Planning

We did a lot of planning by phone, which was time-consuming but necessary to get ourselves approximately on the same page. And we wrote countless emails – those “vision statements” shared above give evidence of conclusions that we came to at various points in the planning process, but they are only the tiny tip of the iceberg.

On the first conference call, Talia suggested that we focus our work on discussing the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a contentious fracked-gas transportation corridor that was proposed to pass very nearby the school. This was a good suggestion, as it was obviously locally relevant, and it was very easy to connect with local activists fighting the proposal. Talia initiated conversations with some of these activists, and other professors also included discussion of the “MVP” in their syllabuses. So this was clearly a required starting point for our work.

But Erin stated early and repeatedly that she felt that it was inappropriate and short-sighted to talk only about the MVP. And a little boring, too – we already did that, or something very similar, with The True Cost of Coal. At that moment the Black Lives Matter movement was strong and growing stronger, the Standing Rock battle was attracting attention all over the country, and the white supremacist reaction to these struggles was surreptitiously but very effectively organizing to push Trump into the presidency. My most recent activities had been in India and Europe, where I had witnessed a rising global trend toward neo-fascism. We decided together that it was vitally important to put the spotlight on these race & nationality issues, in addition to, or maybe even above, the fossil fuel extraction issues which were requested.

Though we found it difficult to narrow down content, the process necessary to expose and elaborate that content was relatively obvious. We knew that every part of the work/exhibit would require CURATION (vision, rules, framing, editing, refining, deciding), FACILITATION (interconnections and inviting people to participate, popular education activities, step-by-step progress), & CREATION (space, sketches, finished pieces, everything!). We knew we would use mind-maps, geographic maps, sketches, geometric shapes, silhouettes, frames, and at least a couple of big characters interacting with one another to represent the “completed concept.” We wanted the final exhibit to display all of our work leading up to these characters, but with these ideation elements surrounding and behind the major characters who would represent the “conclusions” of our discussions. We hoped that it would resemble a Beehive graphic inside-out, as if the viewers found themselves in the middle of one scene on the drawing board, surrounded by characters in conflict, and just barely able to see the research and ideation process on the distant studio walls.

We agreed on the importance of limiting our possibilities so that we could be endlessly creative within a reasonably tight frame rather than losing our focus in too many disparate directions. In attempting to define this frame, we came up with a few different titles/themes – early ones were based on simple aesthetic devices (lines & dots) that could unify different pieces even if content went in wildly different directions. We played with titles like “Connect the Lines” and “Boiling Points.” We came up with some pretty clever ideas for characters/scenes that made sense for these themes. But eventually we cast these aside and just accepted the vague “Think Tank” title because we could not come to complete agreement and did not want to feel hemmed in by overly-restrictive promises about what the finished product would look like. In retrospect, my personal preference would have been for more aesthetic prescription to guarantee cohesion and a more typical “professional artist’s exhibit” kind of look, but in the end we did achieve a really cohesive look – it just took more work and more discussion to come to it. Emergent design is never fast or easy!

Here is one elaborated description of where we were at approximately 1 month before our program would start, excerpted from an email. Keep this in mind and you will notice that the core concepts remained the same but the aesthetic elements changed significantly as we made final plans and then executed our sessions as best as we could:

To be really clear, anything we do in here will vastly exceed the initial expectations Talia expressed to me. She’s okay for it to be ‘messy’ and ‘processy’  and she’s excited that we’re bringing models of participatory concept-exploration and image-making that she’s never considered before.
Tyler and I got on the phone the other day and talked about how we can do this, and how it is and isn’t like the Bees’ other experiences making graphics. We need to provide students, teachers, and community folks with an engaging, challenging experience when they’re with us in the gallery, but at the end of the day, we’re the ones who need to run tight quality control on what goes up on the walls. To do this, we can pull from and modify our mind-mappy, workshoppy activities to be generative in the ways we need them to be, and we can also heavily curate what the whole experience and installation looks like. And we can make a solid plan, and still make the road by drawing it.
  • Curation: vision, framing, designing the rules of the games, editing/refining content and words/images as necessary, ultimate decision-making authority on everything
  • Facilitation: interconnecting classes/issues, coordinating with professors, inviting community members/activists, pop-ed exercises and games, organizing activities so they all progressively build upon one another
  • Creation: preparing the space, and…? depending on how it goes, we may need to make anything/everything- drawings, cut-outs, projections, paintings….
We talked about what we want to model directly upon TCoC graphic campaign experience – like the active listening experience of connecting with knowledgeable, affected individuals and asking-listening-retelling-
We talked about what we want to do differently – ideally we will be “curating” and “facilitating” more than “creating,” but since many students will only participate once, we will find ourselves starting from the beginning often.  We have very little time, and we dont want to waste any of it.  It will be necessary for bees to make very clear goals and a published vision statement prior to our arrival, to dictate the framing of the project and the topics, and to actively make decisions and guide emergent design.  We may like to operate by consensus within our group, and we may choose to create a “consensus-ish” atmosphere during workshops, but bees must maintain ultimate control, and edit judiciously if necessary, to ensure that we get a good finished product.
… [several lengthy paragraphs about content here] …
Riffing on this idea, Tyler and I talked about ways to use the space, some basic workshop activities, some basic tools like overhead projectors and lots of pieces of paper, to build out the concept, visually and participatorily, in layers…
– Layer 1: Cover walls with huge maps, potentially Roanoke metropolitan on one side, pipeline region on the other.  grey/thin/subtle, we can project maps and trace roads/topo/rivers, depending on scale
– Layer 2: Disperse mind-maps and other ideation activities around room, one on each wall at least, and cluster subsequently-created artifacts/words/images around them (rearrange these as necessary)
– Layer 3: In corners, store and/or hang geometric shapes/string/whatever other props we use during activities (these can be mobile and may or may not become part of the finished piece)
– Layer 4: Big and small frames can be moved around as needed, changing focus of the piece as it evolves
– Layer 5: Reproduce/enlarge best diagrams/words/details, project and paint them in compositionally strategic locations
– Layer 6: Pipeline, actually this should be on the map from the beginning, but it should be bright red or something, so that in the end it rises to the top.
– Layer 7: Characters that grow out of the mind-maps, circled by clouds of sketches/sticky notes/etc, and interact with each other in such a way that they make the whole gallery into one big scene (and viewers are inside it).  Ideally, this will be some sort of archetypal interaction, and will be painted in dark heavy lines so that characters dominate, process/sketches/details/
We talked about how this design mimics “prezi” format, framing everything with one big picture, and then you can zoom in on the detailed content (but they are so small/light that they basically disappear at a distance).  Reproducing/enlarging lines in the background is a lazy graphic designers favorite look, its cliche adobe illustrator aesthetic.  I think there is something very charming about using a prezi/illustrator aesthetic, but making it all by hand and probably using mostly low-tech projectors.


And then I traveled to Virginia a little early so that Erin and I could do a series of back-to-back cram sessions in the last few days before the semester started. Trying to make plans for a residency like this – where we were required to create a product within a hard deadline, but where we had no idea when or with whom we would be working – may be even more complex than designing a story-telling graphic in our standard way!

In the week preceding the beginning of the semester, Erin and I agreed upon a conceptual progression which we felt would guide students through a process of discovery and increasingly comprehensive understanding – Week 1: pipeline, fossil fuels, corporations; Week 2: colonization, violence, racism; Week 3: history, patterns, changes; Week 4: transformation.

Each week started on Friday, and would include two open-ended “Think Tank” session (Friday & Monday), an evening presentation open to the public (Thursday), and a variety of classes and other groups scheduled in between. We intended for the Friday Think Tank to be focused on ideation and conceptual work, so that Monday we could instruct an easy, accessible, “crafty” activity for students who just wanted to make a thing. Class visits were really unknown, because profs had expressed interest but not commitment, and they mostly insisted that we do something that was relevant to their syllabus, so we had to make those up as we went along.

We designed rigorous, high-energy, and tightly facilitated agendas for the first four Think Tank sessions:

Week 1
Essential Question: What does it look like when a legal construct (imaginary entity) has more rights and power than people, land, or water?
Friday:
1:00 – Intro: BDC and Think Tank
1:05 – Canoes [icebreaker]
1:10 – 2-3 quick Circle Games
1:15 – Mind-Map, 3 layers – Mountain Valley Pipeline →national extraction, esp fossil fuels → globalization, trade + TPP
1:35 – Mini-Lecture: Extraction Map
1:45 – Independent Research: Add to map, colored stickers
1:55 – Small Groups: Mind-Map, extrapolate from previous – Actors? Beneficiaries? Victims?
2:05 – Bus Stop, Identify and write repeat concepts
2:10 – Full Group: Assemble lists from above and Mind-Map: Opposing Forces
2:20 – Symbols Brainstorm
2:35 – BREAK: Spectrogram, 2-3 questions, trace shadows
2:50 – Full Group: Rearrange Mind-Map, opposing forces to sentences, symbols to auto-composition
3:00 – Self-critique
3:05 – Mini-Lecture: Corporate Rights/”Personhood”
3:10 – Metaphor Push-ups
3:15 – Small Groups: Symbol Brainstorm
3:25 – Work Time: Cut Silhouettes
3:35 – Full Group: Compose Silhouettes
3:45 – Self-Critique, Session Assessment
3:55 – Closing
Saturday & Sunday:
Curation, and make Templates for Monday Activities
Monday:
1:00 – Intro: BDC, Think Tank, review of last session
1:15 – Pairs: Back-to-back Story-to-picture (story about a special place?)
1:25 – Full Group: Discuss and List: Elements of Design, Elements of Story
1:35 – Intro Geometric Shapes
1:45 – Small Groups: Make and Compose Geometric Shapes
2:00 – Full Group: Big Assemblage – Make “Corporate Person” out of template shapes (open-ended, continue until finished)
Week 2
Essential Question: What does it look like when there is economic incentive to manufacture criminals?
Friday:
1:00 – Intro: BDC and Think Tank
1:05 – Intro Games (?)
1:15 – Cont. Intro, Mini-Lecture: quick review corporate rights, “Why havent we stopped them?”  Explain “divide & conquer,” colonization cycle: Invade – Take – Make – Expand – Repeat
1:25 – Spiral History Map: name local historical events that describe this cycle
1:35 – Comic-Strip Story-Telling, how-to
1:40 – Individual: make 3-frame story from 3 of the points on spiral history
1:50 – Full Group: Share, comment
1:55 – Intro & discuss “Framing”
2:00 – Discuss “Power of Story-telling” and “Myths & Myth-making”
2:05 – Forum Theater: select 1-2 of our 3-frame stories, represent through pose or gesture, try alternatives, etc
2:15 – Mind-Map, “Body” – Construction of Whiteness, “swords and shields” of privilege
2:30 – Mini-Lecture: Whiteness as Myth, constructed for purposes of colonization.  Deeper corp rights history -> 14th amendment, slavery, prisons
2:40 – BREAK: Spectrograms, 2-3 questions about prisons, trace shadows
2:50 – Full Group: Mind-Map, Timeline – Prison Pipeline
3:00 – Pairs: Yes, and…
3:05 – Small Groups: Symbols Brainstorm
3:15 – Work Time: Make a 4-5 frame story about one episode in the prison pipeline
3:35 – Full Group: Share, discuss
3:45 – Self-Critique, Session Assessment
3:55 – closing
Saturday & Sunday
Curation, and layout/paint parameters on wall, Templates for Monday Activities
Monday:
1:00 – Intro: BDC, Think Tank, review of last session
1:15 – Pairs: acting-posing something – body language
1:20 – Individual: make accordion-folded longer stories
1:30 – Full Group: Mind-map and symbol brainstorm, institutional racism “landscape”
1:50 – review comic story-telling, elements of design, elements of story
2:00 – Small Groups: Assemble “comic strips” into frames made by prison bars in “Dehumanization Machine” (working title).  open-ended, continue until finished

 

However, the demands of emergent design pretty much threw these agendas out the window. Many of our expectations were not met, and the following chapters will describe how we reacted and adjusted to the needs and capabilities of the students.

 

NEXT: Olin Gallery exhibit

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