We went to see Thomas Dolby play at the Iron Horse last night. The man looks like he’s having a great time. I used this as a platform for a completely unrelated epiphany.
He’s a big geek — he lurks in his own net forums, and does stuff like using sunspot data as a data source for music — with a pile of fun toys: his favorite, he gleefully demonstrated, was a hydraulic keyboard stand that could raise and lower itself to standing or sitting position at the touch of a button. (Apparently the real market for these is religious: a lot of churches are cutting costs, so the preacher is also the organist. The stand comes with an optional bible attachment.) What could be better?
(Well, we could’ve had better seats; we ended up near the bar sort of halfway behind the balcony stairway, which meant there was a more or less constant stream of waitresses going back and forth in front of us, plus the more-than-occasional “hey, I’ll just stand here and lean on this bannister and pretend I don’t notice the dozen people behind me who now can’t see anything” person, who Emily and I took turns chasing away, which I now can’t really decide if they were the ones being assholes or if we were, but if we hadn’t done it we’d have spent most of the show watching the batman logo on the back of some guy’s t-shirt so I guess I feel okay about having done it either way. More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that I just don’t like people very much. But that’s a topic for another day.)
But the big surprise of the show had nothing to do with Thomas Dolby: it was when he casually introduced the guy running the video performance, who is Johnny deKam, who as it happens was at iEAR with me way back when. He and I even did a two-man show together — because it was fall semester and everybody else was procrastinating until the spring performance — for the home crowd in Troy, for a very appreciative audience at Bard college, and for an audience of three people in a seven hundred seat theater in New York because the organizers at NYU had forgotten to tell anybody we were coming. i/O, the show was called, if I remember right. ‘Cause we were digital artists, you see. I forget if we ever decided which of us was “i” and which was “O”.
His thing — most everybody at iEAR had a ‘thing,’ some particular artistic subject they needed to express, or a technique or method they were especially absorbed in; I assume the same is true of most any arts program — anyway, his was almost always some combination of performance and video. Not as in performing in front of a video, but as in creating or modifying a video through the performance itself… I’m not explaining it well, but as a f’rinstance: his act in that show we did was, he had a videocamera hooked to software that would read the image and trigger sound samples based on what it saw — so a particular color in a particular part of the frame would set off a particular sound, and he could make and control music by moving around in front of the camera with colored dots attached to various parts of his body. So there you go.
(My ‘thing,’ I have to admit, was that I was trying really fucking hard to be some kind of cross between Laurie Anderson and Robert Ashley. Right down to aping their manner of speaking with the oddly timed pauses and the exaggerated changes in pitch.)
And there he was catching the obligatory quick smoke on the sidewalk outside the club after the show, just like everybody did after every single iEAR performance ever. Total flashback time: suddenly hit by the muscle memory of post-show coiling of cables and hauling of equipment. We did the catching up thing. He’s done well: started a software company, works with rockstars, the whole bit — point is, and the bit that impresses me, is he’s still in the game: he’s still carving away at the intersection of video and performance. (Some good stuff, too: there was a nice bit in “Windpower” where he’d edited closeups of windmills and turbines into a just-slightly-stutterstep synchronized to the music. Nicely done. Mounting a mini camera on Dolby’s head was a slick idea, too.) Whether you’re into that sort of thing or not, you’ve got to admit the guy’s life has a solid story arc going on.
I was — unintentionally — a lot less forthcoming about what I’ve been up to for the last decade. (Yes, this here is the part where I make it All About Me.) “Oh, I was doing the web thing,” I said vaguely. “I guess I’m still doing the web thing.” Not that I was trying to hide anything, it’s just that it didn’t seem all that interesting. Which, as you might imagine, was an interesting thing to discover.
It’s not that I haven’t done good work, or that what I’ve done has been pointless or just cog-in-the-machine kind of stuff: arguably millions of students have had an easier time of it because I worked on the distance-learning software they’re required to use. Arguably, hell; definitely: you should see some of the crap products I’ve been called in to redesign. You still can, in fact; I take a perverse pride in the fact that the one major web-DL product I haven’t worked on has, by far, the most confusing interface.
On the other hand… that one is also the market leader. So maybe it doesn’t really matter all that much.
And to be honest I’m not totally convinced that distance learning is really that good an idea to begin with; it’s too easy for it to become a crutch for lazy teaching. And it’s not like education has been a great passion of mine at any point; it’s just a product niche I happened to fall into, and in which I’ve become relatively well-known enough in that I keep getting steady job offers. And, and, and, well, yada yada yada; point is it’s not stuff I get excited about telling people about. Or, to be fair, there are aspects of it I used to get excited about — very excited, downright vehement at times — but don’t anymore.
I guess that’s what they mean by burnout.
I shouldn’t leave the impression that this all hit me in one bolt of lightning then and there — Johnny is not to blame. I’ve been slowly scaling back for a while now, most of you guys know this already. Tried a change of venue, doing the net startup thing with old friends, in a market as unrelated to distance learning as humanly possible, but that didn’t work out either. (My fault, not theirs.) I’m down to just one last contract, and this really is going to be the last one. For a good long while, anyway.
Not that I have the faintest idea which way to go from here, of course. Haven’t quite figured out what my “thing” is — though I guess we can cross at least two items off the list: “Be Laurie Anderson” and “Revolutionize the distance learning industry.” That’s a start, I guess.
And you guys thought this was going to be some light reading about a rock concert. If it makes you feel any better, so did I.
No no, what I really meant was
I’m rereading this, and thinking it might be giving the wrong impression. To be clear, it’s not at all that I feel like I’ve been wasting my time, or doing the wrong thing, or that this is some crisis of confidence or what have you… It feels more like, well, okay, I’m done with that now. I can move on.
This is good.