Join Alex McDowell for an in-depth discussion in this video Learning, part of Alex McDowell: World Building and Narrative.
- So I've been teaching a world building for the past three years at USC and I was in Rio at the beginning of 2014 last year with a great architect called Ann Pendleton-Julian and we started comparing Rio and Los Angeles. It's sort of two cities that have steep mountains that face the ocean, one of which is the richest property in the city and the other is the poorest.
You have favelas on one set of slopes and kind of Malibu on the other. And the two film industries are incredibly interesting and parallel. So anyway, we started looking at Rio and LA and we thought, what if we were to create a world that took the DNA of Rio and Los Angeles and combined them on a small and place them on a small island in the Pacific that was too small for its population. So, we came back and we launched my World Building class in January of 2014 with that prompt and that premise, with two classes.
And we really just threw it out there and within a very short period of time, the students had evolved an entire narrative around this, how the island was discovered, how there was a challenge to fossil fuel in the trees on the island and a rhizomic set of trees and how that became a huge wealth resource and a vast influx of population poured into the island and then a plague started and the island was shut down and removed from the map and continued to evolve without our knowledge.
And then as it evolved further, we opened it up to other schools and so, Rilao, as the island was called, became the subject for seven different schools around the world, the Royal College of Art in London, a school of Journalism in Rio, a couple of design schools in Europe, a school in Toronto, and they all started contributing and so, by the time we got to October, we'd created a kind of gamified frame work and had 300 people arrive and build out Rilao in a day and they wrote a thousand stories to that space in two and a half hours and then started creating artifacts and all the artifacts went up on the web that same day and then we went to the Berlin Film Festival with it and then we went to FMX with it and these various schools continued to teach it in classes.
I think the idea of a kind of potent world that you can launch into the world and for real, and allow multiple participants to dive into it and let those stories go where they will, has become in itself a really interesting story to me. It's become a kind of proof of concept of vast collaboration. We've had over a thousand people working in this space now. We've have thousands of artifacts. We now have a virtual museum that's built on a website that contains all of the artifacts that have been evolved for this world and it's kind of never ending.
I'm fascinated by our ability now, just to sort of throw a few pebbles into a pond of a world and then see how every world can kind of explode with narrative. I think what I'm learning is that we need a new, a new space, a new kind of way to think about the design practice, let's say. I think what I'm really learning in having sort of launched into 5D, kind of building on it from my film background and with in my mind, the model being very much about a film art department as a kind of space within which you have this great capability and the ability to ingest lots and lots of different kinds of people and skills and then just produce anything from sort of a 17th century drama about Paris, to a 21st century drama about Washington, DC but what's interesting is that the, the way in that which those collaborations evolve within a volatile kind of work space like that.
It's very hard to define the edges when you're trying to create sort of the first design studio for the 21st century and be open to all the practitioners you need. So I have UX and UI designers. I have programmers. I have, you know, there is a game component to it of course. There is a huge research piece. There are producers that, you know, there is film makers, but there's game makers and there's UI, UX people. So, I guess what I am learning, and I feel like my whole life and various practices have always just been about my own curiosity and how I love to learn from what's around me but I'm very open to seeing how this new space for design and storytelling might evolve and I think the other thing we all have to learn is that there is no stability now.
We're in this volatile, chaotic space. We are developing stories and tools for media that do not yet have a name and within two years, who knows what Magic Leap will have turned our experience of the world into or HoloLens or whatever the next generation of Oculus or Vive or any of those. You know, there is so much, so many of the tools that are evolving are in themselves massive learning opportunites and I think if you are curious and you are confident enough to sort of dive into the maelstrom and not be freaked out by the chaos, I think this is an incredibly interesting time to be alive as a creative person, as somebody working in creative industries.
There's never been a more interesting time. I was trained as a painter at art school and as a painter, I guess I was trained to have a one on one relationship with the creative practice. My wife is a painter. I have enormous respect for people who can do that and have that sort of direct connection to the material and to the stories that they are developing whilst that they're developing. But for me what I've learned and I think is increasingly powerful, is this notion of collaboration.
I talked about that a little bit but I think that the ability to truly kind of collaborate outside your comfort zone and to be able to be open to working freely and developing a language that allows you to work freely across a really broad plateau of different skill sets, against that sort of idea of allowing art, science. You know, a couple of my students out of the World Building now write, put art scientist on their business cards and I think that's the future.
I think those are the people who are going to be powerful. That's what I hope my son and daughter are going to be, are those people who are not specialists actually, except in the way they think. But in terms of their openness and capability of working equally or seeing no distinction between the arts and the sciences, between design and engineering. Those are the people that are going to make the world change, I think. You know, largely right now, I find my inspiration in my students.
I think one of the most powerful things for me about teaching, the most powerful thing about teaching is that the privilege access that it gives you to young minds who are unfettered and incredibly curious themselves and I'm, I'm really looking to try and be open enough to learn from every new student who comes in and says, why does it have to work this way? The what if and why not of the future is what powerfully drives everything I'm doing, but I think it, we need that sort of stimulus and I kind of see everybody as an expert in some field or another.
I don't really look at a kind of hierarchy that's based on age and experience, I look much rather at a hierarchy that based on, on access to unique thinking, let's say, and to be open to creating a infrastructure that allows that all to be ingested and can still produce something that is structured and disciplined and with a real sense of direction and an ability to produce it.
The balance of that, the sort of volatility and the chaos, and then this is just about making stuff that's going to exist in the real world. Those two things are where my area of interest really lies.
In this interview, Alex tells us about his current projects (including models for sustainable living and a virtual exploration of the world's oceans), the future of media and narrative, and where he looks for inspiration.