It was June 8, 1996. Our bags were full of wine and cheese and tabs of ecstasy.

Elbow to elbow, hundreds of us buzzed outside of San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. We were there to attend, “Imagination: A Creative Convergence” a happening that Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and Spike Lee had been flown in to act as Peter at the gates of our interactive heaven.

In the 1990’s I had tried to find my way around the gasping CD-ROM community, hoping to use my experience as a producer in the theater to be part of a “content revolution”.  The problem was I couldn’t count.  Thousands of math tests, and failed grades and summer school with no improvement had left me on the fringe: I couldn’t do math, so I couldn’t write code.  But, that didn’t matter to me: I had fallen in love with the mad, circus feeling around San Francisco – it reminded me of the loopy tone of my childhood in New York’s, Greenwich Village. So, I became a devotee to those who could code.

I learned about the June 8th evening from Timothy Childs.  In 1993, Timothy and Linda Jacobson founded VeRGe (Virtual Reality Education Foundation) to bring together the various members of a quiet storm of virtual reality.

(Timothy has evolved into a brilliant chocolate maker utilizing ancient and new technologies… – nothing virtual about his chocolate!  This is a nice article I found – probably around 1995 with Linda – who, to be clear, I did not know well, but admire

Back then, VeRGe sometimes met in the SF Exploratorium in a dark back room. Some evenings people snarled at Microsoft employees who would sneak in to make statements.  Yet, mainly, people with gray or blue hair would give sensational demos of virtual worlds, or non-sexist avatar development. It was a meeting place of very smart, very sexy, virtual anarchists. So, who was I to say no when Timothy said we had to go see the Gods.

I had no idea there were Gods in technology. And, who was Brian Eno again? And, of course, I knew Laurie Anderson because my college boyfriend had put her song, “Sharkey’s Day” on repeat as I rejected his advances. Yet, the reason I was interested in that evening was Spike Lee — really, the idea of my fellow compatriot from Brooklyn, our bad-ass Spike being dropped into the passive aggression of San Francisco — this had me salivating.

I don’t remember much about the beginning of the evening accept the sound of Paul Saffo, part MC, part druid priest, claiming that convergence had begun. Finally, a bald head appeared. That was when the audience, in unison, began muttering: God.

“They say it’s the shape of his head.”


To that hall Eno was God.  But, wow, did God look tiny in that huge auditorium. He was also surrounded by computers, servers, keyboards and boxes with knobs: slightly hidden from us. Finally, from behind that wall of technology his plaintive, quiet voice spoke about a new, generative music.   I understood some of what he was saying, but not much. I wanted to understand how music and technology could evolve: but he was ahead of me – ahead of us. Yet, as one is meant to in choosing to like, or be afraid of the future, I decided to like his voice. Though, even as he spoke, I kept picturing a world where lettuce re-grew to eat itself over and over again. I wasn’t sure if I was simply not very bright, or simply getting hungry.

Then, God left the stage.

Soon, the next deity arrived.

Laurie Anderson stood behind what looked like a wet bar of electronic pianos. Also, before her lay various devices for her to play, though, from where I sat they also looked like a fantastic collection of vibrators.  Anderson spoke eloquently on personal control and the emerging Internet. I don’t remember much of it, not because it wasn’t brilliant, but because  that spiky head sang music that made all the technology irrelevant: tech was a just a tool for Laurie to be Laurie. Finally, she put on a pair of thick glasses with an embedded microphone and proceeded to play her own head. Certainly a God, if you need to believe in one, would have thought that up.

I was sad when my goddess left the stage.

But, my Brooklyn, like Gabriel with a baseball bat, soon arrived.

That crowd did not like Brooklyn.

It’s an acquired taste our Spike: you have to be comfortable with the fact that he’s looking at you – yes, you, motherfucker. But, no one was interested in him, what with God having just dropped (from an Atheist) sky and Laurie inspiring us so (yet proving we should keep our day jobs). Spike spoke about once not caring about films at all. Not caring for much but baseball.  How he struggled through NYU. Struggled to get money for his film Malcolm X, how he had to call his afluent African American friends to fund it, how he couldn’t count on the distributors to back him up: he had had to go to his rolodex for the money.

Then he showed a reel of his commercials and the entire event rolled its collective eyes.

Why the eye rolling? Because he was talking money. How crass. And, he was talking about money as though giving a slap in the artsy face: you want to talk creativity? Ok, how are you going to pay for it? I don’t think he blinked the entire time he spoke.

Then he really went for it:

Spike closed out by putting the nail in the liberal San Francisco coffin – when it comes to creativity you, “Either have it or you don’t” –  the audience gasped. A flash of unexplored self-loathing was awash in the hall: how dare he come here and tell us…we might suck? But, I loved him. “Thank you”, I whispered, a groupie in love, the truth is supposed to hurt and Spike always delivered.

Looking back at that night more than a decade ago, Eno introduced us to the idea we’ve become comfortable with: open systems of media.The media of animation, recording technology and even Wiki’s seem to create independently from us.  Our “genius” is no longer a creative imperative, but a partner with technology as it shapes and creates new products and connections.  Actually, It’s ironic in this context that I connect a Jewish mystic to the memory of Eno; that of Martin Buber. Buber stated that we should move towards “I and Thou” – the concept of a collaborative relationship with god as a way towards true freedom. In this context (a theological one in the face of Darwinian Technology) the open systems we are now engaged in intrinsically prove Eno is not God: genius is not tied to one person – and now the “I” and the “Thou” of people and technology now dance together in what sometimes feel like blinding connections, akin to what some say mystic “knowing”.

Anderson set the stage for a serious, ongoing struggle for how much control the Internet should have over us: she saw how we would try to connect with each other, yet would be pulled by the gravity of commerce.  She would continue to make pieces that speak to the use of the word, “solution” – not as something that we develop to organically solve a problem, but how the branding of “Technology Solutions” creates a proposal that people’s lives are solved through technology.  She was aware early on of the seduction to come; perhaps because she was living in technology, and felt its limitations: tools are never solutions, they tend to only demand more work.

But, for me, the guy that gets the shaft in this memory is Spike. He seemed so rude, but along the lines of any obnoxious Greek God, he may have been the most prophetic. Spike introduced the first taste of our current reality: you won’t be able to do anything you truly believe in without your social network.

Spike’s snotty comment about, “having it or not” was spot on; today, art in the time of the multichannel, intergalactic speed of digital distribution is now powered by the social network. If you don’t embed your film, book, music, product, invention into multiple threads of your network you are immediately less effective – you have them or you don’t have “it”.

Spike was outlining the original viral power-thread: turn to your friends when the system turns its back on you.  But, he was also being a snob. That’s the bitter part of memory; there was a look of safety on his face, or one perceived as snobbery as he played his Nike ads. What was implied by showing his ads was that his films and marketing jobs were totally separated activities – one was art and the other was cash for films.  The bitter part is that I miss that kind of safe distance: the pride of being able to draw the line in the sand between commerce and art – or, simply slipping on the fault line with a good excuse. His kind of “snobbery” is almost all gone – the goal art and commerce should, at some point, be totally separate.

Yet, that night, Spike put his prophesy out there: artists will need to be both creator and mass marketer at levels we could not have imagined then. And, sitting here now I can visually translate his 1990’s Rolodex into a current Facebook page; all of those amazing people in his friends group are lined on the left, while on right side are tons of his ads – click-throughs and videos and promos for sneaker brands.

In 1996, the quiet judgment in the room was that the ads were a sell out: today, we would probably reward him for finding, “an alternate revenue source to support the monetization of his product” – art.  His duality as artist and marketer set the stage for our now acceptable blur: the fingers of art and commerce would be forever laced by our current technology.

And, in my mind’s eye I see that the night ended in an unfamiliar way: there was no bow on the present, and there were no final conclusions. That event had an unfamiliar feeling, one that is the accepted feeling of today – the presence of an open source community, evolving networks, an algorithm for an endless search – only a dream of HTML, and the sense that the definition of creation was up for grabs.