Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Reading this brick of a book this evening was the most inspiring thing to happen to me yet this academic year. Not because Ricoeur was blowing my mind by [failing to] gracefully elucidat[e/ing] the distinction between history and fiction in regards to historiography, but because this book is a BOOK. It is the epitome of book. It is huge. It has a tiny, traditional typeface, it has a notes section in the back that constitutes some large percentage of the overall pages, it attempts to trace a generally linear path through a series of arguments in order to construct/unveil a larger, overarching argument with epic philosophical implications. But while reading and attempting to absorb some of those arguments and implications, my mind drifted to thoughts of the digital, of criticism that looks and feels so much different than this. I thought of my other reading material for the week: Form + Code.

Form + Code is an introduction to the concept of code [and code's frameworks, implications, &c], with its intended audience being artists and designers. This book is drastically different from Memory, History, Forgetting. Its pages are filled with images, perfect examples of concepts presented in a variety of forms [photographs, diagrams, charts, mini-narratives, design projects, typographical innovations, just to name a few], as well as explanations, histories, and arguments toward revealing the inherent relationship between coding and art & design. The authors of this book understand their audience [not that Ricoeur doesn't; his is just a drastically different audience]. They understand that explaining programming to an artist will take more than an instruction manual formatted like a traditional text book [the kinds of books they sell in the "Programming" section of Barnes & Noble that look like they were written for people who have already mastered some prerequisite knowledge about computers, computing, its history, and its uses]. Form + Code is a sketchbook almost. It collages introductory explanations complete with helpful analogies in the art world with photography, design, and all the other things I listed above. I won't speak for all artists when I say this, but as someone who thinks in a sketchbook language, this is a layout I could contend with. This book does not purport to teach anyone how to program, but what it did for me even within the first few pages was dispel my fear that programming exists in a world I will never and could never inhabit. 

I've tried to learn certain tools. Last semester, I learned just enough of Flash [don't you dare judge me; it's a long story] to build my first hypertext essay. It's messy. I watched about 8 hours or more worth of video tutorials. I built, destroyed, and rebuilt so much that I forgot everything I'd learned in the tutorials, and I came away from it almost certain that I'd need to forever collaborate on my digital projects with a partner who does the programming. But, Form + Code made me realize two things:

1) code is instructions. For so many people who work in the digital realm, this is so basic, it's laughable. But for me, this wasn't basic. I had never been given a foundation upon which to pursue the specific set  of skills I'll need to design and build my own digital projects. I'm not saying this book gave me those skills, but it made me feel for the first time like those skills exist in the same world as my storytelling skills, my painting skills, and my eye for aesthetics. 

2) I need to [re]start sketchbooking. I have two full sketchbook from the days when all I did was art and they're filled with ideas, concepts, random thoughts, doodles, diagrams, paintings, drawings, photographs, things I printed from the internet, photos I took back before I owned a digital camera, napkins with detailed sculptural plans scribbled on them. I include realization #2 because I am starting to think about my dissertation, and reading the brick book pictured above is the exact opposite of where I'm headed with my career. I won't recapitulate everything about my particular field of study, but everything I'm attempting to embrace and create in my academic life will not come into being without a new way of thinking that is less brick oriented and is more collage oriented. So, dissertation sketchbook. Ok.

&          &          &

All of this relates to the presenter we had in my Digital Studies Symposium this past Monday: Dan Goods.
This is one screenshot from Dan's website. Click on it to link to the LA Weekly article.
Part of his bio on his website reads:
"During the day I am the 'Visual Strategist' for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There I develop creative ways of communicating, and work to transform complex concepts into meaningful stories that can be universally understood. My work is seen in public spaces, art museums, and is in outer space."
The reason I'm associating Dan's presentation and work with my discussion of Form + Code is because both that book and this artist use artistic practices and design concepts & aesthetics to communicate highly complex information. Both book and person influenced me to consider the ways in which approaches not traditionally associated with things like programming or NASA can illuminate certain types of information for a variety of audiences. For instance, Dan has a piece called Hidden Light that uses a dual projection system to project two things simultaneously onto one screen. The shadows people create by walking in front of the screen reveal the secondary projection below the primary projection. Here, just watch this video:

Just like with Form + Code, the concepts Dan communicates in this piece are also communicated in text books [in this case, astronomy text books]. But by employing design related methodologies to presenting the information, Dan simultaneously teaches his audience and engages his audience on an aesthetic [and in this particular piece, a physical] level. 

When asked what exactly it is that he does everyday at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Dan explained, "I help JPL think." There is a narrative in science that is different than the narratives of the art and design world. Sometimes the scientific narratives and structural parameters disallow scientists from expanding into new realms of thought. Dan's job seems to be a perfect example of science and art coming together to help erase the boundary between the two. Though the example of Dan's work that I shared is more didactic than investigative in nature, his desire to expose the invisible, to work in the ambiguous area between visible and invisible, requires a type of imagination and a type of epistemology that creates space for discovery [no "space" pun intended]. 


Post-Script:
I felt a kind of relief at both the claims made in Form + Code and the discussion that followed Dan's presentation, but they were opposite kinds of relief. Book relief: I can learn to program. I can. I just have to re-conceptualize what programming is and what it means, which the book is helping me to do. Dan relief: Dan says he doesn't know how to program. He's created these beautiful pieces of digital/new media art without knowledge of code. He collaborated. If your ideas are inspiring enough, people with more know how than you might help implement them. So... do I learn the tools to create every aspect of the stuff I want to create, or don't I? Well, for now I don't because I've got this brick book to finish.

[Post-Post-Script:
Dan is one of the people behind the installation in the international terminal at ATL that I stared at for hours and hours while waiting for my delayed flight to Buenos Aires on December 22, 2012. 
Because leaving the country only one week after such terrible loss left me incapable of practically anything, I was so grateful for this piece of art that allowed me to ponder something other than loss while I waited in the limbo that is an airport terminal for a flight that was both my forced removal and my chosen escape. And discovering in the context of Dan's presentation that he was someone behind this piece/peace helped me to feel that kind of connection the universe sometimes reveals to you that makes you feel like maybe everything might be ok someday. I know that's a big conclusion to draw, but big conclusions are my forte, as you might know by now. Everything in its right place.]

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