Project 32

Here’s my idea for the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship program that may expand on the Engine 28 model, more or less in the New Forms of Story-telling category:

The Pop-Up (Auto)Biography

The usefulness of a pop-up newsroom to cover breaking arts events event is, I think, evident. The Engine 28 experiment seems to have been a success and I may have shared some of the same experiences with the Times-Picayune’s annual exhaustive (and exhausting) on-site coverage of The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

What if the same pop-up model were applied to a single biographical subject. For instance, could a pop-up newsroom be assembled to produce an on-line biography of, say, David Hockney, Ed Rushka, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne or whomever? Imagine a team of skilled arts journalists reporting on the life of an arts subject in a short, prescribed period of time from multiple perspectives. Though it would certainly be possible to do such reporting without the subjects’ approval, it would be a much swifter and simpler project with the subject’s aid.

As I see it, we’d conduct a series of brief interviews with the subject over time, allowing each journalist to bring his or her expertise and point of view to an aspect of the subject’s life or career. We’d range out into the community in person or by phone to produce very short video, audio and written interviews with subjects from museum curators to the artist’s colleagues and friends (perhaps because I grew up in the radio era, I believe that most online media should be delivered in no more than 3 minutes bites). We’d seek out past reviews, essays, historic documents and photo documentation and figure out how to deliver it online.

We’d produce and post the pop-up biography piece at a time, in (at least) daily demi-chapters, re-delivered via social media, allowing reader/viewer comments to add to the text and enliven the procedure. The subject could interact; answering questions and debating criticism. We’d build a sort of mosaic of facts and opinions. For good or ill, it would be more impressionistic that a typical long-term book store biography. It would be a sort of pointillist approach in which the image of the subject would emerge from the blur. We’d make up the rules as we went. The making of the high-speed biography would be part of the story. With luck and the right subject, it could be an entertaining art media product, even important maybe.

The identity of the subject doesn’t matter to me as much as the nature of the experiment. The bigger the art star, the bigger the audience, of course. But a superstar may not be necessary. As I’ve discussed the idea with friends, I’ve used the artist/comedian/musician/actor Martin Mull as my test subject. With a background in art and experimental television, Mull might enjoy the avant-garde activity. Since his career includes success in multiple disciplines, he’s a good vehicle to accommodate the various beats of the journalists involved. Finally, since he’s made a career of self-effacing humor, he could add his own wry tone to the project. A make-it-up-as-you-go Martin Mull biography sounds like an oddly credible experiment to me.

Here’s the thing. I know no more about Martin Mull than what you can read on Wikipedia. I don’t even know if he lives in Los Angeles. He’s just my argument model; my variable. I’m open to any suggested subject. Is there a major retrospective of someone underway this fall? Some major project ready to be revealed? Some scandal? Some call for a pop-up biography.

I’ve discussed the idea with two or three online savvy colleagues. One questioned the need to address the biography in a quick-paced multiple-perspective pop-up mode. A good point. Perhaps the perfect subject or circumstances would quell that concern.

Another colleague accepted the idea of a biography of an incidental subject (Martin Mull), but he suggested the idea emphasize the cultural context as much as the subject. In other words, what produced Martin Mull and what did Martin Mull produce?

My own misgiving is that the idea is a bit stodgy. I fear I’m shoe-horning a traditional mode – the (auto) biography – into a new media. Maybe there’s no need. But the idea intrigues me. I’ve never seen an online interactive biography. It’s something I’ve toyed with trying myself.