If the Internet is a cultural barometer, everyone I know is obsessed with setting goals (and eating “paleo”). We’re frantically sharing work strategies, mood boards, productivity tips and day-in-the-life schedules that explain how to simultaneously start a business and train for the Tour de France (dope-free, of course).
I set goals, too. I like tough deadlines and I’ve never met a notebook or organizational app that I couldn’t get behind. But what’s the result of all this self-reflection? Maybe we’re getting stuff done (a phrase I’ve come to loathe), but are we getting any better?
To be blunt; am I a better writer today than I was three years ago? I hope so, but I can tell you with complete certainty that I am a better interviewer.
I do a lot of interviews, and I’ve yet to find a technology that can effectively transform my digital voice recordings into legible type. I’ve searched and tested and nothing works – and somewhere along the way, I realized that transcribing is more than a necessary evil.
Hearing a conversation again usually reveals something I missed, and at the very least, deepens my understanding of the story. Listening – repeatedly – to your own voice on tape, however, is a special kind of torture. The recording lays bare every high-pitched giggle, nasal tone and unexpected speech tic. It’s easy to get flustered, right there in the privacy of your own earbuds.
During all that tedious typing, though, comes real learning. I realize which questions elicit the best responses and how to make people feel at ease. I also learn when to shut up and get over myself, versus moments where I could actually improve the interaction.
The irritating necessity of transcription has now become my tool for self-improvement. It works – and it makes me wonder what else is possible. Creativity is beautifully messy and intangible, but the skills we use in its service can always be sharpened. Most of us would do well to stop the planning now and then and do some clear-eyed assessment.
I urge you to find ways to measure your progress. Build a personal report card. Score yourself with grace and honesty. Then laugh off your mistakes and chalk it all up to learning.
Now have a drink. You’ve earned it.
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There’s something in the air. Every day I hear about a new conference, workshop, speaker series or educational event — and many of these sessions are aimed squarely at artists and creatives.
Online technology has made it easy to watch presentations long after the seats are empty. At the same time, in-person learning feels increasingly rarefied. We all have crazy schedules and a thousand voices competing for our attention. Taking the time to attend a live event or class (unless you’re earning a degree) is a leap of faith; you want to leave feeling inspired, and at the very least, better informed.
Here’s a sample of the growing number of creative learning events, Vanity Fair style.
1. The elder statesman
We all know and love TED — the speaking series founded in 1984 as a conference for technology (T), entertainment (E) and design (D). Today, there are two annual TED Conferences in Long Beach and Palm Springs, the summertime TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh, and a variety of affiliated fellowships, prizes and independently-organized TEDx events. With a mission to spread ideas, TED “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”
TED became a widespread phenomenon, however, when the TED.com site launched in 2007. Suddenly, we all had a front-row seat for the world’s best TEDTalks. They’re free to watch, legal to share and re-post, and they’re very, very addictive. The most viewed talks of all time come from author Elizabeth Gilbert, scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, musician Jake Shimabukuro, and education professor Sir Ken Robinson, among others.
2. The rebel
Night School is what happens when a distinguished Seattle boutique hotel hosts filmmakers, writers, bartenders, artists, and musicians for salon-style conversations and eclectic performances. Established by curator Michael Hebb and Barbara Malone, co-owner of the Sorrento Hotel, Night School offers a bold mix of creative programming that’s designed to inspire and provoke. Expect to see more of these casual-yet-brainy gatherings at an indie venue near you.
3. The go-getter
Designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swiss Miss) launched the CreativeMornings breakfast lecture series in New York City in September 2009. The free monthly format has now spread to 16 other cities and counting. The predominantly tech-savvy crowd arrives bright and early to hear smart speakers and chug the free coffee. After all, there’s a still a full workday ahead once the applause dies down.
4. The local
Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to have an intimate and increasingly engaged creative community. In addition to our own Tedx conference, we have CREATIVEMIX and a new CreativeMornings team, plus the big industry events, such as the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Writers Festival and many, many more. From Portland to Melbourne to Hong Kong and Copenhagen, I’m sure there’s a similar story playing out in your city. Creatives are hungry to learn — and they’re getting organized.
5. The iconoclast
Tomato, ToMAHto, PechaKucha or PehCHACHka; however you say it, PechaKucha night is a global phenomenon that blends learning with self-promotion in a lively social setting (drinking is encouraged). Launched in Tokyo in 2003 as a forum for young designers to share their work with peers and the public, PechaKucha presenters show 20 images for 20 seconds each and describe what’s up on the big screen.
Some talks are funny, some are dull, and some are downright exceptional. You never know what you’re going to get — and that’s part of the beauty of this fast-paced night out. The concept has ignited in cities and towns around the world. Wherever you are, there’s probably a PechaKucha night in the works.
I’ve long admired Vancouver’s In the House Festival. Born in 2003, this creative performance series transforms private homes and living spaces into temporary theatre venues. The eclectic, intimate shows often fuse music, dance, storytelling, film, theatre, spoken word, acrobatics and burlesque to create unique cultural experiences for hosts, audiences and artists alike.
Yesterday afternoon, I got a sneak peek at their third-annual haunted theatre installation. Just in time for Halloween, the House of Faerie Bad Things is a mash-up of puppetry, opera, aerial circus, belly dance, film and music. The one-hour tour takes you through 14 different faerie environments in a labyrinth-like space. Eight shows run nightly from Oct. 29-31st with an after-party for all ticket holders following the last tour.
“It’s a very different kind of scare than ‘here’s a dude with a chainsaw,'” explains In the House artistic director and show co-producer Myriam Steinberg, who suggests the eerie tour is best suited for visitors ages 12 and up. All the scenes pull their dark, often gruesome and macabre content from old faerie tales. But, “there are a few moments that are hauntingly beautiful,” adds Steinberg.
So why faeries? What’s so frightening about Tinkerbell, Ariel and her winged sisters — and what’s the connection to Halloween?
“It’s all linked to the same culture,” says artistic director and co-producer Chris Murdoch, whose studies in comparative mythology revealed that nearly all pre-Christian societies had faerie-related celebrations around harvest time, during the period we now mark as Halloween. People believed that the veil separating the earthly world from the supernatural grows thin as winter draws near. The stories and fables passed down from early civilizations provide a cautionary tale for the season. “I really enjoy faerie mythology and the tongue-in-cheek, dark humour in it,” says Murdoch.
I have to confess I’m usually a Halloween killjoy. Save for the occasional set of Mickey Mouse ears or the year I played a vampire victim, I usually let the day slip by without celebration. The House of Faerie Bad Things offers a new way to explore the dark holiday without resorting to the usual clichés. You’ll get an excellent dose of local theatre culture — and hopefully a good scare, too.
To buy tickets (they’re going fast) or for more details, visit the In the House Festival website.
Rockstar Diaries is one of my daily blog reads. Writer / dancer / photographer / red lipstick afficionado Naomi Davis has such an unbridled zest for life that you always want to know what she’s thinking and what vintage frock she’s wearing.
Her site recently saved my carol-addled ears with a great online holiday album called, Hey, It’s Christmas.
And while we’re on the topic, what are your picks for best and worst Christmas songs? Here are mine:
Worst: Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney. Oh, Paul. My ears are bleeding tinsel.
** p.s. Morrissey clearly doesn’t share my love for the 1984 charity single:
“I’m not afraid to say that I think Band Aid was diabolical. Or to say that I think Bob Geldof is a nauseating character. Many people find that very unsettling, but I’ll say it as loud as anyone wants me to. In the first instance the record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of Great Britain. It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. And it wasn’t done shyly it was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.” 
photo by RAD Studio
Today, my friends, you’re in for a treat, because Vancouver-based painter Zoe Pawlak is sharing her well-earned wisdom on art, persistence and strategic creativity.
I first met Zoe through Loaded Bow – a venture she co-owns with Genevieve Ennis designed to connect and support women entrepreneurs. Zoe’s one of those people who can turn strangers into allies in five minutes flat. She’s warm and driven with a ridiculously sharp mind for business. Most importantly, her paintings draw you deep into the canvas with vibrant, vivid colors and hypnotic images.
Zoe studied painting at Concordia University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She’s the rare artist who enjoys both a thriving critical practice – including solo and group shows across the continent – and a successful career painting commissioned, site-specific works. She also served as Head of Community Relations for the 2010 Cheaper Show and writes for the Art Toronto blog, impression / expression.
As the mom of two kids under five, Zoe’s determined to follow her creative instincts and support her family. She also talks about painting with a sense of excitement that’s surprisingly rare. Zoe’s downright giddy about spending her days in the studio and sees sales and marketing as a welcome challenge – and a great adventure. So sharpen your pencil or power up your iPad and prepare to take notes. There’s so much to learn from this lovely and talented lady.
1. What fuels your work?
I started painting because I love people, so I painted the figure for a long time and I practiced figure drawing and portraiture, because I wanted to tell the story of what people physically look like and how they move through the world. Over the last few years, my work has been emotive landscapes that are either physical or emotional places, and the paintings are made from memory. I arrive at them through experimentation and intuition and I just sense when they’re complete.
These days, I’m moving back into figurative work and trying to combine the figure with partial narratives and stories about women, specifically, and what we’re experiencing.
2. How do you balance the different demands of painting and business?
There’s a natural intrusion that occurs and I actually really enjoy it. It’s the spontaneity that drives my work. When I’m painting, I have a lot of time by myself and ideas just come to me about how I could sell work and move it through the market. I actually enjoy the peace and the rest that painting gives me. It fuels creative ideas and innovative ways of doing business.
I’ll paint for about an hour, hour and a half, put on music and get into it. If an idea comes to me about a client that I have to follow up with or a really beautiful blog that I forgot to write down, I’ll stop painting. I have my laptop in my studio and I’ll work for 20 or 30 minutes and pursue certain ideas. I’m a strong believer in always putting your work out there, so for the past three or four years, I’ve always spent a minimum of 15 minutes a day putting my work out into the world.
I feel like being in business drives a lot of the ways I think about painting. I have a responsibility to make honest work, but I also want it to be relevant to people.
3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
Martha is very persistent and she’s built an empire. She paved the way for us. We get to do what we do because women like Martha Sturdy have pushed through. I was fortunate to have a phone interview with Martha once and she ended by saying, “make sure that you’re always having adventures.” But throughout our the conversation, she kept saying that you have to be persistent, make what you want, put it out in the world – and if you love it, people will love it. Well, sometimes they won’t, but as a creative person, you have to continue to make the work that you really want to make.
I’ve recently gotten to know Jane and I respect the fact that she’s worked hard and shaped the company based on her strong philosophical beliefs. Jane is very attentive to what she thinks is going on, what people need, and she’s behind so many great cultural events in the city, like the introduction of Pecha Kucha in Vancouver. She’s taken Vancouver up as a calling. I think she’s very wise and innovative, and I feel that Cause+Affect thinks farther into the future than many other companies.
4. How many revenue streams do you have?
I make my money only through painting and drawing, but I do so in two ways. One is selling my original paintings and the other is commission work, which I’ve really pursued and tried to carve out as niche for myself by providing clients with a service. I say service, because people do receive an original painting. I believe in that originality and I don’t make prints.
Last month, for example, I worked with a clinic that needed art for their interiors and I sold them five paintings. Three were commissions based on their space. They sent photographs and I took elements from the pre-existing colour scheme and other details and I made them into original paintings. They also two bought two of my original pieces. I always make sure to bring the work right into the client’s space. Nine times out of ten when I bring work into a space, it doesn’t leave.
I’ll give minor discounts and I offer payment plans – I try to make it accessible – but I pay real attention to customer service. I think of myself as a people person and customer service is of the utmost importance.
I applied to participate in a recent city mural project with RUF Project and for Brief Encounters, as well, which are dependent on grant funding. I’m really interested in the public and performative aspects of painting.
5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
Commissions probably represent 60 percent of my income. The sale of original pieces accounts for the other 40 percent.
How do people – especially other artists – react to your focus on custom work and the idea of customer service?
Artists want to make a living from their work, but a lot of them don’t want to alter their art to meet the needs of clients, or they don’t even think of the people who buy their art as clients. So, sometimes it’s met with suspicion. Most artists believe that they’re doomed to carry another job and few believe that it’s possible to make a living independently. But when you go through traditional systems, such as galleries, you’re still subject to other people’s ideas of what your art should look like and how it should ultimately be.
I’ve seen a lot of artists who think they’ve arrived after securing gallery representation and then they’re either disappointed or surprised if they don’t sell well. They just assume “Okay, now I’m in this big gallery, now I’m going to sell,” but if they’re not making a living, their studio practice suffers. At the end of the day, my mission is to support my studio practice, which affords me the ability to make new ideas happen. I get to advance my career and I work full-time in the studio. I don’t take that lightly and consider it a huge blessing.
6. Do you have a passive income stream?
I’ve done other things, such as teaching, and I’ve let my attention become very divided in the pursuit of making a living. But time and time again, my husband always says, “you pay yourself the most when you’re painting.” At this point in my career, I’m very committed to doing what is the most lucrative. I only have to sell one big painting in order to make my monthly income, for example, so why would I do 15 other little things and run around like crazy? But you still have to do a lot of work to ensure one or two sales.
photo by RAD Studio
7. What tools or money-making opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?
Right now, I’m really excited about video. I think video and YouTube are a great way to give people a glimpse into your studio practice and who you are. Essentially, I believe that people are looking for connection – across the board. Through Oprah, through yoga, through everything, we’re looking to connect with each other. So, anything that allows you to touch your customer and connect with people is going to make you more prosperous.
I also believe in follow-up. My last 50 clients have come from following up on leads. You have to be first-of-mind for people. I often meet people who don’t have any money – they’re students, they have debt, whatever – but I know that in seven years when they have $2,000 in the bank, I trust that they may buy a painting from me, because they’ve responded to the paintings, I’ve planted that seed and I’m authentically building that relationship.
I feel honored, too, when I sell a painting, because that means you’re leaving a piece in someone’s home. They live with that painting every day and they’re giving you a huge piece of their interior physical space. It’s a big responsibility. People wake up in the morning, they’re drying their hair and doing their thing and I feel honored that they let me live permanently in their homes.
8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?
Design*Sponge. In 2008, Grace Bonney featured my work on her blog and I sold over 20 paintings in three days. It also led to a commission with Chloe Warner of Redmond Aldrich Design. She hired me to create a piece in San Francisco, which was my biggest commission to date. I also got to travel down there and the piece was photographed for Martha Stewart Living.
Building visibility in my hometown, Vancouver, has also been valuable. I’ve done that through the Cheaper Show, IDS West, and a couple wedding fairs. I also send free thank you cards (with my website on the back) for real estate agents. They give the cards to clients who have new homes with empty walls. I’ve also offered agents a deal on a commission and they, in turn, give their clients my card with the gift of a custom painting. When the agent knows their client is an art lover, it connects me to the client, the homeowner gets a commissioned, one-of-a-kind piece – and they always have more walls to fill.
After the first Design*Sponge feature, I wrote a story for the site’s Biz Ladies section and provided a PDF of my thank you card. Anyone who reads it can take the PDF to a printer and, of course, the card has my website on the back. That led to about 300 email requests and now those cards are living out in the world. There are all kinds of ways to do things for free.
From a business perspective, I never see selling one painting as good enough. If someone says they want one painting, I bring three and show them more. Or if they say, “I love that, but it’s sold,” I say, “I’d love to do a commission for you. Let me come over and I can customize it to your space.” I work hard to meet people’s needs. There’s no such thing as a dead end.
I’ve also done a lot of business with women through Loaded Bow. I give work to charitable auctions, which has been awesome and ultimately, very lucrative. I make sure to attend the auction and talk to people. You can’t let your piece sit out in the middle of nowhere. I also promote emerging Canadian artists for impression/expression, which is the Art Toronto blog. When I write for others, I always ensure that my name is hyper-linked to my site and I get a lot of traffic back that way.
Is there anything that hasn’t been worth the effort?
I’ve done so many things that aren’t worth it! I did a joint show during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. At the end, we realized, “oh, so people were here for the sports and the beer!” That was an expensive mistake. We rented an empty space and took a month out of our studio practice to be present and the show, but no one came. The South Granville area was like a ghost town.
Still, I wouldn’t discourage people from trying new things. Make small, thoughtful investments and do them really well. I’ve made this mistake a lot – and I keep making it: Appearing mediocre because you’re too cheap or unwilling to go all the way to fully realize an idea. That is a weakness.
Even if you only have a bit of money, do it 110%. Really commit. People recognize quality and they’re looking for quality – and if you’re not good at the little details, ask for help. I outsource all the time. I’m always asking to do trades with people. I trade for yoga and haircuts and massages, but also to promote my business. Try and outsource that which is not your strength. Again, I pay myself the most when I’m painting.
9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
Ever since I had kids, I feel strongly that you need to do what you’re meant to do. The biggest investment is actually the time you give up to work. You have to be apart from your home and the people who matter to you. I spend a lot of hours in the studio in pursuit of this thing that I could be wrong about and that I’m often wrong about. It takes faith to commit your time and energy. I was out four nights last week promoting my work. I feel very fortunate that I can do it, but it’s still a sacrifice and an investment. I really want my children to do exactly what they’re meant to do in the world – whatever that is.
photo by RAD Studio
10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? What would selling out look like to you?
Why are we creating this polarized conversation about selling out versus purity? I’m so excited when I experience art that comes from a clear vision. Someone like Rothko, for example. When I look at his work, I’m so grateful that he never deviated from the “purity” of his vision. He never sold out, so to speak. I think there’s a stronger cultural impact if someone is true to his or her art. But can you afford that in this capitalist world? I’m unwilling to suffer in the ways so many artists have and still do. I want to have a balanced life more than I want to have my ideas completely manifested through my paintings.
Ultimately, I know when I’ve sold out. I know when I’ve sold something and I thought it wasn’t really done or very good or it deviated from my true style. But you can only find your compass by messing up. I hear that from a lot of entrepreneurs. Cut ties with the things that you know are wrong, right from the beginning. You knew it six months ago. You knew it a year ago. Then when you’re free, you have space for other things to come in.
Tonight I’m going to see Arcade Fire – Montreal’s indie darlings who now fill stadiums around the globe. That means, of course, that music geeks are beginning to call them “sellouts.”
“I feel like Arcade Fire has reached that point where they’re now Mother-approved. As in, you’ll soon be receiving a call from your mom asking if you’ve heard of this band called ‘The Arcade Fires’, because she read about them in Entertainment Weekly or heard them on NPR’s Morning Edition. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course…”
It’s an age-old story. A band / artist / designer / performer tips into mainstream popularity and is immediately branded dull and irrelevant. But unless they start churning out sub-par material (see U2), popularity doesn’t have to equal creative compromise.
As for Arcade Fire, their third album, The Suburbs, has received heaps of critical acclaim and they’re known for serving up positively electric live shows. They’ve also become savvy viral marketers.
The band doesn’t court mainstream press, but partnered with Google Chrome to release a buzzy, interactive film that quickly made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. They also created eight different covers for The Suburbs and multiple purchase options, including CD, premium digital files, double 12-inch vinyl, and combinations of all three. They’re smart with social media — and they give back, with a focus on rebuilding Haiti through the KANPE Foundation and Partners in Health.
Sellouts? Not in my book, but we’ll see if they deliver the goods tonight.
I’ve been thinking lately about photography as a tool for innovation. Of course, it’s also a serious art form, but even the most amateur photos reveal something that’s nearly impossible to write or speak. Cameras are instruments of creative democracy.
Painters, architects, writers, foodies, fashion designers — name an artsy pursuit and it inevitably intersects with photography. Still images offer inspiration, reference, perspective, memory and so much more.
My first camera was a Kodak disc. I took it to the zoo and when the prints came back, I had shot after blurry, bleary shot of llama nostrils and elephant skin. Following a series of increasingly high-tech point-and-shoots (a mini zoom lens! leather wrist strap!) I graduated to my Mom’s Nikon FG manual SLR, which had been gathering dust in the broom closet. I took an art college course to learn basic shooting and darkroom techniques and began snapping photos for my university’s student newspaper.
I loved the constant access to a darkroom and, more importantly, I was thrilled to stand below the stage and capture Radiohead, the Cowboy Junkies, Art Bergmann, Billy Bragg and long-gone punk bands in the dusty light. I lost track of photography after I graduated and struggled to join the digital revolution. But I’m finding my way back. I have a new camera that I love and I’m using it more often for interviews and to explore my favorite subject — people.
I hope to post more photos in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I dug out some old black & white prints and put the scanner through its paces.
How do you use photography in your creative work?
photo by Sebastian Kim
As I stream The xx on MySpace — for the fifth delicious time today — let’s talk about music and money.
Clearly I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve just been reading about YouTube’s new revenue sharing program. Have you heard about it? Musicians Wanted is a partner plan for independent artists — and the key word is indie. You need to own the global rights to publish and distribute your own video content.
Here’s how it works:
Artists earn monthly revenue from both “relevant” ads overlaid on their original videos and banner ads that run beside the viewer window. They also earn dividends when their YouTube videos are embedded on external websites, such as music blogs (a huge selling point for popular artists), and bands can add tour dates and links-to-purchase for albums and merchandise.
Interested artists have to apply, and they’re evaluated on factors including video popularity, number of channel subscribers, and their involvement in the YouTube community at large. Videos also have to meet quality requirements (i.e. no loopy screen savers paired with an audio track). What’s especially interesting is that YouTube employees will choose which acts are accepted, essentially turning them into digital music scouts.
The first band to join up? OK Go, which left EMI / Capitol earlier this year to start its own label — and since everyone and their grandmother watched the addictive treadmill video for “Here It Goes Again,” they’ve definitely got the audience to make it work.
OK Go also got tongues wagging for using State Farm Insurance money to make its “This Too Shall Pass” video. A toy truck with a tiny State Farm logo on its door gets the action rolling and at the end, the screen reads: “OK Go thanks State Farm for making this video possible.”
Whether they’re savvy or sell-outs is your call — the arrangement has been heavily debated in both business and music circles — but the band has demonstrated that it’s willing to get cozy with mainstream brands in order to keep producing quirky, highly viral videos.
As for the YouTube program, the mere idea is another notch in the vinyl for indie artists. Major label representation is not the promised land of the past, and as more and more musicians choose to control their own careers, viable revenue models will continue to evolve and expand. The program’s other upside is its potential to spotlight innovative visual artists and bands that apply real creativity to their videos. After all, the more people view the vids, the more cash flows into deserving pockets.
What happens when you cross a marketing executive with a theatrical dance artist? How about a floral designer and an African drummer? If you’re lucky, you get Brief Encounters — the ultimate live mashup created by Vancouver’s Tomorrow Collective.
Produced by Katy Harris-McLeod and Mara Branscombe, each installment matches 12 artists in six unexpected pairings. The partners meet just two weeks before the show to create a 10-minute live performance. The results are strange, unpredictable and sometimes even breathtaking.
I had been meaning for months to check out Brief Encounters (they’re on installment #14), and a well-timed text finally got me in the audience on Saturday. Two high points of the night included a moving collaboration between hip hop dancer Yoshi Hisanaga and visual artist Yun Lam Li, and the partnership between aerialist Keely Sills and acclaimed storyteller Ivan Coyote.
It all comes down to chemistry. Hisanaga and Li joked about their generation gap in an intro video, but blended video, music and masterful live dancing into an experience that stunned the silent crowd. Then, suspended high above the stage, Sills effortlessly flipped and stretched her body through the silks while Coyote wove a restrained tale of love, loss and family. Magic.
There will always be bigger hits and a few near-misses, but I love the spirit of this series. It made me think more deeply about collaboration — and breaking boundaries. What could give your work new colour? And why not impose a two-week timeline on an ambitious project? It’s an effective way to stop procrastinating and second-guessing yourself. There simply isn’t time.
Creativity is always pulsing below the surface, but sometimes it takes an impossible deadline (and flat-out panic) to push past what feels like a barrier. We’ve all had 11th hour triumphs. This show demonstrated that time and collaboration are ingredients — elements you can mix at will to create something surprising.