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Extreme Art

In pursuit of the original

To create something unique, consider the processes, techniques, and tools you use.

May 20, 2020

What is Extreme Art?

In this article, I’ll refer to “Extreme Art” as art that cannot be made without also creating its supporting tools, techniques, or processes. The required side-creation of these new tools, techniques, and processes pave the way to allow the Extreme Art to transcend the status quo and become radically different. They lay the rails to transport the audience to someplace new.

I don’t want to suggest that non-extreme art is bad. Indeed, many artists do masterful, surprising, and amazing things with extant tools and resources. I don’t want to discount the value of a novel because it didn’t accompany any new lexicon or fault the composer for only the “same old” 12 notes of a scale.

(Note: Until I find the term that others have already used to describe what I’m about to talk about, I’ll call it “Extreme Art” for now.)

Extreme Art Examples

  • OK Go’s Music Videos

    OK Go’s stunning 2014 music video Upside Down & Inside Out was perhaps the first time I consciously experienced Extreme Art. If you see the behind-the-scenes videos, you’ll see that the process of making the video involved significant exploration, engineering, and innovation. They dealt with problems that relatively few others had faced or would face in creating a music video. And in the end, they delivered an unprecedented piece of art, with seemingly many insights gained along the way.

  • Magicians that Fool Penn & Teller

    Another example can be found through Penn & Teller’s show Fool Us, where up-and-coming magicians perform in front of the masters. If the masters cannot describe how the magician performs her trick, they are considered “fooled”. I find a common theme among the successful contestants: winners create their own tricks. They depart from textbooks and build the trick from the ground up. Sometimes it’s out of personal necessity, such as to overcome a disability or injury.

    In contrast, those who merely go “by the book”, are never able to fool Penn & Teller despite often delivering a compelling performance. As the two veteran magicians will say, not being able to fool them is not so much a knock on the magician’s abilities. However, those who can fool Penn and Teller have the ability to evoke wonder and amazement even from the masters themselves.

  • Other examples

    Lastly, Steve Giralt’s food commercials leverage precise and custom-built machines and high-speed cameras to execute amazing visual effects (and to enable themselves to iteratively experiment and tweak the concept repeatedly until the shot is just right). This Vox mini-documentary helped me appreciate Giralt’s craft.

Making Extreme Art

And so, the implication for those who are tasked or challenged to create something completely novel may be to look at the process. Look at your techniques and tooling. It’s the innovations inside that toolchain that will propel your creation to break the status quo.

The work done by Larry Keeley explores this with companies in his work, The Ten Types of Innovation [Amazon]: Those that end up being disruptive and revolutionary can innovate at key points along the value-adding process or supply chain and integrate them synergistically. You can watch his lectures on Vimeo.

Is it that the tools and process came first, or that the vision came first and the tools followed? I’m inclined to think that it’s a bit of both, but I invite you to share your thoughts!

For those waiting for me to describe how to make Extreme Art, I currently have nothing else to add to what I submit above, as overly short, simplistic, and raw as it is. This is a tricky thing because if I were to tell you how to create a work of Extreme Art, it wouldn’t be extreme anymore. The burden on each of us is to blaze our own way. I’ll have to revisit this topic at a later time. In the meantime, I’ll share my list of pitfalls that I’ve observed in the quest of creating Extreme Art.

Pitfalls in Seeking to Create Extreme Art

    Here are some thoughts on pitfalls that I’ve certainly committed as a creator. I list them here but will still need to do further research on overcoming them.

  1. Underestimating the amount of resources needed

    The quest for Extreme Art can quickly become extremely expensive since the final creation is only the tip of the iceberg of resources required. Not only that, treading down uncharted paths rarely has an accurate estimated time of arrival (if there even is an arrival).

  2. Extreme Art not worth making

    Indeed, it’s risky to dedicate resources toward branching out and creating something new. While trekking through new territory, there will be no map, and completely new things can be hard for people to evaluate. Predicting the effectiveness of a revolutionary approach is difficult. Knowing if something is worth making is outside the scope of this article (and of my current understanding), but a crucial topic nevertheless. The right answer probably has to do with creating many cheap things, learning fast, and then synthesizing everything to create the final result.

  3. Opting not to create if you don't think it's extreme

    In other words, a creator allows him or herself to become paralyzed just because the processes, tools, and techniques aren’t perceived to immediately transcend the status quo. I think it’s wise to keep creating with what you have access to until you feel yourself pushing up against boundaries.

  4. Obsession with tools, techniques, or processes

    Another pitfall is to focus too much on refining the process rather than the product itself. This will lead to ever sharpening saws without ever cutting down trees. Again, the emphasis on shipping needs to come first. How one might realize that something new to be created is also a worthy topic, that is again outside of this article’s scope (and also my understanding).

  5. Unawareness of the status quo

    Another pitfall is building something using (expensive) new tools, techniques, and processes that don’t actually deliver any appreciable difference between the product and the status quo. Then, you might as well have leveraged what was already in existence rather than re-invent the wheel.


    In creating this blog, I have battled with deciding whether to create this website from scratch or use one of the many website builders. As of now, I have chosen the path of building the site myself, exposing myself to the fluctuations of constant releases of the software that makes publishing this site possible, rather than delegating the responsibility to a well-established service. I admit there are times I feel downright foolish, while at other times, I think I can perhaps see a glimpse of potential. While I will admit, the results of my labor haven’t yet pushed any boundaries of web or interaction design, working on this site something I’m willing to continue to do.

What are your thoughts?

Who else is talking about Extreme Art, and what do they call it?

Do you have any other pitfalls that fellow creators should be aware of?

What are some solutions, mindsets, or principles that allow for the creation of “Extreme Art”?

Let me know if you have any thoughts!


I'll be working on a comments section, but for now, you can tweet me @JayLiu50 or email me at hello@jayliu.design.

Jay Liu
Written by Jay Liu, interaction designer.
https://jayliu.design
© 2021, Jay Liu