Music Bridges Cultures: An Event in Paris

The US Embassy hosted a day-long symposium at the residence of the US Ambassador to France to unite 100 cultural entrepreneurs and leaders of local arts organizations in Paris.
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The US Embassy hosted a day-long symposium at the residence of the US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin on June 24, 2010 to unite 100 cultural entrepreneurs and leaders of local arts organizations in Paris. "Create Today" sparked an intercultural dialogue about start-up challenges facing entrepreneurs in the United States and France and focused on the link between technology and Art; how can technology be used to raise money and garner support for new cultural initiatives?

Panelists at "Create Today" included Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda, Fred Benenson from and Presidents and curators of French cultural institutions like the Mayor's Office, the Parc de la Villette and the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. I sat in the last seat of the panel, representing the American nonprofit company that I founded, called MIMA Music, Inc.

John Maeda gave the keynote presentation, sprinkling his talk with anecdotes about his career as an artist in the USA and Japan, and as the former director of MIT's renowned Media Lab. John joked around; "When I went to study with my mentor in Japan, he said I should become a professor. When I asked him 'Why?' he responded, 'so you can teach your students to grow up and then conquer you one day."

John explained that scientists are looking for new ways to connect science and art. "It's about body control, and therefore we have to understand the body." He explained that design is about making solutions and art is about making questions. "Art humanizes technology and makes it understandable," he said. "The right combination of intuition, design, emotion and Art lead to innovation."

Fred Benenson from described his company's innovative platform for funding and following creative projects online, which provides an alternative to the typical "grant-making" process. The issue at stake is the "value exchange" for Internet users who can financially support creators and projects that wouldn't ordinarily be able to find funding. He said, "people want to feel that they're supporting something they care about, and project creators do not necessarily want to give up equity to get their projects off the ground. Kickstarter provides individuals with a great sense of freedom." The French panelists, like Leanne Sacramone, a curator at the Cartier Foundation, discussed the importance of giving a voice to undiscovered artists and using the ample spaces throughout Paris to provide them with a stage to present their new works.

As I sat before the crowd and waited for my turn to speak, I started daydreaming about my youth as a participant in Karate tournaments. In a Karate tournament, you have to vie for the highest scores from the judges by outperforming the people before you. Usually, expectations are very high in the beginning of an event, and, over time, the audience gets tired and the judges become less impressed. If you do something radically different, you can catch everyone off guard and overcome depressed expectations. As the youngest and final panelist, what could I do differently?

I invited everyone to get up. I quickly launched a MIMA teaching exercise that is perfect in a classroom setting with kids, called "Oh eh le le". The activity is a "follow-the-leader" exercise designed to teach musical call and response and break the ice. After several minutes of chest-pounding, clapping and singing in the Ambassador's residence, I felt a tectonic shift occur inside the space. Everyone started laughing and singing, "O ele palua palue". The divide between panelists and audience immediately disappeared and everyone was finally comfortable enough to ask questions and share personal anecdotes. I explained the importance of bringing people together in collective group settings; "Chaos, order and silence are foundations of an improvised and interactive experience. Music exercises can help non musicians focus on the "body" and feel at ease next to people they do not know. It is important to build a feeling of community and solidarity wherever we are so that we can promote meaningful human relationships."

A group of French rappers at the event grabbed the microphones and started complaining about the glass ceiling that lies very low in French society, particularly for minorities. In marginalized communities in France, individuals lack easy access to information, so technology gives them an advantage in school or in the job market. Individuals still suffocate, however, in a social greenhouse because modern media streams into their lives like the afternoon sun, yet they have no room to grow or escape.

I started to think to myself about ways to help people overcome difficult challenges in the job market in a society like France. I realized that if the system can't change over night, we need to help train talented local leaders to stand up for change and spread positive social values. We need to equip teachers with the skills to manage chaotic classroom situations. Independent musicians need to learn about cultural diplomacy and how to use interactive performances to inspire disadvantaged youth to fall in love with the Arts. French social entrepreneurs can learn about nonprofit business strategies that work in other countries. We should offer French university students with online support networks, which could also reinforce mutual understanding between cultures.

John Maeda eloquently summed up the feeling of the event in several words: "people always look for painkillers, but it seems like we can only provide vitamins. Technology can help you cut in line when you are waiting for support and funding, which is one way of speeding up the painful waiting game." At this point I chimed in, "technology is great to cut in line and speed up the process, but just make sure you have all your papers in order when your name gets called."

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