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Alice In Wonderland

I chose Alice In Wonderland for 3 reasons:  It is brief, I’ve never read it, and I’ve been curious ever since the summer why it keeps appearing on ITP reading lists.

The themes as I see them:

  • curiosity without caution “In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
  • free association/dreaming
  • labyrinths and traps – ending up in a place lost and without escape
  • Unretractable horizons: “For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible. There seemed to be no use in waiting” page  5 ….. “Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.”
  • loneliness/solitude: “this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.” (page 7) OR having enough “person” inside for two people (“‘But it’s no use now,’ thought poor Alice, ‘to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make ONE respectable person!'”
  • unexpected escape routes (such as the sea of tears)
  • homophones/homonyms used as stand-ins, causing unexpected turns in conversation and thought
  • uncertainty in solid/permanent identity – ‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’ ‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’ ‘It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar. ‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; ‘but when you have to turn into a chrysalis–you will some day, you know–and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’
  • the conflict between reason and absurdity – (Alice, in response to the Hatter’s question, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”) “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.” (Alice as a voice of reason and limitation against the unlimited and sometimes bizarre reaches of the imagination.)
  • Unclear limits between waking and dreaming

I haven’t read critical analyses of Alice In Wonderland, but I knew it is considered to be of the absurdist lit genre, which isn’t always considered to have deep or profound meaning.  Why is this book recommended for ITP?  I think because as a whole, the themes address a lot of aspects of the creative process – both the tools and hindrances artists or other creators come across both when conceptualizing and making.


8 comments to Alice In Wonderland

  • John Capogna

    The interesting things about the joke, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” is that it doesn’t have an answer. There are oftentimes no right answers or reasons for why things are, they just are.

    It’s interesting that you ask what relationship the book has to ITP. I’m reminded of how Alice often misapplies her school teachings in the book, for instance when she talks about latitude and longitude. She doesn’t know what either of those words means even though she persist on her explanation, in the end saying that they just sound like “grand words to say”.

    The nature of the work we are doing at school calls for a “mashing” of skills, hack-it-together-until-it-works type of approach. Afterwards, you might not know how you did it, or why you did it, but you did it. And it just is. You might pick a little of this and a little of that. You might want to somehow mix a toaster with a doormat. And it would make sense given its context.

  • dal230

    I’ve been thinking lately about the effectiveness of ITP projects as a medium of artistic expression. We are encouraged to play and to mash-up and the result is that we get to build teams and have fun while learning. The importance of positive emotions to learning cannot be overstated. If you fear math, it will not penetrate deep enough to be retained, or what does penetrate will have those feelings of anxiety associated with them.

    Another particularly positive benefit to divergent, absurdist remixing of technology is that new points of reference are generated. It is a generally accepted idea that there are no new ideas, but rather recombinations of old ideas. This notion explains how similar discoveries or trends can be seen emerging from isolated locations. If you think about it like a processing sketch, each idea that you have access to is an ellipse and every possible connection between those is a line. A new idea can be seen as a a new ellipse that intersects those lines at a particular point. More ellipses = more possible ways to connect previous ideas. In order to keep your network from getting dusty, keep adding new sign posts!

    Looking at it like this, ITP p-comp projects as means to end, makes a lot of sense – and in that way, they are very useful. Where I’ve been getting a little stuck, and a little less inspired, is that ITP projects fall short in other ways. We are encouraged to prototype and move on, leaving little or no room to refine designs. Narrowing down or refining an idea or a object or some code teaches just as much as brainstorming. If we needed to justify our decisions and take things through to a conclusion it would certainly force us to think things through to the end more than we do now. The downside of thinking things through is that it would maybe keep us from discovering something off the beaten track. Learning by “failure” is important, but at some point learning how to set limitations and work within constraints is as liberating as throwing off all the shackles of any preconceived notions.

    Another bigger issue that I haven’t heard discussed much is the capacity for ITP/P-comp projects (at ITP and elsewhere) to deliver on the artistic money shot: catharsis. The medium I’m used to engaging with is film and animation. The power of film combined with music is that it’s so very much like our experience of all of reality. Music is the most powerful emotionally expressive medium, but combine that with moving images and you have a form that is actually a little scary in terms of its ability to manipulate our ideas and emotions. Sit in a darkened theater and let the images and sounds wash over you, is there anything as completely engaging as that?

    Interactive media seems to hold the promise of a much deeper level of engagement. We grow attached to our WOW characters and our sims and delight in the rag doll physics of our obliterated enemies. It seems very likely that in our lifetimes we’ll see a quality of simulation that rivals reality. Performance capture negates the need for sophisticated artificial intelligence and complex rigging systems, which up until now have failed on every front (think final fantasy or polar express). It seems that taking the medium of film and adding the ability to step into the action and become part of the drama would certainly only make it all the more powerful, right?

    While games are extremely engaging and it isn’t hard to spend more time living in a polygonal world than the real one I will be polemical for a moment and state that games are not art and a game that aspires to be art would necessarily stop being a game. I would suggest that art is the physical articulation of thoughts and emotions (mostly emotions) and it is in the refinement of this expression that is the gift we are given by the artist. We don’t have enough words to begin to describe a small fraction of the colors in the rainbow, and each new piece of art is like a signpost in your emotional field. It’s how we know that other people are human too, that our emotions aren’t just ours, but that we can feel the same forms.

    These signposts are stuck into place through catharsis. In a film, the catharsis should happen at the climax of the film. Everything leading up to that moment is a framing device, softening you up in preparation to drive the stake home. The totality of a film can be experiences as a shape in a way, a sort of dynamic of texture and color and mood but the main thing is that despite the fact that it’s a time based medium, the ‘point’ of a film can be located at a singularity. The same goes for any other medium of artistic expression.

    ITP/P-Comp style projects fall short of that for me. I can’t think of a single project that has clearly articulated an emotional form the way other mediums can. It might be the often mysterious interfaces that serve as a distraction from expression. Very often figuring out the interface seems to be the ‘point’ and once that’s figured out then there isn’t much more to consider. Even without interaction the ‘gag’ or trick or concept becomes the point and while concepts can inspire, they don’t articulate emotion. Argue with me here, please.

    ITP style projects seem to promise a new art form that combines film, video, sculpture and gaming but unless these projects start to seriously engage with ideas about articulating human experience (setting aside the need to engage with history or the art world) they will always be marginal novelty ephemera. Cinema was seen in the same light for decades before it turned into a serious art form though, and where there is a will, there is a way.

  • caroline sinders

    i agree with, is it donna above?

    alice in wonderland (almost wrote that as wonderful) has this weird place for me in my brain. i took a children’s literature course in undergrad where the consensus pretty much was that children’s literature exists for adults as way to be nostalgic about childhood but inaccurately try to gauge, change, and shape what they think is appropriate for children to be intaking from childhood. that’s why so many children’s books, movies, musics, etc entertainment are often overly didactic in nature, b/c the creator of that entertainment is trying to teach something to children that isn’t inherent to them- a great example of this is/are disney films. the heroine usually needs to be rescued and generally looks the same.
    sorry, that was tangential but the weird and beautiful thing about alice in wonderland (ignoring the subtext of Lewis Carroll’s actual obsession with Alice Liddell) is what John and Donna both touch on- the idea of creation. The why and the why not that comes with creating something so out of the normal and something out of “left field” if you will.
    Lewis Carroll was a mathematician that wrote very few fictional novels, and Alice in Wonderland is one of those novels. The “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”) “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers” is so ITP to me in the same vein as why do you want your arduino to send emails or why program your laptop to play a song over and over again without you opening the song (looking at you, Valerie, queen of my heart) because, quite frankly, why the hell not? Why not create something who’s, it’s, that’s sole purpose or point of existence is just because?
    We live in a world that stresses commercially, sell-ability, and functionality. Sometimes it’s really great creating something just for the sake of art’s sake or rather, something that is really just about playing.

  • Nancy

    Terrific comments.. I am so enjoying reading how all of you think. BTW I think dal is David Lobser, not Donna.
    There was a great discussion–similar in a way on Christina Carter’s post on the Inner Game of Tennis. Some of these discussions would be great conversations face to face.

  • mpa292

    In response to David: “ITP/P-Comp style projects fall short of that for me. I can’t think of a single project that has clearly articulated an emotional form the way other mediums can. It might be the often mysterious interfaces that serve as a distraction from expression. Very often figuring out the interface seems to be the ‘point’ and once that’s figured out then there isn’t much more to consider. Even without interaction the ‘gag’ or trick or concept becomes the point and while concepts can inspire, they don’t articulate emotion. Argue with me here, please.”

    I’ll give it a shot 😉

    I think you are misinterpreting the point of experimental prototyping. The pComp curriculum is designed in a specific way here at ITP to teach us the tools necessary to complete assignments utilizing electronics and real world sensing. I don’t think it is really meant to teach you how to make a complete project. That in mind, I think you are talking about a wider perspective: that physical computing projects in general cannot articulate emotion the way that films do. While don’t agree with you there, I will admit it is much much much harder to accomplish. Films have the advantage of a controlled environment and a standardized interaction, but there is no standard for physical computing type creations. The theater of pComp does not exist…yet. There’s a million ways to interact with pComp style things, and typically the users don’t use them the way you intend.

    There’s another issue I have with films is that the state of the industry is so bad that the content of many green-lit films is garbage. Polished and complete films, as many people learned this semester, are hard to make and require a lot of team work (not to mention money$$bling$$). Then there’s the nature of the storytelling through film, which is crafted finished narrative. What ever kind of narrative involved, it’s been thought through and laid out for you to watch. Like books and other story telling media before films, the narrative is complete, beginning-middle-end. Its a nice form for teaching and entertaining, but real life creates narratives that are rarely so clear and typically ever-changing.

    As we respond to a changing world that is moving away from film–which as a physical medium is already retired–and move over to video and put creation into the hands of the makers out there a lot of those things that go along with creating films as we know them become too big of obstacles to overcome. Other avenues must be explored. Creativity will find a way.

    Like the move from film to video and the mass networking effect that has had on our culture, the transition from consumer retail to open-source physical computing may open up an whole new way to live and experience life and express ourselves. Like video allows anyone to make “films” physical computing allows anyone to make products or systems. I can see why you are tired of the “gags” and “tricks” that come with the experimentations in this new field but if you bear with it long enough…or maybe even participate in its maturation!…I bet you will see an increase in quality, depth of expression and artistic vision.

    The first animations were not hardly concerned with articulated emotional expression, they were reveling in the novelty of giving life to drawings. Cartoons and clowns and silliness because “Holy crap! its moving on its own!!”. We are in that era with physical computing, we are forcing Arduino to tweet every time our cats take a shit (i’m looking at you sam) because “Holy crap! its doing it all on its own!”

    Caroline is right, we are in “play mode” with this field, given time, just like animation, we will have some seriously good work and a cultural shift that forever effect the way we think about art in the current era. That is only if we can keep going down the rabbit hole.

    PS: I’ve never thought of AiWL to be like the creative process, thats a wonderful observation! Sometimes when I’m trying to create things i feel like i’m trying to figure out why a raven is like a writing desk which then makes me want to drink anything labeled “drink me”

  • ehm281

    I love the “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” question because it brings to light one of my biggest challenges when it comes to creating art – I have a very difficult time creating for the sake of creation without the ability to identify an clear purpose or point to the work. In fact, in animation class just this evening, Marianne and my classmates were encouraging my animating partner and me to limit our piece to one scene that happens to have a lot of very beautiful animated imagery. I was very hesitant to follow their advice because of its lack of “narrative,” but it was undeniable that the class wanted just to be able to watch the images over and over and seemed satisfied with it. There is no answer to the raven/writing desk riddle, just as there is no clear answer as to why certain pieces might be entertaining/satisfying/edifying for people.

  • esw290

    David regarding your comment, “I can’t think of a single project that has clearly articulated an emotional form the way other mediums can. It might be the often mysterious interfaces that serve as a distraction from expression. Very often figuring out the interface seems to be the ‘point’ and once that’s figured out then there isn’t much more to consider…” I really related to.
    I have struggled with finding that sense of expression as well this term. One of the reasons I’m so drawn to dance as an artistic medium is there is no intermediary. However, even with film or photography etc., there is still that intermediary. I would hope though, just like learning a new language, once we become more comfortable with the interface, the ability to express emotions through it becomes more feasible, it’s just a different type of canvas.

  • etb273

    One of the things I like most about you comments on “Alice in Wonderland” is the idea of unexpected escape route’s. This is a great analogy to life. As we struggle through problem solving and the unexpected nature of life many solutions come in an unexpected form. Being open to and able to receive unexpected solutions is a very important part of navigating our world successfully. At ITP this is especially true as we are always searching for new solutions. Being in relationship with the “Unexpected” is a crucial skill!