On ReThinking and ReMaking (2016)
In January of 2016, the 3D design department at Cranbrook Academy of Art was visited by artist/designer Matt Olson, who led a 3 day workshop that included readings and discussion as well as an act of making. I took part in this workshop and found that, while the end “product” of the workshop - a sculptural re-making of a photograph of Anthony Caro standing amidst pieces of his material - was ultimately unsatisfying and failed to capture the same aesthetic sharpness as the original picture, the readings and discussions leading up to it challenged a firmly held belief that was central to my understanding of what it meant to be a designer. Namely, that in order for my work to have value, it must be something original.
For as long as I can remember, originality has been a primary concern for me. Not so surprising, I think, in a culture that explicitly condemns copying from early childhood; that has an entire field of law devoted to prosecuting those who steal another’s idea. And yet, as I wade deeper into the world of design, past an endless line of “iconic” chairs and tables and lamps, through a perpetually regenerating stream of new design voices, the idea of creating something original starts to appear an impossible task. More than that - true originality itself seems to become less and less important, as a consideration of commerciality and referentiality find the designer justifying just the opposite.
I was at a loss, then, midway through my graduate education, as I struggled to free myself from the paralyzing nature of that realization without giving in to trendiness, to an easy thoughtless approach to creation for the sake of consumption, when Matt Olson provided an unexpected new angle for consideration. As one half of the design firm RO/LU, Olson had built his body of work on the idea that art history can become art resource. He immersed himself in design culture and saw in it not a shrinking island of new terrain to be explored, but a vast sea of thoughts to be reconsidered, remade, ultimately, rethought.
It was not immediately clear to me that this was not the opposite of my original point of view, but rather a total reconsideration of the field.
Part of my interest in writing this essay is to re-think the thought experiment that Olson performed when he composed this workshop, and so in re-reading the articles I strove not so much to analyze them in themselves, as to re-think what Olson was thinking when he read and selected them, so I will give a brief account of each here to inform the essay as a whole.
“Take Care” by Anthony Huberman (2011):
Huberman considers the way that museums and galleries might be changed to accommodate a different connection to an exhibition for both the institution presenting it and the visitors who see it.
Quote: “While the uptown museums conduct their art historical power games and the downtown galleries conceive their elusive tactics and smart chess moves, those eager for another model could perform the vulnerable, dangerous, and radical act of wearing their heart on their sleeve.”
“I (not love) Information” by Anthony Huberman (2007):
Huberman discusses the influence that increasing access to seemingly limitless information has on our collective sense that understanding is possible, as well as the way that the idea of understanding bleeds art of its potential.
Quote: “Curiosity is being castrated by information.”
“Compatibility Mode” by Seth Price:
Price explains why the modern condition of urgency is an enemy.
Quote: “I do believe that the urge to keep up with exhibitions and events, through travel and participation and trade mags, is ultimately a professional, or even a professionalizing, quality. But I don’t see myself as a professional, and I don’t think art is a job.”
“Art Which Can’t Be Art” by Alan Kaprow (1986):
Alan Kaprow considers how brushing his teeth consciously might be considered as a form of art. He feels that contemporary art has lost itself. The galleries, in bringing “life” into an “art context”, at first made life vibrate with the special quality of art, but now simply make art flatten into the banalities of life. Kaprow finds that by bringing an artistic attention to life, he can recharge both with meaning.
Quote: “Unless the identity (and thus the meaning) of what the artist does oscillates between ordinary, recognizable activity and the “resonance” of that activity in the larger human context, the activity itself reduces to conventional behavior. Or if it is framed as art by a gallery, it reduces to conventional art.”
The artist, in making art, applies a special sort of attention to the act (not just the object, but the act of creation) which contains in it an understanding of the “‘resonance’ of that activity [and object] in the larger human context”.
Therefore, there is such a thing as art, and it is separate from the “art context” (i.e. gallery, museum, etc.), which is merely a signifier to us that something contained within it is art.
“Pierre Menard author of Quixote” by Jorge Louis Borges (1939)
Borges describes how his friend Pierre Menard was engaged in writing Don Quixote, exactly as Miguel de Cervantes had already written it.
Quote: Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.”
The most transformative essay for me was the one by Borges, explaining how the act of re-writing Don Quixote was itself an important work of creation despite there being not a single new word in the entire text. Humorous in tone, the piece reaches towards something theoretically quite challenging. It asks us to see how placing oneself in the condition necessary to create can be considered a work of art on its own, and how the consideration of the author in this state can inform and enrich our experience of the work, even if we have seen and experienced the work already in another context. Once we’ve identified this as his point, we can begin to find examples of this in our own experience - the way we might have come to appreciate a work of art or a movement after learning about the conceptual underpinnings; the way we might come to love a band or a song after learning more about the group that made it; the way we end up nominating famous actors for awards when we see them in a particularly transformative role - not so much because of the performance itself, but because we know how far they must have stretched themselves to transform so completely.
In my own experience, I was immediately put in mind of the process of putting on a play. In the theater, we reuse texts countless times, never considering this to be copying or stealing, no matter how faithful we try to be to the original. In part this is because we recognize that context matters. It is also because with theater, we inherently, if not explicitly, understand that the art itself exists in the moment of performance, and that, despite the tremendous planning and preparation and rehearsal that goes into setting that performance up, the act of creation itself happens in that moment; the rest is all research and setting up the conditions for creation, the way a writer would consider character and plot, set up her desk, sharpen her pencils, or charge her computer before she began to write. If this is still too distant conceptually to reach, consider the actor herself: When an actor is handed a text, she must do her best to bring the words to life. She must create a coherent character using the lines of dialogue provided by the playwright. But words alone do not make a person. The intention, the context, the feelings we experience all come from us as people and inform the way the words are said, their order, and their ultimate arc. An actor then works backwards from the words to understand the context, the emotions, and from this, she must extrapolate the personhood of the character, in order to bring her to life, to create her, onstage. Menard, in Borges’s essay, goes through this process with Don Quixote, except that instead of trying to be Miguel de Cervantes, he attempts to live honestly as himself while being a self who would, and is, creating the novel Don Quixote.
This article struck a chord with me in particular because it helped me to see how my insistence on absolute originality was perpetuating the idea that in design, the entirety of the art existed in the object produced. Once stated, I knew instantly that my personal philosophy of design did not square with this. For instance, conceptual design, which I find particularly fruitful because of its potential to influence not just the user’s physical life, but their intellectual one, often relies on some narrative that accompanies, but may not be visible in, the object created. Dunne and Raby’s Technological Dream Series: No. 1 Robots uses simple, abstract forms as a substrate on which they grow their alternate reality, one which asks us to consider robots as emotional beings. This narrative is not visible in the objects alone, and yet we must consider it to be the heart of the work that is set before us. Accompanying videos of their use by someone who brings the story to the objects rather than discovering it within them, as well as a description of the project, allow us to experience the full work of these designers.
In an age where a great deal of the design the majority of us experience is circulated as images and articles via the web, our design culture has shifted to better accommodate these experiences. Objects become more graphic and less focused on use. Concept and context are able to take on a more central role than function. - If we never sit on a chair, does it matter that it would break or wobble when we did so? It may matter that we think it would do so, but if we believe it would support us comfortably, then that is how it exists to us until and unless we actually sit on it.
In both of these examples, the art still exists at least partially in the appearance of the object, albeit not entirely. But is an aesthetic originality important when the aesthetics are only one component of the work? As part of the design team RO/LU, Olson himself worked on projects that involved searching the internet for images of work and recreating it from the image alone, adding a new context to an existing aesthetic. He describes this process as using art/design history as a form of material, it is less collage than re-creation. In one project, RO/LU spent hours looking at images on pinterest, never researching the objects or images they found but merely using the documentation of an object as the source for a new object, which they eventually created from the images they found most compelling. This process differs from the one described by Borges, because RO/LU, and Olson, as he states in his discussions of his work, feel that the objects have a life of their own. This re-creation therefore feels no obligation to be faithful to the original act, but rather uses the object to engender a new act of creation, and in turn this new act of creation returns a different finished object.
When considered in this light, Olson’s practice , which upon first look may seem to rely on copying aspects of another’s work, is instead an act of genuine creation; one which simply lives closer to its aesthetic source material than we are used to. We are quite familiar and comfortable with this paradigm when a new work is conceptually or contextually similar to another while presenting an original aesthetic. Indeed, copyright laws protect only the aesthetic expression and expressly refuse to protect the ideas which inform them. Why, though, should we not consider the reverse? In some ways, the Independent Creation defense speaks to this way of thinking. In this defence to an accusation of copyright infringement, the defending author may prove that, while the the final product of their creation shares undeniable aesthetic similarities with the accuser, they arose coincidentally, from an act of creation that was not influenced by the creation of the accuser. This illustrates the underlying concept of intellectual property law, which is that acts of creation are valuable to us. In its implementation, however, we can see an inherent bias toward the product of the act rather than the act itself, and in that we can see that our society, or at least our legal system, values creation because of what it can give us, rather than as an act in and of itself.
It is this assumption that Olson, and the authors of his readings, challenge. Their proposal, when taken collectively, is that the act of creation is inherently valuable, regardless of whether the work that results from that act alone brings something new to us. They argue that the act, as much as the object, creates value in the experience of the user/reader/viewer, and that because of this, a difference in the creation should be considered as valuable as a difference in the piece.
This is a heady thing, for the daughter of two intellectual property attorneys whom herself studied copyright law. And a comforting one. In an age where the internet makes it possible for a designer to instantly offer the documentation of their work, and a collecting culture encourages the dissemination of anything interesting via socially connected sites like Instagram and Pinterest, a designer can find herself despairing as she discovers that each new idea that occurs to her seems to already exist, out in the ether which is Contemporary Design Culture. This workshop, however, suggested to me that the apparent existence of an aesthetic doppelganger should not discourage the creation of the work. Instead, we might, as Olson does, find insight and interest in the acts of creation that resulted in these similar works, and find value in their creation regardless of what we typically consider their originality.