— Cultural Sources of Newness

Finding cultural sources of newness in most unusual places

Some of our research projects pay close attention to the places in which new ideas are created, so that we can understand the cultural features in the context. For example, my colleague Ignacio Farías has spent many hours, days, weeks observing the flow and interactions between people and materials in artists’ studios and architects’ offices; and over the course of two and a half years I studied what happened when artists created their works in an unconventional context, namely a consulting company (a first essay on what I learned there appeared in the fifth catalogue for the residency program; more articles are under review for publication in journals).

We take our work seriously, and it is definitely fun to interview such diverse and interesting people and watch them at work. But it is not funny. So it was wonderful to come across a  BBC radio 4 program during my holiday break from work that bridges the gap between the serious world of research and the lighthearted mood characteristic of the festivities of New Year’s eve. The interviews reveal what happened in what I would call a highly unusual space for a cultural source of newness: a motel nightclub in Houston, Texas.    

A new form of comedy was born and a new kind of record product emerged from there in 1960. It was so successful that it topped the charts for 14 weeks in the USA, it launched the career of Bob Newhart (who had never performed in front of a live audience before this gig), and it saved Warner Brothers from probable closure. The interviews also reveal the multiple actors needed to enable the transformation of something new to the status of newness, thereby connecting again to the work of our unit on agents and alliances of valorization alliances and agencies (see earlier post on institutions for valuing newness). Furthermore, Bob Newhart’s innovation of “half a telephone” throws fresh light on our discussions about materials and end-users in the process of creativity. The story also illustrates the importance of the name for a successful transition from new to newness, providing yet another example of a name chosen by someone other than the innovator (see post on What’s in a name).

When I get back to the office in the New Year, I might conduct a poll among colleagues: Who listened to the program because it offers an opportunity to laugh? Who because it provides new data for our studies? And who disregarded the offer to connect the two?

ps: For readers who develop a taste for this kind of supplementary source of insights into processes of newness, or those whose musical tastes include jazz, this BBC series includes the fascinating story behind Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. That happened in another unexpected place: the opera house in Cologne. Well, it almost did not take place at all…..