Thesis Candidacy Presentation

The Thesis Candidacy Presentation is where I present my ideas for what I will spend the next year of grad school working on for my thesis. This was presented to VCU faculty and guests for discussion on 29 April 2011. I have recreated the presentation here, with my talking points below each slide. This presentation parallels my thesis proposal book.

Hello everyone. I am Mitch Goldstein.

The title of my Thesis Proposal is The Grammar of Threshold.

To me, this Thesis is really a question—or actually many, many questions—that I would like to try and answer over the next year, and probably for the rest of my life.

So, before I get to these questions and what the title means, I think I should start at the beginning.

This is why I am at grad school, and probably really why I am a designer. I am curious about design. I am curious about how I and others work. I am curious about the work that I have done in the past and will do in the future.

I am curious about why I admire other people's work. Or, more accurately, why do I like some work, and love other work?

I started out (unsuccessfully) studying architecture at Syracuse University in the early 1990's. At the time it was a highly regarded, fairly conservative "international style" school of architecture. They were well known for graduating ready-to-go-to-work new architecture hopefuls. For some reason, instead of the well known architecture moderates like Richard Meier and Michael Graves, I was drawn far more to the edgier, extreme work of people like Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Eric Owen Moss and other so called "deconstructivist" architects. This was at a time when this work was almost entirely theoretical—very little of it had been built. Above is a Daniel Libeskind Drawing.

This a painting by Zaha Hadid. I would say I did not so much like this work, instead I fetishized it. It consumed me. I found it incredibly interesting, even though it was challenging to understand.

Years later I was at RISD getting my BFA in graphic design. I was again drawn to some specific kinds of work. Work that was complex, challenging and engaging. These are posters by Swiss designer Ralph Schraivogel.

This is a Sundance Film Festival poster by Martin Venezky. He uses his hands in his process, collaging and creating the work, resulting in a delightful play for type and image.

This is an album cover for the band Underworld, done by the UK design collecitve Tomato.

I am also drawn to the movies. As I grew as a designer I became more interested in films that were less clear and literal, and more ambiguous in form and content. This is the trailer for Gaspar Noe's film Enter the Void. The film is about a drug dealer who is killed, and we follow his soul backwards and forwards in time as we learn how he got to where he was, and what happens after his death. The whole film is shot from the 1st person perspective, most of it either from floating above the action, or from a few feet behind the protagonists head and shoulders.

I am also curious about myself and my own work. Why do I enjoy what I do?

My sophomore year at RISD I had an "Aha!" moment, when I learned that I can use a camera as a way to make design, not just document it. Over the last few years I have continued to use a camera in design and became skilled at using this tool.

I have learned that the camera is magical. This is one of a series of posters I did for an exhibition of work by three architects. It started out as a series of flat visual investigations of the work of Louis Sullivan, Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry. These investigations were then transformed into 3D models using chipboard and paper.

I then lit and photographed these models while using a digital projector to put the name of the architect directly onto the model. This way the composition happened in-camera.

Using the camera this way allows me to work intuitively and expressively.

For me, the camera is a bridge between the analog and digital worlds. This is a poster for the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up. To me, the film is about sifting perspectives and confusion. I shot this off an old-school tube TV set.

This gives it these interesting and complex scan-lines, which help to enhance the confusion of the scene itself. The still I am shooting is a moment in the film where the audience is not sure if the protagonist is just playing with a few women, or if he is actually about to rape one of them—it is a moment that exemplifies the themes of the film as a whole. My poster makes the viewer sense the same shifting confusion.

I also became very interested in working unpredictably, and trying to make work with more of a general intent, than a specific outcome in mind. This is from a series called Concurrent TV, which examines the loss of time one experiences when plopped down on the couch watching TV for a few hours. Each image is made from dozens of exposures on medium format film with a Holga camera.

The images are taken with some intention, but the outcome of each composition is very unpredictable. I think working this way allows me to create more interesting, complex work in an uncontrived way. The work emerges from the process.

This is a poster for a visit to VCU by Nancy Skolos + Tom Wedell. Thier work synthesizes analog and digital processes, and I tried to represent that idea in the poster.

These are cell-phone photos of text printed in a number of different typefaces. These are then composited in photoshop, with very little editing other than compositing the layers together and adjusting some color. This creates some interesting complexity but retains an underlying order to the poster.

So, now that I am here, in grad school, and I have seen what I have seen and done what i have done, I have a lot of questions. The big question being "what is it about this work I have seen and made that makes me so drawn to it?"

When I look at my work and others work, I see a lot of similarities, both formally and conceptually. I think there are three big similarities to pay attention to:

First, there is a lot of ambiguity; there is uncertainty in what I am looking at and what it means. I feel this ambiguity draws a viewer more into the work than simple clarity does.

These are a few images from a series of experiments gesturing towards cinema and photography. These are screenshots of ambient video shot with a cellphone.

I pulled stills from the video, and composited them digitally and printed them on craft paper. This gives the digital video a warm, human feeling. These capture the emotive, ambiguous elements of film and photography.

Second, there is complexity. The work tends to be intricate, with a lot of small details to pay attention to.

These are typographic landscapes of the city of Richmond, VA. These are created by painting with Letraset dry transfer letter and graphite pencil.

I tried to capture the texture of the city, the hardness and energy of the urban landscape.

I did a series of studies of complexity by using the word complexity itself. First, I created a short video of the word simply animated.

Then, i projected this animation onto folded paper and took a long exposure with a still camera.

Then I did minor color correction in Photoshop. This resulted in complex, unpredictable compositions. Many of them were not interesting at all, but some were delightful and engaging.

Third, the work is also unpredictable. A lot of the work happens with a general intent rather than a specific outcome in mind. In some ways the work "just happens", but more accurately, it emerges from the process.

This is part of a series of mophologies of typography. It is a lettersize, black and white laser print of the word thinking. I spent time trying to find ways to alter the type, in this case with a scanner.

Again, using a scanner. The idea was not to make a perfect scan, but to make a perfectly imperfect scan. In playing with the software settings, I created unpredictable outcomes.

From my days at RISD, these are explorations of the word hungry. I created hundreds of these, looking formally at how altering typography unpredictably can break down its legibility.

This is a photograph from a computer monitor.

So, back to the title of this proposal. I think that this work—the work I like to make and the work I admire—exists at a threshold between meaningful and meaningless. I also believe that this work—be it architecture, film, design, art—has a common grammar of ambiguity, complexity and unpredictability.

An example of what I mean. This is the movie poster from the first Twilight film. My hypothesis is that this work is far to one side of the threshold; it is very clear and easy to understand. It is forgettable, and the viewer has a simple, less interesting conversation with it as a piece of design.

If you go all the way to the other side of the threshold, you have work that is confusing and hard to comprehend. These infographics are overly complicated and do not convey meaning. They become nearly impossible to understand, like trying to listen to someone talk in a foreign language you do not speak.

As you approach the threshold, like this poster by Skolos + Wedell, the work becomes exciting and engaging. It is memorable and the viewer has a deep conversation with it. Ultimately, this point near the threshold is where my interest is.

My thesis proposal is asking this: does it really exist?

And, if it does, is it really what I think it is?

A note about grammar. It is defined as "the structure of language consisting of syntax, semantics and morphology." I am using grammar here as an idea about how this work is structured, about commonalities or maybe even a system that the work resides in.

So, what next?

I will need to do more research and reading.

Specifically, I am going to start my research with these three things.

Chaos is the idea that small differences in the beginning of a process or system dramatically changes the outcome in unpredictable ways.

This is a diagram that plots the movement of a double pendulum. As you can see the movements are not random, instead they have an emerging, but unpredictable order. It is deterministic, but unpredictable at the same time. Similarly, the work I enjoy it is not random, but it is often chaotic. There is a lot to this theory that I still have yet to discover.

Semiotics is the study of how we interpret and create meaning from signs and symbols. Since a lot of my threshold is about meaning, semiotics is an important part of how it works.

This is Ogden and Richard's semiotic triangle that shows how objects and symbols relate to each other. I will look into semiotics in greater depth.

Last is film, and by film I mean movies, short films, music videos, and so on.

This is a music video by Michel Gondry for Daft Punk's Around the World. I see a direct parallel between film and graphic design. In many ways they are nearly identical: they both work with narrative, structure, sequence, form, metaphor, symbolism and so on. i want to better understand the grammar of film and how they are constructed so I may better understand graphic design.

Also, I need to continue to do a lot of making. Specifically, I want to take my attitude I have with the camera and apply it to other methodologies.

This is a poster for a visit by James Victore to VCU. This si done entirely with a scanner. I printed out text and images and brought them to the scanner.

I told the scanner that these solid prints were Kodachrome transparencies. This created ambiguous, complex and unpredictable images.

I also want to create motion-based work, like music video. This is a sample of a work in progress: a video of the song Dipsacus Fullonum by the band The Low Branches. I did not ask them what the song was about and instead left it to my own interpretation. I felt it was about layering, recursion and density. This is made by filming words on paper and compositing in After Effects.

I will also need to analyize and evaluate my work, I need to see what works, and what does not so I can draw some conclusions. Honestly, I have no idea how I will do this yet, but, I will figure it out.

Lastly, who cares about all this, anyway?

And by that I mean, who cares about this other than me? Why is this useful to the design community at large? I think this work helps to add a critical vocabulary to graphic design. I will help us create and evaluate what we do as designers.

I am teaching a class this Summer and Fall at VCU called Typo-Photo. It is based on Moholy-Nagy's ideas of synthesizing typography and photography. Since I am interested in an attitude towards making design, this class will be a fun experiment for me and the students. We will be using the camera a lot, and will play in the grammar of threshold for the semester. I think it is good to expose students to more than rules and guidelines, we need them to gain a better understanding of ambiguity, complexity and unpredictability. I want them to see the slippery, non-literal side of design and help them learn to develop tight relationships with the viewers of their work.

And, that is where I am today. Thank you!