One of my favorite discoveries this year was Nina Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment, an ongoing project she started in 2010, in which she uses long plane rides to make art using only her camera phone and materials on hand. She’ll build shelters out of snacks, she’ll make gorillas out of sweaters, she’ll go into the bathroom and dress up like old Flemish paintings. (My favorite pieces are from the “High Altitude Spirit Photography” series, where she’ll use a little sprinkled salt or the glare from an overhead reading light to spookify in-flight magazine photos.)
Seat Assignment has taken place over 100 flights. Lots of things interest me about the project, including, of course, these lines from her statement: “the artistic potential that lurks within the mundane” and “the productive tension between freedom and constraint,” both ideas that have obsessed me ever since I started making my blackout poems.
I’m especially interested in how Katchadourian refers to her camera phone — usually bemoaned as a device for distraction —as not only a kind of sketchbook, but a “camouflage.” From Curioser: “Once you pull out a real camera, it screams, ‘I’m making art!’” She doesn’t want to be observed making the work, she just wants to look like another bored traveler killing time. It works: only three passengers over the years have asked her what she’s up to.
The title, “Seat Assignment,” makes me think of my writing teacher’s advice for getting writing done: “APPLY ASS TO CHAIR.” Because you’re literally buckled into a chair, I’ve always found planes a terrific spot to do a lot of writing and reading and drawing and thinking. (Business class is like a dream scenario for the writer: you have a comfortable seat, a window to stare out of, and you’re occasionally brought water & snacks.) But, as in-flight wi-fi speeds and entertainment options keep getting better and better, the temptation to be distracted on planes becomes greater and greater. Just like on the ground, it now takes an act of will to be bored enough on a plane to actually enter that good headspace where you can make something. For now, I stick to my rules: turn off the seat-back TV and never pay for wi-fi.
PS. The comic above was one of four I drew on my iPad during a recent (coach!) flight from Austin to San Francisco. To see more like it, check my Instagram.