My work has been progressing very well. Almost too well, as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t even thought about updating my blog here for several months. In addition to my master’s project, I also rebuilt my portfolio site. Some of my more recent work can be found there, as well. Eventually I’d like to unite the styles of this blog and my portfolio site, and probably move the blog (or start another) under that URL. I also recently restarted using my Twitter account, which is at tedstoltz.
More immediately, I’m eyeballs-deep into my masters project right now. My research involves something called ergodic literature, which is defined as any book where a nontrivial effort is required by the reader to traverse the text. Trivial effort is turning the pages—something every book does by virtue of its format. Nontrivial effort involves making the reader “figure things out”, or presenting them with an interesting layout or design that is more engaging than a typical book. A popular example would be the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. More contemporary examples include House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, and Kapow! by Adam Thirlwell among many others.
Ergodic lit has been around for several decades now, and can trace its roots back even further than that, to things like concrete poetry and calligrams. It has recently taken on a new relevance now with the increase in digital publication and distribution on digital media. Although devices like the iPad offer opportunities for rich multimedia experiences—combining video, animation, audio and interactivity along with a narrative (this is very popular in digital children’s books, for example)—there is a growing group of people who believe that books can still offer a better reading experience than can be had with digital devices. I’m working with this in mind. My research includes things that were developed specifically to be something that is impossible, or very difficult, to recreate in a digital format. They are experiences unique to a printed manuscript.
I started my research into ergodic literature last semester. This culminated in an outcome demonstrating some ideas of my own: a short story (about 3500 words) that required the reader to destroy the manuscript in order to complete the text. I felt that was quite a successful outcome. However, I also wanted to focus more on pure design, color and typographical elements as ways to help tell the story. My current work for my master’s project emphasizes these aspects.
The story I’ve written is relatively short—only about 15,000 words—but still provides many opportunities for using ergodic techniques within the manuscript. I’m currently in the process of designing the actual layout and (with the help of several very gracious friends!) having it reviewed and edited for errors and readability. I intend to have a number of limited edition copies produced with a print-on-demand service, and available at the Norwich University of the Arts MA Show in September. Since I need to have the book printed before the hand-in deadline, my personal deadline has to be two weeks before that. I’m at a good spot right now in terms of work completed vs. work remaining. (About three-quarters of the way through the manuscript design, and perhaps half way through the entire project for print.) But it’s still quite a lot of work, so I have to keep after it!
More coming as the project develops…
This series was developed last term in response to the brief on memes. I felt that my original thinking on memes was too transient. Picking any sort of pop-culture or current news item just ensures that the idea will be stale in a few weeks’ time, once the interest in that thing has passed. I decided to refocus my efforts into doing something that had a little more staying power and punch.
I was already working with universal archetypes for another project. I came up with the idea of taking archetypes as they were depicted in Renaissance art, and updating them for the modern day. I already really enjoy doing style parodies of artists, so this gave me the chance to do even more of them. They’re just too much fun. The downside was that this project took a ton of time to complete. (As I said to a friend: who would have thought painting like Michelangelo would take more than two days!?) I ended up spending the better part of a month on these three digital paintings, along with three other final projects. This series was the second of three pieces comprising my end of the term Research into Practice portfolio.
The System Admin
In classical Greek mythology, the Delphic Sibyl was an oracle and keeper of arcane knowledge. The image below is the Sibyl as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sisteen Chapel. She is shown in a seat of authority with a scroll depicting her knowledge.
The modern day version of the sybil would naturally be the system administrator. In the same way she controlled access to knowledge, so too does he control access to the internet, using the arcane knowledge of the workings of computers, with his power represented in his laptop.
The Cable Installer
The Milkmaid by Vermeer depicts a young, well built woman pouring milk from a pot into a Dutch oven. At the time this painting was completed, milkmaids were already symbols of love and sex—most crassly, of lust. Some artwork from this time period depicts this more overtly, but The Milkmaid is more subtle in its insinuation. Nevertheless, the interpretation would not have been lost on contemporary viewers of Vermeer’s work.
The contemporary version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid then, would not be the housemaid who comes directly into your house with temptations of lust, but rather the workman who installs one’s internet cable—which in turn allows an infinite number of women into one’s house via the internet. The cable installer brings the same sort of temptation into the home toady as the milkmaid was thought to have done in 1658.
Christ and the Cellphone
In the gospels, the Bible describes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The image here, Christ and the Good Thief, painted by Titian c. 1566, depicts Christ in that moment as he loses his life-long connection with God. (The version below is cropped to just show Christ. The original painting has him side by side with the good thief, described in the Bible as having asked for forgiveness shortly before he dies.) In this moment, the Bible describes how a darkness fell over the land. Jesus is quoted as saying, “… My god, why have you foresaken me?” This is the point at which Christ, having taken on the sins of the world in sacrificing himself, is unable to remain in the presence of the Lord. God turns his face from Christ, leaving him in a literal and metaphorical darkness—indeed, the first time in his life that Christ has lived (if only briefly) without this connection.
In a way, this can be seen similarly to living in our modern day society and losing one’s cell phone signal. For those who’ve grown up with ubiquitous access to information and people via the cell network and internet, the loss of this connectivity can be felt in a quite salient way. When it comes to day to day affairs and the coordination of efforts with others, without a cell phone signal, we feel effectively cut off from the world. A loss of cell phone signal is, in a concrete way, the modern day equivalent of Christ’s metaphorical loss of connection with God.
The actual paintings were painted digitally. This has several advantages: it’s far cheaper, less messy, faster (no waiting for paint to dry), and easier to fix mistakes. The downside to digital work is that it can look particularly digital. It can be clean and “computery”, which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to mimicking, for example, Renaissance paintings. Fortunately I’ve had a lot of practice over the years with “dirtying up” digital work, and I have quite a number of tricks I use to make things look more traditional. Copying the traditional aspect on the computer is half the fun. To complete the look, I had them printed with a high-quality six color archival roll printer on canvas paper. The piece de resistance was placing them in frames. Over the course of several weeks, I went searching through a few antique shops, and manage to secure three gilded frames. (And for not too much money! About £30 altogether, or about $45. But totally worth it, in my opinion.) So I submitted the whole package that way: three canvas printed digital paintings in three gilded frames. They were a big hit.
This was one of three pieces submitted for my Research into Practice porfolio. There was a huge amount of development that went into this over the course of the term. It’s almost nothing like the original idea I had, but much stronger for it. I’ll see if I can sum it up briefly below the video.
The original concept was to put on display a series of bottles containing the ashes of burned autographs of celebrities. From the very beginning, I was dealing with the logistics of such a project: whether or not to actually acquire autographs and burn them, or simply to imply that they had been burned. After all, nobody would be able to really know what kind of paper the ash came from, or if it had, indeed, once held anything like an autograph. A lot of the project depended on the faith of the viewer to believe what the artist was presenting.
For various reasons I won’t go into, the project evolved away from only using autographs to other types of artefacts, and away from celebrity, to the artefacts left by everyday people. There are plenty of antique shops around Norwich, and it was much easier to go out and find, for example, handwritten letters from the victorian era than it would have been to get some minor celebrity’s autograph off of eBay. (And cheaper, too.)
I had several conversations about whether I should actually burn these things, or just pretend like I burned them. It kept coming down to having faith in the artist to do what they said they did. Over the course of these discussions, I realized that even if I filmed it happening, it would still be no proof that I actually destroyed the originals. And so I decided to make this a key focus of the narrative.
The original narrative is straightforward: in destroying artefacts, we feel as if we’re somehow destroying a part of the person who made them. Even if this item was something lost in the back of an antique shop for decades, we feel a loss when it’s burned. This was the crux of my original idea, going all the way back to celebrity autographs.
However, the real story (in my mind) has always been about how we can know that anyone would actually take this step. Yes, you can see me burning it, but this really means nothing, because everything in filmmaking is so easily faked. (In fact, even if I did it as performance art, you still couldn’t be sure I destroyed the originals. All of sleight-of-hand and stage magic relies on just this thing: that by seeing something real and in person, it must be what actually happened. This is by no means guaranteed. So though it’s outside the purview of my expertise, this narrative could be adapted to work equally well as a stage presentation.) In any case, I’ve been fascinated with this idea of hyperreality (the inability to distinguish what is real and what is set up for the camera) for as long as I’ve been making films, and so made that the metanarrative which encompasses the entire film.
The ending is left intentionally ambiguous.
As mentioned in the previous post, the opposite concept for this task was a take on “function follows form.” The function—in this case a pencil—is completely secondary to the form or shape of the pencil. I did it in the style of a 1950′s ad, like something you might find in the back of a comic book or a rag magazine from that era. I had a lot of fun coming up with all the bullet points listing how this is superior to a pencil, while the ad completely misses the point that this fails at the most basic level of being a pencil. This one was a lot of fun.
This task involved two parts: one demonstrating an example of form following function, and one where function followed form. Typically it is said that “form follows function”. This means that something should first operate as intended, or accomplish some goal. The form or shape of the thing comes secondary to this. Not to say that the design isn’t important, but if something doesn’t work as intended, making it well designed doesn’t make it better. Going to the opposite extreme, then, leads to something in which its very design inhibits its proper operation—what is called “function follows form”.
For my “form follows function” task, I designed a visual recipe. This was an interesting challenge because—in the spirit of the brief—it first has to function as a usable recipe before all the fancy design is added to it. In this case, the design rather significantly departs from a traditional recipe, adding a visual diagram to the usual written instructions. The diagram acts as a visual aid, or shorthand way to reference how the steps of the recipe comes together, while the recipe itself is still reproduced on the page for clarity.
Although perhaps not a practical design in all respects (for example, long or extra complex recipes would need several pages of diagram, where just a few paragraphs of written instruction could fit on one page), it does still adhear to the “form follows function” philosophy. It (hopefully) works as a recipe, while bring a new design form to the idea.
I have a lot of work from last semester to get caught up with posting. I’ll be getting my feedback from the evaluation board this week, and spring semester starts next week, so I should start getting some of this stuff posted.
This video was in a response to a brief about Simplicity. We had to come up with a product or service that helped simplify life in some way, and then create a brand or ad to advertise it. I came up with an idea to simplify relationships by physically and mentally altering oneself or one’s partner in order to be better compatible. It’s quite a dystopian take on it. I also found out after I did this that there’s a dating site called Harmony. Makes sense for a company that deals with relationships, I suppose, even one as science fiction-ey as mine.
This was a response for my Award Specific Unit task “Headliners”. We were to respond in some way to an event making headline news. I chose Felix Baumgardener’s jump from the edge of the atmosphere as my event. I didn’t respond directly to the event itself, but to the particular opinion a lot of people have about how this sort of exploration is a waste of money.
Note to my readers: I’m cross-posting this article onto my personal blog from the school’s internal Virtual Learning Environment, since the forum engine there contains a number of bugs and auto-formatting issues that prevent it from displaying properly on that site. It’s a quick exploration of what makes memes, and how they can be harnessed to convey different messages. The first task associated with this project was to write a sentence explaining our concept, and then to link each word in that sentence to some other page, image or video on the internet.
Effective memes contain surprising and interesting juxtapositions—for example: I plan to take the recently retired, kitschy pop-culture Americana icon, the Twinkie, using its sudden disappearance from the marketplace as a vehicle to communicate philosophical discourse on the temporality of existence.
Although I’m not the sort of person who really stays up to date on the internal workings of the pastry industry, it seems the bankruptcy of Hostess (who owns the Twinkie brand, among many others) was not a surprise to those in the know. Apparently the company took a bad turn under new management about eight years ago, and it’s been down hill ever since. The latest round of union talks was a last ditch effort to save the company, and when the baker’s union decided not to compromise, the entire 15,000 person operation had to fold.
It seems like kind of a silly thing, and in a sense it is. The Twinkie is a quintessential bit of American pop food culture, like the potato chip*, Tang, or apple pie. It’s a small, oblong yellow cake filled with cream. It’s not actually that good. And yet, it’s taken on almost legendary status. It’s the whipping boy responsible for obesity. It’s often cited as the poster child for the survival of the nuclear holocaust: a foodstuff so devoid of actual ingredients that it will never spoil, even through the long nuclear winter. It is, for all practical definitions of the word, a meme.
More importantly, it’s also a guilty pleasure. Americans eat them by the millions—or at least they did. Even if you were never the type to eat them, they were always there: a dependable mainstay on grocery store shelves everywhere. So depsite its disappearance—and despite the fact I think I may only have had one in my entire life, and I don’t even really remember it that well—it’s still kind of a bummer. The brand will live on, obviously; capitalism will see to that. But even aside from the brand, the meme is still there. In our collective memories, we’ll always have that little indestructable, nutrition-free yellow cake as the go-to butt of jokes.
* “Crisp” in British, though the term “crisp” seems to refer to a broader range of products in British than the American “chip” does.
These are the other two of the set of three manifesto responses I did. The first is a response to Metahaven, a studio and design research firm in Europe. They wrote an essay about the apparent impotence of manifestos. On the one hand they talk about a manifesto as a utopian form of thought, but then deride some (namely the First Things First 2000 manifesto) as being ineffectual. I guess that makes this a response to a response. So it goes with art theory.
[A manifesto may be an ideal—a Utopian form of thought. And like all ideals, the actions of those who espouse them always fall short. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the validity of the message.
The First Things First 2000 manifesto may not have led to change in the behavior of its adherents, but that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile message. The ideas of a manifesto stand, regardless of the hypocrisy of their conceivers. Furthermore, merely because the undersigned haven't changed, it could still be that somebody has changed. And then there is the degree of change. Perhaps it brought about a push in the right direction. A manifesto can be influential, without being life-altering. Dogme 95 is famous for not having been followed completely once by anyone, but that doesn't mean it hasn't inspired filmmakers to be more purposeful and straightforward in their approach. More generally, Al Gore is well known for living an ostentatious, consumerist lifestyle while preaching the necessity of conservation and environmental stewardship. He may be hypocritical, but this doesn't make him wrong.
While we should aspire to be better than hypocrisy, manifestos have myriad reasons to exist other than as a statement of principle of the undersigned.]
The remaining poster is a response to Milton Glaser’s The Road to Hell. It’s his take on the ethics of design, and how one can bend rules in progressively more sinister and underhanded ways, surely putting the designer on the road to hell. I decided to do the flip side of that, with the path to redemption. Things designers can do to make themselves feel better if they’ve gone a bit too far in the wrong direction.
I agree with Milton Glaser: we do need to start by acknowledging what we do. There will always be the concern of misrepresenting the truth. But as far as professional ethics go, there’s more to the picture. There are also things we can do right. We may have gone down the road to hell, but there are also things we can do on the road to redemption.
1. Design for charity.
2. Design a PSA.
3. Volunteer—not necessarily something design-related.
4. Do work for yourself.
5. Help the competition.
6. Don’t underprice your work.
7. Don’t apologize for your work.
8. Respect yourself.