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Moby, Shepard Fairey Talk Art Cults and New Music at Culture Collide Creative Summit

Culture Collide Creative Summit panel - H 2013
Courtesy of Filter Magazine
From left: Pat McGuire, Dhani Harrison, Shepard Fairey and Moby

The Beatles' descendant Dhani Harrison also joined the panel discussion to speak about the craft and persistence of being artists.

In a time where the discreet, at times illicit downloading of music has usurped the hands-on record swapping of the old music industry (read: 20th century), the idea of musicians getting together to share ideas seems more important than ever.

The Filter magazine Culture Collide festival began Thursday evening and runs through Saturday, Oct. 12, with over 100 bands playing at venues in Echo Park. Featured bands include Liars; King Khan and the Shrines; and a slew of bands from around the world including The Raveonettes from Denmark; Miami Horror from Australia; Bombay Show Pig from the Netherlands; Prata Vetra from Latvia; and Beneen Squad from Senegal, who performing for the first time in the U.S.

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The festival kicked off this past Thursday with the Creative Summit, a panel discussion featuring Shepard Fairey, Moby and Dhani Harrison. They talked about innovation, process and persistence in their lives as artists. The panelists spoke of how groups of artists outside major centers can risk becoming "creepy cults"; that Fairey admired the fearlessness of Neil Young (at which point Moby recommended they get WWNYD tattooed on their knuckles); and how Krusty the Clown's corporate slogan "It's not just good, it's good enough" epitomizes the mediocrity of much new DIY art and music.

The three artists spoke to a packed house of journalists, musicians and fans in a cavernous corner of the Taix French Restaurant on the corner of Sunset and Reservoir in Echo Park. Following are some of the highlights from the first topic of discussion.

Moby: I think when people try to be innovate it rarely works - It’s usually a byproduct of not knowing what you are doing and being really enthusiastic about it. 

Shepard Fairey: I think a lot of times it is maybe a recombination of pre-existing things in a new way.  For me, coming from the visual art perspective.  I grew up loving skateboarding and punk rock and the graphics that went with those – there’s a lot stencil making and homemade t-shirts, etc.  But then when I went to art school I also fell in love with graffiti, and so the idea of taking what people normally did for punk rock and skateboarding and making it bigger like the graffiti people did was just sort of an unexpected hybrid, so figuring out how to make big posters and cheap stencils was just a byproduct of a lot of pre-existing interests combined in a new way. It was just about me using the minimal resources I had with as much ingenuity as possible just to pull it off.

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Dhani Harrison: From a design point of view, no one thinks of creating or innovating – that’s not what you’re thinking about for anyone whose ever done anything good.  It’s always like – you have a problem.  And if you’re a designer, you’re only as good as your problem.  If you don’t have a problem, you can’t solve it.  You don’t try to innovate.  You think, and then you go down a path.  And then you realize you accidentaly created something good, although you weren’t trying to.  And then someone takes that and you look cool for a second…

Fairey: All of the decent things that have come out for me have been through a process of trial and error.  It’s about revision – constant revision.

Moby: It also helps in the realm of innovation to really not know what you are doing, and to not have profoundly deleterious consequences to failure.

The artists spoke at length about the environments that foster creativity. All of them sang the praises of Los Angeles as a place where artists of all types can find both the space (literal working space and the mental space) to create as well as the community to inspire and support creative product.  In sharing stories of their formative days, and it came out that the three had all spent time in Providence, RI. Harrison and Fairey were both students at RISD and Moby was, according to him "just a college dropout who had a girlfriend who went to Brown." Harrison described collecting some of Fairey’s Andre the Giant cut-offs from a Providence copy shop they both utilized and taking them back to England to show friends. Moby was also noticing the Andre tags around town in the late 80s, but the three didn't meet until they all came to Los Angeles years later.

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The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Fairey after the panel talk to hear more of the Obey Giant creator’s thoughts on his experience as an artist in L.A.

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THR: That went really well. Some great ideas came out of that discussion.

Fairey: Well, I know both of those guys, and even though I like what they both do artistically, the way I met both of them was through activism.  I kept going to things supporting marriage equality or Obama or health care reform and Moby was always there.  And then Dhani Harrison, whose father did the concert for Bangladesh, came to me and said ‘I’d love it if you would create a poster commemorating the 40th anniversary of the concert and we’re doing a thing with UNICEF where all the proceeds will benefit that.’  So, it was cool for me thinking about the way I like to work - bundling social issues with what I do –that it is important to them, as well.

There are a couple of things that came out of the talk that were particularly interesting – like when Moby brought up the concept of ‘post-craft’ and the way that many media have become more accessible and publishing is readily available for everyone whether or not they are trained or qualified to do something. As someone who works very much with their hands, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on that. 

I think when you have all of these tools that allow you to approximate or synthesize things, the idea of something that is unique to an individual becomes that much more exciting to people.  It’s the very specific and idiosyncratic that people appreciate, and maybe it symbolizes that better is better than faster.  Because the thing that I worry about with a lot of these tools – which are great for democratizing creativity and expression - is that they lead to a lot more white noise for a potential audience member to wade through.  People are now sorting through all this stuff that before, would have to have gone through a gatekeeper.  It would have been vetted.  But for me I always had the inside/outside strategy that if I’m not making any headway through the system I’m going to go around it.  So I totally identify with the DIY spirit of being able to share something. But the formerly analogue versions of DIY that is not necessarily there in the new versions is having the patience to make something by hand or tour in a van for a number of years.  What I think is more imperative than ever is for people that are making art and music to find a way to do something that is specific to them.  Whether the tools they are using are traditional or digital, their work should be something that someone else can’t replicate immediately.  And it’s hard to describe that because a lot of people have access to the same tools.  Even something as simple as what Steve Jones’ guitar sound is like or what John Bonham’s drum sound is like – I can identify that immediately – no one else sounds like that.  So if you are making something, if you can find that thing that is just so uniquely yours, you better cultivate that. 

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Another thing that came up in the talk was about place – about the difference between people operating in any tiny town in America versus being in a city like L.A.

And you still managed to listen to Camper Van Beethoven and the Minutemen.

Exactly. It found a way – whatever tiny way. Ballard was the way-

SF: Yes, Mission of Burma.

Yes, so any thoughts on where you see L.A. at this moment – in the music and art worlds – as a place for artists to create?

From the beginning when I lived in San Diego and I started coming up to L.A. what I realized about it is there are so many different scenes – it’s like multiple cities in one city.  There’s a lot of different microcosms of art and culture and there is still space for people to congregate when they want to and to make things happen without it having to be so expensive or so difficult.  And areas where people can retreat and create without a studio being so expensive.  So on both ends – being able to have the space for alternative galleries and also studio space, and yet there being this enormous pool of culture, even if you sort of need to turn over a few rocks to find it.  That to me is exciting and it seems to be incubating a lot of great stuff.  And a lot of times what seems like what is the downside – oh, you can’t make things happen as fast in L.A. as you can in New York turns out to be a really great thing – that maybe people just haven’t seen it bear fruit yet-

Like things can marinate a little bit…

Exactly.  So I mentioned in the talk, as much as I love New York, the creative people are being pushed further and further into the margins – you have to be way out in Gowanus or Queens.  Even Bushwick is like the new Williamsburg.  And it’s not that I’m down on New York, but yes it’s a great place for people to be after they have crystallized what they are doing.  But when you look at Soho in the 1980s or the Bowery, CBGBs in the 70s – that balance of affordability and inspiration mixed with a lot of different people being able to flourish creatively if not economically.  But that eventually turned into something that resonated with people and allowed them to flourish economically.  To get from 0 to 60 there is an awkward in-between area where you need the perfect circumstances and I think that L.A. has that right mixture right now. And I’m happy with that.  I’ve been to other places that have that feel – like Portland – Seattle in the 1990s had a lot of that happening.  But since everything is always in flux, people will get really emotionally hung up on – oh, I wish this place could be like it was in that one moment – where it’s at this sweet spot in this evolutionary arc – where its really affordable, but there’s still a lot of attention for the good stuff – the art, the music and everything.  But that never lasts, because the moment that all the cool people start populating an area, the prices go up and the landlord barons come in and all the retail stores open up.  It’s good and bad, but anyone that recognizes the nature of mortality, permanence, flux, etc. would just see it as an opportunity to keep moving and do what you already do. But to get back to the L.A. question, there are a lot of great artists that are working in L.A. right now and that’s been happening for a while. There is also an increase in the number of galleries – the full spectrum from very established places in Culver City, Hollywood and Venice – to very grimy alternative spaces in those same neighborhoods and Downtown.  The stepping stones are there for people to transition as their work finds a bigger audience or becomes more sophisticated and developed.  And that’s all you can ask for, really.

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The last thing I want to ask you to talk about is your charitable work.  From what I’ve seen that you’ve been involved in here in L.A. and globally – like the water campaign you just made a print for – it seems like a personal mandate – something that is important to you.

Well, coming up listening to bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Clash, I realized that you can use your art as an amazing platform for your social point of view.  But it’s not just about expressing your ideas, it counts a lot more when you are willing to put your money where your mouth is.  People use the world altruism a lot.  And that’s nice, but to put it much more selfishly – the things I support help shape the world into one that I’d prefer to live in.  So it’s incredibly selfish on that point. 

So its like the great line from David Byrne in the Talking Heads song "No Compassion" – "be a little more selfish, it might do you some good."

That’s great. I love the Talking Heads. People are in the trenches doing the really hard work to spread justice in the world and empower people who are most vulnerable – if all I have to do is make an artwork and sell some prints and give the money to help them do better what they sacrifice to do – I have the easy part of the equation and I am happy to do it.