On International Women’s Day, my former hack-mate from Science Hack Day tweeted out female scientists that are inspiring to her. You can read her full article here. In that spirit, I wanted to talk about meeting someone who inspired me.
Ze Frank is an Internet sensation primarily known for his Internet show back in 2006 entitled “The Show”. In 2012, he released a new show with the help of Kickstarter backers called “A Show”. It also became a hit for its run during its first year.
If you haven’t watched any of his videos, you should begin with “An Invocation for Beginnings,” his first episode for “A Show”. He talks about the fear of beginning and calls out people to join him in beginning something.
This is an invocation for anyone who hasn’t begun! Who’s stuck in a terrible place between zero and one.
— Ze Frank, “An Invocation for Beginnings”
Or this video on “Crushing Words,” where Ze just talks about words that have had a crushing impact on his life. Ze is able to present his vulnerabilities, creating an atmosphere of authenticity, human emotion, fun and play in his videos. In a lot of ways, these essays echo what his videos convey, a place where we can actually talk about insecurities and vulnerabilities.
In “A Show”, Ze held a bunch of different “missions” where artists and fans would collaborate to create pieces of art, like a jacket made of pages from diary entries submitted by the fans. In 2013, Ze created an art exhibition using the pieces created in the missions. The exhibition was held at The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History where the public was invited to come to the exhibition and participate in the workshops. At the end of the exhibition, the public could watch Ze and Stefan Bucher present their work in an interactive showcase. Being a fan, I was a bit giddy to finally meet him in person, so I drove down to go see this exhibit.
Nina Simon, the museum’s curator, spent years creating this museum interactive space where each exhibit is a participatory art piece. It was no coincidence Ze chose this museum. Within Ze’s exhibition were different workshops where you can make your own finishing stamp, look at some of the projects made by the artists on his show, and write comforting messages to stuff into a teddy bear, known as the “Comfort Bear.”
Before the showcase began, Ze addressed the crowd who was lined up to go into the auditorium. He asked everyone to disperse and talk to strangers you’ve never met. It was the first in a string of social experiments he asked us to participate in. I walked around the room meeting people of different backgrounds, like students at UC Santa Cruz, NASA Ames employees, and Youtube Stars from the UK. After a few minutes, he told us to gather back together and asked us to make a laughing circle. To create a laughing circle, you have someone would lay down and start laughing. Another person would lay down, rest their head on the first person’s belly, and then commence laughing. This would repeat until a circle is formed. A few people participated in this activity, including myself.
Our superego holds us back from saying things that might be too offensive, too brazen, or too radical. It may stop us from participating in activities that might make us embarrassed. But this activity of resting our heads on someone’s laughing belly tricks our superego from telling us this is an awkward situation because it’s never encountered such action before. As my head was bouncing up and down, my mind stopped rationalizing what was going on. I just laid there laughing at the absurdity that was unfolding. Heads around me in similar bouncing fashion, bobbing up and down laughing.
Other activities followed along the same thread as thing one. Feeling oddly elated, we all sat down in the auditorium. I had this sense of play and joy, as I listened to him talk about the process of creation and how participatory activities brings about conversations. He made me think about, and eventually write about, how to get others to interact with me on an empathetic level. It goes past the level of acquaintance and to a level of real human emotional feelings. We take off this mask and actually show ourselves raw.
The physical realm is full of strange and awkward emotions because we have to deal with each other. The internet masks us with anonymity. So how do we get to the important conversations?
— My journal entry from that day in reflection to the talk
After the talk, I lined with with the rest of the fans to meet Ze. Watching his videos is an intimate one-on-one experience. You open your laptop, go to his website, and click play to start watching his latest video. He talks about something to a camera, and you view the final, edited version. And a lot of times, you watch it alone.
Here was a chance to finally bridge that digital experience into the physical world. Except, the exhibition, the silly activities, and his talk made me realize I’m not the only one who has this experience. I get to share it with the fans. We get to continue this conversation, through the medium of video comments, the missions, or this live event. And through this live event, I was finally able to talk to people about the important things, like how to be yourself, how to deal with bad news from the doctor’s office, and how to determine who is a friend versus an acquaintance.
When it was my turn, I thanked him for the participatory experiences of the event. He signed my poster and probably doesn’t remember this brief encounter. And to be honest, I don’t really either. He brought himself to the level of the fans, not as an apotheosis. He was the instigator, the person who started the ball rolling. The fans are there to continue to roll the ball and perhaps crack it open to find something magical inside, like raw emotion, solutions to our everyday problems, or how to cope. Ze was make the event more than just himself. In true spirit to his attitude in his videos, he made this event about the fans.
Ze opened my mind to think about how to live and cope with awkward emotions. They’re of human construct, and the only way to really deal with it is to open a dialogue. It’s not to comment on a video, give our ten cents, and leave it at that. It’s to draw out someone else who shares similar perspective and figure out what makes us human.