Scenes and Scenius
I think it’s pretty hard to overstate the importance of a good scene. What’s a scene? One of my favorite definitions comes from @visakanv on twitter:
one of my recurring talking points to anybody who's willing to listen:— visa is damp and cold 🌧 (@visakanv) July 23, 2019
any small group of people loosely-but-truly aligned on something can create powerful vectors by producing public-facing work that's directed at each other
talking about the creation of scenes, basically
So if we deconstruct some of the important elements there:
- small group – Visa posits that a scene doesn’t need any more than two people, but that you’ll usually want more, in order to ensure you’ve got sufficient talent within the group
- loose alignment – you don’t need to be besties to be creating awesome work, just mutual respect and similar goals for your work as a group
- public-facing – it’s a little different than learning in public but creating in public is important because it holds you and your scene-mates to a certain standard
- directed at each other – by aiming their work at their cohort, rather than the public, creatives in a scene allow themselves the psych safety to experiment
We arrive from these requirements at a definition that is intentionally broad. The Beatles were a scene unto themselves. Silicon Valley is a scene. The Constitutional Congress was a scene. In each case, we can pick out certain members that seem more prolific, more brilliant, or more crucial to the scene than others, but that idea receives some pushback from the concept of…
Brian Eno coined the term Scenius to talk about the brilliance that can come out of a group of people that are working alongside one another creatively. (Seems appropriate coming from somebody whose “associated acts” on Wikipedia looks like it does.)
Eno offers the concept of scenius as a response to the myth of the Great Man, saying that as an art student he believed that certain painters were just transcendently brilliant, and that’s why we know their names today. However, given a little bit of research, you find that most of the ‘greats’ were in constant conversation with lots of other artists and creatives, and this propelled them forward.
Eno posits that scenius is the “intelligence of a whole.” Rather than individuals being brilliant in their own right, their brilliance is synergistic with the minds around them. Great work creates more great work, creates even greater work.
Eno (or perhaps a blog quoting him, it’s unclear) gives some factors crucial to the “geography of scenius”:
- Mutual appreciation – the simultaneous uplifting and goading on of friendly competition and supportive exploration
- Rapid exchange of tools and techniques – creatives within a scene constantly borrowing and building on one another’s good ideas
- Network effects of success – one person’s success becoming the success of the scene, which elevates everyone and pushes the work forward
- Tolerance for the novelties – space is afforded for mavericks and renegades so that local wet blankets won’t harsh their (weird, transgressive, innovative) vibe
- This one is not quite the same as psychological safety because it’s more about safety from judgment from outside the group, but it’s definitely similar. Psych safety may well be baked into mutual appreciation.
Building scenes is really difficult. Folks like Visa who are proponents of learning in public might posit that you don’t need to go looking for scene-mates, just do your work out in the open. If You Build It etc. etc. etc.
Collecting conversations about scene
This is how music is supposed to work! It’s not supposed to only be a thing some people make and other people hear, it is communal! It is evolutionary!— Jessica Ellis (@baddestmamajama) January 13, 2021
Sources, resources, links
- This fun and thoughtful blog about Scenius and Hype Houses
- There’s a great bit in The History of the World in 6 Glasses that discusses the coffee-houses in London and how discussions within led to a lot of the great science of the time
- And I read this cool blog post to make sure I was remembering that correctly
- Most sources tend to agree that this article in The (now defunct) Technium is the origin of much of the present Scenius discourse
- An invisible college is a scene with a dope name