Wednesday, April 4, 2018

From Fluxus to the end of Unit Two:

Far too much time has passed without blogging. It happens every term. Immediately upon returning from Spring Break we lost a day to snow – so we had to tighten up the syllabus a bit. This actually worked in our favor, since it gave us a bit more time to sort out what we wanted to do with the Solo olos piece (a mid 1970s dance by Trisha Brown that has a set framework with an indeterminate structure so one “caller” assembles the pieces differently during each performance). Our original intent was to work with Abby Yager, who has staged the piece two years ago, to help us create a simplified version, but our schedules did not allow for that to happen. So Bob and I mapped out what this would look like with a really primitive movement piece that all students learned and then a more complex one they would put together on their own. We discussed the piece with them and then taught them our movement pattern and then had them work on their own in groups. We discovered that we had to modify our pattern slightly and that we really didn’t give very clear instructions to the students on creating their piece. Returning the next class we modified both.

The point with this process was to get students not just thinking about indeterminacy, but also actively engaging with it. So Bob pointed out the notion of embodied cognition and that doing, rather than just talking about, allows for a deeper connection. We put the two pieces together mirroring the pattern in the original dance piece, starting slowly and then building from there. Having students execute a set pattern and then one that was indeterminate in and around it proved to be far more interesting than we thought it would. Students that performed the movement patterns and those that called the piece discovered how complicated something so simple could become. For many, but certainly not all, it was a useful and informative process.

We followed this up with a brief overview of some key elements of chaos theory and the Bob set the students up to do some drawing based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s process of rubbing for texture and then pulling images and ideas out of the chaos. That day was followed by one built purely on exploration – glitch sound and images, circuit bending, Theremin and analogue synthesizer, and a wet media version of the Da Vinci process. With all of this material students that got it, got it and found the ideas useful. Others simply struggle to see the point, which at this point in the term we should be beyond. But we have seen this every time we have taught the class. Some simply resist the subject matter or how the class is taught. Our strategy has been to invite these students to challenge the material if they want to. Some take us up on this, other do not.

Then into the second major project – the fragmentation project. We had some really nice responses to this the last time we taught the class. Basically students need to take something (generally a work of art) break it into smaller pieces, and then rearrange the pieces based on an indeterminate system. The students that created their own system tended to get a bit more out of the process than students who used things like online randomizers. Some very clever solutions with interesting outcomes. The tough part here is to get the students to see beyond the chaos that is often created to pull from the results something useful. A new understanding of the original or a new discovery in the remix. It also suggests that just about anything is fair game for this process.

So – that brings us to the close of the second Unit. As with the first, students are responding to a writing prompt. We noticed with the first one that no one has really been left behind. Everyone has at least a basic understanding of what we have been discussing. Both Bob and I feel that across the board it is a slightly deeper understanding at this point in the term from where we were last time due to a number of changes. But the first unit has a much different rhythm from the second. A bit more philosophical and introspective, the second unit was driven more by doing. More in-class work and fewer reading assignments. The next class will be a decompress from unit two followed by a revisit of the Self, Society, and Cosmos ideas we discussed at the start of the term. the a class to sort of wrap things up and suggest some contemporary examples before turning the students loose to work on their final projects in the last week and a half of class. We still need to sort out what the project will look like, but before we do we want to ask students for input and direction.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Post First Project onto Fluxus:

Decompressing from the first projects we basically leave a day open to reflect on the experience. This was a wonderful conversation – lots of good ideas and connection emerged from the discussion. Bob and I had mapped out any number of approaches but what seemed to work best was to review the ideas we had already developed. Since the projects tend to produce new insights and ideas we added to our growing list of terms and techniques, leaning heavily on the idea of a phase change or phase shift and moving between the intentional and the accidental. This gave way to part two of the conversation the built on the two systems readings – Jack Burnham and Buckminster Fuller. To start the conversation we had students go outside and gather and assemble a structure right on the verge of collapse. This lead to a good discussion of liminality. Part of our questions revolved around what they learned from making the structures and what they might do differently and how they might aestheticize them more fully. These are the two basic questions we will return to again and again. We also discussed the notion of a paradigm shift in the sense that the triangular relationship between space, work, and viewer can be completely upended by changing all three elements.

It was here were we explored the continuum between life and art, the intentional and accidental, aesthetic and non-aesthetic, and product and process. I have been drawing these polarities for years with the intent of cracking open the binaries to suggest that there was a bit more room between them. One of the students pointed out that these ideas were presented in a purely linear way when the conversation has been about the non-linear. She was absolutely correct. My hope is that when we get to chaos theory we can reflect back on this and suggest a fractal mapping of these ideas rather than a continuum. The interesting thing here is that she asked about these two dimensional maps because she had been thinking about the subject in three (or more) dimensions. Much to think on with this.

The next class introduced the students to some basic Fluxus ideas – a conversation around event scores and the work of La Monte Young. Young’s various compositions 1960 and his dismissal of discussing “good” works of art lays a nice foundation for these ideas. We had the students interpret his Composition 1960 #9 (the straight line) as if it were a score for sound, movement, text and image. Some great results. We also had select students perform some of the Fluxus events. The intention behind this is to give them guidance to create their own Fluxus pieces to be performed the next class. Rather than make this one of the big projects, as we have done in the past, the cards and instruction were distributed on Tuesday with an intended performance on Thursday.

Fluxus day never fails to please. It generally takes some time for each class to find a vibe, but when they do the results are great. As in the past we collected and shuffled the cards and students performed the results. the rule is they have to perform first and then read the card after. It creates an interesting dynamic for the watching – not knowing what the instructions are or who’s card is being performed. As anticipated, the first section was a bit more playful in their explorations – with some of the cards casting out of the space via phone call or a visit to the downstairs classrooms. the second section tends to be a bit more introspective, but developed some really interesting pieces. Key to this were about a dozen lemons brought in by one student. Used and reused, they became a central image in quite a few of the performances. I love that these can go from loud and brash and in-your-face to quiet and contemplative within a heartbeat. As this was the last class before spring break I’m glad we ended on a high note with students bonding over bizarre performance material.

At this point in the term Bob and I have surveyed the students by asking questions about engagement and intrinsic motivation. It was no surprise that the numbers on the two sections would be different. Section 1 seems a bit more motivated to play where as section two digging in a bit deeper into the ideas. It was at this point we also had the students turn in their first major writing assignment. This gives us a good picture of where we are at this point in the term. Thankfully no one seems completely lost. As expected, some students used the essay as an opportunity to work out a few percolating ideas whereas others simply summarized where we are at this point. We are basically right where we want to be in the term with student development. They seem right on the edge of kicking this all up a notch and doing some remarkable work. A few more in-class pieces to explore and then we see what they can do with the fragmentation and reassembly process driven by an indeterminate system. Then Bob and I add a few more pieces, pose a few more questions and kind of fade away.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

First Projects – Day One and Two

Yea, Project Days are always interesting because we never know how students will solve to prompt. The fear is always that the projects will be uninteresting, thoughtless, not engaging. In reality this has never really happened, although there have been some distinct differences between students and between sections. This type of work rewards students that challenge themselves with the material. Students that take the easy way out don’t often get as deeply into the material. But the projects also tend to reward students that are playful, game for just about anything. One of the things we need to keep reminding ourselves is that what may appear to be a disengaged project may be the result of the student pushing themselves well beyond their comfort zone. Some of what is not apparent in the presentation may become apparent as we discuss the projects.

It is for this reason that executing and discussing the projects is important. Far too often we focus too much on the final product. With this material it is the process and what is learned about the process as you go through it that is important. So the follow up discussion is a crucial piece. And here is where we had radically divergent sections. I was delighted by the presentations from the first section. Playful, fun, dynamic. You could see a through-line between each of the projects for each system. The conversation was really rewarding as we began to unpack the connections and the differences.

Its not that the second section presentations were less engaging, there was some lovely work, but seeing how pieces within each system connected was much much harder. As I have discussed before, the second section tends to dive a bit deeper in conversation right up front, but then often stalls. This was one such case. As lively and engaging as the conversation with the first section was this one was laborious, with connections almost impossible to make. One of the things we have noticed is that the second section tends to skew a bit older, and also a bit more individualistic. Even within groups they solve problems on their own in their own way. We saw this with the juxtaopsition project in that the first group was more performantive the second more about displaying things. So, we need to strategize about how to deal with this as the two sections move farther and farther apart from each other in tone. Perhaps we need to lean into the individuality a bit more, or find a way to change that approach. It may be about finding different questions to ask or about getting them to think past a literal approach to the projects. We will need to do some tinkering with the next project assignment. I also suspect the some of the material in the second unit will help to disrupt this focus.

Well, what a difference a day makes. The second round in section one we saw another wide range of challenging pieces – mainly, but not exclusively, geared toward performance. A number of which involved indeterminate pieces or chance elements. Good conversation at the end of class about systems and the projects. One student pointed out that since they as a group distilled the system she felt she had more control than if a system were assigned to her. A beautiful set up for the next project. Section two was about a 180 in terms of energy and engagement we had seen on Tuesday. Part of what we connected this to were the systems students were working with today had coercive or confrontational aspects to them. In this respect the second section presentations today were more performative – opening up spaces like what we have seen in section 1. The question about how Tuesday’s compared to Thursday’s presentations allowed us to think about the specific systems and how students solved the prompt.

Every time I teach a project-based class I forget that this system actually works. Mapping out the projects and in class exercises allows us to build not only skills, but agency as well. On of the students pointed out that we had actually prepared them for the class today by having them do all the in class stuff. Exactly the point. One disappointing aspect is students that presented on Tuesday but did not return to see the other presentations on Thursday. We need to keep reminding them that the one-to-one relationship between student and teacher where you can hand in an assignment and walk away is not in play here. So today – to all the students who shoed up – we reminded them that they are creating the content. Miss a day and you miss a great deal of content.  

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cage, Reich, Eno, and Danto

I am actually quite fond of the John Cage material that is part of this class. I love the Cagean indeterminate sound piece we have them do. It is a nice quick way for them to see (and hear) how these ideas work in action. Essentially they are broken up into groups, given the chart with 10-second blocks of sound and asked to figure out what to do in about five minutes. I am always surprised by the sounds, by how each group sounds somewhat the same and yet very different. Once they have executed the assignment getting them to talk about his Imaginary Landscape piece for radios or the prepared piano or Williams Mix is easy – they already have a vocabulary and experience to filter them through.

Reich and Eno are really a continuation of the Cage conversation. Bob and I decided to make the room a bit more interactive. To that end we set up four stations – Reich’s pendulum music, a selection of Bob’s master’s thesis metal rods with motion activation, Bob’s frozen pebbles and xylophone installation piece, and Eno’s 77 Million Paintings. Moving from station to station we had an opportunity to talk with the students about the structure of each of these works, referencing the Cage when it made sense to. Along the way we had them listen to Reich’s “Come Out” – such a wonderful piece – and you can completely hear the two tape loops pulling apart from each other. We compared this to some of Eno’s generative ambient work. Eno’s essay on generative music that compares generative art to classical art is a key element in the discussion. It is about this point in the term when they have enough information that we can begin to lean toward defining the genre a bit more.

It had been a few days since we shook them up – and we had dealt a bit with text, image, and sound, but no movement yet. To get them ready for their first projects – due on Tuesday – we created a simple system with input from the class and then had them execute the system using bodies and movement as a base. Lots of fun to watch. It always amazes me when some really beautiful pieces emerge from such a simple process.  This lead us into a discussion of the Danto article – which brought us back to the Dadaists and leaned a bit more on Duchamp. This was essentially a theory day in which we asked the students to reflect back on where we have come from. As Bob often points out, approaching the Danto article this way makes the information stick a bit better – it now has an understanding and experiences to grab on to.

In both classes it was a good conversation. But, we have noticed differences between sections. The first section is a bit livelier, ready to jump into a conversation or exercise a bit quicker than section 2. But section 2 seems to get into the material a bit deeper faster. The end result is that we get to the same place but just take a different route to get there. The second section also has our vantage point of having just been through the same conversations the hour before. We do try and weave material back in when we meet with sections one again, but it is often hard to recreate the conversation.

So – Tuesday and Thursday of this week are the first major project presentations. The last time we taught the class we had smaller projects more often. This time around there are only three, but they work as the culmination of each of the course units. That means there is a bit more riding on each project. We understand that, but don’t know if the students do. Project days are always exciting and a bit terrifying. My fear is what if all the projects suck, or we have nothing to talk about, or our intention was completely misconstrued. All possible, but I have yet to see that combination across a whole class. But – we shall see.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Days four, five, and six:

As often happens, I fall behind on responding after each class. This has drawbacks, but also benefits. It does give me a chance to reflect a bit more on how all of the pieces are fitting together. Day for was what used to be called “DADADAY” and has since transmogrified into a mix of dada and surrealistic exercises. Five stations were set up around the room with student groups rotating between them. To save some time for discussion we gave them about 7 minutes a station – just about enough time to make a photo montage, a dada poem, a William Burroughs cut up text or image, an exquisite corpse with images and an exquisite corpse with text. We had them post the results on the blank white rolling columns that are available in the space. Immediately they recognized that this surface helped to contextualize this as a “show.” Individual pieces began to take on the quality of the whole. The conversation centered on the collaborative nature of these projects and the use of chance. These pieces offer a good quick way to do a deep dive into working with chance and randomness, something we will explore for the rest of the term.

The next day was one of reflection and a point to start to pull together some of the ideas that had already developed. Bob did an overview on artists and styles emerging from WWI and we used an essay on Zen and the difference between eastern and western art forms and Thich Nhat Hahn’s short piece on a cloud in a piece of paper. Part of what we are trying to get the students to wrap their heads around is that giving up control to chance can create some interesting results. To help with this we broke down the steps of the dad poem instructions. The first time we taught the class we talked with the students a lot about machines, round two it was processes, but this time around its systems. So – we examined the dada poem as a system – one that doesn’t judge the results. And also one that requires very little skill to execute. We ended the class with a review of the 20 some-odd terms we have already developed. We broke the students into their groups and had each group define and give an example of four terms. Some good comments and insights.

Day six was largely driven by the groups going out on campus to identify and detail a system. We started the discussion by following up on their writing assignment – which asked them to detail the steps of they system they have learned to make art. Some great reflections here. Bob and I distilled these writings into a kind of mater system that was – no surprise – linear, orderly, each step dependent on the one before, etc. These systems all drive toward the creation of a final product. At that point we sent them out to explore systems on campus – they came back with some great information – kitchen prep, applying for grant, getting arrested, etc. Far more interesting stuff than I had imagined. The hard part now will be to have them distill these systems into some clear steps they can follow for their first project. To help with this we though we would start by breaking down the dada poem into really clear steps. We also need to impress upon the students that the product of them working with these systems is not important – it’s the process that is. Don’t worry about the end result. This is often a tough sell for students taught to polish all artistic expression to a high gloss.

A few stray thoughts on how the term is going. The changes to the syllabus this time around I think have allowed us to get the students a bit deeper into the subject a bit more quickly. They do seem up to the task. Section one seems a bit more introspective about the material, whereas section two seems to come to conclusions a bit faster, but maybe not see as far. We will see how this shakes out. I like the use of the groups as a resource for students that might be lost if set adrift on their own. We will see how long we can sustain this. I do, however, miss some of the assignments from the last time we taught the course. I do love the make a sound machine project, but we may get to some of this in-class at some point, particularly toward the end of the term. Our focus at this point is getting them the skills and thought process needed to execute the three projects.