Thursday, April 21, 2016

Day out:

So, we have basically reached the end of what Bob and I can offer the students. This final week of us in charge ended with Bob presenting on East/West and some specific generative material focused on processing. Today we circled back to the destruction stuff via Metzger’s essay. The conversation today was a way of shaping the pieces a bit more – starting with the arbitrary Life/Art rift that dominates most traditional art forms. The point of the discussion was to acknowledge the shift with Generative Art away from the divide and dissolving or at least pushing on the slash. We then engaged in a conversation about the world today and how that can be reflected in generative and/or destructive process based art. The idea of “art,” of course, merely one of many possible forms of expression to wrestle with the question of society and the world around us. A good discussion in both sections.

We briefly reflected back on the class while cleaning up and I do feel we articulated this process much better this time than the first time we taught the class. As the ground zero for my development of project-based courses it was nice to revisit this model. I think I have learned a great deal about this process in the past 7-8 years. It is a sound one, one that allows students freedom to engage in answering the questions that play to their strengths, but also grounds those strengths in a common set of experiences and vocabulary. We ended up with quite an impressive list of terms and ideas generated over the semester. This then functions as the content of the course. The final project and final exam questions are a way for students to reflect on these ideas while also shaping them in the project. Can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Days – well – whatever – I have totally lost track.

 Coming off of the fragmentation projects it was interesting to see how students tackled this one. Some went straight to things like random number generators to create random pieces, others fragmented images or objects, and still others created their own random system. We saw grids, framing devices, cuts, reliance on technology, reliance on others to make decisions, etc. One of the main questions that arose from this discussion was how small do the pieces need to be in order not to recognize the original object. Images and sounds, of course, seemed to work differently. So – the original images could be obliterated with fairly sizable pieces, but sound would come down to micro-cuts that were still recognizable. Bob’s point about sensing the DNA of the original was a great point.

We also discussed if certain mediums lent themselves to fragmentation better than others. Students that worked with text ended up moving toward individual words or phrases, since the next step was just letters – which are designed to be rearranged all the time. What was really interesting to see is that just about everyone held on to some element of control in executing these pieces – either the control of chat type of chance to use, or of the final product – which completely fits with Cage’s point about not giving his choices up to chance, but choosing how to use it. Part of what we wrestled with was if we saw intention as part of the project – so do elements rearranged randomly reflect any kind of perceivable order. We found that they largely did.

As a follow up to all of this we felt it time to revisit the terms and ideas developed so far. I always find this process interesting in that it seems like we have only developed a few and then they sort of landslide into many. We seemed to have picked up a number with the last few projects. So – we split the students up in to groups and gave each group three terms to define and come up with an example. We wanted to make it extra hard so – one example had to be based in sound, one in movement, and one in image. The first class took significantly longer to develop and share these projects than we thought. They were great to see, but they kind of spun out into complex performance pieces. We minimized this in the second class by only passing out two terms to each group – sound and image as the resulting examples. This periodic review is quite useful, and allows students to build vocabulary as well as tools.

After that we presented a slide show and videos with some examples of Destructive Art pieces as a way to follow up the Destructive Art project assignment. This gave way to the next class where I discussed and showed examples of Glitch and Circuit Bending as a way to develop some more contemporary destructive examples. Some good discussion and questions – my favorite being – why would you do that to a CD?

The following class was another kind of review class in which we gave the students the SSC material and Present Moment material from the first class and then discussed how it tied into this class. We started with groups again and had students make connections between the SSC list of ideas and the Gen Art list of ideas – either evolution, affront, or something else. The conversation after that point was largely focused on the common P2P question – what has changed and what has stayed the same across this year of study.

Ah – that brings us to the Destructive Art projects. Always a bit unnerving since we have no idea what direction this will go. But all in all I would have to say that most of the projects were delightful – some challenging, others less so, some contemplative, some performative, many engaging. A number of the ideas we discussed surrounded how the spectator was implied – willingly or no – into the process – as voyeur, as witness, as accomplish. It’s an interesting position to help kill a plant or watch someone stuff food in themselves and either do or not do anything. This level of provocation was quite interesting. Totally shatters the white cube idea of the museum and begins to cross over into life. Real things in real time were happening – some pleasant and other not.

Once again, we notice a profound difference between classes. The first section is a bit more contemplative, focused more on objects and processes, whereas the second section leaned much more heavily toward the performative. Both engaging, but in different ways. But one other factor stands out. The first section seems much more engaged in developing a conversation about the work, where as the second section seems to burn up that energy in performance. With each class there are a few outlier students that cross the opposite direction. We wondered what would have happened if we had identified them early and swapped sections.

We discussed a number of ideas at work in these pieces – starting with what type of materials were involved (lots of water as a solvent, and ice melting, and gravity), but also the implication of the spectator and implied or enacted violence – which played out in a number of ways – physical, psychological, political, passive. Many of the pieces built on a sense of anticipation – a “what will happen next” or “when will this thing finally happen” vibe. True to form – the sections diverged in the presentation – one we moved station to station to see the pieces, the second seemed more like a set of sideshow acts presented simultaneously. May have something to do with the object VS performative nature of the two sections.

The last piece we tried to get the students to focus on was how these pieces functioned conceptually. So – after assessing what elements were involved – what ideas were animated, what kind of impact dis that make. We have decided to focus more specifically on that for the final project – designed by the students – but needing to be focused on a specific concept or idea. Some students have been doing that since the first class, but for others that may be a greater leap. How all of this leads us to today is always in the back somewhere – running noticed and unnoticed. Should be fun to see where this takes us.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Days Seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen:

OK – spring break done – now to nudge the class a bit farther along on the gen art timeline. The Fluxus project has been developed over a number of years and a number of iterations and refinements. The first time I used it in a P2P class was in the Aesthetics of Dissonance back in 2012. My mistake was to time it right before spring break. It was the high point of the term, but we were never able to get the momentum back. In subsequent teachings it was moved to right after the break. Fun, chaotic, noisy, it is a good way to return to the class. I felt like there was quite a bit ridding on this piece and had really talked it up to Bob. My fear, of course, was that it was just going to crash and burn. It didn’t.

What was odd about this time is that students in both sections immediately started performing them simultaneously. Some, I suspect, as a way to mask their response, but other saw opportunities to overlap pieces and basically dove in when they felt the impulse. This lead to some amazing collisions of pieces. Hard to see everything, but the chaos really had a live and in the moment quality. As typically happens – some pieces bore, and others confound, and yet others demand attention and silence. While I prefer the one at a time model since the quieter more still pieces can emerge, there was something quite beautiful about the presentations. One thing we did notice – the 8:30 class spent a bit more time winding up to chaos, whereas the 10:00 started there. It’s hard to sustain over time – so the 8:30 class did a much better job of drawing the pieces out in time.

The following class I was out for administrative stuff – so Bob discussed some non-dualism material and worked with the students to pull out some basic ideas from the fluxus pieces and then they created new ones. His take was that they were not as successful as the first round, mainly because there was almost no one left to watch, but also the refinement didn’t help the overall process. A very valuable lesson.

The next class I presented information on chaos theory – with the idea that we have already seen examples of sensitive dependence, iteration, and strange attractors. Perhaps not as successful an integration as I would have liked, but a few of the students dug into this material, so it may have an impact later on. We started the class with the “one second late” piece in which they fill in five events that happen because someone started their day one second late. Its always interesting how they degenerate toward violence or destruction, some every day, and some fantastic. I have heard very few positive takes on this.

Today was day one for the fragmentation projects – and I’ll hold off on a complete discussion of them until we have finished the second group. But what we saw today was great. The students that are willing to challenge themselves to think through the process of taking something apart and reassembling it get to reflect on their process and what it produces. There are still some students that we feel are kind of phoning it in – doing the least invested pieces they can. It’s a shame because they are all bright enough to turn in some wonderful work. We do occasionally see students we thought were tuned out wake up and do some great stuff. How to keep them awake is more complex.

One more thing I will mention. Bob and I went back to the Solo olos rehearsal to watch four more iterations of the dance. The first one was amazing. Some lovely images and movements ridding right on the edge of collapse. The other three were good, but did not have the spark the first one did. Abby is working with the students to not get too comfortable with the piece. She also encourages them not to try and control it too much. When the caller tries to shape the piece by looking three or four moves ahead it loses something. Fascinating that they have to work so hard to be indeterminate.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Days Fourteen, Fifteen, and Sixteen:

 Wow did we get lucky. Bob and I met with Abby Yager who was working with students on staging a performance of Trisha Brown’s 1976 piece Solo olos. Abby graciously invited her dancers to meet with our 8:30 class to show the work and discuss the process. Abby first gave the students a nice historical overview of the Judson Church folks. Then she explained the indeterminate structure of the piece. The timing for our class could not have been better. Three basic dance phrases (main, branch, and spill – the first two set, the third developed by individual dancers from an ambiguous set of instructions) are set n motion. Five dancers start with main – which – like all phrases – can be performed backwards or forwards – one splits off to become the caller. The caller, at specific points in the dance can call out a single or multiple dancers to execute the branch or spill phrase or to reverse any of the three phrases. The result is that each time the dance is performed it creates different arrangements. Very much like Cage’s indeterminate sound pieces. After performing it once (about 10 minutes) the dancers talked about their experience with the work. Here are some basic things that emerged from the conversation:

Exploring the friction between freedom and form.

There are no mistakes – everything creates something beautiful.

You learn to deal with what comes your way.

“Just try.” That was the point. She put us on a collision course with the impossible (to see what would happen).

She works with seemingly impossible instructions.

Five instructions:

Line up (the warp – the baseline to create from – the underlying structure)

Play with visibility and invisibility, the emergent and the disappeared.

Work the edges of the space – transgress the space and play with the extremes.

Act on instinct

Keep it simple.

These ideas help you get past your creative genius.

She worked to destabilize the notion of right and wrong.

Then they danced the piece again with a different set of dancers and a different caller. Completely different – and yet  - bot. Bob and I videotaped the presentation and discussion and then went over this material with the second class.

The following class Bob took the lead to present a slide show on where we have come from and how we got to the postmodern era. The presentation was complete with a few movement exercises based on the Solo olos material – but significantly simplified. Part of what we were exploring was indeterminacy, but also system – specifically group events.

Today was about fluxus – getting students ready to develop their own fluxus inspired pieces. So, brief history of the movement, some examples, and some discussion about La Monte Young. It was at this point in the first class that a student, who has remained largely silent this term, asked about intent – mainly – how is it possible to look at such things as art? It’s a question I love because then we have to talk about what we have been trained to see VS what we see in front of us. It also frames the question of categories and understanding in really interesting ways. Much of this is inherited in the sense that we are taught how to listen and watch and understand artistic expression. What I like about what the fluxus folk do is push on those understandings. By creating simple pieces they open up a space for a dialogue about “what is art?”

I felt compelled to follow up with the student via email to mention two things – how glad I was he posed the question (which I posed in the second section) and that he should continue this line of thought. Here was my response:

I appreciate you questioning the material today. I expect you are not the only student to wonder about the material we have been discussing (something true in both sections). The fact that you have thought about it and talked about it - even if you don't agree with it - means that the course material is doing what it is supposed to do. What I mean by this is that these paths to the present courses are designed to introduce students to material that they may not be familiar with. Much of this material raises the question you raised today in class - how can this be considered art? When posing the question it become clear fairly quickly that everyone draws that line differently. Part of what Bob and I are proposing is whether it is possible to define artistic expression not by skill or technique, but by concept and execution of thought. By the end of the term I suspect some students will reject much of what we have discussed. Which is fine. I don't believe that Bob's job or mine is to convince anyone where that line of art/non-art is - but merely to raise questions that you can wrestle with on your own. 

Thanks for speaking up today - I encourage you to continue this line of questioning in the future. 

So – now we are at spring break – it was actually great that the art question came up at this point – it gives the students something to think about. When we return students will be bringing in their three fluxus inspired pieces. Each piece is to be written out on a 3x5 index card. Then we perform them. In the past it has been a fun and interesting day. I have sold it as such to Bob. My hope is that it doesn’t disappoint – but who knows.

As a side note here – we have seen a number of students wake up and get engaged in the conversation in really interesting ways. But there are those that still feel asleep. My hope is that the somnambulistic tendencies don’t drag the whole thing down.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Days Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen:

We used an open class day to pull together a number of threads that had been developing. Bob put together a fantastic presentation with Cage, Reich, and Eno functioning as examples of artists that were an affront to an established system, experimented with the system, and finally found a way to integrate back into the system. The point with this is for students to begin to see generative work not in isolation, but as helping to develop viable tools for artist to employ. The timing of the presentation was great – with just having finished the sequence on indeterminate and generative music and right before the third project.

Part of the drill with the project courses is allowing students the space to understand the material on their own terms. This happens as they execute the open-ended project questions and wrestle with a specific framework or direction, but need to animate how that is navigated by them. Students naturally begin to gravitate toward mediums, elements, symbols, etc that are meaningful to them. The result of this process is that they have ownership over both their work and their understanding of the material – not merely regurgitating what the teacher has said. So – the open day is a point to remind them that they already understand a great deal about generative art whether they recognize it or not. This is a much slower process than more traditional approaches like lecture or seminar, but the pay off is that their understanding is considerably deeper and richer.

By this point in the term – right toward the end of the first third – students have been exposed to the following ideas:

Layers of meaning
“Devaluation” of skill
Artistic eye
Unintended results
Audience interaction/implicate viewer in process

Typically to generate this list we ask the students what techniques or ideas have they seen develop in the projects and conversations. We then supplement that this with ideas that we may have noticed but have gone unsaid.

This brought us to the third project – making a simple machine. The assignment was to create a machine designed to make a sound. The parameters involve taking no less than one minute and have at least five steps, with the encouragement that students think about things like -  motive forces, variables, time, space, speed, weight, friction, distance.

The results are always quite telling. At least half of the projects don’t work the way they did at home, and some fail to function at all. Sidestepping the issue of “success” or “failure” we try to discuss what was produced independent of intention. Often the end result is as if not more interesting than what was intended. So – it is kind of a loaded question in which we know that a certain percentage of the projects will not progress the way there were intended. For some students, who have internalized years and years of standardized testing as the only measure of success – this is a hard class. But the follow up questions are about what they learned from what their project to do. This is the first step in pushing them away from their work so that they can reflect upon what is created. The next project completely takes control out of their hands. It is always fun to see what that produces.