Sorting Things Out: Writing Workshop @ Art Center [Draft Syllabus]

Hannah Waldron
Hannah Waldron 

Later this fall I’ll be a “critic in residence” (of sorts) in the vibrant and acclaimed Media Design Practices program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. What this entails is: organizing a speaker series — or, in my case, given my non-local status, a one-night symposium (about which more later!) — and leading a six-part writing workshop for designers. For the workshop, I was invited to use my own practice as a means of encouraging students to articulate their interests and processes as designers. I decided to structure the workshop around the concept of classification — particularly, the myriad ways we can conceptually compartmentalize our bodies of work. Here’s the draft syllabus [update 10/29: you’ll find the final syllabus here!]:


In this module of Critical Frameworks we’ll consider how we might collect, collate, sort, aggregate, intermix, shuffle, juxtapose, isolate, frame, and activate our varying interests, influences, practices, and areas of expertise – and how we can then marshal various experimental writing practices to most effectively and creatively present our multi-faceted selves to the world. Of, if you’d prefer a culinary metaphor, we’ll experiment with recipes – scripts, programs, algorithms, maps and timelines – for marinating, chopping, paring, skimming, trussing, torching, and plating up our ideas and inspirations.

Your Contributions:

  • Participation in on-site and online discussions and workshops: 20%
  • Alpha Finding Aid: 20%
  • Alpha Lists: 20%
  • Alpha Topological Forms: 20%
  • Beta Topological Dossier: 20%
City Landscape, via
City Landscape, via 
OCTOBER 29: The Politics and Play of Organization

To be read for class today:

What we’ll do in our in-person class:

  • Talk about class logistics and gather everyone’s web addresses and contact info.
  • Discuss the epistemologies, politics, and aesthetics of organizational schema.
  • Consider how various designers and artists (Charles and Ray Eames, David Wojnarowicz, etc.) have organized their own personal files, and how those collections have been catalogued by archivists.
  • Study the conventions of archival finding aids.[1]
  • Discuss your cataloguing exercise for the week.

Your exercise for this week:

  • It’s 2115. You’ve passed away (my condolences) and bequeathed your physical and digital files – all your file folders, flat files, reference materials, digital storage devices, etc. – to the Getty Research Institute, which has promised to maintain for posterity a record of your life as a renowned renegade designer. An archivist is processing your materials and preparing a finding aid to document not only what’s in the collection, but also how you structured it: how you organized all your records and notes and clippings into boxes and files and binders, how you sorted your digital materials into folders and programs on your laptop and apps on your mobile device (let’s just pretend we’re still using laptops and iPhones in the 22nd century). The archivist must uphold the archival principal of “original order,” which is based on the recognition that we can learn a lot about you – about your creative and professional practice, about how your brain works, about how you conceive of and “schematize” the world, etc. – by examining how you maintained your records.
    …..Pretend you’re that archivist. You’ll need to step out of your own body, mind, and time to create a (partial) finding aid for your own archival collection. How would your future-archivist draft a one-paragraph (150- to 200-word) “Biographical/Historical Note” for you and your collection, and how would he or she describe – in 600 words or fewer – the “Scope and Content” of your personal analog and digital files, including a list of the “series” of materials in the collection? For guidance and inspiration, seek out the finding aids of your favorite (deceased) artists and designers. In composing your own: no revising or cleaning up, and no self-judgment! Simply list things as they are, in all their glorious (dis)order.
    …..Please post your finding aids to your Cargo websites. Because we won’t be discussing this work, and I won’t be providing written feedback, until our in-person workshop on November 19 (at which point you’ll be sharing all three assignments) you’re welcome to keep returning to and revising your finding aid until then.
Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution
Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution
NOVEMBER 5: Keeping Lists, Making Files[2]

To be read for class today:

For the next three copyrighted readings, you’ll be prompted to enter a username (student) and password (seecritfilez).

What we’ll (probably) do in our virtual class:

Your exercise for this week:

  • How many differently-conceptualized and structured lists can you create from the same set of data: your professional projects – all the stuff you’d want to include on your resume and in your professional portfolio (and maybe even some projects you’d rather not include on these more public documents)? Try creating at least five parallel lists: (1) a list of your projects (broadly conceived) in chronological order, or in some other non-chronological-but-still-justifiable(-if-not-completely-sensible) time-order; (2) a list organized according to some geographical or spatial variable; (3) a list of the “series” or “thematics” into which you can lump your individual projects; (4) a list of your work organized according to format or medium or genre; and (5) a list organized by some unorthodox, perhaps insane, wildcard criterion. You’re strongly encouraged to expand on and experiment with the list form: try out different writing styles; incorporate sketches or other forms of illustration (but remember: our primary goal in this workshop is to develop our verbal facility); imagine incorporating some form of interactivity or animation. Don’t just scratch out your lists; design them!
    …..Please post your lists to your Cargo site. Because we won’t be discussing this work, and I won’t be providing written feedback, until our in-person workshop on November 19 (at which point you’ll be sharing all three assignments), you’re welcome to keep returning to and revising your lists until then.
NOVEMBER 12: Topological Forms and Logistical Writing[3]

To be read and prepared for class today:

  • Simon Dawes, “Interview with Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova on TopologiesTheory, Culture & Society Blog (January 15, 2013).
  • Shannon Mattern, ‘Infrastructural TourismPlaces (July 2013).
  • Shannon Mattern, “The Gaps in the Map [tentative title]” Places (Forthcoming Fall 2015).
  • Dan Hill, “In Praise of Lost TimeDomus (March 6, 2012) [Facebook’s Timeline is old news, but Dan Hill’s critique still resonates.]
  • Carla Nappi, “Translating Recipes 7: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 1The Recipes Project (January 22, 2015) [see also the Art Technology recipes theme].
  • Each student should select one exemplary verbo-graphic (i.e., graphic or interactive, but prominently featuring writing) “topological form” – an exploded-view diagram, a fractal map, a timeline or flowchart, an assemblage model, a verbal (perhaps even sonic?) cloud, a network diagram, a recipe or event score, etc. – that both (1) helps us better understand our contemporary culture and (2) informs, inspires, or challenges your own approach to media design. Post your example to your Cargo site, and be prepared to say a few words – like, two minutes’ worth – in class (and, if you want, on your website, too) about how it clarifies/obfuscates, reveals/hides, makes sensible/sense-able some aspect(s) of contemporary “topological” culture.

What we’ll (probably) do in our virtual class:

  • Discuss “topological culture” and the myriad models – conceptual, linguistic, graphic, pedagogical – we’ve developed to help make sense of it.
  • Peruse Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening.
  • Consider, by examining the examples each of you has shared, what strategies of verbo-graphic representation we might use to map our own networks of experience and influence.

Your exercise for next week:

  • I think it’s important for all of us “cultural producers” – artists, designers, technologists, academics, writers, teachers, etc. – to be able to situate our selves within our fields of thought and practice, not only so we can better understand the traditions in which we’re working and the distinctive contributions we’re making, but also so we can generously acknowledge and express our appreciation for the ideas and people who’ve influenced us. For this final exercise, I’m asking you to look outward, to your “topologies of influence and inspiration.” What ideas, people, communities, anomalous places, movements, historical ruptures, etc., have moved and changed you?
    …..Now, design two topological forms – network diagrams, maps (cartographic or otherwise), timelines, exploded-view diagrams, verbal (even sonic?) clouds, etc. – that represent those forces of influence and your place in relation to them.
NOVEMBER 19: Workshop
  • Before today’s class you should have finalized your finding aid, your five lists, and your two topological forms, and posted them to your Cargo site. You should be prepared to share this work with the class in a ten-minute presentation, in which you first speak briefly about your own practice, then walk us through each of your projects, explaining the intention behind them and how those intentions translated into execution.
    …..We’ll discuss each person’s work, and I’ll then provide written feedback before November 26. You’re to use this feedback to revise your three projects – and structure their presentation on your Cargo site (see below) – by December 3.
NOVEMBER 19: Evening Lecture (by me) on Remington-Rand’s Worlds Fair Filing Systems + “Designerly” Filing
DECEMBER 3: Final “Topological Dossiers” Due
  • By 1:00 pm PST you should have posted to your Cargo site final versions of your three (multi-part) projects. And rather than simply “listing” them mindlessly, design a system by which they should be introduced, ordered, framed (both graphically and conceptually), and linked.
Craig Oldham: Typo Circle Poster, via It's Nice That
Craig Oldham: Typo Circle Poster, via It’s Nice That 

[1] Jefferson Bailey, “Disrespect du Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital ArchivesArchive Journal 3 (Summer 2013).

[2] American Society for Indexing, “Indexes and Indexers in Fiction”; Ben Highmore, “Listlessness in the ArchiveM/C Journal 15:5 (2012); Shannon Mattern, “Delicious: Renovating the Mnemonic Architectures of Bookmarking” In Trebor Scholz, Ed., Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy (2011); C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” Appendix to The Sociological Imagination, 40th Anniversary Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press [1959] 2000): 195-226; Liam Young, “On Lists and Networks: An Archaeology of FormAmodern 2: Network Archaeology (Fall 2013).

[3] Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design (Princeton University Press, 2006); Bruno Laour, “Can We Get Back to Materialism, Please?” Isis 98 (2007): 138-42; Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “Introduction: Becoming Topological of Culture” Theory, Culture & Society 29:4/5 (2012): 3-35; Shannon Mattern, “Intellectual FurnishingsMedium (October 19, 2014); Sharon Oviatt, “Case Study of the Role of Pen and Paper in Serial Innovation” In The Design of Future Educational Interfaces (New York: Routledge, 2013): 125-6.

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