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Parallel Universes:
Making Do and Getting By + Thoughtless Acts
(Mapping the quotidian from two perspectives)
By Kevin Henry


Preface
This article is all about reading images—the many ways in which we capture our world through photographs and reflect on them. In particular, it looks at the work of industrial design researcher Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO (author of Thoughtless Acts) and sculptor Richard Wentworth, (professor at The Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, Oxford University in England, and creator of his photo series, Making Do and Getting By), both of whom use photography to take notice of seemingly similar worlds. What was of particular interest to me was the motivation behind the photographs, and the ways an artist's perspective might differ from a designer's.


What was of particular interest to me was the motivation behind the photographs, and the ways an artist's perspective might differ from a designer's.

While I am not a photographer, I am a maker/consumer of photographs—as are my two subjects. And as a designer and educator, I leverage photography to frame design problems. This, combined with my own reading of standard photographic theory, has complicated my relationship with photography as mere tool. Historian Mary Warner Marien described photography's invention as firstly technological and secondly as social reinvention—two forces not easily separated. The technical aspects (loading, developing film, choosing f-stops, bracketing, etc.), which have been disappearing in consumer-grade cameras, have all but vanished for the digital photographer, while the personal computer has largely replaced the darkroom. Photography is no longer a dark art; it's come into the light and found its place in the bitstream of modern communication as a dematerialized pushing of buttons on cell phones, MP3 players, and PDA's—remaking photography into a seamless lifestyle accessory allowing millions of consumers the immediate gratification of documenting their lives. Social networking sites like Flickr and Myspace have become repositories for all these quotidian images.


Documenting the quotidian wasn't, however, ushered in by digital technology. It's been used by social scientists, designers, and artists to document minutia since the medium began. Photography instantaneously captures a slice of life for later examination which, as Susan Sontag wrote, "thickens the environment we recognize as modern."

The thickened environment of Richard Wentworth (in his photo series Making Do and Getting By) and Jane Fulton Suri and her colleagues at the industrial design firm IDEO (Thoughtless Acts) might be considered thin by comparison. Their images capture the minutiae we pay little attention to—images which nonetheless rely on the social context from which they are culled and through which they are analyzed for their real meanings. They use images to better understand their environments: parallel worlds of engagement with the provisional acts of invention and intervention.


During our interviews, the conversations ranged broadly and openly, giving us a chance to discuss photography in addition to the deeper issues of history, iconicity, human cognition, folk memory and the malleability of chewing gum. Below are some of the highlights.

 


Resonance
The first question: why are two very different people documenting similar sets of activities? After 27,000 words of transcribed conversation with the two of them, I do not have a definitive answer. Common interests did, however, emerge: photography's power to provide evidence; the natural inclination to group images to form bigger patterns; photography's ability to train one's vision; and a general common interest in the subtle cues of daily human interaction.

Fulton Suri and Wentworth read the semantic space the photograph freezes around particular moments—different than Cartier Bresson's 'decisive moment' which relied heavily on composition for its gravity. Neither of them formally compose their images—compositional considerations merely provide context as opposed to reinforcing traditional notions of good photography. These images are small portable pieces of the world viewable any time after the event.

 

Tiny Taxonomies
The images in Thoughtless Acts organize evidence of our subconscious engagement with the world and the objects and spaces that define it. The photos define a small universe of action, a taxonomy: reacting, adapting, co-opting, etc. Ways we engage thoughtlessly. Fulton Suri has used these categories as an organizing principle—see the website for more information at http://www.thoughtlessacts.com. She believes such details reveal larger patterns and bigger insights.

Richard Wentworth has also developed a taxonomy. The syntax of his photographs shape his worldview articulated materially through sculpture. He describes linguistic traces which connect the images: "It doesn't take very long to realize that some are warnings, some repairs, some reminders, some adjustments. And some of them are kinds of subsections: you would use a word like jamming and others are wedging. There's a hell of a lot of resistance to gravity, and I think my work has a lot to do with gravity..."



Warnings, repairs, reminders, adjustments—activities performed with greater awareness (less thoughtlessness). Duct taping a winter coat to a damaged car fender requires forethought, regardless of its effectiveness (above) . His images depict desperate acts of repair, while Fulton Suri's images focus on humans intuitively extending their bodies or the objects around them to service their needs (above). Their taxonomies nonetheless intersect: adapting and adjusting are not so far apart, while warning and reacting are clearly related.

 

Knowledge in the world
Don Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things applies J.J. Gibson's theories of ecological perceptions directly to design, paying particular attention to the idea of affordances and constraints. Norman extends Gibson's idea to what he terms perceived affordances—the ones humans notice whether or not they happen to be true. The chapter "Knowledge in the Head and in the World" codifies this into four headings:

1.          Information exists already in the world
2.          Great precision is not required
3.          Natural constraints are present
4.          Cultural constraints are present

Many of Fulton Suri's and Wentworth's photographs fall under these categories. Their images provide proof of information existing in the world as well as human reliance on that information—however constrained. The image below from Thoughtless Acts shows a woman clenching a paper bag in her mouth searching for change. In image underneath, pet owners have leashed their dogs to a sign next to a corner shop. Both images reveal the 'natural' ways humans read their environments: the mouth as third hand; the pole as extension.



Wentworth's images reinforce more ambiguous readings. The photograph below shows a dog left to guard a bag. We ask: what's in the bag and how protective is this small dog? Is the bag just heavy enough to keep the dog tethered or is the pooch indeed guarding it? The mystery remains; something Richard Wentworth relishes. In the image underneath, someone in Stockholm uses a bottle cap as an ashtray, sparing the green tablecloth. Is this action inspired by the presence of the bottle cap, the manners of the smoker, or a completely unthinking gesture? Wentworth, in an e-mail, pointed out the sexual connotations of the red hot cigarette tip plunged into the open bottle cap, complicating things further. Wentworth is drawn to the poetry as much as the prosaic reality of his images.


 

Incidence Versus Coincidence
Acquisition is a critical difference in their two approaches. Wentworth's interest lies in marking serendipitous situations, while IDEO's motivations are more goal-oriented—seeking out situations and relying on incidence to prove a point. Wentworth, like many photographers, thrives on coincidence—images come to him, he explained; he does not hunt for them. Events captured inside the camera are proof of the world outside the camera—photos merely record several things coinciding in time. In the image below, Wentworth happens by a particular spot where someone has lodged a partially eaten sandwich between a tree and its support. What is important here is evidence of the act rather than the composed image. The real coincidence is Wentworth's eye finding meaning in intentionality (correctly sized opening for a sandwich at a height above the reach of a cat or a dog but perfectly placed for a bird or squirrel, etc.). Where others may have simply seen a sandwich—if anything at all—Wentworth notices the details which fit his world view (jamming or wedging). He photographs it and adds it to his inventory.

Thoughtless Acts like Making Do and Getting By alerts us to the multi-layered sign systems filling our environments; urban semiotics most of us abide by thoughtlessly. Wentworth's best images depict evidence of humans slipping out of and defying its logic—contributing neologisms in the form of defiant acts which thicken the semiosis. Fulton Suri and IDEO's images on the other hand (below) take notice of actors interacting in that landscape, or record evidence of interactions while still noticing details which could be coincidental. The image below, showing letters lodged between the doorknob and the lock, could just as easily be a Wentworth image (think wedging).


Coincidence is a way of making sense out of our nonsensical world, according to writer W.G. Sebald, a committed photographer who wove images into his prose like words on a page. In a New Yorker magazine interview, Sebald recounted his conversion to carrying a camera at all times. After spotting twins on a bus in Italy bearing an uncanny resemblance to Franz Kafka—whose trail he was retracing—he was unable to visually prove it. This event was returned to fiction in the novel Vertigo: "I remained motionless on that bus seat from then on, embarrassed to the utmost degree and consumed with an infinite rage at the fact that I would now have no evidence whatsoever to document this most improbable coincidence." Images validate coincidences just as verbal descriptions expand on their meanings.

Artists and designers construct distinct worldviews in order to make decisions. And while the functional constraints differentiate the mass-produced product from the one-off sculpture, the individual vision can be very much in alignment.

 

Expansive Stories
So Richard Wentworth might not be a hunter, but like Jane Fulton Suri and IDEO, he is a gatherer. Situations may find him, but he still must choose which to photograph and, by photographing them repeatedly, patterns begin to emerge. Fulton Suri and her colleagues seek out—even set up—situations relevant to their research, and use the images to tell stories. The gathering of insights occurs in that space between the taking of the photographs and the generation of stories. According to Fulton Suri, it is a social process that often involves noticing things you knew, but didn't know you knew. She describes a slow and deliberate process which begins with a 2 x 2 matrix—the lower left corner labeled "concrete now" and its opposite corner labeled "concrete future." In the upper left corner is "abstract now" and opposite is "abstract future." The storyteller is instructed to stay in the concrete as long as possible, not to talk about who, what, where, why, or when, not to ask what it 'means,' but to remain concrete as long as possible. Slowly they move diagonally towards the future, pulling out patterns, themes and insights working towards frameworks—strategic or conceptual (a framework for thinking about activities)—continually moving between abstract and concrete to tease out design principles and opportunities.

By contrast, much of what Wentworth brings to the table is created live, in front of an audience. He describes what are now legendary slide shows, accompanied by an extemporaneous monologue and inspired by randomly-chosen images with little or no preparation: "I am doing it in space and time with a live audience and I can make them laugh and I know how to control them. It's terrifying actually what I have learned to do. I don't put it together until about twenty minutes before I have to do it and I frighten the shit out of myself doing it. I can extract a very elaborate set of multifarious, multilayered, multivalent set of things where people say they're a bit damaged (or disturbed) after it. It's the only way I can sort of empty out my scummy little mind in front of an audience, and I quite like the sort of overt sexuality of that: 'Oh my god this is five hundred people!'"

While this performative aspect is in stark contrast to the social ritual Fulton Suri and her colleagues at IDEO go through to unwrap the potentiality of an image and rebuild it through focused story telling, projective narratives are central to both practitioners for their power and insights. There exists a push/pull between the images and the stories: the photos spark conversation, in turn provoking more image taking—an ever-expanding feedback loop. Even Wentworth's language mimics the adjustment of a focusing lens as he zooms from micro to macro before returning again to the small gesture:

Wenthworth: "I grew up in a world that was held together with string and brown paper and ceiling wax and that's how it was. I slowly realized that this is the underlying condition of the world and there's nothing I like more than a sort of, you know, NASA disaster where they say if it hadn't been for the chewing gum...It's not because I want to fetishize chewing gum or the aesthetics of chewing gum pressed over some break in a membrane; it's because we have the intelligence to go: 'hey there's a malleable, mastic material and we can use that' and a large part of our lives is spent using that very edgy bit of our intelligence..."


Was this thought inspired by the top image (above) or did Wentworth photograph it as proof for his inventory related to jamming? Hard to say. Jamming a candy bar to stop a factory bell is an intentional act of defiance (and a wonderful variation of the etymological origin of the word sabotage), but it involves a good deal of ingenuity: the softness and the sugar content should ensure its effectiveness. Someone is clearly thinking here, which is why Richard Wentworth bothers to photograph it. Noting the ingenuity of others as a reminder to himself? It's hard to know which follows which.

 

The Grin of Recognition
I find myself on the street these days, photographing thoughtless acts and "Wentworthian" moments because they have mapped their territory so well that it's hard not to see the world through their lens. Jane Fulton Suri explained the book's mission as "trying to create a sensitivity and awareness to the things around us all the time—noticing it, honoring it again maybe, and thinking that it's interesting—how the idea of taking a picture is a way of raising the value of something." In the age of Youtube, the still camera holds a place near to our communal psyche because photography, unlike video requires direct input from the viewers—social interaction. It's hard to look at photographs without wondering what rests outside of the frame. The power of the photograph as social glue is apparent in sites like Flickr, Del.icio.us and Photobucket. Folksonomy, a term which merges folk with taxonomy, is one of the new tools driving these communities, where tagging software is creating a truly semantic web.

 

Conclusion
Artists and designers construct distinct worldviews in order to make decisions. And while the functional constraints differentiate the mass-produced product from the one-off sculpture, the individual vision can be very much in alignment. Jane Fulton Suri's and Wentworth's views bracket the quotidian in interesting and curious ways, helping to explain a world that is complex, because, as Richard Wentworth points out: "it contains unthought-of variables of which the chief component are humans who, you know, wear things out in surprising ways, or abuse things, or simply don't conform to the rules that are laid down."


Jane Fulton Suri moves about that uncertainty careful not to find a simple name or a simple answer: "I worry about a kind of one-to-one decision about images, because part of where I want to go with it is to have a much more nuanced conversation... I do think that through the social negotiation, a team of people suddenly realizes that they have had a very elucidating conversation around an image—not because of the image so much, but because it made us think."

Thinking is what every creative person is driven to do: discerning patterns so as to generalize—whether reading one's immediate world for the feedback required to build a personal vision, or reading into situations to anticipate unmet or undefined needs. Photography captures the world at a speed roughly equivalent to our own thinking, turning photographs into small thoughts or critical memories. The kinds of thoughts and feelings embodied in these photographs accompany us everywhere we go, making sense of our daily living in general ways. As Borges wrote: "To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract."



Kevin Henry is an industrial designer, writer and curator. He coordinates the product design program at Columbia College Chicago, and is the recipient of both an IDEA and a Good Design award. He is and currently working on a book project with the British Publisher Laurence King on drawing and design visualization. He can be reached at khenry-at-colum.edu.