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March 17, 2010


I think the question of who one makes one's art for is a fundamental one. You've got to get a handle on this if you're going to show your work. Once you've sorted this out, it becomes a lot easier to make use of an audience's reactions.

Classroom situations are problematic. The only person who has valuable knowledge to impart is the instructor. One would never PAY one's friends for their opinions about anything, but that's what paying for a class and being forced to listen to one's classmate's opinions amounts to. You've got to really lean on the instructor to use the other students' responses as a teaching tool.

For example, the student whose response was: "I'm confused by this." Assuming he's not a moron, there needs to be a robust discussion about this. What was confusing? What were his expectations? Are the points of confusion ways into the value of the piece? Is he not paying attention to the elements the artist wanted him to? Whose problem is this? What's the artist's intention in this? Going around the circle, asking everyone's opinion, and moving on is of no value, and is the mark of a lazy teacher. The discussion should be focused on making observations, not offering opinions.

Here are some observations. And I'll preface this by saying that I loved Keng's piece.

I found the discontinuity between the audio content and the visual images jarring and gripping. The contrast between the happy, celebratory images and the fraught content of the audio was part of what made it gripping. These juxtapositions, which might have been merely ironic, become laden with portent, implication, tension.

I'm amazed and impressed at how narrative can emerge from non-narrative elements. There is a story being told here, although part of it comes from my knowing that this is Skype conversation, which led me to believe this is a son calling his mother abroad. I only know this because you told me. I think this should be conveyed more explicitly in the piece itself.

I like that the audio narrative "breaks down" -- at the end, part of what she says is not translated into sub-titles, leaving us mystified -- and I love that it circles back to her saying "Hello" (and that that is proceeded by her laughing, which alters the mood of the piece.) There is a resonance here: an older woman talking over photos of her younger self -- the start of her adult life -- a conversation looping back onto itself -- the start of the conversation.

I like the punctuation of sound at the end, and its abrupt "transmission ended" termination, since part of the narrative here is the mother arguing that the son can return. The sound punctuation says no, he can't, or won't.

The sampan background noise sounds like street noise, and I didn't know what to make of it. It adds texture, which I liked, and I liked that he introduced it well past the half-way point. Actually, as I try to articulate what he might have been doing with this sound (instead of just giving you my opinion about whether I liked it or not), I'm realizing that by introducing another layer on top of the photos and the language, he's making the world of Thailand -- and the possibility of a life there -- more real. Then he cuts it off.

But even if narrative didn't emerge, or if I have the narrative wrong, there's still tension and movement in this piece, and feelings emerge around a theme. They're drawn out of the viewer by these elements -- juxtaposition of elements, layering, texturing, pacing -- which have been carefully placed. There's intention here.

I'd hammer away pretty hard at your confused classmate. He needs to be made to articulate what he's confused about, and whether he's merely disappointed because an expectation he has about narrative structure was disappointed. Why is he unable to respond to the discreet elements at work here? Is he even able to see them? Can he deconstruct this piece into its parts and make some guesses about why it was assembled the way it was, what Keng's intention might have been and whether he legitimately met or failed to achieve those intentions? How did the instructor respond to this person's confusion?

Excellent work. You should collaborate with Keng.

With regard to your piece, Marshall on Marshall, I liked it also, but I was only engaged on an intellectual level with it -- I liked the jokes, especially Marshall abruptly cutting off the interview with himself, and the interviewer addressing him by name -- that was an inspired touch. Your technical proficiency is impressive (was the scratchy sound intentional? I liked it -- it was an auditory reinforcement to the idea of the unreliable narrator, along with the black and white). But what most struck me was your debt to Errol Morris. The graphics, the clear chapter headings and walled-off content of each segment, the emotional nudging by the soundtrack -- you've learned well.

So much of the content of your work -- blog mostly, but even the radio show and now this video -- is ironic, self-deprecating, light and somewhat dismissive in tone. I like that, and I assume that's your natural voice, but if I were working with you I'd want to know whether you're hiding from failure by adopting a posture of dismissive, self-deprecating humor. The problem with irony as an artistic strategy -- like sarcasm as a conversational strategy -- is that it's a one-trick pony. It can make one point well, but it can't go deeper, it can't explore an idea metastatic-ally, if you will (I just made that up, but you get the idea I hope). I know that in your 2 min piece you were working out a thinking exercise, but I'm struck by just how emotionally engaged I was by Keng's piece. For the long haul, that kind of engagement suits my taste better than witty observations, however incisive, articulate, and keenly perceptive, as yours always are.

As always, I note zero comments. Merlin Mann has "Inbox Zero." Should you brand "Zero Comments"? I continue to think that as long as people are cowed into silence you're doing it right.

--Dan Owen

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