Documentaries and the ‘Real’

My last post was already somehow related to documentaries – Bananas* in this case. For some reasons, I’m thinking a lot about documentaries at the moment (this also has personal reasons but they don’t matter for what I’m thinking about). I came to find documentaries interesting for a lot of different reasons.

First of all, they may not all want to be overtly persuasive or activistic, but they sure want to present ‘reality’ and so they have to persuade you of a certain perspective, a certain framing of an issue. For the time you’re watching a documentary and ideally after that, you’re supposed to accept a certain type of portrayal of the world as real. Which essentially is also what advertising is trying to do, although on a mostly more dull level, with a tiny bit less involvement of everybody involved. (Yes, that’s kind of what I wanted to say.)

Another thing I find interesting about documentaries is that that lots of them have a purpose. Sure, there are loads of artistic documentaries or animal or nature documentaries, but from what I’m now being exposed to, there are loads and loads of activist docs out there. These are films that are supposed to document stuff, but they often have an underlying message, a POV, a call to arms or something similar. Bananas* is an example for such a documentary. It might now want to tell you straight in your face, but after watching it you’re supposed to feel like an arse when you buy Dole Bananas. Same is true for Pipe and Shell. For most food documentaries. And for many more. I think this is interesting from the culture creation POV.

And when you think about it, most feature length docs are produced with production budgets that aren’t that far away from your 45 second TV commercial. 90 minutes of passionate framing of an issue for the price of a TV commercial? Hmm …

Then of course there’s the aesthetic view on docs. I think most of them are really, really beautiful. They have this authentic look and feel while looking absolutely great. Schwarzkopf for example looks totally sharp.

Goodnight Nobody is poetic and beautiful.

Oh, and documentaries have this knock for delivering a triangulation of perspectives. They often cover an issue from an individual view, giving insights into the subjective meaning of whatever issue, but then they also show social interactions around the topic (usually there’s some sort of social object around) as well as presenting an analysis or opinion on it’s cultural implications. And even if they don’t do it, they provide you with lots of cues and inspiration.

That said, I still have to go and watch Abendland:

(Would anybody in the plannersphere join me for SXSW film instead of interactive?)

On “Changing Education Paradigms”

Excellent talk by Sir Ken Robinson.

What I find most interesting is the fact that the system we live in seems to be so institutionalized that it kept working for quite a while, and still does for now, even though we haven’t put a focus on divergent thinking, nope, we even systematically destroy it and the life and openness it brings about. Montaner even goes so far as to say that the social and cultural capital our society has created appears to compensate what is usually measured as “declining intellectual capabilities” – such as reading and maths – among my generation.

Standardization is in high demand for this system. The question is how long it’s going to survive.

The Trouble with “Cultural Mapping”

I recently read an article at contagious (hat tip to Sebastian Garn for sharing) about Amsterdam Worldwide claiming to create better global campaigns because they are using a scientific method of analyzing cultures – which they call Cultural Mapping. That tool they cite is Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which basically says people – or cultures – are different in the dimensions Power Distance; Individualism; Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance.

While I certainly agree that being culturally relevant is important, if not the most important aspect of brand management and communication, I do find a bunch of things interesting in that story.

First of all, it’s not like Amsterdam Worldwide has uncovered an academic secret. This is one of the most cited theories ever. According to Google Scholar he’s been cited 8810 times and from what I’ve been told at the university, even ahead of guys such as Jesus or Karl Marx. I think I heard it alone 5 to 10 times in my bachelor. Of course, it’s not like they are saying they use this model exclusively, but I still find it strange that an agency runs an article about something everybody who ever did an intercultural training has heard of before.

Then of course, using this model – just as any other model – doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s a model to not forget cultural dimensions but I think it’s not that good of an idea to base roundhouse-kick-like generalizations upon it or to expect ground-breaking “insights” from using it. I just think that focusing on a smaller group of people and finding out something interesting about them is more important than matching communication with a top-level insight about what is modeled as mainstream culture. (I always try to keep in mind that there might be bigger differences between Austrian IT-ers and “blue collar” workers than between IT-ers from Austria and Slovakia. And let’s not forget gender issues, age and other stuff.)

Last but not least, the research Hofstede has build his theory upon has been heavily criticized. It’s pretty old and it was done only with IBM employees at the beginning – IT people not exactly being the most representative sample group. Also, for example for Austria it concluded that we have among the lowest power distance score worldwide, meaning

“[…] people expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic. People relate to one another more as equals regardless of formal positions. Subordinates are more comfortable with and demand the right to contribute to and critique the decisions of those in power”.

Power Distance

Now the intersting thing is that this is totally against what Austrian common sense would tell you and what researchers at my university found out, and it can only be interpreted and understood if you spend some time thinking about Austrian history and culture. What this dimension doesn’t tell you is that “Austrians” do like to complain about their bosses, don’t respect them too much and do think that their politicians, doctors, intellectuals and whoever else aren’t any smarter or deserving than “we” are. This, however, is only true if said people aren’t in the room. Once they are present the generalized “we” very much focuses on academic titles and job titles, hierarchies and power. So “Austrias” have a pretty much schizophrenic relationship with authority which my prof reasoned is because of some 1000 years of monarchy and bureaucratic state. “Cultural Mapping” won’t tell you this. And neither will it tell you how second-generation immigrants have appropriated this into their lives.

I like theories and models, I just think one has to be careful using them.

From the category “Things that Austria/Europe should be ashamed of”: ‘Red Cards’ for Asylum Seekers

Red Card

All of you probably know and remember the “Jew Star”, that Jews in National Socialist Germany had to wear for identification. Well, while of course not a measure as drastic as the this – what happend back then shouldn’t be compared lightly and therefore played down – a new action taken by the Austrian Social Democrats and the Conservatives bears some resemblance in spirit with these dark times.

Asylum seekers – transformed into a synonym for reckless criminals by Austria’s biggest newspaper – now have to stay in the refugee camp for five days and are not allowed to do such basic things as to go to a supermarket. (They have, of course, never been allowed to work, to ‘protect‘ the labour market and keep it in the hands of party-dominated chambers and unions. Fear of Eastern and Turkish invasion is still looming in Austria, even though the Turks aren’t even close to being the biggest minority here.) Now as one mayer of a town with one of the two refugee camps, with the daunting number of 80 inmates – can you imagine the hordes? – says, they are “not locked in [to the camp], because they can move freely in the area”. How nice, no cells for now.

Most cynical though is the fact that they can actually leave the camp, but they will be identifiable with a red card so the police can immediately arrest them. This is, by the way, the actual reasoning used to justify this policy. When caught, they are threatened with administrative punishment and detention prior to deportation. All of this was summed up in the newly created German word “Mitwirkungspflicht” (obligation to collaborate).  Sounds nicer than “Internierung” (internment), doesn’t it?

So there it is, the breaking of another taboo in terms of treatment of refugees, another law tightening the grip over people who were not born – and who “we” don’t want – here, another policy mixing the vague and perfectly exploitable concept of “subjective feeling of safety” with immigration and refugee law. Heck, we didn’t even need the right-wing party to do this, the Social Democrats and Conservatives are willfully doing their job.

In light of Roma deportations, drownings in the Mediterranean and deaths at the borders of the Spanish enclaves in North Africa, this is just another sign of what we can expect from an entity devoid of any restriction, one that regards constitutions as as worthless as the piece of paper it was written on (because “fuck it, we are the ones who write it …”).

[T]he modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination. It has been successful in seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory. To this end the state has combined the material means of organization in the hands of its leaders, and it has expropriated all autonomous functionaries of estates who formerly controlled these means in their own right. The state has taken their positions and now stands in the top place.

Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation (Politik als Beruf, 1919)

So let’s just all worry some more about Google Streetview, ok?

(If you are into German you can read more about the new red cards here, here and here.)

Every effort to change the world starts with people asking questions

So was at the Ars Electronica in Linz today, to get exposed to some new thoughts, experiments and visions about what is going on in this world today and I must say I came away pretty impressed. Not only because the venue is spectacular in its own right or because I met Lauren, but because I think there were some projects that were seriously inspiring.

(Now I have to admit – and I somehow can’t help it – that when I say that about art it is in a way “instrumental”. With that I don’t mean a pure sense of functionality, but rather the fact that I can feel some sort of “purpose” in how it relates to my life or issues that I think are relevant. So this doesn’t mean the other stuff is shite, obviously, I’m just officially not well-versed in arts, probably have a biased approach to it anyways and wanted to state this as an intro here.)

That said, one project that I found particularly interesting is “Dropping Knowledge” or the documentary that developed out of it: “PROBLEMA – sometimes the worst enemy is our own perception”.

112 persons from 56 countries convened at the Table of Free Voices in Berlin in 2006 to provide answers to global questions about such things as the economy, ethics, war and nation-states. Now, director Ralf Schmerberg (DE) has made a film out of the resulting 11,200 statements interwoven with footage of some of the defining images of our time. The result is major intellectual marathon.

There are different reasons why I find this very interesting. The first one is obviously the content. Don’t have to discuss this I guess. Another reason is scale. It’s a massive marathon of perspectives, intellectual data points from all kinds of different people from all over the world, answering questions about all kinds of things. This is fascinating and mind-bending on its own.

What really does it for me though is the use of questions. I once had a professor who at the end of a session about cognitive media effects asked students a simple question: if they knew some tool or event or person – I’m not quite sure what it was. Then he counted raised hands. At the beginning of the next session he asked again who knew the the person/tool/event. Percentage raised. “Damage” done. (This is of course simplifying matters as it isn’t persuasion in the strictest sense but only this thing called awareness (recognition, to be strict), but it shows how questions, as a special form of message, can lead to action and investigation into a matter without telling anybody to do anything.)

Now I’m obviously not an expert in socratic philosophy but I’m fascinated by the sheer power questions bring with them (plus I have to be because I need this as an excuse to get on people’s nerves constantly …). They frame issues in a certain way, shifting the perspective and focus. They have a higher chance of “change” or “persuasion” if you wish by the simple fact that we can hardly not think about an answer to it.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going here but it seems to be something as banal as: Well-framed open questions can lead to thinking and discussion which can lead to insight on the side of the one who answers. And an insight one gets on his or her own, instead of having it told from somebody else, is something one doesn’t let go of easily.

Every effort to change the world starts with people asking questions. I like that.

Vienna. Dancing with the Cool Kids.


(What comes now should probably be filed in the category: “Topics that I have no business writing about”, but anyways.)

One of the good things about being away from home is that you have an incentive for getting to know “home” better once you return. Things always change, some more subtle, others more visible and dealing with the whole “coming home” situation makes you more aware of stuff that you wouldn’t even have noticed before leaving. However, when I came home to Austria after my semester in Vancouver, I hardly spent time in Vienna. On the weekends I played tennis for my hometown and during the week I studied for a big exam. Then, in July, I took off to Budapest for three months. The only thing I saw from Vienna during that time was its train station.

So, looking back at the year since I came back, what has changed?

A lot, obviously, but what I think is really amazing to see is how the music scene in Vienna has built some sort of cluster at the edges of laid-back but energetic, raw but sophisticated, oldschool but innovative funkyness – can I get a “Ho!” for that? – and I don’t only mean the tonality of the music. Now of course, there’s always been underground Hip Hop and electronic music (sic!) in Vienna, and I’m most definitely not in a position to educate anybody about that. What comes out of Vienna recently sounds like that:

(It appears that Dorian Concept and The Clonious are only two of that bunch of producers that are pushing Vienna next to LA and Detroit as the hot spot of this intersection of Hip Hop and Electronic music. You know, Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, Hudson Mohawke and all.)

What I find interesting in all this are two things.

First, it seems like it took the opening of a third club right in the same are to ignite that breakthrough on a bigger scale. The “Fluc” had been home to Techno, Dubstep, Drum and Bass, Hip Hop and all kinds of other stuff for some years but it was always a little too alternative for a lot of people. The “Planetarium” right next door had its share of House, Techno, Hip and Hop and other stuff but was always a little too posh for others. So when the “Pratersauna“, a former sauna with outdoor pool and a “legendary” grimy heritage, opened in July 2009, suddenly 3 of the most popular alternative music venues in Vienna were all in a 5 minutes walking distance. And then, in fall, Planetarium and Pratersauna took part in the 5 days minifestival RUN VIE – a week “by the heads, for the heads”, organized by Supercity, one of the important platforms for what I’m writing about here. Sneakerness Vienna – a sneaker fair for the “sole culture” also was happening as part of that thing.

RUN VIE, The Festival 2009, Vienna from supercity on Vimeo.

Now, almost a year later, another collective has formed that will bring Vienna its first electronic “festival”, with Austrian and international acts from Techno, to House, to Dubstep to Hip Hop, in exactly those three locations.

Proximity and momentum. Kind of interesting.

The second thing that I find interesting is the tonality, the look and feel of this ever-more attractive scene. At the intersection of all those genres I left it to you to determine the right words for the sound itsself.

Fluc Wanne Klo


However, apart from the sound I think there is something at the “core” of this scene with its different venues (and it’s not the toilet architecture as you can see). The clubs themselves are of course different from each other.  Of the three clubs, one is under the ground, one is in a real planetarium and one in a former sauna (and/or swinger club). All of them, however, are improvised and minimalistic.

They are raw in the way how they approach interior and sophisticated/rich only in the music they play. All of them are in a district until recently famous only for the Prater, Vienna’s prototypical and stangely-famous entertainment sight, and prositution. So all of the clubs “benefit” from this “dirty” halo of the district and its grimy flair.

All of them are laid back in the sense that there’s no dress code, people from all kinds of backgrounds hang around there and that the whole thing is not taking itsself too seriously yet. They are oldschool in the fact that they are letting the patina survive – both in the sound and the style – and in building and innovating upon that.

And why funky? Well, a week ago I went to another one of the “fresh” venues, Club Morrison. This one’s not in the same area, but it is also in a former brothel and at least as improvised and raw. Ever since, I can’t help but link this whole movement to this movie that I saw in fall at the Viennale:

The patina, the sophisticated rawness, the disco flair, the grimy atmosphere, parts of the sound, the not taking it too seriously…  I can’t help but think of it all as Black Dynamite, remixed Viennese style.

Years ago, when I moved to Vienna, I asked bounce!-records sage Plaq why there were no Grime gigs in Vienna. He answered that Vienna wasn’t raw and tough enough for Grime. Now, years later, we might have found our thing.

(Apart from the fact that I shouldn’t be writing about music – sorry to all you real heads out there-, this posting shows how limiting text is when writing about culture. I’d need way more pictures and video to properly get across what I mean.)

This – too – Is Advertising.

Now I haven’t posted an ad here in a while.

I have to admit that I’ve been a little fed up with advertising recently. Not because I’m surfing on the “advertising is the price that you pay for a bad product” wave. I don’t. Or because I’ve been preaching “social media” on a daily basis only to see people now abandoning their former golden calf. I don’t do that a lot either. Not even because I’ve typed myself silly about the “new customer“, agency models or how innovation is the new black. I think I’ve kept all that to a reasonable minimum.

Rather, it’s been precisely those debates and discussions that have made me a little tired of the bulk of the advertising discourse. Looking at twitter, blogs and AdAge It seems like everybody who’s holding at least a senior planning position in agencies big or small is busy hopping from conference to conference talking about the demise of the industry. Of course, not every stream of that discussion is dull and I’ve learned a lot from reading people who are incredibly smart and generous with their knowledge and experience. I’ll attend a planning barcamp myself this summer. And anyways it’s probably more an outsider perspective than an informed insider view. But still, my impression is: a lot, a lot of talk.

(Disclaimer: The next sentences may come across as a little bit of ass-kissing. And I agree. But then again, credit where credit is due.)

When I talk about exceptions, one of the agencies that has always been impressive in my eyes is – of course – W+K. Yes, they blog. Yes they retweet when their work is mentioned. Yes, they even have an opinion and voice it from time to time. But in general, their planners seem to be more busy (unsuccessfully) helping Labour to win elections than further contributing to the echochamber. Or repeatedly doing awesome stuff. And this is, in my humble opinion, a very good thing.

Now that was a very long prelude for a video. Here it is: Nike “Write The Future”.

This fully integrated campaign, spanning TV, cinema, print, digital, out-of-home and non-traditional executions is the culmination of an 18-month long collaborative effort led by W+K Amsterdam with support from W+K London and W+K Portland. While digital teasers were released on May 15th to build buzz ahead of the campaign, the official unveil is this epic 3-minute film called “Write the Future,” launching online tonight. The global broadcast will debut during the May 22nd European Club Final, a feat that required seven versions and 30 cut-downs to accommodate distribution to major networks in 32 countries.

Put simply: it’s an awe-inspiring peace of film. (Read their full background info here.)

From what can be seen in the admitedly media-biased twitter search people are loving it. They talk about it. And they will implement it in their lives. Heck, the whole set-up with different slices and pieces of film for different culture is brilliant. This is probably what Ehrenberg meant when he wrote about “Advertising as Creative Publicity“. This is what Lannon/Cooper meant when they wrote about humanistic advertising and asked the question “What do people do with ads?” – in 1983. And this – too – is advertising.