How it started
With a year’s worth of research in hand, the in-house creative team at the Oliver Wyman Forum pitched ideas to bring the work to life. We explored ideas that are agnostic to race and gender as well as the fantastical and imaginative. But the parallels between the Black Plague and its influence on western culture couldn’t be ignored, setting in motion the creative direction and deliberate imagery in Renaissance 2022. The Oliver Wyman Forum spoke with real people in its research, and we needed to capture that humanity in our portraits just as humanism influenced art in the 1500s.
We found common inspiration in The Accidental Renaissance, a social media trend that shares seemingly random photographs that resemble paintings from Vermeer to Rembrandt. We settled on a direction after speaking to a broad range of voices in the firm, but we needed an artist to shape the contours and fill them with color and life. We needed an ambitious and collaborative Caravaggio. We found Michelle, and it was her enthusiasm that proved we were going to make great work.
Michelle Watt is a Hong Kong-born photographer currently based in Brooklyn, NY. She specializes in staging conceptual narratives with a whimsical flair, often addressing themes of freedom and restriction within a cultural identity.
Her portrait and fashion work engender rich narratives, telling real stories with surreal application with the aim of giving life to unique standards of beauty and culture, including ones informed by her Chinese-American background. She finds joy in assembling tiny discrete pieces to create vast meaningful worlds, embedding hidden “Easter eggs” as varying social commentary throughout her work. Her photographs have been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and Blanc Magazine.
Her unique asethic folded the baroque vision into a subvertly modern diorama. Michelle's passion for tableau was vital in presenting rich images of allegory and substance. Instrumental in guiding the details and decisions that make each portrait so potent. Together with this artistic approach, less determined by business logic, we developed a more personal and innovative language.
Our aim was to craft eight intimate portraits and one tableau to represent the archetypal consumer trends we saw coming for 2022. Each is a collection of human stories and not indicative of one individual. We want audiences to reflect upon and examine our new characters as they would a historic painting. Using the visual language of Renaissance art, more specifically the Baroque era, we are creating images that are a story in themselves, rooted in real research but taking on the qualities of lore. We are aware of this as a potential bias in western art; however, our ambition is to be aspirational and make unique work that incites discussion and contemplation and can be seen as a forward-looking reimagining crafted by many voices. Butterflies play a symbolic role; metamorphosis caused by the pandemic reflects new behaviors and habits; many individuals have transformed and society will be for the better.
Planned before a spike in COVID-19 cases, a very talented crew came together in San Francisco. Wardrobe, set, props, hair, and makeup. 26 people over two days built and transported sets to paint the portraits in rich detail and allegory. Rapid tests, masks, air filters & humidifiers. Everybody had a backup, even our photographer. A scrappy work ethic and can-do attitude were a highlight of making something we can be proud of. This was a case study in contingency planning in the era of COVID-19.
Inclusion and Diversity
Our mission is to use our platform to celebrate and value humanity’s myriad differences. We rely on a data-driven approach to understand the world, but we also know that data alone will never be sufficient. Data is the starting point from which we imagine a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future.
Cross-legged in an austere room, sits a Metazen, in their lap is a keyboard, on their head, VR goggles pushed up. They stare directly at the viewer as if we, the audience, are on a screen. The pose feels like a diplomatic greeting from another world. A hooded sweater flows around them. A plate with some simple foods sits to their right, the novel Snow Crash peaks out.
Night & day are irrelevant. Food, drink, and clothing are only threads required to maintain a connection. The Metatzen is not interested in the metaverse for the reasons we assume. Building connections or games are tertiary. Is it pioneering the unknown or a deeply needed escapism? Either way, it's not friends they seek.
The most subtly surreal of the series. The challenge: How to portray a digital remix of reality where the constraints of the physical world play a small role and everything is slightly detached? Their world can be anything, but to be familiar it must resemble reality. The metaverse only exists in screen-directed code.
Mirrors reflect the different personalities that exist when you do not have to be as your physical self. We have many faces online that are uncloaked when we slip into anonymity. The mirrors allow us to see different sides of a personality. Equal causes of digital liberty & chaos.
In the right-hand mirror, we see the character on an angle that defies the reality of his position, displaying an emotion that is only seen in the reflection. On the other side, we see a new character. This is a female reflection, this is the artist's self-portrait embedded within the work. Playing with modern ideas of gender and hinting at the fluidity that exists within the metaverse. Inspired by The Arnolfini Portrait, the artist is in the work.
In this piece, we paid homage to the coinage of the term metaverse with allusions to the novel Snow Crash. A few easter eggs are embedded within the image that satisfies cultural references to the virtual world.
Light spills into a breakroom where we see the New Collar sitting on a stool in a collared jumpsuit. On a bulletin board is a variety of printouts. One about a bonus for referrals, one about schedules and overtime, and another about COVID-19 mandates. The New Collar looks out a window. In their hand, a tutorial plays on a phone which is plugged into the wall. Lunch from home sits on a small table, a science fiction paperback rests beside it. A large bowl with lonely fruit takes up space. An employee of the month printout has fallen from the bulletin board. The New collar is posed giving the sense they are about to stand up and leave. We see a box for a new robot vacuum under a table. The scene is cast below a light that does not work.
The small details tell a bigger story for this portrait. Elaborate drapery balance this room from a Dutch painters studio to that of a clerical break room. The blue tones wash the room. This story was of an essential worker who is accommodating her own growth through self-education in stolen moments. We imagined her tethered to a wall, phone battery dead from being on the tarmac all day, using this time to watch lessons, ponder and upskill. Although demographically, the data says they are mostly male, we wanted to portray the new collar as a female.
The Art of Painting, by Joannes Vermeer, was a starting point for how to light and construct this scene, the checkerboard floors complementing the floral curtain. This was the first shot of the day and took the longest to set up.
To speak of the small details, the corkboard behind her tells a story of strained resources, employee retention, and a complex working environment. All inspired by current events surrounding labor issues. The New Collar wears a blue-collar that hides a white-collar underneath. Butterfly tattoos creep up her neck beyond the collar.
Peaking from behind the table is a robotic vacuum, an omen of automation. The omen of automation is also complemented by the novel on the counter. What seems like innocuous paper pack science fiction, Utopia 14, is a hidden piece of literature. The name of the book was changed to Player Piano. This dime-store sci-fi lead author Kurt Vonnegut to be held as a know literary mind. In the novel Player Piano, the protagonist deals with the diminishing role of humans in a society run by machines. A concept informed by the mass automation of factories in 1950’s America. All of which seemed fitting, a dismissed science fiction novel hid genius. We imagine many new collars to be the same, caterpillars capable of fantastic evolution.
Light from a monitor illuminates a Hivemind Investor in their bedroom. They sit in an elaborate computer chair. A smirk in the eyes they face forward, head, tilted and attention turned towards the side, trying to glimpse the monitors. Large video game headphones sit around their neck. The clothing is of leisure, luxury brand, with expensive rare sneakers. Around their neck hangs a necklace that clasps a 2-factor authentication key. In the wastebasket we see lots of credit card bills, on the desk is a meal of chicken tenders. Crayons are strewn around. On a cluttered shelf sits a gold gorilla near a clock that reads 4:20. On a small bookshelf is an assortment of items, one of which is a book on a rockets, another one on lemmings.
Meet Leeroy Jenkins.
“This is not financial advice, I eat crayons” defines the Hivemind Investor ethos so perfectly. The quote is the equivalent of a legal disclaimer in the self-deprecating humor that defines their coded language. Intelligent and surprisingly rigorous due diligence is punctuated with insults. There is a badge of honor in losing large sums of money. However, they are not foolish, and a 2-factor authentication key hangs from our character's neck: Meaning they understand the need to protect their wealth in an age of cyberattacks. A keen digital savviness is masked by overt nonsense.
From the outset, this concept had the most whispers about what it should be. What was obvious: it had to have a meme subculture, it had to be ostentatious and it needed to bring humor to those it portrays. If you’re familiar with the message board, you'll find reference to the absurdity.
In this image we wanted the personality of the character to be oversized. The Hivemind fills the frame more than any other. Red & gold give a kingly aura. The reference portraits show an imposing figure in various moods of disinterest or boredom. The fur stole that surrounds the velour tracksuit is this portrait's amalgamation of modern & Baroque texture. For all the items we wanted to fill the frame, we borrowed the tradition of Merchant portraits, which were used to show details or ornament and status.
For the subculture: A gold gorilla sits on the shelf. To these meme-investors, there is a new symbol that should be on Wall.st. There are bulls, bears & apes. The gorillas are the collective force that "ape" into a trade-in for power in numbers.
The chicken tenders are representative of profit. Chicken tenders are the currency for all things good. “Get the tendies” is synonymous with profit.
On the desk are stickers of emojis. The rocket is meant as an encouragement to double down and invest. The toilet-roll + hands refer to paper hands: those who are weak and sell when the market gets rough. Paper Hands are the antithesis of the Diamond Hands: those strong enough to hold on to their assets despite even the most insane market volatility. Diamond Hands are heroes.
The Virtual Native sits cross leg in sweatpants working from a laptop. Hair tidy and fresh-faced for the workday. Surrounded by a perfectly aligned array of items that makes up a near-perfect remote working set-up. A stress toy rests beside two stacked mobile phones, one with headphones leading up to the ear of the Virtual Native. Multiple coffee cups clutter one side of the workspace. A loyalty card for the local coffee shop they work at regularly acts as a bookmark. Behind the virtual native, is a curated background that lends to an air of professionalism. A framed zoom screenshot of the graduating ceremony is in view. On the floor is a notebook full of interview dates, on the cover is The Great Wave off Kanagawa. On the floor beside the virtual native is an assortment of items spilling out of a bag including old plane tickets, a mailed wedding invitation, printouts, and a guidebook for a foreign nation. The virtual native sits confidently in a thoughtful pose exposing expensive jewelry. We see a dog toy stuck under the wheel of the chair. In the background, we see another figure, a friend is nearby. Co-working, not a co-worker.
A portrait of young confidence. This cohort never had to commute to a cubicle after graduation. We stage a curious set here: Is this a familiar home or a rental in an exotic place? That ambiguity and duality are present in many ways in this scene. The plants in the background feel tropical yet the slippers and snacks feel local and familiar. The top clothing in view of the laptop camera is professional + proper, the bottom half is comfortable + practical. Happiness and sadness exist when considering the Virtual Natives. They were not able to live their first working years as they had intended, but something more interesting happened. They learned they can define how they work and are able to balance their own needs and experiences. Sadly, many missed or had to modify coming-of-age milestones and experiences. However, they will likely enjoy a better balance of work and life into the future. This portrait has a hope. A hope the Virtual Natives current attitudes to work become common. That may shift social norms towards a better work life balance.
Curtains are pulled back revealing the outdoors. A petrified orange sitting on the table was added as an anecdote. At a desk that had been unoccupied for 2 years, an orange had been left and undisturbed it turned to rock, a curious memento of an old working environment.
The other person in the frame was important to illustrate the connection Virtual Natives need with other people. The habits of working with friends and needing company. A nod to another work of art is on the cover of the planner that lays on the floor. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. A reference to the wave of change their generation has the potential of bringing.
What feels like the corner of a lush living room, laying back on a chaise lounge we see a Psychedelic Explorer. They are draped in loose, fashionable, and luxurious office wear. Propped up on one elbow, they lean and look forward at an end table. A butterfly lands on a flowering cactus. On the screen is another figure, they are being advised virtually. A plate with ornate mushrooms is in view. There is a nightstand with a glass of water, a plush white rabbit rests against the chaise legs. Stacks of research papers sit under the chair and books with various bookmarks are scattered. Beside a painting on the wall, we see multiple framed degrees.
Dramatic and adventurous in tone. The character narrative for this scene was about the vulnerability of a strong leader. The stage directions were to imagine a high-power professional, who appears stable and demands perfection and authority for their career. A person who is educated and established yet has deep issues that are hidden and need resolution.
Research papers sit on the floor at the bottom of the chaise lounger. Research is done and they are eschewing the risks in their private life to use psychedelics. An attempt to cure trauma and anxiety. The pandemic has put immense mental strain and increases in anxiety and depression are well documented. The laptop acts as a shaman or a guide for the ancient act of hallucinatory revelations. Her expression has a distant and detached gaze, Alice is following the white rabbit.
This is the only portrait that is landscape. The reclining pose and chaise lounger acknowledge the classical Odalisque pose in renaissance art, notable examples such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino. An ornate dish of mushrooms sits atop leather-bound books, one of which is Alice in Wonderland. A butterfly rests on a peyote cactus sitting below the table lamp. A small white stuffed rabbit cautiously peeks from behind a chair leg, this either belongs to our character or their child, this reference is up to the audience to decide its importance.
Robed in comfort, a green smoothie beside them, a wellness protagonist sits on a bench in what could be their foyer. Around their arm, a blood pressure pump takes calculations. Blue-light filtering glasses rest as they look at health stats. New mail spills around; an open box with a DNA vial for analysis, glossy folders for different health services below boxes with mail-order supplements. On one wrist is a fitness tracker. They are at peace.
A Digital Bloomer sits happily engaged with their tablet at a table. In another hand a mug. On the mug is a photo of a more elaborate mug. In the background, a digital photo frame displays a wedding photo of a young couple. Multiple devices are plugged in and charging opposite the bloomer. In the corner we see packages sit around them. The Bloomers clothing is trendy and clean. Wireless earphones are seen in the ears. In the background, upon a pile of newspapers sits a smart speaker, behind that an old webcam. The digital bloomer has a relaxed pose. Within view, we see print-outs of confirmation tickets for an event that are just screenshots from a phone. Beside car keys, are a takeout container, a bag of prescription meds from a trendy online pharmacy, and some postcards.
The climate crusader stands proud, head tilted. A smirk of pride is on their face. Styled hair frames a face with professionally done makeup. Clutching a mobile phone they take a moment while resting on a globe. In their hand is a homemade flag of protest written in French. The clothes they wear look fashionable but almost patchwork, made of a luxury brand's upcycled line. A reusable shopping bag sits in the corner. By their feet sits the supplies for their home made protest banner.
We portrayed the Climate Catalyst as an example of an activated mother who resides in a wealthy Parisian neighborhood. Inspiration was drawn from feminine heroic symbolism portrayed in Joan of Arc & Lady Liberty. Her pose is meant to be statuesque and defiant. An example of those who said they will protest and will take issues further if things do not change. Anecdotes have said females in leadership roles are more likely to take action on issues around climate.
To challenge the assumptions of a climate activist, we wanted the wardrobe to look like armor, but at a protest that was also a fundrasing gala. We took influence from emergent trends in high fashion towards sustainable collections and upcycled haute couture. Silk scarves are layered with chainmail and jewels. In the left hand, a cell phone is clutched, while leaning on the world. In the right hand, a homemade banner is raised. It reads, “Changez vos habitudes pas le climate” translated: Change your habits, not climate.
A Memento mori sits in the corner. A skull on a plastic crate, beside an ornate handbag that resembles a disposable bag. A black garbage bag draped like a hood with flowers and a butterfly adorn the composition, giving hope that nature will exist beyond our material items. Meant to be inspirational, this is the only portrait that exists outdoors in a surreal stage. Our climate Catalyst stands on the folds of blue cloth that represent the threat of a rising sea.
We were inspired by a dinner scene at first, looking to Masterworks for inspiration. But we were struggling with the group photo. What reason, could we create that would have all these people in the same room. The answer slowly became obvious, the shared experience of this pandemic was the perfect situation. All these people are waiting to get a test. They are waiting to go somewhere, do something, and they just waiting to discover their results from a screening.
Coming soon #