Saturday, August 25, 2012

Questions for Bob King, Composer

Bob King thinks of himself as a composer.  He likes this term "because it gets me out of all the boxes of thinking I'm a teacher, a scholar, an artist, a parent, etc."  For Bob, "composing cuts across all of these categories and unifies them meaningfully. Having an identity that is a verb rather than a noun also makes sense to me."  He works as an instructor in the Division of Liberal Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.  His source fields include philosophy (B.A), painting and drawing (M.F.A.), and cultural studies/education (Ph. D.), and for Bob all of these converge in the field of media studies. 

How would you describe what you do?

I do a lot of things, so I'll try to describe that. In order to simplify, it might be helpful to know that I regard the aesthetic as one of four basic ways-of-knowing or WOKs or probes that humans have devised to phrase questions and get responses from reality. In my scheme of things the other three WOKs are the scientific, the spiritual, and the intellectual. I see each one as uniquely capable of highlighting or revealing particular aspects of reality, including states of consciousness and those sorts of aspects of reality, that the other three cannot get to.

My surmise is that if humans could make do with less than four WOKs and still know reality thoroughly, we would probably have reduced the number by now. Despite attempts by one group or another to rid the world of one WOK or another, these efforts always seem to fail over the long haul of history. All four seem to persist. So what do I do? I honor, explore, question, combine, recombine, and remix them.  In this, I see myself as as composer, and I see acts of composition as closely intertwined with acts of representation (in a psychological sense, as Lacan describes it) and with the constant activity of perception (in a purely physical/critter sense).

Sometimes my WOK remix process involves composing artworks (drawings, furniture, photoshop pieces, lamps, audio collages, paintings, video montages, meringue sculptures, etc.). Sometimes my WOK remix process involves composing courses, assignments, writings, agendas, etc. Sometimes it involves composing neural/somatic states (I like the idea of neural composing). Sometimes it involves composing studies and polls and analyzing the data gathered. So I guess that makes me a remix composer. What do I do?  I compose.

Is this different than what other people think you do?

I would imagine so. My surmise is that a lot of people don't know what to make of me or what I do, and are therefore either mystified (I've repeatedly been described as abstract) or irritated (in which case they might describe me as a computer teacher for example, in order to ascribe to me a concrete identity, or possibly to irritate me in return) or blandly neutral (some describe me as philosophical). Of course I also have friends who seem to understand and like me, and appreciate the things I do and the way I do them.

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

The initial indicator for me is a feeling of being inspired, and after that a feeling of being in a state that Jackson Pollock described as "in contact," or fully alive, or in a relational state of consciousness (a la Betty Edwards), or in a "flow" state (as Csikszentmihalyi describes it), or as a participant in the coming-into-being of en emergent phenomenon (like a midwife, as Socrates --according to Plato-- described it).

How do you go about making choices?

I think I make compositional choices mostly based on the relationships of one thing to another in whatever it is I'm working on. If I am composing a course, I make choices about assignments in relation to an idea or direction that is inspiring to me, or in relation to the learning goals I have in mind. Or it might go the other way 'round. I might make choices about learning goals in relation to an assignment idea that I find inspiring at the time, and so forth.

The joy for me in this type of composing is the sense of interconnectedness that it brings, and the adding of connections that I hadn't seen before.

The same sort of relational decision process applies to visual and multi- media compositions.  I tend to make decisions based on the interplay of the various elements (ideational as well as formal) of the pieces as the elements come on board. This is sort of like adding a member to one's family, and noting that this changes all of the relationships.

For example I may feel that a visual composition at some point needs a bold horizontal element in the bottom third of the frame, running coast to coast, side to side, and this is based on perceiving something lacking in the relationships already on board. Maybe this is like a band that senses it needs a horn player, or an accordion player, or something like that, for other elements to play off of. I find that seemingly formal decisions (things like deciding to add a horizontal element) sometimes end up registering across and meeting a need in the ideational aspect as well. That part is interesting to me.

How do you know when you’re done?

In my case this depends on the type of composition. When I am composing paintings or other sorts of visual work, and my inner composition is tilted towards the aesthetic/creative WOK, I sometimes know a project is done when it feels to me like I participated in making it, but didn't make it in an egoistic, self-determined sense. It's like I kind of stand back from it and feel a nice sense of having been party to something I know not what, and yet there it is, and it's done.

When I was involved in conversational email writing (which was the creative endeavor that got me interested in new-media composition) with a writing partner, there were moments like this as well, times when a conversation would just seem to, surprisingly and out of nowhere, finish, without any attempt to make that happen.  My guess is that people used to talk about muses in this type of context, but I don't know much about that. In Jenlink and Carr's typology of conversation (a useful tool when applied in other contexts as well, including composition), any of these types of markers or occurrences would qualify the activity as 'transcendent,' as compared 'transforming' or 'transactional.'

In composing courses, assignments, and those sorts of projects, my inner composition is tilted towards the intellectual WOK, and I tend to know projects are done when the relationships between the various parts seem to be clicking with connections and so on, in tandem with the addition of new connections. In Jenlink and Carr's typology, this likely belongs in the 'transforming' category. The specific feeling of done-ness in this regard is similar yet also qualitatively different from that of completing an aesthetically-oriented composition (and I still think Betty Edwards description of R-brain and L-brain functionality in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain describes the qualitative difference best). 

What’s your workspace like?

My workspace is more like a network of places, including online as well as face-to-face places. It's sort of a distributed workspace I guess. All of the spaces (I have a home workspace, two work workspaces, and several online workspaces) are flexible. The f2f spaces all feature components that I have composed and constructed myself --custom work surfaces, desks, shelves, benches, etc. All of the items I make convey a sense of construction. For example my work surface/tables have modified sawhorses as supports. All of the workspaces have tools laying around, within easy reach.

I approach the making of many things in a modular, re-use kind of way. For example in making furniture I often limit my materials to two-by-fours, pine boards, and deck screws. That way anything I make I can easily be disassembled and made into something else. To some extent I approach my workspace (picturing its network-form as one thing) in much the same way. It is capable of shifting in emphasis, which I guess connects to the shifts in emphasis that occur in my inner WOKs / neural workspace as well. Did I say I use metaphors from complexity theory quite a bit? In this case one of my favorite concepts is emerging in this narrative, namely the notion of self-similarity or sameness across differences in scale. Did I say that I think of metaphors as tools? So ideas can be among the things that might be laying around in one or another of my workspaces.

What are your essential tools

Woodworking tools are essential to me, as are painting and drawing tools and software tools for multimedia work, and, as noted, ideas and metaphors. I anticipate the addition of programming tools --Processing and MAX-- to this menu. I am at a place now where some of the composing projects I want to get involved with on the new-media side of things are going to require that I develop some programming chops.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

I sometimes use sharpened sticks as drawing tools to make ink drawings. One of my sons made me a beautiful set of these for me one time, when we were on a weekend camping trip.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from? 

Well, the biggest mistakes I make seem to be ones that get big from repetition and accretion. These include not thinking big enough (this is my main mistake in aesthetically tilted WOKdom) and not infusing things enough with conversation (this is my main mistake in intellectually tilted WOKdom).

Examples of the first type of mistake, and lessons learned, look like this. I was painting one time, stuck at some point or other in the process, and happened to notice the window-reflected image of the painting I was working on, and saw how helpful it was to see it differently in a major way (as in backwards). This led to turning canvases 90 or 180 degrees every once in a while as part of my working method. Rather than agonizing over small changes, it worked better to find ways to think big, so to speak.

Another example. I was creating an art installation to simulate an industrial rooftop (the installation was called Uncommon Ground and the rooftop idea was designed to create a resonant context in which to situate the group of paintings I had made for the show). I was working on the rooftop part of the installation with the curator of the gallery space, who happened to be a sculptor. We were talking about how to create the rooftop effect and all of my ideas were really small -- I mean I was thinking of adding a little pipe here or there coming up out of a roofing-paper covered floor. He suggested thinking bigger, and to show me what he meant we got into his truck and drove to a downtown area where there was an unoccupied building. It had some substantial HVAC ducting on its roof, on the scale of 4' by 5' pieces. We ended up 'borrowing' one, let's put it that way, and I ended up building another one out of masonite, painting it to look like sheet metal. These pieces really anchored the context part of the show. Same mistake, same lesson learned. Think bigger.

An example of the other category of big mistake I make --again made big by accretion and repetition-- is that in composing courses and other intellectual-oriented WOK projects I often fail to include conversation among participants as a main element in the composition. Given that I think I know the importance of conversation to learning --I mean I see the main human WOKs as forms of conversation after all-- this is probably a mix of stupidity and cowardice on my part. One or the other by itself could not account for the number of times I've missed the ball on this one. The lesson is to think social and/or think affective, and to make this part of intellect-oriented compositions.

Can we share an example of your work?

Here's a link to a recent video composition that kind of bridges the two areas of composing that I for the most part separated in the above responses. It's a video I made as a self-portrait for teaching (intellectual WOK) purposes, and is also a more or less purely creative exploration of genre-creation (aesthetic WOK) featuring a genre I refer to as a channel-surf.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Eyes of My Children

As the plane took off, my six year old son said, “Look, we’re touching the clouds.”  We banked, which made my daughter nervous:  “We’re tipping.”  I explained, “No, we’re turning.”  “Well, she said, “It feels like tipping.”

I spent a lot of time traveling with my kids this summer, and one of the pleasures was listening to them describe new experiences, but this is how it’s been since they began to talk.  As toddlers, they would want to eat “monsterella” and “strawbellies.”  Last year my daughter announced she was learning “multiplication and dividenation.”  This year on the metro, my son wanted to see “pickerpocketers.”

This is stereotypical “cute” kid talk, but it’s also more than that.  As my children engage a world fresh to them, they make the world fresh to me.

When they ask if they can swim in “the shadow end” of the pool, I see the space differently.

When I ask my daughter whether she dreamed the night before and she says,
“Yes, I was imaginating,” I think, “That’s exactly right.”

Sometimes, we talk about language, like when my daughter points out, “When two words mean the same thing, they’re cinnamon.”

Sometimes, we talk about theology, like when my son asked, “Daddy, do people have butts in heaven?”

Sometimes, like this summer when I stopped to look at a house that was for sale, we talk about art. 

Daughter - Daddy, look at that statue!  That guy is naked.
Me - It's art.
Daughter - Why is he naked?
Son- I can see his weiner!
Me - It's David, the one who fought Goliath.
Daughter -Why did he fight naked?
Me -Good question.  I'm not sure he did.
Daughter - Why is there a design above his penis?
Me - That is supposed to be pubic hair.
Son - I have pubic hair.
Me - No you don't.
Daughter - I'm going to.  The doctor said.
Son - I'm going to first.
Me - You both will someday, but your sister will be first.
Son - No fair!
Daughter - Is it going to look like a design?
Me - No.  I don't think so.
Daughter – Who would buy a house with a naked guy?
Son - I can see his weiner!

I have a friend who likes to quote Picasso about an artist needing the ability to retain a child-like capacity for imagination and play.  For a poet, this means being able to access a child-like use of language and perspective.  Although a writer should respect and understand the precision and complexity of words, there also needs to be a willingness to use them in unexpected ways.  It’s estimated that Shakespeare coined seven words a play.  He made up the ones he needed.  Since I’m not Shakespeare or Picasso, I’m lucky to have children who help keep my relationship with language and the world fresh.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Too Many Books

            When I was young, I wanted to have the largest private library in the world.  I imagined myself ensconced in an enormous multi-story room, one with long ornate shelves and hardcover tomes.  It would have those ladders that roll around.  A big globe in a wooden cradle.  Leather seats.  Without consciously realizing it, I believed such a library would mean I was smart, erudite, accomplished.  It would be a sign that I had made it.
            In my twenties and early thirties, my private library remained small.  Since I moved once or twice year, I constantly had to assess which books I wanted to keep and I pared down diligently.  I not only knew each book I owned, but I could say how it had come into my life.  I knew why it was important and valuable to me.  Then, after years of living in apartments, I bought a house with my wife, and one of the unexpected consequences was that it sparked a long period of book buying -- not just one or two at a time, but boxes and bagsful.  The Friends of the Library sale became more exciting than Christmas.
            Now, every room of my house has cases, stacks, and piles of books.  My classroom and offices are similarly stuffed.  Several years ago, my school library, desperate for shelving space, withdrew hundreds of books from circulation and put them on a discard pile for recycling.  Many seemed obviously worthless.  It was easy to understand that the library didn’t need four copies of the 1960s manual Motorcycling for Beginners.  However, the pile contained works by Nobel Prize winners Theodore Dreiser, Heinrich Boll, Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and William Golding.  How could I let these be destroyed?  I borrowed a dolly and hauled boxfuls to my office.  I still have them.  I haven’t read any of them.
            I used to rail against one of the items in Life’s Little Instruction Book that insisted, “Own good books even if you don’t read them.”  No, I thought, that’s exactly wrong.  Read them even if you don’t own them. And yet, what I believe and what I actually do have dramatically diverged.  I have books that I know I will never read no matter how long I live.  I have books that when I open them they make me sneeze and give me headaches; they literally make me sick.  I have books that I have no idea where I got them.  I have books that I don’t know I have.
            Why am I keeping all these?
            Is it covetousness?  Are they talismans against death?
            I used to find them comforting.  I feel safer in a room with books than one without.  Or, as Cicero said, “a room without books is like a body without a soul.”  This, however, can turn books into a type of design element.  The woman who owned the house before us had, on her buffet, ceramic replicas of classic literature.  There were no actual books in the house.  Just odd representations.  I mocked this, but are my shelves of “real” books gathering dust any better?  Few, if anyone, would say these piles are aesthetically pleasing.
            I know that I keep many because of the “someday” factor.  Someday I might want to read them.  And yet … the older I get the more it seems increasingly unlikely that someday I might suddenly want to read Sigmund Spaeth’s “The Art of Enjoying Music,” (1942) or Margaret Forster’s “The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff.”  And, if I really do want to read John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill” or reread Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” I suspect I could find a copy.  I’m not saving rare, hard-to-find, works just what I’ve fished from what has flooded past.
            I hope that having books around will inspire my children to read and love literature.  I believe it’s important for them to be surrounded by books, to read and to see me read, and, when they’re older, they may be interested in the authors that I’m not.  Yet perhaps they feel just as oppressed as I do.  Maybe they’ll grow up with a desire to escape these piles.  Perhaps owning so many books devalues them.
            Getting rid of these books would probably mean their destruction.  The used bookstore won’t want them.  After a few years in a thrift store or “free shelf” somewhere, they’ll end up in a land-fill. 
            And maybe that’s not so bad.
            I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but maybe some of these books should be pulped, discarded, or burned.  Not because they’re dangerous, but because the space and energy they take up isn’t worth what they offer.
            I know some might have an as yet unrecognized value.  I read something once about old porn films.  Because so many were low-budget and done quickly in people’s houses, they ended up being a remarkable record of d├ęcor and interior design.  Certainly copies of these books needs to be kept somewhere.  But not by me.  I think of Giles Corey being crushed with rocks yet continuing to say, “more weight, more weight.” 
            I don’t know who is to take care of them, but I can’t breathe.  Each book is more weight.
            I know they need to go.
            Does anyone want some books?