Earlier this year I learned I had received the Katherine Edwards Gordon Rome Prize for Design 2014–5, an honor that will bring me to the Eternal City for six months starting in September to record a series of audio pieces on walking in Rome. An excerpt of my proposal, “Walk with me: Responsive guides to Rome” is shared below. Translator William Weaver, whose interview spurred my proposal, passed away last November, about two weeks after this was written. He will be greatly missed.
My project came into focus after reading a taped, transcribed interview from 2001 with celebrated translator and former American Academy in Rome member William Weaver by the Paris Review for their series, “The Art of Translation.” I have been interested in Weaver for some time, having delighted in his translations of Eco, then Calvino, and then other Italian authors since I was in high school. But I’m also interested in the figure of the translator within the discourse of graphic design. In his essay “Designer as Author,” designer Michael Rock proposes the translator as one of three alternative models for articulating a designer’s activity. “Design is, in essence, the clarification of material or the remodeling of content from one form to another,” he writes, calling translation “a second art,” that is “neither scientific nor ahistorical,” with each attempt at translation conveying a certain time, place, and attitude. As with the role of the translator, “the designer is the intermediary,” Rock suggests.
The Paris Review interview with Weaver is wide-ranging and digressive, covering everything from how Weaver first came to Rome with the American Field Service during WWII, to his travels, his process of translation with various authors, his thoughts on language and performance, and his work as an opera critic, biographer, and teacher. However, there were four anecdotes he shared that help to trace the contours of my proposal. I’ll splice the first one in here. Weaver describes refining a translation:
Quite often it can be technically correct but not sound right. The rhythm isn’t quite right, and maybe it just needs a comma somewhere, or something like that. This is particularly true of Calvino. With Invisible Cities I read the whole book aloud. Charles Darden, an American friend who was studying music in Siena, about twenty miles away from my house, would come over for weekends because I had a huge Steinway, which he liked to play. And on Saturday after dinner we would have an extra glass of wine, and I would read three or four “Invisible Cities” — my week’s work — to him. It was an enormous help. It wasn’t a question of getting the words right; it was a question of getting the sound, the pace and the cadences right.
Weaver couldn’t refine the translation entirely on his own. He had to do it over successive dialogues with a friend. The language was not just read it was performed, and it was done in a convivial setting, with wine and music. It is especially fascinating that Invisible Cites — a book that is structured as a series of conversations and whose subjects include topologies, urban inventions, endless potentials, and a guided tour — was translated this way. Calvino was interested in cybernetics: he gave a well-known talk in 1967 called “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” Cybernetics is a discipline that attempts to theorize the complex interaction of people and technology through the metaphor of guiding or steering. Integral to cybernetics is the notion of feedback, a word with many meanings.
Weaver’s next anecdote touches on this:
I had problems with Calvino because he thought he knew English. He would fall in love with English words. Every now and then he would fiddle with a sentence in his English. At one point he fell madly in love with the word feedback, and he didn’t realize that in America feedback is like closure or spinning out of control, something you hear constantly on television. It’s jargon and cliché, and you can’t use it anymore. The word is dead to literature, but to him it was new and fascinating. He thought it was fun and so he kept putting it into this story where it really didn’t belong, and I kept taking it out.
Feedback is a set of reactions to be read and interpreted. Here, Weaver resists Calvino’s feedback about “feedback.” He rebuffs Calvino’s reaction to his suggestion, his critique. Though Weaver suggests the word is trendy and “dead to literature,” Calvino, whatever his English fluency, may have been right. It’s still a word that’s with us. Weaver points out that it’s constantly heard “on television.” This, too, is telling — a technological word that arrives mediated by technology. Objects that broadcast an output signal like televisions and radios may get feedback distortion from receiving that information back as an input signal. Indeed, in cybernetics feedback is how technology shares information about itself to be interpreted by someone or something else. Between the oar and the oarsman there is feedback. Between the boat and the water there is feedback. Like Weaver and Calvino, or Weaver and Darden, or Weaver and almost anyone he describes, there is always a dialogue. Today, the word feedback is often aimed at a collective subject. “Call in and tell us your feedback,” says the anchor on the nightly news.
The third anecdote I’ll splice here from Weaver’s interview is about the mediating effect of technology on language. I’ll set it up by explaining that just before this point in the interview, Weaver has described how mass media has lessened the use of regional dialects in Italy:
I had a gardener in Tuscany. When I first knew him in the early sixties, we’d be in the vegetable garden and I would say, Arriguccio, do you think it’s going to rain today? He would look up at the sky, lick his forefinger and hold it up and say, No, I don’t think so. I think it’ll be OK today. By the end of our association, twenty years later, I would say, Arriguccio, is it going to rain today? And he would say, Well, there’s a low-pressure mass moving in from northern Europe … He would quote me the TV forecast, which is always wrong. He was much better when he licked his forefinger! Obviously, not just his Italian but his whole life had been influenced by television.
As someone who spends so much time outdoors caring for nature, the gardner’s lived experience is reliable, and he has developed a number of techniques for reading his environment on which others, like Weaver, have come to depend. With the mediated language of the weather report, the gardner’s home-grown intuition is substituted for abstracted data, to less accurate effect. Despite the fact that more standardized Italian might make the job of the translator easier, Weaver seems to mourn the change. Perhaps language is more straightforward, but in that case there’s less to translate. The localized, instinctive, human source, which provides so much of the translator’s spark of insight into the deeper meaning of a text, is gone.
Finally, I’ll bring up a soundbyte of Weaver describing his walks in Rome:
At Moravia’s there were a lot of Italian people, but there were Americans too. That’s where I met Francis Steegmuller. He liked to take walks, and Rome was a great city for walking. In those days people would call you up — Elena, who liked to take walks, would call up at lunchtime and say, What are you doing this afternoon? Why don’t we take a walk? You can walk practically everywhere in Rome and you see interesting things. I used to do the same thing with Eleanor Clark, who was a serious walker, with her notebook and her pencil out. Moravia took endless walks every day by himself. I would run into him on the street, and he would say, What are you doing? And I would say, Nothing. He’d say, Well, let’s walk, and we’d just walk up and down the streets with no particular aim. It was a city where you really felt that you could meet anybody. I mean, I could have met the pope. Well, I actually did meet the pope!
Weaver walks with people from in town and people from out of town. His walks are often unplanned and their routes, like derivés, are improvised. Some walkers record, transcribe, or translate the walks. The encounters, intersections, and discoveries he finds along the way are unpredictable and highly localized. He suggests the best way to understand Rome is by walking it with a friendly guide in this way. Moving through the city, in dialogue, with feedback, invariably uncovers a hidden Rome, a Rome deserving of a special kind of interactive translation.
In HTML, a hover (or a:hover) is one of four pseudo-classes that can be added to an anchor. Links have two anchors, a source and a destination. The markup for a link defines them both. A new link can be expressed as a:link. Once it’s been visited, it can be expressed as a:visited. The moment of clicking the link can be expressed by a:active. Approaching the link, nearing it, can be expressed with a:hover. Unlike new and visited links, hovering leaves no visible trace and creates no visible record. It’s a game of peek-a-boo. For a moment, the page reveals something more about itself than it has first expressed. At this moment we glimpse some key vulnerability — what it would like you to do, what you could do, what it thinks you want, what it wants you to want.
We used to point at what we wanted with a mouse or a trackpad, including the verbs to thread it all together with meaning. This PRINT that. This SAVE that. This LOAD that. This this this this BOOKMARK. Pointing required confirmation, and it created a delay. I’m pointing at you, you said. You’re pointing at me, it said back. Correct, you said. That all took a moment. In that time, it was easy to change what we were pointing at, or decide not to point at the verb that would make the pointing real. To hesitate. To reconsider. Across the room, you might glimpse someone, who might furtively look back for a moment. Suspended for a moment. Verbs, however, are literal. Once verbs were involved, you were involved. You’d made a choice.
In the age of touchscreens, though, the hover state has started to disappear. Touchscreens use direct manipulation. Here, there is no confirmation necessary because there’s no distance. No one knows you’re watching. You’re invisible. Then, suddenly, your touch signals a presence, a desire. It feels more immediate to you, but the touchscreen is in the dark. It has nothing to tease you with, to hint at, to make you want, because it doesn’t know you’re there. And crucially, it’s mute. No verbs. Not this ROTATE that, just a gesture. Not this CLOSE that, just a gesture. A mouse grazed. The touchscreen gropes. Instead of a softshoe, there’s a cartwheel. Instead of acknowledging the screen, the new illusion is attempting to dematerialize it.
This is an understandable progression. Perhaps it’s the course we’ll stay with. Nevertheless, I will miss catching a reflection in the shop window late at night. Watching ripples on the water after someone’s been sitting by the lake. Feeling the breeze kick up all of a sudden and then fade away, leaving the world silent and still. Not gestures I’ve made, but momentary, vivid, fleeting apparitions that inhabit an unknown space. On a screen, images might fade up over columns of text like ghosts only to disappear again. Grave faces in black and white might colorize and and glint back at you. A cursor might swing like a flashlight in the dark, never coming to rest. Day-glo gradients might twist like kaleidoscopes on a cracked display. I might skim the surface of words and find worlds upon worlds. I might see my breath and gasp, for a moment, at the invisible made vivid. If interactive technology really is a branch of cinema, as technologist Ted Nelson insists, I hope the show’s not over.
But energy moves around. As I write this, the Democrats and Republicans are in a standoff, with the US government in a state of temporary shutdown. At some point, there will be some kind of resolution, though not necessarily a lasting one. For now, though, the story is about the standoff. Standoffs are interactions that precede real choices. Each side attempts to signal to the other what could happen, but communication is oblique and obscured. Earlier versions of this standoff linger in the background like a haze. The two sides sit in an unnatural state of suspension. They are not flying high or standing still. They are circling each other. They are hovering. You can never hover forever.
To celebrate the Cooper-Hewitt’s iteration of Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibition on Governors Island in 2012, co-curator Ellen Lupton organized a panel discussion that included Michael Bierut, Alice Twemlow, and me. I was delighted to take part. AIGA/NY has a full video of the discussion here. My comments are below. — RG
I was so pleased to be invited by RGD Ontario to speak at their annual Design Thinkers conference, held in Toronto from 2-3 November 2011. They encouraged me to tackle any subject I wanted to, and, though I considered many options, I was most excited to to continue investigating the use of metaphors in design, particularly in the design of interfaces, which was a topic I had started thinking about in earnest earlier in the spring. That investigation was prompted by reasons I discuss in the talk, but there is some shared territory between this talk and my essay “I am a handle" for the Bulletins of the Serving Library. That essay came first and is the more literary effort; this talk both refines and adds to the essay’s thinking, but it’s a bit more nuts-and-bolts.
One thing I was happy to see was how many other speakers at Design Thinkers — including Craig Mod, Christian Schwartz, Jessica Hische, Robert Wong, and even the great George Lois — reflected on this topic, directly or indirectly, through their own talks.
As I was preparing the talk the world also said farewell to the incredible Steve Jobs, and I think much of what I’ve described here represents a study of some of the lessons I have learned from his astounding work and legacy. It’s also interesting to note how quickly things change. In 2011 the debate around skeuomorphism and realism in user interface design was raging; posting this now, the debate has moved to the subject of flatness. The final part of the talk, which is not included in this video, was to touch on this “life cycle of metaphors,” which I argue become more common as they become more networked. Verbally, this cooptation of the original metaphor results in new buzzwords. Visually, the same operation results in new styles. For Apple, removing the buttons people were used to using on their cell phones meant rendering new buttons that were “so good you could lick them” — a surrogate that was good enough to click. As people have become more comfortable with the flat surface of the phone, however, buttons need no longer signal that same candy-curved surface in order to afford clicking. As Jobs himself noted to the New York Times when the original iPhone was released, not only had he removed buttons, he had overhauled the very operation of clicking-to-act with the principle of direct manipulation. “In [old] systems,” he noted “users select an object, like a photo, and then separately select an action, or ‘verb,’ to do something to it.” However: “There are no ‘verbs’ in the iPhone interface.”
My thanks again for RGD Ontario for the opportunity, inspiring occasion, and good company.
This talk was given at the Tishman Auditorium, The New School as part of the event “Project Projects Project Projector,” sponsored by AIGA/NY. As a prompt, Adam, Prem and I were asked to speak about how our passions informed our practice. My comments about “computational poetics” (for lack of a better phrase!) follow below.
I want to start with this familiar image of Google auto-complete. It’s interesting how the web is a kind of machine for generating and organizing text — you put text in, you get more text out. And there are algorithms that structure the text output, so when you make a search, you expect something specific to happen as a result.
Here’s a website we made last year for an exhibition at Harvard that takes its name from Dante’s famous epic poem — it has a different kind of search bar.
You input text, but the field doesn’t behave as you’d expect — rather than searching the site, it searches the entire web. And rather than behaving consistently, its behavior changes, cycling through a series of searches from Google Images…
…to an Italian translation of your search phrase.
This isn’t anything new — machines have always changed the behavior of text, and the creation of a new tool often alters the usage of an existing one.
This text was commissioned by Dexter Sinister for The Serving Library. It was originally delivered as an iChat “lecture,” from a studio in Manhattan to a library in Banff, Alberta, on 11 August 2011 at 12:32 PM Mountain Time.
I am a handle, writing you with the same software that is writing me.
When I carry one idea over to meet another, it’s a metaphor I’m making.
This class took place in January 2012 during RISD’s Wintersession period. A website documenting the students’ coursework is available here. The results of the class are also described in my talk Unbuilding.
To have big, we need small. To taste sweet, we need sour. To see a letter, we need the space around it. Identity is a study in contrasts; our character is made as much by the things we’ve chosen not to do as by the things we’ve done.
More than seven years ago, I taught the fall semester of senior thesis at Parsons School of Design in New York. It was the first of two thesis semesters for my students — I would help them to frame their ideas and initiate a few key projects in the fall, and they would complete their work and install their show in the spring.
I taught in the spring as well. Unlike thesis, my course that semester was an elective studio for seniors. Many of the students I had in the fall also signed up for my elective in the spring. Enrollment in the two classes was nearly identical.
But the class had changed. Fatigue and frustration had started to set in among the group. Students described feeling uninspired and unsure of what they were doing. As a gesture of understanding and solidarity, I retitled our studio “Antithesis,” which, if nothing else, might help to lighten the mood.
This is my third Wintersession course, and I’ve noticed that the dark days of January can produce a similar effect at RISD. Year after year, I join you at a piviotal point: not starting out anymore, but far from finished. In spite of its joking tone, Antithesis 1 was a great success; this year, I thought I’d give it another try.
… it’s a funny thing to take a trip, you almost never come back the same. Have you ever been tempted to get on the wrong flight? When you arrive at the airport, you check in for your flight to Helsinki but consider going to Venice instead. There’s a strong wish to react to life’s present situation, to swap one circumstance for another.
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” — David Byrne
A few years ago, after being invited to serve as a critic for final reviews at an MFA graphic design program, I found myself riding home with two designers and an architecture critic. Each designer had an MFA from a different program, and the architecture critic was working on a PhD. I have a BA. All of us teach at the graduate level while working actively in the profession. After catching up a bit with one another, our discussion returned to the critique. “Why do the students talk about their personal lives so much in explaining their work?” the architecture critic asked. “What do their biographies have to do with it?” While it is certainly valid to question the place of personal histories in a professional context, to talk about ourselves and our stories, it nevertheless seems a persistent inclination among designers to so. We hardly know weʼre doing it — look, I’ve opened here with an anecdote drawn from my own life story.
Perhaps part of this is that there is no one else to write these stories for us. Whether overtly biographical or simply self-referential, design remains even today in the peculiar position of having its history and criticism written largely by and for its own practitioners. Since most of us are involved in making things, we write quite naturally of the hows and whys of making them in a collective effort to evaluate a design’s production. But what’s gone into our own production? How are designers produced?
This talk was given on 15 November 2012 at the Build Conference in Belfast.
Thanks to Andy McMillan and to everyone Build for having me here. I also want to start my talk today by saying thank you to Ethan Marcotte, who’s speaking today, for leading the charge on Responsive Web Design. There aren’t a lot of things that come along that really change the game for how you think about what you do, but, for me, Responsive Web Design was one of those things.
Before I started working on the web, I worked as a print designer. If you’re designing a book, there’s only one page size and everything comes from that. You spec the type, define the baseline grid, and shape the page. The format, in many ways, forms the design.
A responsive design for the web, however, is shaped by its context. It adapts to how you’re viewing it. Rather than assuming a fixed form, it embraces fluidity. It uses one code base to serve many different situations. It does this elegantly, even beautifully.
The practice of Responsive Web Design is shaped by its context as well. While it exists as an invention, it also exists as a critique. It critiques fixed-grid layouts, for example, since they cannot scale responsively — in fact, it critiques fixed presentation methods of all sorts.
Instead of seeking a lowest common denominator for a site’s presentation, or fragmenting it across several subdomains, Responsive Web Design says you can have it all: presentation needn’t be singular, and fragmentation needn’t be necessary. A site’s design can be both variable and total.
This is a really big deal. It seems simple when Ethan describes it, but it’s a fundamental shift in thinking about how things for the web are made.
Ethan’s piece on A List Apart started with a quote from John Allsopp’s “A Dao of Web Design" about ebb and flow. In that article, Allsopp adapts a number of Taoist teachings into guiding principles for the web. Emptiness is not on Allsopp’s list, but he might have included it. Here’s what the Dao teaches about emptiness:
> We pierce doors and windows to make a house; and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends. Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11)
A house is the space it contains and the space it releases. Its windows frame space through absence. A house interacts with its environment through the portions that are either removed or never built. As much as a house is defined by its building, the Dao says, it is also defined by its unbuilding.
This is a talk about unbuilding.
When we think about building, we think about a lot of things. For example, we think about what we can build, and that takes knowledge. So building is about learning, building skills, building with those skills. But in order to learn, we must also take the world apart a bit, unravel it, examine it up close. In other words, we have to unbuild it.
To build anything revolutionary, we’ve got to be innovative. We’ve got to invent new strategies, new approaches, new tools. So building is about inventing, making new, even surprising our competition. But in order to invent, we must also shake things up, disrupt our normal process, reorganize. Again: unbuilding.
And building is undoubtedly about growth — making something bigger. Maybe scaling by a little or a lot, but bringing things to the next level. And doing that involves — you guessed it — unbuilding: disseminating your point of view, dispensing your product, diversifying your capital, all that.
Learning and unraveling, inventing and disrupting, scaling and disseminating — you can’t have one without the other. If building is the call, unbuilding is the response. They are two sides of the same coin, each constituting the other. Far from opposite of building, unbuilding offers an opportunity to see what it means to build from a fresh perspective.
Let’s start by giving a little more depth to these concepts — here’s building on the left and unbuilding on the right.
While building is planned, following a step-by-step path, unbuilding is reflexive. At last year’s Build, Wilson Miner reminded us of the Marshall McLuhan quote “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” — that’s a reflexive thought, it works in a circular way. Building looks forward toward progress while unbuilding evaluates and learns by looking back. Building involves skills and know-how; unbuilding requires inquiry and investigation. When we build we follow patterns; when we unbuild, we often find them. Building involves setting expectations, while the objective of unbuilding is often discovery. In building we place things where they’re supposed to go; in unbuilding we often try to misplace or creatively recombine them. When we build we build with intention; when we unbuild, we embrace chance. Building is a logical process; because of the element of surprise and wonder, unbuilding can often be an emotional process.
Earlier I said that while Responsive Web Design functioned as a practice, it also functioned as a critique of the practices that came before it and the culture that surrounded it. Art often functions this way too, and I want to take a look at some artworks today and see how we might learn from how they work.
This is Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” from 1913. Like Ethan’s idea of Responsive Web Design, Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” hugely influenced the art that came after it — it is widely regarded as Duchamp’s first readymade, kicking off almost a century of appropriation in the art world. But, like Responsive Web Design, the Bicycle Wheel is also a critique of the culture that surrounded it — specifically the culture of cycling and mass production, which by 1913 was about a century old.
So it’s reasonable to stop and ask at this point: How did Duchamp create this totally new approach to art? What strategies is he using here? If we were seeking this kind of insightfulness in our work, how might we systematically approach it?
We’ve already talked about appropriation — he’s clearly doing that — unbuilding our concept of what is original. Duchamp also said reflexively that “instead of choosing his objects, his objects chose him” and this injects a bit of chance into the imperative of artistic choice. I’ve talked a bit about how “Bicycle Wheel” negates the conditions that surround it — about bicycles and about art-making — and it does so through a kind of removal of the artist himself. We have an expectation about the role of the artist, so the work seems incomplete — even its author can’t explain what it means. This failure — to be meaningful in a comfortable way, to even to qualify as something we understand as art — this is built in to the Bicycle Wheel’s efforts at unbuilding its context.
So, I’ve named a few strategies:
and to these we could add even more:
Strategies like speculation: What will things look like in the future? Repetition: What do 100 of them mean? What about 1 million? Comedy: What does it mean if I laugh at this?
As we look at all these strategies that come out of unbuilding, I want to zoom in on four of them today — negation, removal, reversal, and incompleteness — and see how they function with examples in art, on the web, and elsewhere. A disclaimer: some of these strategies are complementary — a particular reversal might also be a negation of some kind, for example. My goal here isn’t to create rigid categories; I want to spark new ideas about how we work.
Negation as strategy
Let’s start with negation, and with the Canadian artist Jeff Wall.
This is an incredible image by Jeff Wall, stunning and complex. It’s called, simply enough, “Tattoos & Shadows.” In an interview with SFMoMA, Wall describes his process using this image as an example. He says, “I begin by not photographing.” So, if he’s out on the street and he sees something that strikes him, he simply doesn’t photograph it — instead, he memorizes that scene.
This image was made a year after Wall first saw it. There’s a different tree, fewer people, different people. But in his re-creation, Wall enhanced what’s powerful about this image — the temporary pattern of the light laid atop the permanent, inked patterns on his subjects’ skin.
Here it is in installation.
Let’s look again at how this image exists as a critique, how it unmakes the world of photographs, particularly everyday snapshots. Here’s two lists that work like readings on a set of dials.
I’ve already described how this work is re-created, remembered, and translated from life with Wall’s enhancements. As an art object, it’s also a lightbox, not a print, so it’s literally made of light. It’s large-scale and Wall does not edition them, so each lightbox is individual and original. And there is something controlled and knowing about the image that comes from Wall’s subjectivity and the year he spent thinking about it. It is self-aware and self-conscious, even though its source material comes from real life.
Negation works well on the web — you may be thinking of many ways already. There was an interesting project done last year by the artists Jonas Lund & Anika Schwarzlose called “This Too Shall Pass.”
This work was included in a group exhibition about photography and performance called The Second Act. A photographic print has been placed on a shelf attached to a shredder. When someone visits the website for the project, the shredder is activated for a third of a second. After enough visits, the entire edition is destroyed.
Wall’s type of negation is non-action; Lund and Schwartzlose’s type of negation is non-preservation. Unlike Wall, they present their work as an edition, but they also display that edition in a way that destroys it. And, importantly, they make a normally passive audience consider the meaning of looking at something.
The internet places us in an economy of attention. Here, that attention is heightened, even quantified, until the edition is gone. “This Too Shall Pass” unbuilds our feelings about experiencing art in a mediated way.
Negation can also function in interactive and participatory situations beyond the web. Let’s look at unbuilding a working process.
I am a thesis advisor in the grad program for graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Last year, I led a three-week workshop called “Antithesis” — so negation was clearly on my mind.
The class came at a critical point in the year — in January between semesters. Thesis topics were not exactly new anymore, and yet there was a long slog ahead in the spring. Fatigue, anxiety, maybe even a bit of discouragement were all setting in. Clearly, it was time to twist some dials.
Unlike the thesis, Antithesis was an optional class. Instead of a constant, year-long process, it was interstitial, happening during a “down time” in the year. We didn’t really have class meetings — instead, I spent my time hanging out in the studio. Everyone loosened up. After thinking intensively about the thesis for 12 weeks, it was time to stop thinking about it — at least, consciously. The goal was not to keep pushing forward on the thesis but to get new projects started in parallel.
Part of shaking things up was offering new prompts. Instead of honing research essays, we made tote bags.
Tote bags been everywhere recently, gaining significance as a social signaling device, particularly Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m not a plastic bag” — negation again.
We also looked at ways of mixing scholarly research in time and space. We looked at the supercut as a new way of mixing found video.
We looked at tabletops and “things arranged neatly” as ways of spatially organizing source materials and objects of design.
We finished our time together by making a website of our work.
It was only online a few weeks when one project, a tabletop exploration that came out of thesis research on the aesthetics of the novel, showed up on the Huffington Post and ping-ponged around the web from there. Soon after that, a supercut called “Cage does Cage” showing 4:33 of silent looks from various Nicholas Cage films showed up on BuzzFeed. My students were never expecting this kind of response to their thesis work.
When you’re in the middle of something complex and lengthy like a thesis project, you often know a lot more than you think. My students thought they were struggling; yet their ideas proved tremendously resonant —not just to the design community, but to the culture at large. They were doing a lot better than they thought, they just needed to change their process — to get out of a standard educational process that puts one thing after another and get into a looser, more associative process that let them to use what they already knew in order to ask new questions.
There’s a very smart curator named Charles Esche who’s the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Holland, and he wrote an article that went back and looked at the history of avant-garde art programs along with documents about how artists should be educated. There were a lot of disagreements in those documents, but he found three common threads.
"Anti-specialization" basically says that sculptors can do things other than sculpt and painters can do things other than paint. " Anti-isolation" or "anti-autonomy" basically says that art should matter, it should get out of the museum and touch the world in specific ways. And "Anti-hierarchy" basically says that making art should be available to everyone, not just to a certain class of people
Negation is in all of these — that’s where these disparate approaches to art education find common ground decade after decade. And every one of these ideas has already been applied to the web. When you think about anti-specialization, think about hackers and painters. When you think about anti-autonomy, think about doing things that matter. When you think about anti-hierarchy, think about the value of passion projects, startups, and all the amazingly talented amateurs online.
Removal as strategy
The next strategy — the strategy of removal — also connects to Esche’s threads. These threads don’t just negate certain conditions of art education, they also seek to remove the structures underlying those conditions. In order for anti-hierarchy to be a rallying cry, the hierarchies must first exist, and then they must be removed. So negation and removal are related.
And I was thinking about this as I went into a workshop in Italy this September at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. The workshop was part of a symposium on design education. Like Antithesis, the idea for this workshop was really simple. Instead of supplying a syllabus, I removed it. And instead of hiding that fact, I drew my students’ attention to it, asking them to write one of their own.
My model in this was Maria Montessori, who described herself as an anti-teacher — more a careful observer or a guide than a professor or instructor. What resulted over the next two days was a wide-ranging discussion about methods and models of education, educational debt, administrative hurdles to interdisciplinarity, and realizing the utopian dream of the open school.
Within hours, one group had posted a syllabus for open-source learning on GitHub and started to discuss it via Git commits.
Another group went out to film international students who discussed of impact the Bologna Declaration, which calls for educational compatibility in Europe, on their everyday lives.
Online, removal as a strategy translates just as well. This gallery of internet sprites by the artist and OKFocus cofounder Ryder Ripps takes the sheets of tiny image sprites used by services like Twitter and GMail and archives them. The sprite sheets were created to speed up the sites by reducing calls to the server for small images. But in removing them from their original context, Ripps presents the sprites in another way. These tiny images organize and spatialize the way we interact with these powerful platforms. What’s allowed, what’s encouraged, the color and shape of selection and refusal — they are all contained here. Ripps’s work has found a huge audience online, and it’s this unbuilding process that gives it much of its force.
Here’s an Irish example — Dan Walsh, an IT manager from Dublin, started the popular site “Garfield minus Garfield" in 2008 after being captivated by discussions of how the strip might be different if its title character was removed. It quickly became a phenomenon — 4 months after it launched, Walsh was getting 300,000 hits a day. Without Garfield’s witty thought balloons, his owner Jon Arbuckle’s deep pathos is revealed. Questions that Garfield’s creator Jim Davis intended as setups for the cat’s punchlines instead serve to express the deep disaffection and existential uncertainty of everyday life. This is a different kind of humor for a different kind of time.
And this generational tension exists in the art world too, for example in the now-famous erased Willem de Kooning drawing by Robert Rauschenberg. After visiting de Kooning in his studio to introduce himself, Rauschenberg asked the elder Abstract Expressionist for a drawing to erase. De Kooning, unsure at first, eventually agreed — but only after selecting a drawing that he would truly miss, and one that would be very difficult for Rauschenberg to erase. The process took Rauschenberg two months and raises all sorts of questions. Who is the author of the piece? Is this a creative act or a destructive one? Has a work of art been lost or gained? These questions, of course, are impossible to resolve — such is the beauty of the piece. Rauschenberg’s act makes meaning by turning loss into a material. The drawing was once about what had been created — Rauschenberg has converted it into something that’s about what has been removed.
Earlier this year, Wikipedia performed an act of self-removal in the face of concerns that the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act would do serious harm to free speech and free knowledge exchange online. For 24 hours from January 18-19, the site went dark and invited everyone to consider a world without Wikipedia.
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful gesture — by January 24, Senator Harry Reid and Representative Lamar Smith announced the test vote on their bills would be postponed due to lack of support.
Reversal as strategy
With that legislative about-face in mind I want to look at a third strategy, which is, of course, reversal.
Wikipedia doesn’t work without the technology of writing and a literate public. Yet there was a long time in human history when literacy was the exception, not the rule. Culture spread through speaking and remembering, not writing and reading. Even though we may already know these facts, often we still think about Homer’s Odyssey as a written text that we read silently to ourselves, not something that was designed to be easily memorized, spoken, and listened to.
In his book Orality & Literacy, professor Walter Ong analyzes this transition and theorizes about the impact of literacy on human consciousness. In describing the impossibility of understanding a culture that is primarily oral from the point-of-view of one that is primarily literate, he draws a comparison to the automobile:
> Imagine writing a treatise on horses (for people who have never seen a horse) which starts with the concept not of “horse” but of “automobile,” built on the readers’ direct experience of automobiles. […] Instead of wheels, the wheelless automobiles have enlarged toenails called hooves; instead of headlights, eyes; instead of a coat of lacquer, something called hair; instead of gasoline for fuel, hay, and so on. In the end, horses are only what they are not.
In a sense, Ong unbuilds the car to build a horse.
He ends with a negation: to unbuild the car to build a horse is not to build a horse at all.
Metaphors about technological progress often reference transportation like this — think about Steve Jobs’s “bicycle for your mind.” Or Ted Nelson’s recent suggestion at Brooklyn Beta that “Computers that simulate paper are like ripping the wings off a 747 and driving it down the highway like a bus,” which is an image that, once described, is difficult to erase from your mind.
These metaphors are so memorable because they place progress in reverse, and the illustrator David Macaulay has done something similar in his book Unbuilding, whose title might be a namesake for this talk. For many years, Macaulay has drawn an incredible series of books that illustrate how everything from pyramids to castles to subway systems are built. But in Unbuilding, he describes a future in which the Empire State Building is disassembled brick by brick in order to be shipped across the ocean to a foreign buyer. Tragically, in the story, the ship is lost at sea.
Why tell the story this way? A clue might be in Macaulay’s dedication for the book, “To those of us who don’t always appreciate things until they are gone.”
What does a building mean to a city?
What does a website mean to a society?
What does a drawing mean to an artist?
What does a character mean to a story?
What does a photograph mean to a viewer?
These questions are difficult to answer, and more often we don’t even consider them. But again and again, unbuilding is a process that asks us to confront these questions about the hidden forces that shape our interactions with world.
Pointer Pointer does this too. Using a large database of candid snapshots of people pointing in different directions, it tracks the movements of your mouse so that when you point, people point back at you. This simple reversal makes you eerily aware of the movements of your own mouse, while you’re confronted with goofy photos of strangers you never asked to see. Pointer Pointer raises questions about all sorts of things — big data, click tracking, and online surveillance, to name a few.
The personal website of the web designer Jake Dow-Smith asks a similar set of questions. What does a personal website really seek to represent? Is it a place to post ideas? Share photos? Link to external projects? Should it give a sense of who someone really is? These days, we do so much of our living through email, but how much of that process of living are we really allowed to see? When we log on to this site, we seem to be looking at Dow-Smith’s desktop, complete with incoming mail. Is this real? Are we supposed to be seeing this? Dow-Smith reverses what’s closed and what’s open on his site. Instead of portfolio materials, we get personal emails, grocery lists, even deleted spam. We’re left asking what we’d hoped to find, and what a personal website is really capable of sharing.
Reversal can be immensely appealing, too. When I originally dreamed up this talk, the first image of unbuilding that came to mind was this routine by Penn and Teller, which dazzled me on TV when I was younger. In this amazing sequence, they start with a pretty silly trick — Teller enters a rocketship and parts of him “blast off” all over the stage, until he is eventually recombined. It’s a pretty literal image of unbuilding in that sense, but what’s incredible is the reversal. Once they’ve shown the trick, Penn and Teller set about unbuilding it, brandishing a set of clear boxes to do the trick a second time, this time showing the secrets behind it.
The audience clearly likes the first version, but they love the second version. What’s so thrilling the second time around is not the trick itself — you already know what’s happening — but the process, the artistry, the craft of it. It’s like David Ogilvy telling you how to write an ad — it makes you want to hire him to write one for you.
Something in seeing this trick after all these years made me think of something I’d seen earlier this year, this incredible demonstration of the Kiva robot, which was shown by Kiva CEO Mick Mountz at TEDxBoston in June 2011. As you can see, the system literally unbuilds the warehouse, so instead of a worker going to the shelving, the shelving goes to the worker. At the core of this reversal is a human benefit — not only is the old method “an inefficient way to fill orders, it’s an unfulfilling way to fill orders.” In a single stroke, Kiva changes the warehouse’s architecture from fixed to emergent and the methods that it uses to choreograph shelves on the floor are now parallel, not serial. Kiva was acquired by Amazon in March this year.
Here’s another reversal I saw last year, this time by the architectural firm Interboro Partners. Every summer, MoMA’s PS1 invites a new young architecture firm to install a project in its courtyard. The installation offers shade, seating, and shelter during outdoor concerts that take place there throughout the summer. But while these concerts are well-attended by New York’s art and music scene, Interboro learned that many local residents of Long Island City had never visited PS1. A high wall around the courtyard only added more distance.
During the months leading up to the project, which Interboro called “Holding Pattern,” the architects surveyed the neighborhood, asking institutions what they needed.
The taxi drivers wanted a ping-pong table. The ballet school wanted new mirrors. The senior center wanted benches.
Interboro purchased or designed these items using the installation budget and held them in PS1’s courtyard for the summer.
Their eventual recipients were invited in to use them, give performances, host readings, and take part in the cultural life of the museum.
Interboro writes, “When Holding Pattern was deinstalled this past fall, we delivered 79 objects and 84 trees to more than 50 organizations in Long Island City.”
This is the best kind of reversal, of recycling, a social design process that works from the inside out.
Incompleteness as strategy
The last strategy I want to discuss, a bit more loosely, is incompleteness. We might call something unbuilt if it’s taken apart, but we might also consider something unbuilt if it’s never finished. And so to embed incompleteness into a thing is to leave it unbuilt — yet this is such a pervasive part of the web that it’s hard to even single out one example. What website isn’t being tinkered with all the time, changed, added to, improved? Isn’t incompleteness what makes websites dynamic, responsive, fluid, timely, adaptive, and all the rest? Of course it is.
One of the best places to see incompleteness in action is GitHub. This July, developer John G. Norman wrote a great post on his blog that described GitHub as “The Most Important Social Network,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. Norman explains how GitHub doesn’t just provide a decentralized method for collaborating on computer code, it also makes available and analyzable the very nature of human-to-human collaboration. GitHub unbuilds the way things get done. It assumes code is by its very nature incomplete, and in the process it gives us unbelievable access to the nature of work. Norman writes,
> Yes, I know that conversations on Facebook and Twitter have their purposes, but at GitHub, there is real pressure to move a project along and keep it alive. If you’re a scholar interested in computer-mediated communication, you ignore GitHub at your peril.
In February, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum took the very exciting step of releasing its collections metadata on GitHub using Creative Commons Zero, the most permissive license available. In doing so, the museum’s Digital & Emerging Media Director Seb Chan hoped that offering this information would make it more discoverable, allowing it to be searched from outside the museum’s own website.
Even more, he hoped releasing the metadata would inspire to new forms of interpretation around the collection. The collections metadata is incomplete in two ways — for one thing, as Chan notes, it isn’t the objects themselves, only information describing them; for another thing, it is only as good as what you can do with it.
Incomplete metadata is made more useful only when it enables an item from the collection to appear in exhibitions, catalogues, or other experiences. Chan asks, “Could GitHub become not just a source code repository but a repository for ‘cultural source code?’”
Langauge is a more direct expression of a cultural source code, and it’s being edited, tweaked, and extended all the time. Designer and illustrator Joe Davis’s website Telescopic Text takes a simple sentence, “I made tea,” and unfolds these three words, clause by clause, into a total of almost 200. In so doing, a simple documentary fact becomes an experiential, associative tone poem that’s as pleasant to play with as it is to read, as the words swirl around each other like milk in Davis’s teacup.
But much earlier, writer Jorge Luis Borges described this same kind of incompleteness in a lecture at Harvard titled simply, “The Metaphor.” In it, Borges shows how metaphors arise before language, before we find words to describe something. Then, as we share these concepts with one another, metaphors evolve into words. Borges jokes that “a word is a dead metaphor, which is a metaphor,” but then he returns to what metaphors can do and introduces the concept of openness, which is related to incompleteness — metaphors are open because they are incomplete. They make a suggestion we must complete in our own minds. Here’s Borges:
> Remember what Emerson said: arguments convince nobody. They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments. Then we look at them, we weigh them, we turn them over, and we decide against them. But when something is merely said — or, better still, hinted at — there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it.
And this idea of incompleteness is embedded in our legal system too — laws have amendments, precedents, arguments are overruled — the law is constantly unbuilding and rebuilding itself.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his iconic speech on race centered on a single phrase in the U.S. Constitution — the idea of “a more perfect union.” With this idea of progressing toward perfectability, the Constitution ensured its status as a living document, something that was simply a first draft, born incomplete, made more perfect with each generation, but never, truly, perfectable.
OK — I’ve covered a lot today. I’ve described a way that making things can critique the world around us, by unbuilding systems. I’ve described this kind of process as something that’s not opposed to building but instead catalyzes all knowledge, invention, and growth. And I’ve pointed to a few examples we can use in our own individual work.
But how about our collective work? I’ve described how you can’t build a house without unbuilding — but how about a community? Of course, unbuilding figures into that too. And in our creative community on the web, I believe unbuilding — how we look back on what we’ve done, reflect on it, find patterns, make discoveries, embrace chance and emotion as pathways to meaning — unbuilding is a tremendously important part of making our community stronger, pushing us further, and, most importantly, linking us to cultural conversations that are happening across disciplines.
A few months ago at our studio we met with a museum curator who was interested in bringing some of our work into her collection. And she looked at books, posters, identity manuals, exhibition diagrams, all these physical things, and that all seemed pretty easy to acquire, but when we talked about websites, she grew quiet. As we talked, I discovered that it wasn’t just the technology that made matters difficult for her, but the lack of a canon. “What websites have other museums acquired?” she asked. “It’s hard to start from zero.”
At that moment, I realized that we need to start building not just in a practical sense but in a critical sense. Together, we need to build a canon for the web.
This is a very hard thing to do. Our discipline is relatively new, it encompasses a wide range of skills and talents, its techniques are always changing — but with the publication of the late Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions in 2007, the discussion really seemed to get started. Soon after that Armin Vit wrote an essay asking “Landmark Web Sites, Where Art Thou?" and Khoi Vinh and many others promptly responded.
It’s tempting to say we don’t need a canon, but the curator who visited me, along with Bill and Armin and Khoi and all the others all have a point: canons are the sign of a maturing discipline. They build consensus, spark debates, establish throughlines and themes, and set the parameters for future critiques to undo. Web design may be a participatory practice, a political practice, and a commercial practice, but I also believe web design must consider itself an aesthetic practice — this is, after all, why many of us are here. And canons, problematic though they may be, have been the operating systems for aesthetic practices for a long time.
Andrew Blauvelt, one of our foremost critics of design and a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, published an essay in 2003 called “Towards a Critical Autonomy" in which he wrote,
> Graphic design must be seen as a discipline capable of generating meaning out of its own intrinsic resources without reliance on commissions, functions, or specific materials or means. Such actions should demonstrate self-awareness and reflexivity; a capacity to manipulate the system of graphic design.
So my question to you, today, is: Can the same be true for web design? Is web design a system capable unbuilding itself? I believe, and people like Ethan have shown us, that this is possible. What else is possible? When we think about what we’d like to build, let’s think about building a canon, even if it’s never complete.
The critic Susan Sontag wrote that “A complete set of something is not the completeness the collector craves.” She’s saying that the collector really wants is to chase after completeness — not actually to get there. Seen this way, the ever-evolving nature of our work is actually a thrilling aspect of canon creation, not an impediment to it.
Critique is a complex instrument. It dissassembles the very things it wishes to knit together. If you’ve ever “viewed source” to see how a web page was built, you know exactly what I mean. If we “viewed source” on our collective efforts at making meaning in our work, how would this work be built?
That’s exactly what we should try to answer next.