Things Can Be Otherwise 3

On Being With Technology

This was the session that I was most excited for because I have a lot of interest in the way that people exist with things such as the internet, artificial intelligence, drones and virtual reality.

The two main ideas that we were going to cover were:

  • Humans are cyborgs, so what?
  • How technology shapes your understanding and reality.

First we dealt with this statement:

Humans are cyborgs.

I agree with this statement but first, an explanation on what a cyborg is.

Donna Harraway says that ‘a cyborg is a hybrid of technology and organism'(taken from The Cyborg Manifesto by Hardaway). But without understanding what is meant by technology, it isn’t really that helpful because it doesn’t necessarily make the idea of a cyborg believable on its own. For example General Grievous from Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith is the kind of fantastical, wild and cool looking cyborg most people would immediately understand to be a cyborg, but is not necessarily the only definition or ‘correct’ image of a cyborg.

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General Grievous is a fearsome example of the stereotypical idea of a cyborg from science fiction but are we getting closer to bringing things like this to everyday life? Or does’cyborg’ take on a whole other implication? Picture taken from Google Images.

 

So to continue with the explanation of what a cyborg is, we need to understand what is meant by technology. The reason why we might ask or discuss what technology is, is because in the digital age, it is easy to think or understand technology as being anything that is electrical and digital in some way but that isn’t really the case. A pencil can be regarded as technology, low key technology for sure, but technology nonetheless.

Technology can be understood or defined as tools that not only enact human intent but shape possibility and reality.  Going back to the example of a pencil. The pencil might enable me to a drawing that I specifically want it too, but the pencil itself, the qualities of it can also influence or completely dictate the way I draw a drawing. Needless to say I draw differently with a pencil than I do a pen or charcoal or any other thing because I allow the ‘technology’ to shape my actions rather than the other way around. It’s this idea that, in some cases, you might ‘listen’ or enact the will of the material rather than the material doing exactly what the user wants.

So with this in mind we might begin to understand exactly what is meant by a cyborg and why I personally agree with the idea that humans are cyborgs and always have been.

A cyborg is a human who’s limitations as a human are overcome by the use of technology.

For example, as a lone human, I am unable to make a pot but in making a pot by using a throwing wheel, potters knives and clay i.e. the relevant technology used in making a pot, I overcome the limitation (not being able to make a pot) which in turn makes me a cyborg.

But it doesn’t even have to be something so deliberate or unnecessary per say as a pot, it could be in regards to the most basic of survival needs. To cook food we use fire, we can’t cook things on our own. To keep warm we build shelters, we can’t keep ourselves warm enough to survive all by ourselves. And that is why, in my mind at least, humans have always been cyborgs. We have always needed to utilise the things around us because we can’t survive as our base selves. We have always needed weaponry to hunt/defend because, let’s be honest is a plain human that much use against a hungry tiger?

That point brings me back to the question posed at the start:

Humans are cyborgs, so what?

And to that I say, I agree. So what if humans are cyborgs? It doesn’t change the nature of humans if they’ve always been cyborgs does it, we’ve still got to where we are either way, so I don’t know what the big deal is about it to be completely honest. The more pressing and important issue to me is now that we’re thinking or starting to think of ourselves in this way is what will we do now? What will we do with the information that we are/always have been cyborgs? Go into the corner and have a tantrum about the human essence being tainted or something? I think it more prudent to forget that and think about how we need to exist in the future.

We need to get a grasp on what our cyborg status means for us and our home, namely the planet. It is largely our cyborg status and way living/surviving that has made humans so unsustainable in almost every way conceivable. That’s why I think we should be more aware of what we’re doing and use our status as the most intellectually gifted species on the planet to create a solution to a less destructive existence.

If by now you’re still convinced that wearing a pair of glasses makes somebody a cyborg and you prefer to think that cyborgs are purely a thing of science fiction, then I’m afraid that’s not really true anymore. Remember what I was saying about General Grievous earlier on about being a work of fiction? Well the thing is that’s becoming less and less the case. It’s getting to the point where people are able to modify themselves and survive with less and less of the body they were born in. There’s a documentary called The Metal Gear Man that I saw recently on BBC iPlayer, which was about somebody who lost two limbs after being hit by a train who got an opportunity to get a 3D printed limb based on a gaming character called Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series. The documentary also showed a conference for people who call themselves body hackers. It showed a guy who injected himself with a microchip so that he could open his door with his hand.

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BodyHacking Con is a gathering of people who wish to ‘improve’ their bodies with upgrades that would only have been imagined in films and video games a few years ago. Image taken from Google Images.
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James Young with his 3D printed Metal Gear prosthetic. Image taken from Google Images. 

So really, whichever idea of a cyborg you subscribe to, it’s hard to avoid the fact that humans are cyborgs.

 

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Things Can Be Otherwise 2

Theory of Knowledge

This session of Things Can Be Otherwise was all about theories and ideas pertaining to knowledge. We were set to cover the following based on this theme:

  • The theory of knowledge, or epistemology and two opposing ideas on knowledge from Plato and Nietzsche.
  • Identifying the arguments from these two philosophers.

We started the session by identifying three types of knowledge:

  • To know how – how to ride a bike.
  • To know by acquaintance – e.g. Lady Gaga
  • To know by description – e.g. the factors leading to 9/11

We then learned about Plato’s theory of knowledge. Plato thought that truth is a singular thing and that for everything on earth, there was a perfect version of it that existed on a higher plane called the Forms. He believed that humans originated from the Forms and that even Forms had Forms.

Plato was pretty damning about art. He regarded it as imitation, mimicry and reflections set on deceiving viewers into thinking that art is the truth. He thought that art was not based on real things.

This idea of art as imitation is still a relevant one today. People worry that things like films, TV, video games, pornography etc are seen by impressionable people who then think that the behaviour shown in these things is the correct way to behave.

He also believed that if someone loves something then they must love every aspect of it or else they do not in fact love it. This was an interesting one because I’m not convinced that anyone can love every single aspect of it and, actually, I would be concerned if somebody whole heartedly loved something without engaging with some degree of criticism for it. But this might also suggest that no one is really capable of loving anything. It’s either a very hypocritical thing to say or a very scathing one or both.

In stark contrast to this, we have Nietzsche who thought that art was the highest way of being. He  thought that reality and representation are the same process. Which reminded me of a documentary I saw called HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis which talks about this idea that people of vast wealth and power construct the reality for everyone else, the public/the layman, so that they don’t have to deal with the complexities of the world. It talks about an idea called controlled perception. Even though Nietzsche may not have been thinking about these sorts of things, it is interesting that people to do this to each other in a very calculated and deliberate manner.

He was also an advocate of nihilism which on the surface may seem quite pessimistic but it’s actually a train of thought that bestows great freedom and responsibility on the human race. It’s the thought that our actions are our own and not premeditated by a higher being. It is also the idea that our thoughts are our own and not put into our heads by something.

Nietzsche formed an idea that we think of concepts or general ideas by subtracting all the similar cases in the concept of their individuality. For example one leaf is not the same as another but we still have an over arching concept of leaf that brings all leaves of every kind together regardless of difference.

We couldn’t have a session on theories of knowledge however without asking ourselves what knowledge even is and how it differs from opinion. How can we even be certain that we know what we know?

It was that last part of the question that intrigues me the most because I’ve always thought that knowing is a human idea and the only confirmation of ideas we’ve had are from other humans. So why does this make some ‘bits of knowledge’ more valid than others when the deciding factor is another human? A human with ideas that are just as flawed, as brilliant, as stupid, as ignorant, as relevant, as irrelevant as mine. Who is the almighty determiner of what correct knowledge is? Scientists come to mind in the first instance but scientists are humans like I am a human.

I found this session very interesting, more interesting than I thought it would be and I enjoyed listening to everyone’s opinions and ideas.

 

Things Can Be Otherwise 1

Introduction to Things Can Be Otherwise

My first study group for constellation was Things Can Be Otherwise which is a look into philosophy. I’d never really studied philosophy before so I was intrigued by the sorts of things that would be discussed.

The first session was more of an overview and introduction to the kinds of things that we would cover. There were four main aspects that this study group covered:

  • knowledge – questioning what knowledge is, how we know if it is ‘right’, theories on knowledge and developing an openness to other views.
  • Technology – what is meant by technology? How does it change what the ‘self’ is and is it something that enacts the will of the user or does it create the possibilities and realities in the world.
  • Writing – looking into writing as being difficult, as sculpture, as empathy and why people like and dislike writing. What makes it easy and hard for people?
  • The self – what is meant by the self, does the core/quintessential self even exist?

We also went through what constellation is meant to help us with on a wider basis.

  • The history and theory of art and design.
  • Why art and design matters.
  • Knowledge is not the consumption of truth.
  • Reflecting on own learning across all parts of the course including studio space.

After all the introductory things were finished we were posed a question:

Is Wikipedia a good source of knowledge?

Wikipedia is a website with information on lots of different things, the main issue that people have with it is that it can be edited by anyone and is not peer reviewed. For example I could write an article detailing the molecular structure of quartz when I don’t, in reality, have that kind of knowledge about quartz and would therefore produce something that was complete rubbish but Wikipedia would still be more than happy to accept this and maybe a reader who didn’t know any better would too.

Despite this I still use Wikipedia when looking into certain things and it has served me pretty well for them i.e. it hasn’t been wrong or inaccurate, however these were not for academic purposes, these were for checking the plot of a film before watching it to see if I’ll like it or not. Because of this I have developed more of a ‘innocent until proven guilty’ attitude to  Wikipedia so in that sense, I don’t really see anything wrong with it. Having said that I still wouldn’t cite it in an academic text because usually I will have found a website that can go into more depth on the specific thing I’m looking for or another site will have more detail.

There is also an argument to be made that every other website on the internet has just as much capacity to be inaccurate as Wikipedia does because as long as the data on the website is inputed by a human, there will always be margin for error.

Overall I think Wikipedia is a good starting point and is fine for non academic things but I wouldn’t cite it as a part of my university course.

We were also asked:

What counts as knowledge in the internet age?

I found this question tricky because I was no longer entirely sure what I thought knowledge was anymore. I had always thought that it was the facts that you retained in your mind, things that were indisputable like the planets orbit the sun, chlorophyll makes plants green, etc. But I suppose there isn’t a whole lot in the world that really truly is indisputable, partly due to limitations of our minds and partly due to science evolving and saying things are not as we thought they were.

So what does count as knowledge in the internet age? I would say that maybe not a lot is, or at least not a lot of it is true to whatever truth the greater universe understands. But there is a lot of knowledge that is true to the human experience found on the internet. So perhaps it is all the things like videos on Youtube, blogs and ‘factual’ websites that are knowledge.

I’m not certain that I interpreted that question quite right but that was the response I came up with.

After having that discussion we went through a very brief history of philosophy in the modern world.

In philosophy, ‘modern’ is considered  to be from 1637 – 1760. This was when people started moving away form religion as a strict lifestyle guideline.

Modernity – 1760 – 1830 was the time of the industrial revolution.

Modernism – 1870 – 1950 was the artistic reaction to mechanisation.

Postmodernism – 1960 onwards was the reaction to excess of modernism and modernity.

That was pretty much it for the first session of Things Can Be Otherwise. 

Siteless Part 4

Since the deadline for the siteless exhibition was starting to draw near, I decided that I really needed to work on my outcome and figure out what it was going to be.

I was finding this difficult because I still haven’t really gotten my head around the project but I did decide to use my photos as a starting point because they were my readily available reference points.

I decided that one of the things that would help me make a form that is non objective would be to remove the things that make it recognisable and the thing that I removed was shadow, texture and colour. I did this by using Adobe Illustrator to block out the parts of the photos that I was most interested in using just black and white shapes.

I found this to be a useful exercise and once I had done it I found it much easier to progress with the next stage of the project.

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The blocked forms based on the wooden structure I took a photo of.
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More versions of the blocked colours. I’d like to try and do something with the top version, I was interested in how it was a 2D shape but retains 3D qualities.
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The last couple of versions I did for the wooden frame.
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This time I was blocking out a section of my lunchbox.
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I liked how graphic these versions of my lunch box were, my main problem was whether they might have not have taken enough of a departure from the original source, i.e. the lunch box.

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Some shapes that I developed based off of a stand/tripod but I didn’t think they were particularly interesting or abstracted enough so I didn’t want to take them further when I had things that were more successful in my eyes.

I decided that I would develop the wooden frame in some way and try to create some of kind of 3D form based on it. The thing that I was most interested in when it came to the drawing of the wooden structure was how the blocked out shape I made was 2D but something about it retained a 3D quality so I thought that this could be an interesting thing to explore. The other thing that i really enjoyed about this was the strength that the shapes had. I liked how rigid and simple they were so I decided that i would like to make something using laser cut acrylic. I wanted acrylic because I wanted something with a very solid black and white colour with no variation in tone and texture and the laser cutter would be able to cut it nice and accurately so I thought these things could help me make the object I wanted to make.

 

 

 

Keynote Lecture 6

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities is a novel or rather series of descriptions by Italian journalist Italo Calvino. I had never heard of this book before but this lecture was certainly enough to sell it to me. It sounds very intriguing.

The idea is that the book takes you through these 55 cities that have incredible variety. It is a novel that doesn’t seem to have any kind a storyline but this does not mean it is without narrative. It’s just trying to figure out this difference between a narrative and a storyline if there even is one. To me a narrative is just a connection of things, an account of sorts that is told in some way but does not necessarily have to go anywhere. There could, for example be a narrative about how I was writing something but since it’s a narrative and not a storyline, it doesn’t really need to conclude, it’s just about me writing something. However I think a storyline is more concerned with flow and movement and getting from the beginning to the middle to the end. And that’s why without having read it, I would assume from the information given to me about the book in the lecture, that this novel is a narrative but has no particular story.

Enough about that though, I think the exciting part lies within the cities that are described. It’s an enticing labour of the imagination because there’s something about it that’s really ambitious and I like it when people are ambitious with words and this book is ambitious and it’s important and exciting because it’s an enquiry into the way we should live and it seeks both the questions and answers needed to figure it out.

I realise that I still haven’t mentioned any of the cities but I do want to mention the city that gave me the most immediate and in some ways intense reaction. Argia, a city with earth instead of air, a city of pure sensation and a feeling of intense suffocation. This concept for a city struck me the most because it had a physical impact on me. It made need to take a deep breath, I felt a strong urge to focus on breathing and even when thinking about it in order to write this blog post i’m finding myself a little shorter of breath than I was. I also interesting in the name of the city. Argia. It’s sound, when you say it out loud, is reminiscent of arduous, which breathing certainly becomes when I think about it for too long. It reminds me of argentum, which is where our modern day word for sliver comes from and is why silver is Ag on the periodic table. Argia is also a figure in Greek mythology, she married Polynices, the son of Oedipus and was the daughter of King Andrastus. But this is not the only Argia in Greek mythology because there are actually four characters that go by this name in the myths but they’re only very minor characters and appear only to serve as wives. There is also a water nymph in the River Tiber who also goes by the name Argia in Roman mythology.

Like I said earlier on, the book is asking questions about how we should live our lives and so these cities that one might initially assume to be purely of fiction actually transcend these boundaries of the page and become things and ideas of reality. It raises a separate issue of the world that we live in.

‘Is the blurring of fiction and reality representative of the world we live in?’ which in this instance I took to mean ‘what is real and what is not?’ Although there are a few ways this question could be discussed. I watched a documentary on BBC iPlayer called Hypernormalisation by a man named Adam Curtis. I didn’t agree with everything in the documentary although I wasn’t sure if the views I disagreed with were being pushed or not because of the nature of the program but it looks at the last 40 years and how we got to this point of not knowing what’s real anymore. I also can’t make this point without mentioning all the fake, misleading and clickbait journalism that plagues the internet especially and the print press as well, Facebook being a perfect breeding ground for these sorts of things.

I would really like to read Invisible Cities so that I can comment further on it, perhaps when I do I could make a new post on it but for now this is what I learned in the lecture and some of what I thought of it.

Keynote Lecture 5

Iconoclasm: From ISIS to Ai Weiwei

Iconoclasm means the destruction of images, which I have to confess to not have known before this lecture. As someone who is working with visual means on a day to day basis i.e. I am an iconophile, it can be quite hard to understand in some instances why anyone would seek to destroy images or in other words why some people are iconophobic.

I understand why people would want to destroy images of a dictator or someone who’s political and social ideals so opposed their own and perhaps that of their country’s that they and others would not want to see their likeness around the place. Politics is extremely emotive. I do not understand why objects and structures from ancient civilisations that I would love to see but probably never will be able to in my lifetime, are being destroyed by people like ISIS. This is something that blows my mind due to the level of ignorance on their part. I don’t understand what response they’re trying to elicit is it just anger they’re after? If so it does work but it raises the question of then what? You’ve made me angry but so what, I’ve had that emotion and the transaction between us is done and it hasn’t been that detrimental to my life it just mildly outraged me for about half an hour. I don’t even understand how it’s meant to get back at western culture because the image they’re destroying isn’t even a western image but I digress.

This idea of the destruction of images, iconoclasm, raises an interesting question though. Why would an a iconophile seek to destroy images? More specifically why would an iconophile like Ai Weiwei destroy an ancient Chinese Han Dynasty urn?

The work being referenced here is Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. It is a photographic triptych of different stages of Weiwei dropping the urn. It’s remarkable how carefree his expression is and also in the first panel of the triptych, he is only holding the urn by his very fingertips, there is no particular precaution taken to stop him from dropping it. One moment it’s in his fingers and all he needed to do was simply remove that support as evidenced in the next two panels. I’m not sure how this triptych makes me feel because I think it’s always a great shame for antiquities to be destroyed for any reason, for artwork or not. At the same time however, I also understand that he is an open critic of the Chinese government and I applaud him for it, there are major issues facing China that the government is largely responsible for. The violence against women due to the one child policy, China running it’s ships into Japan’s naval territory, the issues facing Taiwan, the pollution and the growing tension between China and America are a few of the issues facing China at the moment.

There are quite a few claims about what his piece of work is meant to be about and one of these claims is that it is an ironic repetition of Chinese revolutionary images. It is interesting how there is always a desire to replicate images because of their strength or influence. One of the images that always struck me is the repetition of the final image from The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson’s character John Bender ends the film with this really strong fist pump after they finally get out of detention, is seemingly replicated on this Rage Against the Machine album cover, The Battle of Los Angeles. It may be a coincidence and maybe that image of the fist pump was not all that original to start with but it’s hard to deny that is has impact. I find the replication of this image in particular interesting because of the almost unifying power it has, it feels empowering to see that pose or it does to me at least. And I think this is what Ai Weiwei is having a play with in his triptych, this feeling familiar images and making us wonder what these repeated images through time and social history really mean to us, and it’s exactly why it makes us wonder why someone who, as a creator of images, is carrying out this act of iconoclasm.

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The fist pump image from ‘The Breakfast Club’ (strictly speaking this is the actor reproducing the image 30 years later but it’s in the same outfit and location, again it’s interesting that this image was once again repeated.)
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The ‘Rage Against the Machine’ album cover for the album ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’.

I found there to be a lot of interesting ideas in this lecture. For example when is iconoclasm iconoclasm and not just vandalism? In my mind iconoclasm hopes to achieve some kind of aim beyond destroying and defacing. I don’t see Ai Weiwei’s photograph’s of him dropping the urn to be vandalism and also it disgusts me, I’m not wholly convinced that ISIS’s destruction of the Assyrian antiques is completely mindless vandalism. Surely they must be trying to achieve something there beyond annoying us. I had been wondering if it’s because they really genuinely think it’s because they think if people see these images of civilisations, cultures and gods gone by that they might think these were real things that should be worshipped, distractions from what the ISIS ideal of religious practice is. It was interested to ponder this because there was something vaguely reminiscent of Plato in this thinking. He admired craftsmanship, but was really scathing towards artists because he understood them to be people who mimicked, distorted, deceived and distracted from the Forms, the perfect beings that lived on a higher plane. Or maybe ISIS only want to destroy.

Either way as somebody who is an iconophile, it deeply saddens me to see images being broken, it did upset me the Ai Weiwei broke that urn, it angers me that ISIS mindlessly destroy and it intrigues me why people seek to destroy images of notorious moments in history but will ask us never to forget them.

 

Keynote Lecture 4

Teenage Kicks – Cultural Approaches to Dr. Martens

I was quite excited when I saw this title on the projector screen because I have always loved Dr. Martens boots even if  I don’t wear them so much these days. One of my earliest memories regarding shoes was when I was in primary  and my parents bought me a pair of bright yellow Dr. Martens. I remember that they caused quite a stir with the people that I knew, everyone commented on my new shoes and at that age and not being terribly fashion conscious, I didn’t realise what the fuss was about until quite a few years later but even then I did not understand the full impact that Dr. Martens had on our culture until I had listened to this lecture.

Although this particular lecture was on the ‘cultural CV’ of Dr. Martens boots, the lecture is really about how we can examine the cultural identity of all kinds of objects using the shoes as a case study in this instance.

Dr. Marten’s originated as work wear for people such as policemen and other public servants who needed footwear that would long wearing and comfortable. Because of their popularity amongst policemen and other public service workers they were considered very anti fashionable. Whilst this anti fashionable element may have meant fashionistas wouldn’t have touched them with a barge pole, this idea of the shoes being unfashionable was actually desirable to many sub cultures in Britain at the time. These were subcultures who wanted to be as far from the mainstream as they possibly could so they adopted things that mainstream people just didn’t want to be seen in.

Dr. Martens boots were adopted and adapted many types of subcultures over the years and each had their own distinct style of wearing the boot. This meant that if you wore your Dr. Martens a certain way, people knew what group you belonged to and from this could infer what kind of views and attitude you might have had.

Perhaps most notably was the way the skinheads wore their boots. They changed the laces and laced them very tightly to the top and then wrapped the lace round the top of the shoe and then tied it. This was a very distinctive way of wearing Dr. Martens. It was also one that connoted awful violence and racism and it created such a powerful image that the shoes were banned in schools. People were genuinely upset by the sight of them.

Of course this new connotation of Dr. Martens meant that the policemen had to modify the way they wore their boots because they certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with people like the skinheads and did not want to cause unrest or offence with their footwear. So rather than showing loud and proud that they wore Dr. Martens like the skinheads, mods and slightly later, punks and skinhead revival, they had to hide their boots. The policemen hid the fact that they were wearing Dr. Martens boots by colouring the distinctive yellow thread black so it didn’t stand out at all.

The shoes were banned at sporting events because of their steel toe caps (at this point they were still being made as work wear) and kids were sent home fro wearing them to school. They were an image of violence and threatening behaviour. But this all seems to have changed now. For example I have never had a time in my life when I thought of a pair of Dr. Martens as threatening and violent and they are popular with pretty much anyone these days. Even Miley Cirus has sported the shoes and they were featured in Elle magazine which is pretty mind blowing when you think of how unfashionable they were.

The shoes are also now available in any colour and pattern you could possibly imagine. I have seen patent pink, neon yellow, Japanese woodblock print designs featuring koi carp and even religious images like those old paintings of Mary and to think that they used to be black and ox blood red.

The Dr. Martens boot have undergone incredible cultural transformation over the last 50 years or so and I found this lecture really fascinating because I had never really looked into the history of  the shoe before. I was aware they were worn by skinheads but I didn’t realise all the customisation from people with all kinds of viewpoints and oppositions to mainstream views that wore them before me. However like I said at the start, this was about more than just the shoes, this was about how I can learn about the cultural identity and history of objects and materials in order to understand their rules. In order to create something effective, I need to understand what people understand by certain objects and materials and to this, I need to look into them just as this lecture looked into Dr. Martens.