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two ends of the spectrum

September 24, 2008 at 2:12 am

This past weekend, at the Block Party! that Andrew Oesch organized (and I helped with) in Worcester, MA:


…and, a couple of days earlier, working on drawing (or rather, desperately trying to figure out how to draw) the display font for what became this poster:


The Block Party was collaborative, temporary, and chaotic. It had no tangible “goal” besides getting a chance to play, offering other people (kids and adults) the chance to play, creating a potentially transformative experience, practicing collaborating and facilitating with Andrew O, taking the chance to do something we had wanted to do since we were little (have an almost infinite number of giant blocks to build with), and maybe getting a little transformed ourselves (I’m pretty sure that’s me in the red shirt):

BONE ZONE at stArt in the street, worcester 2008

Despite its transience, this kind of project is very direct — you can see the results in people’s enjoyment of and immediate narration of the experience (one kid, as his mom pulled him away from jumping on and squashing boxes at the end of the day: “But… this is the BEST PLACE EVER!!!”). I have a bunch of persistent memories from my own childhood (a giant wooden dragon in the children’s section of the public library, walking through a tall maze of translucent plastic at an art fair, building forts in the woods, working on a collaborative clay castle-sculpture at a craft show) which convince me that Sunday’s memory of building giant structures out of boxes will stick with some of these kids for the rest of their lives. Andrew O and I are left with nothing except lots of photos and a couple of sheets of colorful paper — almost all the boxes got smashed and recycled — the experience was the important thing.

A poster like this one (computer-designed, computer-printed) is also temporary. If I’m lucky, someone will put a copy of the poster up on their dorm-room wall, maybe keep it as a reminder of the speaker that influenced their changing ideas; maybe it will go into the departmental archive, but most likely, most of the copies will become part of the massive pile of paper-waste that comes out of any university in any given academic year. Hopefully, it will get some folks to come out to the talk — maybe more people than if it was a simple flyer designed in a word-processing program and printed in black and white… who knows.


Designing on the computer opens up too many infinite possibilities for me. I like the limits of the physical, of rubylith and of ink drawings; I’m more comfortable with the irregularity, and the permanence, that are built into something you make by hand. Looking at a computer screen, I get wrapped up in minutely adjusting the anchor-points of lines or editing shapes pixel-by-pixel, saving endless versions of things so I can revert to earlier decisions if necessary.

Working on an analog object, if you erased something, that means it is gone (even if you might reach for the command-Z key instinctively) and you have to draw it again, or as close as you can get to it. In the physical world, there’s no perfectability: whatever you make might have problems or issues, but they will result from how it was made and be a part of it — not errors you have overlooked and might have fixed if you had just had another couple of hours to spend in front of the monitor.

[here are two parts of the middle of the “digital/analog battle royale” illustration process for the Labor Studies poster. on paper:]
[and on the computer. notice the ink-line tracing of the two politicians, which is in the middle of being re-sized to fit the photo-reference mockup:]

When I was looking at display fonts to use on the Labor Studies Dept. poster, I couldn’t find a computer font that I liked. I started to draw letters from scratch, but the initial sketches didn’t fit the need or style of the poster, and I didn’t have a lot of time and wasn’t feeling super-inventive at that moment. The letter-pantograph device (seen at the top of this post) was handed down to me by my grandfather, a retired engineer, along with his set of 1970s Rapidograph pens. Using it, I drew the letters above, then scanned them in, enlarged them and printed them out, photocopied them to the right size, and traced their outlines in ink, making them more angular, and changing them somewhat (to differentiate them from the dreaded Comic Sans!). The tracings were scanned again, and photoshoppified into something usable for the graphic title of the poster.

The whole poster involved so much work, so much finicky moving of text and images back and forth, so much consideration and discarding of various fonts, so much attempting towards perfection. I’m mostly happy with it, especially with the illustrations, but I don’t think it has the richness and interest of most of my screen-printed projects… and since I’m not part of the community where the event will take place, it doesn’t have an effect on my life, and I can’t see its effect on other people.


The Block Party! project also involved a huge amount of work (done mostly by AO, though I jumped in at the last minute). Collecting and assembling all the boxes was an almost-infinite task, printing the patterned paper, pasting it on, organizing volunteers, thinking about the philosophy and metaphorical underpinnings of the project. . . However, there was no pretense of perfection: our basic goal was to have enough boxes to really transform the space of the street — beyond that, we had no idea ahead of time of how it would actually turn out, and we knew that we would be figuring out how to do the project along with everybody else who was there that day.

Searching for perfection — ignoring the demand for perfection (even/especially when it comes from within myself). Either of these approaches could be applied to any project, any medium, that one might want to work in. At this point, coming off of these two almost-simultaneous projects, I think I know which of these paths regarding perfection I like being on the most.

However, it’s relatively simple to apply the “chaos is awesome” mentality to projects (like the Block Party) where the chaos is actually unavoidable. It’s somewhat harder to let it creep in to the screenprinting projects I really want to be focusing on, the areas where my meticulousness is more ingrained and more likely to take charge. Additionally, when life is overwhelming (as it usually is for me), it’s easiest to strive for righteousness and certainty, since those seem like the most secure options. One constructive strategy might be to take on less, leave more time for things, don’t put myself in places where I’m so stressed out that perfection seems like the only achievable goal, where I don’t have time to accept complexity and confusion. I know this is possible, because I’ve worked on more and more projects recently where I’ve had to slow down to allow for learning and chaos. . . they are harder and more difficult to approach than the ‘perfectable’ projects. . . . but simply remembering that the harder projects are more fun is a large part of the process. . . .

Here’s Andrew Oesch starring as Sisyphus in Werner Herzog’s new movie about participatory, community-based art projects:


… and a good reminder (from fomato.com) about how not to get bogged down by more projects than I actually want:


thanks, cute creatures, for your infinite wisdom.


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