By Jim McCarthy Feb 17, 2009 3 comments

Breaking the Frame

For some reason, this phrase keeps popping into my head lately.  It’s not that I made it up or that it’s new; it’s just that it keeps presenting itself as part of my thoughts.

Breaking the frame.  As in, “oh, that breaks the frame.”

What I think I mean by this is that something, possibly a building or a show or an approach to marketing, escapes the container in which it is normally held.

For example, when Hotmail first launched (in 1997, I think it was), it was a frame breaker.  It was email, but on the web.  I know, I know, it doesn’t sound all that impressive, but at the time, it most certainly was.  It spread like that plague in “The Stand” by Stephen King, circling the world tens of millions of times in just a few weeks, ripping apart people’s understanding of what email was.

A building like this certainly breaks the frame of what you expect a building to do and to be.  It was designed by an architect named Daniel Liebeskind, and you might very well hate it, but you’re not likely to forget it.

That’s why I love it so much when we manage to break the frame in our business.  This event was one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen or am likely to see.  It was a show called “Alma” and it came to Los Angeles a few years ago.  It was indeed about Alma Mahler, who married Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius and generally lived a glamorous and tumultuous but sorta messed up life.

Fair enough, as far as that goes, but let me tell you a few more things about the show.

First, it was set in the spectacular but neglected Los Angeles Theatre.  But you didn’t sit in the audience and watch.  You didn’t even follow the narrative around in a single file. You went wherever you wanted.  Bits and pieces of the story were happening everywhere.  Everyone’s experience was different.

From time to time, all the stories would come back together, as when Gustav Mahler died, when everyone filed into the theatre for the funeral.  After the funeral was over, we all filed into another room, where, to our surprise, the funeral dinner was served, and it was a real Austrian dinner.  Big surprise and very strange.

But even stranger was a part of the story I happened to see.  One of the characters was saying, “Come on the bus tour!  Follow me!”  I followed, with very limited expectations.  We actually left the theatre and went outside, where a yellow school bus was sitting there waiting.

We boarded the bus and a tour guide told us we were going on a tour of the imagination.  Of course, I thought, a tour of the imagination.  It was a cheap trick, but understandable since any other kind of tour would be impossible.

So we closed our eyes and were told to imagine some scene.  The tour guide counted down from five, and at 1, the bus engine started.  I was startled.  The bus pulled out of the alley and we were driving around Los Angeles, with the tour guide explaining the world around us.

After a few blocks, we pulled into another alley, when the bus came to a sudden stop and we heard explosions a way off.  We were told to get off the bus quickly and to run inside.  We ran through an alley with junk and people running everywhere, with an air raid siren sounding.  We then realized that we were actually running into the back of the theatre.

It was quite an experience.  It didn’t quite feel real, but it wasn’t quite unreal either.  And to think that most people didn’t even see that because they were scattered throughout the building.

Why do I mention this?

Because this is a worldwide time of frame-breaking.  Almost nothing is too bold to be unacceptable now.  Very few of the old norms will withstand the next few years in business, entertainment, and in many other areas of our lives.  This is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but it is real.  That little voice in your head telling you that things are changing rapidly is the one you need to be listening to.

At TED, Daniel Liebeskind said “We always respect the well-mannered box.”

But it may just be that the age of the well-mannered box is over.

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