Certain Things

You have to begin somewhere. Here we begin with the awareness of your relationship to the world around you and the certain things it contains. The conscious relation to something certain: to give yourself to an object or a space or a process; to attune to it; and to address it with a vulnerability and an openness to be affected by it on equal terms. A project is at its most exciting when it is pure potential - that is - the moment when an idea is articulated, a direction is set, and all your energy is completely directed at fulfilling that potential. A potent project is one where the end result continues to perpetuate the potential of the original idea. Objects and spaces achieve this potency when there is an interplay of known and unknown qualities. In other words, preserving a sense of mystery and indeterminacy amidst what can be perceived or known about a thing. Finding the right balance of known and unknown should prompt you to think and feel more acutely in response to the work.

To begin again, though, is to arrive at an idea. An idea has a tangible consequence. It is the impetus to begin work in earnest. An idea does not require a narrative or elucidation - the result is the idea made manifest. It is not a metaphor or a rationalization. An idea can be a question and it can be abstract, but an idea connotes the future culmination of a process. An idea reckons with the circumstances of a problem; it demands to be met. A concept, by contrast, is an abstract framework that always remains abstract. You cannot occupy a concept; the concept does not need to relate to the problem at hand. A concept is always distinct from the outcome. A concept can be blatant or more obscure; it is often a metaphor and requires narrative description. A concept can be useful if it guides difficult decisions because it purports to offer its own logic. Ideas can be born out of concepts, but a concept born out of an idea does not offer much beyond post-rationalization. Ideas are subjective and intentional; Concepts are subjective and arbitrary. To offer a metaphor: a concept may be a cloud - a nebulous collection of moisture, only seen from a distance, intangible. An idea might be a droplet of water, springing from somewhere within that vast ether, hurling itself towards its destination.

We begin once more with the work we do in a cultural context. With disciplinary boundaries in mind, we might distinguish the work of a designer and an artist this way: A designer engages in a research-based practice; whereas an artist conducts practice-based research. If you permit me the latitude for some generalizations, a designer uses research into the circumstances of their project to help define the trajectory of their practice; an artist makes and practices their craft as an ongoing research project into their synthesis of the world. Designers frequently require a concept to guide their work, using research and different forms of logic to arrive at an idea. An artist frequently begins with the work, perhaps with an inkling of an idea, with the understanding that the practice will reveal new ideas, new outcomes, and new truths. But fundamentally the problem is the same: to find the idea and to execute it in the manner most suited to the parameters the idea outlines.

Finally, we begin with quality. Work begins with an aspiration toward quality. Work in pursuit of anything other than quality, is a misguided or tangential pursuit. Quality is a good idea well executed. It is the designer or artist's responsibility to discern a good idea from a bad one, and their responsibility to interpret the idea to define the manner of its execution. Certain things radiate quality: they have a memorable presence because the resolution of the thing has not exhausted the original idea's potential. The remaining potential of the idea is catalyzed by our co-presence. The thing must first stand alone, as an entity, distinct from external narratives and metaphors. Then, when it is complete, it enters a new life with the world around it, opened to the potential of its network of relations.

Max Mahaffey
December 2020