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An Artist of the Digital Age

For American poet Rives, art can be found anywhere — in spoken words, emoticons and Snapchat.

Written by Pooja Pillai |
Updated: December 7, 2015 7:11:10 pm

TEDxGateway 2015 , John Rives, Rives, A Story of Mixed Emoticons,emoticons, Snapchat, talk, indian expressJOHN Rives, better know as Rives, is usually described as a “2.0 poet”. This is a term that he dismisses as a “branding attempt”. Rives, who wrote Mockingbird, a poem that is different each time it is performed, clearly needs no tagline. One of his performances was A Story of Mixed Emoticons, a classic boys-meets-girl tale but with a twist — it was told almost entirely using emoticons.

The 47-year-old poet, who is hosting the TEDxGateway 2015 in Mumbai today, started writing poems conventionally enough, with a piece about his dog. “I was seven years old when I wrote that,” he says, “and I thought I was doing something very clever. As I grew older and started listening to music, things changed. After listening to Billy Joel, for example, I began to marvel at how he would take you through a story using a song.”

These musical encounters inclined Rives towards the spoken word form, with an emphasis on performance merging with the aesthetics of poetry and storytelling. He says, “I didn’t actually perform a poem until 2001. It was a 90-second poem that doesn’t exist any more, and I performed it in a club in Los Angeles. This was at a time when there was an underground spoken word scene that was perceived as being very cool. After that, I started competing and writing more frequently.” He won the National Poetry Jam in 2004 and and went on to appear on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam several times.

Rives is also the creator and curator of “The Museum of Four in the Morning” — an online project that began when the poet performed a satirical piece called The 4 AM Mystery at a TED conference in March 2007. He says, “I had seen these TED Talks where really smart people put up powerpoint presentations to talk about something important, and I wondered whether the powerpoint can be an art form. At such conferences, the audience files into a room that goes dark and then someone on stage takes them through the slides about a really serious topic. I’d never seen anyone approach this as an art form.”

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When he was invited to perform at a TED Talk, Rives looked at it as a chance to test his idea. “I wanted to go and talk about something completely inconsequential, without ever betraying the slightest hint that I don’t actually believe what I’m saying,” he says. In what has become one of the popular TED talks of all time, Rives performed a “lyrical origami”, where he folded language and information such that they met at points of history, which may seem like coincidences but which he saw as signs of a “global conspiracy” and wondered: why does the phrase “four in the morning” recur so often in literature, art and pop culture? In a hilarious sequence, he pinned the responsibility for this conspiracy on Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti who, Rives claimed, started it all with his work The Palace at 4 AM.

He says, “It just took off from there. People began sending me examples of “four in the morning” being used in movies, television and literature, till I had a huge collection.” These instances, which now number in the thousands, are housed online in “The Museum of Four in the Morning” and visitors can randomly generate clips from across pop culture — movies such as Amelie and Mission Impossible, poems like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Billy Collins’ Forgetfulness and TV shows such as 30 Rock and Heroes.

Rives looks at the communication tools of today — Vine, Tumblr, Snapchat — as tools for creating art. “Spoken word is the most ancient form of poetry,” he says, “And whenever there is a new tool, I like to wonder whether I can mix that with spoken word and create a new type of art.” He recalls meeting someone at a dinner party who lamented that his daughter is “antisocial” and spends all her time messaging her friends. “That struck me as crazy,” he says, “If she’s messaging her friends, then she’s not antisocial. It’s just that the tools we use to socialise have changed and language has changed. Emoticons, for example, may seem like hieroglyphics to people over a certain age, but they have actual semantic weight and they can be used to tell stories. When I use these tools to make art, people from my generation get that I’m tweaking old rules to do something new. For the younger generation, this process is organic because they’re growing up with these tools.”

TEDxGateway 2015 will be held at NCPA, Mumbai, today.

This story appeared on Dec. 5, 2015 in Art and Culture.

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