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As I Was Saying

The Art of New Media Migration

3/09/2012 10:15 AM

Sometimes you have to consider the poetry, not just the technology, of innovations that affect “business as usual.”

So, as I visited the Phillips Collection art exhibit about the effect of photography on Post-Impressionist painters, my thoughts kept drifting to today’s transformative media upheaval. Maybe I had been reading too much that day about the Netflix “threat” or Aereo’s competitive disruption, so I was thinking about how new marketplace tactics generate creative responses.

Whatever the reasons, I was attuned to the concept that today’s world isn’t simply about the transition from analog to digital or RF to IP. As it was in these artists’ environs a century ago, the changes go beyond updates of the same old products and programs,

This exhibit demonstrate how a new technical/creative option can trigger totally different ways to look at, use and adapt your role in an evolving environment. You can translate the tools into your own vision for business as well as design. There’s truly an art, not just science, in implementing a new creative process.

In this art museum example, the most obvious analogy involves the creative production, not the distribution side, of the media business. There are lessons galore about how different artists embraced and adapted the new viewpoints that cameras enabled. I kept thinking of the ways that story-telling (visual in this exhibit’s case; dramatic, comedic or informational performance in the media world) are altered by a new influencer and by audience expectations based on their own exposure to the new technology.

It would be presumptuous to contend that today’s migration from wired to wireless delivery is comparable to the shift from stuffy painted portraits to informal family snapshots. Yet, as you look at the 120-year-old photos, you can sense the change in the Belle Époque-era air. And you understand the lessons of how to adopt and adapt the ways you work.

There’s nothing new in the recognition that the late 19th-century expansion of photography drove some painters into new ways of creating art and seeing their world. Composing, cropping, lighting and more techniques have all been documented and attributed to the lessons that artists learned from early cameras. What makes the Phillips exhibit “Snapshots: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard” so fascinating is the juxtaposition of painters’ own snapshots (often photos of their children, friends, fashions, picnics and tourist scenes) adjacent to the paintings they inspired. Clearly, many of the images are experimental for that era, as the artists explored different ways to see or create their visions.

Ironically, the Eastman Kodak company — whose vintage cameras are featured in the exhibit — was at the heart of the artistic evolution. As that iconic firm faces a deadly decline, it’s impossible to ignore the technology arc that companies and technologies encounter. Kodak’s earliest innovative and commercial juggernaut powered an artistic evolution and, as the exhibit demonstrates, inspired a generation of creators. Whatever happens next at Kodak, the company’s historic impact was formidable.

And then there are the off-shoots: think of them as new lines of business.

On the evening I visited the museum, a special event featured modern interpretations of a “magic lantern” show, the popular entertainment format of the pre-cinema era. Using hybrid projection equipment that they designed, the light-artists presented an enchanting animated 30-minute performance in the museum’s theater. Shadow silhouette figures moved and interacted in a story accompanied by a live musical performance. Again, I kept thinking of how the performers’ Victorian predecessors’ used “old” tools to pave the way for modern moving-image technology.

Confession and disclosure: I was not searching for meaning or century-spanning lessons when I went to the Phillips, although I do enjoy early photography. I am certainly not an art critic and actually was somewhat disappointed with parts of the Phillips exhibit, although I appreciated its scope.

What I did find was “relevance.” The artistic process showed the inspiration of technology. I was struck that the painters (at least most of the ones included in this exhibit) did not seem threatened by technology. They found ways to integrate the new photographic tools into their repertoire. I’m still pondering how that process translates to digital developers, who are opening new doors for content and services. Will they succeed in appealing to and engaging viewers as did the artists of more than a century ago?

Most significantly, the side-by-side pairing of paintings and photos served as an important reality check. They were reminders of the fin de 19ème siècle context, with glimpses of the breakthroughs in industry, engineering and culture taking place at that time. Those changes influenced the creativity of the era, just as social TV, digital commerce and spectrum battles are the backdrop for today’s agenda.

One of my favorite sections of the Phillips exhibit featured Henri Rivière’s photo images and graphic interpretations of the Eiffel Tower construction - a blissful blend of art and contemporaneous technology, portrayed by both the camera and the artist’s hand.

If your next Washington pilgrimage comes before May 6 and you can use a thought-provoking cultural hour, head over to the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle. It’s a way to perceive how creative businesses respond to, even exploit, the changes coming their way - and how it all fits into the big picture.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com  

September