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Exploring the Role of Creativity

Art: Unconventional-- sometimes even intelligible--repartee marks conference.


SAN FRANCISCO — It takes a certain amount of bravery to organize a conference around a question as ephemeral as the role of creativity in the artistic process. But in San Francisco earlier this month, 3000 people proved willing to pay $45 to $75 apiece to probe this mystery, or at least to hear an odd collection of the chic and famous expound on the meaning of life in the Digital Age.

The conference was officially titled "Imagination," and the imagineers du jour included music producer Brian Eno, film director Spike Lee, performance artist Laurie Anderson, futurist Paul Saffo and Whole Earth Catalog guru Stewart Brand. Appropriately, each had a radically different understanding of the subject matter, and it all made for some unconventional--even inscrutable--repartee.

There was Eno, erstwhile Roxy Music star, predictably clad in black, playing and talking about something called "generative music." These computer-generated compositions draw on their most recent sequence of notes to generate new musical possibilities, and thus one musical piece never sounds the same twice.

"Knowing I'm going to hear the same thing I heard last time has become quite irksome, and it seems to me quite Victorian," Eno said.

There was Anderson, with her trademark spiky hair, working through a "control room" metaphor to explain the dynamics of modern life. In every "Star Trek" episode, she observed, Capt. Kirk loses control of his ship and by episode's end gets it back--and we'll all increasingly identify with this goal.

"Here we are in the late 20th century, and we're designing our own personal control rooms, in our homes and in our offices," she said. In the evenly modulated voice for which she's famous, she'd ask periodically during her talk, "Have you lost your dog?"

It was left to Lee, veritably the outlander from New York at this oh-so-San-Francisco gathering, to cut through the future-speak with a little street sense. After regaling the audience with the tale of how he retained "final cut" on his lengthy film "Malcolm X," he pronounced, "Hey, with creativity, either you got it or you don't."

That was tough talk for the touchy-feely, and Eno and Anderson made efforts to defend the New Age belief that anyone--perhaps with a little help from technology--can be creative.

"I'm not saying that if you don't have creativity you should go slit your throat," Lee later allowed. "You can always become an accountant for a major Hollywood studio."

Brand was left with the unenviable task of attempting to find a common thread in the evening's discussion: So, he posited, this is all about control. Lee had to deal with "final cut"; Anderson spoke of the control room; Eno favored generative systems with no rigid structure, where "out of control" things just happen. So what is it about control? Is there a thread there, Brand asked?

No one really seemed quite sure. The crowd of would-be digerati appeared suitably enamored and amused; it was a show, after all, and they even got to see a special reel of high-tech special effects courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic. Whether it had anything to do with imagination was another matter.

Freelance writer Paolo Pontoniere can be reached via e-mail at

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