TAoN #37: Make A Boring Decision
PLUS: 'Barely Maps,' convenience store Instagram, and a new icebreaker
|Rob Walker||Feb 25|| 2|
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf | All purpose link for readers in UK/Europe or US. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since I finished the book. Subscribe or unsubscribe at: robwalker.substack.com.
Make A Boring Choice
John Baldessari, who died earlier this year, was a major influence on The Art of Noticing — and on me in general. That’s not unusual, and there was an outpouring of admiration for and insight about his work when he passed. I didn’t have anything worthwhile to add at the time.
But this past weekend I cracked open a document I haven’t looked at for a long while: exercises that we cut from the book. I’ve been meaning to share some of those here, and it so happens that one involves Baldessari. What follows is adapted from that deleted entry.
Writing about a 2010 Baldessari retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Rebecca Taylor noted the aptness of the show’s title: Pure Beauty. “Room after room in the exhibition reminds the viewer of the ubiquitous, albeit trite, truth that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she observed. As a specific example, she pointed to the artist’s “choosing” series.
“In Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Carrots (1972), Baldessari asks two participants to impose their own aesthetic criteria upon a grouping of carrots (or green beans in the case of Choosing: Green Beans ),” Taylor explained. “As participants select the carrot that appeals most to them, said carrot is advanced to the next round and compared against two new carrots and so on and so forth.
“Ultimately this ‘faux exercise of taste,’ as David Salle calls it, communicates the message that if there isn’t even consistency in scrutinizing a vegetable, how could we possibly impose a universal definition of beauty?”
Fair enough. But I’m also intrigued by another element here: In practice, we can choose, and do. In workaday situations we do it reflexively — this tomato from the pile in the grocery store, not that one.
Maybe those choices are closer to instinctual than considered, but that’s part of what’s striking about what Baldessari asked participants to do. The real provocation is forcing the unusual step of imposing “aesthetic criteria” on banal, almost-identical objects.
And I like the fact that it’s a game, a willfully silly and child-like one. So next time you’re making a boring choice (and we all must do so, all the time), make it a game. Really think about what you choose and why — and, if “playing” with someone else (your kids, while grocery shopping, for instance), why do your choices echo or contradict theirs?
Endorsement: ‘Barely Maps’
Way back in issue No. 1 of the Art of Noticing newsletter (which which was technically the third issue, after two beta tests), I quoted from a piece by Liz Stinson in Curbed, about a project called Barely Maps, from designers Peter Gorman.
"Every map has an illustration that subtly refers to a defining feature of the city," she wrote, such as the traffic circles of D.C. or the squares of Cambridge. "Deciphering Gorman’s colorful illustrations require intimate knowledge of a place, which makes knowing the answer extra satisfying."
I’m a fan of creative maps, and enjoyed Gorman’s ideas, and executions. The general idea of considering what would be the defining mappable element of your city/town/neighborhood also strikes me as a cool exercise.
So I was excited when, just recently, Gorman got in touch, apparently responding to that earlier mention. In the interim, he’s made a Barely Maps book, via Kickstarter, and he offered to send me a copy. It’s so cool! My favorite is still probably his Savannah map, but I also love the series based on intersections in various cities. Check out the book and Gorman’s work here.
Endorsement: Hank’s Supermarket on Instagram
This NYT writeup on bodegas “going viral on TikTok” reminded me of a current favorite Instagram account. Hank’s is a convenience store on St. Claude, in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. It’s not the kind of place you would expect to have a social media presence, per se, but it’s got a very fun Instagram account. Especially during Mardi Gras season — which is right now. Enjoy @hanks_supermarket. (Thx Dave W.!)
Icebreaker Of The Week
This week’s icebreaker is from … me!
What’s the worst prediction you ever made?
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but I can’t resist. Here’s the deal. I saw a reference the other day to some online debate about whether Leonardo DiCaprio was really “a star” before Titanic. It reminded me of something that, if you know me, you may have heard me talk about: My worst-ever prediction.
The reason this is a cheat is that I’ve actually mentioned it before in the TAoN newsletter, in a little riff on “being wrong” back in issue No. 17. But I didn’t make it an icebreaker — and now I realize it should definitely be on that list. (I also now think it’s better to frame this as being about a bad prediction, rather than just “being wrong.”) So whether you’re new here, or just need a reminder, the back story is:
E and I were at the movies one night long ago, and up came a trailer for a forthcoming aspiring blockbuster: Titanic. I thought it looked horrible, a surefire flop. I leaned over to E and said, referring to DiCaprio, who was an up-and-coming star, but not a superstar: “Well, that’s the end of that guy.”
I was, um, incorrect. Even better: This is back when I worked in an office, and later I entered the office Oscar pool — and in effect predicted Titanic would win zero Academy Awards. I came in dead last in the pool.
I now consider my total, stubborn failure to understand the alleged merits of Titanic to be a defining marker of my personality.
Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or got it elsewhere) to email@example.com
In Other News
Here’s another cool The Art of Noticing podcast conversation, this time on the delightful show Road To Somewhere. My thanks to hosts Lisa Oz and Jill Herzig for an extremely fun exchange, and further extra thanks to producer Alicia Haywood (check out her media-literacy education iSpeakMedia project). Here’s a direct-to-Apple-podcasts link.
Okay, that's it! As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!
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