Trees Are Alphabets

Below is information about a fantastic-sounding exhibition that will open on the 26th at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. E.J. McAdams’s striking title (which comes from Roland Barthes) reminds me of Nabokov’s character (from his amazing short story “Signs and Symbols” ) that is stricken with “referential mania,” a condition in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence”: “Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” This, of course, would be a terrifying, unbearable condition, but it is one that, nevertheless, sheds light on our own very restricted vocabularies and systems of meaning. Certainly it would be productive for us to intuit systems of reference not solely about our own human nature. Trees are Alphabets begins to imagine what such systems might look like.

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Trees Are Alphabets
September 26, 2015 to February 7, 2016

Perhaps inspired by his earlier work as a NYC urban park ranger, E. J. McAdams is interested in how we attend to the forces in our environment. Therefore, the attempt to read natural or built elements that surround us has become a major focus in his work. For his installation at The Bronx Museum of the Arts’ Terrace, McAdams was inspired by French philosopher Roland Barthes’ observation that “According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets.”

Trees Are Alphabets considers how the sun, rain, wind, and soil constantly transform the shapes of trees since evolving in primeval forests. McAdams sees in these transformations a vision of an epiphenomenon – like a text – that is forever changing. For the duration of the exhibition, McAdams will write with tree branches, in the hope to make space for a resonant poetic emanation to emerge out of this human-tree collaboration.

About the artist

E.J. McAdams is a poet, artist, and collaborator who lives in Harlem.  He explores language and mark-making in the urban environment using procedures and improvisation with found and natural materials.  One of his text-collages was included in the mail art exhibit “Focus Latin America: Art Is Our Last Hope” at Phoenix Art Museum.  An ongoing series, TRANSECTs, was featured in The Volta and About Place Journal, and published as a chapbook by Sona Books. He was a founding board member of the interdisciplinary Laboratory of Art Nature and Dance (iLAND) from 2004-14 and curated the Social-Environmental-Aesthetics (SEA) reading series at Exit Art that featured poets, visual artists and activists in conversation from 2009-11.

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common place

:::: Learning to travel is another way of saying learning to read. (37)

there:::: For five months at the beginning of 2013, Lance Olsen was a visiting fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. [[there.]] is an account of that period.

:::: It is a book about place.

:::: It is a commonplace book.

:::: It is a more or less diary account of his stay in Berlin combined with a variety of apposite quotations, apercus on various subjects, memories of other journeys. He describes it as “a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps” (10). It’s a fair description if not necessarily an exhaustive one. Continue reading

A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 1

Those notecards? My book, in sum. On each ruled side [not pictured], the first and last sentence of a piece of Critique of Pure Reason. On the other, unruly side, the title of the story in question. Why bother? Mostly for you, or rather, those of you out there who will perhaps read the book. (And thanks, by the way. Thanks even for reading this.)

Which is to say that order always has something to tell us. Viz. the Kuleshov effect, here explained by Alfred Hitchcock: Continue reading

“Is Your Villain Appropriate?”—Examining Character Construction in Different Media

"Phyrexian Ironfoot" (2006). Artwork by Stephan Martiniere. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Every Monday, I read Mark Rosewater’s weekly column “Making Magic,” partly because I have a casual interest in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (I once played it, and some of my friends still play it), but mainly because Rosewater routinely offers great insights into aesthetics and game design. (He’s also a strong writer who regularly experiments with his column’s form.)

In an article published a few weeks back, Rosewater outlines why he thinks one of Magic’s villains, the Phyrexians, are that game’s best. As is typical with Rosewater, it boils down to a design principle—in this case, how the game operates narratively:

As a story-telling venue, Magic is best when it is telling what I call environmental stories. That is, the best thing Magic can show off creatively is an environment. The genre of a trading card game requires that you show lots of creatures and places and objects. This does a good job of showing off a diverse environment.

The Weatherlight Saga [a series of much older sets] was an attempt for us to tell a plot driven story through card sets. What we learned from that is that it’s very hard when we can’t control the order that players see the cards to convey traditional plotting. […] What Magic is good at is telling stories about changes that happen on an environmental level. This way the changes aren’t seen on a single card but a wide swath of cards. When we tell a story in another medium, we will tell a story that plays to that medium’s strength. Card sets, though, have to tell stories that can be told through card sets.

One of the reasons that I believe the Phyrexians make a perfect villain is that they attack on an environmental level. Take Scars of Mirrodin [one of the game’s most recent sets] as an example. The attack of the Phyrexians isn’t something seen on a single card but on many, many cards […]. My contention is that Magic’s best villain is one that works in the kind of stories that Magic (the card sets) can tell.

In a basic sense, Rosewater is advocating that an author tell a story appropriate to his or her medium—age-old advice. But let’s look beyond that simple rule of thumb: What does it mean for a story to be appropriate? And what are the consequences for characters?

Continue reading