At the risk of losing most of my readers for this secular kids' music site, let me kick off this essay about a conference about the intersection of the internet and creativity with a story about church.
(That's me, #offbrand since 2002.)
The church I occasionally attend devotes a not insignificant portion of its Sunday service to having attendees offer up their celebrations and concerns to the congregation. As a relative newcomer to the long-established congregation, I find a lot of it not all that relevant to me -- I don't really know you, let alone your son whose wife just had your fourth grandchild -- but one day a member of the staff put that part of the service into perspective. She said, "we are open and welcoming in here on Sunday as practice for being open and welcoming in the world the rest of the week."
I thought about that idea of practicing how you want to be or act a lot during my trip up to Portland, Oregon a couple weeks ago for the 2016 edition of the XOXO Festival. The festival is an "experimental festival, shared workspace, and online community for independent artists and creators working online." I attended a couple years ago, and when organizers Andy Baio and Andy McMillan said that the fifth iteration of XOXO could be the last (and that there would definitely be no XOXO in 2017), I threw my name into the attendance lottery. I am no Darius Kazemi, but my name popped up in the lottery regardless, and so I found myself once more attending a festival not entirely sure whether I belonged.
As I was doing two years ago -- and will likely be doing in the future should XOXO ever return in some iteration -- I work a day job that is neither technology- nor artistically-based with steady middle-class pay. My only real relationship to the art-and-technology aims of XOXO is this website and its affiliated work and working with people who are trying to figure out how to make more and better podcasts for kids.
One of the (perhaps unplanned) benefits of XOXO is that it is a conference that attracts people like me, people who don't entirely fit in. As I mentioned more than once in conversations that weekend, if XOXO were a typical "industry" conference (be that tech, the arts, or any field-specific conference), there would be a clear pecking order, with "stars" on one side (probably hidden away in a green room, flown in just for their specific talk) and the rest of the attendees on the other. But because of the cross-domain nature of XOXO, it was entirely possible to have conversations with people and have all the parties think of everyone else, "Wow, they're doing something really cool." It also meant that there would be cases where people famous in a particular field would be anonymous in some settings. It leveled the playing field a bit and made it a little easier to be open and welcoming.
Before some thoughts about life and one's relationship to the world around them, I should briefly mention ice cream. I have thought deeply about ice cream and my relationship to it and I am unreservedly pro-ice cream. (Waves hello to Salt & Straw, Fifty Licks, and -- shown here -- Ruby Jewel.) I have been privileged enough to attend conferences held in hotels and while I find that the food at such conferences has generally been better than their reputation might suggest, I preferred the setup at XOXO, in which a curated list of some of the best of Portland's food carts were stationed right outside the conference for attendees to pick and choose. Yes, we paid for those foods, but the variety (and probably the quality) was better. Also, there was ice cream. And donuts.
There were more than enough ways to keep the brain engaged after the stomach was full. As in previous years, XOXO ran a festival at night which included tabletop games, an arcade, storytelling events, and film and animation screenings. Those events ran concurrently on the two nights, so it would have been impossible to see and do everything, but some of the highlights for me were hearing a live (and brand-new) episode of Mike Rugnetta's Reasonably Sound, a brand-new episode of Taylor Ramos & Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting series, successfully balancing all the beasts in the Jenga-in-reverse-for-the-digital-age game Beasts of Balance, and playing Illimat, a card game designed by Keith Baker and the Decemberists, with some of the Decembrists. Also, on Sunday night we got to dance to Dan Deacon, which I can't recommend highly enough, having done it myself a few times.
I mention these fun and games not to make you jealous if you weren't able to attend but as a reminder to myself about the importance of, well, fun and games. It is no less important to find time to enjoy the experiences that give you pleasure than it is to find time to work on things that give you meaning. (Self, remember that.)
The heart of the festival is still the conference itself, which features 16 speakers who have made a living in some way from using the internet. One way in which the Andys I think model the "practice" behavior is in the composition of the speaker track. Two years ago, 6 of the 16 speakers identified as women (and 10, or 11 really, as men); this year, that order was reversed, with women holding 11 of the 16 speaking slots. If you are committed to seeing a tech world in which women aren't given a second-class position, then you have to commit to changing the corner of the world which you control, and that's something which is worth noting and commending. (That's only a small portion of how the Andys have listened and improved -- see: child care, non-alcoholic beverages at events, I could go on and on.)
I found almost all of the talks to be compelling and with something to noodle on during and after the talk -- they will be released online and I encourage you to check them out when they're available -- but at the risk of giving short (OK, no) shrift to some compelling speakers, I want to touch on just three.
The first was the concluding talk on Saturday from Portland comic artist and illustrator Lucy Bellwood. What I remembered most from her talk is probably unfair to her -- it's her admission that she only got off of Food Stamps this year. That admission was part of a larger talk about the difficulty of knowing how to value oneself, from the perspective of an artist. How do you do the thing you love, and how do you put a price on it? She didn't offer any specific answers (other than perhaps a wish that people would put a higher price on creative output), but what resonated with me, besides the honesty in admitting financial difficulties, was the centering of the question of what it means to have a good life and the tension between living your intentions and simply making ends meet when creativity is a big part of your life. It's not that Bellwood's approach is the right or the wrong approach, but it's certainly the right question.
If Bellwood was forthcoming in admitting her financial balancing act, writer/illustrator/artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees took financial transparency one step further Sunday morning, as he outlined his income by year for more than a decade. Rees has had a series of successes, including hosting his own TV show, Going Deep with David Rees. Despite all that, in his presentation Rees claimed never to have earned more than $100,000 in a single year. From one perspective, he appeared to be doing better than Bellwood, but in many ways his talk was just as dispiriting as Bellwood's -- if someone can host their own TV show and still not make more than an average engineer -- then it really does seem like there's a tension between creative output and financial security that will be hard to resolve.
And that's where the final speaker on Sunday, designer Frank Chimero, suggested a frame of reference that doesn't magically unlock financial riches for talented artists like Bellwood, Rees, or the other creators that graced the stage at the conference and festival, but does offer a different view. Chimero referenced an interview with Krista Tippett, in which she notes the complications from conflating "vocation" with "job":
I’m very committed and fond of the language of vocation, which I think became narrowly tied to our job titles in the 20th Century. Our vocations or callings as human beings may be located in our job descriptions, but they may also be located in how we are present to whatever it is we do. It may be that your job at any given point is to make the income to feed your family. That is noble, too.
That's a little bit more than what Chimero referenced in his slide, but I think it further drives home the point Chimero made in his talk. Creators need to work together to figure out how to help each other thrive. That's been an animating principle behind XOXO, and will continue even if there's never another XOXO-related physical gathering.
But creators can also consider what they do creatively outside the context of how much they earn for their creative work. That's not an argument for giving away their creative work for free -- in fact, I'd argue it's exactly the opposite. It's recognizing that creative work has value in and of itself, before any assignment of market value. Viewed in that way, the creative work can have significant value to the creator. The question then becomes, how do I create a life which allows me the time and energy to create, viewing the act of creation as a vocation I'm committed to, rather than a job I need to extract value out of.
I totally recognize the privileged position I'm making this argument from, and that my status as a middle-class person with health insurance (not to mention all my other privileges as a straight white male) whose creative output is an occasional side project could make this a facile argument. But I really believe that approaching the creative process as a calling rather than specifically a job might help some artists think what it is that feeds their soul, and how they can fit that into a life that feeds their bodies as well.
I was interviewing a couple kids musicians this week -- OK, it was Andrew and Polly -- and they mentioned that putting together one 20-minute episode of their fabulous Ear Snacks podcast takes 65 hours or more of effort. That's a crazy-expensive episode if you judge it by the cost of their time when they write music for films or TV shows. But the duo has, for now, decided not to try to charge money for it, feeling like doing something like putting ads on it or changing it in order to attract some sort of sponsor, would diminish its value. They've made a decision that it has more value to them unpriced and unaltered from their vision. It's a choice they can make from a privileged position, and their approach might mean they may never make more Ear Snacks after this season (because, c'mon, 65 HOURS AN EPISODE?!), but they've committed to living out their calling, at least for the moment.
So thanks, Andy and Andy, for the opportunity to attend a festival which helps people think about how the internet is changing our creative lives, and what that means to our entire lives. I suspect you would both view the analogy to church a little distasteful, but to the extent that you're helping a lot of people think about how they can relate to individuals and society as a whole, and their place within society, I think XOXO has done a lot of what church at its secular best can do. Creative life on the internet is often still a scary and unpredictable place, but I think you've helped carve out a community that will continue to seek a path forward to make it less scary and more predictable for everyone.