Critical Potential

Today, I gave a talk to some art students in a class at Pomona College (Claremont, CA).

I like giving talks about my work because it forces me to spend some extra time thinking about how to best contextualize it for a new audience. Here’s a little bit of a review of how I introduced my work today:

I began by discussing the strategies in science fiction, particularly in a more recognizable situation like the ‘space opera’ of the Roddenberry University (Star Trek). In these types of shows, we often see the civilization of the future, cruising the galaxy and encountering cultures or civilizations that remind us of 20th or 21st century earth, and some common problem from that century (race, gender discrimination, pollution, etc..). From the enlightened perspective of the future, the crew of the Enterprise would alway help them take steps towards overcoming these issues. This is a common strategy in Science Fiction — Use of an enlightened, future vantage point in order to critique or suggest solutions for contemporary debacles.

I then move on to introduce the idea of “atemporality”, vis-a-vis Bruce Sterling.

Here’s a description from an earlier blog post. But to more quickly introduce the idea of atemporality, I referenced this H.G. Wells book from 1933, “The Shape of Things To Come”, in which Wells describes a history textbook published in the year 2106, and the various events therein that shaped humanity. A similar critical strategy, but plays with time-scales a little bit more.

I wanted to show another example of good socially bent sci-fi that wasn’t a “space opera” like Star Trek or Star Wars, so I referenced the 2006 film “Children Of Men” (Alfonso Cuaron) to discuss the idea of a “near future” or alternate present, even, as a critical strategy. What really interests me about the world design in C.O.M. is the fact that the future is only slightly advanced (different car and computer designs) but instead of the usual slick veneer we’re used to seeing in scifi, the technology is all slightly dilapidated and antiqued. I’m interested in the antiquing of non-existent technologies. It’s a clever way of introducing the context of the film, which is a not-too-distant future with some advancement — but one that is ultimately still flawed.

At this point, I introduced Critical Design as emerging from some of these strategies, but not referencing them directly. The of Dunne & Raby and students/colleagues of there’s at RCA (Noam Toran, James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau, etc.) represent a conflation of industrial design, critical theory and even a touch of anthropology. Without claiming to know a great amount about anthropology, It still seems to me that a critical, investigatory, research oriented practice (like the work of these designer) mimics, in many ways, the strategies of anthropology. The discourse is centered around objects and their documentation, however, and not publica

tions. This was a good moment to pull up my usual favorite quote from Dunne’s book “Hertzian Tales” about the critical potential of seeing a work, seeing a case study, and imagining yourself using it (or even further, the potential future/alt-present context in which one might use it). I also introduced them to the work of Maywa Denki and mentioned the tradition of Japanese “Device Art”.

Referencing Jack Kevorkian’s suicide machines, after all this, offers an alternative way of thinking about critical design, that is outside of the art and design community…

Finally, to review it all, I showed a slide from Scott McCloud’s book “Understanding Comics”. There is a chapter called Blood In the Gutter, in which McCloud explains how in sequential media (comics, in this example), audiences can complete a whole idea by perceiving various, fragmented parts. The imagination is the glue that makes the necessary connections. This is called closure, and it is the grammar in sequential media, with the visual eleme

nts being the vocabulary. To illustrate this idea, McCloud talks about the white space in between panels of comics: it is called the “gutter”. In a subject-to-subject transition like the one below, the actual axe-fall takes place in the gutter. It’s really up to your imagination to determine how horrible the death is. McCloud writes,

To kill a man between panels it to condemn him to a thousand deaths.

Meaning that there is an important distinction to make between how much to show vs. not show, as an artist, and an necessary awareness of how much the audience will “read in” on their own.

It was fun to recap everything we had just looked at, with the concepts of closure and the gutter in mind. It reinforces the idea introduced by Anthony Dunne, that the conceptual power of speculative art and design is in the balance between seeing the work physically and imagining using it. I would refer to this as the work’s “critical potential”.

It was a this point, I went into showing my own projects, having contextualized them in some of these ideas/strategies.
I found the talks today invigorating, and inspiring. The students had some good questions about the nature of documentation and different distribution strategies for work like this. We ended up having a pretty good dialogue about the growing need to investigate the appropriate context for showing your work, and how the context in which it’s seen can radically change its meaning.

I’ll be back in the studio soon, working on some new pieces, so stay tuned. It’s been a long gestation period but I have a few ideas on the backburner. And the third piece in the Measure of Discontent series is underway for a March deadline at Rhizome.


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