updates from the leftmost land

I’ve spent the previous few weeks or so exploring online historic archives of regional maps and photographs going back the last hundred and fifty plus years. I’ve been collecting these various materials and archiving it myself. Meanwhile I’ve been meeting with various faculty members and discussing our ambitions. With Warren Sack, I am part of a small group that’s exploring the idea of narrative intelligence. For some fifteen years Warren has been invested in making computers tell stories. He has given us the challenge of writing the “grammar” of what we as individuals want to communicate with our current research. Needless to say our conversations tend to push my mind in a really productive way.

Sometime before the quarter got started I received an email from an undergraduate student from the film and digital media department. In the email Dan expressed that he wanted more hands on experience “doing something.” We’ve managing to get him independent credit to work with me for the quarter. While riding the bus, I ran into another undergraduate student named Dan (but for the purposes of distinction we’ll refer to him as Daniel). Daniel was in some previous classes I had TAed. I told him about the idea of joining us and he jumped on board. Initially to make this happen I was instructed to write a syllabus laying out the progression of their time on a week by week basis. Writing a syllabus proved to be a meaningful exercise in rethinking the pragmatics of what we are actually doing.

On my own I have been meeting with Dee Hibbert-Jones, I’m collaborating with her on the a few different efforts, one such effort is the start of a research center for art as social practice. Under this effort we care preparing a project called talk sandwich, that is a lunchtime activity of using the sandwich as a metaphor for arts education in the university. With Dee’s background in sculpture, her perspective has helped me reevaluate the materiality of my practice. How will ideas take shape? What will the form of my strategies look like? Simultaneously I’ve been TAing for the “3D foundation” art class. This has energized my curiosity with notions of space, place, or site and situation. Down this line of thinking I have been reading the philosophic geographer Ti-Fu Tuan’s book Space and Place. There is a section in the book that uses the body and our instinctual spatial sense as a way of considering knowledge.

During this time, in addition to exploring online archives, I have been going on walks surrounding three community gardens. During these walks I’ve usually had a camera with me and have been using it to look at the physical forms and patterns of the neighborhoods. 

Yesterday I met with Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin. He was amazingly accessible, he literally came over to my home for an hour an half discussion on local politics. In preparation for this meeting he pointed me to a book called “The Left Most City: Power and Progressive politics in Santa Cruz” At the library I found the book siting next to Rotkin’s PhD dissertation about local Santa Cruz politics from 1970-1982. The book goes into some interesting detail about the various groups (socialist-welfare, socialist-feminists, and environmentalist) and how they found common ground in creatively crafting Santa Cruz policy that was in antagonistic negotiation with the growth coalition and its legacy of business leaders. Mixed with personal stories and anecdotes the conversation with Rotkin loosely sketched out the defining issues and strategies of the last 30 plus years of regional politics. Following the conversation I went on a walk across town and noticed that I looked at the city in slightly different way. . . understanding the places I was passing through as embodying the narrative of choice, struggle, and creativity of Santa Cruz.


manholes from a recent walk


The following morning I met with Dan and Daniel at my home. Over coffee we briefly discussed the issues I had uncovered through the readings and the dialogue with Rotkin. Specifically we talked about how the progressive coalition leveraged a number of point, most notably local agriculture as a way of combating further development and growth. We then walked to the nearby community garden. Arriving at the garden marked the beginning of our adventure. We ended up talking with a wife and husband that were visiting a friend. After talking about who they were, she mentioned the lighthouse field as a special place, so we decided to walk to the field. At the field we found two women training as boxers with each other. We observed them boxing for a moment, then continued along until we came up to a man that was sitting at the park table. We listened to how he was “loosing faith with humanity one person at a time.” He then proceeded to tell us about his faith in Christ. Eventually we parted ways, and encountered a number of folks coming and going in the nearby parking lot. Back into the neighborhood we met a man working on his motorcycles. We talked with him for sometime about his passion for bikes and the last ten-fifteen years of his life.

In total our encounters took up the better part of three hours. The community gardens have become a geographic focal point as both a metaphor and literal expression of the wider human ecology of Santa Cruz the place, and its unique attempt at rethinking ideas of growth. We are now looking into soliciting interviews with the gardeners themselves and more encounters with the neighbors adjacent to the parks. All of this material is being collected and turned into a variety of media, printed map-collages for each garden neighborhood, distributed video installations in and about the garden neighborhoods, and an online map of the findings.

On a leisurely walk later in the day, I was thinking about how all of this can be discussed in relation to Warren’s challenge of thinking about the grammar of one’s project, for the purpose of authoring a system that could dynamically generate an infinite number of variations. Answering this question has lead me to think about the situation in a number of ways. First I’ve conceptualized our efforts as a kind of social cartography that attempts to blur cultural and civic possibilities of media.  From possibly more of a formalist perspective I’ve been thinking about Ti-Fu Tuan writing and concepts as a possible grammatical strategy for mapping out notions of growth and the various political coalitions, affinities, and antagonisms along side the personal stories and anecdotes we encounter on the street. From a more experiential perspective I’ve began to think of process as developing a map of pedagogical praxis outside the walls of the classroom. This trajectory of thought is directly connected to the whole de-materializing of the art object line of thinking that is often discussed within current art as social practice circles. How this “grammar” is actually written in JSON for Warren’s AI planners is an experiment I am looking forward to jumping into.


landscape from walk


Simultaneously during these walks I have been coming across a number of other thoughts. While walking along mission street, I came upon an empty field that had a large rental sign at the edge of the sidewalk. The thought is to cover the rental sign with a new slick sign for the “eco-friendly state of the art laundromat” and have some clotheslines and a few water buckets and washboards scattered about behind it. The laundromat would be marketed as being open for use during certain hours so people could actually gather and wash their laundry together. I see this gesture as being related to David Robbins’s notion of concrete comedy, and my ongoing interest in domestic space and the habits and material that define it.

I feel like things are moving along nicely, I’m looking forward to continuing with an engaged exploration of town and its many personalities. As for working with Dan and Daniel, I’m excited to refine our sense of method, while remaining open to the creative tangents that will naturally expose themselves along the way. Specific to the encounters we’ve been having with people I think the idea of method can be talked about in relation to idea of non-directional listening. Of course we establish a foundation to the exchange, but how we respond to where they choose to take it is where non-directional listening comings into play. I have some anxiety surrounding the effectiveness of how this material will actualize itself. How to communicate the layers of entangled themes and situations? But it will work itself out as a natural part of the process.


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