Blog by JourneyGroup

Learning to see: On being an eternal student.

For the last five years, Greg has spent part of every summer studying at the Basel School of Design. He has many deep conversations about design and tries (unsuccessfully) to speak other languages. He does succeed in returning with  everything he's learned to empower our design work here in Charlottesville.

The coursework is unique each year at the Basel School of Design summer workshop. This year’s theme surrounds images and the vast unknown space about the impact they have on humans. In the classroom, we are focusing on how memory shapes our perception of images (and therefore our sense of what is true).

One thing is clear: People respond to images viscerally, not just cognitively. Our view of the world is shaped by aesthetics. Understood more broadly, aesthetics becomes the study of everything that goes into the human capacity to make and experience meaning. 

As the week has gone on, students have spread out across the open studio and have tended to occupy the same space as they have worked on their final projects. This year, I found myself working alongside a Turkish graphic designer named Caglar. Like me, he is a bit older and has come to several workshops, but because of his quiet demeanor (or my overdeveloped introversion), I’ve not had a chance to get to know him until this week.

Even though Turkey is at the epicenter of so much trouble in the world, it’s hard to imagine that this gentle and lovely man lives not far from the capital Ankara. With no obvious political predisposition, his project explorations focus more on celebrating the simple pleasures from what was once the ancient land of Anatolia—from Turkish coffee to baklava to ouzo, and anise-flavored Liqueur.

The final day of class is always the most energetic and, for some, the most nerve-wracking, as everyone scrambles to finish their projects and assemble some sort of final presentation. It’s all great fun and given the topic of Image and Memory, it’s hard to exaggerate the absurdity of our collective work.

There are works of play dough and aluminum foil, rubbings from local architecture, and drawings and paintings and on and on. How are you, after all, going to make an aesthetic judgment on a work of art inspired by someone’s memory? There is no preexisting framework and that, of course, is much of what our explorations are about.

From a variety of professional fields, there is serious work being done to build such a framework to think about images that derive from memory, dreams, imagination, as well as the millions that we are viscerally exposed to every single day. To simply ignore the reality that we are being formed by these images is naïve, but to imagine a way of thinking about them so that we’re more responsibly creating them seems overwhelming. And of course, it is.

During our final presentations, Caglar pours each of us a taste of ouzo to heighten our experience. Served over ice and with a splash of water, this cloudy white drink is precariously potent and tastes a little like licorice to me. We teased him that he was trying to make us lightheaded so we’d be more agreeable during his presentation.

There is something about this moment that I want to remember. I think it’s the solemn and deep joy that exudes from Caglar, the spring of which is unknown to me, especially when you consider the turmoil his country has endured for centuries.

After the last class I rest at a biergarten and try to capture a few thoughts about our workshop, what our professor calls Practice-Led Iconic Research. Although that sounds boringly academic, he simply asserts that design research should be grounded in making images. So while we’ve done a lot of reading and discussing, we’ve mostly made stuff—tangibly exploring new ideas while testing some of the old ones.

In so doing, our work is messy and unresolved and often not very beautiful, but we have all experienced what Da Vinci called sapere vedere, learning how to see.

There were so many children on the green that final night, most of whom are just toddlers. One little moppet has just taken off her shirt and shoes and diaper and is very capably running away from her mother. She’s laughing hysterically—her mother is not.

The little moppet stops to listen, then to dance, and is soon hopping up and down to the sound of an accordion player on the green. Suddenly she is whisked away by her mother. She is caught and none too happy about it.

But it soon appears they have worked out a compromise—the diaper but nothing else—so that she’s back to hopping and dancing in glorious guilelessness. May we all live with such unbridled joy. Clothing is optional.

Auf Wiedersehen.