Ask someone who knows: Johanna Olsson

Johanna Olsson of BoostHbg

I thought I’d step it up a bit and enlighten you all further by inviting interesting people, who have interesting things to say, into these pages. My first interview is with Johanna Olsson from BoostHbg, who does inspiring work arranging Cross Media Labs. The Labs are best described as cross discipline creative workshops.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I should of course mention that the interview person here is actually my fiancée. In the world of journalism that’s a no-go. But since this is a blog, and not a publication guided by press ethics, we can throw caution to the wind and get our hands dirty without a second thought. But as the content in this blog now takes a step away from solely traditional blog style opinion pieces, I will make further use of the opportunity and discuss the subject of professional journalism vs. amateur blogging. An interesting text about this written by Andreas Ekström, entitled “We must be better than the amateurs” can be found here (sorry, Swedish only).
I will discuss these matters at the end of each piece under the clever headline Angle Alert! In the same spirit, my opinion pieces will end with an even cleverer headline called Stay Sceptic!, where I urge you to read whatever I write critically. Finally, please note that I have translated this interview from Swedish, so if the tone of language sounds familiar, I guess we know why.

Enough said. I hope you will enjoy this interview with Johanna Olsson of BoostHbg.

So, Johanna, please enlighten us, what is a Cross Media Lab anyways?

– The shapes and forms of a cross media lab can vary depending on the facilitator. The lowest common denominator is that a group of people with skills from a range of different types of media come together for a limited time period to experiment using their combined knowledge. Usually this happens under the guidance of a facilitator.

I see. And what’s the goal here?

– This too can vary, as well as the construction of the group. For instance, in our case we have a focus on moving media. This is just to clarify where we have our base though. If we want to be able to change how we think about our industry, we need to include people from others areas as well as allow for the emerging ideas and products to land outside of our moving media definitions. Now, even if the goals can vary, they are all spawned from the same identified need: the lack of common ground in co-production. Which is to say a lack of common understanding, common knowledge and common processes. In a lab such as ours, focused on moving media, we do have a common ground in the sense that we all work in industries such as film, TV, the game industry, web, and mobile – which are all in a sense moving media. And even if we all work with basically the same thing, the way we work vary a lot. These great variations with regards to creative and workflow processes are what make co-production such a hassle. And if this was not enough of a struggle, add to this that people in general have no idea what their own process looks like.

– With these problem areas as a starting point one can choose to pursue various goals, a part from the obvious which is to see what kind of magic will come out of letting these creative people work together for a few days. In our lab we have three main goals.

– First: we want the individuals in the group to develop their own creative process and be inspired. We want them to learn from each other, and find new angles to their own work. As it turns out, all industries have some weaknesses in their production process, but at times, one industry’s weakness is another’s strength.

– Second: we also want to build cross industry networks. Sadly, the case today is that there is little interaction and communication “across genres”, so to speak. It goes without saying that this makes collaboration more difficult.

– And finally, our third goal is to have created a few projects that have sprung from a collaborative effort where everyone’s input is traceable. These projects will be true cross media projects in the sense that they have sprung from a collaborative process of idea generation and development. The final product does not necessarily have to have a leg in each industry though. It can still be “just” a film, but the narrative technique can be borrowed from the gaming industry, and the method of distribution can be inspired by how the web people work.

Inspiring stuff. But how does it work more specifically?

– In our case, we start with a long planning process, where we set our goals, explore the needs, set up our core values and find our participants. We use several established models to set this up, such as the Team Performance model and the AI 4-D. We use these models as a framework to lean on. In this way we know where to start, we know where to finish and we know what must happen in between. Then we go into detail. We have hundreds of models, tools and exercises prepared, but they’re really just there so that we can discard them at a later stage. Everything of interest happens at the scene, and that’s when and where it really gets determined what tools are necessary to move the process along. As the saying goes, we strive to be “over prepared and under structured”.

– During the lab we want to be 100 percent loyal to the group. Sure, we know where we are heading, and where we want to be, but the group must make that journey by their own accord. We’ve got the tools, but it’s up to them to respond. This makes a lab quite straining, both mentally and physically. We use two facilitators so that one of us can concentrate on reading the group to see where we loose people and which emotions are triggered by which input.

– More hands on, the Lab starts with a day where the group gathers knowledge and inspiration. We supply lecturers that can provide this. As everyone in the group all have different starting points, and different terminology, these lecturers give the group a common ground to stand on when it comes to terminology. It really doesn’t matter if the terminology is “accurate”, the important part is that they share a common terminology. For instance, for the participants in this Lab some core words were “heart blood”, “pollination” and “myspacemange”. This means nothing to you and me, but for the group the meaning of these words is obvious.

– We also strive to build trust and understanding within the group. During the progression of the Lab we work with idea generation, audience analysis, idea- focus, selection, and deepening as well as industry inventory. We then move on to developing the projects that emerge from these processes. We also try to pin point what the term “cross media” means to the group. During the process we have lecturers that can help deepen the understanding of various aspects, as well as “lifelines”, i.e. experts in various areas that the group can contact with questions.

– The lab is carried out in an isolated area, away from distractions, in this case an old snowed in brewery situated in the south Swedish countryside. We fill the facilities with game consoles, computers, film, cameras, writing material and more. Something interesting happens when you can see, touch and feel various materials and tools. The respect for these gadgets disappears as the understanding deepens, and they become your tools, not tools just to be used by experts.

– Like I said, this is hard work. For this reason we also provide small events to allow for reflection and relaxation. In this case there was chocolate testing, massage, and dinners. These events are important for the creative process, but it’s also interesting to see how the group reacts to them. Some become more focused, some less.

– At the end of the first four days of work, a few weeks of solo work ensues, and after this we arrange for the group to pitch their projects to possible investors. This is followed by a day of evaluation.

How did you find the participants?

– Finding the right group of people is mission critical. It’s not just a question of finding people with the right set of skills; it’s also a question of finding a dynamic group assembly. Furthermore, the people involved must be open to experimentation and have a general ability to just let go and throw themselves out there.

– The application process has been quite demanding. We have had applications sent to us for consideration, and we have managed to find some participants through recommendations. As we look for diversity in the group, we have been forced to turn very competent people away as their profiles have been too similar to other applicants.

– When we had filled all moving media positions, we went on the prowl for “jokers”, i.e. people from other disciplines and forms of expression that can really offer a fresh angle to the subject. In this Lab, for instance, we had a playwright and an art collage student. The group was really amazing, not just with regards to their attitude, but also in terms of diversity. We had a game designer who’s also a poet, and a filmmaker who has won a large game pitch.

So, who ended up participating in the Lab?

Drazen Kuljanin, Filmmaker, Arkey
Nick Schröder, TV producer, Maj maj måne

Daniel Bernhoff, Game designer, Planeto

Pål Hedberg, playwright
Michaela Schmeidt, AD, Mis-printed

Johanna Stillman, Art Collage student
Klara Lewin, Documentary filmmaker
Tobias Lundqvist, Filmmaker

Are you happy with the outcome?

– I am. But the Lab is really only half finished, since the pith and the evaluation remains to be done. But yeah, so far I’m really, really pleased with the outcome. In many ways this was a dream process. It’s never a good sign if things run too smoothly, and in this case there was not much friction from a team perspective, but they did continuously halt and questioned, even revolted, against the concept of Cross Media. It’s quite the luxury to have to have a group that trust in the process, but still deliver surprises. We were constantly forced to change direction, find new perspectives and directions. The stuff that surfaced was incredibly exiting, for me as well as for the participants.

Speaking of which: how did the participants feel about the experience?

– From what I’ve gathered, they are very happy about the experience. That’s the best thing about a Lab; it’s virtually impossible NOT to get something out of the experience. Even if we disregard the whole journey of being carried trough a process, being forced to battle with convictions and conventions, workflows and new ideas 24 hours a day for a few days, on a weird place with toys and lecturers, lifelines and massage, the impact of the meeting itself remains. Meeting seven people and getting to know them on another level than one usually get’s to know people, joining them in frustration and facing challenges together, giving as well as receiving knowledge. This seldom leaves anyone untouched.

I can believe that. So, what happens now?

– Right now we’re in the middle of things. Four primary projects emerged from the lab and the participants are now working with these projects with the support of BoostHbg. In a later stage they will pitch their ideas and hopefully find a way forward beyond that. After the pitch and the evaluation we let them go out on their own. Then we start all over again.
All in all we will arrange four labs, and we build on the experience of previous labs, tweaking the set up as we learn more. It’s really a luxury project for me as I have the opportunity to develop this concept and deepen my understanding of this kind of process. The next Lab is scheduled for September.

Sounds great. I wish you all the very best for the future. And thank you for finding the time to answer my questions.

– You’re welcome.

If you want more information please feel free to contact

Angle Alert!

So, as I promised earlier, here are a few notes for you to consider when it comes to press ethics and how a journalist works:

First of all, I should NOT be interviewing my own fiancée. That’s a given.

Second, depending on the publication I should probably have asked: Who pays for this? If the cash comes out of the taxpayer’s pockets, then we would have to ask about value for money. This is because journalist should be in the business of looking out for public interest. And if you’re really on the warpath you could ask stuff like “wouldn’t that money be better spent finding a cure for cancer”, or something along those lines. Which of course is a legitimate, but profoundly unfair, question.

Third: As you noticed in the text above, there’s is not a single critical question, and I allow for Johanna to talk without interruption. She is also allowed to talk a lot, and her answers are far too long for a normal piece. A journalist at work would cut to the chase. Also notice that there is no angle here, and the objective is simply to let Johanna explain what she’s up to because readers of this blog might find it interesting. Also note who the target audience is – there is little effort in the text to clarify or explain so that anyone can understand this. A journalist would obviously tweak the text to fit the imagined audience – that’s part of the job description.

Now ask yourself: Is there an agendum here, hidden or otherwise? Is this text serving a master somewhere? How is the text written? Shouldn’t I’ve made the effort to talk to others than just Johanna about this? Is this journalism or a piece of writing that could have been produced at a PR department somewhere? Is there a difference – and does it matter? What about the form – a straight up Q&A, is that a good way to publish interviews? I leave these questions out there for your consideration.

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