As a 2–week project, Design As Experience students were asked to create a cumulative “visual response” to a length of rope. This was an opportunity for me to overcome my initial reaction against an unpleasant material and to explore the impact of documentation of the relics of a performance.
Halfway through the semester, Design As Experience students were given a 2-week assignment: to create a cumulative visual response to a length of rope, made up of a series of creations and destructions taking place in 15-minute increments every 24 hours. The final product of this project was not to be a finished art or design “piece” but instead a creative documentation of our 14 interactions with the rope, capturing and expressing the evolution of our ideas and engagement in the format most appropriate to our working process.
The rope itself, delivered to each student like a gift in a small paper lunch bag, was approximately 2 yards long, and perhaps 3/8 of an inch in diameter. Wound into a neat spiral and in some cases tied together with a short length of twine, the rope was made up of three strands of some fibrous natural material. Each strand could be unraveled to produce a multitude of thread-thin individual fibers, each one distinct with a wiry and curling individuality of movement. Even after several days outside the paper bag, the rope retained a powerful industrial odor: a motor-oil, gasoline, creosote, tarry scent that lingered and perfumed surrounding areas. Highly unpleasant to touch, the rope’s surface was spiked with the surprisingly sharp tips of individual fibers, giving it a hairy, indistinct silhouette.
My initial approaches to the rope were dictated both by stress brought on by an unusually heavy workload, and an immediate dislike of the rope’s texture, scent, and appearance. In other words, rather than engaging steadily with the rope’s physicality for 15 minutes each day, I followed my own inclination to avoid any interaction with its unpleasant scent and surface and left it in its paper bag on my studio desk for the greater part of the two weeks. I had the rope constantly in the back of my mind during this period, considering and discarding a variety of approaches to my potential visual response. Without thinking much about it, I was in fact creating and destroying a series of ideas each day without physically interacting with the rope itself.
In the end, the most satisfying and also most interesting (to me) approach I could imagine was to think of a dramatic way to destroy the rope entirely. Influenced by a growing interest in performance, and the documentation of time-based performative acts, I determined to create a final set of artifacts that chronicled my participation in the ritualized destruction of the rope over time.
With a video camera to record my actions, I placed a large sheet of thick drawing paper on the hardwood floor of my studio, teased the rope’s strands into smaller and thinner lengths, and set them on fire one by one using a Bic lighter.
Relics collected from this process for my classmates and professors included: a short video of the process of repeatedly setting the rope on fire and watching its strands flame, curl, blacken and dissolve; a clear plastic box containing a small pile of ashes and partially-burned threads; and a long scroll of paper marked with burns in a wavy, looping pattern. I had no specific expectations for the cumulative effect of these relics on their viewers who did not witness the burning of the rope in person. I attempted to display the video, burned paper, and stringy ashes with as little build-up or explanation as possible, encouraging my classmates to reconstruct the story of my actions from the physical remains.
During the process of burning the rope, I was conscious of both discomfort and danger. Added to the unpleasant sensations of handling the rope, I experienced intense anxiety about the uncontained open flames in my apartment, and was forced to endure noxious fumes from the burning rope as fire released the chemicals with which the fibers were treated. By ritualizing and repeating these self-inflicted discomforts with the intent to create a cumulative record of my actions, I was able to sustain my participation until repetition had created the necessary “critical mass” of relics.
I found the working process highly unpleasant, but was surprised to discover how pleased I was with the final outcome of my work during in-class presentations. The relics of my rope clearly told the story of my disgusted reaction to, and subsequent destruction of, the object. What I did not anticipate was that the experience of seeing the remnants of my performance out of context introduced an element of mystery and surprise for viewers that emphasized the ritualistic, almost herculean nature of the destructive process. The gaps in information presented to viewers allowed imagination to tell a much more interesting story of my relationship with the rope than a recital of what actually occurred.
In retrospect, the Rope Project represents a continuation of my growing interest in performance, and the relationship between the performative act and the media that document it. Although I very much enjoy the challenge of “visual response to an object” assignments, I always struggle with a desire to create a response that will be completely unexpected and unique, a near-impossibility when working as part of a large group of creative people who have all received the same assignment! Consistently (and consistently to my surprise) the solutions I develop which include an element of performance, or performative audience participation, have been most successful in meeting this goal. I suspect that this is partly due to the newness of performance as a part of my won creative practice. In addition, and more profoundly, I have found that a unique experience comes much more easily when I am able to find (or make) a framework in which my audience can become a part of the process of creation.