The Next Ten Minutes

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it. This is difficult. Everything in our life and culture, regardless of our background, is dragging us away. Still, there is this sense of something imminent. And what is imminent, we find, is neither the past nor the future, but simply—the next ten minutes. — Morton Feldman

Creativity requires constraints

One of the silly misconceptions about creativity is that it is borne out of unfettered white space. As much as a blank canvas represents creative potential, it is more a medium than stimulus for creativity. Anyone who has ever been stumped by a piece of blank paper can attest to this. In fact, designers do their best work with the context of a brief, be it time, budget or client expectations. Creativity is learning how to use this much money, for this outcome, to serve this many people, to these particular effects.

Making much of little is itself creativity: the whole point of being a designer is to be able to take a leap, while staying grounded in reality. It is creativity which makes us human—the ability to sow into the culture around us, transcending the boundaries initially presented by time, money, and imagination.

Getting uncomfortable

The quote by late experimental composer Morton Feldman about pursuing discomfort isn’t just for artists or creatives. In a funny way, it prophetically echoes where we are at in Singapore, at a generational crossroads, going through a period of anxiety about our collective future. We are wondering if an imminent 6.9 million-strong population is or isn’t the endgame, we are sensing that what brought us here isn’t going to take us to the next stage, but we are also wrestling with the question of whose job it is to get us there.

It’s easy to forget we were created for times such as this. When things become uncomfortable, we have to regain not only the ability to feel strong emotion, but our muscle memory for creative, optimistic action. Ultimately, criticality is incomplete without creativity, as tearing down without building up again. And time is too precious to not close that loop, just as thinking without doing still leaves us with unrealized potential, squandering our next ten minutes.

Do be optimistic

There is nothing quite as effective in countering personal and collective inertia as a quick sketch.

At global design firm IDEO, where I work, we’ve just run a ‘Make-a-thon’: a 2-day event where civil servants, designers and citizens got in a room together to create tangible expressions towards our shared challenges. The brief was how we might inspire local communities to take more initiative to improve things around them. At this event, the philosophy of ‘quick and dirty’ prototyping (a design method of expressing ideas to just the right level of tangibility that allows you to get rich feedback on without feeling too final) got turbo-charged by my product designer colleague Ben Forman to ‘supersonic and filthy’ prototyping, pushing the metaphor to work even harder and faster than before.

Beyond Singapore, the ‘maker revolution’ is under way, a full-scale groundswell that started with the desktop publishing in the 90s and has since evolved to 3-D printing, where these days, anyone with $3,000 can acquire a Makerbot 3-D printer and start making plastic replicas of things that have already been made. This points to the simple truth that we are created to build on the ideas of others. Take even the Harlem Shake video meme, which spiralled into a global game of oneupmanship—‘first my turn, and then yours.’ Collaboration is in our DNA. Putting out early expressions of a solution (and ideas that are purposely left unfinished) has the power to unite people and help them realize the possibilities.

Tangibility grounds optimism, and is its first expression. It takes others along the journey. The question for us living in Singapore is how to harness the potential, given that we’ve only just begun to elevate the creative disciplines and think of ourselves as creative. If on a global scale, 2011-12 was the season of revolution, might 2013-14 usher in the next step of rebuilding, of restoration?

At the recent Art-in-Film Festival screening of the Ai Weiwei documentary Never Sorry (2012), there is a moment where the Chinese artist and activist says something to the effect of: “I think life is more meaningful if you put in a little bit of effort.”

At a time when claiming and expressing optimism can feel surprisingly counter-cultural, here’s to your next ten minutes.

From The U Press N˚2 (Singapore edition).