I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU / MFA thesis excerpt - 2011


Cranbrook MFA thesis header

I'll Be There For You

(Note: Published in 2011 as part 3 of my Cranbrook 2D Design MFA thesis)

The music I’ve written has always been about trying to capture a tone. My design work in my first year of graduate studies at Cranbrook, freed from the constraints of acting as an announcement and conveying specific information that comes with most client work, began to be about the same thing.

In the past I’ve always describe my design work as being based on emotional communication, conveying information on a gut-level, instinctual basis. This interest in emotional communication led me to explorations of texture, material, and the intervention of the human hand in the primarily digital posters I had been creating since college. I wanted my design work to convey information on two levels: the primary, verbal level (“this event is happening at this time in this place”) and on a subtextual, emotional level (“this event is about this and will make you feel this”). This second level, the meta level, is much more important to me. I’ve had a terrible time convincing clients of this, however, probably because I usually let the subtext, the “feeling,” overwhelm the text. After college I was becoming increasingly frustrated with seeing passionate designers’ work being used to sell brand-name coffee and other useless products, and I was frustrated with realizing that much of the work that was being used to promote culturally important “things” like art and music was visually stale and emotionally timid.

My passions when I came to Cranbrook revolved around reacting strongly against those frustrations. For many years I felt like I was doing that within my client- and project-based work, and I’ve always been strongly interested in the context and communication with an audience inherent in client-based work. My design work has always been “about” some second piece of information, like describing an upcoming concert, and I’ve used the dialogue between the “first” thing (my design) and the “second” thing (the concert) as a way to explore and make comments on emotional ideas. I hadn’t often let my own mind be the source of that second thing, because it felt dangerously close to “art.” While I still feel rather opposed to identifying myself as an artist, creating art for art’s sake, I’ve discovered at Cranbrook that I do have a lot to say, freed from the constraints of project- or client-based work. At Cranbook I’ve allowed the subtextual, emotional, meta level to come entirely to the forefront, examining the fact that this emotional level, regardless of the particulars of each project, comes from a consistent place: myself. It’s the sense of self-ness that lies at the heart of my design practice, at the heart of the technical methodology and visual motifs that I employ over and over again, and at the heart of my subject matter. It’s all based around emotion, struggle, and catharsis, locating and embracing that ur-emotion that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay.

Cranbrook MFA thesis postapocalypse car photography, typography, and painting

I created a 2’ x 4’ image of the original Mad Max car that I built at the beginning of the year. The image was built with photography, photocopies, and paint, layered onto a piece of MDF board using watered-down glue, with “Don’t Worry” juxtaposed on top of it. The pasting method was a nod to wheat-pasted posters and traditional billboard production, methods that I saw creeping towards obsolescence in my previous life as a designer at a sign company. I’m drawn to this idea of using obsolete media, like the photocopier and the pasted billboard, since they’ve became echoes or traces of the past. They also serve as reminders of the fact that certain production techniques change over time from technological necessities to conscious aesthetic choices, much like the role of a concert poster has changed from a tool of necessity to an after-the-fact memento. This project solidified my love affair with the photocopier, and the finished piece felt like an entry point into an interior world, much like the Highway Wars music before it; it was a frozen, solidified part of my interior landscape, where I felt like I could summarize my point of view by pointing at a singular image and saying “that.”

The photocopier has become an integral part of my aesthetic while at Cranbrook, and without overtheorizing it after the fact, I have tried to examine my impulse to go to Kinkos all the time and figure out why I return to the photocopier again and again. I tend to go through phases of infatuation with particular production methods: in college I was obsessed with stenciled spray paint, and then I spent a lot of time working with pen and ink drawings, and then with tonor transfers. In my poster work before Cranbrook I was playing with tape, sandpaper and modified inkjet prints, and then at school I sort of jumped upon the idea of using the photocopier as a tool for creating and manipulating my images. Every project since the Detroit film has incorporated the photocopier to some degree, and they’ve almost all involved the practice of gluing prints to boards and combining them with acrylic paint. Some might criticize the idea of limiting myself more or less to one process, but I see it as a method refining technique and chasing a vision, going on a journey of sorts within the work. I also feel that my utilization of the photocopier connects my work to certain postmodernist undercurrents, especially in light of Walter Benjamin’s writings about “aura” and the way it relates to contemporary production practices and subcultures.

Cranbrook MFA thesis music performance photography

In Benjamin’s oft-cited Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he discusses the loss of the “original” artwork within the new context of reproductive techniques brought about by the Industrial Revolution in general and photography in particular. The idea of the “copy” being treated as art was a relatively new phenomenon, and Benjamin lamented the fact that these copies did not contain the “aura” of the original artwork. Indeed, the concept of the original would eventually cease to exist entirely, an idea that has gained traction exponentially in the age of digital reproduction. Into this world steps the photocopier, a modern machine of mechanical reproduction that by its nature serves to obliterate the idea of the “original” and, in the twenty-first century, is itself becoming obsolete. In The Culture of the Copy, Hillel Schwartz speaks of the work of Joseph Kadar and James Durand, stating that they work “as if the photocopier were the Source of Singularity, [as if] their work [was] driven by an obsessive desire to match wits with the soul of the machine, that Benjamite hunchback hidden from sight by a system of mirrors.”1 Schwartz also explores the work of Pati Hill, stating “the photocopier takes life-size but unexpected portraits. ... [It’s the] conclusion to a historical process: the original as vanishing twin.”2 Schwartz quotes Hill as saying, “It is the side of your subject that you do not see that is reproduced [through photocopying]. I would prefer that the original of my work have no value.”3

I am not particularly interested in the practice of sampling or collaging that goes on in much of the contemporary art world. Yet, if anything, I consider myself a postmodernist, in that I am interested in exploring and exploiting the intertextuality of objects and the interconnectivity of texts. To that end, I don’t agree with Benjamin’s idea of the loss of “aura” through reproduction; on the contrary, I’m interested in the production of a different type of “aura,” an emotional one, often through reproductive methods like photocopying, tonor transfer, printmaking, and screenprinting. The “copy” in my work is a copy of my own original, and the so-called original is often discarded through this process, leaving its traces on the finished work in the form of photocopied artifacts, pencil lines, or construction notes, but discarded nonetheless. In working this way I am transferring the idea of “aura” from the original to the copy, and bestowing that copy with a sense of original-ness; I am creating a patina of history, moving through time and process from original to copy, building up a mythology and sense of the past through the accumulation of dirt and data. In this way, the virtual, or created/mediated, object takes over and replaces the real, paralleling a backward/forward/sideways move from physical to virtual, a simultaneous singularity and apocalypse. This foregrounding of the virtual, which is in opposition to Benjamin’s concerns about the loss of aura, is also seen in contemporary architectural modeling, in which emphasis is often placed on the three-dimensional rendering (the non/virtual space) more than on the actual built architectural environment itself (the real space). In Analog Dreams, Jasmine Benyamin writes, “The appearance of architecture itself has taken on a transformation, such that the virtual world of the design process has grafted itself on the outcomes...” She continues, “The virtual model carves out a phenomenological distinction between rendering and production, further exacerbating the dialectics of nearness and distance that [Walter] Benjamin had identified as aura.”4

Cranbrook MFA thesis music performance photography

As an echo of this shift of focus from real architecture to the nonreality of the architectural model (paralleled in our ever-increasing reliance on Google Maps and Google Earth for our contemporary worldview, in all senses of the word), I like to think of the photocopier as a tool for producing a 1:1 scale model. Not only is the photocopier a method for creating a model, but it is also a model itself: by basing much of my aesthetic around the results of photocopying, it becomes a model for my point of view, a filter that “models” emotional content. The look of the photocopier comes to represent the vantage point of a particular persona, just as the idea of a persona itself is a 1:1 scale model of an individual.

Exploring this concept of persona-as-model further, I became interested in the idea of using texture and emotion, particularly through the use of the photocopier aesthetic, to support the atmospheric aspects of genre and persona. I’ve been interested in personas for a long time, using them as catalysts for songwriting when I was recording the songs for Wolves in 2008. How could visual techniques and texture be used to support a particular genre, playing on aspects of cliché, instead of a more general idea of tone? My obsession with the Mad Max car already spoke to the idea of persona, in the way that a fetishistic object comes to stand in for a person or a point of view. Taking this idea of persona/genre further, I created a pair of blatantly gothic, Victorian, decayed, melodramatic images, one male and one female, accompanied by text panels reading “I’ll be there for you...”

Cranbrook MFA thesis portrait photography

I like to think of personas as a form escapism, which is particularly fascinating in relation to our ongoing social migration from the real to the virtual. That migration manifests itself in obvious, stereotypical, genre-based ways that often aren’t taken seriously, like various “virtual” realities that echo the romance of things like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, as seen today in Second Life and World of Warcraft. However, that migration from real to virtual also manifests itself in a subtler, more insidious manner through social networks like Facebook and Twitter and internet forums and message boards. These “nonspaces” come to replace real space. We still occupy physical locations, but we spend our time in nonreal locations, their physicalities described by topics and subject matter, not walls and borders. It’s funny that Facebook is taken more seriously than something like World of Warcraft, since the outcome is basically the same. I’m interested in the ways in which more visually recognizable subcultures might operate in the same way that Facebook groups or message boards work. In other words, identifying yourself as “gothic” or “steampunk” is similar to hanging out in a particular corner of Facebook, Skype room, or comment thread. All of these “places” are based around fictions; the only difference is that the subcultural, genre-based groups have more visible visual signifiers and are more easily sidelined by the dominant culture.

I’m interested in treating genres such as steampunk or goth or romantic Victorianism (or electronic music) as if they were a fictional or archetypal “place,” in much the same way that an online message board or Facebook group becomes a fictional “place” based around signifiers other than physical location. The idea of creating portraits drawn so strongly from genre springs out of the practice of identification with such a “place.” The people in the portraits I’ve created are the inhabitants of these virtual genre-based nonplaces, just as our Facebook profile pictures are mediated, virtual versions of ourselves, avatars that inhabit the virtual reality of the Internet. We intentionally build our lives around the idea of fiction all the time, just maybe not to the degree of steampunk or World of Warcraft. But some of us do. Hence the defiant stance of the clearly genre-based portraits...

Cranbrook MFA thesis music portrait photography

The idea of steampunk is particularly interesting to me, because not only does it spring from an intention to identify oneself with a virtual “place” and a fictional sense of space, but it is about rewriting history, and it is therefore incredibly post-modern. It is, by its very nature, about the unstable idea of “place.” It is also incredibly reactionary, in that it is ironically about “real” objects instead of virtual ones, which is probably one very large reason for its marginalization by mass culture.

In Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Evan Calder Williams traces the path of the -punk suffix through cyberpunk and steampunk, culminating in his vision of “salvagepunk” as an apocalyptic method of confronting the stalemate of twenty-first century capitalism. Writing from an admittedly anticapitalist point of view, Williams is particularly critical of the steampunk perspective. If cyberpunk turned out to be no more than a “nanotechnology dressing-up of the way things already were going,” Williams writes, steampunk is merely the “non-dystopian dressing-up of cyberpunk concerns with the trappings of steam power.”5 He continues: “Steampunk is a romanticized do-over, a setting of the clock back to a time of craftsmanship and real (fetishized) objects, remaking the world, not in the mode of the ceaseless slow sprawl of cheap oil, but in the Victorian self-aware world-making spirit.”6

Steampunk seemed to catch on in the national zeitgeist in the mid 2000s, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the like. The reasons for this are probably twofold: it represents one arm of the post-postmodern tendency towards so-called “mashups” and hybrids (expression through juxtaposition, based around the collision of signifiers), and it potentially hints at search for identity and authenticity that characterizes the early twenty-first century. Williams focuses on the former, dismissing steampunk as merely aesthetic, not political. He proposes replacing it with “salvagepunk,” which he describes as “the postapocalyptic vision of a broken and dead world, strewn with both the dream residues and real junk of the world that was, and shot through with the hard work of salvaging, repurposing, detourning, and scrapping. Acts of salvagepunk strike against and away from the ruins on which they cannot help but be built and through which they rummage.” Listing examples of salvagepunk in contemporary culture, Williams cites Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, Waterworld, “Dada and Surrealist collage and photomontage,” Monty Python, hiphop/DJ culture, Godspeed You Black Emperor “and other derivations of anarchopunk music,” and, of course, Mad Max.7

Williams traces his idea of salvagepunk to the battlefields of World War I, a war that marked a turning point in technology and culture, through the birth of Futurism, Dada, and other movements that emerged at roughly the same time, and embodied the moment when “the savagery directed outwards by the [European] Continent turned back on itself.”8 Williams considers World War I to be “the severed inheritance of the previous world,” setting up the twentieth century as a world in a perpetual condition of aftermath: “Salvagepunk wrecks salvage with the simple recognition that the world is now irrevocably structured as apocalyptic wasteland.”9

For Williams, salvagepunk combines the “repurposing” practice of salvage with the “revolutionary” attitude of punk. Punk is more than a set of visual iconography, he writes. In the case of cyberpunk, its punkiness “had nothing to do with noirish spike-haired heroes and digital samurai, not drugs or dub. It had to do with the intersection of a close attachment to its historical present with the fact that it no longer believed in a future.”10 Similarly, for Williams, “the ‘look’ of salvagepunk should be less about how it appears, from cobbled together caravans to junk-world robots, and more about a kind of look onto that world.”11 Yet, what’s interesting and potentially paradoxical, is that the idea of “salvagepunk” that Williams champions is in fact built upon a very particular and, at this point, clichéd, set of visual tropes, despite his assertions to the contrary. A glance at the cultural examples of salvagepunk Williams lists proves this to be the case (Waterworld, Doomsday, Twelve Monkeys, and, above all, Mad Max). In fact, it is the existence of this very set of tropes that repeatedly draws me to this world. These visual tropes offer a way to “wear” a point of view, not just as a signifier of harsh fictional living conditions, some sort of apocalyptic endpoint of capitalism, or the death of the real, but as a physical manifestation of an identity -- the twenty-first-century designer as nomad, or lone warrior, or outlaw, or something, expressed visually, as form embodying content.

Cranbrook MFA thesis music portrait photography

This idea of the designer as nomad coincides with the idea of artist as “semionaut” or cartographer, as traveler, or, indeed, as salvagepunk participant. In the manifesto for the 2009 Altermodern exhibition at the Tate Gallery, curator Nicholas Bourriaud says, “Artists are responding to a new globalized perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication.”12 He continues, “In this era of the altermodern, displacement has become a method of depiction, and artistic styles and formats must henceforth be regarded from the viewpoint of diaspora, migration, and exodus.”13 While I’m not particularly interested in situating my own work within this search for a new art “movement” in the post-postmodern era, I’m interested in the parallels between artwork that involves the representation of a journey and work that is a journey, a passage through a virtual landscape of database and reference, with the artist as driver and/or passenger. In The Radicant, Bourriaud writes, “Linking signs, producing itineraries in the sociocultural space or in the history of art, the twenty-first-century artist is a semionaut, ... the surveyor of a hypertext world that is no longer the classical flat space but a network infinite in time as well as space; and not so much the producer of forms as the agent of their viatorization, of the regulation of their historical and geographic displacement.”14

The artist-as-nomad phenomenon acts both as yet another persona, as unreal as the World of Warcraft avatar, the melodramatic Gothic portrait, or the Mad Max-ian diesel/steam/gasoline/salvagepunk, and as an icon of yet another kind of place: the place of transition. It’s obvious that the transition from twentieth century to twenty-first has been marked by chaos and confusion; we’ve witnessed the changing nature of war, the decentralization of information distribution, and potentially the end of capitalism itself. The artist-as-nomad therefore represents everyone-as-nomad, as we search for a postcapital-twentieth-century identity. Salvagepunk is postapocalyptic, postclient, postmoney, postcapital, postdesign design, but it contains within itself an aesthetic, an inherent sense of “design,” whatever that may be. Since that aesthetic often relies on vehicles, gasoline, and signifiers of a previous way of life, it might also simply be a coping mechanism, based on nostalgia.


1. Hillel Schwartz. The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. Zone Books, New York, 1996. 2-3. Ibid.
4. Jasmine Benyamin. “Analog Dreams.” Models. Eds. Emily Abruzzo, Eric Ellingsen & Jonathan D. Solomon. 306090 Books, volume 11. January 2008.
5. Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2011.
6-11. Ibid.
12. Bourriaud, Nicholas. Altermodern Manifesto: Postmodernism is Dead. tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern/manifesto.htm
13. Ibid.
14. Nicolas Bourriaud. The Radicant. New York, Lukas & Sternberg, 2009.