Sunday, November 29, 2009

Risk and Culture—A Manifesto, David Moss

Reprinted from Die Zeit, January, 1994
© David Moss, 1994. All rights reserved.

"Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us" (Pasternak)

1. Ranting & Raving

In America they're sky-diving & shooting the rapids, walking on hot coals; in Europe they're Bungee- jumping, mountain climbing, racing fast cars. Everywhere, people are risking their physical lives, risking death on a daily basis and then going back to their normal routine with no visible improvement in the life that surrounds us --in our Culture. This personal experience of risk has become so existential, so isolated, so alienated, that it brings nothing back to the culture which generates it. Have we become, simultaneously, both the Roman Emperors and the gladiators of risk: throwing ourselves into the coliseum, fighting for our lives and giving ourselves the thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision? Every year, a new extreme seems to be reached, but somehow, it's never the end. What is all this deadly risk-taking? What happens to cultural life, to the life of the mind, feelings, fantasy and passion, when risk is defined as just another way of courting death in a socially semi-approved way.? Are these new rituals the symbol of a culturally evolving society, or the symptom of something else? Only a Science-Fiction novel could imagine a people that risks its health, its environment, its sanity, and its children, but steadfastly refuses to be caught dead buying (for example) a CD or book by an unknown artist. In times of retrenchment and conservatism due to a tightening economic web and feelings of scarcity, this fear of change and failure devalues risk into elitist sport.

But risk can be a creative tool for shaping Culture: One can both experience that formative "energy at the edges" (like a pre-TV tribal shaman), and then bring it back to neighbors and community; to talk, share and find new balances

Its the last decade of the 20th century? What risks have you taken this year?

DEFINITION #1: Risk is putting yourself in a position to challenge or re-balance your personal point of view.

--Addendum: A true risk can only be taken when you have more than one choice. Otherwise it's not risk-taking, it's a move of desperation.

--Why is it that large corporations and big-business talk about taking "risks", but everyone else is being asked to "scale-back", settle-down, pare-down, cut-back.

--Why don't museums talk about taking risks now, or record-stores or radio-stations (have you noticed the similarity of formats at your radio stations and newspapers?); why won't Governments even talk about the essential need for risk-taking.

--Why don't banks hand out wallet-sized cards that say "10 cultural risks you can take today" (don't we have enough calendar-cards?).

Propaganda Slogan of the week:
"Put your perceptions in someone else's mind-
And your mind in
some one else's hands".

Thought #1: Specialization in culture removes risk by making "unknowns" invisible. If we don't have any knowledge/concept of something we can't possibly have enough information to take a leap.

Thought #2: In times of transition "clannishness" (a condition in which risk is "sanctified", circumscribed, quantified, and aligned with violent acts) will reassert itself through the appearance of cults/cliques, clubs, and group rites.

Thought #3: What doesn't work today is simply waiting for the right complex of coordinates & information in order to work tomorrow. Every action contains the seeds & information for future actions. Thus, a risk that fails is also successful, in that it gives a context for future risks.

Thought #4: The concept of risk is inherent in the leap to a new organizing principle (i.e. the move from an overly complex system with rules, sub-sets, modifiers, sub-systems, adaptation, enhancers, to a new paradigm or previously unknown operating system) Risk is the culture's organic movement away from a top-heavy system before it crashes; and so risk may provide answers to un-asked questions, or un-articulated needs.

2. Knots in the Information Flow (or where we stand today):

We live in a world where most parameters are built-in & invisible. The illusion of choice/risk/adventure is offered by the packaging. But those choices are circumscribed and limiting. Think about computers. You fool around with a new one and think, "Wow, I can do everything with this". But then after an hour, something seems wrong, or boredom sets in. You can do only what is internally pre-set and/or commercially successful. Each machine/program has built-inlimitations and functional parameters that steer your ideas into certain channels.

--Or what about these cassette booths at the big mega-music stores in the US -- you walk over to a machine that tells you to "go ahead-- pick out your favorite music, put it all on one cassette -- your personal choice --your Total Music concept". BUT- wait a minute- what list are you choosing from? Who is on this list? Who is not on it? and why? And is it really your personal choice? Again, a case of parameters being made invisible - so it becomes impossible to really choose.

--Why don't record shops have a section called: "Music you never heard in your life"?

--Why don't book shops carry a section of books titled: "These books have inspired the following people" (with a list of names and personal statements).

--Why don't museums develop themes that are out of the ordinary? Haven't we had enough of "The Etruscans", or "American Art in the 20th Century", or "Picasso's Women". These shows are the equivalent of new-car showrooms, confirming all our prejudices, offering very little new information, simply re-establishing the parameters.

PARADIGM: First comes Beauty Pageants, then come Film Festivals

--Why don't movie theaters run a short film by an unknown director before each feature film.

--Why don't schools offer courses in "concepts of risk-taking" -- for 5,6, & 7 year olds

--Why are our Ballets, Opera, Symphonies, Theater having one crisis after the next? For the past 30 years one answer to all the problems has been: "make it an epic! Get bigger; throw more elephants on the stage." This answer fits into an "acceptable risk" category (more money/more things/more bureaucracy).

--What happens to artists, and their risk-levels, when their work is being sponsored, patronized, endowed by corporations whose sense of risk flows primarily through their earnings?

--Why is Europe (and Germany!) modelling itself on the American system of Art support (or really, lack of support). Look around you. Available output in film, music, theater, dance, the visual arts, media is being Hollywood-ized and standardized.

--THOUGHT: The growth/dispersion of Hi-Tech devices, schemes, and communication networks to accomplish unquestioned, minimal-choiced, market-driven ends seems a dead-end as far as "risk" is concerned.

3. What do people really want from art/artists?

--Artists are supposed to take risks:

a] Risk with "experience": patterns/belief-systems/hierarchies
b] Risk with "emotions": Passion/pleasure/pain/ennui
c] Risk with "intellect" why/yes-no/impossible

But what seems to happen to their risk-generated products? Enter the concept of "2nd-hand touch":

Why does art of all types get seen/stored/treated like diamonds or money in the bank; or maybe the circus-sideshow? Maybe it has to do with the idea of "contact" or "touch". For some reason, people need to share the same room/air/to exchange molecules with art objects/art people/art moments. this contact seems to be essential to human life at all levels of complexity. And so, we store our "art experiences" so that they can be contacted on demand. Like a church service serving up a chalice of spiritual exaltation, so does the "normal"concert fill the need for non-linear corporeal experience . And what is the actual essential information here? Contact/touch/exchange/offering/acceptance!

But there must be other ways to get this information. Why not become a patron? Sponsor a 'live' music event in your house, invite your friends, or people you would like to share with. or commission an artwork from a painter/sculptor; go to their studio, watch the process, feel the work physically grow. Or make a radio program, a personal "sound-play" that would place your experience in front of unknown listeners. These are ways to have the "touch" experience that are not dictated by museums, producers, bureaucrats, and banks. Take control: how much do you spend on movies (+ videos) each year? Take that money and invest/give it to a film-maker, a video-artist, or buy a video-camera and put it in the hands of someone (you know) who is visually stimulated.

--Think of all these handi-cams which are only being used to take the place of the still camera on vacation -- millions of them. What contact could be made?? Imagine it. Do it! (Surely this technology must be more interesting than "Germany's Funniest Home Videos"!)

4. A Risk Quiz: Test your RQ (Risk Quotient):

1. -Have you made a new friend this year?
2. -Have you driven a car (or been passenger) at more than 90 mph?
3. -Have you done something which you previously disliked?
4. -Have you gone to a music concert with a sound level of more than 100 db?
5a.-Have you been in a situation where you are not in control; 5b.-on purpose? (Answer a & b)
6. -Have you crossed against the stop-lights?
7. -Have you stopped doing something that frustrates you?
8a.-Do you usually do the same thing for entertainment? 8b.- for relaxation? (Answer a & b)
9. -Have you broken thru frustration to a new or different point of view?
10.-Have you taken a drug (prescription or not) without knowing the side effects?
11. - Have you engaged a stranger in conversation?
12a. - Do you smoke? 12b. Do you have an addiction? (Answer a & b)
13a. - Have you hung out with people 20 years younger than you?
13b. - Have you hung out with people 20 years older than you?
14a. -Have you been to a museum 1 to 3 times in the past year?
14b. -4 or more times? (choose only a or b)
15. -Do you use a radio or other sound-generating object for Background sound while you do other tasks?

Scoring "yes" answers: (1) +3; (2) -5; (3) +5; (4) -2; (5a) +2 (5b) +3; (6) -3; (7) +2; (8a) -1 (8b) -1; (9) +5; (10) -3; (11) +2; (12a) -3 (12b) -5; (13a) +2 (13b) +2; (14a) +2 or (14b) -2; (15) -3


+20 to +28: You thrive on the edge; no time for a movie!

+10 to +19: Hi-level Risk is a large part of your make-up

0 to +9: Dis-Comfort Zone A: You're leaning toward changes

-9 to 0: Dis-comfort Zone B: You're a little stuck; wondering

-10 to -19: Risking your body, but not your mind

-20 to -28: At least become a vegetarian!

5. Take a chance: Actual risks you can take right today:

Risk #1: your voice:

The idea:
Our spoken language is an incredibly complex, codified system of rhythms, social songs, & sonic material. But, how does language convey intelligence? What are the sounds that carry language's information?

The Risk:
Imagine that you are an intelligent form of life that did not originate on Planet Earth. You wish to demonstrate your intelligence by offering information in your own non-Earth-based language.

How to do it:

--Create a limited repertoire of sounds which are not based in any known human-language.
--Develop a repeated sequence of these sounds which can be added to or revised.
--Break the normal human habits of conversational inflections,
and the concept that a "sound" can equal an "emotion".
--Use silences to alter the rhythmic flow and convey those "hierarchies of importance" that all languages contain.
--Transmit the basic building blocks of your language within 10 seconds of beginning to speak.
--Practise until your language feels intuitive, and then speak (to your friends!).

Risk #2: your habits:

ADD up all the hours you spend watching TV, listening to radio, hanging out in a bar, going to Sporting events each week. Take 10% of this total. Now, this week, fill that 10% with "unusual" activities: take long walks alone, take long walks with an old friend you haven't seen in years, make a list of things you hate about popular culture; make a list of things you love about popular culture; what would you change if you were the Cultue Tsar of your city; make a list of things you hate about your city museum, art gallery (or love); find out if your child's school offers interesting & challenging stimuli focused on the development of creative risk-taking; write a poem (or forget about a poem, just write some words that mean something to you); compare the Arts section of your local newspapers to the Sports section; the Economy or Real Estate sections. Ask a co-worker what they love to look at, listen to, read; then use some of that 10% "found-time" to try out their choices.

Risk #3: your air-wave consumption:

Call a radio-station and tell them what you really think about their programming choices (think about radio -- a world of sound/ information/background noise that surrounds you almost every day, everywhere. What does it mean for your life; it certainly touches your life, why not touch back? Send them your list of the 10 most boring pieces of music that they repeatedly play; or a commentary on an announcer who you are forced to listen to every day; or a desire for a different program. In the U.S. radio stations believe every letter from a listener carries the weight of 10,000 listeners who would never be motivated to write!). Remember, there's nothing in the history of radio which categorically states that the transmission of waves through space should result in a passive listening device (called a "radio").

6. "It's your culture
(shake it till it hops! Or hold it until it rots!)"

--The desire to take risks is the desire to be "out of control"; to make or experience something that is really more than the sum of its parts, something intimate, pleasurable, and a little unpredictable. It's the desire to have your abilities/thoughts/ choices /intelligence somehow create "stuff", "material", "shape", relationships, functions that never before existed in the world.


the American concept of risk in culture has devolved into parachuting "10,000 feet over Las Vegas with Elvis": physical challenges like hang-gliding, mountain-climbing, bungee-jumping... (and then jumping onto the couch for 6 hours of TV). Is this the direction of your cultural life?


Walk into your local "Culture-Shop" and say to the sales-person:

"that book/journal/software/video/CD you sold me was not challenging-- why did you recommend it?"

Well, maybe an interesting conversation will result; maybe the workers will imagine a kind of activist buying-public that wants to make inspired, unusual choices, and maybe this will lead to wider access.

The "act" of risk-taking is never "pure" & "simple", it is composed/conjured, considered/confused, created/corrupted, just like the rest of life. Our Culture is filled with structures and frameworks which act as beginning points (or diving boards). We build our life by mixing/distorting these memories/hierarchies of importance/materials. The resulting mutations sometimes gain a momentum & shape of their own that is completely unpredictable-- they could never have been created by sheer thought or rational habitual action.

It is in these rare moments that the essence of risk lives--here is the real pleasure!. Everything else is simply practice, work, virtuosity, repetition, preparation, fun, intellectuality........

Risk & "personal responsibility go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin. Enhanced personal responsibility means that your ability to take positive mental risks increases. Risk-taking without personal responsibility is the equivalent of ....what? A " soldier of fortune"?, or a late-20th century politician? or buying a Lottery card? or American TV?

"And in the end...." it all comes back to education and family, our two most basic experiences. "Risk", if it is to be a creative culture-shaping tool, must be developed and fostered in the earliest years of family environment and school-system. A widening web of potential interconnection, a network of truly-chosen jumping-off points, and an intelligence pleased by "the possible" is infinitely preferable to the "funnel into function" delivery system currently in effect.

Risk-taking lives in the territory of surprise, in the landscape of possibilities. It is an architecture of individuality, surrounded by a helix of memories diving into a pool of chaos. How to get there? Take a chance!

"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time" (Andre Gide)

Above copied from:

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