned from MLF, the company that I'd co-founded 3 years earlier. 
I stepped down as (co-)director and left the company beginning of 2014. 
I've now gone back to being an independent artist (and on a side note, 
started a PhD at Goldsmiths in Artificial Intelligence, machine 
learning, cognitive science, data dramatization and artistic, expressive 
human computer interaction).

-= Learnings =-

I don't think it's all doom and gloom. But before I talk about that, I 
want to reflect on a few things.

-= Budget ~ Strings=-

An important rule, is that amount of creative freedom is inversely 
proportional to production budget. Our budgets were growing and growing 
(our fees weren't necessarily growing, but the production budgets we 
were dealing with - which were usually handled by the client side - were 
growing). And as the production budgets grew, amount of strings attached 
also grew.

An interesting side point to this, is that the formula that governs the 
relationship between amount of strings attached and production budget, 
also takes into account who you are. So Person A might have N amount of 
strings attached for a budget X, but person B might have M amount of 
strings attached for the same budget. Negotiating that is all part of 
the fun (fun if you're a masochist, otherwise it's a major PITA and 
waste of time).

-= Chain of Command =-

Another important factor which I often mention is "chain of command". 
It's a very simple and obvious rule, but often gets overlooked, and that 
is the shorter the chain of command, the better the work will be. All of 
the commercial projects which I'm happy with, had a very short chain of 
command. I.e. we were in direct communication with the people at the 
client side who had the authority to sign off on all decisions. Or even 
if they didn't have the authority to sign off on the decisions 
themselves, they had to report to one level of superiors, but that was 
more of a formality, and they were always confident that they could get 
sign off from their superiors relatively easily. I.e. their superiors 
had faith in them.

I've also been involved with a number of projects where we were dealing 
with a creative director at an agency who had to report to his manager 
who had to report to the executive creative director who had to report 
to head of blah who had to report to the other agency who had to report 
to the boss at blah who had to report to the account manager who had to 
report to the producer at the client etc. etc. Without exaggerating, 
sometimes these tiers would be 10 levels deep. Or we'd have "creative 
meetings" with 10-15 people. Full of people who are fighting for 
promotion, eager to make their voice heard and their input count. 
NOTHING WILL EVER COME OF THIS. It's a waste of time.

Furthermore, linking the above two: the bigger the production budget, 
the higher the probability of having a longer chain of command. 
Something to be wary of.

-= Trust =-

Again linked to the above two points, when a client puts in a lot of 
money, they want to know what they're going to get at the end. This is 
quite contradictory to the way I work - and I presume most artists. If I 
knew what I was going to get at the end of an exploratory process, it 
wouldn't be an exploratory process. It would be just a linear 
development process. The most successful (and fun) projects I've worked 
on, are the ones where I (or we) have not had pressure at the start of 
the project to promise exactly what we would deliver at the end. We've 
only promised where we'll start, and inwhat direction(s) we'll explore, 
and then we've documented our progress.

That requires a lot of trust from the commissioning body. With cultural 
organizations, I find this is easier to establish. It's easier because 
there is more of a personal relationship, that builds over long periods 
of time, sometimes years. Also the exploratory process is known, it's 

In the commercial world, expectations are different. They're used to 
seeing storyboards and style-guides at the start; and then everything 
going according to their plan. Also these long personal relationships 
are tricky, because the world is so volatile. Even if you manage to 
build personal relationships, if you have a long chain of command (again 
that damn chain), it's often not possible to make sure you have a 
personal relationship with everyone in that chain.

The one commercial project I've been involved with which I hold as an 
example of how all brand commissioned art should be (Meet Your Creator) 
was made possible because we had an existing relationship with the 
client (Saatchi & Saatchi) from prior work, and they trusted us. And 
again, quite critically, because the chain of command was so short, we 
just needed to have this trusted relationship with a very small group of 
people (Jonathan, Xander, Norma and Juliette - which is the exact same 
group of people we worked with the year before). If the chain of command 
is really long, even if you have a solid trusted relationship with some 
people in the chain, if new people come into the chain who don't have 
that trust with you or their peers, it all falls apart again.

It's also worth pointing out, that having a long-term trusted 
relationship isn't enough. Neither is having a short chain of command. 
You need those, but you also need to make sure that the people you're 
dealing with on the client-side are awesome, and that isn't always the 

-= Danger =-

The most dangerous situation, is when you start discussions with a 
client / brand / agency, and at the start it seems like everything is 
perfect. Motivations are completely aligned, there are no strings 
attached, chain of command is very short. Everything is awesome 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etzMjoH0rJw>. This happens surprisingly 

But unfortunately everything is rarely awesome 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhbliUq0_r4>. Only after months of 
friendly chats and enthusiastic discussions do you realize that even 
though motivations are completely aligned with the people you're dealing 
with, perhaps the chain of command isn't as short as you thought, 
perhaps someone new has been assigned at the client side at the very far 
side of the chain, perhaps there are more strings than you'd initially 
realized, perhaps the new person wants to make a teensy weensy change 
that doesn't really affect the project but actually for you that 
undermines the whole concept of the work.

But by this point you've invested so much time into the discussions 
(perhaps even money), but most critically you've become emotionally 
engaged with the project, that you find it difficult to let go. In fact 
sometimes you come to this realization so far down the line, that it's 
"quicker to swim to the finish than it is to go back". So you just bite 
the bullet and finish it, trying to make the most of it. I.e. it becomes 
"artistic R&D" when you'd set out to make "an artwork".

Learning to assess a commercial opportunity early on is a very valuable 

-= Cultural differences =-

At the heart of it, the biggest issue is the cultural differences 
between those who are in the world of art, and those who are in the 
business of selling products.

The most obvious difference of course, is that a lot of people in the 
brand world - especially those in marketing and advertising - just don't 
care, about anything. They literally don't give a **** about anything 
other than making money. These stereotypes do exist, and they ruin it 
for everyone.

However I should make it clear that in my experience not everyone in 
that world is like that. I'd also like to underline the fact that I am 
most definitely not endorsing the view that "art world == good; 
corporate world== bad". Both sides are as ignorant and *prejudiced* as 
each other. Plenty of artists whose work I deeply respect and admire, 
have said things that frankly quite shock me in their ignorance, naivety 
and prejudice. There is the assumption (at least amongst many artists I 
know) that *everyone* in the brand / commercial world is like the above 
mentioned stereotypes: blindly driven, determined and obsessed to 
corrupt, destroy and take over the world with their ads and corporate 
tactics. In fact many of these claims - which I put down to blatant 
ignorance - are further fuelled when these artists refuse to even engage 
in discussion with the said evil corporate perpetrators (often due to a 
moral high ground).

A lot of the problems arising between the commercial and art world is 
due to this ignorance. Ignorance to how the other side functions and 
what they value. (Isn't this the root of ALL problems in the world? - In 
fact now that I have one foot in academia, I can see the same issues re: 
academia vs real world).

There are a lot of people in the commercial world (perhaps even 
majority) who have genuinely good intentions.

However they may not possess the language to articulate their intentions 
in a way that would make them accepted in the art world. In effect, the 
problem simply becomes one of communication. A tier down from that, they 
may even show different intentions. But again often these differences 
can easily be reconciled if caught early on.

-= Disrupting from within =-

One interesting point regarding what I've witnessed in the commercial 
world (e.g. ad agencies), is that those who are younger and more junior, 
are more likely to be open to learning about how to engage with cultural 
organizations and artists. They genuinely want to "do good" and 
instigate change. Unfortunately they often have less power, and access 
to smaller budgets etc. Those who are older, more experienced, and have 
more power are often more stubborn and want to do things the 
old-fashioned way. Just concentrate on making money. Of course this 
makes complete sense, even from a Darwinian evolutionary point of view 
(those who are in high power positions are there because they are more 
interested in doing what it takes to get to a high power position), and 
unfortunately this makes progress difficult. But if we are patient, and 
do not give up engaging with the younger, more open minded generation, 
theywill hopefully instigate change from within as they grow within 
their companies.

The 'Rules of engagement' approach is a good starting point, but it 
isn't enough. There needs to be a deep cultural change in both sides of 
the debate. The current trends, incubator programs, artist in residence 
etc are all good initiatives too and helping these cultural shifts to 
varying degrees, but are still acting on the surface. We need much 
deeper penetration.

As Tatiana talks about, disrupting from within is the only real 
solution. I've been trying to disrupt the commercial world from within 
for almost a decade. I've now left the front-line of this battle as I'm 
exhausted from it, and I don't think I'm equipped with the right tools.

I feel like it's not "artist-in-residence" programs that we need in 
corporate organizations, but "curator-in-residence" programs. And not 
for 4-12 weeks, but 4-12 months. I can go and do a residency for a few 
weeks at some startup in SF, but what good does that *really* do if I'm 
just focusing on trying to get some work out the door in a few weeks and 
I'm only liasing with someone from their marketing team, whose only 
connection to "art" is following a few cool techy blogs (of which 
there's now more than there are artists in the world probably. And they 
all copy paste each others posts. We need sites that will rip our work 
apart, not just copy paste it all over the place - that's a whole other 
topic, but I think an important part of this cultural shift that we need).

Besides, most of the tech-artist-in-residence programs attract 
relatively young, emerging artists (perhaps because they offer very low 
fees and only "good exposure"?). (Excluding exceptions) these young 
emerging artists perhaps don't yet have the life-experience or 
understanding to have an impact on the commercial organizations they are 
resident in. On the contrary, these commercial organizations may be 
assimilating the artists in residence more than the artists are 
assimilating the commercial organizations.

This should be an added incentive to why we must first let experienced 
curators - such as yourselves - deep into the commercial world, and try 
to assimilate them from within. Curators such as yourselves can start 
sowing the seeds of this cultural exchange. And then you bring in 
artists-in-residence and engage with them within commercial 
organizations; you instigate partnership programs with cultural 
organizations from within, reaching out as opposed to reaching in from 
outside, or marketing managers trying to do so (and failing to do it 
properly). Then hopefully the channels of communication between the two 
worlds will be open, clear and fruitful. And both sides will see more of 
and learn how the other side expects to operate.

Of course this is not easy. It's going to be hard, and very painful. But 
if we don't at least aim for it, then it's never going to happen.

I feel like I've written a lot and perhaps this is a good point to sign 
off and let the discussion continue.

P.S. I can't not pay homage to Andy Cameron, who really fought hard to 
make deep cultural changes in the ad world. And he was making progress. 
Slow progress - as he was pretty much the only person that deep inside 
within the walls of an ad agency with his background - but progress was 
there. So tragic that he went so young.

Memo Akten
www.memo.tv <http://www.memo.tv>
@memotv <http://www.twitter.com/memotv>

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