The Poetics of Chance

This is a presentation I gave to the sophomore History of Graphic Design class at Virginia Commonwealth University. Note I have embedded video where appropriate, hence some of the styling changes to the slides.

Today I am going to talk about what I call The Poetics of Chance. Or, an alternative title could be....

The Ferret-Jello Hypothesis. But, I will get to that in a few minutes.

First, a quick definition of poetics.

Poetics in art and design is basically how the work is made, its theoretical basis, its aesthetics, and so on. It is the soul of the work, how it looks and feels.

In other words, you can think of poetics as the stuff that makes the stuff awesome. The stuff that makes you say "holy crap" when you see something really fantastic.

It is my opinion that most—maybe all—really good art and design is poetic. I think this is a really important word and idea to keep in mind as a designer.

Obviously many different kinds of work can be poetic. I am talking specifically about chance today as it is something I am curious about, and something I try to work with. I am going to show you some examples of chance in art and design from four people.

First is John Cage, the composer and visual artist. He used chance in most of his work. An example of his most famous piece...

.. is this musical composition called 4'33". Listen closely. What do you hear? Exactly. The composition is all about the sounds you hear in the concert hall, not about any played musical instruments. So the chance occurences of sounds made by people shifitng in thier seats, or breathing, or the air conditioner going, all that stuff is the music.

Cage also worked with what he called a "prepared piano." He used screws, bolts, pieces of metal and rubber fixed between the strings to alter how the piano sounds.

He threaded them through the strings...

.. but not in an unordered, random way. Instead it was all based on the math and science behind musical harmonics. So the important thing to remember here is that it was not random—Cage did not just throw a bucket of screws into a piano. Instead they were placed carefully.

Then the chance happens... the way the piano reacts to these foreign objects is unpredictable and I think, fantastic. It almost turns the piano into a percussive instrument like a drum.

Cage also worked visually, using natural objects like rocks and fire to create chance compositions. He would use burning wet newspaper in his compositions. These are made from smoke and river rocks, and he allows the chance in these organic materials to play on his canvases.

Next is Mohloy-Nagy. Obviously he has a massive body of work, but I wanted to talk specifically about a couple of things he did.

I love how he uses photography and photographic process in his work. Instead of just recording form he sees, he uses these tools to create new form. These next slides are some of his photograms.

What is interesting here is that, untill a photogram was finished, exposed and developed, he had no idea what each would look like. He was embracing the chance in how he made these.

He was constantly experimenting with this technique...

... using things like candles and oils to get new effects.

This is another piece, a kinetic sculpture called the Light Space Modulator. This was pretty interesting as it is, but what Moholy-Nagy was really looking at was how this tool created forms in shadow and light on the walls behind it.

This is a film from 1930 of the Light Space Modulator in action. I love these fantastic shapes he created using this device... a great example of chance as there is no way to know what it will do until it does it.

American painter and artist Robert Rauschenberg worked with chance in an interesting way.

He is well known for his large works called Combines. He would walk the streets in the morning finding whatever detritus was on the streets...

... and bring it back to his studio and create work based on what he found.

He did not spend time pre-rationalizing or worrying about what the work meant, he just took a walk and let that determine his work that day.

I think these are fascinating, and they even kind of look familiar...

... sort of like the collages from the Dada artists. Rauschenberg was called a Neo-Dadaist because of the similar attitudes of letting the materials make the collages or paintings. This is from Kurt Schwitters.

This is by Hannah Hoch. So rather than lots of planning they would let the stuff they had piled on their desks determine the design.

Last is Italian designer Leonardo Sonnoli. I want to talk about one particular project of his that uses chance in a context we can all understand, a book for a client.

The published Corraini Editions asked him to create a promotional booklet. Since they are a publisher of creative work, they allowed Sonnoli to do basically whatever he wanted. So, he started by first putting all the informational text on the front page. He then translated printer's marks into a more aesthetically pleasing set of patterns, to reflect that Corraini was a publisher.

He then allowed the actual process of offset printing to use chance to create the book. He used a spilt fountain, where different ink colors were poured into the rollers at the same time, resulting in a gradual variation of color as the press ran.

He also asked the pressmen to change printing plates with the different patterns on them at their discretion, allowing for the chance occurrences in how the patterns were laid down onto the paper.

He also used various paper stocks, again used at the pressmen's discretion to vary the books even more.

He ended up creating a beautiful set of expressive books made by chance, each one different.

So. Why I am talking about this? What does it matter?

Well, as you move on in design school I hope you can remmeber three things from this talk.

First, the Ferret-Jello Hypothesis. This is a really interesting idea with a really silly name. It basically says this: when you mash two disparate, unreralted things together...

... like ferrets and jello, the human mind forces a meaningful relationship onto them. It could be screws and pianos, garbage and painting, printers marks and split fountains, or—you guessed it—ferrets and jello. Using chance makes these kind of crazy, unexpected things happen.

Second, is the scariest thing in design: the blank page. That second right after someone says "OK.. go!" I know this scares the crap out of me.

Chance can help you move past the blank page... just toss some stuff together and let it become... whatever it becomes. It is a wonderful tool for making.

Last, is this idea that design is history. Knowing about the past helps you to create the future. Things like chance, and Dada, and Swiss type, and any of the other thousands of things you will learn about graphic design history all bear relevance on what you do today and tomorrow. You can draw a line from Moholy-Nagy, to John Cage, to Rauschenberg, to the Dadaists, to Sonnoli... and to you and me. In a way, when you make design you are also making new history.