Letting go of control to create something out of nothing

Anna Lovatt opened the symposium on The Materiality of Nothing at Lancaster University by discussing the work of Richard Tuttle. In the programme for the day she wrote:

This paper will trace Tuttle’s career from his early engagement with the artists of the Betty Parsons Gallery (including Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly), to his scandalous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. I will argue that Tuttle’s pursuit of the zero degree can be understood as part of a career-long interrogation of the practice of drawing.

In a reading of her chapter in a forthcoming book Anna Lovatt interprets the materiality of nothing with reference to Richard Tuttle’s critical investigation of drawing, drawing degree zero. All the ideas in this chapter are new to me, and the chapter has not yet been published, so it has not been easy to follow this through. What follows is a personal limited understanding with a focus on the ideas which resonated with my own thinking and work.

Drawing degree zero relates to Roland Barthes ‘Writing Degree Zero’, in which Barthes was interested in creating colourless writing in the indicative mood middle zone (degree zero) distinguished from and between language and style. In a similar way Tuttle conceived line (the drawn line) as being in an in between zone of absence and emptiness that has little to do with signature or autobiography.

In the ‘60s when Tuttle was exploring these ideas drawing was being dismissed by artists such as Pollock and Rothko and an exhibition of his minimalist work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975 drew heavy criticism from the art critic Hilton Kramer, who wrote that if less is often considered to be more then ‘in Mr Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less… One is tempted to say, where art is concerned, less has never been as less than this’. Anna Lovatt pointed out, with some irony, that in the case of Tuttle’s exceedingly minimal work, less had clearly become excessive!

Like Barthes, Tuttle explored how to stay in the neutral middle zone between the visible and invisible. He did this through working with white paper octagonals which he pasted to a wall of the same colour. Depending on your view you might or might not see these octagonals.

8th Paper octagonal

Eighth Paper Octagonal 1970

In this interview Tuttle talks about this work as follows:

I was doing white paper octagons on a wall at a museum in Dallas. And the critic came along and made mock introductions, “Oh, this is Richard Tuttle. He’s interested in impermanence in the arts.” And she said that to Betty Parsons, and Betty just immediately snapped back, “What’s more permanent than the invisible?” It fits in with the whole line—that in any art form, there has to be an accounting of its opposite condition. If you’re going to be a visual artist, then there has to be something in the work that accounts for the possibility of the invisible, the opposite of the visual experience. That’s why it’s not like a table or a car or something. I think that that might even be hard for people because most of our visual experiences are of tables: it has no business being anything else but a table. But a painting or a sculpture really exists somewhere between itself, what it is, and what it is not—you know, the very thing. And how the artist engineers or manages that is the question.

In 1971 Tuttle began work on wire octagonals. Anna Lovatt showed us his 10th Wire Octagonal, explaining that this work traces the outline of an absent object through three lines, the wire, the line and the shadow and introduced the notion of ‘shimmer’, which I understood to be the idea that the line is constantly shifting and moving because it is predicated on the position of the viewer.

10th wire piece

Source of image: Nicci Haynes at Flickr

Richard Dorment describes how Tuttle creates the wire octagonals as follows:

Each is made in the same way from the same materials – graphite (pencil), nails, and florist’s wire. First Tuttle draws a looping line in pencil directly onto the wall. Next he places a length of thin flexible wire over the contour of the drawing, pinning it down so that it lies flat on the wall. While keeping each end of the wire attached by a nail, he then releases the wire so that it springs up and off the wall to create a new “line” above the original drawing. The released wire now casts a shadow, creating another line on the wall, which looks so much like the one in pencil that it is hard to determine which is which.

By allowing the wire to take it’s own shape Tuttle relinquishes control and out of this steps the shadow over which he has no control. So this art is about a space between no personal expression and expression. My tentative understanding is that it is in this middle, empty, intangible space, a space of absence, between something and nothing that creativity, new ideas, alternative perspectives can emerge. Maybe teachers and learners need to do more to pursue and negotiate this space.

Drawing to think

I will start by saying that I do not draw to think, even though I do occasionally draw. I write to think, which is why I am writing this post. Let me explain.

Next week I will attend a one day symposium at Lancaster University on ‘The Materiality of Nothing’

The purpose of the symposium is ‘to extend conversations initiated by the AHRC funded ‘Dark Matters’ project which considered the provocations around Thresholds of Imperceptibility’ I attended the Dark Matters workshop at the end of last year and wrote a couple of posts about it.

For the symposium next week, the invitation from Sarah Casey included the following text:

The Materiality of Nothing is a one day symposium at Lancaster University bringing together practice and perspectives on negotiating the absent, unseen and unknown across art, science and social science. Across the arts and sciences that we call ‘zero’, ‘absence’ or ‘nothing’ remains a potent and powerful entity shaping the way we make sense of the world. It is staggering to reflect that 95% of our universe is invisible to human sensing; the provocation of the unknown and unseen is arguably at the core of creative thinking in the arts and sciences.

This event brings together a range perspectives on materialising the absent, unseen and unknown to reflect on the following questions:

  • How can ‘nothing’ be embodied?
  • How does it feel to encounter the immaterial and how might we negotiate it?
  • How might mathematics – as a speculative ‘messenger’ to and from the unsensed – be understood as a medium for generating touch and relationship (or not)?
  • How might absence, uncertainty be used as provocations and tool for creative thinking?
  • What can this offer in terms of understanding relationship and non-relationship, affect and non affect?

For me this resonates with my interest in Absent Presence and also in what Peter Shukie has called the ‘voice of the voiceless’. In other words, how can we give voice to the voiceless and how we can become more aware of the influences of what is not in plain sight?

A final paragraph in Sarah’s invitation asks us to ….

…. bring along a drawing , notebook or object that could be described as something you think with. The principal editor of Drawing Research Theory Practice Journal  published by Intellect has been in touch and is keen to link up this aspect of the symposium with the journal.

Hence the title of this post.

This invitation has highlighted for me that I do not draw to think, although I am interested enough in drawing to know that many people use drawing to think. Here are a few people that come to mind.

Marc Chagall’s sketchbook

Marc ChagallSource of image

Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology rich pictures

soft-systems-methodology-for-solving-wicked-problems-5-638Source of image

Nick Sousanis – sketching entropy


Source of image

From the Research Theory Practice Journal website it is clear that the journal is interested in physical drawing as opposed to electronic drawing.

This journal seeks to reestablish the materiality of drawing as a medium at a time when virtual, on-line, and electronic media dominates visuality and communication.

This is interesting when artists such as David Hockney are using iPads for drawing. Hockney is on my mind at the moment as I will be going to see his portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in September.

So knowing that I write to think, rather than draw to think, and knowing that the activity for the symposium next week really wants physical drawings rather than ’electronic’ drawings, I am a bit stumped. But I can only do what I can do, so I am taking along the following two examples of drawing/mapping that I do electronically.

ModPo footprints for paper 041013

This example above is how I think about and reflect on any given learning experience. I use the Footprints of Emergence framework which Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I developed for trying to understand learning in open learning environments. This has been published as a research paper.  The ‘footprints’ above reflect my experience in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC and were included in a book chapter that we published in 2015.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Pauschenwein, J. (2015). Using Visualization to Understand Transformations in Learning and Design in MOOCs. In A. Mesquita & P. Peres (Eds.), Furthering Higher Education Possibilities through Massive Open Online Courses (pp. 193 – 209). IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5

The second example is a mapping exercise

enhanced Keywords screenshot 090716 for Lancaster course

For this I used a mapping tool developed by Matthias Melcher to trace the development of my thinking through my research papers. I blogged about it at the time.

I suspect that neither of these is considered examples of drawing to think, but they’re as close as I can get.

I am very much looking forward to the symposium next Thursday.

Grids & Gestures Exercise. The text behind my experience.


Nick Sousanis’ Grids and Gestures 5 day online exercise has come to an end. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so engaged in an online activity. It was a lot of fun and I particularly liked the diversity of the group who participated. Aras Bozkurt tells us that there were 208 participants and 762 interactions.


I provided links to details of this comic drawing activity in my last post, so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that for me it was less about drawing and more about the impact of visual images and drawing on perception. And I will also say again that Nick Sousanis’ book – Unflattening – (which provides the background to this exercise) is fascinating, thought provoking and visually stimulating.

The task/exercise was to draw the shape of our day in comic format, ideally (at least to begin with) in grid format and without any text. On the first day (Tuesday for me as I discovered the activity a day late), I followed the rules.


I had just finished reading Nick Sousanis’ book, so although I didn’t reference it whilst drawing, I know that his use of black and white, and his drawings that depict direction, influenced me. I was on holiday so I only had a pad of lined paper and a black pen. I drew without any other aids. It didn’t take me long. The trickiest bit was working out how to add the photo I took of the drawing to Twitter. It is the first time I have added an image to a tweet. It’s interesting to remember that the difficulties people encounter with online activities are sometimes those we don’t expect.

On Wednesday I took a slightly different approach. Whilst my Tuesday drawing was about feelings, Wednesday’s drawing was of places and I made some attempt to connect the grids.


On Thursday I abandoned the grids. I’m uncertain about the outcome – too busy?  But it does tell the story of my day.


On Friday I spent most of the day working on a research paper, topped and tailed by physical activity. This wasn’t easy to depict. Again I abandoned the grids. I tried not to get hung up on a perfect outcome, or even an aesthetically pleasing outcome, but simply to think about how I could depict the shape of my day. I like this even less!



By this time I had seen many other examples – Click here for the Twitter stream full of wonderful work. I was intrigued by how some people did completely their own thing right from the word go. Was this deliberate, or had they simply not read the exercise instructions? Possibly the latter because half way through I realised that I had missed the bit about size of panels, shape and orientation.

Comics are static – and it’s in the way we organize the space that we can convey movement and the passage of time. Unlike storyboards, to which comics are frequently compared, in comics we care not only about what goes on in the frame, but we care about the size of the panel, its shape, orientation, what it’s next to, what it’s not, and its overall location within the page composition. The way you orchestrate these elements on the page is significant to the meaning conveyed (http://spinweaveandcut.com/grids-and-gestures/)

I never did get a handle on this.

Then there were the people who used colour and different media straight off – paint, pencils, pastels, even video. It made me wonder about the influence of colour on the outcome and also the influence of colour on how the drawing is interpreted. Even when I came home and had access to coloured pencils, I didn’t want to use it, although for my life drawing classes I love the use of colour. I haven’t yet worked out why this is so. There were people who used plain paper, coloured paper, squared paper. I noted that Nick himself used squared paper, so on the final day I went to the village shop and bought a pad of graph paper. Without this I don’t think I could have produced Saturday’s drawing. This was the most time consuming drawing. I wanted to try and do something that might vaguely resemble a comic, but I have mixed feelings about it and I would have liked a finer pen for the text.


There were also people who were clearly using some sort of drawing software, with great results, but I probably wouldn’t have joined this activity if it had involved using drawing software.

There are people who have blogged about the experience as I am doing here. See for example:

All these posts give a sense of how engaging this activity has been. And there are people who are not yet ready to let go, despite having done 5 drawings. They have learned something new about themselves. As Lisa Hammershaimb wrote


I have not yet got to the bottom of why this was, for me, such an engaging activity. Perhaps it was deceptively simple. Perhaps it was the group of people. Perhaps it was because the drawing was done, by most, by hand. Perhaps it was the pleasure and stimulation of seeing so many different outcomes (don’t miss the Twitter stream – there are too many great examples to include in this post).I’m pretty certain that part of it was down to just having read the book and seeing Nick Sousanis in action, posting his own drawings,


giving advice and encouragement, responding to participant comments and questions, retweeting participant drawings and generally being very present. It was also good to see the work of some of his past students, to see what could be achieved. It seems appropriate to finish off with those.


Thanks to all for this memorable experience.

Unflattening: text, drawing and alternative perspectives

This week there has been a flurry of activity on the #gridsgestures hash tag on Twitter as many people have responded to Nick Sousanis’  invitation to draw the shape of your day each day for a week, i.e. to take part in his Grids and Gestures- A Comics Making Exercise.  I discovered this activity on the second day, via Matthias Melcher, who has done some great drawings,  just as I finished reading Sousanis’ book ‘Unflattening’.  It was also Matthias who encouraged me to read the book which has helped to give depth to the exercise.

‘Unflattening’ is a gem of a book. Not only is it visually very compelling – a lovely object in its own right, but the text (which is presented in comic format and is no greater or less than the images) resonates so much with my own work and research. The book is an outcome of Nick Sousanis’ PhD dissertation which he presented in comic format. There is no traditional literature review, but the ideas are informed by historians, scientists, philosophers, educational theorists and artists, many of whom inform my own work.

So what does Nick Sousanis mean by unflattening? The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

In support of this, Nick Sousanis points out that we see with two eyes, not one, and each eye gives us a different perspective. There is no one perspective. He reminds us that some of the most revolutionary changes of thinking in our history have come about through changes in viewpoint, for example the realisation that the Earth is not flat, its circumference can be measured (Eratosthenes) or that the Earth is not the centre of our universe but moves around the sun (Copernicus).

Like McGilchrist (whose work I have written about before), Sousanis reminds us that we tend to see only what we are looking for rather than see the whole picture. Others have recognised this. Stephen Downes (2014) has talked about this in relation to research methodologies and Checkland and Scholes’s work in soft systems methodology (2001) was about mapping different perceptions in order to better understand the whole rich picture. Sousanis draws on the work of Dreyfuss, Deleuze and Guattari, Bakhtin, Mandelbrot and others to drive home the point that differences are essential, that we need to hold different ways of knowing in relation, that we need views of our own and others and that we need to overcome linear static views through shifts in awareness. As flatlanders, our vision is limited. We need a different attitude, a different orientation, a multi-dimensional view.

Sousanis  discusses how traditionally words and images are not equal partners (text has the upper hand) and given that language is the means by which we give shape to our thoughts then this defines what we see. He writes ‘While image IS; text is always ABOUT’. In comics words and pictures co-habit. Comics are the spatial interplay between the sequential and the simultaneous. This is illustrated in this image from his book ‘unflattening’.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 20.47.11

Source of image – http://www.comicsgrid.com/articles/10.5334/cg.ax/

Sousanis points out that perception is a dynamic activity in which we see things in relation, we negotiate experience. We create perception from a multitude of views. To experience another’s way of knowing we need to step out of our rut and take a leap of imagination. ‘We need a kaleidoscope of views that convey both our own dimensionality and dynamic capability (p.148) …… Understanding, like seeing, is grasping this always in relation to that’ (p.150).


Checkland, P.B. and J. Scholes (2001). Soft Systems Methodology in Action, in J. Rosenhead and J. Mingers (eds), Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited. Chichester: Wiley

Downes, S. (2014, May 26). Digital Research Methodologies Redux. Retrieved from http://www. downes.ca/presentation/341

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard University Press

Sousanis, N. (2016) Tapestry Keynote. https://youtu.be/7veGaFlu9Xk

For a review of Nick Sousani’s book see: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/215762 

Drawing as insider research

I have taken up two new activities this year, with the intention of keeping mind and body in working order.

Re the body, I have joined the village circuit training group for an hour two nights a week. This is challenging – but my competitive days are over, so I just do what I can do.

The brain activity is drawing. Hopefully this will balance the left-brained activity which I seem to spend most of my time on. For the next nine weeks I will spend Monday afternoons in life drawing classes. I joined the class this week and I loved it. The first two hour class is Developing Life Drawing; the second is Experimental Life Class.

Both classes started with gesture drawing. This involved 10 different poses in 10 minutes, i.e. one minute to capture each pose. I found this very liberating. The focus was on observation. We had been asked to take a roll of lining wallpaper to draw on, so there were no expectations of the outcomes. We were told that we should ‘look’ for more than 90% of the time and when we were drawing, our eyes should be continually moving from the paper to the model and back.

Most interesting for me was that I was told to try not to line draw, to try not start on the outer edges and work inwards, but instead to start in the middle and work outwards and in particular to avoid lines and instead scribble. We were shown drawings by Maggie Hambling and Henry Moore to illustrate this.

Maggie Hambling:  Source of image




Henry Moore: Source of image

I can see the parallels between this approach and insider research. The idea that the form/figure will emerge from the scribble resonated with me, particularly since when doing this we were asked to tape our pencils to a long garden cane, so whilst scribbling from the middle, we were at the same time standing at some distance from the paper. This seems to me the same challenge as presented by insider research.