Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Disposable archive of beauty

So belief systems: a pamphlet discussing fashion and religion is out! We ordered 3000 copies of the 36-page zine, slim pickin's in the world of newsprint (and less than half of our budget), but it's still incredibly bulky and heavy.
And incredibly exciting. My colleague O has done an amazing job in editing it. Send me a mailing address and I'll send you a copy - or ten!

Sooner or later - I think we're sort of hoping it will be later rather than sooner - the reader will want to find out what this fabulous object is, and will find some brief explanations. It introduces itself like this (p2):

The small newspaper format is explained in this way (p3):
And we hope to be insured against lawsuits in this way (back cover):

But really we expect people will just pick the thing up, start leafing through it, and find themselves drawn into it. Initial responses have been pretty encouraging so far - it is a pretty satisfying thing to hold in one's hand, and the spread of images and text, varying from page to page, is full of interesting surprises. I imagine that some readers will keep exploring to try to figure out on their own how this came to be rather than seek out explanatory-looking passages at start and finish.
Just between you and me, let me tell you how it did come about. (Of course you may have been following it from the very beginning, but I didn't really understand what was happening.) Over four Monday evening meetings in a studio at the Parsons School of Design, a fluid group of fashion studies, integrated design program and religious studies faculty, students, and visitors gathered to see what would happen - a good dozen each time, but with several people passing through and only a handful of us at all four sessions. The first time, we just talked, feasting on each other's company and the unexpected and delightfully parallels and parodies which emerged from our conversations. That time and the second time I brought some religion and religious studies books full of illustrations to pass around; we ended the second with a free writing exercise.
The third time my fashion studies colleague O had brought along photocopies he'd made of images from my books, books he'd found in the design library, magazines, etc., and as we talked we circled around the table with scissors and pens in hand, looking for images to annotate or retitle, and as material for collages. (The images run the gamut from fashion shoots to historical prints by way of advertising, self-help, the occult and ethnography.) The final session found the whole vast table covered in images, including our collages of the last session, and by the end of the two hours of talking and circling almost every image had found its way into a collage. More importantly, every collage had received contributions from at least two people. All of these collages were then scanned, and every one of them appears in belief systems, ingeniously juxtaposed and laid out by O.

The final images are fascinating and strange, even to those of us involved in their assembly. Nobody knows where all the images are from, and each of us knows (at most!) what the collage combinations he put together had in mind. I know what I was thinking in putting together the collage which O used for the cover (to the extent that one really knows what one is doing when collaging) - but not what the child holding the ball at lower right is doing there. I didn't put it there, but it clearly belongs.
This is a kind of collective authorship I have never even imagined, let along participated in. And somehow, thrillingly, it makes for a unified product! There is something which makes all this fit together, more than the common (if chaotic) picture sources and O's inspired layouts and the persuasiveness of the familiar product form (the newspaper), that elusive thing that sometimes happens in group improvisations...
You might think it's the text, and there's certainly some effect achieved by the alphabetical organization of prompts: ahimsa, apollonian-dionysian, atheism, being, belief, benedict xiv, cargo cults, community, conversion, corporate religion, craft, credit card, death, divination... This suggests some unity of intent at least, even as alphabetization floats entirely free of actual affinities of content. And as a matter of fact the content is every bit as much a collectively-generated collage as the images. We worked with a website which allowed several people to edit a text at once. We added new prompts in an alphabetical list, some shorter entries folded into longer ones in the final editing. During compositioneach of us was identified by a color, but here in the final product the colors have disappeared. The multiple authorship is clearer here than in the individual collages (not all of the text is grammatical or coherent) but in the context of the images this may not be a problem. (But "Weber's iron corset" is my work alone and I must bear responsibility for its infelicities.)
You should explore it on your own, but for my part I have to say that this first foray into the world of design studies has been very exciting. Academics talk a lot about different "ways of knowing" and, in other settings, about the "death of the author." This product is and isn't a way of "knowing," of modeling what knowledge is and how it is to be lived. It explodes the rigors of authorship in a mind-blowing way, even while introducing something like it in different places, like instigating and curating the final product. And ... it's beautiful! Hope there will be more like it!

No comments: