Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Corporatism and the Future

From Future Bear 2 created by Julian Chambliss (don't blame Rachel)

Future Bear as art is driven by my collaborator's ability to bring a complex narrative around the environment into focus using the image of a polar bear. As Rachel explained in her TEDx Orlando presentation, she sees the polar bear as a symbol of our collective concerns about global warming. Future Bear, the hybrid Graphic experience, must content with my assertions of what and how comic book narrative operate.  There are several great works on that, but one of my favorite is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. If you haven't read it, you should. McCloud's analysis about how comics operate isn't about story as much as the cognitive engagement that grows from the merger of words and pictures. What McCloud's work highlights is the complexity that is achieved when creators move from just word or just pictures to the synergy of image and text on the comic page.  Building the narrative around Rachel's rich visual allows me to address the same concerns that inspired her art.
Like Rachel I see the collective concerns about the environment in the images in our contemporary society.  Thinking about the ideas and patterns of actions connected to those ideas inspired the story content you will see in the second Future Bear installation.  It is a time travel story, but for the story to work, the future and the past are in dialogue.  We need, in my opinion, to know Future Bear's future world to understand  the stakes when she is acting in our world.

To imagine a future world isn't simply a creative act. As is the way with everything in Future Bear, this part of the story is connected to modern historical trends.  Futurism or futurology or foresight studies, which is defined as “the study and forecasting the future” emerged as a recognizable subfield in the 1970s with the publication Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970). A sociologist by training, Toffler argued society was undergoing massive structural changes from “premature arrival of the future.” Toffler’s work went on to become a documentary narrated by Orson Welles in 1972.  In 1974, the University of Houston at Clear Lake established the first future studies program.  Almost from its beginning, future studies has been hard to categorize. Whether an art or science, futurists draw upon complex mathematical models as much as history, cultural, and sociological observation to predict future development. The fact of the matter is that there are numerous organizations both public and private dedicated to thinking about the future.  Indeed, the National Intelligence Council published  Global Trends 2030 a report that offered a glimpse of the possible futures late last year. Using experts from a variety of fields, the organization considers environmental, demographic, and globalization factors to forecast possible outcome to aid policy development.  Experts and laymen alike tend to dismiss the implication of future studies. The possibility educated assertions will affect how resources are allocated and restrict contemporary practice in favor of some "possible" better outcome is difficult to accept.  This is the benefit of a project like Future Bear. In the artistic realm, to imagine the future is acceptable, even welcomed. As I think about the future, I draw inspiration from past debates.  The fact the story seems to resonate with contemporary conflicts merely highlights how much understanding the past can be useful to chart a future.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Future Bear Issue 2 and Fast Fashion

I’m currently on a sabbatical from teaching, so I’ve been focused on making the second issue of the Future Bear story come to life. This issue is more complicated than the last (as we really dig our teeth into the conundrum of time travel) and more characters are introduced both from the present and the future. 

One of the fun things about this issue comes from drawing scenes and characters from an imagined place and time, where all kinds of technologies have been invented and integrated into our daily lives. As Future Bear’s writer, Julian has been paying attention to futurists like Michio Kaku (who we both saw speak at Rollins this week) and his predictions about intelligent wallpaper (which will replace hand-held screens and TVs) computer contact lenses and teleportation. All of these things are either written into Future Bear, or seem to be lurking on the periphery.  

Oddly enough, it’s the future of fashion that is really challenging me. I have been working on a crowd-scene set in the future and I just don’t know how wacky to make the outfits. My awareness of the current trend of fast fashion has only complicated it further, i.e. what is trending one week will be replaced the next by another “micro-trend” next week. This week in 50 years, fashion may one again be infatuated with 1983 for all we know. That might actually be good for me because as a child of the 80‘s, I am still in love with with Cyndi Lauper’s look from “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”  Who isn't? 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Future Bear @ the New England Aquarium

On June 3rd, I will discuss the Future Bear project at the New England Aquarium in Boston. This event is hosted by the Boston Rollins Club and the Rollins College Alumni Association. For information on the event please visit The Alumni Connect site.
I am excited about this event because it gives me the opportunity to discuss the project with a bit more perspective than we had when Julian and I first began working on it a few years ago. Our collaboration has evolved into a kind of partnership with specific roles for each of us, and plenty of mutual support along the way. We bounce ideas off each other all the time, even if we only have time for an exchange of texts in the evening. Sometimes we discuss image ideas, sometimes we debate a turn in the story line. As an art educator, I offer feedback to my students on their creative work for a living, and that role is reversed when Julian comes to my studio to discuss new images I am working on for the project. He often points out that he doesn't draw, but he does have a good sense of what a visual narrative can and should do for a viewer, and his comments are always spot on. I admit, that collaboration is challenging for this reason, it is a dance of one's individual ideas and ongoing dialogue with compromise, but it is also a perfect way to continue my path as a life-long learner, a journey I began as an undergraduate at Rollins 20 years ago. I participated in the Honors Program which was then and still is now, a unique curriculum designed to teach students to work and think in an interdisciplinary, collaborative manner. If the world needs anything right now, it needs professionals who can adapt, listen, and collaborate....exactly the skills I picked up at Rollins. I think the age of experts who are trained in a narrow field of expertise without the ability to understand the way others see the world is long gone. We need to feel uncomfortable in our work from time to time. We need to allow the opinions of others to challenge us and help shape our view. Julian knows as well as I that this kind of work takes courage, and time. And coffee breaks. And above all, friendship. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Real History in a Fictive Universe

Christian Science Monitor October 1914
My involvement in the Future Bear project goes beyond my interest in comic book. As a historian, I study urban planning and development history.  Much of the contemporary debate around environmental problem in the United States reflects questions that first emerged with close of the western frontier in the 1890s and recognition of negative consequences of massive urbanization and industrialization in the United States.

These pressure gave birth to social reform focus on civic betterment and conservation that evolved to become modern city planning and environmental movements.  In our contemporary debates, we arguable about finding viable solution to the pressure associated with sprawl, housing, pollution, and access to municipal services.  These are not new concerns, instead they are same ideas expressed between 1890 and 1920.  The planning and conservation movement that emerged in that period provided a variety of possible solutions that continue today.

 In crafting the Future Bear narrative I'm borrowing from historical debate about public welfare and regulatory standards that began in the 1890s. Replicated decade after decade, the details have evolved, but the ideological positions inherent to groups on both side remain familiar.   For me thinking about how to approach this debate is heavily influenced by my research into the American Civic Association (ACA).  

The ACA was founded in 1904 and was one of the most active organizations promoting rural and urban planning.  The early 20th century was a period of grassroots activism driven by private groups such as the ACA. Ultimately, regardless of the group, the aim was to improve life in the United States.  More often than not, these groups challenged corporate interest and demanded greater government action.  Sound familiar?  I'm tempted to mention history repeating itself, but the truth is repetition is to simplistic a description of debates around environmental regulation.  Indeed, history shows a growth in regulation throughout the 20th century.   Understanding the contours of that debate informs the Future Bear narrative.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Future Bear Flashback: Sequential SmArt May 2012

Sequential SmArt was a conference held at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. The conference brought together comic creators, scholars, librarians, and educators from a range of disciplines who teach using comics or were interested in learning more about the comics in the classroom. The keynote addresses were given by Matt Madden co-author of Drawing Words and Writing Pictures and author of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style and by Eric Shanower author of Age of Bronze, two-time winner of the Eisner Award as Best Writer-Artist.

Rachel Simmon and I attended the conference and presented Future Bear. Billed as "The Fine Arts" in the conference program and paired with Eric Shanower's plenary talk, I must admit thinking I was outside the box marked "history."  After Shanower gave a reflective and interesting discussion of his research needed to create Age of Bronze, Rachel and I presented Future Bear to the entire conference.  On display throughout the event, Future Bear was well received by scholars and creators well verse in comics practice and theory.  It was great validation for the interdisciplinary dialogue at the heart of this project.

My thanks to the conference organizers Jay Hosler, Jim Tuten, and David Hsiung. As faculty at Juniata College they conceived and organized a truly interesting conference to support educators interested in comics. In addition to presenting Future Bear, I also presented a paper entitle "Superhero Comics: Artifacts of the U.S. Experience" that explored how superhero comics can be an engaging tool for historical study.  Ultimately, Sequential SmArt  provided all the participants with a dynamic examination of comic art form. I know I learned a great deal.  Proof comics are cool.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Make the World

 The second issue of Future Bear is coming. A unique comic/fine art hybrid, each issue of Future Bear is a creative endeavor. Rachel Simmons is a printmaking marvel:-)

As the writer, I get to sit around and think of every more amazing things that could happen. The working draft to the second issue has plenty of twists and turns. As Rachel showed me some of her test images, I started to pull out some of the elements I created as I wrote the second issue. I'm not blessed with drawing skills, but I recognize if Future Bear is to be a successful story, the world of Future Bear needs to grow.

So, who or what is VARANGIAN?

 Keep Watching!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Future Bear: Past Imperfect

Rachel Simmons, Associate Professor of Art at Rollins College created Future Bear in 2008 as a means to experiment with combining digital and traditional approaches to imaging making. In part inspired by her focus on art exploring human impact on the environment, Future Bear provides a focal point for artwork inspired by her first to Antarctica. The polar bear, she suggest, acts as a visual symbol for global climate change. This realization prompted Simmons to seek ways to expand the narrative around Future Bear. For her collaborator, Julian C. Chambliss, Associate Professor of History, Future Bear offered an opportunity to explore how superhero comic book characters and the culture linked to them reflect tensions within the U.S. experience over questions of modernity versus tradition. Superheroes in the United States owe much to the anxiety created by urbanization. While many associate superheroes with concerns linked to urban crime, in reality, superhero’s appeal speaks to a wider concern associated with the moral and physical benefits linked to a natural world defined in contrast to the harsh moral and physical environment of the city. These concerns inform the superhero comic in myriad ways and those ideas inform Future Bear’s adventures.