Extreme Art

May 20, 2020

To create something unique, consider the processes, techniques, and tools you use.

What is Extreme Art?

It's the notion that, for a creator to make something "extreme", she needs to create additional, supporting tools, techniques, or processes that will, in turn help make the artwork possible. The side-creation of these new tools, techniques, and processes allow the Extreme Art to transcend the status quo, and become radically different. They blaze the trail such that the one experiencing the artwork is potentially led to someplace new.

I don't want to suggest that not-extreme art is bad. Indeed, many artists do masterful, surprising, and amazing things with extant tools and resources. I don't want to discount the value of a novel just because it didn't accompany any new lexicon, or fault the composer for only the "same old" 12 notes of a scale.

(Note: Until I find the term that others have already used to describe what I'm about to talk about, I'll call it "Extreme Art" for now.)

Examples of Extreme Art

Exhibit A: OK Go's Music Videos

OK Go's stunning 2014 video Upside Down & Inside Out was perhaps the first time I realized I had experienced Extreme Art. If you see the behind-the-scenes videos, you'll see there was significant exploration, engineering, and process involved with the making of that video, as well as many insights along the way to production. They were dealing with problems that relatively few others else have faced or would face in creating a music video. In the end, they delivered an unprecedented (in my opinion) music video production.

Exhibit B: Magic

Penn & Teller's show Fool Us has up-and-coming magicians perform in front of the masters. If the masters cannot describe how the magician performs her trick, then they are considered "fooled". I find a common theme among the successful contestant magicians: winners are typically ones that create their own tricks. They completely pave a new way, and build the trick from the ground up. Sometimes it's out of personal necessity, such as to overcome a disability or injury.

In contrast, those who merely go "by the book", are never able to fool Penn & Teller despite often delivering a compelling performance. As the two veteran magicians will say, not being able to fool them not so much a knock on the magician's abilities. But, those who are able to fool Penn and Teller have the ability to evoke wonder and amazement even from the masters themselves.

Making Extreme Art

And so the implication for those who are tasked or challenged to create something completely novel: Look at the process. Look at your techniques, and tooling. It's the innovations inside that tool chain that will propel your creation to break the status quo.

The work done by Larry Keeley explores this with companies in his work, The Ten Types of Innovation [Amazon]: Those that end up being disruptive and revolutionary are able to innovate at key points along the value-adding process or supply chain, and integrate them together synergistically. You can watch his lectures on Vimeo.

For those waiting for me to describe how to make Extreme Art, I currently have nothing else to add to what I submit above, as overly short, simplistic, and raw as it is. This is a tricky thing, because if I were to tell you how to create a work of Extreme Art, it wouldn't be extreme anymore. The burden each of us to blaze our own way. I'll have to revisit this topic at a later time. In the meantime, I'll share my list of pitfalls that I've observed, in the quest of creating Extreme Art.

Pitfalls in Seeking to Create Extreme Art

Here are some thoughts on pitfalls that I've certainly committed as a creator. I list them here, but further research on how to overcome them is still to be done.

Underestimating the amount of resources needed

The quest for Extreme Art can be expensive, since the final creation is only the tip of the iceberg of resources required. So, budget carefully.

Extreme Art not worth making

Indeed, it's perilous to branch out and create something new. While trekking through new territory, there will be no map, and things that are completely new can be hard for people to evaluate. How to create Extreme Art actually worth making is outside the scope of this article (and of my current understanding), but a crucial topic nevertheless. The right answer probably has to do with creating a lot of cheap things, learning fast, and then synthesizing everything to create the final result.

Opting not to create if you don't think it's extreme

In other words, a creator allows him or herself to become blocked in creating just because the processes, tools, and techniques aren't perceived to immediately transcend the status quo. I think it's wise to simply keep creating with what you have access to until you feel yourself pushing up against boundaries.

Obsession with tools, techniques, or processes

Another pitfall is to focus too much on refining the process rather than the product itself. This will lead to ever sharpening saws without ever cutting down trees. Again, the emphasis on shipping needs to come first. How one might realizes that there is something new to be created is also a worthy topic, that is again outside of the scope of this article (and also my understanding).

Unawareness of the status quo

Another pitfall is building something using (expensive) new tools, techniques, and processes that don't actually deliver any appreciable difference between the product and the status quo. Then, you might as well have leveraged what was already in existence rather than (re-)create what you needed. Again, it can be difficult to predict how a new creation is received until it is actually created.

What are your thoughts?

Do you know of any terms for "Extreme Art"?

Do you have any other pitfalls that fellow creators should be aware of?

What are some solutions, mindsets, or principles that allow for creation of "Extreme Art"?

Let me know if you have any thoughts!

I'll be working on a comments section, but for now, you can tweet me @JayLiu50 or email me at jay@designbyjayliu.com.

Written by Jay Liu, interaction designer.