Case Study 9: Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp

We’re always excited when we get in samples of people’s work who have used Jewelboxing, but from time to time, something shows up that just goes above and beyond. That’s when we put together a Case Study, a special feature where we interview the creator of said “something special.” This time, we were fortunate enough to get a chance to talk with Andrew Staffordabout his fantastic Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp. Without further delay, let’s get right into it:

There doesn’t seem to be a commercial or institutional sponsor for Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp. Was it a commissioned work? Or an interest you had in Duchamp’s work that led to building the project? The “why” is a mystery.

How could I resist? Sometimes you have an idea, sometimes the idea has you. From its conception it seemed like a dream project, with a compelling unity of subject and media, content and form; and for me personally, a convergence of interests in Duchamp, information design, clear thinking, and plain language. Duchamp wanted people to participate in his art, what better way to demonstrate that than via user interactivity? The Large Glass is a diagram of a dynamic process, like a Rube Goldberg contraption, what better way to demonstrate that process than by animating it? I made it because I felt it would be an interesting and above all useful way to explore the ideas underlying Duchamp’s art. Plus, I thought it would be a lot of fun.

Was it? A lot of fun to make?

Sure, except when it was driving me crazy. Fortunately for my sanity, whenever I got tired of struggling with a Flash movie, I could give it a rest and go back to wrestling with the text. One thing’s for sure, it was never boring.

What was the hardest part?

Flash had a pretty steep learning curve. You know what, that wasn’t the hardest part, though. Let’s come back to that question later.

What was your research process in developing Understanding Duchamp?

The research process was an ordinary, time-tested one: look, read, ask, listen, think. You know the drill.

Was there something in particular that stands out that was just invaluable?

Not one thing, lots of things. If it was a flashback sequence it would have to start long ago with my friend Kate handing me a copy of Marcel Duchamp [d’Harnoncourt & McShine, 1973], saying “I think you’ll like this”… pilgrimages to MOMA, Tate Modern, the Philadelphia Museum of Art… Calvin Tomkins’ Duchamp: A Biography, which I cannot praise highly enough… a revelatory vision of The Large Glass in motion at the Weisman Art Museum… learning how to replicate the 3 Standard Stoppages… invaluable endless discussions with friends and colleagues… especially with my friend Nick Meriwether, who bravely volunteered to show me how to finish the text. That’s some of the highlights, anyway.

Did you learn anything new?

Lots. One thing that I got out of it was an appreciation of how some of Duchamp’s art invites physical interaction, and some of it invites personal interpretation, but both are pursuing the same objective: the participation of the observer, enticing lookers out of a passive mode into active engagement.

What was your design process?

I hope this doesn’t sound evasive or inarticulate, but it just evolved, stepwise, more or less organically. I don’t have a professional background in design, or to put it nicely my design education has been self-directed. For me, the design process is empirical and iterative, proceeding by trial-and-error and inevitably including more than a few false starts and cul-de-sacs along the way.

So was designing the website the hardest part?

There was always a way to go forward, at least one way, even if sometimes it meant backtracking later. For the most part, design decisions were guided by simply trying to do what the content demanded.

What about deciding on a structure? From the beginning did you decide that it had to be a timeline? What drew you to that instead of say, writing an essay or a book about Duchamp, or blocking it out in sections (i.e. 1. His Life, 2. His Art, 3. His Legacy)?

I tried out different ideas and didn’t settle on a timeline until the content was more than halfway done. What attracted me to the idea of a timeline was that the navigation device itself IS useful information: first, the numerous multiple miniatures, and second, their chronology. Each of the miniatures is repeated, larger, at the start of each chapter, which keeps people oriented as they click deeper into the content.

Beyond just the nuts and bolts of it, the timeline structure also seems like the best way of capturing Duchamp, since a lot of his work revolves around time, like with The Large Glass, where A leads to B leads to C and so on. Was that also a factor in the decision?

Not consciously, but I’m sure you’re right. Another reason it works is because Duchamp was not inclined to repeat himself, he kept pushing the envelope, so his output grew more diverse over time: paintings, objects, installations, machines. Obviously a row of stamp-sized canvases would be a lot less interesting to look at than spinning bicycle wheels and rotating optical disks.

There’s that famous essay by Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, where he says that a piece of art loses its aura or mystique because it’s being reproduced again and again and becomes so familiar. Duchamp seemed to be commenting on that, in some degree, with his famous L.H.O.O.Q., some twenty years before Benjamin sat down to write about it. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Francis Naumann wrote a book, lovely to look at and not overly academic, that gave special attention to the conjunction of Duchamp’s art and Benjamin’s ideas. Did you know Duchamp and Benjamin met once? In spring of 1938, at a left bank café. Nothing of consequence came of it: Duchamp proudly showed Benjamin a small, hand-colored reproduction of Nude Descending a Staircase. In his diary Benjamin called it “breathtakingly beautiful.”

That demystifying of art that Benjamin talked about, is what you’re doing here similar to that? By reproducing and explaining in detail, not just on discs but for everyone with a web connection?

I hope so.

Your case, recreating Duchamp’s Large Glass on the very cover, is without a doubt one of the most impressive things we’ve ever seen done with Jewelboxing. Can you tell us a little about the process of creating it?

I wanted to make a small number of copies of Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp on CD, as gifts. When I ordered my first Jewelboxing 20-pack, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas for the case’s design. But in retrospect it seems so obvious, doesn’t it: The Large Glass meets Understanding Duchamp meets Jewelboxing equals this, how could it be otherwise? It’s such a sweet match-up of content and package, how could I resist? Trouble was, first, I couldn’t imagine how to make it; and second, when I did imagine how to make it, I didn’t know how to screenprint; and third, after I learned how to screenprint, I had to find a pigment and a substrate that would work together.

So, was making the cases the hardest part?

No, it took practice and plenty of experimentation, but it wasn’t the hardest part.

I wanted to ask about the slipcover you made to hold the case. Were those printed by you and if so, can you tell us a little about that?

The material was a basic cotton 120 lb. folio vellum, trimmed to 8.5″ wide to fit through my Epson 260. Make a template with cutting and creasing guides. Design as necessary. Print, score, cut, wrap, glue. Punch a semicircular notch at top. Spray the finished piece with a fixative.

So, what was the hardest part?

The hardest part turned out to be the task I thought I would be best at: writing the text.

What made it so difficult?

The challenge was to explain the essential ideas behind Duchamp’s art in precise, plain language without glossing over the hard questions it raises. The first difficulty was editorial, deciding what could be left out without diminishing the substance of those ideas. The second difficulty was compositional, finding clear, simple language to explain those ideas within the design-dictated constraint of a mere 100 words per panel. It’s safe to say that I underestimated the challenge of fitting such large ideas into such small containers. The final result was highly compressed prose, which I hope nonetheless reads like everyday language. Overall the text and visuals evolved in tandem, each informing the other, which I hope lends the whole thing an organic unity.

I don’t know if this question enters your head or not, but I assume that it must, once you get far enough down the line: do you think this would be something Marcel Duchamp would have appreciated? That he would have enjoyed reading through and participating in?

I like to think so. All we can be sure of is that he would have responded with detached bemusement. It was his usual response to… well, everything in the world, including his own iconoclastic imagination.