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Originally published – JUNE 16, 2005

Despite the marvelous technology that colors our lives, we persist in perpetuating an anachronistic mindset. According to Ron Pompei we might as well be living in the 19th Century. Our growth is subsumed by a culture that privileges an ever-narrowing worldview. Ron Pompei is the principal at Pompei A.D. What comes across from his recent talk is a desire to connect with the client in better ways, emphasizing empathy and authenticity.

That our culture hasn’t reconciled with the industrial age confuses our best efforts to digest and portray the information age. Instead we are the inheritors to a blind enlightenment. For Pompei, we are still hobbled by that history. To that end he offers, “In that period of time we limited our definition of our selves because we have to fit in with the machines that we were creating.”

This is our last in a series of looking at the material from the 2005 GEL conference. I’ve been trying to reconcile myself for a month now with Mr. Pompei’s colorful talk and diffuse ideology. His presentation provided important scope to the conference but more importantly it provides an interesting perspective on the problems facing creative professionals.

Some specific references to slides have been edited out.

Ron Pompei: What I think a good experience is: when we can start to combine commerce, culture and community. When we create the transformational experience. GEL is about good experiences, live. So the idea that we can have many kinds of experiences. What makes a good experience? For me, it’s the definition of the transformational experience. An experience that gives us a little bit of “ah-hah.” Any kind of “ah-hah.” You don’t have to reach enlightenment to have that great experience.

Albert Einstein had a few words for us: “The world we have created as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we have thought when we created them”. Now, Albert was a little bit of a philosopher. We always think of him as a scientist, but he was actually a great, amazing, mystic philosopher. You should check him out. We think what’s important for a good experience is that it’s got to be relevant, it’s got to be authentic, has to be intimate. And we’re going to look at how we can really understand these words. Remember. They’re words. What we’re looking for is the experience. We have a lot of confusion in our culture between image and words and experience. We are very complex beings, although a lot of people may try and fit you into a particular box and you may have done a lot in your education to identify with a particular aspect of your own being, of your own creativity. You may put a lot into research and to be very precise in your discipline, and you can identify with: “I’m an architect.” Well, that’s kind of boring actually. “I’m a human being who might practice architecture.” I think that’s much more exciting to think about. And as human beings we have multiple intelligences. Usually in a university education we’re taught logically, linguistically, in the arts you’re taught visually, spatially. A lot of other kinds of intelligence are over looked in our cultural conditioning. Now that’s changing a little. We hear things like emotional intelligence.

Let’s think about that a little bit. Our education was created in the 19th century, to serve Industrialization. It’s a great thing. It gave everybody a lot of goods; it gave everybody a particular kind of education. Created a middle class. Nothing wrong. But we can move on. In that period of time we limited our definition of our selves because we have to fit in with the machines that we were creating. So, if you think of kinesthetic knowledge, you can look very simply at a generation today that has recreated themselves, recreated their image of themselves to find themselves with extreme sports. Extreme sports didn’t exist before. There’s a whole generation saying I can move the way you’ve never even thought of moving. And it’s a ballet that we can perform that’s actually kind of new to the culture and new to human experience. Fifty years ago a rhythmic redefinition would have been a guitar. All music has changed because of the electric guitar. Right? Would you agree? My son will listen to the music I listen to. I would never listen to my father’s music because that change happened during my early years. Right? An electric guitar.

So, you know, actually, in my office, I mean I have a lot of people in their 20s and 30s working with us and they’ll listen to music, and I say, “Hey, I heard that in 1972. Don’t you have your own music?” (laughter) But the thing is, even though they’re sampling, the technology has not caught up in a sense that would create a new paradigm. It’s personal, natural, interpersonal – all these things are parts of our intelligence and we can boil it down to three main ones and we saw them this morning: we saw the intellectual way. Now each one contains the other two. You saw Lichtenstein [ed. Regarding talk on the Roy Lichtenstein mural earlier in the day] – comparing one thing to another – that’s analogical reasoning which our education doesn’t focus on. Our ability to process data – that’s analytical reasoning – Cartesian grid. Analogical, is much broader. And then finally, in the beginning, we saw these jugglers (who) told us that they are going into an alpha state, called the state of being, to be able to allow the body to be in its own intelligence which is empathetical. Those guys were empathizing with one another to the max. It was amazing. To see them performing and knowing where each one was at any particular nano-second – empathetical reasoning is when you know something immediately.

What I’m basically saying is we’re used to thinking about creating destinations. We have to think about creating journeys – right? It always was “we’re going to create a destination.” Rome was a destination. What’s the journey that we’re going to be on and how can we use our empathetical, analogical and analytical together rather than kind of putting ourselves in this identity with the ability to process data, to take tests well, and that sort of thing

“The Venetian” in Las Vegas. Who’s been there? Venice – happens to be in Italy. Who’s been there? Can anybody tell the difference? (laughter) Now there’s a lot of people out there who will tell you that “The Venetian” is an authentic experience and it is an authentic casino. But it’s not authentic and beautiful. I can get on my knees here for Venice. For the experiences that I’ve had there and the inspiration it’s given me. I can’t drive around in a minute in a car in Venice. It’s not asking you to spend some money; go down to the slot machines. It is an expression of culture, grown up over time. It’s centuries old but it’s the intersection of global commerce. It was a global city that brought the east and west together. That’s why the architecture that you see is such a mix of Middle Eastern with the pointed arches and so forth. It tells you enough to know that there is a huge difference between us. As creative people, we have to understand and, in affect, guide where the culture goes in recognizing that when people tell you that, “Well, the Venetian is just as good! Matter of fact, it’s better because there’s no pigeons and doesn’t stink.” (laughter). It’s crazy, and there’s articles written on this. I mean this is how insipid the analytical mind can go. Right? You can create pros and cons and valuations using your head. But you have to – we all have to use our heart and our gut to know the difference when we encounter something like this.

Pompei continues by contrasting the Lincoln Library to the Lincoln Memorial. Through the Memorial, we have a totem that has become the touchstone for integrity and freedom oft invoked in movies and still a source of identity and history for the United States. The newer Lincoln Library has a statue of the president with a “mop for a beard.”

In Pompei’s words, “When you go to something like the Lincoln Memorial, and whether you’re a fan of Lincoln or not, you see that whether it’s a government funeral or other thing where people are evoking the eternal – it’s a very real experience. Right? Rather than some kind of Disneyesque portrayal of a major part of our cultural history.”

Contrary to the above, he also points out that interior design and architecture are drawing from art and graphic design in an effort to combine commerce and culture: from the loping forms of Richard Serra for retaining walls to the LED-boards of Jenny Holzer as lighting and decoration for Helmut Lang. This synthesis, for Pompei, is a move away from the Cartesian grid and towards the genuine and sensual – a rediscovery our physical self.

Ron Pompei: What I really want to end with is this idea that when there is cultural tourism, where we’re looking for content or people, it’s like going to a school of anthropology that really integrates so many different aspects of the senses in one experience. We’re telling a story here. We’re telling a story that really resonates with our emotions, resonates with our being, and resonates with intellect. And I think that as creative individuals, this is our challenge to reintegrate what has been separated in the Industrial Revolution because it had to be. We had to have specialists. Now it’s a great opportunity for us to bring unity back to our culture. GEL is about bringing this kind of good live of experience and for us, we know that is the culmination of good, the true, and the beautiful. So I’ll leave you with that – the good, the true, and the beautiful. Let’s try and bring those things together and how they create whether it’s Vegas, products, services, or experiences.

We are complicated people ever more harried by the multiplicity around us – a culture harangued by consumption. Pompei’s argument becomes excessive at times. Monumentality and eternity aren’t things that he invokes lightly. Pompei draws attention to the genuine and true in Venice and Rome, even the Lincoln Memorial, but the question continues: What to do with a culture that occasionally hits high notes by suggesting the naked curve of a Serra wall or a sassy, shining Holzer display vs. the greater danger of a far more likely “Disneyesque portrayal of our cultural history?”

Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.

In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive

E. Tage Larsen
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