Mike Rugnetta is a composer, programmer and performer. You might know him as host of YouTube shows, such as PBS Idea Channel. For TEDxVienna he recently gave a talk about “What if there is something beyond the network?” I had the opportunity to interview him about creativity, networking and understanding complex concepts.
Q: You do an amazing range of things. How do you balance all of these areas?
It’s really tough to manage and I would actually challenge the idea that they do get enough time. For the first five, seven years that I lived in New York I spent most of my time writing music. When I get to do it now, it’s like a vacation. I still do it professionally every once in a while but the balancing act is really hard. I spend most of my time on Idea Channel. I spend a little bit more for my Podcast Reasonable Sound but I think that they’re also very much related. My interests are in putting unexpected things next to each other, things that are fast and challenging. I do that with Idea Channel and the performance work I did. I keep going back to Nelson Goodman who talks about the Language of Art and that there’s essentially just an underlying language, no matter what medium, and you just choose your materials.
Q: You really like complex ideas. How do you deal with ideas that are difficult to understand? Do you have any advice for students who are, for example, studying cultural theory themselves?
I think a lot of students feel like they have to get things, which is the first roadblock that if you don’t get it, you feel dumb and that’s just not the case. A lot of this stuff is just super complicated and it really does take a village. You have to talk to people, you have to reason it out and you have to be fully open to rejecting it and saying this idea is not for me or this is too overwrought. If it really wants to be understood, why is it this complex? But before you get to that point, it’s a matter of talking to your peers and instructors, trying to reason it through and trying to meet it on its ground and if that doesn’t happen, trying to figure out what you can pull from it that is useful for you, whether or whether not that’s what it means. I’m a really big fan of intentionally misreading things, of misusing sources because I think it’s there and you should be able to get something from it. If that’s not what the author intended you still have got something and you have to recognize the usefulness of that.
Q: Your TEDxVienna talk is about networks. So I was wondering if you have any advice for networking, especially when it comes to creative collaborations like the ones you’re involved in?
My number one piece of advice is to not to think about it as networking. When you’re out and there’s a group of people you want to professionally interact with and you think “I will network” you’re already off to a bad start. What you want to do is to think “I’m going to have a really good time. This is going to be a lot of fun.” Because it’s a learning opportunity. You get a chance to meet with all of these people who have all of these different perspectives and you can collect all of their experiences and that’s really fun. If something professional comes out of that, it’s great but that’s icing. Because that then puts you in the state of mind where you are acting naturally, trying to learn something about people and I think that’s so much more valuable than going into it with this idea that you’re going to meet someone and get something from them. A really good piece of advice that I was giving in college was from my best friend’s sculpture instructor. We made a thing together and he said “It’s good but you guys really just have to eat breakfast from across of one another for six months and then you’ll make something that’s really good.” I think what the idea of networking does is that it ignores that idea, which, I think, is so true and so right, that to work with people you need to understand them. That’s the way to have a great collaborative relationship with someone. You figure out who they are, what they like, what they are about and how you relate. Then you can start working together.
Q: At university instructors often say “Here’s a concept, find a modern example to apply it to”. You do this incredibly well with Ideas Channel. What’s your process like?
The answer to this is question is really boring, which is that creativity is like a muscle. You can’t wait for things to just come to you. You have to figure out a situation in which you can flex your creativity muscle and then you just have to do it a lot. To a certain degree it’s a game of averages. You make stuff and you make stuff and you make stuff and you put it out into the world and people react and then you start to learn what situations, relationships and reactions are the right combinations that produce something you’re proud of and that people like. For Idea Channel a lot of it is just trying things and not being disappointed when it’s not perfect and being able to admit that sometimes the connection is tenuous or maybe the idea is novel but not ground-breaking. It’s the exercise of putting those two things together and the conversation that results from it that’s worthwhile and important and not necessarily the fact that “Doctor Who is a religion”. It’s really not but by talking about whether or not it is, we learn some things about Doctor Who and religion and what it means to ask that kind of question.
Q: One short final question: If you could listen to a TED talk by anyone in the past, present of future, which one would you choose?
John Cage. What would his TED talk be like? He would break all of the rules.
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