The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Kamal Sinclair. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Kamal Sinclair. Kamal is the executive director of the Guild Of Future Architects. She also works supporting independent artists as a senior consultant for Sundance Institute’s Future of Culture Initiative. And she makes art through a family practice that she calls Sinclair Futures. She also serves as an external advisor to the MacArthur Foundation’s journalism and media program and is a member of MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality.
Jim: I read this somewhere, I don’t know if you said it or someone said it about you, but anyway, I found the words. “You could say that Kamal Sinclair is an art doula.” Now, six months ago, I wouldn’t have known what a doula was, but it turns out I’m a brand new grandpa for the first time. How about that?
Jim: Thank you. I may be biased, but in my opinion, most beautiful baby in the world. But anyway, doula is a new thing, at least since were in the child making era, and our daughter had one and she was very, very helpful as a process, essentially, a very experienced advisor on the whole pregnancy process and advocate when you need it. That’s what a doula is, at least in the pregnancy business. And so that gives me a quite interesting sense of you as an art doula.
Kamal: Thank you. Yes, it’s something that has emerged as a term, I would say, from a lot of practice of helping artists to birth their creative babies over 20 years.
Jim: Hopefully in general, there’s less blood and bodily fluids, but I’m sure sometimes there is.
Kamal: Well, you’d be surprised. We did a support, when I was at Sundance, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who is a bioengineering artist. So she definitely got into some of the human tissues and so forth in her birthing of her creative vision.
Jim: Pretty cool. I’ll also call out that Kamal has a very interesting Tweet stream at @Kamalsinclair and man is it nerdy. You get some deep shit, let me tell you. I’ve read two of the most recent ones. One is basically a quite detailed and reasonably accurate article on the metaphysics of Star Trek style transporters. Is the person on the other side really you? Hm, read the article and find out. Another article is on, is consciousness a quantum phenomenon? Again, a deep question and the author comes to the correct answer, which is maybe. And the third one, which just blew my mind is the mathematics of earth bending. I am a pretty mathematical dude, but by about a third of the way in, I said, “This shit’s over my head.” But anyway, pick out her amazing Tweet stream if you’re prepared to go deep.
Jim: Continuing now a little bit with her long bio, which I had to edit down. She’s done an amazing amount of cool stuff. Previously she served as a director of Sundance Institute’s new frontier labs program for seven years, which supports artists working at the convergence of film, art, media and technology. We’re going to talk about all those things and how they come together. Earlier in her career, she was a transmedia producer at 42 Entertainment and worked on projects as the Legends of Alcatraz for JJ Abrams, Mark of the Spider-Man and Random Acts of Fusion. Very interesting.
Jim: People that listen to the show regularly know my good friend, Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, has also been on the show, episode 23, where he and I talked about narrative and cultural change. He’s another guy who calls himself a transmedia producer and this is an area that I am very interested in.
Kamal: Okay, great. Thank you so much, Jim, for such kind, generous time to go through my bio. I always tell people, they’re like, “How have you done so many eclectic things?” I’m like, “It’s kind of failing forward,” is how I talk about how I ended up in so many different spaces. But certainly thrilled to have had these experiences in these intersections of art, science, technology and the work of designing better futures and better systems for those futures.
Kamal: The reference that you made to my super nerdy tweet stream, I have to say, I have been around a lot of nerds in my life and I’m a proud nerd myself, for sure. But I think my son, who is the author of those blog posts, beats me on the nerd scale quite high because he’s 18, but been deeply entrenched in, I would say like a physics philosopher. I think all physicists are philosophers, but he’s deeply engaged in the kind of philosophy that physics asks of us about our reality.
Jim: I got to tell you that that shocks the hell out of me, that he’s 18 because the stuff read like someone with a PhD, to tell you the truth.
Kamal: Wow. That’s great to hear, because he’s applying for college for next year. So hopefully the admissions teams will feel the same way. He’s a very special young man and teaches me things every day. And we have these deep conversations around things like… the things that are breaking for me in terms of my awareness of how science and technology are breaking the barriers between what we assumed was magic, the things that we identified as magic or sci-fi, when they start to become real through the advancements in our understanding of science and the advancements of the wielding of science for technological advancement, you start to ask these really philosophical questions around, whoa, how is this breaking my previous sense of what was real and what was magic?
Kamal: And so we talk a lot about that ever changing line between those two and how the arts, particularly, have a kind of liminal relationship with both, in the way that they can break with science in order to imagine the fantastical, but then in some ways open up our minds to go, huh? I wonder if we should explore that and see if there is some scientific or technological truth behind what seems like just pure imagination. So it’s fun times around the dinner table.
Jim: Sounds really good. Now one through line that I saw in a lot of your work, at least since when you stopped being a performer, we may get back to the performer side, but maybe not, is story and the evolution of storytelling, as you say, in the liminal space between the deep history of storytelling, which probably goes back to the dawn of language, and today where we’re at this intersection of archetypical narrative plus so many different media, it’s unbelievable. So at the highest level, what do you see as where we’re at in the evolution of storytelling, maybe even a little history of storytelling as you perceive it?
Kamal: Yeah. And I definitely want to say that I’ve been influenced, I have a lot, obviously, we all have a lot of influences, but particularly on this subject, I would say Alex McDowell from the World Building Institute has, we’ve had a lot of great conversations about it and I definitely have learned from him how he’s framed this particular evolution of storytelling. But, I think, what I have observed is that we have these moments where storytelling from the early earliest times has allowed us to communicate our emotions, our ideas. It’s part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us able to operate, as you know, on an abstract level that distinguishes us in some ways.
Kamal: I want to be careful about this. It distinguishes us from other living beings, but in some ways we are deeply in gratitude or need to be deeply in gratitude to other systems of life that educate us through like, I think of Octavia Butler and how she would observe, she was an amateur scientist. She was a sci-fi writer, amateur scientist. She would observe things like slime mold in her little home lab and identify how these systems of organic systems would actually be something that could educate humans about how to better design our own societies and systems. So I was about to say that it distinguishes us from the animals or from the plants, but in some ways our storytelling allows us to better access what is already an inherent lesson in those other living structures.
Kamal: So when you think about, there’s so much research around storytelling and the brain and the nature of language and the brain. And I think that that is fascinating. I remember hearing a NPR piece, and I wish I had the exact reference, but I don’t, where there was some children that had pretty much had the kind of raised themselves alone in a part of the jungle in South America and were found at eight, nine, 10 years old. How this happened, don’t know. But there was an interview with one of the children who now is a grown person. And they talked about how they had an instinctual relationship to life and reality that was very about food, shelter, sleep, the very fundamentals of survival. And when they came and met and started integrating with other people and developed language for the first time as a 10 year old or eight year old, they actually started having abstract thought on a higher level.
Kamal: And that is really interesting. So you think about some of the ways in which intelligence even works, is that it works through storytelling. We create through language and through the sharing of information back and forth between people and trying to describe our lived experiences to each other. That’s how we access deeper and higher and more abstract levels of intelligence. So going back that far to story that’s like the fundamentals, but what’s also interesting is that as science and technology evolve, we have these disruptions to our sense of reality. We learn that the earth is not flat. We learn that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. And these things fundamentally break what we thought was our fundamental reality.
Kamal: And that is, the scientists and the technologists that are enabling observation or these mathematical observations or so forth, that is one critical point in disrupting our reality. But then the next step is that the philosophers and the artists and the storytellers have to recalibrate our sense of what does that mean? How does that make meaning? How do we recalibrate the meaning of our existence? And I think that’s where story is critical because it’s through those stories that are told that we help each other recalibrate. We allow ourselves to design systems, help prescribe and adopt behaviors. And so we’ve seen this pattern over and over and over again.
Kamal: And in the last… you look at 500 years ago, the printing press coming around, it completely changed people’s sense of reality. People could read things like the Bible for themselves for the first time. Literacy started to jump, so forth. Then you have things like television coming into play, right around where things like Vietnam. You’re able to see the front lines in real time and it changed people’s relationship to war, in a lot of ways. When you think about seeing earth from space, people changed their sense of borders and nations with that massive communication and that story, that narrative that was being shared globally. And now we’re at another disruption of our sense of reality. And that is things like the bioengineering advancements, artificial intelligence advancements, and the nature of communication architecture in general, is totally disrupting our sense of reality, especially for those at the forefront of these fields.
Kamal: And it is critical that, in my opinion, that artists, people from the humanities, philosophers, are in conversation, in collaboration with the scientists and technologists to help us to contextualize what does this mean for our reality? You have people like Yuval Harari that are claiming, this is the beginning of homo deus and the end of homo sapien. Okay. That’s a bold narrative to begin. How do we create a collective conversation and dialogue about that? Is that something that we want to evolve into? Is that really true? This is how story is critical for us trying to contextualize our reality.
Jim: Wow, very, very well said, right? Of course these challenges of new information technologies go way back. Those of us who remember our Socrates, remember that old Socrates had a pretty dim view of writing. He thought, oh damn, changes for the worse if we lost our oral tradition and the ability to recite the Iliad from memory. And what would he think now if he came back and saw social media. Holy moly, right?
Kamal: Yeah. Me and my kids have all the time this conversation on cursive writing. They have no idea. Why do you guys… they can do their signature and that’s about it. And they don’t understand the utility of cursive writing, but it’s really interesting how some people advocate strongly for maintaining that, even though functionally it’s not necessary anymore, that kind of quick writing. Cursive, my understanding is that it was invented to… when we were in a pre printing press communication architecture, cursive writing allows you to go faster, smoother. It sped up the process and it was a gorgeous art form. But is that utility we need anymore? Is there something between the hand, eye, brain, neurological relationships? Are we losing something?
Kamal: And I think that’s what is really interesting about the conversations that are happening at the Guild of Future Architects, where I am currently the key area of my focus right now, is that we’re constantly negotiating between what of our past have we lost that was something that we needed to maintain, because now in hindsight, we can see how that would have benefited us to maintain like certain practices or marginalized ideas. And then other things that, what is it that we’re willing to let go of and how do we let go of, or does it move into something that is an archived version of it rather than a functional part of it? These are very challenging issues.
Kamal: I’ll say one example that Lynette Wallworth, who is an artist that we work with, talks about a lot, is how in a lot of indigenous practices around the world maintained practices that would have been disregarded in a scientific revolution environment as shamanistic, superstition. And now there’s scientific evidence emerging that some of these practices have, especially around understanding intuition and I guess the senses, she was saying that we always understood sight, smell, these very basic senses as the human input for data, and now they’re starting to discover that humans actually have many more layers of senses that are input for data, such as that would be similar to understanding weather patterns, understanding things like how fish know when to go up the stream and spawn.
Kamal: We have other kind of senses in relationships to our ecosystems that we’ve dulled in Western or in modern societies, that have in many indigenous practice that are modern societies, and I want to be clear about that, that those things can or maintained and they’ve been dulled in others. So that’s an example of, what did we lose, assuming that our current sense of what is true could only be understood through sight, sound, smell, hearing, touch. That we dulled things that were less explicit, but just as empirically important in terms of data input, for our sense of reality. So this is hard. And so I think it requires a real constant gardening of conversation dialogue, and open-mindedness to explore all of that.
Jim: Absolutely. And, as you say, there’s a lot of scientific touch points. For instance, there’s a whole school of cognitive science that holds that maybe our main cognitive skill that makes us different than chimps is telling stories. I recently had Nick Chater on who goes further than anybody. He has a radical book called the Mind is Flat. He basically says all that idea of depth in your head, it’s wrong. It’s basically just a bunch of perceptual memories plus the ability to make up stories on the fly and that’s all you are.
Jim: He may go a bridge too far, but it is very interesting and he quotes lots and lots of real cognitive science and real neuroscience research and Michael Gazzaniga with his split brain work also highlights what he calls the explainer function of the left brain. And that, especially in the West we’re very left brain oriented. We identify ourselves with these explanations that our brain makes up, even when it’s getting bad data, because the brain has been split. In fact, my name for it, I call it the confabulator. Just make shit up. To my mind one of the first steps towards art was the first person that realized you could use language for lying. That’s art.
Kamal: Well, it is interesting that, I grew up, my father would always say to us, “The reality of a human being is their thought.” I think, therefore I am. So there’s a lot of these ideas around. And when you think about if the reality of a person is their thought and you think about… I had a conversation with a billionaire a couple of years ago, who was a really wonderful entrepreneur who had done an incredible job of building out a venture capital fund around medical innovations. But what was interesting is he had no idea when all of the binary left, right, racial tension stuff started coming up around the 2016 election cycle, he was shocked. He really had thought that all of the racial tension in this country had been resolved in the civil rights movement and that everything was hunky-dory.
Kamal: And so he was shocked. He was surprised that he could be such a powerful person in the world and be this ignorant of the people that live just down the road from him or in the same town having very different experiences of the American experience. And so he went into this two year deep dive into all these things. And he was like, “Wow.” He said, “My world has been quite filtered for me to only experience a version of America, and for it to be so filtered from what my neighbor or someone else living in the other part of town is experiencing,” he said he was just shocked at how you can have two totally different realities living in the same town.
Kamal: And I think that, that’s what that Mind is Flat kind of notion to me, that’s what I hear is, even though there’s so many layers to reality, you can walk around and see from a pedestrian point of view the things that human beings perceive and completely miss the tardigrades, that perspective. And that’s a reality. That’s a filter bubble, right? And that goes to ideological realities. It goes to all of those things. Like what is our reality? And stories are what illuminate those different levels of our even understanding or perception of how we can understand those things. And you can make shit up. We live in a false reality as well.
Jim: And we know some people that do these days. And of course the arts are really important for bridging that gap. Because it is easy to live within a filter bubble. But if you pursue deep art, you will find more of the truth than if you don’t. For instance, I grew up working class, half a redneck, fairly regressive attitudes about race, all kinds of bad things. And for me, one of the biggest bridges was my high school English teacher said, “You should really read James Baldwin. You will really like him.” Because I had a love of language. I had a love of deep thinking. I had a love of for radical, heart on your sleeve writing. And she said, “Go read James Baldwin.” So I did and kept reading and reading and reading.
Jim: And it radically changed me as a human being to understand that the doctrines I had heard from my neighbors, and a host of high school drop outs and what have you, wasn’t really the whole story. And so I went through a big portal through art and Baldwin is a great artist. Let there be no mistake about that. He’s an artist before he’s a polemicist, though he is also both. But the quality of his writing, it just stirs you just reading it.
Kamal: Oh yes. He’s definitely one of my inspirations and aspirations in life, is definitely Baldwin and others of his generation. And just to your point, it also is really interesting to think about, well, first of all, I just want to also honor you being very vulnerable to say, hey, I had this perspective and I’ve learned and shifted. Same, I want to be equally vulnerable. I grew up at a time when, when it comes to race, I would say I grew up in a pretty enlightened environment, but when it comes to LGBTQ identities, it was very unenlightened and went through a similar kind of awakening of my own bias and ignorances. It’s really surprising to me to be the same human being that had a completely different understanding of reality then, than I do now. So it is interesting how we evolve in our thinking through story, through relationships.
Jim: Let me call out a new voice, who I think is hugely powerful and has made a big impact on me and some people, Tyson Yunkaporta. He’s a Australian Aboriginal fellow, as he would call himself. Written a book called Sand Talk, which does something very cheeky. Which is essentially he’s doing reverse anthropology. Looking back out at the world with a lens of two things simultaneously, Aboriginal indigenous culture and complexity science at the same time. It’s mind boggling. That’s Tyson Yunkaporta Sand Talk. You want something that can change your perspective in a pretty major way, this fairly thin book will do it and like James Baldwin, it’s also a great work of art, not just intellectually interesting. Highly call him out. He’s appeared on my podcast three times. That’s how strongly I love his work.
Jim: You mentioned it. Let’s jump into this, which is Question Bridge. When I was doing my research for this podcast, I dug into Question Bridge. In fact, I’ll confess to having spent four hours cruising around in it. And this is a thing, questionbridge.com, check it out. This is again, one, highly useful to help you think and change how you think. Hell, I’m a white dude. Am I totally up to speed on what actual real live black men of all sorts are thinking? No. So spending four hours, I wish I had 20 hours to spend on Question Bridge. Because it’s really cool.
Kamal: Thank you.
Jim: [Inaudible 00:24:01]. Also, by the way, beautifully produced…
Jim: Also by the way, beautifully produced. I mean, I’ve done a little bit of movie production and what have you. And the cinematography is first class, the lighting is astounding. The staging is very, very simple, but very appropriate, et cetera. Let’s dig into Question Bridge a little bit, and tell us where the idea came from, and sort of the mechanics and how it worked. Where did the questions come from, how did you connect the questioners and the answers, which seem, it must have been voluntary or self-organized, something like that, the way it worked.
Kamal: Oh, definitely. Yeah. Thank you so much for spending that amount of time on the platform and with these incredible voices. So Question Bridge is a media-facilitated dialogue among black men in America. And it started actually in 1996 by Chris Johnson, who’s one of the collaborators on the Question Bridge black males version, but he did a version in 1996, between African Americans in San Diego that were wealthy or in the upper class. And those that were in a lower income bracket, trying to bridge the gap in terms of these incomes. And what was the influence for him is he was in Brooklyn when red lining ended, and the fair housing act happened. And he saw, he would say within months, the flight of high-income black folks from black communities.
Kamal: And that was the beginning of, he said within a month he would see the doctor’s office boarded up. The law offices boarded up, certain stores started getting boarded up, and you basically had gone from a very mixed income and kind of healthy ecosystem, even though it was oppressed from the larger ecosystem of economics, at least within the microcosm of the black community, there was a diversity of folks. And that ended. And then you saw the beginning of the kind of quintessential black American ghetto. And he was really interested in trying to understand that dynamic. So that was where it started in ’96, and some incredible insights came out of that. Well, Hank Willis Thomas, one of our other collaborators, was a student of his in grad school, and saw him present on this work that he had done. And he approached him and said, “Can we update it? But instead of looking at this economic conversation, can we really just have a dialogue among black men in America?”
Kamal: And so that led to a 10 year project, and the basic methodology is put a camera in front of a black man, a person who identifies as black and male and say, “Can you ask a question of another black man that you feel distant or estranged from?” And so we would capture these questions on camera, and sometimes they were very specific questions like I want to ask this of any black police officers, or I want to ask this of black men that are dating white women, or of gay black men, or sometimes they were just general, any person that identified this way. And then we would go put calls out on Facebook, all kinds of different ways to set up opportunity for people to respond to those questions, and then ask their own questions. So it was a very emergent project. And by the time I got involved, they had a thousand question and answer exchanges.
Kamal: And I remember the first night they were showing me these clips, and me and Dr. Joy DeGruy, who wrote the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, we were both together and they were asking for advice, and we were looking through this and we were like, you can’t edit out any of these voices and put it into a documentary or even into an installation in a museum. Because as soon as you edit out any one of these voices, it becomes your perspective on black male identity, rather than the organic reality of black male identity. And so that’s where I had been working in early exploration research on trans media and interactive media, very influenced by artists like Kat Sissick, who was pioneering interactive participatory documentary at the time. And that’s where the idea of bringing it to an interactive place where you did not ever have to cap who got to bring their voice to the conversation. And it turned into a lot of different forms, and has been now archived at the Smithsonian African American museum.
Jim: Very cool, like terminals area, you go in and play with it on, or how was it archived?
Kamal: Yeah, so we basically, we had a five channel installation that was a three hour edit of all these voices. And then we would have laptops or tablets kiosks where people could explore, according to their own curiosity, the full unencumbered kind of grouping of voices. I mean, basically I think what you saw in questionbridge.com, and they can also add if they self-identified as black and male, they can contribute their own question and they can answer any questions. So it became, and not only was it about the video dialogue, but we also asked them to create a fingerprint profile, trying to reappropriate what normally is used to kind of, especially in the mass incarceration system, kind of book black men into a very limited identity as criminal or thug or violent, and kind of unlock that fingerprint to show, we asked them to tag themselves with as many different identity tags as they felt authentically describe them.
Kamal: And we had a hypothesis that it would probably break the container of this thing called black and male, because it would be so many different tags, that you could never say black men are dot, dot, dot, and in any kind of certainty. And I think our hypothesis was proven. We created a word cloud, and it was very few words that ended up being used over and over and over again, people found so many different ways to identify themselves and so many nuanced ways that it shows true complexity. Then we also had people tag their dialogue and also allowed for a Wikipedia style tagging of the dialogue. And that data visualization was also incredibly complex and diverse. So it really kind of shows the diversity of thought and the diversity of identity within this kind of container.
Jim: Yeah. Very cool. By the way, those tags are searchable. As I was doing my play, I saw it had a search box. I started searching and I realized I was getting things that weren’t in the words themselves. So I said, “Ah, must be some tagging going on here.”
Kamal: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: And it produced some very interesting navigation. To give people a sense, I’m going to, if you don’t mind, pull out some of the questions that were asked, and in some cases give a little sense to some of the answers. Is that okay by you?
Kamal: I would love it. Thank you.
Jim: One, it happened to be the first one I pulled up, and there seems to be a certain amount of randomness of what you see next, was very from the heart, was how do we learn to love a woman if we didn’t have a good role model at home? And many of the guys struggled with it, and were sad and confused, but they were engaged with it. It was moving. I thought, holy shit. One of them was particularly funny in a way, not seriofunny, I call it, was, do you have a problem eating chicken, watermelon, or a banana in front of white people? Some people said, “Yes, I do.” Others said, “No, I don’t.” I think one of the best, and funniest was a guy, he came on pretending to be really serious, he looked like a bourgeois business dude. He said “My family’s been in the wholesale watermelon business since 1933. [crosstalk 00:31:41] watermelon a month in Gary Indiana and Chicago. So eat watermelon all the time.” That was I go, I love it, right?
Kamal: Absolutely. That was a deep question. It was so funny. It was one of our kind of most played kind of question and answer exchanges. And yet there’s so much depth in the answers as well as humor. So I’m glad you pointed that one out.
Jim: It was a good one. Again, there was some serious discussion. All this stuff was ripped. How you got these people to be so engaged at this level of richness, there was some real, good something going on there. Another one, maybe the deepest one I saw was how does it feel to see someone lose their life? And it was quite a mixture of people on that one, from poorer guys, to conservative bourgeouis, religious guys, a homicide cop, how about that? A [inaudible 00:32:36], and just plain working guys, all reflecting on that. And I go, “Oh dear, man. This is enriched in deep stuff.”
Kamal: And we didn’t prescribe any of it. It all just came from that one question of ask a guy something that you feel, ask someone a question that you feel distanced and estranged from. And isn’t that amazing when you just keep a simple request to ask that simple question, it unlocked this much depth. And yeah, in terms of setting the tone, it was, yeah, well, basically it was interesting to see the way my collaborators would, I would not be in the room when they were filming, because it kind of changed the environment when I, as a woman was in the room. There was a little bit of a different relationship. And when I was out of the room, and it was really just black men in the room talking to other black men, there was a vulnerability that was just phenomenal. And I feel so honored that we got a chance that they shared themselves in this vulnerable way on film so that we could all engage with their humanity that is just mind-blowingly beautiful.
Jim: Yeah. It just screamed authenticity to me. I said, “Damn. There is no bullshit here.”
Kamal: That’s true.
Jim: It was really good. I made notes on about 10 of them, but I’m going to go with just one more. And this is back to your earlier point. The question was, does being black mean I have to be one thing that fits in a box? And I thought it was very healthy that nobody thought that. But they saw it in very different ways. And they acknowledged the fact that maybe the world saw them in a box sometimes. And I thought it was one of the richer discussions that again, something that was very, very good.
Kamal: Just on that point, we created a nine through 12th grade curriculum, and we would do teacher trainings with teachers. And I was doing a teacher training in Brooklyn, and there were all black teachers in the room. And I played that question on video. Basically, what are the parameters of blackness? What makes you black? And then I went around the room, and I said, “What do you do that is not black?” And so the whole group had things that they do that are considered not black. Some of them were going hiking. Some of them were knitting. One of them was I’m a member of the the Polar Bear Club in New York City, folks that jump into the Hudson in the middle of winter. So then we had this deep discussion like, wow. So being black means you can’t see a sunrise or a sunset on the top of a mountain? Being black means you can’t knit? Being black means you can’t have this adrenaline rush experience.
Kamal: It’s so interesting at how everyone broke it, everyone had subscribed to this idea of the limitations of blackness that they broke almost in like a, oops, I ain’t acting black now, but really it’s kind of really telling the kind of ways in which we tell ourselves stories that put us in our own boxes, and other people also perform this kind of limitation. Yeah. Anyway, sorry. Go ahead.
Jim: Yeah, yeah, no, very, very important, and good. Frankly, my advice to everybody is if you think you’re in a box, blow the damn box up.
Jim: And it’s not good for you, it’s not good for the world. And if someone tries to put you in a box, tell them to go fuck themselves.
Kamal: Go Jim.
Jim: Again, this is Questionbridge.com people, go look at it. Particularly if you’re an old white dude like me, you’ll learn something. Have you thought about applying that technique to other domains? I mean obviously, one would be black women.
Kamal: Absolutely. So that’s the reason that it was Question Bridge: black men, because we actually had intended to do not just black women, but we were creating a Question Bridge platform that people could start their own Question Bridges based on their identity they wanted to start and build out. And so unfortunately the money that we were raising for it didn’t come in. And so we couldn’t further it, but we may revisit it again. Maybe we’ll get some investors, it might come back around.
Jim: Let me know, I’ll promote it. I know some rich people.
Kamal: Okay. Sounds good.
Jim: I would pay money to see the same technique applied to black women. If I got as much out of it as I got out of the black men, I would go hell yes, this is a very, very important work of art.
Kamal: Wow. Thank you so much, Jim.
Jim: All right. Well, let’s move on now to a little more technical space, which is VR, virtual reality, it’s an area you’ve worked in and thought about quite a lot. In fact, a very tightly enumerated Google search produced 5,400 hits for Kamal Sinclair and VR, or virtual reality.
Kamal: Wow. I did not know that, that’s crazy.
Jim: I do nerdy stuff like that sometimes, and why not, the tools are there.
Kamal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim: What do you see as how VR can enhance the power of storytelling?
Kamal: Oh wow. So, I just have to say, I have to give a lot of credit to Shari Frilot who’s the founder of New Frontier at Sundance and the chief curator. I came on board pre-VR when we were looking at a lot of interactive documentary gaming filming in her sections, and things that were computational art. But virtual reality was something that people tried in the 90s, and it never really took off. And then Shari saw this piece by Nonny de la Pena called Hunger in Los Angeles, at USC, and was just really struck by this kind of attempt to extend journalism so that it wasn’t just like television and film extend to journalism by giving people a visual, even a more kind of sense of liveliness of the visuals of what’s happening right now. And Nonny’s goal was to put you inside, and be complicit in the pieces that she was reporting on, which kind of gives you an even more kind of complicit relationship with our news.
Kamal: So she decided to bring this to Sundance in 2012, and we couldn’t bring the headset from USC to Park City. It was a $50,000 headset. They’re like, “Heck no.” And so her intern at the time was Palmer Luckey who created the Oculus Rift. And he said, “Oh, I can maybe use a smartphone and figure out a head mount to allow people to still see this through that smartphone.” And so that became the prototype for the Oculus Rift, and that came to Sundance in 2012. So I’ve gotten, I say all that to say that having been there that year, and I’ve gotten this kind of really front row seat to watching this wave of innovation around virtual reality, and then augmented reality, as well as all kinds of mixed reality, hyper reality kind of take off.
Kamal: So I’ve seen a lot. And sometimes when I’m present on the works that have been quite influential, most people, I was at Brown University a couple of years ago. And after I did this big presentation on all the different ways that I had seen virtual reality being innovated on and experimented, somebody raised their hand and said, “I’m starting to think that virtual reality is a oral storytelling tradition, because I never get to see any of these things, and I’m dying to see them.” But the accessibility was so limited. I was probably one of the few people that had, because I’ve got flown around the world all the time to see people at the cutting edge, be able to experience this. So I say all that to say that most people that have experienced virtual reality have seen something that I would say is far inferior to the work at the kind of heightened levels of the medium.
Kamal: And I think it’s really unfortunate, because there’s so much incredible work happening in this medium that has never even been experienced. So I say that to start us off, but I would say that some of the aspects of, it’s more than just going into a 360 environment and seeing the front backside up and down of an environment, the things that are being innovated in this space are being able to, for example, one national theater in the UK did a piece where it was one actor that was in full mocap, connected to one audience member who was also in mocap, and also had a virtual reality headset on. And it was a story of a young man saying goodbye to his mother who’s dying of cancer. And so the whole virtual experience was a hand drawn illustration and very, very effective.
Kamal: And so as an audience member, you’re in this hand drawn illustration of this story, having the last moments with your mother. And because there’s a one-to-one relationship and the actor is in mocap in real time, whenever the character in the film grabs your hand, the actress also grabs your hand. So you’re feeling the touch of a human touch while seeing this other reality through your visual input. She tucks you into bed. She gives you a hug. And the experience of having that level of a hyper-reality experience of the story makes you feel like you’re really there, on a level that you don’t get from seeing things from a flat screen, from a distance.
Jim: You can certainly see the potential, but yet at least in the mass audience, somehow it’s fallen way short of our expectations.
Jim: Why do you think that is? I mean, you would think that this is a natural extension of say computer gaming or something, and yet, it’s funny, I’ll confess to having been a gamer for the last 55 years.
Kamal: Wow. Yes, you are definitely the expert over my experience.
Jim: And I go back to, board games like the Avalon Hill games, little cardboard pieces on a cardboard map, I would do every iteration of gaming from the early Apple, all the way up to powerful stuff that only runs on a $2,000 computer. And this is the interesting thing I was thinking about this, but, I have never looked at a VR game, and the answer is, because I’ve never gotten enough social proof from somebody else that it’s worth my while to do so.
Kamal: Well, I will tell you my experience, and it could be a wrong analysis, but from being on the ground of not only the DIY makers, but also the early kind of folks that had some resources to do really incredible investment, like the early days of Oculus Story Studios and the work that they were doing with Saschka Unseld as a creative director. Stuff was amazing. This literally, I was told by a number of investors, both venture capitalists, as well as those coming from certain gaming and filming kind of executive backgrounds that people got burned during the free content times of when the CD and the DVD started to fall. And you didn’t have a tangible transaction for revenue to come into a company. And everything was kind of loose on the internet. And people really got burned in terms of their investment into content.
Kamal: And so when virtual reality and this $1,500 headset came onto the scene in terms of investment, people got really excited about, “Oh, we can invest in this hardware. And we can see a revenue threshold that we haven’t had since the DVD, that we haven’t had since the CD.” And that was a big carrot on a stick for industry and for investment. But when it came to investing in content, the thing that we heard over and over and over again was, “Oh, the content community, the maker community will figure that out. We’re not going to invest in that.” Because everyone got burned. And I actually did a series of interviews with people within the industry. I interviewed 130 people. And I heard this over and over and over again. And so the only artists that were getting funded with any serious money were people that had a patentable technology, or some IP that was not content IP, but it was patented or patentable hardware or software. And it wasn’t the content itself.
Kamal: The big hope was when PlayStation came out with their headset, everybody was like, “Oh good. This is going to be the great hope for the industry.” And we were a billion dollars short in revenue expectations for that Christmas. And the reason over and over that was stated was there was no content. Why are you going to spend $1,500 or even $900 on a headset with no content? And I think that that was a huge, quite frankly, because I did see incredible content, but it was so little snippets, nobody really invested in the right way. So I think that’s one of the analysis. There could be many others that people might come up with. The other thing to be quite frank, the most compelling XR experiences that I’ve had are installation-based. And they’re not something that you can put into a home, and that’s not the best business model for people that are looking for the new DVD.
Jim: Yeah. When you’re talking about the IP rip off, yeah, that’s certainly been a big issue in certain media, but as you pointed out, once you got the PlayStation, you now have a grounded medium for making money. It’s like lock that damn thing down pretty hard. And if you want the content, you got to pay for it. So you would have thought that if there was a space for reasonably accessible explorations, say for a few million dollars, people would have tried it. And yet I guess they did. But as I said, I’ve got no social proof. No friend of mine has come to me and said, “Tim, God dammit. You have to check this out.” And my sense is that somehow in his fail, even though it now has a platform for which real revenue could be made. I mean we know how big the game market is, it’s huge.
Kamal: It’s huge. And I think another challenge was I definitely, that was said over and over again, all the content makers that we were supporting were having the hardest time in the world getting the support that they needed, because it’s expensive, it’s expensive to prototype and to really find, I mean, the sitcom didn’t come until 20 years after TV was established as an emerging medium. So where are we on that curve? I mean, VR is a 40 year medium, but with this particular jump in the fidelity and the ability to have higher quality work. The other thing I often cite is when people first started trying to put content on a Blackberry that was shitty experience. It was horrible. And so I don’t think, and then, you know…
Kamal: It was horrible. And then come 2016, I remember I binge watched Game of Thrones on my cell phone in like 80 hours because I couldn’t watch it on my TV because I had little kids in the house. So within a 10 year period, I went from, I’m not even going to watch a short video on this thing called a smartphone to I’m binge-watching 80 hours on a smartphone. And so I just want to also look at that. And I don’t know if the VR headset, as it is currently designed, it was that end unit, like a television set or an Apple phone, of the ultimate experience for XR experiences. I think we’re still on that learning curve.
Kamal: But I can tell you the things that I’ve seen that blow my mind and compelled me both emotionally, in terms of entertainment, and in terms of just pure artistic enthrallment, those artists were not getting money to support their work. I can say that without a doubt.
Jim: Is there anything that you would recommend that say that’s available on either a PC or a PlayStation that is worth having social proof that it’s worth the effort to take a look at?
Kamal: I would say all the things that I have seen that I love are not available on those platforms.
Jim: All right, we’ll leave it at that. Okay, that says something people. Right?
Kamal: It does.
Jim: We’re not there yet. Here’s one of the world’s experts on this stuff saying the stuff that moved her is not available on the platforms we have access to. Now, next step out from VR is AR, augmented reality. And there have been some successes there with immersive geo games, as they’re called. Things like Pokemon Go and one from a local company here in rural Virginia, Covens, from Raincrow Games, which has gotten quite popular. Play it on your phone, you walk around looking for witches to kill and things of that sort, right?
Jim: What are your thoughts about this kind of low-fidelity, phone-based, immersive AR geo game?
Kamal: Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of geocached storytelling, whether it be AR based or just silent. We supported a novel years ago about where you would unlock chapters based on where you were physically in the United States. And each chapter that you unlocked in that place was exquisitely written to the landscape architecture and context of that space, whether it be like Grand Central Station or a particular kind of beautiful mountain view in Los Angeles.
Kamal: I’ve always been a fan of geo located work. I am come originally from a theater and dance background. I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts for theater, and I was always jealous of my film friends who would be able to have the same amount of time we would put into creating a piece of work, a piece of storytelling, mine would be over in a six week run and there was no real documentation of it. And it didn’t live beyond that. Whereas, theirs could live off into perpetuity because it’s a way of capturing the medium and capturing time. And then they could also distribute it more easily than something like myself. I was on tour for six years with Stomp as a performer, and I had to do a thousand shows and I still couldn’t get nowhere near the level of visibility that my film cohorts at Tisch Scott. But I did not ever want to lose the power of liveness and the synergy of liveness.
Kamal: And so I think my first coming across transmedia the thing that attracted me to it was the fact that you could be both live and digital. You could have both reach and global community, as well as the richness of ethereal, ephemeral, realtime experiences. And when I was at 42 Entertainment, we played with that. Well, I got a chance to learn from some of the best in the business around how you can have up to 10 million people playing inside of a fiction and then cut it down to 300 or a thousand that got to go through a rich experience in real time. And yet still reconnect that through video capture, and so forth, back to the bigger community. So I love geocached work. So I’m just going to put that out there first.
Kamal: And I remember back when I was at 42 Entertainment years and years ago, I remember going, “Hey, can we start bringing in augmented reality into these designs?” At the time they were doing things for The Dark Night and they would have people showing up and getting geocached, kind of pieces of information. And they would end up having whole masses of people in the streets painted up like the joker playing inside of the alternate reality game that they would design around this fiction. And I was like, “Well, let’s start pulling in some augmented reality.” And this is like early AR on smartphones where you would stand in your parking lot and a comment would crush you. And I was just so fascinated by it. And they were like, “Sorry, the technology is way too unstable.”
Kamal: The technology’s pretty shitty right now. And they said, “Maybe in a couple of years”, and so forth. And now, then Pokemon Go hit and, obviously it changed everybody’s perspectives around adoptability and how this technology could be utilized in this way.
Kamal: This might be an insert for later, but I also wanted to say interactive film is a 10, if not older, medium. And then some of the inactive film that I’ve seen is phenomenal. But what gets brought to market is Bandersnatch. And I’m not dissing Bandersnatch at all, but it is such a simple version. It’s just an A/B branching narrative, like stop the flow of the story, stop the flow of the cinematic fluidity. And that doesn’t have to be that way. And we need to evolve the kind of mass adaptation of set top relationships to this technology to get to what the innovators have already discovered in terms of best practices and craft.
Kamal: And I feel the same way is true. So interactive doc still has not been able to bring its best foot forward to the masses. Same thing with virtual reality. But I definitely think, with augmented reality, we still even haven’t brought our best foot forward. Some of the augmented reality that I’ve seen is so beautiful and seamless, but we have been able to do it from an entertainment standpoint. And Pokemon Go is obviously an example of that. And Coven and Ingress and so forth. But, like when I was at Sundance, not this last January, well, this last January too, but the January before, in 2019, I got a chance to see this piece that you walk into a bedroom and you have this… Oh, I can’t remember the name of it right now. Oh. It had a YouTube sensation on there. I forgot.
Kamal: But you walk into a bedroom. Everything is physically laid out like a set and then all of a sudden this woman shows up in the room with you. A bit ghost-like, but very much unpixelated. And she was in a conversation with you in this bedroom. And then there was elements of live acting that came into the space as well. But it was phenomenal. It was mind blowing to be able to be in this room. And then also that year we brought Mica from Magic Leap, which is one of the first times that Mica, which is the augmented reality artificial intelligence for the Magic Leap platform, showed up. And I walked into her office. She was sitting behind a big oak desk and I couldn’t see the bottom of her. This is a hologram.
Kamal: She stands up, comes around the oak desk to meet me face to face. She’s my size. She’s life size. She doesn’t talk yet, at this point. She may be talking now, I don’t know. Then she points to a picture, the famous French picture of the pipe. It’s on the wall. She points to the picture and she tells me to hold my hand out. And then she picks the pipe off of a physical picture. It erases the pipe on the physical picture, brings the 3-D object of the pipe and hands it to me. And I’m holding the pipe in my hand. This stuff is phenomenal.
Kamal: And another one this last year, Breathe by Diego Galafassi. He basically had a breathing apparatus around our torso and four of us were in the room and he is, through augmented reality, visualizing our breath and how it intermingles with each other. But then he had an augmented reality tree come up in the middle of it. We could see how our breath goes directly into the tree, circulates with it, and then he expanded and expanded until you get to see this relationship to the globe of our own breathing. And then two weeks later, he sends you real time data of how your breath traveled over that two week period based on systems of air circulation on the planet.
Kamal: I’m just saying the AR pieces are just gorgeous. But yeah, it is trying to find that balance between where the Pokemon Go entertainment audience can meet the best of the ways in which these technologists and artists are finding incredible fidelity in the medium.
Jim: Yeah. I pushed back a little bit, but you know, he told me this beautiful story about the grass and the trees and I go, “Damn, I’d love to see that.” Or the guy plucking the pipe. I don’t know. Was that the famous [inaudible 00:57:52] picture with the pipe. I don’t know. Might have been. But those are stunts. There’s no story there. There’s no narrative. And that’s what drives.
Kamal: Definitely. Definitely. So I was talking about the quality of the technology in those for sure. But another piece that I didn’t get to talk about yet was a piece that also came that year. And this was a, what was it called, Dial. It was called Dial. And this is one of the best AR pieces that I have seen in terms of story.
Kamal: They had a set in the middle of the installation. There was a small miniature house, all white, that was sitting in the middle of this table, and they projection mapped from on top onto this. So there was real projection mapping so it gave the contours of the house and gave a landscape of green grass and so forth around the house. And then the projection mapping and the AR, and this was phone-based AR not headset based AR. But you had about five of us holding these cell phones up to look at the piece. The projection mapping, you could see the little characters in the house of the projection mapping, and then they would come out of the door and be fully realized figures that had scenes.
Kamal: It was a domestic violence piece with a car accident. All these things. Miniature scale happened. And it was so dynamic, emotional, and fully realized as a A to Z script with a beginning, middle, and end. And then, even at some points, you could look under the table. There was a pond on the property and you could see the fish swimming underneath the table in the pond. So there was this incredible relationship to story you got a chance to experience. And then you could also reverse your relationship to the story by going backwards around the table and go to the backstory. So not only did you see the present into the future of the story, but you could also start from the present and rewind to a backstory of these characters. Beautiful piece. Incredible story.
Jim: When will that be out to the market?
Kamal: It won’t. That’s the thing. These things don’t get seen in a marketplace. And I know that they tried the arcade model, but I went to those arcades. They were shitty content in those arcades. They were just shoot-em-ups. They were not anything that had any real… Not even shoot-em-up story. It wasn’t even like World War Craft. And it didn’t even have that much story. It was just literally shoot-em-up.
Jim: Shoot the zombies or something, right?
Kamal: It was like laser tag experiences. It wasn’t cinema or real game storytelling.
Jim: Now here’s an interesting one that I happened to stumble across. It really is not very technologically deep at all, but it’s deep in story and it is an installation and it is making millions and millions of dollars for the backers. And it’s an art installation called Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You ever heard of it?
Kamal: Oh yeah, definitely. We’ve been in many conversations with Meow Wolf. One of my old staff friends at Sundance is married to one of the originators of Meow Wolf. So yeah, definitely aware. And they have made immersive installation and immersive theater and the work that they’re… I think that they came up at a time that was building off of a lot of preexisting work, not to take anything away from them. And they also had R.R. Martin backing them up. So they were able to bring a full, it was a risky investment by him, but definitely one that I think paid off, obviously. But yeah, they brought in the best elements of alternate reality gaming, of immersive theater, like Sleep No More and all of the stuff that came out of Punchdrunk. And so it’s definitely something that we talk a lot about in terms of immersive installation, immersive experience, immersive design.
Jim: Yeah. Maybe a business model. It’s so astounding. I’ve been to it twice. I get up to Santa Fe from time to time for my work at the Santa Fe Institute. And their business model is pretty simple. They charge you 20 bucks to go wander around for as long as you want. You use some of these holographic or AR type platforms to build something so outrageous that hundreds of thousands of people per year would pay 20 dollars to go wander around for an hour or two.
Kamal: That already has happened. If you go to the 17 million dollar, I can’t remember the exact amount, but if you look at the mixed reality Star Wars thing at Disney Downtown. Yeah. It’s there. You can explore. They’ve got a little bit of the AR EG aspects of it. They got the shoot-em-up aspects. I don’t know. Have you been through that experience?
Jim: No. I have not.
Kamal: Yeah. Yes, there’s definitely those experiences. And then the UK, I would say, is doing Marshmallow Laser Feast. They are one incredible immersive XR group that is making money in the UK currently. Also, there’s some places in France that the model is working. So we’re calling it the death of VR, like the death zone of VR. They were shocked. It was a couple of years back. They were like, “Really? The death of VR?” They’re like, “We’re making more money than ever right now in the UK.” So I’m shocked that here in the States, it’s not working.
Kamal: So, it’s interesting to see how these are. But yeah, Meow Wolf is, I love it, but that’s not new. There’s so many models of incredible work. Like Hero is one of the pieces similar to that. It’s a piece by Ink Stories. And in New York city, they created this incredible installation where you got to experience being a white helmet. And it’s all mixed reality that you’re in Syria, seeing the whole situation. A dog coming up to you, the whole thing. Then the building you’re in gets barrel bombed.
Kamal: And then they have a whole installation where you are actually physically touching concrete and wrought iron and all these things. And you have to take the role of the white helmet to rescue a little girl. And even to the point where you’re touching everything, everything is still in virtual, you still look like you’re in Syria, but everything you’re physically touching. And then, at the very end of it, you actually lift up a concrete wrought iron thing and it’s mapped exactly to your virtual reality experience. And you reach in and an actor, little girl actor, holds your hand.
Kamal: Yeah. I’m saying this hyper reality, you have no idea how incredibly advanced the hyper reality is in this sector. And nobody sees it.
Jim: I’d love to see that. How much that cost? Twenty bucks?
Kamal: The thing is that they haven’t found a place to take on the installation of it.
Jim: Oh, that’s too bad.
Kamal: And to show it. Yeah.
Jim: Very interesting. It’s interesting. You’re at the cutting edge. So you talked about it on some of your podcasts, where you appeared, is that to your mind, the modern artist has to also be an entrepreneur. Figure these things out, right?
Kamal: Yeah. For sure. I think it’s a blessing and a curse. It depends. Those that can be very entrepreneurial. I studied. I went and got my Master’s in business, as well as my BFA. So I have both and a lot of artists are instinctually… When I went and got my Masters in business, I was shocked. I was very intimidated going into it. I was like, “Oh my God, here’s this little artsy girl trying to go get a business degree.” And I went in there and I was mostly with engineers and people that were kind of business oriented, but a lot of engineers at this particular school.
Kamal: And, and I was like, “Oh, this is exactly what artists already do.” Like artists that are hustling to try to get their work seen and supported and make a living. It was just a translation issue. Much of it was just me learning the language of the business world to do the lost in translation. And then I brought that back.
Kamal: I’m teaching entrepreneurship to artists through Fractured Atlas, through the Savannah school of Art and Design and other forms. And it was really interesting. Some of my artists, when I would take them through the process of creating a standard business plan, would go from making no money on their art to being independent within a year, just because they were encouraged to create a business plan. And I felt I graduated with my BFA without even having had a class around how to get an agent as an actress.
Kamal: Like literally no business education, no industry education whatsoever coming out of a top world-class. That’s changed since I came out in ’99, but that’s pretty unfortunate. Anyway, so I say that to say that I do believe in the power of entrepreneurship. I think artists are natural entrepreneurs in many different ways. There is a need to either be an entrepreneur yourself, or to have a close partner that is going to be a business partner with you. They actually have a term for it in the visual arts world called the artist’s wife, which is interesting.
Jim: I like it. A little sexist there, but what the hell?
Kamal: Oh, extremely. Unusually sexist, but just from the statistics, they showed that most of the artists that had made it had a partner that was very close to them, that was their business manager. But anyway, I saw that say, because you can’t do everything. And even if they are business savvy, you just can’t do everything on your own and you need to get the right collaborators and partners around you as you’re building your business. But sorry, go ahead to your point. I think I went a little off.
Jim: No, it’s actually good. It’s funny, you mentioned in passing, the Savannah School of Art and Design. My daughter’s a graduate of SCAD.
Jim: Yeah. One of their mottos is, “We do not educate starving artists”, right? They take some rudiments of business, they have a portfolio class in the senior year and they convince them that you can’t eat by art alone, most likely, right? Unless you’re Picasso or something. And even e-stars for quite a while. And so it is important.
Kamal: But I do have to say that I’ve seen a bit of a challenge in a only market based art economy versus economies that do support artists in different ways. In terms of what the artist has to produce. And I think you definitely don’t want to be navel gazing and creating mass [inaudible 01:08:28] work that nobody beyond yourself is going to appreciate, for sure.
Kamal: But I also think that some of the compromises that artists make in a purely market-based art economy, limits the full scope of what we may need as a society in terms of reflection and engagement. And I think that some of the, especially in emerging technology even, not even just from the artistic side, but just the technological innovations that connect with art, or the artists, that those that have found this really beautiful connection between art and technology, a lot of them are in Europe where they have a different model for supporting artists until something takes off.
Kamal: I saw artists in this country have to make certain compromises on that in terms of quality and in terms of the depth of their work that could have… And I’ll give you a more concrete example. One of the people that I interviewed for this research project I did with the Ford Foundation was a marine fan. This is a Stanford grad, worked at Pixar, worked at Zynga where Farmville and all these casual games had super success. She is amazing for the resume of Silicon Valley. And she was the only woman to get any significant investment in virtual reality during the hype cycle in like 2016, 2015.
Kamal: And it was interesting talking to her because when she was at Zynga, she talked a lot about how it was really hard for her. She really wanted to increase the kind of story elements of some of the work that was coming out. And they were very resistant. They just wanted, using the addictive design model of let’s give them quick rewards, keep people going after those quick rewards. And we know now that those have major mental health issues with those addictive design processes, like a lot of casual games use. And it also, obviously, is a cash cow because you’re getting people addicted to these small, that design in the boost of these endorphins. And she was trying to argue for, can we build in a little bit more story, a little bit more character and got a lot of resistance.
Kamal: Finally, she brought in all this statistics and metrics and laid it all out and really, really fought to get a little bit more leverage. And she was able to get, I don’t know if it was a regional or geo-specific area, but she got a test area to test this theory around story and around more in depth relationship with this stuff. She did it. And what they found out, where they were resistant, because it was a loss in terms of short term income, because you didn’t have as addictive design, super fast, let me buy another packet of gold kind of thing. But what she found, who they found longterm is that they had much more loyalty and actually made a higher profit from deeper and more engaging story and character.
Kamal: So this is one of those tensions that I think the market sometimes has a bit of a myopic look at, and they’re not willing to take that risk of, let’s try something a little bit more advanced in terms of artistry or whatever, because it’s going to be a market fail. When in reality, if you give it the time and investment actually is healthier mentally and becomes more engaging and more profitable, ultimately. I think though, that’s where there’s a little bit of tension between, I definitely think artists are entrepreneurs, but I also think we have some marketplace issues that can produce sometimes the wrong outcomes.
Jim: Yeah. It’s unfortunately a trend throughout our society, that when we put absolutely everything to the tight cycle of short term money on money return, we basically grind everything into crap.
Jim: … in return, we basically grind everything into crap.
Kamal: You said it much more eloquently than me.
Jim: A little bit of an overstatement, but there’s a hell of a lot of truth to it. You make a good point that we need to be conscious of our social design. It would be great to have more room for socially supported art. As you say, some other countries do a hell of a lot better job of it than the United States does.
Kamal: And it really does not mean less money, ultimately. I think it actually means more money. It’s just more patient capital, you know?
Jim: Exactly. Now the art of storytelling here in this postmodernist age we live in, right? Postmodernism rejects broad, powerful narrative, at least in it’s academic sense it does. But in the history of storytelling, archetypes have always been important, the Joseph Campbell, et cetera. What do you think about archetypes and storytelling in the modern postmodern age?
Kamal: Wow, really interesting that you’re bringing that up. So, okay, I wrote a paper about this in undergrad around postmodernism. This might… I don’t know if I’ll be able to articulate it as fluidly as I would have back then, but I was at NYU studying experimental theater, very postmodernistic theater. I was studying theater critique so we had to go deep into all the ways in which the evolution of the theater, the history of theater, and obviously this relates to all kinds of movements, surrealism and dadaism and I mean, all of the movements that are both artistic movements as well as ideological or philosophical movements. Of course we studied postmodernism. While I was sending these things, I was also taking a lot of cultural anthropology courses, as well as the history of Latin theater, the history of African theater, the history of Islamic theater, the history of Asian theater. So I was deeply interested in trying to understand how the arts and storytelling show up across cultures. It was really, really interesting to think about postmodernism in that context, because essentially postmodernism has this, just to really stupidly simplify it, everything is random.
Kamal: There is no central truth. There is no stable truth, right? Which really makes sense for a time where people’s sense of reality is getting disrupted left, right and center from not only science and technology, but a whole new ideological lens on cultural interactions. So where a postmodernist might say there is no truth, everything is random, it was my… Because I was… I’ll give you an example. I was watching this one anthropological film where a group of European anthropologists went to a village in the Pacific Islands and they watched a ceremony that looked crazy violent, but then when you really understood the whole story behind it, it actually was a story and a ritual of coming to peace and tranquility. They were talking about how basically there’s this idea of this dichotomous thinking, that there’s a lot of epistemological systems can be very binary.
Kamal: It’s either black or white, yes or no, good or bad, wrong or right. When you come out of a context where, especially coming out of European imperialism where there was a sense of, “Let’s go bring God to the world to save the world,” or, “Let’s bring civilization to the world to civilize everybody,” there’s a sense of a noble approach. Then you get to these places where something that looks heathen and quote-unquote savage, and you really get to understand it from an anthropological level, you’re like, “Oh my God, this is actually quite beautiful and amazing.” Then it can… My… Because this is all happening ’50s, ’60s, when there was an opening of the aperture around these narratives that this one way is the right way and we’re going to bring our civilization to others.
Kamal: I think that’s where, in my opinion, a postmodern perspective came as like, “Oh, if my truth, if my traditional arts and ideologues is true and this, which looks completely 180 different degrees is true, then nothing’s true and everything is random.” I felt like that’s looking at the earth from the perspective of, if I’m in a sandy desert, then that’s my truth, and you’re standing on an icy mountain, then that’s your truth. We’re trying to verbally communicate, “Oh, this is earth.” And you’re like, “No, this is earth. No, this is earth. No, this is earth.” Then when you widen up and you see it from space, you’re like, “Oh, both of these things are earth and, by the way, this desert might be flooded plain and be completely water on one part of the year and this icy mountain might be a spring awakening in another part of the year.” So nothing is stable. Doesn’t mean that it’s not true. It just means that it’s dynamic in its truth.
Jim: Yeah. I like that actually. There are some useful things in postmodernism, particularly the critical perspective on the flaws of modernism, but when you take naive postmodernism and say that it’s all random, that’s not true either, right? But change is real, right? Change happens all the time. So I like that. That’s actually a very nice synthesis.
Kamal: Well, thank you. I say that to say that when it comes to story and narrative, there’s a real movement right now among narrative change and social justice workers where the framing is, each star in the sky is like a story, but it’s those who draw the lines between the stars doing a constellation are making a narrative. There’s a lot of conversation right now about who’s drawing the lines between the stars to help us understand the relationship between these stars into this narrative, right? So I would say that that is a strong element of story exploration right now, especially with speculative fiction and speculative historiographies. People are really trying to revisit the stories that we’ve been told and reexamine all of the narratives that have… Like Manifest Destiny is being reexamined as a narrative and so forth, you know?
Jim: Yep. Yep. Absolutely. That makes sense. I like that. To preserve the perspective of historical narrative form, look at them with a fresh eye, right?
Kamal: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think it’s about being willing to draw the star map completely differently and see, “Oh yeah, you can draw a bull there, but you can also draw a crab and you can also draw a panther with those same stars.”
Jim: That’s true, too.
Kamal: Nothing is wrong. They’re all right. Just trying to understand people’s perspectives so that we’re not locked into, “There’s only one way to draw these stars and that’s as a bull.” So when you talk about archetypes, I know that we went a little bit far field on that, but I think that there’s this a thin line between archetype and stereotype, obviously, as we all know, and I think… But there are universal aspects of the human condition and the human experience that is a constant refrain and it’s universal and that’s, I think, that’s critical of storytelling and then there’s ways in which we complicate that, that I think is equally critical to storytelling.
Jim: I like it. Unfortunately, we’re getting short on time here. I got lots and lots of other interesting things to dig into, but let’s go to the last piece of my notes, which is to tell us about the Guild of Future Architects. I like guilds. I’m interested in them. In fact, I was a co-founder of a Makerspace here in a little town in Staunton, Virginia and me and my co-founders organized it as a for-profit initially, but with no intent to make any money and we never did. Guess what? But then we converted it to a not-for-profit once it got big enough to stand on its own two feet, and we created a new set of bylaws and called it the Council of Guilds. It literally has a way to form guilds in the areas of our Makerspace. We have fiber art. We have woodworking. We have metalworking. We have pottery. We have graphic art. We have robotics. Each one can establish a Guild, and then the legal equivalent of the board of directors is the Council of Guilds with one representative for each guild. It’s really quite interesting.
Kamal: Wow. That’s phenomenal. I would love to talk to you more and learn from your experience.
Jim: Yeah. One thing I do I’m happy to do, and then we can talk about it. I’ll give you a link, and we’ll put them up on this episode page for this episode, to this document that is our legal bylaws and which is even more cool. We got it through the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which is somewhat tight ass and even better, we got it through the IRS and got our 401(c)(3) designation, which is even harder. Oh no, 501(c).
Kamal: Yeah. 501(c)(3)s, we got ours in May and it was a nail biting, groaning period. It was just like, “Are we going to get it?”
Jim: We negotiate. So anyway, that just gives a little background on my personal motivation, why I am interested in guilds. So tell me about the Guild of Future Architects.
Kamal: Yeah. So the Guild of Future Architects has a mission to support future architects as a guild. But basically Sharon Chang, who’s the founder, is somebody who comes out of Madison Avenue advertising. She was the chief creative officer for huge media franchises like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, all these things. She decided to step back from that world and go on to deep social entrepreneurship and basically impact. I mean, they call it impact investing. I don’t know if she would use those exact words, but she started experimenting with capital and experimenting with investment for social good and had about 10 years experience in it. She kept noticing patterns of success around what she would identify as people that are architects of the future and architects of systems that end up becoming our reality as we move into that future. She was really fascinated by her own work that had been able to architect systems and futures.
Kamal: She had architecture background as well, formally educated in architecture, and was really curious about that as a metaphor for people that are designing future systems, not only through the lens of equity and justice, sustainability, thrivability in terms of economic viability, but also in terms of beauty. Because she has a heightened sense of aesthetics and beauty and when she thinks about beauty, it’s not glamor. It’s not that kind of beauty. It’s really, the way I understand it, is you’re looking at, if we’re designing systems that are not oppressive, systems that allow people to have what they need to fulfill their potentials, then you start to see something that I don’t think we’ve seen on a global scale ever in human history and that is systems that unlock human potential on all kinds of levels, and that is the beauty piece of it. When you see people in their field fulfill their potential, it contributes into a shared prosperity both economically and in terms of artistically, in terms of emotionally, in terms of community.
Kamal: The Guild of Future Architects are people that are coming from a diverse array of disciplines and fields of knowledge, but they all agree on wanting to design, at a systems level, things that are both just, equitable and prosperous, but also unlock human potential.
Jim: Cool, cool. How does one become a member of the Guild?
Kamal: Well, we are just still… It’s been very curatorial to this point because we’re a year in. We have 145 members and we’ve been really handpicking everybody based on them having a strong practice of collaboration, co-creation and that they are a strong expertise in their field and that they are really generous and they’re… Because this is a learning organization, and so that’s been our first criteria. Now that we’re at 145, the complete governance is all… Everyone on the board is a member. The staff are all members. All of our contractors are members. So it’s really a self-designed, self-organized, self-governed organization. This will be the next phase as we open up membership to application, how are we going to make sure that we grow at the speed of trust instead of just growing just based on who can bring in cache or money or those kinds of things? That we really do hold trust as a high value. So how do we bring people in that are collaborative and bring as much to the group as they are…
Kamal: A regenerative relationship instead of an extractive relationship, basically. We’ll see. We’ll see what the membership committee decides to do for when we open up applications. But if you’re interested, then you can contact email@example.com and we’ll have a conversation.
Jim: Cool. Back in the… Very, very important circle of trust. In the medieval period when the guilds were amongst the most important aspects of the social operating system, they were quite rigorous on who they would allow to enter. Now some of it was classic nepotism. The easiest way to become a member of the Gold Leaf Guild was to have your father be a member of the Gold Leaf Guild. But there were other ways in through typically fairly onerous apprenticeships, four to seven years, and then you had to create a masterpiece, and the word masterpiece actually had a specific meaning. You made a piece that was so impressive that the Guild would elect you in as a master. That’s what a masterpiece was and that’s where that word comes from.
Kamal: We’ve definitely exploring apprentice. Right now, I would say the people that are in the Guild already have proven mastery in their fields and in the work of collaboration. But we have been deeply thinking about what does apprenticeship look like, especially for the next generation of people that are in college or just coming out of college, and what does that look like? What does the journeyman look like versus a master versus an apprentice? It’s really a defining process and I would love for the conversation with you to talk about how you would see journey versus apprentice versus masterpiece in something that has these intangible elements to it, like systems design thinking.
Jim: Yeah. I’d love to do it. That’d be fun. In our Gameb movement. It’s a non-political social change movement which can be found at Gameb Group on Facebook. The idea of guilds is something we talk quite a bit about, though I will say we haven’t put that much meat on the bone. So I could at least bullshit with you at a high level.
Kamal: I love that. I could [inaudible 01:26:57] that. Vice versa. No, it sounds like you… Again, I have to give the credit to Sharon for wanting to adopt a guild-based model rather than another membership model. She really feels that framing future architects as a professional class of people that institutions and communities and individuals can turn to to help… Our bylaws say that the Guild has to dismantle within a hundred years or in a hundred years exactly. Because looking at this next hundred years, there’s specific challenges that we have globally in terms of climate change, the adoption or the integration of exponential technologies and scientific breakthroughs as well as the things that we’re seeing in terms of truth and reconciliation around our social issues now that we’re becoming smaller as a globe. She’s like, “Okay, let’s give it the hundred years. Let’s see if we can get through this critical period.” Then she said, “This institution can become the compost of the next institutions of that time.” So my son is seven years old and I’m thinking with anti-aging technology and scientific breakthroughs, he might be able to be around for that closing ceremony.
Jim: That would be cool. I love that. That’s a great idea. In the technical world, we used to call it TTL, time to live. In communications protocols, we’ll often say, “Okay, this signal has a TTL, and if you don’t get a response in this time, throw it away.” That’s interesting. So last topic. Unfortunately skipping over your frameworks, which are interesting, but that would be an hour’s conversation in themselves.
Kamal: So true. We’ll have to have another conversation for that.
Jim: Maybe we should do that. Which is, on your website, there’s a very little brief, “Coming Soon, The Collective Wisdom Platform.” Now that’s ringing some bells for me. Tell me what you guys are thinking there.
Kamal: Oh my God. I would love to know what you’re thinking of. Maybe you’ll help guide the design there. No. So about 2016, 2017, Cara Mertes, who’s on our board and an executive at the Ford Foundation, she had given a commission to both me and to Kat Cizek, another one of our members. For me, while I was working at the Sundance Institute, I looked at emerging media and that was the Making the Reality work that you’d referenced earlier. Kat Cizek, she had been working in participatory, collaborative, co-creation media for a long time through the National Film Board of Canada and beyond. She started a co-creation studio at MIT and she did a 280 page paper. It’s called Collective Wisdom.
Kamal: She uncovered this deep and rich history of co-creation as a mode of society’s designing themselves and how under-explored that has been in terms of investment and in terms of processes within the modern business or systems thinking world. Also, hers was particularly through the media lens where loan authorship is often more invested in than co-creation processes. So that collective wisdom was an inspiration for the platform that we are designing. We have three programs. We have our community of practice, which is 145 members to date. We have a shared future program, which are collectives of members that are working on specific design, designing specific systems and working towards specific future states.
Kamal: Then the collective wisdom platform is where we can use the best of, in terms of media and technology, to coordinate future architects within and beyond the Guild. We can create learning processes so that we are, whether anything succeeds or fails, there’s always a learning and we always feel like we’re going to succeed if we can capture that learning and share it in an open source way. Then the third piece is media. As we’re creating all these ideas about possible futures, how are we creating storytelling that can illustrate that and spark ideas about possibility and open up people’s minds to possibilities, but also spark dialogue around, is this the future we want and let’s have a conversation around that?
Kamal: Some of the examples that are coming out of it right now. We have a documentary series called the Radical Imagination Project that’s coming out of it. We have a couple of books that are emerging out of it. We ran a 10-week sprint of futures writer’s rooms that were open to the public and out of that process, we have 30 different narratives about speculative histories that serve as design principles and aspirational futures, and they’re pretty freaking awesome. So we’re going to be continuing to evolve. So it’s a media and tech arm of the Guild, I would say.
Jim: Yeah, there’s a lot of things that need to be done there. I mean, I know the money on money return platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and while there’s some good work that happens there, it’s at least arguable at this point that they’re doing more harm than good. Thinking through what the platforms look like that allow us to collectively reason, to have collective intelligence and then, it’s above my pay grade, but to eventually get to collective wisdom, strikes me as the kind of things we need to do if we’re going to make it that hundred years you talk about.
Kamal: I’m telling you, it’s so critical. We have some incredible people with more expertise than me that have been looking deeply at this work. We have people like Safiya Noble who wrote the book Algorithms of Oppression. People like Dr. Ruha Benjamin from Princeton who wrote Race After Technology and the New Gym Code. We have Eli Pariser, who created moveon.org and upworthy.com. He is now working on a piece called Civic Signals, which is trying to find ways of creating nontoxic digital spaces based on urban planning public parks theories and practices. So it’s really… I mean, Loc Dau, who ran the National Film Board of Canada’s Interactive as well as was one of the digital top executives for the whole country of Canada looking at digital strategies.
Kamal: I mean, these people that have really battled with the tension between market returns and healthy democratic environments in digital space. So hopefully we’ll get to some… I mean, it’s a hundred years so maybe by the end of it we’ll figure some things out on MTV and other forms that were emerging a hundred years ago are still, like film and so forth, are still trying to work out their ethics, but we’ll see what we can do.
Jim: I think that’s about all we can do is try to do our best. What I like to say is I’d like for us to be able to create a society that we are happy to live in and proud to leave to our children and now, for me, grandchildren.
Kamal: Oh, congratulations again. I’m so thrilled that you’re now entering into this phase of your life, Jim. Congratulations.
Jim: Well, this has been a wonderful conversation and everything I would hope it to be. I got to tell ya, people. Go look at that questionbridge.com website. That damn thing is a thing of both great beauty and great learning.
Kamal: Aww. Thank you, Jim.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.