do it yourself: a q&a with david wilson

do it yourself: a q&a with david wilson

I recently had a chance to chat with David Wilson, founder of the True/False Film Festival and our creative director here at Aggregate. We talked about the DC punk rock scene of the 80s, the Do It Yourself (DIY) culture it fostered, and the influence these things have had on the way he works.

 

Melissa Duque
Hi David! Let’s start by talking about what DIY culture is.

David Wilson
DIY culture is an outgrowth of punk rock and came about in the U.S. in the mid 80s. It was a distillation of the spirit of punk—positioning music as just one of many forms of expression that could be “punk” and recentering the movement around an ethos of Do It Yourself energy and enthusiasm. The idea was to value and prioritize individual (or small group) creation and expression, rather than assuming that things (art, culture, objects) had to come from a top-down economy.

MD
This includes selling your own music instead of being part of a record studio and the focus of playing in garages instead of “typical” establishments?

DW
Right. The emphasis was on not only writing the music, but taking control of every aspect—where you played, where you recorded, making your own records. In doing so, one could reject the gatekeepers and create whatever inspires you.

“reject the gatekeepers and create whatever inspires you” 

MD
I love that.  So how has that played out for you? Is that part of everything you do?

DW
I think I steeped in that culture long enough to have it permeate my bones. So yeah, anything I do now, I tend to think of the entire pipeline. And, if I’m passing off parts of a project to others (which happens often—DIY is really all about collaboration), I try to be extra mindful of how all those pieces fit together.

“DIY is really all about collaboration”

MD
How hard has it been to get to a place where you think that way? Do you see it as something anyone can do?

DW
Yeah, there’s nothing exclusive about DIY culture. If anything, it’s the opposite. But, be warned, it’s a very “active” mode of creation. It’s more work, and more things to worry about. But the end result is worth it, I think.

And even when we’re not actually creating things ourselves, we can apply these tenets to lots of aspects of daily life. I may decide that I don’t want to make my own shoes, but I’m going to be more inclined to buy shoes from a company that gives me a clear sense of its manufacturing process and demonstrates a high regard for ethics and the rights of its workers in that process.

MD
What are some iconic examples of DIY culture?

DW
For me, DC punk was my first exposure to this culture. Dischord records started to put out albums by their friends—by the early 90s they were selling hundreds of thousands of albums, while still staying true to that ethos. They were followed by Simple Machines, run by two women who not only got their label off the ground, but wrote a booklet that contained step-by-step instructions for how to start your own. They legitimately inspired hundreds of small labels to get off the ground.

The confluence of DIY culture and small-town culture is really important to me, too. In a small town, there are far fewer opportunities, so if you want something (a skate park, a concert space, a movie theater) you have to create it yourself.

MD
This really helps me understand True/False…

DW
You’re totally right. True/False exists because a group of people—first small, then bigger and bigger—decided that there was no reason there couldn’t be a world class film festival in the middle of Missouri. One of my favorite T/F moments came in the second or third year, when a friend (a writer) typed personal welcome letters to each filmmaker and put them in handmade envelopes. It blew our guests away that we’d devote that much individual attention to them.

MD
Fantastic.  How do you see DIY culture and Aggregate?

DW
Aggregate rose up out of the bloated corpses of big agencies. They’d built an unsustainable model, and it crashed. By being light on our feet and working instead with a dynamic and ever-shifting pool of collaborators, we are able to do world-class work without the excess of a bigger agency.

Also, Aggregate cares, legitimately, about our clients and their missions. And that spirit, that energy—you can’t match that, no matter how much money you throw at something. We’re going to always be working to find the most elegant, efficient solutions to problems. And we’re never going to be afraid to turn away from something that’s not working.

“that spirit, that energy – you can’t match that, no matter how much money you throw at something” 

MD
How do we embrace this culture?

DW
I think it takes a certain confidence to be willing to step outside the usual systems. And once outside, it takes more work. You’ve got to marry the boldness to find new solutions with the roll-up-your-sleeves determination to realize them.

“you’ve got to marry the boldness to find new solutions with the roll-up-your-sleeves determination to realize them” 

Interested in learning more about DIY Culture? Check out these sources!

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

In early September, we were excited to welcome our friend and newest collaborator Jesse Hardman when he visited our offices in Seattle. Jesse is a reporter and media developer currently working in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he manages and curates a community media engagement project called the Listening Post. Using text messages, public signs and roving recording stations equipped with microphones, the Listening Post provides the opportunity for people to capture and share information, opinions and news about the local issues they feel are most important.

Before starting the Listening Post, Jesse and his voice recorder travelled around the globe experimenting with different ways of gathering and delivering information in local communities. He shared stories about teaching radio classes at an all-girls Catholic school in South Chicago, building an information exchange in war-torn Sri Lanka, working with tribal radio stations in the Southwest United States, and establishing a two-way conversation about important issues with community members in New Orleans. He understands how to listen, how to get important information to people who need it the most and how that information is a lifeline for communities to thrive.

He sat down with us to share stories about his travels and his work, and to talk about the transformative experiences that changed the way he looked at media, information and social change—and how it led him to where he is today. I decided to take a page from Jesse’s playbook and experiment with audio recordings from his visit. Be sure to click through and listen! Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Media can be a powerful tool in catalyzing community development. While teaching radio classes in South Chicago, Jesse saw that his young students responded intuitively to their assignments and used the power of narrative to create change messages that reflected their personal experiences and environment. “What they did was intuitive.”
  • Having a clear understanding of what people want to know drastically influences the process of gathering news. Jesse traveled to Sri Lanka in 2007 to join a humanitarian information initiative funded by Internews. While there, he trained and worked with a team of local reporters to create a newspaper and radio show that shared information with the country’s war-displaced population. “We asked people, ‘What do you need to know?'”
  • To adapt the way we communicate in different situations, we need to first consider the factors that influence the effectiveness of our messaging. For example, to adapt your communication style effectively, you need to understand who you are talking to, how they listen, where they are located, and what their point of view may be. Messaging needs to be impactful, clear and relatable to your audience. Whether it’s engaging a classroom of young students or appealing to a group of people who have survived a war, the way you communicate information can drastically influence an audience’s response and the overall outcome. In Sri Lanka, Jesse discovered quickly that the framework he was used to, having worked in public radio in the U.S., did not work well and he had to adapt. “Couldn’t play more than three minutes of informational radio without a Bollywood song in between.”

Lifeline

  • Media not only offers new opportunities to engage directly with people and communities, but it also transforms the ways in which people can take part in the process of information sharing. People should feel empowered to assess the information needs of their communities and think creatively about solutions for their own environment. Jesse visited with about 40 tribal radio stations across Arizona, New Mexico and California to learn more about how they share their information and the support role they play in Native American communities. Here and elsewhere in the U.S., media, storytelling and the sharing of information are tools for transformation and progress—an everyone should have a voice. “These community radio stations [. . .] are the lifeline.”
  • Public radio needs more diverse voices and perspectives if they are to facilitate important conversations in cities and communities. For example, 78 percent of the audience for public radio is white and upper middle class while New Orleans is more than 60 percent black and middle to working class. “78% of audience for public radio is white, upper middle class.”
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with information, especially when there is a lack of funding and manpower. Jesse applied the concept of citizen journalism to focus on the capacity of community members in New Orleans to create narratives, share perspectives, and start a discussion about public concerns, visions and plans. “I was down in New Orleans [. . .] and seeing things that you see in developing countries.”
  • To engage an audience, you have to think about what would get their attention and why they would want to participate. Understanding your audience has profound implications for any strategy. It is an important step in the process to discover what will reach an audience most effectively and what will appeal to them. The Listening Post uses text messages and funky microphones designed by a local artist to attract the attention of passersby who are likely to be interested in what it is and how they can participate. “In New Orleans, [. . .] people are used to being weird and creative.”

listening post fish

  • The challenge in having a meaningful conversation lies in crafting the right question. That is, thinking about the words you use, how you phrase it, the sentiment behind it, and the way it is delivered. Sometimes changing a single word can alter the way people view your approach and their decision to engage with it. For example, the Listening Post endeavored to have a conversation with New Orleans residents about their feelings towards gentrification. To do so, they decided to present questions as real life situations or scenarios—such as what they would do with a blighted property if they had an opportunity to buy it—rather than use the word “gentrification.” “How do you ask a question that gets you stories and experiences?”

To learn more about Jesse, visit his website at jessehardman.com or find him on Twitter @jesseahardman. To hear what people are talking about on the Listening Post in NOLA, visit listeningpostnola.com and follow them on Twitter @lp_nola.

storytelling, time and grit

storytelling, time and grit

How long does it take to tell a story that makes an impact?

Susan B. Anthony’s speaking tour in 1873 in support of women’s voting rights brought her to 50 towns and villages in upstate New York, where she repeatedly delivered a 533-word speech calling for women’s rights to the suffrage.

In the 90-minute documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” director David Gelb was able to display the sushi master’s life, passion, and perfection in such a powerful way that we connected with someone we otherwise may have never known or noticed.

With a 110-character tweet and popular Facebook page, online activist and former Google executive Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) was launched to the forefront of Egypt’s anti-government movement.

And in one instant, photographer Marc Riboud captured the 1960s struggles of war and peace in the iconic photograph “La Jeune Fille a la Fleur.”

We all have a story to tell and now there are stages that encourage every person to bring their own story to life…in five minutes.

In May, I attended the 27th session of Ignite Seattle. Ignite is an event that brings together local storytellers and gives them each five minutes to share 20 slides that flip through automatically every 15 seconds. I heard stories about harvesting bugs for people to eat, drawing comics and saving the world, mastering balance on a unicycle, connecting with kids through video games, the human experience of live-translated calls, the power of lone travel, and an experiment in saying “Yes” for 30 days.

As I listened, I thought about how storytelling takes true grit. It takes passion and powerful motivation, and it requires a continued sense of exploration. Storytelling is about being curious and sometimes getting into trouble. Particularly in the social issue space, it’s important to be disruptive and provocative without being irresponsible. Storytelling is about creating an emotional connection. It’s about moving people to laugh, cry, smile or to remind them how to savor life. Good stories impart some sort of wisdom that empowers people to think—to think differently, think deeper, or think at all. Stories are kept in words, images, digital manifestations, film reels, and 140-character tweets. They are spoken, sung, written, filmed, recorded, photographed, painted, and designed. Stories can be told in five minutes, they can be told in two hours, and some stories never end. This is, ultimately, the magic of storytelling.

a radical partnership: gaming & hospitals

a radical partnership: gaming & hospitals

Encouraging video game play as a way to provide healthy distractions and positive interactions? That’s radical, and it’s happening at hospitals and (soon) domestic violence shelters worldwide.

As a (relative) newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life. 

Penny Arcade authors Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins founded Child’s Play in 2003 with a mission to provide age-appropriate entertainment to children during stressful events in their life as a healthy distraction, and to encourage positive interaction with their peers, friends, and family. It started with a single hospital in Seattle, WA. Since then, the charity has raised millions of dollars and has established partnerships with hospitals and other facilities worldwide to provide video games, toys, and books to children in need.

Currently, Child’s Play works with hospitals and care centers, including therapeutic facilities. In 2013, Krahulik and Holkins announced a new initiative to expand to domestic violence shelters. Applications are now being accepted.

With the help of participating hospitals, wish lists are set up that include games, books, toys, and other fun items. You can then click any location on their donation map to view the hospital’s list and purchase items to be sent directly to the hospitals. The items are generally shared in the hospital in community spaces or in a library checkout system.

If you’re interested in helping but don’t want to purchase a specific item, you can donate money directly, run a fundraiser event, or, for businesses, sign up for a corporate sponsorship. Cash donations are used to purchase additional play equipment for hospitals, including consoles and accessories, as well as toys and books, which often are given as gifts for birthdays and other occasions and therefore must be replaced frequently.

Child’s Play has found a unique way to use video games for good, creating an age-appropriate safe space for children to forget their worries for a few moments, relieve some stress, and perhaps make new friends in their hospital in the process. I was lucky to not spend prolonged periods at the hospital as a child, but having spent time as an adult as both a patient and a friend, I see the value and importance of programs such as this. I look forward to seeing their new domestic violence center initiative expand and succeed.

For updates on Child’s Play and to learn more, stop by the website, like it on Facebook, and follow it on Twitter.

Learn about other radical local organizations we’ve featured, including Project VioletRain City Rock Camp for Girls, Seal Sitters, Undriving, Blue Earth Alliance, and Comedy Competition for a Cause.

true/false & aggregate: a unique commitment

true/false & aggregate: a unique commitment

We love storytellers. We especially love our creative director David Wilson, his co-conspirator Paul Sturtz and their yearly documentary film festival, the True/False Film Fest.

Creating compelling, high-quality films is no small feat, and beautiful work often does not receive a wide theatrical run. True/False is working to create a sustainable ecosystem for nonfiction filmmakers to help storytellers share their work with a larger audience and support the non-fiction filmmaking community.

Now in their 11th year in Columbia, Missouri, the True/False Film Fest is one of the most well regarded documentary film festivals in the country. Aggregate has sponsored the festival in the past, and this year we are excited to announce we are founding members of the True/False Film Fest’s Pay the Artist! initiative.

Pay the Artist! will offer $450 to each feature filmmaker (or filmmaking team) attending the fest this year, in addition to all travel, lodging, and food expenses. The festival envisions this fund growing each year, eventually offering stipends of $1,000 per filmmaker. Funds are provided through three-year financial commitments from patrons like Aggregate.

Alison, our Founder/President, is flying to Columbia this week for the festival, so I took the opportunity to ask her more about her love for True/False, her favorite films, and why investing in True/False and Pay the Artist! is a reflection of our values here at Aggregate.

What inspires you most about Pay the Artist! and the values for which True/False stands?

I’ve been close friends with David Wilson, one of the festival’s two founders and our Creative Director, for more than 20 years now. I am incredibly proud of what he and Paul Sturtz have done with True/False and the integrity they have maintained. To me, despite the fact that the festival has grown larger and more well known and there are more big name filmmakers walking down 9th Street in Columbia, MO at the end of February/beginning of March every year, it is exactly the same festival that it was in the beginning. It reflects a sincere reverence for nonfiction film and filmmakers, yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. It maintains a friendly DIY flavor, while being incredibly efficient—including the best run box office of any festival out there. And, while David and Paul may travel the world in search of great non-fiction films, the festival reflects their mutual love for Columbia.

I was at the Full Frame festival last year when David—who was screening his own film, We Always Lie to Strangers—announced that True/False planned to go beyond paying for filmmakers’ travel (which most festivals don’t do) and begin to pay them a small stipend. It was a further step in True/False’s commitment to nonfiction filmmakers and the nonfiction filmmaking community and, when David asked if Aggregate wanted to be an inaugural funder, it was a no brainer. All of the money that we give away goes to people and organizations whose work inspires us, often through the stories they tell. That is precisely what True/False filmmakers do for us. We’ve committed to $10,000 per year for three years, but I am hopeful we’ll be able to give more.

Tell me a story of your most memorable True/False moment.

The best moments are always watching the director take the stage after a screening at the beautiful Missouri Theater and getting a standing ovation from the biggest crowd that will ever see their film. And it’s always that much better when Paul or David are on stage to take it in with them.

Beyond that, I remember Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips calling in to the Blue Note to speak to the audience before the screening of The Fearless Freaks over the phone in year one. I remember weeping in the alley behind the Blue Note after a screening of And Everything is Going Fine because I was so moved. I remember Peter Staley taking the stage in 2012 after the screening of How to Survive a Plague and announcing that it was “a good night to be a homo in CoMo” and I remember getting to the festival last year and seeing David France, the director of How to Survive a Plague in the first five minutes, getting a big hug and knowing it was going to be a good year.

My memories of True/False are also about seeing David’s family and the pride on their faces throughout the long weekend of the fest. This year will be the first year of the fest since David’s dad Willy passed away, and I am going to miss seeing him immensely.

Which is your favorite film from past years, and why?

I’ve been to the festival nine out of the ten years of the festival (deciding not to go year 2 may be one of the greatest regrets of my life), so it’s tough to say which was my favorite film, since I am confident I’ve seen more than 200 films at True/False. Last year my favorite film was Stories We Tell. Other great films that have stayed with me are Alex Gibney’s GonzoThe Control Room, The Imposter, Burma VJ, Murderball, Only the Young (damn, I love that film), Waltz with Bashir, Following Sean, Undefeated, The Waiting Room, Low and Clear, Buck, Computer Chess, Laura Poitras’ The Oath, Reporter, Last Train Home, Shut Up Little Man and A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain About a Son. And Everything is Going Fine and How to Survive a Plague are also huge favorites.

Which films are you most looking forward to seeing this year, and why?

I’m excited to see 20,000 Days on Earth because my mentor, John Bell, is a huge Nick Cave fan and I can’t wait to tell him all about it. I’m excited to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood because of the story behind the production of the film. I’m also excited to see Rich Hill, both because it was the big winner at Sundance, but primarily because the filmmaker is from Missouri, and will probably feel great about showing the film to a “home town” crowd. I only recently realized I could ask David to provide me with guidance in selecting my films and, although he redirected me slightly, he thinks I have a good slate of films—16 films between this Thursday and Sunday.

Follow True/False on Twitter, like it on Facebook, and check out this year’s film lineup.

giving away money

giving away money

It’s time again for our end of year donations, but the truth is that Aggregate gives money throughout the year. Sometimes we do so to show our admiration and other times our love. Sometimes we do so because a great story compels us or because we want to support our friends. We always do so because the missions that these organizations pursue—as well as generosity—are core to our values.

  • In February, we donated to the True Life Fund at the True/False Film Fest, which is run by our Creative Director, David Wilson. Each year, True/False selects one of the films in their program and raises money to “support and honor those who appear in front of the camera.” In 2013, the True Life Fund film was Which Way is the Front Line from Here?, about Tim Hetherington, a conflict zone photojournalist who was killed in 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. The money we donated went to support Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues and the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Sierra Leone, an organization that Tim supported when he was alive.
  • In March we donated to the Brothers of a Boston Fraternity because we were so impressed with their decision to support their transgender brother to have top surgery after his insurance company denied his claim.
  • In June we donated to PATH, our neighbors in Seattle, to support their efforts to transform global health through innovation.
  • In August we donated to the Maplewood Barn Community Theater to support the Willy Wilson Scholarship to support high school graduates to study performing arts in college. Willy, David’s dad, passed away this summer. In addition to being a talented performer, Willy gave us David, for which we are eternally grateful.
  • In September, we donated to support friends who were riding in the Canary Challenge to raise money for cancer research at the Stanford Cancer Institute.
  • In November, we donated to charity: water because it was the least we could do to show Paull Young that we admired his willingness to wear a Speedo on the streets of Philadelphia in November.

Through these donations, we nearly doubled what we gave through our year-end contributions last year.

For this year’s donations, we renewed our commitment to last year’s recipients: the Ali Forney Center (again, in honor of Spencer Cox), which provides housing for homeless LGBT youth in New York, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, seeks to improve legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, and advocates for criminal justice system reforms on behalf of those affected by the system in the Southern United States.

As far as new recipients, staff contributed their ideas and these are the additional groups that have received our support:

  • We made a donation to KEXP in Seattle because we listen to them every day in the office and because of their own contribution to making our favorite city an amazing place to live.
  • Finally, after seeing Jim Olson speak at PopTech in October and then again this month in Seattle, we made a donation to Project Violet at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It is Jim’s ambition, commitment, innovative approach and amazing skills as a storyteller that caught our eye. We’re honored to be able to help him and his team.

In total, our donations this year were three times what we gave away last year. We did well and we gave back. We hope you’ll consider giving to some of the same organizations to which we donate.

Best wishes for the new year.