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.