Plastikman- domain/field constraints and reality levels

This essay was the fun part of the longest, most excruciating (and most worthwhile) take-home final I’ll ever take. It was for a class called “Mind, Brain and the Creative Process” that I took as an undergraduate, and in the ‘applied knowledge’ segment I got to select an artist and analyse their creative process in terms of the relevent class concepts. I chose Plastikman (a performance moniker for DJ Richie Hawtin) and claimed that his phenomenal success is explained in part by his determination to work within domain/field constraints, and that the true genius of his music and essence of his innovation lie in his exploration of previously inacessible reality levels. If you want to check out the music that I cite, you can play streams of all his tracks from

Heads Up-

  1. If you’ve not familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s account of domain and field components in the creative process, you’re not real likely to get what I’m blathering on about. Take a moment to read paragraphs 4-7 (Until recently… > …novel ideas) on this webpage, which is a good summary of the relevant points.

  1. ‘Reality level’ can be loosely explained as ‘where the action is’. Basically, its what the artist wants you paying attention to. And, just to make one thing clear right off the bat: I DO NOT ENDORSE IN ANY WAY THE IDEA THAT REALITY LEVELS IN THEMSELVES CONNOTE BETTER/WORST ART OR ARTISTS. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have chosen to use the word ‘level’, but it wasn’t, so I’m resigned to a life of making correcting this understandable misconception whenever I raise the subject.

I’d love to hear what anybody indulgent enough to read the essay has to say about it, or in response/reaction, etc. To kick things off, I have three questions I’d love to get some feedback on.
1- My account of the process and its context are based on my observations at the time and the general folklore. Anybody have relevant experiences or knowledge that would improve the accuracy and completeness of the process?
2- For people familiar with Plastikman- what do you think of my analysis of the music? I suspect my friends and family are reluctant to give me honest insightful:contrived ratios. And, the ways in which I have most powerfully experienced Plastikman lends itself to extreme subjectivity.
3- Please please please speak up if you have any suggestions for artists in any genre that might make for an interesting expansion of this essay. (If I use your suggestion and it helps me become famous, I’ll publicly thank you and defend you when that scandal hits. If it helps me become rich, I’ll sponsor that impossibly idealistic dream you’ve been hiding.)

Incidentally, I am aware that a Plastikman performance did occur this past June. If this generates enough of a dialogue to warrant, I’ll post my reasons why I haven’t included that in this piece yet (but intend to at some point).

Here it is:

B-#3 The work of art I have chosen to discuss is Plastikman, the deliberately created alter ego of DJ and music producer Richie Hawtin. This essay will cover two aspects of Plastikman: the process that created both the technique and the accompanying moniker, and the characteristic principles in the music he created during the highly productive creative period subsequent to Plastikman’s creation. I will show that Hawtin’s process of developing Plastikman was a success due to his intentional application of principles inherent in Csikszentmihalyi’s domain and field account of Creativity. I will also show that the unique nature of his music is due to his application of concepts underlying impressionism and cubism and that this body of music is operating on a different reality level from that of his contemporaries.

Detroit's early 1990's rave culture, the context in which Hawtin created Plastikman, had a sparse, but rigid set of domain constraints. Performers were required to create music from initial inputs containing pre-established characteristics that could, in whole or part, be introduced, removed, emphasized or obscured, but not structurally altered at the time of performance.  These constants formed the music's structure, and creations were evaluated on the maintenance of structural coherence, smooth transitions between structures and the degree to which the audience couldn't tell which sounds were from differing sources and which were not.   Performers were also expected to only gradually alter their performance style once they achieved a known reputation.1  While these boundaries were inevitably crossed, such deviations were broadly looked down upon and a reliable way to avoid acclaim and alienate an audience.

The predominant performance technique at that time employed two or more turntables and an electronic mixer that could eliminate selected frequency ranges from each turntable's output, allowing the DJ to select components from each record and blend them together.  Some DJ's, including Hawtin, also used devices that could modify the shapes of sound waves and phase-shift the respective turntables' contributions.  There was tremendous potential in these additional capabilities, but Hawtin was unable to explore them to his satisfaction without violating the domain constraints.  His primary obstacle was the finite duration of any record's extractable structures and repetitive patterns, which limited the amount of time he could explore those subjects.	

   In order to eliminate the limitations of vinyl records, he employed an electronic array that produced auditory sequences based on previously formulated functions of change over time.  All aspects of the output were either unchanging or altered according to selected and looped domain segments of these equations.  Not only would the music's beat and melody be determined by the these functions, but also degrees of transposition, sound wave distortion, dynamic fluctuation and many other aspects which I lack the vocabulary to name.  He was able to manipulate the music by first assigning functions to the creation of multiple auditory outputs and their distortion. This produced an intermediate product which was then turned into the final creation by varying any selected constant in any equation either by automatically applying another stored equation (which could be likewise manipulated) or manually with an enormous array of levers, dials and buttons.  The inalterable input characteristics were the structural forms of the equations; everything else was infinitely variable. 

This creative method conferred multiple capabilities that had been previously unachieved in this domain. The introduction of an intermediate step allowed him to have total control over the structure of the components as well as modify and distort them, whereas the conventional methods left the performer at the mercy of the record. His freedom from time constraints gave him unlimited time to develop individual pieces. It also allowed him to fully shift his attention away from maintaining a piece’s fundamental structure once it was developed, which conventional DJ’s had to constantly monitor in order to prevent a record’s variation from disrupting the piece’s overall development. Finally, it allowed him to quickly explore a new idea by replacing one equation with another or inputting a new equation into his equipment. In contrast, if conventional DJ’s wanted to employ a new input, they had to search out a record that contained it or, if they had the means, pay to have a record custom pressed. Hawtin had accessed such a vast array of novel creative possibilities that a performance that freely explored them would be unacceptably different from his current style. Already established as a top-tier DJ and earning upwards of $2,000 per performance, he was unwilling to violate these constraints, but determined to explore the newfound possibilities. In order to avoid alienating his sizeable following, he created a separate identity, Plastikman, for his experimental projects and subsequent performances and recordings that utilized this new method.

From his debut in early 1993 through mid-1995, Plastikman was a tremendously successful creation. He gained a reputation for ceaselessly discovering new possibilities and never failing to execute them flawlessly. His performances and recordings from that time that are an indispensable part of Detroit’s musical history and the techno tradition, and his innovations caused a permanent shift in both the domain’s boundaries and the field’s standards of evaluation. These effects were not only due to the newly accessible capabilities, but also, in accordance with Csikszentmihalyi’s description of ‘Creativity’, because he had completely mastered the fundamentals of the domain. Consequently, he was able to attain a deep understanding of its limitations and flawlessly execute his explorations of the possibilities. Creativity must occur within the domain’s boundaries, and a creation is attributed its degree and quality of Creativity by the field’s evaluation based on how much is achieved in respect to the domain’s relevant restrictions. Plastikman broke through what many had considered to be an absolute limit, and thus the field’s evaluation was that his was a truly remarkable creation.
Plastikman was arguably too successful a creation, as the sudden creative explosion from him and his peers made Detroit’s raves extremely popular. The attendance at his performances increased so quickly that nobody in a position to guide the subsequent transformation was prepared to respond to the situation. The previously self-regulating and low profile sub-culture experienced a sharp increase in violence and drug casualties. Such incidents received heavy media attention that gave Detroit such an undesirable reputation that the city mounted a concerted effort to completely eliminate semi-legal raves. The city police stopped looking the other way and began to raid every rave they could locate. Less than two years after Plastikman’s debut, Hawtin, a native of Ontario, was arrested, charged as an illegally employed alien and banned from the United States for one year. This effectively exiled him from his creative environment, and completely disrupted his creative process. He was unable to continue recording or performing as Plastikman, so he abandoned that identity for three years. While Plastikman has re-emerged and released three more albums, they are not at all as innovative as his previous creations, but rather a fleshing out of concepts that he had discovered during the initial creative explosion. Recognizing this diminished creativity, he has been unwilling to perform as Plastikman since that time.2 This is a clear exemplification of Csikszentmihalyi’s described value of a creator’s immersion in their domain and contact with the field. An early Plastikman performance inspired him to rush home and record a full-length album over the next 12 hours. In contrast, once he was barred from his environment, he was unable to create any satisfactory music.

Plastikman’s music was the first music in the domain to successfully depart from the standard reality level. The rest of the field was limited to blending and distorting intrinsically variable and structurally predetermined inputs in order to create unique progressions and smooth transitions between them. So, the reality level of the standard creation was the progression of melodic and rhythmic variation. Hawtin’s technical innovations conferred a groundbreaking ability to have complete control over the form and variation of the inputs, which allowed him to stabilize selected structures of the input and shift his and direct the listener’s focus to only the aspect variations of his choosing. He then used this capacity to create the perception of discrete audio entities with extremely plastic3 characteristics and the appearance that they interact with their context. He was able to control their appearance through what is analogous to the ability to manipulate both proportion and context. These ideas are conceptually similar to concepts present in cubist and impressionist art. The relevant cubist concept is the distortion of an object’s form in order to emphasize or obscure selected characteristics, showing that an entity can be made to have drastically different appearances yet still be recognizably the same.4 The concept Plastikman’s music shares with impressionism is the employment of context to shape the conveyed perception of the subject, which he uses to give the subject entity a spatial location and motion.5 It is important to note that cubist art applied these concepts to convey the creation’s symbolic meaning whereas Plastikman’s music lacks symbolic meaning and uses distortions to explore the plasticity of his created entities’ characteristics. Another distinction is that impressionist expressions of contextual aspects of perception can only depict one discrete state within a given creation, whereas a Plastikman piece is able to display the progressive transition from one contextual state to another.6

To briefly summarize, the reasons for Plastikman's success and high esteem are initially unclear.  Other performers were exploring distortion and modification of constant rather than the standard blending of unrelated variables, and it has been claimed that his success is due to arbitrary factors.  However, Csikszentmihalyi's explanation of the requirements and determinant aspects of Creativity shows that his acceptance by the field was due to Richie Hawtin's previous mastery of and respect for the domain. Csikszentmihalyi also provides an account for Plastikman's subsequent total loss of creativity when he was deported by noting that immersion in the creative environment is of great value to the creator. Plastikman's techniques eliminate progressive variation in what is ordinarily considered the primary characteristics of music, and instead create a static entity out of those characteristics, which is then placed in varying contexts, modified and distorted in order to tease out its fundamental characteristics.  In this way, Plastikman's music achieved a groundbreaking attainment of a more abstract reality level.

1 Drastic and unexpected shifts in performance style were frequently received with open hostility. Attendees commonly traveled 300 miles and paid $30 dollars for a performance, and giving the audience the aesthetic product they traveled for was considered a matter of integrity.
2 Hawtin has continued to record and perform under his own name, and has just recently acquired an instrument that can isolate a specific pattern of variation from an input and then derive a function describing it. Effectively, he can now capture the interesting patterns in any previously created music without having to determine how in blazes it would be represented. His ability to adeptly apply this method has inspired Plastikman’s re-emergence as a live performer later this year.
3 Hence the moniker.
4 Plastique: 3:10-3:20, 6:00-6:10, 7:00-7:15 & 8:15-8:30
Helikopter: 5:45- 6:30
Plasticity, 4:15-4:25, 8:30-8:40
5 Konception, 5:10-5:25, the brief appearance of reflection seems to indicate isolated space;
Glob, 2:30-2:50, the main theme appears to be moving along, passing other objects and reacting to them, 5:30-6:00 the main theme has become a stationary object being orbited by a minute object, then the central object gets larger and pushes the orbiter out of the scene
6 Plastique, 7:00-9:00;
Plasticine 8:45-9:30