Over the past few weeks I've been helping out some friends of ours with a website they've been remaking, and I've waited to write about their project until the site went live. But this is not about their site (which is a perfectly nice site, designed by the fine folks at Fuzzco): This is about creative people who are redrawing the lines between art and journalism and activism and commerce.
Her name is Farrah Hoffmire. His name is Mitchell Davis. They both grew up in Summerville, both graduated from C of C. She started off to be a mental health counselor but became an artist. He started off as a musician but became one of the founders of BookSurge.com, one of those magnificent little software-commerce marriages that's just so smart it practically squeaks when you rub up against it. When BookSurge sold to Amazon a couple years ago, Farrah and Mitchell moved to Seattle to help integrate their company into the mega-bookseller's operations. And while they were out there, Farrah decided to learn to make films. That was the spring and early summer of 2005.
In late August of that year, Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and swamped New Orleans. A few weeks later, Farrah packed up her camcorder and headed to the Delta, where she began recording her own personal history of the aftermath of the storm.
That tape became the first two vignettes of Falling Together in New Orleans, which is on the one hand a standard (though non-traditionally structured) documentary, and on the other hand represents something that they like to call solo journalism.
When I first encountered it at the Lake Edens Arts Festival in May, I was confused and charmed by the film. I come from a background in traditional journalistic storytelling, a shock-and-awe blitzkrieg of facts and emotion and always relevance, relevance, relevance, stories that are constantly -- and sometimes annoyingly -- justifying their existence -- to editors, to readers, to publishers, to critics, to advertisers. Yet here was a film with an enormous heart that did absolutely none of those things -- and what's more, never seemed to consider that justifying itself was even a concern. And I thought to myself: This is what journalism looks like when it's done with an artistic sensibility. What is its justification? That it wanted to be made.
And that, in a sense, says a lot about Farrah. She's a profoundly calm person, at least in my experience of her, a yoga teacher with an easy, open smile. She gave me a DVD at Black Mountain and as I watched it on my computer at home I thought, "If I were the one holding the camera, these people wouldn't open up to me this way." They would sense my darkness and doubt, my ingrained, judgmental, third-person-objective POV. But here -- without editors like me mediating her, or instructing her, or "correcting" her -- was a woman who got people to respond to her. And the result was a patient, understanding... dare-I-say loving portrayal of people who look very different through the probing, invasive lens of pro-jo media.
The camera is the same camera. The platform, the same. And yet this was clearly a different medium than the one that I knew, with different values, different goals, different expectations about its audience. It was patient and low-key in a way that pro media is never patient or low-key. It let people talk, because that's what Farrah does: She lets you talk, and after the conversation you realize that's she's drawn you out in this compassionate, interested way. It's entirely effective, yet her chops are not a traditional reporter's.
Farrah founded a company called Organic Process Productions, LLC. These days Mitchell is the driving force of OPP as a company, which makes for an interesting mix of creative styles: Farrah has the relaxed, Zen-like qualities of the visual artist; Mitchell is a musician turned tech/media entrepreneur, a performer for whom one idea segues into another rapidly, sometimes so rapidly that a third idea gets introduced before the listener has traversed the first shift, a man who sees the world changing and knows where some of the knobs and dials are located. Farrah is making art and content; right now, Mitchell is making cognitive leaps and associations, exploring not only the spiritual soul of the OPP machine, but also tinkering with its engine: A new economic relationship between artist and audience, something so tenuous and promising that one dare not call it a business model.
Mitchell calls OPP a "for-profit social venture," a concept based on the idea that there is nothing wrong with profiting off the exchange of something valuable, even if the topic deals with issues that we've traditionally cordoned off as "charity." He's looking for ways to connect artists to audiences and audiences to art, and the problem with doing all these things on a non-profit basis is that the art becomes hostage to all the problems of non-profits: bureaucracy, politics, lack of nimbleness, church-mouse poverty, etc.
But what about profit? As he puts it, "We didn't invent the word 'profit' -- we inherited it, along with all its imputed and contextual meanings." But what's the alternative? When you probe him on it, in that distinctly journalistic way of probing, his answers are sometimes too vague for the this-or-that materialism of the business press. And yet... when you really listen, you can hear the sound of someone from the business side of things who is wrangling with many of the same questions we've touched upon at ConvergeSouth, PressThink and other venues. To wit: How do we make new media sustainable?
Because let's face it: Traditional media have entered the final months of their pre-transformative life cycle, and we still don't have a clear picture of what the news media is going to look like on the other side of the abyss. We still don't have a working business model. We still can't answer the question: How are we going to pay for all of this?
I'd be talking out of turn if I wrote about some of Mitchell and Farrah's answers to that question, but browse the OPP site and you'll get a sense of some of the possibilities in play: books, documentaries, events; artists, patrons, fan-boys, producers, investors, geeks, corporations. They don't have answers yet, but they're asking the right questions, testing ideas and moving toward answers. And they're not wasting any time with pointless departmental meetings, office politics and artificially ossified budgets, I can tell you that.
Tomorrow they'll be putting on one of their events at The College of Charleston's Tate Center (5 Liberty St.): An exhibit of Katrina-related multimedia art during the day, followed by a screening of Falling Together in New Orleans and a new-media discussion.
Personally, I'm just so glad to see this kind of thing coming out of Charleston -- hell, out of my own neighborhood -- that I'm really looking forward to it. Who knows what will come of it all? But I think we all know, now, that all over this country, something is in fact coming.
Images: Organic Process