Friday, November 21, 2008

Notes from a Juror

I was invited to Ithaca to be a juror for the Margaret Bourke White award, offered as a prize for an exceptional portfolio of work by a curently-enrolled Cornell student. As I write, I am reminded of my Cornellcentrism. Ithaca, for me is code for Cornell even though I did for a short while live and work in town, and had a life very separte from The Hill after graduating with a BFA in photography in 1981. It is to Cornell that I am returning. In many senses. The other jurors were Shirley Sammuels, Chair of the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, and Andrea Inselmann, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Ary at the Herbert F. Johson Museum of Art. (Shirley, Andrea I hope I have the title correct. This might show up on a google search.)
We formed a group of varied backgrounds but are asessments were pretty closely aligned. The winner of the award was aclear choice to all of us. The work had all we could ask for: profound concept, emotionally subtle and ambiguous, very refines visual language and craft, and clarity of vision. I can't write about the work in case the winner has yet to be notified.

A note about process. In the morning we worked separately to review the work and present our preliminary judging, then broke for lunch, and met as a team to reivew the 17 or 18 or 16 finalists. I was heartened to hear Shirley announce as she turned over the number tag for one body of work, "I hate this." ( Heartened? I am self-conscious of my tendency for being blunt, if not a little harsh with my students, and with my colleagues. For several reasons I often say what I think, before I think to shape my words. It seems so raw. I am afriad of my own directness I feel exposed for days. It's delightful to see it someone else. It becomes Shirley.) She then looked up genially at me and Andrea and invited disent. We nodded. We both deferred and agreed. Things we generally agreed on: craft and printing issue.

I took down a few notes regarding issues that consituted grounds for rejection. My biases:
1) photographs of "exotic" children. Effective image-making (of any sort: photograph, painting, drawing) connects with the viewer. Children, other than the very ill or damaged, are so open and vulnerable. Especially to a stranger with a camera. The child looks inquistively at this intruder, and in a fraction of a second the desire for connection is recorded. I'm not talking about images where children are actively engaged in an activity, or actively engaged with the photographer. It's too easy and (maybe even lazy?) connection. I ask for more of an image and I ask for a little more thought from the photographer. Children are not pretty examples of the innocence of the world, to be collected and displayed.

2) nature. The color, textures, patterns...etc of landscape are alluring and soothing. The light can be any range of colors we think reserved only for irridescent inks. That doesn't mean nature photography can't be moving. I just ask for something more than a proficient ability with one's equipment. Nature and optics do all the work. Again, I ask a lot of the photographer: not just aesthetic sensitivity and intelligence but conceptual maturity as well. William Henry Jackson and his mule pack went to a lot of trouble hauling his darkroom up through Yellowstone. Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston and the f/64 group from Point Reyes created impeccable "things" -photographs - physical objects. 30 years ago when I was an art student here we were exploring how to merge concept-building and complex visual story telling with the process of making photographs. Pretty images are enjoyable. I want the photographer to think, to observe and understand something new and I want her to share that with me.

3) The last category that turned me off was images of the "exotic". Moms in bright saris holding their babies, old men with dark skin and ragged beards, dirty children in the street, rows of brightly colored things in boxes and sacks, unusual practices with food… etc. The tourist with a nice camera can't resist making pretty images of coloring things. As a visitor from Richmond, I was keenly aware of the environment of Ithaca/Cornell on a snowy winter afternoon. Cool blue light filtered through the one north-facing window in the room. The color, the feeling --- something about this was deeply familiar. Like the smell of the old stair well left intact after the renovation of the building after my departure. We'd gone to lunch, all of us in black overcoats. I remembered the familiar dress code: dark, heavy and layered. Dark, by comparison to Richmond. Cornell students travel. Some for research. Some as adventure tourists. Others travel from other continents to study there. I wanted more than something that reminded me of how colorful the clothes and spices are in India. Maybe it's the Cornell foundation in me, where the cold long winters inspire students to stay in and work hard, but I'd like an image to work harder for me. I'd like to see that the one snapping the shutter has something to say beyond, "Look at this!". It's very hard, as a tourist, to go below the surface. Even as Annie Leibovitz said in her recently-aired interview ( the surface can be a rich theme, but then she knows why that is and has thought a lot about this.
Shirley had succinct way of evoking "the gaze". I stay away from referring to this. It's such a huge, never ending idea. I wander off on tangents. I need to write next, before I go to far (and from here I'm off to San Diego for the NCA convention) about my visits with the Cornell photo students.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Election Day

Quick notes. I hope I can return to this. Two weeks late or two weeks later this has lost urgency.

On Monday night Don set the coffee maker up for me to just turn on when I woke up at 4:30 am. My bag was packed with camera, advil, pens, notebook and snacks for a long day. I have not been taking pictures. I haven't wanted to step outside and survey critically the activity around me - Obama headquarters. Canvassing in neighborhoods where I was a visitor, a representative of the Obama campaign. I'm sorry I didn't take pictures but it takes a leap of self to step outside what I'm doing and be an observer. I wanted to be right inside this. But I was still closely to jumping out of my skin. I kept leaping ahead to Wednesday when it would be decided but I wanted to be present in Tuesday, the day when millions of Americans would be casting their votes.

I packed extra chairs in the car with a vision of sitting quietly behind the election officials signing in voters. A large empty gymnasium with a line outside in the hall. I drove around the corner in the pre-dawn drizzle and picked up Marty Gravett, a friend, mentor and fellow musician: today my poll watch partner. We followed the Mapqest directions south down Broad Rock Blvd, looking for the turn to Snead Road and J.L. Francis Elementary School. (The night before Marty and I and the other poll watches squeezed into the already overcrowded back room ---the now-familiar sight of folks talking into cell phones referencing clipboards and laptops sitting anywhere possible. The poll watchers were the ones crowded around Sean, the area coordinator, who was handing out lists of registered voters in each precinct for us to track who had voted and who had not as the day progressed.) We overshot our turn off. Both of us hoping the cold rain wouldn't be scaring off voters. By the time we got to the school, we could see the parking lot was full and the over flow continues down the road for several tenths of a mile. It was the first indication that something very big was happening.

We made our way past the long line that had formed way before the polls were due to open. It was just 5:45. Officials held us back at the door to the cafeteria then let us pass when we presented our letters from the Democratic Party. Marty and I glanced at each other. The chairs were unnecessary. Small cafeteria chairs were stacked against the wall. We unpacked our bags and took our places behind the pairs of poll workers. When Sean handed me our assignment he said, "Oh, you have a good one. It's one of the largest in Richmond." Now I saw the implications of that. Normally there would be two pairs of workers signing in voters. (A-K, L-Z). Here there were four sets: (A-E, F-K, L-R, S-Z) which meant that Marty and I would be trying to listen simultaneously to two pairs at work.

At 6 am, somewhere declared the poll open and the stream began. At first it was difficult to figure out where to station ourselves to hear and see the names of voters as they were checked off and handed tickets to take to the machine. They were supposed to call their name out, but most mumbled or spoke quickly. I was frantically trying to hear a name, peek over a shoulder at a tiny 8' type name on a photo id, at first one table than another. One set, two women were trying hard to help me out. They would look at me and make sure I heard the name, if I looked unsure. The other couple, a pair of men seemed mildly annoyed (and at times plainly so) at my presence. Within minutes of the polls opening, the small cafeteria was packed. Each table had a line snaking around to the doors to the hallways. There was a steady din of conversation and voter intake. The vast majority of the voters were African American. Many dressed for work in blue-collar jobs (many with blue collars). A lot of young men exercising their right to vote. Older couples. Moms and grandmas with kids. Women in high heels. Women in sweats.

If I could only record the varieties of expression: harried, calm and very confident, happy, strong, excited, tired...The man with his wife who when asked if he was going to vote replied with some sadness, "No". The men checking off his wife’s name nodded understandingly, sympathetically. It took me a moment to catch on to what I wasn't privy to and then realized that he very likely was a convicted felon who lost the right to vote. Something very familiar to the families in this community. A small window into a world I can't imagine. One --- only one --- woman complained about the 2-hour wait in line. An overweight white woman maybe in her 40's, in a sweatshirt and sneakers. Hard to speculate about her story. But I did. I would see an elderly conventional-looking white couple (the entire day I saw out of a more than 1,800 voters maybe five or six such couples). "They won't be on my list of canvassed Obama supporters," I would say to myself to protect against the disappointment of a vote for M/P. Several times they were. It seemed like a wonderful victory. The polling numbers showed African Americans were favoring Obama by a huge margin so I made some assumptions about voters even if they weren't on my list. But what excited me was the guy in line who I easily cast as a skinny redneck, whose name was on my list. It was a game and often I was surprised to folks I would have targeted otherwise to be Obama supporters. I made some guesses about the young large white mom pulling at her kids who wasn’t on my list. A Christian homeschooler?

I dearly wish I could have counted the number of times I heard, "I've never voted before." "This is my first time voting". I would look over and try to get a look at a birth date. 1950's. 1940's. One poll worker told me about the 88-year-old African American woman who was voting for the first time in her life. Finally by 11:30 am the lines dissolved into one or two folks, maybe a few more in line. Sometimes nobody at a desk for a few minutes. Mid-day when the cafeteria was filled mainly with poll workers a woman (I soon learned she was in her early 50's) came rushing in. I recall something about boots and skinny jeans and curly hair dyed yellow. An impression of something fancy and flashy. "I couldn't sleep last night," she announced paces away from the table. She was so excited to vote for the first time in her life.

As I was calling totals in to headquarters Sean responded that they were great numbers. I could only guess what that meant. Maybe, knowing the make-up of this precinct that high numbers were high numbers for Obama. I am pretty sure that the campaign knew just what sorts of projected numbers for turn out in key regions could mean for an Obama win. I think they knew when the vote was close to even between M + O but Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads were still being counted that the scales would tip securely.

Marty and I packed up sometime around 4, although I didn't want to leave. It made no sense to take photos at that point. But I could have. I just could not bring myself to violate this precious event by documenting it for myself. As we said our goodbyes to the poll workers who had been friendly but by training very neutral, several hugged us and thank us and I did the same. One of the women (whose name I forgot) said, as I was packing up to leave, “Tell Sean I said ‘hi’ Tell him I'm the one with all the signs in my yard. I had tears in my eyes to see how close we were to that same feeling of hope and excitement but she hadn't been able to say anything except this all day.

More About Canvassing

A note about canvassing. Back and forth.
Memory and narrative shifts from present to past, ahead and back. I just realized that I needn't care so much about the linear order of this narrative.

We were sent in pairs out into the neighborhoods adjacent to Woodland Heights. If you don't know this neighborhood in Richmond, you should understand that in this small, contained neighborhood bounded by city parks on the east and west, the river on the north, and Semmes Avenue to the south the majority of homes have Obama signs in their yards. The campaign clearly recognizes the voting patterns of this precinct and is not concerned about either voter turn out or allegiance to the democratic ticket. But just 1/2 mile or a mile south, and a mile west the neighborhood is predominantly newly registered working class, and predominantly African American. These neighborhoods were especially critical for gaining voter involvement.
Several times during a route when I engaged a resident who answered the door, I found myself welling up with tears (of relief, of gratitude, for the connection to this other neighbor on the other side of the door or the threshold, in response to the sheer enormity of the prospect and the depth of my hope). My experience of Richmond is of a divided city. I cringe to say this. White and black. I cringe to see how simplistic and damaging this is. Before I continue, how do I change that? Please write me if you have any thoughts. Is it true for them? The folks I was canvassing? Another part of my tears: for that division in my own mind. As I write, I think that may be the thing that triggers the intensity of emotion. The sense of division within myself. The sadness in response to that.

One day my partner (friend and neighbor, Cathy Nelson) and I walked up to a house on our list of voters to canvass, with a woman sitting on the porch on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. A few men were walking out of the house, one with a can of beer. We identified ourselves as with the Obama campaign, making sure that folks knew where to vote and asking them if we could count on their vote. One man laughed and thanked us and then with a very thick slurry speech, called out something like "next a Chinese American, or a Mexican American!" On several occasions, I had been self-conscious about my pronunciation of words. Did I sound like a Northerner (even worse, a New Yorker?)? A very white person? A white, privileged person? A person for whom the right to vote and the security of a good education is assumed?

A note about now, and today. As I write this post, I recognize things about me that surprise and sadden me. My own divisiveness. But recognizing this as my frame of reference at least awards some connection to self. (“Oh, so that’s how it is”.) Facing myself, facing oneself. I am posting from Ithaca, New York where I am a guest critic for the Photography classes. I met with the seniors today and was unnerved by the very dense opacity in their verbal presentations. I heard fragments, and ideas, and references to readings. They talked about irritations and frustrations and attempts and desires but the motivation behind their work escaped them. It is so painfully familiar this stage in the creative process. Of desperately plumbing for some connection to self with very few tools to excavate. I’ll write about this another time, I hope. But the point I wish to make is that revealing parts of the self is so incredibly difficult and laborious. But we all try so hard. How noble.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Late October

I loose entire weeks. There is no consistency from one day to the other. I think about writing. But that's not at all the same as writing. With a family, and work and any spare time for friends... or for the past month on The Campaign. Any time I could find away form work or family, I tried to take a canvassing shift. I felt so deeply that Obama could win and wanted to do anything I could to be a part of making that happen. I brought Henry to vote at city hall (early absentee). He was uncharacteristically patient and even. We waited a half hour, listening to folks describe how they had been in line earlier only to be evacuated by a fire alarm. We were a few minutes away from voting when the alarm went off again. We waited outside for another half hour before a voting officer summoned those of us still waiting around to another municipal building. There we waited another half hour for them to haul the machines over and set up for us. It was almost 5 when I cast my ballot. We'd been in line since 2:30. I let Henry vote for the local offices. Later we went to Obama headquarters. I wanted Henry to be in the midst of it: see the rooms packed with folks on the phone, entering date on laptops, scurrying around, conferring, sharing stories..., and for him to feel the excitement.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More About The Visit to The Upper Mattaponi: Context


This is turning into a three-part, maybe four- or five- part entry. But before I get into my statement about materiality and material culture, I’ll sketch out some context.

Our visit with Chief Ken Adams was inspired by a call from the INDIGO Design Network out of Australia, Mix08 project (visit the “project” at to review the brief). I received an e-mail notice about the project and was briefly at a loss for connection. Indigenous people in the US? Indigenous isn't commonly a term we use for the Native American, or American Indian population. The term indigenous conjured up something exotic and foreign, like the Maori of New Zealand or the Aboriginal People of Australia. This summer I was in Canada and had read in the news about current efforts to provide restitution to generations of children forcibly relocated to residential schools, isolated from family and community and prohibited from speaking their native language. The personal stories are unbelievably sad.

I read the call from Australia and felt a responsibility to bring this into my Senior Seminar class. I have a tendency to approach projects outside my area of comfort. I tend to see Seminar as a place for all of us to engage in a topic, or concept, and explore it together. This has both exciting and dismal possibilities.

I made a connection with Kareen Wood, director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (see links) and tireless advocate for the rights and recognition of Indians in Virginia. She arranged the visit with Chief Adams.

This is really what I wanted to write about. I tried to provide some contextual readings, about colonialism and “reading culture” (things like an annotated reading to the class of Babar the Elephant, Edward T. Hall, Edward Said, and Barthes) and specifically, about the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, also referred to in the 18th and 19th centuries as The Adamstown Band, a so many had the last name Adams. Prior to the field trip (about 45 minutes drive northwest of Richmond) the students gathered in groups to compile questions. Things as commonplace as what did they eat and where did they work, and harder questions about the Baptist Church that now forms the centerpiece of religious life. The list touched on history, present and future; and on the issues of living on a reservation, and not living on a reservation (the Upper Mattaponi own their land. It is not a reservation, which would be owned by the US government).

They asked me what I expected. I told them I really had no idea, and then amended that. I expected Chief Adams would talk with us and tell us about his experience. I expected to be able to walk around on the land and get some sense of what it sounded like, and smelled like, and looked like. I still miss the textures, and smells and sounds, and colors of the hills about Amherst, Massachusetts. As much as I’ve lived in Richmond (longer now than I lived in Shutesbury as a single person up in the hills), I’ve not been able to connect to the landscape. I expected to be visiting someplace that for thousands of years was home to the same lineage of people.

I need to ask them to write about their own expectations.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Visit to the Upper Mattaponi tribal land

Last Monday my Senior Seminar class at VCU and I piled into a few cars and drove out to the tribal lands of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe of Virginia. I drove up with Kareen Wood, director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. During the 45 minute drive (x2 for the carload that got lost but eventually found their way) Kareen spoke with me about the issues of ownership, and how the conflict between the native Americans and the Colonists created a deep clash that continues today. The Upper Mattaponi own their land outright, unlike a reservation where the land is "managed" by the resident tribe but owned by the US government. We met with Chief Ken Adams in the parking lot, where a weathered hand-painted sign marked the Sharon Indian School, Home of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, est. 1919. Most carloads of students flew right past the gravel parking lot beside the small brick building. In fact, that signage and the Baptist church next door fit in neatly with the surrounding material culture: this might have been just another few buildings on the side of a busy rural highway ---which, in fact, they were. More about this later...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On or About Photography

I'm assembling readings for a Sophomore class titled IMAGING. I'm treating it like a Photography class. I am drawn back to, and repelled by, the discredited eponymous discourse on photography by Susan Sontag. One critic suggests it might be better titled “Against Photography” (Sorensen, Sue, “Against Photography”, in Afterimage , Vol. 31, Issue 6) A Wikipedia writer writes, “reviews from the world of art photography that followed On Photography’s publication were skeptical and often hostile.” I would add that they continue to be. But there is something to her polemic that questions ideas about creativity that we hold to be sacred. I’m not saying I would defend her positions but I am forced to consider that there is for me some aspect worth consideration in many of her arguments. I’m considering her statement “The final reason for the need to photography everything lies in the very logic of consumption itself.” Certainly, this can’t be the final reason. And she might be right: there is no thing left unphotographed. But the idea of consumption deserves a little more attention especially given the way her critics dismiss the text as now lacking all credibility. What if she is partly right? Can that be allowed? Aren’t we in some way consuming images --- consuming media --- with an automatic mode of processing given the shear quantity those of us on line are exposed to, and the distractions? To what are we responding? Is there a dialogue? Can this be a dialogue?

Monday, August 11, 2008

setting intentions

Setting Intentions: back to this idea.

I was asked to help coordinate the preparation of the preschool facility for the return of the children for the 08-09 school year at Sabot at Stony Point School

Two significant connections:
1) it is from Sabot and the reggio-inspired philosophy that I have developed this focus of intentionality as hub for motivation and action.
2) assuming this role of coordinating folks to get work done has led to many unexpected connections: a neighborhood community center for at risk youths was the first to call to claim the free stove and fridge we needed taken away so that we can convert the kitchen to a utility/diaper changing area (somehow disconnecting the stove and building a changing table on top of that chafed against my aesthetics). Building a community center is an enormous undertaking that creates a call to action for an ever-expanding set of skills and talents. Sabot is now a part of this.
Another call came from a theater group : The Conciliation Project ( whose mission states, “We believe that there is hope through constructive dialogue and active listening. We believe we must be willing to listen to one another and address our past if we are going to be allowed to have a future.” I couldn’t offer a stove but I did ask how my students can contribute their creative energies.
We’ll meet to consider collaborative possibilities.

What if I established an intention for my semester, or even my entire school year, drawing on the theme of the ICOGRADA design week in Doha, Qatar in March of 2009 ( Collaboration.

The first time I began to consider the necessity of Intentionality came after a retreat at IMS, the Insight Meditation Center in Barre Massachusetts. Insight, or Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation practice. The associations of intentionality and Buddhism are too vast to describe here. A longer essay for another day.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

report from Clifftop

How to reconcile the various fractions or facets of our life into one comprehensive whole as "designer", or is designer just one piece of something else? Do they battle each other? Is being a parent in battle with being a tenured member of the faculty of a university design department? Is playing classical music from written pages in conflict with trying to understand (well enough to play) old time fiddle styles? Is writing a blog just one more facet, or is it the agent tying it all together. Writing about what is being attended to (like laundry or better, the garden) at present. And crafting some sort of public text/image persona that evolves and shifts. In some sense this blog is as comprehensive a story as anything a single incident or image could represent. A journal that is both public and private, both a private statement and a request for some resonance in the internet universe.

I've loaded this single image from Clifftop, the Appalachian Stinrg Band Festival in Clifftop West Virginia. For those wanting more, please check out the wealth of video offerings on youtube. This year's videos of both informal campground jams and competitions are just starting to appear. Clifftop is about music and dancing, and the renewal and continuation of friendships who share a love of old time music and dance. I rarely photograph jams. Either I am playing in one, or I'm more interested in listening. An image of folks playing music doesn't do what this one image of dancers does to explain the cross-generational and gender-equal (this is debatable, of course but note that four of the five finalists in the fiddle competition this year were young women) view of the culture at Clifftop --- here, flat-foot dancing. A man —who could be my father if he were still alive, a woman close to my age, and a girl just about the age of my son Henry dance together. Watch each other, study and learn, and relate in a way that only music can create unspeakable bonds.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Notes from New Views

I just sent my feedback to Teal Triggs. As I'm trying to get done all I want to do before packing up for Clifftop (officially: The Appalachian String Band Music Festival,, I'll enter here some of my comments. I'll continue to add and revise as what transpired at the conference begins to sink in and integrate.

1. Please describe and/or visualize, the methods and process by which your Conversation Cluster facilitated your conversation and to develop its findings (If a visualization, please feel free to send this as a separate pdf file).

We began with a lot of questions. I regret I didn’t document this process ---- the questions ---- the way we began to fill out our newsprint posters.

I suggested we might just be asking questions, but even as we agreed we began to make some definitive statements, e.g.: interdisciplinarity is inherent in practice but it is in pedagogy that we feel there can be enhanced intentionality and a richer theoretical and methodological framework.

We asked more questions. We engaged a lot. No one person “had the answer”. We split up into three groups and worked in smaller teams to address questions we found most compelling.

We circulated among the groups.

From my perspective, there was not a single facilitator. Each member took an active roll leading an idea. A very democratic, fluid process.

2. What did you learn from your participation in NV2?
That hierarchy can choke discussion.
To listen better, and to continue to place this as a priority
To trust my instincts
To love the process of group truth-finding
To engage
To work harder to sustain conversation. With the standard format for most conferences, to our solitary presentation, we often arrive (if not slightly nervous or excited) focused on our presentation, our theories, or projects, or presentation. Once we present, there is that sense that “our work is done”. With this format, our work just begins. Or so I felt. I feel a responsibility to continue the discussion and further explore issue raised by my cluster.

3.What challenged you?
I was challenged to listen with an open mind to some participants air frustrations that were what I would have called irrelevant. It challenged me to see how these concerns WERE relevant. I tend to maintain an optimistic view and was challenged to embrace those with pessimistic views or frustrations.

I was challenged by the view that “Graphic Design is in Crisis”. I developed a conviction that graphic design is undergoing an evolution and it is those who operated under previously–accepted assumptions and systems who are in crisis themselves.

4. What did you take away from this event? What was the key benefit or contribution that participating in the conversations provided? How did this add to your engagement with this field of design?

I took away the reminder that graphic design – as controversial a term as it is – is about making things. But just what those things are is up to us. It is the ambiguity of the term graphic that appeals to me and repels others. And this is what creates an exciting tension between discussion, theory and creating.

I am further reminded of how “truth” is built by discussion, and testing, and debate and by the acceptance of debate with out dialectic, or resolution. I think more now about embracing differences and not needing to have consensus or a single. Truth then is a dynamic weaving of truths.

I left with a very rewarding sense of having been part of a rich and intimate dialogue with designers, design educators, and students. The intimacy of the group allowed us to identify issues that are of concern to all of our colleagues and us.

I also believe strongly that this format is a radical new approach to viewing what interdisciplinarity means in design. This non-hierarchical format has paved the way for a huge shift in design conversation. Less about one person’s “wisdom and knowledge” and more about shared wisdom and knowledge. This sort of format seems to be leading in the evolution (not the careening toward crisis) of the profession.

Collaboration with Cuba

After the ICOGRADA conference, Claudio Sotolongo created a project to engage design schools in various corners of the western hemisphere: Columbia, Canada, Cuba, UK, US:

I just completed text to accompany the publication associated with the project:

The concept of “branding” has, over the past decade (if not longer) shoved itself into an extra-wide seat at the designer’s table, along with such design activities as political statements, publications and book-design and other fine print materials, web and interactivity. This is of growing concern to those of us who fear that the current generation of design students —or the current generation, period — may no longer be able to separate the concept of cultural identity from what they buy, and what they think about buying. This project is an effort to chip away at this link. It is an effort to ask students to look at the much deeper, much more human questions. Who are “my people”? Where do I live? How do I engage with them? What do we do/share/teach each other? How do we contribute to a “way” in which something is done/made/conveyed?

My students surprised me. When asked to define a concept for their piece, all of them seemed to be reacting to a perceived glut of messages of consumption and consumerism. As a group they seemed to say that they too were put off by the alarming quantity and ubiquitousness of the messages telling them what to buy and how to think. Maybe we teach them these things when we ask them to be sensitive to their environment: to take their ear plugs off and give the brain time to think about not only how their environment affects them but how they affect their environment.

To varying degrees students are “tapped” in to the media. One student uses this forum to create a piece about his connection to electronic music-making. For him, this project allows him to make a bridge between two passions: digital image-making and digital sound-mixing. He demonstrates a sophisticated desire to be “plugged in” to current aesthetic trends. Another student, also deeply affected by media, points to the disturbing way US media (television, film, video games) presents random violence in almost a pathologically casual way. Another student, also a musician, makes light of the unapologetically aggressive aspect of metal music. He was concerned about offending anyone with this piece, and had alternative text lines, but I encouraged him to submit this one. Graffiti is another theme picked up by a student who calls attention to the way his friends are treated like criminals: to a city that looks at all “tags” as destruction of property even in places where serious artists with highly-evolved styles have found canvases in hidden culverts, and abandoned buildings other wise giving over to urban blight. This ethics of graffiti is hotly debated around here, and this student uses this forum to make a legitimate statement about legitimacy.

Other students take on more personal issues. One student is active in issues that call attention to inequalities in social welfare — a product of capitalism, one might say —, and is trying to come to terms with her sense of injustice and her chosen profession. She sees this project as way to address her concerns, both personal and political. Another student’s concerns are personal: recoiling from the obsessive consumer culture to promote her love of making things herself. An example of when the personal and the political become one act, one intention.

What makes this project so valuable, partly in hindsight is that it allows us to begin to look at how culture and identity are inextricably linked to consumerism in societies driven by capitalism. Graphic Design is indivisible from politics and economics, especially in such fields as branding and advertising, but this project tells us that graphic designers need not be driven my these forces. The most powerful force we, as graphic designers have to counterbalance is the way mass media chips attempts to chip away at our impulses to build community and identity around what we truly desire, experience and want. This is one project that allows us to see that the drive for authenticity is alive and flourishing with students around the world.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


I once heard Lou Danziger, one of the "old school" (more on this later) design educators ask his summer students what "design" means. We gave many answers, but the one that I recall most is the one he offered: "to do something with intent. As in, 'to do something by design' ". This was characteristically Danziger whose focus was on clarity - optimal clarity. Throughout the course over the next few weeks, I sensed he was easily irritated by dense ambiguity. It was difficult for me to meet his wave length.

That said, after returning from the UK last week from the New Views conference, I created a list of intentions for my return (afterall I gained 5 hours. I could use them wisely.)

1.) blog more
2.) organize my millions of images ( I shoot a lot with my easily concealed Lumix) and build a current flickr site.

I'll write about the New Views conference later this weekend. It's Saturday. I have some new herbs to plant. My son and I are talked about a trip to the park to play disc golf.

A primary intention: to be outside.