catalog

As a child I was fascinated by the card catalog at the library. This unassuming brick of drawers, dense with arcanely marked cards, held reference to every! single! book! I’ve never been great at recall—I didn’t, for example, know how many or which books I’d already read, or even how to conceive of the data set. The card catalog introduced me to my first information system, a hint that maybe a photographic memory wasn’t so important, if you knew where to look. Catalogs can be vehicles to make sense of the world around us.

Of course it’s not enough just to catalog. Taxonomy is the branch of science concerned with classification: good systems reflect how groups of things interconnect and interdepend, how they’re simliar and how they’re special, and how they work as a whole. These relationships are how we advance our understanding of the world, and make sense of the way it falls around us.

Often it seems my work as an artist is really to be an archivist, a cataloger. It’s those interconnections that advance my work, and my primary professional task is to find the right one for each problem. How does this relate to the things around it? How is that meaningful? Over the years, I have used lots of different platforms and digital gadgetry to build catalogs, but they have always fallen short. There’s never enough cross-pollination between my Goodreads library and my GitHub repos. My best catalogs have lived in paper sketchbooks and college ruled spiral-bounds: unreferencable, unsearchable, uncategorized. A professional practices log interred in densely packed boxes, the opposite of a card catalog.

So, I’ve been on the prowl for a professional practices log that works. I’ve found great inspiration in other creative catalogs, like Austin Kleon’s studio practice log, or Brain Pickings cross-disciplinary design inventory. Catalogs like these are living organisms we can learn from, and with, over time. For a long time, my own blog was a sketchbook, a place to catalog one kind of information. This was okay, but it never felt like a great place to explore ideas from multiple angles. Actually drawing represents only the very tip of the creative iceberg—to make great art, we must observe the world outside the studio. We have to study.

The web is a natural place to document creative practices. When blogs began, they were the only form of simple digital publication available, and so they became the new, experimental, digital zines of the noughties. From the beginning blogs were interconnected—Andrew Loomis and NASA are equally referencable. The web connects my catalog to yours and millions of others all over the world, a meeting of minds inconceivable just 100 years ago.

Since then countless new platforms have emerged to facilitate our cataloging and our communicating. In some ways, this is exciting—the gang’s all here, clapping and hearting and thumbs-upping. But the ways these platforms control our speech—format, distribution, outright censorship—have become intolerable. None of them are great places to store ideas anymore.

This is the place where I’ll be storing my own personal catalog of research on art and design in a digital age—a place to talk about the rest of the iceberg, how observation informs practice. I hope that by building my teeny catalog in public, you’ll be able to add some new entries to yours.