Think Again: IBM, Eames, Informatics


While home with my family for Christmas, I read and thoroughly enjoyed John Harwood’s The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945 – 1976 (I also finished Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, Richard John’s Network Nation, and the new “Digital Art” special issue of October, none of which matched Harwood). As I was reading The Interface, I heard Reinhold Martin echoing all over the place — as he should’ve been; he was Harwood’s advisor. Harwood’s project focuses on IBM as a new kind of corporation — one that calls for a new kind of management — one for which design, in all varieties, is a critical management tool. In 1956 IBM’s president Thomas Watson, Jr., hired Eliot Noyes to serve as “consultant director of design,” and Noyes brought in a crack team of fellow designers — Edgar Kaufmann, Paul Rand, George Nelson, Mies, and Eero Saarinen among them — to design not only a multi-channelled “interface” between IBM and its markets, but also, perhaps more lastingly, an “organic,” “modular” interface between computers and people and architecture.

There’s lots of great stuff in the book — about logistics, ergonomics, the connections between management theory and cybernetics, the difficulties of enforcing consistent design throughout a far-flung multinational corporation, etc. — but I most enjoyed Harwood’s fourth chapter, where he talks about IBM’s use of exhibitions and films to “naturalize the computer” — to help a wary public become more comfortable with the machine’s inevitable integration into their workplaces, their schools, their everyday lives. And what struck me most within this chapter (perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising) were the parallels between the Eames’s IBM exhibition designs and the THINK exhibition my students and I saw, and I wrote about, a couple months ago. After seeing the modern-day THINK at Lincoln Center, we immediately noted the similarities between the zooms and scalar variety in the multimedia presentations, and the Eameses’ Powers of Ten.

But what I didn’t know back in October was that the Eameses’ multiscreen projection inside the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair was also called “Think” (of course the “Think” slogan had been in use within IBM since the 20s). Nor did I realize, from simply looking at photos of the 1964 exhibition, just how similar its design and rhetorical strategies were to those employed in THINK 47 years later.

People Wall

1964 had the People Wall, which required visitors to prop themselves up awkwardly “in a pose of heightened attention and readiness” (Harwood 190), while 2011’s gallery required us to stand amidst pods of monolithic screens, wondering which of their many faces we should strive to see. The People Wall rose 53 feet into the interior of the “Information Machine,” whereas at THINK we descended a ramp, gathered in a foyer then were led into a pitch-black room; both were altitude-altering “rites of passage” leading to a disorienting space. And both offered multi-screen extravaganzas: The Information Machine featured 15 screens of various shapes and sizes mounted on the curved wall, while the 2011 gallery contained 40 seven-foot screens rising from the floor.


Harwood says that the Information Machine…

…displaced the spectator, several times over. First, deprived of any sense of direction by the labyrinth stairs, then set in bleachers without a point of reference, then lifted into the ovoid, and at last fragmenting and multiplying her points of view in a rapid succession of film segments and slides, the spectator has embarked on a kind of pilgrimage. She has quite clearly transcended three-dimensional (or even four-dimensional) space and has come to inhabit, however briefly, an entirely new medium (191).

One experienced a similar disorientation, as I described in my earlier post, in the Lincoln Center exhibition; we walked into a dark, subterranean space; found ourselves lost in a field of infinite regress; and divided our attention among the myriad screens and their reflections in the mirrored walls.

And in both exhibitions, visitors were (likely) simultaneously wowed and horrified by what they were seeing and hearing. At Lincoln Center, we couldn’t help but marvel at technology’s role in revolutionizing health care, finance, agriculture, etc., yet we couldn’t forget the promise, or threat, that these “systems are alive” — that there is potential danger in placing our basic needs for survival in the hands of sentient technologies. Similarly, the 1964 exhibition presented the computer as “wholly new and shocking, and [at the same time,] as a completely natural extension of everyday life” (194); “no effort was made to resolve this contradiction… The task of naturalizing the computer did not involve a true effort at ontology, of either human being or computer; rather, it involved a design logic of displacement and enclosure” (195).

History  Wall – via

Finally, the 1964 Pavilion and other Eames exhibitions sought to “posit [IBM’s] activities as the culmination of scientific and technological history” (196). The Eameses incorporated a History Wall into many of their exhibitions, showing the great traditions from which IBM’s work arises, and to which it represents a culmination, an apotheosis. Similarly, at Lincoln Center, we emerged from the multimedia gallery into an exit hallway featuring 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Once again, IBM finds itself “as the end of a great narrative of scientific and artistic achievement” (196).


Cartographic Excess

Address Is Approximate from The Theory on Vimeo.

Last week we drew to a close our second year of Urban Media Archaeology, a graduate studio in which my 15 students; my Technical Associate, the ever capable Rory Solomon; and I work together to map historic media networks. Last fall, in the inaugural section of the class, our students mapped everything from the history of walking tours, to newspaper company headquarters, to Daily News delivery infrastructure, to the social lives of East Village zines, to key sites in carrier pigeon history. This semester the projects were no less innovative; we mapped “media actors” in the debate over the Atlantic Yards development; data-driven systems of graffiti removal; the spatial history of the Young Filmmakers Foundation (intended to seed a larger map of youth media organizations in New York); the evolution of street signs in Manhattan since the  late 19th century; the old West Side Cowboys of Chelsea (this project, one of my favorites, involved “ontography“; see below); the changing landscape of independent bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn; the social networks of the Soho Fluxus community; 100 years’ history of theaters around Union Square; key individuals and places in the history of subway graffiti; the spatial history of the Bell Telephone system;  the forgotten histories of official memorials and murals in East Harlem; surveillance networks in Corona, Queens; locations in Woody Allen’s films; and historic jazz performance venues.

via Jonathan’s Last of the West Side Cowboys:
Duncan’s Media Actors of Atlantic Yards:

We learned this year, as we did last year, about media archaeology, about maps as media, about the spatial- and digital humanities, about archival research, and about design methods and prototyping strategies. And this year we added a new lesson on “spatial data modeling” to help students translate their conceptual models into “database language.”

We also learned quite a few things that could never be spelled out in the obligatory “learning goals” section of a syllabus. I’ll try to describe a few of those hard-to-articulate lessons here:

Learning Doesn’t Happen in 15-Week Chunks. Many students commented that they had a hard time knowing when to stop researching. They had a tough time gauging when they had enough archival images, enough data to discern a spatial pattern of some sort, enough contextual information for each of the records they plotted on the map. Many of my students spent weeks sorting through official data sets or in various archives, either frustrated that they hadn’t yet tracked down the “magic data set” or the “magic box” of archival treasure, or thrilled to have found much great material — and in many cases, eventually overwhelmed by the volume of material they gathered. Whatever their individual experiences, they almost invariably felt incomplete at the end of the semester. “If I had another week, I would’ve….”

We had to come to terms with the fact that learning — the most natural, meaningful kind — doesn’t stop at the end of the semester. The most exciting projects, with the most potential for future development, will inevitably remain undone — much to the benefit of those who come after us, who’ll take inspiration from our work and build upon the foundations we’ve laid. DH projects in particular require that we recalibrate our internal self-critics to take into account that fact that our work is often only one small part of a larger, longer-term endeavor. At the same time, this “recalibration” doesn’t diminish our sense of personal accountability; knowing that others — our contemporary and future collaborators — are counting on us, and knowing that our audience is larger than our professors and ourselves, we appreciate that there’s a lot more at stake than an end-of-semester grade.

Learning Can Be Deeper, and More Rewarding, When It Pushes Us Out of Our Comfort Zone. Some students commented that venturing into new research venues and employing new research skills; having to gather the pieces to construct a “multimodal,” spatial argument; and realizing that they needed to have something to show for all their work, resulted in an unprecedentedly deep level of engagement. “I’ve never been this invested in, or learned this much from, a research project before.” I suggested in our last class that most folks can BS their way through a 20-page seminar paper, but when you have to show stuff to back up your claims — when you have to plot records to support a spatial argument — your research will require getting your hands dirty.

Some students also learned not to fear the error message. We created our own mapping system, and asked students to construct their own data models, so they could see what’s behind the social media systems that they regularly use — systems that have been naturalized and seamlessly integrated into their everyday lives. Opening the black box, if you’ll pardon the cliche, requires that we test its limits, that we often push the system until it breaks. And when we do break something — when we encounter one of those ugly “TemplateSyntaxError” messages — rather than panic or give up, we can actually learn to hear what the system is telling us, and work with others in class — most likely those with a different set of technical skills than our own — to fix the problem. These small defeats and victories tell us a lot about how a system works. And ultimately we learn more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they might be, than from those that proceed perfectly smoothly.

Even the “Objective” Calls for Reflexivity. Many students came to realize that the primary materials they were gathering were determined primarily by choices they made — which streets to travel, which times of day to visit, which people to talk to, etc. Even data — either self-generated or pulled from an “open data” bank — aren’t immune to researcher bias or subjectivity. We came to be keenly aware of how data and other research materials come into being, and are discovered by ourselves and other researchers — and many students decided to build themselves, through self-reflexive methodology maps, into their own projects. As David Bodenhamer writes in “The Potential of the Spatial Humanities” (In The Spatial Humanities, Indiana University Press, 2010, “A humanities GIS-facilitated understanding of society and culture may ultimately make its contribution in this way, by embracing a new, reflexive epistemology that integrates the multiple voices, views, and memories…” (29).

Mapping Isn’t Always About Big Data — Or, Mapping ≠ GIS. Several students began their projects looking for the data “motherlode” that would reveal clear temporal and spatial patterns and allow them to make big, profound, earth-shattering claims. “I intend to correlate huge changes in socioeconomic data to movements in these massive infrastructures.” “I plan to develop a comprehensive map of all the people and places involved in this social movement.” When, by mid-semester, they hadn’t experienced the “data epiphanies” they were waiting for, many were either apologetic (for not looking hard enough or in the right places), frustrated, or defeated.

I wondered if perhaps, influenced by the prevalence of GIS and “data fetishization,” and by the way so many of us tend to use the terms “mapping” and “data visualization” interchangeably, my students assumed that their maps had to show large-scale patterns in quantitative data. Many of them had forgotten that the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative, are also mappable — and worthy of being mapped. The “GIS mindset” was stifling to some students. As Bodenhamer puts it, GIS can appear “reductionist in its epistemology. It forces data into categories; it defines space in limited and literal ways instead of the metaphorical frames that are equally reflective of human experience” (24).

Eventually coming to terms with the “non-systematicity” of their conclusions, accepting that they wouldn’t be creating a heat map showing conclusive evidence of quantifiable macro-scale changes, they recognized the breadth and flexibility of mapping as a method. We can map the qualitative, the necessarily incomplete and inconclusive, the fuzzy. And we can even infuse a little poetry into our data models (as many of my students did by developing creative many-to-many relationships) to capture the nuance and nebulousness of our subjects.

Our Maps Can Contain an Implicit Critique of Mapping Itself. Despite whatever opportunities we might have to detourn the map and its underlying database, we sometimes run up against the operative or epistemological limitations of these systems. Not all stories are spatial. Not everything can be plotted to a point, line, or area on a map. And not everything can be translated into a data model — at least not without losing something. Many of my students offered amazingly insightful reflections on the values and limitations of mapping as a method and a mode of presentation in their own projects:

I think proximity is a point to be made, but not the whole point, and it might push users to get caught up in spatial observations. (via)

I’ve noticed that all the presentations involved navigation tasks that would seem obscure without the author walking us through them. Why do the maps come so alive when we have a guide walking us through them? (via)

At its most basic, my conceptual point about Atlantic Yards is to look at as much as you can. When you see my map from far enough away, it looks like all of Brooklyn is covered in green circles, but zoom in further and there are gaps begging to be filled in. And I think for now at least, that’s how it’s supposed to look. (via)

They’ve come to accept that some gaps are supposed to be there, that their projects will be defined by holes and incompleteness. In recognizing what maps can and can’t do well, we’ve been able to look at them more critically as media, and at mapping as a method — as only one of myriad media and methods at our disposal.

Bodenhamer advocates for the integration of multiple media formats — “a letter, memoir, photograph, painting, oral account, video” — and types of research material — “oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, images, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place” — into what he calls “deep maps,” maps that are “visual, time-based, and structurally open” (26-8).

They are genuinely multimedia and multilayered. They do not seek authority or objectivity but involve negotiation between insiders and outsiders, experts and contributors, over what is represented and how. Framed as a conversation and not a statement, deep maps are inherently unstable, continually unfolding and changing in response to new data, new perspectives, and new insights” (26-7).

Whether we regard mapping as the “umbrella” strategy encompassing these other methods and modalities, or mapping as only one component of a “deep” spatially-oriented methodology, it’s important that we think critically about each component of our “toolbox” — that we resist the temptation to fetishize the data or the map, that we appreciate what each of our tools can and can’t do, that we devise a strategy by which these various tools can work in a complementary fashion to do justice to the rich spatial and temporal dimensions of our subjects of inquiry.


Media & Materiality, Round 2

I’d been working on my Spring 2011 “Media & Materiality” syllabus all weekend, and took a break today to see Krapp’s Last Tape at BAM. It was a fitting distraction, since the play — actually, much of Beckett’s work — is concerned with the materiality of language — its inscription, performance, and repetition. From The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940:

Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as, for example, the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?

Oh, that I could some day write so beautifully! For now, though, my energies are focused on creating a syllabus that’s comely and clever, if not beautiful.

This spring will be the second time I’ve taught “Media & Materiality,” the first being a year-and-a-half ago, in Fall 2010 (and I suppose the “Textual Form” class I taught at Penn in 2002 was a language-focused precursor to this class). The first time around I wasn’t sure what my students would be interested in, or what they’d need to help them complete their final projects: online exhibitions of media objects. This time around, I have a better sense of what structure needs to be put in place, but I still don’t want to presume that I know their topical interests. So, once again, I’ll be building in a few weeks for “plug-in” lessons — lessons that respond to students’ interests, which I’ll gauge through their project proposals and, perhaps, through a poll distributed sometime mid-semester.

via Erik Hartberg on Flickr:

Here’s the draft syllabus as it currently stands. The course description reads as follows:

Ours is an existence characterized by cultural flux and political economic flows, by the virtualization of place and the acceleration of time, the disembodiment of labor, the fluidity of identity, the “conceptualization” of art, the etherealization of communication. Yet even these financial flows and digital networks rely on physical supports, on material storage devices and infrastructures, and embodied interactions with human actors. This seminar examines media as material objects, as “things,” as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication. In the first third of the semester we’ll explore various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory” to media archaeology to object-oriented ontology – that can be useful in studying the material culture of media. The second third will be dedicated to topical or theoretical “plug-ins” that pertain to students’ research interests. And in the final third, we’ll focus on the creation of online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we’ll approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship,” an alternative means of performing and publicizing academic work. The particular format of our projects will also provide an opportunity for us to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their physicality?

And here’s our schedule of lessons:

  1. Week 1: Introductions + Overview
  2. Week 2: The Myth of Immateriality: I’ll have them read a little “immaterial scrapbook” I’ve created, which contains textual, audio, and video excerpts addressing “immateriality” in physics, geography, economics, art, etc. I’ll talk about two relevant exhibitions: Jack Burnham’s Software show at the Jewish Museum, and Lyotard & Chaput’s Les Immatériaux from the Centre Pompidou
  3. Week 3: The Persistence of Materiality: Here’s where we start to see the material “flip side” of all those “dematerialization” prognostications of the 20th century. We’ll read some Bill Brown, Kate Hayles, Vilém Flusser, and Rosalind Krauss.
  4. Week 4: Material Culture and the Social Lives of Things: Here’s where we explore more “material culture” studies, anthropological, and sociological approaches to the study of “objects.” We’ll read some Schlereth, Appadurai, and more Brown. And we’ll begin to discuss our class’s possible involvement with the Vera List Center’s “thingness” programming.
  5. Week 5: Objects, Assemblages & Ecologies: Here’s where we talk about actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology, and Jane Bennett’s “thing power.” We also consider possible tie-ins with Jamie Kruse’s “Thingness of Energy” project, supported by the Vera List Center.
    • This week we also have the Paper Tiger TV / Vera List Center “Designing a New Rrradical Media” conference, in which I’m participating, and which will feature discussions on the materiality of media and politics, as well as workshops where participants can materialize their own “grassroots media prototype for the digital environment.”
  6. Week 6: Media Archaeology + The Gears In Your Hard Drive: Since I teach an entire separate class on media archaeology, we won’t spend much time on the “what is media archaeology”-type texts: Huhtamo, Ernst, Zielinski, Parikka, etc. We’ll focus instead on Lisa Gitelman’s and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work on inscription, forensics, and mechanics.
  7. Week 7: An Immaterial Exhibition of Material Media: Because my students will be creating online exhibitions, I’ll bring in two or three curators and/or exhibition designers — creators of both online and on-site projects — to present their own work, to talk about the exhibition as a “medium,” and to help my students prepare for their own projects.
  8. Week 8: Plug In: This is one of those weeks that we’ll structure in response to student interests. I’ve created a few potential “plug-ins” — on topics ranging from the typewriter, to e-waste, to recorded sound, to the Internet of Things, to wirelessness (they’re all listed on the syllabus, and some are available on my Fall 2010 course website) — that the students can choose from, or they can propose their own.
  9. Week 9: Wax & Wire, Emulsion & Electricity: Material History Through Edison: This week we take a field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ, to marvel at the array of physical objects systems that gave rise to our modern media culture. We read Gitelman, Jonathan Sterne, and Thomas Elsaesser in preparation for our visit.
  10. Week 10: Plug-In. Another week addressing student interests. We’ll also do a little “design development” with my Tech Associate, who can help the students start thinking about which media platforms they’ll use to execute their final projects.
  11. Week 11: Pecha Kucha Peer Review: We’ll break into two groups of ten and run two simultaneous, adjacent, Pecha Kucha sessions, where students will present their design concepts and solicit peer critiques.
  12. Week 12: Tech Lab: This week my Tech Associate, Sepand, will host a hands-on workshop in the computer labs.
  13. Week 13: Our Final Plug-In Lesson
  14. Week 14: Final Presentations
  15. Week 15: Final Presentations

And here are the assignments for the semester:

  1. Exhibition Review: ” Because our final project will be an online exhibition, we’ll spend some time at the beginning of most classes reviewing and critiquing some exemplary exhibitions, both onsite and online, encompassing the world of art, history, and science exhibition. Each student must present one review over the course of the semester. For the first few weeks of the semester, I will identify particular exhibitions that are pertinent to the week’s reading and discussion, but in later weeks, I’ll offer some options; you’re encouraged to choose an exhibition that both raises practical questions that we’ll need to address as we curate our own exhibition and pertains to the readings for the week.”
  2. Individual Exhibition Proposal: self explanatory
  3. Exhibiting Arguments: “Even though our final projects represent an alternative to traditional text-based scholarship, text (written, typed, audio- or video-recorded, etc.) will still be an integral component of our work. Your exhibition text will still have to adhere to the standards of written scholarship (e.g., based on rigorous research, citing sources properly, etc.), but it should be written to serve our distinct purposes and audiences (e.g., do we want dozens of distracting footnotes, or an extensive lit review?). Please share with me via Google Docs, no later than April 30 (earlier is better!), a 900- to 1200-word sample of text that you’ll be using in various segments of your exhibition – in the overall introduction; in the introductions to and transitions between various sub-sections; or in navigational cues (particularly if you’re designing a structurally complex project)…”
  4. Final Exhibition + Self-Assessment

I also plan to organize some optional field trips to relevant exhibitions, like the Print/Out show at MoMA, which looks fantastic. I’m particularly excited to see that Andrew Beccone and the Reanimation Library are organizing a related studio.

So that’s what I’ve got. Any suggestions, complaints? Praise? Please share.


Books, Barges, Bones — Material Biographies

Over the past month I’ve seen a number of exhibitions and attended several events that seem to have grouped around a few themes — namely, the aforementioned books, barges, bones, and biographies.

First, books:

In early November I went to Artists Space to see Dexter Sinister’s Serving Library and Identity projects. I’m really curious about this whole Serving Library thing.

comprises two collections, of books and artifacts, both drawn from ten years and twenty issues of Dexter Sinister’s house journal Dot Dot Dot. Each one of the artifacts served as original source material for an illustration accompanying an essay in an issue of the journal, and the bound books collate the most frequently cited works in Dot Dot Dot” (via).

I’ve been following, and admiring, their work for years, and I’ve availed myself of the many pdfs they make available on their website, which is regarded as part of the new Serving Library. I still don’t think I fully get what they’re going for here — particularly with the physical space — but I’m going to keep trying; I know there’s something there to get.

The Serving Library

The Identity piece, which “charts the emergence and proliferation of graphic identity since the turn of the twentieth century, with particular reference to contemporary art institutions,” wasn’t what drew me in initially, but I found it quite riveting. Rob Giampietro posted a lovely talk, related to the exhibition and to Artists Space’s own graphic identity, that he was invited to give a couple years ago.


Then this past weekend my husband and I went to the the New Museum to hear Paul Chan’s “proposition,” “What is a book?” I had heard him speak briefly about his Badlands Unlimited project at the Triple Canopy “On Artists’ Publications” panel discussion this past summer, so I was looking forward to hearing him contextualize his work within a larger discussion of “the medium.” No such luck, unfortunately. He started off promisingly, referencing a little scholarship on the history of the book, but spent the majority of his time portraying publishing as a vanity pursuit driven by nepotism and extreme privilege. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the work, but I’m not sure that I can valorize his process.

And just last night I went to Storefront, on a whim, to the “On Architecture and Publishing” salon. As often happens in discussions that dare to predict the future of print, the conversation at times descended into generalizations and essentialisms: print is tactile and therefore better able to embody the “craft” of architecture!; “we read differently today,” so we need new publication forms to accommodate this new reading!; by the time something’s printed in a magazine, it’s old news!, etc., etc.  Storefront’s director, Eva Franch, who remembered me from the Critical Futures event back in March, asked me to say something, so I did. Eva herself made some astute comments regarding the temporal dimensions of publishing and reading in various media. I ran into my friend Robert Kirkbride there, and he and I had a lovely, if brief, after-event conversation with Benjamin Prosky, one of the panelists and Assistant Dean for Communications at Harvard Graduate School of Design. I found many, many parallels between last night’s salon, the Critical Futures panel, and some of the ideas I was playing with in my “Click/Scan/Bold” article.

Okay, now on to barges:

There’s really only one event in this category, but it was sufficiently memorable to deserve its own space. Last Monday night, after I taught my lecture class in Tishman Auditorium, the Vera List Center hosted, in the very same space, a screening of Allan Sekula & Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space.

The Forgotten Space follows container cargo aboard ships, barges, trains and trucks, listening to workers, engineers, planners, politicians, and those marginalized by the global transport system. We visit displaced farmers and villagers in Holland and Belgium, underpaid truck drivers in Los Angeles, seafarers aboard mega-ships shuttling between Asia and Europe, and factory workers in China, whose low wages are the fragile key to the whole puzzle. And in Bilbao, we discover the most sophisticated expression of the belief that the maritime economy, and the sea itself, is somehow obsolete (via).

The Forgotten Space Trailer from The Forgotten Space on Vimeo.

It’s no small feat to convey the unfathomable complexity and overlapping scales of global capitalism — and, in the process, to portray this actor-network as simultaneously gorgeous and hideous, as sublime. The film does precisely this.

We might say that The Forgotten Space unearths the physical and virtual “skeleton” of global transit and trade — so we’ll transition into our third theme: bones.

Last month I attended part of the Forensic Aesthetics conference, co-organized by the Vera List Center, Goldsmiths, Bard, and Cabinet. Here’s the official explanation for this provocatively titled event:

…[T]he emergence of forensics in legal forums and popular entertainment signifies a new attention to the communicative capacity, agency, and power of things. This material approach is evident in the ubiquitous role that science and technologies now play in shaping contemporary ways of seeing, knowing, and communicating. Today’s legal and political decisions are often based upon the capacity to display and read DNA samples, 3D laser scans, nanotechnology, and the enhanced vision of electromagnetic microscopes and satellite surveillance. From mass graves to retinal scans, the topography of the seabed to the remnants of destroyed buildings, forensics is not only about the diagnostics, but also about the rhetoric of persuasion. The aesthetic dimension of forensics includes its means of presentation, the theatrics of its delivery, the forms of image and gesture. The forensic aesthetics of the present carries with it grave political and ethical implications, spreading its impact across socioeconomic, environmental, scientific, and cultural domains (via).

I missed the first evening’s events, a panel on osteobiographies (which would’ve made for a lovely transition into my fourth theme, material biographies — but alas) at Cabinet, but I was able to enjoy the first two panels — on “Forensic Architecture” and “Constructed Evidence” — on Saturday. The concreteness of these two panels made them extraordinarily compelling. While Norman Weiss (a fantastic presenter!) talked about the restoration of Fallingwater, we held a piece of FLW concrete in our hands. While Arne Svenson discussed his portraits of forensic heads, Linda — a bespectacled head with quite a head of hair — stared at us from the center of the table. The set up of the conversations — speakers surrounding a round table strewn with the objects under consideration; chalkboard at hand for impromptu illustrations; audience ringing the table — made for a palpable intimacy befitting forensics‘ etymological connection to “the forum.”

Arne’s portraits also served as a means of constructing biographies for — perhaps, as his gallery suggests, “bring[ing] back to life” — unidentified victims whose only material existence is through the form of a sculpted head.

Which brings us, of course, to my fourth category: material biographies.

This week I saw three exhibitions that captured, through media of multiple formats, the intellectual and creative lives of three fascinating individuals. The Private Collection of Rauschenberg, on display at the uptown Gagosian, displays art-objects and memorabilia that Rauschenberg traded with, or was “gifted” by, his friends and colleagues. In the Times, Roberta Smith referred to the exhibition, appropriately, as a “self-portrait collage. Nearly every item here is a glimpse of a connection between Rauschenberg and the artists he felt close to, as well as the various aesthetic ancestors from past generations and across cultures that he wanted present in his life in some way.” It’s a touching show, and there’s beautiful work here — much of it by many of my own favorite artists. Cy Twombly drew “Bob” several portraits of flowers as an expression of thanks for his frequent hospitality. I found the musical scores, especially John Cage’s Haiku, particularly beautiful.

And today I saw “Resonance: Looking for Mr. McLuhan” at the Pratt gallery near my office. McLuhan’s own ideas were so expansive and encompassing that pretty much all art mediums could be said to illustrate one of his “probes.” Perhaps for this reason, the show didn’t gel for me. It contained some interesting work (I can’t not  appreciate text or typographic art, and there was some of that here), but it relied a bit too heavily on some McLuhan cliches — there were quite a few references to the TV set as form — and was so wide-ranging that it needed a little more contextualization.

And finally, this past weekend I saw “The Study of Kabakov” — Ilya Kabakov — at Edelman Arts. The exhibition featured, in one half of the gallery, several works on paper, and in the other half, a “white glove” library of reference books on Kabakov. Through published work and primary documents — drawings — we are invited to piece together biographies, not only of Kabakov himself, but also of the “10 Characters” the artist portrayed in drawings he collected into “albums. And thus the writing of material biographies brings us back to the book. And so I stop.


Off You Go With a Manifesto


In the final lecture of my intro to graduate studies class on Monday night, I plan to send the students off with some inspiration and a call to action in the form of a manifesto. There seems to be renewed interest in the manifesto, attributable in part, I imagine, to a presumption that “radical” media have played some role in the uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy movement.

I was a bit concerned that it might seem as if I’m trivializing this potent media form by using it to dispense advice to grad students — but I assured myself that a class dedicated to helping students identify who they are as scholars and practitioners, what values they subscribe to, and what kind of a field of study and practice they want to help cultivate, is inherently political — and is therefore perhaps deserving of its own manifesto, or at least something mildly “manifest-ish.”

Taking cues from numerous historical manifestos (the Communist and Futurist manifestos, Moholy-Nagy’s New Typography, Ken Garland’s First Things First Manifesto, Dogme 95, etc.) and some more recent examples (the Cult of Done Manifesto, the Information Visualization Manifesto, Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, etc), and soliciting input from a bunch of my faculty colleagues and all my graduate-student instructors, I created what follows: the intriguingly titled A Sort-of Manifesto for Graduate Students in a Praxis-Based MA Program Who Have Just Completed Their First Semesters and Are Embarking Into the Great Beyond,” or, SMGSPBMAPWHJCTFSAEIGB, for short.

Damn, I need a new title. Nevertheless, here it is:

Think theory and practice together.

Consider theory a form of critical practice, and practice a means of “making” something with theory.

  • Resist the urge to declare yourself a “theory person,” a “production person,” or a “management person.” You’re more than that. Your brain doesn’t like to be pigeonholed.

Practice material consciousness.

Think about the affordances and limitations, the politics and aesthetics, the accessibility and flexibility, the built-in ideologies and epistemologies, of the media tools you have at your disposal, and choose wisely.

Consider the end-goals of your media making. When does your practice become scholarship?

Consider the possibilities of “multimodal scholarship” and the use of media technologies as research tools.

  • Practice constitutes research “if and only if it is (1) a systematic investigation, (2) conducted intentionally, (3) to acquire new knowledge, understanding, insights, etc., (4) justified, and (5) communicated, (6) about a subject” (Stephen A. R. Scrivener, “The Roles of Art and Design Process and Object In Research” In Nithikul Nimkulrat & Tim O’Riley, Reflections and Connections: On the Relationship Between Creative Production and Academic Research (Helsinki: University of Art and Design, 2009): 71).

Design your own challenges.

In undergrad, challenges were created for you. Now, you determine how, where, when, and to what degree you want to be challenged.

  • You could potentially get through by simply showing up for class, reading what’s listed on the syllabus, and handing in the required assignments, but what you’re implicitly expected to do is…

Learn in the interstitial spaces.

Only a small fraction of your grad school learning happens in a classroom. Only a portion is codified on a syllabus. The rest of it – the majority, perhaps – happens in the in-between spaces, which you map out and fill in. Take advantage of resources around the city. Visit faculty members’ office hours. Start a reading group. Attend conferences. Do other stuff.

Find your through-line.

And do work that connects to it.

  • “Writing an obligatory paper for Ideas that will end up in the trashbin the next day is of no use to anyone; Creating a paper or project that connects up to longer-term ambitions in the department and beyond makes sense. “ – Jessica Blaustein
  • Approach your course selection as if you’re concocting a “recipe” of courses — theory, practice, management — that can “react” with one another and add up to something more than the sum of the parts. — Dawnja Burris

Take the Long View  // “UMS and the M.A. aren’t the goals; you and your work are.” – Aron Hsiao  

via Peter Haratonik: “In teaching (and in learning, I might add — PH) you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” — Jacques Barzun (who turned 104 on Nov. 30, 2011)

  • “[Y[our other classes are merely means to help you to craft the passionate, practical, intellectually sound self and matching body of work and/or expertise that your M.A. will someday signify.” – Aron Hsiao
  • But keep in mind that it’s not all about you. As a “master” of your field, you do have some obligations to it, which is why you should…

Be curious about your field. All of it.

You’ll never know when the “irrelevant” will be relevant, or when you’ll discover an interest you never knew you had. Besides, as Masters of Media Studies, we do have an obligation to be familiar with the breadth of the field. I’m sure you wouldn’t rather that obligation be institutionalized in the form of comprehensive exams!

Be curious about things outside your field, too. 

Media of course operates as one of myriad forces in the larger social world. To understand media’s role in that world, you need to know more about those other forces, and the context within which they interact. Plus, media’s usually about stuff; you need to be familiar with those other fields that media take as their content.

  • “I constantly find new inspiration through reading outside the lines, as it were, and by talking to people who approach my topic out of different disciplines” – Katie Kelley. Particularly if you’re doing something interdisciplinary – that is, even outside the already very interdisciplinary space of our field of study – you have to be conversant with people and literature and methods and conventions in other fields. “I have also found that talking to people in other fields cements my certainty that I’m taking the right approach, and allows me to be reflective about why I’m doing [what I’m doing instead of something else,] even though all of those other fields enter into my approach – which in turn helps me be more acute in thinking about what defines my approach and what I’m trying to accomplish.” – Katie Kelley

Don’t wait passively for inspiration to strike — Sanja Trpkovic

Inspiration isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you have to actively seek out, and sometimes that means leaving your comfort zone.

“Mediation is not limited to media.” –Eugene Thacker

We may be surrounded by revolution, but we need to be wary of uncritical, sensational claims about media’s power. Avoid media imperialism or determinism.

“All media are new. Especially old media. (And vice-versa.)” – Eugene Thacker

Historicize. Realize that all the hopes and fears we have about today’s new media, our ancestors had about tv and film and books and writing.

There is a point; you just might need some help finding it.

If you’re unsure of why you’re learning something, or what a particular reading or exercise is intended to teach you, ask for some guidance, without resorting to righteousness or defensiveness.

  • “Pointless” is the perennial complaint of the chronically unimaginative.

A little humility goes a long way.

Even if you “know this already,” questioning your assumptions, reinforcing your understanding through new applications, can help to put your knowledge into new perspective – or might even reveal that you never really knew what you thought you knew in the first place.

  • “[I]n taking the decision to embark upon postgraduate work, you have:
    • Acknowledged that you don’t know something, which is why you want to do some research in order to learn and discover new things;
    • Assumed a position of humility – essential for learning anything;
    • A genuine desire to carry out the research to the best of your ability with integrity and honesty” (Gray & Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004): 69).

Rein it in.

It’s good to have big ideas, ambitious goals. But think about what you can feasibly accomplish with the time and resources you have. Consider how to partition a large-scale project into “modules” you can complete through several classes. Think about what part of your larger project is best accomplished within grad school – what would benefit most from your taking advantage of academic, advising, and technical resources here – and what should take place in your “extracurricular” or “after grad school” time?

Get used to talking about your work and your ideas in public.” – Brian McCormick

“Develop language you can use in presenting your work to different audiences. The importance of artist statements and the manner in which work is presented is critical to its success and reception.” – Brian McCormick

  • Brian Eno: “the lack of a clear connection between all that creative activity and the intellectual life of the society leaves the whole (creative) project poorly understood, poorly supported and poorly exploited. If we’re going to expect people to help fund the arts, whether through taxation or lotteries, then surely we owe them an attempt at an explanation of what value we think the arts might be to them.”
  • Same goes for academic work. Develop an “abstract version” and an elevator pitch version of your research goals. Think about how to translate your work on the page to a talk for the ear. Think about what type of presenter you want to be: a reader, an extemporizer, a performer, etc.
  • Cultivate your public persona.

Give credit where it’s due.

Keep an ongoing list of folks who’ve assisted with your work, and add “Acknowledgments” to published/distributed work.

  • Citation formatting might seem trivial, but it’s really not. For instance, it’s really important to know when and how to use “quoted in…”, to understand the differences between editors, authors, and translators, etc.

Help people help you.

If you need a favor or want assistance, make it easy for others to assist you.

  • Briefly introduce yourself, say what you want, and tell them why you think they’re particularly well equipped to help you (saying things like “I’ve found your work in XX very helpful,” and expressing genuine respect and appreciation, can’t hurt!).
    • “…there are some fundamental questions you need to answer before you ask someone for help: Why are you asking that particular person? Why should that person help you? And why now?” (Rachel Toor, “The Art of ‘the Ask’The Chronicle of Higher Education  (November 28, 2011))
    • Read faculty bios! – Christiane Paul; Read the syllabus! — Sanja Trpkovic + Many, Many Others
  • Ask specific questions; show that you’ve already done your homework, that you’ve already tackled part of the challenge on your own, but that you need the help of an expert to move you along those last few inches.
  • Check your tone. Make sure you’re framing your inquires as requests rather than demands.
  • “Be clear about what you want and make it easy for the recipient to comply. If you have a lot of general questions and rampant confusion, don’t write until you’ve done enough homework to be able to narrow the focus of your request. You shouldn’t start by going to scarce resources; that should come only after you’ve exhausted the most well-trod and easy paths. // Recognize that you are asking for a favor and that you’re not necessarily going to be in a position to reciprocate. Realize that for someone who doesn’t love you, poring over your prose is not generally a reward in itself.” (Toor)

Build credibility to attract opportunity.

Assistantship offers come to those who cultivate respect and trust. Take classes with faculty with whom you’d like to work. Be genuinely engaged, be responsible, and make sure your work is stellar. Express your interest in collaboration.

  • “Credibility isn’t just about turning in good projects—it’s about not making excuses, not emailing for answers to questions you could have answered yourself, not turning in un-proofread papers full of mistakes.” – Katie Kelley. Right on, Katie.

If you want something, express interest to the folks who can make it happen.

Let it be known what opportunities you’d like to see come your way, and why. Show, with an appropriate measure of humility, that you’ve got the right experience and you’d be good to work with.

Labor over your cover letters.

Generic letters immediately go to recycling. Very few people know how to write a compelling letter that addresses why this position, why you, why you and this position are right for each other.

Disappointment is, I’m afraid, inevitable – in school, at work, in life, everywhere. Turn it into an opportunity to learn something, then try again.

If you don’t get that grant or internship, if your proposal is rejected, etc., first, take some time to get your emotions in check, and then ask the decision-makers if they can provide constructive feedback. Inquire about what you can do better to increase your chances in the future.

  • If a class you really want is already full, lodge your interest with the instructor, then try registering again near the start of the semester.

Remember that institutions are made of people.

If you’ve got an issue with something, have a civil, “grown up” discussion with the person most directly responsible for the issue. Most folks are reasonable, and they’ll do what they can to help. No need to resort immediately to inflammatory letters, lawsuits, or protest.

From Mitch Goldstein’s “A Design Education Manifesto”:Look at everything. Dismiss nothing.”

Each designer is born from a unique experience. Classmates in the same program will have different educations depending on which teachers they have, what field trips they take, and what books they pick up. As a designer you need to always be looking at the world around you. You need to see everything—the kind of detailed seeing taught in freshman drawing classes—not just looking, but really seeing. You need to be an observer as well as a maker. You should rid yourself of any preconceptions of what is and is not worthy of your attention. Everything has potential to be interesting and influential. Not everything will be, but the more you see the better your chances are at seeing something that will be useful to you.”

From Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”: ____________________.

“Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.”


Misophonia Sinfonia

via anniebee on Flickr:

My husband and I moved back to Brooklyn a few weeks ago, which means that I now return — for at least part of the week, on mornings when I’m not in Manhattan — to my old gym, which I frequented during my six years in Park Slope. Today was the first day I’d returned, after two years of going exclusively to the awesome McBurney YMCA, and the memories all came flooding back — through my ears.

The Brooklyn gym is a neighborhood gym, with lots of neighborhood folks — including a few with a sonic character all their own. Every gym has its histrionic huffers and grunters, but we’ve got some even more distinctive character actors here. There’s the guy who rides the recumbent bike, whose insanely loud pffffssshhhhh exhalations, expelled through clenched teeth, resonate throughout the entire floor, into separate rooms and even down the stairwell. Then there’s the other guy who rides the upright bike whose wide-open-mouthed exhalations are equally loud, yet punctuated after every four breaths by two hacking coughs. I’m not lying. It’s like clockwork. And then there’s the guy who listens to doo-wop on his Walkman and breaks out every 20 seconds or so with a jarring “doo bee doo bee doo!”… “tell me whyyyy”… “sheboom sheboom”… “dooo waaaaaaahhhh.” He’s got the perfect voice for the musical style — but, honestly, it’s not what I want to hear, drowning out the sound from my own earbuds, when I’m doing my pull-downs.

The last guy, I realize, might sound adorable. I’m well aware that I should find him adorable, but instead, I’m so annoyed I can pay attention to little else. I find myself grimacing, glaring, then catching myself and forcing a smile. For as long as I can remember, I’ve fixated on errant human- and human-and-object produced sounds. “Don’t you hear that? How can you stand it?” I’ll say to my companions. They often have no idea what I’m talking about. Consider last week, when we were taking the bus to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was trying to have a conversation with my husband, but all I could hear was a persistently squeaky ‘s’ taunting me from the back of the bus. I simply can’t tune out sibilant female voices: “Yesssss, Ssssarah and I are going out Sssaturday night to Lombardi’ssssss.” Why should such an innocuous sentence make my skin crawl? Why does the sound of cracking gum put me on the edge of getting all up in somebody’s face? (I should note that this paragraph is chock-full of extreme hyperbole!) Why do I want to smash the TV screen when Blake Lively says “Chuck” on Gossip Girl? Why do I feel the urge to publicly berate people who drag their feet in flip-flops? What’s the big deal with cashiers whose long, ornately bedazzled fingernails clickety-click on cash register keys? Why do smacking lips make my fists clench? Why is it so hard for me to be next to people walking in corduroy pants? That zip-zip sound — ooh, it kills me.

I never act on any of these impulses or express my anger, of course. I realize my reactions are completely irrational…and pretty embarrassing. “Doesn’t that bother you, that guy cracking his knuckles on the far end of the subway platform?” I’ll ask my companions, hoping for empathy. Their response: What guy? Then I wonder: OMG — what noises do I make that are really annoying? If I had to listen to myself, would I want to punch me?

Gwinnett County, GA, by BarelyFitz on Flickr:

My gym experience this morning reminded me of an article I read in the Times a couple months ago — one that put into perspective my experience and allayed my fears that I might either have bionic ears or be a total a-hole. Misophonia, misophonia — “dislike of sound” — that’s what it is. “Many people can be driven to distraction by certain small sounds that do not seem to bother others — gum chewing, footsteps, humming,” the Times reports. “But sufferers of misophonia, a newly recognized condition that remains little studied and poorly understood, take the problem to a higher level.” Some doctors believe the “condition is hard-wired, like right- or left-handedness, and is probably not an auditory disorder but a ‘physiological abnormality’ that resides in brain structures activated by processed sound.” Having a name for it makes me feel a little less crazy, but I’m not totally convinced that I’ve got a legitimate “condition,” and that I’m not just being a jerk; I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. As some comedian the brilliant comedian Derik Boik put it, “This new ‘condition’ of yours sounds a lot like a thing I call, ‘Being Annoyed by Something Annoying.'”

My annoyance doesn’t escalate to blood-boiling rage, as seems to be the case for some of the folks described in the Times article. But it does push me to the verge of self-righteous proclamations. “Excuse me, sir, but could you please not breathe so loudly?!? Not everyone wants to share in your respiration!”