Clever and Curious
We live in a world where our best and brightest are often tasked with trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’– make it cheaper, more durable, faster– give us better traction, better handling, better fuel efficiency– and they have. It’s a renaissance of wheel development. With all this innovation, it’s easy to forget that ‘the wheel’ was never our true objective– it is merely a conventional solution. If the whole world focuses on reinventing the wheel, we will never produce a hover car.
Conventions are not without their merit. I could spend this entire article focused on the semantics of a single word but we’d never get through the first sentence. Artists, who really question the relationship between paint, brushes, and canvas rarely produce work that’s about anything other than painting, itself. While an entire field sharing that focus would grow insular, those artists move painting forward and refine the language so others can use paint to communicate more effectively.
Conventions become problematic when they are seen as essential rather then incidental. When you lose track of the core concept and treat the convention as an end onto itself, the fields narrows and the work becomes increasingly hollow. This problem is best represented through the classic children’s book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’
Close your eyes and picture Alice. Did you picture the blonde girl in a blue dress? Lewis Carroll’s book does not provide any visual description. Instead, the text describes Alice with words like ‘clever’ and ‘curious’. There have been countless illustrated editions but nine times out of ten, Alice is the blonde in blue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Though it’s only one of an infinite number of options, the convention can hold true to the text. The problem with so many people depicting Alice as the blonde in blue is that others start to see those incidental details as her defining characteristics. This leads to depictions of hapless blondes in blue– doe-eyed and dim-witted– that bare no resemblance to the clever and curious girl in the text.
This is equally true of all the wonderland characters. The hatter is mad but his iconic top hat in the style of 10/6 is nothing but convention. A bamboo hatter of the far east or 10 gallon hatter of the old west would be equally true to the text. Despite the endless options left largely unexplored, we have depictions which dawn the 10/6 hat but portray him as calm and collected.. female.. hell, in some adaptations, he isn’t even a hatter– basically contradicting the only characteristics defined by the text.
‘What is the Use of a Book Without Pictures?’ is a visual translation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Rather then a handful of small illustrations depicting selected scenes, we’re going line for line through the book and communicating the entire story through visuals alone. The project is currently over 1000 pages of artwork and has about 350 artists participating. Despite all of those artists being told that their work did not need to conform to any of the visual conventions, the vast majority still depicted the blonde in blue.
The response to the less conventional depictions has been interesting. When the piece above was shared with a group, dedicated to Alice-based art, the first to comment was the group’s administrator. Though she complimented its execution, she suggested that the piece would need to be removed because the group was only for sharing and discussing Alice-based artwork. I presented my case: despite its departure from visual convention, it was truer to the text then half the depictions of the blond in blue. She not only acquiesced– she seemed excited and interested in seeing more. That led us to the next phase of production.
In this phase, we’re lapping the story again only this time we will be imagining it through the lenses of varied periods and cultures. This is not simply mimicking the ‘style’ of that culture/ period ( though that may be part of it ). A hatter is defined by the sort of hats that culture makes and wears. Different large cats, rabbits, caterpillars, etc are indigenous to different regions. Courts, garb, and implications vary wildly from one culture/ period to the next. The mock turtle is a chimera ( cheap/ abundant proteins presented as a turtle facsimile ) but different cultures/ periods would make different substitutions.
This is only the first folio of the phase. Others which are already in progress include: Pre-Columbian Maya, Mexican Revolution, Mycenaean Greek, 16th century Black Forest, 14th Century French, and American Contemporary. ( Those interested in participating should email firstname.lastname@example.org for full details. )
‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is a story of wonder created by a logistician. Clinging to convention serves neither reason nor imagination. Still, Wonderland is just an example.
Learning to separate the defining characteristics from the incidental conventions can be applied universally. The next time you find yourself tasked with reinventing the wheel, remember the wheel, with all its infinite variations, is still just one of the possible solutions.
Mike Schneider is coordinating editor of ‘Steampunk Originals’ and ‘What is the Use of a Book Without Pictures?’. Best known for his mass-collaborative projects, such as ‘Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated’, Schneider is an anti-artist, who brings an iconoclastic and experimental sensibility to media production.
‘What is the Use of a Book Without Pictures?’ is a full text visual translation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Where as an illustrated edition is text-based storytelling augmented by a handful of illustrations that depict selected scenes, a visual translation involves hundreds of artists and thousands of pages of art collectively communicating the entire story without a single word of text. A presentation on this project and the work to date was given earlier today at the Lewis Carroll Society of North America’s 40th Ann. Spring Conference (hosted at NYIT). Artists interested in participating should email Mike Schneider (email@example.com).
Steampunk Originals is an open-call comic anthology series released quarterly by Arcana. Welcoming art of all styles/ media and stories of all tones/ genres, the resulting volumes are a kaleidoscopic exploration of the steampunk theme. This series has already features hundreds of creators from across six continents. Volume 7 officially launches on May 16th (deadline: Sept 1st). Full details are available in the facebook group.
About the author
On occasion Speak Geeky To Me has the great honor of publishing articles by many various guest writers from throughout the realm of Geek culture. This has been one of those posts we're quite lucky to share with you. to learn more about the author, please check the byline at the top or bottom of the post, written in italics.
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