Drew Dernavich

Drew Dernavich gets that his first name is the past tense of “draw,” so no need to bring it up. He has been a regular cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine since 2002, and has won a National Cartoonists Society award for being the top magazine cartoonist in the country. He has also written for Print and theawl.com. His first children's book, It's Not Easy Being Number Three (Henry Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books), is scheduled for February 2016.

If a Tree Falls

There’s one perplexing philosophical dilemma that continues to vex scientists, philosophers, and people  who live under giant sequoias. It is:

If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and there’s nobody around who can hear it, does it make a noise?

The question, of course, refers to the nature of observation: how can you “look“ at something with your ears? It seems like a stupid thing to do. Try it with an eye chart. It doesn’t work for me, but maybe I’m missing something. The question is also about the nature of sound: is it composed of particles which exist independently, or waves which need to be received and interpreted by the arts critic for the New York Times? I know: it’s one of those annoying, esoteric late night dorm room questions without an answer. Or is it? This is the 21st century, right? As a society, we know so much more now than when the question was originally posed by my roommate Matt in 1991.

A quick check of Wikipedia shows that the question was possibly posed before 1991, maybe even centuries before. See? We have technology! We can find stuff out! Which is why recently, I set out to solve this riddle.

My first approach was to try the most direct method possible: leaving a tape recorder in the middle of the woods. If I went back and saw that there were trees that had fallen to the ground, I would simply play back the recording to see if a sound was made. I couldn’t believe no one had ever thought of this before. I figured two weeks was enough time to leave the recording device there.

When I went back, my recorder was nowhere to be found, because the entire area had been turned into luxury condos. Pretty nice ones, too, with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, even a rooftop pool and a dog run. But regarding the experiment, not very helpful. Maybe our fast-moving 21st century world was actually going to make this harder, not easier.

My next thought was: are there people who have first-hand experience with these types of philosophical riddles, and can I learn anything from them? For instance, there is another age-old Buddhist question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? My next approach, then, became obvious: I would seek out one-armed individuals and have them clap for me, and see what I could learn.

These people were easy enough to find, but totally uncooperative. They didn’t clap for me, and most of them showed me another kind of hand gesture which, although not technically making a sound, still spoke to me in a loud way.

So, that led nowhere. But I liked this angle, though, of trying to apply learnings from other related philosophical riddles. Maybe personal interviews were not the method to accomplish this. Maybe it was the internet. So I set aside several hours to learn as much as I could online about Schrodinger’s’ cat. Do you know what the concept behind that is? I’ll explain it to you:

Ha ha. Admittedly, I never got far on this one. Have you ever looked up anything about cats on the internet? Right. What even happened to those six hours? Let’s just say it’s a good thing Socrates and Descartes didn’t have the world-wide web. I bet we’d never even know who they are today.

Clearly I had to be more innovative in my methods. I asked myself: how do you get information out of people? Of course: incentives! You know those restaurants where if they don’t give you a receipt, your meal is free? I could try the same thing. I printed a large sign that said “IF A TREE FALLS AND DOESN’T MAKE A NOISE, YOUR NEXT MEAL IS FREE!” I don’t know what kind of food trees like, but that was putting the cart before the horse: if a tree came to me demanding a meal, then that would definitely tell me something. So I set the sign in the middle of nearby woods and waited.

When I went back approximately two weeks later, I found that the whole area had been made into luxury condos. Are you kidding me? Maybe the bigger philosophical question is: is there any place in this country that isn’t being turned into luxury condos?

Now I was frustrated and desperate. My next tactic involved the opposite of incentives: threats! I went out walking until I found a recently felled tree and I dragged it home, where I had created a makeshift interrogation room. Why not ask the sucker directly, right? I didn’t get very far before the tree’s attorney, Gloria Allred, called me to tell me that – maybe the tree made a noise or maybe it didn’t, but I’d never know unless I was prepared for a lengthy court battle. How. Hard. Could. This. Be?

Could it be that it was all just a trick question? There’s an old joke that goes like this:

A: How far can you walk into the woods?

B: I don’t know. All the way?

A: Nope. Halfway. After that you’re walking out of the woods.  

Was it possible that there’s no such thing as the middle of the woods? That it was a fictional place like Atlantis or Beverly Hills? I put on my hiking boots and thought about going on an expedition to find the exact middle of the woods, but I stopped before I ever got outside. I was afraid this whole exercise was a trick to try to get me to buy a luxury condo. I wasn’t even gonna go there.

I had basically given up on my quest to solve this ancient metaphysical puzzle. And then one day I was in a Starbucks, enjoying the complete silence inside the coffee shop, when I realized – it’s not silent at all in here. They’re playing Coldplay on the stereo system! How long had I been listening to Coldplay and not noticing it?

That’s when it all came together for me. What if sound is just like Coldplay? What if sound is a pleasant enhancement to your world when you’re paying attention, but is generic enough to virtually disappear when you’re not? What if sound is socially reserved because it’s British? What if sound recently broke up with Gwyneth Paltrow and is just trying to find its way in the world again?

Suddenly, I could relate to sound. I still don’t think I understand it completely, but I felt like I knew it a lot better than when I started this journey of discovery. I was willing to say “I feel you, mate,” and let sound have some privacy for a little while. It was a satisfying enough result for me. That is, unless it tries to reinvent itself and start writing Broadway show tunes or something. Some things I will never, ever understand.

Beyond Shuffle Play

My all-time favorite radio listening experience was on the University of Massachusetts’ FM station, WMUA. It was a weekly four-hour radio show called Dadavision, after the art movement which it attempted to imitate. I listened faithfully every Sunday night, even during the school year when it went well past my bedtime. My mother would come in my bedroom and shut off the radio, but of course I was only pretending to be asleep, and would resume listening again after she left. The hosts of the show weren’t playing music; they were playing, period. What originally hooked me was the humor: a “top ten” countdown of local garage band 45s hosted by a guy pretending to be a psychiatrist, providing a bewildered but hilariously deadpan psychoanalysis of the lyrics. It was absurdist comedy gold, which they did often and very well. But they might follow up that bit with a haunting hour long mashup of classical piano and NASA Apollo landing audio. From absurdity to profundity! And then they might burn the last fifteen minutes of airtime by playing B-movie horror flick trailers.

But what was going on? Were these guys jokers or sound poets? When they wanted to entertain, they were focused and relentlessly creative. Other times it was an aimless mess, as if they literally forgot they had an audience. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.

One week when I was looking especially forward to hearing some radio silliness, the host instead served up an hour of straight-up Frank Sinatra. But even Ol’ Blue Eyes, in this context, became thrilling to me. It’s possible that it was because I didn’t want to miss what might be next, but more likely it was because I surrendered completely to the DJ. When my parents played Sinatra, it was predictable and meaningless to me. When a performance art-punk played Sinatra it was countercultural and thrilling. Radio wasn’t just an advertising platform. It felt like an adventure.

You choose the curator, the curator chooses the tunes. Isn’t this the most satisfying way for us to experience music? For years it was the only way: we chose the DJ or the station, and they chose the rotation of singles we would hear. The iPod enabled each of us to be the sole creator—and listener—of our own private radio stations for a while, but the desire for communal experience seems to be experiencing a revival. “Internet-savvy people have fallen head over heels for old-school monoculture,” Billboard wrote recently. It makes sense. For a while now, DJs have been occupying the concert territory once owned by rock bands: Calvin Harris is the new U2. And Apple is now placing its bets on Beats, a familiar “one-to-many” broadcasting format. Looks like radio, smells like radio, you get the picture.

And yet the album, or at least the album-length format, retains a powerful sway over the music community, if only because our attention spans don’t often endure past the 45-minute mark (we never knew ye, Stadium Arcadium). Is there a way to integrate the best of both approaches? Pitchfork recently described the future of music as the album-length playlist, curated by an individual. In other words: a mixtape! But if this is the future, then it’s gotten a good head start on itself, because it exists now. And it’s thriving all over the web, from Beats prototypes like Dublab, to retailer-sponsored mix series like Oki-Ni, to individual knob-twiddlers like Electric Adolescence.

I love experiencing music this way. A good mixtape reminds me of what I loved about college radio: the “you had to be there” quality of it, the unique experience that can’t be replicated on Spotify. A good playlist is as satisfying to me as Kind of Blue, as Sgt. Peppers’, as Kid A. It’s literally a format you can fall in love with; when you’ve got a crush you don’t give them a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you make them a mixtape. The industry is finally getting hip to our habits.

I’m not just a listener. I  frequently make mixes myself. Here is one from earlier this summer, having vaguely to do with the silly idea that summer should be fun, but not too much fun, because it’s so hot. As a love note to our readers, here are a few of my favorite curated mixes. Some of them nail a particular mood, some reflect a theme, some are just a fresh take on familiar sounds. We encourage you to listen, but also to explore, and to post your own favorites in the comments. 



Pinchy & friends: Sleepy Bedtime Mix For Young Ones by Henry Chinaski

This mix is allegedly credited to a pseudonymous member of The Avalanches, posted on a mysterious mixtape-only site called Pinchy and Friends. The Avalanches’ only full-length, released in 2000, was a modern masterpiece that relied almost solely on samples, so it’s no surprise that the’d have a deep vinyl collection to play with. What makes this an interesting listen is how he includes familiar songs, but not the versions that you’re used to hearing. It plays like a dreamy, idealized version of late-night 1960s radio – bossa nova classics and lounge pop float in the ether with folk harpist Joanna Newsom, blanketed with the comforting crackle of vinyl and dialogue snippets from Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. This mix is the epitome of the singular listening experience – if you can stay awake through the whole thing.

Favorite moment: Mia Farrow’s “Lullaby” from Rosemary’s Baby and the Beach Boys’ narrative piece “Radio King Dom”


The Disney Nightmade Playlist

The Disney Nightmare Playlist

Ever wonder what would happen if you removed all the chipper songs from Disney soundtracks? The Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat assembled a nightmarish journey through the creepier, more melancholy material from classics like as Peter Pan and The Jungle Book – as well as some tracks that were left off for being “too dark.” I love this purely as a concept, but it’s also brilliantly executed. Sandwiched amid the gloom, even a harmless ditty such as “Scales and Arpeggios” (from The Aristocrats) makes me anxious, as if it is being sung to ward off ghosts. This is a room in the Magic Kingdom that you’ve probably never visited before.

Favorite moment: Moffat’s spacey treatment of “Oh Tink,” from Peter Pan


List by Tom Krell

FACT magazine is a UK-based online publication which has featured terrific weekly DJ mixes for more than half a decade now. Not being a proper clubgoer I struggle to connect with the dance-oriented rave-ups, but otherwise there’s plenty to like. I enjoy the collaboration between the Orb and reggae icon Lee “Scratch” Perry, but even better is the mix by How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell. This mix is a perfect example of that genre jokingly dubbed PBR&B: contemporary R&B filtered through a hipster’s lens of longing, heartbreak, lofty ambitions, and echoey lo-fi electronics. Like the Sleepy Time mix, what’s interesting to me is the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as in the inclusion of the raw-ish demo of Beyonce’s “Halo.”

Favorite moment: When the climactic guitar solo from Prince’s “Purple Rain” suddenly materializes out of nowhere.


Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.37.02 PM

Solid Steel Radio Show Part 3 + 4 – DJ Food – Kraftwerk Kover Kollection 8

Kraftwerk is an easy band to like: they’re acknowledged as the fathers of modern electronic dance music, but their strong sense of melody and their relatively uncluttered sound mean that they’re perfect raw material for DJs to pilfer from. Kraftwerk’s thumbprint on popular music is so large that, in 2004, DJ Food started regularly releasing Kraftwerk-themed mixes containing samples, covers, spoken word snippets, and all kinds of “bits and bobs” from the German music pioneers. They’re all pretty fantastic, but the most recent mix – volume 8! – expands the palette well beyond electronic and hip-hop music: Jazz covers! Bell choirs! Bollywood Kraftwerk! So many different ways to nerd out!

Favorite moment: The sweet violin on Saito Tetsuya’s version of “Computer Love”



If you’re looking for crate-diggers who focus on folk, psychedelia, soul, and Americana, then Aquarium Drunkard is a reliable place to start. I’m partial to the beautiful Blue August Moon mixtape, but at almost two and a half hours, it might take you until winter to get through it. The themes in this Cold Splinters mix hold together well – going walking, returning home, doing right by your lover, things that just make you slow down and go “aaaah.” And at only 39 minutes it’s refreshingly brief – just like Indian Summer.

Favorite moment: The sweeping guitar on Phil Cook’s “The Jensens”

What Your Wine Label Says About You

Wine. It’s the drink that needs no introduction, because it’s almost as old as humanity itself. It’s the official beverage of the Bacchanalian revery, the high church ritual, and your aunt Loretta. But when we talk about wine—whoa, what the heck are we talking about? Legs and noses, length and weight, foxy notes and round textures and lively finishes. I have no idea what any of that stuff means, because I understand things visually. Can wine sellers convey—through the art and design of their labels—what their wines are all about so that us visual people can know whether a bottle of wine is for us?

Here are the 10 types of wine labels I have identified, and what they seem to be communicating.


"The Original"


Name: The Original

What it says: We’re so freaking old we invented wine. Or, at least our royal ancestors invented it, when they weren’t busy riding chariots or conquering cities or writing epic literature.

Who it’s for: Yacht owners


"The Safe Choice"


Name: The Safe Choice

What it says: Not sure if this is a bottle of wine? Look, there’s a vineyard right there on the label! Not sure if it’s a quality wine? The fact that it’s a hand-drawn engraving should lead you to believe, by association, that our wine is created with the same level of care and craftsmanship. How can you go wrong?

Who it’s for: People who choose the chicken option on the menu


The Louis Vuitton


Name: The Louis Vuitton

What it says: We have an unmistakable sense of style, as exemplified by this capital letter with it’s iconic swooshes! So striking and memorable! We love attention!

Who it’s for: People who arrive noticeably late and then leave obnoxiously early for something else


"White and Proud"


Name: White and Proud

What it says: We’re purists about wine. Check that: snobs. And we don’t need art or any other gimmicks to tell us what it’s all about.

Who it’s for: Anyone who can describe a flavor in wine besides “wine.”


"The Rainbow Coalition"


Name: The Rainbow Coalition

What it says: Why does wine always have to look so austere and sophisticated? Why do people have to be so mean and judgmental? Why can’t people just look on the bright side of things? Why is it bad to be sitting at home night after night drinking wine by yourself?

Who it’s for: Kitten-cam operators


"The Rebel"


Name: The Rebel

What it says: Why play by the rules, bro? We’re not like those soulless corporate robots. Come hang with us in our parents’ basement!

Who it’s for: People who would rather be drinking beer


"The Herman Miller"


Name: The Herman Miller

What it says: It’s 2014. We think beauty can be useful and functional and not just ornamental. We don’t think of you as a customer, but as an end user. We love Helvetica.

Who it’s for: People who shop for wine at the MoMA Design Store


"The Danielle Steel"


Name: The Danielle Steel

What it says: Art is weird and hard to interpret. It’s better if we spell everything out for you in words. Plus, everything is better when it’s in the form of a story, right?

Who it’s for: People who have the time to actually read wine labels at a liquor store


"The Dark Arts"


Name: The Dark Arts

What it says: This wine was invented by witches, distilled on the fires of Mt. Doom, and transported here in Darth Vader’s personal ship. It might put you under a spell, if you know what we mean.

Who it’s for: Graduates of Hogwarts


"The OMG Check This Out"


Name: The OMG Check This Out

What it says: It could be turpentine in here, but you don’t care—you just want to show that you’re current with your cultural references!

Who it’s for: People researching wine labels for frivolous humor pieces



Six Billion Ringtones

art assign bot

One evening last month, my laptop accidentally spilled out of its bag and violently met the concrete. Next time I turned it on, every white pixel field on my screen was replaced with a harsh magenta-and-white striped moire-like pattern. I attempted to buy airline tickets online, and the vibrancy of the optical effect was so oppressive that I abandoned that task. However, I was curious to to see its effects on my photos and artwork. To my surprise, as I thumbed through various image galleries, I found the effect to be strangely satisfying: the superimposition of stripes was unruly, psychedelic, and hysterical. I reluctantly enjoyed the experience. But the question “what if I replaced the color white with crazy stripe everywhere?” was not one I would have ever asked, not intentionally.

Jeff Thompson routinely asks those “what if” questions. I first encountered Jeff on Twitter as Art Assignment Bot, a program that challenges internet citizens to do things like “Build a 3D rendering of the idea of memory, due in 39 minutes.”  I found the idea to be initially amusing, then potentially useful, and then maybe even brilliant. I later found out that Jeff was the creator of several other strangely entertaining projects: a Twitter program that responds “Really?” to random users, another that asks randomly-generated “Would You Rather?” questions, a Tumblr theme that intentionally scrambles page elements, and various seemingly pointless exercises like a vertical reading of the words in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

But this is the work of an artist, not merely a dorm-room prankster. Jeff is a painter-turned-programmer-turned-professor who manipulates code the way that Jackson Pollock manipulated paint: both with precision and playfulness. I love the way he’s using technologies as they’re not really supposed to be used, trying to break them in order to uncover what might be lurking underneath. It’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes befuddling, always fascinating. When I found out he taught at a college down the street from where I live, I asked him if he’d like to chat.

Drew Dernavich: I know you primarily as the creator of the Art Assignment Bot. What do you do for a living, officially?

Jeff Thompson: I’m the Assistant Professor and Program Director of Visual Art Technology at Stephens Institute of Technology. I’ve been teaching for a long time. That’s how I pay the bills, and I enjoy it.

D: Do you have traditional art training?

J: I started undergraduate school in Illustration, and I went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design; they have really great graphic novel kind of program — one of the few, actually.

D: Did programming or coding come naturally?

J: The programming is totally self-taught. I got bored with painting, but I could spend all day writing software and never get tired of it. That’s how I realized that I knew I was an artist, but maybe painting wasn’t the right place to do what artists do. Does that make sense?

D: Yeah, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I would put that outside the realm of possibility, that someone who likes to draw would want to do something so technical.

J: I don’t know how it happened, but I think the computer helps me do things that I couldn’t do otherwise. Like, if I wanted to make 5 million drawings I could sit and draw for the next few years, or I could write some code that generates these things.


D: When I first saw the Art Assignment Bot I laughed, but then I thought it  could be a real teaching tool, a brilliant way to get stuff done and get your mind outside the box. I don’t know if you’ve really thought about it that way?

J: I suppose it’s kind of like cartoons, too. Either there’s this absurd connection of assembled things, like subsets and performance or something, or it’s two things that are amplifying something that’s already there.

D: I don’t know anything about coding, but it seems like the Would You Rather Bot can be anything, while the Art Assignment Bot is very specific with it’s suggestions: time, gender, space, and cats on the internet. (laughs)

J: They work similarly with a pool of words or phrases in different categories, and then there’s a template that fills in randomly. The Art Assignment Bot picks a random time frame within a certain range: so under a minute to within an hour, the course of a day or several days, something like that, so that it knows how to kind of phrase it. And I’m trying to take the most cliché art topics, very “art school” types of things.

The Would You Rather bot has huge word lists because it can pull verbs and nouns and it kind of doesn’t matter. It would be nice to have more time to make the pool bigger because it’s starting to repeat itself, but it’s also kind of interesting how it will repeat, even if it’s never quite the same.

would rather bot

D: And then there’s the Tweet redactor and the Really Bot which I think is hysterical.

J: That one got shut down. All it did was pick a totally random tweet at one hour intervals and respond with the world “Really?”. Twitter is super open about Twitter bots accessing its platform, but they consider it a form of harassment if you are replying constantly to people’s tweets that aren’t following you, because spam bots do that. It’s a little bit of mischief, too. I liked that.

D: As a humor person, if I was pulling a “Really?”, I wouldn’t do it as a bot. I would scan for potentially awkward or funny opportunities and respond personally. But it’s interesting to do it at random, because you‘re kind of creating these interactions that you wouldn’t think of consciously, and maybe getting a better reaction.

J: Yeah, I dunno… people respond, too. The whole point is just to create a sort of conversation with a computer that never  responds back. I don’t ever intervene manually. Usually people get really pissed because it has no context. Like, you might be posting about a party you went to, or about how your grandmother just died. Of course, it doesn’t know that. Most of the time, though, people freak out, end up following the bot, and then they realize it’s a computer. It’s an interesting platform to engage people and build narratives in a dynamic way. You could follow someone and have a conversation with them, but instead you build this machine and people engage with it. I think it’s really fascinating, and it’s also really funny how people feel a compulsion to interact with it.

D: Your focus seems to be not where art and technology intersect, but where they collide, and the unintended effects.

J: Powerful tools like Photoshop (which are designed by huge companies) have limitations: settings have caps on how far they’ll go. So even if you’re adjusting the contrast on an image, it stops at a certain point. By building your own tools or pushing tools past what they’re meant to do, new things emerge that you wouldn’t see otherwise. I think it’s important for artists to engage technologies critically rather than just using them.

D: You’re more interested in the processes than the results?


J: I’m interested in the processes sometimes being more meaningful than the results. I was working with a supercomputer facility at my last teaching job, and as artists-in-residence, we did a lot of art on huge supercomputers. One of them was doing every possible thing with the classic Nokia ringtone. It’s 13 notes, so you wouldn’t think about this, but there are over six billion possible combinations. We wrote code that generates every possible mp3 of that ring tone. You could never listen to them all. At the end, it’s not about the most interesting remix. I’ d say I’m  just fascinated what happens when you remove the artists’ hand from those kind of decisions. It’s different from what we’re inclined to think about art—that it’s a skill developed over many years, and that art has to be carefully constructed.

D: It’s kind of a Duchampian idea. An artist makes it, but it’s not art, in the sense that decisions of taste and style are not factors.

J: Yes, but Duchamp’s decisions still ended up being there in discreet forms. He was picking that urinal or that stool.  I, on the other hand, am especially drawn to processes that are automatic — you just set things in motion that do the work for you. I’m realizing there’s stuff I can do on my laptop I never imagined before. Five years ago I didn’t think it was fast enough, but you can set it in motion and generate thousands or billions of something—anything. I’m mostly interested in that.

D: I noticed you’re interested in how sound looks. I know you can buy art prints of sound files, like a voicemail, for instance. So somewhere people are appreciating a sound file graphic as art. But you’re not going for that?

J: If you layered all the songs in my library, the information is there but you can’t extract it— it completely changes. It’s all still there, but it’s also converted to this totally different thing that is new and different, and I think that’s kind of fascinating.

D: It’s sort of a metaphor about technology in general. There’s so much information generated every day, it’s impossible for one person to access it all at the same time. If it were made into a sound it would just be a giant vacuum noise.

J: Well, and with the Nokia tune, I don’t remember how long it would take, but there is no way in life (even if you played them back to back) that you could hear all six billion. They’d all start to sound the same. It’s the most boring thing.

D:I’m fascinated by the way Brian Eno talks about his process of making music. He didn’t automate it in the same way, but he’d throw tennis balls at a piano from across the room; the basis for the song was whatever eight notes he hit. When David Bowie recorded an album, he’d hand the musicians a card saying they were a vampire or whatever, and they’d have to play the song as that character. I don’t know if I can tell by listening to the music how it affected the result. Your experiment with reading the Shakespeare sonnets vertically, I mean, I’m not going to listen to the whole thing, but that’s not the value of the experiment anyway, right?

J: Absolutely. Do you know Andy Warhol’s “Empire?” It’s an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building. You can picture it— you just have to watch a little bit of it, and that’s enough. But if you sat with it for 24 hours, you’d have a different experience. It would sort of pay off for having watched the whole thing, and I think about that a lot in my work too.

My favorite Brian Eno story is about him at the park, hanging out on a bench, listening to people going by, and he wondered if he could learn those sounds in the same way you learn music. So he took a tape recording of five minutes, and he listened to it over and over again. And even though there’s no rhythm or regular beat, he learned it enough to say, “okay, right now a duck quacks, and now a woman in a stroller goes by,” and he’d hear that sound go right to left. He learned everyday sound in the way you’d learn music. I think that’s crazy amazing.

D: So who do you emulate? Who inspires you?

J: I always hate that question! I find myself thinking about how my computer works, or about science-related discoveries more than I think about looking at paintings these days. I feel like it doesn’t feed me in the same way. I don’t know if that’s a cycle or a change in work. I know that’s a weird answer for an artist.

I know when I do go look at artwork — I mean, this is a weird answer too, because I do curatorial work — but I think I’m mostly excited about the surprises, those things that don’t look like every other painting. I know you can look at a master painting and see new things, but I get more excited about, say, where you can look up close at a little corner of it, or see how the frame is put together, that kind of stuff. The Met is full of amazing, amazing pieces, but they often blend into each other with the same kind of seriousness. I get most excited about surprises, the things that are maybe breaking down a centuries-old tradition.

D: Have you ever thought about doing a website that’s purely non-functional, just existing as art or a game?

J: I have a website I built where you walk on the internet, thinking of the window as a physical space that actually has dimensions to it. So you press, I think, the F and J keys and you alternate and you’re actually walking. And it adds to the height of the window – I don’t know if this makes any sense to explain it verbally – it adds to the window the same number of pixels that you would take in an average step. So every time you press the window gets longer and longer by 2 and half feet or whatever it is in an average human stride, and it counts off how far you’ve walked to the bottom. And you click a button and it counts the distance you’ve walked on the Internet.

D: It’s like a FitBit for your fingers!

J: (laughs) It’s stupid. I like that it’s stupid.

D: So what kind of things do you have your students do? What kind of assignments do you give them, and what do you tell them to look for?

J: That’s a good question. I think it’s our job to make sure they leave prepared to be professionals, whatever that looks like. I like to use the word “creatives” with them instead of “artists” or “designers.” Because “artists” and “designers” implies a craft, which leaves out the possibility that you could do a tech startup and think of it as a creative process, or that you would do small scale manufacturing. But I think it’s our job to make sure they’re prepared to leave and succeed, so they know how to put together a budget for a project, or how to set up a show, but not lead them overly to the other side where they’re professionals at the expense of experimentation and play.


D: Infographics are at that intersection of technology and art – are you interested in that area also?

J: I think in a lot of my work, data is the raw material as opposed to paint or clay or something. I like to break the utility that data visualization has, where it’s not about helping you make decisions about what your company should do or what to invest in, but it’s about rendering it in this crazy pattern the way you’d do with experimental art.

Before they get into things which require math, like census data, we give students a project to do with a data set they all know, which is hamburgers. You have the bun, the patty, the vegetables, the sauces. And you can do nutrition data about hamburgers, but they all know it. So instead we do primary research by bringing in some George Foreman grills, and we make and eat burgers in class, and they have to make an infographic about hamburgers. They need to realize that as an artist if you want to eat hamburgers, you can make work about hamburgers, and then have an excuse to eat a lot of hamburgers. And that’s one of the cool things we get to do as artists.

D: Are you into humor at all?

J: I think we’ve all been trained that art is this very serious experience. Going back to being a kid, thinking I was gonna be a cartoonist, humor has always been there, and I’ve been thinking about its place in my work. Is it trickster? Is it “ha ha” funny? I think you can make work that is poetic and still humorous. Humor and beauty are both challenging ideas to think about in the studio.

D: I interpret the world through humor, and it seems like you have that, but it’s not explicit. Maybe that’s why I like your work.

J: Right. At what point does something that’s ridiculous become funny, and at what point does it become a Herculean, monumental task that stops being funny? This massive archive of ringtones that involve this huge technical process, can it be both epic and funny? It’s interesting to think about.

D: Do you ever take commissions?

J: Sure, but I don’t seek that out. Very few people buy a weird website or a bay of hard drives with six billion ringtones, except arts organizations that are already interested in that sort of stuff anyway.

D: So Nokia’s not calling you? (laughs)

J: (laughs) That would be great.


On Not Waiting for the Giant Sphinx Moth

The ghost orchid is a rare flower; it doesn’t photosynthesize, it’s almost impossible to grow in home environments, and can only be pollinated from a visit by the Giant Sphinx Moth. Even then, only a fraction of the seeds produced will find conditions favorable enough for growth.

There is a common view that the conditions to create art, and especially poetry, are similarly elusory: Emily Dickinson’s flowering was the result of passion, rooted in the fertile ground of solitude, visited by the Great Sphinx Moth of inspiration. Or so we think.

Great art is born this way, undoubtedly. But not all art. Good ideas can be hatched out of everyday conversation and coffee. It doesn’t even have to be good coffee. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to “street poet” Franki Elliot, who is proving that good art can be made in mere minutes on a public sidewalk, armed with only a typewriter and a suggestion from a passer-by (as in this scene from Before Sunrise). As opposed to the “proper” poems in her first collection, Piano Rats, the typewriter poems in her new book, Kiss as Many Woman as You Can, a collaboration with artist Shawn Stucky, were composed on-the-spot, initially meant as gifts to their recipients. I was interested in this idea, so I asked her a few questions about it.


DD: The poems in your debut collection Piano Rats are sharply drawn narratives about individual characters. They feel personal, like they are people you know. When did you first get the idea to start writing lines for strangers? 

FE: My first book was very personal, drawn completely from my own life. I was tired of writing about myself and feeling writer’s block, so I began to ask my friends and acquaintances if they wanted me to write stories for them instead as a sort of writing exercise. The response was overwhelming, and I realized I needed a little bit more direction, so I started asking people to give me topics for their stories. When I got a typewriter and started incorporating that into my project, the stories became more succinct.

I didn’t do typewriter stories on the spot until AWP (a huge writers conference) came to Chicago and my publisher Curbside Splendor had a booth. They wanted me to come to the booth and sign books. I figured nobody would have heard of my book so I brought the typewriter as a gimmick to try and sell books. It worked. Little did I know that the stories I was writing on the spot for strangers to bring attention to my first book would turn into the content for my second book.

DD: When you write for somebody else, are you trying to intuit or “read” something about that person, or only trying to work with a word or idea they’ve given you? 

FE: Even if someone just gives you one word, you can read their energy and figure out where that word came from, why they chose it. I try to feed off that energy, combine it with my own, and just let the words flow. Most of the time, people are very surprised by what they read and say the poem captures how they are feeling in that moment.

DD: Is there something about the self-imposed restrictions of the gimmick that you think bring out something essential that doesn’t happen in other methods of writing?  

FE: The best part about this form of performance art/writing is that you don’t have time to think, time to edit, time to change what you’re going to say. You can’t correct yourself if there is a typo or spelling error, or if you use a word or punctuation mark you didn’t mean to. It’s writing in its rawest, most honest form.

DD: And no correction ribbon?

FE: No correction ribbon!

DD: Do you give yourself a time limit, then? 

FE: I don’t. Most of the poems take no more than five minutes.  The cardstock I use is small so it forces me to get the idea out before I run out of space.

DD: You’ve informed me about other current street poets, like these folks, and The Bumbys on the sillier end of the spectrum. Do you personally know  other poets who do this? Do you think of this a community or a movement? 

FE: I’m starting to wonder about live typewriting becoming a new artist movement. In every city, I’ve met  atleast one really interesting typewriter repairman. I love talking to them about their business when I go to their old workshops to buy ribbon or get my typewriter fixed. Every single one of them has told me how surprised they are that so many people are suddenly interested in typewriters again. Business is non-stop for them now when ten years ago it was nearly dead.  I was at a shop in Highland Park (LA) recently, and there were 300 typewriters in the workshop, with monthlong waits to be repaired. If you think of how much our society relies on technology, it seems many people are looking back nostalgically on something as real and tangible as a typewriter. Something with no distractions like the internet, no backspace, nothing to plug-in. There’s not much more besides you, your idea, and the ink. It brings you back to yourself.

I know live typewriting is very popular in New Orleans. The guy who was infamously mocked on Reddit for using his typewriter at a park in NY  recently reached out to me to discuss collaboration. I know there is another girl in LA who people mix me up with a lot; she runs a project called Poem Store, an idea she got from another guy in San Francisco, and always graciously credits him for changing her life. People ask me if I  feel territorial or competitive when I hear about other typewriter poets, and I always say “No.” It takes a certain kind of creativity to be able to write something on the spot for someone and give it away, and every writer has their own voice. Even if the idea is the same, the result is always completely unique. It’s exciting that so many people are into a tangible, old school model of creating art.  It brings you back to the core of writing. Keroouac, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, etc. — all of them relied on typewriters for their craft, now why shouldn’t we?

DD: I have my cartoons featured in the back of the New Yorker magazine without the captions so that they can be used for the popular caption contest. A number of cartoonists won’t let their work be used in that way because they feel it cheapens the art of it. Do you feel like some of the magic or mystery of poetry is sacrificed by performing it in this way?

FE: I think this is one of the most magical forms of poetry. A poem written specifically for a person and inspired by that person. It touches them in a different way than just a poem you stumble upon in a book. It also can depend on the topic the person picks: if one wants me to write a poem about her dog, then it’s not going to be the deepest thing ever written, but if it still brings a smile to someone’s face, then I’m okay with that.

DD: What is the most memorable reaction that anyone has had to one of your street poems? 

FE: I was typing poems at a fundraiser party for the Eagle Rock Yacht Club. I was ready to pack up at the end of the party, and a couple came up to me and told me they got engaged at the same event a year before. They begged me to write them a poem about their upcoming marriage. I couldn’t pass up that request, so I sat back down and typed. I have NO idea what I wrote, but I handed it to them and packed up and left. A few weeks later, I found out that at their wedding they only had one reading, and it was my poem! I was excited to find out I had randomly touched their life in that way.  I also wrote two poems for a couple who told me they were going to get tattoos of the poems on their arms. People actually tell me that a lot, which is really daunting but amazing compliment!

DD: Other than the fact that you can do them quickly, what have you learned about yourself by doing street poetry?  

FE:  I was surprised that I could actually come up with poems that would be worth publishing, creating a story well-liked  by readers other than the person whom made the request. That’s why I decided to publish Kiss as Many Women as You Can — I felt like some of the poems ought to be shared and passed along, so I took the book a step further and turned each poem into a postcard.  I also learned that people choose the same themes over and over, which says a lot about human nature, aspects like: love, forgiveness, moving on, letting go, and nostalgia.  Those are the most common topics, which are words/emotions that connect all of us.


High Art, Low Res: Reviewing Art Basel Miami with an iPhone

The first time my college painting professor asked me what I thought of a Mark Rothko I said,  “I don’t know—what’s the caption?” So even though my training was in the fine arts, I eventually gravitated toward cartooning, which I now do regularly. But I still like to keep-up on what is happening in the art world. So this year I made my first trip to Art Basel Miami Beach, the annual event where the world’s top galleries showcase their works for collectors, curators, museum directors, and anybody else who can afford a hotel room in Miami during those four days.

There are plenty of other worthwhile activities going on during Basel. The street art scene has fully exploded, which I wrote about briefly here, and there are other smaller art fairs which are pretty terrific. But I wanted to see the epicenter of all the hype, the main spectacle at the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the beautiful people browsed among the big ticket art items: the Warhols and the Koonses and the Murakamis.

Officially, you’re not supposed to take photographs at the convention center, at least not with your high-powered 35MM. Of course, nobody objects to a little hashtaggy, Instagrammy buzziness, so smartphone pictures are allowed to proceed unchallenged. However, in deference to the artists and the galleries who represent them, I decided to do a photo review of the Basel exhibit by only taking poor or extremely cropped iPhone pictures.




This is the carpet inside the main entrance of the convention center. It’s a great way to draw visitors inside the exhibition hall, because you’re pretty eager to get past this:




This untitled Jackson Pollock drawing from the 1950s, looking like a notebook page full of alien hieroglyphics, was unrecognizable as a Pollock, and especially from this angle, right?




Kevin Appel’s paintings at the Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe gallery were gauzy representations of rebar, overlaid with patterns of line and Benday dots, but which were almost entirely obscured by huge blocks of dark blue paint. If you could see the whole image, you’d be able to see that you couldn’t see it.




Fortunately, I cropped this Jack Pierson piece so that you would have no idea what it said.




This gorgeous Kohei Nawa sculpture, PixCell Maria #11 at SCAI, appeared to be glass bubbles which assumed the form of the iconic standing Virgin Mary pose. Whereas people often see apparitions of the Virgin Mary in caves and in danish, I can imagine somebody seeing an apparition of this Virgin Mary in a bubble bath.




There were two separate paintings which were nearly identical. Upon close inspection they were differently textured, but from a normal distance they were both large canvases covered completely in a single grayish powder-blue hue. One was by the American John Zurier, another by Italian painter Ettore Spaletti. One of them brought the viewer into a heightened awareness of bliss, and the other one kinda sucked. I can’t remember which was which.




This interactive video installation was quite popular. There was a line to use it. Then I realized why: it was spitting out money! Then i realized it was an ATM.




You can tell there are a lot of Europeans there because: yellow pants! Only Europeans can pull off yellow pants.




On the other side of this Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe wall was an appealingly bold abstract work by Monique van Genderen, which out of respect for the artist, I can’t show here.




It’s exhausting looking at art all day, even for non-humans.




Selfie with Lichtenstein!



Juan Genoves’ “Trayecto” was a fun work, an enormously tall panel of thick paint globs which represent hundreds of people running across a crosswalk. Evidently they all figured out where Lady Gaga was making her appearance.




Finally, Basel is not just about art, but about the parties. This one really got out of control with all the zombies and Nazis!




(editor’s correction: this is actually a work of art exhibited at Art Basel, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “In Our Dreams We Have Seen Another World” (White Cube) and not a party pic.)