Part 1 – ’Gram it Baby, ’Gram it Now

A conversation by Alessandro Minnino & Stefano Mirti, August 2015

Once every couple of months, we have the chance to spend few days at Akademie Schloss Solitude. We go to the Swabian woods because we are helping the people there to re-adjust a number of things related to new and social media. When the Akademie started its activities (1989), the Internet wasn’t there. And Germany … it was a very different country than today.
A lot of things have happened since then.

To us, it is a very fascinating task. How to navigate a well established institution into new dimensions in the field of social media. High and low. Digital and analog. Elite and pop. Selected few and Facebook masses. And a lot of other curious paradoxes.

Here we go …

A.: Stefano, how did you get from architecture to social media?

S.: It’s quite simple, throughout my (working) life I’ve been doing two things: projects and teaching. I teach young people. Hence, there was this moment that I felt I wasn’t able to communicate anymore with my students.

If I can’t communicate, it’s easier for me to learn the other people’s language than to force them to learn mine. This is how I’ve got into social media.

I know about social media because I needed to talk to young people.
If I was in charge of elderly houses, I would have never considered learning how to tweet or how to use Instagram.

A.: I know you’ve been working a lot on these themes (how to use new and social media in an educational environment). Can you share some links?

S.: Yes indeed. We started in 2011 with Design Royale. Then in 2012, we started the WhoamI activities together with Abadir Fine Art Academy. The first videoclip for Design 101 was in spring 2013, and from there we did a lot of activities with Iversity in Berlin: Design 101 and Architecture 101 MOOC (some more to come in the near future).

And you? How do you go from a fancy business school to social media? Normally a good student graduating from Bocconi in Milan would go to work for Accenture or some global corporation. Not so many open up their own business/enterprise. Even less set up a business called Gummy Industries

A.: I’ve always been passionate in bottom up communication (I’ve been writing and dealing with graffiti for 20 years) and I’ve loved the Internet since the early ’90s. When I graduated in 2003, there was no Facebook and no Twitter.

I tried working for big companies but I realized that my personality doesn’t get along very well in traditional corporate culture. So I had to start a business from scratch, and I thought that working with internet and communication fitted perfectly to my interests.

S.: And how does it work: a life doing business across the Internet to the latest apps?

A.: Social media are a good business tool at the moment, but they are very difficult to understand for companies. We come from centuries of top down communication: companies never had to listen to their customers. They just had to speak.

S.: This seems an interesting thread to me. Can you explain it better? What does it mean to shift from »speaking« to »listening?«

A.: For them (companies), it has been a huge leap: being naked in front of customers and being forced to address most questions directly. At the beginning, most companies wanted to know »what if they criticize us?«

Social media have the power to lower giant corporations to the level of human people.

Some of them are able to conversate, some aren’t. Some brands just gather a community without any special effort. People continuously talk about products and brands, post pictures, and so on.

So, big companies are now looking for help in understanding the continuous streams of conversation about them. They want to understand what to do with it.

S.: Cool. And here we are. Myself with various tools and attitudes useful for reshaping the idea of school (or, if you prefer, how to communicate between different generations). You with the experience on how to overlap business and contemporary culture. How do we apply this curious (and questionable) knowledge to an institution like Akademie Schloss Solitude?

A.: Akademie Schloss Solitude is a very strong brand.

S.: This is already a very interesting way to start …

A.: Yes: artists and smart people in the cultural field know it. And the internet is interesting for artists in a couple of ways. First, as a communication medium, as it’s very efficient for talking to a very broad and disseminated audience. Second, as a way to enforce existing networks and connections. Social media can be very good to keep relationships strong, for instance between fellows and former fellows. Of course, there is the third point (the most important one): Internet, the web, and online communities could become an art medium in themselves.

S.: I see. A simple question and a lot of things pop up. You work at the crossover between communication and marketing, hence it is fascinating to get your definition of Schloss Solitude (a very strong brand).

A.: Even more interesting if you consider that the Akademie is a place where the average fellow is in their twenties/thirties. Technically speaking people like me would define them as »millennials« …

S.: Akademie Schloss Solitude as a strong brand filled with millennials. I love it. Please, go on …

A.: A strong brand. For millennials as well as their elder brothers, sisters, and parents. But let’s keep our attention on the millennials. They have some very interesting ways of using the Internet. These days, Facebook groups are replacing blogs when it comes to art inspiration.

And new ways of social relationship and networking are taking the lead everywhere.

S.: Can you give us some examples?

A.: Live streaming of video content is a very good example: think of apps like Meerkat and Periscope. They are getting everywhere, and people stream parts of their entire life. (Not entirely new to artists: Eva and Franco Mattes staged a performance with a suicide on Chatroulette in 2010).

Think about cinema. We know the traditional boundaries. There are those people who make movies and documentaries. We have avant-garde and experimental cinema. A lot of artists use moving images as their preferred medium. Then we have video-clips, television, and so on.
Nowadays, YouTube is getting bigger every day: young people transform themselves into YouTube-stars, reaching millions of people daily. Tyler Oakley, a 26 year old youtuber, is reaching 700,000 people with every video he releases – which he does every week. He talks quickly, with a special language, hard-to-catch references. Most importantly, it’s not a monologue: he addresses most of the requests and questions from his public directly on video. Has this ever happened before?

YouTube addresses the world of moving images. But the same is happening in design, in literature, visual arts, and politics.

From here on a lot of questions follow (and very few certainties):

Is it meaningful to understand and use the tools of contemporary communication?
For a well established institution, is it important to address and use them?
If you decide to use them, how should you use them?

Do these new media have a peculiar and/or special link to talented and smart millennials (if you prefer: the younger generations)?
Is the use of these media coherent with the goals of the institution?

Finally in accepting this challenge, what does an institution gain and/or lose?
Is it worth it?

S.: Here we are. A lot of interesting questions. Difficult to answer in a black and white manner. Potentially controversial.
Schloss attracts great fellows belonging to well established categories.

If Schloss Solitude wants to zoom out, reaching some other great minds, it has to practice all kinds of communication. Including the new forms (digital, social, etc.).
Of course, the big question is quite clear: should we (Akademie Schloss Solitude) zoom out?
Is there a value in zooming out?

A.: I think so. I like to have a broader view, and this process carries with it various consequences.

S.: Well, Schloss Solitude deals with contemporary culture and it has a good communication system, where we can find traditional and new media (website, social account, etc.).
Oddly enough, those new media are used as communication tools, while they could be used as tools of cultural production per se.

If the institution wants to deal with contemporary culture at 360 degrees, these questions and issues are fairly relevant. Where are the software developers? And the web-designers? Can we have pixels next to paper, metal, and wood?

If we bring the pixels in, what happens to the metal, paper, and wood? Do they remain the same or do they change?

A.: What are your answers?

S.: I don’t think that the answers are relevant. For the time being, it is quite important to ask these new questions.
The institution could adjust and change some of its core values and goals. Is this correct? We mentioned it before, but it is useful to repeat it.

If we bring the pixels (as a tool of cultural production) in, where would it take the institution?
What do we gain – and what do we lose – in these changes?

Finally, we shouldn’t hide that as soon as you add these new »tools,« they tend to blow up everything else. Don’t they?

A.: Well, for the good and for the bad, yes they do.
It is their nature.
Some phenomena have a bright side and a dark side.
Here, it is mostly dark. A lot of questions on a sociological and theoretical level.

S.: But this »dark side« is the reason why we like them so much, isn’t it?

A.: Yes, of course. Dark matter is one of the main nourishment of culture. But we shouldn’t forget to address a certain number of given dynamics.

To be more precise: social and new media tend to blow everything from the inside out.
If an organisation, a company, or an institution wants to truly use this conversational media, they have to address a number of internal issues.

It’s a huge change and shift. In terms of hierarchies, tacit and explicit knowledge, and privacy. Information silos. Internet culture.

S.: I like the potential disruption of this shift. Please, go on …

A.: You can’t be on Twitter if your staff isn’t always on it.
You can’t be on Facebook or Instagram if your top people don’t use them.
You can’t do live streaming if people are not comfortable without their privacy.
You can’t answer random questions from the net if you don’t know quickly where to find answers in your organization.

The organization has to answer. 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Only this, it’s a huge paradigm shift.

S.: As I said, I love paradigm shifts. Because they are like revolutions. Mao Zedong would have said that paradigm shifts are not a dinner party. If you ask people: shall we change, shall we innovate, shall we go through a paradigm shift … a lot of the people would say yes. Why not?

The fascinating bit is that if you implement these changes and shifts, most of the same (happy) people could lose their role, their meaning, their value.

A.: I think you might be too radical. What you are describing is a possible outcome, not a given outcome. Furthermore, these changes don’t have to happen overnight. You can organize a proper process.

For instance, do you think this process you are talking about is related to the new online platform, which Akademie will launch soon, or to new ways of storytelling?

S.: Not necessarily. It depends on multiple factors. It’s about the Schloss community, the Solitude network. The new online platform, the blog, the different social networks, and the new fellowships are just tools, elements of a much broader transformation.

For the time being, Schloss is mostly a physical phenomenon, based on a human network.

By using internet properly, we could start making the fellows and their projects more visible, to connect and re-connect the whole network in new ways not yet seen (at least in the Akademie) before, to make the network visible and tangible.

Then of course you can push more, and make the shift more powerful, reaching the potential levels of implosion.
But to ask ourselves what »change« implies is per se a proper question.

To ask this question in a public way, in an open article where everyone can comment and take part in the conversation, is already the paradigm shift in action.
In previous worlds, where the Institution is heading is a decision taken by few people in a closed room. To address the question here, is quite a change.

A.: A change, a paradigm shift … I see where the whole thing is going … are you fastening your seat belts?

S.: Always fastened (my seat belts are)!

(to be continued)