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Materiality: Conceptualizing and Designing Your Project

Always design a thing by considering its next larger context -- a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan. ~ Eero Saarinen


Begin designing your work by thinking about your primary interests. If your project involves your interests, it will already involve something you have the expertise and emotional excitement with. For example, if you are interested in communication between humans and animals, a work that involves these elements and issues is much more likely to be driven by your intellectual excitement with the ideas surrounding trans-species communication.

It is wise to start projects by researching the area to develop ideas, seek knowledge and to determine what already exists. Broad research in advance of your project will prevent those that do not know history from repeating it. Your research may include the media arts broadly through books and journals are recommended researching and reading tools. Look at and read scientific journals that have the latest developments in particular areas of expertise to become knowledgeable in that field. In both online and printed publications, you will find much inspiration and contextual information to further develop your ideas. Of course, the web is a great place for hyperlinked reading and is excellent as promoting particular kinds of search oriented to the different ways you choose to search. It is wise to use the google alerts for example to have readings sent to you each day. Do cross associated google searches to find conflation based logic.

In this research phase, you will also discover processes that you should become familiar with and lingo/terminology of the area of expertise that is important. Professionals working in the field will be far more willing to engage you and your ideas, and perhaps even offer help if you can speak their language.

I used to read science fiction for inspiration though recently the developments in science and art have been so spectacular and strange that the fiction is no longer my greatest inspiration. Just reading publications like Scientific American, Wired, and the New Scientist, I discover interesting and engaging research that stimulates the imagination.

Sometimes, asking strange questions or posing thought experiments can allow you to find some imaginative and wild ideas. The artist Rube Goldberg, for example, was known for asking wacky questions and receiving equally wacky answers that would inspire drawings. Goldberg gets his think-tank working and evolves the simplified pencil-sharpener. He also became well known for his humorous inventions, which critique a society overly consumed with solving problems with technological inventions. His parodies on sharpening a pencil, shown below, seem especially more relevant in our complex, technologically mediated environments.


Simplified Pencil Sharpener by Rube Goldberg. Open window (A) and fly kite (B). String (C) lifts small door (D) allowing mothes (E) to escape and eat red flannel shirt (F). As the weight of shirt becomes less, shoe (G) steps on the switch (H), which heats electric iron (I) and burns hole in pants (J). Smoke (K) enters the hole in the tree (L), smoking out opossum (M) which jumps into the basket (N), pulling rope (O) and lifting cage (P), allowing woodpecker (Q) to chew wood from a pencil (R), exposing lead. Emergency knife (S) is always handy in case opossum or the woodpecker gets sick and can't work.


As you conceptualize your project, try and think about your unique perspective in relation to your ideas, and think about how you can best communicate your idea to your audience.

Remember the wise words of the media artist Laurie Anderson, “One of my jobs as an artist is to make contact with the audience, and it has to be immediate. They don’t come back later to look at the details in the background.”

Try and be as original as possible. With art and invention, original ideas and ways of seeing will have a lasting impact. Ask unique questions and unique answers may follow. Trust your ability to ask these questions.

Try and work to see from the perspective of another thing or person. The artist Hachiya Kazuhiko did a work that allowed one to see from the perspective of the other. The Inter DisCommunication Machine 1993/2002 allows you to see through the eyes of the other person when you wear these machines.


Inter  Discommunication Machine by Hachiya Kazuhiko, 1993/2002 photo: Kurokawa Mikio


This forcibly puts you in the other's place and in the process obscures the border between the identities of two people. It also allows you to consider modes of observation beyond the self.

Delivering on all these possible ways of thinking about making new art begs the question what might some approaches be to make a new work? Well in making art and invention you will need to engage both your creative and engineering minds within the self.

Engineer consultant David Goldberg has a systemic approach to creating and thinking about ways of engineering things and since artists and engineers often share the same engineering aptitudes you will have to engage both sides of your brain.

His philosophy is well captured in the graphic below from a TEDx talk he gave.