A Question of Threshold

As I start sincerely on the road towards developing ideas for my MFA studies that will eventually lead towards a Thesis, I need to look at where I am now. One of my current advisors, Roy McKelvey, suggested that trying to start in an entirely new direction, ignoring what I have done in the past really makes no sense, especially if what I did in the past resonates with me to this day. Therefore I am revisiting my Senior year at RISD, and my Degree Project—images of which you can see here (the image below is an example). Below is the statement I presented at my final review for that project. As I mention at the end of the statement, this is something I need to look at in order to move forward, as opposed to dismissing entirely. While I no longer completely agree with what I say here, the overall ideas are still important to me.

Intent. I have always been fascinated by certain kinds of art, design and architecture. Daniel Libeskind, John Cage, Eric Owen Moss, Robert Rauschembeg, Peter Eisenmann and Jaques Derrida have been my visual (and linguistic) companions ever since my days in Architecture school in the early 1990’s. For my degree project, I wanted to gain a much deeper understanding of what it was about the work of these and other individuals that was so engaging and enigmatic to me. My DP would encompass a lengthy series of visual explorations in an effort to try and engage myself in a dialog with these masters.

Process. After research and analysis of many works of the aforementioned artists and designers, the elements that I found to be particularly interesting in their work were notions of chance, chaos, juxtaposition and complexity. I then began what ended up being a lengthy and often frustrating struggle with the intent of my project. I allowed myself incredible freedom to work in whatever medium I liked and however I wanted. Much like Jørgen Leth in the film The Five Obstructions, the hardest film to make is the one in which he is completely free to do whatever he wants. I went through what I felt like were many false starts. Since I chose to make my explorations devoid of meaning in an effort to be purely formal, critiques were difficult because the work was so personal and had no easy way for others to access what I was doing. “It looks cool, but I don’t get it,” was a common statement throughout the semester by my classmates.

Like a deer in headlights, I was nearly frozen with too many options. I eventually chose to give myself more clearly defined restrictions in an effort to stop looking into the headlights. I chose to stop using words that were loaded with meaning and connotations, such as “hungry,” as a basis for my explorations and instead gave myself some firm restrictions in terms of random letters as content. I made decisions on minimum numbers of iterations per each exploration series, maximum amounts of time spent per series, and so on. The numbers of iterations began to inform the final outcome of the DP itself: essentially a large body of work to be looked at as an entire process, instead of just a final object such as a book or film. In an effort to make the work of the semester accessible to others, I decided that a book (and possibly an accompanying motion piece) of the work I had done over the semester would be designed for the final review. After much deliberation with my studio critic I was near the brink of doing exactly that: a book of all my work, designed in a way that would try and use my ideas of chance, et all in the design of the book itself. However, just before I committed to the point of no return, something else happened.

Analysis. Near the end of the semester, I (along with another studio critic) took a long hard look at all the work I had produced, and how it related to my original intent. What I eventually came to discover was that I had amassed a kind of visual language and grammar; the same language and grammar that Eisenmann, Cage, Libeskind and Rauchemberg spoke. The work I had been so frustrated and disappointed with had become the beginnings of my very own Oxford Dictionary and Chicago Manual of Style. The language was clear to me after my initial research in the beginning of the semester: chance, chaos, juxtaposition and complex- ity. What I now saw was a grammar to help guide the use of the language: distortion and the threshold of comprehension. The DP had in fact become ways of looking at how work that is on the threshold between meaning and meaningless, comprehension and confusion, and clarity and obscurity is work that is, to me, particularly interesting and engaging. I came to believe that what made the work of my favorite artists and designers so incredible was now more evident; it is a question of threshold. As a way to begin to try and work with my new language, I created a book based on an interpretation of the Presidential Debate between then Senator John F. Kennedy and then Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the Fall of 1960.

Conclusion. My conclusion is not a conclusion at all, it is in fact a question, or more accurately, many questions. I feel that a question of threshold is one that I can try to answer for the rest of my life, and this DP is in fact just a first step in a project that will last me past RISD and well into graduate school, where it will be further explored and continue informing my work for my entire career.