On Good Readers

I came across a post about a new Interactive Book app: Frankenstein, and sent it to my father.  I knew he studied Frankenstein at one point and was curious what he thought.  He replied with “Good Readers and Good Writers,” an essay by Nabokov.  (My father is an English Professor at UT Austin which is why he has things like essays by Nabokov lying around).

My father intro-ed the essay:

The problem I have with [the Frankenstein app] is the problem that I have with the way most people read (or misread).  As the article says, “the options have more to do with personality and interpretation, beliefs and ideas. As a result of the reader’s choices, the characters seem more like him- or herself, with a concurrent ratcheting up of emotional investment.” This is exactly what “minor readers” do with the work of “minor authors,” according to Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov lays out what makes a good reader (and a good writer) and I think much of what he says flies in the face of what we are taught as interactive designers and what we’ve come to expect as digital consumers.  There very notion that there are good readers and bad readers or, to a lesser degree, major and minor authors, upends the notion of “democratized” art, or that we can all be good at everything.  It’s been established at this point that there is, and will always be, a need for “experts” and “professionals” and I don’t think it sounds old-fashioned to say that there are major and minor artists.  Perhaps they now need to make room for more amateur producers, but it’s a large enough (cyber-)space.

My question is how do we — as interactive designers, as platform builders, and engagement facilitators — encourage visitors/readers/audience members not only to engage with content, but to engage with it well.  How can we encourage them to be good, not bad, readers?  How can we teach them to read, not just relate?

This shift in thinking articulates my hang-ups with completely dissolving authority in artistic spaces (like museums) and why I was so relieved to hear Koven Smith speak up for experts within the museum space (paraphrased: expertise is what the museum has to offer to the conversation among the visitor, the object, and the curator).  It is this curator/exhibit-designer role who can teach visitors how to look at a work of art.  I understand the difference between a novel and a painting, and Nabokov speaks directly to the difference in his essay, but its interesting to think of facilitating reading, not relating.  So much, I think, of interactive design is focused on “How do we get the visitor to relate the the object so that she will have a personal connection.”  Nabokov makes clear that the personal connection is not the only, and may not be (he is more definitive) the best kind of interaction to encourage.

notes from an artist, Jeff Wall at the Hammer

Last month, I went to the Hammer Museum to hear artist Jeff Wall speak.  Wall’s photographs stuck a strong chord with me when I first saw them at MoMA a few years ago.     I think, subconsciously at that point, I was beginning to think about theatricality in formats other than the theater and so was taken with his use of character and his cinematic sensibility.  His lecture at the Hammer addressed these ideas, and many others, too, in complete eloquence and mastery.  Below are my notes and a few thoughts.

Wall first spoke about the history of photography. For a long time, photography relied on its newness as a technology.  But now, he later claimed, if photography is depended on the tech, then it loses the opportunity to act like other artforms.  Photography could be an act of “emphatic picture making” or of “reportage;” both intentions had meaning.  When photography is an act of picture making, it still lives within the world of reportage.

A photograph in a gallery is a picture in a special condition.  It hangs vertically, opposite the viewer, unchangeable.  The photo has an autonomous relationship to the viewer.  Wall mentioned Poussin’s idea of the “intervening air.”  I want to find a reference for that.

Wall next turned to the idea of an artist’s studio and making “studio pictures.”  His first example was his photo “The Destroyed Room.”  The tableau he presented was entirely fabricated.  It is a studio picture.  The studio can be concealed and unconcealed.  Fabrication is “allowed” when it is in a studio.

Photography is supposed to represent actuality.  Wall finds this statement both legit and unacceptable.  It is within that paradox that he finds movement and out of the movement he creates art.  He later described the movement of an artform as a simmering tension.

In a studio, sets can be reconstructed and repeated (if desired) and elements of reportage can apply (if wanted).  Sets are constructed out of necessity.  The format of a studio is malleable.

If the set is successful, it doesn’t matter if the viewer knows it is artifice or not.  Wall spoke at length at his use of sets and so-called fabrication.  ”I hired these men to work for me, to photograph them.”  They were just doing their job.  If something happens in a photo, it (still) happens.  Wall avoids the term “fictional” because he thinks it applies more directly to literature than to photography.  ”Fabrication” is important, but it is secondary to what is happening in the photo.

This rang true for me in terms of acting, too.  When working in the Growtowski method, we spent much of the time crafting “actions.”  They weren’t activities and they weren’t playing at doing something.  We were doing the action, much in the same way Wall photographs events happening — even if they first happened before.  I wonder if wall sees himself as a director or more as a composer. I wonder what role the “actors’” self-consciousness plays in the scene.  Are you able to get beyond it with a single frame (unlike an ongoing theatrical event)?

on creating art: “If you have an advantage, you should dispense with it immediately.”

on being “obsessed” with details in his photos: “Did Donatello make his sculptures down to the last detail?  I think so!”

on looking at art: “I try to enjoy it.  I let it come to me.  And I judge it.”  Wall was clear to say that “judgement” has unfairly been given a negative context and that judgement is an important process of both looking at and creating art.

Lenses to view participatory asks

As we build a participatory event — anything from mission for users to go on to a simple question — we look at them through the following lenses. Each lens offers further insight into how the even can be improved. Something adjustments will just need to be made to the language and phrasing, other times these lenses help to reveal a potentially unsuccessful event.

Gut Lens
How does the ask make you feel? Are you excited to answer it or to contribute? Would you want to share your answer with your friends? Does your answer fit in with the general environment you’d hope to create?

Connectivity Lens
How can other users contribute and react to one another’s contributions? How can conversation between users best be encouraged and gleaned for information?

Hats Lens
What are the different hats your users wear? How will your different kinds of users want to engage? Examples of kinds of users: creators, judges, observers, explorers, curators. What are the different levels of engagement available for each ask? How can different kinds of engagement asks be built to satisfy different kinds of users?

Ego Lens
How can a users’ contributions make them feel better? How can your reaction to users’ contributions make them feel better?

Viral Lens
Where are all the opportunities for a user to share? What is shareable – their contribution, their reaction, the initial ask, etc.? Are the opportunities for sharing easily accessible? Are they integrated smoothly into the flow?

Time Lens
How are contributions encouraged over time? After completing one contribution, how is a user encouraged to something again, or something else?

Python Code



Acting in Digital Space Code

Arduino Code (two buttons with debounce):

oF Code, .cpp file (three videos):

oF Code, .cpp file (nine videos):

Big Screens Code

openFrameworks (testApp, center computer):



Kiss, Kiss: non-performative performance

Walking into Kiss, Kiss, the performers are already at work. My first thought was, Thirty years will change a performer. I have no way of knowing how close to the original choreography what I saw was, but I got the feeling that the three people moving on stage, occasionally throwing pieces of wire or rearranging the accumulation of stuff, were doing so a little slower than they had in the 70s. Their actions were deliberate, but thoughtful, almost hazy at times. There was a sense that they were honoring the movements, if not completely investing themselves in the actions.

And then the singing begins. The one male performer finds a hat and begins Fly Me to the Moon. He sings sincerely, slowly, simply. The song ends with the line, “In other words, baby kiss me!” and the two female performers begin kissing his body. His shoulders, his arms, his chest. It is not sexual, but incredibly loving and sweet. They make loud smacking “mwahs!” with each kiss. It’s cute and funny. “Kiss yourselves! You’re worth it!” they declare. I watch as all three performers then walk into the audience. The stage is the center of the room; chairs seat most of the audience on one side and the rest (myself included) stand in a semi-circle around. They begin kissing each audience member: taking each pair of shoulders, leaning in, and kissing each person on the cheek.

At this point, I’m watching one of the women circle around the audience opposite me and begin a series of new movements and so am completely taken off-guard when I feel two hands on my shoulders. Without stopping to think, I lean in and kiss this man on the cheek, as he does to mine. In part because of the surprise, but mostly because of the absolute sincerity with which I’ve interacted with this stranger, I am completely overwhelmed with emotion. My eyes well with tears as a new song, “This Little Light of Mine”, begins.

The performers visit each audience member again, this time to give them a little votive candle. I’m rapt watching the man who just kissed me now struggle with his prop bag; the candles are stuck, but he keeps singing and his partners go through the chorus again and again until he’s out of the dark.

I’m struck by how little performing is going on. It’s not even dance. Movement maybe, but there is no artifice. These three people are trying to give us — the audience — something. A candle, a kiss, a little insight, a shared moment.

And, like that, it’s over. The song ends. There’s no blackout. There’s barely a pause before the man thanks us for coming and dedicates the performance another partner who has presumably passed away. We applaud. I shuffle out with my candle as the performers hug and greet friends in the audience.

people are making things

(taken from the same spot on washington st.)

for evan and alexis

A video gift for our friend Evan & Alexis, on their wedding. (by Tom Rabstenek and myself, footage from all over)

my wedding

Videos from my wedding (footage from Dan Adlerstein, Mariah Klaneski, and Tom Rabstenek, edited by me).