Tuesday, January 13, 2015

In Print: Threads Postmodern Fable

With less than two months to go, I'm eagerly counting down to March 9 and the release of my comics dissertation-turned book Unflattening - see more details on Harvard University Press's site here! (And if you can't wait,  I see it's up for preorder at places like Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Powells!)

In the meantime, an essay I made in comics form before the dissertation is now in print in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy's special issue on Arts-Based Educational Research (Vol. 11, Iss. 2). The piece was originally created for my advisor Ruth Vinz's course Postmodern Textual Practices (and shared on my site here), and it examines the move from modernism to postmodernism as constructed from mashups of mythology and fairy tales alongside the philosophical and scientific through the methodology of DJ sampling. Alongside Mind the Gaps the Shape of Our Thoughts, and Learning Pathways, Threads proved instrumental in shaping my dissertation process - particularly in moving back and forth between whole page compositions and intense panel-construction. This piece also touches on my Spin/Weave/Cut from which my site takes its name (see more on the meaning behind that here). You can view the piece in the journal online here and for those without University journal access, the first 50 to click through this link, can download the PDF of the article for free here. Or you can just read it on my site here and now...

Due to the diversity of sources woven into this piece, I thought it would be fun and perhaps helpful to show my hand a bit by providing the equivalent to footnotes to some of the imagery and references. So if you're interested in looking behind the curtain, check it out below the comic itself. Wishing all a possibility-filled and expansive 2015. - Nick

What follows is not offered as explanation, but a key to some of the imagery referenced – if you’re so inclined to look behind the curtain. I advise reading only after you’ve read the comic.

Threads – the Key

Page 1: The opening line is my take on “once upon a time…” The image specifically references Lee Lawrie’s statue of Atlas at Lincoln Center. The “world” is partially a reference to the statue itself but also to Kepler’s sketch of the nested Platonic solids.  

Page 2:
Panel 1: Greek myths are full of stories of locking away the primal, irrational, and chaotic in Tartarus (as with the Titans) or as this panel references – in the Labyrinth. I pull some of my thinking here from Michael Ayrton’s “Maze Maker,” a novel about the creative process, as told through the story of Daedalus, the builder of the labyrinth and father of Icarus. The Minotaur is seen less as a monster in its own right but as some primal aspect of ourselves necessary to keep down in order to seek a more rational life. Theseus follows Ariadne’s thread up into the light, and my text also alludes to Plato’s story of the cave and escaping to enlightenment (here, the radiating ball of string.)
P2-5: Ariadne’s thread becomes Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth, which in turn transforms into the Yellow Brick Road as a golden path toward truth and knowledge. This series of connections on threads served as the genesis for this piece.
P6: The text is a reference to Descartes’ separation of mind and body.
P7: Continental Drift Theory had a huge impact on how we think of the world and I sought to depict that here with images of earth as Pangae, Gondwana, and today’s configuration of the continents. (Also placing them as I did is also a reference to the way multiple earths are depicted in DC Comics’ “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”)
P8-11: “No fixed points in space” is a quote from Einstein picked up by Merce Cunningham as part of his approach to dance. Moving fast to keep in place is a nearly direct quote from Through the Looking Glass. The Cheshire Cat is joined with Schrodinger’s cat – and the idea of superposition. This would’ve been fun to explore more, and Alice’s cat playing with a ball of string almost made its way in (only the string stayed in back up at Panel 1.)

Page 3: 
When the cord is cut, literally, I wanted to show our perspective falling like Alice down the Rabbit Hole. The fall not only references Alice’s fall, but the Great Fall text leads into Humpty Dumpty’s fall, which we’ll see the effects of on the next page.

Page 4:
Panel 1: Arriving on the scene to fix up Humpty Dumpty after his fall from the wall, are all the King’s Horse-Men. Having already decided to use hybrid creatures in the piece (a Spider-woman and a Mermaid), this compression of all the King’s horses and all the King’s men into one centaur worked well. Furthermore, I mashed this story with the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, whose appearance here isn’t a fearful ending but something else altogether.
P2: Given the theme of threads that emerged early in creating this piece, Arachne was one of the few players I had in mind from the beginning. (Spiderman stayed out of it…) I saw Athena’s punishment as a gift instead, one of a number of reversals of perspective in the piece. “Fabric of relations” comes from Lyotard’s text on the Postmodern Condition. The image draws on Gustav Dore’s rendering of Arachne in Dante’s Purgatorio.
P3: We see the Three Fates, the Grey Women, or Moirae – maiden, matron, and crone. Those who spin, measure, and cut the thread that is our lives. Depending on where you read – their sight is ambiguous. Destiny or fate is often seen as blind, so while some accounts say that they share one eye between them, I went with the blind depiction here. (In subsequent pieces where I’ve incorporated them, I’ve gone with a different interpretation.)
P4: Rapunzel lets down her hair – a braid of DNA connecting us to our past, as postmodern methods cut up samples of past works to make new. The cycle of the moon also references the symbolism for the Three Fates – waxing, full, and waning, as the DNA becomes a coiled spiral, becomes waves – tides caused by the moon above. The text borrows heavily from Ayrton’s Maze Maker: “Life is not a circle but a helix.”
P5: Heraclitus’ words connect to the panel previous of past feeding present and the final panel on Chaos, as the Little Mermaid speaks to the merged creatures we’ve become, necessary for a world that’s constantly shifting.

P6: As this developed, it turned out for the most part I was working with stories featuring women – even when Theseus is depicted, it’s Ariadne that saves the day. Keeping with that, I brought in Pandora who definitely got a bad rap as patriarchal cultures took hold. Pandora’s name properly translated means “all-giving” and the “box” is actually a mis-translation for something more akin to a jar. I used the image of a jar and hoped by referencing “box” in the text that the connection was clear. I wanted to connect what’s in the jar/box back to things locked away in the Labyrinth, and in taking a different look at Pandora, take a different look at Chaos theory as well. And so what comes out is the fluid, nonlinear stuff that makes this world, and butterflies – symbols of metamorphosis and the butterfly effect – “a sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” Even the smallest of things can have an effect in a connected system. I think it’s a beautiful thought, and from the physics referenced by Alice to Chaos theory here, all of the narrative speaks to a world shrugging off a search for certainty and perhaps embracing complexity as complexity. And perhaps by undertaking this tapestry of ideas in visual form, it allows that complexity to stay present. (Thus you probably shouldn’t have read this.) – Nick

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Final Page and International Talks

As we continue to get settled in Calgary, I ended up drawing one final page for my book Unflattening (formerly-known-as-my-dissertation) due out from Harvard University Press in March of 2015. While with the exception of the cover, some additional title images, and cleanup, the drawing has been done since i defended in the spring, circumstances required a last minute additional page to solve a pagination issue with how I intended the other pages to be laid out. I share the thumbnails i made for the layout and a vine video of my process here. The finished piece along with all the rest of the work will be out in just three short months (and already available for preorder)! Excited to be able to share it in one whole piece and see it that way for myself! (See more info on Unflattening on HUP's site.)

Days after arriving in Calgary, I had the opportunity to make a quick trip to Umeå, Sweden, and present on my work at the conference on Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production organized by Patrik Svensson. It was a thought-provoking event all around, and I had the privilege of being one of the first to present on their new 3 screens on the wall and one on the floor presentation space. It was a fun challenge to think through presentation as more than one slide at a time and particularly interesting for me to consider in terms of making comics and how one could use that spatial dimension to engage with the audience in different fashion. I'm sharing two virtual images from how I prepared the talk beforehand and one live image where i got to stand on all the feet that I'd gathered with the put your foot in my dissertation contest. Thanks to Patrik and all who gathered there for such a stimulating adventure and warm reception! 

Finally, back in November I gave a keynote address at the International Visual Literacy Association's conference held at the Toledo Museum of Art. It was a terrific gathering and I got to present in the grand venue that hosts the Toledo Symphony. The museum has just made videos from the conference available - you can see mine and others on YouTube here or embedded below. Note, should you wish to watch it but find yourself intimidated by the video's length - I speak only for about the first 20 minutes or so, and then lead participants in a comics-making exercise, which takes up most of the rest of the video until a final Q&A.

Wishing you well as we approach the shortest day of the year and the approach of the days getting longer again. (My two days in Sweden were nearly sunless - with the sunset that far north happening around 1:30!) Best to all over the holidays and in the new year. - Nick 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanks NYC hello Calgary + Maxine

UPDATED with more info about my presentation at Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production in Umeå, Sweden (below). 

This week my wife, our nearly 8 month old daughter, and I packed up and said goodbye to New York City. From the educational community at Teachers College and the springboard it offered in making colleagues from all over to coming to know the comics community at large (in great part due to participating in the a NY comics symposium organized by Ben Katchor - check it out if you haven't!) to all the friends and neighbors we've met along the way, New York has been good to us. It's hard to move on from such a supportive and dynamic home, but we're excited for the journey ahead - which is taking us far west and north to Calgary!

This new adventure is precipitated by my accepting the Eyes High Postdoctoral Fellowship in comics studies at the University of Calgary. They are doing amazing things around comics studies there under the leadership of comics scholar extraordinaire Professor Bart Beaty (see an interview with Bart here). I'm thrilled to have such tremendous support to continue my research in comics and push on the possibilities for the form! And we're looking forward to coming to know and be apart of a new community as we begin this next chapter...

In the meantime, final preparations are nearly complete for the March release of the book version of my dissertation. Excited to see it alongside the roster of Spring/Summer releases in Harvard's catalog!

And, I have been doing new work - I just completed a comic in tribute to legendary philosopher of education Maxine Greene, who passed away early this summer. I made my first comic for school in Maxine's class and it seems fitting that my final one in departing reflects on her teaching. I had the good fortune to be able to have regular visits with Maxine and share chapters of my comics dissertation with her along the way. This piece began life as an intended collaboration on imagination between Maxine and I that would focus on the tree outside her window. It never had a chance to develop beyond conversations and initial sketches. After hearing my colleague Daiyu Suzuki's memorial at her funeral, I invited him to collaborate, and this piece is a means of continuing our conversation with her. The entire piece will be published in the Teachers College Record in a few months and I'll share it in full then. But for now, I wanted to put up a little excerpt.

Finally, shortly after arriving in Calgary in early December, I'll be making a quick trip to Umeå, Sweden for a conference on Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production. It looks to be a terrific gathering and I'm looking forward to sharing my work and learning from all assembled.  Additionally, the lab there is experimenting with multi-screen presentation technology, which I think will lend itself well to talking on comics - and should be fascinating to explore. Update: Along with Franco Moretti, Johanna Drucker, and others, I'm delighted to be giving one of six open to the broader public talks during the conference. The four screens proved to be quite a challenge to think through, but I'm pleased with how they've come together. Excited to see how it works live! Conversation from the conference will be shared on twitter at #goskp2014

Thanks for everything, New York, hello soon, Calgary.  Thanks to all for all the support - wishing everyone a safe and happy Thanksgiving (belatedly in Canada...). - Nick

P.S. A picture of Maxine reading an early chapter, a photo of her tree, and a sketch I made of it while visiting with her accompanied by notes I jotted down of her words then: "The tree gets more and more wonderful the more I look at it..." - N

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Talking Visual Lit @ Toledo & Princeton

This Friday, November 7, I'm pleased to be giving a keynote session at the International Visual Literacy Association's annual conference, held at the Toledo Museum of Art. As the organization puts it - "visual thinking is a form of critical thinking," "the ability to derive meaning from images of everything that we see - to read and write visual language." It is to, to be sure, a great fit for my work, and i'm excited to be a part of it! I'll be talking about my comics dissertation, what I mean by Unflattening, and what happens when we do research through the visual - giving equal weight to both visual and textual elements, where the whole meaning only emerges from their interaction. In my session, i will also be making comics with those in attendance - so should be a lot of fun all around!

If you're in the Toledo area - all the keynote talks are free and open to the public (there are fees to attend the entire conference). Check out details about the conference here and info about invited speakers here. Also, my hometown Detroit radio station AM760 WJR interviewed several of those involved with the conference, including me, for a special program on the Trend of Visual Literacy. You can listen to the audio of that here on the Relevant University show with host Larry Burns out of the University of Toledo. Updates about the conference on twitter will be at #IVLA2014

Immediately following that, Monday the 10th, I'll be speaking at Princeton University, in their Department of English, a guest of professor Kinohi Nishikawa. The focus will be somewhat more specifically on the dissertation and reimagining scholarship and academic writing (as with the recent #remixthediss event at CUNY) - but I will also be taking attendees through hands on theory through practice with some comics-making explorations. If you're in the Princeton neighborhood - come on out!

And, as I mentioned in some detail in my last post, my dissertation is coming out March 9, 2015 in book form from Harvard University Press! I am to say the least, excited to be able to share it all in one volume - and to work with such a supportive editor and publisher to realize this work in published form. I'll be sharing many images from the dissertation/book in all these talks and giving away, as I do, mini-comics excerpts from the work.

To close this post, I want to share a few excerpts directly referring to concepts of visual literacy and perception (and eyes) - key themes that run through the work and that I'll be addressing in the coming talks.  (These excerpts came from pages that have appeared previously on my site. You can see the entire pages by clicking on the respective links for the OdysseyParallaxKaleidoscopic vision, and Saccadic Motion, to see the entire sequences.) Look forward to conversations to come at these gathering. Thanks for the support! - Nick 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Unflattening Harvard UPress

I'm pleased to announce that my comics dissertation will be published by Harvard University Press in March of 2015! Check out HUP's catalog here to see all the specifics about Unflattening.

This has been in the works for over a year now and I'm thrilled to be able to officially share the news! I've been extremely fortunate to work with a wonderful editor in Sharmila Sen and just a great team at HUP all around. Since defending and handing in the dissertation back in May, with their input I've been plugging away on prepping the book version. The most prominent addition to the dissertation version is the cover - displayed here. (The full cover wraps around the back and onto the flaps as well.) The cover is based on the interior pages that emerged from the "put your feet in my dissertation" invitation and features the outlines of feet from people around the world.

One of the most exciting things for me in seeing this come to fruition is to look back over all my sketches (I've been scanning them as something that will be shared in the notes section) and look at the genesis of ideas scrawled out onto sheets of newsprint as early as 2011 and see how much of what the final work looks like was present in those earliest notes, what changed along the way, never made it in, and only came about much later on. I see it a bit as revealing that our ideas don't emerge like Athena, fully formed from Zeus's brow, rather our thinking coalesces from initial inklings and may take on many forms before the finished appearance in which most people encounter it. Many of these will be in the book, and I plan to share more on my site in the coming months. (The page shown here is the very first page of notes when I started on the project.) 

(Upcoming: I'll be a featured speaker at the International Visual Literacy conference at the Toledo Museum of Art November 7th and all the keynote talks will be open to the public. New to this work? The Chronicle's recent profile is a good way to get up to speed quickly, or click the dissertation label on the upper right for excerpts.) 

Thanks to all for the support over the last several years - it's been a great privilege to develop this work in public conversations - both in person and virtual. Looking forward to being able to share the complete work in just a few short months! - Nick 

From the jacket copy on Harvard University Press's website:

The primacy of words over images has deep roots in Western culture. But what if the two are inextricably linked, equal partners in meaning-making? Written and drawn entirely as comics, Unflattening is an experiment in visual thinking. Nick Sousanis defies conventional forms of scholarly discourse to offer readers both a stunning work of graphic art and a serious inquiry into the ways humans construct knowledge.
Unflattening is an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint. Weaving together diverse ways of seeing drawn from science, philosophy, art, literature, and mythology, it uses the collage-like capacity of comics to show that perception is always an active process of incorporating and reevaluating different vantage points. While its vibrant, constantly morphing images occasionally serve as illustrations of text, they more often connect in nonlinear fashion to other visual references throughout the book. They become allusions, allegories, and motifs, pitting realism against abstraction and making us aware that more meets the eye than is presented on the page.
In its graphic innovations and restless shape-shifting, Unflattening is meant to counteract the type of narrow, rigid thinking that Sousanis calls “flatness.” Just as the two-dimensional inhabitants of Edwin A. Abbott’s novella Flatland could not fathom the concept of “upwards,” Sousanis says, we are often unable to see past the boundaries of our current frame of mind. Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge, Unflattening teaches us how to access modes of understanding beyond what we normally apprehend.
Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening is a complex, beautiful, delirious meditation on just about everything under the sun; a unique and bracing read.”—Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics and Making Comics
“An important book, Unflattening is consistently innovative, using abstraction alongside realism, using framing and the (dis)organization of the page to represent different modes of thought. The words and images speak for themselves and succeed on their own terms. I couldn’t stop reading it.”—Henry Jenkins, author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Upcoming Talks & Process Sketches (Multimodality)

Last week (10/10/14), I participated in the #remixthediss event on New Dissertation Models at the CUNY Graduate Center here in NYC. It was a terrific gathering, invigorated live audience, and it was live-streamed to audiences around the country and the globe - and in many sites they hosted their own parallel discussions. Primary organizer, Professor Cathy Davidson now of CUNY called it not an event but the start of a movement. And as part of that, a publicly editable document was made available for listeners to ask questions and presenters answered them live and have continued to build on the document since. You can see that document here, and watch the recorded video of it right here. (If you came to here me, I'm around the 50 minute mark). Reflections and resources from it are posted on HASTAC's site here. Cathy Davidson was featured in Inside Higher Ed this week and speaks about the event movement in the interview. (This resonates with previous panels on new forms of scholarship that i've been involved in from Expanding Forms of Scholarship to Beyond the Protomonograph).

This week, I'm off to Michigan State University to present at the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies annual conference. I've been fortunate to participate with this inclusive organization for about six years now, and this time around I've been invited to give a few remarks about my work at the opening, as well as my individual session, which will also include a comics-making workshop! 

And in early November, I've been invited to give a keynote talk/workshop at the International Visual Literacy Association's conference at the Toledo Museum of Art. Looks like a fascinating gathering and I'm honored to be partaking in it. You can get a little sense of some of the things I'll be talking on from this poster I made for the Oxford Illustration Symposium last year. The Chronicle's feature on my work is another good way for those unfamiliar to get up to speed. 

I want to close this post by sharing some process sketches. I've been scanning all the sketches that went into the dissertation (for inclusion in the book version!), and that's led me to reflect further on my process and how ideas emerge between the collaboration of thoughts in our heads and sketches on paper. It's something i find that makes my work in comics smarter than I am on my own. Anyhow, what follows are a slew of sketches that went into making a page on comics and multi modality from the third chapter of the dissertation, which sets out to theorize on how comics do their work. I posted them here in what in pretty close to the order they were made. You can see that my initial idea was going in a totally different direction (though i still like the idea of talking about omelets as a kind of multimodal process). I then came up with a concept that is more or less what i went with, but then you see all the attempts to get the composition to flow correctly. This culminates in transforming the large hand on the "keyboard" into an arrow of sorts that helps move the reading eye back up after going down for the initial content. Anyhow, I think this offers a sense of the thinking that goes into a page. I'm frequently asked how long pages take to make - and while the drawing in many cases can take a long time - for me, it's always the thinking, how to orchestrate the page to embody the ideas. It's a journey of wrong turns and surprising discoveries. Which is what I feel research always ought to be. - Nick 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Remix Diss and McGee at 90

This site has been quiet for a little bit. But that's not to say I haven't been busy. I'm looking forward to sharing a few announcement as to what I've been up to in just a few weeks. But in the meantime, I wanted to share an upcoming event I'm participating in and a non-comics/education work. 

First up, on October 10 at the CUNY Graduate Center from 4-5:30 pm, I'll be participating in a panel called "What is a dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media." As the name indicates, it'll feature doc students and recent grads talking about their experimental and innovative scholarly forms including digital, multimedia, and, in my case, comics! It's hosted by the super awesome Cathy Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative and founder of HASTAC. I'll be paneling alongside Jade E. Davis of University of North Carolina, Dwayne Dixon of Duke, Gregory T. Donovan of Fordham, and Amanda Licastro of the CUNY Graduate Center. 

The event will be live streamed here and live tweeted at #remixthediss. Virtual partners are invited and there'll  be a collaborative component on google docs. In putting this on, the hope is to gather information and resources about other alternative forms that have been achieved beyond the panelists. (For a past post I did on other researchers working in comics form, see here.) See more details on the HASTAC website here or click here for an interactive version of the poster. It'll be in the English Department Lounge (Rm 4409) ad the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave, NYC. Hope to see some of you there - and please spread the word!  (For the Chronicle's look at my and Dani Spinosa's dissertation work, see here. This came out of a session at MLA called Beyond the Protomonograph.)

On a different front, I'm the biographer of legendary Detroit artist Charles McGee. Charles turns 90 this year and is being featured with an exhibition at Mongerson Gallery in Chicago. I wrote a brief exhibition essay for the show, and share that below. If you're in that city - definitely recommend checking it out. And to learn more about Charles, you can see my earliest interview with him from 2004 here, a 2006 interview in Detroit's MetroTimes here, an interview we did for an exhibition on process here, and the comic I made about him here. Charles is ever an inspiration.

More news and new works soon. Thanks for following along. Onward! - Nick 

Charles McGee at 90: Mongerson Gallery Chicago exhibition essay

An exhibition celebrating the 90th year of an artist’s life might suggest looking back. For Charles McGee, however, making art is always an attempt to speak the language of the time and explore new means for expression. Thus, this milestone marks simply another day on his journey toward “what’s next?” His eye on tomorrow is not a disregard for what came before. On the contrary, McGee folds past into present, transforming and evolving in a continuity of growth. In some sense, each piece is autobiographical as it evokes the full continuum of his accumulated experiences.

For this exhibition, McGee’s masterful handling of charcoal that first brought him to prominence in Detroit is once again on display. In “Jazz Shouts and Whispers,” his rich textures accompany the patterned surfaces of the amorphic dancing figures that have populated his compositions for the past decade. Layers of experience mingle together as these distinct elements are joined in new conversation. In “Lineage,” the vibrant red highlighting of jagged edges glows against the black and white line work and brings to mind his explorations of neon from the late 1970s – which in turn hearkens his earliest experiences of being dazzled by the signs and lights he saw upon arriving in Detroit, a visual shock for a farm boy from South Carolina. The electricity of that formative moment still burns strongly.

McGee insists that art is necessarily informed by life, and the changes in the work reflect his own changes. Although he recovered his strength and spirits following the stroke he suffered in 2011, his mobility remains hampered. Embarking on new large-scale painting and assemblage pieces became untenable. But as ever, out of a limitation McGee has brought forth a new set of possibilities. McGee’s true affliction, he will tell you, is a life committed to making this work, to obeying his calling. Forging ahead has meant leaving his cavernous studio to work on his dining room table or a board on his lap in bed. Spartan conditions not so different from his young adult explorations into serious art making in a tiny basement apartment where he used a dresser drawer as an easel. By turning to the computer and industrial processes, he harnesses the power of technology to achieve the scale his work demands. His imagination is only emboldened by what these new tools and materials can offer as he translates his sketches into three-dimensional space.

For McGee, art is a sustaining force – a means for him to learn something new each day. And time has been his greatest teacher, continually enriching his quest and providing him with a thirst for greater understanding that he can never quench. In McGee’s words, “I came into art asking questions and I’ll go out asking questions.” - Nick Sousanis, August 2014