Writing. Design. Social Change.

Posts tagged ‘art’

The most important exhibit of the summer (for me) is Taryn Simon’s  A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters 1-XVIII. (At MOMA until September 3). It’s about bloodlines and their stories. (Or stories and their bloodlines…) The story sequences have a lot to do with inheritance and chance (or fate, if you will). One story traces an Indian man’s family who was declared dead so that other relatives could seize (inherit) their ancestral farmland.

Taryn Simon Exhibit

Another story depicts the bloodline of the first woman to highjack an aircraft. Another story tells of the descendants of Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of Poland.

Another shows the faces of the children at an orphanage in the Ukraine who will inevitably become victims of human trafficking once they reach the age of 16.

One of the most chilling aspects of the exhibit is the interruptions in the story sequences. At times, a panel in a sequence stares back vacantly. The individual could not be photographed due to religious reasons. Or chose not to out of fear. Or shame. Some individuals sent their clothes to be photographed in their stead.

Viewing, I noticed how the story was different for each viewer, depending on the their choices, their attention span, how they chose to navigate through the image, text and footnote panels (or not).

Viewing, I noticed how our own stories are affected by chance, bloodlines, and circumstance, too. What would our own stories look like, cataloged, curated, made visible, up there on the wall? I think of my friends of American Indian ancestry and their stories. And my neighbor’s stories. I think of my adopted friends and their stories. And my new friends, TEDx organizers from around the globe.

The exhibit is complex, absolute, devastating, human, stunning, beautiful. I’ve known this for some time…Taryn Simon is among the most important artists of our time. And I would really like to meet her. Saying this, I know… the wheel is now in motion.

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This was a day about seeing space and form in a new way. I spent the day at Storm King Art Center in the Hudson Valley, a 500-acre open air museum full of dramatic spaces for viewing sculptures.

Often when we view art – the objects become the focus of our perception. At Storm King, our perception shifts and we are able to experience the objects as the frames and anchors for space. It works both ways: space clarifies form and form creates declinations that clarify space. There’s the space that surrounds and the space in between.

Here space isn’t negative or dead. Instead, it takes on a dynamic quality that enhances the viewer’s engagement with the sculptures. Space plays a variety of roles at times acting as a colorist, at times providing tension, at times anchoring our gaze, at times unsettling us.

This museum is a new favorite.

Alexander Calder, Five Swords

Isamu Noguchi, Momo Taro

Alyson Shotz, Mirror Fence

Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Wall

Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Wall

Alexander Calder, The Arch

Richard Serra, Schunnemunk Fork


At TEDxPhilly I witnessed a beautiful thing – a community coming together to celebrate its changemakers. TEDxPhilly placed a premium on people who think and do differently. The interplay between technology and culture was fascinating. The focus on sustainable and accountable practices was both thrilling and daring.  Everyone was buzzing from the powerful ideas people were sharing.

And everything was gorgeous. Naturally, I am someone who revels in these things. The venue, The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.  The speakers. The attendees. The signs. The program. Gorgeous.

Some of the talks, however, could have been better.

I say this as a rhetorician. And as someone deeply invested in the art of the TED Talk. To date, I’ve helped 130 of my students give “mini TED Talks” – the talk of their lives in 5-minutes or less.

TED prepares TEDx organizers with a toolkit, tips for presenters, aka the TED Commandments.  I know, because I am a TEDx organizer for our campus event in March.  Then, there are the TED Talks themselves to guide speakers, a powerful collection of (mostly) exciting and engaging oral presentations.  But between the TED Commandments and learning by example, I feel there is much room in terms of providing guidance to speakers who are charged with “dreaming big” and sharing ideas that can change the world.

Many of the talks I saw at TEDxPhilly were good. But they could have been excellent– with some guidance. This is tricky because too many rules leads to a cookie-cutter presentation. And that would be the end of TED. We would stop watching the talks. What makes the TED Talks such a phenomenon is their creativity, their humanity, their diversity.  Give one person a data projector and 18 minutes and see what happens. The best ones use all of their available resources to find the freedom within the form.  It’s about getting back to storytelling.

Early morning, after TEDxPhilly, I began to draft some main topics I could develop to help people give these talks.

Things speakers need to consider:

  • Audience engagement/participation
  • Story/story arc/narrative thread
  • Point/purpose
  • Examples/anecdotes/slice of life
  • Delivery/style
  • Authenticity/voice
  • Pacing/timing
  • Structure/Organization
  • Visual engagement/slides/props
  • Meaning in the data
  • Take aways/ deliverables
  • Purpose/significance/the “so what”

When speakers are faced with a presentation, it seems there are three main questions to consider. I see these as the holy trinity of a good talk.

  • What is the story you are telling?
  • Why are you telling it?
  • How are you telling it?

Sounds simple. But each of these points can be an insurmountable hurdle in the quest for the holy grail – a brilliant TED talk.  I would like to hear from students and TEDx presenters about what they found useful in preparing for their talks.


White, Michele. The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

I had almost given up on this book until I came to Chapter 4: The Aesthetic of Failure. This chapter discusses how the “Spectator’s engagement with net art aesthetics is informed by contemporary conceptions of art and new media” (White 2006: 87). The chapter cites the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of aesthetics as: the philosophy or theory or taste.” [White is one of the few scholars who make the move of consulting the dictionary to define the aesthetic.]

The chapter goes on to discuss how the field of aesthetics has been understood as a set of standards with which to judge art (based on visual, social, moral aspects). The chapter then goes on to discuss hot recent arguments insist that the social elements in the form of social and cultural meanings, values and beliefs also inform the domain of the aesthetic. “Aesthetic engagement is always an aspect of spectatorship since objects are understood through particular embodied positions, cultural values, beliefs and points of view” (White 2006: 87). White goes on to explain that people are also understood (judged?) by aesthetic criteria: “power is delivered to certain individuals through seemingly universal codes of beauty, which include particular body shapes and skin colors” (White 2006: 87).

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 Dan Harries. The New Media Book. London: BFI Pub., 2002.

In the preface to The New Media Book, the term new media is questioned. The author determines that it has become an effective catchword both as a description of the digital delivery of media via the internet, DVD and digital television and as a reference to the ‘newness’ such technologies have brought to media more generally. But what makes new media ‘new’? Is it the ways in which we interact with media? Is it the new convergences (and bundling) of media technologies? Or is it the increasing interdependence (and overlap) of various media products? In short, the answer it that the ‘newness’ of new media can be attributed to all of these factors.

In the essay “The New Intertextual Commodity” by P. David Marshall, references the new ‘play aesthetic’ in regard to video games. However this ‘play aesthetic’ is never really defined—but I infer that it has something to do with entertainment and the centrality of play in today’s video game market. It also has to do with interactivity with cultural forms. The authors are using aesthetic for something like ethos or philosophy or culture. The new play ethos. The new play philosophy. The new play culture. Here aesthetic aspects of play do not figure in the discussion. (Pages 78, 80). What are they? The author doesn’t address this. I find this ludicrous.

In “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Film Aesthetics,” Michael Allen looks at the effects of the digital on previous media technologies, such as celluloid film in order to “examine the ways in which digitally produced images have changed the formal parameters of the modern film text.” [It seems to me that something I can work toward is an examination of the ways in which new media has changed the formal parameters of engagement with texts—and part of this is a revisioning of the aesthetic]. Halfway through the essay Allen mentions aesthetics for the first and only time. He theorizes that narrative (in a new media context) has three functions: the aesthetic, the ideological and the cognitive. He states:

Aesthetically, the function of the narrative is to arouse emotion or give pleasure; to create a simulacrum of the world or preserve one’s experience in the face of death. The key question is which stories arouse the greatest range and depth of response (121).

Where does this theory come from? What is its basis? How can it be applied? 

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Hocks, Mary E., and Michelle R. Kendrick, eds.  Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2003.

Eloquent Images seeks to understand if new media/digital media should be understood as a “pastiche of existing forms of inquiry and communication” or if new media/digital media represents a paradigm shift that necessitates “new methods of inquiry and understanding” (Hocks and Kendrick 2).  The essays show that there is no answer, no single approach, no official way to understand new media but instead show the varied possibilities for understanding new media including the rhetorical and the cultural. Most essays here take up the textual vs. the visual debates. Many of the critiques discuss the complicated intersections of the text and the image, as the title suggests, with much historical emphasis. Interestingly, the authors claim that the aesthetic approach to new media is a “purely formal” one and that it is isolated from production and rhetorical contexts. Of course, I see the aesthetic as incorporating the formal, cultural and rhetorical aspects, etc….so I see am going to have to address this.)

Of the essays in this collection, one of the most interesting is Jay David  Bolter’s essay “Critical Theory and the Challenge of New Media.” In this chapter he demonstrates the need for a new critical theory that can merge cultural and historical issues as well as formal issues of design” (33). He continues to describe what a critical theory of new media should do: “ A new critical theory is needed that can make us aware of the cultural and historical contexts (and ideologies) without dismissing or downplaying the formal characteristics of new media. This theory needs to explain these formal characteristics without explaining them away, because practitioners have no choice: If they wish to create successful product, they must attend to these formal values (which used to be regarded as aesthetic values in art or utilitarian considerations in software engineering and computer programming). Any theory that is going to be useful for actual practice must offer the practitioner guidance in conceiving and executing the form of her work. A new critical theory should offer in addition an understanding of the cultural contexts in which the form is embedded. Such a theory should analyze and even criticize current cultural practices through new media forms. Instead of holding up new media forms such as the world wide web as examples of the excesses of late-capitalist culture, however, a new theory should turn new media forms themselves into vehicles of critique. Design in context must be critical and productive at the same time” (Bolter 34). Here Bolter insists that the aesthetic = the formal aspects of design.

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