Adam Westbrook: Quietly Interrupting the Electric Ecosystem
Go into a book shop, while they still exist, and take a look at the self-help section. There are two main categories of books; those that tell us we can do anything, achieve everything, be anything and those which tell us how to cope with failure.
We try to squeeze as much activity as possible into our day, convincing ourselves that because we’ve saved time somewhere, because we’ve made extra time, we can fit in another 5 tasks, start more projects, do more, achieve more.
The phrase making time for something is a falsehood. Time, is a constant. There are 24hours in each day, there are never going to be any more than that and we cannot make more time. What we can do is use some of our time to expand our minds, by listening to new ideas and developing our own. We need to be making more space for thought.
Adam Westbrook is the talented film maker and journalist who created Delve, a quiet cinema space on the internet, where you can absorb the stories contained within his beautifully simple, surprisingly complex, video essays.
We are delighted to feature Adam’s interview with Redbird as well as his insightful two-part video essay on creativity and the importance of taking (not making) your time.
To enjoy this experience, all that's required is a few minutes of your undivided attention, a clear corner space in your mind.
You describe your website as being a quiet part of the internet, this is a good introduction to your work, which expresses ideas in a clear but contemplative way. Do you think that the internet is noisy with content because we haven’t worked out how best to use it for expression, or because we have so much to express and we haven’t learned how best to present it? Is it the internet or the users which lack clarity?
I think about this idea a lot at the moment. Stepping back a little, we can see that right now we are in the middle of what people call The Social Web. What matters at the moment is how popular you are - how many people share your work. So the people and companies that are successful (Buzzfeed is the prime example) have cleverly worked out how to engineer their content to be shared widely. All the major platforms we use, from Facebook to YouTube, reward people who are popular; everyone dreams of 'going viral'. This inherently changes the dynamic of creation: to be successful on YouTube, for example, you must create a lot, which is why things are so noisy.
The way I see it, this obsession with popularity is a hangover from the 20th century age of mass marketing, which we haven't quite got over yet. I also don't think The Social Web will last forever - ten years perhaps, which means we are already half way through.
So I describe delve as being a quiet part of the Internet because I don't try at all to make my videos popular (and, relatively, they're not!) Instead I try really hard to make them objectively good. This attitude isn't encouraged or rewarded by the Internet at the moment. Who knows what will come after The Social Web, but I hope it is an ecosystem that rewards quality not quantity; that is what I am building delve for.
How do we fix this?
I think in realising that the Internet was not built to create old fashioned celebrities. It was built to allow deeper, more meaningful connections between individuals and small groups. The work of an artist now is to find a small but loyal group of fans who love what they do so much they want to support them. Right now there are fewer than 25 big directors working in Hollywood (mostly white men.) In the future I hope thousands of directors from all backgrounds will be able to express themselves. They won't be Spielberg rich, but they'll be able to earn a living doing what they love.
Your video essays on creativity are a very positive affirmation that to be good at something it’s worth putting the time in. (Ridley Scott didn’t make the Duellists until he was 40, before that the highlight of his career was the bike round Hovis advert.) What inspired you to make this video essay?
This video essay was very personal, I made it almost as a note-to-self. I was fast approaching 30 and had been through a period of feeling like I was drifting behind and that my best days were behind me. Everywhere I looked online there seemed to be people younger and more successful than me. Finally, after a lot of soul searching, I emerged realising that art isn't a one-off act, but a habit. It's a lifestyle, and that the things that matter are the things that are built over many years. But the real point of the those two films is that we live in a world that does not encourage this long game thinking, and that is why I really wanted to make a video essay. I am fascinated by how much of our behaviour is governed by these invisible forces. I am finding it's an idea that appears over again in my videos.
From reading through your online journal, 2013 seems to have been a big year for you in terms of self-acceptance. Can you tell us a bit about what brought you to that point and how you attained a new focus in what you were doing, work wise or otherwise?
2013 was a big year for me. It started when I packed my bags and left my comfortable flat in London and moved to Paris. I wasn't happy with my life and I felt I needed to shake it up. So I moved somewhere where I knew nobody and couldn't speak the language. This opened my mind and eventually my heart and I started to wonder how much I really knew. I didn't make a single video that year; instead I wrote a lot, tried to read more, and went on lots of long walks - Paris is great for that! This departure from the normal routines of life gave me the space I needed to figure out what to do next. The distance also helped me find a patience that I was lacking before. That's the other big message of the Long Game videos: be patient!
What letter / message would you write to your future self?
I'd tell myself to be more generous. If I haven't done it yet, I would encourage myself to take the next big leap into directing fictional stories. Oh and I should probably remind myself to start saving for a pension at some point.
Creative people view the world as a construct and so are able to play about with it, producing work that makes truth more palatable. Can you tell us a bit about your preference for video as a medium to produce palatable truths?
What a great question! I think all motion picture, whether it's on a cinema screen, a TV screen or an online video is ultimately a medium of emotion. You could call it e-motion pictures. You can convey information of course, but video's real power is in making people feel. Although my video essays are set up as educational, I am always trying to give people an emotional experience, maybe feeling inspired about their creative journey, surprised that computers are run on such a simple concept, or maybe even guilty that their habits of consumption hurt the poorest people. On the Internet most video makers use the medium in a very literal way: when they talk about a horse, they show a horse etc; but video is so powerful because it can be abstract and suggestive. You can make people feel an emotion by the use of almost invisible techniques in editing and image selection.
All storytelling, in any medium, when it is done well, is about manipulating the audience's assumptions and ideas. But you do it to help people see a greater truth. And the best truths are emotional ones because they are so complicated and hard to define. I want to tell complicated truths; life isn't simple and I think we do a disservice when we try and package life into self-contained blocks.
Your short story on divorce is a nice demonstration of using technology in storytelling, it’s almost animation. Can you tell us why you picked this subject as a platform?
My only wish is that I could have figured out how to make the animations trigger as the user scrolls. Instead, each fade out is pre-timed - it took hours to write each one!
Your documentary style is reminiscent of Adam Curtis. Who are your biggest influences and what made you want to become a journalist / filmmaker?
I hear the Adam Curtis comparison quite a bit; I really admire his documentaries but he is not a direct influence on me. I was very inspired by the 1970s BBC documentary series Connections presented by James Burke, which I accidentally found on YouTube (sadly the BBC have taken most of them down). That helped me see that history is about the connections between events, not isolated events and people themselves. My creative inspirations are quite varied: I hoover up anything by Alfred Hitchcock or the old soviet montage-theorists, like Dziga Vertov to understand how to convey ideas as visually as possible. The comic book artist Scott McCloud taught me a lot about this too. And the radio programme RadioLab always inspires me to seek creative ways to tell my stories.
If time, space and budget were no objects, what would you like to make a film of?
This is a tough one because actually a lot of my ideas come from these kinds of restrictions. One of the reasons I make these kind of video essays is that they are very cheap to make which means I can experiment more. When I finally get around to directing fiction I will start with an idea based precisely on having time, budget and space restrictions!
That said, I do have one big project in the mind for the future. I'd love to make a documentary about human life as seen from afar, either in time or space, observing us and our behaviour objectively. I hope to get this idea moving in the next few years if I can.
Jim Harrison once said: “The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is: don't do it unless you're willing to give your whole life to it. Red wine and garlic also helps.” What helps you?
I cannot praise the power of long walks and day dreaming enough. Brenda Ueland talks about the importance of 'creative idleness': that our best ideas don't come unless we give our mind the time and space to go for a proper wander. It takes at least two hours for my brain to run through all the obvious stuff and start to think about something original. I have made a long walk part of my routine over the last few years and it really helps.
Sadly, taking the afternoon off to go for a walk is something that our work-obsessed culture frowns upon, but I'd encourage any creative person to make some time for this in their day.
I also agree about the red wine.
Adam Westbrook's two part video essay on creativity, playing the long game: