Name: Modestas Mankus
Occupation: Producer, Journalist, Editor in Chief of Our Culture Magazine
Recommendations: Music: ‘The Light She Brings’ by Joep Beving; Book: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr. Robert Cialdini
If you enjoyed this interview with Modestas Mankus, visit his personal website to find out more about his work and thoughts. He is also active on twitter.
When did you start writing about cultural topics - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about these topics that drew you to it?
My first memories of reading anything to do with culture were reading small personal music blogs written by other music fan.
The majority of my creative start and influence came from electronic music. I loved the way electronic genres blended and the excitement it evoked from people. It felt exclusive and universal both at the same time, especially when I was younger.
I think this was the reason I started Our Culture. In fact, electronic music was Our Culture's first step. The company began by promoting electronic artists on our YouTube channel and then shifted into a small record label which then evolved into an arts and culture website.
For most, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as a writer and the transition towards your own style? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Being original is difficult for most people; it is too easy to obsess with what you take in and then try and imitate it with your work. For me, when I started to get more serious about writing, I realised I needed to take in as much content from as many different places as I could so my views and knowledge were not skewed. When I started writing I had no style guide or ways I preferred to write but over time from reading back my own material and other people’s work, I realised the styles of writing I enjoyed. However, I still do feel like a complete beginner when it comes to writing.
In terms of copying, learning, and creativity, this relationship is quite transparent. Everything I do, including editing someone else’s work and reading someone else’s work, affects my own creative output. The most important thing is to stay honest about your work and not to take shortcuts.
What were your main challenges as a writer when starting out and how have they changed over time?
I think that my main challenge was exploring topics that I did not already know too much about. I do not like sticking with what I already know; I like to take on a new challenge and explore a new territory.
I get a lot of editorial requests so finding topics is easy; it just means I have more liberty to write about whatever I like. Additionally, I enjoy learning about topics such as sustainable fashion and how they affect society broadly. It not only makes me a better editor and writer, but also gives me a better understanding of the way companies operate and the significance of content today.
How do you see the role of cultural journalism in the creative process? Should it amplify public taste, distinguish the good from the bad, inform, promote artists, or, as Howard Mandel put it, “illuminate, educate and entertain” readers?
It is quite a broad answer, but I would say we should introduce people to culture and let them decide for themselves if they like it. A lot of what we write about is subjective, promoting artists is always one of my main goals but I do not necessarily want my opinion to be the definitive one. I want people to take something from my writing and then decide for themselves if they like it or not.
As culture journalists, we have to clarify what constitutes an opinion and what idoesn't. I think that one of the difficulties is that entirely fact-based writing can be tedious, so entertaining content has to be present even if that means changing the readers' perspective.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the readers, the publication you're writing for?
I always used to say the readers, but I tend to slightly disagree with that point now. I feel I’m obliged to do the best myself as it’s only then the best work comes out. If the outcome of the piece is positive for the publication, it tends to also do well for the reader and the artist too.
Of course, there are other obligations such as providing readers with correct facts.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect journalism in general and your own take on writing in particular? What role do social media play for your approach?
I was lucky enough to start in the clickbait era when I started writing, which meant I knew what I was getting myself into.
The current goal of publishing is to get the reader in and keep them there as long as possible. Many publications drag out articles for that sole reason, and it concerns me as an editor. Writing should be to the point, especially when it comes to original reporting. Extended features, reviews or opinion pieces are great but should never be overwritten for the sake of ad revenue. With publications being limited on how they can make a profit, they tend to sell out, and in return lose the interactive readers.
Social media itself has been a great tool for us and most other publications. The goal of social media now is to see how we can utilise to bring our writing into a more accessible form. Not all people want to read paragraph after paragraph on social media; we need to create more engaging, visual content that is easy to digest.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
My computer is always my most powerful tool. I can compose music, write, produce artwork, and develop websites within seconds of each task finishing and the next starting.
I agree that machines are great, and automation has a place in many organizations today. There are many tedious tasks that can be handled by automation, hence saving us time. However, I would point out that humans should always check on the efficiency of the AI.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, writers and possibly even the artists you're interviewing or working with for a piece?
I am quite open about the way we collaborate. I've had my first experience being interviewed at a relatively younger age and I was given the questions without any preparation or understanding why I was asked them. This made me a bit hesitant about being interviewed again for a while. From then on, I knew that understanding specifics and the background of the person is particularly important.
Now, I work with publicists or artists to understand what interests them, their background, and the background to their latest creative endeavour. This also does not mean we are not willing to ask difficult questions; it simply means we are more likely to form a better rapport with the creative.
Can you take me through your process on the basis of a piece that's particularly dear to you? How did you decide what to write about, what did you start with, what sources did you draw from for research purposes and how did the piece gradually take shape?
My favourite pieces are about sustainable fashion. They always require a tremendous amount of research and support. They have influenced the way I view clothing and fashion companies. They have given me an understanding of sustainability as well as created a distaste for companies that tend to mislead consumers with greenwashing strategies.
The series itself started off from a small idea about how you can shop and dress more sustainable. The article really did well in terms of numbers, and we realised that it’s such an important and wide topic that it grew from one post to a series quite quickly. We put a pause to it in 2020 but will resume the series in 2021 with some fascinating content that will expand on our previous findings.
In addition, I hope to build a platform which will help people learn about sustainable fashion. It will be a website where they can visit to locate the answers they seek. However, this will come much later in the year.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I wake up at five in the morning and check my emails and answer any of the questions that have come in due to the time difference with the United States. I then drive to the office while listening to one of my morning playlists which includes a lot of dance tracks.
It is difficult to separate arts from other aspects of my life. However, I do enjoy both, and I am glad to keep them together. I would say it helps me to grow and progress faster as I am always in a creative mode. It helps me find inspiration from small things in life, which is always great when you are working in a creative space.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The goal is to stay active. I used to have creative blocks when I was younger, but my solution came when I started to switch up between things. Nowadays, I love so many different creative areas, I can easily switch from one to another.
If you seem stuck, try something else and come back to it. Otherwise, you are just wasting time.
How is experiencing art and writing or reading about it connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
Writing about a piece of art is a very reflective task. It makes you dig deeper into it and appreciate it more. It also tends to bring out a new view on a piece of art and something that potentially did not even cross your mind at first.
Experiencing art opens my mind to new ideas and writing about it allows me to reflect on them. Reading about art allows me to see things I would not have noticed otherwise.
There has been an exponential growth in promotion agencies. What's your perspective on the promo system? In how far is it influencing your choice of artists and topics, in how far is it useful for pre-selection, in how far do you feel it is possibly undermining journalistic freedom?
The promo system is not a bad idea, but the problem is money is the biggest incentive for companies. This means some promo companies will push anything out, no matter if it has artistic quality or actual value. I believe that one of the most irritating aspects of most promotional companies is the laziness they encourage. Many of these promo companies use mass newsletters to get in touch with editors. They make the editors pay attention to the person they are promoting by using a well-known, respected name, which results in only wasted time reading and anger.
For promo companies to work they must truly collaborate and care about the artists and publications they want to work with. Exclusive features, interviews, and personal feeds of possible topics and artists is the way to go. It takes more effort but works far better. Promo companies cannot expect editors to sift through 300 emails every day and notice them without giving something of value.
In terms of freedom of expression, there are no barriers at Our Culture. No company has managed to alter our content, and we will never do or adjust our tone for them. If we write a negative review, it is honest, we simply do not tiptoe around anyone.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art?
I think art for me is a mix; there is not a single way I approach it. It all comes down to what kind of art I am absorbing. I think for me, art is a great way to paint a narrative or express yourself; I love challenging art. I like to be out of my comfort with art. I want my views and feelings to be tested. I tend to not like art that is safe.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of cultural journalism still intact. Do you have a vision of journalism, an idea of what it could be beyond its current form?
I believe that it can be enhanced, not necessarily in opinions, but in the way they are presented. My goal is to push forward the presentation of journalistic pieces to make them more accessible. Time is vital when it comes to the digital space. Longer pieces have their place, however we also have to cater to the audience that prefers short and rapidly engaging content. As writers, we must find ways to expand the presentation format and make it more accessible without losing the core of cultural journalism.