4 April, 2014
More tests.

More tests.

27 May 2012

Work in Progress: Not Your Mother’s Arts and Crafts

The art world is certainly no stranger to stuffed goods, even for artists whose oeuvres fall outside of the realm of textile arts. Claes Oldenburg’s early sculptures such as Giant BLT, Soft Light Switches, and Soft Toilet played with material and scale to celebrate the banal objects of our everyday lives. Mike Kelley frequently used stuffed animals and dolls found in yard sales and thrift stores to convey the pathos and nostalgia of youth, as evident in Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites—a hanging installation of soft good bundles emitting a pine-scented mist. The prolific Takashi Murakami deftly and unapologetically straddled the line between art and commerce with the creation of limited edition plush toys produced in partnership with Louis Vuitton. And countless other contemporary artists today have chosen the needle and thread as their tools of choice.

Over the past few years, my own work has been less about creating new forms or languages, and more about recasting existing ones in new ways to reveal beauty (at times, irony) and ultimately, truth about ourselves and the world in which we live. Oftentimes a medium—and its accompanying cultural associations—is, alone, the device for conveying my intent. My friend Jake recently remarked that my past few projects have been about a return to the domestic arts. While this insight initially took me by surprise (much owing to my self-admitted failings in the traditional home-making department), he was right in many ways. But this revival of domesticity, of the slow movement and the hand-crafted, is not unique to my own artistic endeavors, but rather one experienced on a cultural scale—largely in reaction to the industrialized, corporate underpinnings of our economy. And it is very much the subject matter of my current work in progress: Hipster Emblems.

Hand-Crafted Axe; sling currently in the works (apologies to Peter Buchanan-Smith)

Small-Batch Pickles (many thanks to Caroline for the suggestion)

Watching the meteoric rise of the local artisanal movement has given way to a tempest of conflicting reactions within—at times, reverence; at others, amusement; and on the rare occasion, perhaps a bit of eye-rolling. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve long been a champion of the craftsman, of the cottage industry, of the small designer, of those who have chosen to dedicate themselves to making beautiful things with a point of view or those who honor yesterday’s traditions today. But I’ve also enjoyed a few moments of mirth at the fanaticism that surrounds it all.

Hipster Emblems is very much an experiment in media and meta-narratives—a playful attempt to combine a medium best suited for 4 year olds with the very levers that invoke such fetishism among the hand-made, artisanal movement. My hope is that, in doing so, these poly-filled instantiations will function as both a mirror to the times and covetable objects in and of themselves.

Next up: Beard Oil, complete with burlap pouch?


14 March 2012

An Homage to Instagram (or Why I Have It So Much Easier Than Meryl Streep)

Photographing the Photographing, 15 January 2012

I was catching up with a friend over lunch a few weeks ago when our conversation turned to social media. I was sharing my recent bewilderment over a mutual friend’s use of Facebook. While easygoing and sharp-witted in person, our friend’s posts struck me as somewhat antiseptic—as if he had installed a high-priced media consultant at the helm. It wasn’t that he was simply adhering to the unspoken rules that make a lot of sense when your roster of friends includes your girlfriend’s mother or the piano teacher you had when you were six; rather, it seemed that he took great care in polishing his personal brand to a finish so glossy it had practically become a mirror. And in many ways, his status updates had become exactly that for me—revealing little about his life while continuously forcing me to reflect on my own social media behaviors since first launching the Nana Project in April 2010.

In the time since, I’ve become somewhat of a regular user of a number of the services I set out to engage with—Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn (although it’s debatable as to how one actually defines active engagement)—while never so much as enjoying a second date with either Delicious or Flickr. It also goes without saying that I use countless other products where social features play either a significant or central role in their user experiences. But because I’m someone who enjoys inflicting pop-psychology tests (like this, this, or even this) on myself and others, the other day I found myself wondering which product I would grab, were I to discover my house of social media on fire. I was surprised to realize that this hypothetical question didn’t immediately send me into a Sophie’s Choice-level fit of angst—in fact, it wasn’t a remotely agonizing question at all.

Simple: I’d scoop Instagram into my arms and watch from the lawn as the others went up in flames.

Of course I’m being hyperbolic; these products obviously aren’t interchangeable, and they have vastly differing value propositions and places within our lives. Truthfully, I enjoy content and repartee exchanged across most forms of social media. I use Twitter to discover notable content created or curated by others and occasionally bemoan the dearth of kale salad. I use Tumblr as a verbal sketchpad to force myself to publicly excavate half-baked thoughts. But as an avid snowboarding friend of mine once told me—skiing might never have existed had snowboarding been invented first. Similarly, I wonder how much our collective sharing tendencies would differ today had Instagram been invented pre-FB. In the mere two years that I’ve been a user, the Facebook experience has become increasingly media-rich—one need only to compare The Wall to The Timeline to note just how prominently imagery figures into the latter. But there are myriad reasons why the razor-sharp focus of Instagram (the popularity of which was previously addressed by Nate Bolt) is all I really need when it comes to social experiences rooted in basic but deeply human desires to discover, share, and connect with others. What follows is an attempt to explain why.

1. Instagram acknowledges the beauty of a fleeting moment.

Despite the technophobic’s fear that the proliferation of social media will inevitably result in a doomsday scenario of extreme antisocial behaviors IRL, I’m not one to believe that a Facebook exchange threatens to replace the convivial dinner and bottle of wine enjoyed amongst friends. Any digital form of communication—be it a post on your colleague’s timeline, a Tweet, or even the occasional long-winded email—is fleeting in nature. Regardless of how adept one is at verbal storytelling, it can never fully replicate that of an actual real-life experience. It merely offers us a glimpse into another person’s head, heart, or life, and frankly, I’m hard pressed to think of a medium more well-suited to capture, express, or share these ephemeral moments than that of a single image. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has particular resonance in this regard.

2. Instagram leads with the right brain but leaves room for the left.

Imagery is, by definition, a visceral medium—the left brain “reads” and recognizes an image’s subject, but the right brain perceives the more emotive qualities of an image. The brilliance of the Instagram user experience is that it’s beautifully economical in terms of functionality, but one in which the opportunity for authorship feels virtually limitless. Core features include a number of filters that both beautify and impart a dreamy haze, elevating original photography from the too true nature of most snapshots (tickling the right brain), and an option to comment allows users to both title their images and engage in dialogue with others (providing an outlet for the left). But because of the scale at which images are presented in the app as well as the order in which text appears below (number of Likes followed by caption and/or comments), the experience is one in which the user is given the space to fully absorb an image visually before processing the verbal cues beneath. It’s a user experience that is finely attuned to—and mindful of—the way in which we perceive, consume, and interpret imagery—regardless of where we might live or the language we might speak.

3. Instagram provides limited optionality but manages to reveal an astonishing amount about us.

Unlike other forms of social media, Instagram feels like a direct window into another’s soul, which is incredibly refreshing in an era in which big brands are expected to actively maintain Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Much of this can be attributed to the personal and evocative nature of photography, but much can be gleaned by reading between the lines, by observing the choices users make—either reflexively or consciously—when using Instagram. Subject matter (e.g. self-portraits on good hair days, ramen dinners, latte art, naughty cats) aside, it is astonishing to consider the variables at one’s disposal given the focused feature set—each with its own accompanying set of interpretations. Adding a caption to an image signals a creator’s desire to communicate with the viewer; leaving one off invites curiosity and encourages interpretation. Posting an image of a spectacle as it unfolds can feel like reportage from the front lines while #latergrams can celebrate nostalgic moments from the past. Declarations around equipment in a user’s bio divulges how he or she views his or her own creative endeavors—citing use of a high-end DSLR trumpets a serious hobbyist or a professional at work, while “iPhone 4s only” is a pledge to embrace a more modern, frictionless approach to image creation. Regardless, simply being granted access to another’s images always feels like a privilege, and in this way, connections formed between strangers (at times, across vast social or geographic divides) can feel far more intimate—and enlightening—than Facebook banter with the closest of friends.

So while I’m hardly looking to toss a lit match onto my house of social media anytime soon—I’ll sleep more soundly at night knowing Instagram is tucked away safely beneath my pillow. Just in case.


16 January 2012

Work in Progress: Creating to Destroy

I, along with every other American, saw James Cameron’s Titanic when it first debuted in theaters in 1997. My motivation for doing so wasn’t due to any sort of preoccupation with tragedies, Leonardo DiCaprio, or seminal Hollywood blockbusters. Rather, I went to see Titanic — at the time, the most expensive film ever made — simply to understand what a $200 million film budget looked like. 

There’s a part of me — the finish my plate / save my plastic bags / turn that old skirt into a pillowcase part of me — that was incredibly unnerved by the excessive amount of waste in that film. Wikipedia’s notes on pre-production describe the film’s massive and meticulous approach to achieve historical accuracy:

For the ship’s interiors, production designer Peter Lamont's team looked for artifacts from the era. However, the newness of the ship meant every prop had to be made from scratch. […]The sets representing the interior rooms of the Titanic were reproduced exactly as originally built, using photographs and plans from the Titanic’s builders. “The liner’s first class staircase, which figures prominently in the script was constructed out of real wood and actually destroyed in the filming of the sinking.”

Entire cabinets of exquisite china, reproduced to exacting detail with the original White Star Line insignia, were constructed and styled simply to come crashing down at the perfect cinematic moment — heralding the catastrophic end of the RMS Titanic and so many of her passengers.

And while I may be the type of person who hears an exorbitant figure as such and can’t help but wonder which countries have a GDP smaller than Cameron’s budget, or perhaps, what I might do with $200 million were I given the opportunity to administer it, I left the theater haunted by this adjacent notion of Creating to Destroy.  

Since then, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to revisit this and examine my own relationship with Impermanence (the slightly less nihilistic cousin of Creating to Destroy) in my creative practice. I’ve never attempted performance or installation art; rather I’ve always gravitated toward working in fixed media with long shelf-lives — be they physical or digital. A number of years ago, I was contacted by a small gallery to inquire as to whether I would be willing to install one of my pieces at large scale on a wall in their space, as part of a group show that would be up for approximately two weeks. I agreed, having never created anything that would take nearly as long to produce as it would exist in this world. Ultimately, the show was cancelled, but I was left trying to reconcile the disconnect between makers and viewers. For makers, the value lies in the act of creation; for viewers: the outcome. Like others who have chosen similar vocations, I make things because I’m in love with making, because I can’t imagine a life without it, and because I secretly enjoy all of the angst, self-flagellation, and learning that comes with the territory. Given the option of: Would I prefer to A) spend every waking minute making terrible work that never saw the light of day or B) wake up every morning to discover that I had made amazing work in my sleep, I would choose A every time, and I’m willing to venture that I’m not alone here.  

My latest work in progress, the Dead Artist Baked Goods series, has been an exercise in Impermanence, while at the same time, an attempt to bridge that gap between maker and viewer. It all began innocently enough and certainly without any overwrought intentions. Before the holidays, my friend and I discovered that we were both harboring a shared desire to bake. She actually had an excuse — an upcoming cookie party in which attendees would exchange baked confections — whereas I had no rational explanation for this urge whatsoever. I was merely obsessed with the idea of replicating modern artworks in royal icing; there was a sweet irony in democratizing and de-contextualizing some of the most revered and unattainable works of minimalism, color field painting, and abstract expressionism. And thus, I began. 

The first series I completed was in honor of Ellsworth Kelly (who, BTW, is 88 and very much alive by all reports), then Mark Rothko’s Multiforms, and most recently, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism. When I recently posted the Malevich cookies on Instagram, a conversation between myself and fellow designer, David, ensued:

DH: “Seriously you have too much time on your hands!”

MC: “I take my personal work seriously, regardless of medium ;-)”

DH: “But do you eat your personal work?”

To which I respond — truthfully, I’m not much of a cookie person. I’ve been known to eat a reject here or there. I do it for the love of doing it, and have taken to forcing the outcomes on my underfed colleagues at GA. Throughout it all, we’ve explored both media and technique (corn syrup- vs meringue-powder-based icing; almond extract vs. lemon zest and lemon extract; application via paintbrush vs. decorating tips, squeeze bottles, and toothpicks). Laugh as you might, but the process of baking has involved the experimentation and failure required of more serious creative pursuits, and in many ways, has been equally gratifying. I’m finally Creating to Destroy. Happily.

2 November 2011

Work in Progress: Bibliophilia

Ellwood, Stephen. This Is What It Is Like to Be Like This. Toronto: Art Metropole, 2005.

Anyone who knows me well can testify to the fact that I have a bit of a book fetish. Throughout my life, in all the times I’ve had to move, it’s been paper that has made up the large majority of what I own—in both weight and volume. I’ve been willing to part with practically any other material possession but books. I suppose that if we are what we consume and the medium is the message, I have no choice but to accept the fact that I’m a glutton clinging perilously to the past.

I despair at the closing of neighborhood bookstores. I steal furtive glances at the shelves of friends and strangers alike when entering their homes for the first time. And I moved at a snail’s pace through this year’s Art Book Fair despite overheated rooms and an eager throng of strangers pressed up against me. 

Curling up with a Kindle can never replace the tactile sensation of feeling the toothy finish of a paper stock between one’s fingertips. E-ink can’t replicate the show-through of a cheap newsprint or the fine craftsmanship attained by printers and binderies in Western Europe—both equally gratifying in their own right.

Earlier tonight, I spent some time with one of my most recent purchases, Stephen Ellwood's This Is What It Is Like to Be Like This. Ellwood is that rare visual/verbal artist—his imagery is narrative; his language: evocative. This particular piece is small in size, roughly 5in x 7in, each page a vast expanse of white but for a single phrase, simply typeset and positioned at the same horizon line on each page. The book concludes with a few full-page plates of black and white photography of ambling streams and dense foliage at its close.

And while I had perused the pages of this piece a few weeks ago, only tonight did I discover that the signatures had been bound with a bright red thread. It was a deliberate act: a choice unto itself and a bold move in an otherwise rigorous and economical construct. A detail perhaps, but a small reminder nonetheless that we aren’t just sentient, but sensorial as well.

Bois, Ive-Alan; Bois, Yve-Alain; Macel, Christine; and Rolin, Olivier. Sophie Calle, m’as-tu vue. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2003. 

Fischer, Mirjam. Beauty and the Book: 60 Years of the Most Beautiful Swiss Books. Zurich: Arthur Niggli, 2004.


9 July 2011

The Merits of Commitment

Alternately: The Trade-offs of Iteration

As a child, my writing utensil of choice was a mechanical pencil. Unlike your standard-issue Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2, these instruments never needed sharpening. Always precise, but beyond that: easily erased. The sloppy errors I made in my math homework, the absent-minded doodles I made on my homeroom desk, the words I wrote in notes to friends but regretted only seconds later. The eraser was the original Command + Z—offering us not only an escape hatch, but a way to rid the crime scene of any evidence whatsoever.

As an adolescent, I discovered the beauty of pens. Of commitment. Of what it meant to think several moves ahead. To accept the consequences of my errors. The transition wasn’t an easy one. Initially, when I first switched to ink, I burned through reams of loose-leaf; my perfectionist tendencies wouldn’t allow me to submit papers or send letters with any visible errors. And for a short while, I was that girl—the neurotic one with a secret stash of Wite-Out® in her purse. Eventually, I grew to see strikethroughs as beautiful, a reminder of my own fallibility and a way to ensure that the iterative, revision-prone meanderings of my mind were captured alongside the final draft. There was a deeper narrative there, one just as much about the who, where, when, why and how as much as the what.

For the past week or so, I’ve been making miniature papercrafts in preparation for a short stop-motion piece to be directed, shot, and produced by Erica Gorochow. For better or worse, the drying time of Elmer’s Glue can’t be rushed, which has meant that I’ve had a lot of time to think, specifically about The Act of Making. I’ve been here before—when we first launched our site in January, I crafted the original set of paper miniatures. But this time around, I don’t have the luxury of Photoshopping the errant glue drip, which has required raising the bar on my level of craft. Precision tweezers and OCD-tendencies aside, the work has proven incredibly satisfying, and it was only after I suddenly found myself up to my knees in basswood and magazine scraps that it dawned on me why.

There’s a finality in the work. One that I’ve missed.

We’re all familiar with the benefits of an iterative design approach—in fact, it’s actually difficult to remember life prior to the one we know today. The technology and tools currently at our disposal allow us to think-and-make reflexively in flexible and agile ways, incorporating feedback throughout. But as I found myself thinking through the steps to construct the chipboard laptop, I realized that what was so gratifying was not just the newness of the challenge, but acknowledging was at stake (nothing life-changing, mind you; we are talking about miniatures). Not in terms of the cost of materials, but in terms of weighing the risks to achieve a desired outcome against the time invested. There were trade-offs to acknowledge—could I get away with abstracting the keys into a basic grid, or did I want to faithfully replicate the varying widths of keys? If I chose one material over another, what impact would this have on my ability to achieve interior rounded edges? I enjoyed the level to which I made bets and relied on instinct. And so I began to wonder whether iterative practice could actually begin to erode one of the most valuable (but seldom acknowledged) tools in a designer’s repertoire: his or her judgment.

It’s true that various media require differing degrees of commitment—releasing files to a printer is a nail-biter of a moment for many of us; the same with anything relatively permanent such as signage. There’s a retail store on Broadway that makes me cringe every time I walk by: Damn, I should’ve made that logo a little smaller; definitely should have tightened up the letterspacing between that I and A. And perhaps it’s because most of my projects of late have been web-based products that I find myself missing the idea of designing in a way that involves some degree of finality—of synthesizing all inputs to arrive not at a solution, but the solution—one that inspires conviction. And holding myself accountable when I ultimately fail, but learning in a way that affects me at my core. 

It used to be that designers shared the company of photographers and filmmakers, hired for a particular expertise or point of view and responsible for a discrete product that, once unleashed in the world, could never be changed. Increasingly though, especially among practitioners who work in more fluid media such as web or mobile, a designer’s perspective is overshadowed by a prevailing ethos of an iterative approach: If it doesn’t work, we can always change it. Many designers embrace this; who hasn’t wished for a Command + Z to apply to real life? We could save ourselves the occasional professional misstep, a lot of heartache, and healthy amounts of humiliation. But when the stakes are high, being confronted with evidence of your mistakes makes it that much easier to learn from them.

In the start-up world, there’s a widely held belief that if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve waited too long to release it. Similarly, I’ve heard colleagues remind me time and time again that Perfect is the Enemy of Good. But to aspire to anything less won’t do us any favors either. 

Keep a drawer of your mistakes. But design like there’s no tomorrow.


1 June 2011

A Week-Long Affair. A Lifetime of Love.

It was inevitable, this love affair with you.

I was hanging with my bestie from grad school. We were lounging on her couch, sipping tea and catching up on Life as we are known to do. We had run through the laundry list of updates. Work: check. Friends: check. Family: check. Reading: check. Movies: check. And then, she casually dropped your name, inquiring as to whether I had, by chance, fallen prey to your charms. At the time, I had only a vague understanding of who and what you were, but she gently suggested that I get to know you. She had an inkling that we might get along, and furthermore, that I might fall helplessly in love with you.

A couple of weeks later, my friend and colleague mentioned your name at work. He confessed to an addiction, of foregoing sleep simply to spend late nights with you. Hearing your name exalted by another trusted source certainly piqued my interest, but I remained skeptical about how deep a connection we might actually forge.

Because at first blush, I didn’t suspect we had much in common. Our interests were different. You worshipped at the altar of team sports; I enjoyed solo runs. You were from Texas; I was a native East Coaster. You were stuck in high school; I had spent the majority of my adult life all too eager to leave those years behind.

And then suddenly, you were everywhere. You clearly had a way about you, seducing men and women alike. You tamed the resistant. You captured the hearts and minds of an otherwise diverse and disparate group of followers. Maud Newton blogged about you. So did The Paris Review. And after a late night session with Google, I discovered that The New Yorker had written an article about you several years ago.

So on March 2nd, I logged into Netflix and dove into Friday Night Lights. Head first. 

I feverishly devoured what you had to offer, all the while dreading the imminent denouement of our time together. And by March 9th—some 4 seasons / 63 episodes / 44 hours / 2623 minutes later, it was over. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and discussing you at length, trying to dissect your subtlety, your depth, and your ability to galvanize an unlikely group of allegiant viewers. What follows is an attempt to characterize what it is about you that caused me to fall, and fall so hard.

1) Characters as mirrors. Foggy ones.

For the uninitiated, Friday Night Lights (FNL) is a story that centers around the high school football team of Dillon, Texas—a proxy for Anytown, USA. Dillon’s residents face a myriad of issues common to many small American towns—broken families, racism, and economic hardship. As viewers, we are allowed unbridled views of the motivations and behaviors of a cast of characters whose actions are guided by very real and relatable desires to improve their lives in ways both big and small. It is through these characters that we are able to catch glimpses of ourselves. They are at once familiar and fallible, while simultaneously embodying our collective hope that Better Lies Ahead.

In the pilot episode, Jason Street, beloved quarterback of the Dillon Panthers, sustains a spinal injury that not only puts a swift end to his football career, but renders him a paraplegic for life. And so the series begins; we are but silent witnesses to the aftermath. Bereft, emasculated, and uncertain about his future, we watch as Jason struggles to make sense of his life—one in which prior conclusions have all but vanished. For those of us who have experienced a sudden loss on any scale—from a job to a relationship to a loved one, we are reminded of the human condition—how fleeting good fortune can be, but also, of the reserves of strength that lie within. 

The characters of FNL are frequently forced to navigate the murky greys of right and wrong, of ends and means, of being and believing. Having lost his father in a car accident as a child, running back Smash Williams feels immense pressure to leverage his athletic talent to provide a more stable financial future for his family. His tactics are misguided at best: he wages an enormous bet by electing to engage in performance-enhancing drugs, ultimately compromising his health, career, and the very relationships he reveres. Upon learning of Smash’s indiscretions, Coach Taylor is confronted with the dilemma of abiding by protocol and outing him (thereby ending Smash’s chances at obtaining a college scholarship) or choosing to be complicit in his wrongdoing. We silently cheer when Coach opts for the latter, because this, too, is familiar territory. We understand the trade-offs, of what it means to bear the burden of sacrifice to protect those we love.

2) Strong women. Vulnerable men.

Friday Night Lights was adapted as a television series by Peter Berg, Brian Grazer, and David Nevins from a book and film of the same title. I had long been a fan of Peter Berg, whose work as an actor first appeared on my radar with The Last Seduction, a noir-ish film in which Berg plays a romantic but hapless victim opposite Linda Fiorentino’s femme fatale. Not dissimilarly, the characters of FNL are presented to us as robust and complex beings whose stories frequently dispel myths around traditional gender attributes and roles. 

Tami, wife of Coach Taylor and mother to Julie, is an ambitious and impassioned guidance counselor who later becomes Principal at Dillon High. Her choices around governance—both at home and on the job—are often unpopular but are ultimately motivated by a strong sense of justice and moral code. When Coach is offered the opportunity to coach college ball at a university hundreds of miles away, it is Tami who (despite an unplanned pregnancy) encourages him to accept the position while she and Julie remain in Dillon, confident that their family bond is strong enough to withstand the separation. 

One of the most complex characters of FNL is fullback Tim Riggins, who we are initially introduced to as a callous and womanizing alcoholic. But his character, like all of us, contains multitudes. Our hearts break as he repeatedly watches game footage of the fateful day Jason Street’s life was forever altered, understanding that he has somehow found a way to blame himself for his best friend’s paralysis. We empathize when he confesses the depths of his love for Jason’s girlfriend, Lila. And we’re simultaneously enraged and filled with admiration when he takes the fall for his feckless brother, Billy, by serving time in jail so that Billy can begin his life anew with wife and child. Tim represents the good in all of us, his soft underbelly exposed to reveal tremendous strength. 

3) Making lonely beautiful.

I was fascinated when a friend of mine recently revealed that he was most captivated by the The Town as a character. Coach Taylor is unequivocally alone in his struggles—at times the venerated leader, at others, the whipping boy for The Town’s collective hope. And while the characters of Friday Night Lights are inextricably tied to one another—be it through blood, love, or sport—each is waging an individual battle, often against oneself. The loneliness of Dillon is undeniably palpable; we see it in the grainy footage of the skies at dusk, we hear it in the exquisite soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky, we sense it in the moments of silence that pass between characters. 

4) Allowing the narrative to unfurl. 

And lastly—but perhaps, most importantly—it is worth noting that choices around production had a profound effect on the outcome of FNL. The Wikipedia entry describes performances as such:

Though scripted like any hour-long television drama, the show’s producers decided at the outset to allow the cast leeway in what they said and did on the show, including the delivery of their lines and the blocking of each scene. If the actors felt that something was not true to their character or a mode of delivery didn’t work, they were free to change it provided they still hit the vital plot points.

The freedom given to the cast was complemented by the fact that the show was filmed without rehearsal and without extensive blocking. Camera operators were trained to follow the actors, rather than the actors standing in one place and having cameras fixed around them. This allowed the actors to not only feel free to make changes but to feel safe in making those changes because the infrastructure would work around them. Executive producer Jeffrey Reiner described this method as “no rehearsal, no blocking, just three cameras and we shoot.”

As a designer with self-admitted control issues, it was incredibly enlightening to read about the restraint the show’s producers exercised in the filming of FNL. It’s an elegant—and in many ways, meta—approach that acknowledges that sometimes the most beautiful and heart-wrenching moments of our lives are the ones we could have never predicted.

Friday Night Lights, you may be over, but my love lives on. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.


13 February 2011

Mi Casa Su Casa

As embarrassing as it is to admit, it was an episode of The Partridge Family that I watched as a child (by then long in syndication) that first introduced me to the perils of The Echo Chamber. In This is My Song, the 10-year-old Danny explores his own stirrings as an aspiring songwriter, eager to prove his abilities and save his family from a dry spell of new material. As he drifts off to sleep one night, he overhears older brother Keith (the de facto family songwriter played by teen heart-throb David Cassidy) in the adjacent bedroom rehearsing a song that has come to him in a sudden flash of inspiration. The next morning, Danny previews his new song to the family, having inadvertently appropriated Keith’s melody as his own. Accusations fly, sibling rivalry ignites, chaos ensues. 

It’s a no-duh that we’re largely influenced by the context in which we live. But as someone whose formative years occurred in the late ’80s/early ’90s, my context wasn’t all that much bigger than the Partridge family home on the Warner Brothers lot. For the most part, my life occurred within narrow geographical boundaries of the physical world, whether that meant meeting friends for late-night rendezvous at Denny’s, making unsanctioned trips to clubs, or simply hanging out on my friend Josh’s waterbed. It wasn’t that we weren’t influenced by media—we spent hours trying to unravel the cryptic plot lines of Twin Peaks, making mixed tapes of our favorite bands, and worrying that Operation Desert Storm would kindle the third World War. It’s just that our enculturation was informed largely by the social contexts in which these events and experiences were discussed. 

Today, as our leisure time migrates online, our contexts have become increasingly defined by our internet activity, be they web trawls, peer-to-peer networking, or media consumption. A MacArthur study conducted in 2008 determined that teen interaction with digital media is motivated primarily by one of two distinct factors: friendship or interest. While friendship-driven engagement is described as socializing online with friends in one’s local peer group, interest-driven behavior involves consuming information and connecting with communities not otherwise present in one’s offline context. What would have previously required a plane ticket, a passport, and an introduction is now enabled by a mere internet connection. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Twitterverse, where the need for an introduction (and attendant social anxiety) is eliminated entirely. A recent study cited that only 22.1% of all Twitter relationships are reciprocal, reinforcing the idea that most relationships aren’t inherently personal in nature, but rather interest-based. Celebrities, brands, and media entities aside, the users with the largest followings are seen to have a particular perspective or domain expertise. Take @shitmydadsays, for instance, who pretty much corners the market for curmudgeony 74-year-old man-speak.

Over the past 6 months, Twitter has introduced several new features, Who to Follow, Similar to You, and Connections. Based on algorithms similar to those used by Facebook and LinkedIn, all three features either recommend or highlight Twitter users commonly followed by those within your network—the logic being that if three users you’re following are all following a particular user, you should be too. I’ll be the first person to admit I’ve been susceptible to this, but lately, I’ve begun to wonder about this logic. Facebook and LinkedIn are both social networking sites that allow us to maintain contact with our personal connections, either for social fulfillment, or, ostensibly, professional gain. In this regard, a suggestion-based algorithm works to our advantage—making it easier for us to find and reestablish communication with lost contacts. In contrast, the mechanics of Twitter (broadcasting short-form texts that are publicly visible by default) make it inherently less useful as a means of meaningful one-on-one exchange with those within our social networks, but advantageous as a tool for both consuming and sharing content with broader appeal. The value of that content is often measured by its relevancy, timing, or rarity, so by electing to also follow the users those within our network are following, we’re, in effect, creating our own echo chamber of influence. 

Generally speaking, Twitter users are discriminating about the content we deem worthy of sharing. We act as editors, filtering our own feeds and vouching for content via the re-tweeting function; an RT is as much a personal stamp of approval and a signaling function as it is a means of sharing. And in today’s complex world in which we are relentlessly inundated with information, we find ourselves ever more reliant upon others to help tee up our inputs. It seems that content curation is becoming just as—if not more—important than content creation. And regardless of the criteria, the loudest voices in the room aren’t randomly assigned; we hand them the microphone.  

A study published in 2009 compared the media consumption habits and cultural and political attitudes of viewers across six countries. Researchers concluded that we watch the news more for affirmation than for information, most frequently choosing media outlets that substantiate our pre-existing world views over others that present perspectives incongruent to our own. This type of intellectual complacency has far-reaching implications for how our understanding of the world is shaped, and platforms like Twitter only add fuel to the fire by propagating the rapid spread of ideas. Ultimately, in absence of diversity among our inputs, we run the risk of resurrecting our own Partridge family home of paper-thin walls—one that doesn’t reside on a studio lot in Burbank, but rather, is built upon a placeless foundation of overlapping interests and redundant points of view. 


25 January 2011

A ♥ Letter from the Present to the Past and Future

Note: I’m not sure whether it’s considered cheating to syndicate your own content, but this was originally published here. I’ve been meaning to revive Long-winded: A Blog for People Who Read for a while now (see Keep Me Honest), so this is my way of alleviating some of the guilt for having broken all three resolutions within the first month. And yes, No. 3 really is easy enough; I have no excuse.

So for those of you who don’t already know this, I joined General Assembly full-time in November after working with the founders on an ongoing basis since April of last year. We launched yesterday. This post was intended to offer a personal perspective on the inspiration behind GA—and while it’s somewhat atypical of the type of content I’ve written for Long-winded in the past, I thought it was worth sharing nonetheless. I’m sure I’ll return to more random and aimless musings in the future.


“Despite the crush and the noise, I never tire of plunging into the crowd. I love the crowd as I love the sea. Not to be engulfed or lost in it, but to sail on it like a solitary pirate, content to be carried by the current, yet strike out on my own the moment it breaks or dissipates. Like the sea, a crowd is invigorating to my wandering mind. Almost all my ideas come to me in the street, even those related to my work.” —Frédéric, central character of Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon  

Reason No. 1: Serendipitous Encounters

I was standing in line the other morning waiting to order my latte, when loud squeals exploded behind me, interrupting my pre-caffeine haze. I couldn’t help but smile when I turned around to discover two young women in a heartfelt embrace. It was clear from their interaction that this encounter was an unplanned one, and long overdue.

It was a classic New York moment—one we, as inhabitants of this city, have the great fortune of observing on a daily basis far more frequently than those who elect to live elsewhere. It’s a constant reminder of the extent to which this city is defined by serendipity, by happenstance, by the certainty of crossing paths with those from our past, present, and future. Much of this can be attributed simply to the city’s density, diversity, and scale (as deftly articulated by Steven Johnson); much of this is likely the by-product of its pedestrian nature; and much of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that New York functions as the Main Street of the world, attracting natives and transients alike. We live in a city perpetually in flux—where the only constant is the lack of constants, where the cast of characters changes every day, and possibility lies dormant around every corner.

In early days, when General Assembly was a nascent idea, we talked about this notion of alchemy—of the inevitable magic that happens when you take a group of bright, impassioned people from a diverse set of backgrounds and put them in a room together. Having spent the prior three and a half years at IDEO, I was electrified by the rich dialogue and exchange of ideas that occurred on a daily basis among our interdisciplinary project teams, and was eager to see these types of interactions play out organically among a community of people with individualized agendas but with overlapping interests in technology, design, and entrepreneurship. 

Our name, General Assembly, was inspired by the models set forth by schools (a community of learners), factories (a community of makers), and legislative bodies (a community of self-governing people). We worked with Andrea Steele, an architect well-versed in campus design, to design a spatial program that centers around a communal gathering area that we hope will become our campus green, our town square, our Main Street—encouraging the types of fortuitous introductions and cross-pollinating behaviors that enrich our lives and forge new paths ahead. 

Reason No. 2: Courtships in Motion

Like those rare and fleeting moments when the local and express trains move in slow synchronicity through the city’s subterranean depths, New York perpetually offers us glimpses of lives beyond our own, but ones seemingly within grasp. It’s inevitable that at some point during our time here we will find ourselves musing: this could be my future apartment, one day I could have a solo show, he/she could be my future husband/wife, oh please please please let me get this cab. 

Within the first few months of moving to New York as a fresh faced 21 year old, I realized why this city aroused such impassioned allegiance among its inhabitants. At the time, I was sharing a claustrophobic apartment in the area now known as NoMad, two doors down from a particularly rowdy (but friendly) brothel of transvestite prostitutes. Every month, I would eagerly fork over half of my meager monthly earnings to pay my rent—all while feeling incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be here at all. Imagined or real, I felt an instant camaraderie with those around me—they, too, were willing to forgo the pleasures of backyard gardens and flush savings accounts for the chance to pursue a greater goal. It occurred to me that sacrifice seemed to inspire both passion and will—the more we invested, the greater our resolve, the more staunchly we defended our decisions. How else might we rationalize denying ourselves the comforts of a more civilized existence for a shot at a dream with unfavorable odds? Similarly, how else might we explain the conviction of the sleepless entrepreneur?

The dehumanizing mechanics of this city do much to attract a self-selecting population. By nature, New York transplants are voyeuristic, opting for connection and broader exposure over a more controlled, hermetic existence. We are buoyed and enlivened by the success of others—especially those with whom we feel a certain kinship or whose lot in life most closely resembles our own. At General Assembly, we’ve invited some of the city’s most inspiring startups to join our inaugural class of dedicated members. Our hope is that they might benefit from a empathic relationship with like-minded individuals on a parallel track—fellow travelers on another train, hoping to arrive at the same destination. 

Reason No. 3: Laundry Room Reciprocity

A few weeks after moving into my current apartment, I braved a visit to the laundry room. It was your typical tenement building laundry room—underground, overheated, and smelling strongly of Tide®. But by far, the best feature was that the table opposite the washers clearly functioned as much more than a folding surface. It had been designated as the building’s barter site—the unofficial marketplace for the free exchange of goods between tenants. On this particular night, I discovered a stack of three books: a textbook on financial risk management, another on econometrics, and The Giant Book of Tofu Cooking. In the end I claimed the cookbook, but left the others to find a more deserving home.

The mechanisms for how knowledge sharing occurs within any community, organization, or institution are as varied as our individual preferences and aptitudes for learning. For some, a wall of books is as tempting as an aromatic bowl of Tofu Stroganoff waiting to be consumed. For others, the best resources are easily sorted, searched, and transported. For others yet, their best learning occurs within the context of a classroom where they’re freed from life’s daily distractions. And lastly, some prefer tacit learning experiences—through observation and discussion, hands-on application, internalization and reflection.

At General Assembly, our aim is to design programming that establishes a reciprocal relationship between the wealth of talent, experience, and expertise that exists within these walls and the community at large. We ask our members to submit blog posts or teach classes on a regular basis and are also establishing partnerships with leading academics and thought leaders to offer a comprehensive curriculum within the domain of technology, design, and entrepreneurship. Lastly, we’re hoping to assemble both an online resource and a physical library that helps to aggregate the vast range of content shared. Our hope is that from this emerges a collective brain larger than the sum of its parts—one that inspires a new type of discourse and creation reflective of the changing world in which we live.