“Exploding Footnotes: Design Research in Action”
“Exploding Footnotes: Design Research in Action” is an exhibition that turns the spotlight on the thesis research process. It seeks to retrieve the gold dust often buried in footnotes at the bottom of the page, to expose and examine the behind-the-scenes travails, legwork, drama, breakthroughs, doubts, and dead-ends that are a part-and-parcel of in-depth research, but normally smoothed over by the linear narrative of scholarly writing. By zeroing in on these tiny superscript numerals and the riches they contain, we celebrate the research process as well as its products.
This year’s graduating students showcase the diverse manifestations of the deep research that underpins their thesis projects. Follow the year-long journeys of these design researchers as they navigate such intertwined themes as: digital prosthetics, design piracy, publishing as performance, the branding of Space 2.0, the design of death, cognitive biases, and design education. Bodies of research are linked and filtered by an overarching set of questions and analysis.
The exhibition was organized by the MFA Design Criticism students, working with Superscript co-founder Molly Heintz and designers Neil Donnelly and Jens Holm.
Please let us know if you’d like to come and take a look and we will walk you through it. Also, if you could not make it to the event, but would like to receive the packet of materials we gave out, just let us know your mailing address.
Check out photos of the exhibition opening and live crit on Flickr,
Download Thinking and Things: SVA Design Research 2015, this year’s thesis publication.
Presented in conjunction with NYCxDesign Week.
Extract from Opening Remarks by Alice Twemlow, Chair, SVA Department of Design Research, Writing & Criticism.
Today’s celebration of the graduating students is bittersweet since even as we urge across the finish line our first cohort of MA students, we wave a sad goodbye our last Class of MFA students.
It’s a transitional moment that we wanted to mark in a special way: hence our (somewhat over-ambitious) idea to hold a conference, launch a publication and stage an exhibition all on the same day!
So what about this exhibition?
It all started, I think, last year when I finished my Ph.D dissertation in Design History, and when at about midnight on the day it was due, I completed my 916th footnote. At that moment, I began to know a little better the perversity of David Foster Wallace. I also realized that it’s strange and sad that these little notes, over which we labor so painstakingly, end up as the overlooked furniture of our writing.
I wondered what an exhibition might look like that put the raw material of the research process in the spotlight. What it would look like if we extracted those footnotes and detonated their contents, like fireworks, for all to see?
Now, footnotes, generally speaking, get a terribly bad rap. The poet John Betjeman referred to them as “Foot and Note Disease,” recalling their over-enthusiastic use by students trying to transcend the restrictions of a word-count. And playwright Noel Coward said that having to read a footnote is like having to go downstairs to answer the door while making love. Here in the SVA Department of Design Research, however, we still think it’s worth the interruption.
A footnote is a small numeral or symbol that corresponds to a note at the bottom of the page. Here the author cites their references or makes a comment that clarifies, critiques or expands upon an aspect of the main narrative. Here’s where you can find out the title and page number of the exact book which contained that wonderful idea, the name of the person that supplied that wonderful quotation, or the archive, and box and file number that contained that wonderful primary source.
As we have noted in the potted histories of the footnote symbols used throughout this event, there is plenty of drama and excitement in their origin stories: Double daggers, Greek roasting spits, pulled crows, and more!
But the aspect of footnotes that delights me the most is the way in which they signal the generosity of the combined research enterprise, the extended research community. When any of us embarks on a research project, our goal is to make a significant and original contribution to knowledge. And that contribution takes the form not only of the argument, the narrative, the knowledge itself, but also the markers that help make the research trail easier to follow for future travelers.
Footnotes become the signposts, the trail of breadcrumbs left by researchers who have walked this way before us, and in turn we leave our own for those that follow.
Footnotes connect us to fellow researchers across time and geography. They are what turn a text from a monologue into a conversation with our peers, predecessors and subjects.
It’s a really fantastic system that runs counter to the image of the isolated, selfish scholar. In fact it’s part of the story of democracy, because the footnoting system became codified in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, around the time that national archives opened reading rooms, and the public began to get access to collections of primary sources. Until then it was only elite and wealthy scholars with private collections who could work with the kinds of primary sources that are the bedrock of research.
So what you see here on this wall is a celebration of scholarship in its most generous, democratic, and communal form. It’s a record of all the work that goes on behind the scenes of a thesis project: the interviews conducted; the primary documents sourced and analyzed; the secondary reading consulted; the archives, libraries, events, institutions, companies, museums, funeral parlors, and sites visited; and the “My Little Pony” episodes watched.
But we also share with you the foods consumed, the organization methods used, the frustrations and dead-ends reached, and the Eureka moments experienced. Such riches normally remain buried at the foot of the page, smoothed over by the linear polish of academic writing. So I hope you enjoy and profit from the explosion. It means the world to us that you are here to take a look.