On April 11, 1978, at Boox Books (the predecessor to Woodland Pattern in the Water Street Arts Center) local artist, designer and experimental composer Thomas Gaudynski bought The Four Suits, a book of scores by four experimental composers connected with Fluxus, an interdisciplinary and international arts movement that began in the 1960s.
Philip Corner and Alison Knowles were two of the composers who contributed to The Four Suits. From what Gaudynski tells me and an online article he refers me to, at the London Musicians Collective, The Four Suits is a unique work. Many of Corner’s scores, as well as some of his essays in the book, were written in hand-brushed lettering inspired by Korean musical notation, which Corner saw as more nuanced and expressive than Western notation.
Corner’s “Solo Music and More” calls for the performer to “work himself into a state of exhaustion.” “C Major Chord” is described as possibly being “the most demanding piece in the literature. No demands at all are put on you, because there is no limit to what one can demand of himself.” (Anton Lukoszevieze, “Philip Corner: an introduction,” Resonance 7.1)
In 1978 Gaudynski was unfamiliar with Corner and Knowles, but he knew Dick Higgins who helped publish The Four Suits. One link led to another and to a greater appreciation of experimental composition.
In 1979, Karl Gartung and the fledgling Woodland Pattern Book Center brought Corner and Knowles from New York to Milwaukee to perform at the Milwaukee Public Library. Gaudynski attended the performance and learned from Corner that about a hundred copies of The Four Suits had been sold over the course of ten years: half to people Corner knew or had already met, and half to people Corner said he expected to meet in the next ten years.
Gaudynski tells this story as an example of how modern media–from print to the web or recording technologies–enables any individual or group to reach a larger audience. An audience unrestricted by geography, an audience whose common interests and interaction as a group may define them as a community and not merely as isolated consumers.
Obviously Corner wasn’t getting rich on the sales of a hundred copies of his book in ten years. Making contact with people who share a common passion is a substantial reward by itself, especially for those involved in the arts and creative media.
The promise of that reward, a special sense of connectedness and collaboration, fed the spirit that once animated the web design community Gaudynski has worked in. Because of the interactive possibilities of the worldwide web and the associational nature of hypertext, many designers initially saw great potential in this new medium. It could be a creative, community-building technology–an extension of culture at least as profound as the printing press. But by the latter half of the 1990s, when Gaudynski worked for Hanson/Dodge Design, it was becoming apparent that the innovative, communitarian potential of the web is extremely difficult to realize, and it wasn’t going to happen overnight–maybe not at all.
This note of concern is apparent in several of Gaudynski’s meditations on design, written for his co-workers at Hanson/Dodge from 1995-1997 and included in Artifacts: Essays on Music + Art + Design (Necessary Arts, 2001). Sparked by the re-evaluations of leaders in the multimedia and information design industry, several of the essays in Artifacts reflect on the challenges of new media design.
Responding to designer Jessica Helfand, Gaudynski writes about the difficulties of doing justice to the complexity of the material being presented without flattening and deadening the user’s experience of accessing and navigating it. A related but more deeply felt concern about the human experience of media as it is shaped by designers arises when Gaudynski considers the observation of Tom Reilly, the founder of the online LGBT community, PlanetOut.com: publishing is not necessarily community-building–it may be “merely pushing content or information at people.”
In Reilly’s view, since online publishing usually takes place in a commercial context, it is typically not suited to be a “third place” apart from home and work or school, like a church or public gathering place, where people come together and interact as a community. In such places, interaction is spontaneous and whatever is exchanged comes free of charge. Gaudyski agrees with the implied judgment of some questions posed to web designers in 1995 by Hugh Dubberly, an interface designer for Netscape:
- Is the Internet better off today than it was one year ago?
- What happened to the promise of the internet?
- Where are the communities?
- Are we building the kind of future we want?
To these questions Gaudynski adds five of his own:
- Have we created more online garbage?
- Have we helped to empower people?
- Have we facilitated communication?
- Have we made wise use of resources that serve the community?
- Have we considered those that will follow after us?
When I ask Gaudynski how he’d answer these questions today, he says that in general the answers would be in the negative. As small but exceptional exceptions, he cites BlueEar.com as an attempt at truly global political commentary and Amazon.com‘s open reviewer community where contributors receive no direct compensation.
Speaking about media more broadly, Gaudynski talks about recording technologies (which are also discussed in his book) that have changed our lives. As a composer and musician, Gaudynski, like many Riverwest artists, has embraced do-it-yourself recording as a way to disseminate his work. For him the main benefit of recording and distributing music is that “people can find the sources,” so you get communication between artists and listeners (who may be other artists), and this ultimately has a community-building effect. However, as with the web, this isn’t the way the technology is commonly used.
“Here is an environment where we’re not making any choices,” says Gaudynski, gesturing in the smoky air of the Bremen Cafe where the music of a Blues musician we can’t identify emanates from the stereo. “We’re not taking advantage of it,” Gaudynski says. “All music is electronic. It’s sourceless.”
Recording media becomes sourceless because we don’t know or go back to the sources, and so we relinquish or never even realize the opportunity the technology gives us to be thoughtful and discriminating. Hand-brushed scores in a book that only exists in a few hundred copies draw you back to their creative source. Deadheads with hundreds of bootleg concert tapes, particularly ones they recorded themselves, have a connection to the source of the music. What they experience is grounded in a definite time and place–a community event — -that is inaccessible to most of us.
In an essay called “What Are You Listening To?” Gaudynski muses on the sourcelessness and inauthenticity of media, noting that designers are often not aware of the difficulty of the task when they “blithely state that they can help companies cut through the clutter with unique graphic design.” He tells me that the work of the designer is to “make things clear so people can make choices.” What needs to be clear is where things are coming from, what the sources are, how they’re being assembled in a certain medium, how they can be manipulated, and how there may be a world of possible ways for you to use, understand and appreciate them.
- What do you wish you were listening to?
- What do you wish you were looking at?
- What do you wish you were reading?
It’s time to find out.
Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 7 – July 2003
This article was written on a Palm Vx handheld computer while the author recovered from a toxic tick bite with the help of the Urban Shaman and Dr. Dave.
Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival.
The word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people.
An environment is, after all, a complex message system which imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
It structures what we can see and say and, therefore, do.
It assigns roles to us and insists on our playing them.
It specifies what we are permitted to do and what we are not. Sometimes, as in the case of a courtroom, or classroom, or business office, the specifications are explicit and formal.
In the case of media environments (e.g., books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are more often implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment but merely a machine.
Media ecology tries to make these specifications explicit.
It tries to find out what roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.
Media ecology is the study of media as environments.
–Neil Postman, Media Ecology Association
Thomas and his wife, Marly Gisser, live in “RiverEast” (Cambridge Heights), working together in their design consultancy firm, Necessary Arts.
Thomas and Marly have a daughter, Kira, whose own creative endeavors come up in some of the essays in Artifacts.
The son of a fourth generation Polish-American and a third generation Irish-American, Thomas grew up in the Polish South Side of Milwaukee in the 1950s and 60s. He worked as a commercial artist and technical writer while developing a creative outlet in composing and performing.
Thomas says he never attempted to be a fine artist, but he learned he “could earn a living being creative and … an Artist … as well.”
Thomas has been active in the creation and performance of contemporary music for nearly thirty years. Since the late 1990’s, he has been focusing on composing and improvising in both solo and small group contexts. He employs electric guitar and violin, guitar-driven synthesizer, various feedback systems and recordings. He has worked since 1997 in the trio Audiotrope, and he has performed in various contexts with Scott Fields, Fred Longberg-Holm, Jeff Klatt, Peter Kowald, Jon Mueller, Matt Turner, and Gary Verkade.
Necessary Arts published Thomas’ electric violin solos CD, 52 + 8 or 11 (2003), and ArthritisMinus (2003), duos with Paul Gaudynski from 1983. His CD of electronic music pieces, Elementals, was released by Penumbra Music in 2002.
Thomas is currently Editor of Blue Sky, a magazine “dedicated to young innovators and entrepreneurs,” and published by Discovery World at the James Lovell Museum of Science, Economics and Technology.
Discovery World aims to be a “third place” for children to explore their creativity in hands-on projects involving, for example, digital literacy, advanced nanomaterials, computer animation and web design.