Monday, June 1, 2015

Comic Cons, Interactive Art, and the Thought Police

I'm in Washington DC at the moment, visiting siblings and niblings that live up in these parts. [And because I'm traveling, and writing this on my mobile devices, I won't be able to throw links onto the post--but if you are curious to read about any of the things mentioned, they are all pretty easily googled.]

As it happens, a comic con was taking place this same weekend and my brother-in-law kindly gifted me his pass for the final day. So I tagged along with my 16-year-old niece and her friend, then twelve feet into the convention center we promptly parted ways--to save them the indignity of being seen with a middle-aged aunt and save me the indignity of being seen with two teenagers.

Now, I'll first admit fully that I'm spoiled. The first Comic Con I attended was the huge San Diego Comic Con, and I've been to that one several times now. A small one popped up in Vegas, which I attended last year, and I've got a few Sci-Fi cons under my belt too. So Awesome Con sounded like fun, another con in another region to add to my collection of experiences.

The staff was friendly, the vendor tables were plentiful, and there was a nifty kid area on the exhibit floor where artists had volunteered to do variations of art fights and similar activities, like the "Drawbstacle Course" where kids came up and drew random squiggles on large paper that the artists then had to turn into a cartoon character within 90 seconds. Attendees were made up of the same general mix one sees at other cons: excited nerds, whole geek families, and costumes ranging all along the spectrum from ironically awful to pristine and professional. 

One thing I really love about SDCC (the main thing I love, actually) is the array of seminars, panels, and presentations that offer some pointers to professional artists or enlighten the more scholarly nerds and geeks on a philosophical or cultural aspect of comic culture or fandom. Awesome Con had a few (a very few) such talks listed in the schedule, though they were only noted by title and lacked any sort of explanatory paragraph or even names of authors/presenters (in the hard copy program or online, that I could find). But the seminar title "How ComicCons Have Changed How We Interact with Art" sounded promising. I imagined it would be a mix of scholarly and whimsical, and right up my alley--since I consider live caricature to be one of the first and most prolific forms of interactive art there is. 

So I bypassed the Jason Mewes Q&A and headed to room 143B, where I loitered with a few other folks waiting to get in. An older woman in an electric scooter wearing a red AwesomeCon shirt of authority guarded the door, and she asked me if I was the moderator or one of the folks on the panel. I'm not sure if I should be tickled or offended at her assumption, but maybe I should have just answered yes and taken my place at the podium. I think I might have been able to pull it off.

And we would have gotten started on time. Because the actual presenter and panel members were missing for quite a while. At about twenty past, I considered hopping over to hear the rest of Jason Mewes, but another red shirt of authority walked in and explained to us (all twelve of us) that the speaker was on their way. I asked if he knew who the speaker was, hoping that maybe--just maybe--Scott McCloud, Neil Cohn, and Trina Robbins were on their way. The red shirt had no idea. After a few more minutes, in burst a young bearded fellow in a white tee shirt and jean shorts, with a bike messenger bag flopping behind him as he hurried to the microphone. He apologized for keeping us waiting and said his phone had changed the time to 3pm instead of 2pm, so he'd run all the way from his RV, and then spent several more minutes talking about RV life as a bearded young hippie-looking guy travelling the country with his wife and young children. He was particularly keen on sharing stories of police officers who just assumed he was on drugs . . . an opinion which, honestly, I was beginning to share as he talked quickly, sweat rolling down his face, on a topic not at all related to the one he had been scheduled to start half an hour prior. 

Then he (I'll not mention his name) moved on to plugging a Kickstarter project (I'll not mention the project either) that he and his wife were doing, a "reimagining" of a Marvel character--making me wonder how legal it was to raise funds on Kickstarter to publish a story on a lisenced character you don't have the rights to use (or if he got Marvel's permission, I wondered how on earth he did so). After that, he spoke about "living openly and authentically" and how once he accidentally called some short-haired females at a con "guys" then realized his mistake and ran to catch up to them and apologize. He asked the women in the audience, wouldn't they feel offended and sidelined if someone referred to them as "guys"? The two gals he gestured to for an answer both shrugged and said "No, not really." I was staying silent and just seeing where this would go. (For the record, I refer to gals as guys quite often in the chair--it has become a very safe, accepted neutral word: everyone responds well to "How are you guys doing tonight?" But, oddly enough, I have found that saying "How are you tonight, ladies?" to two women can ruffle feathers if one or both are lesbians dressed in a butch, masculine way! I learned that in Tampa).

He continued on this train of thought, talking about the masculine and feminine articles in the French language and railing against the ingrained sexism he detected in a language I'd bet only one or two in the audience spoke, and then about women who attend comic cons, and whether we feel safe and accepted, etc. He then praised what he called "the consent movement" and said that he firmly believed no one should even think a thought about someone else without obtaining that person's consent first. He added for good measure that cons are (or should be) a "judgment-free" zone where everyone can live their fantasies without fear or shame. Oh for crying out loud. 

He seemed to be changing his topic and instead basing his talk on the signs posted outside and around the convention area. 

Because none of this had anything to do with interactive art! And it was painfully clear that this speaker's credentials consisted of an RV, a semester of French, and an as-yet-unfunded kickstarter about a character that was not his intellectual property in the first place. Living authentically, my ass.

So I'm going to do it for him. In a completely opposite way from his line of thinking. 

First, asking for consent before you "think a thought" or take any photo at all stifles artistic expression, appreciation, and documentation, while undermining the experience of interactive art that takes place at a comic con. Sure, use your goddamned common sense and ask permission before you grab Thor's junk through his spandex or shove your GoPro up on Hawkgirl for video of her cleavage. But let's take this guy (or gal--or fuck that shit, I'm calling this person a guy regardless of their gender). 

How fucking cool is that? That, my friend, is the very definition of INTERACTIVE, MOMENTARY ART AT A COMIC CON. The costume is homemade but respectably done, and this person just quietly stood up there for a long while as convention attendees filed through the main hallway below, staring menacingly at them. My niece noticed first, let out a startled "Bwhaaah!" and tugged my shoulder, pointing up. I let out a "Bwhaah!" and grabbed my phone--and I did not ask fucking permission to take a fucking photo because that would have fucking ruined the moment and experience. Sorry, I get potty-mouthed when shared artistic moments are on the line. Right then, for a second, I shared a moment with my niece, her friend, and a silent stranger on the floor above us, a moment that communicated a feeling and drew upon a shared visual language and common admiration for a truly memorable sci-fi monster in a truly memorable sci-fi show (the silent, stone angels in Dr. Who, in case anyone is wondering). 

The notion of getting consent before "thinking thoughts" was even more nutty--and while I hope he was being hyperbolic, he really had sounded completely sincere about that. Can you imagine? Thought police are an Orwellian trope that we will hopefully never have to deal with, ever, except in dystopian sci-fi. Jimmy Carter once admitted in a Playboy interview that he had "looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." He of course caught a lot of flack for that "gaffe," but he was expressing a deeply American sentiment that should have been applauded. He, and you, and I, enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the pursuit of happiness, and so on--but the freedom of thought is really the most basic. It takes place in your head and bothers no one (except the owner of the thoughts, which is you and only you). Every person in the world has the right to lust after anyone they want, any time they want. Thoughts are 100% your own and should be UNBOUNDED, UNBRIDLED, and UNPOLICED. Art results from unrestricted thoughts--creativity dies in an Orwellian landscape. 

If someone acts on a thought, that's where you run into trouble. As grownups (or really, kids beyong the age of reason, whatever age that may be), we need to learn how to think thoughts--or face people expressing their thoughts--and deal with it. There seems an ever-growing effort at shielding people (mostly females, seems like) from offensive thoughts and actions. I'm talking about potentially offensive but not illegal actions here. If you are in a public place, anyone can snap a photo of you, it's legal to do so. If someone wants to compliment your revealing superhero outfit, and your smokin hot superhero body, it's perfectly legal (and often appreciated if done nonthreateningly, with common sense and charm). 

I have been irked of late by examples of overdoing the effort to "protect" women. Protection at one level is good--let's punish rapists, not blame victims, and toss guys out of cons when they put hands on people. Good, yes. But let's not infantilize women as fragile beings who will be traumatized if we are referred to as "guys," or cannot handle someone verbally expressing how hot they find us, or heaven forbid someone thinks thoughts about us without our consent. 

What's this got to do with art? A surprising amount. Just in the past couple of weeks there have been news stories that show how this creeping mindset narrows peoples' ability to tolerate, much less appreciate, some very rich veins of art. In May, a handful of Columbia undergrads claimed that various stories from Greek mythology should contain trigger warnings as they may be difficult to read for "survivors, persons of color, or students from low-income backgrounds." WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK. Greek mythology? To shy away from that art form as "too difficult to process" is to deny vast landscapes of human nature, history, and expression. I was a student from a low-income background, and it offends me to be lumped into this category. If Greek Mythology is too rapey to handle, just wait till you read the Bible. Or any of the classics of literature that comprise Western thought. Or heaven forbid you set foot in an art museum. Bernini's "Rape of Persephone" takes my breath away and moves me deeply, and if the fact that it depicts a fictional aggressive sex act between two mythological figures shuts down the viewer's cognition and ability to appreciate the piece, then I weep for the narrowing of that person's artistic world.

In Connecticut earlier this week, a well-loved AP English teacher with 19 years experience lost his job because he read and discussed an Allen Ginsberg poem that a student had brought to class (these are college-level kids aged 17 and 18). One of the students begged off a test in another class the next day, claiming they could not concentrate because of being exposed to the poem. The teacher's termination letter excoriated him for "placing the emotional health of some students at risk." It made me wonder if the school board members who wrote that termination letter had ever set foot in a high school. If poetry mentioning blow jobs places your emotional health at risk, well, you'd have to avoid every bathroom stall in my old high school. At least Ginsberg's poetry was good enough to start a literary movement, not just kill time while you try to have a movement.

In a piece for Vox published just today (June 3, 2015), Edward Schlosser talks about the fear college professors have of committing "some simple act of indelicacy that's tantamount to physical assault." He quotes a Northwestern University professor about the current atmosphere: "Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." The simplistic knee-jerk notion of social justice has compounded with an academic climate where professors are far more easily dismissed (or simply not rehired): Schlosser mentions one adjunct whose contract was not renewed because students complained he exposed them to "offensive" texts by Edward Said and Mark Twain. As a result, material that might emotionally harm sensitive students is being preemptively pruned from course reading, and those in higher education are backing away from the longstanding mission of challenging students' preconceptions, "rocking the boat," shoving young adults out of their comfort zone in order to help them expand their minds. Instead, we have "a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience." Important issues are ignored, discussions are curtailed, and enlightenment takes a back seat to sensitivity. As Schlosser concludes, "No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress—no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change."

One of the reasons I love the little art history and theory discussions at comic cons is that they are little flashbacks to college for me. And that day, I felt like that nostalgic intellectual exercise was being taken away from me because this creeping mentality--one that can paralyze actual discourse and thwart our perception of actual art--had seeped into room 143B of Awesome Con, where the white male at the presenter table was wasting all our time apologizing for his white maleness instead of presenting some real scholarly material for discussion. 

Instead of gorging on a mentally satisfying panel discussion, I left hungry and spent time subsequently contemplating what sort of interactive art experiences I've had at cons, and which ones worked and which didn't. The  necessary vein of commerce runs through every comic con, and so all of the "professionally created" interactive artistic experiences there are designed to hook you as a consumer; these can range on a spectrum from annoyingly pedestrian to masterfully manipulative. The annoying interactions aren't worth writing about, as you can experience something similar by walking past any time-share sales booth. The more creative ones stick with you though. At SDCC 2013, I came upon a "Machine of Death" promotion offering to accurately predict my cause of death--for free!
The kitschy box-like device was an accessory brought by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki to draw attention to their anthology of short stories, titled "Machine of Death." The machine was manned by a bearded gentleman who explained that the machine needed a drop of blood to predict your death. He took a "blood sample" by "stabbing" your finger with a red sharpie pen, then daubed your ersatz wound with a slip of paper and fed that into the machine. He then
 not-so-subtly made beeping and whirring noises as he slid a card from behind the facade through the machine's front slot to answer your fatal query. My card said "from working too hard" which was surprisingly believeable. My companion, Becky, got a card that said "monkeys." Also probably quite likely. And quite memorable, obviously--here I am writing about it some two years later!

Another interaction that stuck with me happened on Artist's Alley at SDCC that same year or the year before. A young lady sat at her table, the familiar collection of small prints, buttons, and other such marketing detrius scattered in front of her as she scanned the crowds walking by. I lingered for a moment and got a closer look. Her name was E. Guine Thompson, I saw from the display. A small sign next to her button collection said "Free button if you tell me about your scar." I asked her what that was about, and she asked if I had any scars. I showed her the mark in my arm, where a cut had been stitched up back in my childhood. She took out a legal notepad and put a notch under "arm" then asked what had happened. A knife had slipped as I tried to cut a slice of cheese from the top of a block--the most wrong way to cut anything, as I learned. She turned to a different page, scanned over words like "bike," "gun," "swimming pool," and put a notch under "knife." Well, this got me curious.
She was working on a project called "Beautiful Scars," she explained, and had decided to use SDCC as a research opportunity. The book was structured as an old man telling his granddaughter about how he got his scars. Each scar on the old man's body told a story. Thompson said that so far, from the responses she'd gathered, she'd learned trees were far more dangerous than she had thought. I then told her about a friend whose uncle had been killed by a tree: chopping down a large tree can be very dangerous if done the wrong way. Pressures can cause the trunk to explode into deadly splinters and shards unexpectedly. We talked of the lurking evil of trees for a moment, she gave me a button, and we parted ways. I considered it an interactive--even a participatory--artistic experience. And if it was clever grassroots marketing too, it worked. I recall the book title, I feel a tiny bit invested in it, and though I've not yet purchased it, it's on my wish list. 

The non-professional interactive artistic experiences at a convention are of near-infinite variety (see the stone angel photo above); and these experiences can be accidental, momentary, ironic, original, or simply an impressive show of skill. Art begs judgment. Art asks for a reaction, it exists to elicit a reaction. One can even argue that a creation can be judged as "art" on the basis of whether it evokes judgment and commentary. So forbidding judgment and commentary at what is a walking art show seems asenine to me. The notion of a con being some "judgment-free zone" is nonsense. I mean come on, there's costume contests with formalized judging in place! I would have been less irritated if the aforementioned speaker had just said that people at cons tend to be nice, like-minded nerds and won't poke fun at you (to your face anyway) if your costume sucks. But when I stop someone and say "Wow, did you buy that or knit it yourself? Oh that's so nice, great job, I love it!" that's judging. Just, I judge it to be exemplary work. When you stop someone in a homemade costume and ask them if you can get a photo of them (or with them), that's judging too. And people put effort and thought and money into their comic con outfits just for that very reason. If you go to the trouble of making a costume, finding a photo of yourself on an online compilation feels like a gold star, a little bit of recognition from the world. If you are the type of person to get incensed at that and say "But I never gave that person consent to photograph me!" then just stay home, the con is not a place for you.
A trio from "Bob's Burgers" and a Captain America knit vest worn by the maker, both from Awesome Con, and Deadpool being his typical self at SDCC. 

The knitted superhero tributes, the genderbent character costumes, the dumpy guy who has squeezed into a storebought kid's Spiderman costume for comedic effect, the well-planned group effort ensemble costumes, the intricate creations of foam and cardboard: all can be looked at as art, and the moment you interact with the people behind the cosplay, it's interactive art. Deadpool has become the clich├ęd Comic Con jester, with multiple Deadpools populating every con these days, some altered, some genderbent, some with a particular slant or crossover--but most are acting like the jerky clown Deadpool has come to represent, jumping uninvited into other peoples' photos, using sarcastic word bubbles, and quite often acting in a sexualized way that might really traumatize those students who were rattled by Ginsberg's poem or the more agressive stories from Greek mythology. The only time at SDCC you won't see a bunch of roving, pesky Deadpools is during the scheduled Deadpool group photo. 

As this clip from a popular viral gif shows, cosplayers sometimes come together and can create some impromptu art. At Awesome Con, I was admiring a band of heavy-set, punked out Disney princesses when a prim and proper group of very elegant, hoop-skirted Disney princesses walked by. The two groups waved and said hello to each other, which was cute. As I passed the punked princess group, I said "awww, I kinda wanted to see you guys fight them," and the punk Snow White said "Oh my god, we totally should have!" I could tell her gears were turning. There would be a mock princess battle later that day, I was pretty sure. 

And if heavy-set punk Disney princesses fighting elegant ladylike Disney princesses isn't Art with a capital A, then I guess I don't know what art is, ladies and gentlemen. And if I'm lucky to be anywhere nearby when something like that happens, I'm taking photos--WITHOUT getting consent from each and every princess there. Hell, I might just BE one of the princesses. And that, my dears, is how you do interactive art at a Comic Con. 

1 comment:

  1. Discovered your site due to the Skeptical Inquirer article and I just have to post a link to a fave photo I've taken at a local convention - I'm so sad it didn't come out clearer, but I was thinking of this all the way through your post. Great writing, glad to have found your blog!
    (Sorry, would sign in as Kylie S, but I think I've borked the settings).