May 12, 2011

Permutations & Loops

  1. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.

    Robert Irwin in Seeing is Forgetting the Name of The Thing One Sees

    Frank Chimero

    I love the idea of not forcefully projecting messages out, but instead warmly inviting people in when there’s a knock on the door. It turns the contemporary obsession with visibility on its head and transforms it into access. It’s like a variation on a negative idea and turning it into something positive.

  2. Hug Me from LA Story

    Rob Giampietro

    It’s interesting when you play these ideas in reverse. A highway sign that’s seen but not really considered by thousands of people everyday becomes something tender, even human, in LA Story when it begins “speaking” to Steve Martin’s character. Polarities of animate and inanimate, speech and writing, public and private shift at this moment in the film: perhaps it’s precisely in the midst of these ambiguities that we feel most human.

  3. Frank Chimero

    It’s funny how personifying an unexamined object and transforming it into a being is enough to engender us to it. It reminds me of Spike Jonze’s IKEA ad that personifies a lamp to high effect. It pulls at you emotionally, and then jerks it all back with the reality of the situation. I suppose even the mundane can be made tender if framed well.

    It seems that much of creativity is about understanding the opportunities of framing, and taking elements of life and hijacking them from their conventional purposes. My favorite art imbues the mundane with meaning by using noble materials we can all understand. Jonze can make me misty about a lamp, Rothko can make red profound, and Hemingway can use the same simple words I use and knock the wind out of me.

  4. a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you

    The entire 50-word lexicon of Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham

    Rob Giampietro

    In the right hands, the most ordinary things can take on extraordinary meanings. “The Cat in the Hat” came about when Dr Seuss was asked by William Ellsworth Spaulding, Houghton Mifflin’s education director, to compose a text for six-year-olds using a lexicon of only the 348 words they should developmentally know. “The Cat in the Hat” uses 223 words that are on the list and 13 that are not. It had sold more than 10.5 million copies by 2007.

    Random House publisher Bennett Cerf then bet Seuss $50 he couldn’t do a book in just 50 words. The result was “Green Eggs and Ham,” one of the weirdest, most delightful books around.

  5. Anagrams on the Flatbush Pavilion's marquee in Brooklyn, NY

    Frank Chimero

    Those artificial constraints get to be really interesting too. Seuss’s limitations with “Green Eggs and Ham” seems to be almost like an anagram of a child’s vocabulary. I remember a few years ago when the Flatbush Pavilion in Brooklyn shut down, people would take the left-over letters on the marquee and reconstruct them into new phrases. They didn’t rhyme like Dr. Suess, but they did generate a fun sort of word-infused nonsense similar to him.

    There’s a whole collection of marquee photos available for browsing. The whole thing seemed like so much fun, like some sort of community-based collaborative wordplay game. Every few days, a new configuration to enjoy.

    Nevermore will shenanigans hang in favor!

  6. Page from Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

    Rob Giampietro

    What I enjoy seeing in these marquees (and in anagrams more generally) are all the different potential orders of even a small set of things. We so seldom question the order of letters, but in the case of an anagram they remind us of their modularity and mutability, the lightest depictions of the smallest slices of sound. Any set of things contains many meanings, many paths, many stories.

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite books from childhood, Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.” As Van Allsburg writes in the introduction, Burdick presented the images and their accompanying captions to Van Allsburg’s friend as part of a story pitch, then Burdick was never heard from again. The book itself offers these unconnected fragments of larger stories for its young readers to complete. An infinite number of stories, an infinite array of explanations—the kindest gesture really, a storybook that itself produces stories.

    The caption for the image above reads: “He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.” Here is a wonderfully looped moment, about time, expectation, innocence, and a moment in which the laws of physics have ripped and a story has come rushing through.

  7. New Yorker Caption Contest
    You ever think about how in, like, a Tom Hanks movie, everyone lives in a reality in which there’s no such person as Tom Hanks? Because otherwise, people would be mistaking the main character for Tom Hanks all the time? So either Tom Hanks doesn’t exist in the world the movie takes place in, or he does exist but he looks like someone else? I mean, you could have a character break the fourth wall and go “Aren’t you the guy from Cast Away? Hey, sign my volleyball!” or whatever but you can’t really do that in a serious screenplay, so you’re pretty much stuck with that bare minimum level of willing-suspension-of-disbelief before you even get started, unless it’s a period drama or something. And the funny thing is the more famous your star is, the bigger the leap of faith you’re asking the viewer to take when no one in your narrative universe recognizes him, so in a way, paradoxically, great actors undermine their own credibility by their very presence—hey, are you even listening to me? What are you—oh, that’s just Bob. He’s made of bubbles.

    Frank Chimero

    The structure of the book essentially reminds me of The New Yorker Caption contest. An image is provided, and readers are asked to craft hundreds of different permutations and stories from the same prompt. If we’re given an incomplete tale like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we’ll finish it up ourselves. The cliffhanger kills us. And so, since we need to finish these things ourselves, one book may turn into a hundred tales, and one drawing may turn into a thousand stories.

    The winning caption for this one on April 26th, 2011 was “He won’t last long,” but my favorite entry came from Dan Wineman, given on the left. Unfortunately, it was not chosen.

  8. Barbershop interior
    In a village, there is a male barber who shaves all and only those men who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the barber?

    Rob Giampietro

    The exclusion of the existence Tom Hanks from the world of a film starring Tom Hanks strikes me as sharing quite a lot with one of my favorite puzzles, Bertrand Russell’s well-known Barber Paradox. I’m being careful to describe it as a puzzle because it’s not technically a paradox, it’s a “pseudoparadox,” and in the case of the Barber Paradox its contradiction comes not from itself but the limitations of naïve set theory, which defines a set rather vaguely as any well-defined collection. Retooled as the more specific axiomatic set theory, the Barber Paradox resolves: this barber cannot exist. Russell resolved the issue a bit differently, though, with something called type theory. Type theory separates the citizen-barber who shaves himself from the professional-barber who shaves others. Or, for our purposes above, actor Tom Hanks and castaway Tom Hanks.

    The Barber Paradox is also related to something known as hypergame. In the hypergame, suppose there are two players. The first player names a game with a finite number of moves, like tic-tac-toe. The second player can then make the first move on the tic-tac-toe board and the game is played to its conclusion, or he could call out a second game of finite moves, like chess, which then begins, provided another finite game is not called first. So the hypergame is a game of finite games, each of which have an end. But does the hypergame end?

  9. Frank Chimero

    There seems to be an implicit humor to loops, a certain kind of dark fun:

    Q: Pete and Repeat were in a boat. Pete fell out. Who was left?
    A: Repeat.

    Q: Pete and Repeat were in a boat…

    After a while, the humor fades, and things turn dull, then annoying, then hellish. If not hell, than maybe a purgatory. If the hypergame is a call-and-response version of play that can possibly have no logical end, and these loops have a humor and gravitas to them, I can't help but be reminded of the scene from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Bill and Ted are forced to battle Death at a sequence of board games to escape hell. It isn’t quite recursive, but who’s to say it couldn’t go on forever?

    “Choose your game.”

  10. Bruegel's Children's Games

    Bruegel's Children's Games Details

    Rob Giampietro

    Maybe it could go on forever, and maybe that’s just the point. Thinking about these games-within-games makes my mind drift to Bruegel’s famous Children’s Games, painted over 450 years ago, which presents over 200 children playing a vast catalogue of games. The painting is so vast and so active that it resists simple description—in fact, the poet Edward Snow has dedicated an entire book to just this painting as a subject, in which he self-reflexively describes the looped nature of his attempt to write about it, and about the expanding nature of his own response: “Whatever route one takes through the painting, the incredible details are always there, catching one's attention and shaping one’s responses.” If curiosity is a game we play with the world for the duration of our lives, attention is perhaps its most winning strategy.

    It's all enough to recall another poet and a last link in our chain: T.S. Eliot also placed an image of children at play at the end of his Four Quartets. Taking us through the gate and into the orchard, Eliot gives us an image of children hiding in an apple tree undetected. And hiding in this simple game of hide-and-seek is a much deeper metaphor about our search for the sense of wonder that's always waiting in plain sight:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

Frank Chimero
Frank Chimero is a designer, writer, and teacher in Portland. He is writing a book called The Shape of Design.
Rob Giampietro
Rob Giampietro is a designer, writer, and teacher in New York. He is a principal of Project Projects.
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