Notes from the Labyrinth series
I’ve been telling myself and my students that I’m going to write a blog post about the amazing work they’ve done and the rewarding conversations we’ve had in my last two Build Your Own Labyrinth constraint workshops but I find that there’s more than I could possibly cover in a single blog post. Instead, I’ve decided to start a series of short, periodically-published, “reports” on particular students’ work, certain constraints we found interesting, and maybe some more general remarks about creating art using constraints.
Report #1: Jason Robinson’s one-two punch
I’ll start with a multifaceted example of how arbitrary constraints can inspire creativity and how the hothouse atmosphere of a residency or workshop can bring impressive invention and resourcefulness out of people.
During my recent residency at the ACA, cartoonist Jason Robinson decided to attempt a “terina” comic. This is a fairly straightforward structure based on the idea of permutations of a number of words, images, or themes. Here’s a diagram along with the elements Jason used for his comic:
In other words, given a nine-panel comic, each panel has to feature one of its three elements (A=line, B=curtain, C=light) in a literal or metaphorical way. It’s a form that forces you to re-use the same raw materials while finding a new way to contextualize them each time. The result thus has a built-in rhythm and poetic structure to it (the form is derived from the sestina and in poetry is sometimes referred to as a tritina). Here is what Jason came up with:
It’s interesting how Jason found a different spin for each iteration of his repeating elements. For example, the word “line” is first represented as a line of cocaine, later in the expression “your ass is on the line” and finally as a kind of anti-punchline where Punch appears to draw a blank onstage. Similarly, “light” appears as a word in a balloon, as the flame of a lighter (and the verb “to light”), then as a spotlight. If you spend some time, you’ll find a few other repetitions with variations on this page, including the color scheme.
So: a creative and successful implementation of this constraint, I would argue. But what happened next really blew my mind.
The next day we looked at Lars Von Trier’s wonderful film The Five Obstructions. I know LVT has earned himself quite the bad reputation in recent years but there’s a lot of humor and warmth in this documentary about him challenging his mentor Jorgen Leth to remake a short film five times, each time following a list of “obstructions” or constraints. I had each of my associate artists come up with at least three “obstructions” for their neighbors, encouraging them to be as perverse as possible—in my experience as a teacher (and artist), making the constraints easy or obvious doesn’t lead to interesting results.
Ken Niimura delivered the goods with three simple but potentially devastating rules:
This means that Jason was required to remake his first comic in a single panel which was to be a closeup—bringing the possibility of narrative or movement to a standstill—and focusing on the stage director, who is not the main character of the comic.
There was a scene of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as each artist read through the fiendish obstructions imposed by their peers. It’s always the most fun part of this assignment… for me, anyway!
But everyone went back to their cubicles and got to work. The next day, Jason had this page to show us:
I have a favorite moment in The Five Obstructions where Jorgen Leth is seen wading in a swimming pool in Havana, having just figured out the solution to a particularly devilish rule he’s been given (namely that every shot in his film can only last half a second). With an air of triumph, he declares, “It’s a paper tiger!” When Jason sat down to work on his obstructed remake, he must have had a similar moment when he realized that he could use narration boxes as a way to re-tell his story in a way that is faithful to the original page while adding a twist ending that thoroughly changes the tone from one of abject failure to one of overwhelming triumph. The close-up becomes a photo in a newspaper—another clever solution that lets Jason show us Punch the clown, thus thumbing his nose at his vanquished obstructor, Ken!
Notice that Jason could have put the text into the newspaper and let us read it there. But by breaking the copy out into narration boxes he adds a dynamic, visual rhythm to the text while evoking the fact that the stage director is reading the article to himself (we are experiencing the scene through his eyes). Note, too, how if you skim the text you’re likely to be misled: you see words like “stunned silence,” “massacre,” “curtains,” and you assume Punch’s show was a disaster. Even the headline, “PUNCH, OUT!” can be read more than one way.
Finally, if you read closely you will see that Jason succeeded in repeating the terina structure within the newspaper article as well.
(EDIT: you can watch video of Jason reading and discussing these comics in front of an audience here. It’s part of InsideOut, the final presentation of works done during the ACA residency.)
What is Build Your Own Labyrinth?
“Build Your Own Labyrinth” is the name I’ve given to my recent workshops and classes devoted to creating art using constraints or rules. It comes from a quote attributed to Raymond Queneau, who described the members of Oulipo, the literary group which serves as my primary inspiration for this work, as “rats who propose to build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”
I’ve taught two iterations of this class, one online via the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ continuing education program and another in person during a 3-week residency this past summer at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
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