Thursday, May 19, 2011

Podcasting as Art

Everything is art: painting, music, sculpture, and podcasting. However, unlike the first three, the art of podcasting is still somewhat undefined. So like any new art form we use the previous standards to analyze it as it evolves.

The first piece of podcasting art is Warcraft Less Traveled. Akin to art created in the early renaissance there is a focused, peaceful quality to the podcasts that come out of Warcraft Less Traveled. It renders onto the listener perspective about why lost parts of Azeroth matter, why a player in World of Warcraft should venture into these lost areas and why they are remarkable. If I had to draw parallels to pieces of the early renaissance, it’s like the perspective you get in Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter or Gentile Bellini’s Procession of Relic of the True Cross Before the Church of Saint Mark. These pieces convey wonder and scale in ways which are often missed, even if you’ve visited the places showcased in the podcasts. I think Warcraft Less Traveled creates places that are wholly remarkable, just inside the podcast; even for those who have never played World of Warcraft. That is really a mark of quality art: that you don't even need to know the full context to appreciate the what you’re hearing. Be it a lost Tauren village on the bottom of the world, or the deeps of Karazhan. Their masterful drawing of mental pictures allows for an experience which most listeners can enjoy.

When we look at Ventchat, we are looking at a podcast that takes on themes and the nature of impressionism, from its ever-blurred definition of itself, to the abstract redefining of what it is to be a podcast. It’s not uncommon for podcasts to drift away form what they were originally created to cover. That is, much of the beauty of impressionist is that often focus is not on a single important point but rather small and often over looked points. A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet depicts a large formal funeral but it’s not the man being buried that the center which is the focus of the piece, rather the piece focuses on the dog, the homeless man and the boy who can’t be bothered to pay attention. A Warcraft podcast might become a beer podcast, or a movie podcast might come to focus on one era or director. While many podcasts are unfocused, Ventchat takes the funeral that is Warcraft and adds culture and people around it. Through the hosts, it shows the way in which the world of Azeroth is populated.

What I find remarkable about Ventchat is that it goes over the same themes repeatedly, but they always feel fresh and interesting. It is much like Claude Monet’s Haystack series. I see the hosts, Fen, Turdhat, Sauces and Esta, like the haystacks: always in the picture. Sometimes not all the hosts are visible, but other things come into view.

At the same time, we have impressionist freedom through new songs and segments, which creates change. A song might be used for fifty episodes then it changes, much like the seasons. It’s a combination of slow and fast changes in the show that I think make it art. But like impressionism, you have to work into this style to understand its underlying themes. The desire to create, to be bold and a willingness to fail that is so rare should be celebrated; hosts that are willing to put themselves out there while at same time creating an experience which pushes the mind and makes you look at the world in different ways are a rarity.

There is a moment of art called Dada. This was art born out of World War I, when artists wished to move away from propaganda, profiteering, and the state’s desired reactions to conflict. Bind on Equip is all of these things, much like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. They aren't creating art, but rather the hosts are the art. In most podcasts, the hosts are simply a medium for information, music, and jokes. While no podcast would be complete without the hosts talking about themselves for a while, this podcast takes it to another level.

Bind on Equip takes the hosts and elevates them, while doing so in the context of a World of Warcraft Podcast. So where Ventchat is barely a Warcraft podcast anymore, Bind on Equip still is strongly tied to those roots. This strong tie to the medium in which they work and the importance they put on the hosts from an artistic point of view as well as a podcasting point view makes it a fine balancing act, which they do remarkable well. In this state Warcraft becomes not just a topic to be talked about but it is molded like clay into medium. Most podcasts are defined by what they cover from week to week. Here, the idea of Warcraft is changed to show of art that is the hosts.

Dada themes are most relevant as Bind on Equip is making a statement about what a podcast is: more than just an audio file distributed via an RSS Feed. They are changing the conventions of podcasting: how hosts should act, the content of their shows. Just as Fountain is about showing that an every day object can be a remarkable piece of art, I think Bind on Equip in the same way shows that podcast and host are also remarkable art. The statement made by Bind on Equip is "We are a podcast, no matter how much others don't think we fit into what they think a podcast should be." That is a profound statement of art.

The beauty of a podcast as art is that ideas like form and color can change from episode to episode. Form might be the order of the segments or the hosts involved: it’s the structure. The color of a podcast is world they paint. Warcraft Less Traveled creates a world of images: breath taking beauty for the minds eye. Ventchat takes the listener on a journey through music and love of community, which even as passive listener, it’s hard not to be drawn into. Bind on Equip is colored, but the hosts live their stories and their thoughts. To some degree all podcasts do the things I list, but these three take it to a different level.

It’s hard to define art. People have struggled with it for much of the modern era. Since Bird in Space, by Constantin Brâncuşi many have found art increasingly hard to define. I think the best measure of art in this modern world is if it speaks to you. Does say more than just the words that fill your ears, is there a structure, style, and color? Then it’s art. While you don’t have to enjoy it as more than the surface meaning, I encourage anyone to take a moment the next time you listen to one of these shows to go deeper and enjoy them in a new and different way.

Note: The Photo at the top is the work of my buddy Scott and more of his work can be found here.

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