The Man Who Cut up the World
In the space where poetry and design collide lies the work of Bern Porter. Prolific as an artist, poet, writer, publisher, gallerist, scientist, and thinker, he is well known for his “Founds,” visual poems assembled from the deconstruction of printed matter. His use of design adds a wealth of meaning to his poems that goes beyond language.
Porter dedicated his life to art after realizing the negative impact of his purely scientific pursuits. He contributed to the invention of the television and the atomic bomb, two powerful devices that, to his dismay, irrevocably shifted American culture towards nationalism and consumption. A desire to offset this negative impact was the impetus behind his “Founds.” Cutting up and recontextualizing the detritus of mass media was a perfectly ironic way to reflect this culture back on itself.
Born in 1911, Porter lived through the vast majority of the 20th century’s ups and downs while experiencing his own personal dramas. He attended college during the Great Depression, witnessed World War II’s calamitous beginning and end, and survived with mental faculties intact the arrest of his father on child molestation charges. He was committed to a mental institution as a result of government surveillance during the Cold War and worked on the Saturn V rocket, a precursor to the vehicle that took America to the moon. Nevertheless he remained prolific, constantly looking for ways to enact positive change rather than curling up into a ball and disengaging.
It’s sometimes tempting to withdraw. There are moments when we stare into our computer screens and feel creatively paralyzed or apathetic. Instead of quitting, we look to the guiding light of an eccentric man who lived an incredibly well-rounded life, and ask ourselves how we can draw inspiration from the flotsam and jetsam of life.
These 9 principles are our distillation of his philosophies that we can apply in our creative work today.
1. Don’t let waste go to waste.
Porter could take a chunk of abandoned styrofoam, an old bottle, or a piece of junk mail and turn it into art. He believed that we are surrounded by the waste of consumerist culture, but also knew that waste can be converted into something valued.
Understanding that everything has meaning, and that meaning can be drastically altered by context allowed him to become a master of reappropriation. With environmental degradation a major global issue, altering our definition of waste and designing to reduce or repurpose it would make Porter a happy man if he were here today.
2. School yourself.
In an interview with Phil Nurenberg, Porter said he would advise people uninterested in becoming doctors or lawyers to “do what Anais Nin did. She quit school and went to the library every day instead.” More and more people are coming to the same conclusion due to the increasing cost of a college education and the growing accessibility of the internet.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the self-discipline and motivation to educate themselves to the same level as a traditional university degree. Lifelong learning beyond societal requirements is nevertheless vital to the success of a designer. Not only do we have to keep up with technology and tools of the trade for maximum efficiency, but staying informed makes our work more relevant to the world and people around us.
3. Improve the world.
Anything less would be a waste. As a physicist for the Manhattan Project and a chemist who helped invent the television, Porter’s purely scientific endeavors directly helped shape the formation of a society ruled by consumerism. He was keenly aware that far more energy and resources are dedicated to endeavors that profit the few over the many and strove to offset his negative contributions by orienting himself toward support of the arts, creative education, and community improvement.
While it’s true that everyone has to make a living and more often than not this requires working for “The Man,” diverting time and resources toward projects that are not driven by monetary profit not only feels good, but also makes the world a better place.
4. In war, everyone loses.
During World War II Porter worked alongside Albert Einstein, helping to develop the technique for separating uranium and plutonium. Like most scientists involved in the project, he was ignorant that his efforts would culminate in a weapon of mass destruction, and that this weapon would subsequently be dropped on Japan.
Horrified by the immense loss of life and ruin he had facilitated, Porter became a pacifist and much of his art thematically relates to his own feelings of guilt. As designers, it’s critical to be mindful of the impact of our work. While we may not necessarily design the bombs themselves, we are the ones who help convince people to buy them (or cigarettes, tanning beds, presidential candidates, gas-guzzling hummers, etc).
5. Turn off your brain.
In demonstrating his process for creating his “Found” poetry, Porter said, “If you’re going to create a new piece, you must demonstrate that you can see. You have to forget your brains or the fact that you think you can read….” Allowing his subconscious to take over and see what his conscious mind could not generated unexpected associations and unusual compositions.
Designers often focus so much energy on thinking through every aspect of a project down to the last detail that we forget to let our instincts take over every once and awhile to allow for the happy accidents we might not have otherwise considered.
6. Create more than you consume.
Like many of the others involved in the invention of the television, Porter envisioned the final product as a purely educational tool. Students would receive lessons over the TV and send their work into a centralized station. In his 93 years he never owned a TV or even a personal computer, and hated that the entertainment and advertising industries had come to dominate the invention.
It’s important for designers to stay culturally relevant and tuned in to what is popular among the masses, whether it’s a TV show or an internet meme, but devoting more energy to creativity than mindless consumption will improve your skills and keep your mental machinery well-oiled.
No. 7: Make friends with geniuses.
Porter made acquaintances with a range of impressive figures over the course of his life, including Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and Anais Nin, who all must have influenced him in their respective ways. Although Porter’s circumstances were in part due to being in the right place at the right time, he also chose to interact with people he respected by actively seeking them out and keeping in touch.
Geniuses are by no means a dime a dozen, and finding even one is no easy task. But when you meet someone whose work you respect it pays to keep them in your network.
No. 8: Turn it upside down.
“The first rule,” he says, “is always to turn it upside down.” He does so, as people laugh. “Next,” he continues, “you must learn to see which part is most important scientifically, anthropologically, and aesthetically. Then you can cut out the most important parts. You must cut in such a way as to create a new independent piece.”
Porter understood that turning something upside down or to the side allows your brain to process form and shape over content. This is especially important when evaluating the balance of a composition or setting typography. Negative space becomes more prominent and easier to assess in relation to positive space.
Through his liberated process, Porter also arrived at his own set of design elements: repetition, juxtaposition, omission, balance, typographic nuance, and an embrace of negative space. Used judiciously and with precision, these elements build meaning into his poetry beyond the words themselves.
Whether solving a visual riddle or troubleshooting technical issues, looking at seemingly insurmountable problems from multiple angles always helps us find a solution.
No. 9: Discard frames.
Porter was a huge proponent of merging disparate fields. In I’ve Left he supports the blending of science and art, poetry, architecture, drama, and literature in an eight chapter manifesto, and considers himself the inventor of SCIART. He felt cross-disciplinary work would result in stronger efforts for societal improvement. This is not a far cry from the optimism and multi-disciplinary approaches of design firms like IDEO and frog design, or even tech companies like Twitter and Google that claim to be dedicated to the universal access of information and hire people from a variety of backgrounds.
Somehow it seems unlikely that Porter would have stocked up on post-it notes and applied for a job at Google, but the heart of his argument still applies to designers and non-designers alike: delving into fields outside your scope of knowledge is a worthwhile endeavor that will improve your work. After all, you may come up with something half as innovative as Porter’s “spray-on suits sold in vending machines that can be disposed of in the toilet” and “360 degree theaters in which the audience acts and light and heat produce emotions.”
Though scissors, glue, a Xerox machine, and the waste of American culture were all Porter needed to create his “Founds,” he always dreamed big, imagining the genre-bending possibilities of poetry outside the written page. He lived until 2004, just long enough to witness the dawn of the internet. One can only speculate how he would have transcended the digital medium and shed light on the perils of our new modern society. Regardless, his liberated process and keen perspective are still profoundly relevant.
All headlines have been constructed using elements of Bern Porter’s artwork. Selected spreads photographed from Bern Porter’s Found Poems.
The header includes a portrait of Bern Porter from Colby College’s
Bern Porter Collection and select images from the Musem of Modern Art (New York)’s
collection of Bern Porter’s Founds available on Ubuweb