Crushed in the scrum behind the sound board at Madison Square Garden, wreathed in smoke (theatrical and otherwise), in the muddle of Kanye West’s epic album launch cum fashion show — an engineered spectacle that managed to interweave multiple pop culture narratives (Balmain-clad Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Taylor Swift feud, Lamar Odom recovery, Fuck Nike) with high fashion royalty (Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld, Olivier Rousteing), random superstars (50 Cent, Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid), and high-concept performance art (Vanessa Beecroft’s refugee camp-inspired mise en scene), all into one mindboggling agglomeration — I had an epiphany. And like any good epiphany, mine came punctuated by a bell.
About 20 minutes into the musical portion of Yeezy Season 3, as West previewed his new album, The Life of Pablo, a familiar Macintosh alert chime blasted through the massive PA system. At first it seemed like a random sound effect, but then it was clear: All 18,000-plus of us crammed into every inch of the arena — many paying hundreds of dollars for the honor — were listening to a guy play us some songs from his laptop … and he just got an e-mail.
The seemingly unplanned ping lent an unexpected air of intimacy to the experience — as intimate as any event can be when it’s breaking Instagram and the New York Times covers it live on its home page — and underscored the ad hoc quality Beecroft set up with her ragged, tarpaulin-draped sets. West had gathered his friends together to casually share his latest work in progress, with a decided emphasis on “in progress.”
For months leading up to the event, the artist had opened up his frenetic process through a stream of Twitter postings, public appearances, pronouncements, feuds, tentative titles, playlists, cover art, and bootleg tracks. Collaborators were announced and reshuffled. Entire songs were floated, discarded, and reworked. The final download was delayed, canceled, then offered in multiple iterations. Tickets for the event were announced online, then disappeared entirely, then suddenly went on sale three days in advance.
Although it’s easy to dismiss this as (a) genius marketing or (b) massive disorganization, by revealing the multitude of radical revisions and minuscule tweaks that go into crafting each work, West draws his fans (and critics) into his creative process and rewards close, multiple listens while reinforcing his reputation as a hyperperfectionist craftsman. The blur of information and process surrounding the release of The Life of Pablo also suggests a shift in the focus from finished object to something more ephemeral: a designed relationship.
It was purely coincidental — I think; you never know these days — that as West was arranging and rearranging the dizzying array of elements that would become the morphing coherence of The Life of Pablo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was putting the final touches on its own exegesis on the subject of the “non finito.” Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, the inaugural exhibition of the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art outpost dedicated to modern and contemporary art, opened a few weeks after Yeezy Season 3 but could have easily been the setup for it. The Unfinished show includes seven centuries of art historical examples — partially completed paintings, discarded sketches, rough studies, and intentionally discontinued works — to offer glimpses into artistic process and question the notion that art can really ever be done. The exhibition, notes Met curator Sheena Wagstaff, “throws into sharp focus the ongoing concern of artists about the ‘finishedness’ of their work, which, in the 20th century, they co-opt as a radical tool that changes our understanding of modernism.”
The Unfinished exhibition proposes that unfinishedness in itself is a disrupter. Incompletion opens a work and reveals the always questing creative mind, befuddling our desire for simple endings. As artists, writers, and designers, we can work to disguise the fact that our work is never really done, or as West does, co-opt it as a “radical tool that changes our understanding.”
That link between incompletion and disruption is at the heart of a widely circulated presentation by Kleiner Perkins partner, and ex-RISD president, John Maeda titled “#DesignInTech Report 2016.” On slide 14, Maeda draws a sharp distinction between what he calls Classical Design and #DesignInTech — read that: old fashion designers vs. those that code. He compares the two pursuits on four metrics: the number of people they reach, the time it takes to complete their work, the possibility of a perfectly finished outcome, and their relative level of confidence. Maeda imagines the classical designer as one for whom the attainment of a perfectly finished state is the goal, while the #DesignInTech lives only for the next iteration and for whom the product is “always evolving”. Further he imagines the Classical Designer’s level of confidence is “Absolute, and Self validating” — he must know different designers than I do — while the #DesignInTech’s is “Generally high but open to analyzing testing/research.”
Using Maeda’s definition, West would easily qualify for #DesignInTech status. He reaches hundreds of millions, his work is delivered over the Net, he’s constantly evolving, and he’s open to real-time feedback. But then again, doesn’t that describe the state of contemporary design in general? Perhaps what Maeda misunderstands is that classical design is fast disappearing, if it ever really existed, and the iterative nature so emblematic in tech has worked its way into everything we do. The average life span of a contemporary building is not millennia but something short of 70 years, during which time it will be repurposed over and over again. No responsible designer can create a product without at least some planning for its ultimate demise and recomposition. And if we have learned anything about designing a brand, it’s that the work is never done but instead is a constant, iterative battle for relevance and currency.
What West so vividly demonstrates is that fixity is one of the casualties of our current moment. The unfinished is inherently destabilizing. It makes us — the audience, consumer, listener, reader, whatever — question our own role in the notion of completion. And maybe finishing itself is antithetical to creativity. On the wall of the Met Breuer, the Pablo is quoted: “To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul.” In the end, maybe that bell wasn’t an epiphany after all; maybe it was just a high-tech death knell for something we used to call closure.
Published in Bloomberg
© Michael Rock