Listgeeks Feature #5 – Jason Forrest

Jason Forrest is a Berlin-based American electronic musician who also runs two record labels (Nightshifters and Cock Rock Disco) and recently launched a fantastic Web-based television network called, appropriately, Network Awesome.  His new album, “The Everything,” representing a bold move into increasingly less sample-based/mash-up territory from that on his previous full-lengths (including his most recent, “Shamelessly Exciting,” in 2005), was released in Europe on April 15th (Staatsakt), and comes out the first week of May everywhere else. Be sure to check out Jason’s Listgeeks lists after you’ve read the below interview.

Listgeeks: Let’s start with your most recent non-music action: How did Network Awesome come about?  

Jason Forrest: Network Awesome began as a way for me to “get involved with TV.”  I researched and conceived it over a 8 month period last year.  I connected with my partner Greg Sadetsky in late November and 10 days later we had a working version.  Two weeks later we launched the site – that was on Jan 1, 2011.  In many ways Network Awesome is a way to enjoy watching TV again!  So much mainstream media has corroded over time and yet there is so much amazing content that the mainstream seems uninterested in.  Everyday we work our hardest to share what we think is amazing stuff to watch and – oh yeah – Network Awesome is free and you can watch it everywhere in the world.

LG: Which three or four shows/films that you’ve featured so far best embody the concept of the network, from your perspective?

: Last week we had an AMAZING live blues show from West German TV in the mid-60s. The producers placed incredible blues musicians in a train-station-as-stage-set surrounded by a few thousand mod Germans having the time of their lives. Super incredible stuff.  Earlier in that week we had Pete Dev/Null collect this great and very fun collection of early 90s Rave videos.  And we are deeply, deeply obsessed with The Prisoner.  Easily the weirdest TV series ever on air, it set the bar higher than shows like “Lost” could ever get to. It’s totally mod, incredibly well written and just captivating on so many levels.

LG: A recent Pitchfork review (of the Utopia EP) suggested that, on the musical front, you might be moving towards, “something resembling maturity.” Do you think the new album (listen to a stream here) reflects a shift along these lines?

JF: Yeah, I think that Utopia review was actually amazing because the writer really got where I was coming from. “The Everything” is most definitely a more mature version of what I did in the past, but that said, it’s still fun! It took me about 6 years to finally pull it together, and in the process I was inspired by a lot of different things like Morricone and Noise Rock. You can kind of hear a 50s vibe in some of the tracks too. It goes all over the place but still holds together, somehow.

LG: It feels like “Raunchy” kinda meshes your past obsessions with something a little darker, sonically.  How much of the composition of your recent stuff is sampled Vs. self-generated?

JF: Yeah, that’s a great question. Basically I use samples a ton still but the sample size has shrunk over the years. Now, instead of sampling a whole hook or few bars I just sample one note.  It’s allowed me to compose the songs more freely and they shed a bit of context in the process. It’s pretty much just all “me” at this point.

LG: You’re one of those rare people who seems to be able to juggle 4,000 things at the same time: running two record labels, making your own music, playing shows, collaborating on videos, promoting art/music, and now working on your network.  How do you find the time to do so many things so well at once?  Do you think living in Berlin helps to make it all possible?

JF: Yeah, I’m a busy guy for sure!  What I’ve developed over the past two years is more confidence in doing something the first time directly.  For example, I do the design work and a lot of the commercials for Network Awesome, and most of the time I do them very quickly and rely on my gut. I think it’s actually made the work more creative.  I do think Berlin helps in an abstract way. It’s relatively inexpensive and the quality of life here supports creative types in a way that NYC never did. That said, they are just really, really different places.

LG: What are you most excited about in terms of technological development?  Which tools/apps created in the last few years have most inspired your work?

JF: Two years ago I actually made an innovative iPhone music app, which I am still proud of, but I actually have become a bit skeptical of the iOS lately. I think touchscreens are the way to go but the existing iOS and app structure has become too large and restrictive of late.  I’m not that excited by hand-held devices, in fact I use my iPhone less and less. To me content has taken more precedence than technology this past year.  If anything, what I am the MOST excited about is the amazing generosity of people as it relates to technology.  I mean, every second you have millions of people sharing their videos, images, and music online for people to enjoy. While “The Internet” has become many horrible things, it also has become a very giving place, too.

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Listgeeks Feature #4 – Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is an award winning, Berlin-based artist/illustrator with a plethora of high-profile covers and editorial pieces (including for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly) to his credit.  Conveying his ongoing fascination with the sights and sounds of New York City (Niemann lived and worked in NYC from 1997 to 2009) through his Abstract City Blog (which recently became Abstract Sunday), Christoph has delighted and enlightened New York Times readers with his remarkable insight, singular wit and superior illustrating skills on a regular basis since 2008.  His most recently released books include “The Pet Dragon”, a book created to acquaint kids with Chinese characters, and the NYC-centric “I LEGO N.Y.” and “Subway.” His latest children’s book, “That’s How!,” comes out next month.  Christoph’s Web site is the best place to keep up-to-date on his latest projects, and you can also follow him on Twitter.  After you read the interview, check out Christoph’s “Vanilla to Pomegranate” list.

Listgeeks: You’ve recently worked with a very wide range of materials – paint, pencil/paper, legos, fabric, coffee, computers, tile on the NYTimes blog . . .  Is it hard to decide which projects are destined for which materials? Does the material you’re working with frequently lead you into new or unexpected concepts?

Christoph Niemann: Usually I start with the concepts and then think of the appropriate way to execute the ideas. With the 3D objects I have been doing for my blog, there are obviously a few unexpected things that happen, mostly due to my impatience and clumsiness. But since I usually develop the concepts with pencil and paper and only start building the items once the whole project is figured out, there are relatively few surprises.

LG: Your kids seem to have a big impact on your personal work – especially the projects featured on the Abstract City Blog.  Has being a dad changed your approach to illustrating?

CN: Not really. Obviously life with the kids is a pretty rich source for strange mementos that can be abused for my visual essays, but I am very wary of focusing on my kids too much. As a reader, the last thing I want to read about is how interesting or peculiar the life of the author is. I am keen on finding stories that a reader can relate to by finding experiences we all share. As for the Lego series, the kids are less of an inspiration but rather an excuse for me to spend hours each weekend playing with what is still my favorite toy.

LG: How did the Abstract City Blog come about? You started that with the NYTimes in the summer of 2008, right?

CN: Yes, at that point I had been working as an editorial illustrator for about 12 years, which I still consider the most important part of what I do. But I also felt that in order to stay fresh, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and try out projects that were scary and that would involve a greater amount of mistakes and dead ends. It’s not that I don’t mess things up in my editorial work, but after a while one becomes rather smart in avoiding disasters by (more or less consciously) avoiding risk. Coming up with my own stories and relying on handmade art goes so absolutely against my instinct that it seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.

LG: I’m curious about the differences between projects for which you’re required to generate a concept of your own/on your own vs. projects for which there’s a more clearly defined, explicit goal (or something very specific to illustrate).  Do you find one way of working easier than another? Is it sometimes helpful to have restrictions in place?

CN: I am infinitely more comfortable with the restrictions of a normal assignment. Part of it may have to do that I have much more routine with these kind of assignments, but a tight framework gives you a lot of good angles to start. If there are rules you can think about how to break them (or at least get close to breaking them). The self-generated work is much harder, because instead of just creating a solution, you have to create a problem first. And things don’t work out, I am never sure if I didn’t try hard enough with the drawings and the copy, or whether the overall concept is so wrongheaded that failure is inevitable.

LG: Finally, you have a well-documented bond with NYC.  After a few years of being in Berlin, how has your perspective on New York changed? Do you see yourself moving back at some point?

CN: I can absolutely imagine moving back there at some point (probably not before the kids are out of school though). I still go to New York five times a year and enjoy every minute of it. In a perfect world I would split my time 50/50, enjoying the possibilities and creative freedom of Berlin AND taking advantage of the energy, speed and determination that come from living in NY.

Christoph Niemann on Listgeeks
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Listgeeks Feature #3 – Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is a man of intensely varied passions and wide-ranging interests – interests that have morphed and broadened over the course of a distinguished, innovation-obsessed career.  Kevin played an instrumental role in launching Wired Magazine in 1993 (serving as its Executive Editor until January 1999), having worked as the publisher and editor of Whole Earth Review (a “journal of unorthodox technical news” years before countless blogs would claim a similar mission) prior to his time at Wired, from 1984 to 1990.  Often tagged with the “futurist” label, Kevin has authored three groundbreaking books, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Economic and Social Systems (1994), New Rules for the New Economy, (1998) and, most recently, What Technology Wants (2010). Each of these books has increased our understanding of the implications and consequences of technological development in new and different ways.  Among his numerous other areas of interest (a complete bio is posted here) Kevin spends his time on the All Species Foundation (which he co-founded) and the Long Now Foundation (of which he’s a board member) when he’s not curating films (check out, a website which chronicles his interest in “documentary films, educational programs and non-fiction cinema”) or giving a talk, or hanging out with his wife and kids, or losing himself on a long walk in the woods.  Be sure to check out Kevin’s Listgeeks lists, “Favorite Walk-Intensive Destinations,” “Favorite Documentaries,” and “Things I Always Have with Me” after you read our below discussion with him about his latest book, What Technology Wants.

Derick/Listgeeks:  First, allow me to say that I found the book incredibly inspiring – I love the way you managed to merge the story of technology with the story of evolution, and then point out how they’ve always essentially been interwoven parts of the same whole.  I haven’t been able to interact with the countless gadgets/technologies around me in the same way since I put the book down, which I consider a good thing.

Kevin Kelly:  Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

LG:  One of my favorite sentences in the book is on page 215, where you write, “We willingly choose technology, with its great defects and obvious detriments, because we unconsciously calculate its virtues.”  There are obvious (and not-so-obvious) downsides to adopting new technologies, but I certainly feel the “unconscious calculations” you describe when selecting a new technology.  I’m curious about how this plays out with your own process of selecting technologies – are some decisions easier than others? Do you fret over certain choices while others happen almost thoughtlessly/intuitively?

KK:  I generally don’t fret much; that is simply my temperament. There are always costs, and downsides, to our choices. Of course with technological choices the downsides may not yet be visible to us collectively, so we need to keep our eyes open. I am a possibilian. I think if we adopt new possibilities — new technologies — while maintaining as many of the old as we can then we will distribute the risks and keep it easy to modify our behavior if needed. So if kids play video games but still play outside, or read the Kindle and read paper, that’s good. These expanded horizons can only benefit them. Same goes for adults. I think there is something immensely powerful about my ability to video conference from my kitchen and then immediately go hiking in the woods. It is true that sometimes, or maybe even often, a technology we are trying out does not live up to its promise, or solicits more harms than we like. But I have not found it that difficult to abandon technology when this happens. The main thing is to have no regrets about abandoning stuff in our own lives. It is not a moral choice, not a matter of good and evil. It is a compromise. The hardest part is articulating to ourselves what we are trying to optimize our lives for. If we can determine that, then I think we can make the calculated trade offs in the tools we use.

LG:  From my perspective, one of the most fascinating sections of the book is “Mutualism” in the chapter “Technology’s Trajectories.”  You claim (on page 314), that, “For the next 10 to 20 years, the socializing aspects of the technium will be one of its major traits and a major event for our culture.”  As fascinating as the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms has been (especially at the moment, in light of the very recent political developments in Africa and the Middle East), it does feel like we’re literally at the very beginning of realizing the potential of real time, transparent collaboration online.  What types of potential innovations and developments in this area do you find most compelling at the moment?

KK:  I think the potential for mutalism exists in almost everything we can think of. One could take any institution, any device, any process, any verb today, and ask, what would happen if we had 5 brand new ways to do this collectively? For example, I’ve been thinking about reading lately. Reading is mostly done alone by individuals. But what if we shared the texts as we read? We might share the passages we spent the most attention on. Or share our comments and marginalia. What if we coordinated our reading in synchrony, like a real-time book club? What if we could share our underlined (highlighted on the Kindle) passages to particular friends? At particular times, say when they get around to reading it? What if the text of what I am reading is “polished” by others reading it before me, in the way Wikipedia is? What if every book accumulates annotations from every reader, hidden until you ask for them? The possibilities go on and on. We are just at the start of socializing everything.

LG:  You cite health care, throughout the book, as one of the areas most continuously altered by technology as it develops.  Generally speaking, we’ve seen a gradual transition – as a result of improved technologies – from doctors/experts collecting and reporting health-related information to us as individuals to individuals themselves having the ability to monitor their own health, and make their own decisions about what they find.  I wonder if we’ll reach a point where technology will essentially be able to “guarantee” a certain degree of longevity. What’s your take on this typing of thinking?

KK: I do think there is a long-term movement towards decentralized and personalized health care. But I think the complexities of longevity are so huge that I am not expecting technology will ever be able to guarantee it. Whenever life is involved, no guarantees can be made.  If we could make life predictable, farming would be a matter of pushing buttons.

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