MFA Opening: Observations and Finished (?) Work

Thursday was the opening of our MFA show. That i’ve had time to catch my breath, I have a couple reflections on the opening to post. Soon I will upload the new work to my website. But for now, you can get a pretty thorough sense of the work from the posts I made, as part of the piece (and exhibited in the gallery).

Sigh Collector is here.

Pacing Track is here.

For now, I have some photos in flickr sets. Here are the images on the Instructables pages, but higher resolution. Here are the installation views taken just before the opening.

From my last review, I narrowed down some decisions, added some aspects, abandoned others.. I focused more heavily on sculptural detail and design; ultimately I rebuilt most of what I showed last. I think the changes will be evident in the work itself, so I won’t go into detail.

First of all, I was alarmed and very pleased by how quickly the work has been received online. I published the page at some point during my last all-nighter while installing the show. After a brief and unsatisfying sleep before the opening, I woke to find that the work was already featured in the front page of Instructables and had been blogged and emailed to me by various people. The comment streams were basically in line with what I had anticipated and hoped for: some technical advice, suggestions, questions, some confused people, some people who understand that it is a work of art / critical design. I hope that this trend continues. At this point the Sigh Collector is more popular online; maybe this means people identify more with sighing habits that pacing habits?

I understand better now, the separate and interesting differences between the work’s “life” online and in physical space. What I attempted to do in the gallery was exhibit the work next to the documentation (in the form of instructional material), in the hopes that the hyper-context would be constructed in the viewer’s imagination. The context of the exhibition, however, was one of expected immediacy and visual feedback. I found that far less people focused on my written material and explored the websites (I had some context writing on the wall by the name tags too). Therefore, much of the context and back story were lost to the general public. Furthermore, my choices in exhibition design seemed to communicated interactivity when the Sigh Collector, for example was only on display. I had the inflating air bladder replaying live data from a day of my own sigh collection. The final result was far too subtle for a public exhibition and people where confused about the relationship between the two objects. One overly enthusiastic gallery visited wound up snapping chest band clear in half, at the stretch sensor connection point. So that was that…

The track was “live” for the show, and able to be walked on. I really enjoyed how by the end of the night it was covered in foot prints and therefore communicated used-ness far more convincingly. Again, however, the subtle connection between the yarn dispenser and the track was a bit lost. One visited tugged on the string as though he expected something to happen, and this tangled the yarn up pretty badly. The yarn began winding upwards, which I rolled with and happily entertained new and interesting interpretations from the audience.


Overall, I was happy with how the work turned out, but I was disappointed by my final exhibition design and all the discrepancies. I want the documentation to be more apparent in the space, and not as hidden in the instructions, so I may include monitors or a projection, explicitly showing the video. We’ll see.
The final resting place for the work, however, which is usually the web, seems to be the most logical place for me to exhibit my work in the end. Not sure how I feel about this. I’m excited by the possibilities of bridging the gap between the educational community, the online open-source community (commenting, adding, editing, etc) and the gallery space. Though I feel that I fell short of bridging this gap, I’m happy that I at least alluded to it.

I may post more on these thoughts later on, as they develop. Could be an interesting starting point for some writing.


Progress Images

Thesis Statement

It’s been a while since I have published on this blog, but luckily it’s because i’ve been working. This post will serve as a ‘statement’ of sorts; a textual synthesis of my ideas, statement of intent and description of what i’m working on.

Following posts will show documentation of progress work, as well as recapping of my last presentation and committee meeting.

Inspiration / Context

To contextualize my thesis work, I’ll draw upon many of my previous posts, but most notably writing on Gross National Happiness, Hypercontext and Private Interactivity, among posts on direct references and inspirations.

My thesis work stems from the concept of measuring and representing anxiety. I was inspired by certain countries efforts to impose a quantifiable value to the “happiness” of it’s people. Or even contemporary articles in magazines such as Business Week that aim to measure the worlds “happiest countries”, or the country’s “happiest cities”. It follows that if you can “measure” happiness than you can also “measure unhappiness. Taking this as my point of departure, my work investigates the idea of quantifying the subjective, in the case of the thesis, anxiety or unhappiness. By doing this, I aim to apply what I find poetic and interesting about this idea, to the contemporary American problem: a nation in crisis, and a state of palpable, national anxiety and guilt.

The work I’m proposing is a series of sculptures that exist in domestic environments. They are designed as tools or appliances, for people to use in their homes, offices or other spaces of dwelling. The sculptures function as systems, using as their input, the behavioral, physical habits of anxious people and representing/visualizing those gestures in physical, absurdist, imaginative, open forms.

Inventing and creating the objects is one part of the creative process. The other part is crafting a context around them. In this sense, documentation becomes an integral part of the project; maybe the most important part. And here is where I am still investigating possibilities. At the moment, I have decided to document the projects as sets of instructions so that anybody can rebuild them. One context for doing this will be online “do-it-yourself” communities, such as Making the work available to the DIY, open-source community is a critical gesture that implies the potential for these objects to be deployed in real spaces. At the same time, it begs the question of whether or not anybody would actually rebuild it (or improve on it), and explores the idea of O’Reilly Media / MAKE magazine / DIY culture as a medium for conceptual art practice. It also, in my opinion, make the work feel more current.

Final Proposal

The three objects that I am inventing and working on, each take an anxious behavioral habit and transform it into a physical visualization.  The habits I am investigating are sighing, pacing and rapid foot-tapping. All three occupy a grey area between conscious and unconscious behavior, and are designed in a way that does not hide the apparatus, but address it’s obtrusiveness, and the choice to engage with the object at home (or even build it).

Sigh Collector
A wearable device that monitors breathing with a chest strap. The electronics are housed on an medical, IV like structure that is carried around by the person. The strap around the chest connects to the electronics, which are suspended from the IV. The person can also hang the chest strap from the IV when not in use. When a sigh is detected, it talks wirelessly to a stationary piece of furniture, which inflates a red air-bladder a small amount each time. The ‘bag of sighs’ grows larger and rounder each time, and comes to represent the amount of huffing and puffing in a household. I am playing with the idea of including a reverse valve so that the air can be released and allowed to blow in the direction of the person’s choosing. Or perhaps the machine will just inflate until it pops.

Pacing Track
A 12 foot track with a red, carpeted surface is installed in a home, at a point of interest. This could be in a hallway, or perhaps between the refrigerator and the television. The track is actually built on a subtle see-saw, so that it simultaneously acts as a knocking, meditative sculpture, and also registers, at each end, the amount of distance traversed. This amount is correlated directly with a length of red yard that falls from the ceiling and collects in a pile in the center of the track. The yarn can be left to pile up, becoming a visualization of the distance anxiously paced, or recovered and used to measure how that distance maps to real world space in some way chosen by the person.

Foot Tapper
A machine for registering when the foot is tapping, designed as an accessory for any chair. The foot tapper can be attached to the front leg of the chair (next to the foot of choice), and extends a mechanical sensing device to the foot, in order to register the frequency of foot tapping. The device communicates wirelessly to a stationary sculpture that consists of a block of concrete and a mechanical chisel. The chisel hits the concrete each time a tap is registered. Ultimately, the concrete will be destroyed. I have considered placing the electronics inside, and allowing the destruction of the concrete blog to equal the breaking of the machine. This piece represents anxious tapping and drumming as a violent and destructive behavior.

“Social Mobiles”, and thinking more about ‘art vs. design’ issues.

Here’s a work by Crispin Jones with IDEO. Another student hailing from RCA and a “Critical Designer” working in the field. I should start by saying, I like most of the concepts behind all the critical design work that I’ve been looking at, but the reason I post certain things, and the point of influence, often occurs in the discussion of how the work is presented and contextualized. So as usual, these pieces mostly don’t seem to function, which disappointments me (some of them might, like the “knocking” phone). It seems to be mostly nice sculpture and proposal documentation. But, I do quite like how it’s presented, with the diagrams and funny acting. There’s a connection to Maywa Denki in the sense of “performance” of the objects though acting.

I can envision using the pieces i’m working on now in this kind of way and making videos that feature them in context. The difference is, I want my work to actually function as well. I’m realizing, I need to feel it working and feel it’s effects in order to really communicate the message. I think this is the difference between designers making art-y work and artists making design-y work, if you absolutely have to make such a distinction. I’ve been thinking lately, artists like Krzystof W. and Natalie Jeremijenko who work with “critical design” actually wind up making functional things with a palpable effect on an individual or a community.

I’m really into this; things working, functioning and affecting. Even if it’s just affecting me as an actor in my documentation, I think that still helps to create a richer body of work.

Thesis Progress Presentation: Part 2

My committee members include, from UCLA, Rebeca Mendez, Peter Lunenfeld, and Casey Reas (as chair). External members include Golan Levin (Carnegie Mellon U., Pittsburgh) and Noam Toran (Royal College of Art, London). In attendance at this meeting were the UCLA faculty only.

The meeting was short, but productive and i’d even say cathartic. I wanted to record it and transcribe the better portions but that fell through. So instead, I’ll list off a selection of notes that I took (with help from Casey).
Selected Notes:

-Initial discussion of leaving room for the imagination vs. closing off the audience…

-Discussion of Aesthetics. What am I going for? Does the highly polished RCA aesthetic really fit my personality/previous work? Rough objects with nice “packaging”? Avoid describing them as “products” ?

-What if the objects/machines are more like creatures? What if they are highly characterized, or have an impression on the world that surprises the maker? These comments made in reaction to the discussion of over specifying the function.

Infographics, Graphic Design. Is this too didactic/pedantic? I won’t be able to fully know if things like this are truly necessary until the work really exists, of course. Maybe it works in the case of the Singapore objects… but it might not work for what I will make for the thesis. Could make it too packaged and product-like. Or if I do work with graphic design more, perhaps I should avoid referencing any existing style too closely?

-Loosely discussed the Kubler Ross model for the 5 stages of grief, as a potential example / conceptual starting point. Some faculty had problems with this, and warned me not to be too literal. There are different levels of ‘grief’, from serious to humorous. If objects respond to different elements of grief, and the audience mis-interprets the function, it risks being inappropriate…

-I commented about humor, and how I was nervous about using humor too much. Peter said “the grown-up word for humor, is wit“. Interesting. I suppose there is something “funny” and sad about work like the bed cover remover. I agree that “wit” is a better thing to aim for than “humor”.

-Similarly, after conversing some more, Peter suggested that maybe it’s not grief that i’m intersted in, but general unhappiness in our society.

-Characters vs. Objects. Or maybe characters vs. “props”. Committee liked the older work because of the characterization of the machines. Also, because of the way in which the human being and the machine are interdependent and intertwined, such as in the bed piece. One or two members encouraged me to think of my work as the object, and the human as the prop, and not the other way around.

Suggested References:

Some things that came up in conversation.

  • Hal Foster: Design & Crime
  • Rebecca Horn’s film work
  • John Cassavetes’ films
  • Kelly Dodson Dobson
  • Krzysztof Wodiczko’s early work
  • “Freud as Collector” (Freud’s office, full of “primitive” objects for free-association).

I’ve spent the recent days internalizing the suggestions, and now I definitely feel like it’s time to slip out of MK the researcher and slip into MK the maker. But first there’s some other work to do: Nova and I are showing Moon Theater at two venues in the next few months, which will require some traveling, plus the holidays are approaching. So, i’m looking at a busy schedule… Come winter quarter, i’m hoping to expload into production.

Thesis Progress Presentation: Part 1


All of the graduate students were asked to do a semi-formal presentation, to discuss references, show progress work, and project a direction for the thesis “project” or body of projects. Additional meta info included a brief, speculative schedule for the rest of the year.


I think my presentation was successful in being clear, showing a narrative development of work, and showing a promising trajectory. People responded really well to the material, I think, and though there weren’t many productive comments made after I presented, some professors talked to me after the event ended (I was the last to present) and made some interesting observations. I’m not without criticism of myself, of course. I was really dissatisfied that there wasn’t a discussion about the material, or any questions, really. I think this is a huge problem that relates to something I have bolded in a post below: I didn’t really leave much to the imagination. This could also be because I didn’t present any specific proposals for future work…just a framework.

The first major problem of this thesis idea I’ve been working on has been revealed. I’ve been speaking quite idealistically about the differences / similarities between art and critical design. But for all the emotional, conceptual comparrisons, there remains a problem of methodology to consider. If functionality is defined too strictly, people feel excluded, like they have nothing too offer. Whereas, the strength of some of the earlier work was in the metaphors and the characterization of the objects… I think this is why nobody commented after my presentation.. Anyway, the meeting after was really helpful, once we quickly got past this worry. More on this in Part 2.

For your reference, here is a rough outline of what I went over in my presentation:
Creative / Theoretical Influences
Discussion of Critical Design. Work shown: some of Noam Toran’s Accessories for Lonely Men.

Discussion of Mechanical Sculpture. Work shown: Rebecca Horn’s mechanical sculptures, installed in sites of political significance, violence.

The Art of the Demonstration, as exemplified by the work of Maywa Denki. Playfully compared to an old documentation video of me demonstrating an assignment


Theoretical Influences: Anthony Dunne, Nicolas Bourriaud, Jack Burnham, Rosalyn Krauss, Bruce Sterling, Isaac Asimov, JG Ballard.

Brief discussion of the idea of “Social Science Fiction”

Should have shown, but stupidly forgot: Krzysztof Wodiczko’s early work (Homeless Vehicles, Alien Staff).

Work / Defining a Trajectory
Thoughts on old work: Autonomous, Characters, Metaphors…

Showed: Removal Studies, and Tools for Enhancing the Experience of Being Lost. Talked about these objects as a test of some ideas, and a platform for testing out other ideas.

Thoughts on that process: Issues of demonstration and performance, public vs. private interactivity, the “tool” vs. the “final piece”

Talked about the process of defining functions and inventing objects. Is the “function” (title?) the piece? Or are the objects? Because the objects can be swapped out..but the function stays the same. The Singapore objects represent one functional possibility, that was specific to the context of that workshop. But the thesis is going to be more about human behavior in a distressed world; a world were the idea of crisis a constant backdrop.
Thesis “Statement”
Concept: Working at the intersection of mechanical sculpture, critical design and performance, I aim to invent conceptual “tools” for exploring the psychology of distressed human behavior, and the poetics of eccentricity.

Process: Based on a function or theme, invent a constituent series of objects.
Address these objects as sculptures, props in videos/performances, products…

Part 2 of this post will reflect on the committee meeting that followed this presentation, and the critiques, suggestions, warnings I received.

Public vs. Private Interactivity

Something i’ve been discussing with my professors lately, is type of interactivity that i’ve been calling, for lack of a better term, private interactivity. I’m thinking of public interactivity as being concerned with the idea of making an interactive object or installation, and outsourcing creativity to the audience (a totally legitimate art form, but leads too often to wavey hands media art). Private interactivity concerns itself more with the invention of a tool for one person. That one person is the expert performer of this tool and performs it for audiences in the context of a live concert, a film, an audio recording, a photo set….

What I have been doing recently, with the Removal Studies and the Objects for Lostness, is more like private interactivity. That’s really what i’m more interested in, but here’s the downside: Private interactivity might be too controlled… In other words, when if I define a function well in advance and “perform” a mechanism or tool as my art, I’m not leaving much room for the imagination… What’s the solution? Maybe don’t perform them to their full potential? Exhibit one possible use for the object and let the audience imagine others?


Reflections on Singapore

I returned from a workshop at Lasalle College of Art about two weeks ago. I’d say it took me around a week to recover from some sort of travel malaise… I’ll keep the post concise and relevant to the work that we did there. To give just a bit of context first, I’ll say that Singapore is very interesting and strange. I found it highly disorienting to travel for so long, and arrive in a place that was so familiar to the US, in the sense of having a large mix of cultures and English being the primary language. That said, Singapore certainly does have it’s unique points, relating to it’s colonial history and geographical location/context. The most attractive part of the trip was exploring the cultural neighborhoods, and observing the mix of different cultures living together.

The workshop was a good opportunity to test out the style of working outlined in previous posts: prompt myself based on a function and invent tools to serve that function. Explore interactivity using the tools in video or photography… I collaborated with Nova again and we decided to do a photo essay on being lost in a foreign city. We were inspired by a casual knowledge of some situationist derive techniques. The project we came up with was Objects for Enhancing the Experience of being Lost. It is described on my website here.

This was a stimulating way of working. The objects were all made quickly with materials we found around the city. It was a really stimulating way of engaging with a new city, as well. We visited flea markets, etc. that we might not have otherwise and got a glipse at alternative lives in Singapore. In the end we were happy with the work because it was quick, fun and thought provoking. I am happy about it because it was a good way to test out some ideas for my thesis. And now, I also have a large “data set” to play with. For example, I’ve been experimenting with the idea of making instructional graphics around the objects. Some kind of abstract “manual” that could slip into the briefcase. Could this be a way of supplementing works in a series like this? Or does it make it too pedantic? I’m not without criticism of the process, but I’m interested in following that train of thought through to completion. I’ll post the graphics when they are done, along with thoughts.

Social Science Fiction

I found an interesting article on wikipedia about Social Science Fiction, which was apparently first coined by Isaac Asimov. Social science fiction refers to a branch of science fiction writing that emerged in mid twentieth century to deal “less with technology and space opera and more with sociological speculation about human society. In other words, it ‘absorbs and discusses anthropology’, and speculates about human behavior and interactions.”

I know this term mostly relates to writing and prose, but these terms can just as easily be applied to the designing of critical electronic objects. Often times, speculative design objects draw on some kind of alternate present as a vehicle for critique. For example, what kind of objects might we use in the home if we as a culture were less concerned with X and more concerned with Y? Or if war N never happened?

Maybe I should be reading Asimov?


Notes on Jack Burnham

I want to make sure I have some cybernetic theory on my radar. Cybernetics may not seem to related directly to my current interests, but in fact there is much commentary on complex systems, intelligence, how people interact with objects and sculptures, the expanding role of kinetic art, etc. Not to mention most of these incredibly advanced theories and ideas were penned by Burnham in 1968, well before widespread commercial availability of computers and cheap microprocessors.

Here are some scattered notes and quotations of particular interest, mostly from the last chapter of Beyond Modern Sculpture (Chapter 8: Robot and Cyborg Art).

“Traditional sculpture” is not responsive — it’s a one-way relationship.
Addresses the dichotomy in modern sculpture between “geometric” art and “organic” art — art that approaches some kind of organic ideal a fuses “geometric” elements of the machine with real life behaviors of living things.
Addresses the “reappearance” of kinetic art in the 60’s and 70’s: “It follows that the reappearance of Kinetic Art can be viewed as a precocious attempt to take a few sizable steps toward the goal of organic integration, albeit by the same process of classical mechanics used by the makers of eighteenth-century automata” (314).

Cybernetics is primarily about organization, info processing, and the devising of control mechanisms.
Burnham cites Norbert Weiner’s work, which “suggests how purpose could be built into machines”
He comes to the conclusion that “feedback” (primarily negative feedback) is the key concept for control.

Cybernetic art seeks a two-way relationship between the viewer and the work.

Here he introduces the idea of “input and output”. Input and output are the communication within a system. This was written before the availablility of cheap computers and cheap microprocessors, however. So the idea of input and output takes on a whole new set of challenges. See Jim Campbell’s sobering warning!

Burnham opens a discussion about the difference between machines and cultural conceptions of the “robot”. Rooted in science fiction, the robot is viewed as being primarily humanoid. Their place in western culture is primarily as a “mechanical aid to man” (320) and is often viewed as a symbolic threat to humans.

“For our generation, much significant anthropomorphic sculpture does not imitate man, but imitates robots trying to become human” (325).

Goes on to introduce artificial intelligence and self-organizing systems….

Burnham introduces an idea of “systems oriented art” or “systems art” to replace the traditional notion of sculpture.

Detailed predictions of system oriented art future problems with traditional art institutions: Maintenance costs, functionality over time, technical sophistication, etc.

“…the cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing and being replaced by what might be called ‘systems consciousness'” (369).

“The concept ‘system’ itself is a pure abstraction, an assembly of isolable properties studied in terms of their transformations, either alone (closed) or in relation to other systems (open). (318)

Stability and Instability are common properties of all systems. The more complicated the system the less “stable” it is.

Relates to future Burnham article, that further details “systems art” or “systems theory”.