October 13th, 2007


A puzzle pirate from Stockholm, or space

My talk at the AIGA conference (photos courtesy of Stu Alden) felt totally strange. I was programmed at the end of the Friday afternoon main stage sessions, and came right after slick design gameshow Command X (a sort of Weakest Link for designers), so the audience was in a kind of "TV-watching, zoned-out, end-of-the-week" mood. There'd just been an excellent presentation by Christoph Niemann in which he showed his inventive, retro-yet-radical illustrations. And then I came on like some sort of weird preacher, talking about "soul" and authenticity. (Later, some branding experts told me that what I, in my Shinto-Calvinist way, was calling the "soul" is known in branding as SOI: single organizing idea. It's apparently a term from Jim Collins’ 1994 business book, "Built to Last".)

I knew it was going to be difficult when the vast sea of delegates (there must have been two thousand) failed to raise the slightest ripple of laughter at my ice-breaking opening remarks: "In my parallel career as an electronic folk musician I never play venues as big as this -- design must be the new rock and roll... or at least the new electronic folk music." Zero response. "So when AIGA said I just had 20 minutes I thought I'd be able to talk about the entire future -- and you can say anything about the future, it's a kind of fiction -- but also the last 2000 years of Western philosophy." No sound from the audience. They appeared to be thinking "This guy is weird. Why's he wearing an eye-patch? When can we go and get a drink?"

I started by quoting the David Byrne song In The Future, and thought my nervousness would allow me to do a good impression of Byrne's early interview style. Instead I simply garbled the lines somewhat. I also tried to extemporize rather than follow my notes closely, so I missed some of the connections between ideas and jumped about from one theme to another. There were only two moments when I heard that vast sea of people -- bigger than any crowd I've addressed since touring Japan with Kahimi Karie in 1998 -- ripple with appreciation. One was when I described how the Heidelberg restaurant in New York was more German than anything in Germany, and how, when I asked the yodelling lederhosen-clad waiter if he was German I got the answer "Sometimes". The other was when I described watching the wifi signals go by on my iPod Touch while sitting in a taxi heading up Park Avenue, and said that this might be a new, manmade sort of "smell". That got some laughs.

There was a dialogue with moderator Kurt Anderson, which went much better -- I think my ideas work much better when I have to explain them to someone asking good questions -- and was also more relaxed and informal. My heart sank slightly when I heard Anderson conclude with "Why are British people so much more clever than Americans?", though, because I'd hate to think it just looked like I was showing off intellectually. Afterwards about a dozen people told me they'd found the ideas particularly stimulating or found something I'd said resonant, so it does seem to have sparked more empathy and interest than I felt on the stage.

One person I met said his first impression had been "this guy is from space", and I must say that's very much how I felt. I felt like I totally lacked the slick patter of some of the American delegates, their knowledge of how to stoke up the audience. A speaker an hour or so before me had given what struck me as a disastrously narcissistic talk. I sat there cringing on her behalf, until suddenly the audience broke into whoops of affirmation. It didn't seem to have phased them at all. I felt the same cultural disconnect when football logos I thought were too masculine and aggressive were criticized from the stage as too feminine! I suppose that's what "being from space" feels like; you simply don't see things the same way. What seems self-evident to you seems like a puzzling non sequitur to someone else.

My thinking probably contains too much paradox, too much ambivalent binary play and provisional dialectic (provisional because I abandon those binary structures pretty soon after introducing them). It comes mostly from a post-Marxist, post-structuralist European tradition -- Adorno and Barthes and Derrida -- which doesn't really fit with the way Americans think. And, facing that somewhat blank, puzzled audience, failing to push their buttons, I felt quite keenly the flavour of my own career-long marginality. Call it "failure to communicate with people who see the world differently" or "inability to get beyond preaching to the choir". Call it "not equipped to sell more than 5000 albums or get more than 20,000 views on YouTube". Call it some kind of glass ceiling between me and anything mainstream.

Reading an article in The Guardian about Gore's Nobel Peace Prize, I identified (sadly) with some of the cautionary things Martin Kettle was saying. I'd ended my talk with a reference to Gore's win -- a reference I somehow imagined would get some claps or cheers, but again was greeted with stony silence by the audience. I've always liked Gore, liked his intelligence, his way of connecting things. I remember a New Yorker interview which described him making diagrams on napkins of how everything in the world was connected, unexpectedly, to everything else. That's how I think too, but I realize that it doesn't seem nearly as self-evident to other people out there, and for this reason we "associational thinkers" tend, as Martin Kettle says, to be people "whose comfort zone is in opposition rather than in power". Gore may well have been right about climate change, says Kettle, but "out there on mainstream American breakfast TV yesterday there were fewer headlines about Al Gore than about Britney Spears".

Of course, it's possible it's the mainstream that's "from space". Out here in the Midwest, I really do feel something like that. It's weird here. People have been staring at me since I arrived, and yet to me it's this place that's strange, not me. Denver -- with its Toys-R-Us, SimCity feel -- could just have landed from Mars. "Are you from Sweden?" elderly couples ask me in the hotel elevator. I look at my conference ID tag. "Nick Currie Momus Stockholm Sweden," it says. "Actually I'm from Scotland," I say, "but it's not far from Stockholm. Maybe they misheard."