When I went to the second Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, I would have never imagined it would have grown into what it is today – and WMCFest is only in its fifth year. Year after year, the art and music festival has grown and has taken significant steps in its respective communities. This time around, WMCFest expanded to include more panel discussions, and among the panelists is none other than Chicago’s own James T. Green.
James and I met on at Cafe Jumping Bean in Pilsen. Between sips of iced mocha (with a healthy dollop of whipped cream), we chatted about social media and technology, following our passions, and of course, our experiences with Weapons of Mass Creation.
Alright so – let’s start off with a little bit about who you are. Could you tell me a little bit about your education and where you started off?
(laughter) Of course I could do that! A little background about myself – I’m James T. Green; the T’s just there because it’s easier to Google. “James Green” is so common! By day, I’m a designer at Tribune Interactive focused on items for screens, so mostly our internal websites, email marketing projects, and digital ads for Tribune’s seven papers, including The Chicago Tribune and LA Times. After work, I freelance here and there with web design, illustration and branding work. When all of my day work is done, I work on my art practice, focused on digital artworks, manipulating social media and websites as art, video performance… it’s a mixed bag, I guess you could say.
What I’ve always wondered is that, well, you seem to balance your time between video, performance, design, I’ve seen you dabble in music a bit..
Oh, you have?
Yeah – a few months ago you posted a sound clip on Instagram! It was fun! So, first off, have you pursued that any further, and how do you divide your time between them? How do you decide what you’re focusing on this week, and how do you keep yourself from neglecting a certain part of your practice?
Honestly, when I look at a project, I just try to figure out what’s the best medium for it. If I have an idea, and the idea consists of some sort of audio element where I’m manipulating sound, then I’ll learn that, and I’ll try to learn the best way and ask a bunch of friends who do music and audio professionally for ideas and techniques. So, well, don’t look for an EP from me anytime soon. Honestly, the thing C’ne and I did was a joke because we had something in our heads.
AH. Well, that works, too!
If somebody wants to take us on for an experimental gig, we’ll take it on. But yeah – I just have a really big desire to learn and it’s like… if I learn more about music software and producing, then I’ll take it on.
As far as balancing time, I really subscribe to this quote I heard from David Allen – he’s kind of like a productivity mastermind. He once said, “Mind like water,” and it means that when you’re in a task, you’re focused as hell on that task, and then once you leave that task or idea, you are out of it and onto the next one. You just kind of make sure that whatever you’re working on, you’re not thinking about any other things in the process. That way you’re fully engaged in the process. So, yeah! I wake up early. I get a lot of sleep at night. I’m not that kind of creative who “burns the midnight oil” and doesn’t sleep because, frankly, I don’t work well when I don’t sleep.
I’ve heard a lot of people who encourage other to go beyond their limits and do everything they can to get what they want in life. Are you more like ‘Yes, I will do that – but I’m getting a good night of sleep in the meantime?’
Are you talking about the ‘Follow Your Passion’ people?
In a lot more words – yes.
I have beef with the ‘Follow Your Passion’ people. there’s something about that phrase that I’m not a big fan of. The phrase is steeped in so much privilege, and it discounts the importance of building skill and doing work. If you follow your passion, then you’re pretty much not planning well for anything, and it’s actually a good segue because it’s what I’m going to be debating at Weapons, and I suppose we can touch on that a bit later. And… actually, I’ve lost sight of your question! You just set me off on a whole thing, and I could talk for hours about it.
So, you’re not a follow your passion kind of person. You’re more about practicality and working towards your goals?
Yeah! Well, the thing is you can be practical, and if you want to learn more about the follow your passion thing and why I’m a staunch disbeliever of it, check out Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It’s a really good book that discounts that whole notion of following your passion because it shows that skill trumps passion. You can have all the passion you want, but if you don’t learn your skill or what it is you want to do, you can’t just drop into something. You’re pretty much shooting yourself in the foot. It’s like saying, “Oh, I have a passion to be a musician, but I don’t know anything about music – where’s my show?”
It’s one of those things that – in a perfect world – everyone would follow their passions and everyone would have great opportunities, but then no one has any skills. Where does everyone end up? It’s just so easy.
And the thing is it is thrown about as such passé career advice that it’s the end all be all, but if everyone “followed their passion,” wouldn’t we all be what we wanted to be when we woke up?
Dan: There’d be a lot of terrible music.
There’d be so much terrible music! Which is why I tell everyone: “Don’t follow your passion!”
(laughter) Yeah, follow your passion enough.
Yeah, be good first. But, check out that book – it’s really, really good. And a quick read.
Speaking of books – what other books are you reading right now?
I have this terrible habit of only reading one book at a time. The book I’m reading right now is Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think. It debunks the whole notion that technology is making us dumber, but is in fact making us smarter. It’s a series of case studies and a critical eye into all the points where technology and collaboration meet and how a connected culture is actually making us smarter as a human species. I love sociology related books, and this one written in an accessible matter that makes it relatable to a wide variety of people. It’s really good.
Regarding social media, I know you do a lot of work with it. We were talking about it on the car ride over here – about how a restaurant’s sales were suffering… You might be able to speak to it better, Dan.
Dan: There was a high-class new york restaurant (that remained unnamed in this story) who found that after ten years, between 2004 and 2014, that they were getting fewer customers in per day. So, they went back to their security footage and compared 2004 to 2014, kept track of how long it took a customer to be seated, the average time it took for the whole transaction, and from being seated to getting the check. In 2004, it was about an hour, and in 2014 it was about an hour. What they observed was that in 2014, when a person was seated, they spent 5-10 minutes on their phone and weren’t ready to order. And then, the customer got their food and took extra time to take pictures of it. Essentially, the whole reason this restaurant is doing less business is because of social media. [link]
So – using that as a springboard – what do you then think of social media in our daily lives? What do you think about people taking themselves out of a moment for selfies or interrupting the natural flow of events for Facebook status updates?
It’s so funny that you ask that because I took a mini social media break over the past four days, and today was my first day kinda plugging back into the grid, and it definitely made me think a lot about how it’s used. I think it’s great. Hell, we met through Twitter because I noticed we had a mutual friend, Sandra. Many people who I’ve met before moving to Chicago – and even after – were through social media, and I think it’s a great tool for connection.
Clive Thompson talked about it, and I don’t want to go into the whole “scare tactic” zone with all of the ‘social media is bad’ talk, but if you let it occupy too much of your time, it can be a bit of a burden. I talk about it a lot because I’m trying to get over it now in my weekly newsletter, about imposter syndrome and that feeling of always comparing yourself; with social media, it’s super easy to have that happen. Rather than waiting until you get home to compare yourself to others, you can now compare yourself to others at any open time of the day. I feel like mindful social media usage is important, looking at it and structuring the amount of times you check it, shutting off your notifications so they don’t interfere with your day-to-day, and making the choice to plug into the feed rather than let it pull you in at every given moment. It’s like you’re wrangling social media rather than it wrangling you. Do you really have to be notified every single time someone favorites a tweet? That’s kind of what I realized during my break – it got to a point where it was taking up too much of my time. I can just talk so much about it.
Oh no no, I think it’s fascinating. Even comparing the social climate from when I began college (2006) to now – it’s really changed! People spend their time doing different things, they’re interested in different things, and partially because everything is displayed online. I feel that way especially for designers, because we’re particularly involved in social media because that’s a HUGE networking opportunity. But with that comes managing it appropriately; it’s easy to let it control you. I think we’ve all been there.
Look at Paul Octavious, his career got a huge bump through Instagram! There’s something interesting to investigate in that whole feeling of snapping a photo, and instantly sharing it vs. snapping a photo and keeping it for yourself to let that idea simmer into something great later. Or, for example, a writer could get that quick jolt of dopamine from saying something witty on Twitter and let that thought go vs. having an idea, letting it simmer, and letting it grow into a writing series or a book. It’s about keeping that mindfulness of ‘what do I need to let simmer, and what do I need to put out’.
I also wanted to chat with you because you’re speaking at Weapons of Mass Creation this year, and that is awesome.
(laughter) Thank you!
How did that happen, and how were you introduced to Weapons of Mass Creation? And, how was your experience last year at the festival?
It’s funny that we’re talking about social media because I found out about Weapons of Mass Creation through social media.
It all comes full circle!
Right? One of the great things about it! So, I found out about the conference through Joseph Hughes and he kept talking about this “Weapons of Mass Creation”. I was thinking, “this sounds pretty cool, it’s nearby, I’ve never stayed in Cleveland–I rode through it on a Greyhound bus in 3rd grade…” What really won me over was when they released the lineup, and it was one of the most diverse line-ups I’ve ever seen at a conference like this. There were women, there were people of color, just…representation I’ve never seen before–I legit started crying at my desk. I’ve never seen other black designers–I was ashamed that I thought we not many of us existed. I knew I had to go and bought my ticket immediately. I went there with open eyes, and it was the most amazing time I’ve ever had. All the people I met there were incredible, I’m friends with them to this day. Cleveland was fantastic –
I love Cleveland!
– yeah! It’s just such a rad city! I’m so excited because I’m bring my bike this year, and we’re going to ride through a whole bunch of different areas. The food was great, the speakers were really good, and I really enjoyed my time. It was a really chill vibe, and it didn’t feel stuffy at all. Aside from those vibes, I felt very inspired from these new friends so I just kept up the relationships with these people. A few months earlier, I received a cold email from Margot Harrington of Pitch Design in Chicago and she was like, “Hey – we like the things you’ve been talking about through your newsletter and the things you’ve been writing about and wanted to know if you wanted to talk about and debate this whole ‘follow your passion thing’ at WMC” – and I couldn’t say no! I was also excited because the other organizer, Stewart Scott-Curran, was on the planning committee, and I’ve never met him. And I was super thankful and really excited and just… happy! It’s going to be a great conference.
Speaking of the diversity of WMC, the first year I attended in 2012, the festival was actually criticized for having a very white, young male demographic among their speakers. I believe there was maybe one or two groups of women who spoke but otherwise it was very cookie-cutter. The speeches were amazing and very good, but it was mostly white dudes talking. I’m really happy that they’re branching out this year with people of color and LGBTQ speakers –
Yeah! That’s great, there’s a whole LGBTQ panel this year.
– which is awesome! I think it’s really great they’re doing this and taking these really forward-thinking steps, but do you at all feel like they’re “being diverse to be diverse”?
There’s a big critique that I have about that phrasing – “being diverse to be diverse” – it actually kind of boils my blood. It’s like saying, “I wouldn’t normally be inclusive, but I think I’ll be inclusive”, and in my eyes, that’s ridiculous. I actually think it’s kind of impossible to ‘be diverse to be diverse’. In many fields, like teachers for example, you hire teachers in your area according to the demographic because you want to relate to all types of audience members and you want to create a comfortable environment, so why wouldn’t you do the same for design/tech/art? To say that someone is being diverse to be diverse, then that’s actually discounting all of the people of color and all of the LGBTQ communities that are designers and saying that they all relate to the experiences of straight, white males. I feel like it’s really hard to say that someone is being diverse for diversity’s sake; I feel like diverse should be the default, because in the end, we are all diverse. Plus, I trust them that it’s done in and for the right ways, and I commend them for keeping that going for 2014 and even actually stepping it up. If there’s criticism, then let’s go.
I just like how the festival is growing – it started off as a small thing, Jeff Finley and a few of his friends just sharing experiences. The next year, they stepped it up a little bit with some speakers and some bands, and I think 2013 was when it exploded into… awesomeness. It was already awesome, and then.. I’m sorry, I’m really lacking in adjectives right now! But yes – a small statement on why I personally enjoy WMCFest.
So, what made you decide to start your email newsletter? i think it’s fun and you just kind of say what you’ve been thinking, what you’ve been reading, you encourage responses and are doing an awesome job at really creating a dialogue with the people you want to connect with. it makes you interesting as a person but also interesting as a designer and an artist.
First of all, thanks for subscribing! (laughter) There were a few reasons I started the newsletter. First of all, I wanted to be a better writer, so having the accountability of knowing that every Sunday I better load something into MailChimp and having it deploy on Monday – it’s an accountability factor on yourself, and it kind of puts the pressure on. Two, I wanted to be a better communicator, in both art and design, communication is key – so again having accountability for that. (And of course these are in no particular order.) And three, I’ve been talking with a lot of people about this thing, especially with a really great designer, Sharlene King, who will be on panel with me at Weapons of Mass Creation – we’ve had a lot of discussions together about sharing information and sharing thoughts and sort of the whole concept of sharing everything because that not only makes yourself a better person, but it makes the community and other people better, too. What good is it to keep info to yourself? I get in my head a lot – I feel like if once a week I can share a thought that’s floating around, that’d be great, and also I think its good when people peel away the final product with those types of things and talk about the hardships, you know? Whether it’s a happy week or whether it’s “Man, I’m suffering from imposter syndrome this week”, I know that there are others talking about it and generally others don’t want to talk about it because they’ll be seen as weak or they just don’t want to talk about the bad stuff. I just think it’s a cool way to do that.
I also kind of want to bring back email! Everyone complains that email is crappy. Email’s that kind of thing… But I miss the days where email was the only thing we had, and we had pen pals that we’d email back and forth and open up conversations versus me simply talking down to an audience and “Here’s a lesson I think you should learn” – just no! I want to hear what you’re talking about. Tell me about what happened in your life. Also, I wanted a space for thing that are longer than tweets. The first newsletter was inspired by a conversation I had with someone debating the ‘follow your passion’ thing. It was like this huge thread that you couldn’t even follow, so we turned it into something longer than just shooting off 140 characters. So then, I was just like ‘why not’? It was a huge combination of those things. Start a newsletter. Let’s see how long it goes.
I think one of the most valuable things about it is that you allow people to reply back to you and that you don’t discourage conversation. One thing that I liked about WMC is that the first year I was there, I used to see designers that I admired on a pedestal, as the holy grail of design achievements, as untouchable talented human beings, but at Weapons they were just down there, on stage, chatting to us about their struggles with design while wearing t-shirts and jeans, and then in the evening, I drank beer next to them. It made these designers and illustrators really approachable. I think that’s something you really benefit from with this email. You share your strengths and you share your weaknesses, and at the end of the day, people feel comfortable coming up and talking to you.
Yeah, they kind of circle back in social media. It’s so easily to have your highlight reel out there – I’m awesome, I’m doing this interview, I was featured in this – post after post, but nobody sees you up at 2am doubting yourself, thinking ‘this is shit’, feeling like a terrible designer-type thing, so I feel like I can benefit more from being open. There’s definitely a fine line between over-sharing and being open, and it’s important to find that balance. it was kind of nice because I kind of have beef with the whole untouchable syndrome, especially in design – nobody’s celebrities, we’re all doing public services for the world, essentially, I heard this quote “there’s no such thing as a famous dentist”. You’re only famous to other designers in the field. if you ask anyone else outside the field about Paul Rand – they don’t care. We’re all people.
Agreed. And creatives like you and I are on the other end, getting excited over Massimo Vignelli.
In the end, he’s a person. We’re not gods. We all wake up, go to sleep, eat, whatever!
Are you a big podcast listener?
Oh, am I.. of course! Luckily, we’re in a spoken interview, and you can’t see me pulling up this list of podcasts I regularly listen to…
I was interviewed on this blog by Max Tempkin and another designer who’s speaking at Weapons this year, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt. On their mini blog, Podcast Thing, we discussed what my favorite podcasts were – so listen to that for a few of my top favorites, but right off the bat, the ones that I really enjoy that are my go-to, The Urbanist is really, really good – it’s from Monocle. They do breakdowns of different parts of cities and what makes them tick. I’m a big train nerd, and I think a few weeks ago they did a story on trains in the cities and how much train transportation is used. It’s a good way to let me mind wander a bit. I feel the same way with 99% Invisible with industrial design. My favorite episode was one where they talked about sound design, everything from user interface sounds to songs.
Speaking of songs, another that I enjoy is Song Exploder. I think they do it every two weeks, and he interviews either bands or musicians, and they break down a song from every sound every track every layer and ask what the inspiration was, everything from the vocals to the sounds. Since I’m super technical, I find that super interesting.
Some other ones I enjoy are This Week in Blackness – they do a lot of political-based podcasts and I’m a political junkie so I get a lot of my information from there. Beyond the To-Do List is a great productivity podcast where they interview people once a week and talk about how they do things. The Moth Podcast – great for storytelling but everyone knows that.
CBC Radio’s Wiretap. It’s a story-telling podcast, but it’s more based in Canadian broadcast. It’s like the Canadian “This American Life” but it’s not..
This Canadian Life.
Yes – they say “aboot”. They throw in fiction stories – it’s a lot funnier.
Freakonomics. It’s economics but broken down for everyone to hear. Not super technical. But yes, those are my favorites!
Who are you excited to see at this year’s WMC Fest? Other than speaking, what are you excited to do?
Oh man, I’m really jazzed for Veronica’s talk – the one who is part of the Podcast Thing. She’s really great, I’ve been a huge fan of her work and I’m excited to hear what she’s gonna chat about. Also Martine Syms, she’s an L.A. based designer and artist. I’ve been a huge fan of her work and I was introduced to her while I was an undergrad, and I’ve actually never met her, but we’ve done a lot of e-critiques. I had a show in May of last year, and she helped me back and forth, what should I put in and what should I take out, all over email as well as people I should be reading, things I should be subscribing to. So, it’ll be great to meet her.
A friend like that is such a valuable resource.
Yeah, it’ll be good to see her talk! She posted a talk she did at South by Southwest, and it was about the black vernacular. She’s got a lot of smart things to say and I’m excited about that. Also looking forward to Jacinda Walker.
Oh! And I’m sure you’ve noticed, but Phillip (Briar Rabbit) is going to be there!
Yeah totally! As far as music goes, yeah. He told me that, and it’ll be good to finally be in the same city. We’ve been so back and forth. He’s in Chicago, I’m out in Michigan, I’m in Chicago, and he’s out in… where ever.
Any other Midwestern bands that you’re excited to check out this year at WMC?
You know what, I didn’t look up any other musicians past Phillip. The thing that really blew my mind was last year: I saw Astronautilis. I didn’t know about him until Weapons, but my mind was blown when I saw him perform. Unfortunately, the only one I know is Briar Rabbit, but I’m going to take more time this year to really check out the music.
He’s all over – a very productive man.
Yeah, I’m so jazzed he’s blowing up. And it’s, like, his time, too. Do you know how we met?
To bring this full circle (again) – Twitter?
Even crazier – a mix of social media and in-person.
It was a really, really hot summer, and I was still in Joliet at the time – maybe two years ago. And it was hot, but a beautiful day. I was like, “Man, I don’t want to be in Joliet.” So, I called a friend and suggested a Chicago trip, and we began thinking of what to do. She suggested a concert, so I literally Googled “cheap concerts in Chicago” and saw that Subterranean had five bands for five dollars, all local. So, we agreed and drove up there; a good chunk of the bands were so-so. But then, right before Phillip’s band went up, he was standing behind me, chatting me up, asking about how I felt about the bands so far and such – didn’t tell me he was going up there. All of a sudden, I saw him going up there, and I’m wondering if he’s with the band coming up next, and all of a sudden, he’s doing mic checks and I’m like, “Shit, this guy’s actually about to perform.” So he starts, and I record a short video of it and toss it up on YouTube. We chatted a bit afterwards, and I tossed up a video I recorded on Twitter shortly after the show. lo-and-behold, he found the YouTube clip and found me on Facebook, and then we became friends, and he invited me to a video of his, “Float.” So if you look at float, you’ll see me reading a paper. It’s a beautiful song.
Ever since then, we found we had so many mutual friends, I ended up doing his album art, we stayed tight, and we’ve been cool ever since. It really just shows how small Chicago really is. So yeah – it’ll be good to finally be at the same venue.
What’s in the future for James T. Green? You’re showing art in Sacramento soon, correct?
Yeah, I’ve got a few things coming up on my plate. I just did a podcast on WSTS Radio about technology use in communities of color. That was incredibly fun – the first podcast I’ve done. I have a show currently up through October 10th at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park, Chicago. It’s a group show called How to Make A Hood, all about trying to define the different definitions of ‘hood. After that (of course) is Weapons of Mass Creation, and the showing some video artworks in front of Jay Jay Gallery in Sacramento on the 13th of September. That’s all for now, and then I guess I’ll take a break. And I’m getting married somewhere in-between there on the 6th of September.
Could you speak a bit about your collaborations with your fiancée, C’ne? You seem like you’re both very big inspirations for each other.
We’ve been together for 6 years, so that kinda helps too. We both have a collaborate studio practice and our personal, separate practices. We share a studio space in the bordering Logan Square/ Humboldt Park area of Chicago at Autotelic Studios – it’s a storefront we share with 7 other artists and we have our own separate area to work. Whenever we collaborate, it’s strictly for performance artworks at the moment.
We spend apart one day a week where we go do our own things and then come back together because we do need our space. That same mindset flows into our separate practice and our collaborative work. I definitely say we inspire each other – she does more collage-based work and I do more technology-based work, so I’ll go to her when, say, I need something printed, because she knows all about paper, sizes, and printing techniques. She can use an X-acto and I can’t. I did a series of zines to compliment some projection-based artwork back in October and she printed out the zines, helped me choose the paper, and everything turned out great! In return, if she needs help with a website for her work, then I’ll help her out with that. It’s kind of a nice “iron-sharpening-iron” thing we’ve got going on, and I like that we have different practices, but we don’t overlap enough that we consistently butt heads, but we learn from each other all the time.