Bureau of Misdirection: Mixed Media
Report submitted by
Faculty Erin Miller and Christian Norcross
of the Bureau of Misdirection
to Director Olivia Gude
Spiral Workshop Office of Aesthetic Investigation
Mission of the Bureau of Misdirection
The Bureau of Misdirection was instituted to administer a map of contemporary
art practices to explore and or subvert incoming geographical, societal, cultural,
and inherited directions.
Often times, being misdirected leads to getting lost. We are conditioned to think
that being lost is a negative thing, but “to be lost is to be fully present and to be
present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” (Rebecca Solnit,
A Field Guide to Getting Lost) The Bureau of Misdirection is interested in
reclaiming moments of “lostness” by telling stories through imagemaking in order
to gain a more nuanced sense of the self in various psychological, cultural, and
Inspired by the Situationst International, the Bureau believes that artists have the
capacity to direct themselves and others to “STOP, look and live without dead
time” by creating “situations” within the cityscape. Societies go to great lengths to
organize and systematize how we move through space, but as artists we want to
reclaim space in order to direct fellow beings toward multi-directional critical
awareness and engaged participation. Informed and emboldened by modern day
street artists, members of the Bureau of Misdirection created subverted street
signs to surprise and delight those who pass by.
We are constantly bombarded with cultural directions. As sophisticated viewers
we are aware of and constantly dismiss the obvious directives of commercial
culture. The Bureau of Misdirection investigated the less obvious directives of
contemporary culture through a trip to the world of Disney. Aroused by artists
such as Arturo Herrera, Enrique Chagoya, and Camille Rose Garcia, the Bureau
of Misdirection conducted a cultural inquiry of Disney’s world in order to make
room for more complex understandings of self.
Identity is also highly influenced by our ancestry and cultural backgrounds.
Holiday traditions, methods of punishment and typical family duties vary
significantly from family to family. Often times ways of seeing, thinking and
doing have been passed down from generation to generation. Through
exploring a specific family story or personal memory in an aesthetic investigation
based on appropriated images, Bureau artists began to grasp the complexity of
cultural heritage that constructed that moment.
Even what we believe to be edible is based on cultural directions. Eighty percent
of countries eat insects. In the U.S., we think these people are misdirected. Brave
agents of the Bureau of Misdirection ate fried crickets to prove that the directions
that have been handed down to us do not inevitably shape our lives.
Ultimately, choosing direction is inevitable. It is not the business of The Bureau
of Misdirection to stifle directional information. It is our goal that Bureau of
Misdirection members investigate, expose,re-articulate and be guided by
their results--so that he/she can live more intentionally.
Bureau of Misdirection Inquiry:
A Survey of The Uncharted Mind
At the start of their journey into the world of Misdirection, teen artists engaged in the Surrealist technique, paranoiac-critical, to explore the un-conscious mind. Using cropped maps, teens drew mini images inspired by the ambiguous shapes focusing not on the geographical formations, but on the unique line forms on the maps.
Following course, the members of the Bureau were introduced to the Surrealist art movement through a presentation and discussion of the artists André Breton, Dorothea Tanning, Man Ray, Roberta Matta, and Eileen Agar and their work. Teens contemplated the historical context that influenced this group of artists to develop their unconventional creative practices that opposed everyday “rationale.”
Another Surrealist technique explored was a collaborative writing experience called the Poem of Opposites. As a group we developed a list of words related to direction and misdirection. The brainstorming activity encouraged teen artists to think about the many meanings and metaphors of the group’s name and inspired them to write a series of unfolding sentences that contemplated what “Misdirection is…” and “Direction is not…”
As a culminating Surrealist activity, each artist selected a large map to visually investigate with vine charcoal, white paint, and charcoal pencil. Using the paranoiac-critical method, youth artists explored the terrain of their unconscious minds on the ground of their maps.
Bureau of Misdirection Inquiry:
Lost & Found: A Mapping Narrative
To be lost is to be fully present and to be present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
The Bureau of Misdirection considered whether the socially conditioned negative response to being lost could be reoriented to a positive anticipation of its
potential for heightening awareness of everyday life. Engaging with disorientation requires presence of mind and intentionality, instead of just freaking out like we often do when the journey does not go exactly as planned.
To aid its members in reimagining feelings of being lost, the Bureau of Misdirection led discussions and an art project investigating personal lost and found stories. The experiences that teen artists shared about "lostness" varied greatly. One person had just gotten lost the week before while trying to find the location of the Spiral Workshop. Another youth artist had never been geographically lost, but explained that he often feels lost or confused when given instructions at school. And yet another Bureau member related to the feeling of disorientation through the experience of his parents splitting up. This comment triggered a series of reflections surrounding the idea that we tend to take the comfort and support of familiar objects, people or situations for granted until they are lost.
We reflected on the anxious uncertainty provoked by disorienting experiences, but also recognized that these events can provide us with opportunities for new understandings. Sometimes we “find” ourselves more profoundly after a lost experience. Perhaps fresh, unintentional discoveries were made, formerly unfamiliar territory became common and comfortably familiar, or a deeper appreciation of friends or family was cultivated during the moments of panic. However, sometimes the story doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after “found!”
For instance, one artist's dog was lost and never found. When a loved one dies, that person can never be “found” again in the ways that they were present before. There are no easy answers for situations like this. How does the reality and inevitability of loss shape directions in life? The goal of the Bureau of Misdirection was to create a safe place for teen artists to confront and contemplate these perennial human questions.
Bureau of Misdirection artists used the simple materials of construction paper, colored pencils, scissors, and glue to create a narrative of being lost. The
aesthetic objective of the investigation was not a straightforward telling of the story, but to recreate the feeling of being lost in the viewer through the design and style of the artwork. To build our aesthetic toolkits, we looked at many artists, including the work of Mark Bradford, whose map-like paintings defy orientation. Techniques of making included crushing and tearing, shifting cut-paper elements around, and changing directions from which the piece could be viewed as well as literally tearing up and recomposing the entire artwork. A supplemental “character development” workshop introduced Bureau artists to
the work of Laylah Ali and Gary Baseman to show that drawing figures in a Renaissance/Marvel Comics-inspired manner is not always the best way to get a story across.
We invite you to find your way through this complex maze of lost and found narratives. If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory or retracing a familiar path yet again, don’t despair—the goal is not to find a way out. As we say at the Bureau of Misdirection—
Life is in the labyrinth.
Bureau of Misdirection Inquiry:
Live Without Dead Time
Inspired by the Situationst International (SI) and its leader Guy Debord, the Bureau of Misdirection embraces the notion of “living without dead time.”
In his classic book, Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord argued that spectacular features like mass media and advertising had replaced lived experience with the idea of lived experience making members of society mere passive observers.
SI members sought to wake up and transform society through creating “situations” within the cityscape in order to reclaim space, both psychologically and geographically. One means of doing so was the dérive. Instead of moving through city space according to conventions of transportation, scheduling, signs and structures, SI participants would drift through city streets intuitively based on what he/ she was naturally drawn to or repulsed by.
Another way of creating “situations” was the détournement, translated in English as “derailment.” The détournement’s function is to take an existing art or literary work and alter it in some way to radically change or derail the intended meaning.
A notorious détournement occurred in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1964. The head of a famous 1913 bronze statue of the Little Mermaid based on the character from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale was sawed off by SI member Jorgen Nash (Asger Jorn’s brother).
After learning about this shocking event, teen artists debated about whether or not this could be seen as a creative, productive act. Some argued that this was a revolt against the bourgeois culture of the time that praised high art and traditional fairytales, but cared little for the emancipation of women, progress and social justice. One student shared that it seemed to him that it was no longer about the statue as a work of art, but rather as a cultural icon that stood for a whole ideology so he found the act to be meaningful. Other students could not accept the defacing of someone else’s art just because he/she did not like it or agree with its message. When a vote was called on the question, some voted on both sides because they believed that both positions had valid arguments.
The Situationist International was so well known in its time that it influenced the May 1968 worker and student revolution in France. SI slogans were painted on walls throughout Paris—“All power to the imagination!” “It is forbidden to forbid.” and “Live Without Dead Time.”
What is dead time? During a Bureau discussion, teen artists gave answers such, “time spent doing things that aren’t interesting,” “not being fully engaged in an activity,” and simply “School.” When asked, “What could it mean to ‘live without dead time’?”, a Spiral student of several years declared, “It is to live life to the full.”
SI philosophy continues to this day—influencing the Punk movement of the 70s, 21st century culture jamming and contemporary street art. We looked at the work of a number of artists whose work directly reaches the public through non-permission street art including Banksy, Mark Jenkins, Space Invader, Robin Rhode, and Swoon. These artists reclaim city streets, museums and other public spaces to make statements about 21st century life or sometimes to simply break deadening routine by surprising and delighting passersby.
The Bureau of Misdirection designed this project to give teen artists an opportunity to participate in the street art movement by creating signs that encourage people to “STOP, Look and Live Without Dead Time.”
Using the street sign as a conceptual medium, we explored the intended meanings of street signs by conducting a rules of the road quiz—good practice for students learning to drive and a reminder that to be successful we must balance constructive social conformity and constructive rebellion.
Then we re-imagined what some of those images could mean instead of intended messages. Consider the “flagger ahead” sign. We asked teens what else this image might signify. One said, “holding something that smellsreally nasty.” Another said, “a guy pointing toward a door in the distance.”
As a warm up exercise, the Bureau distributed a variety of typical street signs to practice détournement--manipulating and subverting the intended message. Then utilizing the variety of geometric forms associated with street signs and the bold colors and simplified images of the genre, the students created their own liberatory signage with the simple materials of cardboard, construction paper, scissors, glue and X-acto knives.
As a final step to this project some artists took their signs to the streets to observe how passersby would react when confronted with these slogans. Will the person stop, look and be inspired to live without dead time or will the individual walk right by with deadened eyes?
Bureau of Misdirection Inquiry:
Down through Generations
a cut paper project
in which student tells stories about their lives and the lives of their families.
How long has your family lived in the United States?
Why did your family originally come to this country?
What did they encounter once they arrived?
Do you remember any special family gatherings that don’t happen anymore?
Did your parents or grandparents ever tell you a story about getting in trouble? Punished? By whom? For what? Was the punishment deserved?
Did your parents or grandparents ever talk to you about their school days?
Inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro (now commonly known as The Great Migration series), The Bureau of Misdirection led its members in ancestral investigations. In his artistic and historical masterpiece completed in 1940-1941, Lawrence captured in simple and elegant forms significant experiences of African Americans during the great cultural and geographical shift of population from the South to the North. The work depicts political and economic realities as well as intimate personal details like labor agents recruiting in the South, difficult conditions brought on by racism and crop failure, church activities and a mother in bed reading letters sent from relatives up North.
By reflecting on significant encounters, personal family memories and stories passed down from parents or grandparents, the teen artists identified a subject drawn from personal family history. Following Lawrence’s lead, the artists focused on a small, significant moment in the larger story.
They considered the varied compositional strategies that Lawrence used in his series—such as single bold figures, distance shots of urban and rural scenes, altered perspectives and symbolic objects.
Recognizing that to create sophisticated color schemes, they would need a wide range of colors, the Bureau undertook to create its own subtly colored papers. They studied the qualities used to describe color—hue, value, and chroma. The youth artists considered work by Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence to notice how color variations and surprising combinations create visually dynamic images.
The managers of the Bureau of Misdirection appointed six teams of four people each—Team Red, Team Blue, Yellow, Green, Violet, Orange. Using charts from the Oswald color system as a guide, each team’s mission was to make as many versions of its assigned hue as possible—from dark to light, and dull to bright. Later the painted papers were arranged in a combined hue, value, chroma circle so that Bureau artists could easily identify and choose colors for their narrative cut-paper compositions.
Another innovative aspect of the design of this project was the recycling of found imagery for personal purposes. Artists identified images needed to tell their
tales—such as silhouettes of a group of people or a gesturing hand. Images were traced onto acetate, eliminating unimportant detail, and then projected (with an “old-time” overhead projector) to scale on the painted paper. These found images were then repurposed to serve as family members at a Thanksgiving dinner table, aunts singing at church, or cousins sitting on a couch watching a boxing match. This alternative way of making (not focusing on figure drawing) gave teen artists the freedom to make more complicated and intricate scenes than is typically possible.
The diverse members of the Bureau of Misdirection come from many places and bring many memories—personal and passed down—to provide inner and collaborative directions for American life in the 21st century.
Bureau of Misdirection Inquiry:
Into the Complex Characters of Disney
Characteristics of Cinderella:
• Lives “happily ever after”
Characteristics of the Stepsisters:
• Get what they deserve
Who do you identify with--Cinderella or the Stepsisters?
Using the complexity of non-protagonist Disney characters as a platform to investigate aspects of self, each youth artist set aside identification with the hero or heroine to explore the intricacies of his/her personality. Sure, we all have moments of working hard, being super-nice, and forgiving others, but we also have moments of being jealous, judgmental, and self-centered. Are the representations of Disney characters as either all “good” or all “bad” realistic? Or do people embody characteristics of both Cinderella and her Stepsisters, manifesting them at different times in response to external and internal stimuli?
By completing a worksheet on which they chose an antagonist, companioncharacter and minor character and then identified characteristics of each character, youth artists became increasingly aware of the one-dimensional portrayals of the Disney “world.” For example, in The Little Mermaid, Ursula is fat, domineering and conniving, however, with discussion students considered that by her allies she might be described as a voluptuous leader with great planning skills. Who gets to exhibit leadership in Disney’s world? Is the CEO of Disney Corporationconsidered to be domineering and conniving? Does how qualities are described and valued determine who is given social support to manifest them?
The youth artists reevaluated the potential of identifying with Disney antagonists from “not at all,” to “at least a little bit,” allowing themselves to potentially reclaim devalued aspects of self.
The work of Camille Rose Garcia added another layer to this discussion. Garcia grew up in the bland suburbs surrounding Disneyland and entitled her first art book The Saddest Place on Earth (not the Disney slogan—The Happiest Placeon Earth), suggesting with her eerie fairytale-like characters that the stories of Disney’s world are not adequate to represent the complexities of real life. Comparing Garcia’s Snow White and the Black Lagoon and Disney’s Snow White, the youth artists considered what aspects of experience were represented or denied in these representations and then debated which character they would most like to have for a friend. (There were strong advocates for each Snow White.) During this discussion, we recalled that Disney did not invent thesecharacters so the Disney version is as much an interpretation of the source material as is Garcia’s work.
Inspired by other artists who have investigated Disney imagery including Enrique Chagoya, Arturo Herrera, and Joyce Pensato, the students created works in which Disney was deconstructed by mixing imagery and styles. Materials for creating the artworks included coloring book-style drawings of Disney characters (none of which were a hero or heroine), photos of each teen, vellum, watercolors and colored pencils. Sigmar Polke further inspired the use of postmoderntechniques such as juxtaposition, fragmentation and layering as both method and metaphor for considering the complex construct we call the self.
The Disney Casting Call worksheet helps students to consider which Disney characters have had an impact on their imaginations and facilitates thinking about how these influences have affected them.
The sequence of completing the worksheet is described in the images below.
Download Page 1 of The Disney Casting Call worksheet
Download Page 1 of The Disney Casting Call worksheet
Download The Complex Characters of Disney
a template used by students to create an artist statement
To do this project, you will need to collect line images of many Disney characters. We recommend gathering these from the internet (or scanning coloring book pages) and creating digital files images sized to print out on 8" by 101/2" paper. These images can be printed out and then xeroxed for multiples as preparation for the project.
Having many images (we had more than 100) reminds us how many of these characters are figures of our individual and collective imagination. You will, of course, have missed a character or two--these can easily be found on the internet by the teacher or student and added to the collection. Don't be alarmed if students spend time looking at the collection of pictures, talking about these characters, recounting the plots of the movies, recalling funny (or cool) incidents, and sharing when they first saw these movies. This is part of the experience of thinking about the impact of these images on one's sense of self.
A word of advice or warning:
Do NOT make students draw these characters freehand. This a project about the appropriation of the images we encounter into our imaginations and identities, thus it makes sense that the project should be created artistically by using postmodern principles such as appropriation and layering. Instructing students to draw the characters freehand is bad art education because it wastes time and MISTEACHES the way in which such cartoons are actually drawn by professional cartoonists.
Developing the visual impact of the project
These projects were made by tracing images onto vellum with colored markers or pencil, developing the images with watercolors, layering, cutting and recombining.
As some students seemed to be having difficulty developing their images, the teachers developed a series of comparision images to show how images might be developed. Utilzing a technique which is now simple because of the ease of taking digital pictures, the teachers began images with individual characters, photographed the images, and then worked on developing the images more.
(See chart below.) These images were shown to the students and generated a discussion about how to develop images (with such techniques as highlights with white or lightcolored pencils or more vivid contrast of figure and ground) and whether less completed images were sometimes more interesting and evocative in the composition.
Although the images are organized in columns of Before and After, after discussion the class agreed that sometimes the Before was the more interesting and useful version. Techniques for judging the evolving work were thus not rated soley on level of completeness or realism.