Jorge Luis Borges wrote that we each have three themes that guide our creative life. I don’t remember what his were exactly but I’m going to guess labyrinths, knife fights and memory. If you don’t know of him, I would start with Borges: Collected Fictions , which is certainly worthwhile. I’ve wondered if I have themes and what they might be. I’m almost certain one has to do with a visceral feeling of scale and density.
I have two strong memories from childhood related to this. The first is of a recurring nightmare, which has defied proper explanation for all these years (although I have found a few people that understand me immediately). It isn’t a visual dream so much as simultaneity of incongruous sensations: the feeling of something very small or insubstantial overlapped with the feeling of something massive and terrible. The closest visual metaphor I have found is that awful screensaver which auto-generates a system of overlapping pipes. I can get at that feeling if I imagine myself in the middle of an infinite volume of these tubes trying to hold onto a single piece that keeps vomiting more and more segments.
The second memory is of an evening when I visited a newspaper factory. I was very young; that age when doing anything away from home in the evening was thrilling. There was a huge metal drum that spun so fast that the just-inked newspaper pages were a blur of streaked grey. I could feel that drum. The floor shook. The noise was enormous. I imagined that if that drum became unhinged it would tear a neat-violent path through the whole city. It was awesome, in the old sense of the word. But then I looked down at my watch. And I saw that tiny little second hand.
The fact that those two moments could coexist was overwhelming. Almost nauseating. And I am drawn to this feeling in the same way that I can’t help biting a sore lip.
The Earth Sandwich is one example. Tiny bread. Big Earth. Another less straightforward example is the absurdist game “every second counts”. The increasing stretches of time and anticipation vs. the small gesture of the mouse button. I find this juxtaposition of scale in things that make me laugh. For example the crude and silly joke: “I have to go poop.” stated seriously followed by an utterance of the word “poop”. It only works for me if the sound is small. A little throw away.
On a more practical note:
I use scale as a way to brainstorm ideas around a theme. I try to imagine certain elements of the theme at extreme scale to see if it generates ideas. Dick Cheney in a wheel chair at the inauguration. Giant wheelchair. Armor plated wheelchair. Aretha Franklin’s hat as bullet proof protection. Aretha Franklin’s hat shrunk by the dry cleaners. Tiny. A tiny wheelchair just for your hand – imagine walking stooped over dragging a tiny wheelchair. A huge wheelchair with tiny wheels. A tiny wheelchair with huge wheels. An inauguration where no one showed up. An entire podium filled with senators and dignitaries and only a single person clapping in the audience.
I am also wary of too much reliance on scale, particularly a reliance on iteration. Iteration is often used to bolster weak ideas. For example I once thought it would be cool to animate each letter of the alphabet. “Each letter of the alphabet” is a reliance on iteration, and without anything beyond “animation” holding the project together, I petered out at the letter “I”. The same thing holds with projects that are framed with “Don’t worry, it will be awesome once there are a lot of them (contributions, for example). This usually means the project has been inadequately framed. The best contribution projects are like fractals – the beauty/interest of the entire project can be captured in a single entry.
This reminds me of something else relating to expectations for a contribution-based project. I think I will pick this up in the next post.