When I first started doing any journalism, there was one moment I arrived upon that felt very relieving. It was the moment I finally identified a process for pragmatically doing it—the steps I needed to take to get organized, and the moving parts that needed to be in place before I could start writing. Once I’d identified those, the world (of journalism, anyway) opened up to me. Before then, it felt more like I was struggling to tread in a choppy ocean, and I had no idea how to get to the shore.
The Creative Independent, an editorial website supported by Kickstarter, and located within the startup’s spacious Greenpoint offices, was built for anyone similarly flummoxed by the creative act—for anyone who needs some gentle guidance, or crucial yet pragmatic insight, to help lead them to the end of their work. Visiting the website feels not very different than communing with the live circuitry of the creative process itself.
“We knew we wanted to create something artist-focused, something that gave voice to people making things,” said Brandon Stosuy, the site’s Editor-in-Chief. He was sitting on a couch in a quiet living room-like space in Kickstarter Headquarters, wearing a ball cap and sweatshirt. After 13 years of writing at Pitchfork, Stosuy said he was ready to get back to writing words people really read, rather than reviews people visit primarily to see how many stars that an album had received. “I met with Yancey”—Strickler, Kickstarter CEO—“in the early days, which was three or four months ago, and he said the site should feel like it’s for artists, so it should almost feel like we hijacked the idea of Björk’s blog.” (If you have not done so, head to www.bjork.com now. Unsurprisingly, it’s weird, but simple, and gives the impression that you are watching a jellyfish-like creature in the process of creating things.)
“I thought that was a really interesting comment,” said Laurel Schwulst, the site’s designer and Creative Director, jumping in. “So the site initially launched with a design that was based on color and blocks.” Schwulst is also CTO, and teaches at Yale’s School of Art most spring semesters. Sitting next to Stosuy she was deep in thought, and joined the conversation in bursts, only when she really had something to say. “A few weeks ago we re-designed [the site] and this is stage two,” she continued. “If you go to the very bottom of the site, it says it’s in progress; we are talking to these people about their process.”
Not unlike Björk’s blog, you kind of have to visit The Creative Independent to really get what that means. The team posts daily interviews conducted with creators at the top of their fields (Matthew Barney, Shepard Fairey, Roxane Gay, Jenny Hval, Eileen Myles, Angel Olsen, Chloë Sevigny, Björk herself, and on and on), and then organizes these conversations with targeted, pragmatic tags: They are sorted by discipline (writing, music, art, technology, dance); specific procedural roadblocks (“multi-tasking,” “anxiety,” “adversity,” “beginnings”); and the names of each of the interviewees, in order to direct you as quickly as possible to a topic or problem similar to the one that plagues you, and to provide a resource to work through it. Without superfluous design detritus in the way, the site is a highly navigable, exceptionally insightful archive of “How-Tos” for the creative mind.
As an example of the The Creative Independent brand of Wiki, Stosuy brings up rapidly rising comedian Aparna Nancherla, who recently spoke to them (and who, according to the introduction on her interview, once made Tom Hanks laugh out loud with her writing). “It’s not like, ‘tell us jokes,’ it’s like ‘how do you write jokes, how do you write your bits,’” said Stosuy. “It’s how essay writing is different from comedy, and talking to her about what she’s learned, and what she’s still learning.”
In addition to published interviews, The Creative Independent team (which also includes Senior Editor T. Cole Rachel, Director of Community Engagement Charlotte Zoller, and intern Hannah Elliott) also puts on events. As you might expect, they, like the website, are not your standard affair. Last month, Stosuy, along with Molly Rose Quinn from Housing Works, Glory Edim of Well-Read Black Girl, Jillian Steinhauer of Hyperallergic, and Ben Sisto of the Ace produced an event called Art After Trump, at Housing Works: They asked 150 performers, in two-minute intervals, to explain “how are you reacting to this uncertain future? What do you want to say or do?” If you haven’t done the math, that means a live, continuous production of more than six hours of artist insights.
“Someone described [being there] as feeling like a church or something,” said Stosuy. “Many people went longer [than two minutes] but the flow was good.” Stosuy said, initially, he wanted the event to last 24 hours, but the Housing Works people pointed out there would be a pragmatic staffing problem in order to pull that off. A variety of voices—musicians, poets, writers, people who didn’t even identify as artists, said Stosuy—all stood up and reacted to the reality of living in a world we thought we knew, but that it turned out we did not. The crowd dwindled as the night went on, but there were diehards who stayed the whole time. Stosuy spoke last.
“I just said thank you for coming and the idea is that it should keep on going,” he said. “I’m the last reader but just the last reader at this particular thing.” Afterward, Schwulst felt it was important not to post the entire audio file on the site, but rather to stream it in a way that, similar to being there in person, would let you be witness to whatever you happened to show up for. “We wanted to re-stage the performance in a way,” said Schwulst. Stosuy added, “The idea is that it was living the whole time, and it would keep going and going and going.”
Their latest event, called Good Money? was private, and was listed as such on the website, but only so that it could serve as a workshop for figuring out what a public event based on the same topic—how the art world gets funded—would look like. Stosuy gathered a group of panelists to discuss how and why it matters where the money that pays salaries, buys art, funds grants, and more, matters. “We want people to be honest,” Stosuy said. “We want to come up with ideas from that, and turn it into a public event. I like the idea of showing an event as a process as well.”
The Creative Independent does not advertise (just one of the benefits of working with the support of, and under the Kickstarter umbrella) but as they’ve conducted more and more high-profile interviews, they’ve slowly but organically built a deep bench of fans, readers, and top-of-the-line interviews. Stosuy is currently working on collaborating with Philip Glass; David Byrne did a nice piece with them on the importance of not being afraid of failure; Laurie Anderson came in recently and, says Stosuy, they’ve gotten just as many comments about their design as they have their content. “Matt Berninger [of The National] made it his homepage,” he said. The Creative Independent mascot is a snail, which features prominently on the site and moves, slowly, across the page. “The snail kind of calms [Matt] down,” says Stosuy. (In another exciting project, The Creative Independent will be producing a 7” with Berninger, which they’ll announce with further details this spring.)
“We’re just trying to slow things down a little bit,” said Stosuy, Which is to say, a pace that runs counter to that of the Internet in general, and technology and media. “Laurel wrote about the snail, the idea of the snail being slime, showing progression and process. There is a part of The Creative Independent that is nature and technology merging,” said Stusoy. “For me, after Pitchfork, which I really enjoyed, but it is very much reader driven, this is a nice step back into making something beautiful, and lasting, circling back to when I was a teenager, making a labor of love.” Schwulst, added, thoughtfully, “Stewart Brand talks about all these different layers of the world”—the two fastest are fashion and commerce— “and the two layers that move the slowest are nature and culture. And I feel like we’re on that layer. We’re trying to be at the bottom.”
On a back road, outside of Hudson, New York, The Creative Independent is in the process of planting another reminder of that idea. “We’re going to have a billboard,” said Stosuy, and it is one based on a line from a conversation they had with Kim Drew, who runs social media at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and who founded the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art. She said, “When you’re adding to this noise, in what ways are you improving upon silence?” After the billboard is installed, it is a question that will be asked quietly of you, too, if you happen to be driving on that particular country road in the Hudson Valley.
Granted, most creative or editorial ventures do not have the freedom to make billboards, or to post just one piece per day, nor to do, really, whatever they want with the abundant support of Kickstarter (“No one has told me no yet,” said Schwulst, “which I feel like that means: Go further.”) But in the end, the fact that they do is good for us all. We may not have the resources to slow down so effectively, to carve out the mental space for creative labor, to work through our creative processes without—before too long—having to jump back into the fray, to battle bottom lines and excessive output. Here, though, there is that calm. A silence to build on.
Image by Laurel Schwulst