Two great photosets of books on Flickr, both via Coudal: Spies Lies & Alibis and Pulp Sci-Fi. Related to each are these selections from McSweeney’s: Jean-Paul Sartre’s script for “Without a Trace,” and Selections from H.P. Lovecraft’s Brief Tenure as a Whitman’s Sampler Copywriter. The latter had me laughing out loud at random intervals throughout the day. Beware!
Some amazing videos of how the mind processes magic tricks from the Mind Science Foundation. Great performances by Teller (of Penn & Teller), pickpocket Apollo Robbins, and The Amazing Randi. I stumbled on these somehow after reading this article from NYT, written on the occasion of a new study in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, which is available here. From the Nature article’s abstract: “By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory.”
The Drake Equation is “an attempt to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come in contact.” It was theorized by Dr. Frank Drake, who is best known for being the founder of SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence. Drake proposed the equation in 1960, the same year the physicist Enrico Fermi proposed his Fermi Paradox, which asks why “if a multitude of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the Milky Way galaxy, evidence such as spacecraft or probes are not seen.” One suggestion for the reason for this is called the Zoo Hypothesis, which suggests that aliens may be present but that they might “generally avoid making their presence known to humanity, or avoid exerting an influence on human development, somewhat akin to zookeepers observing animals in a zoo.” Another suggestion is known as The Great Filter, which “acts to reduce the great number of potential sites to the tiny number of intelligent species actually observed (currently just one: ours). It might work either by one or more barriers to the evolution of intelligent life, or a high probability of self-destruction.” While SETI implies a more passive search, METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), is described as follows: “The science known as SETI deals with searching for messages from aliens. METI science deals with the creation of messages to aliens. […] [METI] pursues not a local and lucrative impulse, but a more global and unselfish one—to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation ‘You are not alone!’” Attempts at METI include the beautiful Arecibo Message and the highly symbolic Pioneer Plaque, both well worth a look.
”I have throughout almost my entire life searched for means for flexible standardization. The objective is standardization that does not force life into any kind of pattern, but rather, on the contrary, increases its variety. […] The blossoms of an apple tree are standardized, yet they are all different. This is how we, too, should learn to build.” A thoroughly Shakeresque thought from designer Alvar Aalto, and the title of a new show dedicated to seven of his buildings at the Tartu University Library in Finland.
In the annals of great film soundtracks, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off must rank up there somewhere. Amazingly, a soundtrack album was never issued—it seems director John Hughes was worried his selection of songs was simply “too eclectic” and didn’t cohere into a unified album. Fortunately, you can get a track listing here. I mean, remember when they drive into Chicago in the Ferrari and Beat City by the Flowerpot Men is playing? Awesome.
After I finished the first verison of Graphic Design & Critical Thinking up in December 2006, I remember thinking: “That was so intense, so fun, and I learned so much: but how am I ever going find the energy to do it again?”
Fortunately the answer came by way of my fabulous co-teacher Luke Bulman, principal of Thumb Projects in Brooklyn, NY. Luke took all the great things about the first class and not only kept them but made them better. Rather than sticking to a format where we were leading discussions during every class, Luke suggested that we let students conduct their own discussions in the form of interviews, or Q & As. These interviews would be recorded and form the basis of the journal project, a centerpiece of the class.
What’s so important about the class journal is that in most other forms of graduate education one of the imperatives is to publish, yet very often MFA Graphic Designers, who are perhaps the closest of anyone to the tools of publishing, do not take full advantage of their abilities. At RISD, we’re hoping to build up the tradition of a class journal during the first year, a classwide discussion that forms the basis for students’ thesis work in the second year. Luke’s training as an architect brought essential depth to the students from that area of theory, with which he is much more familiar than myself having trained at Rice as an architect. The result is was a richer journal in every way, and by building the more visual “Projects” into the syllabus as a compliment to the readings, we were able to spend as much of our classtime showing as telling.
Finally, as I was wrapping up the 2006 class and getting feedback from students, I asked them to pardon a particularly inelegant piece of writing because it was simply the best articulation of that idea by a graphic designer. “Why does it have to be by a graphic designer?” one student rightly asked. “This class should be about reading the most useful ideas by the best writers, whoever they are.” I couldn’t have agreed more. In the second time around, with Luke’s invaluable help, I think we finally got it right.
On a recent episode of Philosophy Bites, I heard Donna Dickenson refer to the longstanding Common Law practice that once something is removed from your body it becomes designated as “res nullius,” or “no one’s thing.” During the interview Dickenson mentioned the seminal Moore case, which challenges this idea. The case is summarized by Wikipedia as follows: “[In 1976] John Moore underwent treatment for hairy cell leukemia at the Medical Center of the University of California at Los Angeles under the supervision of Dr. Golde. Moore’s cancer was later developed into a cell line that was commercialized, and the court ruled that Moore had no right to profits from the commercialization of anything developed from his discarded body parts.”
Kevin pointed me to this collection of logos for national tourism bureaus for countries throughout the world, a relative of our state tourism bureaus, discussed in the Logo Doctors column “Road Trip.”
David Brooks’s recent NYT column “Lord of the Memes” is a bit extreme for my taste, but nevertheless it’s worth reflecting on. He writes, “Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture [one] enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider [one] uses to store and transmit it. […] [P]restige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever.” (Feeling uncomfortably meta right now as I write about writing about writing about culture….)
An oldie-but-goodie today, from Lorraine Wild’s 1996 Emigre essay “That was then and this is now: but what is next?” (aka “The Macramé of Resistance”). This list, in my view, is as inspiring now as it was then: “[T]here are other things that must be added to the education of designers to enable them to participate as something other than visual packagers […]: writing as a means of conceptual and expressive development; techniques of verbal expression, rhetoric, narrative and story-telling (the engineering underneath verbal communication); the grammar of film, particularly the syntax of editing, cross-cutting and sequencing in time to create narrative; sound; the grammar and psychology of games, which function as narrative structures as surely as story-telling or film; techniques of visual rhetoric, syntax and semantics, using examples from the high art to popular culture, including advertising; the awareness and critique of communicative systems as artificial constructs; understanding the social, cultural and functional possibilities within the realms of real and simulated space, the public and the private; collaboration; “knowing what you don’t know,” looking at models of other team-produced design (advertising, film making, architecture) that involve negotiation and accommodation, complex technical processes, and the negotiation of consensus; […] a history that expands to include a social and cultural development of media; and perhaps in contradiction to the last few points, a more serious consideration of fantasy, surrealism, game playing, pranks, simulation, bricolage and other forms of marginal subversion to map out the spaces in between, the entrepreneurial possibilities as a source of stimulation and creativity in approaching new media with a free hand.”
Artist Fritz Haeg was recently interviewed on his “Edible Estates” project for Studio 360, and I found his ideas on provocation in art very interesting. He said, “I’m ultimately just really interested in this contrast between taking something that’s really primitive and old-fashioned and almost kind of ‘grandma,’ like a vegetable garden, and making it provocative. Because I don’t think it’s interesting anymore to be provocative with violence and sex and all of those things that are very easy to turn off. We don’t respond to them any more because we see them so much, but I think there’s more subversive ways to be provocative. Today it seems like it’s with knitting and gardening and things like that. They go against our highly mediated and commercialized society.” As digital things become the norm in our culture, I wonder how this trend situates the analog things Haeg is interested in, the kitting, the vegetable gardens, etc, along a more subversive and provocative axis of activity.
Brian pointed me to a great project in LA called The Public School. The website is kind of a mix between a wiki, a blog, and a registrar’s office. Anyone can propose a class, people sign up for it, and if there’s enough interest, the class is offered. I loved their formula for assessing the cost of each class: “(Hourly Teachers Fee x (Classroom Hours + Preparation Hours)) + Materials + (Administration + Overhead).” If you’re living nearby, it might not be too late to sign up for Luck, taught by Xárene Eskandar, which starts on 13 August at 7pm. The course description reads as follows: “The true nature of luck and how to make your own. A self-help course for artists and others. Jean Cocteau: ‘Of course I believe in luck. How otherwise to explain the success of some people you detest?’”
David Byrne & Brian Eno’s new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today has a great Sagmeister-designed website that launched recently offering a free download of the single “Strange Overtones.” I’ve got it playing now, and I’m loving it (thx Kevin).
I admit it: I am a man with a weak spot for monospatial typefaces. I have already been seduced by Pica 10 Pitch and Century Schoolbook Mono, but now along comes Kobi Benezri’s lovely Lettera, which is based on one of Müller-Brockmann’s designs for Olivetti. And if you still need more, well, check this out.
I’m not sure Nick Currie (aka Momus) quite hits the nail on the head when he writes that “Design is, you might say, having its Marcel Duchamp moment,” but his article for Frieze is certainly noteworthy nonetheless and worth a read (thx Brian). Update: Gary pointed me to this earlier piece of Currie’s, published in 2005 by AIGA Voice, with essentially the same thesis and set of references.
Alert! A vintage FTD Rainbow Mug, seen most promiently on Mark Owens’s great postcards for his project The Free Library, is up for sale on eBay. According to the seller, “FTD First came out with this idea of coffee cups flower arraingments in the late 70’s and continued through the mid 80’s. But they had the best response with the RAINBOW MUG! This really brings back good memories of a great time.” I couldn’t agree more. Update: The commercial for the FTD Pick-me-up Bouquet is (of course) available on YouTube. Internet mon amour.
It’s 2050, and you have amassed a library of some three million PDF documents. Ten years earlier, amid bad management and shareholder uproar, Adobe was forced out of business, and a new format has emerged as the portable document standard. With support for PDFs dwindling each year, where do you turn to access your information? The Format Exchange, built by the visionary Long Now Foundation, is “a central repository and discussion space for file format conversion to aid in knowledge transfer. The goal is to build a community and tool to help allow the information we are all now creating digitally to move into the future.” Brilliant. Update: Scott wrote in to share a few more thoughts on this: “You may want to check out Library of Congress MARC/XML and PDF/A formats. They are great archival digital formats that forward thinking people are working hard at. But note that even though the formats may be accessible, big businesses don’t often implement the standards. […] The latest Wired magazine also displays the exponential decline of our data storages life expectancy. Stone tablets have been found up to 7,000 years old and the CDs we burn last about 5 years.”
A CLOSE READING
In Robert Musil’s book The Man without Qualities, General Stumm is in the Royal and Imperial Army while serving as a Council member of the Parallel Campaign, a group charged in 1913 with planning the celebration of the 70th jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria five years later. The Austrians have decided to celebrate this particular event because of a similar celebration being planned by the Prussians, honoring the 30th year of their Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign, also in 1918.
Neither empire would see its celebration come to be. By 1914, Gavrilo Princip would assassinate the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Europe would be plunged into WWI. By 1918, both empires would be reformed as republics poised for collapse by 1939 in the build-up to WWII.
None of this, of course, is anything that General Stumm or his fellow Council members could possibly know. Not Count Leinsdorf, the Campaign’s indecisive chairman; nor Paul Arnheim, a wealthy industrialist; nor Diotima, the wife of a prominent civil servant whom both Arnheim and Stumm desire; not even by Ulrich, the book’s titular “man without qualities,” a lapsed soldier/engineer/mathematician, who was having a midlife crisis at 32 when his pushy father decided to draft him into into diplomatic service on the Campaign opposite his cousin Diotima. It is Diotima’s idea that the Campaign’s output should result in “human unity.” And it is in pursuit of this unifying idea that Stumm, the orderly General, “invades” the State Library.
The 100th chapter of Musil’s book opens as Stumm speaks in a Council meeting about his adventure in the library:
An image of the first digital bitmap display, which was called the Graph’G Beamturon, was developed by the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study in March 1955. The specimen letters read E-C-P-I-A-S, an acronym for the project.
Nicholson Baker reviews Ammon Shea’s “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” for the NYT Book Review, peppering his prose with playful sentences like this one: “Shea arrives at another bad patch partway through Chapter U, with the ‘un-’ section—more than 400 pages of words of self-evident meaning. ‘I am near catatonic,’ he writes, ‘bored out of my mind.’ But he doesn’t skip; he is lashed to the tiller, unthimbled and unthrashed.” Now, back to my ploitering…
I was recently reminded of this stellar article by David Robbins for Artforum in 2004 entitled “Concrete Comedy: A Primer.” It’s pretty much all quotable but here’s a taste: “By 1920 or so, then, the two foundations of concrete comedy have been established. From the comedian Karl Valentin we get the idea of an invented, theatricalized context. Objects and gestures of the Valentinian persuasion stand on their own merits as comedy and infer their own comedic context. Artifacts created and gestures enacted by figures such as Jack Benny, Robert Benchley, the Ramones, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, David Letterman and Jeffrey Vallance are appropriately placed in this category. Of equal weight, import, and value are comic actions that explicitly recognize, engage, or activate context, including the art context. Use of context as a material is a possibility derived from the example of Marcel Duchamp. The comedic output of Marcel Broodthaers, Andy Kaufman, Maurizio Cattelan, and others fall into this category.” Any list that mixes Jack Benny and Andy Kaufman with Duchamp and Broodthaers is unquestionably onto something.