All posts by Barry Johnson

Barry Johnson has edited and written about the arts in Portland since 1979.

The future of content (or why we should stop listening to consultants and start reading cyberpunk)

Benjamin Franklin and printing press. Charles Mills/1914/Wikimedia Commons


All across the country people are clamoring for artists (and the writers who cover them) to create new models that will be financially viable in this new economy. The answers so far have reminded me of a running joke we have in the performing arts.

It goes like this:

When you ask a new person (a board member, an intern) to brainstorm ideas for how to sell more tickets, the first words out of their mouth will inevitably be, “Why don’t we put up posters in coffee shops?”

If you ask a theater director the same question, you’ll hear “Hey! Why don’t we perform a segment of the show at the mall/Rotary Club/local High School/local Rock Club?”

The Marketing Director’s tactic of choice? “Let’s lower the price!”

And recently, in media circles, there has been a lot of talk about how to save the press by moving it online. The most common suggestion: “I know! Let’s do a newspaper subscription. Only, like, ONLINE.”

Why do these suggestions crop up, again and again? They recur because they arise out of the core temperament of the people making the suggestion. An artist loves nothing more than to put on a show – so of course their first idea for promotion will be “let’s put on a show.” A marketing director is fulfilled by the sight of a full house – no matter what price is paid for the seat. And a publisher likes to curate the content you see (for a fee) – we each push for the model we understand, the one that fulfills the desires that drew us into the business in the first place.

But these models are failing, all around us. And our solutions (more pop music at the symphony! Boozy cheap theater nights for young/gay/nerdy people! Subscription based websites!) are sourced from the past, variations on our last ten great ideas. They’re based on great research, but they are failing to improve the crumbling bottom lines of our institutions.
Continue reading The future of content (or why we should stop listening to consultants and start reading cyberpunk)

Fear no description: a little loose music talk

The Large Hadron Collider On Friday night, the Portland experimental music group Fear No Music performed a selection of short pieces that went with a selection of short films and video. We were there.

Even for those of us without much technical training (which would include this department of Art Scatter), a literature of sorts exists to talk about music in non-technical terms. Histories, biographies, reviews, learned opinion expressed in lay terms, received opinion that belittles as it’s grudgingly given, even sharp new opinion that cuts things open from new angles — an apparatus of sorts exists if you want to access it.

All of this involves sentences. You know, the atom of writing. But sometimes the music itself is sub-atomic. In fact, one of the threads of the past century — our immediate history, musical or otherwise — involves something we could call the sub-atomic. And sometimes our sentences don’t seem up to the chore of describing these minute and evanescent phenomena, especially a series of them.

So, right, we are preparing to use our sentences to talk about Fear No Music’s latest combine — recently created experimental visuals (video/film/etc.) and some musical experiments of the past century (and most of them on the more recent end of the time-line, though a Webern string quartet on the program was composed exactly 100 years ago). The program was called “Parallaxis: music and moving pictures,” and it was assembled (or curated) by Fear No Music and Leo and Anna Daedalus of Helsinqi media studio.
Continue reading Fear no description: a little loose music talk

Walk the park, talk to yourself

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, OregonOn Sunday, the first truly fine day of Spring, Art Scatter found itself scurrying along Tom McCall Waterfront Park. We were in transit, not lollygagging or basking in the sun but not running or biking, either. The latter would have been difficult because so many promenaders were out, choking the walkway with clots of slow-moving homo sapiens.

None of this is remarkable: If you were out at all yesterday, you had company. (Later, we chatted with one woman who’d spent the morning hiking deep in the Gorge, and even SHE found fellow travelers.) But as we walked from the Hawthorne Bridge to the Steel Bridge, we had a couple of, ahem, thoughts.

1. Passing by the remains of the demonstration against the 12-lane, I-5 Bridge proposal was a reminder of what I like about Portland — citizens still think they can affect policy in the city. And sometimes they are right. The 12-lane proposal — and that’s not counting several lanes of ramps on either end of the bridge — has a lot of momentum right now, but there are enough natural hurdles, from the gigantic cost to Oregon at a time when there’s little money to spare to environmental appeals, that opponents are going to get some time to re-sell some of the alternatives, especially to the City of Portland and to Metro. I recently talked to someone connected to transportation planning at one of the riverside industrial areas in the city, and asked him if freight problems were driving the expansion. He replied in the negative, and has become an opponent of the bridge. So, ultimately the question becomes, why does Portland metro need a bridge on this side. And that one is going to be hard for proponents to answer.
Continue reading Walk the park, talk to yourself

Portland Center Stage will miss Mead Hunter

As many of you know by now, Mead Hunter has been let go by Portland Center Stage as part of another round of budget cuts at the company. We wish him the very best, and we’ll be getting back to this at a later date. Frankly, we’re confident that Mead will negotiate this turn of events in fine form, but Center Stage will have to get along without his wise counsel. And that won’t be easy.

A weekend of Holcombe Waller, BodyVox, arts and politics

BodyVox's Jamey HamptonSo, Art Scatter had an interesting weekend, with the odd charm’s of BodyVox and Holcombe Waller taking center stage. We’ve posted about this on Portland Arts Watch, and we’ll just take a moment to emphasize a point or two from that post.

BodyVox’s “The Foot Opera Files”
was very close to something special thanks to the strangeness of trained voices from the Portland Opera’s studio artists program taking on the songs of Tom Waits; the downscale theatricality of the costumes from the wrong side of the tracks; live music from an excellent little combo; the raw space that will become BodyVox’s new home. What it needed to go all the way was the darkness of Waits, the sorrow, as a contrast to the vaudeville shtick, which sometimes was quite good and sometimes wasn’t as startling as it needed to be. Without the sorrow, it can all seem like an “adventure” in the tenderloin or like playacting. Which it is, of course, but that’s probably not what you’re hoping to convey. Anyway, it runs again Wednesday-Sunday, and I’d love to compare notes.

Holcombe Waller is pretty amazing.
“Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest” was basically a concert featuring Waller with his back-up band, the Healers, but it had video and multiple performing locations on the stage, including a table on which Waller sat or on which were stacked boxes on which Waller sat. All of the details seemed carefully choreographed and rehearsed, which was nice, an antidote to our reigning informality, which sometimes slips into territory best called “sloppy.” Waller has an entirely different aesthetic going on, and good for him.

I also like the clarity of Waller’s voice, which also shows great attention to detail, and his songs are carefully made too, simple and dramatic, with stylish effects, both for voice and instruments. The concert wasn’t for the depressed: I’d say the overall emotional tone was “plaintive.” And as I said on Arts Watch, I liked the pieces best that had some fight in them.

Waller is a singular performer in Portland, though he is working in San Francisco and New York, too, these days, he told us. I hope we stay a point on his triangle because it will be interesting to watch him balance some contradictory impulses in his art.

In my column in The Oregonian today, I talked about art and politics, inspired by last week’s “24/7” show at Wieden+Kennedy. And what I was trying to say, really, was something simple: The wisdom inherent in a great work of art is a model for us to emulate in the rest of our lives, including our citizenship in a democracy, an insight of John Dewey’s really. And that’s an interesting way to think about art — how wise is it? What forces does it balance? What conflicts does it resolve? How useful are its descriptions of reality — either the external or the internal? What paths does it blaze for us in our thinking about art itself or in thinking about life?

Warning: Much idle thought about newspapers below

 Miehle Newspaper Press at the Provost News in the '60s
Art Scatter has followed with more than passing interest the ongoing debates over the future of journalism in the U.S. I started to type “newspapers,” because the rapid decline of the large corporations that own most of the larger daily newspapers in the country has already wiped out thousands of journalist positions in the country, at exactly the moment that television and radio news have also hit the skids. But we now understand that “newspaper” and “journalism” are not synonymous, that in fact journalism of wildly varying quality can be found just about everywhere, from newspapers to electronic media to digital media. Even at comedy clubs.

Just to get everyone up-to-date with the latest arguments about the decline of journalism and how to reverse it, we have some links!

The most radical suggestion I’ve heard recently for saving the free press comes from Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, writing in the The Nation. I knew Mr. McChesney back when we both worked at the Seattle Sun, a now-defunct alternative weekly paper, in the late 1970s. In fact, he succeeded me as publisher at the Sun, though I don’t think he lasted as long as I did before he escaped to academia. He’s now a professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Illinois, and he’s devoted his career to describing and critiquing the power of tightly controlled corporate media in various manifestations.

McChesney and Nichols argue that our idea of a free press needs to be expanded exponentially and funded by government subsidies. Some would be indirect in the form of $200 tax credits for taxpayers who subscribe to a daily newspaper of their choice. “We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well.” For a paper like The Oregonian, that would add up to something approaching $60 million, though McChesney and Nichols are hoping for something better than The Oregonian. And, in fact, they are hoping that competitors to The Oregonian enter the field.

They also want direct subsidies to fund public journalism along the lines of European models. They even want to fund extensive journalism programs in public schools — how else can you get young people excited about what’s going on their world? And really, that’s the role of journalism in a democracy: to keep we, the citizens, both and informed about and engaged in our government, our culture and our sports teams. OK. I added those last two part myself.

I think of Steven Berlin Johnson as a futurist who sees the future in the past, and his speech at SXSW in Austin on the future of media does exactly that. He extrapolates from his experience with the rapid expansion of tech journalism during the past 25 years or so, and doesn’t really see a problem. Sure, there will be dislocations, but the quantity and quality of journalism as a whole is likely to expand as rapidly as the quality of one of its parts, tech journalism. And frankly, when I think about it, he might be right already for national-level issues. But it’s the local where we live, and the local where we have the greatest fear about the loss of journalism. Twenty fewer commentators on the stimulus package wouldn’t be such a great loss. One fewer person covering Portland Public Schools on a regular basis would get us down to near-zero. Would a little niche-ecology of bloggers rush in to fill the void? I’m thinking of greater outreach by the school district itself and the teachers’ union, maybe the PTA, along with various educational observers of various stripes. Maybe so. Johnson is a smart guy, so he could be right. And his suggestion can be easily followed — do nothing!

Which is where Clay Shirky, an Internet theoretician, ends up in his looping essay on the history of information revolutions. We can debate his “read” of recent American media history, which boils down to expensive printing presses losing out to cheap online servers. (McChesney and Nichols, for example, would probably suggest that the mega-media corporations became addicted to the massive profit margins of newspapers and failed to invest in them, instead wringing every penny out of them that they could.) But his essay is still a fascinating tour of the press since Gutenberg.

We’ll stop for now with an short essay by Alan Mutter
from his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog. Mutter has been a journalist, though he moved on to the Silicon Valley, and his blog attempts 1) to describe how dire things are for the news business, and 2) what positive signs he sees out there for the future. That’s what the linked post does.

A light Scatter of arts+newspapers+urban matters

Rough Rider WeeklySo, lots of things bubbling about with Scatter implications, of a Monday evening.

First, a tip from regular TdR, who posts at Portland Spaces’ Burnside Blog — and got to the whole gag reflex to the idea of a Rose Quarter “entertainment district” (mentioned below) WAY before Scatter did. I confess, all I can imagine is the most sanitized experience possible, which is the very antithesis of a good “entertainment district.” Thanks to MTC, we’ve also corrected our link to the Burnside Blog.

We’ve threatened to talk about media,
and given the origin myth of Art Scatter, that frequently means “newspaper,” which back in the day transmitted “news” to a populace eager to be told what “news” was. Clearly those days are not these days. The financial pins of the whole newspaper business have been knocked hither and yon by various nefarious forces (as you’ve no doubt heard), and the most recent example of this in action was reported today at The Oregonian, where significant pay cuts and layoffs of part-time staff were announced, among other cost-cutting measures. My rules of engagement forbid me to talk about this in a substantive way, and even if I could, I don’t know exactly what it means except the obvious. The chatter about how to put Humpty Dumpty together again is ongoing on various journalism blogs, and soon we’ll do a little summary for our interested Scatter community.

Over at Portland Arts Watch,
we’ve been posting furiously on events we’ve been hitting. Like Imago’s “APIS,” Jerry Mouawad’s fusion of bees and prison. OK, you kinda had to be there, though the “wordless opera,” as Mouawad calls it, reminded me of the connection between Imago’s kid shows (such as “Frogz”) and its adult shows. It also exposed the “tragic” nature of the Imago approach, even its comedies. At least, that’s what I thought I saw.

I also caught the end game of “24/7,” which organizers Bill Crane and Thomas Lauderdale created to mark “7 years of war” with “24 hours of music.” Actually, it’s less than seven years of war in Iraq, but more if you count Afghanistan, which may be the war that never ends. Don’t you hate when Orwell is right? Anyway, the mostly classical program was inspiring, by all accounts, and by the time I got there for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Wieden+Kennedy’s atrium was jammed and the musicians were playing free and easy and beautifully.

And my obsession with the PNCA-Museum of Contemporary Craft merger continued in a column in The Oregonian today. Bauhaus came up. Honestly.

Portland has a Major League Soccer team. We just had to type that one more time.

Urban matters: getting used to the idea

 The Walker Macy design for Waterfront ParkSo, yes, it’s taken some time for me to figure out how to occupy space at both Art Scatter and Portland Arts Watch, not that you were holding your breath or anything.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. My straight-ahead arts stuff will land at Portland Arts Watch, which is more or less business as usual. And I’ll try to be better about letting you know what’s cooking over there. And on Art Scatter, I’ll get very scattered and talk about urban design (especially as it relates to the arts and culture) and media (ditto), both of which I’m following closely these days, as well as more, um, speculative matters. I’m going to call the urban design bits “Urban matters,” just so you know what you’re getting yourself into (or not).

As a sort of intro, here are some of the city threads I’m following right now.
Continue reading Urban matters: getting used to the idea

No one here knows boldface, seriously

Lawrence Olivier in the Criterion DVD version of Henry V Yes. We’ve noticed the rampant bold face that popped up in our posts on this page all of a sudden. We have some of the finest brains in America working on the problem. Hey, can anyone out there help us out? We’re totally stumped.

That gave us pause for awhile, but, baby, we’re back, boldface or no. So back. Brother Bob Hicks is leading the charge for arts funding, now at the State level. The bayonets are fixed and he’s just about through that first roll of barbed wire. Then he gets the machine gun emplacement. But before that a pause to consider Henry V…

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

I tried a gender-neutral version (“we band of siblings”), but it had rhythm problems and (s)he is a bit irritating, in that lit-theory kind of way.

And I just posted at weird length on a subject that’s been roiling around my head the past couple of weeks, in between bouts of jazz. Speaking of jazz, I hope you ventured to Portland Arts Watch to read some of the posts. My own favorite dealt with the great Nancy King, whom we should designate an official City Treasure. This might be something that Art Scatter should do: name official Art Scatter City Treasures. Nancy would be a charter member. Have I mentioned that she’s the greatest?

And have I mentioned that we need help with rampant boldface on WordPress? Seriously. I’m blaming Bob until someone tells me different!

Please Coraline, save the economy!

The Warhol EconomyAfter the dust settles, the tsunami recedes or the cookie crumbles, depending on your metaphor of choice for our present economic condition, who will be left standing? More specifically, what regions of the country can expect to rebound quickly and which ones are headed for even deeper trouble?

That’s the provocative topic of Richard Florida’s Atlantic Monthly essay this month, which is the starting point for my column in this Monday’s newspaper. It’s long (Florida’s article, not my column!). And it contains some predictions of doom for certain cities and states that must give them pause. For the record, he expects the Pacific Northwest, from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, to do just fine — he jumped on our bandwagon in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class” way back in 2002, after all. He doesn’t think the same for Phoenix, Cleveland and Detroit.

Early in that article, Florida mentions Elizabeth Currid’s book, “The Warhol Economy,” as he explains why he thinks New York City, even though the hit it has taken from the collapse of the financial sector is massive, will continue to thrive. Currid, who teaches at USC, did a “case study” of the creative class in New York, specifically the music, fashion and art scenes, and found that these interwoven “industries” were 1) far more important to the city’s economic health than commonly understood, and 2) when linked to the national media outlets and the rest of the city’s creative economy of designers, theater, and the other arts, were absolutely crucial to the city’s identity as an international center.
Continue reading Please Coraline, save the economy!