In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1989, the Spanish novelist Camilo Jose Cela recalled a gem once handed to him by the late Pablo Picasso: “Without great solitude,” the painter told him, “no serious work is possible.” While Picasso did not distinguish himself among history’s great artists by valuing solitude — art and isolation, after all, seem like inextricably knotted concepts — he did maintain a uniquely protective stance toward it, watching the world around him turn to a place where without great work, no serious solitude was possible.
“I have made a kind of solitude for myself which nobody is aware of,” he confided to The New York Times in 1960. “Today it’s very difficult to be alone because we have watches.”
Today it’s very difficult to be alone because we have watchers. Safe to say: Pablo would have hated Twitch.
Since launching in 2011, Twitch, the massive live-streaming video platform acquired by Amazon for nearly a billion dollars in 2014, has primarily been understood (blame the tagline) as “social video for gamers” — that is, a place for gamers watching other gamers game. (And, skeptics, speaking as a man who’s spent a considerable micro-percentage of the past three decades happily watching people other than myself play “Zelda,” from my pre-Web adolescence all the way up to last week on the sofa with hubby, I can and will attest to the actual entertainment value in this.)
But a growing portion of Twitch’s 100 million-plus monthly viewers aren’t just logging on to watch the hordes battling through “League of Legends” or “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” They’re also quite into knitting and watercolors.
Last October, Twitch launched a new vertical, landing page, whatever — simply titled “Creative.” As the company observed more and more of its 1.7 million monthly broadcasters breaking terms and live-streaming non-gaming activities, the site’s Rules of Conduct were revised to permit such broadcasts, and the Creative page was created as a way to corral and showcase this growing sect of the usership.
Creative celebrated the launch by hosting an authorized series-long marathon of Bob Ross’s instructional PBS program “The Joy of Painting.” Similarly, last week, a marathon rebroadcast of Julia Child’s “The French Chef” marked the launch of twitch.com/food, a 24/7 platform for livestreamed cooking (a realm also under exploration by some YouTube vets with the newly launched Nom network).
The 5.6 million viewers drawn to gaze at Ross’s famously happy little clouds don’t necessarily signal any shift toward pre-recorded content on Twitch (though, who knows?), let alone a renewed enthusiasm toward his work (I’ve always loved you, Bob). What those numbers do signal is a growing desire among users for live-streaming to do something, even if that just means documenting others doing something. As pop culture’s patron saints of demonstration, Ross and Child make exemplary ambassadors for this movement,
There are rules on Creative, some of which keep the platform from veering from process into product (music, for example, must be “part of your creation process or a trivial part of your overall broadcast”), and some of which seem to anticipate great gray areas of what counts as content (performance art, for example, is prohibited as “too broad a category around which to build a tight-knit community”). As a comedian you can broadcast yourself writing jokes, but not telling them; you can cook, but not sit there eating. (Sorry mukbangers.)
This privileging of process is what makes Creative unique, and watching random people around the world doing their respective things — from live coding to music production to putting on makeup — feels productive by proxy.
It may be a different experience for the artists, many of whom allow constant interruptions to answer questions and comments from a constantly incoming chat stream that runs alongside the broadcast. Here, the creative process exists between the poles of the social and the spectacle; the distance between artist and viewer negotiated by a webcam and whatever personal info makes it to the profile page.
I watched a Latvian girl expertly paint an X-wing fighter while lamenting the malfunction of her green-screen backdrop (which normally transports her from a boring bedroom to a purply starscape). I watched a Russian girl (and heavy metal fan) sculpt a Predator with an X-Acto knife. And I tried to watch a German girl crochet a BB-8, but she mostly just sat there. (And that these were my first three channels highlights the formidable female presence on the subsite.)
Creative uses of Creative are sprouting up. I spent a delightfully meta 20 minutes or so watching full-time Twitcher Aplfisher watch an entire episode of the extinct “Bigfoot and Wildboy.” I took in a tutorial on crafting a fierce pair of virtual hooker boots, a graffiti artist prepping stencils, and — oh my God — the very same sex offender I stumbled across while researching my live-streaming story from two years ago, tunelessly crooning “The Piano Man” in a dark room. Never change, Internet.
After a few hours spent watching what currently fills Creative, it remains hard to say if Pablo was correct — if any of this work produced in brazen defiance of solitude is “great,” or if Twitch Creative is more of a virtual boardwalk crowded with public painters (some of them even taking requests).
It’s fascinating to watch artists at work, even if just to scratch a voyeurist itch. But Twitch’s how-to overtones, along with the often iffy video quality and extraneous chatter of its users, make it near impossible to attain the sublime sense that you’ve entered the same ether. Of course, that assumes that such a thing is even possible.
Way before Twitch (or Picasso) came along, it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who warned that while “one can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.”Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.