I was at the Michigan Theatre Thursday evening for the Stamps lectures for my degree, and graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook was speaking. He began his lecture talking about Trump, and he said that at this point, there really is no satire that can be done to make light of the new president—the reality is already ridiculous enough.
I was also noticing the connection between puppets and radical thinking, protesting, and social movements, and how puppets, both processional and stationary theatre, have played this role through in disrupting the dominant discourse and giving a voice to the marginalized. And I was curious why.
This project will examine the connection between puppetry and protest, and why absurdity and drama instead of violence is so often used by the marginalized to advocate for social and political rights.
We are, again, at a point in history where social revolution could have the capacity to change America’s dominant discourse. What role could puppetry and absurdity play in this?
I’m Alex. I’m a senior in the art & design school here, where I do some printmaking, some illustration, some sculpture work and some puppets. I’ve chosen two different fields of study that are wildly open-ended: an art major without any specific concentrations, and a writing minor where you define your own form of writing that you study. It has its upsides (you can choose to do whatever you want!) and it has its downsides (you can choose to do whatever you want!). I like to think there is a constant overlap between my art and my writing, that they have a cyclical relationship: I write to define the concepts I explore visually in my prints, or my sculptures, and then I incorporate that text into my work, and then new thoughts—most often in writing—develop from those works. Writing is just a matrix for communication, just like visual art is.
I think I’d consider my community at the art school a writing community. We even have to take an upper level writing class through the art school where we explore how to write about art, both our own and others’. Yet, a majority of my fellow art students absolutely hate writing, and don’t consider themselves “writers.” I think this is because there is so anxiety around the “right” type of writing, which is academic writing, which is what is expected from us mostly. Like Erin Peterson, I feel like often times we can be so frightened into writing safe, unimaginative essays for classes that are so dull to write and often so theoretical in content, that our perception of writing becomes condensed to those early morning hours of squeezing out those last few paragraphs due to the professor by 9 am. My writing for art at times can be more research-based and more formal in structure, such as the thesis paper I am beginning to write. But, a majority of the time, the writing for this artistic community is for process work, for generating ideas and understanding what I want to communicate through my visuals. But, it also can be creative work, such as writing a script for a puppet show, or prose to accompany an illustration. However, it can be challenging, like in any form of writing, when I have a difficult time generating textual content to accompany my visual work. Right now, I’m finalizing my thesis project, a narrative created through five different papier-mâché sculptures with text paired with each sculpture. The text and the image affect each other, contradicting each other and giving each new meaning, like in Ida Applebroog’s work. But, I am stuck at the moment generating what text to include.
This process-writing is pretty different from the writing I was doing in the history class I took last semester—the focus of the three analytical essays I wrote about the environment of pre-industrial Europe was more to just prove that I learned something in the class, that I was taking in the information and making connections. Of course, I’m sure my attitude towards those essays would’ve been different if I were a history major. Perhaps they would’ve been more like process-writing for my major, like my writing for art is. Academic essays are challenging to conceptualize as anything more than just letters to your professor to tell them that you should pass the class. And, when you get stuck with that mindset that the writing is purely theoretical, especially if there are no plans to publish in some journal, the pressure for creativity and not putting it off is very absent. Like Erin, I have become a bit frustrated with all of the theory-without-practice part of college. It’s not that academic essays are challenging for me to write, it’s more that they feel like they have no impact beyond the classroom, unlike my art writing, which feels more closely related to journal writing, more personal.
But, at the same time, what if I tried not to categorize the different forms my writing take, tried not to see them as totally separate and different from each other? Like I said earlier, writing is a matrix for understanding. Is there really a huge different between the prose I included within an illustration, the speech bubbles in a graphic narrative, my history essays, my love letters, my free writing?
Welcome welcome writing minors of the future! It goes by real quick, so get ready.
My first piece of advice? Don’t be scared of this class. It’s different from the other ones, because you actually get to do what you want! Of course, take it seriously– but don’t be afraid to ask questions in class, to take creative risks, to talk and debate with each other. The beauty of this minor is that you’re here to figure out what you’re doing, and there’s ample room to do so. And don’t be so worried about grades or “doing well in the class”– of course you’ll be fine! You’re a writer! (I mean, but I also can’t predict the future…I’m no Raven).
That said, if you know what sort of writing you want to do (or even have a slight idea), trust it. I spent a lot of my project II trying to push myself beyond my typical subject matter and style, simply because I felt like I “should” be exploring more. I ended up realizing that what I actually should be doing is using this class to develop this writing style and subject matter more and more, which I (thankfully) ended up doing, after many blog posts about my confusion for project II, and coming to my senses.
Also, be friends with your class. We waited until the last day of class to make a group email….but we maybe should have made it sooner! Your class is full of a bunch of great, smart people who love writing, but who are also people interested in a bunch of different things and weird hobbies and netflix addictions–your classmates are a great resource for inspo, writing help, and also ~friends~ <3
I’m learning a lot about visualizing narratives through this project, and what goes into making a graphic narrative. Obviously, it’s not the same as simply writing an essay: you’ve got to think about the conjunction of text and image, and then you have to mock up potential drawings, and then redraw those, and then rearrange the drawings, and do the final inkings. The drafting process is similar to writing essays in that it’s a lot of restructuring and rearranging and refining an original skeleton of a story, and then you finally add the finishing touches– in this case, the final drawings and inkings, which actually take a lot longer than just going back through and proofreading an essay, funnily enough.
I was in Portland this weekend for a printmaking conference, so I didn’t have a lot of time to make any significant revisions over the weekend. I’m still in the early revising stages, but, after the in-class workshop and reading workshop letters, I think my next steps are to not make any large structural changes to the current narrative, but to just give a little more context in some areas (like the prints, and the review) and a little less analysis in other areas (like towards the end where I seem to come to more “conclusions” that makes it seem less of an introduction).
Pet peeves are interesting. I don’t really have anything too strongly that I have a real issue with. Except, actually, maybe people not being sure of themselves. Which is what I just demonstrated in the previous sentence. I get annoyed at the sound of people coughing, really dry, dry coughs. I’m afraid that this post is going to turn into one giant rampage about things I hate, which I don’t want it to become.
Thinking about pet peeves, things that annoy me, I think about recent news of this umich kid Jake, who was caught on camera verbally abusing an Uber driver. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. Over Facebook there had been a variety of responses– a lot of people furious, “disgusted” at him for his behavior. And his behavior was awful. But over the day today, I heard a few people say some pitying comments about him, how this one event in his life is going to follow him for a while now, as it’s immortalized on the internet. I hated the fact that people were pitying him.
But, then I read a Facebook post from one of my FB friends, which basically described how those sharing the video and calling him out for his behavior was just “bullying the bully,” which, in the end, does no good, and that we should stop assuming this self-righteousness as we criticize this guy for his actions, but then don’t take any “real” action to make change in the larger governmental and society systems and on people who actually have power. I’m still forming my opinion on this. I do agree that no one benefits from extreme bullying, trying to demonize one person and creating a scapegoat out of him. But, at the same time, I also believe that it’s still important to call out classist, racist, homophobic situations, to bring these (unfortunately) norms of our culture to light.
I honestly have never really liked animals…not that i don’t appreciate them (?) but, more like I just never was around them enough as a kid to really like them…I didn’t even own stuffed animals. I do like to imagine what animals people look like as animals, though. When I was a kid, my grandpa had this puppy, Shawn, a golden retriever. And Shawn was actually, New Shawn– Old Shawn had died before I was born–an old, quiet dog. But New Shawn was a puppy, big, two years old i think. And liked to pounce. One day when I was visiting my grandparents when I was about three or four, Shawn cornered me in the rotting trunk of a giant tree in my grandparent’ backyard, jumped on my back, and scratched it all up. From then on, throughout my childhood I had an intense fear of dogs, and never really ever wanted anything to do with them.
My family never had pets, either. In second grade, we got fish, these tiny zebra fish and I named mine Bert. He died, eventually, and then in third grade, I got a Beta fish. He was blue, and because we had a German exchange student living with us at the time, I decided to name this blue fish ‘Blow’ (say it like plow), which was blue in German (painfully unfunny). The first night I got him, I went to see the Lindsay Lohan remake of Freaky Friday with my family, and when we got home, Blow was drying up on my pink bedroom carpet; he got restless, and jumped the bowl. Mira, our exchange student, peeled his sticky body from the floor, pink fuzzies stuck to his scales, and dropped him back in the bowl where he revived himself and lived for a few more months.
In fourth grade, I got hermit crabs for my birthday. I always forgot to give them water, and got bored with them pretty quickly. I wanted them to change their shells, because that’s the only good thing really about hermit crabs. They grow out of their shells. And, so two of them died, leaving me with the final crab who eventually began inching his way out of his shell…but was pretty dehydrated and sorta half dead i think. My friend and I tried to change his water, and in the process, dropped him and he rolled under the refrigerator in the kitchen…I think we managed to get him out. I can’t quite remember.
My dad once tossed out our fish on to the lawn, when he decided to renovate the living room and said we “didn’t have room for fish anymore” (who runs out of room for fish?!). I do also have four brothers, so I don’t blame my parents for never wanting a dog or cat or ferret running around the house. We did have a couple of squirrels who lived above our ceiling (and whose dead bodies we could smell wafting through the heating vents in the winter). And there was a family of mice who we collected in traps in the crawl space. And the boxelders in the window sealings. And the moths in the pantry who we found in our cereal.
The sites that stood out to me were ones that weren’t designed like it was an assignment for school, but like a professional portfolio to share with others. I know it’s still going to have a slightly academic-y vibe because we’re adding our process work, but sites like Hannah Schiff’s, Sara Estes’s, and Allison Raeck’s balanced this display of process, as well as other writing. The one part of these websites that I might change, however, is the design of them. Some of the design choices seem a little excessive—looking at Will Ruben’s, his seems a little overly designed to the point where the visual elements distract from the content of the website. Allison’s has this quality a little as well, but Hannah’s and Sara’s are more conservative, in a good way. Their visual elements add character and identity, but don’t distract from their writing.
I looked a little at Adam Gopnik’s and Susan Orleans’s online portfolio’s, too, to see how they divvied up their website. They were organized by the different works—their books, articles, and broadcasts—and then an about page, a contact page, and a home website which held a welcome message and a twitter feed. Design-wise, these ones were all minimally designed, with just a small stylistic element at the top of the website in the navigation bar. Here are some screen shots of their home pages:
For my project III, I want to turn my essay into a graphic narrative. Having already created some narratives for classes at the art school, this seems like the perfect way to merge my visual and writing skills. Taking inspiration from Sara Lautman, Phoebe Gloeckner, Alison Bechdel, and David Small, I want to narrate it from my own point of view, with myself looking back on the situations and experiences over the past few months and actually drawing myself as an external narrator, but also a character integrated into the different stories.
I’m looking forward to figuring what parts of my writing to make visual, and how to translate the analysis into drawings. Right now I’m envisioning illustrating the narrative parts of the writing (like me talking to my parents, also Tracey Emin and Alison Bechdel and David Sedaris talking about their work), with my analysis simplified into smaller statements to go along with these illustrations.
The research for this essay continues to surprise me…in the way that I think there might not be an exact “answer” to my question, “can you write about yourself and others ethically, ‘respectfully?” Because… I don’t think you can. My parents, upon discovering my art, reacted with anger and pain, asking my why I wanted to make malicious art, why I wanted to make art that hurt others. I was so shocked and guilt-ridden by their reaction, that I think I wanted this research, and this essay, to show me a way to still use writing and art to process my experiences, while also paying attention to my parents’ feelings. Reading an article about Alison Bechdel and her graphic novel Fun Home, the last passage of her interview stuck out to me:
I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act. You’re violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that’s just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.
While learning that Bechdel also is confronting these same issues of privacy and respect in her work that I am was comforting, it was also slightly unsettling to learn that she has just sort of accepted the fact that she can’t make work about her family without hurting anyone. Of course, this isn’t the final conclusion I’ve come to. I’ve got to dig deeper, and find more writers/artists experiences, to develop this “answer” even further.
I’ve decided to change my idea completely, and now I’m going to write a researched-based new journalism style essay, exploring what it means to make writing and art about yourself, your family, and very intimate aspects of everyday life and your relationships. My source material is project I, the “Why I Write” essay. This essay focused on my parents’ recent discovery of my work online, which was partly about my relationship with them. They were pretty upset and angry about the content, and the fact that they were public. In project I, I questioned “why I write” in relation to the sometimes-negative consequences of my subject matter, and began to question how to write ethically.
For project II, I want to take what I began questioning, and come to a more definitive conclusion about how to write and make art about others, without censoring yourself but while also respecting those in your writing. I will look at my own experience with my parents and how our relationship has shifted over the past month after they found my work, but also at some research about other writers and artists who write about their lives, such as David Sedaris, Phoebe Gloeckner, Alison Bechdel, and Tracey Emin.