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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Days two and three:

I find comparisons useful. Not in a judgmental way, but as a way of tracking progress or direction or evolution. I do compare this time through the gen art material to the last time through (and the last time was compared to the time before that). It is also interesting that, as we saw the previous time through, the two sections could not be more different. We see this not just in the questions they ask, or how they position themselves in the room – section one doesn’t seem to have a problem sitting on the lovely new gym floor close in, a bit like story time – where as section two seems to want to keep a bit of distance and also seems to prefer chairs. At least that is how it seems after three days.

The presentation of the Juxtaposition Projects allows reveals more than the students often see. It is an opened ended project with simple instructions - Place two or more pieces in close proximity in such a way that the pieces offer comment on each other.  It’s also fairly easy to accomplish. That’s why it’s the first project (although in this iteration we didn’t make is one of the main three “Projects” that the students will execute throughout the term). It’s a way to get started and create a ton of things to discuss. Lots of good material – some of which was overthought, some perhaps under-thought – the results don’t really mater either way. Rather than slowly move around the room chatting about each piece Bob and I put a project together ourselves that we used as an example of observation. Start as far removed as possible – what do you see, stay away from collapsing into meaning. Just observe. Its something we saw Lois Hetland do – and I greatly admired her patience. But observation does give way to connections and patterns and finally meaning.

It was with this frame we sent everyone out into the room to look – really look at each of the projects. They were told we would ask them to write on three of them – so circle back for more information. It is always fascinating to me to see the connections between projects – how do they unintentionally qualify or augment or rub up against other projects? In about 20 minutes at the end of class we chatted about what specific ideas students saw in the projects. What techniques, what ideas, what patterns. I’m not sure we got quite as many terms as the last time through – but a good start to creating a list of techniques for the class.

The follow up class we gave each student about 30 seconds to describe their project. It was a good way to review and also start the conversation about intention VS reception. So rather than spend two full class periods on this project it came down to one and about 30 minutes – and developed about the same level of information. Having the student write about three of the projects was useful in that they had already done some thinking about them and processed at least a few. Then we sent the class off into their groups to distill the essence of the White Cube essay due for that day. This worked really well and we will probably lean on this again and again to get the conversation started about readings. Safety in numbers and the hope is at least someone in each group read the essay.

Section 1:

Section 2:

This essay proved to be a key one last time and it allowed for an equally deep and rich conversation this time around. Between the five groups they hit on all the major points we were interested in discussing, but also framed the conversation in ways we didn’t see. For me the key was one of the first comments in the first section about the dynamic interaction between space, the work, and the viewer. This maps really well on the whole Prague School triad and Peircian triad – I suspect we will push on this idea as we go forward. The realization is that you can push on one of these, possibly two, but if you take on all three simultaneously you have completely severed yourself from the past. Not a bad thing, but many of the artists we will discuss build off of and challenge these ideas – therefore need something to challenge. On to DadaDay next – where we stop taking and put these ideas into action.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Third time through

Well, This is the third time Bob and I have offered the Generative Art class – the last time was two years ago. In a workshop with folks from the Olin College of engineering last May we pulled the syllabus apart and reconfigured it into its current iteration. Some of the material and projects we had in place last time are still there, but the basic frame moved from being driving by seven individual projects to being driven by a hybrid model that includes lots of in-class work and only three (well four if you count the first one) individual projects. This came about through the Olin model that created groups for a specific class that worked together the entire term. Our thinking on this is that the groups could be a resource for students that struggle with the prompts for the individual projects.

But, how to create workable groups? Rather than randomize the process – something I have generally done in previous project courses – we decided to have a more specific structure in place. As with most Paths to the Present first days we discussed what students remembered from Self, Society, and Cosmos. this generates a list of terms and ideas useful to begin a discussion of the self. Next, we asked the students to define themselves with one word or a short phrase, write it on a post-it-note, and post it to the board. We then asked them to look over all the terms and sort them into five categories. Terms could complement one another or somehow fit together. It was great watching this process – completely different between the two sections. Section one seemed more of a free-for-all with many voices and hands chiming in all at once. Section two seemed to split into doers and watchers – one group ringed the board, the other group ringed the first group. But the results were basically the same – five groups per section each with a specific descriptive name attached. Section one had: Hope, Control, Seeker, Vulnerable, and Squish. Section two: Seekers, Eccentric, Wholesome, Creative, and Awareness. Bob and I pointed out how this project was generative and within a few minutes the students had designed a system, with specific rules and outcomes.

Then we did the tedious nuts and bolts thing of going over the syllabus. We wanted to make sure that everyone understood what they had signed on for. So we stressed attendance, keeping up with reading and writing assignments, and how the projects will function. While I do miss the chaos and kind of barely keeping ahead of the students the first time we taught the class, it is also nice to have a bit of structure to help support the chaos. Their first assignment is due on Thursday – Juxtaposition – a project I almost always assign first for project classes since it is simple to execute, but can often yield a great deal of discussion. Pairing out conversation with the Lincoln Center list of ideas should help frame this project and way of observing nicely. Can’t wait till Thursday!

Section 1 SSC Terms:

Section 2 SSC Terms: