23 February 2006


so my coffee mug is sitting here perilously close to my laptop, but i'm attempting to have faith that my desk isn't as messy as it really is and that i'm not a complete klutz. maybe these are bad things to have faith in.

either way, i've realized that i should write in this more (instead of only writing it down and never showing anyone). hm. so here it goes -- several days' worth of me writing in my notebook.


"information is semantic in nature" -- thing knowledge (p. 68)

*semantic - of or relating to meaning (esp. language)
*epistemic - of or relating to knowledge

so where does this go? i'm not sure. i've been trying to grasp the whole connotation of semantics and epistemics and the ologies of them both. coming at theory from a hands-on standpoint is hard, but doable, i think.

i've discovered that i really like reading about art history and the theory of art and aesthetics. and when i say reading, i don't mean lazily flipping the pages, staring at pictures. no no. it's more reading, as in arguing my own view along the way and sometimes changing stance in lieu of new information or a new way of thinking of things. (and i definitely don't think reading about art is a waste of time if you're an engineer... but maybe that is a different argument altogether and should be saved for a different day)

anyway. i was reading this book about kandinsky (the "inventor" of abstract painting) (ISBN 0-517-64793-1, in case you were wondering) the other day and ran across this quote:
"like many another artist at the turn of the century, kandinsky was a prolific writer." and that's the beginning of all of this. a nucleation point, if you will, of things that have been floating around in my head for a few weeks.

"poets, philosophers, academicians, scholars, and critics routinely issued their analyses and pronouncements on the contemporary artistic scene, but always from the perspective of someone not himself directly involved in the pictoral process."

in other words, writers of criticism/critique wrote about the works of others. producer of media and theoretician of media are separate.

"for the artist, understandably, the effect was to make him wish to resume control of his own destiny, so that he felt an increasing obligation to take responsibility not only for his creative activities but also for the reception of his work by the public. he was forced into the position of becoming a writer himself."

the artist feels a loss of control over how his works are viewed because the artist isn't the one writing about his own experience -- an experience that takes place in a space that may or may not originally be thought out in words.

"[...] it became difficult, if not actually impossible, for the artist to explain himself through a third party. if he were not to be misunderstood -- or willfully misrepresented -- he had to take the risk of entering the lists as a theoretician on his own behalf. for kandinsky, the forming of images had to work hand in hand with the formulation of ideas."

kandinsky's action to take responsibility for his own theories says something important. he realized that art and words (mostly) exist in two different worlds; art cannot stand on its own -- at least because people don't know how to read it. if we were trained in reading art -- something that i think comes in part from producing some form of art -- then it's easier to interpret (to a closer extent) what someone else is trying to accomplish. this is simply things vs. words.

"necessary allies, the two processes [writing and painting] complement each other in pursuit of greater clarity."

"yet they are far from being interchangeable. the words do not provide a key to the images, nor do they set out a programme which the images proceed to illustrate"

the object -- in this case kandinsky's art -- "says" things that theory alone cannot. they must exist together. the paintings have some knowledge inherent to them that's more than theory -- something wordless and immeasurable. something that can only be grasped through seeing the work. from this, i would venture to say that kandinsky realized that there are things in art that are inherently wordless. also, that during the production of a work of art, most of the communication between creator and medium happens in this wordless place. because kandinsky knew that the grammar of art was not enough to describe his goals, he tried to use the language of music to describe his work.

"'music has a grammar,' he wrote, 'a grammar which, like any living thing, changes over long periods of time, and yet can always usefully be referred to, much in the way you consult a dictionary ...'"

i say that a lot of music's grammar is determined by the materials -- instruments and performers -- involved. and that the act of performing a piece changes the way subsequent pieces are produced and performed. because materials and people change over time, music and the grammar of music has changed.

"kandinsky was first and foremost a painter, and one cannot look at what he wrote without bearing that in mind. the theoretician cannot be regarded in isolation from the artist. in the last analysis, the writing is only a secondary response to the primary matter of painting. kandinsky's texts must be read, therefore, as attempted rationalizations, both as tentative and as contradictory as the progress of the work itself, valuable only in so far as they ar a record of his determination to spell out a truth about painting."

yes! the painting exists before any concrete thoughts about the recently produced painting are formed. material precedes theory. practice precedes theory. writing is secondary to the work. this lends credence to the thought that there is a knowledge that can be gained only through the experience of producing something, and that although we (as a culture) put a higher value on theory, theory cannot exist without these objects coming first. thus, through theory and words, we are only verbalizing what was already inherently present in the material and our production of an object. or maybe it's more that hte object is a manifestation of the change that has taken place through the experience of ecreation, and that this change -- of materials and of the creator -- is something that has taken place outside of words. it's a silent understanding between material and creator ... a compromise and a conversation.

this is what i mean when i say that a creator has to listen to the materials. there's an understanding -- a physical understanding -- that's transferred without words: the feel of the pen on the paper, the strength of the material, the flow of water and paint on a canvas, the feel of metal bending into shape ... it all adds up to a whole greater than the creator's original vision.

"he [kandinsky] was already losing interest in reality and the natural world, which made so little impression on him that his whole concentration was focused on the surprising forms assumed by the thick pigments, modelled under the broad strokes of his palette knife."

i would argue that kandinsky discovered the wordless communication of the medium (in his case, paint) and became enamored with it... wanted to explore it, and it alone. that in forgoing the attempt of representing the "real world," he discovered communicating the process of creating -- communicating the subjectivity of creation... the state of mind whilst painting, the paint under his palette knife moving in its own way according to laws of physics that are still only somewhat understood, etc. and he felt that since he alone was there for the entire experience of creation, he was the only one who was able to truly attempt to put this experience into words -- hence, his writing and theoretizing about his own work. he felt the quiet mystery of wordless communication in creation and sought to vocalize and rationalize it. but his writing still cannot stand separate from his work. so much is communicated in this wordless world that it's impossible to communicate everything with words. this is one reason that i think the only way to truly understand something is to do it yourself.

the conversation between creator and materials is then embodied physically in the creator and the material -- both have changed after this process. i think sartre agrees with this in some respect :

"when we speak of a canvas of picasso, we never say that it is arbitrary; we understand quite wll that he was making himself what he is at the very time he was painting, that the ensemble of his work is embodied in his life" (sartre, jean-paul. existentialism and human emotions. 1987. p43).

this speaks to the change of the creator and, i think, ties to how this change is also embodied in the work. the works are relics of constant change. i would also propose to argue that even though kandinsky forewent depicting "real life" that his creations depict reality -- but in his case, the reality of the materials and the reality of subjectivity and experience. the reality of the creator without words instead of the readily observable reality.

and i think it's this point that draws contention. people are wont to believe in what can be measured and observed. moreover, people want to disbelieve and discredit the subjective, even though (i believe) most of our thoughts are composed from wordless knowledge and not theorized words. but the subjective is real; people just want to be able to ascribe predictability and rules to all things. anything that cannot be given rules and put aside in a little marked bin is "not scientific" or "not rational." if this is their argument, then their "rationality" is flawed.

if experience could be transferred completely with words, then there would be no need to distinguish who does what work. reading a book on something would make anyone an expert. but reading a book on someone does not make you an expert. no one will argue with this. if all knowledge could be transferred in words or in images, then there would be no use for experience. but our world is experience driven. experience has a marketable value. therefore, we shouldn't try to substitute theory for experience. experience has no substitute.

gundela (one of my housemates) says i should clarify a few of my points. the main one being, how much the creator's original vision comes into play when designing something.

it would be wrong to say that it's one way or another -- process or goal. more likely, it's a continuous spectrum. i would also venture to say that no design process is completely goal driven. maybe in the simplest and most abstract form... yes... but not in how the design is carried out. something can only be 100% goal driven if the designer/creator completely understands the materials and the method, and even then, there are so many possibilities, that something will be different than planned. so 100% goal-driven is not a possibility. likewise, 100% process is also unrealistic. something had to set you about making something. even if that goal is to explore the process, it's still a goal.

so i would say that there's a spectrum from pure process to pure goal with the ends being theoretic limits. the majority would lie somewhere in the middle. abstract art on the process side, and engineering design more on the goal side.

so what does all this mean? well... first, that i think people who identify as artists are more likely to understand how the material has a play in design -- particulary sculptors and wood workers. and i think that the more experience someone has with materials, the more able they are to choose which materials/media should be used to get done what they need to get done (if they have a goal). from this, i would say that engineers should also understand materials. engineers who are familiar with materials are more able to design a stable and useful (if useful is what is wanted) structure/mechanism/etc.

so i think it's imperative that all people understand materials, because materials surround us. and i believe that the only way to do this is to work with a variety of materials that are readily available.

i once read somewhere that "engineering is making what you want with what you have," and i think that this statement holds a lot of truth. to me, this means that an engineer needs to understand the materials in order to arrive at a design that satisfies the design constraints while also satisfying material constraints. the engineer should understand the material enough to use the materials properties (both strengths and "weaknesses") in positive ways. like i mentioned before -- using the wire's flexibility as a way to make it stronger for larger structures.

i also think that it speaks to the fact that engineers -- people in general, really -- would create better, more locally customized and sustainable design if they understood the materials surrounding them. and everyone would benefit. maybe this is overly idealistic. but, really, people should explore their worlds and should feel comfortable taking everything that's around them and using it for their own means. appropriation. it's all about appropriation. and somehow, i think, appropriation is all about confidence and comfort.


  1. Somehow it doesn't feel right discussing this without clove cigarettes and gigantic meatburgers.

  2. and berets. don't forget berets.
    seriously, though, discuss. i don't want to be the only crazy one.