Frank Ahearn Gets Lost

September 19, 2010

Frank Ahearn is an expert on disappearing.

How did you get involved in helping people disappear? I spend my life as a skip tracer, locating people. My expertise is tracking people down. Several years ago I was in a book store and saw a guy buying books about offshore banking in Costa Rica. He was obviously looking to bank offshore. He was ahead of me in line. He paid with a credit card. Why buy books on discretion and uses a credit card? Then I saw him sitting down in a café and started a conversation. I explained I was a skip tracer and that If I’d wanted to, I could find him easily. He’d used a credit card; I saw a book on Costa Rica. I could find the airlines that flew there. It would’ve been easy. That disturbed him. It turned out he was a corporate whistle-blower. He said, “Can you help me disappear?” It was a question of reverse engineering what I already did. Then a website called Escape Artist asked if I could write an article for them. Next thing you know I’m the Dear Abby of disappearing.

When you’re trying to disappear, is it more important to think pragmatically or creatively? A little bit of both. It can depend on who’s looking for you. But people disappear for one of two reasons: Money or violence. With something like a stalker, creativity is really important. We have to create disinformation to keep the stalker busy, and that takes a lot of creative thinking. Money is more straightforward. It’s more important to put the person in a place and create insulation. So it varies.

What’s harder: finding someone or hiding someone? Hiding them. Because when you’re looking, you’re looking for the info that’s already known about them. If you can find one piece of information, you might be able to do the job. Disappearing is more difficult.

What’s the most common mistake made by someone trying to disappear? They forward mail to a bogus mailing address. Basically, let’s say you decide to pick up and go. Most likely you’re the type of guy who will never live in Iowa. But you might not make sure to forward your mail to some place that’s geographically sensible for the kind of person you are. So if I found out that you had your mail forwarded to some address in Iowa to try and throw me off the train, I’m not going to start looking there. I’ll know it’s bullshit. But say you decide to forward your mail to Des Moines, you may have forgotten to take a home phone number off the utility bill. I could get that number and, say, call your mother and say I’m from your school’s alumni society and I’d like to give you some information. It’s easy.

What aspect of your work do you find the most creative? Creating disinformation. When someone’s looking for you, you gotta keep ’em busy. I’ll have my clients set up a bank account. I assume the person looking for you is gonna break the law, so maybe they’ll find that you’ve set up bank accounts in Chicago or Toronto. They’ll start looking their for your debit card transactions. But I’ll have sent a debit card there for someone else to use.

What’s the last creative thing that you did? I worked with this guy, he owned several hot dog carts. He lived in Detroit, his son is a lawyer who was looking to get his money. He said the father was irresponsible. The father wanted to disappear. We made it appear as if he lived in Miami. I located this escort there and had my client’s phone bill and cable bill and utility bill put in her name. The son hired a PI and located this info, but they were just spinning their wheels. That’s pretty much it.

Michael Leach and the Hand of God

August 8, 2010

Michael Leach is the chief puppeteer of the Puppetworks in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Below is an example of the work that he and the troupe do.

Puppets are obviously not as expressive as human actors. And they can’t do the things that animated characters can do. So what do they do best in terms of offering unique creative possibilities? Nothing. That’s why I tell people who come to shoot a commercial with us that they should just do CGI. It’s easier. That’s the crabby answer. The better answer is that they engage us on a deeper level because people know they’re inanimate. They’re doing things that people who are alive wouldn’t do. In a way, it’s like an actor playing to the fourth wall. Puppets do that. The secret is already out when you go to a puppet show. It’s called a show. Right away we’re saying, “It’s not real. These things are not alive.” There’s not the belief that’s hard to get away from in live theater where you sort of always imagine that what you’re seeing is real. We pretend all along. Because of that, puppets affect the imagination in a unique way. You can almost think of puppets as a toy for the audience.

How did you get involved in puppetry? I was an industrial color matcher. I’d started as a lowly pot washer. I was a real go-getter. And what happens is that go-getters eventually get a twitch in their eye and pain in their chest and say that no amount of money is going to be worth the amount of work they’re putting in. I had no life. It was all work. Then I saw in ad in the Village Voice saying that Macy’s needed people to help out with their Santaland holiday display. So some friends and I thought we’d apply and all go be elves for a month. It turned out that I was the only one who went through with the joke. My job there was helping to run the puppet theater. One day like Pinocchio I snuck backstage and saw the puppets. I asked if I could try it out. I picked up a marionette and worked it like I’d been working it forever. That was 20 years ago.

As a puppeteer do you feel like you’re primarily upholding a particular artistic tradition or do you feel more like you’re forging a new one? Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun. If I had to pick one of those two options I’d say I was upholding tradition. You can always do something different, though. The first caveman who waved a stick and grunted and pretended that the stick was something else — there was your first puppet. Man’s ultimate creative aim was to fashion something that was going to be alive. There are so many possibilities for how you can do that. And the way things are going only serves to make our theater more unique. The more CGI the better. We do traditional marionette shows. That’s our niche. Being in a niche is what keeps us alive.

Do puppets have a life of their own? I’ve got to be careful about answering that question. You can get into puppet bullcrap. People accept it if you say that a certain guitar has an attitude. Say that about a puppet and people think you’re a crazy. You can also get into that artist crap where puppeteers — it’s usually ones who are new — say they can feel the puppet’s energy coursing out of their fingertips and controlling itself and all that junk. Puppets have attitudes and characteristics the same way that a car does. There are things that certain puppets want to do and things they don’t want to do. They’re tools. A great puppeteer, Paddy Blackwood, said that you find out what the puppet wants to do and what you want to do and then you find a compromise and have a show. I think that sounds about right.

What was the last creative thing that you did? I made myself an egg cream, which is the highest art there is. In the puppet field, I’m one of the best. I’ve done 800 shows over 20 years. But a good egg cream? That’s the hand of god.

Bart Lazar Lays Down the Law

July 11, 2010

Bart Lazar is an intellectual property lawyer. He lives in Chicago and loves music.

Generally speaking, do you feel like American intellectual property law helps or hinders creativity? That’s a tough question. I think it accomplishes both. It still serves the purpose of encouraging and incentivizing people to create because it allows the authors to maintain ownershop of their rights. But because there is so much material out there in the world and the fact that copyright lasts so long and sometimes it’s very difficult for someone to determine whether a particular material is in the public domain or not — that can make things difficult. It can also be hard to contact the copyright owner as well as obtain permission for what might be a minor use. It’s also very difficult for a creative person without legal counsel to determine what uses are appropriate. Those are the disincentives.

What aspects of your work do you feel allow you to be most creative? I feel pretty lucky in that I get to exercise creativity in a variety of ways. In the sense that creativity is taking individual elements and helping put them together and finding something new, I get to be creative in terms of the trademark world. When I work with clients to develop trademarks I am often helping them choose new trademarks or changing their proposed trademarks to find something that accomplishes their goal but has less legal risk associated with it. A client might come to me with a one word trademark, but I might say someone else has pretty good rights to that word but if you add a word to it or change it in such and such a way, it may be less risky. Creativity occurs in other ways to. Sometimes it’s creative business solutions. In a legal dispute, that can mean trying to step out of the box and come up with a creative solution that is either a win-win or resolves a dispute so that both parties can go on with their lives. These are all subsets of the same general universe of developing a creative strategy. And that could mean devising a method of trying to negotiate an agreement or a business strategy or structuring a business meeting. All those things involve creativity.

I know you love music. Are there any musicians that have influenced your thinking about the law? I’m not sure about that one. I’ve adopted some little bits of ideas here and there. I’ve incorporated some music phrases into presentations with clients. “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes / You can get what you need.” That’s a good legal strategy. It’s better than the Sex Pistols’ “Don’t know what I want / But I know how to get it.” Joni Mitchell’s “You don’t know what you got what till it’s gone” is another good one. Sometimes I think the photographer Edward Ruscha has influenced me in the way he looks at things. Sometimes I try to look at a situation in my mind and map it out but at the same time try to see if it can exist as something more. I look for synergies.

What was the last creative thing that you did? I do different creative things in my spare time. I’m trying to think of the last one. Actually, the last creative thing I did was business oriented. It wasn’t personal. Yesterday afternoon I was involved in an extensive discussion with a client regarding a strategy for a negotiation. I can’t give too many details because it’s a significant matter but it was taking into consideration a nine month period of discussions between parties. It involved different relationships between four organizations, each of with disparate and common goals, and trying to counsel my client, who is a creative person also. We were dealing with the development of an artistic work and trying to devise a negotiating strategy involving implied threats and common goals to keep this project on track.

Christine Onorati Gives You Her Word

June 18, 2010

Christine Onorati runs Word bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Do you see the store as more than just a business? And if so, how? Actually, I was having trouble thinking about how I show my creative side at work. I sometimes confuse creativity with artistic ability. But you have to be creative in this day and age if you want your bookstore to be successful. I can’t speak for all bookstores, but the most important thing for me is becoming a part of the community. Books are ubiquitious –- you can get them from so many different places. That’s why you have to give people a reason to come to your store other than to just get a book. I think we’re getting good at creating a community feel about the store. I’ve been in a lot of stores where I don’t want to stick around. I want people to feel at home in my store. That’s why we have different fun events. And especially in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, you never want to be too cool. If someone wants to order a Danielle Steele book, we might not have it at the store, but we’re happy to order it and we’d never judge anyone about something like that. Definitely the hardest part of running the store is thinking about ways to integrate into the community.

Have you ever read a novel that influenced the way you think about running the store? I don’t think so. There is a really great book, though, that was written twenty years ago, called Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties. I remember reading it years ago. A lot of what he wrote about running a story is not relevant in the same way anymore. The book was written when the big box stores were just starting to come in. E-books are much bigger now. Ten, twenty years ago it was Barnes & Noble eating up the indies. I read stuff in that book about serving the customer and being there for the customer. I used to have another store in the suburbs. I didn’t feel people felt the need to appreciate independent stores out there. Everyone was in cars. There wasn’t the same connection. I think I’m in a community now that appreciates independent businesses. Reading Rebel Bookseller gave me some ideas about how to foster and reciprocate that kind of appreciation.

What’s the last creative thing that you did? Last night we threw, a literary matchmaker prom. It was fun. A couple of the girls got really dolled up. It was like a singles mixer for literary types. That’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about — a way of getting the community invested in the store. We’ve actually had a few successful love stories that come about because of the store. That kind of stuff makes me so happy. I think those things add up. People will think of us a certain way, and when they need books, I hope they’ll come here. It’s a hard balance. People open bookstores thinking it’ll be fun –- you’ll stand around and talk about books. But you need to have a business sense. It’s not enough to open doors and put books on the shelves. This isn’t an easy business, but I think we’re doing the right things.

The Evolution of David Begun

May 25, 2010

David Begun is a paleoanthropologist who teaches at the University of Toronto.

What compelled the leap between being interested in paleoanthropology and thinking that you had something to contribute to the field? Well, that is an interesting question. I’m not sure I had such lofty ambitions. I just knew that I was interested and wanted to do work in that field. The idea that I could contribute or could advance the work being done — that came much much later on. That really wasn’t a motivation at the beginning. I knew something about paleoanthropology from a young age because I spent my childhood in southwestern France which is a rich area for paleoanthropologists. That’s the area where Cro-Magnon was from. There are lots and lots of caves there. It’s one of the famous sites of early humans like neandertals and cro-magnon man. It’s really the first area that was investigated for understanding human origins. It has a very rich history. My grandparents took me to the famous painted caves where there are paintings of bison and horses on the walls. So there was an interest early on. Later, I recognized that I enjoyed the undergraduate courses that I took in paleoanthropology. I actually went to a university that was renowned for it’s pre-med program. I was in a pre-med prep program. I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was sure I was going to become a physician. I took a course on the subject [of paleoanthropology] and a year later I changed universities because paleoanthropology wasn’t adequately represented at the first university I went to. So it was a passion of mine. I knew I was good at it and I worked well with the profs. I did some teaching. My main motivation was just wanting to do it. I went to my second university — the University of Pennsylvania — knowing that paleoanthropology was something that I wanted to do for my life’s work.

How do you know where to dig for stuff? I get asked that all the time. The first way is by digging where others have dug before and have found stuff. If we want to find new localities there are various methods — some are simple and some are complex. We can use geologic maps that show the age of the rocks. Those are made by geologists who are looking for ore or metals and precious minerals. They make these maps, but we can use them. These maps have been around in various forms since the 1840s. We focus on the ones that show rocks that are of the age we’re interested in. For example, I’m interested in the time period when apes and humans diverged, so I’m looking for outcrops that fall within that timeframe. That’s one way. Then there are also high-tech approaches we can use like satellite imaging. We use satellite imaging to see the surface and see what is very difficult to see on the ground. We can see where rocks are exposed. But we can also use satellite images to look below the surface. So there are a variety of methods.

Has studying human origins made you think differently about humanity? Probably it has. When I first started out I don’t think I thought too much about how humans fit into the grander scheme of theings. Maybe that was due to youth and inexperience. Today I certainly recognize how paleoanthropology contributes to our place in the natural world and that we have a place in the natural world. There’s nothing special about humans in terms of evolution. We have special capabilites, but we evolved like every other organism did. I have a pretty good sense of where we came from in an evolutionary point of view. I think it’s very important for everybody to understand that we evolved like other organisms did. That’s something I try to promote, especially when I speak to younger people. We’re like other organisms on the one hand, but on other hand we have such a huge capacity to alter the environment and it’s up to us to either save the world or destroy it. Those kinds of things didn’t occur to me when I was younger. But like I said, the fact I think about them now could be due to age and experience.

What was the last creative thing you did? The very last creative thing I did was this afternoon, when I was installing some base molding and I coped a joint.

Looking with Leonard Nimoy

May 11, 2010

This summer, Leonard Nimoy is having an exhibition of his photography at the R. Michelson Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts. The exhibition is called “Secret Selves.” It looks cool.

Leonard is also an actor of some renown.

Hi, sorry I missed your call earlier. I’d just stepped away from my desk. That’s how I knew to call. [Laughs] I’m psychic. I’ve managed to get out of a lot of conversations that way. Can I ask, how did you get my number to call me back?

It showed up on my phone when you called. That’s curious. It’s supposed to show up as Private. Technology. You know, the other day I got a call from someone –- a wrong number. I told them it was a wrong number. Then they called back and said, “Is this Leonard Nimoy?”

I’ll be honest, your number didn’t show up on my phone. I’m psychic too. [Laughs] You very well could be.

Okay, let’s talk about your work. I know that before you photographed your subjects, you conducted interviews with them where you asked “Who are you?” Aside from revealing what would become the specific visual content of the photos, how did those interviews affect the photographs? I think the conversations operated on a lot of levels. The very first thing I tended to do was to try and create an atmosphere where the person could be trusting and know that I wasn’t there to hurt them in any way. We had some very gentle open-ended conversations. Before coming to meet me, they’d prepared a written statement about who they are and what their secret self was about. So I would steer the conversations towards finding out why they’d picked their particular secret self. That gave me a sense of who this person was that I was going to photograph. Maybe those conversations gave me some leads as to what I should be looking for in the camera. After a point it becomes complex, almost logarithmical, and intellect and instinct take over.

Sometimes secrets are secret for a reason. Were you at all concerned about not letting people embarrass themselves or look foolish? Absolutely. A couple people, in the course of my photographing them, did something that I felt was inappropriate. I was getting into territory that I was not qualified to get into. Or I felt that people wanted some form of communication from me that I was not capable of handling. I dismissed those people as subjects. On the funny side of this, after these sessions were over — my wife and I were staying at a hotel not far from the studio — and the morning we were leaving to go to the airport we went outside to wait for a car and we saw four or five of the subjects I’d photographed. They said, ‘Mr. Nimoy, the talks we had with you made us want to explore some of these things — I’m paraphrasing — made us want to explore and talk more about some of the things about ourselves that we hadn’t thought about.’ I’d inadvertently started a therapy group. They asked if I wanted to be in their group. I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m getting on a plane.’ But I was pleasantly surprised at how open and generous people were.

Did the fact that as a famous actor you have very distinct public and private selves make the idea of exploring secret selves particularly interesting to you? Look, my secret self has been out in public for about 45 years. I have acted it out in a lot of different ways, whether it’s through Spock or other things. If someone were to ask me, “Who are you?” I think the answer should be self-evident. Like my wife says, what you see is what you get with me.

I also wanted— Can you imagine? Some of these conversations were incredible. What do you do? What do you do when a lady walks into the room wearing only a bathrobe and tells you that her secret self is ‘a shy whore?’ This happened! So I said to her, ‘Where did that come from?’ She said it’s something she and her brother made up. Her brother! Where in the world! Wow! This is great! Now, she was prepared to go nude. I didn’t ask her to do that. She had a lot of tattoos and showed them very discretely. You might see a little bit of breast.

I remember hearing an architect talk once about how he couldn’t be out in the world without thinking about his environment architecturally. Do you have a similar experience as a photographer? Many years ago I used to carry cameras everywhere. Wherever I traveled -– Europe, the Far East. Everywhere. But what happened was that I realized I was seeing the world through the lens. I didn’t want to. I wanted a broader vision. I didn’t want to be so selective. Also, I realized I wanted my photography to be more conceptual and to express more ideas rather than simply capture moments. I began to work slowly on expressing ideas through photographic ideas. I get an idea about what I want to see and then I set that up and get my cameras and then I photograph it. So I don’t feel like I’m seeing the world on a day-to-day basis the same way that I do through the lens.

What’s the last creative thing that you did? I have just finished working on some episodes of the Fringe television series. I don’t know if you know but I’ve announced that these will be the last acting roles that I do. So not only was that the most recent creative thing I did, it will be the last. I feel quite good about it. The work was good work. There’s a teaser scene on the episode that will air this Thursday night. I felt the work went very, very well. I’m happy to be able to walk away on a very positive note. I’ll see other people in other ways in the future.

George Horner Signals from Union Street

April 19, 2010

I’d noticed that someone was putting colorful signs adorned with quirky phrases in the window of an apartment near where I live. So I dropped an envelope in the mail slot that I thought belonged to the sign-maker. In it, I included a message asking to talk with whomever was responsible for the signs. A man named George Horner responded.

How long have you been putting your signs in the window? Well, ever since we bought our house here in Park Slope in 1991. But I’ve been making the posters for longer than that. I studied art at graduate school at the University of Chicago and the city had a large flea market on the south side that was sort of interesting. I’d go there and I would see these posters tied on to telephone polls and that sort of thing. They were mostly for blues clubs — “Bobby Blue Bland at the Starlite Lounge” or something. They were really beautiful. That was back in 1979 and ’80. I started collecting them; they just had great visual appeal. I thought maybe there was some way that I could incorporate these posters in my own art production. At first, I sort of took the style and used it for posters announcing art shows that I had in Chicago. Eventually I started doing phrases or things that I heard: Things that my family said; something my brother said. The signs become these personal statements. Or maybe private statements made public. I guess it’s cathartic or something. I sometimes get the feeling that I’m an artist and the signs are an extension of my studio. You put the stuff in the window and it becomes street art and you’re accessing an audience that you don’t have access to normally. You’re giving an aesthetic experience to people who don’t seek it. I work at a gallery in Manhattan called the Shafrazi gallery that’s run by a guy named Tony Shafrazi. He was the one who walked into the MoMA and spray-prainted Guernica. It was a very radical approach. It was art on top of art; not really vandalism. The stuff I do tends to be lighter and more humorous. Like, I was in Chicago and I was hanging out with a friend and it was gorgeous outside and I said, “It’s really nice out.” He turned to me and said, “Why don’t you keep it out?” He actually died a few years ago in an automobile accident. That was tragic. Really a nice guy. I did a poster in his honor. So one of the posters says, “It’s nice out, I’ll keep it out.” A huge majority of the posters are these phrases that amuse me. I just figure that maybe someone else will get some kind of enjoyment out of it. It’s different experience than going into an art gallery. I enjoy that. It’s also — I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and there’s a long history of Mexican artists working in the cement industry. I think the Alamo Cement factory is in San Antonio. So you come across these humble homes that have fantastic cement animals or a big cement sombrero wishing well in the front yard. It’s like they don’t have the money to have a nice house so they embellish it in another way. I always think about that also. It’s nice to come across these things that are unexpected. I think that’s why I put my signs in the windows. Is that answer okay? I ramble sometimes.

Do you have a favorite sign? I had a young boy on my block come up to me once and say he remembered seeing a sign that changed him. That’s really powerful for this young Puerto Rican kid to say that a poster that I put in the window changed his life! The sign said, “Enlighten up.” Just a simple pun changed his way of thinking. My mother died about three years ago and we were very very close although she continued to live in Texas and I’ve been in New York for 25 years. But the things she said are quite dear to me. There was a very funny one that I put out often put up around Christmas time that says, “I always wanted to watch for Christmas.” I was talking to my mom once and I’d told her that I’d finished a biography about Andy Warhol. I told that I’d read that as a child Warhol developed St. Vitus Dance, which is a nervous disorder that makes it painful to be touched. I think that’s why he liked to be voyeuristic; why he liked to watch rather than touch. So my mom turned around and said, “I always wanted to watch for Christmas.” Whenever I put that sign up people will ask me if I got that watch I wanted — they don’t get the joke. I love that.

What do you do with all the signs you’ve made? You must have hundreds. Down in my basement I’ve got a big stack of them. The company that I order from is the Tribune Showprint Company in Earl Park, Indiana. I think it’s the oldest continually operating printing company in the United States. I just call ’em up over the phone for the most part. I’ll be specific about the colors, but I let them include whatever images they think are appropriate. It became a surprise to me what I was going to get. I think this is like no big whoop to them. They never blink an eye. There was one that my mother said — My mom grew up in Shawnee, Oklahaoma. It was very strict. It was kind of a “You can’t screw standing up because you might start dancing” kind of place. But she must’ve been a wild child. She once said the phrase, “Stop it / Again / Quit it / Some more / Pull it out / deeper.” I love stuff like that. A friend of mine said something not too long ago: Good from far, but far from good. I loved that one. I think he was talking about some girlfriend he had that was a butter face.

What’s the last creative thing that you did? Well, I curated the Keith Haring show at the Shafrazi gallery that’s up right now. That was a very satisfying thing. But that’s kind of work. Lately, one of the things that I’ve been doing is making these things called dummkopfs — German for “dumb head.” I had a bunch of drum heads that I had laying around and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away because there’s something nice about them. So what I did was paint a bunch of images on these drum heads; mostly found images. There was this artist that was putting stickers of Bob Saget everywhere, putting them on newspaper boxes and things like that. I took a photo of the sticker and I painted that on one of the heads. It’s a head on a head. I also help take care of the community garden near my house. I just cleaned out the dogshit and planted some hostas.

Dan Hagi and the Art of the Smile

March 23, 2010

Dan Hagi is a dentist who runs his own successful practice. He was kind enough to help answer some questions I had about dentistry and creativity.

It’s easy to understand why someone might want to go into dentistry for financial reasons — or even a certain level of prestige — but what satisfaction does the job provide on an emotional or creative level? It’s interesting that you talk about creativity because it’s that part of the job that draws me to dentistry. Medicine is much more diagnostic; dentistry has so many different ways of solving problems. It’s still rooted in science, but there is an artistry to getting to the destination. It’s almost as if you’re going through someone’s mind and figuring out what they want and then figuring out how to get there.

What’s an example of the kind of creativity you’re talking about? Take something simple like someone who doesn’t like their smile. It raises questions about what a smile should or shouldn’t be. As dentists, we can almost design a smile, like Da Vinci designed the Mona Lisa. Then there’s a psychological aspect: Figuring out what the patient likes and then helping them to understand what materials are being used and how close you’re likely to be able to get them to the smile they want.

But don’t the vast majority of your cases involve simpler, more rote stuff like cleanings? That’s the day-to-day cleanings and fillings are good, but it’s the stuff that requires stretching the way I think that I really enjoy. But how often do I sit back and plan a case?Almost always. Especially the reconstructive type cases. I take all my records, and I take photographs and models of the jaw and the base and I sit back and I think about what I want to accomplish. It’s almost like planning a journey in a way — one can last as short as a few months and as long as few years. It’s almost like your mind’s eye has to be see the final result and also figure out how to get there. That’s aspect is what I like the best.

Do your dentistry skills crossover into other aspects of your life? In the kitchen. The discipline that I have in the kitchen comes from the same place as my professional meticulousness. A similar kind of thinking applies to both places.

What was the last creative thing you did? It was a dessert I made for my nieces. A maceration of berries with an ad hoc anglaise sauce. It was good. [My brother] Gil enjoyed it.

Charlie Todd Has A Mission

March 8, 2010

As one of the main dudes behind Improv Everywhere, Charlie Todd helps mastermind large scale public pranks.

He also teaches longform improvisational comedy at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade.

Some of your pranks involve thousands of people. What appeals to you about mass pranks? Aside from sheer numbers, what function do they serve that small scale pranks don’t? The main reason that what we do now involves thousands of people is because the website got popular. We had to get bigger along with it. When I started it in 2001, it was me and one or two friends. That grew into me and a dozen friends. Then that grew exponentially over the years. It was never the idea to do massive participatory events. It’s really exciting to know that I can send one email to a mailing list and have two or three thousand people show up to partake in the event. Part of that thinking involves figuring out if the idea is funniest if thirty people are involved or 3000 people. But I do try to come up with projects that can scale as large as possible. It’s exciting to me have the chance to involve a 15-year-old kid from the Bronx who might not have that kind of opportunity otherwise. And I don’t mean that a 15-year-old kid from the Bronx in particular wouldn’t have the opportunity; No one has the opportunity to do something collaborative in a public space with thousands of other people. To be able to provide that is really fun.

How many of the pranks that you pull are based on your own ideas? Maybe 60% of the projects have been stuff that I’ve come up with pretty much on my own. There’s always a brainstorming process, but it’s not formal. It’s not like the people I work with are comedians working in a writer’s room. We don’t have meetings. We don’t even get together and drink. Not formally anyway. I get a lot of ideas emailed to me by total strangers. 99 out of 100 of those end up not being all that interesting.

Where do your ideas come from? I get a lot of ideas just from being somewhere in the city and seeing something unusual and then visualizing a way to make it funnier or more interesting. For example, I was commuting — this is maybe a year ago — and I had to transfer where the E train meets the V train at 53rd and Lexington. Everyone around me looked miserable. It was so crowded; we were all packed in like cattle. That experience inspired me to do something with the escalators in that particular station. That idea ended up as a prank called “High Five Escalator” where we positioned signs along the escalator and then had them end with a guy high fiving everybody. Or another time I was walking in Manhattan and saw a ledge along the side of a building that I thought was peculiar. It was maybe four feet off the ground. So I got the idea to put to a suicide jumper on that little ledge. I come up with a lot of things just by getting out of my apartment.

What was the best prank someone ever pulled on you? In college I had a pretty elaborate prank played on me. I had an apartment that was pretty close to all the bars in Chapel Hill. This particular year UNC was playing in the NCAA Final Four. On, I can’t remember, I think it was a Thursday or Friday morning, my friend printed up about a thousand posters announcing a party at my apartment. “Free alcohol and live music — Don’t miss the party of the year after the UNC game.” That kind of stuff. The fliers even included my address and a map to how to get there. That same morning, I saw the flyer on my car’s windshield, stuck under the wiper. Of course, I thought my friend was trying to make me think that he put the flyers up all around town. Then I got to school and saw the flyers on every bulletin board and thought, “Oh, he actually did put them up all over town.” The thing I was actually mad about was that I was planning to have about twenty friends over that night to watch the game and I ended up locking my door, turning the lights off, and hoping people didn’t show up.

You also teach improv comedy. Does performing a prank feel at all different from improvising comedy? There’s some skill overlap but ultimately I regret including the word “Improv” in the name because we get people commenting on YouTube that “This is clearly not improv; This was planned; You’re idiots.” That’s pretty annoying. But even if we have carefully planned out what we do — and sometimes we even have a script — you can never plan for how people will react. People are always variable. You have to be able to react to them in the moment. Aside from that, the skills of not breaking character, keeping a straight face, being able to improvise dialog — those are applicable to pranks and improv.

What was the last creative thing you did? Last night I was in Baltimore and there was a police officer at the bar where my friends and I were hanging out. I had to creatively figure out how to discretely take a photo of him. I wanted it because he reminded me of my favorite tv show, The Wire. I ended up getting a nice photo. It made for a great Tweet.

David Lynch Goes Deep

March 1, 2010

David Lynch is an award-winning director. He’s big into Transcendental Meditation.

Do you think there are differences between the quality of art you made before you started meditating and after? And by quality, I don’t mean good or bad, but more something like inherent attributes. That’s a real good question. I think that I see a difference of finding the thing more easily. It was more difficult before and now it’s more easy. And in working I had more fear and anxieties and, you know, negative things swimming in me that affected the doing of things. I felt weak. I didn’t have so much self-assuredness. Then when I started meditating I felt more freedom. And they say that the heavy weight of negativity starts lifting away when you start infusing this expanding consciousness. Infusing energy and happiness and love and all these things from within, negativity lifts. I always say negativity cramps the flow of creativity. It’s really true. Things just flow more and you enjoy the making of things way more. And it’s just like kind of like a dance. It’s real great when that happens.

So there was no change in terms of subject matter? Everything you do — when you finish one thing and do another, they’re different. But I always say it’s the ideas that come. The ideas are everything and the way you translate them gets better. It gets better.

I also have a question that might be too abstract for a good answer but– I want to say more about the other thing.

Yeah. Do it to it. Another thing that’s so important: this thing of intuition. There’s plenty of supercreative people that don’t meditate, but you just get more of that and more fun in the doing and have less of the anxiety and fears and the other things that stop a lot of fun and a lot of creativity. This thing of intuition grows. A kind of knowingness. I always say that’s the number one tool of the artist: Knowing when something isn’t correct and knowing how to make it correct is super important. It works in music, in painting, in cinema. It works in business. When you transcend, you dive into that ocean of knowingness. It’s an ocean of happiness; an ocean of creativity. It’s the ocean of the infinite. All these things are infinite there.

But the way people talk about transcendental meditation relies on all these metaphors and analogies and similes. Stuff like, “Your mind is like an ocean and all the activity seems to be at the top but there’s a vast space underneath.” But aren’t these metaphors inadequate descriptions of the experience of meditation? And if that’s so, has meditation changed the way you think about concepts like metaphor and analogy? That’s a real good question. There is a huge problem because quantum physics and mathematics and all these things are objective sciences and Maharishi’s science of consciousness is a subjective science. The word “transcending” — there’s not an intellectual thing that you can say that gives that experience. So I always say that it’s a unique experience. The word “unique” should be saved for the experience of transcending. People don’t really know the word bliss. Bliss is more than the happiness that you get from buying a brand new car, for instance. Bliss is like the happiness of when you fall in love with someone and that person loves you back. That’s closest to this extreme happiness and flow of love that is transcending. That’s close. Maharishi used tons and tons of analogies to try and get people to catch enough of an idea of the thing so that they’d say, “Oh, I want to experience that.” But nothing takes the place of the actual experience. Analogies and things still come and you use those from time to time to try and explain the thing but it’s abstract. The transcendent is the most abstract level of existence there is. It’s the source of thought. Total abstraction. It’s the source of a star, the source of a tree. Everything that is a thing has emerged from this field. It’s incredible and you can experience it and then you know what it is.

Do you ever try to relate the abstract feeling of transcending through your own work? Not exactly. No. I don’t think I’ve ever set out to do a thing, except maybe in commercials. But sometimes I catch ideas and I fall in love with them and then later on I kind of discover what it is. It’s a reverse kind of thing. I haven’t ever, you know, set out to make a film. Right now I’m working on a documentary of the Maharishi and the knowledge that he brought out and that will be a huge challenge because these things are abstract. To try to show them visually or with sound is gonna be something.

What’s the last creative thing you did? Let’s see. Well, I did three things yesterday. I haven’t done anything creative this morning. It’s still early. I’m just getting to it. But yesterday I wrote some lyrics. I’m working on a photograph of a Country and Western singer named Billy Swan. And I’m working with wood. I’m making a cabinet.


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