The ‘Chief Executive Artist Bundle,’ from filmmaker Ondi Timoner, features three short documentaries that highlight the following powerhouse artists: world-renowned graphic artist, Shepard Fairey; musician and Kickstarter record-breaker, Amanda Palmer; and comedian and actor, Russell Brand.
Ondi Timoner is an award-winning filmmaker, and the founder of A Total Disruption, an Internet channel exploring innovators and entrepreneurs who are using technology to transform people’s lives.
David Teich spoke with Timoner about her films, and about the evolving relationship between artists and technology.
Tell me about atotaldisruption.com.
ATD was created as a hub for people to retrain their thinking, to use technology and the Internet as artists and as potential artists, in a way that’s sustainable over time and helps them grow their fan bases. I went out and I started interviewing founders and artists and anyone and everyone who was doing things differently—creating something that had never been created before, or redefining the way that it was created or put out. ATD is documenting the Internet revolution, but over a long period of time. And by releasing different pieces and a platform where you can search through all our raw footage, which is what’s coming next, the hope is that we can continue to do this work by sharing that work with people as we go.
How has technology changed what it’s like to be an artist, and what do the Chief Executive Artist films have to say about those changes?
There are a lot of terrifying things that we cover in [my 2009 documentary] ‘We Live In Public.’ Our content is being bought and sold and shared, and we are perhaps fulfilling the vision of Josh Harris, the main character [of ‘We Live In Public’), who was willingly herded into a virtual cage. But there’s also a flipside: We have an amazing, democratizing opportunity to directly connect with people across time and space, to repeatedly test our ideas and iterate on them, to build our audience out of niche groups instead of funneling through one main gatekeeper. There are all sorts of advantages to [being an artist at] this time. But it demands an entrepreneurial spirit, and courage and tenacity. Because if you’re an artist, and you’ve put a lot of time and energy and passion into what you’ve created, you probably want people to experience your work. So [the Chief Executive Artist bundle] is an empowerment series more than anything. It’s meant to entertain, but also to say, “You can do this too—here’s how, and here are some ideas.”
How has the technology changed the way you release your work?
I always felt like it was a one-way street before this time in history. I would make something, and it would take me years to complete it. I would put it out there, and I would try to make as much noise around it as possible. I pretty much had to rely on distribution companies. And they thought they were experts, and really didn’t feel like the artist should determine anything, from the DVD cover to anything else…So for me the change has just been wonderful, especially a talk show that I do, Bring Your Own Doc, or BYOD. It’s on the TheLip.tv. It’s been over three years of covering whatever I want to cover in documentary, and my fellow doc filmmakers are on the show…It’s an opportunity to burrow into groundbreaking, often risk-taking storytelling from the people who are on the front lines, bringing these stories to audiences. I’m about two hundred episodes in now. It was actually very early on in that process that I got inspired to make A Total Disruption, because I thought, “I’ve got to document the flipside of this. 40% of us will either lose our jobs, or have our jobs redefined in such a way that they will become obsolete to us. We have an opportunity now to take whatever idea we think would make the world a better place, and actually make that idea into a reality.” The limitations we need to overcome are mostly psychological: fear, a traditional sense that whatever it is you’ve been trained to do is the only thing you’re good enough to do…And you’ll notice that we’re using the bundle to support a bunch of different charities, because we now have the chance to say, “This is what’s important to us, and we’re gonna make that happen.” It’s not just about creating the work anymore, it’s about including the audience, creating a community, and having a meaningful impact in the world. The traditional gatekeepers have become more like partners. It’s not that they’ve disappeared. They do have expertise, but they don’t control our destiny anymore. If the people want something to happen, they can make it happen. You can just put something out there and have people respond to it and support it.
The subjects of the three films really seem to embody those ideas.
And you really see that with Amanda Palmer, probably more than anybody. In a matter of hours, she is able to get hundreds of people to congregate in any location—to come together around anything. She does it with a telephone, or Twitter, or Facebook or Tumblr. And this community is fierce and loyal and powerful. So with “Amanda Fucking Palmer on the Rocks,” we tried to show, “This is a woman who plays massive venues, but she also loves to wake up in the morning and say ‘Let’s all meet under the bridge and sing together.’” And she can just make that happen.
And how about Russell Brand?
When I filmed Russell going to Twitter headquarters, he hadn’t yet launched his book Revolution, or moved to England, or become quite the activist that he is now. But he has such intelligence, and such wit, and he accumulated a massive following on Twitter pretty early on. So when I heard he was going to Twitter headquarters, I asked if we could join him there, because I felt like this was an opportunity to see Russell Brand dissect the inside of Twitter. “Russell Brands the Bird” is a little different than the other two films, although, in the film, Russell also speaks about the intimate relationship that he’s able to have in this age: In the Twitter era, he can get the truth out—or his version of the truth—without a middleman. A lot of people can report on things that they would never have been able to before, because of this new medium that allows us to speak directly to one another. I think it’s hilarious to see Russell Brand break down the culture of Twitter, and then make them accountable on stage. He’s a very unique piece of work. I’ve actually made a feature film about him that documents his whole life and journey [‘Brand: A Second Coming]. It’s opening at South by Southwest [this March].
How has crowdfunding affected your work?
I was very uncomfortable when crowdfunding began. I thought, “That’s not for me to do—I make stuff for my fans, I don’t ask them for anything.” What I came to realize in launching A Total Disruption on Kickstarter was that I am absolutely bringing them something when I’m doing my work with them, because they’re participating now. They’re not just getting opportunities to get rewards—they’re also genuinely participating in the discussion about what we’re covering. They get to feel like they’ve brought something that’s going to help us all be more conscious and more intelligent, in a way that helps us seize the opportunity to harness technology.
What appeals do you about short content?
Short content—we call it “bite-size” at ATD—Is very powerful now, because people can feel enriched, and really get a lot out of something fast. There’s a real attention span problem these days, and people just don’t have a lot of time, so I think [short content] is going to be more and more important…Eventually, I want to take ATD to the point where, every day, subscribers have the option to have something sent to their inbox regularly—just a short little food-for-thought piece, almost like those calendars of of yesteryear where you’d rip off a page each day. Just something to think about from one of the hundreds of people we’ve talked to who are thinking outside the box and have got certain philosophies about how to sustain and grow that kind of thinking.
You gave a TEDx Talk recently about people you call “impossible visionaries.” What’s an impossible visionary, and why are they important?
Impossible visionaries are people who are just considered trouble, because they’re so determined to fulfill their vision of how the world should be. And so they have to act impossibly along the way…even as people and systems try to shoot them down. All three of the chief executive artists that we show in this bundle are impossible visionaries. They’ve had to be at different times. And what I try to do in that TED talk is dissect the traits of impossible visionaries. Maybe I’m one. I think it’s a fulfilling life to lead. And it would be helpful to cultivate those traits in ourselves at this time. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Let’s say you’re a great baker, you just have magic in the kitchen. You can find a customer base for that now. You no longer have to try to find some kind of massive bakery to sell your goods for a quarter of what you could sell them for directly. We now have the ability to go and reach people. And I just think there’s no greater contribution I could make than to help people on that path.
When it comes to artists using technology to interact with people and change the world, what developments do you see on the horizon?
I think we’re going to continue on this path. I don’t know how far it’s going to go…With the Internet, the truth has the opportunity to come out. We now have an opportunity to connect with our audience so much more powerfully and directly. And that will lead to a continuous flow of independent voices, and reporting on the truth. Hopefully that will lead to a consciousness revolution, which is what Russell Brand is trying to kickstart now. I just hope that the bundle is something that inspires more people to go out there and make things. Because you can. You just can now. No one can tell you no. You don’t need permission.
Pictured: Ondi Timoner
— Interview Conducted and Edited by David Teich