Thursday, March 12, 2009

I find teaching is a profession where the more successful you are the less necessary you become

I have held off posting for a bit as the class moved into the final project. I must say – some really great work! As I mentioned in class today, part of my excitement with this class was that I had less and less of an idea what to expect for each project as the term went on. Eno suggests that what Generative Art provides is a new metaphor to explore art and the world. This notion of not knowing the outcome – which was often the case for both viewer and artist – reminds me of something Aldous Huxley talks about in The Doors of Perception. “Under the influence” he states “I was seeing what Adam has seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” While this may be a tall order for an 8:30 am class, the notion of watching as a process unfolds in which the outcome is not predetermined forces a kind of phenomenological clarity.

I liked that this entire class was a process. As I suggested – the parameters of the projects may have changed up until the moment Bob and I entered classroom. Beyond this, I liked that as the process developed the role that Bob and I played as facilitator became less and less important. I imagine that teaching is one of those few professions where you are successful the less necessary you become. This is kind of what I was getting at with the Kung-Fu blog entry earlier in the term. There are many times where classes sort of plateau and simply coast to the end. Most of the major points have been made and most of major elements digested well before the final exam. This class did not seem to work that way. Rather, the last few meetings, including the final, were as engaging if not more so than previous classes, to the point where Bob and I were able to move into a peripheral role.

From the beginning we discussed the class as a laboratory. Our hope was that we could set something in motion and then step back and watch, comment, ask questions. We encouraged this for the third project, but with limited success. It did happen after we broke up into groups for the final project. Pockets of wonderful discussion, experiments, etc – some dedicated to the final project, some not, filled the space – reminiscent of the mash-up day. Bob and I were able to stand back and watch. The same was true for the final projects. Our presence merely seemed to be to reflect back these pieces via whatever methods of documentation we were using. The projects themselves had a life of their own. I am not sure anyone could have predicted that we would surround a resonating piano filled with chitttering cell phones or that we would all move counter clockwise.

I remember seeing this wonderful film called The Mozart Brothers in which an avant-garde director creates a very unique interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I may be miss-remembering, but essentially he struggles to get the company on board with his ideas. As the production begins to take on a life of its own and opens to raves the director is seen slowly exiting the back door of the theatre. I think of this in terms of teaching. I am not suggesting that this class was a struggle (in fact it was much less so than I had anticipated – which probably had a great deal to do with the students) But, it was gratifying to hear today that many students thought that there should be a part II to this class – or that they wanted to continue to play with these ideas.

At that point it is up to Bob and I to slowly exit. Our job is done and the students don’t need us to give any more “assignments.” I can appreciate that “taking a class” provides a kind of shelter (it certainly helps when the campus police get involved), but also provides an excuse as to why you would spend your time on activities like this. To do odd an intriguing machine-like projects on your own time may just seem a bit strange. But isn’t that what artists do? Isn’t part of being an artist chasing down interests, asking questions, exploring possibilities even if they don’t fit into some pre-ordained plan?

The question, of course, is what to do with this generative stuff in the context of more traditional art forms. I do think it is difficult to think of a one to one match – how one makes generative theatre, film, dance, and music. But, if the final projects are any indication – it is possible. What might be more useful, however, is not to think of this process as hermetically sealed, but one that can generate material to be shaped in a more familiar medium. Using a sound collage generated by a series of phone calls in which the content was left up to each individual caller provided the basis for each of the four final projects. It is hard to imagine them without this as a starting point.

So, like Bob’s comment about Michelangelo staring at water stains, the result of generative work can always be used as inspiration, raw material, direction, or even a way of opening up possibilities beyond individual tastes and training.
While Bob and I may have entered this process in the position of authority – it is our class, we are the instructors, we made decisions on how we would proceed, at some point we moved from guides to observers. Just watching these final pieces was marvelously inspiring – clearly I have much to learn from these students. So – like the Jasper Johns quote Bob posted in the hallway, I fully intend to take the final pieces and do something with them. In doing so, I turn my back on the prescribed roles of “student” and “teacher.” I suggest you do the same.

That said, I want to thank all of the students and Bob for a very inspiring and exciting term.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Classical Art Good Generative Art Bad

I quite enjoyed the discussion today, mainly because we wandered around in some very interesting territory. Sadly, an hour and twenty minutes was nowhere near long enough, especially if I get on a roll about Reich or Lucier or Eno – I could talk about those folks all day long. They completely changed my life. Or rather, they provided a vocabulary for me to talk about what I have observed for most of my life. Bob and I deliberately held off until this point in the term to explore these generative artists. What I really wanted to know is how this work relates to what the students have been doing. Do they see the same questions and solutions? Do they sense a kind of affinity with artists that are working in a generative way? How would the conversation have been different if we looked at their work on day one? But time runs out.

One of the comments – that most likely went unheard by most – was a comment that Robert (V) made about something Emily ® had said. In my response to see more flawed work she pointed out that there are flaws in work all over this campus. This was not intended to be a disparaging remark, but simply a point of fact – that as students and teachers we make errors in execution. That is part of the beauty of live art – it is capricious and hard to repeat exactly the same way. Robert’s point was that “we see flaws because we are taught to see flaws.” It is really a brilliant statement that captures the essence of what we have been exploring this term. In the Lecture we read for class today Eno creates a very binary list between Classical Art and Generative Art. Generative (music) is out of control, unrepeatable, unfinished, sensitive to circumstances whereas he sees Classical (music) as under control, repeatable, finished, art that subdues conditions.

While I agree with Bob that GenArt magnifies issues that are at the very heart of the Western artistic tradition (his blog example is of Michelangelo staring at clouds and water stained walls for inspiration – Bob referred to this in class as “the ground”), the expectation is that trained artists marshals randomness into something more cohesive. No two performances of Shakespeare or Miller or Mozart or Bach will be the same, but there is a strict limit as to how far afield those performances can go. Only certain choices are sanctioned to fit varied interpretations. Should I decide to play an Aria from say the Magic Flute (there are arias in this one right?) and use a jack hammer, a screaming infant and a dog there may be purists who will assume that I have somehow violated Mozart’s intent.

While that is an absurd example, the same is true for musicians that unintentionally hit wrong notes or actors that forget their lines. These are flaws – interruptions, elements outside the proscribed boundaries of the artist’s intent. The irony here is that there are multiple versions of Shakespeare’s plays and Mozart was one of the first to deal with randomness as musical structure. As Philip Galanter points out in a paper entitled, What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory.

“The first use of randomization in the arts that I am aware of is an invention by
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart provides 176 measures of prepared music and a
grid that maps the throw of a pair of dice, and a sequence number (first throw, second
throw, etc) into the numbers 1 through 176. The player creates a composition by
making a sequence of random dice throws, and assembling the corresponding
measures in a sequential score. Perhaps Mozart knew intuitively that purely random
music isn’t terribly interesting because he found a primitive way to mix order and
disorder. The short pre-composed measures provide order, and the throw of the dice
provide disorder” (page 14).

But, when I think of these two artists I don’t often dwell on their randomness first. The point with all of this is that yes, randomness and chance have been employed thought the history of Western Art, but by-in-large Eno has a point. My training first as an actor and then as a designer was all about control – either of my body, voice, mind or external technical equipment. I was taught to bend these tools to my will (which in turn was bent to the will of the production or the director or the text). Robert’s comment illuminates this process – we are taught what choices are good and what are not and to look for “flaws” in our own work as well as others.

Generative Art obliterates this. Where is the good and bad in a piece designed to work randomly or develop on its own after set in motion by the artist? Where are the flaws in a work that is designed to destroy itself (we discussed Tinguely’s Homage to New York in class)? Where are the interruptions in a piece like Eno’s 77 Million Paintings or Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain if they are designed to simply run their course? While the projects designed by the students may not have done what they wanted (some have used the language of failure) they still did something - which is the point. As Eno states - the job of the artist is to create the system and then decide what to put into that system. Lou Reed played around a bit with generative structures with Metal Machine Music, but it is unlikely to be mistaken for Music for Airports.

What fascinates me about all of this, especially with regards to the Western artistic tradition, is that there are clear boundaries in such things as plays, musical compositions, films, dance pieces – beyond which the piece ends and external material is considered unimportant or an interruption. If you don’t buy this just start shouting out random phrases the next time you are in a movie theatre, concert hall or performance space. Do the same at performance of Cage’s 4’33” or at Eno’s generative CD-ROM.

I would add to Eno’s list that– stealing a bit from Robert Venturi’s notion of a Difficult Whole - Classical Art is exclusive – it is designed to create a whole by deliberately leaving things out. By deliberately drawing a bold line of beginning and end. Generative Art, on the other hand, is inclusive and rhizomatic – it is capable of absorbing and or responding to just about any input. Where do these works begin and end? I mean really, Lucas’ drip art continues to evolve as it sits in the hallway. For those on the UNCSA campus that doubt this, wander around in the hallway and listen to or look at all of the interconnections between these pieces. Not just the pieces, but the hallway itself – sounds, objects, posters, people included. While you could do the same thing by mashing up all of the performances on this campus in a given term, those dreaded purists might object.

This is why I find Generative Art exciting – it opens up possibilities for dialogue and conversation that traditional forms shut out. Eno is right on the money when he says that artists create new metaphors. Changing the aesthetic paradigm so that it no longer includes flaws or good or bad creates a form of awareness that is different from the past. Generative Art (part and parcel of the whole idea of post-modernism and/or post-structuralism) creates a new way of exploring art and intention and product and value and judgment and whole and and and . . .

Friday, February 20, 2009

Item replaced by photograph

I wonder how the phrase “item replaced by photograph” could simplify my life. What would be left? One of the things (of the many things) I have enjoyed about teaching this Gen Art class is the element of surprise. Bob and I create these assignments and then we wait, not knowing what solutions will arise. As we have suggested – this is our generative art – setting the students on a specific course. I have constantly been surprised. This is not always the case in a more traditional class. I give an assignment – an essay, a set of questions, a project, and nine times out of ten I can predict the outcome. There are responses that catch me off guard, that provide a unique way into the questions, but they are rare. With this class this is happening with nearly every project and every student.

What struck me about this third round of projects is also what struck me about the first two. Despite the fact that we have about 20 people laboring – alone or in teams – creating any number of solutions to the assignments – there is a core set of ideas that draw the projects together. In the first project it had to do with volume – most, though not all, of the projects were loud. So much so that the students who had quieter projects seemed to feel compelled to apologize or at least explain the quietness. Project two appeared to point toward paint – or substances that created a mess. It was interesting that “mark” was interpreted by so many in this way.

The third project turned much much darker. Themes of surveillance, violence, authority, transgression seemed to be at the core of the explorations. Not all projects fit this description, but a majority of them operated on this level. Fascinating. I am not sure why this is. Perhaps the shift from “machine” to “system” indicated this focus. Perhaps we have reached the point in the term where students are more comfortable exploring such material. Maybe everyone is just exhausted and violence is just a natural response to stress.

What else struck me about these projects is that so many of the students employed technology – at a level that we have not yet seen. Computers, video cameras, sound recording, etc. Initially Bob and I had decided to move the class in this direction, with the final project being an assignment to work with digital media. It is fascinating that the class just seemed to naturally move in this direction. Again, it could have been the change in terminology from “machine” to “system,” but I think something else may have been at work. Sustainability – for at least an hour – seems to suggest the use of this type of media. Where we go next, I have no idea. I am certainly looking forward to the fourth projects.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

GenArt MonstaMashUp


“Special Edition” of this here blog thing. I knew in advance I would write too much, so I decided to limit postings to 2 a week – one after each class. However, after watching the GenArt MonstaMashUp I feel like I gotta say something. This is far more interesting than I would have imagined. Is it boring periodically – sure – what isn’t? But, to provide a bit of context: Bob and I decided to break the class up into four groups each with an assignment to generate material in a different medium – sound, sculpture, video, and text. We distributed sculptural material, a video recorder and two sound recorders. The students had a half an hour. Bob and I imposed the rule of non-editing – all of it had to be done on the fly. The class decided on three simple rules – all of which I believe were immediately ignored. Bob and I also documented the event with video recorders – one hand held and one on a remote control truck. The intent – which we did not share with the students – was to bring all of the pieces together in the classroom. We hadn’t counted on the sculpture inhabiting a tree – so the MashUp became the result.

In weaving all of this together we did not edit and tried not to judge. Although, in retrospect, I wish we had captured close-ups of the sculpture – I think we were just taken with the overall ghostly form hovering there in the courtyard. The video clips came in one at a time in order – with Bob’s and then mine at the end and an overlay of footage of the sculpture. We did the same with the sound clips making no adjustment in level or placement with the exception of looping the two merged tracks to extend the recording to 20 minutes. One set of clips was longer than the other so the sound changes over time.

I am far less interested in analyzing the video (although there is a fair amount of analysis bouncing around inside my head). Bob’s point in the introduction about “strange attractors” does a good job of suggesting a direction. The fact that the viewer has to decide where to place their consciousness is probably another interesting factor. From the start we have contended that exploring the idea of generative art is less about a conceptual understanding and more about simply doing it. The job that Bob and I have is to suggest a direction and things to consider. The rest happens. The MashUp is a good representation of this process.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Teaching forwards backwards

I gotta say that I was really pleased with the way the class went today. I keep wondering what the results would have been if we had done this two weeks ago. I can imagine many questions about the parameters of the assignment and about what Bob and I expected. But, we were refreshingly struck by how quickly everyone just jumped into these projects. Our intent was that the four separate pieces (text, sound, sculpture, and video) would be brought together into one larger piece with many elements. Naturally we didn’t share this with the class because we were less interested in students making connections and more interested in connections that would be made. This also provided a way to approach the third project – just diving in without too much thought in advance. The end results are always more interesting this way. I can’t wait to see the mash-up of all of these pieces.

I have been teaching performance art, avant-garde, happenings, etc for about 12 years or so – studying it for quite a bit longer. My approach to the subject in the past has been primarily that of a scholar and historian – looking back on what developed and observing, or manufacturing, patterns, rules, definitions etc. My courses on performance art and the avant-garde are much more theoretical, much more historical than the generative art course. The intent is to provide a history and rationale for the development of a specific genre. But in a team-taught course we could be less linear, focus less on constructing a narrative and to work forwards rather than backwards. The revelation here is certainly no surprise to folks that work with practical or skills based teaching, but to approach a subject that is largely theoretical this way is something I have only dabbled with in the past.

If, as Lyotard contends (and yes Joe I still need to look up the stuff I have on the Sublime, but I am convinced it is less than), artists like Eno and Reich and Tinguely were creating works in the face of the rules and the history of art forming the rules of what will have been. Why then start with the aftereffects? The decision to teach backwards from my traditional pattern (and forwards in relation to the subject) just makes a great deal of sense. Why tell a student what something means or what something is about when you can have them do a project that will tell them much more about it. The knowledge is then embodied and not remembered, internalized and based on their individual skill set and not imposed from outside.

What we saw today were artistic impulses – the foundation for asking the same kinds of questions Eno and Reich and Tinguely asked. While the students may not interpret their actions this way, there were some marvelously creative solutions generated in a very short period of time. What do you do in front of a camera? You perform – to the point of seeming artificial – a quotation of an action rather than the action itself. What do you record as sound besides your own voice? Whatever you encounter – including the sounds produced by the recording device. How can one approach text and not make it a static object? You disperse it both as fragmentation and through multiple found or commandeered voices. Is sculpture an object or something else? The act of watching it move, float, and decay suggest something completely different. The point with all of this is that in a more traditional class we may have given you a mid term at this point just to see what you already knew. The projects told us quite a bit more.

We are, of course, reaching the point in the term when students tend to tune out. They are overworked, over scheduled and exhausted. But I really am looking forward to the third projects, mainly because I still haven’t hit on a solution myself. Given what we saw today – the room is filled with creative and quick thinking individuals, all of whom have a unique approach to this question. Tuesday and Thursday should be quite interesting.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why I miss Myst

I woke up this morning with spinning tops, pendulums and waterfalls in my head. I think that I was subconsciously trying to come up with a solution for the third project. Upon waking I realized that I would never be able to solve this project question just by thinking about it. I would need to get my hands dirty. It was interesting to see in class that the change in language from “machine” to “system” appeared to be a much larger leap than I had anticipated. “Machine” seems compact, object-like, functional, whereas “system” seems to demand a much larger focus. Despite those issues, I still feel that a number of the first two projects would qualify as “systems.”

Bob and I gave the students a number of readings that all hovered around similar ideas – ideas of repetition, non-binary, system-like behavior. Contained in those readings I feel are solid clues to how to approach the third project. We are not playing “I’ve got a secret” in the sense that we have readymade solutions to this assignment to pre-judge how it is executed. Quite the contrary. Whereas I had immediate solutions to the first two projects I continue to wrestle with an approach to this one. Again – I will need to stop thinking about it and act in order to understand it better. But I believe that ideas like iteration, rhizome, decentralization, and sensitive dependence upon initial conditions are all useful ideas in dealing with systems.

Oddly, it feels like if we gave very specific instructions – leading the students into very specific areas with a pre-ordained solutions to judge them against, then it might be easier to approach this project. There would be a standard with which to measure student work. Shooting for an articulated goal is much much simpler than having to construct your own goal. In a way we did something like this with the first two projects and folks still chose which rules to adhere to and which to violate. The end result was that they created something. Perhaps the problem with the third assignment is that there are fewer rules to violate or embrace. So – the focus moves from the question (or what the instructors anticipate with the question) onto the student. This is the shift in generative art – away from a contained and complete piece to a negotiation between the art and the viewer. While I would not want to discuss it this way, each solution to the assignment is correct – they are just correct in different ways.

Building on the chaos theory, non-dualism, etc of the pervious readings we had the students watch films on Christo and Andy Goldsworthy while also reading an article by Steve Reich on music as a gradual process. These pieces add to the ones from the previous class. In fact, they cover very similar ground. So – this class felt a bit like a plateau, a holding pattern, or a gathering of energy and ideas to prepare for the next assignment. The gist of all of this is to help the students understand that it is not what Bob or I want out of these assignments, but what the students want. I love logic puzzles if for no other reason that they get me to use my brain in ways that it doesn’t often get used. For that reason I am a huge Myst fan. I love wandering around an empty world filled with machines and systems begging to be explored, animated, and tinkered with. While these games may inevitably have a specific function or specific solution, each viewer approaches them differently and solves them in different ways. I tend to think of these assignments like that.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why teaching is like throwing up

I spend a fair amount of time packing things into my head – ideas, quotations, allusions, contradictions, references, images, sounds, etc. Connections are made, links are forged and I often see things via compound material that a single idea would never allow. I do this mainly so that I will have something to say in front of a room full of people all looking in my direction. While I appreciate silence, it often makes me cringe. I was taught to value product, to have a goal, to provide information and steer the conversation. There are times when I want someone else to do this, but placing that responsibility on a student doesn’t quite seem fair. Team teaching is great for this since I know when I reach a point of silence there is another “authority” in the room to help move things along.

I do want to be patient, to ask questions and wait for a response. Unfortunately my lead-in to discussions is often the silence inducing “what did you think of the readings?” I am constantly amazed that chatter can happen effortlessly before and after a class, but once that dreaded connection to the assignment happens silence ensues. There must be a way to seamlessly move between these separate worlds.

Readings, of course, are never arbitrary. I assign things for two reasons – 1) so that we have something to talk about and 2) that students might get excited about these ideas and go off on their own and find out more about them. With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism) each of the articles was saying the same thing in a different way and the hope was that students would see the interconnectedness. Also, if they didn’t get the idea with one of the readings it might come through in another. In either case, there was quite a bit to get exited about.

Yes I could treat students like baby birds and pre-digest the readings, and often do, but I am more interested in an interpretation that I can’t control. When none are forthcoming I wonder if they have done the reading – the obvious start, understood it, or understood it the way I understood it. I always worry that students who have read the material are silent for fear of appearing stupid – that somehow they feel that they have misread or misinterpreted the article. The thing that took me so long to understand was that even a misreading is still a reading and that it can often provide a unique and unforeseen way into an article or idea. So the old adage that “there are no stupid questions” should really be extended to “there are no stupid interpretations or readings.” But silence leaves many possibilities.

In the hope that students will express their understanding of the material I want to resist the urge to just blurt out everything I have been thinking about. But my head is crammed with information, silence unnerves me, and I want students to see the exciting things that I see, so I erupt. This is not unlike that feeling when you realize that that last drink was perhaps one too many. You can fight the urge, but sooner or later your body will do what it can to purge. My mouth is open and “iteration means this” is out before I have a chance to swallow one more time.

So this is the dilemma. I want to talk but I want to listen. I need to be “in charge” because that is technically part of my job description, but I also want to leave room for other voices. I have authority, but I want to pass it on to someone else. I keep coming back to Roy Pea’s notion of distributed intelligences combined with an idea expressed in an article called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar." The idea is that within a specific environment 20 minds are infinitely more powerful than a single mind. It is not that intelligences pile up on top of each other like batteries, but that each mind functioning on its own solves problems and explores ideas that complement, struggle against, undermine, overwhelm, and synchronize with others. Another adage – “many hands make light work” – could easily be re-phrased to read – “many minds . . .”

In preparing for class today – part of the cramming my head with stuff phase – I ran across an article called "Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum" by Dave Cormier. In this essay he points out “The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target.” This seems to be the exact idea that I am struggling with.

Neither Bob nor I could ever compressively cover the subject of generative art no matter how many lectures we gave, how many readings we assigned, how many answers we provided. But, by processing this information as a community – divided into multiple projects, discussions, blogs, online conversations, etc we can approach the topic from many sides at once. Each piece interacts with, comments on and engages with all of the other pieces with no intentional hierarchy. As the idea of the rhizome is all plateau that has no beginning, middle, or end we did not begin by talking about the history or genesis of this form, but plunged in with a project and questions as a point of departure. As Cormier states, “The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community.” With this topic, more so than others, we have an opportunity to move beyond simply pondering this idea to actively employ it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

On texts and theory and practice (praxis)

I kind of feel like I am slacking a bit. I promised myself I would post after every class and then it’s Monday. I also kind of feel like we are in a holding pattern – sort of dwelling in this moment of the second projects before we move on to the third. Deleuze and Guattari might call this a plateau. I find it strange that I always understand something better after I talk about it. Dialogue, conversation, thinking out loud. I may come to class with a vague idea of what a project is, but after talking about it for 10 minutes it becomes crystal clear. This often happens when I discuss plays. This is why I always liked the first few production meetings or the table work – where you sit around and talk about what is going on in the play. I get so much more out of that than simply reading it home alone.

The same can be said for these projects. Not that they aren’t engaging on their own, but I get quite a bit more out of them when we discuss them. They open up, they have a background and a context. Instead of seeming like a project that lasted a few minutes they become a tapestry of thought and experimentation and reaction. I wonder if some of this comes out of the fact that I was largely trained as an interpretive artist – a singer, actor, designer - that is, I was trained to start with a given – a text (which can be just about anything – play, novel, poem, gesture, thought, a piece of music, an idea) – and then interact with it. Eventually by interacting with a text and a group of people we produce a performance, another kind of text that contains our observations and thoughts on the original text.

Faced with a blank slate I am often lost. I need something to react to, to struggle against. But this struggle with texts yielded other insights. Although I paid the appropriate allegiance to texts as an undergrad, I eventually began to question their supremacy. If I could enter into a conversation with the text why couldn’t I have some input? Why did this activity have to flow one way – from me to the text? Why couldn’t I have an impact on it? I mean, who says that the playwright, composer, etc is the be all and end all of what a work is about? As an artist do I have the right, or the obligation, to question it, tear it apart, reassemble it? I have often found that unconventional interpretations tend to open up a text in a way that more devoted interpretations do not. As Heiner Muller once said, to perform Brecht without questioning him is to betray him.

I think this is what captured my attention when I started reading theory (semiotics, deconstruction, feminism, phenomenology, chaos theory, new historicism). Here were philosophers, historians, poets, activists exploring the world as if it were a text – as if it were something to be read and interpreted. People like Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Cixous, Judith Butler were doing the same thing I was taught to do – they examined novels and language and philosophy and culture and films and gender the medical profession and the penal system, discussed possible interpretations and produced writings that contained their observations.

I keep wondering about the projects – the rules of which become the text – something to struggle against, interpret, interact with. The projects by other students become a larger text to engage with. Our discussions an even larger text. Theory is another plateau – another voice to add to this mix. Normally I give students theory before practice, but in this case with the theory coming after two projects have been completed the vantage point is very different.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Today made me think of Stepan

So I went to grad school with this guy from the Czech Republic. He was a directing student. The joke was that at the end of every one of his shows the stage would be an absolute mess – I mean just stuff everywhere. Ripped up paper, things were written on, trash, things knocked over – just a mess. I always wondered if that was just him or some kind of European aesthetic – the will or desire to tear things apart. It seemed in direct contrast to the American sort of coolly distant aesthetic – kind of clean lines and cleared stages.

The American experimentalists – folks like Cage, Cunningham, Robert Wilson, always seemed to have such a cleanliness about them. I realize of course there are exceptions – there are ALWAYS exceptions – Sam Sheppard’s stuff comes to mind, as does Karen Finley, The Wooster Group, and even Warhol. But I liked (like – he may still be doing this I haven’t seen him in a while) this approach to the stage – it was as if at the end of the show you could see where you had been – kind of an accumulation of layers – a palimpsest (if you don’t know look it up it is a very cool word – so is Portmanteau – but for a different reason – or maybe the same reason – I am not sure).

Every once in a while I teach a class that is messy – generally only isolated to that specific day – but occasionally drawn throughout the term. I will have Dadaday or a ChaosDay or a Fluxusday or a Happeningday in which we explore certain ideas. Even though I have a pretty good idea of what will happen – although I was surprised by one incident that involved a blindfold and another that involved a pile of chairs, paper clips, and string – it is always fun. It is like play – or is play – in the good old fashioned sense that kids get to play but grown-ups (for the sake of argument I will include college students) or even “Artists” are supposed to have a purpose, a direction, a goal, a conclusion, a valid reason, an outcome, an objective, a plan, a clear route, insert linear movement metaphor here. So I keep thinking of play (and of palimpsests, and Portmanteau words (apparently only “p” things)) and I realize that kids need play - they can not survive without it. What the hell happens to us?

I keep thinking of this class this way. Not just because the gym was a mess by the end of class, but also because I keep seeing the projects as sort of one big project – I suggested at one point that this whole class may just be one big project by Bob and I. But the end result is a layering – one idea or image on another – the order of which is randomly generated by whomever feels the urge to direct us to their piece next. Does it mater if the piece worked as planned if the migration to an outlet or the intervention of those not directly connected to the piece become part of this layering? My head is now filled with sugar tigers, marbles, rain, mud, water, fake blood, paper – in various stages of markdness, action and decay, brine, motors, big macs, and a seemingly endless supply of paint – funky smelling or otherwise.

What does this all add up to? A trip? A journey? A set of questions? Is the destination important? Is it less that “I don’t care” about the outcome than I can’t predict the outcome so I am interested in the dynamics of the shared space. Ultimately I am interested in what is produced by the projects, the discussions, the exhibitions in the hallway, the readings, the blogs, and the experimentation that happens outside of class. Whatever the case – the level of engagement – or at the very least – the amount of rubble – increased with this second project. I can only wonder what the third (and fourth, and fifth, and sixth, and seventh, and ) will hold.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On machines and intelligences

I have been thinking about the class today. Disrupted weeks always have a strange rhythm. That and the heating system made it difficult to hear and concentrate. But those things aside I think a number of really important ideas were expressed today. The notion of process over product, of the interaction with the environment, the incompleteness of Generative Art, the willful release of control, and the notion of changing one’s way of seeing.

When Bob and I sat down to structure this class we discussed a traditional structure – discussion, assignments, readings, etc. To a certain extent we have employed that structure in this class. The difference was that we decided to start with the student rather than the context. We could have spent a few weeks reading articles on generative art, looking at works by people like Eno or Reich and then taken that knowledge into the projects. I doubt that we would have reached the ideas expressed today as quickly. Sometimes you just need to be tossed into the pool.

We resisted approaching the topic in a linear way because it is largely not about what others say or do, but about asking questions and focusing on the process of addressing those questions regardless of the outcome. I realize that as artists you are trained to explore art in a certain way, starting with “machines” was an attempt to shift that focus. We often employ such a clear division between art and science, between the mechanical and the artistic, between nature and nurture. I tend to agree with Derrida that those divisions, which usually value one term at the expense of the other, are somewhat arbitrary and limiting. The question is not whether examining art as a machine is good or bad, but what questions that lets you ask, what viewpoint that encourages. If you are frustrated by the question or embrace it that may say more about you and your approach than it does about the topic.

Bob suggested that he is interested in robots. There may be some of you that are interested in that also. I am currently fascinated with the collision of analogue and digital – an interest that manifests itself in the post-digital, in glitch. There may be some of you interested in that. You may have your own interests and projects. Use the class as a laboratory – bring in ideas, projects, sketches of projects. Pose your own questions. You may find others interested in the same ideas. We will eventually get to readings on the subject, on examples of generative art – so if you find anything you think connects to the course post it on your blog or on the discussion board. Keep in mind that one of the goals is for the class to operate as a machine, to operate as a distributed intelligence.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Go on - take the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper

When I was reaching the end of my formal education (K-12, undergraduate, grad school, grad school again – 24 years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift) I had an epiphany. As I was working on my dissertation I began to disagree with my advisor on the direction of the material. Now, this was a woman I had studied with for 7 years – 3 as an MFA student and then 4 more at the PhD level. We knew each other quite well. I realized at that point that I didn’t need her anymore. She had taught me well – taught me to question, to think, to wrestle with complex issues. The byproduct of this is that I began to question her, to think about other things, to wrestle with other questions. I kept thinking about that scene in Kung Fu where the old, blind teacher challenges the young student to take the pebble from his hand. It dawned on me that it is not about swiftness, or skill, or muscle, but will. The act of taking this pebble is a way of saying – “thank you – I am done now – you have taught me well – goodbye.”

This is not to say that this metaphorical rock (metaphysical? metatarsal?) meant I was done learning. In fact, this was probably when I became most aware of how much more I had to learn. The action of leaving just meant that now I knew how to do it on my own – I no longer needed a guide. Everyone reaches these points at different times and in different ways. Some people are born this way – naturally curious, others never get to this point or even want to. The world is a big big place with room for many voices. To perpetuate the Eastern metaphor (as opposed to a Western one – more binaries) – it is impossible for me to imagine a Zen master telling a student – “OK you are all done – go be Zen.” Our educational system was established on arbitrary divisions of learning – grades, levels, graduations. Who is to say when the learning is complete – the teacher, state, student?

But this does make me wonder about the digital kids growing up who swim – un-guided or peer guided though the amazing amount of information online. The curious ones get it – they carve a path through this material on their own. This may not be what the state or even parents deem “good learning” but it is learning – and a process that can be adapted to other areas. This is Roy Pea’s distinction between learners as inventors – that recraft their environment - as opposed to learners as receivers (more binaries).

I once had a teacher - I think 6th grade - that wanted to take us all to the library and give us a week to research whatever we wanted. To do what we can now do online - start with an idea we are excited by and chase down links and connections and other ideas. It never happened - deemed as not a good educational choice. But in retrospect - this is where real learning happens not in the classroom. It can start there as a resource or guide, but it is when someone gets interested or excited by an idea that the process of learning about it is based on curiosity, on desire, on interest not merely because there is a test on it or it may lead to a job or a degree. This is what I finally understood and knew I didn't need a formal structure anymore. We are lucky - we can actually do this with this class.

I have a quote on my office door by the visual/conceptual artist Asgar Jorn. He says: “The direct transfer of artistic gifts is impossible; artistic adaptation takes place through a series of contradictory phases: stupefaction – wonder – imitation – rejection – experience – possession.” Now – this may be an odd quote to pin up at an arts school. I mean, isn’t that why you are here – for the transference of artistic gifts? Or possibly is it the transference of artistic process? Wonder – Rejection –Possession are crucial steps. To own the training, to make it truly yours, you have to be able to take the pebble. You have to be able to place everything you have learned into question – put it to the test. At least this is what I have found. Surely others have discovered the opposite (more binaries).

Is this fair of me to say to students who are still in this process, not on the “other side” like I am? Maybe, maybe not. Am I no longer a student? Impossible. My previous post listed many of my teachers – most of whom I am not done with yet. If intelligence is distributed then I have as much to learn from you as you from me. I think this is why I tossed Bran the ball today. Not as a glib answer to a valid question, but as a way of trying to say – you don’t need to ask me these questions. Here’s the pebble – do with it what you will.

Now, in some respects this may be license to slack off, not pay attention in class, not do the reading and not take the projects seriously. Life is full of choices. Bob and probably disagree on this (part of the beauty of having two teachers – I suppose to avoid the binary we needed at least three) but I feel that to be engaged or not is your choice – I get paid either way. I can’t imagine why someone would sign up for this type of class – pay for this type of class - simply to look for a place to sleep – I mean aren’t there more comfortable environments in which to take a nap? In the end none of the projects, the readings, the discussions are about what I want as a teacher. We are naming tons of people. This is not meant to be intimidating (though I can see how it could be – but we won’t be testing you on them – so don’t worry.) but to suggest places to go for your own work. Again (and again and again) – if something catches your ear you don’t know about – ASK! This conversation has already included elements brought to class by students that Bob nor I would never dream of including. The beauty of this class is that all of this material can be raw material – can be a nurse log, can be pieces we use to assemble a discussion, can be the active process of distributed intelligence in which you are inventers not receivers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On puzzles and nurse logs

Antonin Artuad is a God to me pure and simple. Not merely because he is in the pantheon of interesting 20th century writers, but because encountering The Theatre and its Double as a 20-something theatre major rocked me to my core. Here was a person – a theorist – a thinker – a nut job that was turning his back on 2000 years of tradition. By wanting to wipe away all of the layers that had accumulated and return the theatre to it mystical origins he was destroying everything I had been taught to believe.

This scenario would play itself out again and again with different mentors – Duchamp, Hugo Ball, Karen Finley, Chris Burden, Robert Wilson, Jacques Derrida, John Cage, Gertrude Stein, Bill Viola. Eventually I began to notice similarities in the questions these folks were asking. Granted they were asking them of different mediums - visual art, poetry, performance art, theatre, philosophy, sound, video – but the ideas were remarkably alike. Here were thinkers that while actively flaunting the rules of western art were more often simply playing by a different set of rules. As Lyotard says, “Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done” ("Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?") They were, as Lyotard points out by quoting Thierry de Duve, not asking the traditional question of “what is beautiful?” but asking, “what can be said to be art?” Or – more importantly – what can this medium be used to say, to explore, to question?

(Do I expect you to know all of these references – perhaps – and yes I would be impressed because I am not sure I know all of them. They are touchstones – a kind of shorthand way of expressing certain ideas. There will be many others mentioned in the class – if you find something of interest ask about it. If you find something of interest outside of these quotes – Anne’s comment about Poe’s Philosophy of Composition is a good example – bring it in. I have often felt I am assembling one big jigsaw puzzle – the overall picture of which I can’t quite see yet, but each added piece brings me one step closer to understanding it)

So – after being rocked time and time again and after beginning to see a pattern and connections I felt I had set up an unscalable wall between traditional artistic activity – that which has a beginning, middle, and end, closure, beauty, balance, order, harmony – in short everything I was taught to value and see as the defining characteristics of a “good” work of art – and this postmodern, avant-garde, seemingly anti-artistic group of iconoclasts. A dilemma. I was torn. How can they both exist? How can they both be “right” or “good” or “useful” if they seem to cancel each other out?

And in class today. I wanted to embrace the western romantic notion that art is a struggle. That things that come too easy and without skill, without craft, without thought are worthless. And yet, there is often a simplicity to Cage, Duchamp, Artaud, etc that denies skill and annihilates craft. These folks are often accused of being elitist – of creating things so fettered by concept or thought that the meaning seems impenetrable. But Jackson Pollock is not hard to understand. 4’33” is not hard to understand. Duchamp’s urinal is not hard to understand. Show any of these to a group of kindergarteners and they will get them. Can the same be said of Mahler or Shakespeare? Is “elitism” simply a tag placed on works that are hard to understand because it is not a matter of simply “unlocking” hidden meaning but actively creating meaning as a negotiation between the viewer and the work?

I am at an impasse. I defer to the notion of non-dualism that Bob discusses in his blog (I might refer to it as Pataphysical). Why must it be either or? Why consider these ideas canceling each other out? I subscribe to the both/and of postmodernism if only to avoid this binary quandary. What does all of this have to do with Generative Art? Does anyone know what a nurse log is?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Learning to listen and not talk

There is a scene in Pulp Fiction – I think it was a deleted scene – in which Uma Thurman asks Travolta: “do you listen or wait to talk.” He responds that he waits to talk but is trying real hard to listen. I think I need to make this my goal this term. I should probably also resist the urge to “teach” as I normally define the task.

Typically I am placed in the role of “expert” – or – at the very least – someone who knows more about the subject than the students. After all – I picked the readings, I put the syllabus together, I am “in charge” of the discussion. Bob’s notion of infrastruction is that we are actively working to alter this paradigm. Courses generally have leaders – someone in charge – an arbiter who makes decisions and controls the flow of information. This can be through the selection of readings, questions asked in class, cutting off discussion, reiterating topics or ideas, testing skill sets, etc. We are conditioned to respond to this type of authority.

In The Empty Space Peter Brook talks about his role as “director” – another one of those supposed “experts” or authority figures. He says that while the director may want to be fallible there is an instinctive conspiracy of others involved to make him or her the judge because we seem to want that all the time. “In a sense the director is always an imposter, a guide at night who does not know the territory, and yet he has no choice – he must guide, learning the route as he goes.” My goal with this class is to actively work to reveal the imposter mask – to – as Roland Barthes points out in Writing Degree Zero underscore the idea of Larvatus prodeo, "I advance masked," that in a deconstructive gesture, "the writer draws attention to the mask he is wearing."

Today was the second day neither Bob nor I picked someone to start the conversation or the presentations. There is a gap where we wait for the authority to say “now – go.” We also waited, partly, I am convinced, out of respect, but also partly out of conditioning, for the presenter to tell us when their presentation was done. At times it was clear, other times it was open ended. One of the things that attracts me to this generative subject is that it sort of forces the hand – one has to either dive in or not play at all. I was quite pleased with the results - some very interesting solutions to the question. But an hour and 20 minutes is just not enough. The projects, for me, really become a prelude to the discussion and provide ready examples. Clearly to be continued on Tuesday.

The most oft repeated question to me at the end of the class was if there would be more time for the rest of the projects. I like the quickness of this one – with wide ranging results. You are forced to make a decision and go with it – there just isn’t enough time not to. This tends to produce a certain type of result. One of the drawbacks to this is that people often choose to do something they have either already done, or something safe – something they feel that they can accomplish quickly. This may not be true of all, but I do know that it is true of some. (Of course I say this using quotes that I have used dozens of times - yea that is part of the mask). We need to embrace the idea of “failure” – or simply diving into things – perhaps even court it – and simply watch to see what happens. John Cage one said that he used chance as a discipline. Yes, he set the parameters, but by having faith in chance – or abandoning oneself to chance – which would extend to the notion of trying to listen rather than wait to talk – or trying to suggest rather than teach – I hope to learn the route alongside of others.

Which, of course, begs the question - why take a class with an instructor (or at least one instructor - I don't want to speak for Bob - he has his own blog) that is reluctant to teach? Why explore a work of art in which the creator has only minimal input on the process? These ideas provide a container, a frame, a reason to pose certain questions - but should not be defined only by my notion of container or frame. Despite the fact that in a geeky, scholarly way I have amassed a number of articles, links, works that help define "generative art," I can not possibly assume that my knowledge exceeds the collective knowledge of a room full of interesting people. I do talk a lot. Time to listen - comments encouraged.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hybrid is not just a name for an overpriced car

Bob’s second post brings to mind, for me, the basis of this course. The genesis of the conversation we had was as a question posed to me by a student about hybridity. He was working with the Kaos pad (we have one – please check it out it is very very cool and makes some really interesting sounds) his question was where did he end and the machine begin? I love those questions for the same reason I like Derrida’s words like diffĂ©rance, supplement, hymen, pharmakon, parergon. They are multiple ideas crushed together to form new terms. I am also partial to the hyphen – as in post-digital, post-structural, post-racial, post-semiotic (in fact I had to argue with an editor recently to restore stricken hyphens – if for no other reason than aesthetic - I like the way they look).

The Derrida reference should be a tipoff that I am, by nature and by design, a theory junky. I love new ideas – especially ones that allow me to look at familiar ideas in a new way. It is quite likely that we will reference, name check, quote, allude to, etc many many folks this term. If you know who they are – great. If you don’t and you are interested – ask. My brother once had a teacher that said he felt most of his job was to be a conduit between the student and the library. I quite agree. But it also works the other way – library (define as you will) –> student –> teacher.

Despite the attraction to mixing ideas, we do work in an environment where the hyphen is not always encouraged. That’s fine – without disciplines we would never get hybrids. I agree with Bob that we are operating as “infrastructors,” and my hope is that as students this is an idea you can both embrace and also play with. If we are attempting to re-define our role in relation to this material then would that not also re-define your role as a student? The direction the course goes has as much to do with you as it does to do with us (another linguistic gulf than needs to be bridged). One of the best lessons I ever learned as an educator was not to necessarily teach what you know, but to teach what you want know.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

First class 1/6/08

I suppose that I should start with a disclaimer - less for myself than for the fact that I am commenting on a room full of other people. I will attempt to be honest in this blog - noting things that as a teacher and artist I need to work on, when things seem to be engaging, and when things seem not to be engaging. Team teaching is a fascinating enterprise because it tends to magnify differences in style as well as points of focus.

From my end I was quite pleased with the class today. I believe that almost everyone participated actively - with the realization that some may have chosen to participate in an inactive way (which is not necessarily the same thing as being uninterested or withdrawn or asleep - but at times it is difficult to tell the difference).

I quite liked the anxiousness that was expressed in terms of carving out a spot to mull over the action of creativity as well as the execution of it. I do find it odd at an arts school that we don’t make more time for experimentation and reflection. I was also glad that we touched on a number of things Bob and I had listed in our conversation – some at our instigation, some by the students. I suspect that many of these ideas – such as art into life, divisions between categories, convergence of terms and ideas – or the combination of seeming contradictions, the nature of machines, the limits of learned processes, the pondering of the nature of art, the assumed divisions between organic and inorganic, and others I am forgetting to list – will become fundamentals of the generative topic as the course progresses. Since, in many ways, this course is an examination of the topic by way of the topic – a generative art course structured in a generative way.

I did become concerned at times about the wandering nature of the conversation. I know that our intent (and Bob may have a different take on this) was not to pre-program a direction or responses, but to see where the class would lead. Nevertheless I could easily see students frustrated by this. My take on Humanities classes is always that part of my job is to toss out a bunch of ideas - how they are assembled and what happens with them is up to the student. Students that choose to be engaged by this process most likely get more out of these classes than students that choose not to.

I realize that in handing out a project where the parameters have deliberately been precise and also vague leads to questions - "Can we do this?" "Are we allowed to do that?" Most education is structured along those lines. I am less interested in my permission and more interested in how the rules are interpreted - essentially by 20 different people. I expect consensus and I expect rupture - that is the fun part. So - basically - Bob and I already created our sound-producing machine by giving the students this set of instructions. What is left is to sit back and watch the results. I am anxiously awaiting the class on Thursday.