Active Erasure

My favorite professor, Al DeCredico, used to begin his fall semester foundation year drawing course with a strange assignment: make a drawing in the shower. He’d deliver this assignment after reading aloud a short essay about drawing by the critic Donald Kuspit that he loved so much there were always copies of it somewhere, usually tucked between student drawings he collected in an enormous steel flat file cabinet in the corner of the studio.

Now, this would be day one. Moment one, really. A couple of dozen freshmen would have just gathered in this big, open room in an old mill building, carrying — among their standard issue person-sized black leather portfolios, extra-large pads of newsprint and boxes of charcoal — their expectations for what it meant to be at art school. What it meant to study under a real artist. And then in he’d stroll, looking like a man who had just slept on the street, and without even looking up, unfold a worn copy of that essay and read it. When he was done, he’d fold it back up again and put it in his pocket and, finally looking up at the crowd gathered in that room, say, “I want you to go make a drawing in the shower.”

And that would be it. Day one of a weekly drawing studio meant to last eight hours, over in about ten minutes. This catalyzed a predictable division of those students who immediately adored Al from those outraged by his negligence. Where were the nude models? The circle of easels? The rigor? What did we buy all this charcoal for? His fans, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine anything more art-school than the freedom to interpret an ambiguous assignment. Either way, a couple of dozen confused eighteen-year-olds would file out of the room, most too timid to even ask for clarification. When the last one was out and the door shut behind them, an impish grin would cross Al’s face and when he saw that you noticed, his mouth would open wide to accommodate an eruption of laughter. He loved this performance.

The next week, the students would return with their drawings. They’d pin them up on the walls, anticipating some sort of critique — that’s what you do at art school, right? But they wouldn’t get it. The first thing Al had them do was cut their drawings in half, exchange one half with another student, and then tape the two together. There was much outrage. He was asking them to destroy their art! For some students, though, this would be a blessing in disguise. There was always at least one kid who didn’t get it — who made a drawing of a shower, not in one — and a critique would have exposed their misunderstanding. Instead of embarrassment, they got angst. They’d spend the next hour reluctantly making new drawings out of their post-surgical pages. Then, he’d stop them. Then he’d make them do it again. Cut in half the other way. Exchange. Outrage. Reluctant making. Repeat.

After about four cycles of this, Al would declare it over. The students would all look at him, desperate at this point for an explanation. He’d say, “A good drawing isn’t made by what you put in it, but by what you take out.” Al didn’t talk much to his students, especially early on in the semester. But when he did, what was said was memorable.

Al had designed this lesson to stop the students from making “art” — to arrest their egos and loosen their grip on the drawing process — and let, as he would say, “drawings become what they want to be.”

For some students, that sounded like new-age mumbo-jumbo and always would. They came for a classical education and Al was offering anything but. For others, they were all in. I remember that moment, and I was somewhere in between. But by the end of the semester, I had begun to experience what he was talking about. It took weeks for me to let my guard down — to just let go and not make something that I’d already seen in my mind, to freely make marks and messes. Because the real drawing took shape when I began to notice things in that mess, began to arrange them, and most importantly, began to take things out. When Al talked about good drawings being made by “what you take out,” he wasn’t just making an argument for restraint. He was talking about active erasure.

Active erasure might sound like just another way of saying “editing,” but it’s more than that. Though a piece of writing is almost always made better by taking things out, it’s not typically the case that meaning for the reader is shaped as much by the words that are not there than the ones that are. In a visual context, taking something out creates negative space, something your brain perceives in the same way it does things with form. And so erasing is just as much an act of “drawing” as making a mark with a pencil.

While reading a short essay from Jenny Odell on How to Grow an Idea the other day, something she wrote immediately took me back to Al’s classroom. She was writing about the role of things other than our active attention over our thinking, and specifically, about how those things wield much greater influence over our thoughts, perceptions, and ideas than we might imagine. She writes:

“Intelligence and thought are things to be found both in and around the self…Studies in cognitive science have suggested that we do not encounter the environment as a static thing, nor are we static ourselves. As Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch put it in The Embodied Mind (a study of cognitive science alongside Buddhist principles): ‘Cognition is not the representation of a pre-given world by a pre-given mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind.’ Throughout the book, the authors build a model of cognition in which mind and environment are not separate, but rather co-produced from the very point at which they meet.”

Making a drawing in the shower wasn’t something Al devised simply to challenge incoming art students’ assumptions about what art-making looks like. It acknowledged the role that non-local forces have on our thinking and created a situation in which young students — already overloaded with preconceived ideas about what art is and what it means to make it — would be more able to truly discover something about drawing and begin thinking differently.

Perhaps there’s a simpler way to think of the relationship between mind and environment, or at least one a bit easier to integrate into our own thinking and experience now. Perhaps we need to enlarge our mental model of our own minds. The mind is so active and complex that its “background processes” — physiological sensory input like sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes — are, individually, so much finer, and in the aggregate, so much grander than our own conscious thought, that any thought we think is actually their output, not “ours” in the conscious sense. An effect, not a cause.

Here’s Odell again:

“Ideas are intersections between ourselves and something else. Like consciousness itself, [ideas] are emergent properties, and thinking might be more participation than it is production.”

Al certainly wasn’t the first teacher to create assignments that radically pushed students into conscious collaboration with outside forces. In music conservatories, learning to hear is just as important as learning to play an instrument or sing, and for musicians who thrive in improvisational contexts, they learn to allow their intentions to be shaped more by outside forces than internal ones. There are surely analogs to this in many other contexts. But I bet it’s far easier to get this concept (and even pursue it) in an arts context than elsewhere. Think of your work now, whatever it is. What would it mean to let go of it? What would it mean to erase something you’ve done in order to create space for something that comes from someone or someplace else?

Perhaps more importantly, if this is how our brains work at their subconscious levels, what does it mean that we instinctually resist it when it comes to our conscious thought and choices? What might we unlock in reality if we could build the habit of seeking participation rather than production? Something to think about. Or not…




Heavy Rotation

Something about Odell’s essay reminded me of Amusement Parks on Fire, who I lost track of a decade ago. So I pulled up the album of theirs that I remembered — the self-titled one — and I still really love it. I’d forgotten that Michael Feerick wrote and recorded everything on that record a la Dave Grohl on the first Foo Fighters record, or, apparently, Billy Corgan all the time. But there’s a line in the second track of Feerick’s debut record that has stuck with me: “I forged all the answers, and now I want more. I won’t step back and watch what I paid for.” It just totally sums up this idea of our egos resisting the influence of not-us on us. We think we want the answers — the truth — but maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t actually want to see things for what they are, because that would make demands on us that we’re not willing (or able) to meet. Anyway, come for the million layers of distorted guitar, stay for the subtle philosophy.

On Screen

Lost in Vegas is the YouTube channel of two guys who give “real reactions” to songs they’ve never heard before. I love the joy these guys bring to what they do. They always open their videos by saying, “shout out to all the free-thinkers,” which is the kind of thing that could easily lose its meaning when said hundreds of times, but they really mean it. Watch them react to this Tool song or this song by The Deftones and you’ll see what I mean.

Recent Tabs

More than half your body isn’t human, so add that to the existential angst you might be feeling after reading this post. Researchers at MIT have made a wearable device that can hear the thoughts in your head. Do we finally understand how acupuncture works? Shh! Don’t tell them there’s no magic in design thinking! “The web is like the ocean. Once it’s full of plastic and the coral reefs are dead, will it make a difference that Google did that to it?” — Dave Winer

Written by Christopher Butler on April 20, 2018,   In Essays

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