Grayson Perry, Meaning and Playfulness



Recently every post on here, which now seems to have slowed to a quarterly drip, starts off with an apology  (to myself) for a general apathy toward writing up thoughts that are not directly related to Digital or Planning in some way. This post is no different, and in fact more than 8 months overdue.

At the end of last year, the British Museum hosted what was for the me the exhibition of the 2011 – Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen. Grayson, who seems to effortlessly weave himself between the elitist art circles, the lefty middle classes and the populist media with a grace, agility and honesty that sees him perennially welcomed with open arms wherever he may go, appeared on Channel 4 in a short series exploring class and culture in modern day Britain (digression – which is all pretty important as noted in a post by Russell Davies recently – because as a nation, we’ve become less politically minded and substituted these ideologies and beliefs that were strong in the 60s and 70s with a passion for culture). (another digression – this shift in focus has led to something called soft politics, which is about connecting with people through stories over straight politics – I’m not particulary politically minded, but to me this interesting, largely for the above reasons I would assume). Anyway, Grayson Perry’s crossdressing form reappearing on TV and prompted me to write something about his last exhibition.

As a culture, we are obsessed with meaning and finding meaning hidden deep beneath the layers of veneer and aesthetic. This could never be more true of our industries, and for good reason – we ask meaningful questions of people to set us on the path to creating communications that will resonate with them, because then from the outset we have developed a depth of understanding that allows to get much closer to them as people. Likewise brands are being forced to occupy a much higher order of being, that goes way beyond believing in things and then providing products and services around these beliefs – because people want more now, they want meaningful value to be added back to their lives and those of their communities. The search for meaning is of course an inherent trait of humanity that traces itself back to the birth of civilization and religion.

So, upon entering the exhibition it was refreshing to be greeted with the open line:

‘Do not look too hard for meaning here.

I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.’

And from that point you enter into a story that is both profound and pointless, obscure and obvious, silly, sincere and severe, but most importantly playful, and overtly so. Unlike so much of Art today, what you see is not hidden behind esoteric rhetoric, meaning is not selectively reserved for those who have extensively studied the thinking of Adorno or Walter Benjamin, it’s just kind of there. And it’s funny. Really funny.

The British Museum is an Argos catalogue of the outputs of humanity since the dawn of time. Everything has a neat order, a place in context and a unique number. It is ‘where the world meets the world’ as they say. Grayson has interwoven his Art with this catalogue of the craft of old in a really exciting way. One of the core themes of the exhibition according to him, was to create the means to find oneself among the collections of the BM – ‘seeing oneself,  one’s personal connections as a human being, reflected back in the objects made long ago by fellow men and women with similar, equally human, concerns’ – the craft here is in playfully weaving art into history without over imposing – a fantasy world, deftly overlayed upon the history of a real one.

And it looks a bit like this:

Alan Measles, Grayson’s teddy bear and ‘benign dictator of his childhood imaginary world, where his roles included surrogate father, rebel leader, fighter pilot and undefeated racing driver’, crashing down over Latvia on an urn and in the style and placed next to:

An Iranian painting from the 1500s called ‘The Gardener and the Bear’. In reward for the man’s kindness, the bear seeks to kill a fly on his face with a stone. The inscription reads: ‘A clever enemy is better than a stupid friend.’ (Alan Measles also has his own blog here)

The more you traverse the tapestried walls, souvenirs of pilgramige and shrines, you start to see how cleverly injects modern culture in to ancient artefacts – flags of Alan Measles doling out sensible advice to other religions, reality TV vases, maps of our truths and beliefs featuring chavs and emos – it’s all things that they tell you Art isn’t, in fact it’s far more playful.

Playfulness is pretty important these days. Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus would have as all thinking that we will be using our spare time to collaborate toward achieving a greater good and not passively consuming lean back media, and this to an extent is still very true. But now, people are starting to realise the value of play and unstructured time in a society that has become more goal orientated and always on than before. Play, for reasons spontaneous and serendipitous, is a much greater driver of creativity, imagination and innovation.

According to JWT, we don’t really have that much time for it these days:

I mean, I’ve written this because I feel I need a functional and measurable output for my spare time.

It seems there is a big gap for brands and business to help people play and to encourage them to stop reacting to the flow of a real-time world. The 20% times and hackathons we see are prime examples as to how beneficial play can be if structured correctly.

Anyway, in The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen, Grayson Perry has mastered the playful and un-obtuse and allowed people to look, laugh and think without being consumed by a search for a hidden layer of meaning. I think this quote sums it all up best:

‘Part of my role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, I tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant. Like religion is not a rational process, I use my intuition. Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience.


The Changing Attention Economy

It has become apparent that we are fast approaching an era of information overload. Things have started to get very fast. The speed of information over the past hundred or so years has moved from the pace of a messenger on horseback carrying a letter from town to town, to that of an email – an electron zooming through fibre optic cabling at near the speed of light. And the receptors and points of distribution for this information – smartphones, digital outdoor, connected TVs – have multiplied and burrowed themselves deep into the urban landscape around us, permeating every facet of our lives. Flow and consumption once lived in a state of equilibrium, harmonising with our inner pace, but it seems we have now reached a state of imbalance. Information moves faster, but our capacity for processing it barely waivers.

The accelerative effect of the Social web on the flow of content and data becomes apparent when you take a step back and watch your Twitter feed re-stack itself with an everlasting roll of idle snippets and egregious musings, occasionally punctuated with something of meaning and relevance. We find ourselves in state where we are curating the story of lives just for the benefit of followers, circles and avatar friends. The attention that at one point was devoted and engaged becomes torn and fragmented across the multitude of platforms and channels.

For a long time we bought people’s attention, we used insightful little tools to work out where and how they consumed things and then went into those spaces and shouted about our benefits and relevance to them. Then Social came along, and all of a sudden shouting wasn’t enough, we had to earn their attention. But with the Social came the ability to amplify ad infinitum – to like, to retweet, to republish in set of conditions where space is boundless and reach and scale can be gained with relative ease – we are now only 2.5 connections apart from anyone in the world, apparently. Like a sponge, the accelerations soaked up that pool of attention that we used to freely dip into when we saw fit.

So, we now move to a state where attention becomes the desired commodity. It becomes a scarcity, and as by basic principles of economics, scarcity creates value, and thus attention becomes the luxury item whose value has grown exponentially over the years of Digital Social expansion, and the item whose importance remains un-waivered and central to the success of our business.

What are the implications for us in the new attention scare economy? Just plastering banners all over websites doesn’t deliver the same impact and cut through as previous. Really we need to place a new value on the time spent with brand. I think the below might a good starting point:

1. The Fair Exchange – The parameters of the deal we had with consumers have shifted, it’s not enough to say the advertising makes the content affordable in a system whereby consumers are now content creators. For example, Facebook provide the platform, but we provide the content, yet they draw unfathomably large profits from selling ad space next to something their pen did not ink. There is a need to embrace models that pay back the consumer directly. In New York they are about to start trialling cash machines give the user the option to waiver the banking charge in return for watching an ad. GamesthatGive uses the same mechanic, but rewards those who watch with a charitable donation.

2. Slow down – The fluvial torrent of status updates and tweets needs to be curtailed and governed by a greater understanding of the emotional state of the consumer – when and where can we be relevant and meaningful, when do I apply the frequency cap. Trickle is a great example of how information can be reduced to a drip feed, it simply takes your Twitter stream and display each Tweet one by one in a large font.(It’s also a great example of how a dormant screen can be used to capture secondary attention)

3. Unplug – We will see an increasing number of people creating their own “Digital Downtime” and simply disconnecting from net activities. The pace information is grossly out of sync with our ability to consume it, switching off will become the tool we use to readdress the balance. There will likely be a forthcoming of slew of simpler media that nurtures this desire, Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is good example of how layers can be stripped away to create a more elemental experience.

This shift away from constant connectivity forces us to place a new value on reaching the consumer that demands greater understanding, relevance, creativity and meaning. Much like Web 2.0, when the ability to become a publisher became open to all, the new attention economy has shifted the paradigm yet again, further empowering the consumer. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself” and in this new world, we are becoming very close to losing ourselves.