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.