Denis Dutton and Webstock: art instinct at play

Russian dolls from

And so it came to pass that Webstock 2011 was launched, and we saw that it was good. (That's supposed to sound glorious, authoritative, King-James-Biblical, not lukewarm, by the way.)

First speaker was Professor Denis Dutton, who:

  1. not only spoke in person about his Darwinian theory of art,
  2. but also gave us a sneak preview of the TED video (rough cut only)
  3. of his TED talk on the topic last February
  4. which consisted of a sound track of him speaking
  5. plus an animated graphic version of his speech
  6. drawn in front of our very eyes (apparently)
  7. by the strong right arm of Andrew Park from Cognitive Media.

That's 7 Russian dolls, right?

Not even TED had seen this video. So it was a genuine sneak preview, complete with air quotes.

Well, as for the content of the talk and the talk-within-a-video-within-a-talk, I relished it all. But then I would, wouldn't I, I'm a novelist. What could be more delightful than listening to a playful, intelligent person expound on a timely, outrageously original and perfectly logical theory of his own: that the origins of art are universal and genetically based. We're self-selected to tell stories, draw pictures, make movies... but let him tell his own engaging story. It's not hard to find The Art Instinct (which I'm happy to say I'll be reading next week) and heaps of commentary on the Web.

As for the medium, that sent me spinning into another little world.

I panicked for a split second when the graphics came on screen, complete with selected sentences, as we listened to the sound track of Denis's voice. OMG, it was a mini-graphic novel wriggling across the screen as we watched.

In a poem by Jenny Bornholdt (I'll look it up later or you can tell me the exact words) she talks about her daughter lamenting the fact that she couldn't read and listen to the radio at the same time. Some can, actually, but we mono-taskers really struggle. That's why the Contented courses do not have a sound track reading aloud or commenting on what learners can see on the screen.

What! Was Andrew Park forgetting PowerPoint's famous black cloud of doom? Oh those nightmare sessions where you stare at dot points while some poor soul up front kindly reads them aloud to you and says more and more and more and more about each one. (I've probably done it myself, nobody's perfect.) I don't know about you, but I experience a similar cognitive agony when I'm sucked into a PowerPoint black cloud of doom as Jenny Bornholdt's young daughter, struggling to read and listen at the same time.

But the experience with the TED animated talk was not agony but bliss.

The bliss of synchronisation.

At the exact time Denis Dutton was articulating a pithy phrase, Andrew wrote it down.

And the bliss of story-telling. Images illustrated and humanised the sound track. A few perfectly synchronised little Andrew-jokes made us laugh and certainly didn't interfere with our focus.

Lord, lord, this is not an easy thing to do.

PowerPoint presenters (including me), do not try this at home. In the hands of an expert, the process is brilliant. Anyone else is just going to mess with my poor little brain something terrible.

Thanks to the loverly Webstock people for a great evening all round, and especially to Denis Dutton, Andrew Park and TED for this treat for the senses. Without doubt a multimedia production, it was also sweetly human.

Webstock 2011 coming at ya
"The Art Instinct" by Denis Dutton

Watch Andrew Park in action
illustrating other talks, starting with Barbara Ehrenreich
TED talks: some people in the world still haven't had the pleasure

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