Author Archives: Micha Dugan

About Micha Dugan

20, perhaps

Cultural Hijack: [Scholar’s Library]

On the same day, I read both the beginning of Beautiful Trouble by Andrew Boyd and a piece assigned by guest artist, Mandy Morrison. Beautiful Trouble is a guide for artists who want to work in socially, visually, and performatively effective ways. The piece Mandy Morrison assigned was “Dancing with Twitter,” a piece in The Mobile Story written by Susan Kozel, Mia Keinanen and Leena Rouhiainen. Their performance, entitled “IntuiTweet,” (Farman, 81) explores the kinesthetic sensations of movement as transmitted over Twitter and realtime re-enacted by other collaborators. Beautiful Trouble’s piece on “Media-Jacking,” written by Patrick Reinsborough, Doyle Canning and Joshua Kahn Russell, discusses using an opposition’s media power and time to create a disruption in favor of your cause or message (Boyd, 72). In light of the recent rise of politicians using Twitter as their broadcast, I thought it would be appropriate to take back Twitter. This idea solidified as I reread Daniel Dennett’s Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination; one quote about replication stuck in my mind: “a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library” (Dennett, 126). That day, I started the Twitter “Scholar’s Library.”

twitter bg

Since then, Scholar’s Library has been a project that I have worked on intermittently, adding to the Library over several months. Each tweet is composed in a consistent format, both visually and performatively. My initial goal for Scholars Library is to:

  1. Interact with people, semi-organically in physical and digital space
  2. Detail an aspect of who these people are, and therefore how to read their contribution
  3. Produce a ‘fact,’ whether factual or otherwise

For a visual format, I wanted to take each of these into consideration and develop a finished piece that was both different from the physical interactions and exactly the same in its intention. I created a simple formula for this:


The consistent performance aspect was initially unintentional. As I began speaking to people to create tweets, I found that I was very nervous and often couldn’t quite think of what to say. I noticed after the third person that in my nervous nature, I had repeated the same three questions every time:

  • Name? This is going online, so you can use your name-name or an alias.
  • Someone who you admire? It doesn’t have to be the person you admire most, just, someone.
  • What is a fact you know?

These questions acted as a small interview, which in turn formed the tweets.

The project continued as a simple side project to indulge my own creativity until mid-November. At this point, by the recommendation of my class, I began to focus more on Scholar’s Library as a conference project. This is when the library entered the real world. I developed and re-developed the presentation of the Library several times: initially, I considered projecting tweets onto the windows of the Sarah Lawrence Esther Rauschenbush Library during our finals week as a playful distraction, similar to the “99% bat signal” of Occupy Wall Street fame (Boyd, 273). However, as we did not have the ability to project on these windows (yet!), I had to rethink the physical aspect of the Library. I considered the qualities of the Library, the nature of the short-form tweet, and why I even wanted to present my Library in the campus library. Finally, I realized that what I wanted from the large-scale projection was two things: visibility and legitimacy. What is more visible and legitimate than the thousands of books in a college library? I started to rebrand the visual components of the twitter page. There were several versions of the Scholar’s Library icon. The basic design modified the book logo from Library of Congress, as it is an open source image. The color scheme also remained consistent as I intentionally chose a very stable and intellectual deep blue and white. The versions of the icon happened because, firstly, I could not decide what to put in the book! First it was a question mark, to reference the semi-factual nature of the project; after that, it became a simple S, for scholar; by the end, the symbols I chose were quotation marks, to honor the spoken component.   scholars lib blue circle scholars lib no bg scholars lib blue In critique, my class reminded me to consider one thing: replication. The origins of both the Dennett quote and Scholar’s Library was theories of how knowledge replicates. Replication is what lead me to the final icon, a book on a beautiful descending sea of identical books, fading as they moved farther and farther from their ‘source material.’


With my new digital digs, I planned. I wanted to be sure that I distributed the tweets at a time when there would be high circulation of atypical books. Of course, the perfect time was our impending finals, when approximately 1,300 students rush to the library to write papers on niche subjects they moderately care about. The next issue was “where.” Deciding which books to store the tweets in became a sort of game. But again, I returned to the many knowledgeable artists of Beautiful Trouble: “Stay on message” (Boyd, 178). My focus wasn’t about windows, or finals, or even the delicious chai that they never have in the library cafe. It was about the process of learning and replicating knowledge. Therefore, it seemed most appropriate to install the tweets in a series of books with language or fact related to the tweet. This was paired with opening the Scholar’s Library page on any available computer in the library and setting it as the homepage, giving the Library both a digital and physical preference. At the installation, there were 20 tweets in the library. This resulted in 80 books.          lib map unnamed Installation was hilarious and taxing. Over the course of four hours, myself and my collaborator Wynn Heyward scoured the shelves for our 80 books. The list spanned all sections of the library, intentionally, and featured many silly or strange titles. Several students stared as we scampered through the library, tweets in hand, placing the small slips of paper logo-out in the books and turning them so the tweets stuck out in the aisle. There were a few books we could not find in this process; most were replaced with nearby alternates, but some were shuffled in with the extra tweets I had printed earlier. At the end, these extra tweets were positioned at the front desk, and after a long day of scholarly adventures, we left. slips books There are very few things I would do differently about this project, as I intend to do many different things with it in the future. I consider this the Opening Day for Scholar’s Library. It was successful in that I gained a few followers and noticed a few slips gone; it was unsuccessful in that I wished I had had more tweets, more help, and a generally larger production. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and plan to continue on with the Library. If anyone has a contribution, find this Scholar and we will let the world know.  

Cultural Hijack: [The Cocoon]

For many, many weeks, the only question people would ask me was: “so, how’s the cocoon?”

Admittedly, because of this, the cocoon felt successful before I had even installed it: people were talking about it, and that is the first step to public art.

This all began in a class as we discussed Heimbold, the visual arts building at Sarah Lawrence College. Heimbold has three intensely obvious characteristics: it is built with steel, concrete, and glass; the space is large and intimidating, with little emotional or physical access to the building itself; and, much like its typical occupants, Heimbold is suffocatingly white.

We framed Heimbold as a problem to solve. How do we work with and against the building itself to create successful, affective art? One student commented that “your eyes are welcome, but your body is not.” This comment is what created the cocoon.


Initially, the cocoon was a hug machine. Taken from another project series, the Hug Machine extends from the walls of the building it is installed in, and envelops the participant in a comforting, human-like hug. However, there was something incomplete about the Hug Machine. Andrew Boyd, editor of Beautiful Trouble (a text I read towards the end of my time with the cocoon), writes quite smartly in his manual to good art: “praxis makes perfect” (Boyd, 162). After trying to digitally construct The Hug Machine, it became clear that certain elements were more important to me than others; the softness, enclosure, and positive intent of the Hug Machine were what really appealed to me.
At a loss and needing a project, I reviewed some of the texts from the semester. I spent 90 minutes in a bubble bath rereading Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, a 1928 classic on the nature of Public Affairs, business, and the public. In Propaganda, Bernays gives several stories of companies working with the public in a sleight of hand; they would promote their projects through public works, contests, and academic studies. (Bernays, 70-79). He explains why this is justified:
“The development of public opinion for a cause or line of socially constructive action may very often be the result of a desire on the part of the propagandist to meet successfully his own problem which the socially constructive cause would further. And by doing so he is actually fulfilling a social purpose in the broadest sense.” (Bernays, 73-74)
Bernays’ idea of social uplift or change happening in conjunction with and for the intent of business made me think. Earlier, we also studied Nikeplatz, a piece by Mattes & Mattes.



Nikeplatz was created as a reaction to people placing company logos, and therefore brand identities, both on their body through clothes and in their spaces through advertising. However, the piece itself was simply a performance of Mattes & Mattes unveiling a building-sized sculpture of the Nike logo in a public park and interviewing passing people about it. This proved much more effective than a simple statement like “corporate logos are bad” or “where are you putting brands?” Because Mattes & Mattes’ piece was not necessarily the construction itself but rather the reactions, people felt that their opinion was their own, and in natural reaction to the over-the-top commodity occupation. Much like Bernays suggests, the most potent propaganda isn’t direct, but conscious of how to influence social dynamic. I desperately wanted to join in on the fun.  

The Hug Machine’s redesign involved three necessary components: soft materials, a feeling of enclosure, and an enforced distance between participants and Heimbold itself. My mission was to redevelop Heimbold as a space, sneakily, so that people would feel both welcomed and comforted in a typically hostile space. The combination of these key elements are what lead me to the cocoon. Cocoons wrapped their occupants in soft, shapely domes that were produced naturally in high-bug/butterfly/worm areas. The metaphor of nature invading a deeply removed and unnatural space excited me, as did the easy recognition of the material and shape. It was going to be wonderful.

Silkworm_&_cocoon chrysalis_macro_close_up_cocoon_pupa_metamorphosis_transform_cycle-419018

For the cocoon, I studied many naturally occurring cocoons. The shape that appealed to me most (and seemed most iconic) was the shape of a moth’s cocoon; the silkworm’s cocoon had a texture that fit my ideal balance of softness and ephemeral weightlessness; finally, in considering how humans should interact with it, I referenced Nacho Carbonell’s Cocoon Seats, an installation that allows people to interact from the shoulders down with their heads in a cocoon. Although I wanted a singular experience for the cocoon, the way that Carbonell creates a simultaneously singular and social experience greatly appealed to me.


After a consultation with our fearless art leader, Angela Ferraiolo, I began experimenting with fabric. This featured a bucket of cornstarch, several fabric samples from the internet, and a tiny knife. My process was testing each fabric (felt, cotton, wool, and raw cotton) for two things: rigidity and fluffiness. I distressed each fabric by sliding the small knife into the surface layers of the fabric and pulling up small tufts; this proved most successful for felt and the raw cotton. However, the second test for rigidity eliminated the felt, as a few days after applying the cornstarch, the felt molded. In sight of my research, I ordered six feet of raw cotton batting for my cocoon.

wool unnamed 2

This is where the real construction began. I spent several days cutting the sheets of batting into two panels, designed so that when they hung together, they would look like the moth’s cocoon. To support and set this style, I also sewed in over 25 ft of copper wire so that the cocoon could bend in odd shapes and styles, but maintain its overall shape. There were two wire inserts other than the outline of the cocoon, which gave the piece its sense of depth and movement.

                 cut sewing

The final step, and my personal favorite, was the lights. To reinforce the ephemeral feeling of the light, fluffy distressed cotton, I sewed in four LED copper string lights, creating spirals and curves along the inside of the piece that later wove up the copper supports that held it in place. The lights were beautiful, and glowed just enough that they were visible from the inside but somewhat hidden from the outer world, helping to divide the conceptual cocoon space from the real world Heimbold Space.

                  scissors close spiral  

The installation itself both succeeded and failed, in my opinion. When hanging the actual cocoon, I ran out of the copper wire that I used to suspend it from the supports of the second floor staircase. Although tragic and frustrating at the time, I nudged, angled, and twisted the wire until it came to a satisfactory, semi-closed shape. The final touch was two small stitches that closed the cocoon from the back and a single red chair underneath, to encourage people to not only interact with the piece, but do so leisurely.

unnamed  inside outer2

There are several things I wanted to do differently in this piece, but I consider them lessons for future projects. My biggest regret is, like the cautionary tale that Seres Lu tackles in Graffiti vs. Street Art, my piece was art. There was something inherently limiting and classist about my piece being art, which was counter to the intent of an equalizing, sheltering space. Still, in my many trips through Heimbold, I caught several people resting in that red chair and staring up at the lights that twinkled around them.

As an artist, I see many conceptual and aesthetic flaws in my piece (namely, the uneven hand stitches that secured the wire within the piece and oddly bourgeois nature of art)— as a student, I thought that the cocoon was a perfect respite.

BAN!: Conspiracy in the Age of “Free Speech”

Statement: A visual hijack is when an artist uses the visual strategies of an oppressive image, or target, to re-establish new ideas that are counter or detrimental to the system that the oppressive image upholds. Part 1: Setup
      • Choosing Target
        1. Choosing a target requires a target that is not only choose-able but workable. There are many images and visuals that are oppressive to people, but a good target is one that is both flexible to change and iconic enough that this idea-override will be a challenge.
        2. For this hijack, I chose Breitbart. Breitbart is a very popular and inflammatory conservative news company run in the United States, born from Andrew Breitbart, a former journalist at the Drudge Report (Phelan, 2016). It is perhaps the face of conservative news in the US and is extremely well-known by name and persona.
      • What Makes Breitbart a Good Target
        1. Much of their content is, definitively, oppressive to the artist.
        2. Follows Daniel Dennett’s Rules for Evolution (Dennett, 127) (and therefore, something that will stick around)
“Heredity or replication” (Dennett, 127)
Breitbart is a very successful replicator, meaning that its single form (Breitbart news story) is both easily repeated not just in craft, but in idea and memory. There is something that sticks in one’s brain and the brain of others (Dennett, 129) to reaffirm the idea of Breitbart as a creator of conservative news. Their consistent updating also reminds us of this. The name and persona of Breitbart extend beyond the news story. If one were to say, Breitbart is going to be at the rally!, one would not presume a series of newspapers to stand up and speak. The company is an idea beyond its own function, and that idea is replicated both by its function and the function of other people.
  “Variation” or “an abundance of elements” (Dennett, 127)
The elements in this project included the design of Breitbart, a screen capture from Breitbart the day after the election of the 45th president of the United States (Wayback, 2016), and a screen capture of The Drudge Report on July 11th, 2001, the closest pre-9/11 capture available (Wayback, 2001). Breitbart has many words on its page, being a news company. Many of these words are topical buzzwords and naturally have their own ideas and feelings attached to them. For this project, I also used language from the Drudge Report, Breitbart’s predecessor, to increase the elements available. Drudge Report, pre-9/11, has a lot of pre-contemporary language and distinct linguistic catches that look jarring beside the more typical contemporary ones.
  “Differential ‘fitness’” (Dennett, 127)
Breitbart produces several articles with repetitive buzzwords to create a public reaction to an idea, using the same model of “fitness” (Dennett, 127). By recreating the same elements in varying orders with different emphasis, Breitbart employs the same system as most memes to create ‘new’ content. Therefore, the elements in Breitbart writing as well as Drudge Report headlines are already packaged and ready for remix. Using large or small quotes from the sites creates levels of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ within the paper, by splicing common ideas and repairing them with a Frankenstenian sense of culture. When placed together as a cohesive piece, it is difficult to establish one clear reality. breitbart drudge
      • Defining Working Systems
        1. Breitbart, as a news source, is very popular: why? - Gramsci suggests that there are two kinds of “intellectuals” (Gramsci 113), those who are naturally “organizers” (ibid) and “organically” (ibid) rise to lead people, and those who “[emerge] into history out of the preceding […] structure” (Gramsci 114). - Breitbart, ironically, is the latter spinning itself to seem the former. Unlike the classic bootstrap American narrative, Breitbart did not rise from the American public just as conservatives needed it, but was an egg waiting to hatch for many years. - Andrew Breitbart left The Drudge Report in 2005 to begin Breitbart Media (Phelan, 2016). Gaining popularity from its predecessor and from Breitbart’s reputation as a catchy journalist for Drudge Report, the news source became a household name after getting famous with their report Big Government in 2009 (Phelan, 2016).
        2. But why was their internet popularity so fast and effective? - Ken Layne says about Andrew Breitbart’s reporting style at Drudge Report, “just choosing links and writing a great headline and placing it on the page — is a real art form” (Phelan, 2016). - Mark Dery, a web scholar, writes that the “one-liner” is an intensely effective online format (Dery, 2). - Breitbart gained popularity because it was easy to read and was a “unique brand of lightweight, gossamer junk” (Phelan, 2016) while attacking “intellectual scaffolding” (ibid). - The same short form use of repetitive, easy to understand elements in different positions allowed for Breitbart to become one of the most iconic conservative news sources of our time. By not requiring much attention but having a high malleability, Breitbart was allowed to produce and reproduce easily. - This success gives it authority, and the authority mixed with replication causes it to “‘produce’ intellectuals” (Gramsci, 117) who, in turn, give it authority.
        3. How do you hijack this? - When online, there is a sort of anonymity; personas are built on digital footprint rather than their identity. “People are judged on the content of what they say,” (Dery, 2) and who they are comes from that action. > Use the Breitbart name and likeness to create and alternate persona that reflects a facet of why it is oppressive - There are three key components to target for Breitbart: its replicability, its notoriety, and its credibility. Although I could have done a project on how the articles describe Dennett’s fitness, or a project showing the hypocrisy of promoting fringe news from a singular large company, I chose to attack the credibility.
      • What defines the hijack? - For publications that were notoriously unreliable, my initial idea was simple headlines with incorrect photos. However, this evolved into a more distinguished metaphor: using the conspiracy magazine. - Conspiracy magazines are known for false, outlandish, and usually fabricated information. This seemed like the perfect reflection of the ‘fake news’ phenomenon. It also enabled me to use the integrity of the Breitbart name against them. - The same brevity of headline and buzzword tactic is used in both conspiracy magazines and the Breitbart articles, but how they are judged is different. The artifice is similar, but the value is different because of reputation. - Like a news company, the magazine implies replication (multiple issues). This metaphor helps to uphold the same replicative property as Breitbart, the news company. - Because I was attacking the credibility of Breitbart, I made an active effort to use its other two major strategies in my favor, so that my piece would appear more connected to my target.
  • Magazine Building
    1. First Prototype - Most of the work for the magazine occurred in Adobe InDesign. I used Photoshop to create backgrounds for the magazine, mimicking the spray paint design of Breitbart’s official website. The three focal colors (orange, gray, and black) were taken directly from screenshots of the website. Not having worked in InDesign prior, this was quite the adventure, but the program proved to be more friendly than unfriendly! - I deeply wanted the newspaper to be large and unruly when read, so the paper size was 11×17 inches. This proved correctly impossible to handle when printed. - Before designing the layout of the piece, I compiled several references for ‘old’ conspiracy magazines covers. Paranoia proved both the easiest to find and the best representation of a variety of covers, featuring image- and text-heavy covers. I then emulated the closely-oriented/busy layout of the covers, which felt surprisingly easy and natural. - Most limitations were in the composition of the magazine format, but the metaphor of a conspiracy magazine was a fun and easily mimicable. The limits guided the piece more than restricted it. - My original goals for this prototype were to play with the ideas of headlines from Drudge Report only, with images from public web using keywords from headlines, using only the design from the Breitbart website. - Titles for the magazine varied, trying to describe the fake authorship; options were: Breitbart American Men, Breitbart American News, and Breitbart News.

image_6483441 (4) image_6483441 (2)image_6483441 (1)

  2. Second Prototype     – The second prototype was modified to include more text: it now included Breitbart’s   contemporary headlines. This lead to more dense text and smaller ‘packets’ of words and phrases for use, in order to disguise the headlines. The newer words allowed also for more play and topical humor, which felt easily accessible     – There were also more images, to allow for a more gentle visual experience. The title that I settled on was BAN: Breitbart American News     – Lastly, this week I finally created the BreitbartAN Facebook page which is listed on the back of the magazine, and which only has posted the screen captures of the Breitbart and Drudge Report websites.

image_6483441 (5)

    1. Third Prototype/Final - The third prototype had more focus on ‘public’ interaction: I added ‘viewer of the week’ photo, a mail in portion of the magazine, and the Facebook icon that is recognizable on so many websites today. These changes work with helping the magazine to appear connected and “making the world a little smaller,” (Fairey, 3). - Again, the design was altered to make the piece more legible and move better across the page. There were plenty of other design notes after this prototype, however, they did not make the final for time issues. Still, it shows that rarely is any design perfect!
For Access: PROTO EDIT
  • Installation
    1. The Inaugural Year: Celebrate Sarah Lawrence - The purpose of this event, according to the Sarah Lawrence website, was to “highlight dance, music, theatre, and writing performances and readings; science demonstrations and posters; displays by student visual artists; Sarah Lawrence programs beyond the campus; Graduate Programs; student publications; dessert reception and the opportunity to have your photo taken with our college mascot, Godric the Gyphon” (Sarah Lawrence, 2017). - The event itself was spread throughout the first two floors of the Heimbold Visual Arts Center and several outdoor staging areas. - Many alumna, board members, and donors were present as well as students to blend in with. I chose this event because not only did is present a group who was not typical to the college, but it also presented a group who was a risk for the college to interact with. These people also likely had a knowledge of what Breitbart was, and perhaps might even have an opinion on the piece.
    2. Distribution - Originally, I planned to wait at a singular table and distribute 15 printed copies of the magazine as a repeated action; however, due to how few people were in the area, I began to move throughout the event spaces and hand out papers. - A friend and photographer, Khalifah Jamison, took photos of people reading the magazine and of myself handing them out. - Surprisingly, it was very hard to wait for people to take the magazine. This was remedied with a much easier “would you like a newspaper”/”would you like a magazine.”
    3. Gallery - At one point, I entered Barbara Walter’s Gallery. At the suggestion of Jamison, I stood in middle of an exhibit portion so that it appeared I was there as a part of the exhibit. Many people saw me enter the gallery, however, many more did not. - I passed out several newspapers within the gallery, this time without speaking or with as few words as possible. Many people took the time to very much study and read the paper, some even looking at the art behind me for answers. Several groups of people read the paper and returned it, thinking that it was a permanent part of the exhibit.
    4. Reactions - Most people received the magazine with confusion. Twice, people laughed. One person rejected the magazine upon seeing the Breitbart name, but their companion took the paper. - A few people held onto the magazine, more people secretively than visibly. This leads me to believe that although they may have wanted to read it, they were ashamed of the Breitbart name. However, there were some who openly displayed the Breitbart logo as they carried it.


        – The only people who carried it visibly, from who I noticed, were white men.
  • Conclusions
    1. Did This Work - I think so; many of the people who talked to me about the magazine asked questions such as “who did this?” and “is this real?” - The purpose was to destabilize the view of ‘credibility’ of Breitbart name and source. By making people unsure about whether Breitbart had actually published a nonsense conspiracy magazine, I feel accomplished and that my ideas translated correctly.
    2. SURPRISINGLY, the Facebook page backfired. - The Facebook page has had a surprising amount of interaction, but it does not seem to be anyone related to Sarah Lawrence College or from Yonkers/Bronxville area. There was one person who interacted with the page from Yonkers. - The page has been tagged in links to an actual Breitbart article. - The page has been sent message about a conservative activist in trouble.
    3. The messages replicated differently online versus with the magazine. - The Facebook page only had the untouched content from the Drudge Report and Breitbart, meaning that there was no hijack necessarily present. Therefore, posting it online without the finished product meant that it only replicated the Breitbart name and likeness without the critique of the final product. This was not only unintentional, but a failure to consistently represent the product cross-platform. - In this case, the Breitbart name outshone the content itself and proved too strong to feasibly hijack, and in fact hijacked the project itself.
    4. Although the credibility of Breitbart was put into question by this piece, the reach was small due to the print nature and the institution of Breitbart remains mostly unaffected.
  • Future work
    1. I would like to use the growing (?) online basis to replicate the short form conspiracy publication, but instead as a consistently published online publication. This would require continuing to find new elements from Breitbart and Drudge Report as well as choosing the set for these elements (ie. parameters for what screen grabs to use).
    2. An alternative to creating my own conspiracy work would be to use the same growing online basis to link to screenshots of actual conspiracy news websites. Again, the Breitbart name and image have proven very strong within this project, and the continual use of this header would stand as the backbone and reference for this project.
    3. Lastly, perhaps the best thing to do is re-research more forms of working on removing credit from organizations or change my perspective on this project entirely. The first way is not necessarily the best way, and more reading and viewing cannot hurt!
    End Notes “The Inaugural Year: Celebrate Sarah Lawrence.” Sarah Lawrence College. Accessed October 16, 2017. “DRUDGE REPORT.” Wayback Machine. July 11, 2001. Accessed October 16, 2017. Dennett, Daniel C. “Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 127-35. Accessed October 15, 2017. doi:10.2307/430902. Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: Discovery of Cyberculture. Durham and London, UK: Duke University Press, 1994. Fairey, Shepard. “Sticker Art.” Obey Giant. May 2003. Accessed October 16, 2017. Gramsci, Antonio. “Antonio Gramsci.” In AN ANTHOLOGY OF WESTERN MARXISM, edited by Roger Gottlieb, 112-19. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989. Nussbaum, Daniel, Joel B. Pollak, Jeff Pooro, and Neil Munro. “Breitbart News Network.” Wayback Machine. November 08, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2017. Phelan, Matthew. “Building the House of Breitbart.” Jacobin Magazine. November 05, 2016. Accessed October 15, 2017.  

New Genres: I Expect You to Die

Pros and Cons of Dying (and Not)


(Below, left to right) Alexandra, Micha (Me!), Callum, Cat, and Anxin

Pro: When I was bumped from a deeply desired psychology class, I stumbled upon New Genres: I Expect You to Die. I thought, great! The perfect class for me. I love New Things and the expectation that a class will kill me. I approached my don, Shahnaz Rouse, with my choices for alternative registration. Her only comment on this class was, “Angela? Oh, you’ll have fun.” Knowing Shahnaz, this meant that I would most certainly die. I set it for my first choice. Con: I did not understand the entire syllabus or any part of what I was getting into, but assumed I would. Many peers and parents and miscellaneous acquaintances asked what this class entailed, and the best I could muster was “coding. Also James Bond. And theater?”

An exercise in mindmapping: Odd Job’s character

Pro: In 2013 I quit coding. In 2014 I quit theater. In 2016, I subjected myself to both simultaneously and hoped I would swim. I was extremely anxious for every class, but somehow myself and 20 others swam! Even when I missed two classes in a row, I managed, thanks to Angela’s advice that, at the time, sent the butterflies in stomach to full rage. “Just watch, you’ll figure it out.” Little did I know, that was an excellent summary of the entire class: this wasn’t about any sort of product or goal or anything tangible that could be easily quantified. I Expect You to Die was about the process. The primary process was learning. Learning to code, learning to move in meaningful ways, learning just how many ‘rules’ four college kids could break in an hour before presenting our beautiful abstraction to the class– I was terrified, and learning. img_0302img_0300 Con: At the end of class, David said that he would send out the rehearsal schedule. Suddenly I understood the syllabus. I had accidentally committed myself to a theater production at Sarah Lawrence College. Pro: I loved rehearsal. There was something very pure about the work we constructed. I didn’t understand the class until our first rehearsal, when David asked us to walk around the stage and, together as a group, “die.” From that point on, I realized that I didn’t have to know what I was doing: we would figure it out together. This, in combination with a silly desperation to produce code that I was proud of, helped me to create We Expect You to Talk. folder-soundsThe script started as a simple dialogue, but then grew into what I referred to as “a bad sitcom,” complete with strange noises (see above audio files) in between. With over 200 lines written into the system, I was extremely proud of what I had done. I don’t think I would have pushed myself like this on my own, but every other component of the show felt so magnificent that I wanted to create in the same way. Even better, after presenting it to the group, I watched as my original idea developed into something more fun, better, and eventually a tool that we used to think about the show.
lines The middle of the script, because it looked much more impressive all on one line

The middle of the script, because it looked much more impressive all on one line

Con: We Expect You to Talk in its original form never made it into the show. This did not bother me in the slightest, as it seemed out of place with the show’s trajectory (and I still love my strange little code). Pro: Several of the pieces that I worked on with other students did make it into the show. Every exercise and every scene David had us explore opened my mind in a different way. Between David’s encouraging face and Angela’s confident “why not”s, I found a space that I could truly explore and invent. Some nights I was a dancer, some a coding “expert,” some a folie artist. Every member of our class was as diversely useful and flexible as our out there ideas and not once did I think that my time went unvalued.
A collage of some code I wrote or helped with in the show

A collage of some code I wrote or helped with in the show

Con: Due to medical reasons, there was a significant portion of the pieces I couldn’t participate in for the show because they were too physical. Our dances and running and falling were so beautiful, but I couldn’t guarantee that my body would execute them safely. Pro: That didn’t matter. Angela and David instead introduced me to my new home, the tech table. There I began my swift and terrifying education in projection and QLab. For those who are unfamiliar, QLab is a program that cues queues for sound, video, and picture. I soon fell in love with all the strange mapping, layering, and moving components across our expansive ‘stage.’ We began with one surface and expanded to many odd surfaces to experiment with our two projectors. An entirely new creative outlet was offered at the tech table. Although I still ended up ‘on stage’ for three scenes, my foray into the wild world of projection gave me a very particular joy.
Odd Surface: David's Back

Odd Surface: David’s Back

Con: By our 10 hour tech day rehearsal, the projectors and QLab were so strangely broken that we could only click and drag video to approximate where it should be on our stage. Pro: Our incredible stage manager, Michelle Hernandez, and our tech expert Ti somehow had everything fixed and running perfectly by Monday. Over the course of the week and a half where the projections weren’t working, I also learned QLab and our projection maps much more intimately, to the point that we could run the show even without everything functioning. At no point in the semester did I stop and say “hey, I can handle this.” Part of I Expect You to Die was always staying on your toes and adapting to new directions. Whether it be a new stage direction, more clips to add to scenes, or even projecting a moving car across two thirds of the stage (thank you Ti!), Angela and David kept pushing us to further refine our piece as a group. Incredibly, we ended up with a show that had meaning, depth, and beautiful harmony between technology and human bodies. Con: We still had to perform it.

(The Tech Table Pre-Show Pump Up, X Gon Give It to Ya by DMX)

Pro: Performing it, as it turns out, was the least scary part. Our four shows operated much like a group trust fall: yes, there were a million ways that the show could go horribly wrong. However, we had to trust that our entire team (Michelle, her assistant stage manager, sound tech, the runners, actors, and yes– tech table) would operate smoothly and together, always listening to each other and holding on tight. Between all four shows on all three nights, I think I breathed twice: once at the beginning, once at the end. Never have I witnessed such intense unity and composure as I did while watching our show. Every moment was terrifying, but that was a part of the thrill. Our show was 21 students on a boat with Angela and David at the helm, telling us to find a paddle. We used spoons, planks, and stove tops to bring us to a place where we felt that we could say, “this is it. This is what we are saying.” Con: As we cleaned up our shoes and pants in the costume room Saturday night, it sunk in that this wild ride was over. There were hugs, well wishes, and gentle threats about not staying in touch. After the show, my formerly impossible weeks felt empty. Once you become a part of a group, a machine, an idea, it’s terribly hard to become an individual again. My brain was ripe with all sorts new ways of seeing that I had been taught and that I had exercised for weeks on end. Suddenly, my life was very normal. Pro: We still had one more class.

(Left) Callum, engaged and ready to act
(Right) Me, Micha, ready to start a cardboard aviary

Our final class was two weeks from opening night, exactly. Somehow, those two weeks felt like two months. As each person stumbled into our room in the lowest floor of Heimbold they were greeted by smiles, hellos, and a few inside jokes that had developed during the show. It was a sad, sweet reunion that allowed us all to debrief the semester. There were talks of opening our own strange theater company and pursuing “weird theater” here at Sarah Lawrence. Perhaps our legacy of experimenting and playing will live on. Honestly, I am still unsure if I was in a theater production or a fever dream for the last month and have not fully processed either reality. Regardless of whether or not I constructed this entire fantasy in my mind, I loved every part of it, especially all the wonderful humans who made it happen. If you had told me last semester that I would be participating in the world’s greatest game, I probably would have laughed. I would likely laugh now as well, but for a different reason: now, I’m ready.   With Love, Micha