3rd Semester Thesis Review

This is the presentation I gave to my thesis committee on 18 November 2011. My committee is Steve Hoskins, Sandy Wheeler and Tom Wedell, and Roy McKelvey was also there to offer his critique. Note that where appropriate, I am embedding the motion pieces I presented without the slide formatting, hence some of visual inconsistencies you will see below.

Thanks for being here today, especially to Tom Wedell for coming down from Boston just for this meeting.

This is what I will be talking about today, and then I hope to get as much feedback as possible from you on what I am up to.

First, I want to situate myself with regards to this year so far, and the MFA experience in general.

This diagram clarifies what I am doing with the entirely of my experience here. Simply put, my thesis consists of inputs in the forms of conversations with faculty, other students and other people, reference from reading, and both visual and written research. These inputs feed my thesis activities, which in addition to the actual stuff I make, also includes how I teach and also my search for teaching positions as I develop my own teaching pedagogy. This activity does note live inside a bubble, it relates to many contexts, specifically my own internal context, external contexts such as design education and historical contexts in how it relates to what others have done before me. Today, the main focus will be "the work".

The work, or what most people think of as the thesis, is basically the how, what and why of what I am doing here. The thing that is important to understand about this and the previous diagram is that the thesis is a big, recursive experience and all of it counts—from looking for a job to my most conceptual thinking—it is all a part of my thesis. What I have highlighted in pink here is the core of my thesis, these nouns and verbs that are the basis of this idea of "gesture."

So, what have I been thinking about? Or more accurately, what do I think that I think I have been thinking about? Well...

... these are the most prominent things. But...

... here are more things. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

These things, and many, many more things...

... all feed into this idea of "gesture" which lies at the heart of my argument. Part of what I am doing here to refine and clarify this idea of gesture, because it is a word that at the moment most accurately defines a very inaccurate idea of who I am as a designer.

A companion idea to this is editing...

... specifically something I am starting to call the "gesture edit". I am not entirely sure what this really means, but the editing process is a key component of my work as I tend to generate a lot of useless stuff, and the editing process helps me to find the usefulness hidden among it. Rather than a long, drawn out, meticulous editing process, my editing is fast and loose, mostly relying on feeling and intuition rather than pragmatics and objective criteria.

Ultimately this word gesture comes down to a few simple ideas, and they are based in attitude.

Specifically, and attitude towards how I make, how I think, and how I teach. My two years in graduate school form the foundation of how I explore and clarify these ideas, and create a framework for me to spend the rest of my life exploring them.

From here, I have wrangled the above into four basic arguments.

1. Working gesturally encourages instinctive design reactions, rather than pre-rationalized decisions.
2. Design process can be a gestural framework, where unpredictability and happenstance are encouraged to proliferate.
3. Interesting things emerge when the designer is in control of not being in control.
4. The best design can be no design.
These are the things I believe about how I make, how I think and how I teach.

So like we saw earlier, this work does not exist soley inside a Mitch vaccuum. There is context, starting with some historical precedent.

The great Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is tremendously influential to me.

He often works with photography, which is also an important and frequent part of my process. I think Moholy-Nagy uses a camera as a generator of form, rather than a recorder of it. These are a few of his photograms.

There is also a delightful unreality to his work I find intoxicating.

Even how he observes "real life" is hyper-real, like this photo from an industrial tower.

I also admire his use of tools in his making. This sculpture is called the "light-space modulator" and was less about the object itself, and more about how the object plays with light and shadow on the wall behind it. The forms it creates are far more important than the form that creates them. The sculpture is essentially an actor on a stage creating something bigger than himself.

The great composer John Cage. His use of chance is something I am curious about.

I am wresteling with my relationship to Cage as we speak. I think that chance does play a part of my work, but I am more interested in unpredictability than chance. So, I am not sure what my conversation with Cage is, but there definitely is one to be had.

Cage also has a wonderful theatricality to his work. This is a performance of his piece "Water Walk" from the 1950's where he plays music with non-musical instruments.

The artist Robert Rauschenberg is interesting to me.

While I enjoy his aesthetics, what is relevant to me is his "Combine" paintings, where he would walk around New York and make work from junk he found on the streets.

He set up these systems of limitation and played against them in ways that would simply not have been possible had he spent his time pre-rationalizing and planning his work. His process is instead a reaction to stimulus, a play against the friction of limitation. I am in the middle of working on a lecture about Moholy-Nagy, Cage and Rauschenberg called "The Poetics of Chance" that I am giving to the Sophomore History of Graphic Design class, so I will be finding more connections between these three people and others.

Another modern example is director Michel Gondry, whose music video work I admire tremendously.

I admire his sense of "mise en scène" where he lays the elements of his creation out on the stage and physically manipulates them into something wonderful. This is the video for Daft Punk's song "Around The World". He has a surreal and absurdist sensitivity I find appealing.

He constructs the bizzare things that make perferct sense inside of the video but make no sense anywhere else. He creates worlds of his own making, and attracts similar people to work with him, like Icelandic singer Björk.

My own classes that I teach here at VCU are also contexts of my thesis, the Typo-Photo and Art of Music Video classes are in many ways places for me to test my ideas and see how they work outside of myself. My students in Typo-Photo are doing some really wonderful work so I think my ideas have some legs to them. In the Spring the music video class will not be a technical conversation but a conceptual one, since music video is a wonderful playground for graphic designers to have some fun in.

I am going to highlight some of the more interesting moments over the past semester's making.

Of course, they very first thing I did at the start of the semester was freeze like a deer in headlights, so Tom Wedell suggested I start with a very simple exercise in finding typographic form. I started this by shooting myself playing with paper shapes for a few minutes.

I then took this movie and adjusted it in After Effects to knock out the mid tones and see a more clear black and white forms. Through still frames I found all 26 letters. Naturally I then explored spelling words, and specifically experimented with how constraint affected what I was doing. I printed out my letters and in the first composition used little constraint in how I collaged them together to spell the word "gesture."

This composition was very constrained as I made myself use orthogonal straight cuts to spell the word.

This composition was in the middle with only some constraint, and this made for the most interesting composition by far. So this idea that control—but not too much control—creates engaging stuff was very interesting.

In this investigation I took images from my hard drive based on the first letter of their filename and juxtaposed them together in Photoshop using simple actions of layer blending commands. The idea was to see is a few simple parameters would do anything interesting, and it did.

It gave me lots of garbage, but it also gave me compositions I could not have planned but were beautiful.

I would never have consciously put these particular images together this way.

This got me to the idea of seeding compositions; instead of using random images, I would try to create more meaning by starting with specific images.

So, for the next investigation I decided to try and work with some non-random content, I used Michel Gondry, Moholy-Nagy and the word ‘ambiguity’ to Google for images. I then processed them together in a similar way as before, and got some horrifically ugly crap

I found the Michel Gondry images painful to look at. Googling his name returned mostly images of the man himself, and the recognizeability of the human head makes these juxtapositions awkward and uncomfortable.

Googling for Moholy-Nagy resulted in images of his work, and these created fantastic compositions.

This idea of seeding the work had some merit as it could result in some interesting stuff.

The last of these Photoshop experiments were to take two randomly generated words and use them to seed compositions, both in terms of image and now typography as well. I also selectively grabbed these images from Google instead of merely taking the first 20 that showed up. This composition is TAX FEAST.


I quite enjoyed these, as I think that the introduction of typography provides a nice anchor for the images.

My next investigation started out as an information visualization for Steve Hoskin's workshop this semester. I chose to analyze a music video directed by Michel Gondry, The Chemical Brothers song "Let Forever Be." After analysis I decided the video was about the disconnect between real and fake, and the falsehoods of the character’s dreams.

Therefor I wanted to make my visualization as doisconnected and flase as possible, so I make a website that appears to be empty.

However, the data is there if you select the empty page...

... and if you look at the code.

I then decided to take a page from my Typo-Photo class and do a project with random limitations based on the film The Five Obstructions that I also gave to my students. The limitations I picked were use 36 degree angles, change mediums 5 times, and make it useless. I used the "Let Forever Be" data for this project and went through a process of printing out the text, and collaging using angles, and then I photographed the collages.

I then digitally recombined the photographs...

...which were then printed out and bound together into a book...

...and then made useless by sewing the book closed.

This last group of work shares a similar process of making. This is a music video for the Richmond band The Low Branches. It uses a process where I project words onto a moving piece of paper and then film the paper. I bring these shots into After Effects and layer them together.

I used a similar process to make a poster promoting my class The Art of Music Video. First I started with some images from Investigation One and through a gesture edit culled them down to ones that felt the most video-y.

I then created a quick animation that I projected onto paper and photographed with a long exposure on a still camera.

This gave me a more legitimate multiple exposure than digital cameras can achieve today.

I got many images, some good, some bad.

Eventually these got edited and color corrected into the final poster. I consider the magenta poster to be the final, but there is some disagreement—others feel the blue poster works better.

Then I did something really interesting—since I had hundreds of exposures, I decided to animate them together, and got fantastic results—I love what this did to the still poster.

This is the same animation as above, only with an attempt at color correction to reflect the magenta poster.

This is the same animations overlaid and shifted off about 10 frames from each other. This is my favorite by far, even thought I have no idea what this is or what to do with it, if anything, but I love it anyway.

Then I got a little to smart for my own good. I tried to use that same technique in a more intentional way and it crashed and burned. This is a very good example of when the best design can be no design. I over-thought and over-designed this and they are just horribly, horribly bad.

In a nutshell, when I pre-rationalized too much and it failed horribly. This proves that there is a point where too much control kills the cat. And this cat is definitely dead.

Lastly this is a visualization I did early in the semester of some traffic data on campus. Each piece of paper represents a single car and how it moves through an intersection.

This looks very different from a lot of my other work, but I really like how this worked.

I really enjoyed the abstraction of the data this way...

... as it made a beautiful object that was not necessarily functional.

So, this is where I am now. What's next?

These are some conceptual ideas I want to keep exploring. To clarify a few of them I have not mentioned yet, The Gift of Friction is the idea that as barriers to creativity are lowered it gets harder and harder to make interesting work. The Trip to the Woods is about how some of what we do as design educators is provide students the tools to fight their way out of the woods, and how sometimes it is our duty to leave them there to do so.

These are some processes and formats I am interest in working with.

And last, as an epilogue to what I have done so far, these are some questions that I do not know if I can really answer, but keep me moving forward both in grad school and for the rest of my life.

I anticipate these to continue to evolve and reform often as I keep moving forward.

Thank you!