I FELL INTO THE ABYSS FOR A MOMENT / MFA thesis excerpt - 2011


Cranbrook MFA thesis header

I Fell Into the Abyss For a Moment

(Note: Published in 2011 as part 6 of my Cranbrook 2D Design MFA thesis)

Most of the work from my second year at Cranbrook fell into a vague narrative; not so much a narrative in the sense of telling a concrete story, but a narrative that suggests a sense of continuity from one piece to the next, following a journey away from the specific places of my first year work (Detroit, Bay City, and Cranbrook itself) towards an expression of a more nebulous “inner” place. I worked pretty organically and intuitively with most of these projects, allowing imagery and text from one piece to intercede into another, and so on. I also limited myself primarily to one or two types of media, mostly pasted photocopied images with masked out text on top. If my first year at Cranbrook was about trying a variety of methods in order to get my point across (and, indeed, about working out what that point was), the second year was about focusing and refining it, working in a smaller, less sprawling manner, and dealing primarily with image and content instead of investigations into form and material.

The year could be divided up into five sections: a series of large-scale images, a thematic show in Cranbook’s Forum Gallery, an exploration of model landscapes, a performance to mirror the Spectral Mornings performance from the first year, and the work I completed for Cranbrook’s degree show at the end of the year.

Primarily with this body of work, I became interested in the pursuit of nostalgia, particularly as it manifests itself as a journey towards some unreachable goal. As Svetlana Boym writes in The Future of Nostalgia, “Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world; it could be a secular expression of spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history.”1 This idea of nostalgia as a “return home” parallels the Situationists’ psychogeographic idea of wandering based on intuition and feeling, and contextualizing nostalgia as a journey to a place, however unknowable or unreachable that place may be, places it firmly in line with my ongoing investigations of the power of place. Nostalgia is a return home, to be sure, but it is a mythic return, never fully realized, and is therefore related to imaginary landscapes, mindscapes, rendered cities, unbuilt architecture, sonic fiction, and the idea of “design” itself.

I’m not interested in figuring out whether or not I’m a “nostalgic” person. However, I am interested in locating myself within this idea of nostalgia as a journey to a place and exploring that idea with the visual vocabulary of journeys, location, and persona, as it relates to my subjective journeys through Detroit and Bay City. Through a series of images I created in the second year, I used cityscapes, wastelands, motorcycles, and roads to give shape to a journey that suggested the attempted “return” of nostalgia and the endless search for that unreachable space, overlaid upon an emotional journey from, perhaps, confusion to clarity.

The first project I completed in the second year at Cranbrook features two panels, one showing a ruined residential wasteland from the heart of Detroit, overcome with plant life, and the other based on a frame from the “One Thousand Faces” project, showing a face obscured with a giant thumb print. The loss of place is reflected by the loss of identity. These two panels are covered with a dripping yellow acrylic patina, referencing a layer of subjective mediation, a representation of visually augmented reality, or an omniscient point of view. Over the top of these images, in stuttering painted text, reads “I’m sorry, I feel into the abyss for a moment.”

Cranbrook MFA thesis typography and painting
Cranbrook MFA thesis typography and painting

“The abyss” signifies both an emotional state and an actual physical location -- one can “fall into the abyss” both literally and in terms of internal emotion. This flickering between external and internal states is incredibly exciting to me, and it is encapsulated by the idea of a word referring to both a psychological affectation and a geological or architectural reality. “Abyss” is but one example, and I’ve thought of many others, both referring to places and the state of moving from one place to another. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, “the road” is a literal place, a description of moving from place to place, and a metaphoric description of the act of wandering, searching for a sense of truth and self after an apocalypse (an apocalypse that itself can be read as both literal and metaphorical).

“The Zone” in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker in 1979, is perhaps the richest example of this. “The Zone,” in the story, is an area of Soviet Russia once visited by alien explorers, and now sealed off, marked by the ruins of its pre-visitation topography, littered with the artifacts of the alien visitors, and marked by bizarre fluctuations in time. Here, the Zone becomes a metaphor for the ruins of industrialization; a previous way of life crystallized as an actual, traversable (if dangerous) landscape. In Militant Modernism, Owen Hatherley writes, “the Zone is a dangerous melancholy place, an industrial district where the chimneys no longer give off smoke, visited by strange climactic phenomena, with a stretched sense of time. ... Tarkovsky’s Zone is in some ways specific to the former USSR, yet practically every industrial, or once industrial country, has something resembling the Zone within it.”2 Indeed, Hatherley’s description of the Zone as “a fenced-off, contaminated and ruined area, marked by scatterings of the bizarre and technologically fantastic objects left by the alien visitors” could equally apply to Detroit, if we take the ruined objects to be the detritus of failed post-industrial capitalism. In Stalking Detroit, Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munne take this analogy further, writing that the Zone “represents the overlay of a primordial and abundant natural environment, an aging and abandoned industrial infrastructure, and an increasingly opportunistic set of mutating ecological conditions. The Zone’s cessation of Fordist/Taylorist imperatives in lieu of a postmodern conflation of infrastructure and ecology recommends it as an image of Detroit’s not too distant future.”3 Detroit is literally becoming the Zone, in other words, yet it could be argued that Zone is as emotional and psychological as it is geographical, as it becomes a both a real place and a state of mind to be left behind. While the background image in my “Abyss” piece originally comes from Detroit, it is not important to identify it as such; it functions as a stand-in for the ruins of a previous way of life, a physical life, an outdated point of view, an abyss to step into and out of, and so on.

Cranbrook MFA thesis typography design
Cranbrook MFA thesis typography design
Cranbrook MFA thesis typography design
Cranbrook MFA thesis typography design

After the Abyss panels, I made another piece, with an image of a postapocalyptic motorcycle juxtaposed against hot pink type reading “We’ve Got All the Time in the World.” Besides the blatant irony of that statement (i.e. we don’t have all the time in the world, and one day our “world” will look like this salvaged, armored motorcycle, a motorcycle adorned with wagon wheels and chains, signifiers of a “pre-motorcycle” era), I’m interested in the suggestion of having “all the time in the world” after an apocalypse. This is a case of forward-pointing nostalgia, in a sense.

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

This was followed by a portrait of a motorcycle rider, in full color. This is an image laden with the suggestion of a mug shot, a yearbook photo, the pretense of a confrontation, but with the rider’s face hidden inside a helmet, turned away from the camera, and crossed out with a giant black marker scribble -- a threefold hiding of identity within a kind of persona, or within the personification of postponement, of building a wall, of searching for a truth not yet found. Working with the image of a motorcycle in the previous project led me to the idea of the lone explorer, the road warrior, as a persona, something that could perhaps stand as a more thoughtful, quiet, and reflective counterpart of the Bay City Bullshit pop persona. With the motorcycle rider persona, the helmet became a talisman of sorts, embodying the act of travel, suggesting potential countercultural rebellion, and serving as a form of armor, or protection. It brought to mind the apocryphal story of the woman who rode a motorcycle through Chernobyl in the early 2000s, a real-life visitor to the “Zone” in the Ukraine. Her story turned out to be a hoax, but it conjured up fantastical images of a person becoming an explorer within their own land, separated from that particular place, not through spatial distance, but through time, through the ruins and ramifications of cause and effect. What if that place, that “Zone” was Bay City? Or, more accurately, what if it was “Bay City” -- a signifier for my own past?

Cranbrook MFA thesis typography design
Cranbrook MFA thesis typography design

The motorcycle rider image was created using a built-up succession of layers: MDF panel, white paint, collaged image, duct tape, printed flyers, and painted letters, reading “I Still Need You.” Even the photograph of the rider contained layers: the layering effect of the motorcycle helmet itself, with its painted white/yellow surface, and a jacket, adorned with duct tape within the photograph. The use of duct tape, both representationally and literally, is a nod to the absurd post-9/11 idea of barricading yourself inside your home with duct tape in the event of an airborne attack. In this case the duct tape serves as an ineffectual form of protection,a lie: another piece of bullshit, just as useless as the cloaking aspects of personas themselves. It’s important that the top layer of the image is the “I Still Need You” text. Even though the person within this image is buried under layers of signifier, uniform, and armor, the emotional core of the piece (the person’s point of view) is laid bare on top. Remove the personas (and complete the journey), therefore, and you might be left with a person as bare and honest as that emotional truth, embodied in a simple declaration of love, love that prevails over the passage of time (and, correspondingly, over the course of a journey).

In Electric Eden, Rob Young writes about the quintessential British journey as represented by British folk music, a form of music very much connected to the idea of travel across land. As opposed to the American cultural space of the open road, the British sense of “the road” leads inward, due to the simple fact that Britain is a small land mass. “The culture of British travel,” he writes, “is more commonly linked to the sense of quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior ... Britain’s literature brims with accounts of journeys in which movement combines with the unlocking of memory to create a sensation of inward/vertical rather than forward/lateral travel.”4 This series of projects, then, allowed me to create my own visual vocabulary to illustrate that sense of inward motion. I wanted to examine aspects of nostalgia as represented by that sense of motion, while at the same time figuring out what that journey might mean to me, in terms of revealing emotional truths -- in other words, what lies at the end of that journey? The result is a projection of motion sideways, into a metaphysical fantasy world, taking in the Abyss, the Zone, the City, Roads through Wastelands, and so on. These journeys are tinged with melancholy, since they are built on the ruins of the past, yet they are journeys of hope, by their very nature of being journeys. As Svetlana Boym writes, “The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. ... Nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes nostalgia is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways.”5


1. Svetlana Boym. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, New York: 2001.
2. Owen Hatherley. Militant Modernism. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2010.
3. Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munne. “Decamping Detroit.” Stalking Detroit. Eds. Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim & Jason Young. Actar, Barcelona: 2001.
4. Rob Young. Electic Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music. Faber and Faber, London: 2010.
5. Svetlana Boym. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, New York: 2001.