The Artist Interviews: Rita J. King, Writer
Rita J. King [1. no relation to the author] is Innovator in Residence at IBM's Analytics Virtual Center, a Security Futurist at the Aspen Institute, and a former Senior Fellow at two think-tanks: The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City, and the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress in Washington DC. She is the Creative Director of the Imagination Age and Founder of Dancing Ink Productions. Dancing Ink Productions is a full-service creative company that develops cultural relations solutions, business strategy, immersive narrative and mixed-media, mixed-reality content including games, conferences for a new global culture and economy in the Imagination Age. Her work has been featured in or on The New York Times, the Village Voice, Press TV, TIME, CNN, NPR, The Guardian, BBC, Boing Boing, Wired, New World Notes, “MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams,” and strategy+business, among others.
Can you start by giving us a description of the work that you do?
Professionally, I’m a Mixed Reality Architect, so "no creative problem too large or too small!" I work with clients, taking ideas, and figuring out how to make them real, whether it’s global policy, education, or the future of work.
However, my entire career, I’ve only ever been a writer—until 2006, when I started my own company—and I continue to be a writer. I’ve been an investigative reporter; I have written private stories for people’s families so that the family members can understand each other on a deeper, more intimate level; I’ve written screenplays; I’ve written a manuscript for a novel every year since I was twelve years old. I write short stories, I write plays, I write anything.
I’m also a visual artist. I’m a photographer. I paint. I do collage.
I’m a musician— but as a musician I just dabble. That’s personal; I just like to have fun with instruments. Let’s put it that way.
I’ll really do anything that I’m moved to do in the moment. I don’t feel that I’m limited to any specific medium, and as a storyteller I feel that as mediums shift there’s a lot of talk about the death of long form or this or that, but I’ve never put any pressure on myself to make my living from my art. I don’t judge people who do, it would be great if I did, but I do it really for personal enjoyment.
The main professional art that I do is based on rethinking public space. So for example, I was part of an installation in the UK last year where twenty people from around the world were commissioned to look at rethinking public space and then they did an installation with our pieces and created a deck of cards from the installation.
Or, I was commissioned to do a set of “story cubes”: 27 cubes that have art on all sides of them that can be used by a group of people to tell a story. So, professionally I do mixed media installations that are very unique to a place or rethinking public space.
Just out of curiosity, how’d you make the cubes? Did you paint them? Print them?
Well, they’re mixed media and I printed them out on stickers and then I stuck the stickers to the cubes. But! I also did a virtual version of the cubes in Second Life. In the physical world if you have these small paper cubes, you can put them on a table top and a group of people can tell a story… but they’re all going to be the same size and they’re all going to stay the same.
When I did the virtual version you could bring a group of people in and you could make one of the cubes really tiny and one of them really gigantic— or you could turn them in a way. You could put one of them under the ocean, put one in the sky. Twenty-six of the cubes correspond to the letters of the alphabet and then the 27th has an augmented reality code on it, so when you print out the code and hold it up to a webcam on the website for the project, the 27th cube manifests as a three-dimensional object in your webcam view.
Of course it does! (Laughter)
(Laughing) That’s what I mean when I say “mixed media” or “mixed reality.”
How much of your early art or creative education happened at home and how much happened at school? Or you want to answer “what would you describe as your early art education?”
My parents are both artists and as a kid my mother would always say “only boring people get bored.” So I would say my early art education really developed from the notion that if I had any spare time, why not spend it creating something?
We were given every sort of art medium that you could possibly want. There was no formal training, per se, but we painted, we made sculptures, we drew, we wrote. To my parents credit, you know, there’s that cliche about parents encouraging their kids to become doctors or lawyers; my parents sat me down when I was maybe four or five and told me that I was going to be a writer.
It’s funny because I don’t know if I was just their first child and they saw me reading and writing and they assumed I was going to be a writer (my father is also a writer, I should note), but all four member of my nuclear family are manuscript writers.
We’re all constantly turning out these manuscripts— it’s an interesting family habit. So there is that.
We moved upstate from Brooklyn when I was thirteen to a tiny tiny school. The saving grace of that school, to me, was my art teacher, who was amazing, but, maybe coincidentally, was so much more than an art teacher; she really saw us behind our works and connected with us as human beings. She really encouraged me to pursue art.
So I would say, in my case? Six in one, half a dozen in the other.
That’s funny, because that was my next question: did people at school know what to do with you?
No! Basically I spent every recess pretending I had a stomach ache or that I had lost my earring or whatever so that I could read Camus. (Laughter) I’ve always been the way I am now. I mean, I’ve changed obviously, things about myself over the years pretty radically, but I’ve always been very bookish.
I’ve always kept notebooks since I was very young.
Another thing that I think contributed hugely to my creative development was that this concept of “age appropriateness” was not something that [my parents] had ever heard of. So my father would sit down when I was in, you know, second grade, and explain existentialism to me and have me read the great French existentialists and explain to me the absurdity of life and death and the trail of thought from absurdity to suicide and homicide.
So you’re eight years old and you’re reading “The Stranger.”
Right. I was literally in, maybe, third grade when I read “The Stranger” and my dad and I would have very detailed, philosophical conversations. So, I grew up surrounded by the entire canon of important philosophical thought and discussions around that and intense conversations about spirituality and global religions and mythology.
When I was very young my father gave me a huge stack of Joseph Campbell books and a comic book that explained the Old Testament and the New Testament, and he began explaining to me mythology and spirituality and religion and the relationship between them. That really informed my work more than anything.
I also had another experience when I was maybe ten years old or so. My father was one of the designers of the Vietnam War Memorial on Water Street in Manhattan. His idea was to etch the brick with letters to and from soldiers in Vietnam on the glass. So our apartment filled up with duffel bags filled with these letters and they were really intense—and again, I was able to read them because my parents didn’t censor any material.
The night that the wall was inaugurated, you know, the Brokaws, the Trumps at the time, it was the 80s and all the women were decked out under the Klieg lights and I was on the other side of the velvet rope where all of the veterans, amputees, in fatigues and wheelchairs were sitting and crying and watching this.
The duality of that experience has informed all of my work since then. I do a lot of work in the area of conflict and peace. I think my parents exposed me to the reality of the human condition from a very young age. I kind of feel like school was something that I tolerated, which is not to say that there weren’t moments in school that illuminated some huge aspect of information that I needed to have. I’m not saying that school is not… education is an obvious necessity. However, I felt very conflicted in school and it was a daily battle to get me to go to school.
I’d frequently do anything I could to zone out in class just to write and read. I was very day-dreamy. I’ve always had a very active imagination.
One of the things that prompted me to begin this series of interviews were some comments I heard from teachers asserting that assessment of the arts kills passion for the work—literally arguing that telling students they were doing something incorrectly or setting some sort of standard in the creative arts was not only an impossibility but an insult to the craft. Can you talk about rules and discipline and your experiences as an artist or writer—anything about structure and discipline and whatever that means for you?
I feel like measurement is a necessity whenever funding is involved, so my personal preference is never to undermine the necessity for measurement because you’ll never get anywhere doing that in my opinion given the climate that we’re in today, but rather to reassess the assessment method.
So, [in school], there was a lot of criticism of “doing something correctly or incorrectly.” In fact, I remember I had a writing professor who had these very definite ideas about which stories were worth writing and which students wrote those kinds of stories and that sort of thing. But, I never really cared that much about using the medium correctly because that’s not something that’s important to me specifically.
I think accidents lead to breakthroughs.
But, what you can measure is the process, meaning how much effort and time a student puts into developing their own process. I think that needs to be the measurement that is used in education. …Not necessarily “am I using oil paints the way my teacher thinks oil paints should be used?” because what does that mean? What era of oil painting are they adhering to with that?
Look at William Burrough’s Cut-ups— if he'd had a professor who said “Oh! That’s not how writing is supposed to be done,” he wouldn’t have made a breakthrough. I think that there is no way to measure if someone is using a medium correctly because visionaries break the rules for how mediums are used.
That’s what makes them remembered and that’s what their entire legacies are built on.
You know, Cubism wasn’t Picasso’s best period but in the canon of art history it was an important period because nobody had done it before.
I guess one might argue that if you’re going to assess how much a student throws himself into the development of a particular medium in whichever way he chooses then in that way that’s actually looking at discipline.
In the last interview that I did with the opera singer David Miller he was talking about how he generally just replaces the word discipline with desire because we think about discipline as something that’s thrown on you and you have to slog through it, whereas really all of that hard work is whatever it is that gets you to put in the hours.
Exactly! I like that! I don’t necessarily mind the word [discipline], but I used the word passion. But you know, passion is off-putting to people sometimes because it implies not necessity but desire, so I think discipline is a way of communicating rigor, which I actually like because art requires rigor in order to evolve. I think measuring that process of evolution, while still very difficult, is possible as it is made over the course of a measurable period of time.
Or at least charted in some way.
I’m interested in uncovering those moments where your identity as an artist really got its foothold, and it sounds like we’ve talked about that since it’s been since more or less minute one for you. But, can you talk about any other moments when you felt empowered to take what felt like “big steps” at the time for your own artistic development or key influential people or events that come to mind?
Yes. September 5, 1999 was the day that I had my creative epiphany.
(Laughter) I’m glad I asked!
(Laughter) Prior to that day I perceived art as the products that I created: paintings, music, writings. After that day, I perceived my life as a work of art and the products as sort of byproducts of living that process. Whereas many artists are specific to one medium and they develop that medium. For example, you can’t be the Principal Ballerina at the New York City Ballet unless you are just a ballerina, which isn’t to say that you aren’t doing other things, but you can’t get to that level without dedicating a huge amount of time.
I’m like that with writing: even though I dabble in other mediums, I’m a writer. I spend ten hours a day writing (or at least sitting at the keyboard staring at it). You have to put the time in. But yes, after that day, it was a literal experience that I had with someone who, ten years earlier, had been taught this by someone else. He taught it to me and I have viewed my life from that day forward in a completely different light.
And I’ve stuck to it now for eleven years, that life itself is art. [Life] is a creative process and it doesn’t go on and off, so everything I do I view as contributing to that process of creativity.
What are your thoughts about higher education?
I think basically in life, everything in life is what you make it. My perspective on my college experience is that that period of my life isn’t any less academically rigorous than my life is today. I’m still constantly churning out research papers… I think it’s extremely important of having a lifelong process of education. Whether that includes academic rigorous applied study or you taking the initiative to learn what you need to learn, I think education is an ongoing, lifelong process and limiting it in our minds to a finite period of time takes away from the idea that we’re to continue learning if we’re to evolve.
So, I threw this chart up on Stay Out of School about the artist's internal process—now you many not agree with this because you don’t seem as bent out of shape about basics as I am. I’m one of those kids that was in a conservatory when I was four. However, I really think that as evolving thinkers we have this place where we have a sense of ourselves and then we get into a safe space where we can kind of edge out and explore and come up with new ideas. And then there are these moments of, even if they’re just internal, risk and bravery and fighting with the resistance, which I think usually precede inventive moments. Like when you’re wrestling with stuff and then you have this new idea, and then this new idea ultimately becomes part of your own canon of work, part of your way of thinking.
And you’ve expanded and then you get comfortable with that and the whole process starts again… and you start growing and evolving again and again. I mean this specifically to refer to what’s going on inside, as opposed to these externalities like your family, your home, your school… whatever it is… these things are all interacting and coloring that internal world.
The idea now is that so far we’ve only talked about the externalities— people you met, where you went to school, what happened to you. But I think the thing that’s most mysterious and foreign about the creative brain is this internal cycle that’s constantly revolving.
Would you say internal wrestling and evolution is part of your own innovative experience? How would you talk about it?
This a great question. I think the core for me is the notion that transformation is a ceaseless process and there is much about that process that we cannot control because things happen constantly—things ranging from dealing with the death of a friend or a family member to seeing something on the side of the street that changes your entire mind about something.
To me, the most important thing with regard to innovation is keeping an open mind about the effects of transformation on my process. So, I try, I have certain themes, that I’ve had in my work my entire life. But, transformation is the theme of my work, and I believe that navigating that process, but it’s often that struggle that leads to the breakthrough that creates the new thoughts or the new material or the new era of one’s career or perspective.
I try very much to roll with that endless cycle of transformation as my core principle and to use available materials…
This is an interesting thing, too. My mother is a sculptor and she works with available materials, so when I was growing up, we used to go with backpacks... she'd started welding sculptures out of scrap metal. So we’d have to go to junk yards and dumps wherever there might be scrap metal that was interesting so we could then walk, you know, five miles with this heavy backpack back home, looking for scrap metal for these sculptures we would make.
Or! She works with glass. She hand cuts recycled glass—anything like that. That’s literal in her case: she uses recycled materials. However, in a figurative sense, that really rubbed off on me with the idea that you work with the available materials.
There’s a certain aspect of aspiration, that you’re looking to the future, that you want to gain X or you want to gain Y, but there’s always a certain amount of reality, and so I believe that imagination leads to reality when you’re realistic about what it is you can create using available materials. But I think it’s almost unthinkably magical, what you can create with the smallest amount of available materials.
I think you look around first at what you have at your disposal and use that to build on the next step. I worry less about how people are going to perceive my steps. I think one of the things that really holds people back is that they worry about how people will perceive the phase that they’re in or the steps that they’re taking or how that matches up (and this again goes back to when we were talking about measuring art earlier).
I don't really worry much about it because every opportunity I’ve ever gotten has come unexpectedly from me taking a bizarre path. For example, when I first started working as a journalist, which I started to become after my 1999 epiphany, I took a job at a tiny weekly paper, and my friends all sort of chided me for that, like “Why would you work at this tiny little newspaper?!” And I said, “first of all, you don’t just decide to become a journalist and then, you know, get the cover of the New York Times Magazine—even if you go to school for it, which I did not.” But, I was at this tiny paper one day; they used to put my columns online, and the editor of the Village Voice called the paper to tell me that he’d come across one of my columns and that he loved it. And I said “well, while I have you on the phone, how do I pitch an article to the village voice?” and he said “well you’ve got me on the phone; what’s you’re idea?”
And I was like “oh my God.” So, the idea that I had was that “ well I worked at America Online a few years ago… they owned my intellectual property but now they gave it back… so how about intellectual property?” And he said, “Ennnnh, what did you do at AOL?” And I said, “Well I was a vulgarity censor!”
And he said “That’s a cover story!”
It ended up going on the cover and it was the most well-read cover story they’d ever had to that point. Had I tried to go directly to the village voice to sell myself to them, it would have gotten lost in the slush pile. But, because I was serendipitously available when they sought me out, it worked out, and that is one example of hundreds that I could give you. Even starting my company in 2006: I’d decided not to work as a journalist anymore because the industry wasn’t evolving quickly enough to my tastes to use technology appropriately. Someone mentioned Second Life to me, the virtual world—it was an IBM-er. So I started interviewing scores of IBM-ers and then IBM asked me what I was doing with the information and I ended up taking them on as my first client and starting my own company.
I don’t hesitate to do something that feels intuitively right and interesting to me and at this point in my life I feel I have ample evidence to support that that method works! (Laughter)
Are other people in your life attuned to your creative life/process, are they involved in cultivating it, or is it really something that’s yours alone?
Yes, but I think my entire identity is as a creative person. I’m constantly helping people problem-solve and pretty much my entire identity revolves around creativity in some way, shape, or form. I’ve been really fortunate enough to have, from a professional and a personal perspective… it’s who I am. I don’t make a distinction between work and play. …I work on things about which I care passionately; I’m an eighty-hour-a-week type of worker. So, I mean everyone who knows me knows that there is no distinction in my life, for better or worse.
For example, I’ve had very close friends tell me that they didn't’ want to invite me to be in their wedding party, for example, because they knew that if something came up in the meantime I’d say “Sorry! I can’t make it!” (laughter) Now, I don't consider it a great thing, but I don’t think that people consider me flaky; I just think I’ve had a huge, abundance of support in my life, even for things like that. I feel like people sort of excuse me from obligatory things knowing that I will make it up to them in a way that may not be an obligatory milestone-related way, but in a way that will be meaningful to them at some other point.
I’m not negligent; I just can’t be on a time table. There’s always unexpected things coming up in my life and I follow my muse. I am slavishly devoted to my muse is what it comes down to and I feel like people respect that in my life. I spend a lot of time making that up to people because I don’t want to be absent on people’s important milestones, but yet it’s hard for me to make small talk and socialize… and it’s always sort of a novelty: “oh Rita, she’s got this crazy life.” … It’s almost indecipherable to people from the outside, so I find it kind of exhausting sometimes to be in a situation where it’s almost like a novelty show explaining this process that I’m in. But to me it’s very sort of business-as-usual.
I’m slavishly devoted to my muse and I don’t let things interfere with that, for better or worse.