Antoine O Flatharta is – in my opinion – one of the greatest, and most under-acknowledged Irish playwrights. He is the only one whose plays I would go to see again and again (five times in the case of Silverlands). He wrote a beautiful play for TEAM many years ago called Dreamwalker. I won’t go into the details of the plot but at the end the protagonist gives this great speech about what he learned living with a tribe. The tribe believed that the borders of their land marked the end of the world. They would elect (or select, I can’t remember which) a person to walk beyond the borders into the non world. Their job was to travel the non world and dream the dreams of the tribe. On their return they would share the stories of their dream travels, describing what lay beyond the borders of the known. In doing this the dreams were made real, and the borders of the tribe, the borders of the known world expanded. These people were called Dream walkers. It fascinates me how much of the hard, rational language of business is built on mythic stories just like this.
There’s a concept in business (especially in the entrepreneurial space) called Boundary Scanning. Business leaders and entrepreneurs are encouraged to engage in this on a regular basis. It used to be called Environmental Scanning but “Boundary Scanning” has a more poetic, almost heroic tone. Its part continual learning – just keeping on top of the industry news and developments – but it’s also standing and staring out the office window. Dreaming. It’s Stanislavski’s “Magic If” played out in the executive suite and in the start-up garage.
Boundary Scanning is about looking beyond what you know to try to see what’s coming down the track. It’s about seeing connections between seemingly unrelated ideas (as Johnson defined the metaphysical conceit in the 18th century: “opposing ideas yoked by violence together). It’s about understanding that if you don’t keep dreaming the reality of the world beyond what you know will suddenly overwhelm you.
It’s a strange thing that the culture industries – a community built on dreams and imagination – does not seem to prize this practice. We do plays and we tour them? Why? We paint and hang pictures in galleries? Why? We write in the hope that someone will publish us? Why. We assume that what we do is important? Why? Who told us all this stuff. What story is it a part of? Are these the only way to tell stories? The only way to share experiences? And does that story make sense at this point in time? The rising cost of production in the performing arts set against the inevitable decline in revenue was predicted in the early 60s by Baumol but what did we do? The impact of digital technology on creative practice and customer behaviour was predicted almost 30 years ago. What did we do?
There’s a painter in the US who creates an oil painting every day and posts it on her website. Every painting can be bid for on Ebay and some go for considerable sums of money. There’s a TIE company in New York who film Shakespeare plays in 15 minute installments on location in New York and make them freely available to Schools on YouTube. The revenue model kicks in when the school looks for the workshop and the teaching support material. There are actors across the world recording books in their home studio and selling them internationally, there are novelists slowly building an audience by releasing their work free, on-line in Dickensian installments, because they understand the wealth and the value is in the size of the community they can build. There are co-creation initiatives, virtual galleries and plays, operas and exhibitions in cinemas. All of this was written about and thought about more than 20 years ago. (most famously collated in Negroponte’s 1995 book Being Digital). What did we do? What part of our policy or infrastructure was set up for this?
What these initiatives all understand is that, pre-digital, the cultural audience was local (printing was the one exception). If your work only appealed to a small number of people, of knowledgeable enthusiasts or “early adopters:, in your local town then you would probably get a job, throw in the towel or starve. In the digital world you can still appeal to a small number of people, but a small number in thousands of different locations. And all those small numbers can add up to a community capable of sustaining you.
Culturally we have a very strange relationship with digital. I’ve had conversations with leaders in our arts community who cannot countenance that the digital revolution has forever altered the relationship between artists and audience and has created new art forms in its own right. I’ve had meetings with people responsible for industrial development and state investment who see value only in functionality, only in the stuff, the machine, the app, not in the play of ideas behind it.
Brecht remarked in one of his essays that the emergence of the oil industry would create relationships between people, culture and nations never before seen. The oil did not do this. The idea behind it did. (Petroleum, he said, resists the five act form).
At the end of the day stuff is just stuff. The real power is in the idea, in the Dream.