English 245: Seminar in the Major: “PLASTIC! Surface, Substance, Selfie”
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Spring 2018
Selected student projects, shared with permission (links will open as PDFs in a new window; for optimal viewing, download and read in Adobe Acrobat):
Catherine Drayna, “Naturally Plastic,” visual essay
Catherine’s Project – Digital
Catherine’s Project – Tactile (excerpt)
Catherine created plastic seashell assemblages and tracked the Fibonacci spiral in synthetic and organic materials. Captivated by the beach and inspired by Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam, and Martabel Wasserman’s “Seashell Aesthetics,” she combined seashells she’d found with beach detritus such as toothbrushes to create “plastic pearls.” Catherine photographed these formations and integrated them into an ambitious poetic and philosophical investigation of the shared chemistry, biology, and physics of plastic and non-plastic materials.
Savana Stauss, “Sex Doll Sanguine,” zine
Savana’s Project – Digital
Savana’s Project – Tactile (excerpt)
Savana made a zine critiquing the visual, sonic, and tactile dimensions of silicone sex dolls, citing Donna Haraway and Sennah Yee. To disrupt the seamless sheen of feminized robot aesthetics, she transformed her digital magazine into a physical object with a collage of tactile textures, and sewed a chunk of RealDoll “flesh” into its pages. She wrote to the RealDoll factory to request a skin sample and pretended she was interested in purchasing a doll; they sent her a 4×4 chunk of purple silicone flesh. After looking at the dolls on a computer screen, it was a strange sensation to actually touch a piece of one. It did not feel like skin. It felt like squishy, sticky rubber. Savana sewed it into her zine with pink thread, the literalization of the plastic female body, there on the page in the flesh.
Alex Mischler, “Albatross Made,” plastic sculpture + visual essay + Instructable
Alex’s Visual Essay
Alex’s Instructable Page
Inspired by Allison Cobb’s essay Plastic: An Autobiography, Alex sculpted an albatross out of plastic to evoke the melancholy of the albatross’ death and plastic’s immortality. He made an Instructable page, “Carving Material from Plastic Waste,” about his experiment in melting plastic milk jugs, and then made a visual essay juxtaposing screenshots from the Instructable with critical analysis. Throughout the process of working with plastic by hand, Alex reflected upon the meaning of this challenge to plastic’s resistance to human craftsmanship. He smoothed the sculpture as much as possible, but it retained an uneven texture uncharacteristic of plastic, a tactile trace of its molding and re-molding.
Adi Dina, “#FAUXtography,” zine
Adi’s Project – Digital
Adi’s Project – Tactile (excerpt)
Adi made a zine tracking the parallel inventions of photography and plastic to explore their twinned immersion in appearances, artifice, and postmodern identity. Close reading images by artists such as Claude Cahun and Gillian Wearing, she argues that plastic and photography are historically, materially, and conceptually inextricable in their debt to mechanical reproduction and obsession with surface. The linguistic and visual repetition within Adi’s #fauxtography layouts perform her argument, while the physicality of the hand-stitched zine with matte paper disrupts the seamless digital sheen of plastic and photography.
Catherine Torner, “Silicone,” magazine
Catherine’s Project – Digital
Catherine’s Project – Tactile (excerpt)
Catherine created a magazine called “Silicone” that curates a pop cultural continuum from compliant AI sex dolls to Martine Gutierrez’s feminist critique of female replicants and Janelle Monae‘s feminist android imaginary. Weaving in references from music, film, and fashion, Catherine maximizes the magazine’s formal affordances — from the glossy cover of the printed booklet to the table of contents to the advertisements to the letter from the editor — to create a fully realized visual and tonal context within which to situate her multi-layered feminist argument about the perils and possibilities of silicone.
Brooklyn Smith, “Heatherx3,” Tumblr
Brooklyn made a Tumblr page, https://whoisaheather.tumblr.com/, exploring mass-produced cultural conformity in Heathers. Close reading visual, linguistic, and temporal repetition in the film, she argues that the cycle of violence is shaped by the characters’ entrapment in oppressive patterns. Brooklyn ultimately theorizes queer reproduction (genuine identity) as the solution to plastic repetition (violent conformity). Maximizing Tumblr’s affordances with hashtags, re-blogs, and GIFs, she crafts an intricate, experimental narrative structure via cyclical linguistic and visual reproductions — repetitions with a difference — that perform her argument.
Logan Gerbitz, “Real and Sim,” magazine
Exploring digital plasticity, Logan created a magazine analyzing the phenomenon of Lil Miquela, a born-digital Instagram celebrity. Logan’s project synthesizes theories of simulation, spectacle, gender performativity, and cyborgs to test multiple approaches to understanding Lil Miquela. Although she suggests that the existence of Lil Miquela usefully complicates notions of personhood, authenticity, and reality, Logan ultimately critiques the ethics of simulated identity and the privileged removal of an immortal digital “influencer” from the very real stakes of embodied lives and political activism. The project concludes with a proliferation of hypothetical magazine covers that could appear if the makers of cyborg celebrities avoid taking responsibility for their creations.
Tucker Sanborn, “Who Killed the Real?” visual essay
Tucker created a visual essay theorizing 21st century corporatized hyperreality and subversive deconstructions of the simulacra. He analyzes American movie franchises and corporate social media accounts, using examples like Star Wars, Frosted Flakes, and Old Spice to illustrate his argument that these brands are no longer marketing a physical product, but only the simulation or idea of the product, several steps removed from material reality. Tucker proposes a return to visceral, grotesque matter as the antidote to this pervasive capitalist hyperreality, and close reads the work of David Henry Nobody Jr. as a case study in resistance.
Madison Schultz, “Barbie is Real,” Tumblr
Madison made a Tumblr page, https://barbieisreal.tumblr.com/, exploring Barbie‘s complexities and contradictions as a material object and embodied persona in pop culture. Madison’s synthesis of theories of the male gaze and simulacra is crystallized in the mirroring images of Barbie and herself with a camera. The Tumblr form incorporates Barbie’s virtual and physical appearances in multiple contemporary mediums, and the variety of Madison’s writing styles, from analytical to poetic to hashtag, shape the project’s hybrid critical-creative argument that Barbie is no longer merely a product — she is now a cultural force who shapes us more than we shape her.
Olivia Kreyer, “Reality’s Selfie,” visual essay
Olivia made a visual essay inspired by Kate Durbin’s inquiry into reality television in her novel E! Entertainment. Inverting Durbin’s concept by making the pages blue (Durbin’s pages are pink) and turning her gaze on men (Durbin focuses on women), Olivia transcribes reality shows like The Bachelor and Jersey Shore. Citing Durbin’s exploration of selfie culture in her performance Hello Selfie Men, Olivia includes selfies taken by the male characters in the shows she examines. Olivia’s creative writing project playfully builds upon Durbin’s interventions into the mediums of reality television and smartphone selfies in order to explore portrayals of the surfaces of masculinity in popular culture.
Ariana Saghafi, “Kylie Jenner in the Kardashian Mold,” visual essay
Ari wrote an essay analyzing the conceptual, aesthetic, and ethical implications of the Kardashian/Jenner beauty brand. Ari suggests that one of the most problematic aspects of this impossible beauty standard is its insistence on naturalness, even as it relies upon expensive procedures to maintain this illusion. With an intersectional feminist approach, Ari close reads a series of Kardashian/Jenner selfies and dialogue. Focusing on Kylie Jenner’s repetition with a difference of the Kardashian beauty mold, Ari argues that Kylie’s failure to perfectly replicate the image ultimately strengthens her personal brand because she reshapes the mold.
Jenny Recktenwald,“Transformations of the Surface,” visual essay
Jenny made a visual essay inspired by Kate Durbin’s performance project Hello Selfie. With a bold visual design, Jenny argues against the opposition between surface and depth. She suggests that artificial modifications to the body such as stickers and tattoos create authentic identities, and that each person crafts their own reality through continuous plastic transformations of the surface.
More about the class:
“Dr. Katie Schaag and Students Wrap Up American Plastic,” UW-Madison English Department
“The Pleasures of Teaching Plastic,” Edge Effects